Insincere Symbolism

Regardless of one’s position on a hypothetical U.S. military strike on Syria, it’s rather important to recognize that a lot of the highfalutin talk about Obama setting some terrible or wonderful precedent–or about the acceptance or rejection of his position by Congress or this or that subset of the international community determining the ultimate fate of his presidency–disguises some very petty motives and/or very fixed loyalties and antipathies. Kevin Drum nails it today:

[I]t’s almost as if the only thing anyone really cares about is their own narrow parochial interest. Enforcing a century-old ban against the use of chemical weapons may sound high-minded in the abstract, but down on the ground there’s virtually no one who (a) actually cares about that and (b) would view a U.S. strike through that lens. You’re for it because you’re a Democrat or a Sunni or an Israeli or a member of the rebel army. You’re against it if you’re a Republican or a Shiite or an Egyptian or Vladimir Putin. Hardly anyone truly cares about American credibility or international norms or foreign policy doctrines or any of the other usual talking points. They’ve just chosen sides, that’s all.

Regardless of your own personal view on a Syrian strike, you should keep this in mind. Your motivations—either for or against a strike—might be entirely virtuous, but there’s very little virtue among the actors whose opinions actually matter. The lesson you think will be sent by either restraint or action is probably not the lesson the rest of the world will take from it.

I’d go further and say that those who have “chosen sides” for “parochial interests” have every reason to inflate their own motives into great matters of philosophy, law, geopolitics and morality. It’s all the more reason to stand guard against claims that the stakes in what happens next are much greater than the lives immediately affected–which ought to be more than high enough to ensure grave reflection.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.