Monday, September 9, 2013

Syria, Sarin and Moral Indignation

Moral indignation seems to be everywhere as we consider wading (further) into the Syrian civil war.

The Left fulminates over Obama-Peace-Laureate proposing war; the Administration inveighs against chemical weapons; the Tea Party finds anything Obama says or does outrageous; and the pundits practice indignation over either (choose one):  a) America’s growing isolationist mood and indifference to innocent suffering; b) America’s eagerness to be the world’s policeman

As a sure sign of feeling morally right, indignation allows us to build up energy for a fight with those we know are morally wrong, those other guys who don’t see things as clearly as we do. When we’re in fight mode we can enjoy the really great feeling of “moral clarity,” in which all the ambiguities resolve themselves into crystal-sharp black and white. The Secretary of State’s moral outrage index over the death of innocents knows no bounds as he leads the drummers ramping us up toward our “limited, targeted” bombing. 

Ignoring Moral Complexity

To be honest, I don’t know what the wisest course might be for Superpower America to take, so this blog isn’t about any “right” way to go. Bombing or no bombing, tragic things will happen; either way promises “innocent deaths.” But little, if any, moral clarity seems apparent. Consider:

+    Chemical killing outrages, but “ordinary” killing only saddens, it would seem. Assad is a monster, chemical weapons abominable, but our use of Agent Orange, phosphorus bombs, and depleted uranium bombshells in war doesn’t qualify as morally out-of-bounds.

+    The Assad regime provides the main bulwark of protection not only for the Shi’ite Alawites, but for the Christians of Syria. But the democracy we imagine will be better for all will make both minorities lethally vulnerable to Sunni.

+    All the talk of innocent deaths and “red lines” against chemical weapons (deliberately?) leaves out vital geo-political factors that  make the Syrian conflict a "proxy" war for a regional Sunni/ Shi'ite struggle. This pits Sunni Arabia and the Iraqi Sunnis against Shi'ite Iran, the Iraqi Shi'ites, and the ruling Shi'ia Alawites of Syria. The Saudis and the Iranians struggle over who will dominate the whole region, and deliver oil and  natural gas to the world as well—a matter of no little concern to the U.S.

Toward a Humbler Wisdom

To cite all this is to spoil the excitement of moral indignation, of course. An equal opportunity employer, moral outrage brings pleasure to Left, Right, and Center. The danger, however, is what the Greeks called hubris, overweening pride and self-justifying zeal, whether if be the zeal of the pacifist who would keep us out of war and let the other guys go on killing each other, or of the hawk who would ride in on a white horse to save the innocent.  

I’m certainly not any friend of the Assad regime. The prospect of chemical warfare really frightens. So why muddy the waters with these musings and misgivings?

Perhaps it's because in situations so complex and tragic as this, our only choices are between greater and lesser evils. To realize this clearly might foster humbler and wiser, albeit less morally exciting, decisions.