The truncated version of Kerry’s Congressional testimony statement runs “we’ve got some unbelievably small boots” that we can use in Syria. And it brings to mind a conundrum between what is now becoming a long-term foreign policy choice, and how the spin machine works. With a decade of unfruitful and in all likelihood illegal wars under our belt, we’ve now correctly lumped the potential Syria experience in with its predecessors. We’ve got shock and awe, CNN is in the hotel across from the Palace, there’s a great shot of pulling down statues in a public square, the spin cycle moves on, and then the slippery slope really takes hold–we’re still slipping, by the way.
We’ve made it to the second lowest step of Bloom’s taxonomy here ( ‘to identify’). But to really break the destructive (and progressively less popular) trend, we need to make it to the final step and “create” a new solution. We’ve gotten good at saying “there it is again” and “no.” But there are situations in which a negative response won’t work. What’s missing–and something is missing, as Putin made clear–is asking “what else do we have in (or can we create for) our bag of tricks?”
Woodrow Wilson’s original idea for the creation of the League of Nations after WWI was that we could take what we learned and make the conflict a “war to end all wars.” We were learning from mistakes. The rationale behind the few remaining humanitarian treaties we still acknowledge aren’t that different. Some atrocity was committed, and we decided not to recommit it. We used war to establish a more fruitful peace. Otherwise, what’s the point? That’s what’s so bewildering about the current news climate, we aren’t asking the most basic question through which we might make progress. Namely, what are we getting out of this war?
I think it’s precisely for this reason that for a while now the answer has been “not much.” The U.S. isn’t noticeably any safer than 12 years ago after 9/11. The world is noticeably more dangerous, with the average person’s likelihood of dying in an armed conflict doubling since 1998. We still haven’t signed the International Mine Ban Treaty, and (recently) we were one of the only first world countries not to sign the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty. In which it is forbidden to sell arms to human rights violators, and criminals. The President asked us all to YouTube videos from Al-Assad’s chemical attack. But what about pictures of infants deformed from the layer of Uranium dust that has settled over large swaths of Iraq? If it’s meaningful interventionism we’re after, there are plenty of places to intervene (South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo). We can probably even profit, protect national security, and uphold “international norms.” If we just HAVE TO go on militarily, why not go in on AQIM (Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb). Hell, the U.N. would probably go in for us.
This is where our myopia in the big picture gets a little scary, particularly regarding Syria. A report this year from the Director of National Security’s office detailed four potential “megatrends” that they believe could come into being by the year 2030. Only one of these megatrends includes the U.S. as a major global player. This trend involves “the most plausible best-case outcome, China and the US collaborate on a range of issues, leading to broader global cooperation. ” China has backed Russia on the Syrian front. Hostilities in Pakistan are nearing open war, on which China has said “any attack on Pakistan would be construed as an attack on China,” and Iran has been backed by China for years. We’re a nation of builders, if nothing else. America has proven time and time again that we can make things, and we can make things that work. So where is a positive formulation of what we’re building in the Middle East? I think that’s all the rest of the world wants. For too long discussion of armed conflicts has been about the proper way to hit the ‘go’ button, with no proper consideration of qualitative measures, or the outcome we’re hoping to achieve. We’ve become the improperly trained k-9 unit of the global police force. Our own intel tells us we’re on the verge of being marginalized, and all we need is a little discipline so as not to be. I bet Woodrow Wilson would be happy with a set of such unbelievably small boots to fill.