Let us assume for the moment that the case against Syria is “clear,” that Assad has used chemical weapons against Syrians, and that there is good reason to believe that he will equal or better these atrocities in the future.
Even were all of this “clear,” we would still need clarity over the course and conclusion of the ensuing war. To be sure, perfect clarity, particularly during war is not only unlikely, but, by definition, impossible. Nevertheless, it is still possible for us to ask whether a limited range of likely courses and likely conclusions are preferable to the likely course and conclusion that might follow without intervention.
Since I do not propose to review, or even propose to know, the range of possible courses or conclusions, I want instead to limit my own reflections by identifying what I take to be a set of highly unlikely courses and conclusions.
The first unlikely course and conclusion – which, of course, is always the most unlikely course and conclusion – is that lives will be saved. Here we should need to bear in mind counsel well-known and often repeated by nearly every military leader ever to have led soldiers into battle, the counsel of Archidamus, Spartan King, which we have from Thucydides‘ Peloponnesian War:
“Spartans. in the course of my life I have taken part in many wars, and I see among you people of the same age as I am. They and I have had experience, and so are not likely to share in what may be a general enthusiasm for war, nor to think that war is a good thing or a safe thing. And you will find, if you look carefully into me matter, that this present war which you are now discussing is not likely to be anything on a small scale. . . . As for being slow and cautious – which is the usual criticism made against us – there is nothing to be ashamed of in that. If you take something on before you are ready for it, hurry at the beginning will mean delay at the end. Besides. the city in which we live has always been free and always famous. “Slow” and “cautious” can equally well be “wise” and “sensible.” . . . Let us never give up this discipline which our fathers have handed down to us and which we still preserve and which has always done us good. Let us not be hurried. and in one short day’s space come to a decision which will so profoundly affect the lives of men and their fortunes, the fates of cities and their national honour. We ought to take time over such a decision” (Thucydides, Pel. I.80-85).
Thucydides’ account is remembered two and a half millennia later not because of its uniqueness, but because of its banality. With each and every successive conflict from his time to our own, every General who has ever fought has remembered reading Thucydides’ sober counsel and has been struck by how true his words ring to the conflict they have themselves just fought. The Peloponnesian War is every war; and like every war it leaves a trail of death, disease, pain, sorrow, and decay. So too will the war with Syria.
The second related limit we must bear in mind is that the war with Syria will not limit the spread of war – it will precipitate the spread of war in the surrounding region. In this instance, it is virtually certain that war in Syria will spread to Iran, Iraq, and Jordan. Nor is there any great certainty that it will not lead to further social, political, and economic chaos in Turkey, Egypt, and Lebanon. Therefore, if containment is our aim, then we should bear in mind that this war is likely not to contain, but to amplify violence and instability in the region.
Finally, some may imagine that democracy will arise from war in Syria. Yet, even were this true – even if war did shift the center of political power from Assad to Assad’s far more numerous opponents and enemies – we should be under no illusion that our enemy’s enemies are our friends. Democracy in Afghanistan will require the restoration of a Taliban whom once we supported against Soviet occupation, but who then allied themselves with al Qaida, and who now propose to once again be our friends. Democracy, however, is almost never a stabilizing, but is instead almost always a destabilizing force. Moreover, as Aristotle pointed out (and Benjamin Franklin repeated) nearly two and a half millennia ago, only when the majority are “healthy, wealthy, and wise” is majority rule the same as good rule. Wherever the majority are unhealthy, poor, and ignorant, there majority rule cannot help but lead first to poor government and, second, because poor government invariably generates calls for a new, more effective leader, poor government almost always leads at best to demagogic rule and, more often than not, authoritarian and dictatorial rule.
If “democracy” is our watchword, we ought therefore to cleanse it from our minds. War with Syria does not support nor will it lead to democracy.
Which is not to say that we should not help alleviate suffering in Syria. Nor that we should not intervene militarily in the Syrian Civil
War. Innocents are suffering. The pain is almost too much to bear. Which is one of the reasons why we dare not think only or even primarily about US involvement strategically. Rather must we think about it contingently and immediately; how can we carve our zones of safety and security and provide safe passage for those eager to enter such zones? How can we disarm the weapons Assad is using against his people? How can we protect the innocents from the belligerents?
And with these questions we also once and for all abandon the supposedly high ground of pacifism or non-aggression; for there is simply no known way of carving out safe zones, guaranteeing safe passage, disarming aggressors or protecting innocents from belligerents without risking violent, lethal engagement with Assad’s forces.
Nor will creating such zones or isolating belligerents from innocents guarantee anything remotely like an end to the conflict or even an end to suffering. Syria, like Egypt and Afghanistan, or Iran and Iraq, has been a long time in the making. And Americans and Europeans have played central roles building this nation in its current configuration. We cannot hope to undo this nation-building in one day. Nor should we want to. Rather should we begin to think prospectively about the kind of Syria – and the kind of Middle East – we want to see in fifteen, twenty, or fifty years. If we want to see a world where all Syrians are healthy, wealthy, and wise – and therefore a Syria where democratic rule is identical with the rule of the good and for the good – then we will have to take aim at the “good” we want to see not only in Syria, but also in Europe and North America.
To be absolutely clear, free markets and a feeble public sphere where individuals must fight alone to be healthy, wealthy, and wise offers no prospect for the kind of future where democracy and the good reinforce one another. Down this road lies nothing but a endless future of Syrianas. We must therefore instead aim at the good we seek: a public all of whose members are healthy, wealthy and wise, which is, after all, the definition of what it means to be res publica, a Republic.
At the same time, we cannot let this aim prevent us from taking up the immediate tasks identified above, which are devoid of every idealism save that of protecting the innocents – which ought to be and must be our number one project.