Leon Wieseltier’s latest column in the New Republic aims to expose the hollowness of Washington’s current policy regarding the ongoing violence in Syria. In reality, his piece does more to demonstrate the weakness of his own case for intervention.
Wieseltier’s principal target is the appeal to “complexity” as a justification for staying out of the fight. He says that realists and others have simply dismissed the prospect of intervention by saying that the situation in Syria “is complicated.” His response is that every significant public-policy issue is complicated, and that therefore “the appeal to complexity is almost always selective.” He terms this “the paralyzing effect of nuance,” contending that those who raise the issue of complexity are exploiting it “as a warrant for passivity.”
Wieseltier never defines exactly who is making this argument or quotes anyone directly. Small wonder, since he is attacking a total straw man. No one has simply said, “The situation in Syria is complicated, therefore we should stay out—end of story.” Rather, the case against intervention more often goes something like this: “There are no plausible policy options right now that present a good probability of achieving the desired outcome (removing Bashar al-Assad from power) at an acceptable cost.” Nothing in Wieseltier’s piece gives us any reason to doubt that this is true. He says he wants the United States to “take decisive action” but never defines what he means by that.
Indeed, Wieseltier seems fundamentally unconcerned by the issue of costs. Toward the end of his essay, responding to the charge that Americans are tired of war, he writes a truly amazing sentence: “I am of the party of American energy, which believes that America can never be tired, because the stakes for the world are too high.” In this view, there is no burden that America shouldn’t be prepared to shoulder, no injustice that we shouldn’t set right anywhere in the world. When that is your attitude, what war can’t you justify? This cavalier approach makes Wieseltier’s piece deeply flawed.