It’s been nearly a year since Obama’s famous “red line” comment about the use of chemical weapons in Syria—that any use of agents like sarin or mustard gas would represent an intolerable violation of international law. The White House has variously reiterated this claim on no fewer than seven occasions. As Obama said in late March, “We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people…The world is watching; we will hold you accountable.”
It is still possible that the U.S. government will stick with its guns (which, as a friend wryly observed, it seems hesitant to do in the private market) and reciprocate Assad’s breach of international law with military intervention. The American public doesn’t seem particularly up to taking part in another war however, despite our pledge to intervene in cases of war crimes and genocide. Without action to back up our support of the rules of war we learned in the trenches of Europe, Obama’s indictment of Assad threatens to invert Theodore Roosevelt’s admirable philosophy on foreign policy and replace it with a notably less courageous plan: speak loudly and carry a very small stick.
Three dangers come to mind from this, the first and simplest of which being the allowance of lethally criminal practices in the administration of sovereign states. Little elaboration is needed here, I hope.
Secondly, we cannot ignore the precedent our government sets when it follows up on its promises, or fails to do so. A basic trust that government will generally do what it says is necessary for the functioning of society; conversely, a cynical view of our elected representatives inhibits economic growth, communication, cooperation and problem solving on a national and international scale. When governments repeatedly fail to keep their word, they give everyone more reason not to take them seriously, which makes future problems of military, environmental or humanitarian nature more challenging to solve than they already are.
Finally, and most insidiously, public condemnations without action imbue a false sense of moral righteousness. While the cowardly nature of hollow denouncements is bad enough, such a spineless policy gives the same tranquilizing effect on movements for social justice as “liking” something on Facebook: it allows us to feel like we’ve done something without actually doing anything. The feeling of being good without having to sacrifice anything is understandably attractive, but is ultimately self-deceptive and often impedes effective solutions.
The White House decision on Syria won’t be a matter of life and death—not for us, anyways. It will have consequences though, and it might be indicative of what we can expect the next time our government publically affirms feel-good values like funding education. If they can keep their word on issues as morally black-and-white as whether or not to allow a sovereign state gas its own citizens, then it might be worth taking them at their word more generally. Otherwise, we’d be better off ignoring their Machiavellian rhetoric for what it is: platitudes and dribble.