Syrian Civil War and Looking Like A Wuss

According to the Census Bureau, there are about 314 million people in the United States. Of these, how many do you think could make a well-informed decision as to the wisdom of our getting involved in the civil war in Syria? For such a decision to be “well-informed” factors to be considered would include at least morality, money, politics, Israel, likelihood of success, casualties on both sides, relations with other countries, image, strategy, tactics, logistics and the unfortunate term “legacy.” Please feel free to add the myriad other considerations I have surely forgotten.

Do you think 314,000 people in this country could dispassionately consider those factors and come to a well-reasoned decision? If so, that would mean 1/10 of 1% knew what they were talking about and 99.9% did not. For no particular reason other than gut feel, the 314,000-person figure seems high to me. How about 31,400? That would represent 1/100 of 1% of the entire country. If that is a correct estimate I would be impressed and proud. The real number is probably not less than 3140 or 1/1000 of one percent of all Americans.

Whatever the number is, it is small and what ever it is I am not one of them. Yet that tiny number represents the sum of all Americans who actually know what they are talking about on this question. The rest of us will be led by others. Let the spinning begin.

Former President Bill Clinton, who believes his decision not to intervene in Rwanda was his biggest failure, warned that it would be unwise to sit on the sidelines because “there was a poll in the morning paper that said 80 percent of you were against it.”

“[Y]ou’d look like a total wuss,” he continued. “And you would be. I don’t mean that a leader should go out of his way or her way to do the unpopular thing, I simply mean when people are telling you ‘no’ in these situations, very often what they’re doing is flashing a giant yellow light and saying, ‘For God’s sakes, be careful, tell us what you’re doing, think this through, be careful.”

Syria is undoubtedly a disaster. The current casualty figure is about 93,000 and President Bashar al-Assad has allegedly used chemical weapons against his people.  That is a strong moral argument in favor of becoming involved.

Contrary views might begin with the words Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, none of which turned out well.

Syria is a country that never should have existed in the first place. It consists of sects and groups, having no special affection for one another but forced to inhabit an arbitrary corral defined by infelicitous post-World War I map drawing.

Nobody says this is an easy question. Do you think there is unanimity in the tiny group of people with sufficient expertise to make the decision to begin arming the Syrian rebels? If so, that would be unusual. Enter the competing narratives as the spinning begins to go both ways.

Public confidence in government is low. According to a Gallup poll taken between June 1 and 4, US adults were asked how much confidence they themselves had in a variety of American institutions. The possible responses were “a great deal,” “quite a lot,” “some,” or “very little.” The percentage of respondents choosing either of the first two was: the presidency 36%; the Supreme Court 34%; and the Congress 10%. Americans don’t seem to trust their government very much, which again increases the importance of the competing narratives.

If there is a moral view to be expressed on the question of intervening in a country when the sovereign is violating the human rights of his people, whose moral view should it be? Is it arrogant to say that it should be ours? Are Americans the only people on earth with moral views? Should such a question be decided by a consensus of moral views? If so, isn’t the United Nations the most appropriate available body to do so?

To be sure, the United Nations has shown no particular ability to act in a timely fashion, but have we helped that body to enhance its decision-making and action-taking capabilities by consistently stepping in when it acts too slowly?

Now follow the trail we cut in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Arming the rebels leads to providing advisors leads to no-fly zones leads to air cover leads to naval involvement leads to boots on the ground leads to nation building leads to casualties to say nothing of cost and “you broke it you own it.”

When there are casualties there will be bereaved families who might well believe that their loved one died so someone else would avoid “looking like a wuss.”

6 Responses to “Syrian Civil War and Looking Like A Wuss”

Anonymous, June 17, 2013 at 7:00 am said:

Good article, but the analysis is flawed. There may be 314,000,000 Americans, but I don’t think anyone expects a two year-old to have an Americans are there of voting age? Of those, how many are registered voters? Of those, how many actually contribute to campaigns, which seems to be all that matters in our “for sale” style of government these days. So if there are 314,000 people capable of making and informed decision about Syria, it is actually quite a large proportion of the Americans “who matter.”


Haven Pell, June 17, 2013 at 12:44 pm said:

Thank you Anonymous. Yours is a fair point about the appropriate denominator in our equation. An earlier commentator privately corrected a silly math error on my part resulting in a re-wiggling of the decimal points. Perhaps we can agree that the number of people qualified to guide such a decision is tiny. They are unlikely to agree. Some might have “agendas.” Public opinion will be significantly influenced by spin. In the past such stories have not always ended well.


Marco Bisazza, June 17, 2013 at 6:45 pm said:

On this question of US military intervention we have an unusual alliance between liberals and libertarians. But, unfortunately, it won’t be enough to stop yet another misguided involvement in a Middle Eastern civil war that will end up costing more blood and treasure, not to mention fueling the kind of long-lasting anti-Americanism that inevitably leads to a fresh supply of jihadists. And neither, for now at least, will we hear much international outcry over this matter because it’s Barak Obama who occupies the White House this time, and he looks and sounds so different from that guy who came before him . I wonder if all the neocon warmongers in Washington are not finally appreciating how much the US can now get away with, in terms of a militarized foreign policy, without causing those wimpy European allies to start whining.
Regarding the extreme unpopularity of the US Congress among Americans, my question is why do voters keep sending to the national legislature such ideologues whose main mission seems to make sure that nothing gets done (so that they can then claim that government doesn’t work)? And if the American people have no appetite for more wars in the Middle East — or anywhere, for that matter — why is John McCain, for instance, still sitting in the Senate , posing as the foreign policy “wise man”, pretending to know who the good guys are in Syria, demanding arms and no-fly zones on their behalf? Because, you know, he was so right on Iraq for so many years . . . that he even got reelected. So, rather than constantly blaming Washington for everything that doesn’t work in public policy, Americans should perhaps learn how to make better choices when they go to the polls.


Haven Pell, June 19, 2013 at 6:58 pm said:

Americans should definitely make better choices when they go to the polls. That would be wonderful. In the House there is the well-known problem of Gerrymandering that drives both parties to extremes, but now there is a problem in the Senate too. Please see “Wanted: Senate Candidates to Fill These Empty Seats.”

I doubt we will create a good outcome in Syria.


Peter Whiting, June 20, 2013 at 10:05 am said:

In re: Failed efforts of nation building

I recommend reading Charles Allen’s book, “God’s Terrorists”. Radical Islam
Has been at war w the West since the founding of the Wahhibist movement
in the 1740’s. the 1st conflicts took place in Afganistan. Our Orientalists either failed to provide this info to State Dept or State shot the messenger.

Then, too, we need to recall GW’s invitation to beware of foreign entanglements.

Good reasons to stay out of other people’s countries


Haven Pell, June 26, 2013 at 11:05 am said:

Thank you for your comment Peter. Please feel free to share additional thoughts on the book you mentioned. I doubt the issue is going away anytime soon


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