The Syria Paradox Why the United States Can't and Must Intervene

The West says Bashar al-Assad must go but it doesn't seem ready to make him.

The West says Bashar al-Assad must go but it doesn’t seem ready to make him.

On April 28th, Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) appeared on CBS’s ‘Face the Nation’ and provided the country with a fine example of either ignorance or what I have elsewhere called ‘the politics of performance’ – which is a polite partial synonym for malarky. Chambliss said:

Here’s what concerns me: The world is watching. We’ve got 70,000 dead people in that part of the world as a result of Bashar al-Assad. We as Americans have never let something like that happen before. We’ve taken action.

Now, a lot has been said about Syria over the last two years and I don’t mean to pick on Chambliss, but his statement jumped out at me for two reasons. First, it was baffling to me how someone who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee could make such a, frankly, unintelligent comment.

Time and time again, sometimes in the face of public outcry and sometimes amidst national apathy, the United States has failed to intervene when people were being slaughtered. There’s a lively debate about whether this should be so and also a line of critique that says the United States will only intervene when our narrow interests are involved, while others argue in favor of precisely that standard. As per usual, it’s more complicated than most parties would have us believe.

Here’s a depressingly partial list of genocides with many more dead in which the United States refused to intervene: the Khmer Rouge killed around two million people in Cambodia, between a quarter and half a million people have died in Darfur, eight hundred thousand people died in Rwanda. Over a million people died in the Armenian Genocide.

(Ironically, even though the Armenian Genocide was the impetus for the coining of the term, whether or not it constituted genocide is still implausibly disputed by our NATO-ally Turkey.)

All of this is to say nothing of the tens of millions who died at the hands of the Soviets, the Chinese, and the North Koreans. The United States meaningfully intervened in none of these except, arguably, the last example and even then to very little effect.

Second, through its complete ignorance of history, Chambliss’ statement actually reminded me of just how challenging a case Syria presents for the United States.

To be clear, the strategic threat posed by the Syrian Civil War is difficult to assess: the theatre presents high uncertainty and few good options, and the United States has proven time and time again that it is much easier for us to insert ourselves into an area than it is for us to remove troops from an ongoing conflict. The political incentives make it hard for a President to pull out unless the situation is stabilized. Potential allies in the area are murky and unreliable. All this warrants caution.

On that level, I think all Americans understand that Syria presents difficult challenges. Even so, I’d argue that the options available to American policy makers seem to be deteriorating rather than improving as time goes on. Conflict favors extremists and in Syria, those who would like to see those extremists triumph have been willing to step up and arm them. The West has failed to do likewise and as a result it has seen its own interests suffer. That much seems clear to me – whether that cost was worth paying to avoid entanglement is exactly why crafting good security policy is so difficult.

So much for strategy – narrowly understood. How about the moral argument? In a May 9th interview with Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan, journalist and commentator Ted Koppel dismissed the moral argument for intervention this way:

You know something, Neal, we’ve had this conversation in a different context before. The issue is where American interests lie. And I know it sounds terrible to put it in those terms, but we have stood by with great equanimity while somewhere between three and five million people have died in Congo. But because U.S. interests are not directly involved in Congo, or at least don’t appear to be, we’ve done nothing about it, absolutely nothing. So the question needs to be, where do American interests lie?

Now, I have to deal with the consistency argument first because, for reasons that are a little bewildering to me, a lot of people seem to think this is an insightful argument. It usually takes one of two forms: people either argue that we’re being inconsistent by intervening in some places (e.g. Libya) and not others (e.g. Syria) or that because we haven’t intervened in the past, we shouldn’t intervene now. The problem with the first line of reasoning is that it emphasizes all the things those situations have in common – the mass slaughter of innocents, their proximity in time, and the Middle East(ish) setting – while ignoring all the things that distinguish them.

It’s okay to argue the United States should always intervene and its okay to argue that the United States should never intervene. But it seems more reasonable to argue that the United States should only intervene when it can reasonably do so. There’s nothing inconsistent about intervening where you think you can do so at an acceptable cost and have a moderate degree of confidence in the prospect of success, and not intervening where those conditions are not met. You might make mistakes in your judgement, intervening where you shouldn’t and failing to intervene where you should, but there would be nothing inconsistent in your policy, per se.

The second argument, that we shouldn’t intervene now because we haven’t intervened in other instances, suffers from two weaknesses. First, you have to cherry pick to make your argument work. Mr. Koppel gave an instance where we haven’t intervened; I gave a longer list above. But I can just as easily give instances where we did intervene: we intervened in the Balkans, we intervened in Haiti, we intervened in Libya, we intervened in Germany. It isn’t any more consistent to not intervene than it is to intervene; in fact, consistency requires us to continue to sometimes intervene and sometimes not.

The second weakness, simply put, is that the argument is just plain bizarre. Tell me if this makes sense: because we haven’t freed the slaves in the past, we shouldn’t free them now. How about, because we haven’t regulated emissions before, we shouldn’t do it now. Or how about, because I haven’t watched what I eat before, I shouldn’t do it now. For crying out loud, if you’re going the wrong way, you’re allowed to change direction! With all due respect to Mr. Koppel (sincerely), this is what Emerson meant when he said, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

With that out of the way, how should we examine Mr. Koppel’s argument? Ethics can be a murky area, but I’m confident in saying most people outside of Ayn Rand and her acolytes don’t feel comfortable saying that our obligations are limited by our ‘interests’. If you can help a person in need without undue burden to yourself, most of us would agree, then you’re morally obligated to do so. How helpful is that insight when consider what countries, in contrast to people, should do?


“Rwanda will never ever leave me. It’s in the pores of my body. My soul is in those hills, my spirit is with the spirits of all those people who were slaughtered and killed that I know of, and many that I didn’t know. … We saw lots of them dying. And lots of those eyes still haunt me, angry eyes or innocent eyes, no laughing eyes. But the worst eyes that haunt me are the eyes of those people who were totally bewildered. They’re looking at me with my blue beret and they’re saying, “What in the hell happened?” – Romeo Dellaire, UNAMIR Force Commander during the Rwandan Genocide

Some people, champions of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (or R2P) paradigm, argue that what’s true for people is true for countries. Countries and the international community, the argument goes, have an affirmative responsibility to protect innocents when and where their own governments prove unwilling or unable to do so. I’ve linked to it elsewhere on this site, but if you want to learn more about this doctrine as well as the history of genocide in international law, you should give Samantha Power’s treatment of the subject a look.

I’m sympathetic to R2P, though I’d add an important note of caution: while R2P might capture the moral responsibility countries owe people outside their borders or the moral responsibility people throughout the world owe each other, it ignores what a country’s government owes to its own people. In other words, the American government isn’t empowered to pay our moral debts and it isn’t authorized to act in the interests of others. It is a government of limited powers and that means that if the President is going to act to protect others, then he has to do so because the American people see that as a worthwhile endeavor. We, the American people, are the ones with a responsibility to protect innocent life where we can do so; our government’s responsibility is to serve in our interests as we understand them. I should add that it is also the job of our leaders to help bridge that gap.

In the end, we’re going to have to feel our way through the tall grass. Proponents of every side like to speak as if they have the full weight of the country’s moral judgement or clear-headed thinking behind them. The truth is that Americans have shown themselves both willing to use American assets to disrupt the killing of innocents as well as wary of entanglements. The Syria paradox is that, in this instance, both the strategic and moral arguments seem to point heavily in the direction of an increased level of American involvement while the fear of quagmire seems to point us in the opposite direction.

And so it comes to be that the United States must intervene but, in many ways, can’t or won’t intervene.

For those of us disgusted at the prospect that the death toll in Syria will only continue to rise, one of the most frustrating aspects of the current mess is that there is nothing new about the failings of American foreign policy that have led us to this point. The basic truth of both humanitarian and security intervention is this: the United States plays a hugely disproportional role in the provision of military assets, yet we have continued to approach the diplomatic task of formalizing a security response in a mostly ad hoc fashion.

In Libya, were we were able to get buy-in from regional players as well as the UN Security Council, and where we were able to get our European allies to play a major role, we found the space to intervene. The appropriate contrast to Libya isn’t Syria, but rather Rwanda – where intervention could have been equally low-cost and effective. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration was concerned that it might be too exposed and knew there was little chance of significant involvement from other players; as a result, it scuppered diplomatic efforts at the UN.

For the foreseeable future, if besieged civilians are going to be able to count on relief when their own governments turn against them, then the United States will have to find a way to get the rest of the world to share in the cost of intervention – specially in the downside exposure. America is uniquely qualified to take the lead in the war fighting, but there’s no reason our wealthy European allies shouldn’t take a principal role in reconstruction and peace keeping. And there’s no reason for us not to act, during moments of relative calm, to temper the pernicious influence that China and Russia exert over the process as it stands.

We have avoided the institutionalization of a response capacity out of a desire to maintain full freedom of action, but without the international infrastructure in place the United States can’t depend on adequate support from other countries. The most dispiriting fact about Syria is this: everyone knows that if there’s going to be a humanitarian mission, it will be in great part an American mission. That represents a dreadful and shameful abdication of moral responsibility on the part of the international community. But our unwillingness or inability to respond to this challenge is an unbefitting failure of American leadership.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

2 thoughts on “The Syria Paradox Why the United States Can't and Must Intervene

  1. I’d like to get your take on different levels of possible intervention into Syria. Some folks are pushing to arm the rebels, but this could be a slippery slope to boots on the ground. Do these people remember what happened the last time we armed a rebel group in the Middle East?

    • The White House seems to be moving in the direction of arming the rebels- and you’re right: there are huge risks involved in that. But there are huge risks in doing nothing as well, it’s just that the risks of doing nothing are a bit farther out that the risks of doing something.

      It also seems to me that saying that Assad must go while saying you’re afraid to arm to rebels is contradictory: if Assad goes then the rebels will have access to heavy conventional arms. What then? If the WHite House had decided that Assad must go, then I think they should arm the more moderate rebels and help those factions gain influence.

Leave a Reply