To intervene or not to intervene in Syria

As demand starts to build for President Obama to "do something" about the situation in Syria, let's review where the United States and its citizens stand on the general question of using military force abroad.

On this issue, Americans are divided in strange ways. There are liberal hawks and conservative doves, and vice versa.

Liberal doves oppose almost any use of U.S. power because their mind-set hardened during Vietnam: War kills children and other living things; we can't be the world's policeman; and so on. This sounds dismissive, but it's not meant to be. In fact, it's more or less where I come out.

Then there are liberal "bleeding hawks," who see a humanitarian catastrophe developing in Syria — or virtually any place in the world where there is strife of any kind — and feel that the world's only superpower (for the moment) must not stand idly by. That is what we did for too long in the Balkans, while thousands died.

Conservative doves have roots that go back to the pre-World War II isolationism — and sometimes overt fascist sympathies — of groups like America First and people like Father Coughlin. They are nourished by pathological hatred of Democratic presidents from FDR through Obama, and tend to reflexively oppose anything these presidents propose or do.

Conservative hawks, by contrast, reflexively favor almost any use of American power because, well, it's American, and powerful. That sounds dismissive, and it is meant to.

This group includes the so-called neocons, and because, since the end of the Cold War, most of the action has been in the Middle East, they are sometimes suspected of carrying water for Israel. That's unfair. An odd combination of macho and scaredy-cat, they see peril to the U.S. everywhere, and want to stamp it out.

This taxonomy leaves out the foreign policy "realists," mainly but not always Republicans (of the no longer extant "Rockefeller" or "liberal" Republican school), and mainly but not always anti-intervention. Self-described realists pride themselves on their steely focus on national interests and power politics — no idealism, here, please. Their high priest is George F. Kennan, who came up with the Cold War policy of containment.

Another group in this debate that crosses party and ideological lines might be called the "new constitutionalists." These people have noticed that the Constitution requires a president to get the approval of Congress before going to war, a provision largely ignored during the Cold War. It was considered impractical when possible conflicts were likely to be low-grade guerrilla wars, or top-secret CIA mischief, or quick nuclear exchanges that would be over, with millions dead, in 45 minutes.

Today's wars, however, are perfectly suited to what the Constitution requires: They are deliberate, highly optional decisions made by the United States to initiate hostilities, after months of TV yak that is no substitute for a relatively dignified senatorial debate. (The Constitution requires the debate, not the yak.)

The above article was published in latimes.com on May 31st, 2012.

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