It’s taken me a while to come to an opinion about what the United States should do in Syria. I kept getting distracted by what I’ve now come to think are irrelevancies. There were three of these distractions — I list them because they seem to be distracting other people as well:
1. Barack Obama.
The guy’s a lousy president. His foreign policy has been a disaster, especially in the Middle East. He surrendered the war in Iraq after we’d won it; he doubled down on a war in Afghanistan we could never win; he abandoned the rebels he should’ve supported in Iran and supported the rebels he should’ve ignored in Egypt; his Libyan lead-from-behind adventure has left that country in a shambles. I actually agree with him that he has the authority to attack Syria without congressional approval (Reagan invaded Grenada without Congress, and George H.W. Bush did the same in Panama), and I presume his consultation of Congress has some scuzzy political motive behind it.
But, in this instance, Obama’s incompetence and political calculation are irrelevant. Either it’s right to attack Syria or wrong. Either it serves an American or humanitarian purpose or it doesn’t. We can’t let our dislike of President Me cloud our patriotic judgment.
You don’t kill people on principle. You don’t kill them because you drew a line in the sand and they stepped over it. You don’t kill them because you said you would so now you have to or you’ll lose credibility. You don’t even kill people to make the world a better place — if you did, trust me, I can think of a lot of people I’d’ve killed three times over by now. You kill people in defense of life and liberty, yours or someone else’s. Whatever you think of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 9/11 attacks convinced George W. Bush (and the Congress that was for him before it was against him) that spreading freedom in the Middle East was not just good for Middle Easterners, it was also the best way to keep America safe. Wrong or right, he acted with sound motivation. Without such motivation, we should not commit acts of war.
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Republicans who oppose intervention in Syria are being tagged as isolationists. (My friend Ying Ma has an excellent discussion of this in Forbes.) Bret Stephens — a smart, moral writer whom I admire — has compared them to the Robert Taft Republicans who didn’t want to enter World War II. In the case of Rand Paul, the isolationist tag may be appropriate. But what difference does it make? On average, an isolationist is going to be right more often than an interventionist (like John bomb-bomb-Iran McCain). Calling names is fine for politicians. For the rest of us, the right and wrong of the individual instance is all that counts.
Having set these irrelevancies aside, my own opinion is we should stay out of this. The Syrian regime has been awful and the use of poisoned gas is as unforgivable here as it was when Saddam Hussein did it and Obama and the left looked the other way. But the poet W. B. Yeats once wrote of a war’s effects on a soldier’s homeland: “No likely end could bring them loss./Or leave them happier than before.” So it is in Syria. We cannot do anything that will improve the situation there for the U.S. And without a full-scale invasion, we’re unlikely to do anything that will improve the situation in Syria itself.
We can do no essential good in this place and prevent no future evil. That’s what matters — to me anyway. And those are good reasons — great reasons — not to commit acts war.