This week's best commentary on Syria came from The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf. In an article entitled, "How an Insular Beltway Elite Makes Wars of Choice More Likely," Friedersdorf asked why, given the 9% national approval rating for intervening in Syria, the media consistently portrays the president as facing "pressure" to do so. "What I'd like," he wrote, "is if news accounts on pressure to intervene in Syria made it clear that the 'growing calls ... for forceful action' aren't coming from the people, or congressional majorities, or an expert consensus. The pressure is being applied by a tiny, insular elite."
It's a good point, and inarguably true. Despite some of the more alarmist accounts of our imperial march to war, it should be obvious, by dint of his refusal to exert any military influence over the past two years, that President Obama wants nothing to do with Syria. He happens to share that sentiment with nearly all Americans. So the story that Obama feels pressure to enforce his own ultimatum rather than accept the reduced esteem of – whom? – doesn't make sense. No one with access to poll numbers would advise the president that he faced this choice.
But Friedersdorf's article didn't answer the question that this recognition implies: who are these people arguing for military action?
On June 7, Jacob Heilbrunn of the Los Angeles Times noted that Susan Rice's promotion to National Security Adviser, along with Samantha Power being made the U.N. ambassador, signaled a shift at the top of American diplomacy. These two "liberal hawks" represented an academic, internationalist class of interventionists who see the United States primarily as the sponsors and enforcers of a global order. It's an attractive, self-aggrandizing view that Americans have embraced before, but one rather at odds with our constitutional democracy.
This is not to say that Power's and Rice's analysis is ill advised, merely that it comes from a unique and high-level perspective. After all, we've seen the president exploit unilateral military control before, and rarely for the better. Wouldn't it be nice, the liberal hawks say, if this immense power could be wielded in support of peace and human rights? Though an admittedly small step, enforcing the line the international community has drawn around chemical weapons would do that.
To a constitutionalist like Friedersdorf, any argument that takes unilateral executive control of the military for granted is a non-starter – "illegal," to put it exactly. People concerned about regional spillover might agree with the cynics who once watched the liberal interventionists Dean Rusk and Dean Acheson mire us in Vietnam, and conclude that there is no such thing as a simple military enforcement/extraction maneuver. But to those who study international relations in macro, the benefits of an assertive, human rights-interested enforcer like the U.S. can make those above legalisms and cautions seem petty and obtuse.
It's clear that this is the perspective the president has sought. Samantha Power's name has been synonymous with optimistic, Western-centric interventionism for years. Her introduction to the American war machine was by its absence in the Balkan wars, when as a young, Irish-born reporter she wondered how the U.S. could leave such a dire situation to rot. As with Syria, the answer then was that the situation had multiple internal conflicts that were easier to avoid than to engage.
The other answer, of course, was that the American military has never been a force for "good," but rather for the implementation of the American agenda in strategically valuable places. Unfortunately, for those Bosnian victims of ethnic cleansing the UNHCR was all they warranted.
The liberal interventionist line of thought can be tempting if one thinks about the interests our military has represented in the past. It's fashionable for an American in 2013 to decry entering a war of "choice," as if we've fought anything but since World War II's Pacific Theater. The truth is, we're "war-weary" mostly because of an Iraq War that was undertaken on criminally dishonest and aggressive pretenses, to the tune of billions of dollars in profits for its lead architects, and which was supported by 72% of the same public that now wants to avoid conflict altogether. Five years before that, President Clinton launched cruise missiles on Sudan and Afghanistan in an attack far more unilateral and unprovoked than Obama's Syrian proposal, but which failed in its lone policy goal of distracting attention from the growing Monica Lewinsky scandal. Before that was Operation Desert Storm, and before that the invasion of Grenada, and before that the "Banana wars" of the 19th century.
So in the fuller context of our military history, the idea of sending long-range missiles in the service of weapons non-proliferation, instead of the profits of Halliburton or Standard Fruit, seems like a righteous departure rather than a lunatic idealism.
There is also virtually no chance of a prolonged engagement. It's an open secret that the United States prefers Syria's rebels to stay busy fighting an entrenched Assad, which is why American officials have repeatedly stated that they have no intention of toppling him. It's a safe prediction that by the time this involvement with Syria is over, the tough talk we're hearing right now will be the roughest part of it. Officials will likely telegraph targets before striking, giving the Syrian government time to empty them out. We'd be launching a rap on the knuckles, and it would be for a worthy cause.
Unfortunately, lured by the specter of shock and awe (and let's not be so high-minded that we forget that a mere ten years ago we eagerly cheered those fireworks in Baghdad) the press has mainly neglected to discuss the rationale of defending the international consensus banning chemical weapons. Instead, the focus has been on Obama's political battle to approve a strike. The result has been a somewhat mystified portrayal of the administration's argument, and this has led to a proliferation of the "why do I have to care" argument.
In truth, it is a reasonable course of action if we consider it in terms of the ease that we Americans have watching cruise missiles launched from afar to a place even further away. The legitimate questions of legality and authority aside, firing upon a select bit of Assad's infrastructure would cost very little to both the United States' ludicrously engorged martial apparatus, and to Assad himself. The fighting in Syria will continue unmitigated as it already has.
If America feels a pang of guilt for having such a remote relationship with such an enormous military, this is a peculiar time to discover it. One of the good causes the U.S. military can serve is international law, even if perhaps only an academic like Samantha Power will fully appreciate it. The debate will be had; let's not pretend there isn't a rational reason to have it.