Thursday, September 26, 2013

National Interest or Disinterest?

Last week I surveyed the various ways that people seemed to be looking at recent events relating to Syria, but I left out one significant group.

That would be the pacifists. But frankly, I’m not sure the pacifist view really registers in all this. When I speak of pacifists, I am referring to people who, on principle, oppose any military action short of defending the United States’ own sovereign territory during an actual invasion—and even then a small number would oppose fighting even in that circumstance.

These people could conceivably also be referred to as non-interventionists, but that term is a bit too slippery for my taste. Many politicians’ opposition to intervention in other countries seems to be situational, i.e. their principles can shift, depending on whether there is a Republican or a Democrat in the White House. True pacifists are consistent, no matter which political leader is pushing for military involvement abroad. In other words, they are driven by principle rather than bald partisanship.

Logically, pacifists would belong on my list of people who are happy with the agreement reached by the U.S. and Russia aiming to relieve Syria’s Assad regime of its chemical weapons. That would be because military action by the U.S. was avoided—if it was ever a serious possibility in the first place. Of course, no one could be happy about the violence and death that continues unabated in Syria, but the pacifist’s view is that the answer to violence is not more violence. Therefore, even though it is terribly regrettable that people continue to die in the Syrian civil war, there is absolutely nothing to be done about it—at least from the pacifist’s point of view.

I am not a pacifist myself, but I am familiar with the pacifist mindset. My mother’s people were Mennonites. They spent centuries migrating from one country to another, in large part to avoid becoming forcibly entangled in other people’s wars. When she came of age, my mother did not stay in her church, and her parents had no trouble welcoming her non-Mennonite husband into the family. The fact that she was nearly the youngest in the family probably had a lot to do with that. Her oldest siblings had actually been excommunicated for marrying non-Mennonites. In hindsight, though, it is amazing that my father was so warmly welcomed by religiously pacifist in-laws when, almost immediately after the marriage, he went off to war in North Africa and Europe.

It is indisputable that, if everyone in the world were a pacifist, it would definitely be a very peaceful world. And it is hard to argue with the proposition that, even if the world is largely full of non-pacifists, it is still harder to have a fight between two people when one of them refuses to take part.

The problem with pacifism is that, if you take it to its logical extreme, you have to be willing to be conquered by whoever wants to take over your country by force. During the early days of the Cold War, some self-described pacifists in America adopted the slogan “better red than dead,” meaning they would rather live under a Communist regime than have to fight invading Soviets.

Some quasi-pacifists would make an exception for situations where a foreign army is actually marching across the border into one’s country. Unfortunately, in the age of nuclear weapons, intercontinental missiles and the 20th century phenomenon of Finland-ization, waiting until invading ground troops actually arrive could be leaving things a bit late if you want to maintain sovereignty.

The ultimate problem with pacifism is best illustrated by the Hitler problem. How does it serve the interest of peace to stand by and watch as six million people are put to death in the name of ethnic purity? That might be exactly the right thing to do according to some people’s religious faith, but if too many people share that philosophy then it’s only a matter of time until you get your own turn in the gas ovens. In that kind of world, evil people and their most loyal enablers are the only ones who survive.

But once you accept the idea that, yes, there are situations in which good people must go to war to fight people who are not attacking one’s own country directly, then it becomes difficult to know when it is right to intervene abroad and when not to. Some people favor intervention on humanitarian grounds, but that position is usually not very popular.

Others feel the need to have a citable “national interest” in the fight, which is the rationale President Obama used when arguing for the military strike against Syria that never materialized. But the U.S. national interest that the president cited only applied to chemical weapons—not to the use of other very lethal weapons and not to the continuance of Bashar al-Assad in power.

“National interest” can be a rather slippery idea when it comes to acting abroad. As we see, it can involve something that might happen sometime well down the road. The geo-strategists that I mentioned last time sometimes argue that the mere fact that non-intervention might put the country at a strategic disadvantage is reason enough to get involved. As was noted in Foreign Policy magazine’s blog The Cable, just three days after the U.S. and Russia announced the agreement to end Syria’s chemical weapons program, the Russian military effected a de facto annexation of Georgian territory for the benefit of the separatist region of pro-Moscow South Ossetia.

That Russia would do this did not really surprise anybody. Vladimir Putin has been obvious about his intentions to expand his country’s influence and control in any direction he can. What did surprise observers, though, was the fact that U.S.—unlike the European Union and NATO—made no protest or comment about this military intrusion into a country that is friendly to America and the West. A request from The Cable for comment on the incursion was ignored by the State Department.

The reason is clear. The Obama Administration now depends on the Russians for any diplomatic progress on the Syrian question and so does not want to anger them. From the Russians’ point of view, this may have been only the first of a number a moves they had been eying on the geopolitical chessboard in the wake of their successful Middle Eastern gambit.

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