The problem with a moral vocabulary about politics and policy is that it not only makes politicians and policymakers feel bold, it also demands that they act bold. Eloquence creates expectations; and so in Washington, even for America’s first black, Jewish, and gay president, the goal is often to separate the high ground from its practical imperatives, so that an aura of rectitude may be acquired without recourse to significant action. Washington is the capital of idle talk about justice. In Washington now almost everybody wants Bashar Al Assad to fall and almost nobody wants Barack Obama to bring him down. This discrepancy is called realism, though it is less a philosophy than a mood, the on dit of the geopolitical swells, who wish that statesmen would behave like bankers. The banker’s view of economic policy, after all, is the one that strips it of moral considerations. (I remember Paul Desmond’s sublime joke: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a whim but a banker.”) In Obama’s Washington it is bad form to say that American foreign policy should be driven by moral ideals, except of course when the president says so and suddenly idealism is admirable again. But it passes, it passes. In recent weeks I have been conducting a local and anecdotal study of the likelihood that the United States will take decisive action in Syria—which would serve not only our tenderhearted values but also our hard-hearted interests—and I have concluded that the likelihood is close to zero. What follows are some observations on the alibis for the inconsequential action—some nonlethal aid is getting through!—and the absence of alacrity that is our policy.
COMPLEXITY. This is what one hears all the time: it is complicated. Tough talk, designed to sober moralists up. The very mention of complication can make a special assistant feel like Talleyrand. The appeal to complexity is intended to inhibit the appeal to freedom, and make it seem crude and unworldly. But I have yet to meet a single critic of our policy in Syria who believes that the situation in Syria is simple. Simplicity is almost never the case, in the Middle East or in health care, which means that the appeal to complexity is almost always selective, tendentious, driven by prior assumptions and preferences. I yield to nobody in my affection for nuance, but the paralyzing effect of nuance, its exploitation as a warrant for passivity, is a kind of decadence. It is certainly the enemy of historical ambition. In the case of Syria, Obama is disguising a refusal to act—a refusal that dissuades other powers from acting—with the sophistication of an analysis. About the incoherence of the Syrian opposition, there can be no doubt; but we can help them to cohere. About the ethnic and religious complexity of Syria, there can be no doubt; but this has not impeded us in other crises in other countries, and the longer Assad remains in power the greater grows the probability of sectarian cataclysm, and the appearance in Syria of Iranians and jihadists. And about the desirability of an international consensus in the overthrow of Assad, there can be no doubt; but the fact is—let us be realists—there will be no international consensus, no mandate from the Security Council, for forceful action in defense of the Syrian people. Everything we know about Putin suggests that he will never acquiesce in a popular uprising against an authoritarian government. The Annan mission is plainly futile, except in making us complicit with the Russian plan to thwart concerted action against the Syrian atrocities; and Annan is playing in Syria the despicable role that he played in Bosnia, which is to run suave interference for murderers.
TIME. A few weeks ago I ran into a friend, a good man, who works at the White House. “You know we disagree about Syria,” he said immediately. I must have had my interventionist face on. After explaining to me that we are exerting diplomatic and economic pressures, and that it is complicated, he sighed and said: “And eventually we may do what you want, after all.” This saddened me, because it represented a misunderstanding of the crisis. In most of the challenges of foreign policy, the ladder of escalation makes sense. If an objective can be accomplished without the use of force, or with only the threat of force, or with the minimal use of force, it should be so accomplished. Life and peace should be respected. But there are places, like Syria, where life is under attack and there is no peace, because a government has decided to slaughter its people, and where its people have risen up against such a government but are helpless and alone. In some of these cases our interests will be implicated, and in all of them are values will be implicated. In all of them, “eventually”—which is Obama’s customary mode of principled response—is a tragic mistake. When a fire is raging, firefighters use massive sprays of water to achieve what they call extinguishment. Escalation, by contrast, would assist the fire. Patience is not a virtue in an emergency. Syria is only the latest example of the accelerated temporality of moral emergencies, and we are being patient with the fire.
FATIGUE. Americans are weary of war, after Iraq, after (almost) Afghanistan, after Libya. Not again, the polls report. This is a little odd, since the overwhelming majority of Americans have not experienced the effects of these wars. Still, the question of American decline has been succeeded by the question of American exhaustion. I am of the party of American energy, which believes that America can never be tired, because the stakes for the world are too high. And I wonder what can be the relationship between “not again” and “never again.” At the Holocaust Museum in April, Obama intoned “never again” five times. “Too often, the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale,” he said. “Awareness without action changes nothing.” About Syria, he proclaimed that “we have to do everything we can.” Then he re-aligned himself with the spirit of the age and added that “that does not mean that we intervene militarily every time there’s an injustice in the world. We cannot and should not.” So then we do not have to do everything we can. And if we cannot intervene militarily every time there is an injustice in the world, why are American soldiers searching the African jungle for Joseph Kony? I hope we get him, of course. But Assad matters vastly more. The president is not tired. He is making choices.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the June 7, 2012 issue of the magazine.