Ostrich or Quixote: Intervention in Syria et Moi

ostrich sandBy Will H. Moore

Well, the global superpower is actively considering military strikes in a civil war and I find myself wondering whether now isn’t the time to see why so many people trash their lives mainlining heroin (that is hyperbolic metaphor). I have an innate anti-lemming response: when US intervention in the types of conflict I study is on the table, I stick my head in the sand. I don’t listen to, watch, or read news coverage. When I was in middle and high school I couldn’t get enough of it.[1] But as I began to study these conflicts in graduate school I became increasingly alienated from the public debate. I recall very well a lunch with my faculty colleagues at UC Riverside when those present were exorcised by NPR’s coverage of the atrocities in Bosnia and the group debated whether, and how, President Clinton ought to intervene. I sat quietly, watching, and trying not to listen, as folks echoed “talking points,” exercised their debating skills, and searched for stories (narrative frames) they could use to “make sense” of the coverage they were hearing. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to run, stick a shotgun in my mouth, and just drift off into some “comfortably numb.” But I knew I did not want to be there.

'Quixote Tilts at the Windmill'. Source: Gustave Doré, 1863., Wikimedia Commons.
‘Quixote Tilts at the Windmill’.
Source: Gustave Doré, 1863., Wikimedia Commons.

During these periods I struggle between playing Ostrich and playing Don Quixote. Mostly I play Ostrich. But from time to time I tilt at the windmill. I have, on this blog, posted a variety of things that I think are pertinent for trying to understand the current swirl about us. For example, in “Civilian Casualties, Democracy & Wealthy Countries” and “Democracy and Militarism” I summarized research which explains why wealthy democracies like the US will tend to “rain fire from the skies” rather than put “boots on the ground.” In “Can We Please Have Useful Reporting?” I called out reporters for adopting an emotional narrative that directs attention from analysis that provides understanding (the same narrative that led to that Bosnia lunch discussion). Yet, just as killing via technology makes sense (is a system in equilibrium) for wealthy democracies, so does emotional (rather than analytic) framing of news: it mobilizes people. Again, the system is in equilibrium, working as we should expect it to. Third, I noted in “The Dramatic Uptick in Attacks on Aid Workers” and “How a US Election Undermined Global Health” the kinds of trade-offs elected politicians will make to retain office, even in the face of obvious humanitarian problems to which said politician is legally pledged to respect. Should you be inclined to read more about the specific challenges health workers are facing in Syria, Larissa Fast has a useful post at The Conversation.

In the interest of not rehashing the past, I will add something I have not noted before: we are consuming (and some of us supplying) infotainment. The strategic nonsense that security IR scholars like Steve Walt (and a cast of thousands) offer is the functional equivalent to Soap Opera Digest, Sports talk radio, ESPN’s College GameDay, The Rachel Maddow Show, etc. At its core, in the IR security area this infotainment is basically a debate about how to play Risk (perhaps you prefer Chess). Lots of folks wish they could “play the real game” (whether that game is writing soap operas, coaching a team sport, etc.), and some are able to make a living writing about it for the rest of us. I have no objection to infotainment, regardless of its object. But one of the things I find tough about living in a democracy (which is unambiguously superior to all alternatives!) is when the public feels compelled to weigh in on how we use our tax dollars to fire ordinance at human beings.

Tell me Jesse, should I go there?


@ WilHMoo

[1] News coverage was difficult to access in Chicago in the late-70s (The Chicago Tribune’s international coverage was limited), and I spent the early to mid-70s in New Jersey where The New York Times was the daily paper in my parent’s household.

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