Last Thursday, I was asked to appear on CNN to discuss the burgeoning humanitarian crisis in Syria. Truth be told, I almost said no to the invitation -- and for a bad reason. While I do not believe there is evidence to suggest an attack on Syria will make anything better, I felt somewhat conflicted about what I thought the United States should specifically do in the wake of a chemical attack in that country. I reflexively assumed that such ambivalence disqualifies anyone from expressing any opinion, especially in a cable TV realm that often seeks to portray every debate as a battle between crystal-clear absolutisms.
But, of course, in this kind of situation, there really is only one absolute truth: What's happening in Syria is a human rights atrocity. Almost everything else, and especially the proper course of action, is all opinion, some of it at least fact-based, measured and informed, but much of it purely ideological. And pretending otherwise -- pretending that there is one indisputably correct, pro-intervention path forward -- is the most ideological position of all. In fact, such absolutism is beyond mere ideology -- it is theology.
Ultimately, I accepted CNN's invitation, and the process of pondering four questions helped prepare me for that discussion. These questions do not focus on the very legitimate concerns about the financial expense and risk to U.S. troops that are involved in an attack on Syria. Instead, they focus on the moral questions about the whole concept of humanitarian military intervention. Considering them clarified some things for me. Perhaps they will for you too as you watch today's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing about a possible attack on Syria. Here they are:
1. Is it natural to feel conflicted about a response to the Syrian civil war? Was it natural to initially feel conflicted about the Iraq War?
I opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, but I would be lying if I said that in my heart at the time I didn't feel some ambivalence. Not only were U.S. government officials claiming that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were conspiring to launch a coordinated assault to incinerate American cities with nuclear weapons, but Saddam's thuggery had created an ongoing human rights atrocity in his country. Quite naturally, those factors combined to create a sense of urgency -- a sense of "do something, anything!" -- among those who at once didn't want to be incinerated and wanted to halt undue suffering at the hands of a dictator.
This time around -- thankfully -- nobody is pretending the Assad regime represents an imminent threat to the United States (though don't be surprised if that drumbeat soon commences). But the human rights atrocities in Syria are real, and should be offensive and horrifying to anyone with a pulse. So the "do something, anything!" impulse isn't "liberal" or "conservative." And it isn't silly, stupid or war-mongering. It is simply a sign that you are human.
What can be silly, stupid and war-mongering is to assume that the "do something, anything!" impulse is proof that one course of action -- a military attack -- is the only proper or humane thing to do.
2. The rational question to ask is: Will an action actually make the situation better?
In the last few days, we have been told by the U.S. government and pro-war voices in the Washington punditburo that opposing a military assault on Syria is akin to appeasing Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Not only does such an argument instantly discredit itself by violating Godwin's Law, it smacks of previously discredited rhetoric -- the kind that aims to distract attention from what should be the most important questions of all.
As we all remember, the meager debate over the Iraq War (if you can even call it a debate) was an exercise in the ugliest kind of reductionism: the "with us or with the terrorists" kind. Support the war, and you were encouraged to feel like a brave, patriotic, red-blooded hater of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and you could proudly slap an American flag on your SUV bumper and congratulate yourself for being an honorable supporter of the troops. Oppose the war, by contrast, and you were were cast as a supporter of Saddam and al-Qaida and you were often vilified as an ungrateful traitor daring to undermine brave U.S. soldiers protecting your freedom.
This, no doubt, is the propaganda of Permanent War, for it deliberately obscures what the real question should be when it comes to military action, especially the kind publicly predicated on humanitarian concerns. The question is not whether you love or hate a particular dictator, because if that was the question, then the U.S. government has a lot to answer for in its alliances with many dictators. No, the question when it comes to wars of choice ostensibly waged in defense of human rights should be far more straightforward: namely, will military action result in a net increase or decrease in human suffering?
Many of us who opposed the Iraq War did so not out of some affinity for Saddam Hussein, but because we believed there was a good chance that an invasion would ultimately increase human suffering. Some who supported the war did so because they believed the opposite. But many who supported the war did so without even the slightest regard for those considerations. That included the Bush administration, as evidenced by its "bring "em on" bravado and its utter lack of regard for postwar planning.
Thanks, in part, to that administration's cavalier attitude, up to 1 million Iraqi civilians died. Iraq War supporters would have us believe that simply because Saddam is dead and gone, none of that matters, but it's possible (if not likely) the families of the million dead disagree. It's also possible that while Syria is not Iraq, we can learn from the Iraq experience that "with us or with the terrorists" sloganeering can, unto itself, be a devious rationale for other kinds of atrocities -- the ones we perversely commit in the official name of human rights.
With all that in mind, the question of U.S. military action against Syria becomes far more thorny because it is not at all clear that military action will make anything better -- and that's putting it mildly. As McClatchy notes, military and geopolitical experts are telling us that the kind of military response being discussed by the Obama administration would be "symbolic and fall far short of eliminating Syria's chemical capabilities." Likewise, the Guardian's headline says it all: "Obama strike would not weaken Assad's military strength, experts warn." And Foreign Policy reports that one of the U.S. military planners who designed Syria strike blueprints "has serious misgivings" about the idea that bombing will improve anything. Even the president himself admits that "we cannot resolve the underlying conflict in Syria with our military."
If you happen to have more credible information and insight than these well-informed experts, then go right ahead and make your case. However, if you don't, then take a deep breath, momentarily suppress your "do something, anything!" impulse, and ask yourself: is it really so indisputably good, moral or constructive to support dropping bombs on Syria -- most likely in heavily populated civilian areas -- to make some sort of abstract political statement, but with no real expectation that doing so will make anything better?
If you can't credibly argue that a military action has a good shot of making things better, then aren't you submitting to the kind of ugly militarism that says state-sponsored violence is an end unto itself? After all, while there are real civilian lives being extinguished by the monstrous Assad regime, there will also inevitably be real civilian lives at the explosive end of U.S. cruise missiles (and that's almost certainly the case no matter how many times professional politicians throw around reassuring words like "surgical" and "proportional").