A central element of Obama’s argument for targeted military action against the Assad regime, is that NOT to act would lead other rogue states (see: Iran) to calculate that they can use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) with impunity. Our national interest, according to the president, would be compromised by any action short of using deadly force, in response to Assad’s decision to deploy sarin gas on August 21st.
Because I am not a pacifist, and because I view international politics as largely (though not totally) anarchic, I find the above strategic calculation to be the strongest part of the president’s argument. That he is willing to wait on using deadly force, and see whether Assad will agree to place his chemical weapons under international control, is also pragmatic statecraft.
Where Obama overreaches– and where we should always be suspicious of anyone who wields great earthly power– is the moral argument. As an emotional appeal for our support of military action, several times he mentions the suffering of innocent Syrian children poisoned in the sarin attacks. Yes, this suffering is outrageous and obscene. But when we respond with a “targeted military strike” with the intent to “deter Assad” and “degrade his regime’s ability” to use chemical weapons, is there anyone who thinks that no innocent person will be killed? And so then: what kind of morality is it, exactly, that accepts the suffering of innocents, to pay for the suffering of innocents?
We Americans would do less harm in the world if we repented the self-flattering self-deception that the violence we use is redemptive: that, because our aims are righteous, our violence is somehow cleaner. It is one thing for a state to have just cause for war; it is false to then claim, therefore, that your just cause means you are acting morally. In the Christian moral universe, everyone is a beloved child of God. Everyone.
In the rhetoric of persuasion, appealing to your audience’s emotions is page one in the playbook– so we know why Obama mentioned the suffering innocent Syrian children so many times. As an argument, though, it is weak. If bombing Damascus ends up being our policy, let’s do away with pious posturing, and name it for what it is: we’re bombing you because we believe doing so is in our national interest.
Statecraft is statecraft. It’s about power– blunt and brutal power: power that does not discriminate between the bad and the good, the blameworthy and the blameless.