As the debate on Syria ricochets along, I am struck by a contrast between the internal conservative debate on the crisis and the wider political, diplomatic, and media debates. By and large the conservative debate is both civil and serious. There are exceptions, but most conservatives accept that their opponents advance reasonable points and they seek to rebut them by reasoned argument. My own take on Syria, for what it’s worth, is skeptical about intervention. Its latest expression is in the London Spectator. Chris Caldwell has a strong piece in the same issue in which he sees Britain’s parliamentary vote and congressional resistance to intervention as signs that both publics will no longer be hustled into military adventures by declarations that civilization is at stake. The Anglo-America “special relationship,” he argues, is working very well. It’s just that it’s working for the voters rather than for their governments.
But there are serious arguments on the other side. The first is that we should uphold as far as we can the long international probition on chemical weapons. The second, which counts strongly with such conservatives as NR’s editors and Walter Russell Mead, is that Washington cannot allow its warnings to be disregarded with impunity if it is to preserve its authority for the future. I don’t reject these arguments out of hand; indeed, I share them as aims. But it seems very probable that the action proposed by President Obama will uphold neither the prohibition on chemical warfare nor the authority of the U.S. because it has been carefully designed to change as little as possible in Syria. It might even strengthen the position of President Assad and his regime or, slightly less damagingly, look like the pointless gesture it is — Joseph Conrad’s gunboat “firing into Africa” to make a point in some European capital.
Doing nothing, however, has at least some of the dangers pointed out by conservative critics. And though saving President Obama’s face is not something that keeps me awake at night, it is worth doing if it saves America’s authority and influence at the same time. What this suggests is the kind of helpful diplomatic initiative by a neutral third country, preferably one with links to the main players, that muddies the waters and conceals the spectacle of people clambering down from high horses, even at some cost in principle.
Yes, a fudge. Some nations are like high-quality confectioners; they specialize in making fudge: the Finns, the Norwegians, the Swiss, in this case perhaps the Algerians. Maybe one of them could propose that the U.S., the Russians, the EU, Turkey, and others should convene a new conference to strengthen the prohibition on chemical warfare, for instance extending sanctions from users to suppliers, and delaying any military action until it has completed its (urgent) work. No, I don’t like eating fudge either, but I prefer it to eating either of the two alternatives currently on offer. At the very least it avoids manifest dangers.
By contrast the wider debate in Washington, London, other capitals, and the international media is characterized by hysterical charges, moral outrage, and political grandstanding. Assertions that opponents of intervention don’t care about murdered children or that holding back from an imprudent military intervention amounts to “isolationism” are deeply silly as well as distasteful. They lack all balance and proportion and mistake criticism of means for criticism of ends. And they stem, I believe, from anger at the discovery that the neo-globalist assumptions on which much liberal diplomacy is based simply don’t work outside the U.N., Brussels, a few Western capitals, and Ivy League law schools.