Syria: One Crisis Too Many

Polls indicate that Americans aren't in favor of military intervention in Syria. That's certainly true out here on the left coast. It's not that we don't care about Syria's humanitarian crisis; it's that we've run out of energy. America is in crisis overload.

Most Americans believe that Bassar al-Assad is a bad guy and probably used chemical weapons on his people. We feel sorry for the Syrian civilians. But we also feel sorry for working-class Americans who are struggling to keep their heads above water. We are worried about jobs and the economy. We are worried about crazed Republican congresspeople who, because of their hatred for President Obama, seem determined to tank the economy. We are worried about global climate change and savage weather. We are worried about violence against women and children. We are worried about the Federal government spying on our private affairs. We have more than enough to worry about without adding Syria to the list.

Of course, reasonable people feel that we ought to intervene in Syria. The president argues, "we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus." Many observers believe there is an epic humanitarian crisis in Syria and we ought to draw a line against the use of chemical weapons.

But other reasonable people argue that America can no longer afford to be the world's police force. New Mexico Democratic Senator Tom Udall observed:

I have grave concerns about what the administration is asking of us, of our military and of the American people... I see this potential bombing campaign as a potential next step toward full-fledged war.

Those opposed to intervention note there are many humanitarian crises throughout the world and America cannot afford to intervene in all of them. The Obama administration argues that we should intervene because Bassar al-Assad has used chemical weapons, but since World War II three dictators (Adolph Hitler, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Saddam Hussein) have used chemical weapons against their people and the U.S. did nothing. It's not clear what is unique about the Syrian situation.

In addition, there is broad-based opposition to intervention based upon both pubic opinion and Congressional perception that Syria might become another fiasco like the invasion of Iraq. On the far right, Republicans oppose intervention because they oppose anything proposed by the Obama administration. But on the far left, Democrats oppose it because they feel burned by the White House. The Snowden and Wikileaks revelations have convinced many Dems that Obama has turned into a clone of George W. Bush. (Many poll respondents indicated they did not believe the Obama administration contention that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against civilians.)

Nonetheless, it's clear that there would be negative consequences if the U.S. does nothing. There are long-term foreign-policy implications. President Obama argues that intervention in Syria would send "a message to the world." Specifically, he means a message to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, Iran, and Russia. Hezbollah is an active partner of Syria and Iran, and a consistent threat to Israel. Iran, of course, is a fledgling nuclear power and potentially a grave threat to American and Israeli interests.

But the biggest U.S. "message" would be sent to Russia. On September 4th, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reported that Russia is supplying Syria with chemical weapons. It's the latest provocation from the Russian government headed by President Vladimir Putin. Since the late '80s, the hopeful days of Perestroika and the end of the Cold War, the situation in Russia has steadily deteriorated. Americans might do well to ask: If we don't send a message to Russia now, what dangers lay ahead? Will the relationship continue to deteriorate? Where will we draw a line in the sand?

The Syrian civil war began in March of 2011 and has gotten worse with each passing month. It's become a humanitarian crisis and a security crisis. Many political observers see no good options.

Perhaps the most even-handed response comes from Jim Wallis the founder of the Sojourner community in Washington D.C.:

The clear moral case for intervention requires a more imaginative moral response than military action. The complications of the Syrian situation must not lead to a passive response but to a more creative one... It's time to punish Assad without further punishing his people, his neighbors, the stability of the region, and the security of the rest of the world. We must hold Assad accountable, pressure the world to join, protect the vulnerable, and ultimately find a political solution. A moral crisis does require a moral response.

These are wise words but it's not clear that America has the energy to do anything about the devastation in Syria. We have too many other concerns and we're tired of war.