America’s reputation doesn’t depend on Syria

By Jayson Jacoby September 06, 2013 09:43 am

I was listening to Secretary of State John Kerry the other day as he explained why the U.S. is obliged to bomb Syria, and he seemed awfully sure of himself.

Confidence is valuable in a fighting soldier, to be sure — as valuable, sometimes, as a good rifle.

But when those who send others to fight wax rhapsodic about the moral imperatives of the coming battle, well, my instinctive skepticism deepens.

(See: Sir Douglas Haig’s diary entries before the Battle of the Somme.)

Kerry is certain, for instance, that Syrian president Bashar Assad is responsible for a chemical weapons attack on his citizens on Aug. 21.

That claim is at least backed by some physical evidence. The link to Assad isn’t terribly robust, to be sure, but it exists.

Yet Kerry is equally confident in proclaiming not only what Assad has done, but what he will do if the U.S. and its allies don’t attack.

A lack of action, Kerry asserts, “is a guarantee Assad will do it again.”

Kerry is a smart man, and a war hero to boot, but that statement seems to me remarkably irresponsible in its brazenness.

If Kerry, and presumably his boss, President Obama, have such keen insight into Assad’s mind, then they ought to have discerned his intentions before the Aug. 21 gas attack on civilians and called for a pre-emptive strike that might have saved 1,500 lives.

Kerry and the rest of Obama’s acolytes remind me of nothing so much as annoyed parents, using the specter of a boogeyman in the closet to persuade a four-year-old to stay in his bed.

North Korea and Iran, he contends, are watching, wondering whether American’s backbone has gone flaccid, and eager to pounce should we betray anything other than absolute fortitude.

“I think that it’s fair to say that our interest would be seriously set back in many respects if we are viewed as not capable, or willing, most important, to follow through on the things that we say matter to us,” Kerry said.

I don’t think that’s a fair statement at all. Moreover, it’s not a logical one.

Kerry not only compares America’s military muscles with its willingness to flex them, he says the latter is more important.

This is akin to concluding that a dog which chews a chunk of flesh from your thigh one day, but then lets you pass its yard, unmolested, on each of the next three days, no longer poses any threat, and that you might as well go yank its tail.

Firstly, every despot and dictatorial nation on the planet knows well what the U.S. military is capable of. Kerry’s fretting about our being “viewed as not capable” solely because we didn’t immediately bombard Damascus upon confirmation of a chemical weapons attack is the reddest of herrings.

Kerry’s second point — that the question of whether America has the guts to exercise its formidable strength in Syria is of some interest around the world — is at least not ridiculous.

But neither is this a compelling reason for us to thrust ourselves into Syria’s fight.

The legitimacy of Obama’s case for attacking Syria, or so it seems to me, depends on the belief that if the U.S. fails to unleash a dollop of shock and awe on Assad, then our reputation and influence around the globe will be forever diminished.

Kerry seems to be trying to convince Congress, and the rest of America, that Syria is a milestone — perhaps even the last best chance for the U.S. to maintain the geopolitical clout it has amassed since the end of World War II.

This of course is nonsense.

Although America’s military has embroiled itself in quite a number of conflicts over the past 70 years, ranging from comparatively minor skirmishes (Grenada, Panama) to full-scale wars (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan), we’ve also sat out episodes much bloodier (if less chemically gaseous) than Syria’s civil war (Rwanda, several Israeli-Arab battles).

Ultimately, the historical record shows that America’s involvement, or lack thereof, is not guaranteed to either deter or to embolden murderous tyrants.

Yet now we have our top diplomat, along with the president and some high-ranking lawmakers, seeming almost to compare, at least in international relations terms, a single use of chemical weapons, in a civil war that’s been waged for 2 years in a backwater country, with Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland.

Whether you call it “a line in the sand” or a “red line,” it comes to the same conceit — that if America doesn’t send the missiles flying, we, and the ideals we hold dear, are in jeopardy.

Forgive my naiveté but I’m surprised our representatives believe we’re still that gullible, in 2013.

Despite admonishments from Kerry such as “this is not the time to be spectators to slaughter,” the widespread skepticism among Americans about attacking Syria, — and for many of us the attitude is outright disdain — does not mean we’re callous about the tragedy. 

And our collective reluctance to risk our countrymen’s lives in no way equates to, as Kerry put it, “consent with silence.”

This is not merely wrong — it’s insulting.

The term that inevitably gets tossed around in cases such as this is whether America should serve as “the world’s policeman.”

I don’t think that’s ever been our role, and I don’t believe we ever should aspire to it.

America is a great country — in fact I believe it is the greatest country people have yet managed to create.

And when its survival has been in jeopardy we have always protected ourselves with the absolute conviction that attends a righteous cause.

Syria’s civil war poses no such threat, not to our country and not to its standing in the world.

To suggest otherwise, it seems to me, demeans America rather than ennobles it.

If our reaction to a third-rate thug like Assad has become the arbiter of America’s greatness, we have bigger problems, I fear, than a gas attack halfway across the globe.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.