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Is Syria the New Vietnam?

There are strong arguments for and against American military intervention in Syria. And everyone is weighing in. An editorial in the Jewish Daily Forward asks: ‘‘What is to be done about Syria,’’ and asserts that, ‘‘passivity [is] impossible.’’ And so the piece sets out to consider some of those arguments. However, its intention comes to naught, and instead the editorial finds itself reduced to precisely the equivocation that it claims is so unacceptable.

That alone wouldn’t be worth comment. But it gets worse: the editorial not only fails to confront the arguments seriously, but has the further audacity to criticize from its transcendent perch those who have actually staked positions on the matter. And not only that either: it ends with the self-righteous assertion that only the Forward’s editors really appreciate the true complexity of the issue. Their sentiments are best communicated in their own words, so here are the particularly offending concluding paragraphs:

But how should the international community channel this new indignation? Is the answer as simple as military intervention? It appears not. Even the human rights organizations are cautioning against such a move. Though the Holocaust and the genocides of the 1990s make passivity impossible, there are even more recent precedents that do and should give us pause: Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are those who, like Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, offer cavalier solutions, such as providing arms to the fractious band of rebels. Others demand a NATO-led air war. But these hawks can’t answer basic questions about who exactly could take power in Syria after Assad, which of the various factions of warring opposition groups to even support, or how to avoid turning an intervention into a regional conflagration. Legions of experts keep making the same point that what worked for Libya won’t work in Syria. After the interventions of the past decade and their Sisyphean aftermaths, it would be irresponsible to imagine we could dip our toe into this conflict without considering the consequences.

But this complexity should not be an invitation to sit on our hands, nor is it acceptable to simply give Assad more time to kill by settling for half-measures like former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s ineffectual peace plan or sending a few powerless UN observers.

What we can do is use this moment for the moral clarity it provides. If, before Houla, it was still conceivable for Assad’s remaining defenders to imagine they were witnessing in Syria an internal power struggle between pro- and anti-government forces, it should now be clear that Assad is a murderer, capable of ever worse brutalities and willing to cravenly exploit ethnic divisions to hold on to his power. This is now plain and simple to see. Perhaps if Russia and China — and, one can always hope, Iran as well — start to feel his bloody hands staining theirs, the path might be open to the sort of isolation that will make a difference.

Our responsibility, in the meantime, is now more apparent than ever. Don’t forget the massacred children of Houla, and don’t let the world forget them, either.

What is interesting about this is that it is not the first time we have been forced to endure the unjustified pietistic vainglory of the Left. Norman Podhoretz, in his Ex-Friends, recalled his earlier analysis of the Vietnam War, where he had famously observed this same phenomenon:

Certain people took the position that they were against both Saigon and Hanoi. What then were they for? The answer given in a piece written jointly by Irving Howe and the political theorist Michael Walzer, the editors of Dissent, after the war was over was that they had ‘‘hoped for the emergence of a Vietnamese ‘third force’ capable of rallying the people in a progressive direction by enacting land reforms and defending civil liberties.’’ But since, as they themselves admitted, there was very little chance that this would happen, to have thrown their energies into opposing the American effort was tantamount to working for the Communist victory they said (in all sincerity) they did not want. Nothing daunted by this contradiction, they still awarded themselves moral congratulations on having been against the evils on both sides of the war:

‘‘Those of us who opposed American intervention yet did not want a Communist victory were in the difficult position of having no happy ending to offer…And we were in the difficult position of urging a relatively complex argument at a moment when most Americans, pro- and anti-war, wanted blinding simplicities.’’

Yet considering the actual alternatives that existed, what did the urging of ‘‘a relatively complex argument’’ avail other than to make those who urged it feel pleased with themselves?

There we see that oppressive ‘‘complexity’’ again, and the self-congratulatory self-pity of those isolated few who, unlike everyone else, perceive it. And, once again, we see that convenient combination of equivocation and fantasy – ‘‘the emergence of a ‘third force’’’ or the hope that Russia, China, and Iran will pressure Syria so that we don’t have to – that all but disqualifies these commentators from being taken seriously.

To reiterate, there are strong arguments for and against intervention, and no serious thinker on either side of this debate believes that their policy is straightforward or without cost, but at least their arguments aren’t smug and are based on real, and not imaginary, circumstances.


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