Since I was 14-years old, the United States of America has been at war.
That’s roughly triple the time we spent in World War II and three years longer than it took us to win our independence. And today, on the same day President Obama commemorates the 50th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech holding up non-violence as an ideal, his administration prepares to extend our time at war once again, this time in Syria.
But when is enough enough?
Let’s set aside the legal and ethical fight over whether President Obama can or should, for a second time, engage in military action without congressional approval. Let’s also ignore that in 2007, then-Senator Obama declared that “[t]he president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat.” And let’s accept the truth that the use of chemical weapons is abhorrent and against everything civilized people in the world stand for and should be prevented where possible.
None of these are sufficient reason for us to get involved in Syria.
Let’s say that we do, as sources seem to suggest, engage in a “brief and limited” surgical action, likely consisting of drones, bombs, and missiles. What message does that sort of involvement send? A simple one: it tells Syrian President Assad and every other would be dictator that shooting, bombing, raping, and torturing your civilians is A-OK, so long as you don’t dare use certain weapons to do so. Assad has been slaughtering tens of thousands of his own people for the past two and a half years. What took us so long to notice?
Yes, chemical weapons are far worse than conventional weapons, but what moral ground do we stand on when we effectively condone wholesale murder by simply refusing to get involved unless the regime crosses this particular “red line?”
This isn’t a fight over moral credibility or standing. If we were truly living up to the Kennedy Doctrine of “pay[ing] any price, bear[ing] any burden, meet[ing] any hardship, support[ing] any friend, oppos[ing] any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty” then we probably should have been in the Congo decades ago. We probably shouldn’t have kiss-on-the-cheek relations with Saudi Arabia, a country that institutionally discriminates against women and minorities. We probably should be examining why, in our own country, we provide billions in tax breaks to corporations while children starve in our inner cities and rural communities. If we’re all of a sudden taking a moral stance, we’re a bit late to the party.
That’s not to say that the sins of our past should prevent repentance in the future. But what form is that repentance to take? Which side in Syria is going to assure the survival and success of liberty? Which side is planning to provide women with equal rights and ensure religious minorities are not persecuted? Which side is planning a more equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity? How many civilians will die from collateral damage and how many more soldiers will lose their limbs and lives for an outcome that may result in an even worse future state?
America has expended too much blood and treasure for too long to continue playing the world’s police officer. It’s no accident that the men who have seen war firsthand almost uniformly oppose intervention in Syria. It’s further little surprise that after 12 years of war and thousands of casualties, barely 9% of the American public supports military involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Multi-lateral institutions like the UN exist for a reason. Russia’s likely Security Council veto is not justification for us to go it alone. We saw what happened in Iraq and it’s high time we learned that lesson.
Yes, the president drew a “red line” that has been crossed and America will lose face if we don’t act on it. However, the solution to losing face cannot be to once again fall on our sword to save the world from having to act. The crisis in Syria is a problem that impacts the entire international community and, until either that community decides to act or the president builds consensus among Americans and Congress, the United States should not wade into yet another Middle East conflict.