I have been asked by many people my position on Syria. Family members, relatives and close friends, professional contacts and casual acquaintances have all in various ways wanted to know if I thought we were going to attack Syria or if I thought it was a good idea. For a person that normally is pretty opinionated, I think I surprised many by not really having an answer. I think it is something close to ‘Not a fan of a strike but deeply uneasy about giving Assad a pass’…but that is really no answer either, just a statement of feeling more than anything else.
Today, halfway through a run, something began to click. Syria is the foreign policy equivalent of you can do what is correct, or you can do what it is right.
Syria is an intractable problem, a wicked problem which any ‘solution’ invariably spawns more problems. Civil wars in autocratic societies only end in one of two ways: A negotiated settlement generally accompanied with a partition or outright victory of one party over another often with an accompanying pogrom, purge, or genocidal spree at the tail end of it. Perhaps in time, the parties will come to their senses and go with the first but I have a sense given the excessive ugliness of this conflict that it will likely end in the second. I wish I could be an optimist and say that there is a role for a peacemaker in all of this (what is occurring in Moscow right now is not it, sorry to say) but Friedman’s quote that ‘In the middle east, bad men go all the way while good men simply go away’ is appropriate. Sadly, I would say that on a personal level, I agree that getting involved is probably not the correct course of action.
But here is the thing. While not getting involved militarily is probably correct, it is not the right thing to do. War is an awful enough affair and a dead innocent is an obscenity no matter the cause but chemical weapons are something that are truly weapons of terror and horror. The country was presented with a choice: Do you stand up for innocents being slaughtered by weapons that 98% of the world has declared to be beyond the pale? Or do you not? It is an emotional argument to be sure but it doesn’t lessen the impact. A villain gassed his own people and at the end of the day, we have the capacity to punish him and he is going to walk away…and everyone watched it happened. One of my favorite quotes is ‘All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing’. There you go; you don't get to say that sort of thing (or the other favorite, ‘good men sleep at night because rough men stand ready….blah blah blah) without acting upon it when confronted with evil. I agree that striking Assad is the right course of action.
That is the trap we find ourselves in.
Where do I stand on the correct versus right call? Well, I am afraid I am going to have punt on the answer once again. It isn’t my call to make but the ‘correct answer’ appeals in many ways. History has shown us the viciousness of these sorts of conflicts in the region and the correct answer is for us to practice a realist strategy of staying out of it; if y’all want peace, you know our number. We as a nation can’t want to punish Assad more than the world wants to punish him, which for many reasons doesn’t appear to be very much. But I will say this: Seldom has our identity and self-regard as an ‘exceptional nation’ ever been laid so bare (hence the brilliance of Putin’s current NYTimes editorial gambit). We call ourselves the land of the free and the home of the brave; an exceptional nation would live by those words and do the right thing.
Hence, I am truly conflicted on so many levels. I think those that aren’t simliarly conflicted at some level really don’t get the gravity of the moment (or are jaded, tired, or shallow – those work too). We have a choice here to make between correct and right, the reality of the world versus what we aspire and believe ourselves to be as a nation and I for the life of me can’t say which course of action is the ‘right’ one to take. But whichever we ultimately choose, we are going to learn a lot about ourselves as a nation and I am not sure we are going to like what we see in the mirror the next day regardless of our choice.
<Note: The opinions here are strictly my own opinions; they don’t represent the official position of any organization or person – including myself.>