In 1921, the Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello wrote an absurdist play titled“Six Characters In Search of An Author.” Think of this column as six observations on Syria in search of a conclusion.
1. What about the first 100,000? Remember that famous scene in Dr. Strangelove when the president (played by Peter Sellers) asks the general (played by George C. Scott) what kind of casualties might ensue if we end up in a nuclear exchange with the Soviets. “No more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops!” Scott replies jauntily, before adding, “Depending on the breaks.”
The numbers in Syria may not be that grotesque, but there’s something that feels implicitly cavalier about our position today. What about the first 100,000 people Assad killed over two and a half years? What message are we sending to tyrants about the world’s willingness to look away from regular old mass murder within their own borders? “Look, Bashar,” we are basically saying, “so long as you stick to bullets to the head, the sky’s the limit. But if you pull out the gas, I’m sorry, there’s going to be hell to pay. ”
I know that’s too glib; it doesn’t do justice to the special horror of chemical weapons and the case for enforcing global norms against their use. And, in a tragic world, helplessness in the face of some episodes of mass suffering may be unavoidable. But our whole approach still feels uncomfortably close to saying “we’d really prefer you stick with the machine guns, if you don’t mind.”
2. The August 1914 analogy. The thing about unintended consequences is that by definition you don’t know what they are. They’re Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns.” But what if we set in motion a chain of events that leaves the Middle East further in flames and draws us into a wider war? Is there any chance we’d judge this action in retrospect to have been worth it? What probability does the administration put on this happening? Based on what reasoning?
3. The thin red line. Does anyone think we would be doing the same thing today if the president hadn’t made his “red line” remark? If the answer is no, shouldn’t that trouble us? If we’d have been damning Assad and his cronies as war criminals at the Hague instead, wouldn’t that still be a good thing to do now? Might that not help move global public opinion to our side?
4. Where is everyone? When we took military action in Libya (without congressional approval, mind you), we had a wide range of coalition partners. Today we have almost none. Why is that? Is it a failure of diplomacy? Or, as Matthew Continetti of the Washington Free Beacon has argued, is it simply because Libya has oil? And why has no one, us included, ponied up anything like the cash needed to help the unprecedented two million refugees the Syrian implosion has created?
5. The leadership question. In recent days, several business leaders in Los Angeles who voted for Obama twice have told me, unprompted, that the Syrian episode captures everything they can’t stand about the president. He lacks basic leadership skills, they say. Too much detailed public analysis and hemming and hawing, says one. No real engagement with his counterparts, says another, and so no reservoir of good will with either foreign leaders or with exotic species like Republicans. When Obama himself seems to lack conviction in his proposed course of action, they wonder, how will he persevere when any military step brings the inevitable complications?
6. The unique burden of the presidency. Syria is a reminder of how utterly unique the United States’ role remains in the world. Canadians aren’t demanding that Canada’s leaders step up and stop Assad. Swedes don’t see themselves as having a duty to enforce international law. It’s obvious but worth remembering at this moment that the power of the United States is extraordinary. As a result, so is the responsibility of the person who wins the brass ring. Most people with this vaulting ambition (Richard Nixon perhaps excepted) don’t seek the office out of some deep thirst to be commander in chief or to do big things in foreign affairs. Obama, like many modern presidents, sought power mostly to put his stamp on our domestic and economic life.
But the enormous burden of decisions like Syria — and their unknowable chain of consequences for years, and even decades — nonetheless falls to him. The ever-grayer hair is the result. In the end, thanks to one man’s choices, countless lives will be affected for good and for bad.
It’s enough to make one see why Lincoln always humbly explained he could not govern without appealing for help even to an inscrutable divine.