Saturday, April 14, 2012

Syria's Grim Truth; Our Peter Parker Complex

My friend and co-author Steve Saideman has published an excellent piece on Syria, titled "Why the Violence Will Go On". On his own blogspace, he was even more blunt: "Hope is not a plan but we have no plan". Steve is a better conflict scholar than I, and he's spot on here: everything we know about civil wars and violent conflict inside states indicates that, Kofi Annan's efforts aside, things will get worse before they get better. Jawboning doesn't end wars, and that's about all we've seen or are likely to see in the foreseeable future.

This will lead, and had already led, to a certain amount of hand-wringing in the US and Europe. I've written previously about the tendency for politicians to always want to be seen doing something. And I've no doubt that Mitt Romney will at some point give a speech about how ineffectual Obama's "Syria policy" is - the implication being that if he (Romney) were President, he would have this whole Syria mess straightened out in no time.

We have this debate, of course, every time some conflict gets big and visible enough to be on CNN. There was Lybia last year, and Kosovo before that, and Bosnia before that, and Somalia before that (and again recently), and so on.

Part of the "do something" force is undoubtedly tied to humanitarian instincts, which is why conflicts where the suffering can be seen on TV are more likely to get policy attention than those that are out of sight. But a big part of it is the "Peter Parker Principle" of US foreign policy - the core, largely unexamined, notion that "with great power comes great responsibility".

This principle is at the heart of American internationalism for the last 60 years. It is a unifying theme - one thing that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on (the debates tend to be about tactics, not priorities). And like most unifying themes it stands unquestioned, even unexamined, nearly all of the time. Which is almost certainly not a good thing.

There are two questions that should be raised about the Peter Parker Principle. I don't have definitive answers to either, and the answers may depend on context - but they should at least be asked:

1) Do we in fact have the power to do what we think should be done? Just because we have "great power" does not make the US omnipotent - just as saying "If we can put a man on the moon, we can ..." is a logical fallacy. Some things are not doable with any amount of power; others cannot be done at a cost we are willing to bear. Applied to Syria, this is a very serious question: stopping the violence in the short run is likely to cost more than anyone is willing to pay, while creating a stable and peaceful regime that respects the rights of all Syrians in the long run is probably beyond the power of anybody except the Syrians themselves.

2) What is the extent of our moral obligation to try to help others? Devotees of Peter Parker policy often use the analogy of the drowning child; if you could save a drowning child, wouldn't you? Of course you would - because that's a choice made in isolation, without consequence for anything else. But resources spent trying to solve problem A cannot be used to address problem B. In a world where there are more problems than resources, how do we prioritize? On the basis of lives saved? (If so, what was the point of the Iraq war, which killed massive numbers of Iraqis? Whose lives matter?) On the basis of economic interest to us? (Why, then, Afghanistan?) Or do we simply respond to things in a knee-jerk fashion as they come up - in which case, why pretend that there's a coherent policy behind this at all?

The reality, of course, is that policy is generally determined by a combination of forces, many of them narrowly self-interested, pushing and pulling on the policy apparatus of the US government. We very much want there to be a conversation about "the National Interest", but we don't get one - haven't had one for at least 20 years or more. Instead, we get policy by sound bite - and for Americans, the Peter Parker philosophy seems to work pretty well. It's a powerful illusion that makes us feel good about ourselves - that we are both powerful and caring.

I don't know what the "policy response" will be to Syria - though I agree with Steve that it's not likely to do much good anytime soon. I think Syria poses yet another problem where our power to affect the outcome is limited at best, and our moral obligation is murky at best. Would that we could find a way to get our politicians to understand that life isn't as clean as Marvel comics.

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