Monday, October 14, 2013

The Wiesel Rule

Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, spoke these words in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1986:
Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe.
This sums up how George W. Bush saw his duty during his presidency. It's how neo-conservatives see America's duty today in Syria. Indeed, one of the biggest differences between neo- and paleo-conservatives is that neo-cons believe we have a responsibility to act in the world to alleviate suffering where we can, even if it means using military force, and paleo-cons believe we should mind our own business and stay out of other people's affairs.

One quirky aspect of our domestic ideological arguments over foreign policy today is that liberals, who are usually inclined to cite Wiesel as one of their own, are actually horrified when someone like George W. Bush takes his words seriously and undertakes the liberation of oppressed people in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Having spent eight years trying to demolish George Bush for invading Iraq and Afghanistan many liberals were aghast when the Obama administration, the most liberal in history, seemed on the verge of bombing Syria because the Syrian government was using chemical weapons against its own people. Many other liberals, of course, had no difficulty accommodating themselves to the principle that dropping bombs is only bad when a Republican president does it, not when a Democrat does it.

In any case, President Obama, who seemed himself to be conflicted on the matter, having drawn a rhetorical red-line that he had little desire to enforce but couldn't easily moon-walk away from, was simply applying what might be called the Wiesel Rule. This is in fact why the President's Syrian gambit was supported by neo-cons and opposed by paleo-cons.

The problem with the Wiesel Rule, though, is that every situation is different and many times it's not easy to decide whether intervention would do more harm than good or even what sort of intervention should be employed. These are tough problems, and I don't envy the people who have to wrestle with them. What I do find objectionable, however, is that so many on the left, for whom Wiesel is a hero, excoriated George Bush for doing exactly what Wiesel prescribes, and then, when they found themselves ensconced in the White House, declared how we now had a moral duty to follow the Wiesel rule in Syria.

This seems to me to be at best hypocritical, and foremost among the guilty are our Secretary of State John Kerry and our President Barack Obama, both of whom were merciless in their criticism of Bush for doing essentially what they were themselves about to do in Syria had they not been rescued from their own rhetoric by Vladimir Putin, of all people.

Mr. Obama was prepared to take us to war in Syria because Bashir Assad killed several hundred of his citizens with poison gas, yet Christians are being exterminated in Muslim countries throughout the Middle East and are being persecuted and killed by Muslims in Africa, and neither Mr. Obama nor his State Department have had anything much to say about it. Surely the Wiesel Rule should apply as much to persecuted Christians as it does to persecuted Syrians.

At any rate, I have a couple of questions: Under what circumstances does this administration (or any administration) apply the Wiesel Rule, and, secondly, assuming that interference in the affairs of another nation is called for, what form should it take and what conditions determine that form? An administration that has no guiding principles or philosophy to help it answer these questions is just flying by the seat of its pants and is going to eventually wind up crashing the plane.