THE BLOG

Obama's Syria Snub

09/15/2013 10:59 EDT | Updated 11/15/2013 05:12 EST

It was a minor detail from his Syria speech on Tuesday, but I was alarmed when I heard the president say the following:

And so to my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America's military might with a failure to act when a cause is so plainly just.

To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor, for sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.

This was both a misrepresentation and a snub, whose implication is unashamedly and cynically partisan: Obama believes that left-wing opponents of the proposed strikes care fundamentally about "freedom and dignity for all people," which would, in their view, be undermined if Syria's Baathist dictatorship is challenged, even on the narrow ground of sarin gas use. By crediting them in this way, he therefore seems accepting of the Left's idea that American overseas operations can be categorically construed as unbecoming or disrespectful to non-Americans, even when their targets are confirmed abusers of human rights.

Critically, Obama also believes that his friends on the Left, who care about freedom and dignity, can be contrasted with their Republican counterparts who care about neither. But according to the president's formulation, these skeptics may eventually be brought on board by appeals to their sensitivity -- to children dying and to the use of chemical warfare. Again, no such qualities of character are credited to the president's political opponents.

Obama's only attribution to skeptics on the Right is the desire to maintain America's military supremacy, seemingly for its own sake. The message here is implicit but also clear enough: when liberals support or authorize war, which inevitably involves the taking of innocent civilian life in some quantity, it can be justified because their intentions are good. They care about suffering, about dying children, about international "norms," about "freedom and dignity for all people." But when conservatives support or authorize war, they do so for the purpose of edifying their image of American superiority, or to line the pockets of their friends in the arms-procurement industry. For imperial purposes, in other words. Considerations like the humanitarian toll of a two-and-half-year long civil war or the transfer of WMD into nefarious hands are, in Obama's eyes, irrelevant for conservative calculations about intervention.

One notices that these comments follow the president's general strategy for combating resistance to his political program. Unfailingly, Obama attributes bad faith on the part of his opponents as an explanation for dissent. He cares about fairness, the Republicans don't. He seeks pragmatic solutions, the Republicans seek ideological ones. He's pursuing justice, the Republicans aren't. And all of these beliefs assume no possibility for disagreement -- about what fairness consists in, about which factors should be considered for pragmatic decision-making, and about what constitutes justice.

We can now add to this list the right to be indignant about humanitarian catastrophe, which Obama believes to be monopolized by his own political camp. Notice that he offered no specific appeal to his "friends on the right," only a wish that they would reconcile their militarism, of which he disapproves, with a "plainly just" cause. He didn't explain why conservatives should think his cause just, as he had for progressives, because apparently only the latter are worth actually arguing with.

More importantly, though, Obama's representation does not reflect any of the voices in the ongoing debate among conservatives regarding Syria. It certainly doesn't account for the wing of the party represented by congressmen such as Justin Amash and Rand Paul, which could only be described as anti-militarism, if not straightforwardly isolationist. Yet it seems that the president is more interested in the faction sometimes dubbed the GOP hawks, led by John McCain and Lindsey Graham. This group has proved a surprisingly-dubious partner for the Administration, as its members have essentially withheld support from the president's proposal because it does not go far enough. They want the military to actually tip the scales in the balance of the civil war against Assad.

This position, which Obama believes to be motivated by militarism, is actually reasonable. In fact, inflicting a real tactical victory on behalf of the Syrian opposition, which would help to hasten the defeat of Assad, should be the minimum objective of any military action. Even if the proposed strike convinced Assad to cease using chemical weapons, it would do nothing to address the far more significant humanitarian catastrophe of death by conventional weaponry, which will continue so long as the war does. That position is indeed discrete from the president's, but it can hardly be dismissed in the way he would like.

Regardless of how Obama dresses it up, one is at some basic level either an interventionist or a non-interventionist. Any intellectually honest person should accept the logical consequences of his belief, which for interventionists clearly involves the fact that innocent people will be harmed even when one tries to do good. But the problem with the president and so many of his co-thinkers is that they want to have it both ways. They want to be self-righteous when their opponents' intervention has consequences, yet they also claim the mantra of human rights and internationalism when they are criticized on similar grounds.

This leads to the kind of muddled and illogical thinking that we heard on Tuesday, where the president must have known, but failed to bring himself to say, that he had massively miscalculated in Syria, and that those of his opponents who called for earlier action may have had a point all along.

This column also appears in the Prince Arthur Herald.