Obama’s bad reasons for bombing Syria

Barring a spectacular miscalculation of the kind that thwarted British Prime Minister David Cameron the other day, it’s looking almost inevitable that U.S. President Barack Obama will unleash a minor barrage in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. In doing so, he will be seeking to accomplish five specific goals.  He will achieve only one.  In the process, he will make a very bad situation worse.

Why does Obama want to attack Syria, and why is he largely doomed to fail?  In no particular order, his reasons are as follows:

The first is to uphold U.S. credibility.  While no doubt heartfelt, this bespeaks an appalling ignorance both of human psychology and of how little goodwill the United States now enjoys around the world, particularly in the Middle East.  Credibility is in the eye of the beholder; it is not in the eye of the beheld.  Washington cannot control the reputational implications people will draw from U.S. military action.  True, if you say you will do something often enough and never actually do it, people will eventually stop believing your threats; but if you do something when you said you would do it, they will not necessarily conclude that you always keep your word, particularly when they already firmly believe that you do not.  Far more likely, people will conclude that Obama is an idiot for doing something stupid just because he said he would (and bear in mind that when he first drew a “red line,” he never actually specified what he would do); that he has as little respect for international law and the UN Security Council as his predecessor did; that he has even less concern for international legal fig leaves in the form of “coalitions of the willing”; and/or that he has some insidious ulterior motive, most likely having to do with Israel, U.S. corporate interests, the Democratic Party’s prospects in the next election, or the country of his birth—wherever that is.

The second reason is to defend the norm against the use of chemical weapons.  This norm needs no defence; it reflects a widespread and growing revulsion, which Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people has, in fact, buttressed dramatically.  Bombing Syria is not going to make Assad and his ilk suddenly internalize this revulsion.

The third is to deter Assad (and others) from using chemical weapons again.  Assad has demonstrated that he will do whatever he thinks necessary to stay in power.  Largely symbolic military strikes have no chance of changing that.  We do not know which other despicable leaders out there are capable of using chemical weapons against their own citizens, but you can be sure that if they thought they faced a choice between gassing their own people and going down, Obama’s strikes against Syria are not going to weigh in the balance.

The fourth is to punish.  The United States is not talking about the kind of military action that would really hurt Assad.  At this point, the only thing that Assad would even notice is something that would cost him either his job or his life.  He is already living in a war zone.  Pinprick U.S. attacks will not alter that.

The fifth is to feel good.  This one will work.  I have no doubt that the president, Secretary of State John Kerry, and various other American officials, legislators, and citizens are rightly morally appalled by Assad’s actions, and that their sense of justice demands some kind of action in response.  Doing nothing is almost impossible psychologically.  Even if strikes accomplish nothing else, at least they will be able to say that they did something, and will sleep better at night.

Until they realize that they have made a bad situation worse.

Why will it be worse?  It does not take long to see that nearly-unilateral U.S. military action has essentially no upside and a great deal of downside.  Among the two who have made this case most cogently are Harvard political Scientist Stephen Walt in a recent pithy if unsentimental piece in the New York Times, and the writers at The Onion, whose satirical op-ed purportedly by Assad himself is by far the best account of the box Obama is in that I have yet seen.

If military action had a reasonable chance of actually accomplishing something constructive, I would be all in favour; but it does not.  It will neither deter nor punish Assad; it will succeed only in killing more Syrians (very likely more innocent Syrian civilians than guilty Syrian officials); it will not buttress U.S. credibility where it matters, or the norm against the use of chemical weapons; it will inflame anti-American sentiment in the Middle East; it will further alienate Russia and China; and it will deal yet another blow to the idea of a rule- and procedure-governed international order.

It is frustrating, to be sure, that the international community is unwilling to act.  But life occasionally presents us with situations that have no good options, only bad ones.

It would be a tragic irony indeed if America’s noble impulse to act in the face of atrocity merely resulted in further atrocity, or made more likely the unprecedented capture of a chemically-armed state by Islamist extremist zealots, as Russia and China so obviously fear.

It is already a tragic irony that the best possible response—symbolically significant as well as normatively and legally progressive—is unavailable to President Obama because of his country’s antediluvian antipathy to the International Criminal Court: namely, indictments and bounties for the capture and delivery of Assad and his chemical-happy cronies to The Hague.

The case against the case against empathy

Twitter is a poor medium for debating complicated subjects, so my “Possibly the dumbest thing I’ve read ever” comment on Paul Bloom’s recent New Yorker piece,The Baby in the Well: The Case Against Empathy,” understandably contributed little to the advancement of understanding.  I’m still learning the pros and cons of Twitter.  But alea iacta est, so in response to reply tweets such as “Did you read the article, or just the title?” (thank you for that), here are the issues I have with it.

To begin, Bloom conflates at least four distinct psychological phenomena and calls them all “empathy.”  Admittedly, both dictionaries and common usage aren’t good at keeping these distinct, largely because English is a living language and dictionary definitions eventually follow common usage.  But our job as scholars is to clear up confusion, not promote it.  Here are the four phenomena, with my preferred labels for each:

  1. Empathy.  This is the capacity to see the world from another’s perspective.  It is merely to understand, not to agree with.  Reagan and Gorbachev managed empathy, in the sense that they both came to understand that the other feared nuclear war more than anything else, but neither made a convert of the other.
  2. Sympathy.  This adds to cognitive understanding both cognitive and emotional agreement: you both understand and share.  Reagan and Thatcher  did not merely empathize with each other; they sympathized.
  3. Compassion.  This is feeling sorry for someone in a way that tugs at your heartstrings and makes you want to help.  You may not understand how that person sees the world, and even if you do you may not share the perspective and the feeling; but you are a nice person who wants to relieve what you believe (probably correctly most of the time) to be someone else’s suffering.  The idiot who offered to shoulder a convict’s burden on the Via Dolorosa in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian was moved by compassion, and clearly didn’t know enough about the convict to anticipate being stuck with his cross.
  4. Pity.  This is compassion’s evil twin, because it adds a self-esteem booster in the form of “thank God I’m not like that.”

Now, these distinctions are important, because empathy as I have defined it is almost never a bad thing.  Empathy won’t cure all the world’s ills, and from time to time it will just help you understand more clearly that there are no feel-good ways out of a jam (Churchill understood earlier than most that the only way to defeat Hitler was to thump him).  But you are only ever better off not empathizing in trivial kinds of cases—for example, when someone secretly thinks you look fat.  Sympathy, compassion, and pity, on the other hand, can get us into really big trouble some of the time.  Not all of the time; some of the time.

How much of the time?  Anecdotes about ill-defined “empathy” resulting in outcomes that someone else would not have chosen don’t establish general points—they merely illustrate challenges.  Bloom’s piece is strong on anecdotes, but makes them sound like general points.  He admiringly quotes Thomas Schelling, who writes: “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her.  But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.”  Probably true, but hospitals in general are much better funded than six-year-old girls with brown hair.  Or take Newtown.  Compassion is surely part of the reason why “in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, [Newtown] was inundated with so much charity that it became a burden.”  This is a classic example of unintended consequences, or a function of what Schelling called micromotives and macrobehavior—the solution to which is to coordinate and plan, not to diss compassion.

Bloom tilts at windmills and lets innuendo convey the message that empathy is bad and reason is good.  There is just enough hedging in the piece to supply plausible deniability on this charge, but we all know how catchy journalism really works.  Little qualifications on the side don’t affect most readers’ takeaway.

At the end of the day, nobody really disagrees with the statement that “Moral judgment entails more than putting oneself in another’s shoes.”  But you can’t make rational judgments on the basis of misunderstandings.    Our various mental faculties coevolved as they did precisely because they were adaptive together.  We need both empathy and reason.  No one illustrates the point better than Tom Schelling, whose hyper-rational approach to solving problems helped lead to the unnecessary deaths of 58,000 Americans and some 3 million Vietnamese.  A little empathy would have prevented that.