Looking into an abyss


What Nietzsche would say about striking Assad

Americans from President Obama to the average citizen are about to have a “Nietzsche moment”: the kind of experience that the German philosopher predicted when he said, “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” In the case of our collective contemplation of what to do about the Syrian crisis, Nietzsche’s meaning may be that, in the face of such complexity, as much may be revealed about ourselves as about the dictator we seek to rein in.

The image reflected in this existential looking glass is vexing. First, there is the odd American mixture of complacency — see the inaction it has bred over the deaths of more than 125,000 Syrians, all too many of them noncombatants — alongside outrage that a small percentage died in chemical-weapons attacks. It is as if we are saying that we would tacitly accept the sheer horror of this war but for the way in which a tiny sliver of the killing has been done. More artillery and aerial bombardments of rebel villages and urban clusters? No worries. Just keep the gas canisters closed. What this says about the American moral compass is troubling indeed.

At a strategic level, the abyss is just as revealing of our habits of mind and preferences. It took just a few days for Pentagon planners to design a range of campaign options and move necessary assets into position to strike. But it has taken more than two years for the White House to come up with a strategy toward this conflict — and it isn’t pretty. At best, President Obama is hinting at coercive diplomacy of the simplest and most limited sort, aimed at convincing Bashar al-Assad to stop using chemical weapons. The war may continue to rage. Regime change is not the immediate goal. So even if our missiles fly, they will achieve very little. What does this largely war-as-theater solution say about exactly who and what Americans have become?

The current debate in Congress will go a long way toward answering this question about American character and purpose in the 21st century world. No doubt the ghost of Iraq will make a Banquo-like appearance and cause much alarm, reminding us of the costs and risks of going to war on false pretenses. But President Obama is no Macbeth. He will dispel this specter with clear evidence supporting his charges against the Assad regime. No, do not count on the memory of Iraq to keep us from involvement in Syria. Instead, we in the public should insist that this matter be debated on its own merits.

And just what are the merits? The best case in favor of the use of force is that punitive strikes may somehow inhibit the future use of chemical weapons, possibly even making it less likely that they will be sent downstream to Hezbollah or some other organization. Beyond this concern, though, there is little conceivable threat to our vital national security interests here. Thus, opponents of using force might well try to convince President Obama that the proper policy now is for all nations — including Russia and China — to condemn the chemical attack that occurred and to join unanimously in agreeing to take serious action should this ever happen again. Punitive military action now, it may be argued, is unnecessary and likely to prove counterproductive to broader efforts to bring peace to Syria.

For all the drama that will attend considerations of national reputation and presidential prestige in this debate, the most vital aspect of the discourse to watch for is the Nietzschean heart of the matter: What will staring into the Syrian abyss reveal to us about ourselves? Will we as a nation feel impelled to support a president who has basically painted himself into a corner with all his war talk? Or will a rising tide of libertarian thought leaders — fundamentally noninterventionist in their approach to the world — carry the day and keep us from another problematic conflict? Stay tuned. Congress has never turned down a presidential request to authorize the use of force. But records only hold until they are broken. You can expect Senator Rand Paul, the most articulate voice in government today advocating for a less activist, less interventionist foreign policy, to have his innings.

In the end, it may be left to Samantha Power, our ambassador to the United Nations, to provide another angle of view into ourselves. For years she has been a strong advocate of the “responsibility to protect” the innocent from systematic killing. In the case of Syria, she has been sidelined, taking the earlier White House line on nonintervention. But now she is chiming in about the culpability of the Assad regime in the matter of chemical weapons use. It will be interesting to see whether she is held back yet again, given that her instincts would no doubt drive her to call for more forceful action than a limited missile bombardment of regime targets. It is ironic that President Obama’s most effective spokesperson in the matter of protecting innocents from war crimes is the one he is least likely to rely upon. Power’s favored solution surely consists of recommending actions far greater than those the White House prefers.

And so our cool, intellectual president is left to contemplate the abyss. It contemplates him as well, as Nietzsche would say. Us, too. It asks us if we see our great power as limited to safeguarding ourselves, or if it can be used to protect the weak, not just briefly chastise the wicked. Our answer will prove revelatory — to the world and to ourselves. Thus can gazing into the abyss be good for the soul.

The writer is professor of defense analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School, author of Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World, and co-editor of Afghan Endgames: Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War. This article also appeared in Foreign Policy.


  1. An excellent presentation of this mess we are in. The abyss or plain barbarism as i wrote elsewhere, is looking us straight in the face. Slowlly and without a sense of modesty or prudence we fell into this trap set by conditions we don't understand and we cannot control: the historical transformation of the Muslim world. It is time to attempt a sincere soul-searching, before we become barbarians or the abyss itself.

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