The Syrian situation is another example of what I like to refer to as the Genocide Dilemma, to wit:
When a country is committing genocide against a segment of its own population, one school of thought is that the “civilized” world has a moral obligation to intervene. On the other side of the coin, a true civil libertarian is generally against all “foreign entanglements,” taking the position that what goes on in other countries is none of anyone else’s business.
Rationally, I favor the latter position, but I’ve never been able to reconcile it with what would have happened had the United States and its allies not intervened in Germany in World War II. Could any civilized person have lived with the knowledge that the Holocaust was continuing unchallenged?
Since World War II, however, there is a new reason for eschewing foreign intervention: We don’t win wars anymore! Worse, we lose a lot of American lives and a whole lot of wealth every time we flex our muscles, which has caused a majority of the population to grow war weary.
It’s also worth noting that wars used to last three or four years, until one country surrendered and the rebuilding began. But it’s a different world today. It’s hard to comprehend, but we’ve been in Iraq for 25 years and Afghanistan 16 years. Which means that anyone born after 2000 has never known a world in which the United States was not at war.
It is therefore understandable why so many people are questioning the efficacy of becoming involved in Syria. We could wipe out Syria’s entire air force in one day and pretty much force Assad to toe the line, except for one problem: Russia. If Russia continues to support Assad, which is likely, what’s the end game? I applaud Trump’s swift and precise action, but I’m not sure what the mid- and long-term consequences of intervention in Syria will be.
But perhaps the best argument for not using force to save innocent lives is the reality that life is neither fair nor perfect, and no amount of well-intentioned foreign intervention can change that reality. In fact, as history continually teaches us, life can be unbelievably brutal.
Think of the long line of homicidal maniacs just since WWII: Stalin, Mao, the Castro brothers and Che Guevara, Ida Amin, Saddam, Pol Pot, and on and on the list goes. Think of the slaughters in places like Bosnia, Darfur, Rwanda, and many other countries in Africa that most people have never even heard of and could not even find on a map.
After 5,000 years of recorded history, it’s obvious that mass murderers will always be with us, which is another factor to figure into the Syrian equation; i.e., whenever a murderous dictator is taken out, there are ten more bloodthirsty guys eager and willing to take his place.
Then there’s North Korea, which is unique in that its dictatorship is a family business. The Kim dynasty, which has controlled the upper peninsula since 1948, is the equivalent of a Mafia family. It’s had only three leaders in its 69-year grip on power — Kim ll-Sung, who was declared “Eternal President of the Republic” after his death in 1994, Kim Jong-il, who modestly labeled himself “Dear Leader,” and Kim Jong-un (no official title yet, but whom I like to affectionately refer to as Jumbo Jong).
But aside from the fact that one brutal dictator usually leads to another brutal dictator as bad or worse than himself, most foreign policy (at least in the U.S.) doesn’t even make sense. Consider the fact that Harry Truman dropped two atomic bombs on Japan that killed at least 200,000 civilians at a time when the Japanese war machine was already in ruins and Japan’s people were on the verge of starvation. In other words, the war was already coming to an end.
Yet five years later, Truman let North Korea off the hook by preventing General Douglas MacArthur from pushing into that country and destroying the communist forces. As a result, tens of millions of North Koreans have lived in unimaginable poverty for more than six decades, and untold millions have been jailed, tortured, and killed.
It’s hard to imagine, but today, had MacArthur had his way, North Korea undoubtedly would be as prosperous as South Korea, which is one of the richest nations in the world. In fact, the likelihood is that the two countries would have been united into one, and everyone (including the entire Western world) would have avoided a great deal of anxiety and expense.
But it was not to be. Actions have consequences, and as a result of Truman’s determination to limit the war in Asia, more than 60 years later North Korea is a threat to the very survival of the planet. I’ve always felt that Truman should have dropped the big one on Pyongyang rather than Japan, because it would have stopped the Kim crime family in its tracks and saved millions of lives and untold suffering.
Having said all this, I don’t have any easy answers for solving the Syrian crisis. Watching the lives of small children (and, for that matter, adults) being snuffed out by poisonous gas is stomach turning and evokes anger in any civilized person. But what about all the people who are being jailed and tortured in hell holes such as Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan? Shouldn’t we try to save them as well?
And that is precisely what lies at the heart of the Genocide Dilemma: How do you decide which people to try to save and which people to turn away from? No matter where in the world American troops are fighting to save lives at any given time, there are scores of other countries where people are being tortured and slaughtered. So the question becomes, who deserves to be the chosen ones when it comes to American intervention?
I guess the harsh answer is that we should intervene only where American interests are at stake, but it takes a pretty strong stomach to accept that as a guideline. As I said, life is not perfect; life is brutal. I don’t have the answer to Syria, but I sure hope Trump and his generals do.