Foreign Policy

Syria: Threat or Menace?


Brendan O'Neill (a frequent Reason contributor) with a scabrous take on calls for Syrian intervention:

Failed Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff recently made waves with an op-ed in the Financial Times calling for Western intervention in Syria. Revisiting some of the themes of his 1990s writings (Ignatieff made a living championing 'humanitarian interventionism' before he led Canada's Liberal Party to its worst electoral defeat ever), Igantieff said the West should impose a 'comprehensive quarantine of Syria' in order to 'force [Assad] from power'.

Yet the most startling thing about his piece was not its extreme short-term historical amnesia, its ignorance of the disasters unleashed in Iraq and Afghanistan following Western meddling, but rather its exhibition of self-regard and self-concern, even of that most malignant form of self-love: narcissism. Ignatieff mentioned his own feelings about what is happening in Homs six times and the possible feelings of the people of Homs themselves only three times….This kind of narcissism is now widespread among those who desperately want the 'international community' to intervene in Syria. These people are so amazingly vain that they see the bombing of Syria as a kind of balm for their guilt-ridden consciences, a physical act that might help to make their own emotional turmoil that bit more bearable. Their rallying cry should be: 'Bomb Syria so that I can sleep at night.'

The criticism of the intervene-in-Syria lobby has tended to focus on its inability or unwillingness to think seriously about the potential consequences of having external intervention in an already very messy civil conflict. But more alarming than that is these campaigners' inability to think about anything but themselves. Indeed, such is the myopic self-regard of modern interventionists that they now freely admit that Western intervention might well make the situation in Syria worse, but it is still worth doing because at least it will make a loud, public display of our 'common human heritage'…. 

Indeed, it is striking that, just as was the case with Bosnia, the increasingly complex conflict in Syria is being reduced by interventionists to a simple test of our resolve. This war isn't about Them, the people of Homs or Damascus. It's about Us and what one commentator refers to as our moral superiority to 'fascism' (that is, Assad's regime): 'We're better than that and in our actions we will show it', he says. In short, as with the constant call for Western military intervention in Bosnia (which was finally and tragically secured), the aim of the rallying for intervention in Syria is to make a global advert of how much better 'we' are than 'them'….

The extent to which the interventionists have made Syria all about them is clear from their frank—and frankly inhuman—assertion that it doesn't matter if intervention makes things worse because at least a message about how much we care will have been sent. So Norman Geras, an academic and founder of the left-wing interventionist outfit the Euston Manifesto, writes: 'Since it is urgent that we respond somehow, out of solidarity, of our "common human heritage" with the victims, action must be taken even if it means meeting chaos with chaos and (by implication) that the chaos we cause turns out to be worse than the chaos we're trying to bring to an end' (my emphasis). surveys the range of opinions that NPR presents about our just-you-wait intervention-to-be. Conclusion: Yes, yes yesterday, and it's a shame people haven't come around to yes:

NPR's "All Things Considered" ran a "discussion" about Syria and the U.S. All options were not on the table – at least not the anti-interventionist option.

Melissa Block hosted three guests seriatim: the aptly named Anne-Marie Slaughter, former "director of planning" at the State Department. Paul Wolfowitz, architect of the criminal war on Iraq and Daniel Serwer, a former U.S. "special envoy" and "coordinator" for the Bosnian Federation. How is that for a broad spectrum of views?

Going first, Slaughter suggested that "no-kill" zones be established but that plan quickly morphed into the need for a supporting air campaign by the U.S. and NATO and "defensive" arms to the pro-Western forces in Syria. When Melissa Block inquired about the nature of a "defensive" arms, Slaughter conceded that there was no way to prevent the arms from being used in other ways, "revenge attacks" and "offensive actions" in Block's terms…..

What was Wolfowitz's prescription for Syria? "Defensive weapons." Where had I heard that before? But Wolfowitz wants more US control over the weapons saying: "Hamas, which used to be in bed with Assad, has now distanced itself from the Assad regime. I'm sure the bad guys are figuring out how they can help the opposition so that they can have a position later."…. Block concluded by raising what lessons Iraq holds for the present situation in Syria. And Wolfowitz had the answer. The problem was that the US did not invade earlier, in 1991, rather than 2003. No challenge from Block on that one.

So far two guests – one opinion. Surely the third guest, Mr. Serwer must be an anti-interventionist. Early on he made his position quite clear: "I don't believe that there is a military solution in Syria without a massive U.S. effort to defeat the air defenses, the artillery, the tanks of the Syrian army and I see no will in Washington to do that kind of thing at the moment."

Serwer simply says he opposes military action because it must be big and costly and there is no will "at the moment" in Washington to do so. That lack of will is due to the fact that the average American is fed up with the endless wars in the Middle East. Serwer continues: "You know, if you take military action, I think you have to think about taking serious military action. And serious military action would be aimed at decapitating this regime. The problem is you don't know what comes after because there is no really consolidated opposition political structure." Like Wolfowitz Serwer is concerned about "the bad guys." Again no opposition to intervention but there is concern that once the dogs of war are unleashed, the new rulers may be one of "the bad guys."

The American people decidedly do not want such a war/intervention/sweet loving destruction of life and property, but that rarely matters.

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  1. The criminal war in Iraq

    Blow me O’Neil. Iraq had far more legal justification than Serbia or Libya.

    1. More isn’t necessarily enough.

      1. Meh. I’m pretty much of a Constitutional literalist, and I think Congress “authorizing the use of military force” is probably close enough to “declare war”.

    2. The noninterventionists are a whiny lot.

      1. While the invaders are all murdery. Haven’t you had enough dead brown people yet to get your war boner off, Cyto?

        1. That’s not what gets my war boner off. And liberating countries isn’t murder.

          I like and want you to prosper BP so here’s a tip: when you immediately reach for ‘MURDERING BROWN PEOPLE’, it looks like you’re out of good arguments and don’t actually have any evidence on your side, but you’re too conceited and douchey to admit it.

          1. Okay, how about these:

            Wars, even if they have good reasons, kill people. If the US kills people in Syria, there will be many Syrians who may later want to kill Americans.

            Assad is a scumbag. However, it is not our duty to rid the world of scumbags.

            Wars are incredibly expensive. Since we already have a massive deficit, please inform us how you will pay for it. Please show your work.

            There is zero guarantee that, even if the war is successful, the person taking over from Assad will be better. Like Qaddafi, Assad is scum, but he is no fan of the Muslim Brotherhood.

            War is the health of the state. Since habeas corpus already exists at the discretion of government functionary, why give them more power?

            1. That’s better. I agree with everything you just said. I’m against Syrian intervention and I was against Libya’s intervention. I just hate it when people are right for very very wrong reasons.

              Sort of related: if America were to go Full Austrian-massive government cutbacks and massive hike in interests rates to suck out the poison-what effect would that have on the oil revenues of say Iran and other hostile states vs the effect on the value of their currency stockpiles, some of which are in American dollars?

              1. Interest rate increases would force the issue of the inflation that’s taken place. There would be no possible way for the government to hide the massive monetary shenanigans they’ve been up to. As soon as the dollar started losing value, they’d probably start dumping their currency.

  2. The American people didn’t want Bosnia or Libya by similar numbers. But when the President announces something, members of his party (in Congress and voters) will get in line, along with a big enough chunk of the other party.

  3. These are the three options that are usually put forward in the in Washington and the MSM when it comes to all foreign adventures

    1- Diplomacy today and if they don’t unconditionally surrender then bomb tomorrow

    2- Bomb today

    3- Bomb yesterday, today, and tomorrow

  4. Bosnia…Iraq…Afghanistan..Libya…next up Syria, Iran, Sudan, Uganda.
    I remember back when a Croatian tennis pro was going around telling Clinton to send American boys into the Balkans, while he continued to play at Wimbleton and wherever. You dig these adventures, then you go Mr. Ingatieff, and Mr. Clooney, and etc.
    Time to repeal the laws that prevent our international do-gooders from forming “Abraham Lincoln brigades” and buying arms for whomever they’d like to support.

  5. You know what, to hell with these heal-our-national-soul-with-bombing “humanitarian” types.

    When have these people *not* used simplistic black-and-white arguments to promote war, only to discover later that the situation in reality is much more nuanced than they let on?

    When has their propaganda *not* relied on a heavy admixture of half-truths and phony stories?

    When has there *not* been blowback from these interventions?

    When have the “good guys” in the affected country *not* turned out to be a lot like bad guys?

    1. When has there *not* been blowback from these interventions?

      Panama, France’s various meddlings, Colombia, anything America did in latin America,

      When have the “good guys” in the affected country *not* turned out to be a lot like bad guys?

      Iraq, much of the balkans, Libya, that island Reagan invaded.

      I am against Syrian intervention. Lets keep our arguments based on reality.

      1. Panama wasn’t a humanitarian intervention, it was an honest landgrab, and it got the job done.

        Granada wasn’t humanitarian intervention either, it was to roll back Soviet influence and/or do the US govt’s duty of rescuing American citizens. Not a sappy uplift mission.

        The Libyans haven’t started off very well, with their murder of Quadaffi.

        The Kosavar guerillas in the area we “liberated” have done an excellent job of driving out the Serbs.

        The Iraqis may or may not be an exception, I’m not fully familiar with the latest developments.

        Basically, though, you have to find examples of *non*-humanitarian interventions in order to rebut my points against humanitarian interventions.

        1. If “Panama” means Noriega, that guy was letting drugs into the US and looking like he might mess with the canal. Justified or not, it wasn’t about humanitarian concern for Noriega’s people.

        2. If you want use the apparent criteria of “interventions whose only major criteria were humanitarian”, that really leaves only the Balkans and Libya. Of the Balkan countries, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo are ranked as Partly Free, Free, and Partly Free on Freedom House’s 2011 report, respectively — better than average. It’s early to tell with Libya, but considering that the same survey has them at the maximum “not free” score, and additionally that Heritage economic freedom survey puts them fourth worst in the world (losing only to Cuba, Zimbabwe, and North Korea), they don’t have anywhere to go but up. It would have been better for Colonel Q to get due process, but neither Italy nor Romania have worsened after similar fates befell Mussolini and Ceausescu.

          1. I’m sure it would be really reassuring to show that Freedom House survey to the Serbs who were ethnically cleansed from Kosovo. Maybe that’s the “partly” part.

            I think we helped broker a sort of OK peace deal in Bosnia, but please recall that we were intervening on both sides – the arms embargo disfavored the Bosniaks (the Serbs already had plenty of arms), so the bombing kind of balanced out what we had done to hurt one side (plus winking at Iranian aid to the Bosniaks, so maybe the Iranians should get credit, too).

            Ceausescu had a trial, I don’t think Quadaffi had one.

            1. I agree pretty much with everything you just said. However, you moved the goalposts a great deal with the ‘humanitarian wars only’ bit. I’d like to note I am totally opposed to humanitarian wars.

              1. Allow me to quote my original “goalpost”:

                “You know what, to hell with these heal-our-national-soul-with-bombing “humanitarian” types.”

                What I said afterward was by way of illustration.

                That’s the context of my references to “these people,” “their propaganda” and “these interventions.” Did you think I was talking about all wars?

                1. And Columbia was not about humanitarian intervention, though it certainly put the “blow” in “blowback.”

            2. Got any pre-intervention and post-intervention death totals for Kosovo? The reports (at least, the online ones) at Freedom House only go back to 2003, so I can’t compare the overall ranking, but my general impression has been that things have been gradually improving there.

              As to Colonel Q, his not having a trial was due to the fact that he was captured by an angry mob, not because the new government had a summary execution policy. Maybe the new rulers are bad, maybe they’re good, but I don’t think the circumstances of Q’s death tell us anything about them. In fact, I’m pretty sure they would have much preferred to put him in an orange jumper and march him in front of the cameras.

          2. Wrong, Libya is terrifying and you only have to look at Egypt to understand why regime change doesn’t mean shit.

        3. I’m pretty sure Iraq has made Iran stronger. That doesn’t sound like a terribly great argument.

  6. Syria? What the fuck? Can we at least limit ourselves to trying to start only one stupid war at a time?

  7. Their rallying cry should be was: ‘Bomb Syria Libya so that I can sleep at night.’

  8. Favorite line =

    Slaughter suggested that “no-kill” zones be established

    You know, “no-kill” zones… Where if anyone gets violent in ’em, we kill ’em! Trust me, we’ve done this before = it works *great*…

    1. I’d settle for making DC a no-Slaughter zone, at this point.

  9. Yaaay, Forever War!

  10. The moment you cite as a source worth paying attention to, my days of not taking you seriously come to a middle. I can frequently agree with the Rand-libertarian position — “Americans shouldn’t be bearing the costs of securing other people’s rights” — and can respect it even when I think it’s short-sighted in certain cases. I can also respect the paleoconservative “we can’t civilize them at gunpoint, they have to enter the modern world on their own” view, though the implications can make me wince. But the Rothbard-libertarian “American intervention is inherently evil” position is laughable at best, disgusting at worst, and unworthy of respect even when I wind up agreeing with them in a particular instance. Hey, next time there’s an article on Putin, can we we hear from them about the Cold War being the US’s fault for bullying poor innocent Stalin?

    1. Please comment here more often. PLZ.

    2. We propped the kmt and stalin. So yes we fucked up.

      When millions of non-combatants die in pointless humanitarian conflicts, i’d argue the end result is “evil”. Whether our intentions were solid or not, does not matter.

      1. Thank you for that perfect illustration of the idiocy of your viewpoint. The Randian-style argument against US participation in WW2 would be along the lines of “Americans have no obligation to spend and die to protect other nations from the Axis.” The paleoconservative-style argument would be “Those other countries are always fighting each other anyway, there’s nothing we can do about it.” But your Rothbard-style argument is “Stopping the Nazis and Imperial Japan was evil because we had to aid Stalin and the KMT to do so”, without apparently bothering to consider what the death toll would have been otherwise.

  11. Yay for scare quotes. Now I know that I need to be scared of “special envoys” and “coordinators”. Brrrr. Spooky!

  12. The blog is absolutely fantastic. Lots of great information and inspiration, both of which we all need. Thanks.

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