The political philosopher/philosopher of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, often touched on the concept of "incommensurability" in his essays. What he meant, if I can loosely translate it, was that different peoples, different cultures, and even different groups within a given culture or civilization, can have differing fundamental principles that make agreement -- the Enlightenment/liberal ideal of everyone coming together and "agreeing to disagree," the Rodney King credo of "can't we all just get along? -- impossible. Not just difficult. Impossible. If you are a Shia and I am a Sunni, we cannot reach a rapprochement about Islam. If you are Arab and I am Jew, we cannot compromise on Palestine. Our world views are "incommensurable."
A version of this idea would be that some problems, some disagreements, some conflicts, are simply not solvable. Again, the Enlightenment/liberal view is that all problems are solvable. Gather data. Analyze. Make logical arguments. Convince the other side that you are right. Listen thoughtfully to opposing arguments. Yield when facts require it. Arrive at a just compromise. But what if certain positions are non-negotiable? What if disagreement is heresy, apostasy?
I have been thinking along these lines with regard to the Syrian debacle. We are told by the Obama Administration that we must "do something," by which one can only assume that what they mean is "do anything, so long as we can appear to be doing something." But what? Assad is a butcher and a tyrant, but he is no threat to America and, if memory serves, this administration's key foreign policy advisors, including Secretaries Clinton and Kerry, all have termed Assad a "reformer" within the past few years. Meanwhile, the "rebels" (those lovely 1960s Che Guevara-poster romantic beatniks) are, in this case, al-Qaeda affiliated Islamists who would turn Damascus (which should be a world-class cosmopolitan city) into a 7th century enclave of sharia. In sum, this is not a choice between good and evil, nor even between the evil and a lesser evil. There is no good choice to make.
And, of course, we have recent history to guide us. We backed the "rebels" in Egypt and got the Muslim Brotherhood, a coup, and chaos, with Coptic Christians in the middle. We backed the "rebels" in Libya and we got Benghazi. Why exactly should we trust the judgment of the Obama foreign policy team in Syria?
And what is the downside to doing nothing? Let the rebels degrade the Assad regime's military capabilities. That's in our national interest, and the interest of our ally, Israel. Meanwhile, let the Assad regime kill as many al Qaeda fighters as they can. That's also in our national interest. Harsh? Maybe. Machiavellian? Sure. We need more of that in foreign policy, not less.
It is an old wisdom that the physician should, first, do no harm. Humility and reticence are the best courses in Syria. This is a patient no operation can save.