Lines in the Syrian Sand or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Foolish Pride

Ooh, what a price I pay,
My foolish pride.
-- Gary Moore
 
I am constantly surprised at the willingness of elected leaders to box themselves into corners by making ultimatums.
 
"Read my lips," the first George Bush said as a way of looking resolute on taxes, but the inevitable backtracking symbolized how ineffectual of a president he was. Jim McGreevey did it when he signed a no-tax pledge while running for governor and then stuck to his pledge even as the state's budget hole grew.
 
The effect of these foolish statements, however, did not result in the use of American war-making power oversees. That's not the case with President Obama's own foolish pronouncements last year about Syrian chemical weapons.
 
Here is what he said a year ago, on August 20, during a visit to the White House briefing room:

"What I'm saying is we're monitoring that situation very carefully," Obama said in a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room. But if the Assad regime were to use its weapons stockpiles, or alternatively, move it around, Obama suggested military action could be on the table.

"We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized," the president said. "That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."

It appears fairly certain that the Assad regime has, in fact, used chemical weapons and the president's words have left him with little room to maneuver. Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday that Syria would be held to account for the “moral obscenity” of using weapons against its own people and that the White House "was moving closer to a military response."
 
That, of course, is the red line talking. The red line is about credibility, we are told. It is about not looking weak, about putting our muscle where out mouth is. Put another way, the red line is about pride, and pride is one of the seven mortal sins — the root of all sins, in Christian theology. Dante viewed pride as “love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one’s neighbor,” and this seems to me a powerful description what we are witnessing with the red line debate over Syria. This may seem extreme, given the apparently altruistic motives, but the rhetoric here is relying on the language of punishment and power.
 
This rhetorical focus comes not from charity, but from a pride that has led us to see ourselves as the indispensable nation and the only one with the moral authority to meddle in others' affairs. We claim it is about realpolitik and pragmatism, but it is not. It is pride expressed as a dangerous national self-regard — the same prideful nonsense that kept us in Vietnam for a decade, that kept us in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that has consistently had us act in foolish and counterproductive ways on the world stage.
 
What we are watching are the beginnings of the next war — one the American people should not be happy about. And it is one that is likely to inflame an already volatile region. Assad is not the target, or maybe he is — that remains unclear, as does what might be left in his wake were he removed from power. So we are looking at the military equivalent of a targeted drive-by — a message attached to the nose of a cruise missile. Add to this the uncertainty in Egypt, the continuing hostilities in Iraq and Lebanon, and it is unclear to me what any of this can accomplish, aside from more death and destruction.
 
But we have drawn that red line and our credibility is at stake — at least that is what the military establishment and the Washington pundits are saying. And, you know, they are never wrong about these things.
 
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