Syria: Moral Obscenity

images-2Secretary of State Kerry calls the poison gas attack a “moral obscenity.” Were the previous 100,000 deaths, cities bombed to rubble, 2 million refugees, and children tortured not moral obscenities?

The White House insists that whatever we do, it will “not be about regime change.”

Why not? Should we not seek to change a regime engaged in “moral obscenity?” And if not, what are we aiming at?

images-1More half measures; more too-little-too-late. Earlier in the game, a fairly limited intervention might have tipped over the then-tottering Syrian regime, with at least some hope of a reasonable replacement (as I argued in March 2012). This was a classic situation where reluctance to act only makes the eventual and inevitable action harder, messier, and costlier. Since then, the Syrian regime has regained its military footing, reinforced by Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters, while the opposition has become dominated by unpalatable radicals. Now our options are all much uglier.

My canny daughter says that from our national interest standpoint, the best outcome is actually none: continuation of war, because either side’s victory would be bad for us. But that‘s too realpolitik for me; I say we cannot avert our eyes from human suffering on this scale.

The desire to punish evil is deeply rooted in the human psyche; I certainly share it. Lobbing a few missiles at Syria may assuage that justice hunger. And be worth doing, in lieu of nothing. It’s a better world when crimes are punished.

However, while that principle makes us feel better, I doubt Bashar Assad will feel worse. To the contrary, seeing that a gross atrocity incurs what’s really just a pinprick can only embolden him. And if punishment is the only point, then it fails to come to grips with what’s really at stake.

images-3In Libya – even if too squeamish to say so – our aim was to end the war in a way favorable to our interests. Which did include prevention of humanitarian disaster. And if Libya today is not (yet) a Jeffersonian democracy, broadly speaking our global interest is removal of the vilest, bloodiest, most troublemaking dictators, with replacement by less vile regimes, in order to make a more peaceful and prosperous world wherein more people can thrive and contribute. In those regards we succeeded in Libya.

We should – hard as it may be – strive to do likewise for Syria. But I doubt America is up for such a daunting challenge.

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5 Responses to “Syria: Moral Obscenity”

  1. Lizzy Robinson Says:

    Dearest Father,

    The statement you attributed to me does not represent my opinion, but rather simply one opinion that I have heard. While a victory by either side would indeed be bad for the U.S., an interminable stalemate leaving Syria as a permanent failed-state and engendering immense regional instability would be even worse for America (to say nothing of the suffering of Syria’s people). Resolving this conflict will be messy in both the short- and medium-term, and yes, the U.S. will have to be involved. But not resolving it would set the stage for an even greater quandary in the long-run.

  2. armenia4ever Says:

    The question that pops into my head right away is, “When do actions become moral obscenities?”

    Another question… When and what actions should we take to address said moral obscenities?

  3. rationaloptimist Says:

    I agree with my daughter, and regret if I mis-stated what I thought was her expressed view!

  4. Pedro Dunn Says:

    Bombing Assad, even killing him in a missile strike, will not change the reality of Syria – a colonial construct which worked well for France, and did so by pitting sectarian groups against each other. It has been a failed state since the 1940s, and needs to fracture, along with several other colonial constructs in the Middle East and Africa.

    It will be a bloody process, and might last decades. When the smoke finally clears, even if after a Thirty Years War event like Germany in the 17th Century, there will be real nations that could function. The alternative, as we are finding in Iraq and Afghanistan, is to buttress one group against the rest. That only works for as long as we spend vast sums of money, and some blood, to prop up our clients. Just ask the Soviets how that played out.

  5. rationaloptimist Says:

    Multi-ethnic states can be quite successful. I live in one. It takes greater maturity than seen in the Middle East.

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