I’m feeling grateful once again for Marcia Rigg’s mediating ethic.
The debate over Syria and U.S. intervention there (or not) has left me befuddled for days. So many thinkers and activists I respect are strongly articulating a “no more war” message as a way to stand against a military strike. I understand this. I am no fan of war (major understatement). I’m also keenly aware of the U.S. propensity for empire and deeply wary always of actions that further our imperial project. And the truth is, empire and imperialism run so deep in our national veins that it often seems any action we take on anything only furthers these, regardless of what we claim our intentions to be.
But I have to admit—and I do it sheepishly—that I haven’t found myself convinced that no military action in this case is by far and away the most clear moral option here. I repeat: I admit this sheepishly.
Listening to President Obama last night helped me articulate why I haven’t completely jumped on the “no strike” bandwagon.
It’s because I believe we do have moral responsibilities to intervene when human rights are clearly being violated and crimes against humanity are being committed. I resonated with Obama’s argument that no action on the part of the U.S. and others might embolden the Assad regime to continue such atrocities.
I also recalled something I heard a Syrian woman say yesterday in an interview with NPR. She was asked whether a military strike would just make the chaos and violence worse for Syrians.
Her response [I’m paraphrasing here, but sticking closely to her words and tone]? “Maybe. But, let’s be clear, it’s not like things are a walk in the park here right now.”
So let me also be clear: I didn’t hear she or any other Syrian interviewed say a U.S. strike was by far and away the best option right now. But I did hear a nuanced set of responses. These included the idea that if a strike could help weaken President Assad it might be the best-worst option. Notice the “if” and “might.” I’ll come back to those.
But first, back to Obama. In the same speech, Obama also made the case that a strike (though he is putting it on hold for now) may be necessary because it’s in the U.S.’ interest. He said if we don’t respond militarily now “our” soldiers will be at greater risk in the future. And, yes, he said the U.S. is “exceptional” and we thus must rise to this task.
That’s where he completely lost me.
I utterly reject those rationales. We/they thinking as a way of narrating the world in order to justify U.S. foreign policy is immoral and deadly.
But it’s the presence of that very same narrative in much of the “no strike” arguments that has left me reluctant there as well.
Amid the many voices articulating complex understandings of the situation in Syria and making strong cases for at least waiting if not completely repudiating military intervention (I especially appreciated posts by Esther Armah and Anne Lamott yesterday), there’s a loud cohort making the “no strike” argument based on the same we/they logic Obama used to argue for a strike. Namely, “Why is this in our interests?” “Why should we get involved in their crisis?”
It seems to me we need to be framing the question in an utterly different way.
The question should be: What’s in the best interest of the people of Syria?
And the best response to that question has to start with the phrase “We aren’t completely sure . . .”
Now I’m not naïve enough to presume that this question will deeply inform whatever action the U.S. ultimately takes. But it seems to me that those of us who tend to lean hard against war, but who also believe in international law and human rights need to insert that question more strongly into the public debate. I think we should be inserting that question into the debate much more loudly and strongly than we are inserting the concluded position “no strike,” “no more war.” Now that Obama has postponed a vote on the use of force, we have a chance to do this.
And the response I propose? The one that begins “We aren’t completely sure . . .”? That’s where Rigg’s mediating ethic is so critical.
“Mediating means living in tension with rather than aiming at an end result . . .” Mediating emphasizes the moral process. Mediating allows—actually it insists—that we live in the concrete mess of the now. It demands we resist the temptation to jump to abstract principles or platitudes, in the process denying the messy complexity of the now and shutting down our “ability to live and act within the tensions of our moral dilemmas” (Riggs, 96). Mediating enables more open-ended responses.
Riggs constructs her mediating ethic by way of a careful reading of the Black women’s club movement. She deploys it as a way of thinking through the dilemmas both integration and separation pose for the Black community. I don’t want to decontextualize her work. But her careful particularity results in an ethic that not only has applicability in other dilemmas because it insists on a vision of a certain kind of moral discernment process, but it also demands we stick to concrete particularity always in those other real, live messy moral dilemmas as well.
It’s only in mediating between options that are themselves unsatisfactory and incomplete, by staying in that difficult process, that new, concrete moral vistas and possibilities might open.
In this moment, mediating means a strong case for waiting before moving to military intervention. But I also think (as we wait to see what unfolds in this quickly changing scene), it also mean not jumping ahead to a “no more war” conclusion, if that as a goal removes us from the messy, complex process of asking what might be in the best interest of the people of Syria?
Or, perhaps better put, what do the people of Syria most need from us right now?
Polemical positions, even well intentioned ones, mask the complex, messy reality that any action we eventually take is likely going to be a best-worst option. That anything we do is going to be action chock full of “if” and “might.”
I worry that the quick move to a “no more war” position does mask, and actually makes it harder to ask the right questions. And I’m not convinced we are well served by casting any and all military action deployed as a stand against crimes against humanity as identical to declaring war. Meanwhile, I’m clear that a military strike without U.N. sanction violates international law, something I am convinced we need to honor.
Yes. Tensions abound.
The tensions here are simply not going to resolve easily.
And our moral work is to enable a process of discernment that ensures we don’t (and that we demand that our national leaders don’t) artificially resolve them too easily either.