Syria, Partisanship and ‘The West Wing’


My wife and I are on our second time through The West Wing, a television series about the hypothetical presidency of Josiah Bartlet.  Several episodes in season 4, which we’re currently watching, deal with genocide in the fictional African country of Kundu and culminate in the declaration of the Bartlet doctrine—that the U.S. will intervene for humanitarian reasons, not just when threatened directly—and in President Bartlet’s decision to send troops to Kundu to stop the violence.

Besides the series itself, two recent incidents made me think of parallels between The West Wing and the current situation in Syria.  One was a remark made by a local radio commentator after President Obama’s September 10 speech on Syria.  The commentator said the current situation “is like an episode of The West Wing.”  The other is a moment in one of the television episodes when President Bartlet asks rhetorically, “Why is a Kundunese life worth less to me than an American life?” A speech writer named Will Bailey responds: “I don’t know, sir, but it is.”

On the evening of President Obama’s speech I heard a national commentator make a similar remark.  He noted that the President, trying to persuade the nation to take action, had described the horrific suffering and death in Syria, including that of children.  The commentator said that Americans are a compassionate people but that the children who are suffering and dying are Syrian children, not American children.  Hence our relative lack of enthusiasm for helping them.

It has been interesting that so many, including many who enthusiastically supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, have opposed taking military action in Syria.  Perhaps Americans have become war weary.  Perhaps we have learned something from the mixed results of these earlier adventures.  I suspect that some are inclined to criticize and oppose anything President Obama does, no matter what it is.  (I realize that many on the left did the same to Bush during his presidency.  I didn’t, and I’m not happy with those who did.)

I happen to be on the e-mail lists of both left-wing and right-wing political action groups, and so it has been interesting to get messages from both sides opposing strikes on Syria.  The right-wing messages have been especially vociferous, claiming that the President, acting with ulterior motives, is “taking over TV” to sell his plan and sending out his “minions” to make the case for war.

The group sending these messages reports that 97.5 percent of its members oppose strikes on Syria.  Just eight years ago, this same group called opponents of the war in Iraq “reprehensible” and condemned them as unpatriotic for sending a message that “Americans are losing their will to fight.”  They organized pro-war demonstrations to counter anti-war protests.

The world of politics is nothing if not filled with paradox and irony.  I’ve been pleased to see Republicans who strongly supported war in Iraq now argue against military action and in favor of patient diplomacy—though I can’t help remembering that calls for much more serious action in Iraq, and with much less solid justification, were accepted by virtually all Republican politicians and by perhaps 80 percent of the nation. I also recall how often, over the past ten years or more, the traditional preference for diplomacy by Democrats has been decried by Republicans as naive and weak.

Current arguments that action against Syria is not required by our immediate national interest could also have been used against our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq—and indeed against many U.S. military actions over the past century.

I accept as valid the argument that strikes on Syria may be dangerous and produce unintended negative consequences—an argument made by any number of both liberal and conservative commentators and political cartoons.  Yet when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, similar dangers were largely ignored.

Whatever our partisan bias and whether we support military action in Syria, I hope we can agree that Syrian children matter as much as American children and that something must be done to respond to the terrible things happening there.  In an article that will soon appear in a book titled Latter-day Saints and Contemporary Issues, I argue in favor of peace and against war, except in the most extreme circumstances.  But I acknowledge that sometimes war may be necessary to prevent horrific violence and suffering:

“Perhaps (one) condition that might justify intervention is a breakdown of civil order that threatens innocent lives.  As thousands have been slaughtered in Rwanda, Darfur, and elsewhere in recent years, I have wondered whether nations working together could have done more, including the use of armed force, to prevent bloodshed.”

At the same time, I argue that our discussions of war and peace ought to be peaceable, especially when we have been invited as Latter-day Saints to “be one” and to value our brothers and sisters of all nations.  As I conclude in my essay:

“We must ‘renounce war and proclaim peace’ in our personal lives as well as in nations and the world at large.  We must do so not only by seeking peaceful solutions to world problems but by being peaceable in all our relationships and our communications.”

The situation in Syria is both horrifying and complicated.  It is not only natural but useful for there to be different views on what we ought to do.  We need a national dialogue on the subject, but it ought to be one that involves listening as well as speaking and respect and humility rather than name calling and scoring partisan points at any cost.

I am heartened that a diplomatic solution may be found to at least one element of the complicated conflict in Syria.  I am hopeful that diplomatic efforts will be successful.

In the meantime, I am also hopeful that we can all summon up as much humility, honesty, intelligence, compassion, and goodwill as we are capable of and engage in productive, civil conversation on this and other issues.  The problems we face are serious.  We are much more likely to find solutions if we can somehow learn to work together.

Bruce Young is an associate professor at BYU in the English Department

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