Obama continues to sound a very uncertain trumpet on intervention in Syria. He spends more verbiage assuring Americans that any intervention will be extremely limited than he does making the case for the necessity of the intervention in the first place. The affirmative argument that Obama does make is essentially a moral and humanitarian one: that chemical weapons used against civilians is a uniquely abhorrent crime. (Perhaps this will change in his flood-the-zone PR offensive over the next two days.)
This is of course an inherently contradictory message. If there is a moral imperative to stop the use of chemical weapons, why should any effort to do so be limited in advance? What if the limited strikes do not eliminate the conduct? Then what?
One thing struck me about Obama’s remarks in St. Petersburg, in the windup of the G20 root canal:
“When there’s a breach this brazen of a norm this important, and the international community is paralyzed and frozen and doesn’t act, then that norm begins to unravel,” Obama said of the longstanding international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons.
“If that norm unravels, then other norms and prohibitions start unraveling, and that makes for a more dangerous world, and that then requires even more difficult choices and more difficult responses in the future,” he said
That, my friends, is the Domino Theory of the Violation of Important International Norms. You’ll remember the original Domino Theory, applied in Viet Nam: if we didn’t stop Communism in Viet Nam, all the other dominoes in Asia would topple and fall to communism.
I won’t comment on the validity of this theory, either in Southeast Asia in 1968 or in Northwest Asia in 2013. I will just point out that ridicule of the Domino Theory was the staple of progressive anti-Viet Nam War rhetoric in the late-60s and early-70s. It is therefore beyond ironic that a died-in-the-wool progressive who was the political child of the Viet Nam War era progressive movement in the United States would invoke this theory to justify a deeply unpopular intervention in Syria.
But the ironies do not end there, of course. What could be more ironic than John Kerry’s ringing justification of the use of military force in Syria? Indeed, an endorsement far more ringing than anything Obama has said. Kerry was a prominent protestor in the 1960s, and usually an opponent of US intervention during his years in the Senate. (Though one cannot say consistent opponent, for who can forget “I was for the war before I was against it”?) Needless to say, Kerry was not a fan of the Domino Theory, in its 1968 incarnation.
And the ironies are not limited to one political party. Many on the right who have historically supported military intervention are either opposed to this intervention or are decidedly ambivalent. Some for good reasons. Some are chastened by the experience in Iraq. Some are troubled by Obama’s drawing of a red line on his own actions, meaning that they have no confidence that the operation will achieve anything positive but will result in various collateral harms to the US, and which may result in an escalation led by a president who is not committed to seeing things through. (Charles Krauthammer is prominent in this group.) There are those who are deeply concerned about the lack of strategic rationale and muscle to back it up, but who believe that American credibility is on the line and hence put their reservations aside and support intervention. Then there are those who are nakedly and rather disgustingly partisan: if Obama is for it, they must be against it. Those who regurgitate Putin or Iranian talking points to support their case are particularly disgusting.
All of which goes to show how the potential American intervention in Syria has reversed the political poles. To paraphrase John Kerry, those who normally would be for it are against it, and those who would normally be against it are for it. Nothing illustrates this reversal more strikingly that Barack Obama’s invocation of Domino Theory as his primary justification for the employment of American arms against the Assad regime in Syria.