It is fair to describe the standard progressive-liberal attitude towards American military intervention as one of intense if not intractable skepticism … to the point of knee jerk pacifism. And the rationale for that attitude is pretty solid.
Liberals, with a more nuanced view of history, aren’t just suffering from a Cheney-Bush Iraq hangover, where we were flat-out lied to and thrown into an incompetently managed war that when all is said and done (with veterans’ benefits and interest) may end up costing multiple trillions of (unbudgeted) dollars, but we also remember and continue to process the Tonkin Gulf charade that got us into Vietnam, followed by the atrocities of indiscriminate carpet bombing, napalm and white phosphorous attacks. And sliding further back, having studied history, we haven’t forgotten the blanket fire-bombing of not just Tokyo but four dozen other Japanese cities by Gen. Curtis LeMay/FDR in WWII, followed by two nuclear bombs.
After that we factor in all of this country’s nefarious, frequently counter-effective intelligence activities.
Point being; on a strictly historical basis, the United States stands on a very shaky pedestal from which to claim a moral prerogative to punish someone else for gross abuses of “accepted norms”.
But as much as those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it, history is never a precise mirror on the present. Time, social evolution and technology wear away at the perfect echo from then to now. 2013 is not 1943. Great nation states have not fought a war against each other for almost 70 years, the longest “peaceful” interlude in recorded history, and are unlikely to engage in one for the forseeable future, given the tight interdependency of the world economy. The respective populations of the United States, Russia, China, etc. are simply too well-informed about each other to accept the easy, jingoistic demonization of “the enemy” corrupt governments served up in the past, much less the likelihood of total annihilation.
Those are key facets of the liberalizing effect of technology.
Closer to the moment, Barack Obama bears no imaginable kinship to Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld, the architects of the Iraq fraud and disaster. There is no case to be made that Obama is eager for military conflict. On the other hand he is not naive about the presence of abominable cruelty in human nature.
The split among liberals over Syria seems to break along the lines of those whose cynicism toward American motives is complete, and those who believe every new situation, with new characters in leadership in a different era is unique and must be dealt with in a way unburdened by the frauds, failures and genocidal slaughters of those who made military decisions in the decades before them. An irony is that a group for whom “nuance” is regularly embraced as a virtue is engaged in an internal debate over whether there are shadings and distinctions in a chemical weapon attack by a desperate dictator that make Syria distinct from … Iraq, Vietnam and so on.
The former say, “No. Our motives in this situation are no more pure or moral than Cheney-Bush’s in Iraq. No American president or administration can ever be trusted again. War of any kind at any time is wrong. So, no. Never.”
The latter argue that intervening against indiscriminate slaughters like Rwanda and Kosovo and like what Assad is perpetrating on his civilian population are actually far closer to having moral standing in the liberal concept of such a thing, than reacting with the full, profit-pumping apparatus of the military-industrial complex to the “Red Menace” in Vietnam or the oil-tainted imperative in Saddam’s Iraq.
For the latter group, and I count myself among them, the immorality of American/international inaction in Rwanda is still one of the most guilt-inducing memories of the last generation. By what standard was ignoring that “moral”? And how is that different from what Assad is doing in Syria? in the potential consequences to us? The price of gasoline?
And to be sure, the vitality of the debate is almost entirely among liberals. Conservatives, having long since sold their souls to reflexive, unexamined partisanship have, for all intents and purposes, no role in the current debate. They continue to say only whatever they need to say to weaken Obama and stay a step ahead of the next far-far right conservative primary opponent. Consequently, they have no credible standing in matters of practical morality. They are noise without signal.
Obama is going to have to make his case over the next few days, and make it far better than Colin Powell and George W. Bush made their’s for Iraq. Regardless of your views of the moral obligations of the lone mega-state in slaughters like this one in Syria, every liberal is well-advised to bring all the skepticism they can muster to whatever Obama says. And I believe he welcomes both the skepticism and the debate.
But … if they’re being intellectually honest, liberals also have to fully and honestly process the morality of inaction. As Obama said in his press conference in Russia the other day, there’s no one else the entire planet turns to in moments like this. Ever. We are the whole game, and therefore, the moral debate goes, we have a special responsibility to do what is reasonable to destabilize blatant state-sponsored homicide.
If progressive liberals want to sustain and build on their viability as effective leaders — not just on economic and social matters where they are clearly more far-sighted, but the whole range of leadership responsibilities — they/we are going to have to accept that episodes like Syria are a fact of life and may have to be dealt with in very unpleasant, antithetical-seeming ways when dialogue and diplomacy simply are not an option.