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September 14, 2013 11:52 AM Syria and the return of the liberal hawks

By Kathleen Geier

The New York Times is reporting that diplomacy has averted the possibility of military action in Syria, at least for the foreseeable future:

The United States and Russia reached a sweeping agreement on Saturday that called for Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons to be removed or destroyed by the middle of 2014 and indefinitely stalled the prospect of American airstrikes.

This is a huge relief, although, as the Times’ Michael Gordon points out, there are many challenges ahead for negotiators.

While I am very happy the U.S. did not launch a military strike, that we came so close, and that the Obama administration’s handling of the situation was both so seriously politically objectionable and often, so comically incompetent, is deeply dismaying. One bright spot in all this is that the domestic debate over military involvement was far saner than it was during the hysterical run-up to the Iraq War over a decade or two. Some pundits, at least, have learned a thing or two.

But not, alas, all of them. The most depressing development in the Syria debate was the re-emergence of the liberal hawks. I’ve heard the quip about the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. Even so, after Iraq, I would have have thought that many of the “decent left” types would have been a tad more reflective this time around. And yes, a few of them were. Others, sadly, not so much.

With the liberal hawks, a peculiar kind of pathology comes into play when these international crises arise, which I described here, in a piece I wrote about Iraq. I’ll elaborate. When people act politically, they tend to believe, naturally enough, they are on the side of the angels. Liberals and leftists, in particular, are often driven by idealism and a strong desire to do good in the world. Many times this is a good thing; it indicates strong moral convictions and empathy for your fellow suffering human beings. But such impulses can also go awry, because they contain the seeds of moral vanity. We all have at least a touch of that sort of narcissism, unless we are saints. And I always liked what Orwell said about saints, that they should always be judged guilty until proved innocent.

Some people, then, use politics as a kind of stage where they can perform virtue. For American liberals, that kind of messianic zeal seems to reveal itself most fulsomely during international episodes like Syria, or like Iraq 10 years ago. It’s scary to see how, with lightning speed, logic and rationality can be short-circuited, and otherwise intelligent people give way to the kinds of extremes of jingoistic emotionalism we saw in the early days of the Iraq War. The issue becomes not what practical policy they can support that has the most realistic chance of doing the most good and the least harm, but how they can use politics to entertain fantasies of omnipotence and moral superiority. They want to persuade you, and perhaps most of all themselves, of their sterling moral character and heroic awesomeness. And then — metaphorically speaking — out come the Captain America costumes. Men are especially vulnerable to liberal hawk syndrome, I’ve noticed. Very few female pundits seem to fall into this camp.

But history shows that these types of violent military interventions seldom improve things and often make them worse. Likewise, the idea of the indisputable benevolence of American power is questionable (read up on the history of American military interventions, open and covert, you will understand why there are ample reasons for deep skepticism).

Invariably, too, these military interventions are framed in an irrational, hyped up, very unhelpful way. Suddenly, media and political elites fix their gaze on some new bright shiny object — often an area of the world they had, up until then, been studiously avoiding — and start trying to persuade you that the situation there is the most terrible human rights crisis ever and Something Must Be Done. Sure enough, the situation is quite horrific. But so are many other evils across the globe that they rarely tell you about. And as with all military interventions, you are always talking about: a) killing many innocent people and b) risking a host of serious other complications, some of them foreseen, others not.

The liberal hawks say they want to help. Okay, then — how about supporting international causes where the United States, either via its government or American NGOs, could actually do some concrete, practical good across the globe? The world is full of people dying of diseases that could easily and cheaply be treated, for example, so how about advocating that the U.S. provide more aid for global health care and sustainable development? Other eminently worthy international causes include educating girls and raising international labor standards for workers. Or how about this: we know that climate change led to a drought which helped create the crisis in Syria. How about demanding that the United States devote more national security resources to addressing the problem of climate change?

There are many constructive things that Americans do to help poor, sick, oppressed, and suffering people across the globe. Launching a military strike that will kill them — even if in the name of some hypothetical greater good — is not one of them. Thankfully, we seemed to have arrived at a diplomatic resolution to the Syria crisis. But before one of these situations arises again — as it inevitably will — I hope the liberal hawks do some soul-searching. They can do us all a favor if save the Captain America costumes for Comic Con.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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