In the midst of the rapidly shifting debate over military intervention in Syria, a couple of quotations came to mind – “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” a remark of the great English parliamentarian Edmund Burke in a Letter to William Smith in 1795. But then came the second thought, “First, do no harm.” Although not part of the Hippocratic oath, the injunction epitomizes the great medical code and a lot else besides. There’s also the caveat of Hillel the Elder and Jesus to consider – “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor” – the Golden Rule. As Jesus put it, “…do to others as you would have them do to you…” [See Matt 7:12 and esp. Luke 6:31.] As time went on, I was even reminded of Aesop’s parable of “The Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf’.” So much for the collective wisdom of the past.
President Obama appears to be caught between Burke and Hippocrates, or more significantly today, between those who believe it is the duty of the United States to enforce international law even if it means violating international law, and those who are convinced that lethal intervention can only make the Syrian crisis worse. Perhaps the dire lessons of the punitive Iraq War lodged in someone’s memory, stemming from the chant that Saddam Hussein killed his own people (with poison gas) and hoarded weapons of mass destruction that echoed so frequently in the halls of the US Congress and even the UN General Assembly.
He did both, and a lot else besides, although the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” had been dismantled a decade before the 2003 war. So much for Military Intelligence and political “certainty.” But the war was waged for many other reasons and killed many more people. Thousands more. And they are still dying as Iraq teeters ever closer to either civil war or total anarchy. (When CNN recently turned to L. Paul Bremer, the Destroyer of Nations, for an opinion on Syria, I felt that the capacity for moral outrage had truly flown out the window. The irony was painfully complete.)
For anyone who opposed the War against Iraq, the present claims of poison gas “used against his own people” and the reports of “weapons of mass destruction” evoke a chilly sense of déjà vu. Even a cursory glance at what became of Iraq after our “intervention” ought to prompt second and third thoughts as well as considerable restraint as the Administration ponders its next moves. The parliaments of Great Britain and France, as well as many members of the US Congress, certainly seem to think so. Pope Francis has added his voice to a growing chorus of world leaders pleading for a diplomatic approach rather than more violence and more deaths. Religious leaders and other vocal groups in the United States and Europe have similarly expressed strong opposition to a unilateral punitive expedition by the United States, or even one in which France may be the sole survivor of the new Coalition of the Willing.
Should the UN inspectors’ conclusions lend support to the accusations against the Assad regime, the seriousness of the situation may worsen, of course. It may also turn out that rebels used poison gas as some evidence appears to indicate. Will the Obama administration then be constrained to bomb them as well? But which rebels? It would be difficult, to say the least, to sort out only Al Qaeda or Iranian groups.
In the meantime, almost two million refugees have felt the necessity to flee Syria, and over a hundred thousand people have been killed. How selective bombing of Damascus can bring some kind of closure to this calamity is not at all evident. Please, Mr. President, first do no more harm.