All in favor of going to war with Syria, raise your hands.
I see no hands.
But that’s rather like asking on Dec. 6, 1941: Who’s in favor of going to war with both Germany and Japan, and, by the way, allying with our mortal enemy, the Soviet Union? The events of December 7 probably didn’t change the answer to that question – but they did make the question moot. After Pearl Harbor, we were going to war. End of discussion.
Like most people I am torn between the realpolitik argument that the only basis on which we should conduct our foreign policy is our own long-term strategic interest, and the internationalists’ “moral duty to protect” argument that we can’t in good conscience stand by while innocents are slaughtered. Every time one argument seems to be carrying the day, a situation comes along to demonstrate its flaws. Intervention in Kosovo changed the status quo in the Balkans and helped end that war; in retrospect, an intervention in Rwanda could have ended that conflict at little cost, and would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. On the other hand, all the blood and treasure lost in Iraq and Afghanistan have left us even more hated and in a worse strategic position than before.
All serious people understand that war is an inescapable part of the human condition, but good and decent people will disagree on where and when to fight. There is no pat answer, no checklist to tick off the boxes. It’s a decision that deserves serious debate and long prayer. But on this I have no doubt: When we must go to war, there is no substitute for victory. If we must fight, we must fight to win. Threats are counter-productive unless the enemy believes they will be carried out. A non-credible threat invites contempt and tempts the aggressor to attack. After all, who’s afraid of the big, bad wuss?
Unfortunately, this is exactly where we find ourselves today, and the blame falls squarely on President Obama and his national security team. Over the last four-and-a-half years they have blundered their way from one disaster to another. From botching negotiations with Iraq over a continued military presence, to informing the Taliban how long they would need to wait before resuming their war in Afghanistan, to attempting to “reset” relations with a Russia that couldn’t have been less interested, it has been one stupid blunder after another. No wonder that the world’s leaders have come to the conclusion that Obama is out of his depth and out of touch.
By World War I, humankind had become expert at and inured to killing by bludgeoning, choking, cutting, shooting, incinerating and blowing people to bits. Late in the war both sides introduced chemical weapons, and the results were so horrible that all civilized nations soon agreed to ban them. Consider that carefully – of all the methods that mankind had developed to kill one another, only one was awful enough to be utterly banned. Even in World War II, when the Nazis felt no compunction about using poison gas in the death camps, they never considered its use in battle, nor did any other nation.
That prohibition has lasted to this day, other than a few isolated incidents. And that is exactly what is at stake in Syria. If the United States, the leader of the free world, the ultimate protector of civilized order, fails to take action now, then chemical warfare will be legitimized. Even if no one but bad actors uses it, there will be no moral authority to prevent it. By our inaction, we will have allowed a horror to be released on the world.
And that is why we must take action. In terms of realpolitik, it is in our interest to keep this genie in the bottle, to make sure that anyone who would dare challenge us knows they face defeat and destruction, and to break Syria’s alliance with Iran and Hezbollah. In terms of moral duty to protect, we will have prevented a monster from killing his own people and perhaps deterred others in the future.
I cringe at the thought of going to war under the command of Barack Obama, but just as one must go to war not with the army you want but with the army you have, the same applies to the commander in chief. I understand that the military and the nation are fatigued by a decade of war. But the consequences of shirking this responsibility are so dire that we have no realistic choice. As it was on Dec. 7, 1941, the question of whether or not is now moot.
Kenneth D. Gough of Elizabethton is president and general manager of Accurate Machine Products Corp. in Johnson City.