by E.C. Fish on September 8, 2013

“And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for?”
— Country Joe McDonald

“Naughty children! Naughty children! Uncle Sam spank!”
— Amiri Baraka

FISH LOGOThose expressing fears that the United States could be involving itself in a quagmire in Syria are instructed to look down and note the fetid swamp the Syrian situation has put us waist-deep in here at home.

This week’s discussions of the American reaction to the chemical attacks in Syria have been both highly instructive on the state of contemporary American politics and almost entirely obfuscatory on the actual topic of the American reaction to the chemical attacks in Syria. While American politics these days mostly consists of having the wrong conversation on any given topic, the sheer volume of extraneous evidence, specious arguments, and barely related tangents that have have formed the bolus of this week’s shitstorm has obscured the basics of the situation pretty thoroughly.

This exercise in mass point-missing has largely been a function of just how few of the questions being posed have anything to do with Syria and the Syrian people, whose abuse at the hands of the dictator Assad is the supposed impetus for the discussion in the first place. Instead, vast swaths of the conversational landscape have been occupied by monuments to American narcissism: How will this affect our prestige, our status as a superpower, our international credibility? What impact will it have on our domestic politics, the 2014 and 2016 elections, President Obama’s political capital? How does it compare to Viet Nam, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan? What do Rumsfeld and the Cheneys think?

It is, admittedly, difficult to have a factual discussion over something about which few facts are known, making it far easier to wrap the entire discussion in a thick blanket of conjecture and abstraction. UN weapons inspectors are unlikely to have even a preliminary report before late next week; US intelligence reports of the incident have been highly redacted and are unconvincing even to those in the international community and the Congress who have been privy to them. Even such basic details as the number of Syrians actually exposed to the attack remain badly estimated unknowns.

Equally undefined are the Obama Administration’s actual goals in pursuing a military response, however limited, to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Both the president and Secretary of State Kerry have cited enforcement of the international norm against the use of such weapons (while garnering next to no support in the international community for such action), but have failed to mention that such an attack would itself be in violation of both the UN Charter (which requires a UN resolution for an attack by one member nation on another) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (to which Syria is not a signatory). Clearly, this is not being done on behalf of the international community. The concept of humanitarian missile attacks — that is, killing for peace — is such an obvious oxymoron as to preclude any serious consideration that this is being done in the name of any larger principle. The chances are fadingly small that missile strikes on Syrian territory would result in a smaller collateral body count than the gas attacks themselves, so this is also clearly not being done on behalf of the Syrian people, who have been dying by the tens of thousands for years, thanks to conventional weapons. The Syrian opposition is a nebulous collection of disparate factions, some of which are every bit as opposed to the US as they are to Assad, leaving unacceptably open the question of on just whose behalf we’d be acting.

And while Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval for such action has been touted as a chance for the American people to be represented in this process, the yawning chasm between politics and democracy in this country has rendered even that a sort of farce. Popular opposition to unilateral US military action is both strong and growing, a fact that has led not to any reconsideration of the policy, but instead to a stepped-up attempt by the administration to press the case, including a promised Obama speech to the nation next Tuesday. Congressional approval, as unlikely as it seems at the moment, could render it every bit as relevant as the popular opposition to tax and spending cuts.

Having been made a subject of congressional action, the question of the US reaction to Syria has become a question of US politics, and is thus unlikely to be resolved by anything resembling morality or ethics. If I had to hazard a guess, I would consider it likely that Congress will do the right thing for the wrong reasons at some point in the near future: rejecting Obama’s resolution due to the Republican habit of reflexively rejecting anything Obama proposes regardless of its actual content. But a week’s worth of deal-making and arm-twisting could certainly change that, and it’s still an open question whether an executive decision could render congressional approval every bit as moot as public opinion.

For my own part, I generally make it a policy not to support ill-defined courses of action that kill people. In particular, I wonder what vile, heady blend of American exceptionalism and superpower geopolitics makes this our business in the first place. Not only don’t I think that the United States should be the world’s policeman, I find that its inherent conflicts of interest and piss-poor track record leave it completely unsuited for the job. As such, my support for any action whatsoever isn’t likely to be forthcoming, regardless of how the above questions are answered.

While it’s important in principle that we have these discussions as a nation, at some point it becomes even more important that we know what the hell we’re talking about. We don’t — and until that changes, responsible action is an impossibility.

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E. C. Fish is the editor and publisher of The Spleen.

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