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Syria revisited


Recent events in Syria are inconceivably horrible. They deserve our attention, and frankly, our mourning. Even those of us who are steadfastly against military action need to pause to take the full measure of what has happened there (insofar as the facts are in).

But having done that, we ought also to be asking how it is that here in the U.S., mainstream discourse on the subject has completely been dominated by the mindless urge to “do something” without asking why something of a military nature must be done by us. The closest one comes to a justification of intervention are dogmatic cliches about the need to uphold “international norms,” the need to uphold “red lines” and loose talk about the supposedly sui generis nature of the use of chemical weapons in warfare. Of the eleven letters to the editor on the subject published in yesterday’s New York Times, not one–not one–deals with the fundamental question raised by the issue of intervention in Syria. What moral principles govern the use of force in human affairs, and why do those principles demand our use of it here? 

Nonetheless, one letter by an advocate of intervention is worth quoting for what it gets right:

If, as Secretary of State John Kerry declared, the killing of reportedly hundreds of people with toxic gas should “shock the conscience of the world,” why should attacks using plain old bullets and bombs — which have killed more than 100,000 Syrians so far — be less troubling?

Apparently, it is not the political fundamentals of the conflict but rather the spectacular specter of chemical weapons that may finally be rousing the West to action. This augurs poorly for what is to come. Shocked consciences tend to blind us to consequences.

it’s not just the political but the moral fundamentals that have to re-assert themselves in this debate. Listening to our opinion-makers, you’d think that we had nothing to learn–and had learned nothing–from Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Afghanistan (twice over), and Iraq (again twice over). Libya has not been the success it was made out to be, and Bosnia and Kosovo are very, very week reeds on which to formulate the foreign policy of the future.

Unsurprisingly, the arguments we’re hearing from “experts” and “authority figures” are not just blind to essentials but ad hoc and nonsensical. Here’s how our leaders think about “the burden of proof” for engagement in warfare:

Despite the Obama administration’s insistence that the graphic images of the attack go far in making a case for military action in Syria, some experts said that the White House had its own burden of proof.

Graphic images make a case for war? I thought such discursive procedures were the exclusive monopoly of the most irrational elements of the anti-abortion crusade.

How do we know that Bashar al Assad is responsible for the use of chemical weapons?

American officials said Wednesday there was no “smoking gun” that directly links President Bashar al-Assad to the attack, and they tried to lower expectations about the public intelligence presentation. They said it will not contain specific electronic intercepts of communications between Syrian commanders or detailed reporting from spies and sources on the ground.

But even without hard evidence tying Mr. Assad to the attack, administration officials asserted, the Syrian leader bears ultimate responsibility for the actions of his troops and should be held accountable.

“The commander in chief of any military is ultimately responsible for decisions made under their leadership,” said the State Department’s deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf — even if, she added, “He’s not the one who pushes the button or says ‘go’ on this.”

So would that make President Obama responsible for a massacre of civilians perpetrated by a rogue soldier in Afghanistan? For that matter, would it make him responsible for a massacre of U.S. soldiers by a U.S. soldier? A grammatical point here: “The commander in chief of any military is ultimately responsible for decisions made under his leadership.” He is not a plurality, and the attempt to turn him into one via an apparently innocuous grammatical mistake does not strike me as an accident. At the very least, it doesn’t strike as something to excuse or overlook.

Here is John McCain, trying in his characteristically incompetent and inarticulate way to explain why our involvement in Syria is an imperative:

Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, has been scathing in his criticism of Mr. Obama for the opposite reason — that the president in his view has not taken enough action. Mr. McCain has said that doubts about military action expressed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, have emboldened the Syrian government to use chemical weapons and that Mr. Obama, having allowed Mr. Assad to cross his “red line” on the use of these weapons on previous occasions, had little standing now.

“Now this is the same president that two years ago said that Bashar Assad must leave office, and so where is America’s credibility?” Mr. McCain said on Fox News. “Where is our ability to influence events in the region? And I promise you that those who say we should stay out of Syria do not understand that this is now a regional conflict.”

No lessons learned here from the invocation of “credibility gaps” as an excuse for escalation and further involvement in Vietnam. It apparently is not an option to say that our ability to influence events in the region is highly limited, because events are caused by agents, agents have free will, and missile strikes do not produce the free action that we desire of the relevant agents. No realization here that missile strikes, especially when broadcast weeks in advance (so that there’s ample time to prepare for them), can have unpredictable consequences that are the opposite of our intentions. Never mind the total absence of an explanation for why we should insist on “influencing” events in Syria. We’re to intervene in Syria because the Syrian civil war is “now a regional conflict.” But what war is not a “regional conflict”? Wasn’t Korea? Wasn’t Vietnam? Wasn’t the Bay of Pigs? Wasn’t the insertion of the U.S. Marines in Lebanon in the 1980s? Surely the question is whether we are part of “the region” that demands involvement in the conflict–a question that so far has gotten no attempt at an answer by our politicians, much less a satisfactory answer.

None of the preceding is being said loudly enough. But it ought to be said, and said loudly, before this better-than-the-previous administration meanders once again into military intervention simply to close the “credibility gap” created by its incautious invocation of “red lines.” We ought–those of us against intervention–to be deluging our political representatives with our dissent and opposition. Do yourself a favor and drop them a line before the missiles fly.


P.S., August 29, 2013, 9:11 am: There’s something instructive about the fact that after spending the Bush years criticizing Bush for his “cowboy”-like rejection of international law, prominent members of our legal professoriate are now urging Obama to bomb Syria in defiance of international law. So yesteryear’s vigilantism has become today’s moral crusade. I’ve criticized the normative ad hocracy implicit in appeals to international war law in a review of two books on the subject, published in the fall 2007 issue of Democratiya. The examples discussed in the review may be slightly dated at this point, but I think my criticisms remain sound.



  1. Riley Frost says:

    You write very fluently, it’s somewhat refreshing. In addition to something I posted a while back, you may be interested in this:

  2. irfankhawaja says:

    Thanks for the compliment. I read just the one post in the link (not the previous one you mentioned), but despite your caution and caveats, I don’t understand why you back Western (Anglo-American) intervention. You say: “We must make an attempt to tilt power in the favour of the rebels, in particular on the southern front as that appears to be where gains could be most crucial and concentrate efforts on the capturing of major cities.” Why must we? Even apart from the rebels’ lack of unity and ideological heterogeneity, as well as the sheer difficulty of tilting the civil war in their favor (and only theirs), why must we get involved at all?

  3. Riley Frost says:

    I’ve asked that question myself; if you take a look at my first Syria post. My point about tilting power was hypothetical, should we intervene. In all honesty I’m neither for nor against intervention probably if anything a little weighted towards abstaining. What I will say is, if we stand by and allow atrocities to continue to be committed, who are we to consider ourselves world citizens?

  4. irfankhawaja says:

    I haven’t yet had the chance to look at your earlier post, but I will when I can. For now I’d say that the idea of cosmopolitanism is certainly an attractive one, and it can in principle involve the desire to defend justice in places other than one’s own home country. But if the sheer occurrence of atrocities constituted a “cosmopolitan” justification for war, cosmopolitanism would require a commitment to perpetual warfare. There are atrocities taking place all the time. In that case, I think we’d either be forced to re-examine and modify our conception of cosmopolitanism, or else to admit that it was badly flawed, in which case we’d just to admit that we weren’t “citizens of the world.” I think the first option is more plausible. Cosmopolitanism entails a peaceful commitment to global justice, but warfare must be restricted to self-defense. You may be a citizen of, say, the United Kingdom, but that doesn’t give you the obligation to cruise the streets looking for violent crimes to remedy. That is a job for superheroes, not human beings.

    Something similar is true of being a citizen of the world. There is plenty of injustice in the world to be rectified without our having to get the Western powers further addicted to the altruistic imperialism to which they’re now addicted. We launch missiles to give ourselves the sense of a commitment to justice. After we launch them, and they hit a few targets, we celebrate. Then the next day inevitably dawns, and we recoil at the moral and political complexities that can’t be resolved by missiles. Eventually, we run away because “it’s not our business.” How did it become our business in the first place? Because we thought a few missiles would do the trick. They never do. But we never learn.


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