While the President and his advisers are wrestling with these difficult issues, I cannot help but think that, on an academic level, they are enjoying the challenge. After all, it is not every day that policy makers are faced with the kind of problem which might be posed, abstractly, in an advanced political science seminar.
Two countries in the same geo-political theater simultaneously are involved in equivalent crises. In both Syria and Egypt we have militaristic regimes, which are not without a good deal of popular support, clashing with oppositions, also enjoying much popular support, each of which is composed of an uneasy alliance between democratic secularists and Islamists. Given those similarities, it is from the differing particulars of the two situations that American policy must be drawn.
I can imagine the President and his advisors gathered around a table in the war room, pertinent texts open before them – the Joint Chiefs poring over their Clausewitz, Susan Rice thumbing through Sun Tzu, John Brennan confidently tapping his finger on pertinent passages in The Prince, James Clapper sending out an aide to try and find an indexed edition of Leviathan, Samantha Power patiently sitting with her Marcuse before her, pertinent passages already bookmarked, and the President, of course, head bowed, carefully turning the pages of Aquinas.
(Of course, I am aware of the reality of the situation: the texts are all on their i-pads and Kissinger is teleconferencing via Skype.)
First of all there are the all-important realpolitik concerns. Taking for granted that our bond with Israel is beyond realpolitik, inviolable no matter what disaster may befall us because of it, to what degree can we continue to support the repressive Egyptian military, which we trust (on the basis of some no doubt top secret information) to maintain its reluctant alliance with Israel, yet still retain the good-will of the rest of the international community, which almost unanimously condemns the occupation of Palestine?
The strategic conundrum in Syria is less complex, but still has an annoying damned-if-you-do and –if-you-don’t perplexity. No one likes Assad – probably not even the Russians, who support him – and a Cruise missile attack on his regime would be welcomed by one and all, despite some public hand-wringing. A NATO strike on Assad would be an especially welcome gift for the Russians, who already, almost willy-nilly, have found themselves playing the unaccustomed role of the good-guys in the case of Edward Snowden. But how would the American public react to a military adventure in Syria? Would it be drawn out of its pharmaceutical apathy? and if so, in what direction?
There are economic issues involved too, of course. There’s no oil in Syria – thank goodness – but would it be better for the oil companies if Syria remains under control of the secular, materialistic Alawites who, although notionally aligned with Iran, are happy to augment their Swiss bank accounts by facilitating the transportation of regional oil for the highest bidders? or will petroleum stability be better assured if Syria were to fall to the Sunni Islamists, who would be under the thumb of the Saudis and OPEC?
As to Egypt, the economic question is much simpler. Around 80% of our $1.5 billion annual aid to Egypt goes back into the pockets of US arms manufacturers, so whether or not to continue that aid is a no-brainer.
Last – and most likely least – there is the humanitarian question. What is the moral difference between shooting indiscriminately into crowds of demonstrators and lobbing a rocket full of nerve gas into a suburban neighborhood? The situations of the victims are different, of course. The demonstrators consciously placed themselves in danger, while most of the nerve gas victims were just going about their daily lives. Different too are the situations of the perpetrators. The soldiers firing on the demonstrators are close enough to see them, while to those firing the nerve gas rocket, their target is simply a warren of buildings and streets with, perhaps, an indistinct figure scurrying from one doorway to another. Might Aquinas provide some guidance to our dear leader? Too bad that Trotsky is philosophus non gratus. He probably could contribute some pertinent insights.
I imagine, hovering above them all, the spirit of Voltaire. Why Voltaire? Well, it probably did not take long for Voltaire – if he does continue to exist in some Platonic reality – to recognize in President Obama a personification of Candide, and he is probably curious as to when it will occur to our well-meaning but naive hero that the best thing to do is to cultivate his own garden.