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The American Left Turns Away from Syria's Agony

Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

“Stay out of Syria!” screams the cover of The New York Review of Books, as if anybody had been planning to do anything else. It would have been graphically cumbersome, I guess, or bad for newsstand sales, to have printed it this way: “Ignore the Murder of a Hundred Thousand People and the Massacre of Children and the Use of Chemical Weapons and the Bombing of a Civilian Population by Its Government and Millions of Displaced Persons Outside Syria and Millions of Displaced Persons Inside Syria and the Destabilization of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan and the Aggression of Hezbollah and the Ascendancy of Iran!” But however they bill it, here is an exemplary document of the moral diffidence of contemporary liberalism in foreign policy, of its stony and self-regarding bystanderism. The Obama administration's conflicted decision a few days ago to send some pistols and bullets to the Syrian rebels at this preposterously belated moment is small comfort, about the prospects for the overthrow of Assad and liberal interventionism in America.

In the absence of Tony Judt—the war of ideas is not what it used to be—this warning against intervention in Syria was written by David Bromwich, a noted expert on Hazlitt and Burke. All his opulent cadences notwithstanding, Bromwich’s piece is, analytically speaking, junk. Where to begin? Discussing the use of American force in Syria, Bromwich weirdly calls it “the deployment of American military might against Syria,” when in truth it would be the deployment of American military might for Syria. The war against Syria, which is to say, the war for the present regime, is already taking place, and it is the work of Assad, Hezbollah, Iran, Iraq, and Russia. The tyranny’s counteroffensive has begun, and it is succeeding. “Assad must go” does not mean that Assad will go. It is imprecise to call this a proxy war, because only one of the proxies, the wantonly murdering dictator, has adequate international support. But Bromwich is less exercised by the conflict in Syria than by the possibility that we might do something about it. Bromwich’s familiarity with the Middle East is glancing: He believes, for example, that for “North Africa and the watching Arab world” the Western assistance in the overthrow of Qaddafi is a “disturbing memory.” Qaddafi, of course, is the disturbing memory. Mainly Bromwich is a Chomskian creature of press reports and more press reports, triumphantly pitting arcane media sources—“Luis Lema, in a recent editorial in Le Temps of Geneva . . .”—against the American media, which are usually accomplices of American power. (Insofar as this is true in the Syrian case, it is because they endorse, with the stirring exception of The Washington Post, Obama’s doctrine of inaction.) Those who disagree with Bromwich’s prescription for American passivity—with his hysterical ratification of what is in fact the conventional wisdom—are ominously described as “well placed in the media and the foreign policy elite,” whereas he, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale in the pages of The New York Review of Books, flips burgers and parks cars. When it serves his purposes, Bromwich is guilty of precisely the credulity that he imputes to us humanitarian warmongers: He cites as authoritative Carla Del Ponte’s bizarre assertion that the rebels were the ones who used chemical weapons in Syria, which, he assures us, “flatly contradicted the rumors of the use of sarin by the Assad government.” It did indeed—but on what grounds? The benefit of Bromwich’s doubt goes to Assad. It goes also to British and Soviet imperialism, when he remarks that our “optimism” that “the more new nations, the better” has been disproved in the Balkans, the former Soviet republics, and the Middle East. My favorite bit is Bromwich’s hilarious comment that an interventionist’s suggestion that military action in Syria “must be carefully choreographed and accompanied by a symphony of diplomacy” demonstrates that “one of the tricks of persuasion of the liberal section of the war party . . . has been to aestheticize war.” There is the world according to the English department.

All that matters to Bromwich about Syria is Iraq. I mean George W. Bush’s war there. Anybody who supported military action in Iraq must be wrong to support military action in Syria and anybody who opposed military action in Iraq must be right to oppose military action in Syria. History stopped in Baghdad. Atrocity after Bush gets an American pass. Pity the Syrians, who have the bad luck to be slaughtered post-Cheney. This analysis of the world, in other words, is not about the world. It is about us, and our a priori stain, and our quest for purity, which is grossly mistaken for conscience. We must not rescue, we must expiate. About the enormous strategic benefits of defeating Assad Bromwich has nothing to say; he is too exquisitely indignant, too ethically fastidious, for such considerations. So it is worth noting that this ethical fastidiousness, which is not his alone, is strikingly lacking in a particular moral vocabulary: The foreign policy discourse of American liberalism no longer includes an emphasis on freedom or democracy. It is saddened but not provoked by crimes against humanity. The satisfaction about quitting Iraq was undiversified by anxiety about the many reforms and reformers we were leaving behind, about the precariousness of the social and political progress that had been made. The relief at our withdrawal from Afghanistan is unaccompanied by regret for its consequences for the women of Afghanistan. What is the point of being a liberal if you are going to think like Rand Paul?

“What then should the US do?” Bromwich asks. His sophistication deserts him. “Nothing,” is his answer, “until we can do something good.” Would it be “good” to stop the worst butchery of our day, and prevent jihadists from coming to power in Damascus, and return the refugees to safety, and secure Syria’s neighbors against disintegration? Bromwich does not say. “But the situation could not be less promising,” he adds. He is right. For certain objectives, intervention may now be too late. In this sense, Assad has already won. But it is not too late to avoid the most hideous outcomes of all; and anyway I cannot hear from American liberals that it is too late, because they are significantly responsible for making it too late. 

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.