Playing the Righteousness Card

Slate’s David Plotz may be right. We really should abolish August – it’s a miserable month. Barack Obama must know this. The month ended with his righteous plan for launching a few days of intense airstrikes against Syria, with cruise missiles but no manned aircraft, in tatters. David Cameron asked Britain’s Parliament for approval to join our attack on Syria, but he forgot that you’re never supposed to ask a question when you’re not sure of the answer. Cameron must have assured Obama this was a slam-dunk. It wasn’t, and now we’ll have to go it alone. Administration officials are still saying that Obama has not made a final decision, but it’s pretty clear that a strike could happen just as the United Nations investigators leave the country, by the weekend – without the Brits.

At least the French are with us this time, for what that’s worth. It’s the reverse of what happened in 2003, when the French told us we were making a big mistake attacking Iraq to remove its government. They’d have nothing to do with any such thing. Now it’s the Brits. They got burned back then and now they know better. There are other ways to deal with Bashar Al-Assad using chemical weapons on civilians, on his own people. It doesn’t have to be raining down death from the skies, for a few days, on a few carefully selected targets, to prove we won’t stand for what he’s been doing – if he’s been doing it. The British position, this time, is that it might be better to step back and assess the facts, and then think about all the alternative ways to deal with this very bad guy. No one wants to be Tony Blair this time. He’s become a pathetic creature, almost a joke. This time François Hollande can play the part of Tony Blair. Let him.

Congress is a problem too. Republicans will oppose anything Obama proposes – that’s what they do – but a good number of Democrats think this might not be a good idea. Actually those Democrats might not care either way. It’s just that they remember what happened to Democrats who, caught up in the heat of the moment, voted for that Authorization for the Use of Military Force that let George Bush have his Iraq war, the war that may have been the biggest foreign policy blunder in American history. It’s pretty simple. Never be complicit in a mistake. You’ll have to explain that when you run for reelection or an even better office. Hillary Clinton had to explain her vote for the Iraq war, and that certainly didn’t go well. Obama had been on the right side of history, and luckily, not in Congress at the time, so he didn’t have to vote on that at all.

Those now in Congress aren’t that lucky. Supporting an action that could lead to a third major war for us in the Middle East, even if Obama says this would be quick and limited, as he’s not talking about regime-change or anything, is dangerous. It may be the right thing to do. It may be as limited as Obama says. Or it might be neither. Supporting such an action is just too dangerous, politically, and that has nothing to do with the situation in Syria at all. It’s a matter of political survival – and anyway, if this is a few days of limited airstrikes, and no more, it hard to see the point of doing that. Assad will fume, and play the victim, and the Russians and Chinese will register their expected outrage, and nothing will change – and anyway, the American public is firmly opposed to any more military action in the Middle East, no matter how limited. They know where such things lead. Even if they don’t know, for sure, they fear the worst. No one misses George Bush. Obama may be nothing like George Bush, but folks are beginning to wonder about that. This feels awfully familiar.

All this had left the Obama administration with limited options, or really one option, to play the righteousness card, and John Kerry was just the right guy to do that:

Jabbing his finger at the lectern, his voice forceful, his words brimming with indignation, John Kerry laid out the case like the prosecutor he once was, making a closing argument to a skeptical jury.

Again and again, some 24 times in all, he used the phrase “we know” as he described the intelligence that Syria’s government massacred more than 1,400 people with chemical weapons. And then, while saying no decision had been made, he left no doubt that the United States would respond with military power.

“We know that after a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war – believe me, I am, too,” said Mr. Kerry, who opposed the Iraq war in his failed presidential bid in 2004. “But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about. And history would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency.”

It was like old times, when, as a young and highly-decorated Vietnam vet, he testified to Congress about how stupid that war was, and how we ought to get out now. Yeah, how can you ask someone to be the last man to die for a mistake? He spoke of war crimes too, ours. He’s pretty damned good at moral outrage. He was righteous, or he was self-righteous if you loved that war, but he certainly knows how to play that card.

It also helps to have been there. His 1971 testimony to Congress was so stunning because he had been in combat in Vietnam, and with Syria, it’s somewhat the same thing:

As a senator, at the start of the Obama administration, he met with Mr. Assad in Damascus in 2009, hoping he could help broker a rapprochement between Syria and the United States as a step toward Middle East stability. After becoming secretary this year, he flew to Moscow to arrange for a Geneva peace conference between Mr. Assad’s government and Syrian rebels, an idea stymied by disagreements about who would attend and overtaken by events on the ground.

In his closed-door meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin in May, Mr. Kerry argued that if Russia and the United States joined forces there was no need for Syria to become another Iraq, invoking an analogy that was calculated to appeal to Russian officials who have long complained that the American intervention there yielded a violent, failed state.

He knows Assad and all the key players. That should carry some weight, and now he’s outraged. Maybe we should be outraged too. That seems to be the plan:

“Some cite the risk of doing things,” Mr. Kerry said Friday. “We need to ask what is the risk of doing nothing”

It was impassioned, and maybe it was convincing. You just don’t stand by when something evil is being done. You do something about it. There’s no need to go all crazy – another major war over there is unthinkable – but you do something about it. Here we have what he called “a crime against humanity” and that’s the real issue:

“Instead of being tucked safely in their beds at home,” he said, “we saw rows of children lying side by side, sprawled on a hospital floor, all of them dead from Assad’s gas and surrounded by parents and grandparents who had suffered the same fate.”

He declared: “My friends, it matters here if nothing is done. It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens.”

Referring directly to the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said: “Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about.”

We have to do something, period.

Fine, but consider a satirical item that just appeared in The Onion, an imaginary opinion piece from Bashar Al-Assad:

Well, here we are. It’s been two years of fighting, over 100,000 people are dead, there are no signs of this war ending, and a week ago I used chemical weapons on my own people. If you don’t do anything about it, thousands of Syrians are going to die. If you do something about it, thousands of Syrians are going to die. Morally speaking, you’re on the hook for those deaths no matter how you look at it.

So, it’s your move, America. What’s it going to be?

I’ve looked at your options, and I’m going to be honest here, I feel for you. Not exactly an embarrassment of riches you’ve got to choose from, strategy-wise. I mean, my God, there are just so many variables to consider, so many possible paths to choose, each fraught with incredible peril, and each leading back to the very real, very likely possibility that no matter what you do it’s going to backfire in a big, big way. It’s a good old-fashioned mess, is what this is! And now, you have to make some sort of decision that you can live with.

Ah, it will be bombing of course:

Now, personally, I can see how that might seem like an attractive option for you. No boots on the ground, it sends a clear message, you could cripple some of my government’s infrastructure, and it’s a quick, clean, easy way to punish me and make you look strong in the face of my unimaginable tyranny. But let’s get real here. Any bombing campaign capable of being truly devastating to my regime would also end up killing a ton of innocent civilians, as such things always do, which I imagine is the kind of outcome you people would feel very guilty about. You know, seeing as you are so up in arms to begin with about innocent Syrians dying. Plus, you’d stoke a lot of anti-American hatred and quite possibly create a whole new generation of Syrian-born jihadists ready to punish the United States for its reckless warmongering and yadda yadda yadda.

Okay, what else? Well, you could play small-ball and hope that limited airstrikes to a few of my key military installations will send me the message to refrain from using chemical weapons again, but, c’mon, check me out: I’m ruthless, I’m desperate, and I’m going to do everything I can to stay in power. I’d use chemical weapons again in a heartbeat. You know that. And I know you know that. Hell, I want to help you guys out here, but you gotta be realistic. Trust me. I am incapable of being taught a lesson at this point. Got it? I am too far gone – way too far gone.

Oh, and I know some of you think a no-fly zone will do the trick, but we both know you can’t stomach the estimated $1 billion a month that would cost, so wave bye-bye to that one, too.

There is that other option, that won’t work either:

I suppose you could always, you know, not respond with military force at all. But how can you do that? I pumped sarin gas into the lungs of my own people, for God’s sake! You can’t just let me get away with that, can you? I mean, I guess you easily could, and spare yourself all of this headache – but then you would probably lose any of your remaining moral high ground on the world stage and make everything from the Geneva Conventions to America’s reputation as a beacon for freedom and democracy around the world look like a complete sham.

There’s much more, but the ending sums it up nicely:

Long story short, I’m going to keep doing my best to hold on to my country no matter what the cost. If that means bombing entire towns, murdering small children, or shooting at UN weapons inspectors, so be it. I’m in this for the long haul. And you will do… whatever it is you’re going to do, which is totally up to you. Your call.

Anyway, let me know what you decide. I’ll be waiting.

That sums up the problem nicely. Sometimes satire is useful, and sometimes righteousness is useful too, or at least satisfying, until you have to do something with it in the real world.

There is the real world, and Sean Lee, a blogger living in Lebanon who’s skeptical of intervention, says he doesn’t have much patience with moralists on the left:

If your opinion of Syria is actually an opinion about the United States, I have no interest in hearing it, and it’s probably safe to say that most Syrians (or at least all of the ones I know) who are faced with the business end of the regime’s ordinance don’t either. I can’t think of a single Syrian who’s willing to get killed so you can flaunt your anti-imperialist street cred from the comfort of your local coffee shop.

There’s also Ramah Kudaimi with this:

I think taking a position of the US should not get involved through a military intervention is fine. DON’T put it as “Hands off Syria” implying this is some kind of American conspiracy. DON’T argue this is about US not having a right to taking sides in a civil war. DON’T make it all about money for home since we do want more humanitarian aid. DO frame it as what will help bring the suffering of Syrians to an end.

Brendan James notes those two items and has a message for John Kerry and all the rest, that Syria is not your moral playground:

We’re used to hearing the charge of abstract moralism leveled at advocates of intervention: those puffy Western pundits and armchair generals who convert every instance of mass atrocity into a simple moral quiz best answered with cruise missiles. And it’s true: there’s usually an inverse relationship between the level of a commentator’s self-righteousness and their knowledge of the country they intend to throttle. Tiny, wretched countries like Iraq and Syria suddenly echo the threat of European fascists on the march. There’s been no shortage of this posturing among those making the case for intervention in Syria.

But Lee and Kudaimi, like anyone outside of the interventionist bubble, are often forced to interact with a different crowd that, through either ideology or exhaustion, is equally guilty. Just as misguided liberals or delusional neocons perceive militarism as a sign of ethical yet “hardheaded” foreign policy, many on the left and the Paulite right wear their anti-interventionism as a badge of honor, using a horror like Syria as a test of personal strength: it proves they’re not fooled by Washington’s propaganda or vulnerable to humanitarian appeals. And so arguments are reverse-engineered from a general attitude about the United States, global capitalism and waning empire.

No one is talking about the right thing, as Sean Lee points out:

It is the flip side of the rhetoric that was so evident in the run-up to war in Iraq that equated any opposition to an idiotic war with support for Saddam Hussein. Well, guess what? There are lots of perfectly fine opinions that might put you on the same side as al-Qaida. Just to name one: if you’re against drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, as I am, then you’re also “on the same side as al-Qaida” according to this logic.


In short: don’t pretend your moral pageant has anything to do with what’s right for Syrians. The months and months of chatter over this war have been a fine reminder that moralism – from the left and right – is utterly useless in writing about the conflict. With little time left before the US makes a final decision whether to strike, anyone serious about Syrian (or Lebanese, or Iraqi, or Israeli) lives can drop the indignation and the piety.

Yeah, John Kerry gave a fine speech, about us, not the Syrians. It was all about how we simply cannot possibly live with ourselves if we don’t bomb the place for a few days. It was self-indulgent and probably puzzled the Syrians, at least the Syrian public. We want to do the right thing, to make ourselves feel better about ourselves, and that happens to involve a lot of big explosions with no warning, and a lot of people dying, for no particular reason other than to prove a point to one guy, Bashar Al-Assad, who will shrug it off anyway. This wasn’t about righteousness. It was self-righteousness, its evil twin. We’re good at that. It’s always about us.

So Kerry played the righteousness card. He’s good at that. It’s a shaming technique, and maybe we do need to be shamed into doing something. A few days of clever bombing qualifies as “something” – and it’s low-risk, as it’s all done remotely, and it’s low-cost, as there’s no eight-year occupation involved, like in Iraq – and you can make it sound exceedingly moral and righteous. Of course you can make doing nothing sound exceedingly moral and righteous too.

None of that matters to the Syrians. We’re talking to ourselves. We do that a lot – we’re masters at indignation and piety. That’s probably pretty irritating to everyone else in the world, as neither addresses the problems on the ground, and that sort of thing usually ends with a lot of bombing. Ah, but WE will feel better. The Syrians may not.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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