I have a friend who is looking at what Assad has been doing in Syria and drawing parallels with 1941, just as I and other friends of mine (most of which friends were Republicans, of course) saw some parallels between Saddam Hussein and Hitler back in the day. So here are the principles I would generally apply, though case-by-case it can of course be hard. You’ll note that I actually think it is rational for Republicans generally to be willing to support Republican Presidents, but not Democrats, in overseas adventuring, and rational for Democrats generally to be willing to support Democratic Presidents in their overseas adventuring (though at this point I can’t imagine any rational person looking at Obama’s personal track record and wanting to let him within a thousand miles of any place where military decisions are being made), but not Republicans.
1. There are no moral obligations at the governmental level that are not delegations of morality that fundamentally exists at the individual level; nor does any action that would be evil in the absence of an official government become moral just because a democracy or “sovereign state” does it instead of a private individual. (Just because the fallacy of hypostasization is endemic in political discourse doesn’t mean WE have to be silly enough to fall for it.)
2. If a man sees a weak person being beaten or robbed or bullied or raped by somebody else, and he can stop it but doesn’t, he has no business calling himself a man at all. This isn’t politics, this is simple manhood. (To this day I don’t understand how any of the men at École Polytechnique de Montréal could prefer to walk out of the room as cowards rather than die as men, nor can I imagine half a hundred Oklahoma men meekly walking out of a room to leave ten women at the mercy of an obviously deranged gunman rather than charging him en masse a la Todd Beamer and company.)
3. But if you’re going to try to help, you first have to make sure you aren’t about to make things worse. And at the governmental level, a big part of the answer to the question, “Are we about to make things worse?” has to do with the answer to the question, “Is our current President competent?” (Naturally Democrats will generally be more inclined to think Democratic Presidents competent and Republican Presidents incompetent, and Republicans will naturally see things oppositely; and therefore it is NOT necessarily partisanship that causes the average American to support foreign wars when his party is in power and oppose them when the other guys are running the show — and I wish to heaven that both sides would be charitable enough not to constantly accuse other people of “partisanship” at the drop of a war resolution.) Not only that, but another big part of the answer is, “Are any of the possible outcomes actually good ones?” Or, to phrase it differently, “Are there good guys and bad guys, or is it just a matter of picking which set of bad guys will win?”
4. In Middle Eastern countries outside of Israel, only rarely is there a conflict in which one can hope the good guys will win — because usually both sides either are already controlled by evil people, or else the side that temporarily has the good guys on it will be coopted by bad guys before you can shake a stick three times. The only way for the good guys to win is for good guys from outside the Middle East to be willing to take over and run things for long enough to establish a change in culture similar to the changes the United States brought about in post-WWII Germany and Japan. And that’s a helluva high price to pay; so you better have a good chance of winning AND a reasonably large number of non-Islamist, largely secular and Westernized moderate Muslims ready to be helped by an outside power.
5. The political process in the United States makes competent Presidents the exception, rather than the rule; so the default position for a skeptic such as me is to be opposed to foreign adventuring. The last President to be genuinely effective in foreign policy, in my opinion, was Ronald Reagan. The first Bush would have declared the Gulf War a success but since he didn’t finish the job and thereby made the humanitarian horrors of Hussein’s post-Gulf-War career possible — and made something like the Iraq War as inevitable as World War II became as a result of the foolish provisions of the Treaty of Versailles — I give the two-faced jerk a C at best. And as for Shrub…well, he was Shrub, and I say that as somebody who supported (with much trepidation, all-too-well justified in the event) the Iraq War. I can absolutely understand if Democrats didn’t think Shrub was smart enough to run the Iraq War; I was worried about him myself even though I thought we had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something genuinely transformational in Iraq, and while he surpassed my expectations in the war itself, his handling of the aftermath was catastrophically stupid. See my next point…
6… which is that there is absolutely nothing of fundamental moral value, or of long-term political usefulness, in Democracy-with-a-capital-D, which to American politicians since at least the time of Woodrow Wilson has been inexplicably a talismanic phrase thought to have limitless political power, and which Shrub (Molly Ivins’s untoppable nickname for “the little Bush”) in particular seemed to think would cure all the problems of the Middle East. This, despite the fact that all of the Founding Fathers (who, unlike the modern politician operating on the painfully limited intellectual level of a Kerry or a McCain or a Bush or an Obama, had read their Aristotle and studied their history) knew perfectly well that pure democracy is a terrible way to run any country and that it ensures injustice against the minority at the hands of the mob; which is why they went to such great lengths to make sure the Constitution did NOT establish a democracy. What is of value is the protection of the individual’s liberty and property — the rule of law and the suppression of violence and fraud. A government that effectively protects the ordinary citizen’s life, liberty, and property from criminals within and invaders without, without itself turning into a plundering machine that confiscates the individual’s property and fences in his liberty and (if he protests) cuts short his life — such a government is a legitimate government even if it is a dictatorship (though no dictatorship will fit that description for very long). A government in which every single thing it does is done as a majority vote, in a pure and genuine democracy, has absolutely no legitimacy whatsoever to it if it fails to protect its citizens and instead engages in plundering and oppressing the politically powerless. BUT — the only way to have a good and just government last for any significant period of time at all, is to have a culture in which the average individual values his neighbor’s rights. In the long run the culture wins, no matter what the form of government.
Therefore I believe that under the following circumstances, we have a moral obligation to act in defense of oppressed citizens of evil regimes:
1. When we have reason to believe that the “oppressed” citizens are not just as willing to oppress their neighbors, if given the chance, than their neighbors are to oppress them. Thus, for example, anybody who wishes to intervene against the Israelis on behalf of the Palestinians needs to explain to me his basis for believing that the Palestinians, if they gain power over the Jews, will treat the Jews who fall into their hands better than the Israelis have treated the Palestianians who live in Israel.
2. Let us assume that we have decided that there really are good guys and bad guys. Then the next question is, can we hope to actually save the good guys? Do we have the military capability? And — let’s face it — can we afford it? (The answer to that question is very different in our present situation than it was in 1941 or in 2003.)
3. And if so, since it’s generally the case that in saving some good guys we cause other good guys to die, how high is the up-front price going to be in terms of innocent casualties who suffer as collateral damage, and brave soldiers and their families who pay the ultimate price? In particular, how high is the risk that we’ll unwittingly turn into the 21st century’s version of the people who assassinated the Archduke of Serbia? (Considering that Obama has, as usual, gone to a lot of trouble to make sure our enemies have plenty of warning, and that both Russia and Iran have been actively moving assets into place for retaliation against us, I’d say that risk, while still small, is higher than it was in 2003.)
4. And even if it looks like we could stop the current problem…what then? If you take out Saddam, who fills that power vaccuum? If you take out Assad, who fills THAT power vaccuum? (Not to mention that Obama has already said that regime change is not even one of our goals.) Are you going to go to massive amounts of expense of both national resources and lives (both ours and those of innocent noncombatants who die in the chaos of war)…just so that somebody just as bad as the current evil guy can take over and start oppressing a different set of women and children? Or are you actually willing to solve the problem, which will almost certainly mean taking over the country and running it for however long it takes to change the culture?
We actually did solve the problem in Germany and Japan, and the Bush administration and State Department appeared willing to go in for full-scale cultural change in Iraq (though not competent enough to bring it about). I thought Iraq was the best chance in half a century to establish a nation in the middle of the Muslim Middle East in which individual human rights could actually be protected and which could show the oppressed peoples of the Middle East that the road to prosperity and peace and happiness was the road away from Islamism, and while I didn’t think it would be easy, I thought we should either take our shot then or else get the heck out the Middle East and stay out. Well, we had Bush, one of the worst judges of character in the history of the Presidency, and his disastrous choice of Jay Bremer to oversee the rebuilding of Iraq; and instead of doing everything in our power to establish law and order and security in the country we defined success in terms of purple fingers, and within a year Iraq had gone from passionately pro-American to intransigently anti-American, and the moment of opportunity was lost. If any of my Democrat friends want to tell me that in gambling that Bush’s intelligence would be up to the job I was a fool, well, I can’t blame them…only, it’s not that I thought Shrub was a foreign policy genius, only that the stars were aligned as they had rarely been before and might never be again.
But now comes Syria…and where is the opportunity?????? On the one side you have Assad, on the other side you have an insurgency dominated by…Al Qaeda. What do you solve by doing…well, anything? Where are the moderates that you had in Iraq and could hope to cooperate with?
Syria is an ongoing tragedy. But it has BEEN an ongoing tragedy for two or three generations — just as Iran is an ongoing tragedy (why in God’s name Obama chose to rush into recognition of that regime rather than supporting the secularist pro-democracy pro-American party is something nobody has ever adequately explained to me), just as Kurdistan (one of the most governmentally corrupt places on earth, to America’s shame) is an ongoing tragedy, just as Yemen and Saudi Arabia are ongoing tragedies, just as Afghanistan has been an ongoing tragedy pretty much ever since God created the Hindu Kush. Middle-Eastern Muslim culture is deeply, deeply dysfunctional. The core problem in the Middle East was not Hussein, was not the Ayatollah, was not Ahmadinejad, and is not Assad. It isn’t even Al Qaeda. The individuals come and go but the culture is as twisted and dysfunctional as ever. If you aren’t going to remake the culture, then nothing you do will solve the problem. Bush was willing to attempt to remake the culture, but didn’t have the intelligence that such a task would have taken. Is there any reason to think Obama is even willing to make the attempt — or indeed, that any person who was ever optimistic about the Arab Spring (a movement that was obviously doomed to failure from the instant of its conception) has yet come to grips with the reality that the culture has to BE changed in the first place? And if Obama does see it, and does want to stimulate such a cultural change in Syria…where is the opportunity for such a change at this point?
If we thought there was a reasonable chance to genuinely make a change and permanently exorcise the evil, then I would think we would have a moral obligation to at least try (if we could at all afford it — which, considering that we owe literally more money than the entire money supply of the world, I seriously doubt). We had the opportunity to do that in World War II, at least for Western Europe and Japan. We did it in South Korea, and had an opportunity to do it in Vietnam (ask the Vietnamese boat people whether they think Assad is any worse than the North Vietnamese, and ask the Cambodians how they think Assad stacks up to Pol Pot), though in the end we didn’t get the job done (whatever the reasons, which is an argument I don’t want to start). And we had, I think, a chance in Iraq; but we unluckily had a President who simply wasn’t up to the task. (Again, any Democrats who wish to say “I told you say” may do so without offending me at all; Shrub amply justified your doubts.)
But where is that opportunity in Syria? I just don’t see it, myself. Therefore the tragedy in Syria seems to me, as much as it breaks my heart to say, to be a tragedy about which there is literally nothing we can do. And even if there WAS the opportunity for the kind of cultural change that is the only thing that can make any real difference, that kind of change requires a level of cost and commitment that the American people, after all these years of expense and loss of life in Iraq and Afghanistan with so little to show for it, simply wouldn’t have the stomach to pay.
So I don’t think we should do anything in Syria, and therefore I think Obama should simply shut up and quit trying to act tough when nobody in the world thinks America is willing to walk the walk to back up our talk. If you have a big stick, you can speak softly; but if you have no stick at all then the only thing to do is to not speak at all.
But I sure can understand the feeling that we OUGHT to do something.