Saturday, September 7, 2013

Moral Abstractions, Real Tragedies, and False Solutions

As the debate over unilateral American intervention in Syria continues, it is relatively clear that US public opinion does not favor a new adventure there. Nonetheless, the Obama Administration continues to push for Congressional authorization, promising a "full-court press" in coming days. While Obama and Kerry have spoken on the issue, remarks by Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power seem to have resonated most with the foreign policy audience and may begin to change the discussion.

Power's remarks played carefully on notions of moral indignation, then providing a nuanced and circumscribed call for limited intervention to prevent future use of weapons of mass destruction, explaining that the latest chemical attack killed far more than even the worst of Assad's conventional barrages against civilian neighborhoods. While I found her words to be compelling in a way, and I truly am conflicted in my feelings about the entire issue of Syria, I think that a deeper deconstruction of the bases of the case for intervention helps me to remain steadfastly against military action.

Power invoked the tragic image of a father mourning the death of his two girls in the latest chemical attack by the Assad regime. (As an aside, I have a high degree of confidence in the intelligence that there was indeed a regime-sanctioned chemical attack, and that it was not the first one. The argument over intelligence is a sideshow that undermines the real case against intervention. Focusing on it provides Congress with a fig leaf to excuse going against American public opinion by referencing classified material that really tells a story no one should doubt.) As a father and a human, I am moved by this father's loss and wish deeply that there is something that I could do--that we could do--to stop this slaughter. While there are "things we could do," anything short of a massive invasion and a neo-mandatory occupation of the country for years will fail to stop the slaughter. Anything short of this invasion and occupation would only be a futile and symbolic gesture to assuage our own guilt. To make a theoretical point about moral abstractions. And in making this theoretical point, we would not only be putting American lives at risk, we would also undoubtedly take the lives of more innocent civilians in the execution.

What is more, this slaughter has been ongoing for two years and it will certainly continue relatively unabated well after our 60 or 90 days of cruise missile and standoff weapons attacks. The UN asserts that over 100,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war to date. We can assume that at least 50,000 of these casualties are completely innocent civilians killed in countless regime artillery and rocket barrages. Killed in the crossfire of urban fighting between rebels and the regime. Killed by torture and execution at the hands of a regime that cares not for its people--and at the hands of various rebel groups due to their hatred of other sects, of other ethnicities, of those who are insufficiently pious. Killed by people on both sides who have simply become animals addicted to killing.

How is the brutal and senseless end of 50,000 innocent lives and the anguish hundreds of thousands of mourning parents, family, and friends somehow less tragic than the less than 2,000 lives taken by the admittedly tragic and barbarous use of chemical weapons? Some would believe that death by chemical weapons is somehow less humane than the violence inflicted by conventional weapons. This is a myth that is closely tied to the popular image of war as a lot of flashes and bangs and relatively undamaged bodies falling dramatically to a bloodless and serene rest on foreign soil. Conventional weapons in truth mangle bodies in unimaginable ways. They rend flesh and turn bodies inside out into unrecognizable minces of blood and bone. They inflict unimaginable pain. They reach children in their beds. They reach parents at their breakfast tables. They bring down entire buildings, crushing people to death if they are lucky. Leaving them to die a slow and painful death trapped in rubble if they are not. No, the point that some moral line has been crossed by the use of chemical weapons is not valid. Not if you are a compassionate human being. That line was left behind long ago.

If you are a compassionate human being, you might hope that the call to action provoked by the arbitrary and abstract line-crossing will indeed bring an end to the slaughter altogether. This is certainly not what the Obama Administration is promising nor what Congress would authorize. Congressional authorization looks iffy at best, but the Senate's draft resolution offers 60 days of military action (commencing from the date of passage) with the potential for a 30-day extension and a complete prohibition of "boots on the ground" for combat purposes (providing a loophole for covert reconnaissance, liaison, advising, and personnel recovery purposes to name a few).

This limited military action will not bring about an end to the tragedy, nor is it by any means certain to stop Assad's use of chemical weapons. You cannot reliably and safely destroy chemical weapons stockpiles by air--and that is even if you know where they all are. While the strikes will likely target aviation, artillery, and rocket delivery platforms, there is no guarantee that all will be destroyed or that Assad won't be able to utilize alternative means of delivery. The tragedy will not end. This will be a symbolic measure, more attuned to assuaging guilt, upholding personal and governmental reputations, and pleasing foreign policy wonks on a theoretical level than to creating a decisive result. Worse, we will show both our impotence and our callousness. We will step in to guard our arbitrary line. Little will happen as a result. And we will then return to our corner to watch the massacre of a nation continue. How is that more noble than doing nothing?

Still, you may believe that such a move is required to uphold that red line, as theoretical and abstract as it may be. We must show the world that there are some things we will not accept. Here, too, I am unmoved. We accept the slaughter of tens of thousands, we have looked the other way at genocides, but you have to do it "the right way," we will be arguing... with bombs. Even given the breathless and indignant statements from our leadership about drawing the line for dictators, the number of dictators so craven as to use chemical weapons on their own people is exceedingly few, they seem to do quite well at massacre without chemical assistance, and they are driven by a logic that does not align with what most of the rest of the world considers as rational. No, a dictator like Kim Jong Un will be unmoved. If anything, he will note that he must be more brutal, earlier, than Assad was. There is no long line of chemical weapons dominos waiting to fall if we do not act in Syria, breathless statements notwithstanding.

We are warned of the dire consequences of inaction and how they will embolden dictators in Iran and North Korea. We took much bolder action in the past. The Taliban were pushed from Kabul into the mountains. Saddam Hussein was toppled and ultimately hanged by his neck. Qaddafi was shot dead in the street after NATO airstrikes changed the balance. Yet none of these actions have deterred Assad, nor have they changed the bellicose behavior of Kim Jong Un or the regional chicanery of the Iranian regime. Given this as a background, how is this petty proposed action in Syria to make a dent in the craven minds of dictators one way or the other?

In the hopes that something will stick to the wall if you sling enough mud, leaders and commentators mumble about regional stability as another prompt to action. This is yet another straw man. While the civil war in Syria is undoubtedly destabilizing to the region, the use of chemical weapons within the country does not make it more so. An outside strike, especially if tentative and without the right (costly and large) set of preventive measures deployed to the right places, is likely to invite responses ranging from the possible use of ballistic missiles against Syria's neighbors to the use of non-conventional forces against US and allied interests throughout the region. Stability will not be enhanced by a limited strike.

When you deconstruct the idea of a limited intervention in Syria and the justifications for it in this manner, it seems clear to me that it will be (again) nothing more than a symbolic gesture aimed futilely at assuaging our own guilt, at upholding our self-image, and based on wrong-headed notions of the importance of poorly constructed abstractions. It will be an incredibly selfish gesture.

Reluctantly, I will add another either-or choice to an issue already crowded with false binaries. Either we are moved enough by the tragedy of Syria and the flagrant violation of international norms that the slaughter of innocents there by all means to intervene massively and decisively to stop it through invasion, regime change, and neo-mandatory occupation, or we should realize that any limited set of airstrikes is a selfish and symbolic measure that will do nothing to ease the suffering of the Syrian people.

This isn't to say that we should do nothing. As futile and unsatisfying as they may seem, efforts to further the diplomatic isolation of the Assad regime, to shore up neighboring countries, to redouble attempts to pressure neighbors like Iraq and regional powers like Iran to starve the Assad regime, to bring an indictment against Assad at the International Criminal Court, etc. will be no more ineffective than a unilateral strike and will do far more in the long run to shore up US and international credibility.

We cannot stop the tragedy with half-measures and we must be honest in that the US and the world are uninterested in anything but half-measures in this case. To try to do more would be to invite disaster. Our leaders must be smarter and less selfish. They must listen to the American people who, as much as they'd like to see the tragedy end, know this is a bad idea. The pundits and hawks must stop their irresponsible and false moralizing based on abstractions. Many of the insulated Beltway elites are too enamored of war. Too many are enamored because they have studied it on the crisp white pages of textbooks, but have not seen its unspeakably messy reality. Too many are increasingly disconnected from the American people who they expect to fund and support their adventures. Their lives are built on abstractions and abstractions create facile certitudes and the dirty, easy labels that they use to elevate themselves to a position of supposed moral superiority to the rest of the country. They think they know better. They do not.


  1. Peter, as always, your commentary is excellent.

    On your war on the rocks piece, I posted an article (pdf) in comments at SWJ that might be useful for any following up piece. Many similar examples may be found outside the SA experience, of course, as you know:

  2. Once, we organized Berlin airlifts, how much could we have done for Syrian refugees as a world community of that was the focus?

  3. I forgot to add that I find the intelligence case as presented to the American people, well, it's not been done well. This is not a sideshow, IMO. I think it has consequences. Again, from another comment elsewhere (but OTOH, you are one whose judgement is very sound so I tend to listen):

    "That Putin op-ed is one of the most extraordinary pieces I have ever read in its timing, its rhetoric, its appeals to the skepticism of the American people on the WH's case on Syria - including the inept presentation of intelligence information to the public.
    Especially after Iraq, information has to be presented in a rock solid way which has simply not been done. It's been amateurish and this allows a case to be made against the Syrian rebels on the matter of CW by others, and, emotionally, however accurate or inaccurate, it has traction. Many American commentators thought the intelligence information or its presentation were unimportant. The op-ed shows why such poor handling has consequences...."

    And there's more in comments at SWJ.

    - Madhu

  4. OTOH, maybe you've been correct that the intelligence presentation doesn't matter because the intelligence is solid.

    I have grown almost too skeptical, I feel so burned by it all.

    - Madhu