Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Syria postscript: the war-weary and the peace-weary


Before democracies actually choose to go to war, there is a short revealing debate; facts are not discovered necessarily, nor all the lies exposed. But we do see more clearly what ideas drive decision-makers and those who prosper in the sport of urging them on.

Thanks to a surprise diplomatic intervention by that introvert in Moscow, Americans and their friends have a few moments of peace to consider the arguments that were deployed to punish Assad by bombing Syria.

My interest isn’t the reluctance of Obama and the equally rock-hard will of the neo-con radicals to join every hot fight in the Middle East. What deserves greater attention now is the easy willingness of powerful so-called transatlantic intellectuals to pick up the masculine clich├ęs of America’s chronic warriors.

John Kerry’s rhetoric demonstrated that you can survive Vietnam as well as dog it, graduate from Harvard, live in Boston and sound like John McCain—that the shame of Munich can be twisted as smoothly by liberals as by conservatives to break the rules of collective security authored by the West.

Not appearing weak or weary—rather than not being soft-hearted about war casualties—drove the case for bombing. From the op-ed page of the New York Times and last week’s leader in The Economist came the same challenge: are Americans and their dutiful representatives ready to put the Bush errors behind them and resume the task of being the West’s global policeman? Or are they just timid cynics living in the heartland of another shrinking giant?

Over the lead, “Our New Isolationism,” op-ed columnist and former executive editor of The Times, Bill Keller, sets the stage for Congress’s aborted war resolution by asserting:

“Idealism is in short supply. So, as another far-off war worsens, Americans are loath to take sides, even against a merciless dictator, even to the extent of sending weapons. The voices opposed to getting involved range from the pacifist left to the populist right. The president, fearful that foreign conflict will undermine his domestic agenda, vacillates.

“This is the United States in 1940. Sound a little familiar?”

The Economist—the world’s greatest voice of liberal economics, including peace, open markets, and the rule of law—asserted baldly:

“By being the world’s policeman, America can shape the rules according to its own interests and tastes. The more America steps back, the more other powers will step in. If it is unwilling to act as enforcer, its own norms will fray. If it is even thought to be reluctant, then they will be tested. China already prods at America; Vladimir Putin’s Russia has begun to confront it—and not only over Syria. Whether Syria was a vital American interest before this attack was debatable, but not after Mr. Assad’s direct challenge to Mr. Obama’s authority.”

The consequences might not have all been good, but the atmosphere of ideas in Washington would have enjoyed a good cleansing if the Syria bombing resolution and the man-boy Churchillian bluster quoted above had been defeated in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Their peace-weary arguments don’t ring of 1940. They recall the cocky, lawless, righteous spirit that rescued the bored elites from the respite from violence that ended during the summer of 1914.

Obama graciously denied that America is the “policeman of the world.” The defeat of his resolution, however, would have also settled that America is not a weekend vigilante either.

America’s authority in the world will shrink if its economy shrinks, and trust in its government shrinks amongst its friends. Both would be best served by not acting unilaterally in Syria.

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