Theodicy and foreign policy: The U.S. is not omnipotent

God was finally going to believe
in a man both good and strong,
but good and strong
are still two different men.

Wislawa Szymborska,The Century’s Decline

Yesterday, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered had a segment debating U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war: “Analysts Divided on U.S. Arming Syrian Rebels.”

The guests were two people I wasn’t familiar with: Andrew Tabler, “senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy,” and Joshua Landis, “who directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.”

Landis argued that the U.S. should avoid getting entangled in the Syrian war because he doesn’t think this is a problem that America can solve:

I think the United States should stay out of this. This is a civil war, ethnic civil war, which America cannot adjudicate and we can’t solve. The Syrians ultimately have to figure out who they are, if they can live together and what their national identity is going to be. And if America jumps into the middle of it, we’re going to want to kill the extremists and we’re going to want to destroy the Assad regime and we’re going to be fighting a two-front war in Syria.

And we’re not going to get the outcomes we want and we’re going to spend a fortune doing it. And, you know, there’s got to be one of these wars we just don’t get involved in.

Tabler, on the other hand, is urging the U.S. to begin arming the rebels in Syria, and he’s disappointed that America didn’t get involved sooner:

If it had occurred earlier, it would have been easier, but unfortunately, now we have more extremists who have moved into different areas that are controlled by the opposition. So you can’t guarantee that every bullet would not make it into the hands of an extremist.

But overall, you could strengthen the mainline nationalist local and franchise battalions and it would help deal them back in. And the reason why I still think that’s a good idea, you know, with groups that we vetted and we can work with is because I just don’t think this conflict is going to end any time soon.

By the end of the segment, this disagreement got pretty nasty — in a very familiar way:

LANDIS: Could I have one rejoinder? Andrew just said that I’m a regime-supporter for making this argument and therefore trying to scare Americans away. I think that’s an unfair accusation. I’m an American.

TABLER: You’ve got to be kidding, Josh. You have been one of the biggest supporters of Bashar al-Assad for a long time, and look, that’s your position. And I think the argument you make…

LANDIS: That’s completely untrue. And I’m an American trying to keep us out of another Iraq-type of venture.

TABLER: I think that you are…

LANDIS: What you are saying is that Syria’s not like Iraq.

TABLER: I’m sorry I don’t agree with you.

LANDIS: And Syria’s exactly like Iraq. This is not about the regime. This is about America staying out of a quagmire, Andrew.

TABLER: Josh, I just think that your positions have come consistently on side of the regime.

It’s like a trip back in time to 2003.

Andrew Tabler is trying to revive one of the nastiest, most illogical of all the nasty, illogical arguments that misled America into the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq. He’s repeating Glenn Reynolds’ ugly, foolish slur that anyone who opposed invading Iraq was “objectively pro-Saddam.”

This accusation doesn’t make any more sense in 2013 than it did a decade ago, but I think I’ve finally figured out why people like Reynolds and Tabler trick themselves into thinking it does.

They’re not really talking about foreign policy. They’re talking about theodicy. They’re making a theological claim, with the United States in the role of God.

“Theodicy” refers to the problem of evil. I like Archibald MacLeish’s pithy summary of that problem in JB:

If God is God, He is not good,
If God is good, He is not God.

JB is a modern retelling of the story of Job, but MacLeish doesn’t have any better answers than the author of Job did. Here are the two seemingly incompatible ideas that story tries to reconcile:

1. God is “the Almighty,” or — as theologians say — “omnipotent.”

2. God is good (just, fair, loving, righteous, benevolent, etc.).

Now consider any evil, unjust, painful, horrible incident or context. Any will do, and you have an infinite array of choices: the Lisbon earthquake, the Boxing Day tsunami, 9/11, childhood leukemia, AIDS, a car crash, a drive-by shooting, tyranny, calamity, pain, disease, flood, famine — take your pick.

The existence of any or all of those seems to suggest that God cannot be both omnipotent and good. A God that was both omnipotent and good ought to have intervened to stop such horrors, or to reverse them. That’s what any of us would do if it were in our power to do so, even those of us who make no claim to be anything like as good as the ultimate goodness we attribute to God.

The claim of God’s goodness makes such intervention necessary. The claim of God’s omnipotence means that such intervention would be guaranteed to succeed. The relentlessly evident lack of such divine intervention therefore suggests that one or the other of these attributes of God is wrongly attributed. Either an all-powerful God could intervene to prevent injustice, suffering and evil, but chooses not to — and is therefore not good. Or else a good God wants to intervene to prevent injustice, suffering and evil, but is unable to do so — and is therefore not all-powerful.

That’s the conundrum. (I would say that’s the crux of the problem, but the literal crux of the matter is something else entirely.)

I think the illogical logic of the Neo-conservative “objectively pro-Saddam” argument comes from taking this framework of theodicy and applying it to American foreign policy. In the framework of theodicy, goodness always entails an obligation to intervene. Interventionist foreign policy draws on that, I think. For interventionists, America is good and therefore America must intervene.

From this view, the evil, horror and injustice of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq — like every evil, horror and injustice — demanded an active response. Wouldn’t you have put a stop to it if it were within your power to do so? Of course you would have. And thus the U.S. was obliged to invade Iraq, because with its unrivaled military might, the U.S. did have the power to do so.

This isn’t a military or strategic argument. Nor is it a discussion of just-war theology. It’s an analogy from theodicy. Either the mighty U.S. could intervene to prevent injustice, suffering and evil in Iraq, but chooses not to — and is therefore objectively pro-Saddam. Or else the U.S. wants to intervene to prevent injustice, suffering and evil, but is unable to do so — and is therefore not mighty enough and needs to further increase the Pentagon’s budget.

The dilemma of theodicy has two horns — ultimate goodness and ultimate power. Both of those are problematic in this analogy. But here let’s set aside the problem of trying to equate the U.S. with ultimate goodness. And let’s set aside as well the host of other troubling factors, like the seemingly arbitrary choice of elevating one particular unjust context above all others as uniquely requiring intervention. Here let’s just focus on the simple and obvious fact that the United States military, while quite powerful, is not omnipotent.

I don’t simply mean that U.S. military firepower is finite, rather than infinite. That’s obviously true, but it’s not really the problem with this analogy.

The United States spends more on its military than any other country. It’s not even close. American politicians love to boast of the nation’s military prowess, and they’re not wrong. The U.S. has more and better weapons than any other nation on the planet. So even though U.S. military firepower is finite and limited, it’s so far beyond that of most potential military foes that those limits don’t matter much. America’s nuclear arsenal could destroy the entire planet several times over. If you can kill everyone on earth more than once, it hardly matters that you’re unable to kill them all an infinite number of times.

The main reason that the U.S. military is not omnipotent is that it’s military might is only that: military might. The U.S. military cannot cure cancer, end a drought or feed the starving millions. The U.S. military can solve only those problems that are exclusively military problems. And it can address the military aspects of problems that are partly made up of military aspects — but only those military aspects. It cannot solve every problem or correct every injustice.

To put it crudely, the U.S. military is very, very good at killing people. But many problems — most problems, actually — can’t be resolved by killing people. Some few, perhaps, can. The vast majority cannot.

That reveals the confusion of our interventionist friends when they make the leap from theodicy to foreign policy. The idea they draw from the discussion of theodicy is that goodness requires intervention — that to be good means one is obliged to intervene against evil, suffering and injustice. I think that’s right, but it does not mean that one is obliged to intervene by killing people. It does not mean that this specific form of intervention is the only specific form of intervention called for — or that it is the best, or the first, or the most effective form of intervention.

Just-war theory addresses this in at least two ways. One is the principle of last resort, which says that military intervention and the use of military force must never be used unless everything else has been fully and legitimately tried first. The second is the principle of “reasonable hope.” That doesn’t mainly have to do with the prospects for military victory, but rather with the question of whether or not such a victory would likely produce a just outcome. (Generals often understand the wisdom of this better than civilians do.)

Those two principles are among the most ignored and sorely abused of the entire “just-war” school. I think that’s true mainly because we spend so much money and time preparing for war that we’re unable or unwilling to imagine other, prior resorts — other ways of intervening that would likely have a more reasonable hope of achieving a just and desirable outcome.


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  • aunursa

    I don’t know what the overall perspective is on the liberal side, but conservatives are quite divided over whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria if it’s proven that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons.
    See for example: The Only Red Line Should Be To Stay Out

  • FearlessSon

    I believe that the use of chemical weapons is certainly an issue if we want a fully cooperative international intervention in Syria, considering that Russia is still tentatively their supporter on the U.N. Security Council, but they have made suggestions to the effect that they would consider chemical attacks crossing the line and would be willing to withdraw their support for Syria in such an event.

    That is admittedly my amateur understanding of the situation, and I might have been misinformed. Still though, I would rather have international support before military intervention is even considered, if we do not want to risk a bunch of diplomatic fallout (which potentially produces more problems in the long term.)

  • Jurgan

    Jon Stewart: So the only hope is to convince Vladimir Putin that it’s bad to poison people. Good luck with that.

  • Geds

    I don’t really think Syria is a liberal/conservative divide. I say that mostly because I don’t think it has enough exposure to be a key talking point for anyone.

    That said, most of the liberal chatter I’ve noticed on Syria is basically, “Another war? Yeah, let’s not do that.” I also haven’t run in to that many arguments in favor of handing guns to the rebels, either. That never seems to work out too well.

  • The_L1985

    Yeah, we saw how well that worked in Afghanistan…

  • Geds

    Also, too, Iraq…

  • Citizen Alan

    Tabler is a movement conservative. Which is to say, he worships Death, just like most die-hard Republicans.

  • FearlessSon

    I would rather you not be so general with blanket statements like that. Yes, there are warmongers in the American political system, but given how broad each major party is (a two party system will do that) it is fallacious to say that most “die-hard” members of a party share an agenda (they may be die-hard supporters of agendas, just not all the same ones.)

  • Orclove

    No it isn’t.

  • Becca Stareyes

    I’d probably extend this to domestic policy, with people who jump to arming ‘the right people’, and tougher sentencing/increased jail time as a solution for any crime, rather than ask ‘what is the best way or combination of ways to solve this problem?’. It’s not to say that those aren’t possible solutions to be considered, but they are not the only solutions, and there is a difference between ‘We have good reason to think that solution will cause more problems than it solves’ to ‘We are in favor of the problem continuing’.

  • Aeryl

    This is an incredible article Fred, thank you. I think you’ve really nailed it here. It really ties into that “theory of everything” someone posted in comments earlier this week, about this fundamental difference in mindset between authoritative types(and I think most conservatives fit into that type) and everyone else.

  • Enopoletus Harding

    Link, please?

  • Aeryl

    Now, that I think about it wasn’t here, it was at Libby Anne’s LoveJoyFeminism.

    I’ll post it when I find it.

  • Enopoletus Harding

    I find the Theory of Everything quite possibly true and useful.

    Here is the Theory of Everything, as I conceive it:

    The characteristic view of liberals is that human beings are born into the world basically good and equal and are corrupted by questing for superiority over the common person.

    The characteristic view of conservatives is that human beings are born into the world basically bad and that those who are in poverty are those who remain in this original state, and, thus, rightfully deserve their punishments, while those who have moved beyond that original state are the righteous and successful, who rightfully deserve their success.

  •örkman/100000191757322 Daniel Björkman

    You know, I have never understood the way liberals always claim that the conservatives are “authoritative.” I admit that some of them are, but most conservatives I see are of the never-progressed-emotionally-beyond-age-ten, I’m-allowed-to-do-whatever-I-want-to-whenever-I-want-to type – whereas I always felt that progressives were the kind of people who were more inclined to sit down, shut up, do their part, and just generally accept their rights and responsibilities within a smoothly functioning society. I mean, Fred is as liberal as they come, and he’s always talking about what we must do – not what we might do if we happen to feel like it, but what we must do in order to be acceptable people.

  • Aeryl

    Well, they see themselves as the authority.

    I’ve also seen the point made about how conservatives and liberals view their nation, and why conservatives tend to have this whole “My country, right or wrong” attitude. And that reflects back on how these two groups view parental roles. Conservatives view parents as this ultimate authority and arbiter of morals in families, where liberals see parents as flawed individuals who mostly try the best they can, and that these attitudes inform how they view government, as either the ultimate authority and arbiter of morals for the world, or a flawed system that mostly tries the best it can.

  • David Policar

    Come to that, I know a lot of authoritarian ten-year-olds.

  • AnonymousSam

    A lot of conservatives I encounter also belong to conservative Christian denominations and make appeals to authority on a roughly picosecond basis because only they have correctly interpreted the Bible and know that God sent them to reign in the rest of us. :p

  • Invisible Neutrino

    “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business”

    How charming.

  • Mary

    Yikes! What an awful article! Scary too.

  • Mordicai

    Well, you know how sixteen year old white males can be; they are ingrained to think that all this macho posturing will obscure the fact that their overwhelming privilege makes their adolescence essentially an extended spoiled childhood.

    Oh wait, those aren’t two pimple-faced teenagers trying to sound tough on an internet message board? Well damn, then there really isn’t any excuse.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    It’s a pretty sad commentary on the state of affairs when one can accurately describe the USA’s international relations as being about on the emotional-maturity level of said privileged 16-year-old who thinks throwing down with someone else is proof of their worth as a human being.

  • Mordicai

    Not even throwing down, but you know, a mix of armchair warriors eager to talk about death because they have no experience with it, blended in with rich old dudes who don’t mind sending poor Americans to go kill brown people & die on their behalf.

  • FearlessSon

    a mix of armchair warriors eager to talk about death because they have no experience with it

    I think that is the crux of it. This is why I mentioned earlier in the thread that I would rather people not generalize all Republicans as being eager for war. I have known more than one Republican who is both pro-military and anti-war at the same time, usually because they value the armed services as a tradition and have served themselves. But having seen actual action in combat, they have no desire to put others in harm’s way without damn good reason.

    On the other hand, the real political danger is the chickenhawks, the ones who value the military and want to see it used (particularly politicians who have big donors who work in defense contracting.) Those are mostly people who, as much as they make exalting statements about the military, have never actually served and do not have the same kind of perspective on armed conflict.

    Compare figures like Colin Powell and John McCain to figures like Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush for an example of what I mean.

  • Mordicai

    Well with Rumsfeld I would also invoke the old adage of follow the money.

  • reynard61

    Part of the problem seems to be that quite a few of our politicians (encouraged by the FauxNoise punditry and Rushbo) seem to have regressed into a “Mad Men”- like pre-1960s view of the world — although, instead of the sexual gamesmanship/one-upmanship displayed in that show, they’re more about ideological gamesmanship/one-upmanship. (i.e. “I can get us into a bigger, more expensive war that’ll kill more people faster than you can!”)

    This would be all well and good if such penis-measuring were confined to the halls of West Point, the Naval and Air Force academies, the War College and various college and university classrooms; but they seem to have forgotten that their abstract “Let’s play War!” hue-and-cry doesn’t translate to playing a Modern-era-type RPG war-game in some suburban teenager’s basement, or a bunch of friends going out to do a weekend LARP with paint guns or Airsoft rifles. It translates into *real* men and women — fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, etc. — being killed *for real* on far-away battlefields for little-to-no purpose other than to push a few defense contractor’s stock prices a few dollars higher on Wall $treet, let some pundit raise his or her ratings by appealing to their audience’s worst nature by using lots of “Rah! Rah! Let’s kill ’em all!”-style jingoism or help conspiracy- or war-mongering politicians win the next election.

    So, yeah; the Chickenhawks have absolutely nothing to lose by being Chickenhawks — or even wrong. (Apparently not even their good reputations among the Conservatives. The ones who aren’t still in government seem to have found cushy jobs at various think-tanks and universities.) Unfortunately, I don’t think that the same can be said for those who have to go fight and/or pay for their wars with this Nation’s blood and treasure.

  • Orclove

    I have never, ever, heard of John McCain opposing a use of force. Not once.

  • Mr. Heartland

    This analysis might go some way to explaining how a refusal to intervene with our internal inequality could possibly square with an imperialist urge to intervene in other nations injustices. If the innate justness of US society is axiomatic, then the assumption that our own oppressed underclasses did something to deserve their oppression is not just comforting but a patriotic duty. It is also a patriotic duty to assume that other nations failings our of course caused by institutions and beliefs that are different from and therefore not as good as our own, and that simply having our own ways ‘given’ to them is of course the obvious solution to their problems.

    It is true that many if not most right-wingers see themselves as personally embodying the United States more than other Americans, and therefore tend to interpret any suggestion that we are not automatically strong just and good as personal attacks on themselves. It is also true that it is indeed very hard to be both strong and good at the same time. The most common way to try to pull off this trick is to display an extravagant willingness to punish evil. Punish the deserving underclass for their hedonism and laziness. Punish the foreign stranger for his infidelity.

  • Carstonio

    Whenever I heard about someone’s medical or financial troubles through a third party (an important qualifier), I automatically fear something similar happening to me or to my loved ones. What you describe may be a very similar form of emotional immaturity. They take any criticism of the nation very personally, because they are heavily invested in a view of themselves as just and good.

  • FearlessSon

    Quoth Altemeyer:

    Authoritarian followers want to belong, and being part of their in-group means a lot to them. Loyalty to that group ranks among the highest virtues, and members of the group who question its leaders or beliefs can quickly be seen as traitors. Can you also sense from these items the energy, the commitment, the submission, and the zeal that authoritarian followers are ready to give to their in-groups, and the satisfaction they would get from being a part of a vast, powerful movement in which everyone thought the same way? The common metaphor for authoritarian followers is a herd of sheep, but it may be more accurate to think of them as a column of army ants on the march.

    If you are critical of your own nation, then you are shifted to the “out” group and not to be trusted. We see this in the epistemic closure Fred discussed before. In the end, all who are left are true-believes to thump the drums and march forward secure in the belief that their position is unassailable.

    Ironically, since the end of the Bush administration such people have become dismissive of the nation, but not the “real” nation to them. The only way that they can be critical of America is by invoking the No True American fallacy to rationalize their criticism.

  • Carstonio

    While I have a habit of overusing the term authoritarianism, it seems appropriate for the mentality that Fred describes, one that makes no practical distinction between god and country. There are few more concepts dangerous to world peace than the idea of one’s country representing ultimate goodness.

  • ohiolibrarian

    It wouldbe odd if one didn’t have a generally good opinion of one’s own country … witin reason. And that’s where some people go wrong.

  • AnonymousSam

    Well, I don’t have a particularly high opinion of the US. I just don’t know where else I’d live if I had the choice, and I don’t have the choice.

  • Carstonio

    There’s a difference between loving one’s own country despite its flaws, wanting to make it more just, and viewing the country with childlike adoration, like it’s the bestest mommy in the whole wide world. As alfgifu once said, one is positive patriotism and one is exceptionalism.

  • Mary

    I remember the old slogans such as “My Country Right or Wrong.” and “America Love It or Leave It.” My father was just a few years shy being drafted into WW2. He can’t understand the difference between the war then and our incursions into other countries such as Iraq. I haven’t asked him yet about what is going on now. But his attitude is that since WW2 was a just cause that going into Iraq was just, also. I am no war history buff, but I think the difference was that Hitler was trying to take over the world and he probably would have come after us sooner or later. We have no evidence that with Iraq that we were in any kind of danger plus we have pissed off enough Muslims that we are probably IN MORE DANGER, than we would be if we had left them alone!

    Not only can we not fix everything in the world, we have our own problems to deal with. Simply put, our country is in bad shape with the economy and that should be our priority.Spending billions of dollars on warfare means that we cannot help our own people. Of course I guess that many conservatives think that all unemployed people are leeches on the government, so they don’t care. I don’t know the numbers of people who are hard-working people that can’t find jobs, but I am sure it is steep. I am disabled and I can’t even afford to get dental work done, even though I get both Medicare and Medicaid. Niether one of them will pay for anything except having a tooth pulled in an emergency.

    Why the hell is it that we think that we can solve the world’s problems if we can’t solve our own?

  • smrnda

    I think it was Orwell who said “My country right or wrong” is about as sensible as “My mother, drunk or sober.”

  • ngotts

    G.K. Chesterton. I think Orwell quoted it somewhere.

  • Ross Thompson

    I believe the entire quote is “My country; right or wrong. If right, kept right, and if wrong, made right.”

    I kight be wrong, but I like that version, anyway.

  • FearlessSon

    I am no war history buff, but I think the difference was that Hitler was trying to take over the world and he probably would have come after us sooner or later.

    Kind of. As usual, It Is More Complicated Than That.

    Going back to WW1, part of the reason for the U.S. joining was actually due to a lot of moneyed interests in the U.S. that had a lot invested in England and France, which stood to lose that investment should they become too destabilized by the conflict. It was at their urging that the U.S. finally got involved (showing that Wall Street having influence over the country’s direction is hardly anything new.)

    WW2 was in part more of the same (the two wars were more like one big war with an extended intermission between the acts.) However, the U.S. had a harder time justifying intervention. When U.S. interests in China were threatened by the Japanese invasion, again at the urging of investors the U.S. got involved, at least in a roundabout way by imposing an embargo against Japan getting oil, without actually declaring war. However, by that point the saber-rattling and rising tensions meant that both powers knew war was inevitable since neither would back down. Hence the annexation of Hawaii in order to use Pearl Harbor as a military staging area (Hawaii being perfectly located as major base midway between North America and Asia.) The Japanese, reasoning that the Americans were building up for a possible attack (which they pretty much were) decided that if they had any hope of winning that fight then they needed to land the first punch, hence the attack on Pearl Harbor.

    After that, it was much harder to justify not getting involved in the European theater, since the axis powers were forming alliances and they had to be hit from multiple fronts to win on any of those fronts.

    At least that is my understanding of the lead up to it. The core element to each of these wars was “Does it threaten our national interests?”

  • ngotts

    Hawaii was annexed in 1898.

    It’s true that the oil embargo was imposed in an attempt to force Japan to withdraw at least partially from China, but war was not perceived as inevitable by either side until late November 1941, when Japan received American demands that went further than before (including complete withdrawal from China and Indochina). The USA was still taken completely by surprise by Pearl Harbor, as on no rational calculation could Japan hope to win a war.

    Germany declared war on the USA, not vice versa, so there was no need to justify getting involved at that point, although as Hitler understood, war against the USA was likely inevitable at some point. Had Hitler not declared war, Roosevelt might have found it impossible to get a declaration of war against Germany through Congress at that point.

  • FearlessSon

    I stand corrected.

    You are right, I got that mixed up with the aftermath of the Spanish-American war (where Hawaii’s location was still a major strategic consideration.)

  • Ben English

    It depends on what you mean by the word ‘representing’. America, as an ideal, represents liberty and justice for all, which to my mind seems like the ultimate goodness.

    We as Americans fail miserably to live up to that, but that doesn’t mean the idea isn’t worth striving for. The problem comes when ultimate goodness becomes something America is assumed to be by default, rather than something it aspires toward.

  • Carstonio

    Exactly the point I was trying to make. The mentality I’m criticizing treats good and evil as innate qualities or allegiances.

  • Matthias

    I don’t think that you can compare the Situation in Iraq of 2003 to the one in Syria today. Iraq was a stable country without a civil war, while authoritarian, you could live there if you didn’t openly criticise Saddam.

    In Syria there is a civil war ongoing, cities are under siege, civilians are being guned down from helicopers and as it now appears chemical weapons have been used. It is hard to see how it could get worse. Additionally as Lybia has shown removing the air force and the tanks of a dictator doesn’t neccesarily lead to a theocracy.

  • Enopoletus Harding

    It can always get worse.

  • SisterCoyote

    I sincerely don’t understand how anyone is actually making this argument. Doomed to repeat our history indeed. “Let’s arm the rebels!” Because that has NEVER TURNED OUT BADLY FOR US OR ANYONE ELSE.

    Seriously. How many times do we have to go through this? Go into a country that’s engaged in civil war, make a decision from an outsider’s perspective on who’s in the right, arm the rebels we think we agree with. Fast-forward twenty-thirty years. Man, where did these well-armed terrorist regimes that the people hate come from? Where the fuck do you THINK?

  • stardreamer42

    AKA “those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it”. And there’s been an awful lot of effort spent in the last 40 years to ensure that the American public in general has the attention span of a flea with ADD.

  • FearlessSon

    Man, where did these well-armed terrorist regimes that the people hate come from? Where the fuck do you THINK?

    I remember the joke back from 2003-2004: “Why do we think Saddam has weapons of mass destruction despite all contrary evidence? Because we still have the receipts.”

  • Jenora Feuer

    The version of it that I heard was a little more blunt: “Why is George W. Bush so certain that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction? Because his daddy kept the receipts.”

    Then remember that George H.W. Bush was director of the C.I.A. for a year or so back in 1976.

  • Rhubarbarian82

    The “receipts” joke goes back to the original Iraq War and George HW. Bill Hicks had a bit on it in his standup:

  • Alix_A

    Not only that, but, well. From my perspective there’s also a huge issue of sovereignty involved. It’s easy to support the rights of people to self-determination and the right of nations to their own national sovereignty when things are going well, but it’s situations like this civil war that really test those rights.

    It would be one thing if Syria was engaging in warfare with us. It would be one thing if Syria or its people requested international peacekeeping help (I’m not entirely up to date on this – have they?). It’s another thing to just decide to jump in to an internal matter in another nation.

    I know this then leads to the thorny questions about moral good and saving lives and human rights and all of that, but I am not so sure we’ve got a good track record on any of those issues, and I don’t think the answer to any of them is to have one giant superpower playing bully-on-the-block and policing the actions of every other nation on the planet.

  • Ross

    The thing is, it seems like our choices here are “do nothing”, “pick a side and help them win” or “conquer Syria” (Honorable mention: Nuke it from orbit; it’s the only way to be sure).

  • Enopoletus Harding

    This is the best politics-related post I’ve seen from Fred in over half a year. My response to unwarranted intervention has, for the past five months, been “people can only accomplish what they know how to do”. Now, I can point out that what is good is not God.

  • Ben English

    The American military knows how to kill people and blow shit up. There are people and more importantly hardware in Syria that we could take out that might help reduce civilian casualties. Extracting or neutralizing chemical weapons could save millions of lives. Nobody wants an invasion and arming the rebels is a bad idea, but there are people suffering, the situation is not stable, and, as Mathias said, taking out the military strength of a dictator doesn’t guarantee disaster.

    I’m not saying we SHOULD do any of this because that would require military intel and difficult judgements that we as civilians aren’t really equipped to make. But there are potential courses of action that don’t mean arming the rebels or invading the country.

  • Orclove

    *…but there are people suffering*

    And that’s sad. But it has nothing to do with us.

    *…the situation is not stable…*

    Which means nothing. Many situations are unstable. They eventually become so. So again: Not our issue.

    Mathias said, taking out the military strength of a dictator doesn’t
    guarantee disaster.*

    Of course it does. Name one–ONE–majority-Muslim country which is not either a theocracy or else en route to becoming one.

  • Ross

    Of course it does. Name one–ONE–majority-Muslim country which is not either a theocracy or else en route to becoming one.





    Northern Cyprus.

    Oh, sorry. You wanted one.

  • Orclove

    Mali is a point for me, not you. Same too with Indonesia. I’ll grant you the rest.

  • Boidster

    Interesting post. I had always figured that “follow the money” was the answer to why the warmongers monger so much. Their political careers or their private “think tanks” are funded in whole or in part by people who stand to profit from endless war, so yay for endless war! There are ancillary benefits w.r.t. control of the populace and infringement on civil liberties when the country is “at war”; icing on the cake.

    I find Fred’s hypothesis slightly more comforting than my cynical one, though I’m not ready to accept it as the primary motivator of these chickenhawks. I might even be more inclined to believe “base hatred of brown/Muslim people, plus a sick desire to throw small crappy countries against the wall from time to time” as a motivation for these folks before “we believe that America is Good and therefore must intervene – using guns and missiles – on behalf of the poor repressed brown people”.

    It is food for thought, though.

  • Mark Z.

    I wish I could find the comment*, but a few months back, someone posted here about 1 Kings 11:19:

    “Perhaps the point of the still small voice is that fire from heaven has its limitations.”

    * Because Disqus, that’s why.

  • Enopoletus Harding

    19:11, not 11:19.

  • Martin

    Great post, but a point that i really hate:

    “America’s nuclear arsenal could destroy the entire planet several times over. If you can kill everyone on earth more than once…”

    this is not and has never been true.

    1. we don’t have enough firepower to destroy the planet (The entire (imperial) starfleet couldn’t destroy the whole planet. It’d take a thousand ships with more fire power than Han Solo has ever [seen])

    2. a back of the envelope calculation suggests there are 250,000 large settlements in the world. All of these would have to be totally destroyed to eradicate the human population (there are provisos, but in essence, we can’t eliminate ourselves though nuclear war – not that i think we should try the experiment!!!!(!!!!))

  • AnonymousSam

    Well, let’s see. We have 5113 warheads (down from nearly 10K in 2006 and from 30K in the ’60s). The blast radius of a 340 kt nuclear weapon (which is apparently the one the US keeps the most of) generally kills anyone within ~30 miles and has a not too shabby chance of killing people within ~60 miles. So carpet bombing with our current arsenal could obliterate ~306780 square miles of terrain… yeah, that’s not even enough to completely destroy the US itself. Our 30K arsenal wouldn’t even have done it. It would, however, do a pretty good job of ruining quite a lot of days.

    Mythbusters extreme argument time! What if, instead of using 340 kt weapons, we used 30K clones of the experimental 100 mt Tsar Bomba? That would do an excellent job of cancelling vacation plans for anyone within 18,656 miles, and 30K of those destroys 559,680,000 square miles of land — completely obliterating every inch of the entire Earth almost three times over and leaving one confused pilot with very little to do with his weekend off (not to mention no place to land).

  • P J Evans

    You don’t have to actually destroy the planet to kill (almost) everything. Fire off enough bombs and you can have a pretty good ‘nuclear winter’.

  • Mary

    Also many habitable areas would be contaminated with radiation.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    Plus, even if you just hit the major capitals you’ve sown enough panic and chaos that infrastructural breakdown can start to happen of its own weight.

    Look at Jericho: The bombs involved were 20kt high-yield, and yet setting off 20 of them was enough to nearly shut down the country, because it provoked an EMP attack from somebody which just accelerated the final collapse of the USA.

  • Mary

    Of course I bet a lot of people don’t believe that any more than they believe in global warming, or maybe they think the two would cancel each other out? Hey I just figured out how to stop global warming! ;)

  • Mary

    Sorry I meant this for PJ

  • Marc Mielke

    If you’re willing to wait, you don’t quite have to hit everybody: there are varying estimates of a Minimum Viable Population but if you irradiate all the farmland and get the pop to under a million I think you’d just have to wait a few turns/years.

  • Martin

    Sam – that wasn’t quite how i did the calculation, but that’s the general idea

    PJ, Marc – those are the provisos. They are somewhat interlinked. Like all climate change, a nuclear winter may not be uniform over the surface of the planet and so certain areas could remain viable for the growing of plants (essentially the limiting factor for life on earth).*

    Radiation may or may not be a large factor – long lived isotopes (tens or more years) are in effect not very radioactive, and so not very dangerous. Short lived isotopes (hours, days) are so radioactive that they will have decayed before they settle, or at least before they reach our putative surviving settlement. Isotopes with intermediate half lives (weeks, months, a few years) could cause substantial problems, but that would depend upon the type of radiation they release. Alpha emitters would be a big issue, beta less and gamma essentially a non-problem compared with the lack of a NFL post season to go with the winter weather.

    Anyway – my point being, that we can’t kill everyone, you can destroy the ecosphere and wait for them to starve (as it seems some people want to try out…), but i don’t see that as quite the same thing.

    *There could be a bigger issue from the damage to the ozone layer. That would be due to the massive efflux of high energy photons causing a “bleaching” in the free radical process that drives the replenishment of the layer. That could lead to the plants being sunburned out of existence (i know, the irony that “nuclear winter” may actually cause extinction because of too much UV getting to the surface!)

  • P J Evans

    Take out the US and Canada, and things would become much worse; they’re major sources of food: maize, wheat, soybeans, rice…

  • Eric

    Speaking as a member of the US military, who’s in a unit that might be singled out to go to Jordan to possibly intervene-

    I’m not terribly thrilled at the prospect. Assad’s totalitarian dictatorship on the one hand and al-qaeda backed rebels on the other. We cannot truly go to war in support of either side and know we’re in the right.

    The only victory condition for us is to dismantle assad’s regime, excise the extremist factions among the rebels without alienating the rest, rebuild the country with a strong economy and restore public works lke schools and roads and so on. I also think that that will not happen.

    At the end of the day, it’s not our problem. The only reason to go there is the chemical weapons charge, and even then, let the UN take the lead with that. After all, why does the UN even exist if not for stuff like poison gas attacks?

    We’ve spilled oceans of Americna blood and Americna treasure in two wars over the last 12 years. Now should be the time when we look for reasons not to deploy, not making excuses to get involved.

  • Mary

    ‘The only victory condition for us is to dismantle assad’s regime, excise the extremist factions among the rebels without alienating the rest, rebuild the country with a strong economy and restore public works lke schools and roads and so on. I also think that that will not happen.”
    Your conclusion makes sense. This is what we tried to do in Iraq and look how well that turned out!

  • Justme

    Whether we get involved or not, relying on the UN to do something about Syrian use of chemical weapons is sort of wishful thinking. The UN won’t do anything without a Security Council vote, Russia’s on the Security Council, and Russia backs and is supplying Assad with weapons.and military advisors.

  • Andrew Galley

    “why does the UN even exist if not for stuff like poison gas attacks?”

    Well, this is pretty much what the UN is worst at, but thankfully it’s not its only or primary reason for existence! Without the UN we’d still have smallpox, for example, and a whole, whole lot of children would never have made it to age 5. The amount of value created and preserved (including human lives extended) by UN agencies and UN-brokered cooperation is staggering.

    But ultimately, the UN can only do what nation-states can (mostly) agree is a good idea. Polio has no advocates. Secret police do.

  • Mary

    Excellent article, but there is one thing you left out. The religious right believes that we are in the end times, so they think that the book of Revelations is describing what is going on now. So it is us against the Muslims because “God said it, so I believe it.” Never mind the fact that it used to be the communists that they thought Revelations was talking about. Go back further and it was Hitler that was the Antichrist. I am not saying we shouldn’t have gone after Hitler, this is just an example of people reading into scripture something that wasn’t there. In fact most bible scholars think that Revelations was a revenge fantasy against the Roman Empire. It was apparently so controversial that it almost didn’t make it into the bible at all. There is also the fact that that scholars have determined that books that are attributed to John cannot have been written by the same author because the writing styles and the comprehension of Greek, varied too much. Of course that won’t make a bit of difference to the inerrant crowd but I see the huge danger in presuming that our interpretations of Revelation somehow justifies aggressive warfare

  • flat

    this is a clear case of choosing which battles to fight or not to fight.a battle you can’t win.

  • Orclove

    Of course we can: If we don’t fight, we win. We spend no dollars, risk none of our lives.

  • Boris Borcic

    In the case of Saddam at some point the Iraqi leaders were sufficiently desperate (about US demands about WMDs impossible to meet, because premised on a counterfactual) that they proposed the issue be resolved in some form of single combat or dueling between US leadership and Iraq leadership. This could have been taken up by Bush and acolytes while prettying the proposal for minimizing expected human cost: repeat russian roulette duels top-down the chains of command. Saddam would have had a 50% chance to be the first to die, and only 0.1% chance to survive the sacrifice of the 10 first links in the US chain of command. Lots cheaper to either the US or Iraq that what it cost.

    Given this, it is wrong to imply that Bush etc were objectively anti-Saddam. They were objectively pro-bloodbath and pro-waste.

  • Charles RB

    re Landis’ “ethnic civil war”, that’s actually not true – yet. Ethnic divisions are getting nastier though, as well as religious extremists like the al-Nasru Front becoming stronger and more widespread. It’s a self-fulfilling claim.

  • Persia

    Thanks for posting on this. I was so angry when I heard that on Wednesday.

  • ngotts

    The OP and most of this discussion seem to me remarkably naive. American intervention in Syria would not be about doing good, but maintaining and strengthening American hegemony in the Middle East, just as the invasion of Iraq was. If the Obama administration really wanted to help resolve the Syrian civil war, it would start by repairing relations with Iran, which has more influence over Assad’s regime than any other outside force. But that would mean treating the Islamic Republic – which is far less oppressive and far more pluralist than, for example, Saudi Arabia – as a legitimate, independent actor, which no administration since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 has been prepared to do. See Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett Going to Tehran: Why the United States must come to terms with the Islamic Republic.

  • Mordicai

    (I would say that’s the crux of the problem, but theliteral crux of the matter is something else entirely.)

    I see what you did there!

  • bmk

    “The idea they draw from the discussion of theodicy is that goodness requires intervention — that to be good means one is obliged to intervene against evil, suffering and injustice. I think that’s right, but it does not mean that one is obliged to intervene by killing people.”

    I think that’s the key to this whole post – I think it was Richard Rohr who applied the MBA-ese phrase “bias toward action” to Scripture. Probably the clearest statement of this is Proverbs 3:27 (“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.”), but you can see the theme developed through the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

    A group at my church spent the last month discussing what this meant in relation to poverty – clearly, we’re called to do *something*, but we each had a very different idea of what that “something” might be. When you add in the urgency, chaos, and casualties of war, then it becomes even harder to see the alternative “somethings” that we might do, let alone agree on one.

  • Dan Riley


    I think you’re insufficiently cynical.

    Any analysis of our invasion of Iraq has to start with the observation that, throughout the 80s, Saddam was on our side. He was our bulwark against Iran. Under Reagan and Bush, the US removed Iraq from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, normalized relations, helped Saddam acquire weapons (including chemical weapons) to fight his war of aggression against Iran, gave him intelligence and tactical support, and helped Iraq avoid any consequences of his use of chemical weapons against Iran and the Kurds. He was the same ruthless, tyrannical dictator, but he was OUR ruthless, tyrannical dictator. Then he invaded Kuwait, we kicked him out, and he ceased to be on our side.

    That much is well-documented fact, some of what follows is speculation, conjecture, and pop psychology.

    Saddam must have believed that the US would continue to support him through his invasion of Kuwait, and apparently believed that the US was free to do whatever it pleased. However, the Saudis weren’t happy with Saddam keeping Kuwait, and the US–particularly Bush–couldn’t afford to have the Saudis unhappy. So we threw Saddam under the bus, conveniently forgetting that he used to be OUR ruthless, tyrannical dictator. Thus Saddam became a continuing reminder to the neocons that the US can’t do whatever it pleases, while Iraq’s enforced weakness was an obstacle to containing Iran.

    The second invasion of Iraq was supposed to set all that right–erasing the embarrassing reminder of our limitations, letting the US install an Iraqi government that we could once again arm to serve as our bulwark against Iran. Of course, it didn’t work out that way; the result was more reminders of our limits, and a huge increase in Iran’s influence in Iraq.

    I think the interventionists are still searching for that one perfect intervention, the one that will put Iran back in its place and prove that the US really can do anything we want if we just try hard enough. That, I think, is why staying in Iraq and intervening in Syria are such big deals, especially to the people who advocated for our support of Saddam in the 80s.

  • Albanaeon

    Scary that this makes a great deal of sense. Particularly when you factor in various “purge Vietnam from our system” narratives that sprang up around the first Iraq War. The first intervention that didn’t work (because no one remembers Korea…) and I think we’ve spend an obscene amount of blood and wealth on trying to make it go the way neo-cons believe its supposed to.

  • P J Evans

    There are people who still believe that Vietnam was winnable if we had just had enough will (yeah, *right*) and that we could ‘win’ in Afghanistan if we clap our hands hard enough. Most of them are chicken-hawks.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yep. One of ’em’s my mom. Observe that the moment Dad got a whiff of his being deployed to Iraq, Mom pointed out that he had his twenty years in uniform and could retire instead of going on the deployment.

    Not that I wanted Dad to be deployed, but really, Mother?

  • Patrick McGraw

    And let’s not forget why so many in Iran are pissed off at the USA in the first place.

  • Glenn Reynolds

    It wasn’t an “ugly foolish slur,” but an accurate report of what Saddam himself said at the time. I had more on it here:

    Perhaps you might have included a link, so that your readers could have read the post and decided for themselves if your characterization was accurate.

  • ngotts

    I’ve followed your links – which both go to the same place – and yes, it was indeed an ugly, foolish slur. Note that I don’t say, and Fred didn’t say, that it was false. Something can be true and still be an ugly, foolish slur because it is simply an attempt to denigrate opponents without meeting their arguments, as your article was.

    Tell me (and this is a genuine enquiry, I really don’t know) – did you have anything to say about the Reagan administration being “objectively pro-Saddam” when they supported his war of aggression against Iran?