Our National War Obsession

The sad fact is that the American government is addicted to war. War sets the foundation for our foreign policy rhetoric, for the way we talk about the world. We draw lines in the sand, set out imaginary red lines and make ultimatums. We have a massive and permanent war bureaucracy — both in the government and in the media and the think tanks. 

Most significantly, we proclaim ourself the world’s “indispensable nation,” reserving for ourselves the right to hold other nations accountable for the evil they do — though we also reserve the right to craft the definition of evil so that it fits our current needs.

As I write this, the Congressional debate over whether the US should strike Syria in retaliation for a chemical attack against its own people and, by the time you read this, the cruise missiles could be striking targets in Syria.

The arguments for intervention have been — and likely will continue to be — moral ones. Secretary of State John Kerry, during testimony before the Senate, said the debate over Syria was “about the world’s red line, about humanity’s red line, a line that anyone with a conscience should draw.” He called it a “Munich moment,”implying that, to do nothing, would be to appease the Assad regime and empower other hostile nations.

There is no doubt that the use of chemical weapons must be condemned, but the hyperbole with which the Obama administration has framed the debate raises questions about its moral calculus — and the moral calculus of Washington, more generally.

Why Syria? As I asked on my blog last month, what is it about Syria that demands action, that raises it above other conflicts? Why prepare for war — and that is what the use of military force is, war — in Syria but stay on the sidelines as the Egyptian military cracks down on protesters and kills hundreds in the streets?

Is is that Syria is a longtime member of the rogue nation fraternity? Is it the numbers — Egypt’s death toll is far lower, at this point than Syria’s — or maybe the kinds of weapons being used?

This is hair splitting. The notion that there is a threshold for action creates a moral hierarchy. It assumes that some lives are more important than others. The life of the woman killed in Syria in a gas attack, by virtue of the weapon used, has more weight than her counterpart in Egypt, a woman killed by the Egyptian military during anti-coup protests. The 2,000th death carries more weight than the 1,999th.

This leaves too much wiggle room, too much space for politicians to paint as humanitarian concerns that actually are based on other, more, let’s say, practical concerns.

We do this all the time, which is why there are international norms that govern the use of force — nations are prohibited from lobbing missiles at other nations unless there is a direct threat, or unless there is international consensus in the form of a United Nations’ endorsement. Neither exists in this case.

The debate over Syria shows how narrow the range of opinion held by the political classes is. There is little discussion of alternatives to force. Diplomacy is not an option, not in dealing with Syria or with the countries that have been lined up in Syria’s orbit.

This debate is not about Syria’s use of chemical weapons, but about our national bluster and incautious rhetoric — presidential talk of “red lines” rarely works out well. Redlines are a standard part of the political rhetoric when it comes to foreign policy.

Watch the political talk shows — and not just Fox News, but CNN and the liberal MSNBC — and you rarely get a consistent, philosophical attack on the war state. Rather, issues are framed as a matter of how much force and how soon. There is an acceptance of the use of force, a lust for it in some quarters, that makes it too easy to send in the jets.

The default should be peace and diplomacy. Going to war should be difficult.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in central New Jersey. Email; blog,

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2013

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