Foreign Policy

Syria: Threat or Menace?

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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).

Antiwar.com 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.