Ross Douthat: Here's Obama's best argument on Syria

By ROSS DOUTHATSeptember 2, 2013 

The following is an early, not-entirely-verified draft of remarks President Barack Obama was set to deliver this weekend announcing a strike in Syria. It was found in a rubbish bin outside the White House shortly after he changed course and decided to seek congressional approval first:

My fellow Americans, I'm speaking to you tonight because, at my orders, the United States has begun punitive strikes against the forces of President Bashar Assad of Syria.

There's a formula to this kind of address: some references to the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding inside Syria's borders, some nods to the international community's support, some claims about the threat the Assad regime poses to U.S. interests, and finally a stirring peroration about freedom, democracy and human rights.

But it's my second term, and I'm awfully tired of talking in clichés.

So let's be frank: Striking Syria isn't going to put an end to the killing there or plant democracy in Damascus, so it's hard to make the case that our values are really on the line.

Nor are our immediate interests: Assad's regime doesn't pose a direct threat to the United States or our allies, and given the kind of people leading the Syrian rebellion these days, we may be better off if the civil war drags out as long as possible without a winner.

Nor do we have much in the way of official international support -- no Security Council, no Arab League, not even the British. We're down to the same "coalition of the willing" we started with in the 1770s: It's just us and the French.

Even at home, I don't have many cheerleaders. My base is naturally anti-war, half the Republican Party has turned anti-interventionist, and the hawks of the right and left see this kind of strike as too limited to be worthwhile.

No, this one's on me. And I owe you an explanation of what I'm thinking.

Basically, it comes down to America's role on the international stage, and how we can use our extraordinary military preponderance for our own good and the world's.

One answer, embraced by my predecessor, is that we should be in the business of spreading democracy by force of arms. American military power should be deployed to challenge authoritarian powers whenever possible, to protect democratic governments and movements whenever necessary, and to topple dictators outright when the opportunity presents itself.

The experience of Iraq and Afghanistan exposed the limits of this expansive approach. Which is why I promised to chart a different course. After neoconservatism, I pledged a mix of realism and liberal internationalism, in which military force would be used much more sparingly, and American power would be placed in the service of a stable, rule-based, multilateral world order.

I still believe in the "stable" and "rule-based" part. But what the view from this office has taught me is that real stability still depends almost exclusively on the U.S. military's monopoly on global force. Multilateralism is a nice idea, but right now it's the Pax Americana or nothing. There's nobody else prepared to act to limit the ambitions of bad actors and keep them successfully boxed in.

And that's really all this intervention is about. There is an acknowledged line around the use of chemical weapons, Assad's government flagrantly crossed it, and we're the only ones who can make him pay a price.

Of course there's something arbitrary about telling a dictator he can kill his subjects with bullets but not gas. But there's something arbitrary about any constraint we impose on lesser powers. The point is to sustain an environment of constraint, period - in which troublemakers are constantly aware they can only push so far before U.S. military power pushes back.

True, pushing back won't necessarily make the underlying political and humanitarian situation better. But that isn't why we do it. It's not really about fixing problems or transforming regions or winning final victories. (That was the mistake that George W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson made, and that Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower avoided.) It's about demonstrating that there are limits to what other governments can choose to do without repercussions, and maintaining our credibility when we threaten to rain those repercussions down.

Look: I know Thomas Aquinas wouldn't endorse a war for American credibility, and I know the Barack Obama of 2007 probably wouldn't either. But most of my post-Cold War predecessors would, and did. And they've bequeathed me a world that - no matter what the headlines suggest - is more at peace than at any point in human history.

It's not a world free of tyranny, like my predecessor foolishly promised to pursue. But it's a world with fewer invasions, fewer war crimes, fewer massacres than in the past. And if we want to keep it that way, there has to be a price for crossing lines.

So that's the why of it. Thank you for your attention, and may God bless - and, if necessary, forgive - the United States of America.

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.

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