I’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.
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?
For 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.