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The Best (and worst) Arguments for (and against) Intervention in Syria

The decision to argue about military interventions is kind of like the decision to actually launch one.  It usually is undertaken reluctantly in the first place, leads well-intentioned participants into a quagmire, and produces unsatisfying results.  Nonetheless, here I am.  I will keep this quick and clean—no boots on the ground.

First, a confession: when faced with either the immediate threat or the forensic stench of massacres like the one perpetrated in Syria last week, my initial reaction is usually to favor doing something.  To me it’s like hearing that a house is on fire with kids inside.  It’s an emergency.  People are saying that firefighters might get hurt, or even killed; sending them in may not be cost-effective; and, oh yeah, the fire’s in a different jurisdiction.  But once we are confronted with such stark evidence of coldly planned mass murder, and the grim knowledge that the killing isn’t over, many of us conclude that something simply has to be done.  Inaction, however wise, is simply inhuman—for God’s sake, let’s move.

But I try to temper that impulse. I sift through the uninformed grumbling that saturates my corner of the Internet in search of nuggets of well-reasoned caution.  They exist, as it turns out, and they are compelling.  This is a difficult issue.  Having reached no firm conclusion at the moment, I’ll just highlight what I deem the best and worst arguments of both sides.

The Best Argument For Intervention is simple:  Up to 1,300 people were murdered using barbaric weaponry.  There is a moral imperative to prevent more of this killing and punish those responsible (almost certainly the Assad regime).  It may also be worthwhile to enforce international norms against the use of chemical weapons (“norms” instead of laws, since Syria is one of seven countries non-signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention).

The Best Argument Against Intervention is that it will end up causing more deaths than it will save.  This is different than saying that intervention won’t save lives; in a war so deadly, virtually any major intervention will both save people who would have died and kill people who would have lived.  The assertion that intervening will cause more deaths than it will save is sobering, but very difficult to test; we will only observe one outcome.  If we can credibly predict a net loss of life, though, we should pause and consider alternatives.

The Worst Argument For Intervention is anything amounting to a claim that it will end the fighting or stabilize the country.  The fighting will continue and the country will remain unstable no matter what we do.  Intervention should be undertaken, if at all, with modest and clear objectives.

The Worst Argument Against Intervention is the argument that because Western countries have perpetrated, supported, and condoned mass murder and war crimes in the past, they should not intervene.  The premise—that the West is complicit in past atrocities—is undoubtedly true, but the argument is illogical.  Past behavior does not bear on the question of what America or other countries should do now.  To claim that it does is like saying that America shouldn’t reduce carbon emissions because it is a major polluter, or that it shouldn’t protect minorities’ voting rights because it used to deny them.  It’s totally nonsensical.

It appears that, for better or worse, some sort of foreign military intervention is coming to Syria.  If so, then some people are going to die and other people are going to be saved from death.  Most commentators I’ve heard weigh in on this question sound very sure of themselves, but I’m not, and I don’t think we should be; in fact, I advocate moral and ethical discomfort in this case.  During the coming weeks, we should seek out the information, often willfully ignored, that contradicts our expectations.

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