In the days of my youth, I grew up reading about heroes who brought the villains down and dispensed justice with their fists or guns. While not all of us buy into the American heroic mythology, I suspect that many of us had our views shaped as mine were shaped.
One part of the American heroic mythology is that tyrants are not to be tolerated. It matters not if the tyrant is great or petty, an evil sheriff or wicked king—they are all to be brought to justice (preferably cruel justice) by the hero. Because of the shaping heroes of my youth, I certainly favor taking down tyrants. Ride in. Bang! Bang! Save the day. Hi, ho Silver and away!
Of course, many years have passed since those early days of comic books and silver screens and my view of heroics has been tempered by some measure of wisdom and a larger measure of time. While I do find tyrants morally appalling, I have learned that the world is a complicated place and that attempts to save the day rarely work out as it does in fiction.
In the case of Syria, the Assad government is clearly an evil government—the state is oppressive and has been rather busy killing people to stay in power. As such, this is a classic bad-guy situation, seemingly begging for a bang-bang solution. The same was, of course, supposed to be true of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
In Iraq, the United States and a few allies rode in, shot things up and ousted Saddam Hussein. Unfortunately, that movie spawned a seemingly endless series of sequels, each turning out rather badly and having a high body count. We did not ride off into the sunset—we were stuck there for years and, in many ways, are still stuck.
In the case of Afghanistan, we rode in, shot things up, and then stayed. And stayed. And stayed. The sequels, as in Iraq, featured plenty of violence and high body counts. We are still there, despite many sunsets.
Now the United States is considering military action against Syria. On the one hand, it is clear that the regime has done and is doing bad things. As such, it makes sense to consider that there is a moral obligation to prevent the Syrian government from continuing to engage in the killing and perhaps even a moral obligation to oust the current regime. In an action movie, a rag-tag band of diverse heroes would ride in, defeat Assad (saying something like it “looks like we kicked Ass…ad”) and ride out with some suitable pop rock song jamming in the background. However, this is not an action movie.
So, on the other hand, there is the rather important moral and practical concern about what impact our military actions would have. If our involvement is predicated on a moral imperative, then we would seem morally obligated to consider the ethics of our actions in terms of the consequences. As I have noted before, while the Assad regime is rather bad, it might be the least worst of the practical options. If our attacks have a significant impact and Assad is toppled, then it seems that the likely results would either be continued chaos as the various factions settle who will be the new tyrant or the emergence of a radical state. The chances of having a stable, pro-West (or even neutral), effective state result from United States intervention seem to be incredibly low. While tyranny is bad, one could follow Hobbes and contend that a tyrant is better than chaos.
Also of moral concern is the matter of self-determination. In our own civil war, the United States made it clear that the matter was an internal one—despite the fact that we were rather busy slaughtering each other and destroying our cities. Moral consistency would seem to require that the same policy be adopted for Syria. It could be noted that the Syria government is behaving in a morally relevant difference. That is, the American civil war was a legitimate military struggle that did not morally warrant external intervention while the Syrian civil war does warrant external intervention. Part of the case for the distinction could be the alleged use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. Another part of the case could be the fact that the Syrian conflict is more indiscriminate than the American civil war.
While tyrants should be brought down, the matter is a rather complicated one. Which is rather unfortunate.