War and Consequences

wilsonI’m going to offer a few thoughts on foreign policy today, which ensures that A) there will no doubt be a number of facets of the situation that I’ve failed to consider, and B) because of this and for other reasons, number of you will disagree with me.  Nevertheless, here I go.

This past summer I’ve been making it my personal discipline to read through each of the seven published volumes of the Oxford History of the United States.  I’m almost finished, and let me tell you: it has been an enjoyable and enlightening journey.  Written as narratives by master historians, they are well worth digging into.  I’ll no doubt be reflecting on a lot of their content here.

The monographs cover a lot of material, including the various wars in which America has been engaged.  With regard to the 20th century, questions of war, realism, morality, and idealism rise to the fore both implicitly and explicitly.  There is some question, for instance, as to whether or not Woodrow Wilson’s wartime ideology about “making the world safe for democracy” was helpful or successful.  Whether moralism in foreign policy helps or hurts.  Wouldn’t, after all, more of a sober Realpolitik make more sense?  So too Vietnam, a war entered into because of national pride and international political maneuvering.  And we all know how that one ended.

At the same time, however, there are clear questions about America’s tendency to react against “the last war,” pushing us to severe isolationism following World War I and leaving a very bad taste in our mouths after our long Vietnamese misadventure.war

Which brings us, of course, to Syria.  There is strong evidence that the regime has used chemical weapons in their country’s civil war.  The administration is talking about options.  Morality and decency would seem to cry out that something be done.  And yet.  Iraq and Afghanistan weigh on our minds.  A distaste for intervention and “the last war” hangs heavy over us like a shroud.  A recent poll, quite unbelievably, asserts that only 9% of Americans support military action in Syria.  Less than 1 in 10 of us want to take quick and decisive action to intervene with force.

I realize that getting involved in Syria would be messy.  That it might involve loss of life.  That it might cause other unintended problems.  But what are we supposed to do?  Dither more while people die?  Grant tacit permission for literal and obvious “weapons of mass destruction” to be used with impunity?  Or do we do something, and quickly?

rwandaFor those who hesitate, I’d encourage a view towards history.  As much as it can at times make us shrink from international engagement, so too it can help us reflect on what is at stake here.  Every situation is different, but consider: who among us would if given the chance not intervene in 1930s Germany to avert the Holocaust?  In Rwanda to stop the “ethnic cleansing” there in the 1990s?  Many agree that not getting involved earlier in these places was, to say the least, unfortunate.

I am no military expert, and cannot say how or in what fashion our engagement in Syria will work, but I do have the feeling that it needs to happen.  Diplomacy and other means have had months to progress, and it seems that nothing has happened.  Indeed, things seem to have gotten worse.

I look forward to being corrected on any facts by those who are wiser in military and diplomatic matters than me….but at the end of the day, isn’t entering into a war for a moral reason a legitimate option in this case?  And know this: this is not just a topic for consideration by world’s most powerful nation, but by the entirety of the world community.  This is not just a Syrian or American problem.  This is our crisis.

I welcome your responses.


8 comments on “War and Consequences

  1. Mary Jo Sutton says:

    This exact topic came up as my husband and I watched last evening’s news report. I couldn’t agree with you more. My husband – not so much. I anxiously await comments from others regarding why they feel differently.

  2. I think the problem arises when we feel that it’s the moral responsibility of the US to protect everyone.

    I absolutely agree that something needs to be done. I would argue that UN peacekeepers, or at least a cooperative of international actors, would be a much better actor to help Syria. Particularly because they have a less vested interest in who comes out on top, militarily, in Syria.

    It’s also worth noting that there is some evidence suggesting that the US, much like they did with Iran and early Al Qaeda, actually helped supply the Syrian government with the amassing of chemical weapons.

    • Max:

      Understood. I realize that often these things don’t scale well, but if we have the means and the will to protect those in danger but don’t is there not something wrong with that?

      I echo you with regards to the UN, but we make a mistake to imagine that the UN is perfect here. As a post WWII creation, it was simply what they set up at the time. With Russia having a veto, this complicates things. Just as we can block all sorts of anti-Israel things, even when the world feels one way, so too Russia or someone else can block resolutions they don’t like, even if there is a moral imperative.

      International action makes sense, but coalition building can be problematic if slow moving. In the middle of a civil war with such weapons, Assad could move so fast that thousands lose their lives and the war is over before any action is taken. Then we’re talking about regime change….

      With regard to the morality of weapons we once provided, I make no excuse for this, and if true…deplore it. But simply because we sinned by commission once doesn’t mean we can fix that by sinning through omission now. Or, in another sense, if we made the mistake of selling them these weapons, it is probably even moreso our responsibility to get involved.

  3. Matt says:

    “Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.” George Washington, Farewell Addrress 1796

    Once again, America is about to commit resources into a foreign nation, Syria. Our political leaders, whether Democrat or Republican have severally crippled our nation with a policy of foreign intervention as to oppose our system of government on nations and cultures that cannot possibly adopt a Constitutional Republic as we have in America.
    George Washington warned of our nation’s intervention in foreign affairs and the exceptionality and uniqueness of America. Our elected officials should be focused on persevering, upholding and adhering to our Constitution which is under attack, not from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan but from within our nation, from those who have been elected into office. Our greatest enemies are those who are among us, not in some foreign land.

    • Understood, Matt. And thanks for adding to the conversation. Concern about “entangling alliances” has indeed a long history in the United States, and not without good reason. I would say, though, that Washington in his Farewell Address was mostly concerned about mutual treaties with European nations (say, France) which would draw us into a European war that had nothing to do with us. That is different, in some sense, from “temporarily” (to paraphrase one of Washington’s words,) taking an action or making an alliance for some purpose of intervention to help another nation in such an extraordinary emergency.

      I think we disagree whether America should get involved around the world. I feel that there are certain cases when we have a responsibility. Maybe it isn’t the responsibility of anyone standing outside the burning building to save those inside, but someone should, all the same. Especially if one is able.

      Understand, though, I’m leery with imposing governmental systems on foreign nations as well. But I don’t want any government using weapons of mass destruction.

      • Matt says:

        But do you really think Washington was that narrow minded when he made that statement? I feel that he had Americas future in mind as well as the current environment. America has enough issues state side to keep her busy for the foreseeable future. For some reason every president has to have a need for ‘legacy’ which is B.S. It’s ridiculous….

      • Matt,

        Good point. I think that he would also have had the future of the country in mind. At the same time, he might not have completely foreseen the developments we face today, especially with the interconnectedness of the world with the advent of airplanes, missiles, and the Internet. This makes it a much smaller place.

        I’m worried, though, that if we focus too much on our own issues (which are numerous), we might not be aware of those the ought to be helped. If we don’t do it, will anyone?

  4. Kathy S says:

    Before we go in militarily anywhere, we should define what we want to accomplish, and who our enemies are. We are still in Afghanistan, we are still in Iraq. How would we know when we are successful when we don’t know what we want the end to be? We were told going in to Iraq “Oh, all we’re going to do is take out Saddam Hussein. We aren’t invading and taking over the country”. Yeah. right. In Syria, there are so many sides and shifting alliances, would we leave when Assad is taken out, even though the country would still be in a civil war?

    Trump has said he wants to shut down admitting refugees into the US. This sure seems like an unchristian thing to do, considering what they are facing there. Perhaps we should consider opening our arms taking in more refugees, not less.

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