I have mixed feelings about this. People always strive to establish order, that’s one of the main things that we do. We set up homes and make friends. We set up governments and make allies. We seek stability. For almost a hundred years America was the world’s policeman. Cops have a lot of power, they exercise lethal force. It’s not always a good thing to have a cop around, but there are times when it is useful. Inside nations like Afghanistan there are people who oppose much of what the Taliban stand for and do, and yet still prefer their harsh yet predictable rule to living among unchecked armed thugs when the Taliban are not around.
I wish that my reactions to the events inside of Syria and the Obama Administration’s response to them were simpler than it is. I hate the use of any deadly force, except some times when even more death would occur without it. But it’s rarely ever that straight forward. Sometimes the trade tendered is to accept a near certain death now for the possibility of saving dozens of lives later. On the global scale they call that type of calculus “real world politics”.
The world has had worse cops than America. Hitler’s Germany would have been worse. Stalin’s Soviet Union would have been worse also. Not in all ways, it seldom is that black and white, but overall I do feel worse. Internationalism has long been a tenet of progressive thinking. It gave rise to a world wide socialist movement; “Workers of the World Unite!” Nationalism is often overly narrow and has fertilized many a brutal armed conflict. There are, I think, some things even more important than preserving the local peace. Standing up against oppression is among them, so is acting to stop genocide even if it is happening half way around the world. But is it called genocide if both sides in a civil war seek to exterminate the other?
Far too often the U.S. has acted like a corrupt police force on the world stage, one bought off by moneyed interests. Even corrupt police forces help victims of traffic accidents and shoot rabid skunks. Some would prefer a corrupt police force to none at all, others would not. Back in Woodrow Wilson’s day there were high hopes for the League of Nations. Those hopes were never realized. The end of World War Two led to the start of the United Nations. The U.N. has accomplished some worthwhile things but it is only as strong as the consensus that supports it, and a Security Council veto grinds it to a halt.
How does one discern the difference between an honest cop and a corrupt one? What if both are on the same payroll? The last Bush Administration wanted a war with Iraq bad enough to lie its way into it. In my opinion the Obama Administration doesn't feel the same about Syria. How much does the difference matter?
I have always supported the Geneva Accords. They were then and remain now a shining step away from the mad darkness of unbridled warfare. I also believe that war crimes truly exist, transcending in their magnitude the generic horror of organized armed conflict. I am grateful to see that view validated by international agreements. I also support continuing efforts to outlaw the use of land mines and depleted uranium as weapons of war through ratified international treaties.
That poison gas has been used against people before despite international agreements banning it doesn’t surprise me, what surprises me is how seldom it has been used. Why is that? What stands behind such international agreements other than the paper they are written on? Is it the World Court? Is it the existence of a global policeman, or a larger alliance of global policemen? Is it ultimately world opinion, or our innate impulse to back away from the pursuit of mutually assured destruction?
A case can be made for the continued role of the United States as world policeman, but I believe that case is now largely moot. Whether or not the U.S. still has that capacity we, the people, have ceased to have the will for it. That ended in Iraq. In hindsight now it is clear that most of us had been resigned to having very little say in the mater. Like it or not, we were accustomed to Presidents having the authority to do virtually whatever they wanted when it came to “national security”. Then the UK Parliament defied a sitting Prime Minister and refused to be America’s trusty side kick for another military adventure dispute the arguments he summoned in support of striking Syria. And then, to his credit, President Obama decided it was necessary to make his case directly to Congress, the elected representatives of the American people.
And the people who those representatives are beholden to responded by speaking out. They have done so in unusual numbers with a nearly unprecedented almost unanimous opinion, and that opinion is straight forward. The American people say “No.” The old “New World Order” is over; there is no world order any longer. The emperor may or may not still have clothes but he has lost his dutiful subjects and that now is painfully clear. Obama isn’t that emperor; he is just the current regent. The repudiation of America’s role as global policeman by the American people is far more resounding than any referendum on Obama, or his proposed military strike, alone. We no longer, if we ever did, have the will for it, and now that truth is known for the entire world to see.
Will Iran factor this shifting reality into their deliberations over whether to develop working nuclear weapons? Of course, why wouldn't they? But that by itself won’t determine their decision either way – it is one of many important factors for them to continue to wrestle with. As America backs down attempting to enforce the previous world order a vacuum will grow, but vacuums are by nature a self limiting phenomena; something will grow to replace it. I can’t say with any certainty what I will think about the eventually coming next world order since it has yet to arrive. The American people will still have a role in it, perhaps even a larger one in a way since we seem to have found a more direct voice, one less stifled by a Washington power structure overseeing us. That part at least should be a positive development.