Reason is, and always has been, and shall forever remain, the slave of the passions. And no passion inflames the heart quite like sympathy. We love those with whom we identify, taking their suffering on as our own. Hence, the heartbreaking and enraging quality of photographs of dead children.
Hence the impulse by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to do something drastic to punish Syria for the death by poison gas of 1,400 civilians, including 400 children.
But gratuitous moralism is dangerous, even foolish, foreign policy.
Just who is to blame for the use of the gas? The administration says it is President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Maybe. But maybe not. We never did find weapons of mass destruction when we cranked up the machinery of violence and went chest-thumping into Iraq. We’re not above deception ourselves in justifying the decision to go to war. Recall the Gulf of Tonkin and the claim North Vietnam fired on American vessels. It was a strategic lie used to justify a desire to insert ourselves into an ambiguous conflict.
But let’s assume Assad authorized the use of the gas. Then what?
We need to hold him accountable, the president and secretary of state say.
Really? To whom, or, more precisely, to what?
Global norms of decency and international law, you say?
The United States routinely fails to sign onto international human rights treaties. We’ve thumbed our nose at the Convention on the Rights of Children, a treaty banning the use of land mines, treaties involving the rights of women and the disabled. We’re a rogue state as regards the International Criminal Courts, where world leaders can be prosecuted for crimes against humanity.
Threatening to bomb another country for its refusal to adhere to norms we will not permit others to hold us accountable to is the chatter of a naked emperor. I watched Kerry pounding his bully pulpit in recent days with a sense of nausea. We want to police the world while refusing to be policed? Shut up, Sir Smug.
Accountability is a dangerous word for men like Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. These men showed the world the secret sinews of our foreign policy, and we cried foul. Our government would never have let us see the video of American fighters shooting from a helicopter at civilians.
The rhetoric of accountability, and its close cousin, transparency, doesn’t work very well in the foreign policy setting. Sometimes it’s just too dangerous to let everyone know what we’re doing and why. That’s why we spend billions of dollars on the intelligence community, on spies, surveillance equipment, and, when all else fails, elite groups of killers who are prepared to travel the globe to work our will.
When is the last time Seal Team 6 shot up a compound because a regional governor let children starve to death on his watch? According to World Vision, 13,000 children starve to death daily. Where’s the outrage at the governments who let that happen? Why are we, a nation of unprecedented affluence — a City on a Hill, we boast — content to arm ourselves to the teeth and police the world, all the while tap-dancing around the tiny corpses of dead babies with bloated bellies?
Bombing Syria over the death of 400 children needs more justification than the president’s and secretary of state’s purple prose.
Students of international affairs contrast two styles of foreign policy: realists and idealists. Idealists pick and choose the moral battles they wage. Much like the current regime’s sudden discovery of poison and dead children. The problem with idealism is that it rapidly descends into incoherence. The world is a vast and violent place. It’s hard to be consistent in the face of an unending parade of horribles. It’s even harder to recall that, not long ago, we ourselves were giving poisons to Saddam Hussein from our very own stockpile of such weapons, back when we used Iraq as a proxy to oppose Iran.
Realism, or realpolitik, requires a close, and cold-blooded, calculation of national interest. It recognizes that in a world of horrible and often tragic events, resources are limited. We pick our battles based on a balancing of our resources and what is to be gained by acting. Sometimes, as in the case of world hunger, we don’t act because the cost is too great.
Neither Obama nor Kerry have even attempted to engage in a realistic discussion of why the United States should intervene in Syria’s bloody, and now savage, civil war. Their assurances that it will be a limited engagement, with no boots on the ground, are simply ridiculous. You don’t pick half a fight in the Middle East. War is not conducted in half-measures.
None of Syria’s neighbors are prepared to intervene. Neither is the United Nations. Russia, Syria’s principal ally, saber rattles about consequences should the United States go it alone. Someone tell me why we risk a wider conflict? Why further inflame a region that views our flag too often as kindling?
Good friends say we must do something; to stand idly by amounts to condonation of a despicable act. Beware of act hunger. Actions have consequences, and when we strut the world playing global policeman, telling others to do as we say, but not as we do, it is small wonder that terrorists are quick to feel aggrieved. Do we really expect others to welcome our troops, our guns, our bombs as we tell them how best to live? We arm ourselves in fear of our own government.
I am aware of false moral equivalences. A child who dies of starvation is not the same as a child killed by poison gas. Not all nation states are alike. The United States is not Somalia. I get all of that and more.
But if we are to make tough choices about what to do with limited resources, we ought to bleed a little bit more about what we’re doing to ourselves. Our infrastructure crumbles, unemployment remains high, one in six Americans is from time to time hungry, we incarcerate millions and call ourselves the land of the free. The world has not asked us to be its policeman. We’d be better off healing ourselves than engaging in bombastic moralism at great cost, both financially and in terms of our image in the world.
If there is a case to be made for another Mideast war, the president has yet to make it.