The past is always a different, better place and never more so than when commentators dip into American history to salvage some justification for their favoured approach to any contemporary policy dilemma. Thus Leon Wieseltier has a point when he suggests Rachel Maddow’s view that "disincentives to war" were "deliberately built into" the "American system of government" is really only proof that "originalism is just the search for a convenient past, a political sport played with key words". A shame, then, that he buttresses his argument with copious references to Thomas Jefferson! In truth, those disincentives withered with Andrew Jackson.
But how many military interventions can one man countenance at a time? Wieseltier writes that "Trashing force may win you a lot of friends, but it is stupid. There is nothing “artificial” about the primacy of defense because there is nothing artificial about threats and conflicts and atrocities." Quite so. I must have missed the period when Washington DC was dominated by peaceniks since, in my political memory alone, the United States has used force in Libya (twice), Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Aghanistan and Iraq (twice). Those people "trashing force" have not had much impact on American foreign policy, have they?
Now, in addition to being prepared to contemplate the use of force against Iran, Wieseltier appears to want the United States (and perhaps its allies too) to consider some brand of military action in Syria too.
So let us think it through. Before he went to meet with Bashar al Assad, Kofi Annan said (according to a report in a Turkish weekly) that “I believe any further militarization will make this situation worse. We have to be careful that we don’t introduce a medicine that’s worse than the disease,” and that he aimed to reach a political settlement through dialogue. Dialogue! Buber’s, or Bakhtin’s? Annan’s mission promptly failed, and Assad promptly began the assault on Idlib. In Washington the usual excuses, familiar from Bosnia to Libya, were offered: the global isolation of the perpetrators (which is incorrect, since they always have Russia); the terrifying might of the Syrian army; the obscurity, or the disunity, of the opposition; the hidden hand of Islamists and terrorists; and so on. Meanwhile the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff blurted out to Congress that “we can do anything,” thereby vitiating the plaintive appeal to the limitations of American competence. There are Arab states agitating for action to stop the slaughter, and arming the Free Syrian Army, whose ranks are growing. But Obama refuses to consider any direct or indirect application of force. “What’s happening in Syria is heartbreaking and outrageous,” he said, bearing witness again, as in 2009, when witness was all he was prepared to bear for the democratic rebellion in Iran. “The world community has said so in a more or less unified voice.” But Assad is strangely unseduced by its voice. “We are going to continue to work on this project with other countries.” Pipelines have been announced with more passion. “And it is my belief that, ultimately, this dictator will fall, as dictators in the past have fallen.” But not without mountains of corpses, sir. Are we really to rely on the good offices of fate?
Yes. Yes, we are likely reduced to relying upon "the good offices of fate". What else is there to be done? This may be galling but it is not intrinsically ignoble, If there are compelling or even semi-plausible options for intervention in Syria it is notable that Wieseltier does not trouble himself to suggest what they might be, far less ponder what the consequences of such action could be. It seems to be that the burden of proof lies with those advocating "firmer" action, not those who question its efficacy or wisdom.
Otherwise, where does it all end? The alternative is juvenile Whatabouttery familiar from the Tony Blair era. So you will fight in Iraq but what about Zimbabwe? So you will do something about Sierra Leone but what about Darfur? Eh? Eh? Eh? Blair, who can scarcely be deemed a non-interventionist, appreciated that there were limits. Not all crises are created equal. At best, you do what you can where you can, constrained by duelling measures of urgency and prudence.
Though some call this hypocrisy, it is really an admission of reality. To pretend or, worse, believe otherwise is, whatever, Wieseltier says, to reduce foreign policy to a near-whimsical boyish game played with an inexhaustible supply of toy soldiers and unlimited willpower. Nor do I believe Wieseltier when he writes that he would prefer:
[T]hat our leaders were more candid and simply said that they can live with the murder of innocents and the destruction of democratic aspirations and the regional influence of the mullah and the madman in Tehran because immediate and effective action against these circumstances would contradict their conception of American power.
On the contrary, I do not think Leon Wieseltier would be happy with that at all. This is, in any case, a straw-stuffed argument since no-one in a position of influence in Washington is much cheered by what’s happening in either Syria or Iran. Perhaps that helps explain why the President has been careful, as they say, to keep all options on the table. Perhaps Wieseltier does not believe him but if so then perhaps he might say so?
Again, Wieseltier’s argument would be stronger if MSBNC hosts or the Democratic party’s left-wing ran American foreign policy. But they do not and never have. The suggestion that no-one in Washington (excepting, one assumes, Mr Wieseltier) is quite tough enough to look at each of these problems with quite a tough enough glare is plainly tripe and fiddlesticks. The President, for one, is on record, repeatedly, suggesting that he is not against all wars, only "dumb wars". Mr Wieseltier, on the other hand, is not overly bothered by such a weak-kneed, irresolute distinction. His article is headlined: Has military force gone out of fashion? To which any sane observer would reply: hardly. How can such a question even be asked just months after the Libyan intervention and while the use of force against Iran, whether prudent or not, remains a live issue?