For all I know, the administration is misleading us all about the nerve gas attack in Syria; for though my impression is that Obama is even less eager to intervene there than Clinton was in the former Yugoslavia, my government has been lying to me about such things all my life. In any case, rightly or wrongly, when I first heard about the incident, I assumed that the real issue this time wasn’t whether or not the attack had occurred as described, but whether a missile strike on Syria was an intelligent or moral response. Since I had and have strong doubts about the utility and legality of military retaliation, the truth of what happened at the outset seems less critical to me. I also noticed that the best-informed critics of military action I heard on NPR and elsewhere didn’t focus on the reliability of the intelligence it was premised on but on its potential strategic drawbacks. Since the weapons-of-mass-destruction fiasco of the Bush years is such a living memory, I figured that the critics would play up doubts about what happened if they thought that such doubts would hold up. For these and some other reasons, if I had to guess, which is all it would be, of course, I’d come down on the side of thinking that the Assad regime will turn out to have been, as advertised, responsible for what happened. I chose to direct my skepticism elsewhere.
What I’m waiting for is a cogent explanation of what a limited attack on Syria could accomplish. Absent that, the validity of intelligence about the event isn’t particularly relevant. It is, in fact, something of a red herring that confuses the debate by assuming that we’re preparing to reprise old mistakes when, most likely, we’re pioneering new ones. It isn’t just generals who are forever preparing for the last war. And what if Obama and company call everybody’s bluff, overruling the defense/intelligence community for once, and revealing what we actually know and how we know it? Would that settle things politically and discredit the critics even if it did not address the rightness or wisdom of the proposed response?
I recognize that these considerations may already be moot since Congressional opinion seems to running against the President. Unfortunately, a no-vote will not settle my anxieties because not acting has its own risks and the prospect of serious non-military action is tenuous because so much of the coalition opposing Obama now is even more opposed to meaningful international cooperation than to military adventure. One could argue that it doesn’t matter how grim things become in Syria, but I wonder if it will be politically possible to ignore six months or six years of televised horror. What’s going on is indeed a civil war, but then so was the Spanish Civil War. The Syrian war is a struggle that, willy-nilly, is a proxy for most of the overt and latent conflicts of our world. I’m not sure we should be indifferent to it, and I’m damned sure we won’t be able to be indifferent to it.