Syria and Irresponsible Protection
The ongoing massacre of protesters and rebels within Syria by the Assad regime has, naturally, produced an increasing drumbeat of calls for intervention – or at least the contemplation of intervention – to intervene. Three very prominent foreign policy scholars: Steven Cook, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Shadi Hamid, have all penned pieces calling for Western powers to put the option of military intervention onto the table. Although in the past many proponents of Responsibility to Protect, humanitarian intervention, and intervention in Libya (three groups with significant overlap but which were and are by no means identical) insisted that consistency was not necessary for their respective foreign policy visions to be credible or coherent, it seems the utter failure of the Libyan intervention to deter other states from ruthlessly oppressing their own people has caused some reconsideration of this stance.
If the Arab League, the U.S., the European Union, Turkey, and the UN Secretary General spend a year wringing their hands as the death toll continues to mount, the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine will be exposed as a convenient fiction for power politics or oil politics, feeding precisely the cynicism and conspiracy theories in the Middle East and elsewhere that the U.S. spends its public diplomacy budget and countless diplomatic hours trying to debunk.
This was probably something advocates should have considered before launching an intervention that the administration insisted was not simply in the cosmopolitan interest of humanity, but the interests of the United States. If the US is launching interventions to debunk conspiracy theories, why should we be so confident a Syrian intervention would dispel them? Let me red team as a conspiratorial geopolitical commentator: Would not the US intervention in Syria just be a cynical ploy to deny Iran an ally in the lead up to a US or Israeli strike on the country? Or an attempt to weaken Russian influence in the Eastern Mediterranean to secure Israeli control of oil and gas fields and trade routes? Or another attempt to distract the Arab world from the behavior of America’s Gulf monarch clients? If the US is so committed to R2P, why doesn’t it do more to Bahrain or Saudi Arabia instead of signing arms deals with them?
You can see where this is going. A foreign policy whose goal is to make the conspiratorial minded trust the United States is a Sisyphean task if I ever saw one.
If you believe, as I do, that R2P is a foundation for increased peace and respect for human rights over the long term, that each time it is invoked successfully to authorize the prevention of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave and systematic war crimes, and ethnic cleansing as much as the protection of civilians from such atrocities once they are occurring, it becomes a stronger deterrent against the commission of those acts in the first place.
The very fact that we are now contemplating an intervention in Syria, after our intervention in Libya was supposed to deter tyrants from massacring their people should make you extremely skeptical of this argument. NATO intervention failed to deter non-Libyan tyrants and an intervention in Syria will not deter non-Syrian tyrants. There is no reason to think, knowing that our intervention in Libya was followed by increases in the degree of Syria’s repressive brutality, that other countries would follow suit. Precedent is only a deterrent if the power and will of a country to enforce that precedent at all places and times remains constant. Given that everybody knows the resources and willpower of countries supporting R2P are finite, countries will generally (and correctly) bet that repressing a local effort at regime change is a more reasonable policy than succumbing to a revolution for fear of being deposed.
Avoiding this, Slaughter lists a number of cases where hypothetically, the deterrence of internal crimes would have stabilized a region and prevented future crimes:
Governments’ systematic abuse of their own citizens have either caused or presaged countless conflicts around the world: the crimes against humanity perpetrated against the Jews and other minorities by the Nazi government before World War II; Saddam Hussein’s systematic war crimes in his war with Iran in the 1980s before his invasion of Kuwait in 1991; the Rwandan genocide leading to 15 years of conflict in the Congo; the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans before and during the war in Bosnia, Croatia, and ultimately Kosovo; and countless cases of such behavior triggering civil war and ethnic conflict that create massive refugee flows and destabilization across entire regions. Deterrence and prevention of crimes of this magnitude is thus a force for peace.
The notion that a military intervention during the mid-1930s would have somehow made World War II easier is plainly wrong. For one thing, the notion that the Western allies had the military capability to make Hitler behave as a good democrat or to overthrow the Nazi Party is extremely questionable. I have discussed this proposition at length elsewhere, and it remains just as incorrect. Without the Soviet Union, intervening against Hitler was an untenable proposition, and indeed the threat of the Soviet Union – then a more recent aggressor against Poland and more pressing foe against other former Russian dominions than Germany – would likely have prevented the expansion of such an early war into a real two-front conflict. Furthermore, it should be quite clear that German external aggression was a necessary precursor to the mobilization of political will to pursue a war against Germany with enough vigor to change its internal behavior and remove the Nazi regime. A war launched voluntarily at an early stage would be met with significant domestic opposition that could even result in isolationist, anti-war or even German sympathizers taking power in the next round of elections.
There was no credible way for Western powers to prevent Saddam’s war crimes during Iran, save unseating his regime in the process. Iran was willing to sacrifice enormous numbers of men to overthrow the Iraqi regime and failed, and the enormous conventional military force mustered to expel Saddam from Kuwait in 1991 and overthrow his vastly weakened regime in 2003 would hardly have been forthcoming in the 1980s. Nor is it clear why removing the prime bulwark against Iranian influence at the height of Iran’s revisionist, expansionist ambitions would have served American interests. A war to overthrow Saddam in the 1980s would almost certainly have been a bloodier affair, and done no more to advance American interests than it later did in 2003.
While the Rwandan genocide was the proximate cause of the Congolese civil war, it is hard to say with certainty that an intervention during the genocide would have prevented the destabilization which turned a bevy of already dangerous political rivalries into outright warfare. After all, one of the main reasons that the overflow from the genocide destabilized the region was precisely because regime change led to large numbers of Hutu militants and Hutu refugees fearing reprisal attacks wanted refuge from the new government in Kigali. How would an intervention to overthrow the Hutu government in Kigali earlier have prevented these groups from fleeing the border – indeed, would they not require precisely the internationalization of the conflict that the new RPF government began? I am fairly confident that in Rwanda – more than any of the other cases mentioned – foreign intervention could have reduced the toll of the genocide, what I am not confident of is that none of the negative second and third order effects which occurred when the RPF took power would not have taken place had it been put in place earlier, and by foreign bayonet – and nor should, extending the analogy, we be so sure that Western intervention would not destabilize neighboring countries by sending, say, pro-Assad forces to take refuge with Hezbollah or other in peripheral areas of Syria.
As for the Balkans, it is hard to say that earlier NATO intervention would have obviated the necessity of Croatia’s Operation Storm, which, to put it frankly, was a more internationally tolerable instance of military-led ethnic cleansing. That Serbia continued to suppress ethnic separatism and oppose US will during Kosovo also points out that even military intervention against a regime does not deter it from future oppressive behavior, and belies the notion that a limited war can effect lasting change to a regime’s behavior when it believes national survival is at stake.
Equally important is the age-old strategic need for credibility. If the U.S. says it stands behind R2P but then does nothing in a case where it applies, not only will dictators around the world draw their own conclusions, but belief in the U.S. commitment to other international norms and obligations also weakens, just at a time when the U.S. grand strategy is to expand and strengthen an effective international order. The credibility of the U.S. commitment to its own proclaimed values will also take yet another critical hit with every young person in the Middle East fighting for liberty, democracy, and justice.
Credibility is one of the most abused terms in the foreign affairs lexicon. Dictators around the world already do not treat R2P credibly because they know the US has finite resources and willpower. Indeed, committing to interventions for the sake of credibility more often weakens it, since stretching those resources and straining American political will further simply reduces its ability to intervene. Slaughter notes that espousing R2P but failing to actually weaken American commitment to other norms. Yet each intervention appears to require that the US continue intervening, lest it squander the credibility it has supposedly accumulated with prior interventions, or make other countries worry that it is inconsistent in its approach. Slaughter then notes that if this core pillar of the US agenda for building international order crumbles, so too with the rest of the evidence.
I am actually inclined to agree here – and that is precisely why the United States should drop even lip service to the Responsibility to Protect. Honestly stayed, the doctrine requires intervention after intervention, and its strategic advantage to the United States relies on consistency, because without consistency the supposed normative benefits it creates quickly evaporates. Yet R2P, far from strengthening the international order, actually demands continually more resources and, each time it is employed or contemplated, calls into question the rest of the international order the United States promulgates. If the goal is to “expand and strengthen an effective international order,” why would increasing the visibility of Responsibility to Protect, a doctrine that divides the United States and Western Europe from Central Europe, the rising democracies of Brazil, South Africa, and India – not to mention, of course, the major powers China and Russia and exhausts an already overburdened and shrinking Western military capability? Further, what good is launching an intervention to make our commitment to liberty and democracy credible to Middle Easterners when, at any moment, a reassertion of US national interests, a reluctance to intervene where they may feel R2P is necessary, and of course, the continued support of the Arab monarchies and Israel, could challenge that credibility regardless of how well the intervention in Syria goes? Risking American lives for the sake of securing a more favorable position in the fickle consciousness of foreign citizens is simply not an acceptable rationale for war.
If one is worried about the credibility of one’s commitments, one should make fewer and smarter commitments. R2P demands precisely the opposite – each commitment can only be secured through taking up more and greater commitments. All the goodwill we supposedly built up and the credibility we supposedly gained, the illusory deterrence of the regimes we supposedly achieved in Libya evaporates if we do not throw the dice in a riskier and more dangerous gambit in Syria.
And in many ways it is as if Libya never happened, for there is an assumption that this time, the intervention really would be limited, and it really will not be about regime change. Slaughter writes:
Third, the actual intervention proposed would in fact have to be limited to protection of civilians through buffer zones and humanitarian cordons around specific cities, perhaps accompanied by airstrikes against Syrian army tanks moving against those cities. It could not, as in Libya, take the form of active help to the opposition in their effort to topple the government. Instead, the Arab League should work with the opposition and members of the business community and the army within Syria to craft a political transition plan that would create some kind of unity government and a timetable for elections.
Or as an Arab League official put it:
You can say it in a different way: To keep the forces of the regime from attacking [population centers of opposition-friendly civilians] and inflicting a lot of casualties. This operation is to prevent this from happening, not vice versa. It is not to give the rebels support. It is not a question of supporting a regime, a government or a council. It is to save the situation from further, bloody deterioration.
The critics who saw through this hollow charade in March 2011 when it was said about Libya would likely be proven right again in Syria. If ground forces cannot defend a territory, it is highly unlikely air forces alone could protect these opposition areas from being besieged or wiped out. If anything, Syria would be a far more difficult country to maintain such safe zones in than Libya, since Libya was a far larger country with, in the east, large distances between major population centers, and fewer potential routes for the flanking of ground forces. Additionally, the Syrian military is far more competent than Gaddafis in the art of actual combat operations, and Syria’s relatively compact geography would permit safe havens far less breathing room than Benghazi was able to achieve. Are Turkish land forces prepared to defend these safe areas against Syrian assault if the FSA crack under the pressure of battle nearby? Is the Turkish government really interested in undertaking such a burden?
Fourth, the intervention would have to receive the authorization of a majority of the members of the UN Security Council — Russia, actively arming Assad, will probably never go along, no matter how necessary — as an exercise of the responsibility to protect doctrine, with clear limits to how and against whom force could be used built into the resolution.
This is the most dangerous and self-contradictory part of the argument by proponents of R2P and intervention in Syria. Let me put it bluntly: if Russia vetoes a resolution to use force in the United Nations Security Council, and this dissuades the international community from intervening, then the United Nations Security Council has served its purpose. The original and, I think, primary purpose of the United Nations Security Council is not to promote Responsibility to Protect. It is not to ratify, against the will of recalcitrant great powers, the principles of liberal government. It is not to override the foreign policies of the five permanent members. It is to secure peace and reduce tensions among the great powers. It was founded in the wake of World War II with the intention of preventing World War III. That it is capable of sometimes performing these other functions is a luxury, not a necessity.
Hayes Brown had an excellent post on the enormous problems with the notion of circumventing a Russian veto recently:
No matter the context, I had trouble with this when she first published the article, and I’m having even more issues with it now. The backbone of Professor Slaughter’s argument, and that of other interventionists, is that action in Syria is required to support the developing norms of the international community, namely the Responsibility to Protect. The problem with this is that in promoting the advancement of this norm, it would seem that going around codified international law would be required to do so. I am most certainly not an international law expert, but it would seem to me that codified laws take precedence over norms, particularly when a great deal of weight has traditionally applied to the approval of the United Nations Security Council to take action.
Putting R2P above the mitigation of great power tensions is destroying the foundations of international law in the futile hope that pursuing one of its least popular and most controversial and divisive outgrowths will somehow compensate for undercutting its basic principles. Much of the rest of the world supports international governance in spite of R2P, not because of it. The United Nations and the United States would lose far more credibility for allowing interventionists to undercut the spirit of international governance and international law itself than it would for pursuing a doctrine that most rising powers, democratic and authoritarian alike, care little for or abhor. On the other hand, a great many countries, especially the rising powers, care deeply about preserving principles of sovereignty and non-intervention, the restraint of wanton exercise of Western power, and the preservation of great power peace. Brown continues:
It’s my opinion that if you’re going to say that the rules are bad and unfair, you should at least be consistent with it. The UN Security Council can’t be the end decision point in the use of force only in times where you agree with all 15 members’ views. Come out for a change of the rules governing the body wholesale, instead of claiming they can be circumvented in certain situations. There may well be a moral argument for intervening in Syria, but the idea that it’s any more legal to defy the Council in one situation or another doesn’t hold water. Either the UNSC is the final arbiter of international peace and security or it isn’t. And if it is, then the principles on which it was founded, as anachronistic as they may be in the 21st century are still worthy of consideration.
There is that devilish consistency again. I am far more of a skeptic of the virtues and necessity of international law, particularly as it currently stands, than Brown is. If the goal of the United States and its shambolic current National Security Strategy is to strengthen the international rule of law, then it must seek to create and uphold a norm of actually following international rules and laws. Undercutting the most broadly agreed on rules, laws, and norms to enforce the rules, laws, and norms that are the most controversial is a recipe for undermining the international order, or at the very least the American place within it, not strengthening either. For all the exhortations for the United States to be consistent in its upholding of R2P earlier in Slaughter’s piece, the far more vital consistency needed for an international rules-based order to persist is completely ignored in a brief section which asserts that following the most core rules of the United Nations is basically optional. Ultimately, Russia and China have far more fundamental vetoes to international behavior they believe threatens their national interest: war. While neither would likely exercise it over Syria (though we should remember that in the case of Kosovo, we came far closer than anybody should be comfortable with), American policymakers should be extremely wary about aggravating great power tensions for the sake of the internal governance of minor states. Increasing enmity, pressure, and outright warfare against the recalcitrant authoritarians of the world will only make rising powers more suspicious of Western motives, and draw those minor recalcitrant states into closer orbit with anti-Western rising powers. Some writers speak of a coming struggle between democratic and authoritarian powers, nothing would be a greater error than making such power-blocs real, for it would increase the risk of major war, stymie the many advantages Washington could achieve through exploiting cleavages and achieving a modus vivendi with foreign authoritarians and rising powers, and exhaust a Western world which sorely cannot afford to take on another global ideological struggle.
Steven Cook, in his piece, is absolutely correct to note that Assad may have more staying power than many apologists for inaction are willing to acknowledge. The continued existence of Bashar Assad and the killings of thousands of Syrians are all results that Western policymakers should accept for avoiding another optional war. Cook also suggests that Syria could aid US attempts to isolate Iran – something which, as I mentioned earlier in this post, completely obviates the claim that the rest of the world would somehow perceive an intervention in Syria as a purely altruistic act bereft of ulterior geopolitical motives. In any case, at a time when international tensions against Iran are already quite high, and a number of Iran’s Gulf rivals (and America’s allies in containing Iran) are acutely concerned about their own populations actual or potential unrest, is backing Iran into a corner by overthrowing one of its few regional partners truly a prudent idea? Would the United States be prepared to deal with Iranian counter moves, possibly involving the deployment of the IRGC to Syria to try and bleed American forces as it did in Iraq and still does, to a much lesser extent, in Afghanistan? Would it not use Syria as an opportunity, as it did in Lebanon during the US intervention there, to kill Americans and American allies? Cynically speaking, if the real concern is managing Iran, the better option would be to turn Syria into a sinkhole for its resources, its soldiers, its willpower – not ours.
Shadi Hamid again makes the argument that the United States must set a precedent. But who are we setting the precedent for? Certainly, as I explained above, it is not going to set a precedent that dissuades regimes from oppressing their own people to ensure their own survival. Faced with choices between actions that have an uncertain possibility of resulting in regime change from external forces, or actions that will almost certainly result in domestically led regime changes, it is entirely logical, regardless of past precedent, to take less risky option of seeking a fait accompli by simply devastating the opposition quickly and hopefully finishing the job before anyone else decides to interfere (These were rules that Assad’s father understood quite well, as Martin van Creveld pointed out). But Hamid wants to set a precedent internally, one that compels Western states to intervene regardless of whether or not the continued cries of foreigners for internal support exceeds the ability of the West to undertake the intervention. Hamid offers the Libya intervention what strikes me as perverse praise:
But where there is sin there is also atonement. What made Libya a “pure” intervention was that we acted not because our vital interests were threatened but in spite of the fact that they were not. For me, this was yet one more reason to laud it. Libya provided us an opportunity to begin the difficult work of re-orienting U.S. foreign policy, to align ourselves, finally, with our own ideals.
Do American ideals really privilege risking the lives of American men and women in uniform for the sake of a conflict in which its proponents joyfully exert we have nothing vital at stake? American ideals are just that – ideals. Adam Elkus correctly noted that, as elected officials whose legitimacy comes not from foreign public opinion, not from the United Nations, not from the liberties or depredations of people abroad, but from the American people, there is no higher duty of the American government than to uphold the safety and liberties of its own:
John Quincy Adams said: “[America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” This is commonly interpreted as isolationist, but there is a deeper meaning inherent in this statement: when it really comes down to the wire, you are the only one that can guarantee your own right to freedom, safety, and prosperity. Adams was not advocating that the United States refrain from engaging the world, but that the government remember while doing so that it serves American citizens rather than foreigners.
I would hope America cherishes this ideal far more than the “purity” of an intervention which does nothing to advance our vital interests. As for Hamid’s remark that America ought to “atone” for its past sins, I would argue there really is no better kind of argument than this one to pejoratively describe as a crusade. Not only does Hamid entreaty America and other sinful countries to launch an international endeavor, he argues, as the Church did then, that in undertaking this violence, all its past wrongs will be forgiven, and so to would any new ones the prosecution of such a war would likely entail. Intervening for the sake of foreign goodwill, for consistency in international norms, for the absolution of sins – and in this sense the entirely optional Syrian intervention would be doubly an indulgence – all of these reasons, it seems, take precedence before any concrete and vital American interests. This is all the more interesting, because while many interventionists see no problem in arguing that American lives should be put at hazard for the sake of foreign publics, there is sometimes a sense of queasiness or reluctance about those same publics taking up arms themselves.
Slaughter, in her piece, quoted a reporter describing the decision of rebels to fight:
“Activists, however, say that armed rebellion is being fueled by the lack of action from the international community, which has made them realize they have no choice but to take up arms and fight this battle alone.”
Naturally. The purpose of the United States military, or NATO for that matter, is not to give violent force to non-violent interventions. If the United States or any other Western-aligned power intervenes in Syria, it will be a civil war, not civil disobedience with foreign air support. Libya was ultimately only won because the rebel forces were able to mount a semi-coherent, loosely united front against Gaddafi and outfight him on the ground. Otherwise the war would have remained – as it did for weeks – as a military stalemate. The prospect of such a stalemate in Syria would be even more likely if the international community genuinely was only interested in securing safe zones rather than toppling the regime. But of course, Hamid notes, the rebels want American involvement:
For me, Syria is part of this bigger debate; what role does the United States seek for itself in a rapidly changing world, a world in which activists and rebels still long for an America that will recognize the struggle and come to the aid of their revolutions? The rising democracies of Brazil and India cannot offer this. Russia and China certainly cannot.
The United States certainly should not be seeking a foreign policy courting foreign sentiments rather than its own interests as guarantors of American security. Anyone who needs to disabuse themselves of the flighty idea that helping a people in revolt will secure their longstanding and valuable affection ought examine America’s own history more closely. France, after choosing to intervene in the American Revolution (after wisely waiting until the rebels proved their military credibility at Saratoga), found itself by 1798 at the receiving end of a Congressional authorization of military force against its naval vessels in an ongoing dispute with now-revolutionary France (even though, in theory, America should have liked this new, more ideologically correct France even better than the monarchical France which aided it!). American interests, not nostalgia for French help, guided US foreign policy, and France’s support of the American revolution was in fact an economically and geopolitically poorly-informed decision in an ultimately fruitless attempt to isolate its main rival, Britain.
This is something important to keep in mind as Hamid goes onto argue that today’s debt-ridden power ought wage a military intervention to isolate a rival. I’ll try not to lengthen an already gargantuan post further with repetitions of my claims about the dangers of using Syria as a cudgel against Iran, but this struck me as rather interesting:
A democratic Syria, meanwhile, would likely be more in line with U.S. interests. In a free election, a reconstituted Syrian Muslim Brotherhood would stand a good chance of winning a plurality of seats. As I’ve written previously, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has had the distinction of being one of the region’s fiercest opponents of Iranian hegemony.
It is all well and good that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is anti-Iranian, and at least Hamid is willing to acknowledge, unlike some advocates of intervention, that the most Westernized and liberal opposition elements are not going to dominate politics in recently overturned Arab autocracies. Yet it is incredibly reductive to justify any kind of governmental change on the basis that it would hurt Iran, as if the United States has, not just no interest in trying to reduce tensions with Iran (isolated countries such as Israel, Iran, and North Korea have more to gain from nuclear arms, not less), but also as if America has no other regional interests besides backing the Iranians into a corner. At the very least, the empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood would likely be a setback for American counterterrorism interests, and given the ideological composition of the Muslim Brotherhood, like the revolutionary-era Americans, there is no guarantee they would stay too grateful to the United States for too long.
It should be needless to say that a US military intervention in Syria would be much more directly costly than one in Libya. Syria has a military which will require much more international firepower to bring down. Unlike Libya, Syria has powerful friends – Iran and Russia. Syria also has irregular partners such as Hezbollah and would likely also enjoy the aid of the IRGC’s vast proxy network throughout the region. The fractured opposition and potential sectarian divides would likely make Libya’s troubles with creating a viable rebel force and post-war government look extremely easy in comparison. Foreign military intervention would likely ratchet, as it did in Libya, into regime change, and the splintering of Syria could help bring about an internationalized conflict or broader regional instability anyway. At a time when America needs to be retrenching its commitments, keeping great power relations stable, and crafting a military and foreign policy fit for an era of reduced resources and flexibility, launching an intervention in Syria in the hopes of winning – again, because Libya was not enough – the respect and favor of Arab public opinion and trying to set some kind of precedent of future intervention is an imprudent and dangerous move. In a time of diminished resources, willpower, and options, America has a duty to its own interests, not a responsibility to intervene in the internal affairs of other states – even incredibly brutal, repugnant ones. It should not chain itself to a doctrine, that for the sake of precedent, consistency, and a self-defeating conception of international order, demands the US wage or threaten war again and again for little direct gain – and possibly even direct harm – to itself.