The Twisted Premises Implicit in the Drive for War
On its own terms, the government’s case for war with Syria has problems. We cannot deny the monstrousness of Assad’s regime, but the Obama administration has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Syrian state is responsible for the particular chemical weapons atrocity that supposedly justifies a strike. Some of the very same folks who lambasted the Bush team for refusing to listen to the UN and allow its inspectors time before stampeding into Iraq have not as loudly denounced the Obama team for similar behavior. The U.S. government has indicated it cannot say for sure who ordered the attack. Moreover, any U.S. intervention that displaces Assad’s regime would empower some unsavory rebels, some of whom have connections to al Qaeda or who display troubling levels of brutality, such as the rebel leader who took a bite from an organ he ripped out of a dead enemy soldier. Any U.S. action that merely intended to “punish” Assad while keeping him in power also seems counterproductive at best. The logic behind such a bombing—that a dictator is so brutal his subjects deserve to die—should deeply trouble all good people.
The hidden premise, of course, is that the U.S. government necessarily must intervene, bomb, wage war, and inflict mass bloodshed as a remedy to foreign horrors. It is taken for granted that nonintervention is no option, which assumes that U.S. intervention tends to cause more good than bad, or is worth the effort even if it sometimes fails. This premise is steeped in a cold utilitarianism and stands in tension with the actual results of U.S. policy over the last few decades. The utter calamity that has unfolded in Iraq should guide even those who philosophically embrace intervention toward a realistic advocacy of U.S. restraint. Even if humanitarian war were not a total oxymoron, the United States in particular deserves a prolonged time-out. It has in the last fifty years left behind millions of corpses piled under a thousand broken promises, and so a 50-year moratorium on further American wars, as suggested by Eric Garris, would seem like a reasonable goal, rather than starting yet another war even as the chaotic and inhumane consequences of interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya continue to unfold.
Whereas in the recent past, U.S. wars were primarily sold to the public under the banner of national security and foreign liberation, the justification given today dispenses with any sustained argument that the war will actually make Syrians freer or Americans safer. These advertised benefits might come, but they are not the focus. You see, if Obama fails to kill in Syria, the United States will lose street cred. This is the justification for unleashing the dogs of war, according to such mainstream articles as this Time Magazine piece, which nonchalantly weighs the costs of inaction (appearing weak) against the costs of too much action (regional instability) without much apparent care for the flesh-and-blood human beings who would die in the president’s redemptive and face-saving conflagration.
All along, we see a portrayal of the U.S. ruling class as victims of historical circumstance: “How did it come to this? some of it is bad luck–although that often comes with the job: Bush had 9/11, Clinton had the Balkans, Carter had the Iranian hostages.”
Also throughout this unfortunately typical article appears the theme that the U.S. government simply looks foolish when any government in the world misbehaves, flouting American will, a sin implicitly characterized as much less forgivable than the killing itself. If Assad murders thousands, as he has, that’s bad enough—but if the Obama administration tells him to stop and he refuses, such recalcitrance is just beyond the pale and can’t be left unpunished. After all, Syria “has been a dictatorship since 1949.” But what’s apparently worse is that the nation-state “has also been a constant thorn in the U.S.’s side, aligning with Iran’s ruling mullahs and sponsoring the Lebanese terrorist group Hizballah.”
There is nothing defensible about the latter group’s terroristic attacks on civilians, but unfortunately such crimes appear around the world, as does the common tendency of states to brutally crush their opposition. America’s ally Bahrain has conducted particularly egregious offenses against dissenters. What makes Syria’s sins so mortal is they stand in defiance of American authority.
So we can take stock of the main premises implicit in the drive for war: The United States has a natural role to intervene abroad, such intervention is either likely to succeed, or else is worth risking failure, which could never be so significant as the U.S. empire losing its reputation as global savior. The U.S. government has generally been a force for good and must continue to be, and its leaders wage wars reluctantly to protect their own public relations image, a sad circumstance imposed upon presidents who would rather be peaceful but are forced into war because nothing is worse than the American government being called a chicken. The most unnerving of all premises, of course, is that it’s justifiable to kill innocent people by bombing the area where they happen to live, and this calculation of slaughtering people for the greater good is properly left up to the American state.
The causal acceptance of such murderous pretension infects almost all of the current foreign policy debate. In one of the closing paragraphs of this Time Magazine article, we see a cavalierly hopeful reference to what could potentially spiral into the worst war of the century: “But to his critics, Obama does hesitate, and trouble follows as a result. With more than three years left in his presidency, he has the opportunity to reverse that impression. Success in Syria and then Iran could vindicate him, and failure could be crushing.”
We wouldn’t want a lame duck president to look bad. Torching and shredding thousands of people to death would almost seem futile if the carnage backfired and Obama’s empire came out of it embarrassed. This is thoroughly amoral reasoning at best, and so long as it profoundly pervades discourse over war and peace, we cannot take the interventionists seriously when they insist they own the ethical high ground.