When does a moral obligation to intervene in Syria begin (or end)?

Via Flickr

Via Flickr

It is probably of some significance that many of the legislators who attended top secret briefings on the situation in Syria left deeply skeptical of the administration’s (pre-gaffe, pre-Russia) plan to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again. I think my friend Casey Jaywork effectively addresses the motivation for that skepticism after listening to the President’s speech over at PolicyMic:

Obama’s rhetorical appeal is identical to his predecessor’s: “The bad guy is hurting innocents, so we have to hurt the bad guy.” Both Obama’s moral appeal and his security appeal depend on the claim that a “limited,” “targeted strike” will dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons in the future.

But there’s no reason to buy that claim. Remember that the Assad regime is fighting for its life. Deterrents are fine behavioral motivators for an entity which knows that it’s going to be around for a while, but since Assad’s government’s very existence is threatened, Obama’s proposed strike will be like threatening to punch someone who’s already dying from blood poisoning.

Agreed. To the pragmatic question of whether a targeted strike would achieve the stated goal of deterring Assad from deploying more chemical weapons, the president’s argument was incredibly weak. Furthermore, the international treaty banning the use of chemical weapons (which Syria has taken the first few steps towards joining) has overall been pretty successful. Those efforts in the past, and moving forward, will continue to have greater impact to, say, a dictator twenty years from now as opposed to whether Assad was punished for using them in 2013. This is important to keep in mind, as despite the last-minute diplomacy trying to work it’s way through the United Nations the President’s resting assumption is to fall back on striking for deterrence.

However, the probable lack of efficacy from a strike doesn’t necessarily satisfy the question of whether we have a moral obligation to act.

In his speech Obama implored us to pore over the videos of dying children, proof that “resolutions and statements of condemnation” are not enough. This is where the president was most persuasive. Yet his argument for action then presented the American people a false choice; we must launch a focused attack against certain facilities or essentially “look the other way.” This is simply not true. It ignores the very large humanitarian efforts that could make a difference, including accepting more Syrian refugees into the United States, providing more aid to organizations assisting refugees, and insisting on UN action to protect medical facilitates within Syria.  All of these options would be much more efficient at saving lives than launching a few hundred cruise missiles.

Obama’s description of those 1,000 killed from the chemical weapons attack was vivid, and indeed as he stated the “images from this massacre are sickening.” Yet to those of us who have been paying attention to the civil war in that country, the audio and pictures of the other 100,000 and more Syrians killed were equally horrific. I find it odd that we would only have a duty to respond after a technical distinction of weapons used, rather than the mass suffering that preceded it. This brings up another uncomfortable question; if our moral duty to spend millions in additional intervention was only triggered by the use of chemical weapons, would that duty then cease to exist after a successful treaty process that saw their removal? Even if thousands of Syrians continued to be displaced? Even if thousands of Syrians continued to suffer from a lack of basic medical services? Even if scores of Syrians continued to be killed through more conventional means?

It strikes me that if the question of morality towards the Syrian civil war exists, it should be because such suffering and death by whatever means has occurred at a level that we as a nation find unacceptable to ignore. The moral atrocity of what’s happening in Syria is worth opposing; just not with tomahawk missiles for a plan highly unlikely to work so that we can say we fulfilled our moral obligation.


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