17 June 2013

The Syrian debate

No opponent of American intervention in the Syrian civil war has infuriated the interventionists more than David Bromwich. Richard Cohen cited Bromwich's New York Review of Books commentary scornfully in the column discussed last week, and in my mail today came The New Republic with Leon Wieseltier's tirade against Bromwich. I'm a little behind in my reading of the New York Review, but Bromwich's piece is available for free reading at the NYRB website. Writing last month, Bromwich has anticipated the criticisms that have come this month. He's already dealt with opinionators who argue that Syria is not "another Iraq" and thus can benefit from careful application of American military power. Batting all aside, Bromwich offends self-styled humanitarian interventionists by writing, "What then should the US do? Nothing, until we can do something good."

Wieseltier, The New Republic's literary editor, dismisses Bromwich as an Ivy League academic and literary critic. Advising on foreign policy, apparently, is a matter of moral rather than academic or intellectual credentials. Wieseltier has no more obvious authority on the subject of Syria than Bromwich, but trumps his fellow critic with volcanic moralism.

“What then should the US do?” Bromwich asks. His sophistication deserts him. “Nothing,” is his answer, “until we can do something good.” Would it be “good” to stop the worst butchery of our day, and prevent jihadists from coming to power in Damascus, and return the refugees to safety, and secure Syria’s neighbors against disintegration? Bromwich does not say. “But the situation could not be less promising,” he adds. He is right. For certain objectives, intervention may now be too late. In this sense, Assad has already won. But it is not too late to avoid the most hideous outcomes of all; and anyway I cannot hear from American liberals that it is too late, because they are significantly responsible for making it too late. 

Wieseltier also offers his services as a translator. The NYRB cover headline for Bromwich's article reads, "Stay Out of Syria." In Wieseltier's translation: “Ignore the Murder of a Hundred Thousand People and the Massacre of Children and the Use of Chemical Weapons and the Bombing of a Civilian Population by Its Government and Millions of Displaced Persons Outside Syria and Millions of Displaced Persons Inside Syria and the Destabilization of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan and the Aggression of Hezbollah and the Ascendancy of Iran!” He admits, of course, that space limitations would have prevented an accurate rendering.

The argument, of course, is that writers like Bromwich are indifferent to human suffering that might be prevented. Inevitably, Wieseltier's attack takes an ad hominem turn, as he goes from deriding Bromwich as a Chomskian and a narcissistic purist ("This analysis of the world, in other words, is not about the world. It is about us, and our a priori stain, and our quest for purity, which is grossly mistaken for conscience.") to the depths of comparing him, and anti-interventionist liberals in general, not to Ron but to Rand Paul. Wieseltier laments that too many liberals are "saddened but not provoked by crimes against humanity." They suffer from an "ethical fastidiousness" that is "strikingly lacking in a particular moral vocabulary." Because Bromwich can't imagine either the U.S. or the region benefiting significantly from Assad's fall, giving the malignant forces involved in the insurrection, Wieseltier concludes that "the benefit of Bromwich's doubt goes to Assad." 

Wieseltier and his fellow interventionists can't look past the figure of the dictator. They seem to assume that the evil in the world is concentrated in a handful of individuals, the world's despots. It's one thing to recognize that Bashar al-Assad is a tyrant and that his father's Baath party has governed Syria unjustly for two generations. It's another to think of him as evil incarnate, and that perception distorts interventionists' vision. They see carnage in Syria, and see a dictator, and assume: no dictator, no carnage. That may be why people like Wieseltier seem blind to man-made humanitarian disasters elsewhere in the world. Where there is no dictator, no easy remedy comes to mind. In the absence of a dictator, endemic violence may seem more like a saddening but not provocative natural phenomenon. Bromwich is too troubled by the decentralized violence in Iraq and (to a lesser extent) Libya to risk it breaking out in Syria. Wieseltier can't imagine the situation getting worse -- admittedly, it's very bad right now -- in the absence of a dictator. If Bromwich does, then he must be sympathetic to tyranny. Wieseltier wants it to be all about the dictator, but to refute him is not to argue for dictatorship under any circumstances. The point for today is that people like Wieseltier act as if all the world's problems will disappear, or at least will be ameliorated meaningfully, if we get rid of dictators. The archetypal dictator, for the interventionists, is the devil someone will chop down the whole forest to get at, in the scenario Thomas More warned us about in the play. In the play the trees symbolize the rule of law, and the danger is leaving oneself without shelter when the worm turns, but the metaphor works for foreign policy as well -- think of the trees as collateral damage -- as a literary critic might acknowledge. In describing the destabilizing consequences of humanitarian intervention, Bromwich seems to get it:

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote about the millions of stateless and rightless persons cast up by the early wars of the twentieth century and the imperialist manufacture of new nations before and after World War I. A whole generation of the displaced were brought into the world so lacking in hope, so without access to elementary rights that, for them, to live within the law presented no advantage over crime and for that matter terrorism. “The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Arendt wrote, “but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever. Their plight is not that they are not equal before the law, but that no law exists for them.” The disasters of the twentieth century, as she judged them, had proved that a globalized order might “produce barbarians from its own midst by forcing millions of people into conditions which, despite all appearances, are the conditions of savages.” An end no happier, if we do not take care, awaits us down the road of the “carefully choreographed” violence and the “symphony of diplomacy” conducted by the last of the great powers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The question in this case would seem to be: Would either the Union or Confederate governments condone foreign military or economic aid to their enemies during the civil war?

Of course both sides would say no, such meddling is inappropriate. How, then, is it appropriate for the United States to take sides in Syria's (or any other nation's)civil war?