While voices from the political Left and Right invigilate the most recent test of U.S. foreign policy in regard to the civil war in Syria — we’d be advised to prevent the test from becoming an impossible task. We’d also be wary of confusing the concepts of rightness and rectitude; it’s easy to step into the trap described by an English poet: “Where he falls short, ’tis Nature’s fault alone; Where he succeeds, the merit’s all his own.” Charles Churchill (1731-1764)
#1. False equivalency: “This is just like the Bush Administration’s marketing of the Iraq War.” Comedian and pundit John Fugelsang has a rejoinder to the effect that when the Obama Administration launches a war into the wrong country and awards Joe Biden’s old company $39 billion in contracts…then we can say that the two situations are similar. There are more points of contrast than comparison. The announced intention of the Bush Administration was regime change in Iraq. President Bush was very clear about this in a May 22, 2006 press conference:
“Let me start with the Iraqi regime. The stated policy of my government is that we have a regime change. And as I told President Chirac, I have no war plans on my desk. And I will continue to consult closely with him. We do view Saddam Hussein as a serious, significant — serious threat to stability and peace.” (emphasis added)
President Obama’s statement of intent in his address on September 7, 2013 is cut from different cloth:
“What we’re talking about is not an open-ended intervention. This would not be another Iraq or Afghanistan. There would be no American boots on the ground. Any action we take would be limited, both in time and scope – designed to deter the Syrian government from gassing its own people again and degrade its ability to do so.”
Slipping into the false equivalency trap is facilitated by the tendency of human beings to filter information through predetermined biases or previous experiences, and then to extrapolate either positive or negative outcomes based on those biases and experiences. If one approaches the problem of Syrian use of chemical weapons from the no war, nor any act of aggression, is ever desirable perspective, then the administration — if it uses force — fails the test.
If the more militaristic perspective is applied — minor engagements are never as effective as taking on the problem aggressively (or might makes right) — then the Administration fails again, too little military might was applied and therefore there will not be a positive outcome in terms of U.S. policy in the region.
#2. The Creation of Straw Men: Once extrapolations are derived from conclusions predicated on various forms of equivalence, or previous conditions, it’s hard to avoid the fields full of straw men each supported by the rectitude of their creators. Most straw men stand holding the emblems or badges of hypothetical outcomes.
Unfortunately, one of the most difficult tasks among human beings is the calculation of what any one of them — or any group for that matter — will actually do in response to the actions of another.
Once again, the mind-set of the prognosticator is in play. If the speaker or writer already has a perspective, and to the extent that perspective runs from frangible or stalwart and unyielding, the predicted outcomes will be evaluated against those sets of preconditions and prejudices. In this instance, if the perspective is essentially militaristic then the outcomes won’t be passing grade if there is much left other than piles of gravel. If the perspective is primarily non-belligerent or placatory, then the outcomes will most often be couched in phrasing usual translatable as “The Whole Thing Will Blow Up.”
#3. The False Choice argument: Again, the extremes pull against the middle. Either we must do something, or we must do nothing. This fails to recognize the full spectrum of diplomatic relations, which we might summarize as in the following rough graphic:
Once more the pacifist will be happy with nothing less than peace, understanding, and cooperation, while the militarist won’t be best pleased with anything less than an all out missile launching, tank rolling, grenade tossing, outright war. However, note that there are at least 4 optional policy locations in the “red” portion of the graphic.
#4. Schools of Red Herrings: Let’s propose an axiom for the purposes of discussion — that every diplomatic action must be (a) purposeful, (b) appropriate, and (c) intended to produce the most desirable outcome possible toward the resolution of a particular problem.
Suppose we frame the issue with Syria as follows:
The U.S.A. is a signatory to the 1925 Geneva Protocols on chemical and biological weapons; it is a signatory to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. The 1993 Convention states that chemical weapons are not to be deployed and used in any circumstances.
If the report of the United Nations inspectors concludes that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons during its engagements with Syrian rebels, then what would be a purposeful, appropriate, and positively intended diplomatic and/or military response?
If as discussed in a previous post, there are options which are demonstrably impossible, irrelevant, or inappropriate — then what response can the U.S. employ which conforms to our role as the leading signatory of the protocol and convention, and still not tip the actions all the way to the right end of the graphic?
Drafting the correct response to this seemingly intractable problem will require focus, and posing relevant questions the answers to which ought to be incorporated into the policy discussions. Very little is served by witnessing proponents and opponents of various options assailing each other as “morons,” “war-mongers,” “idiots,” and “tools.” Perhaps a better use of our time would be to avoid the fallacious and the counter-factual, and entertain the idea that drafting and implementing the more appropriate response is infinitely better than creating the “right one?”