It’s interesting how much American views regarding foreign intervention have changed in a decade. As I’m writing this, President Barack Obama has just asked Congress to postpone a vote authorizing U.S. military strikes in Syria, where internationally-banned chemical weapons were used against civilians. The request to postpone comes on the sudden emergence of a possible diplomatic process; regardless, most close observers believe Congress would have rejected the resolution. About 60 percent of the public opposed military intervention in Syria in early September polls.
Ten years ago, roughly the same proportion of Americans supported invading Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and 77 senators plus 68 percent of the House of Representatives voted to authorize war.
I’m not suggesting that the cases for invading Iraq and striking in Syria are identical; some consistently-applied principles could prompt opposite conclusions on the two scenarios. But differences in how the stories have unfolded still show how American mindsets have evolved.
Nor is this about my own view, or speculation about what motivates world leaders or the rebel fighters killing and dying on the streets of Damascus. My knowledge of those things comes from reading the exact same news stories you do. I’m writing about how ordinary people, just like me, have discussed America’s appropriate role in Iraq and later Syria, in the news, social media or casual conversations I’ve heard. In both situations — as in any international crisis — I find some opinions for military intervention compelling and others troubling. I find some opinions against it compelling, and again, others troubling.
And although Americans are coming to an opposite conclusion about military force this time — at least for now — the mix of principles called upon is similar to 2003, sometimes the same principles used both ways. There are beliefs that universal human rights are paramount, contrasting with beliefs that a government is betraying its own citizens considering anything beyond its national interests. There are beliefs that consistency should guide our actions, contrasting with beliefs that it’s more important to evaluate how they’ll play out in volatile circumstances. There are beliefs that every innocent life has equal value, contrasting with beliefs that our concern varies with a population’s culture, religion or citizenship. There are beliefs that we are the world’s model society and economic system, contrasting with beliefs that we make far too many assumptions about the rest of the world.
Often, I find myself in disagreement even with arguments leading to the same conclusion I’ve made. Sometimes my own principles contradict with each other — especially dealing with LGBT rights abroad.
I believe every life does matter as much as my own. I believe our responsibilities to one another do not change based on what side of a border we’re born on. That’s not something I can easily explain; it’s either a foundational part of your worldview or it isn’t. So when New Zealand passes a law for marriage equality, I openly cheer. And when a pair of young men are publicly executed for homosexuality in Iran, I do, like most LGBT Americans, silently cuss about whatever outrageous hubris, whatever repressive interpretation of religion, whatever political calculation, compelled a group of arrogant overlords to appoint themselves deciders that someone should die for harming nobody.
Yet I couldn’t condemn a society in a way that also condemns its members who are LGBT themselves, living underground lives that are much more common than prosecutions are, and sharing in the culture aside from its views on LGBT people. I couldn’t condemn it in a way that assumes it is homogenous. Here in the U.S., people are still victimized on the street for being gay or transgender. Is that less violent than a village government punishing lesbian sex with 15 lashes?
And I don’t believe that every community on Earth must look the way I think mine should. It’s easy enough saying nobody, anywhere, should die or be punished for being LGBT. But does every place need government-recognized marriage equality? Do I even call someone “a lesbian” if she has a completely different concept of what same-sex attraction means in her culture? She herself might consider the Western concept of LGBT life immoral, foreign to her own gender identity or way of loving, so maybe I should grant her that I don’t speak for her.
I find our overview of global LGBT rights fascinating, and I hope you do too. But take with a grain of salt that explicit government policies, or news reports passed through a translator, tell you everything you need to know about what people there experience, want or need.
That said — if an activist from way off in Iowa wants to swoop in to our state and help lead the push that delivers a pro-equality legislature, LGBT-competent healthcare policies and civil unions, I’m game.