Asked to decide whether the U.S. military should engage in an action against Syria, it’s become depressingly obvious that neither the American public nor Congress is prepared to have that discussion.
That’s because most big-picture discussions that take place in a democracy require at least a little common ground to advance — and we have none.
But of all the things we’re bad at talking about (health care) and can’t agree on (education), this — when and how to use our military — may be the most clearly “life and death” discussion we should have already had.
What is the purpose of the American military in the 21st century? Is it purely for self-defense? Is it to look after our interests abroad? Is it to enforce globally agreed-upon behaviors? Is it to spread our values? To protect the innocent?
These are pretty basic questions, but the odds are good that you and the two people sitting next to you will disagree on the answers as much as any three congressmen who have to take a vote. That’s a problem: Without a clear sense (even a contested one) of what we want to use our military for, we’re never going to be able to give it a clear mission.
The case for invading Afghanistan was a simple one: They (or agents they were sheltering) had attacked us directly. Easy to understand, and only the most pacifistic nation would argue.
The goal of invading Iraq, by contrast, was a lot murkier. It was not that Iraq had attacked us — they hadn’t — but because:
1) They possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction, which we could not allow, and;
2) Toppling a dictatorship in the Middle East would spread our values.
It didn’t help, of course, that the information given to the public was filled with lies: Iraq had no Weapons of Mass Destruction, and we were not greeted as liberators. But even so, you can see that Iraq was a different kind of war from the start. We were not defending ourselves, we were defending “the world,” and trying to spread democratic values.
These are the same arguments, not incidentally, used by the same people to justify a potential war with Iran: We cannot allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons, and toppling their dictatorship would spread our values. Actually there are a whole lot of countries that logic would apply to …
The rationale for a military action against Syria is far more modest — almost absurdly so. It is explicitly not to topple the government; it is explicitly not to make life better for the Syrian people; it is explicitly not to set up democratic institutions or spread democratic values.
It is, in its entirety: To punish the Assad government for using chemical weapons so that other governments will not use them in the future. It is to create a consequence for crossing a “red line.”
That’s it.
And it’s actually a good rationale ... if you believe that Uncle Sam ought to wear upon his shoulders the burden of enforcing international norms.
It’s patently obvious that if we don’t do it nobody else will — but does that mean we should do it?
What is our military for? What kind of missions should we send them on? What is a legitimate reason to spill American blood? These are questions we need to have a national conversation on — but having a national conversation is harder than ever at a time when we not only can’t see eye-to-eye with the opposition, but can’t bring ourselves to admit that the opposition has a face.
It’s easy to say military action “only in defense of the nation,” or “our interests” — but that would require of us a selfishness that we have never been able to live up to. The world is a terrible place: How many genocides are we willing to avert our eyes from? How many preventable slaughters will we allow? How many democracies would we allow to see toppled? (Taiwan by China? Israel by Iran?)
If they start putting Jews in camps again, or feeding Christians to the lions, could you live with yourself having stood by and done nothing, because “that’s not what our military’s for?”
There are good reasons to be that selfish, but I don’t think America has it in us. I think that we want to improve the world. I don’t think we want to stand by and allow evil to happen.
But if that’s true, where is our line in the sand drawn? What should trigger our intervention — and how do we keep ourselves out of hopeless quagmires?
This is a discussion that we should have had long ago. America’s military needs a doctrine, a simple set of rules to trigger decisive action, that we can agree on or — through debate and the ballot box — change.
The confusion we have now isn’t helping anyone. Not us, not the Syrian people, and not our soldiers in uniform. We need to have this discussion before our next military expedition — not in the middle of it.
Benjamin Wachs writes for Messenger Post Media and is the editor of Email him at