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“It’s Complicated”: the Great False Argument for War

Photo by Debra Sweet | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Debra Sweet | CC BY 2.0

It’s an argument I’ve seen time and again, as a justification for American military interventionism.  It appears in the news, and it is parroted in conversations.  Sometimes it is followed with a proclamation that we have to do “something”.  A specific and very timely example comes to mind, from the summer of 2013.   A family member, a fervent Obama supporter, was lamenting the fact that the President had a very “difficult” decision about whether to take military action against Assad, subsequent to the sarin gas attack at Ghouta for which he was popularly blamed.

I challenged her assertion, saying that it wasn’t difficult at all not to go to war, especially considering that the true culprits of the attack were not really known.  But she held her ground, insisting that the Assad-did-it version was “fact”.  Since then, the works of reputable independent reporters such as Seymour Hersh have cast overwhelming doubt on this version, and have presented more plausible explanations.  But how many people are aware?  How many Americans have ever looked at an alternate version from Western mainstream media’s explanation?

Fast forward to the present day, and we seem to be witnessing history repeat itself.  Many civilians are dead in another attack involving chemicals in Syria.  The use of sarin gas has been suspected.  Have the mainstream press explained what motive Assad would have for such an attack, only days after the US announced regime change was no longer a goal?  Are they giving serious credence to alternate explanations, like that the chemical weapons may have been released from al-Qaeda warehouses that were struck by Syrian army jets?

Meanwhile, the President has already blamed Assad and has commenced bombing of Syrian military targets.  The previous day’s NY Times headline summed it up:  “‘War Crimes’, UN Security Council vows action after suspected chemical attack”.  Like with our execrable drone program, due process is thrown out the window, and we move forward taking deadly action, though we are only able to “suspect” at this point.

I often wonder why so many liberal-minded people, who are so vociferously against Trump on a myriad of issues, are so silent about the epidemic of drone killings, and the impending threat of war.  It seems to be a recurring theme spanning past presidencies, but I’ve typically seen explanations like “it’s a complex issue”, “international problems are more complicated”, etc.  While these are true statements, there are a couple of serious deceptions with the “it’s complicated” argument, which really make it a dangerous tool for war complicity:

1) there is a distinction between the complexity of a country’s problems, and the question of whether the U.S. should intervene militarily as part of a solution.  The latter should be differentiated as NOT complex.  The burden of proof should not be on the part of the war resister to explain how to solve the problems of Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, etc.  And not everyone needs to understand all the nuances of the conflict.  We only need understand that our military intervention makes things worse, regime change always ends badly, drone bombing breeds more terrorists, the concept of “blowback”, etc.  This logic doesn’t make one a pacifist, but a pragmatist.  Self defense and humanitarian interventionism may well be very noble ideas in theory.  But if those are the arguments, the burden of proof should be placed on the war-enabler to explain precisely how our own citizens are being “defended ” (or those of the target country, for that matter), and how exactly the “humanitarianism” will outweigh the carnage of war.  The argument should be backed with a case study using a recent war as evidence…if only the results of our engagements in Iraq, Lybia, Afghanistan, the instability and increase in terrorism, didn’t appear to prove precisely the opposite.

2) the complexity of the conflict drives many to a self-perpetuating cycle of over-reliance on mainstream media, that never allows the alternative to war to be simple.  In other words, the other side of the story may make it easier to reject war, but if you never see that side, you won’t know it.  The details of a foreign conflict may already be burdensome, and so the path of least resistance typically is to be spoon-fed the “official” side of the story, as sanctioned by our government and its allies.  The problem is, this side is often filled with untruths.  We were lied to about WMDs by the NY Times, the Washington Post, CNN, Fox, etc., and they made us haters of Saddam.  Then we were made to hate Qaddafi, and they fed us stories about mass rape and Viagra that were never substantiated.  Now the latest bogeymen we’re supposed to hate are Assad and Putin, because if we didn’t, it would be too simple to reject the idea of violently overthrowing them and accepting all the consequences of regime change.  Meanwhile, the authenticity of the White Helmets and its ties to Al-Qaeda are never questioned.  Nor is the possibility of false flag attacks, by the “moderate” rebels or their allies, since they are on “our side”.

It should be added, that the situation has been made more complex by America’s involvement already.  Those who push the “we have to do something” argument often seem to forget the important detail that we’ve already been doing “something”.  So really the onus should be on them to explain why doing an even more extreme “something” to that country will help, or at least be less destructive than doing nothing at all.  Those who seek to enable Syrian regime change fail to reflect on the possibility that there might not be continued carnage and civil war today had we not taken up the side of the “moderate” rebels to begin with.  The conflict may have ended long ago, had we not been aiding groups like Al-Qaeda and Al-Nusra…groups that cut throats and behead and that we normally label as “terrorists” when they’re not on “our side”.

And so, as we witness what appears to be a complete reversal of Trump’s campaign promise of not pursuing regime change in Syria, and of detente with Russia, many of us who want peace are left with a disturbing and powerless feeling, not just of being able to change our leaders’ minds, but to change those of our fellow citizens who are supposed to be helping us hold their feet to the fire.  Many of these newfound activists have opposed every cabinet appointment Trump has made, and continue to oppose him on domestic issue after issue.  But when it comes to life and death foreign policy decisions, many will shrug it off…their partisan heroes were for it, their trusted news sources seem to be for it, so they will be for it (or at least not opposed to it).

I hope my prediction is wrong.  Moreover, I hope the Russians can broker a deal again like in 2013, which preempted a bloody forced regime change and allowed Obama to resist the urgings of his bellicose neocon cabinet.  But whatever happens, one phrase we are unfortunately bound to hear is:  “It’s complicated.”

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Daniel Martin is a rock historian, musician, and writer from Lancaster, PA.

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