The Syrian Abyss

What Nietzsche would say about striking Assad.

Americans from President Obama to the average citizen are about to have a "Nietzsche moment": the kind of experience that the German philosopher predicted when he said, "If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you." In the case of our collective contemplation of what to do about the Syrian crisis, Nietzsche's meaning may be that, in the face of such complexity, as much may be revealed about ourselves as about the dictator we seek to rein in.

The image reflected in this existential looking glass is vexing. First, there is the odd American mixture of complacency -- see the inaction it has bred over the deaths of more than 125,000 Syrians, all too many of them noncombatants -- alongside outrage that a small percentage died in chemical-weapons attacks. It is as if we are saying that we would tacitly accept the sheer horror of this war but for the way in which a tiny sliver of the killing has been done. More artillery and aerial bombardments of rebel villages and urban clusters? No worries. Just keep the gas canisters closed. What this says about the American moral compass is troubling indeed.

At a strategic level, the abyss is just as revealing of our habits of mind and preferences. It took just a few days for Pentagon planners to design a range of campaign options and move necessary assets into position to strike. But it has taken more than two years for the White House to come up with a strategy toward this conflict -- and it isn't pretty. At best, President Obama is hinting at coercive diplomacy of the simplest and most limited sort, aimed at convincing Bashar al-Assad to stop using chemical weapons. The war may continue to rage. Regime change is not the immediate goal. So even if our missiles fly, they will achieve very little. What does this largely war-as-theater solution say about exactly who and what Americans have become?

The current debate in Congress will go a long way toward answering this question about American character and purpose in the 21st century world. No doubt the ghost of Iraq will make a Banquo-like appearance and cause much alarm, reminding us of the costs and risks of going to war on false pretenses. But President Obama is no Macbeth. He will dispel this specter with clear evidence supporting his charges against the Assad regime. No, do not count on the memory of Iraq to keep us from involvement in Syria. Instead, we in the public should insist that this matter be debated on its own merits.

And just what are the merits? The best case in favor of the use of force is that punitive strikes may somehow inhibit the future use of chemical weapons, possibly even making it less likely that they will be sent downstream to Hezbollah or some other organization. Beyond this concern, though, there is little conceivable threat to our vital national security interests here. Thus, opponents of using force might well try to convince President Obama that the proper policy now is for all nations -- including Russia and China -- to condemn the chemical attack that occurred and to join unanimously in agreeing to take serious action should this ever happen again. Punitive military action now, it may be argued, is unnecessary and likely to prove counterproductive to broader efforts to bring peace to Syria.

For all the drama that will attend considerations of national reputation and presidential prestige in this debate, the most vital aspect of the discourse to watch for is the Nietzschean heart of the matter: What will staring into the Syrian abyss reveal to us about ourselves? Will we as a nation feel impelled to support a president who has basically painted himself into a corner with all his war talk? Or will a rising tide of libertarian thought leaders -- fundamentally noninterventionist in their approach to the world -- carry the day and keep us from another problematic conflict? Stay tuned. Congress has never turned down a presidential request to authorize the use of force. But records only hold until they are broken. You can expect Senator Rand Paul, the most articulate voice in government today advocating for a less activist, less interventionist foreign policy, to have his innings.

In the end, it may be left to Samantha Power, our ambassador to the United Nations, to provide another angle of view into ourselves. For years she has been a strong advocate of the "responsibility to protect" the innocent from systematic killing. In the case of Syria, she has been sidelined, taking the earlier White House line on nonintervention. But now she is chiming in about the culpability of the Assad regime in the matter of chemical weapons use. It will be interesting to see whether she is held back yet again, given that her instincts would no doubt drive her to call for more forceful action than a limited missile bombardment of regime targets. It is ironic that President Obama's most effective spokesperson in the matter of protecting innocents from war crimes is the one he is least likely to rely upon. Power's favored solution surely consists of recommending actions far greater than those the White House prefers.

And so our cool, intellectual president is left to contemplate the abyss. It contemplates him as well, as Nietzsche would say. Us, too. It asks us if we see our great power as limited to safeguarding ourselves, or if it can be used to protect the weak, not just briefly chastise the wicked. Our answer will prove revelatory -- to the world and to ourselves. Thus can gazing into the abyss be good for the soul.

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National Security

Arsenal of Hypocrisy

No matter where you look in the world, American words don't match American deeds.

In his ode to free thinking, "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson had it right when he affirmed that "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen." He understood the need for nuance, in daily life as well as world affairs. But Emerson was careful to note that not all consistency is foolish, and the flip side of his aphorism might well be that hypocrisy is the dark spirit toward which too many great leaders are drawn. The term of art used to rationalize the more questionable aspects of statecraft is realpolitik; the operative adjective is "Machiavellian." Both words, when heard in the public discourse, should set warning flags snapping in the wind. That's because a little wiggle room in your positions is a perfectly good thing. Radically veering from one position to the next is a recipe for something awful. 

This is particularly true in the matter of U.S. foreign policy today. It's hard to find a point on the map where America isn't acting in a hypocritical, utterly inconsistent way. Take Afghanistan, where the United States practices its most serious hypocrisy. We say we're spreading democracy in Afghanistan -- part of the hard but brittle core of American grand strategy toward the world. But it's difficult to square with a dozen years of military intervention, at a cost of a trillion dollars, during which the democratic nation-building enterprise has been fatally undermined by American complicity in repeated election fraud and other corrupt governance. Then there's Egypt. President Obama has averted his gaze from the military overthrow -- let's be honest and call it a coup -- of an elected government, and the killing that has followed in its wake. Sure, he called off an annual war game with the Egyptians. But if we stand for democracy, calling off a joint military exercise is hardly a strong response reflective of our values.

Another terrible inconsistency has to do with the manner in which the intervention in Iraq concluded. President Obama is fond of saying that the war there is over. Well, we left, but the war is not over, people are being killed daily and the country is aflame. Having been the ones to overthrow all that country's central governing institutions a decade ago, we bear some responsibility for Iraqi suffering today. And it does not suffice to say that the Iraqis are at fault for failing to negotiate an acceptable status-of-forces agreement with us. We had a scrap of paper that authorized our presence there during the years of the counterinsurgency campaign. That same paper could have been used to sustain a small presence that would have deterred the kind of violence that is now growing so uncontrollably. 

The American approach to the conflict in Syria -- or rather the reluctance, to date, to intervene -- reflects yet another troubling contradiction. It stems from repeated calls by President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad -- but without there being any willingness to act in support of the rebels. Thus the United States has stood by while over 100,000 have been killed in the fighting. It is extremely odd that a great power would remain unmoved, and unmoving, in the face of such carnage, while at the same time threatening to intervene militarily if chemical weapons are used.

Still in the Middle East, the recent rekindling of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process provides yet another example of a troubling contradiction that undermines American credibility. Simply put, the United States cannot act as an honest broker while at the same aligning itself with and serving as Israel's strongest ally. The process should be handed over to Spain and/or Norway, two countries that have done well in the past with the Israelis and the Palestinians. Or some other neutral party. But not the United States.

As to the simmering nuclear crisis with Iran, there is yet another big contradiction on display. Much pressure is being brought to bear to prevent nuclear proliferation; but Tehran knows that Washington still persists in its efforts to bring an end to the mullahs' rule. A nuclear deterrent is probably seen by most Iranians as their only insurance against an American campaign aimed at regime change. Thus the logic of this difficult situation calls for a concession -- not more coercion in the form of tighter sanctions. It could take the form of agreeing not to overthrow the Iranian government in return for the end of the covert nuclear weapons program. This sort of compromise (i.e., an American pledge not to invade) worked to get Russian missiles out of Cuba half a century ago. 

The contradictions of American foreign policy extend even to the cyber realm. There has been a drumbeat of criticism of Chinese cyber snooping and theft of intellectual property in recent years, yet the world's perception is that the United States was behind the Stuxnet attack on Iran. This incident was, and remains to date, the world's most spectacular example of cyberwar -- or at least "cybotage." For the United States to excoriate others for their offenses in the cyber domain while at the same time being seen, rightly or wrongly, as the perpetrator of cyber attacks of its own, is a real head-scratcher of a policy problem.

This long list of inconsistent behavior in and toward the world flies in the face of the dominant American self-image of fairness and forthrightness. But even at home the Dorian-Gray-like picture of our country conveyed by maps of gerrymandered Congressional districts is there to see, growing ever more hideous with each decennial redistricting. We see it in our popular culture, too. We once had both iconic heroes and anti-heroes roaming our screens -- though the former were more prominent. Take John Wayne's Sergeant Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima, or Bruce Willis's John McClane in the Die Hard franchise. Not anymore. Now all too many protagonists are monsters, like Bryan Cranston's Walter White in Breaking Bad. And what heroes we have left, we lampoon as muscle-headed has-beens in movies like The Expendables.

Where are the voices to counter all this? Even across the bitter partisan divide, Thomas Jefferson's voice may still resonate. In a letter to fellow Founding Father and future President James Monroe on New Year's Day, 1815, ex-President Jefferson tackled the issue of how the United States should be perceived in the world. He wanted American presidents always to be believed, and so enjoined Monroe to hew to "the naked truth always, whether favorable or unfavorable." America should have a reputation as a straight shooter. Refreshing. So too are some of the voices heard today. In the academy, Andrew Bacevich is perhaps the most articulate critic of America's meandering, too-militarized foreign policy -- see his Washington Rules at the very least. And in Congress Senator Rand Paul has energized the public discourse along Jeffersonian lines, calling for limited government and less foreign adventurism.

But the best solution to the problem of hypocrisy may come from Emerson, who stirred up a "consistency debate" back in the 19th century. At the end of "Self-Reliance" he calls upon all of us to wage this battle for our souls, to "enter into the state of war, and awake Thor and Woden, courage and constancy." Indeed, these are the truest aspects of what we think of as heroic. And as far as heroes go, at least there's been a recent movie about Thor -- a sure sign of hope.

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