This weekend I went to a lecture by Thich Nhat Hanh, an author and Buddhist teacher who, among many things, encouraged Rev. Martin Luther King to take a stand against the Vietnam War. That war was vastly different from any possible U.S. engagement in Syria, but at the end of the day, all warfare comes down to killing – killing as an act of aggression, and killing as an act of indirect mercy, when perpetrators of a greater violence are eliminated. Even many Buddhist teachings, which generally forbid killing, acknowledge that a moral circumstance may arise where it is necessary.
The questions about Syria that have bedeviled the President and Congress have tended to blend questions of morality (when is killing justified?) with those of national interest (when will intervention help America?). Let’s parse out a few of these different lines, and who espouses them. The first two are pro-intervention; the second two, against.
One – This is the new Rwanda. We can’t sit out a genocide.
President Obama appointed Samantha Power US Ambassador to the United Nations. She is the author of A Problem From Hell, a landmark and Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide. It certainly jibes with the moral argument made by the President when he stated “People who decry international inaction in Rwanda and say, ‘How terrible it is that there are these human rights violations that take place around the world, and why aren’t we doing something about it?’ And they always look to the United States. ‘Why isn’t the United States doing something about this, the most powerful nation on earth? Why are you allowing these terrible things to happen?’” He added “And then if the international community turns around when we’re saying it’s time to take some responsibility and says, ‘Well hold on a second. We’re not sure,’ that erodes our ability to maintain the kind of norms that we’re looking at.”
(These very graphic and disturbing videos released by the Senate Intelligence Committee show Syrian citizens — including children — convulsing, dead, and dying from what appears to be a chemical gas attack.)
Two – This is a regional cascade and Iran will be emboldened by American inaction.
AIPAC (the biggest Israeli-interest political action committee in America) has put its muscle behind pushing Syria action. As Politico put it:
They are expected to lobby virtually every member of Congress, arguing that “barbarism” by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated, and that failing to act would “send a message” to Tehran that the U.S. won’t stand up to hostile countries’ efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, according to a source with the group. “History tells us that ambiguity [in U.S. actions] invites aggression,” said the AIPAC source who asked not to be named. The source added the group will now be engaged in a “major mobilization” over the issue.
Three — We’ll just make things worse. Plus, intervening while our own government is a mess is fiddling while Rome burns.
This is an opinion shared by both some Democrats and some Republicans. Via Politico: “Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), a retired Army colonel, said he believes a “military strike will make matters worse and it could potentially Americanize the Syrian civil war.” He added, “At this time of sequester, the parties need to be working together on a pro-growth, fiscally responsible replacement for the sequester.”
Four – We can’t win.
The Washington Post ran an article titled “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask.” From the piece:
Why hasn’t the United States fixed this yet?
Because it can’t. There are no viable options. Sorry. The military options are all bad. Shipping arms to rebels, even if it helps them topple Assad, would ultimately empower jihadists and worsen rebel in-fighting, probably leading to lots of chaos and possibly a second civil war (the United States made this mistake during Afghanistan’s early 1990s civil war, which helped the Taliban take power in 1996). Taking out Assad somehow would probably do the same, opening up a dangerous power vacuum. Launching airstrikes or a “no-fly zone” could suck us in, possibly for years, and probably wouldn’t make much difference on the ground. An Iraq-style ground invasion would, in the very best outcome, accelerate the killing, cost a lot of U.S. lives, wildly exacerbate anti-Americanism in a boon to jihadists and nationalist dictators alike, and would require the United States to impose order for years across a country full of people trying to kill each other. Nope.
How and when and why the United States kills is a topic of broader debate. (Note the fight over US use of drone warfare.)
But in the end, the fight over Syria intervention boils down to this: Americans are fatigued by our involvement in un-winnable wars. A majority of the nation sees intervention as a decision to wade willingly into a quagmire. And even with all of the moral arguments for intervention, those who champion going into Syria have to convince the American public that killing in the name of peace will actually achieve it.