Logical consistency is undervalued in Washington. It’s really a form of intellectual honesty. I’ve never understood F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It seems to me that if your words contradict your actions—or if they contradict other words you’ve spoken—then you haven’t thought it through, or you’re too cynical to care. (If your words contradict the facts, that’s simple dishonesty, or ignorance. Lying is not nice either, but it lacks the insidious character of intellectual dishonesty, which can be factually true and yet essentially false.)
For example, when George W. Bush started running up huge annual deficits (after Bill Clinton achieved Ronald Reagan’s alleged goal of balancing the budget), many Republicans—notably Vice President Dick Cheney—started saying that deficits don’t matter.
Ordinarily, I'm a big fan of logical consistency in government policies. Sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander. It should not depend on whose ox is gored (to mix my animal metaphors). But when it comes to these repeated exercises in short-term, or would-be short-term, military intervention that seem to be the dominant U.S. military activity of the 21st century, the quest for logical consistency (I reluctantly conclude) can be unhelpful.
Maybe honesty and consistency are overrated, at least in foreign affairs. Maybe hypocrisy isn't the worst thing in the world. I don't mean the everyday hypocrisy of diplomats (yes, yes, in the famous definition: sent abroad to lie for their country). I mean in the most important decisions nations—good, well-meaning nations, like the United States—make about when to (let's be blunt) start killing a lot of people.
If we bombed Libya because a cruel dictator was murdering large numbers of his own people, how can we justify sitting on our hands while the same thing is going on in Syria? What’s the difference? Well, you can turn that same question around: Why should we do anything about Syria when we sat on our hands during the massacre in Rwanda? This argument goes back at least to World War II and the controversy about bombing the Nazi death camps.
To be sure, every situation is different. Some of these differences are strategic or military. Some may result from deep reflection on the moral issues. But many of these differences are historical accidents. They have nothing to do with strategic or moral issues. How is the president’s standing in the polls? How soon is the next U.S. election? Was the most recent previous intervention successful? What else is on the political agenda? What did the president have for dinner last night? How strong is the economy? What’s the unemployment rate? What does the president’s spouse think? This is another good reason why President Barack Obama was right to demand backing from Congress before acting.
It’s not logically inconsistent to allow moral or military considerations to affect your view about whether to intervene in Syria. But it is logically inconsistent to allow unrelated factors to affect that decision. However, all decisions like this are affected by unrelated factors.
The laws of war themselves are logically inconsistent. Syria has broken the anathema on use of chemical weapons that survived every conflict (with a few relatively small exceptions) since World War I. Conventional weapons have killed far more Syrians than chemical weapons, just as the conventional firebombing of Tokyo killed more people than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. And we were fully prepared to let Bashar al-Assad keep slaughtering people until he crossed the “red line” into chemical weapons. It’s not logical. But it works.
It was President Clinton who freed America, for better or worse, from the chains of logical consistency. The Clinton doctrine (my label, not his) was that it’s OK to be inconsistent. Sometimes you intervene for strictly humanitarian reasons, sometimes you require a self-defense rationale and sometimes you stay out. There is no consistent pattern. The demand for consistency will lead to paralysis. In a way, the Clinton approach replaced the Powell Doctrine, a string of conditions for intervention which, in practice, would lead to the answer: never.
On the Syria issue, the hawks are an odd mixture of left-wing human rights enthusiasts like UN Ambassador Samantha Powers and Obama-hating Republicans eager to paint him as weak, along with some neoconservatives who always seem up for a bit of war. The doves are most of the traditional anti-war left, the growing constituency of right-wing libertarians such as Senator Ron Paul, plus—it seems—an overwhelming majority of the citizenry. Many of the politicians in both groups have had Road-to-Damascus-like dramatic conversions in the past couple of years. They favored the Iraq war under Bush but adamantly oppose the Syrian adventure under Obama, or vice-versa.
Neither of these teams has a coherent answer to the Syria-versus-Libya question, or similar questions about all of America's military adventures—those we engaged in and those we avoided—since Vietnam. Is there a pattern? Is there a consistent rule that can be applied to all of them?
A front-page article by Charlie Savage in The New York Times on Monday made the case that an attack on Syria would be unique—and not in a good way.
“On another level, the proposed strike is unlike anything that has come before—an attack inside the territory of a sovereign country, without its consent, without a self-defense rationale and without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council or even the participation of a multilateral treaty alliance like NATO, and for the purpose of punishing an alleged war crime that has already occurred rather than preventing an imminent disaster.”
Still, we can only reason by analogy, and the record suggests that these 21st-century-style interventions are almost always messier, more costly (especially to the innocent civilians of the countries whose governments we wish to punish or decapitate), and less effective than the planners expect. So I tend to put a thumb on the scale in favor of staying out, and hope that the president and Congress do the same.
Michael Kinsley is editor-at-large of The New Republic