The President’s surprising announcement on August 31, that, in a kind of anti-maneuver maneuver, he would defer an attack on Syrian regime targets and involve Congress and by extension the American people in his decision-making, had already re-framed the policy question in a larger, more tenuous context. In that announcement he specifically and seemingly somewhat blithely denied that a day, a week, or a month would have any impact on the military operations that he was endorsing yet in the same breath undermining, but he was not merely declaring the matter of no particular urgency: He was elevating the crisis and its stakes, as less immediate, but more significant.
The broadening of the time frame has since allowed for a simultaneous deepening and widening of focus taking in multiple objects, each one further susceptible to and seemingly endlessly worthy of independent consideration: The question, we should now be able to see, is not just of “intervening” in a foreign civil war or of punishing and materially constraining a particular rogue regime. It is also a question of American regional and global objectives, interests, and alliances. It is also a question of the enforcement of a general prohibition against annihilation of civilians, of people as simply people, by state power. It is also a question of American and international “credibility” in regard to other threats or potential threats around the world. It is also a question of prospects for a weakened American presidency, against the rise of an American neo-isolationist political coalition. It is also a question of the advisability, or even the possibility, of a democratic security policy. All of these matters and still others will be affected by American action versus inaction (or authorization versus non-authorization) in relation to Syria and to what Syria represents, and this range of concerns in turn describes a single complex system, or the global order itself. What makes the Syria Crisis a crisis at all is that it is a crisis of that system, not merely, to risk stating the obvious, a crisis in or regarding Syria, nor even merely at the next higher level of abstraction a crisis of American or international policy toward the Assad regime.
For the President (or at least so he says) and for many others, not least for Syrian rebels whom in a different era Americans might have quickly recognized as “freedom fighters” in our own image, it is clear that America should act. Thus the poignancy of the comment tweeted immediately following the President’s announcement, by Middle East journalist and long-time supporter of the rebellion Hassan Hassan: “We cannot be disappointed with Obama’s decision [to go to Congress]. A beautiful ideal for which Syrians started their revolution in the first place.” Yet for the majority, if the polls are to be trusted, the only action acceptable is no action, and the Syrian revolution commands no evident sympathy. Among the blogging class, a motion to abandon the Syrian revolution fully seems to be gathering support. ((See, for example, “The Price of Proxies,” by Marc Lynch, 13 September 2013; or closing comments in “What Krauthammer Reveals,” by Andrew Sullivan, same date: “Just stop arming the Syrian rebels and don’t turn down Putin’s offer to take responsibility for all of it.”)) Our refusal to act at all and our inability to recognize our own ideal and origins in others are connected. The latter has many causes or explanations, but the results are the same: It is far from clear at this moment that America is prepared to act in Syria or perhaps at all; or that America is prepared to act effectively; or that Americans believe that action is or should be their responsibility; or that Americans believe that action will likely be worthwhile; or that Americans believe that such responsibility is worth having at all, for anyone’s purposes; or, if the responsibility might be worth having, that it remains in fact sustainable.
To treat this primary question of positive self-definition versus passive self-annihilation as inconsequential, as is typical of anti-Americanists, is already to take the side of re-definition: to set becoming-inconsequential, or unexceptional, as the new ideal. The mass murder of civilians in war, the conversion of citizens into eradicable vermin, ought to refer us to events at the inception of the American-centric international order as we know it, its immediate predicate in a shared experience of total war and of victory both in and against it, and an older predicate in the longer movements of history. Yet, utterly typically for this conjuncture, the connections are rarely made except remotely, in seemingly unheard, all but unregistered remarks like the President’s from the East Room. No longer recalling where we came from – or willing to recall – we can have no idea where we are or might be going: Willing nothing, we are nowhere to be found.