Culture

Proving Their Manhood in Syria

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The controversy over whether the U.S. should intervene militarily in Syria has become more about proving manhood than about chemical weapons, al-Qaeda, or geopolitics. Each side appears to be more intent on proving that they’re men than in doing the right thing by Syria, or anyone else, for that matter.

First and foremost is Barack Obama, whom Pamela Geller has indelibly dubbed the “helmeted bike rider.” His international coalition against Syria did not materialize; even the British refused to go along, for the first time in anyone’s memory. The French, who alone had pledged to go along, are now hesitating. And for good reason: Obama still has not been able to provide convincing proof that Assad launched the chemical weapons that made him want to attack Syria in the first place.

His supporters, meanwhile, appear increasingly ridiculous. His secretary of State insists that the Syrian rebels are mostly secular, contradicting intelligence reports from both the U.S. and Europe. His former opponent and now stalwart servant on the other side of the aisle, John McCain, has just as risibly promised that the Syrian rebels, whom even the New York Times has acknowledged are dominated by al-Qaeda, are “moderates.”

Obama has even admitted that “we may not be directly imminently threatened by what’s taking place” in Syria. May not be? There is no conceivable calculus by which we are directly imminently threatened by what’s taking place in Syria, but McCain’s sidekick, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, did his level best to come up with something, hysterically claiming that if the U.S. didn’t attack Syria, Iran might nuke Charleston Harbor.

The hysteria was a sign of desperation. Exposed, abandoned, and bereft of a case, Obama should have backed down. But he couldn’t, because it would have been a sign of weakness. Obama’s weakness has already been abundantly demonstrated, but seldom this nakedly and pointedly, and so he charged ahead, trying and failing to drum up support for his Syrian misadventure at the G-20 summit. The helmeted bike rider had to prove that he was a real man, a strong man, even if it meant any number of dead Syrians, and the U.S. allying with al-Qaeda.

In light of all that, it was hard to argue with Vladimir Putin’s charge that “what Congress and the U.S. Senate are doing in essence is legitimizing aggression.” Aggression is precisely the response of an aggrieved and insecure man to a challenge to his manhood.

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America’s enemies threaten the president’s daughters.

And Obama wasn’t the only one flexing his muscles and playing his man card. According to Reza Kahlili in the Daily Caller, an Iranian official named Alireza Forghani, whom Kahlili describes as “an analyst and strategy specialist in the supreme leader’s camp,” has threatened “mass abductions and brutal killings of American citizens around the world and the rape and killing of one of Obama’s daughters should the United States attack Syria.” Forghani said that within 21 hours of the attack, “a family member of every U.S. minister [department secretary], U.S. ambassadors, U.S. military commanders around the world will be abducted. And then 18 hours later, videos of their amputation will be spread [around the world].”

In threatening such barbarity, Alireza Forghani departed from any acceptable norms of the civilized world, and guaranteed that both men and women all over the world would despise him and his cause. Nonetheless, in making this threat, he was rallying his own base. He meant to show that he was a man, and that the Iranian nation was made up of men, who in committing unspeakable atrocities against Americans would show them that they never should have dared to strike their client state.

This is the idea of manhood one finds in a shame/honor culture such as Iran’s: a man doesn’t just defeat his enemies, but humiliates and dishonors them, both out of a sense of revenge but also as a warning to all other challengers. Enemies must not just be defeated, but manifest “willing submission” and “feel themselves subdued,” in the words of the Qur’an’s instructions on making war against and subjugating Jews and Christians (9:29).

As widespread as this assumption may be, by any rational standard, Alireza Forghani is not a man. He is a savage. And Barack Obama is not a man, either. For a man takes responsibility for his actions, however distasteful and burdensome that responsibility may be. But after having been discredited on an international scale, Obama insisted: “My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line.” He also said that he “didn’t set a red line,” the world did. These statements were cravenly dishonest, as the international community has not joined in his call for an attack on Syria, or agreed that Assad crossed any “red lines.”

The stakes are too high for the helmeted bike rider to be using Syria to prove his manhood. Maybe he should just try riding a bike without a helmet instead.

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