All Commentary
Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Syrious Questions of Moral Consistency

Too many questions remain unanswered. As usual.

With his firing of missiles into Syria, it took our new President about 76 days to start doing exactly what all the others do. I wonder if this one expects a different result?

I approach the politics of life-and-death questions, such as intervention in Syria, with a thought experiment: I imagine looking in the eyes of the mother of a person who would die if my preferred course of action be carried through, but who would live if an opposing course of action were carried through. I imagine trying to justify to that mother why her son should die for the greater good I believe my view is rooted in.

This approach sets a very high bar for the justification of not only the good that will be done and the bad that will be prevented by a particular policy, but also for the trustworthiness and accuracy of the knowledge on which one’s analysis of a situation is based. It gets one out of one’s ideology.

Imagine speaking with the mother of a boy caught by the debris produced by an American cruise missile attack in Syria. I’d have to leave her house in shame if I could not confidently tell her that her son’s death would be saving myriad lives and explain convincingly the reason for my complete trust in the knowledge on which I based my claim.

The Role of Trust

We should support intervention with no more certainty than we have in the accuracy, integrity, and lack of bias of our information sources, and in the people who communicate that information to us.We should support intervention with no more certainty than our certainty in the accuracy, integrity, and lack of bias of the sources of the information on which it is based, and of the people who would communicate that information to us. And if we have any reason to doubt any one of those things based on recent evidence, we should demand a clear explanation as to why, this time, the information, the people, and their motivations, are better than before.

To be worthy of our support, those politicians who would blow up anything or anyone in Syria must share their evidence of the guilty parties with us. It must be many times stronger than the evidence we had for Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and mobile anthrax labs – which turned out to be rubbish. Before they can do that, they must rebuild our trust in their sources of information. What evidence do they have of crime and guilt, and how do we know this isn’t the Syrian sequel to the Iraq dossier? They must rebuild our trust in their personal integrity so that only the most paranoid American could suspect the manipulation of information for political purposes. They must especially do so in the face of a coherent counter-narrative such as described by the memo, publicized by American General and former NATO Commander Wesley Clark, that revealed a decision made years ago to take down the governments of Iraq (check), Libya (check), Iran (cyber-war and economic war already initiated), Somalia, Sudan – and Syria (here we go).

They must also provide clear worst-case and base-case assessments of the upside and downside or intervention. The latter must take into account the fact that most of the consequences of unleashing violence are unpredictable in their specifics, mostly uncontrollable, and full of uncertainties that are almost entirely iatrogenic (harmful outcomes of an attempt to solve a problem).

Does any American even know enough about the state next to the one he resides in – a peaceful, wealthy, and lawful democracy – to say with any certainty how to solve its greatest problem? Of course not. So how can we possibly lend our moral weight to a “solution” to a problem in Syria – a country about which most of us know nothing, and a solution about which all we know is that it involves aggression and outcomes that we cannot determine? And do we really believe our Representatives or our President know any more about the place than we do?

Attempting to Justify

Even if we assume that the Syrian regime is responsible for the crimes to which the USA would be “responding,” then the only possible upsides are that the intervention 1) eliminates the regime; 2) prevents the regime from committing similar crimes again, or 3) prevents some unspecified regime from doing something bad at some unspecified time in the future. The first is apparently not being sought (why not if the regime is so evil?); the third is ridiculous; so we must demand justification of the second.

What’s the causal thread by which our intervention will save lives? Moreover, what kind of punishment does such action deal out to President Assad and his favorite chemical weapons operators unless they are all within debris-flying distance of one of the cruise missiles that we fling? Why do we think he even cares what we do if our action is to be limited? What makes us so confident that we won’t be tipping the balance in favor of equally awful thugs? And what’s the interventionists’ comeback to the fact that Western interference in the affairs of Arab nations always carries a price in increased resentment and resistance – and the fact that bringing violence to bear on any country tends to unite it against the bringers of that violence, regardless of their intentions?

Too many questions remain unanswered. As usual.

A Precedent of Failure

In my thought experiment, the Syrian mother would surely ask for evidence that interventions such as the one proposed have had the desired effect in the past. Do we know enough about the intended rules of engagement in this intervention even to begin to answer that? Indeed, what about the most obvious policy question that has not (as far as I know) been asked anywhere: is not the very fact that Assad Do we only hit bullies when they’re weak enough to hit?used chemical weapons against his people evidence that all our previous attempts to punish tyrants who’ve overstepped the line don’t work? Because if they had, Assad wouldn’t have used those weapons, would he? So why will this punitive attack make any difference to the next dictator when our earlier ones made none to Assad? Are we sure we’re not just doing all this to make ourselves feel better – either more moral or more capable than the outcomes will eventually reveal us to be?

Also, we must be able to answer the mother’s inevitable demand for our own moral consistency: she’d ask us why we were acting in Syria, but not in other places where even greater evil has been done – and sometimes using the same class of weapons? Specifically, why don’t we take down North Korea, where chemical weapons – and worse – are used in concentration camps daily to kill political prisoners? Is our answer that North Korea has more powerful allies, or a greater ability to hit back? In other words, do we only hit bullies when they’re weak enough to hit? That response might be defensible, but a supporter of a strike against Syria can only claim a moral basis if he has at least asked that question and answered it satisfactorily.

To Be Humanitarian

If our motivation is truly humanitarian, is there really no other way of responding to the crisis except by action that is both unilateral and violent (the worst of all worlds)? Are we seriously being asked to believe that, assuming the evidence of guilt of the Syrian government is beyond reasonable doubt (is it?), the USA is the only nation on earth to care enough to do anything about it and that the only effective response involves blowing up things and people? In other words, can we tell the mother in our thought experiment that there really was no alternative to the death of her son, caught in the debris of our missile?

Too many questions remain unanswered. As usual.The retort that “people will also die if we do nothing,” usually offered to imply that moral and informational standards for action should be lower than those imposed in a court, misses almost all of the above points. People are dying all over the world as a consequence of myriad actions we do nothing about. How many will die in Syria if we do nothing? How, exactly, will our intervention stop them from dying? How do we know that the number saved will exceed the deaths we might cause if and when we have to deal with the spiraling unintended consequences of our intervention? And what about all those other people who are dying in other countries every day because we do nothing? If our foreign policy is essentially humanitarian, why are we not intervening in them too?

On the other hand, if our motivation is not humanitarian, but rather a matter of American national interest, then which interest, exactly, is being served by this intervention? And is it really greater than any other to which we could apply our military today?

The truth is that our politicians, and specifically our President, approach such questions with an astoundingly unjustified belief in their knowledge and analytical capabilities.

The Role of Politicians

If we are serious about saving lives around the world, let us imagine something else: let us imagine that there is overwhelming evidence for the guilt of the Assad regime, that somehow we know that we can save many lives by acting, and that our actions won’t have unintended negative consequences that cancel out the good outcomes many times over. If all that were true, and our newly interventionist President were right, then it would indeed be his responsibility to convince Congress and, through them, to convince us, the People, to bring us with him. It is a terrible responsibility and it belongs to all of them because they chose to lead. And to do that, they would need our trust.

If our motivation is a matter of American national interest, then which interest is being served by intervention? And is it really greater than any other to which we could apply our military today?But we don’t trust our executive or our legislature that much, do we?

We don’t trust them because they say so many things that they contradict by their actions; because they put party, or ego, before principle; because they swear an oath to uphold a Constitution that they immediately undermine; because they make one rule for themselves and one for others; because, in the worst case, they lie (so as to gain public support for a war of choice); or, only marginally better, because they are so credulous as to go along with the lies they are fed without demanding evidence proportionate to the consequences of acting on them.

In other words, our so-called leaders have form, and it’s not very good. And just because the failings of our leaders should not prevent us as a nation from acting aggressively when it is morally right to do so, it should also not prevent us from demanding, before any such action, standards of insight, trustworthiness, statesmanship and consistency, that the political class has failed to display for far too long and our President has yet to establish.

If our politicians were true humanitarians, prepared to risk American lives and treasure for the good of non-Americans – something they should approach us very, very humbly to request – then they would, every day, treat their unique position in our society with a reverence and intellectual honesty equal to the unlimited trust they ask us to place in them in those moments when they seek to exercise the most awesome powers of this country in such a way.

I won’t hold my breath, as I suspect the unintended consequences of the other day’s intervention will begin much sooner.

  • Robin Koerner is a British-born citizen of the USA, who currently serves as Academic Dean of the John Locke Institute. He holds graduate degrees in both Physics and the Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge (U.K.). He is also the founder of