To Intervene or Not to Intervene

Eugene Goodheart’s analysis of the Syrian quandary doesn’t take in the story’s latest twists, but it comprehends the president’s humane, cautious approach to the issue. Goodheart’s piece amounts to an addendum to the case he makes in his new book, Holding the Center: In Defense of Political Trimming, which places Obama’s default stance within a specific Euro-American tradition of liberal thinkers and politicians. A short review of Goodheart’s deeply informed text follows this piece.
How does one decide on a course of action, when the arguments on the opposing sides are equal in strength and weakness? The question is intended as a caution to the passionate advocates on both sides of the debate about whether the United States should play an active role in the Syrian civil war. What we have here is an antinomy or something resembling it. Here is a definition of antinomy: “a contradiction between apparently valid principles or between inferences correctly drawn from such principles.’ I would substitute the word “vulnerable” for “valid” in characterizing the current debate. What follows are the back and forth arguments for and against intervention.

The argument for intervention must begin with the question of how we are to intervene. Even the most ardent advocates draw the line at “putting boots on the ground.” The reason is obvious: our disastrous military involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq. Intervention would mean providing the rebels with armaments, including anti-aircraft weapons and what would put us at greatest risk, a no fly zone aimed at eliminating the overwhelming advantage the Assad regime has in the air. The reason for intervening would be to remove Assad from power. The optimistic alternative to Assad is a moderate secular government with democratic ambitions. But the evidence on the battleground is that the most effective rebel forces are militant Islamists with Al Qaeda affiliations. How can we be confident that the arms and support we provide will not fall into their hands and that a victory on the rebel side will bring about what we want—a Syria freed of tyranny? (Non-Muslims such as Christians have already suffered atrocities at the hands of the rebellious militant Islamists. In Aleppo now under control by the rebels, a fourteen-year old boy was summarily executed by Islamists for making a casual remark about the prophet Mohamed.) We cannot be confident, but the advocates persist in maintaining that there are secular democratic forces and we must make every effort to supply them. As for the no fly zone, would that be sufficient to bring down the Assad regime? Our planes will be vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire and the war would continue with casualties (military and civilian) mounting on both sides. If the no fly zone does not lead to victory, how will we be able to resist the temptation to escalate our involvement, perhaps to the point of putting troops on the ground? If we decide to pull out, we will have in effect conceded defeat not only to the Syrian regime, but to its supporters Iran and Russia as well. Assuming our success in removing Assad, the prospects are as follows: a moderate secular government (less likely), a militant Islamist government (more likely) and chaos (most likely). Chaos is most likely, because the civil war has turned into a sectarian conflict between Sunnis (the rebel side) and Alawite Shiites (the Assad side); such conflicts tend toward endlessness.

And yet if we do nothing, the one-sided killing by the Assad regime continues unabated. Casualties suffered by the Syrians are enormous: one hundred thousand killed, millions of refugees languishing in neighboring countries. The analogy to Iraq and Afghanistan is not quite right. We invaded Iraq on the false premise that it had weapons of mass destruction. We went into Afghanistan to punish it for harboring the mastermind of 9/11. We would be going into Syria for humanitarian reasons during a time when the government is ruthlessly killing a large number of its own people. We will be preventing what we failed to prevent in Rwanda, the decimation of a population. If we intervene, we will be accused of imperialism, and if we don’t intervene we will be blamed for indifference to the suffering of others. Shouldn’t we act from conviction rather than from concern with the inevitable misperceptions of those opposed to us? But wouldn’t the arming of the rebels only prolong the war and the killing? Given what we have seen of the Arab Spring elsewhere, what evidence do we have that what would emerge from a victorious rebellion in Syria would be a peaceful and democratic alternative? In taking the risks sketched above and failing, we will be seen by the rest of the world as a paper tiger, unworthy of our position as great world power, let alone a superpower. If the prospect is endless war, isn’t it best not to intervene militarily and avoid the enormous human and financial cost intervention entails?

There is no convincing resolution to the debate. And yet the government must decide to act or not to act. President Clinton has joined Senator McCain in advocating intervention, suggesting that President Obama will disgrace himself if he doesn’t actively intervene. It is hard to hear this from someone who when in power refrained from taking action during the genocide in Rwanda and took his time in coming to the aid of Bosnia during the Balkan crisis. Clinton might be saying Obama should have learned from the lessons he learned. But the back and forth about Syria that I have sketched above doesn’t yield the same lessons. Obama, it seems to me, has rightly decided to do something: attempt to arrange a peace conference sponsored jointly with Russia, while providing military armament (but not a no fly zone) to somewhat offset Russian and Iranian support for the regime and increasing humanitarian aid to help deny Assad victory: too modest for the interventionists, perhaps not modest enough for those who want us to keep out altogether—but wise and humane in a situation in which all alternatives are awful.

Editor’s Note: This piece by Eugene Goodheart could’ve been an annex to his recent book Holding the Center: In Defense of Political Trimming. Grounded in the best liberals have thought and said, Goodheart’s essay collection ranges across politics and literature to illuminate dilemmas of the Obama era. It’s a short book but it’s not thin.

Trimming is a word with a heavy negative valence in my house (right down there with hopefully, that term beloved by do nothings). And Goodheart allows there are moments when political trimmers are out of time. (His book ends with a brief appendix on the struggle over how to respond to the Nazi threat between Churchill and an English trimmer, Lord Halifax, whose temporizing instincts “did not serve him or his country well.”) But Goodheart has come up with a political vision—call it an imagiNation—that feels pretty homey to me.

The trimmer tries to find common ground between extremes not for the sake of compromise but because reason does not have a single location on the political spectrum. The great modern philosophical avatars of trimming are Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stewart Mill, Mathew Arnold and Walter Bagehot, and in our own time Isaiah Berlin and Lionel Trilling…The historian Jacques Barzun speaks of Bagehot’s “double vision,” which perfectly expresses the visual character of trimming. “In any conflict of persons or ideas he was always able to see that neither side was perverse or stupid, but had reasons for militancy; and he entered not only into these reasons, but also the feelings attached. This is a rare gift, especially when it does not lead to shilly-shallying in the double-viewer’s own course of action. Bagehot could always state the reasons for his choice with the utmost clarity.” In politics, the principled trimmers are, surprisingly, Lincoln, less surprisingly FDR, and in our present moment, Barack Obama.

Goodheart’s line on Lincoln leaves me a little shame-faced at my own bloody-mindedness. A couple months back I smiled to myself when the subject of Lincoln’s legacy came up and Dror Moreh, director of the Israeli documentary, The Gatekeepers, turned tables on an American interviewer:

Moreh: The biggest threat to Israel’s security is those far right wing extremists. This is the biggest threat to Israel’s security. Who is the most renowned American president? I’m asking you now.
Director Talk: Lincoln.
Moreh: Why?
Director Talk: Because he brought the people together.
Moreh: And what did he do in order to do that?
Director Talk: Compromise?
Moreh: Civil war. He made civil war because he felt that at one point in its history, a country cannot yield to something that is so brutally and honestly immoral…

Yet that interviewer—and Goodheart—aren’t wrong to uphold the importance of Lincoln’s unifying compromises. They have Frederick Douglass as well as many modern historians in their corner. In Douglass’s “Oration on the Memory of Abraham Lincoln” (posted now on this site) he acknowledged the frustrations felt by abolitionists during the first years of Lincoln’s administration: “[Lincoln] was ready and willing…to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.” But Douglass’s final judgment on “the white man’s president” confirms Lincoln’s trimming led to transcendent moral achievements:

Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

Douglass’s “double-vision” here (and elsewhere) not only suggests he belongs in any pantheon of liberal imaginations, it also steers a reader toward a lacuna in Goodheart’s fine essay: “The President On and Off Base.” In that piece (and others in Holding the Center), Goodheart takes up Obama’s issues with liberal activists in the Democratic Party. But he doesn’t tackle Obama’s relations with black folks—who probably have more claim to being considered the president’s base (though of course there’s overlap when it comes to characters like Cornel West and Tavis Smiley).

On this score, Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates’s body of work since 2008 provides an indispensable complement to Goodheart’s essays. Coates’ unillusioned commentary on Obama (and America’s history of racism) may be the contemporary moral equivalent of Frederick Douglass’s measuring of Lincoln.

I’m pretty certain Obama is a Coates reader. And that, in turn, reminds me of Tavis Smiley’s recent plaint that Obama’s speech on the Martin verdict was “weak” since the president “did not walk to the podium for an impromptu address to the nation. He was pushed to that podium.” Smiley is one of those critics who loves to mock Obama for “leading from behind.” What he fails to grasp is that leading from behind is a pretty good definition of the democratic project.

There’s no doubt Obama’s openness to other points of view places him among high-minded paragons of liberalism cited by Goodheart, but the president’s trimming is also informed by more subterranean wisdom of the American Organizing Tradition. In Holding the Center Goodheart underscores the former community organizer’s readiness to receive light from minds who don’t share his politics, but Obama’s not just looking for illumination from grand bargainers on the right. As his speech on the Martin verdict proves, he also gets lit when his base is on fire.[1]

1 See Lawrence Goodwyn’s passages on “fire-fighting” in Breaking the Barrier: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland.