While it's a tad unorthodox to open a political op-ed with two historical quotes, this pair strikes me as particularly prescient:
1. "They [the Union of states] will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty." George Washington, September 19, 1796.
2. "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 17, 1961.
When Washington and Eisenhower intoned these warnings about egregious militarism in their two farewell addresses, roughly a decade and a half separated the nations they were addressing from history-defining wars (the Revolutionary War and WWII, respectively). It is unfortunate that today, as the nation collectively reflects on the twelfth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, their words are as relevant as ever.
We can start with the looming possibility of a military engagement with Syria. Of course, in these days of Orwellian rhetorical exercises, the proposed actions are only called "war" by those willing to brave the charge that such a state only exists when our soldiers' boots actually touch the ground (an argument that can be ironically juxtaposed with our sentiments post-Pearl Harbor).
Polemical semantics notwithstanding, however, President Obama's pitch for intervention in Syria raises the same nest of war industry issues that troubled Eisenhower: The complex questions involving Constitutional propriety, the controversy over whether the Syrian rebels will further radicalize an already unstable region, the potentially staggering price tag — our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have already cost us more than $1.4 trillion.
To his credit, Obama has addressed each of these issues, although his track record ranges from the laudable (e.g., deferring to Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution by requesting congressional approval) and the factually questionable (e.g., Secretary of State John Kerry's dubious reassurance that most of the Syrian rebels are moderate) to the arguably disingenuous (e.g., Secreary of Defense Chuck Hagel's claim that the war could conceivably cost as little as "tens of millions" of dollars).
In the end, though, it is up to the American people to force these questions into the center of our political debate. Given how so much coverage has focused on the atrocities suffered by the Syrians — understandably so, given the heinous acts occurring on both sides — with comparatively less being devoted to the pragmatic and moral dimensions of American interventionism, this is an imperative we are collectively failing to meet.
There is also the unresolved matter of the NSA programs exposed earlier this year, with the mass electronic surveillance program PRISM being most notorious among them. As Obama himself explained during his comparatively halcyonic Senate days, "Giving law enforcement the tools they need to investigate suspicious activity is one thing — and it's the right thing — but doing it without any real oversight seriously jeopardizes the rights of all Americans and the ideals America stands for." Regardless of what happens in Syria, post-9/11 America will continue to need to discuss the merits of a strong security state over the potential loss of civil liberties, whether they involve PRISM and the Fourth Amendment or the PATRIOT Act and the First.
Finally, there is the question of America's larger vision for its own role in the world.
After the War of 1812 firmly established our sovereignty from the British Empire on the world stage and the Monroe Doctrine declared both our broader non-interventionism and our geopolitical solidarity with the Western Hemispheric nations, America spent the dozen decades from 1823 until WWII ostensibly avoiding foreign entanglements (although it had few qualms about abandoning those ideals when imperialist opportunities presented themselves, from James Polk's Mexican-American War and William McKinley's Spanish-American War to Woodrow Wilson's involvement in WWI). During the half century separating the start of WWII from the end of the Cold War, we defined ourselves by conflicts with tyrannical empires peddling malevolent ideologies, be it the Nazism of the Third Reich or the Communism of the Soviet Union.
Over the past two decades, however, the U.S. has lacked a comparably clear sense of purpose, with the economic imperialism of China and provocative behavior of Russian President Vladimir Putin (including his granting of asylum to Edward Snowden) murkily muddled with a fear of Islamist terrorists that know nation and have no conventional army. As these and other concerns vie for attention, the need for an updated and coherent foreign policy paradigm remains as pressing as ever.
Because there are no simple answers to these questions, there is no simple way to wrap up a call for reflection like this one. Perhaps it is best instead to refer again to Eisenhower's words, for as he put it half a century ago:
"Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."