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Hypocrisy and impossible commitments

February 2, 2012

Phil Arena has an excellent response to my previous gargantuan post about intervention in Syria. It’s well worth reading even if, like me, you are not great with rational choice modeling and things that look suspiciously like math. The gist of his argument is that when I said that making a credible commitment to R2P required intervening everywhere all the time, I was, quite obviously, wrongly overstating my case.

That is, if and only if the probability that the US would intervene in country x if the US was sincerely committed to R2P exceeds the probability that the US would intervene in country x if the US was engaged in “normal” politics, then intervention in x would increase the belief of a good Bayesian that the US is sincerely committed to R2P, and thereby decrease the likelihood of future atrocities (at least at the margins).

That tells us that the US need not intervene everywhere in order for R2P to have meaning, contrary to Dan’s claims.  But it also tells us that the US needs to be seriously worried about looking disingenuous if it expects to deter future atrocities, despite the dismissive attitude many proponents of R2P have expressed towards such concerns (I’m not citing anyone because I don’t want to pick on anyone, but I think we’ve all seen people brush the consistency criticism under the rug as though it were no big deal).

All it would take is one act that no one would ever expect the US to take if the US was engaged in “normal” politics to convince the world that the US has a sincere commitment to R2P (i.e., to get what is currently a large n to be replaced by a small n_ix).  Ceasing to prop up brutal dictators who just so happen to be vital to US economic and strategic interests would be a good way of doing that.  Far more so than intervening in Syria, which the US would probably be willing to do even if it had no real commitment to R2P.

Interventions do not, in fact, send strong signals of credible commitment to R2P. Although advocates of R2P often idolize the “pure intervention” (as Shadi Hamid did), in reality, neither the intervention in Libya nor a potential intervention in Syria are argued without reference to conventional geostrategic benefits to the United States. The notion of the enlightened self-interest or true self-interest always rears its head, and indeed towards the end of Hamid’s piece there was a geostrategic rationale for intervention on the basis of undermining Iran. Most other arguments for intervention in the United States similarly argue that the moral imperatives of R2P work in tandem with a wide variety of US interests in advancing regional, institutional, and global geopolitical agendas.

Even if the interventions do not serve these agendas, the effect of their altruism and ideological purity in convincing others that the United States will make decisions to intervene on the basis of the norm, rather than other moral and geopolitical considerations, is easily held hostage to the the views of others. No matter how obscure or insignificant the region of intervention, there will always be those convinced it was part of a grand geostrategic plan. Take the example of Kosovo in 1999. Noam Chomsky (who, even when he doesn’t engage in conspiracy theories, is certainly a bellwether for conspiracy theorists to follow) argued that, since the Kosovo intervention could not have really been about saving lives or preventing genocide (since there was the intervention to save East Timor? etc, etc), then it must have been about a plan by the Germans to block the Danube and protect their economies from being undercut by Balkan labor! Or it must have been to “enforce its domination over the strategic Balkans region” (are there any regions which far-left conspiracy theories would assume were strategically unimportant if the US invaded them?) – a region which the United States has since spent a decade almost completely ignoring because, in fact, policymakers believed it was pretty much irrelevant to US strategic interests, especially after 9/11. In other words, even if a military intervention serves no real strategic purpose, it is a poor way of convincing other countries you are not simply furthering your own agenda, particularly when all the other actions you undertake as a country will be in accordance with normal self-interested politics.

As Phil points out, this is an extremely inefficient way to convince people you have internalized an ideologically altruistic doctrine. The far more effective signal would be to take actions that are blatantly against our own self-interest but in the interest of the norm, such as making the bold but strategically foolhardy decision to risk our relationships with the Gulf monarchies* in order to reaffirm our commitment to protecting their people from state-sponsored oppression. Of course, most advocates of R2P understand that they, particularly when they are given influence over the crafting of policy, are living in the real world, and cannot wantonly put American interests at hazard in the service of a doctrine which, by their own acknowledgement, is not fully internalized in US policy. I have no doubt that many advocates of R2P would like to see dramatic changes in the nature of US relationships with repressive allies, but ultimately these are much harder sells to policymakers than interventions against regimes which neither our repressive allies, nor our more democratic allies, nor liberal interventionists’ counterparts on the right particularly like.

So the compromise solution to convincing the rest of the world of our militant altruism and internalization of R2P is to conduct intervention after intervention. Slaughter is wrong, then, when she argues that launching another intervention is our only option for demonstrating our commitment to the norm, but it is not hard to see why this seems like such an obvious choice. As she, Cook, and Hamid note, it is by no means obvious that Assad will simply fall under the pressure of limited, non-military punishments, and the disengagement or reworking of US relationships with repressive US allies is too politically costly to carry out. So, just launching another intervention seems like the most logical and politically plausible way to show continued US commitment to the doctrine.

R2P, as the grand foreign policy idea that Slaughter and many of its other most prominent advocates envision it – must be conducted either without hypocrisy – that is, without the continued US support and sanction of repressive regimes which serve US interests that Phil outlines – or with consistency – the continued intervention against repressive regimes that qualify for action under R2P – it is highly unlikely the positive effects on foreign regime behavior, or for US international order, that R2P promises, will come to pass. A conception of American foreign policy which is in tune with American vital interests cannot put its trust in a doctrine whose benefits to the United States appear only when it conducts actions in blatant contravention to its own interests to signal moral altruism, or else enables the worst distortions of American self-interest by conducting continual intervention. Ultimately, one wonders whether or not even the humanitarian interests of alleviating human suffering would be better served by a less grandiose idea than the Responsibility to Protect seems to seek.

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