Worlds & Time

Monday, September 09, 2013


I have a few comments to make about the current political situation in the U.S. regarding military action in Syria.  Right now that looks like it will be no military response, although obviously I can't know what will happen with any certainty in the future.

First, I do believe that sometimes "intervention" can make a positive difference, both to American security and to the well-being of the non-American civilian population (the Syrians, in this case).

Second, I think that there is a moral obligation to oppose the use of chemical and biological weapons. And nuclear and neutron weapons, and any other indiscriminate weapon that will likely kill civilians and fighters in an area at the same time.

Third, I think (albeit with very little clear evidence) that Assad used some sort of chemical weapon in Syria, on Syrian civilians including children.

However, I don't think there should be U.S. action taken in this instance.  I think we're going to have to sit and watch what happens.  That is not because we couldn't make a positive difference, not because we don't have a moral obligation, or because I don't think it happened.

The problem is with us.  The U.S. us, that is.  We screwed up publicly with Iraq, and the parallels between that situation and this one are pretty clear to everyone, to all of the other countries that are sitting around watching us.

At the level of countries and international politics, you only get one colossal error, one chance to cry wolf, before you lose the trust of those other countries.  That's supposed to be why international politics is supposed to be the big leagues and that the "stakes are so high."  You have to take your reputation seriously at this level because all countries know that the consequences for their actions are severe. This is as big and as bad as it gets, there is no larger stage to play and act upon.

Before I continue, I guess I also have to be clear that changing a president isn't like becoming a different "person" in the sense that countries are people.  I'm personifying here, but in my view history often personifies the actions of countries.  England was a colonial power.  Switzerland is famously neutral.  Japan attacked the U.S. at the beginning of WWII.  I could say that Queen Elizabeth I was behind British colonialism and that Admiral Yamamoto attacked Pearl Harbor but the personification of Switzerland as neutral goes way beyond a single leader (and possibly even a single government) so that's probably the best example of what I'm talking about: It isn't Bush that attacked Iraq and Obama that wants to attack Syria.  Instead, it's the United States that attacked Iraq and now wants to attack Syria.

And it's the U.S. that screwed up, the U.S. that put our reputation on the line, and the U.S. that messed that up, and now we (the U.S.) have to live with the consequences of our collective actions.

The U.S. reputation right now, at least from what I can see, is that we are quick to use poorly planned military force nearly unilaterally.  That "unilaterally" part is the most complicated and most important bit of that, since it can be argued that we acted with a willing coalition of international forces in Iraq.  I would argue that it doesn't matter to our reputation, because even though we asked for international support for Iraq, we asked the world to believe us and that was when we staked our international reputation on it.  They were doing us a favor, trusting us, with the expectation that we were taking their trust seriously.

Now we're saying, hey, look at this, this is a similar situation and we should go do something! But the rest of the world is looking at us, not trusting us because last time we lied.

And let me go back for a moment, not only did the United States lie, but we lied knowing that we were doing it in the biggest leagues.  How could we have taken our reputation so lightly?  The rest of the world looks at us and says "They knew what they were doing" and honestly I can't really argue with that.  The discussions happened before we invaded Iraq, the doubts were articulated but the warnings about what would happen to our reputation if we were wrong were wrong.

We did take our reputation lightly.  And people died in Iraq (Americans and Iraqis, and many others too).  And now, when we might be able to help Syria, we can't convince the others to come with us, and if we go alone then we will definitely be the country that acts unilaterally, and we'll be the country stockpiling more weapons than anyone else, and we'll be the people that didn't really think through our actions either.

If this were a town, what if there was one person that owned more than half the weapons, was well-known for being a hothead, and wanted to go kick in someone else's door even though he was wrong the last time he kicked in a door?  He'd be dangerous.  You wouldn't necessarily say so to his face because he's holding a couple of guns, but couldn't trust him.

And that's the situation we're in.  And it sucks but for Syria because I suspect a lot more people will die.  And it sucks for Barack Obama because I think he wants to help.  And is also sucks because if we're right this time then we won't have acted and we'll still get blamed for letting it happen.

The thing that we should do, as an adult country and with a responsible leadership, is try to act like the reasonable and rational personified country that we are.

So we need to watch and do nothing, and we need to clearly illustrate to everyone else that, "Yes, we were wrong before.  To acknowledge that we acted badly, and to show you that we can and should be trusted, we will wait for you to see that on this one we are correct.  We won't act alone, in someone else's house, and without the support of the community."

But we should talk about what is going on in Syria.  We need to communicate to the rest of the world that are engrossed in their own business that Syria is important too, and that they should care.  We need to convince them that we can't, (as a rhetorical town of personified countries in an overly extended metaphor) just let Syria hurt itself.  That it shouldn't be the U.S. doing the policing but everyone should work together to keep the world together (and at peace).

Here's the thing, reputations aren't more important than people.  If I was the president and I could save a million people, even if I knew I'd personally get thrown in jail and "United States" would be a cuss word for a century, I would probably do it.  But I wouldn't do it if my reputation (and my country's continuing reputation) could save hundreds of millions over that same century.

I think that it can.  I hope that it can.

And I think that what is happening in Syria is a tragedy, and that it is partially our fault that we can't do more to help them.