Last night, Obama announced the US will intervene in Iraq and Syria under the authority granted by the AUMF:
SEC. 2. AUTHORIZATION FOR USE OF UNITED STATES ARMED FORCES.Two years late at the most forgiving, and with the FSA on its last legs in Aleppo, maybe too late…
(a) In General. -- That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
(b) War Powers Resolution Requirements.
(1) Specific statutory authorization. -- Consistent with section 8(a)(1) of the War Powers Resolution, the Congress declares that this section is intended to constitute specific statutory authorization within the meaning of section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution.
For over four years now, I’ve watched, hoped, and teared up as Syria bled, disintegrated, and hemorrhaged 10 million refugees. We should’ve been the FSA’s air force long ago, but instead I found myself envying my peers’ ability to otherize away others’ suffering: “You can’t help people by bombing them;” “We should lead by example here before we go there;” and “Iraq”. Always over and over again, “Iraq,” as though no humanitarian intervention could ever work again because “Iraq”.
America has spent the last few years paralyzed. In the pendulum swings of a fickle American worldview, hopelessly informed by its own narrow foreign policy experience, the lessons of 13 years ago seem lost. Emboldened by a war weary America wishfully pretending faraway suffering can remain forever far away, as it was pretending on the eve of the 11th, the scourge of Islamism has run rampant with impunity, more ascendant today than ever.
Advocating intervention in September 2012, I wrote:
Isolationism is never a good idea, unless you want a world that suffers recurring existential wars. Ignoring tyranny until it directly threatens America or Americans is a guaranteed way to allow expansionist ideologies to reach their apex before being confronted, not to mention espouses something of a nationalist moral double standard.Now that the US has allowed ISIS’s brutal and expansionist ideology to grow substantially before being confronted, America is halfheartedly muddling to confront it.
Last night, Obama made a barely convincing case (for the second time). As Obama cited an ambiguous case for American exceptionalism – that America must intervene qua America, and Americans should support intervention qua Americans – I found myself so immured in sympathy to the Syrians qua humanity that an argument qua Americans seemed like some sort of strange aside.
As Obama launched into a tirade about America, he lost me, so let me make my own case for intervention. To quote my latest intellectual hero:
I am responsible even for those who are not in any form of contractual relationship with me, or who do not form part of my community, or my nation, or who are not covered by the same legal framework as me. This helps to understand, for example, how I can be responsible for those who live at a distance from me, who are under a different form of political organisation, or those who are stateless. In Levinas’ framework, even those we never meet, those whose names and faces we do not know, present us with a demand. It is, then, a question of accepting our global interdependence and even our obligation to protect the lives of those we do not know. For Levinas, this primary obligation is expressed through what we commonly call commandments, “Thou shall not kill”: a requirement to preserve life. This does not mean that I can or should preserve the life of every individual (of course I cannot do so, and to imagine I could would be unhealthy, it would imply some sort of narcissism, a certain messianism), but rather that I should think about what kind of political structures we need to sustain life and minimise those forms of violence that extinguish it. This does not mean I am capable of making these structures come into existence - responsibility is not the same as efficacy - but rather that I can fight for a world that maximises the possibility of preserving and sustaining life and minimises the possibility of those forms of violence that, illegitimately, take life, or at least reduce the conditions that make it possible for this to happen. –Judith ButlerTo make a case around seperable American interests is nonsensical; there can be no difference between my interests and another’s in the realm of universals, because universality entails inseparability. While politically unpalatable, America is not the indispensible nation to the extent the world submits, America is indispensible to the extent it submits to the world, in service of universal human rights and liberal internationalism.
Narrowing what constitutes America’s interests away from universality and into a shortsighted opposition is a recurring habit of political convenience. America as opposition once led the US to declare victory in Afghanistan when communism was defeated, and abandon an illiberal Afghanistan to a breeding ground for Al Qaeda. That same narrowing has more recently caused us to abandon Libya, Iraq, and Syria, and move the goal posts away from universal liberalism and towards wherever history happens to stand when people become impatient.
Haughty words can evoke the right emotions, but they can’t write the right history, a history in which Syria and Iraq are secular, liberal, and free from both ISIS and Assad. Last night’s speech is a start, but a speech can’t force America to fight for its ideals, rightly defined as unambiguously liberal and inherently universal. The dialectic is still obsessed with difference: who America fights against, but not who or what America fights for.
While many spent today thinking of 2,000 Americans that died 13 years ago, I thought of the 200,000 Syrians that didn’t have to. Still, a liberal Syria remains unspoken, and while we refuse to speak of what we fight for, we are universally and chronically haunted by what we must fight against.