Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. But I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.1
As matters now stand, a military response to the East Ghouta atrocity, the response that the President determined we – the U.S.A., on behalf of all – “should” offer, has been effectively cancelled; the norm against mass-annihilative murder is to be enforced with a plan for confiscatory disarmament only; and, according to opinion polls, the people overwhelmingly approve. Yet a fracture within the American system, and therefore within the global security system, has been revealed. The President’s surprising anti-maneuver maneuver of August 31 said that our doing what we “should” was not beyond him, but that it or sustaining it might well prove beyond us. He estimated that his unitary “should” would too easily have turned into a fragmentary “should not have,” and the abortiveness of the succeeding effort to re-join executive prerogative to popular consent seemed to remove any doubt about that calculation, if not about his rhetoric.
We cannot know what might have happened after the missile strikes that everyone had expected, but we do know, because we have revealed or confirmed, that we were prepared to make bad matters worse, to turn on the President and ourselves, and to fail him and ourselves and anyone foolish enough to depend on us. He and we may join together again sooner rather than later, but his words cannot be unsaid, his will was plain, and his inability to move the nation or its political representatives, even from his own party, became obvious, even if things never came to roll call votes in the House and Senate. (Was there a single public “no” moved to public “yes”?) The democracy of whose character the President said he had become “mindful” was disinclined to follow his lead, except in the opposite direction, or any lead at all except nowhere. Of course, the President already ought to have fully appreciated this syndrome of willed paralysis of the will, as should we, in the non-state of his Second Term domestic agenda, and in the three-year, very evidently very ongoing onanistic romance of the national legislature with self-nullification: We who know we cannot do right as a nation prefer, for now, to be the ones for whom no one, least of all our wrong-way leader, would be well-advised to wait.
Our posture of defensive indolence was prohibited for the victors as well as the vanquished sixty or seventy years ago, at the creation, when law beyond law against crime beyond crime was a matter of present and palpable necessity. The destruction of nations had become a capacity and therefore an option, known in some sense firsthand by all, as something in which all individuals and peoples were implicated, and by which all or any individuals and peoples would soon be directly threatened. Today, on the other end of an era, for us or most of us in the West, certainly for the vast majority of those chatting on the internet, the pulverized city is a science fiction cliché, a color-bled movie sequence, one day’s smoke and dust, or, dimly, a non-actualizable but determinative technical capacity: anything but the daily reality of a task at hand, or the result of real work by our own hands. Shattered landscapes and armies of the undead, are, for us or most of us, refracted memories and imported images pleasurably administered as games, TV shows, and twitter-fodder, over and over again, endlessly re-internalized extinction. Not so for, say, the Syrians, of course, but, in our separate and, as far as we have known, secure experience, such is the order of things: perpetual peace informed by thrilling collective nightmares that sometimes also happen to be other people’s real worlds, but that cannot ever be our own, nor anything that we, who consume everything but would never presume to will anything, would initiate.
We consign to vacuous regions of speculation and voyeurism what once existed for us as memory. For how long this mechanism can continue to function, along with the order it helps to support and that enables it, is impossible to say, but that the President or history has produced a test is not the same as America or the world or the Americanized world facing and failing a last one. The material conditions for our self-compromising American pre-eminence remain intact, and its moral negation in all-enveloping skepticism must eventually envelop itself, re-liberating intention and re-imprisoning doubt. Soon, in whatever state or state of states or unstate we are found, today’s neo-isolationists of left and right may find themselves exposed to ironies mirroring those now felt by the neo-conservatives of just the other day, who thought they were advancing a needed heightening, deepening, and expansion of engagement, but instead reinforced an older impulse to wash one’s hands of it all. That the deterrent we most desperately need to enforce is not against future “first use” by others, but against eventual use again by us, does not occur to us, and that it does not occur to us is why it ought to, unless all the gaming, watching, and tweeting are rehearsal, a deadening in advance of inconvenient empathies.