“I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living,
So different now from what it seemed…
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed…” – I Dreamed a Dream, Les Miserables
This weekend the president surprised us all by declaring that he would indeed ask for congressional approval before attacking Syria, though at the same time he indicated that he didn’t need congressional approval. We will lay out here the case for US intervention in Syria, as well as the case (or one of the cases) against.
The Purpose of Government …
Bastiat notes that the purpose of government is collective defense of individual liberties. This is particularly the case in a democracy, but applies equally well to any number of tribal arrangements that have kept regional order through the ages. We all recognize that a man, any man, is no match for an organized mob of oppressors. As the majority of us just wish to live in peace, we organize ourselves into a larger, stronger band (mob?) that cannot be pushed around by gangs or thugs. We agree to defend each others’ life, liberty, and property, so that none of us will be oppressed.
One needn’t be a Christian to recognize the benefit of such a relationship, and to choose it for no reason other than self preservation. However, for the Christian the relationship turns out to fit cleanly within the confines of the Golden Rule as applied to majority-rule. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people is the people. Anything the government does to the people is something the people do to each other. And anything the people do to each other that goes beyond a simple defense of individual liberties also goes beyond the Golden Rule.
Let me say that again, because it is central to the prospect of democracy amongst Christians. Any government structure that goes beyond collective defense of individual liberties is built upon the belief that some of us stand above our fellow men, as an intermediary between them and God, with rights and authority to rule over them as king. This flies in the face of holy scripture on many fronts, including our equality before God (Gal 3:26-29, Matt 23:8-12), our service to Christ (Rom 14:4), the Golden Rule (Matt 7:12), and on and on.
To be sure, departures from this will be couched (by the Christian) in terms of very moral arguments. Of “doing good to the poor and needy” – which is a good thing indeed. But in the church we have very clear guidelines for handling one who won’t do what is right. We tell them where they’re wrong, then we tell them with a friend, then we tell them in front of the whole congregation, and then we put them out (Matt 18:15-17) – and that’s as far as it goes! Any judgment beyond this is left to God and God alone. Nowhere do we seize their life and property and make them do what is “right” in our judgment.
But I digress, this is about Syria.
The Case for Intervention …
The purpose of government is collective defense of individual liberties. The purpose of the American government is then defense of American liberties. Any argument for attacking Syria must be presented in these terms or it is an invalid use of government.
To date I have not heard the president make that argument. Now, the argument has always come in the form of “humanitarian” crisis aversion. This isn’t a bad argument, as there is a sincere moral case to be made for deposing Assad. However, this is not a valid argument for the use of the American government.
So what then is the case? I am willing to accept broad-sweeping arguments for what constitutes a defense of American liberties. Staring down communist expansionism in the third world? Sure. Propping up unsavory dictators to keep Soviet proxies at bay? Well, it ain’t exactly how I’d hope the world to be, but I understand the argument.
The only argument I can come up with on that front is Iran. Syria is an Iranian satellite state. While Israel rightly views Iran as an existential threat, the US does not. But, when Iranian leaders continually spout off about what they plan to do to us, we have more than enough cover to “take them seriously” … and lay the smack down. Thus, the argument would go, we have to take down Assad to tighten the noose on Iran. It’s thin, but it’s the best I can come up with to justify the Obama administration’s push for intervention.
Realpolitik arguments will also note that we have (allegedly) been backing rebel groups across the region in times past. If we do not step in to put down Assad now we will lose all credibility with those groups that have been acting at our behest.
The Case Against …
The case against intervention is simple: Syria doesn’t represent a threat to the US so we shouldn’t get involved. We shouldn’t be involved with rebel elements, we shouldn’t be involved with Syrian intervention, we shouldn’t be involved in cases that don’t present a threat to the country. It’s a short and simple argument … and probably the right one.
So What’s Going to Happen?
I don’t know. Obama has done the right thing by asking Congress to weigh in – he does not have authority to act without Congressional approval. I suspect action without a Congressional sign-off would have incurred quite a bit of impeachment talk on the right.
Will he get the votes? I don’t know, but there’s a good chance he will. It’s one thing to sit on the sidelines and snipe about how the president lacks the authority to do this or that, but it’s a different thing to vote “no” and put a stop to it. Somebody, likely the Syrian government, killed upwards of 1400 people with Sarin gas in Damascus. Will congress really vote to turn their backs on that situation? (I’m not saying they should vote to attack – but they will probably think they should.)
Ultimately the president appears to have painted himself in a corner and a Congressional vote is the only way out. He threw down a “red line” ultimatum that he couldn’t back up without someone else giving approval. This is a huge political risk. He could find himself on the losing end of a Congressional vote, but I doubt he will. Whatever the Republicans truly believe about the purpose of government, the political calculus is clear: If there is no US action, and if the Republicans are the reason why, then any future chemical genocide (and it will be coming) can be laid at their feet. They won’t take that chance.
The debate will get loud and angry between now and then.