Syria Is Not Your Moral Playground

by Brendan James


Sean Lee, a blogger living in Lebanon who’s skeptical of intervention, delivers a sharp message to fellow leftists:

[I]f your opinion of Syria is actually an opinion about the United States, I have no interest in hearing it, and it’s probably safe to say that most Syrians (or at least all of the ones I know) who are faced with the business end of the regime’s ordinance don’t either. I can’t think of a single Syrian who’s willing to get killed so you can flaunt your anti-imperialist street cred from the comfort of your local coffee shop.

Ramah Kudaimi is even more direct:

I think taking a position of the US should not get involved through a military intervention is fine. DON’T put it as “Hands off Syria” implying this is some kind of American conspiracy. DON’T argue this is about US not having a right to taking sides in a civil war. DON’T make it all about money for home since we do want more humanitarian aid. DO frame it as what will help bring the suffering of Syrians to an end.

We’re used to hearing the charge of abstract moralism leveled at advocates of intervention: those puffy Western pundits and armchair generals who convert every instance of mass atrocity into a simple moral quiz best answered with cruise missiles. And it’s true: there’s usually an inverse relationship between the level of a commentator’s self-righteousness and their knowledge of the country they intend to throttle. Tiny, wretched countries like Iraq and Syria suddenly echo the threat of European fascists on the march. There’s been no shortage of this posturing among those making the case for intervention in Syria.

But Lee and Kudaimi, like anyone outside of the interventionist bubble, are often forced to interact with a different crowd that, through either ideology or exhaustion, is equally guilty. Just as misguided liberals or delusional neocons perceive militarism as a sign of ethical yet  “hardheaded” foreign policy, many on the left and the Paulite right wear their anti-interventionism as a badge of honor, using a horror like Syria as a test of personal strength: it proves they’re not fooled by Washington’s propaganda or vulnerable to humanitarian appeals. And so arguments are reverse-engineered from a general attitude about the United States, global capitalism and waning empire.

For a taste, here’s self-appointed spokesman for the Arab world Robert Fisk, today:

If Barack Obama decides to attack the Syrian regime, he has ensured – for the very first time in history – that the United States will be on the same side as al-Qa’ida. Quite an alliance! Was it not the Three Musketeers who shouted “All for one and one for all” each time they sought combat? This really should be the new battle cry if – or when – the statesmen of the Western world go to war against Bashar al-Assad.

The men who destroyed so many thousands on 9/11 will then be fighting alongside the very nation whose innocents they so cruelly murdered almost exactly 12 years ago. Quite an achievement for Obama, Cameron, Hollande and the rest of the miniature warlords.

If you find it odd that this is the first thing Fisk has to say about a potential strike, you’ll begin to see Lee’s point above. When you’re rolling on a cocktail of sanctimony and snark, there’s neither time nor need for genuine analysis, as Lee points out:

It is the flip side of the rhetoric that was so evident in the run-up to war in Iraq that equated any opposition to an idiotic war with support for Saddam Hussein. Well, guess what? There are lots of perfectly fine opinions that might put you on the same side as al-Qa’ida. Just to name one: if you’re against drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, as I am, then you’re also “on the same side as al-Qa’ida” according to this logic.

In short: don’t pretend your moral pageant has anything to do with what’s right for Syrians. The months and months of chatter over this war have been a fine reminder that moralism, from the left and right, is utterly useless in writing about the conflict. With little time left before the US makes a final decision whether to strike, anyone serious about Syrian (or Lebanese, or Iraqi, or Israeli) lives can drop the indignation and the piety. An honest observer’s thoughts look a lot less like this or this, and a lot more like this.

(Photo: Demonstrators hold up placards during a protest against potential British military involvement in Syria at a gathering outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on August 29, 2013. By Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images)