Though the left is often seen as home to only pacifists and those who see the hand of imperialism in all proposed military action, there is also a healthy strain of messianic militarism on our side. I regularly engage with lefties who believe we should be “doing something” for the people of Syria, although what that something entails is not consistent or clear. In this telling, the Syrian uprising is a legitimate revolutionary force, the Islamists among them a small corruption that doesn’t jeopardize a post-Assad future, and the situation such that the United States could deploy military power in a way that increases stability and humanitarian outcomes rather than degrades them. These lefties believe in revolution, and they want the United States to be a revolutionary power.
Well, I would simply start by asking: is the United States military in the habit of supporting revolutionaries? What about the history of this country compels you to think that it has the capacity to support revolution, or any interest in doing so? If the United States goes to war, it doesn’t go with some hypothetical benevolent military machine. It goes to war with its actual existing military machine, under the auspices of the same-old warmongering politicians and officials, and with the same old military leadership. We don’t have some spare revolutionary force lying around. So: do you want to break bread with those people? Do you want to give your support to them? Do you want them to do what they do? Because that is a necessary precondition of getting involved. The neocons who want us to get into every war are not suddenly going to throw up their hands and say “we’re sitting this one out, the lefties have got it.” You are free to say that you don’t want to get involved with Bill Kristol and his cronies. But they will most certainly get involved in your war.
There are more arguments against intervening in Syria than I can count. The first and most salient is the only argument we need against calls for more righteous bloodletting: should implies can. The United States went to war under ostensibly humanitarian pretenses in Iraq. We had over 100,000 troops stationed there, and the result was a humanitarian calamity, limitless slaughter. We sent cruise missiles to liberate the people of Libya, and the country has descended into civil war and chaos. Saying that we should free the Syrian people implies that we can. But for now, I want left-wing advocates of military intervention in Syria to recognize: anything that the United States does, will be done in the way that the United States always does it. This will not suddenly become the country you want it to be. And no matter how much you wish it were different, you will be lying down with the Tony Blairs and the Dick Cheneys and the Weekly Standards and the Commentarys. They will be getting involved, and they will exercise more control than you ever can. That’s reality.
Back in a rare moment of clarity, before quickly rediscovering his cruise missile liberalism, Peter Beinart wrote an apology for his previous support for the war. He explained that he had come to learn “a painful realization about the United States: We can’t be the country those Iraqis wanted us to be. We lack the wisdom and the virtue to remake the world through preventive war.” That was true then, and it’s true now. Because the United States is not that country. Because everything about our history, recent and distant, teaches you that this country does not rescue. It doesn’t liberate. It supports dictatorships, destroys enemies, secures resources, destabilizes countries, drops ordnance, and generally imposes its will. But it does not liberate, and no amount of wishing will make it the kind of power you want it to be.
(Image from HuffPo’s “True Chyrons For Bush-Era Iraq War ‘Experts’“)