Save Us from the Liberal Hawks

Syria's a tragedy. But it's not our problem.

LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of (humanitarian) war. That, at least, is what much of the U.S. policy elite seems to be pushing for these days in Syria. That many of the "permahawks," like Fouad Ajami, Max Boot, and Elliott Abrams, who championed the George W. Bush administration’s decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein, are now calling for supporting the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship should come as no surprise to anyone. Nor should similar calls from most of the liberal writers and editors associated with the New Republic magazine come as a shock. They, too, have been remarkably consistent, and the magazine’s current symposium on what needs to be done next in Syria is eerily reminiscent of the one it ran the year after the invasion of Iraq, which tilted so lopsidedly toward justifying the war, though not the way the Bush administration was prosecuting it.

What is surprising, though, is that despite the disaster of Iraq, looming withdrawal in what will amount to defeat in Afghanistan, and, to put it charitably, the ambiguous result of the U.N.-sanctioned, NATO-led, and Qatari-financed intervention that brought down Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime, is how nearly complete the consensus for strong action has been even among less hawkish liberals, whether what is done takes the form of the United States and its NATO allies arming the Free Syrian Army, opening so-called humanitarian corridors, or encouraging Turkey and a coalition of the willing within the Arab League to do so. British columnist Jonathan Freedland summed up this view when he wrote recently in the Guardian that the West must not "make the people of Homs pay the price for the mistake we made in Baghdad."

In reality, though, liberal interventionists were never as shaken by the lessons of Iraq as was commonly supposed. Anyone doubting this need only look at the extraordinary mobilization for some sort of humanitarian and human rights-based intervention in Darfur in 2005 and 2006. This movement included a number of figures who now occupy important positions in Barack Obama’s administration, notably Susan Rice, now U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, and Samantha Power, now senior director for multilateral affairs at the National Security Council, and who are generally assumed to have played an important role (if not quite the central one sometimes attributed to them) in persuading Obama to intervene in Libya. Nothing is wrong with intervention, it seems (just as there is nothing wrong with drone strikes), just as long as it is done by good U.N.-loving, multilateralism-oriented Democrats from the coasts, rather than by ignorant, war-worshipping, vulgarly nationalistic Republicans from flyover country.

If anything, liberal interventionists now seem to feel they have the wind at their backs because of the acceptance by the United Nations of the so-called "responsibility to protect" (R2P) doctrine, which has been widely touted — including by many of the most important human rights organizations that are often at odds with U.S. government policy (notably Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and some of their most important funders, notably George Soros’s Open Society Foundations network) — as resolving many of the ethical and operational problems that accompanied previous iterations of humanitarian intervention. In the words of Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University, who, until last year, was head of policy planning at the U.S. State Department, "R2P is a foundation for increased peace and respect for human rights over the long term, [and] 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."

Like so many of the fundamental assumptions of the human rights movement, there is something quasi-religious about all this. Writing recently on this site, Gareth Evans, the former Australian foreign minister who is one of the principal intellectual and institutional architects of R2P, argued that over the past decade there is "universal agreement that state sovereignty is not a license to kill." He concedes that the Russian and Chinese veto of the Security Council’s Syria resolution demonstrates that "for every two steps forward on R2P there is usually a step back" — but Evans quickly dispenses with this caveat. He quotes U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, noting that henceforth the global debate will be about "how, not whether, to implement the responsibility to protect."

Welcome to the "End of History," human-rights style. Like Francis Fukuyama’s famous argument, there is simply no basis other than our hopes and our preferences to make us think that though the road toward this radiant future, to use the old Soviet expression, will be neither straight nor smooth, nevertheless it only goes one way, and that is in the direction of progress, peace, justice, and rights.

It is this religious quality to the support for R2P that helps account for the odd reaction among those who believe that something must be done to stop the Assad regime’s war against much of its own people despite the Russian and Chinese vetoes. Obviously, some of this is purely political posturing. But it is not only spin. The moral outrage, however misplaced, is real enough. In her contribution to the New Republic symposium, Suzanne Nossel — formerly Richard Holbrooke’s deputy when he was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, founder of, former chief operating officer of Human Rights Watch, and now executive director of the U.S. branch of Amnesty International — illustrated this faith-based ethical triumphalism perfectly when she insisted that though the Russian and Chinese vetoes of the Security Council resolution had been "a sharp political defeat," it had also represented a "potent moral victory" and a "tectonic shift" in the advancement of a global human rights regime whose victory is now inevitable, no matter what kind of sovereigntist rear-guard actions the Russians and Chinese may continue to mount.

The implication is clear. Three years after the adoption of R2P by the U.N. General Assembly and more than a year after the beginning of the Arab Spring, not only is the Assad regime on the wrong side of history, but the Russians and Chinese are as well. In her New Republic piece, Nossel even goes so far as to imply that the Russians and the Chinese know this themselves. They cast their votes out of fear of this human rights-based future, she writes, claiming that the "bell of international condemnation and isolation tolling now for Damascus sounds an uneasy note in Beijing and Moscow." Even by the hubristic standards of the human rights movement, these are extraordinary claims. One doubts, however, that they will cause either Vladimir Putin or Hu Jintao to quake in his boots as this owl of Minerva flies by, presumably with a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights held in its beak.

Beneath all the incantatory bluster, however, a certain nervousness shows through. To judge by the fevered, angry response of U.S., French, and British officials, it seems as if they genuinely believed the Russians and Chinese would be obliged to truckle before the historic inevitability of the human rights revolution. How else to account for the spectacle of Ambassador Rice storming out of the Security Council chamber in fine, old, Khrushchev-era Soviet style once the vetoes had been cast, or her declaration shortly after that Russia and China had held the council "hostage" (one can only wonder how long until those words are thrown back at her the next time the United States vetoes a Security Council resolution on Israel-Palestine, as it has so often in the past).

Safely out of government, Slaughter was able to go further, demanding that the United States and its allies do something to bring the carnage in Syria to an end. Otherwise, she wrote, R2P would be exposed as a "convenient fiction for power politics or oil politics." So convinced is she of the positive value of the responsibility to protect as a force for peace and international security that she seems perfectly willing to envisage an end run around that pesky Security Council veto the Russians and the Chinese had the gall to invoke. To be legitimate, she writes, all that would be required from the United Nations would be the "authorization of a majority of the members of the [Security Council]," as an exercise of R2P, "with clear limits to how and against whom force could be used built into the resolution." Like the iconic U.S. officer in Vietnam who told a reporter that his troops had been obliged to burn the village in order to save it, Slaughter seems to be willing to undermine the structural foundations of international order, which, for better or worse, is based in large measure on the Security Council, in order to further it. Peace is war; war is peace. George Orwell, call your office.

Meanwhile, despite the astonishing propaganda barrage in the media (for once, CNN, the BBC, and Al Jazeera were all on the same page!) that for all intents and purposes endorsed the claims about dead and wounded made by the anti-Assad insurgents (the disclaimers tended to come at paragraph three or four of a print piece, or the tail end of a video segment), the reality on the ground in Syria was far more complicated. A McClatchy news story quoted U.S. government sources as confirming that the recent attack against a Syrian government building in Aleppo had probably been the work of al Qaeda, thus confirming at least to some extent the claims the Assad regime has made about the role of jihadists in the rebellion. Qaddafi made the same claim; it was dismissed at the time, but now appears to have had at least some foundation. In the Syrian case, though, there is no need to trust either Assad or anonymous sources in the U.S. intelligence world, because al Qaeda’s support for the uprising has been confirmed publicly by Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who, in a recent video, praised the "lions of Syria" for their rebellion. And even if al Qaeda’s role is overstated, the degree to which what is going on today in Syria pits Sunnis against Assad’s Alawite base was underscored by the early January testimony to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee by Israeli army chief of staff Benny Gantz, who said the Israel Defense Forces was already making contingency plans to cope with the thousands of Alawites likely to try to flee to Israel should Assad be driven from power.

These nightmare scenarios are anything but far-fetched. What is taking place in Syria may have begun in part as a democratic insurrection, but it has become a low-level (at least for the moment) interconfessional civil war. The last time we got involved in one of those was in Iraq, whose principal legacies, however unintended, are almost certain to be increasing Iranian power and influence — and setting the stage for the disappearance of Christianity in one of its most ancient homelands. There is simply no reason to believe that things in Syria will turn out any better and at least some reason to assume that the result will be even worse. But in the brave new world of R2P, this does not seem to matter very much to a born-again liberal interventionism eager to flex its muscles.

During the Bush administration, Democrats often boasted that — unlike the president and his aides, who were consumed by millenarian dreams of remaking the Middle East in the image of American democracy — they were part of the "reality-based community." In fact, the neoconservatives were paragons of modesty compared with the liberal interventionists and R2P supporters who saw in Libya and now see in Syria the chance to move one step closer to remaking the world in the image of the human rights movement. Infatuated by their own good intentions — and persuaded that their interventionist views incarnate a higher morality — those who view Libya as a triumph and Syria as an opportunity to cement the practice of humanitarian intervention are in full crusading mode. If the looming victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the failure of the democratic project in Iraq, and the fact that the most significant political outcomes of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya have been instability and the victory of political Islam have not chastened them — and clearly they haven’t — nothing will. Welcome to the second decade in a row of humanitarian war.

David Rieff is the author, most recently, of "In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies." Twitter: @davidrieff

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