I echo the first line of the world’s most famous soliloquy—“To be, or not to be, that is the question—as a way to talk about Hamlet and the challenge which he faces in the play with the ominous title The Tragedy of Hamlet. At this point, his question is one not of existence or suicide, but of honor: to suffer minor disgraces or to oppose major troubles. It is an absurd and biased way to frame the question in his situation, and it is remote from the far more important question which prompts his nevertheless dilatory action: is the ghost telling the truth?
Hamlet goes to a great deal of trouble to confirm that the ghost, claiming to be from Purgatory and presumably representing his slain father, has indeed reported truly that his uncle, Claudius, did, in fact, poison his father. On the basis of that truth, Hamlet takes the ghost’s advice to avenge his father’s death. Which is the tragedy. For Hamlet, a student at Wittenberg, a then-Protestant university, should know at least one thing about Purgatory, one thing about visitors from Purgatory, and one thing about taking their advice. Protestants no longer accepted the existence of Purgatory. Visitors from Purgatory seek prayers and indulgences to help them purify themselves of sin so as to hasten their ascent to Heaven. They do not return to counsel revenge, which is contrary to Christian doctrine, for vengeance, as was well known, is the Lord’s. Advice of such a sort Hamlet should have known was offered by a spirit, not from Purgatory, but from Hell, seeking Hamlet’s damnation.
The tragedy of Hamlet is that he accepted, and then obsessed about, the truth of a situation involving, variously, regicide, fratricide, adultery, and incest as warrant for accepting the injunction to act punitively, when he should have known better.
Readers, I know that you are already ahead of me in the application of this analysis of Shakespeare’s play to the situation in which President Obama finds himself. He has his principles, and he has declared a “red line” about the use of chemical weapons. He is right to do so, he is right that international treaties and international norms prohibit their use, and he is right that something must be done about their use. For the sake of argument, I shall grant that he may have incontrovertible evidence that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has ordered the use of Sarin against civilians in his country. In Obama’s mind, the truth of the claim is a warrant for a punitive attack on military targets in Syria.
The truth is no such warrant. That something must be done does not imply military action. Doing something might include doing nothing, grousing and blustering, fasting and prayer, providing humanitarian assistance, boycotting and embargoing, denying visas to government or military officials and members of their families, cyber attacks on military targets, arming rebels—the list is long, but it is short on direct military action.
Yet President Obama has declared that, as a matter of policy, the United States, alone or together with others (right now, only the French, who may still have scores to settle from colonial days) should undertake some punitive military action to send a message to Assad that he behaved very badly by using chemical weapons—as if he does not know so.
The policy is easily tested by a thought experiment. There is no trick to testing a policy, which is no more than a prescription for action in a set of circumstances. Test it by imagining its application in circumstances other but similar circumstances to those which prompted it. So, instead of sending a message to the Syrian government by launching a small, short military attack on it for using chemical weapons on its people, consider whether the United States would act in a similar manner in similar circumstances in other countries.
Suppose we imagine the use of chemical weapons against disaffected Muslim groups in northwest provinces of The People’s Republic of China. According to this policy, the United States would urge other countries to join it in launching a small, short military attack on China to send it a message of disapproval for using chemical weapons on its people.
The question is: would Americans think that such an attack on China would be an appropriate and sensible response? Some would. John McCain and Lindsey Graham would likely think that the United States, having announced a policy, must implement it in even the most extreme cases or risk losing credibility or respect or something else said to be important to national security. Most would not. For I am quite sure that they would not wish to consider the question to be, or not to be!
In World War II, a poster warned that “loose lips sink ships.” Today, we need a poster that warns us that Obama’s loose lips run the risk of sinking the ship of state. Now that he has involved Congress—the high-minded one has promised that he will not act on executive authority alone: good. He should hope that it will not authorize a military attack. If it does authorize an attack, the attack will open up a Pandora’s box of unforeseen and dangerous consequences, and Obama will be blamed despite his attempt to shift or share responsibility. If it does not authorize an attack, Obama’s inability to lead in this instance, though good for the rest of us, will be deleterious to his ability, such as it has not been, to lead in other foreign and all domestic areas.
What is going on in the United States? First, Bush persuades us to launch a pre-emptive attack against a nation neither warring nor threatening war against us. Now, Obama tries to persuade us to launch a punitive attack against a nation entirely at war with itself within its borders. Are we so insecure that we have to flex our military muscle on any pretext at all? Do we think ourselves so “exceptional,” so morally superior to other nations, that we can act as we please without, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Do we need to justify military budgets which equal the aggregate defense budgets in the world? If the answer to any such question is “yes,” we have better be careful.
The story is told that Croesus, a powerful Greek king, wished to attack Cyrus the Great of Persia, a powerful country, but he first wisely sought the advice of the Delphi oracle. In its typically cryptic fashion, the oracle declared that, if Croesus invaded Persia, he would destroy a mighty empire. And when he did, he did—his own, for he was defeated.