Daily Show host Jon Stewart made an impassioned case, on his Tuesday night return to broadcasting after taking the summer off, against the Obama administration's plan to launch limited strikes against Syria. Stewart may be a satirist but he's influential and trusted, particularly among left-leaning Americans, who have been split on the issue and who could play a significant role in deciding whether Congress gives President Obama the go-ahead. So his broadcast could really matter.
The segment has also generated a bit of controversy among foreign policy-watchers for two reasons. First, he tried to lighten the mood by making a few jokes about the suspected use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians that seem to strike more than a few observers as in poor taste. I don't envy the task of covering alleged war crimes and the mass killings of civilians in a comedic format, nor am I in any position to critique that effort. And it's clear that Stewart cares deeply about Syrians – he had a United Nations official on that same show to discuss the refugee crisis. Still, if you've been following the Syrian conflict even a little over the past two-plus years, much less know someone who is currently in Syria and living under threat of chemical weapons attacks, it's hard to imagine why anyone would think that comparing sarin gas to perfume would be funny.
Second, while Stewart acknowledged some of the very good arguments against U.S. strikes on Syria (there are also worthwhile arguments for strikes), he mostly critiqued not the merits of that policy but the quality of the current U.S. political debate around it. It's hard to find a single Syria-watcher, of any ideological or political stripe, who does not share Stewart's frustration with generalist political punditry around this very complex and high-stakes issue. Still, a lot of very smart people have been making cases for and against limited U.S. military intervention in Syria for months. It's a shame Stewart instead engaged with, and thus reaffirmed, the lazier political punditry debate that cropped up just last week.
This is not to pick on Stewart, who after all is only a satirist, but rather to highlight a larger issue that this segment represents in how we talk about Syria now that it's become a political issue. The premise of both Stewart's chemical weapons jokes and his decision to engage with the punditry over the policy, a premise that is increasingly prevalent in the American discussion around Syria, is that the country and its conflict primarily matter because the United States might get involved.
Sarin gas, in this view, isn't a horrifically destructive weapon that causes mass terror and death, it's a rhetorical device to argue for military intervention. Syria isn't a complex and terrible civil war, it's a test case for U.S. foreign policy. For proponents of strikes, a paramount concern is that inaction could hurt U.S. credibility. For opponents, it's that any action could suck us in. Actual Syrians, over 100,000 of whom have died and 2 million been made refugees, are supporting players in a drama that's all about us.
What we don't want to admit to ourselves is that our role in this conflict has been minimal and that the discussed U.S. military action, whether it's wise or unwise, is unlikely to have any major impact, for better or worse, either on Syria or on the United States. The forces within Syria and within the region are playing a much larger and more important role in what's happening in that conflict than just about anything the U.S. might foreseeably do.
Why does so much of the U.S. political debate around Syria strikes seem to inflate our importance to the conflict? Partly this is a natural inclination of any country to put its own interests first, although in this case that rational self-interest has not just shaped the debate but perhaps warped our understanding of things. In many ways, this is a mode of thinking left over from the Iraq War, which indeed had a great deal to do with the United States, its actions and its internal political deliberations.
But Syria is not Iraq. The Iraq War was begun by a U.S.-led invasion and shaped by the U.S.-led occupation. American navel-gazing had an important role to play in figuring out what had happened and why. But Syria was already a deeply entrenched civil war, propelled by forces that have nothing to do with us, long before it became an American political issue last week. Even the 2012 presidential debates touched on it only in passing, and to little substantial disagreement, as if out of some sense of obligation. It's good and important for the U.S. political system to rigorously debate Obama's request for congressional approval to strike Syria, which is an important and difficult question. But let's not pretend this is a debate about Syria. As Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the Institute for Strategic Studies, put it on Twitter last week, "Limited strikes are all about America: punitive, reactive, normative, deterrent. Not about Syrians."