Over the past few days, I've engaged in extended and often challenging conversations with several students about the violence in Syria and the potential for American involvement (a debate that defies traditional political lines and allegiances). Questions ranged from Syrian society and the origins of the civil war to tough ones about the prospects of Iranian involvement and the feasibility (as well as the costs and benefits) of striking both countries. I always enjoy these discussions, not because I prefer to talk about chemical weapons, warfare and violence on a regular basis, but because the disturbing news from the Middle East has provoked serious examination and soul-searching, forcing students to ponder real ethical dilemmas facing our nation. I'm not going to answer questions on the background of the conflict, which the Washington Post already did quite admirably, nor am I advocating for a particular position regarding American involvement. That debate has overtaken the blogosphere, and will continue to do so in the coming days and weeks.
Rather, I'd like to offer a framework for struggling with the challenging moral and political dilemmas associated with intervention, an approach that I hope encourages ongoing discussion on campus and continual grappling with the toughest of issues.
In one of my first international affairs courses as an undergraduate, a former congressman delivered a guest lecture on foreign policy and how he struggled internally with complicated issues. In the back of his mind, with every major issue, were two major world events – the Holocaust and the Vietnam War. Though these examples are often overused, and even abused when it comes to scoring debate points, they can be instructive with regards to Syria and recent events.
The first event acts as a call to action; that we should not, or cannot, sit idly while any dictator brutally slaughters his own people. The other acts as a restraint, as poorly planned involvement in a foreign civil war we don't fully understand can produce awful consequences (David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest remains a must read).
Where on this particular spectrum does the Syrian civil war lie? Does Bashar Assad's use of chemical weapons fundamentally change the calculus and force movement along the spectrum, or is the ongoing carnage enough of a factor? How have the Iraq War and troubled aftermath impacted or influenced our willingness to make tough decisions?
As the discussions continue in this new semester #backoncampus – in campus newspapers, in the classroom and in dorm rooms – my hope is that conversations focus on the complexities of the region and the ethical dilemmas we all face around this issue. Though there are no easy answers, we shouldn't stop searching for deeper understanding.