Me, I’m a details person. I dislike making grand and confident claims in domains of knowledge where theory is weak to non-existent, and the diminishing marginal returns to information are not always clear. When it comes to Syria I feel deja vu. What occurred in 2002 and 2003 is repeating itself. The bluffers are coming out in full force. Most of them lie to themselves and lie to you. They don’t know anything. I know because I know more than most of them, but I don’t feel I know enough to say much with any confidence beyond what my irrational ego can support. All I can truly do is assert that others do not know. Modern Middle Eastern geopolitics is a complex phenomenon, a palimpsest of exotic past and prosaic present. To a first approximation there are simple rules of thumb (everyone against Israel in public, more complex dynamics under the surface). But there are also deep local and regional tensions which require “thick” knowledge informed by the broader historical context. Most people clearly lack that context from what I can tell.
Where do we go then? Unfortunately the only option left I feel is that we should man up and simply align ourselves with our norms, facts be damned! Neoconservatives and liberal internationalists can argue for interventionism on ethical grounds. Old school isolationists like myself can keep repeating “do no harm.” Let’s abandon appeals to specific details and facts, because the reality is that the final decision isn’t going to be grounded in the specific details. Rather, it will be the outcome of the social and political consensus of the elites, which is rooted in broad general principles and fashion.