Russell Kirk in Syria: Further considering what it means to be a conservative

A statesman ought to be prudent as prudence is the fourth conservative principle provided by Russell Kirk. This is an area in which Edmund Burke and Plato agree as well; both place prudence as the first among the equal virtues to be possessed by a statesman. Prudence is simply the recognition of the complexity of problems and the need to take a measured assessment before acting. This principle may seem foreign to our world of instant everything, but it is a virtue worth reclaiming.

Kirk comments that, “[s]udden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.” It is oftentimes impossible, and almost always difficult, to roll back the effect of an imprudent action whether it be committing troops to war or creating a new bureaucratic apparatus. But consequentialist reasoning is by no means a sufficient basis on which to build philosophy. And Kirk does not rest his argument on consequentialist grounds. Kirk posits that human society is complex and the human mind’s capacity is limited. Thus, the human capacity to resolve all issues sufficiently well is improbable and doing so quickly is impossible. Kirk’s endorsement of prudence is grounded in the reality of the human condition.

Progressives want change immediately as they feel that progress comes from within the human rather than in a commitment to a thing greater than self. Progressives put faith in man. Once man is given the capacity, as progressives proclaim they have, to control his environment for the better there are no restraints on his actions. This is what Nietzsche meant when he wrote, “God is dead.” Within Enlightenment philosophy individuals were given full agency which meant they had to defer to no higher authority beyond their own will. Progressives are committed to the human mind and the products thereof without recognizing the limits we as people have. Prudence recognizes natural limits and asks us to act accordingly. Prudence runs contrary to the principles of the Enlightenment.

As we look to the situation in Syria we can apply what Kirk puts before us. First, there is no immediate threat to the U.S., its citizens, or its allies if we do not intervene in the Syrian civil war. Second, there is plenty in the historical record to show that limited military engagements are rarely successful at accomplishing their goal and rarely remain limited once they are begun. The use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians is appalling and we are all moved by the images, but we should be prudent and not allow emotions to take over our judgment. Obama must plead his case before Congress and the American people before moving forward with military action given the amount of lives and treasure that could be lost with an involvement in Syria. Once we have committed ourselves, it could take years to settle the matter if not longer.

Furthermore, we must meet with the Israelis and give them time to consider the options given that any retaliation by the Syrian government not directed at its own people will be directed at our closest ally in the region, and maybe even the world. There is no need to be hasty in this situation. There is no urgency for American involvement given that there is no American interest under direct threat. We can take time to deliberate and thus act prudently.

To say that we can predict the outcome of our potential involvement is an act of hubris. To take action in Syria is to assume the Syrian people, and the world in general, will be better off if the U.S. involves itself in the civil war. There is no way to know the answer to this question but committing troops is a commitment to the idea that we do know the answer. We owe it to our citizens, our troops and our allies to act prudently in this and all other scenarios. It is what a conservative would do.


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