After years of hectoring for American action against Assad, the prospect of American action against Assad makes me sad. Obama seems to be readying a strike of some kind against the author of the atrocity at East Ghouta, the suburb of Damascus whose name has entered the rolls of contemporary evil, alongside Halabja and Srebrenica and Rwanda. Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians—or more accurately, his latest use of chemical weapons against civilians: according to Dexter Filkins's Syrian sources, he has used them 35 times—was one crime against humanity too many for the president. The administration is now speaking in somber hawkish tones and leaking to reporters various possibilities for the deployment of air power. There was some fussing about verifying that Assad was in fact responsible for the horrors, which reminded me of Clemenceau’s jibe about the complexity of the origins of World War I—that whoever started it, it wasn’t Belgium; but the factual matter has been officially closed, and everyone awaits a military operation. And this, as I say, makes me sad.
I am not the only one who is saddened, of course. Obama’s imminent bout of historical decisiveness is worrying everyone who applauded his indecision, who found wisdom in his willingness to tolerate the massacres of children and the disintegration of our position in the Middle East. This week the “realists” are panicking. I confess that I am enjoying the spectacle. What saddens me, rather, is that Obama’s awakening comes so shatteringly late. There is one response that crimes against humanity always provoke, and it is tardiness. The gassings at East Ghouta were not a unique outrage, a sudden outburst of tyrannical madness. They were perfectly consistent with the logic of the Syrian situation as it has unfolded over almost three years. They could have been predicted; they were predicted. When Assad went unmolested for his previous resort to weapons of mass destruction, there were some who noted that this would further disinhibit him and make him more likely to resort to them again. You do not need a security clearance to understand this.
Assad’s cruelty against his own population has been steadily escalating in conformity with his view that there would be no retaliation from the West. Until now, his view was correct. But he should not yet abandon it entirely. A close reading, insofar as it is possible, of Obama’s intentions reveals that what we are about to witness is not a renunciation of his previous policy on Syria. The realists should relax, and ride out the passing interventionist unpleasantness. Consider this remark by Jay Carney: “What we are talking about here is a potential response … to this specific violation of international norms. While it is part of this ongoing Syrian conflict in which we have an interest and in which we have a clearly stated position, it is distinct in this regard.” The logic of the Syrian situation, in other words, is precisely what American action will not address. The atrocity at East Ghouta has been analytically isolated from its context. It will not be allowed to falsify the prior assessment or the prior hesitation. What has roused the president is the WMD question and the international law question, not the humanitarian question and the strategic question. Meanwhile a torrent of liberal commentary is imploring him to sustain this distinction, to act but not with a new attitude about action. The White House and its supporters are seeking intervention without interventionism. An operation must be designed that will be limited and fleeting, that will do the right thing as inconsequentially as possible: a cop-out in the shape of a cruise missile. Assad will be punished and left in place; which is to say, unpunished. If he chooses never again to use chemical weapons, then his slaughter may never again be disturbed. Above all, the memory of Iraq will not be defiled. If we must do something—there is that “red line,” after all—then we will do something; but once we do something, we can go back to doing nothing.
A word about ambivalence, in the form of a Jewish joke. The setting is a rabbinical court. The plaintiff rises and makes his case. “You know, you’re right,” the rabbi says. The defendant rises and makes his case. “You know, you’re right,” the rabbi says. The bailiff rises and says: “But rabbi, they can’t both be right.” “You know, you’re right,” the rabbi says. In The New Yorker the other day, George Packer published an ingenious and exasperating dialogue between a hawk and a dove on the impending Syrian intervention, or rather between the divided voices in his own thoughtful head. The disputation is a draw. It turns out that neither side owns the moral high ground, that absolute certainty is ethically and intellectually disfiguring. People will die whatever we do or do not do. Innocence is not an option for any of us. I have no doubt that many of Packer’s readers were grateful for his skillful portrait of their own ambivalence. My problem is that it such double-mindedness is useless at a principals meeting. Worse, the president is himself a wallower in complexity. The relationship of complexity to decisiveness is, well, complex; but at some point arguments must be accepted and arguments must be rejected. I have sometimes wondered about Eisenhower on the night before Normandy. He knew what would happen to the thousands of soldiers who had the misfortune, and the honor, to be the first on those beaches. Ambivalence is inevitable, at least in morally scrupulous people; but ambivalence never came to the rescue of anybody. The idealization of ambivalence is a version of the search for perfection, for a wholly clean conscience, when no such human immaculateness exists and not even just causes are perfect causes. Evil is certainly unambivalent. So it is good to be warned of all the impurities of power; but we are forgetting that power, our power, may be used for good and high purposes. The recent insistence on the decline of American power is in part the expression of the wish that America be less powerful. But it is too late for that, too. If our might cannot make right, it can at least serve it.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.