Triumph of the Will

The current crisis in the Middle East, like all good crises and, really, all things Middle Eastern, is very complicated. One thing you really need to remember, however, amid all the confusion and complexity, is this: The United States shouldn't go to war with Syria, and it shouldn't go to war with Iran.

I should say at the outset that I have, personally, zero knowledge of whether either the capture of Israeli soldiers orchestrated by Hamas operatives or the capture of Israeli soldiers orchestrated by Hezbollah personnel were ordered from Damascus or Tehran. Neither, for that matter, do the various people confidently asserting that they do know this.

What inspires, say, talented speechwriter Kenneth Baer to pretend to have deep insight into this question, allowing him to proclaim that "both attacks were green-lighted by Iran," I couldn't tell you. The New Republic's anonymous editorial writer blames Syria instead: "The Hamas action in Gaza appears to have been ordered by Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader who resides in Damascus -- which is to say, it is also a piece of Syrian intrigue." The illogic here is not difficult to grasp. Lenin lived in Switzerland just prior to launching the October Revolution in Russia; did that make international communism a piece of Swiss intrigue? The editorial goes on confidently to assert Syrian responsibility for the Hezbollah attack as well, with this line: "Nor can anything of significance take place in Lebanon without the sanction of Damascus." Last year's massive anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon seemed significant at the time, but apparently we were all mistaken.

And those are the liberals! Don't get me started on the conservatives.

At any rate, the fact that the people pushing for a big anti-Syrian, anti-Iranian drive don't actually have evidence to prove the claims they're making is not, in fact, the actual reason we shouldn't follow their policy prescriptions. I note the absence of evidence merely to achieve clarity as to the nature of the debate. Three or four weeks ago there were various forces, actors, individuals, and institutions who thought the United States ought to take more forceful action against Syria and Iran. Over the past week, those exact same people have decided that the solution to the "real problems" in the Middle East is to implement the policy prescription they already thought was correct.

In some ways this isn't actually a terrible approach to take; the problem is simply that the policy being advocated is a terrible one. War is a very risky and very costly endeavor that, more often than not, leaves both sides worse off than they otherwise would have been. This, one might think, has been illustrated in recent years by events in Iraq. Some basic points about feasibility, again one might think, have also been illustrated by events in Iraq -- awesome new friendly democracies don't just pop out of nowhere if you kill bad leaders, and it's extremely hard for one country's army to determine political outcomes in a foreign land.

So one might think. The trouble is that a broad swathe of hawkish opinion, taking in most conservatives and a tragically large number of liberals, have bought into a comic book view of how international relations works.

I refer, of course, to the Green Lantern Corps, DC Comics' interstellar police force assembled by the Guardians of Oa. Here's how the Corps works: Each member is equipped with a power ring, the ultimate weapon in the universe. The ring makes green stuff -- energy blasts, force fields, protective bubbles, giant hammers, elephants, chairs, cute rabbits, whatever -- under the control of the bearer. When it's fully charged, the only limits to the ring's power (besides the proviso that the stuff must be green) are the user's will and imagination. Historically, the rings couldn't affect yellow objects, but in recent years it's been revealed that this was the "parallax fear anomaly" (don't ask) and that the problem could be overcome by overcoming fear -- which is to say, with more willpower.

This is an OK premise for a comic book. Sadly, it's a piss-poor premise for a foreign policy. Hawks seem to have convinced themselves that American military might is like a power ring -- capable of achieving anything if only we have sufficient will. There are no objective limits to our capacities, no sticky situations that need to be handled cautiously, no awkward compromises to be brokered, and no stuff we're just going to have to live with in the hopes that things will change for the better down the road. There are only goals, force, and will, and the only relevant question in any situation is whether we have the will to achieve our goals with force.

The tragedy of this theory is that, like all the really bad theories, it's never refuted by events. Sane people are a bit chastened by Iraq. Having watched the country make a very high-stakes gamble in Mesopotamia only to have it blow up in our faces, we're disinclined to do it all over again on the hopes that this time we've correctly identified which leader is the "real problem" and whose population will welcome us with flowers and sweets. To the hawks, though, the answer to every problem is more will, more force. So it stands to reason that the current chaos shouldn't make us cautious about further destabilizing actions. Rather, the current chaos actually proves the need for the application of more force, more will. The massive fallout from Iraq is, to the hawks, not the fault of the war's architects but of its opponents, who've sapped the nation's willpower -- willpower we desperately need to recover in order to address the negative consequences of the last deployment of will (and high explosives).

This point of view can't really be disproved, but it's deranged and it's dangerous. The world right now desperately needs an American president prepared to step up, recognize that the Middle East is skirting dangerously close to the edge, and think creatively about how everyone -- the United States included -- can come back from the brink. We need a show not of will, but of wisdom. Sadly, I fear our odds of getting one are slim.

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