The proponents of U.S. military engagement in Syria seem to lean on one bit of rhetoric the most — our “moral obligation” to stand-up against chemical weapons attacks. On the face of it, I can’t really argue against that rationale. I mean, who in their right mind wants more gas attacks? Or rather, who in their right mind isn’t sufficiently appalled by the gas attack on August 21st, 2013 outside of Damascus that left over 1400 innocent Syrians dead? The “moral obligation” argument is meant to be the nuclear warhead of pro-war arguments. It all comes down to not falling asleep on the watch while we stay vigilant against the Next Hitler.
I’ve already addressed the “next Hitler” argument in a previous piece, so I’d like to focus a bit of my brain slop on this notion of our “moral obligation” a bit more. Specifically, I’d like to ask a question and I wish I was able to ask it of anyone in power. “On what moral ground specifically do you think The United States of America should act as the arbiter of what is humane and ethical in warfare?” I consider myself a pragmatic pacifist and so I understand a bit of the impulse to want to intervene on behalf of the innocent Syrians in the middle of this civil war. But the first time we fire a shot is the first time we take a side, and the first time we guarantee at least one more generation of angry militants, radicalized and pissed off at Uncle Sam for killing their brother, cousin, or even mother or sister as “collateral damage.”
Just where does America get enough moral credit to sit as the sole judge of any country’s misdeeds? We have our own violent and genocidal past that we have really just decided to ignore more than rectify. Biological weapons? What do you call intentionally giving the natives blankets infected with smallpox? How do you compare the hundred thousand Syrians who have died (at the hands of both sides of their civil war) with Manifest Destiny, the rhetorical term we coined to somehow excuse our own genocide back in the 19th Century?
I can already hear the counter-argument now. “But that was a long time ago and it doesn’t excuse Assad’s behavior now.” That’s all very true. It also doesn’t change the fact that to the rest of the world, it really wasn’t long enough ago for the relatively new guy on the street to start telling his neighbors to cut their lawn while he’s got the goddamned Brazilian rain forest growing in his front yard. We keep screaming about our moral obligation, but I think what the politicians are really trying to say there is we have a “moral authority” to act as the world’s police. The moral obligation I have no problem with, and I actually agree completely. A moral obligation alone doesn’t mean we get to act unilaterally, it just means that we acknowledge along with the other civilized countries in this world that gassing your own people, for example is not on. Moral authority implies we are pure enough in both intent and action to set as international judge, jury and executioner.
That’s the real issue here — our really terrible historical perspective. We have managed to say “that was then, this is now” about all of our atrocities as long as we used it to justify military action abroad. We were spreading, maintaining or encouraging democracy while the whole world was watching us beat and enslave a race of people, outright attempt to exterminate another, and in every generation find one group of immigrants to despise and blame all of society’s problems on. To put it plainly — the rest of the world doesn’t view us as being worthy to sit in judgment of them…because we aren’t. Besides if it’s a more recent example of America crossing over its own red line in terms of chemical weapon use, look no further than the Iraq war and the Battle of Fallujah. Maybe the fact that less than a decade ago we used white phosphorous as a chemical weapon against Iraqis sort of makes our chest-thumping about Assad’s use fall a little flat to others around the world?
No one with a sane synapse or neuron floating around in their brain mush thinks that what is happening in Syria is good. No one thinks the August 21st, 2013 gas attack was excusable or something that shouldn’t be addressed. What I am arguing — and what I believe is at the heart of many people’s frustrations and protests over America’s involvement in Syria — is that it is one thing entirely to be part of a broad, international coalition sending a message to the Assad regime that chemical warfare will not be tolerated, and it’s something else entirely to walk around like the rules only apply to everyone else and not us, all the while killing people as we go along.
And that, is ultimately what I think is still getting lost in the shuffle here. We’re not talking about arresting Assad and his closest cohorts and putting them on trial. We’re discussing launching missiles into Syria at targets that we can only hope are far enough away from civilians as to not cause catastrophic losses of life. But even if we limit it to only combatants, those combatants have families and friends. No, I don’t have sympathy for Nazi soldiers who died on the beaches of Normandy, and I’d have a hard time losing a lot of sleep over someone who pushed the button that fired the gas-equipped missiles at Damascus on August 21st, but that doesn’t mean diplomacy should ever be off the table, and none of that means we have any business inserting ourselves into the mess in Syria. Iraq should have taught us better, and shame on us if it hasn’t.