Liberal Hawks Need to Get a Clue

Kathleen GeierKathleen Geier over at Political Animal wrote an article I very much agree with, Syria and the Return of the Liberal Hawks. She rightly notes that liberals normally have good intentions for the policies they support, but that doesn’t mean that it leads to the right decisions. As she wrote, “Such impulses can also go awry, because they contain the seeds of moral vanity.” And that is very much what I hear when I listen to the liberal hawks.

In this most recent case of Syria, I was very disappointed with many people on the left. Most of the people I regularly read agreed with me or at least kept quiet. There were people in the middle who I found somewhat frustrating. Both Jonathan Chait and Steve Benen pushed the notion that we who were against war with Syria should still respect those pushing for it. “We all have good intentions,” was a common refrain. But I didn’t see it that way at all. The hawks on the Syria situation were talking nonsense.

John Kerry, of course, was the most prominent. And I understand that his argument seems—in a vacuum—to make sense. The Assad government had used chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, and this caused the deaths of many children. But there were problems. For one thing, even today—a full two weeks after we were supposed to start bombing Syria—we don’t have the UN weapons inspectors report. What’s more, why did we especially care about these deaths, when already 110,000 Syrians have died in this conflict—well over 30,000 of them being civilians. But the biggest issue is the question, “Why now? Why here?” Geier sums up what’s going on perfectly:

Invariably, too, these military interventions are framed in an irrational, hyped up, very unhelpful way. Suddenly, media and political elites start fixing their gaze on some new bright shiny object—an area of the world they had, up until then, been studiously avoiding—and start trying to persuade you that the situation there is the most horrible human rights crisis ever and Something Must Be Done. Sure enough, the situation is quite horrible. But so are many other evils across the globe that they rarely tell you about.

This is the issue that I got in trouble with on Twitter. I still don’t understand why the noble position is to care about whatever the television news is obsessed with. In that case, I noted that it was wrong for people to complain that others weren’t upset about an airplane crash that killed two people; why weren’t these complainers focused on the 2,000 people who die of malaria every day? But that kind of thinking is strong among most people. If the media are focus on the horror of Syria, it must be the most important horror. But using the same example, well over ten times as many people are dying of malaria as are dying in the Syrian civil war; more people died of malaria on that one day than died in the alleged chemical weapons attack.

If we want to help the Syrians, there are much better ways to do it than by dropping bombs. Again, Geier:

The liberal hawks are obsessed with “helping.” Okay, then—how about supporting international causes where the United States, either via its government or American NGOs, could actually do some concrete, practical good across the globe? The world is full of people dying of diseases that could easily and cheaply be treated, for example, so how about advocating that the U.S. provide more aid for global health care and sustainable development? Other eminently worthy international causes include educating girls and raising international labor standards for workers. Or how about this: we know that climate change led to a drought which helped create the crisis in Syria. How about demanding that the United States devote more national security resources to addressing the problem of climate change?

I understand that public health and education programs are not as exciting as dropping bombs. But they are far more helpful. A big part of the problem with these “humanitarian” wars is that even if they are totally justified, they do more harm than good most of the time. Two thousand people die of malaria every day. That’s not news so it isn’t on the television. But it is an enormous problem—one that is far bigger and in need of our help than any war anywhere. So what the liberal hawks have to decide is if they really want to help or if they just want another “bloody good war.”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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