Would Captain Kirk try to stop the raging civil war in Syria? Or would the Prime Directive prevent him from attempting to end the bloodshed?
In an essay earlier this month in Foreign Policy Magazine, John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, suggested that Kirk might not become involved. Arquilla's essay focuses how nations -- including the United States -- have traditionally been wary of becoming entangled in the affairs of other countries. He points to the Prime Directive as a model guideline that imposes a very high threshold before the Federation can intervene. "Maybe it's a good idea to hold on to the non-intervention principle," Arquilla writes. "After the debacles American foreign policy has suffered over the past decade, the notion of non-intervention offers important ethical and intellectual handholds for those who would urge caution upon their political and military leaders."
Arquilla may indeed be correct. After the debacles in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps the smart move would be to stay out of a conflict between a brutal dictatorship and an opposition movement that may end up being dominated by Islamic fundamentalists. Perhaps it is correct to say that a strict interpretation of the Prime Directive would bar interfering in Syria. But to say that James T. Kirk would have shied away from intervention is not correct.
Try to imagine this conversation:
Spock: Captain, we have completed a long-range scan of the Beta Syrianus system. It appears that that the third planet is engaged in a civil war. The populace is revolting against a brutal dictatorship that is using advanced weapons to kills tens of thousands of its own people.
Kirk: Not our problem, Spock.
Spock: Do I understand you correctly, sir? Innocent civilians are being slaughtered. The Enterprise will not intervene to save them?
Kirk: Mr. Spock, you are well aware that the Federation is already embroiled in the war on Afghanus Prime. The Federation economy is in the midst of a recession, our citizens are tired of war, and the Federation Council is in no mood to authorize another military intervention. These people will have to fend for themselves. Mr. Sulu, continue on to our next patrol destination. Warp Factor two.
Does this sound like the Captain Kirk you know?
It is true that the Prime Directive does lay out strict instructions for Starfleet personnel: "No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations." It is also true that Kirk violated it on a routine basis. In the class warfare allegory "The Cloud Minders," Kirk backed oppressed miners in their struggle against the Cloud City that exploited them. In "The Apple," he destroyed a god-computer ruled by a primitive tribe. In "A Taste of Armageddon," Kirk stops a centuries-old suicidal war between two planets.
In other episodes, he intervenes in response to previous interventions, such as the painfully absurd "Patterns of Force," where a Gestapo-garbed Kirk overthrows a Nazi regime that was inspired by a Federation scientist. Perhaps the best example is "A Private Little War," where he supplies guns to a peaceful people after the Klingons supplied their rivals with firearms. Indeed, a strict interpretation of the Prime Directive would have seen the captain of the Enterprise hauled before a Starfleet court-martial in half the episodes.
It is easy to attribute this to the demands of television. Original Star Trek was a collection of one-hour morality plays, usually with neat, happy endings that required Kirk to violate the Prime Directive if the plot were to be concluded by the time the credits rolled. But to blame Kirk's Prime Directive-busting merely on a scriptwriter's need to inject action isn't accurate. Original Trek combined Gene Roddenberry's humanistic values with the Jewish concept of tikkun olam -- the obligation to perfect the world. This is why Star Trek still resonates. The show was more than just exploring strange new worlds. It expressed faith in fundamental human decency, the belief that in the future, it will be just as natural for people to cooperate with and help one another as kill each other.
The Federation could be moralizing and patronizing at times, enough that one can't blame the irritation of the Klingon and Romulans with their holier-than-thou neighbors. Kirk was conceited and stubborn, with an impetuosity that frustrated Spock. But a fool he was not; the naive do not become starship captains. With the help of Spock's logic and McCoy's insight, Kirk would have recognized that there are fundamentalist elements in the Syrian opposition, and how if those elements achieved power, they would violate core Federation values such as freedom of speech and religion, and equality between sexes. Spock would have pointed out that the Vulcan concept of IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) would be as alien to the Salafists as pointed ears and green blood.
Yet Kirk was a man of action. If there was something wrong with the universe, his instinct was to fix it, even if he had to cheat as in the Kobayashi Maru incident. No-win situations were not acceptable. His solution might be unorthodox. Just as in the episode "A Piece of the Action," he might use the Enterprise's phasers to stun both sides in Syria to their senses (a solution many of us would prefer). But if Kirk had to support one side, I think he would support the Syrian opposition, on the chance that the revolution could be guided toward a more enlightened future (under the watchful eye of the benevolent Federation, of course), while the Assad regime is simply irredeemable. But he would do something, because the ethos of Star Trek is that is that to be human in the fullest potential of the word means to do more than mind your own business.
And therein lays the difference between his time and ours. Kirk believes in the possibility of happy outcomes. We don't. America today is a place that does not believe that any good can come from intervening in the affairs of others. We fear, with good reason, that we will become stuck in a quagmire, or will back the wrong side, or discover our leaders lied to us. We fear that sick feeling of error, of futility, of being hated and resented without understanding why. And therefore we are timid.
And thus we cheer a starship captain who is not.