The Declaration of Independence is perhaps the most sublime political document in the history of mankind. It sets forth rational principles for all just governments — principles our nation strove to enumerate first with the Articles of Confederation and then with the Constitution of the United States of America. They are principles our nation fought a Civil War to actualize, and yet they are principles our nation has progressively forgone, in many respects, over the last one hundred odd years.¹
Most can recite the opening phrase of the famous sentence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” etc, but the full sentence lists at least five truths the Founding Fathers considered to be “self-evident” — simply count the subordinating conjunctions. Though each is incontestable, one truth in particular warrants special attention in the endgame of recent weeks’ debate over America’s role in the Syrian conflict:
“…[T]o secure these [unalienable] rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”
Short though it is, this statement identifies the only legitimate purpose of any government: to secure individual rights. Whose rights? The rights of the governed, from whose consent the government’s “just powers” are derived — “the governed” being the people living within that government’s jurisdiction, citizen and foreigner.
The government of the United States exists to protect the individual rights of United States citizens and those under its jurisdiction. It does not exist to protect the rights of French citizens (except those traveling in the U.S.), as that is the role of the French government.
When at any point government action is suggested on any issue, this question must be answered first: “Will this action better secure the individual rights of the American people?” If the answer is to the affirmative, then it can be weighed against other competing options, and logistical concerns can be addressed. If the answer is to the negative, the proposed action should be abandoned immediately.
Now refocus to the issue at hand: should the U.S. militarily strike the Ba’athist regime of Bashar al-Assad? Certainly the regime is brutal and has committed heinous acts against its own citizens. It lacks any legitimate claim to sovereignty, and should any free nation of the world find interest in toppling Assad and instituting a freer government, they are at complete liberty to do so — chemical attacks or no.
But the United States lacks any such interest. The Syrian nation is in the midst of a civil war, and the United States has few friends on either side. The government is a Ba’athist dictatorship aligned with the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah. The opposition forces (who our president has unilaterally decided to arm) are equally vicious, and consist of large numbers of Islamic militants associated with organizations like al-Qaeda.
For some time, the president and his (albeit few) supporters argued that the United States had to “send a message” to Assad due to his regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. This is due in no small part to the president having tied his own hands when he called the use of chemical weapons a “red line” that Assad should not be permitted to cross without repercussion.
The line itself was arbitrary, relating in no way to U.S. national security interests, but instead resting on the imagined notion that it is the duty of the U.S. to enforce international law.
The law, by the way, is equally arbitrary. It is senseless to argue that killing 1,400 people with gas is somehow intrinsically worse than killing tens of thousands more through conventional means. That chemical weapons were deployed in a fight in which we already had no interest does not suddenly change the equation. If there is any interest in Syria, it is ensuring those weapons are kept out of the hands of Islamic militants who are far more likely to deploy them against the U.S. or its allies, including Israel, than is Assad. It would take a severe and erratic shift in Assad’s behavior to make him a similar concern.
Nevertheless, there are those who argue that the very existence of a red line has created a U.S. interest in the matter. Those well versed in international affairs have argued that when a country draws a red line that it does not enforce, it loses credibility on the international stage. “If we don’t enforce this red line against Assad,” they say, “then we’re just sending a message to Tehran and Pyongyang that we won’t stop them in their pursuits of WMD.”
To the contrary, the numerous red lines we have previously set and failed to enforce with those two nations have already conveyed that message with crystalline clarity. Set aside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which I do not believe is governed by men with a suicidal ideology and thus is not imminently dangerous. Look instead at the Islamic Republic of Iran, a theocracy that aids and abets Islamic terrorists, has repeatedly threatened the U.S., repeatedly threatened Israel and other allies and continues its nuclear program uninhibited. There lies a real threat to U.S. interests that we continually fail to address, save through pathetic economic and diplomatic sanctions. What sense is there in attempting to dissuade a real threat by attacking a non-threat? If anything, such a response only demonstrates further impotence, not actual resolve. If we are truly concerned about red lines, we should start enforcing them where they count, rather than drawing them where they do not.
Still others maintain that the United States has a moral duty to protect the civilians of Syria and respond to the use of chemical weapons. Assuredly, the American people are not unmoved emotionally by the senseless slaughter of innocents, but emotion is not a basis for political policy. The U.S. government is not a humanitarian organization, despite what the left may have us believe based on their incessant demands for socialist welfare programs.
And really, what is the humanitarian argument for intervention in Syria but socialism applied to the international stage? It is but a different application of the notion that the wealthy and powerful have a duty to forgo their interests and their resources for others less wealthy and less powerful. Such an argument holds no water domestically, as it violates rather than protects individual rights. Similarly, it holds no water internationally.
No matter how tragic the situation in Syria, and no matter how earnestly (if vainly) we may desire a stable republic to rise from the ashes of that bloody conflict, it is not the function of the United States government to intervene if doing so does not further its own purpose: the protection of our rights. That is its only function. It exists for no other.
—Brian Underwood is a senior studying political science and history
¹ This is to say nothing of the legitimate progress our nation has made over the same period, particularly in relation to public racial segregation.