This is a guest post from Brett Friedman (@brettfriedman) who says smart stuff in lots of smart places. Since this post included references to Star Wars and Spiderman, we thought it would be a good fit for Gunpowder and Lead (he misspells ‘Voltron’ though). –Sky
As tragic events continue to take place in Syria, the world increasingly looks to the United States to do something to end the violence. Even though there are numerous reasons why such an intervention would be a bad idea, (See here, here, here, here…. You get the idea), intervention supporters persist in their calls for the US to get involved. One justification for US action remains: Because we can. We have the power to intervene, therefore we have the responsibility. Calls for the US to intervene in Syria’s civil war, or indeed any desired intervention in the name of R2P, rests on this concept, which Voltaire put best: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”* This exact phrase is even used by Bernard Finel, Professor at the National War College, in this post.
Does this idea apply when it comes to war in general and the Syrian civil war in particular? Syria does have a well-developed, large, and mostly loyal military. However, I don’t think anyone would argue that they could go toe-to-toe with our own military even on their own soil. Our military is quantitatively and qualitatively superior and we have the power projection capabilities to get it to Syria. So, we’ve got the power. Do we have the responsibility? The better question is, does the President of the United States, as the Commander-in-Chief, have the responsibility to intervene? I do not believe so. Not because he does not have responsibility, but because he does have responsibility.
First and foremost, the President is responsible to the American people, and not just those who voted for him. He has the responsibility not to expend taxpayer-funded resources in a reckless manner or to unnecessarily expose the nation to retaliation for flexing its power. Perhaps most importantly, he has been invested, by the American people, with the responsibility to oversee the nation’s military. He owes the American people the assurance that their military will not be used in a foolish or frivolous manner that does not serve the American people’s interest, safety, or prosperity. Additionally, as Commander-in-Chief, he has a responsibility to all American servicemembers not to spill their blood unnecessarily. While the US military is capable enough of stopping the civil war in Syria, it could never do so without loss of life. Americans would die to purchase peace. The President has the burden of being directly responsible for the lives of Americans. That responsibility, as many of us know, weighs the heaviest of all.
The phrase was also used by Peter Parker’s
grandfather Uncle Ben in the Spiderman comics. Like Spiderman, the US military and its Commander-in-Chief have both great power and great responsibility. Unlike Spiderman, however, we exist in the real world. We can be caught in the webs of enemies or entangled in our own webs. We can be immobilized and overextended, then drained as we struggle helplessly. The President is invested with almost innumerable responsibilities, but first and foremost is his responsibility to protect the United States. Not just from external enemies, but from dangerous pursuits that do not serve her interest, the wasteful expenditure of resources, and the unnecessary death of US servicemembers. Sometimes it will be necessary or in our interests to intervene abroad. Sometimes, the President must be Uncle Owen keeping Luke from following Obi-Wan on some damn fool crusade.
This post is certainly not meant to condemn those who feel the US should intervene. Frankly, the desire on the part of many to help the people of Syria is a noble and appropriate feeling. I would hope that all Americans feel a similar desire, especially considering that our nation was born when it threw off another form of tyranny. But one can simultaneously want to help others and realize that helping would be too costly or exacerbate the problem. Indeed, recognizing our higher responsibilities or even just the limits of our ability to lend aid does not absolve us of our humanity. We should all hope that Al Assad reaps what he has sown in Syria, and that the Syrian people succeed in taking control of their own destiny.
*- He probably said it in French.