Next week Congress will decide whether or not to initiate hostilities against the Assad regime in Syria. President Obama believes he has the authority to launch limited strikes unilaterally, but has decided to consult the legislative branch first. Whether or not he has such authority is open to question; from what I can surmise, the text of the Constitution says “no”, while recent precedence says “yes”.
The (important) issue of legality aside, though, is this a wise action to take? Intelligent people have made arguments supporting both sides, but I think the clear answer is “no”.
The pro-war camp currently consists of what would otherwise be odd bedfellows: liberal internationalists (Wilsonians) and international capitalists (Hamiltonians). Wilsonians like Hillary Clinton believe that the end of great-power conflict has given us opportunities to make the world a better place. No longer worried about wars between, say, America and France, we can now focus our efforts on preventing genocide and other human catastrophes from smaller states and non-state actors (e.g. terrorist cells). Wealthy nations have a duty to form and enforce “international law”. In this framework, Assad has violated international law, and it is the moral duty of well-off nations to intervene.
Hamiltonians like John McCain believe that the destruction of Soviet communism has opened the world to international trade and development. As the world’s largest economy, it is in our self-interest to preserve the current world order, which can only be done through the consistent and forceful application of American military might. To preserve free trade and domestic economic expansion, we must protect naval shipping lanes and vital infrastructure like oil pipelines and major sources of human capital. In this theory, Syria’s collapse could have catastrophic consequences for America. Furthermore, erstwhile perpetrators against our world order like Assad must have reason to fear military retaliation.
So while Wilsonians and Hamiltonians may disagree on why, they both think that the United States should involve itself in yet another regional conflict.
As a college student I studied and was fascinated by the theories that underpinned these philosophies. Like Hamiltonians and Wilsonians, I viewed foreign policy largely as a game that was to be won.
A few years after graduation, two realizations changed my mind. The first was that these theories both depend on knowing quite a bit more about situations than is usually possible. Playing chess is easy enough because of all the “knowns”: the number of pieces involved, their capabilities, the opposition’s motivations, what constitutes victory, what is likely to happen after the game, etc. In most conflicts -and certainly in Syria- most of this is unknown. Very smart people, usually called “grand strategists”, trick themselves into thinking that they can know more than is ever possible.
The second realization was that, as a 20-something, I could very well be called upon to fight these wars. Conflicts often escalate quickly; Korea and Vietnam were sold as minor military actions that eventually required drafts. Conscription wasn’t used for the second Iraq War because it wasn’t feasible politically; instead, we taxed our volunteer force such that many young soldiers suffered severe psychological disorders and endured family issues after multiple tours.
But even if we could ensure that casualties would be low, would I be willing to ship out to Syria and risk life and limb? Absolutely not; the cause is not worth nearly enough for me to even consider doing so. Similarly, I would not ask a fellow American to do so in my stead.
Politicians who support action in Syria are treating war like a game and young soldiers like chess pieces. America’s troops exist to support neither ill-defined concepts of international morality/law or highly theoretical and largely improvable theories of tangential American interests. Any action that could potentially put troops in this situation is inherently wrong.
One final note: war is war, whether you call it such or not. “Kinetic military operations”, “limited tactical strikes”, etc. all involve things outside of our sovereign boundaries getting blown up and people getting killed. Use of such euphemisms simply tries to blind us to the very real costs and consequences of our actions.