In yesterday's Sunday Times Andrew Sullivan expressed the wish he shares with plenty of other people that Congress should go against the President on the question of a military strike in Syria. He (Andrew) devoutly hopes (£) that Obama loses the vote in Congress. His reasons are at once familiar by now and compelling. As he writes with reference to the so-called 'Iraq syndrome':
It is not a "syndrome" to look both ways before you cross the street when you've already been run over by a truck twice in the past 10 years.
Over and above that, there are other important matters on Obama's domestic agenda - Obamacare, immigration reform - so why 'on earth' is he contemplating military action at all? Andrew's answer:
Obama feels strongly - and always has - about the unpunished mass murder of innocents. He read Samantha Power, the new US ambassador to the United Nations, on genocide a long time ago and is pulled in her direction... And the logic of enforcing an international red line against the poison-gassing of scores of children is obviously a powerful one.
But when all is said and done, apart from the many reasons advising caution, the consideration of democracy clinches it for him: 'If we are truly committed to democracy, the people should count. It is something of a democratic revolution in Britain and America that this time they will.'
I can't quarrel with Andrew's reasons against. In a series of posts during the last fortnight, as well as in some before that (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), I have tried to give weight to both sides of the present dilemma: the dangers and potential costs of Western intervention in an already volatile situation; and the concern about the humanitarian norms of international law being set at naught.
My reservation about Andrew's conclusion is that, having mentioned this last consideration as being a powerful one, he finishes by ignoring the way in which the people's democratic will in America and Britain could now lead to precisely that result - setting these humanitarian norms at naught. Present and proximate costs might tell more heavily in the democratic vote than the costs that could be incurred later if Assad's regime is allowed to get away with murder. Who is to be the guarantor of international humanitarian law? The UN is supposed to play this role but often fails in it. If a concert of democratic nations does not step forward, if the electorates of these countries come to believe that turning their backs on others under tyranny and lethal assault is the prudent course, this could generate serious further costs down the line, constituting a huge setback to the development of international law.
I cannot resolve the dilemma, but we should be fully aware of what is at stake on both sides of it.