Saturday, September 7, 2013

Mr. Obama, Mr. Woodrow Wilson and the Idea of a Heavenly Father

Mr. Obama has not been able to convince the Brits nor, apparently any other ally or potential opponent, to slap the despot in Damascus for using chemical weapons.

He is having a hard time, across party lines, convincing his own Congress to allow him to reign down vengeance from the skies upon the user of chemical weapons.

His argument is that if we don't draw the line here, and if we allow desperate dictators to believe they can use chemical (or nuclear) weapons with impunity, well then, those desperado's will go ahead and do it and it will be open season for the use of any sort of biological, chemical or nuclear weapon. So,  he argues, it's a matter of weakness encouraging brazen action from the miscreants--the old Chamberlain at Munich trope.

The two major reasons not to buy this:  
1. It depends on the psychology of deterrence. We are trying to get into the minds of people like Assad, or Hitler or Mussolini or even, not to use an invidious comparison, Ho Chi Minh. And the fact is, we ought to know by now, people like this, or common street murderers do not get deterred by deterrence. They always make a calculation, and decide they can do their worst and it will be more likely to benefit them than to come back to hurt them.  
2. It invokes the idea of a Heavenly father looking down from above and saying, this is bad. This is hideous. I will punish the transgressor. We must try to play that role on earth.  It is entirely consistent with the moral argument that wrong doing by human beings, violation of one human being by another, must result in punishment for the wrong doer.

The fact is, punishment for the wrong doer, whether it comes in the form of armies crushing their empire and putting their heads on stakes or in the form of a court in the Hague, occurs less frequently than the outcome of those wrong doers staying in power, unpunished and, in fact, in some cases, writing the history.

The Nazi thugs on trial at Nuremberg smugly shook their heads, crossed their arms across their chests and said, "The victors write history."  Which is to say, in their minds, if they had won, all the concentration camps and mechanized murder would have been justified as the price of imposing the world order of a thousand year Reich.

Woodrow Wilson, the minister's son, tried to preach morality to a post World War One world and he got no takers, either in Europe or at home. Of course, the world had moved on in some places--flappers danced and liquor flowed in the States and in Europe economies collapsed, and the next war with even more monstrous leaders and outcomes occurred. 

But there is no reason in history to believe if Wilson's moral universe had been voted for, the world would have been any different.


  1. Mad Dog,
    Perhaps it's not so much the quest to punish the wrongdoer that's important, but that we take a stand against the wrong doing, not only for the victims but for ourselves. If we don't, if we simply say"Oh well despots will be despots" don't we then become a bit complicit in any future carnage. There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with a collective desire to see the bad guys get what's coming to them. Is looking the other way because the world is rampant with killing and injustice really an option? Well I guess actually it is. And how much more effective than looking the other way, is speaking out without at least the threat of military intervention.Not much I'd guess, it seems both are required. As you've previously pointed out, we didn't enter WWII because of the concentration camps-but shouldn't we have? And you're right, in history, as opposed to the movies, the guys in the white hats don't always prevail-but is that a reason to take no action?

    On the otherhand, I readily acknowledge the veracity of the argument that dead is dead, whether it's the result of chemical warfare or having your head removed and placed on a stake, and the US can't possibly go around the world righting all the wrongs.What makes these 1400 killed by poison gas any different than the multitudes killed by bombs in Syria. In this week's New Yorker there is a piece, "The Return", which serves as a timely reminder of the high price paid by those who actually complete the military missions while we sit home and argue about it. It really reinforces the point that we should only enter into conflict when absolutely necessary-it's deciding what's necessary that's so hard. The President certainly has his work cut out for him with his speech tonight to persuade us that this particular wrongdoing merits action. For once I don't know whether to be rooting for him to succeed or not..Anyway, my apologies Mad Dog for taking paragraphs to say what I guess I could have said in one line, which is-when it comes to Syria I really don't know what to think...

  2. Maud,

    I write this having just heard Mr. Obama lay out his case, as I drove home tonight.
    You gotta love this President. He takes each argument against an action and tries to answer it. Haven't heard a President do that since Kennedy.
    He did not persuade me.
    He did reassure me he is aware of the idea of endless war, but he did not convince me any strike would actually be an effective "deterrent."
    I share your discomfort about doing nothing--would I have argued to do nothing if I knew about Auschwitz? I hope not. But Auschwitz is different from Syria. That was an organized, methodical system which would have continued had we not intervened. Not so clear the same is true of Syria's use of gas.

    Mad Dog