On Point — Big Thinkers On Syria: Morality And Strategy

Syria uprising

There was a fascinating discussion a few days back on WBUR’s On Point with Tom Asbrook about the ethics of a military intervention in Syria. Guests were Michael Walzer of Just and Unjust Wars and Steven Walt of Taming American Power (Big Thinkers On Syria: Morality And Strategy).

Walzer and Walt represent a contrast between moral (“idealist”) and amoral (“realist”) approaches to the use of military force, in this case a Western intervention in the Syrian civil war after Assad’s use of chemical weapons on civilians. There are many good insights about ethics and foreign policy that emerge from this debate.

From an interpretive policy analysis perspective, two things were missing.

The first was a clear articulation of the background moral presuppositions that informs the perspective of both guests. This makes the basis for their disagreement unclear at many points. As an idealist, Walzer believes military force is at times justified on moral grounds alone — e.g., stopping genocide, humanitarian relief, and so on. Walt is a realist and sees military force as “diplomacy by other means” (Clausawitz) in pursuit of the national interest. Just what constitutes the national interest is a shared dilemma for both guests.

The second was an alternative to the militarist precommittments of both guests. Someone from a nonviolent theory perspective would have rounded out the discussion nicely, and refocused some of the discussion on resolving the roots of social crises that lead to war. There are many different kinds of non-violent theory, from full-on pacifism to the non-absolutist versions of strategic non-violence. Yet to have the contrast, would have been instructive and productive to the conversation.

I thought of Mulford Sibley (1912–1989) in this respect. From the 1940s through the 1980s he was widely acknowledged as one of the most skilled political theorist of non-violent responses to domestic and international conflicts. He was also my mentor as an undergraduate political science student. It would have been fascinating to hear him dig deep into the political roots, fruits and moral responses to the Syrian conflict.

Image: Syrian Uprising, Political Geography Now.

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