In his 2010 memoir, Decision Points, former president George W. Bush describes how, as he struggled to decide whether to attack Saddam Hussein, he sought out the advice of scholars, Iraqi dissidents in exile, and others outside his administration:
One of the most fascinating people I met with was Elie Wiesel, the author, Holocaust survivor, and deserving Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Elie is a sober and gentle man. But there was passion in his seventy-four-year-old eyes when he compared Saddam Hussein’s brutality to the Nazi genocide.
“Mr. President,” he said, “you have a moral obligation to act against evil.” The force of his conviction affected me deeply. Here was a man who had devoted his life to peace urging me to intervene in Iraq. As he later explained in an op-ed: “Though I oppose war, I am in favor of intervention when, as in this case because of Hussein’s equivocations and procrastinations, no other option remains.”
As a former White House speechwriter, I can safely say that this is the sort of quote speechwriters live for. If I were helping to draft President Barack Obama’s Tuesday address to the American people on Syria, I’d make a point of highlighting Elie Wiesel’s remark. It gives Obama’s policy the moral gravitas that it currently lacks.
Admittedly, there are a few problems with the Wiesel quote. For one thing, Wiesel made his impassioned call to resist evil to George W. Bush, a president Barack Obama and his supporters heartily despise; for another thing, Wiesel was advocating a course of action — going to war in Iraq — that Obama and his base strongly opposed. But a skillful speechwriter can easily get around these difficulties. All the president has to say is something like: “As a very great and wise man, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel has so rightly observed, the United States has ‘a moral obligation to act against evil.’ I couldn’t agree more strongly.”
How should Republicans respond to this line of argument? One way, which Senator Ted Cruz seems to favor, is the “realist” approach to international affairs: The United States must only act in defense of its national interest. Bombing Syria does not advance the national interest. Therefore, the United States must not bomb Syria. Q.E.D.
The problem with this approach is that it’s too coldly logical. Like it or not, we live in the Age of Oprah, and our politicians are supposed to ooze compassion. (Remember Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain.”?) Talking about the national interest when children are being brutally murdered doesn’t seem very compassionate, and only re-enforces the Democrat claim that Republicans are a bunch of monsters.
If I were drafting the Republican response to Obama’s speech, I’d anticipate the president’s approach, and try to counter it. Here’s what I’d write:
“President Obama and his supporters have spoken eloquently about the obligation to resist evil, and I agree with them. We Americans are a good and compassionate people, and we really do feel our neighbor’s pain. I would add, however, that in addition to the obligation to act morally, we are also obliged to act intelligently. Acting unintelligently will only make a bad situation even worse.
“Two years ago, when the brave Syrian people first rose up against an evil dictator, the president had the opportunity to act both morally and intelligently. Arming the rebels back then would have been the moral thing to do, and the intelligent thing to do as well. It would have rescued a nation from evil, and it also would have dealt a massive blow to some of our country’s worst enemies. For reasons known best to himself, however, President Obama chose not to act.
“Today, as a result of the president’s inaction, the situation in Syria has been transformed. The rebels have become radicalized, and their ranks now include many who belong to al Qaeda, or to related terrorist groups. Taking military action against Syria now risks empowering our deadliest enemies, and granting them access to the world’s deadliest weapons.
I agree that resisting an evil dictator is moral, but as things now stand in Syria, it’s not intelligent. Indeed, it would be the height of folly to risk millions -= yes, millions — of American lives, simply to make a moral point. That’s why I strongly oppose President Obama’s call to take action against Syria now.”
Would these remarks help change anyone’s mind? Who can say? But I offer them to whoever has been tasked with drafting the Republican response to Obama’s speech, in the hope that it might make his or her life a bit less stressful.