Against "Symbolic Killing" in Syria—and Everywhere Else.
In his must-read column about libertarian Republicans' response to intervention in Syria, Matt Welch notes William Kristol's blog post commending Weekly Standard readers to read University of Virginia professor James Ceaser's essay "To Authorize or Not to Authorize."
That piece appears in the conservative magazine First Things and argues, among other things, that conservatives and Republicans should approve action in Syria because
there is the important matter of the future – a future that may one day have a Republican in the presidency. The precedent of setting too low a threshold for blocking presidential initiative in foreign affairs is unwise.
Our guy may once again be in the White House and well, might want to bomb or invade some foreign land without the backing of the American people or its represenatives, so let it rip now, boys. Ceaser also channels Pontius Pilate and counsels Republicans that they "can sign on to the president's discretion to act without signing on to his actions." On such a grimly partisan calculation doth a supposedly humanitarian intervention hang. Being pro-war means never having to say you're sorry—or responsible.
As it happens, First Things' editor R.R. Reno has penned a counterpoint to Ceaser's analysis and it's one that, in my opinion, deserves to be read far more widely than Ceaser's.
Titled "Against Symbolic Killing," Reno argues
Claims that military action is necessary to deter future uses of chemical weapons are empty. This goal – and indeed any just outcome in Syria at this juncture – requires decisively defeating the Assad regime. Yet the Obama administration seems unwilling to say it's committed to achieving this goal. In fact, the administration seems unwilling to commit itself to any substantive, on-the-ground goal in Syria. Without a substantive goal, killing people there would be unjust, because purposeless. We would be killing them so that. . . . Try to complete that sentence. The best I can come up with is this: So that the world will know that the United States is serious about the fact that using chemical weapons is a bad thing.
Put simply: Just war-making requires clearly articulated and substantive goals. Launching cruise missiles or air strikes simply to "show resolve" or "send a message" cannot be justified. At the end of the day, these rationales authorize symbolic killing, which is fundamentally immoral.
In defense of Obama, one unnamed U.S. official told the LA Times that the Nobel Peace Prize winner and his administration were using all of their smartness and cleverness to calculate a response that would be "just muscular enough not to be mocked" and " just enough to mean something, just enough to be more than symbolic."
This is where we're at, America, after a decade-plus of wars that were generally ill-conceived and definitely ill-prosecuted. Indeed, our long stay in Iraq—which would still be going full-steam if Obama's former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had gotten his wish—and our ongoing war in Afghanistan, and whatever the hell is happening in Libya is now being followed up by whimpers about how the only proper thing to do with a genocidal madman like Syria's Assad is to bomb him a little bit, but not too much. To prove a point that America will not abide the use of chemical weapons. Unless of course, you were Saddam Hussein and it was 1988, and using them helped what we considered our interests at the time.