Are They Syrious?

Next Stop: Damascus


The rhetorical groundwork has been laid for step two in Operation: Arab Freedom. President Bush, in his highly imitable style, began vaguely threatening Syria yesterday. "I think that we believe there are chemical weapons in Syria, for example," Bush told reporters. "And we will—each situation will require a different response and, of course, we're—first things first. We're here in Iraq now. And the second thing about Syria is that we expect cooperation. And I'm hopeful we'll receive cooperation."

President Bush might have been sincerely hopeful that Saddam Hussein would voluntarily leave Iraq as well. But the threat is out there, and the Syrians might be wondering what it is they can do to stay the mighty and vengeful hand of its new neighbor, the U.S. military. The Assad regime started with a somewhat poorly-worded denial, given their audience: "We say to him (President Bush) that Syria has no chemical weapons and that the only chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in the region are in Israel, which is threatening its neighbors and occupying their land," Syrian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Buthaina Shaabam said to Reuters.

No less an authority than the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) has, on its "Terrorism: Questions and Answers" Web site, laid out the bill of particulars that makes another round of war in the Mideast seem both inevitable and justified, at least by the standards that made the Iraq war the feel-good hit of the season.

"Syria, a secular dictatorship with one of the world's worst human rights records, has been on the State Department list of countries sponsoring terrorism since the list's inception in 1979," the CFR tells us. So, a nation of oppressed people yearning for liberation, check. And with links to evil beyond its borders, check.

So, now how much would you pay to invade Syria? Another $80 billion? But that's not all!

"Syria has an active chemical weapons program, including significant reserves of the deadly nerve agent sarin," according to the CFR Web site. "Its research programs are trying to develop even more toxic nerve agents. It also has a biological weapons program, but experts say Syria is incapable of producing and 'weaponizing' large quantities of dangerous germs without substantial foreign help." No nukes, alas, but what the hell—those uranium processing tubes were fake and that didn't make conquering Iraq any less of a screaming success.

Thus, every reason why the invasion of Iraq was considered a good idea applies equally well to Syria. They have a dictator and they have weapons. So, why not invade? I expect the Bush administration itself won't be able to come up with a good answer. Here are some suggestions.

Sure, a crowd of people will dance in the streets once Assad is on the run. But that is simply not a good enough reason for the United States to wage war. Pro-war arguments sometimes seem to assume that any "good result" from a war somehow makes the costs—in life and wealth and for America's future—worth it.

But that isn't necessarily so. The American government is not a Spider-Man manqué, whose "great power comes with great responsibility" to sock it to supervillains around the globe. It is costly and dangerous to be an empire, and to be the citizen of an empire. We are mighty and wealthy enough to protect our nation and our people without projecting that might and wealth willy-nilly. While this ongoing mission to invade and occupy is somehow sold as an anti-terror measure, there is scarcely a terrorist group in existence whose grievances are not at their root about some extranational power lording it over what is seen as an occupied or subject people. It seems unlikely, then, that spreading American protectorate states throughout the Middle East could possibly help make Americans more secure from terrorism.

America has slowly (since at least the Spanish-American War) been killing that which was most lovely, unique, and irreplaceable about itself: a limited, representative government dedicated to protecting its citizens' life, liberty, and ability to pursue happiness. It was meant to be a nation where the government's mission was tightly prescribed and the people's liberty and property were theirs, a nation that could successfully live in peace—a coiled snake, yes, as per the Gadsden flag, but one that struck only when stepped on.

To some, this is less glorious or lovely than a nation waging perpetual war until evil is wiped from the earth. Some careful conservatives used to call that fool's mission "immanentizing the eschaton," and were aware that it was an evil temptation. Now, almost all who wrap themselves in the conservative mantle embrace America's seemingly never-ending mission to destroy all evil.

War is not safe, alas, for republics or other living things. Keep your eyes on Damascus.