The Syrian situation highlights a general difficulty that afflicts the United States: the question of humanitarian intervention overall. Historically, this is a relatively new invention, as it is almost taken for granted that the United States has an obligation to use military force to bring about what are almost utopian outcomes to crises involving war. The idea seems to be that America is remiss if a war has the consequences of a war when it did not intervene, and is a cynical villain when a war has its consequences where America did intervene. And the obligation created is of two parts: firstly, to make war, and secondly, to erase or prevent all the death and destruction involved in a war, as if the services of the US Military were advertized like those of a flood restoration company: “Like it never even happened!”
Now the case for humanitarian intervention derives from a moral scruple against standing idly by while another person suffers what we can prevent; it is the moral veto on neglect of our neighbor which is translated into a foreign policy of bombing and occupation. I do not mean to say this cynically; I mean that humanitarian military intervention is still military intervention. Our tanks and fighterbombers cannot help victims of invasion or genocide without at the same time imposing on them the hardships which inevitably attend the operation of that hardware. When we call for military action to aid BLANK, we are calling for surgery to be performed on BLANK, a risky and painful surgery. Yet we hear NPR blithely rebuke the president for his inaction in the face of “his moral duty” to help those entangled in the civil war in Syria. When one has a specific moral duty to do something, it is unilateral; one does not need to calculate costs and benefits as when one is addressing a practical need. If I have a moral duty to protect my family, it specifically means I have no duty to consider whether the bear threatening them is endangered, nor to consider the feelings of a home-invader’s mother before opening his chest with buckshot. Moral duty is unilateral duty; Obama’s duty (if any) to intervene is, on the other hand, conditional on the helpfulness of his intervention including consideration of the highly unhelpful consequences with should, after a decade of war, be familiar to Americans. This, I feel, is the first error of interventionism in this case: Because it is treated as a moral problem, the costs are dismissed as irrelevant, which is sound logic except that the moral principle invoked is one that calls for practical benefits. Any costs which detract from these benefits actually do undermine the moral rightness of intervention, because the moral duty of intervention (under this theory) was created by a moral duty to provide practical help.
This fact alone explodes the NPR attitude of automatic duty of intervention, because they have overlooked a fundamental truth about war: that it destroys messily, indiscriminately, inevitably. The miracles of modern war technology, i mean the actual performances of sending a missile down the dictator’s chimney or the near costless (yet really tragically costly) armored engagements of the first Gulf War, are the hole-in-ones of warfare; one should no more charge into intervention in the belief that it is harmless than he should stand on the green while golf champions are hitting their drives, in the belief that they will surely hit the ball straight into the hole. In any case, i need not belabor the real destructiveness of war; NPR itself and a thousand others have tearfully documented the real human costs of what we have regarded as a clinical practice, a tool of foreign policy. If we bring our tanks and infantry divisions and missiles and attack helicopters and Tomahawks to Syria, we bring them a benefit, perhaps, but certainly a danger and a terrible cost. If we installed a nuclear power plant in their country, the Liberals would certainly recognize the danger and the risk cost which we imposed on the populace; how is it that they fail to recognize the same qualities in sending what was actually intended to destroy?
And then there is the whole question of moral duty itself. Does Barack Obama have a moral duty to solve Syria’s internal strife? If so, that is his concern, not that of the American taxpayer or the American soldier who signed on to defend his own country, but may be retasked by executive fiat to defend a land he has never seen. There is also an “Ought implies can” concern here, since Obama and the taxpayer and the soldier almost certainly have the capacity to bomb the absolute shit out of Syria and destroy any or every military force within it, but quite possibly don’t have the capacity restore it to stability and peace. Which of these actions is actually desirable? If the restoration of Syria to peaceful existence by the application of American military force isn’t actually possible, what the hell do we hope to achieve through such intervention? What can we possibly have a duty to achieve besides this? In this case, the interventionist argument is essentially that because we must do something, it does not matter that all we can do is destroy, and thus we are left with a moral obligation to go in, bomb a bunch of buildings, kill a lot of people, and leave the country without real peace. Just like we did in Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, and a dozen secret wars in Latin America and East Asia. We don’t have a moral duty to achieve what we cannot. If South Korea enjoys independence from the North, great. But let’s not have any bullshit about the relationship between the two being peace, or our military intervention being capable of achieving what only political genius and national will and effort can. Let’s not pretend that we bombed South Korea into nationhoood, nor that the outcome we wearily endure is a victory. Let’s not pretend that we had a moral duty to go in there because our Marines and missiles are a magic wand that makes everything okay. We have left a condition of tremendous tension on that peninsula, and we are likely to do similar things wherever we go. If we send our troops to force upon Syria exactly what we want, we certainly install a regime that is undesirable to all Syria’s neighbors and likely not all that popular within the nation. Consider for a second who or what would actually support such a regime: There is only one answer, and that is the US. And how long will the US care to maintain in a hostile environment a government which really provides no benefit to itself? Once the risk of a real genocide is mitigated, Syria will be entirely off the front page and thus off the radar of government. What is most in our interest is not the most pro-US, or even the most democratic government available, but the lowest-maintenance government which steers between the extremes of real oppression and real regional weakness. Even a puppet government which serves some other power (perhaps Turkey or Russia) is preferable to a government which is a puppet of the US.
My overall concern is that our moral duty to do something about Syria (a mysteriously unique duty, among nations) is a dubious one, but the duties which we will create if we add our hands to those which have shed blood in that war, are both real and nigh impossible. The peace of Syria is realistically in the hands of Syrians, whether they choose to fight for it or to appeal to other powers and incur the historically well-known costs of foreign military aid. Perhaps the end of internal peace in Syria really should be the end of Syrian independence, or perhaps the next government of that nation will be granted legitimacy by their victory over the present chaos. We cannot tell from here; I say only that if the Syrian rebels, Syrian government, and Syrian civilians are in a consensus to settle this war internally, we have no business defying them in their own country. The day a really representative delegation of Syrian noncombatants says to the US (or to Russia, or the EU or the UN or to Turkey) “We care not how, end this war and make of Syria what you will, because Syrians have made of it an unendurable horror,” then I will say the US (or Russia or the EU or the UN or Turkey) has a duty to intervene. Until then, this is an internal matter among adults, to be settled on the terms of those actually involved.