America once again finds itself embroiled in a ferocious debate over war and peace.
Should we, as a society, commit acts of violence against a nefarious regime on the far side of the planet — particularly given Syria’s apparent use of chemical weapons against civilians?
Or should be step aside and allow the civil war there to unfold without American intervention?
This is a complicated, painful and fraught conversation, especially given that we got so much wrong in the build-up to the Iraq war.
During the build-up to that nightmarish, misguided conflict, journalists missed or ignored key voices.
In particular, we as a professional tribe minimized the voices of peace activists who might have offered crucial context about the risks and costs of going to war.
In hindsight, of course, it turned out that those faint, critical and skeptical voices were absolutely correct about many things. The Iraq War was one of the great foreign policy blunders of modern times.
This isn’t to say that I think that opponents of military intervention in Syria are correct this time.
When Noam Chomsky argued this week that a US action would be tantamount to a “war crime” without authorization by the United Nations, that struck me as simplistic.
The UN is immobilized not because of moral qualms about armed aggression, but because Russia, one of Syria’s key allies and itself an aggressive imperial power, is blocking serious debate within that body.
Russia, it should be noted, has done nothing to reign in Syria’s brutal regime.
But Chomsky, like other “peace experts” deserves a central role in the discussion. He should be questioned forcefully and thoroughly and skeptically, as should other knowledgeable policy advocates who oppose a strike.
We know from experience that the strong tendency is to fill the interview programs and news-hours with former generals, former military and intelligence professionals.
And we know from experience that those individuals, while informative and usually well-meaning, offer only a part of the picture.
We also know from experience that the tendency among journalist is to interview peace advocates only for their emotional energy, their protest chants, their broad-brush statements.
This time, we need a full, intensive and skeptical treatment of the views held on all sides. It’s not okay to treat one side as the “grown-ups” and the other side as the noisy idealists.
It’s also not enough to allow peace activists to state broad ideological opposition to military action, without questioning them aggressively about what they view as alternatives in Syria, where civilians — including children — are suffering horribly.
Before we begin dropping bombs on another nation, we need to hear from the Cassandras among us who were ignored at great cost last time the drums of war were sounding.
They may be right or wrong, but their voices and doubts should be heard with respect – and it’s the job of journalists to make sure that happens this time around.