Questioning Intervention in Syria: A Response to Anne-Marie Slaughter

Re-posted from Dissent’s Arguing the World blog.

Before making the jump from academia to the world of policy making and punditry, Anne-Marie Slaughter compiled an impressive body of scholarship on law and international society. Her early work linking the common threads of international relations theory and legal research was nothing short of groundbreaking, and contributed meaningful insights to both fields of study. Later, Slaughter’s A New World Order revolutionized intellectual understandings of global governance by introducing network analysis and her anatomy of “disaggregated states” to mainstream academic circles.

When Slaughter has recently offered her ideas in public, however, they have been less impressive. This has been especially pointed with regard to the unfolding horrors in Syria. In an extended meditation for the Atlantic, Slaughter forcefully advocates for the application of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine, arguing that the minimum requirements for triggering intervention have been met. On top of that, she claims, failure to act would expose R2P “as a convenient fiction for power politics or oil politics, feeding precisely the cynicism and conspiracy theories in the Middle East and elsewhere that the U.S. spends its public diplomacy budget and countless diplomatic hours trying to debunk.”

That Gareth Evans—the godfather of R2P—and others have argued that the minimum threshold for action in Syria has in fact not been met seems of little consequence to Slaughter, nor the fact that she is ready to suspend the writ of international law by acting without a Security Council mandate for the purpose of saving international law. As David Rieff points out, “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.”

In Sunday’s New York Times, Slaughter returns with a condensed version of the same argument, this time sprinkled with some new ideas for resolving the crisis in Syria, though curiously not explicitly within the R2P framework. Which might be just as well: her opening statement is enough to make R2P advocates shudder. “The mantra of those opposed to intervention is ‘Syria is not Libya,’” Slaughter writes. “In fact, Syria is far more strategically located than Libya, and a lengthy civil war there would be much more dangerous to our interests. America has a major stake in helping Syria’s neighbors stop the killing.” Slaughter’s emphasis on American national interest rather than human rights is all the more curious given her awareness that humanitarian intervention is frequently seen, especially in the Global South, as a Trojan Horse designed to smuggle imperial intent past the gates of state sovereignty.

Slaughter’s argument quickly descends from there into self-contradiction. She warns against “simply arming the opposition,” which “will bring about exactly the scenario the world should fear most: a proxy war that would spill into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan and fracture Syria along sectarian lines.” But then just a few sentences later, she boldly asserts that her plan “would require nations like Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to arm opposition soldiers with anti-tank, countersniper and portable antiaircraft weapons.” Slaughter also calls for special ops and spooks to enter the fray. Presumably, these regional and European “advisers” would keep the tinder box of sectarianism from exploding and, without a hint of irony from Slaughter, help opposition fighters expand so-called “peace zones” by killing and capturing government forces.

“Although keeping intervention limited is always hard,” Slaughter admits, “international assistance could be curtailed if the Free Syrian Army took the offensive. The absolute priority within no-kill zones would be public safety and humanitarian aid; revenge attacks would not be tolerated.” And if they happened anyway? Slaughter does not entertain worst-case scenarios of this sort, and thus excuses herself from having to confront the very real possibility that flooding Syria with more guns might actually make matters worse, not better, if things got out of hand.

Instead, Slaughter suggests that “Turkey and the Arab League should also help opposition forces inside Syria more actively through the use of remotely piloted helicopters, either for delivery of cargo and weapons—as America has used them in Afghanistan—or to attack Syrian air defenses and mortars in order to protect the no-kill zones.” This drones-for-peace approach is dubious on its face and, more startling, opens the door for what sounds like direct interstate conflict of the sort that could ignite the very regional confrontation Slaughter fears most.

Absent in Slaughter’s comments, and in the comments of the majority of pundits pressing for intervention, is the third pillar bolstering R2P: the responsibility to rebuild. Discussion of a potential long-term commitment requiring investments of blood and money—especially in the wake of a global economic crisis and the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan—would likely dampen enthusiasm for the rush to war. Slaughter, a skilled ideational entrepreneur, is undoubtedly aware of the public opinion pitfalls a warts-and-all assessment might present, which makes her argument doubly problematic and dishonest. One has to look no further than post-intervention Libya to understand just how prone previous efforts in the name of “responsibility” are to failure, not to mention abandonment by the “international community.”

And that’s the rub. Popular sentiment—if not always political will—in support of intervention can be quickly mobilized by the outrage of human rights abuses and crimes against humanity. As a result, there’s no shortage of ideas offering moral justification for a call to arms. But this abundance of ideas actually represents the poverty of discourse surrounding schemes to coercively defend human rights in Syria, a set of arguments that paper over very real, and often morally hazardous, dangers that can result when the dogs of war are let off the chain.

Protecting civilians from murderous regimes does not end with military action. Nor can it be an a la carte process of selective response with no thought given to the long-term responsibilities that attend coercive engagement across borders. Instead of offering a half-baked defense of skirting international law for the purposes of maintaining it, Slaughter might want to consider sketching out possible roadmaps of action for the moment hostilities cease. That way, in Syria at least, solemn pledges of “never again” might need never again be pledged. A serious outline by prominent intellectuals of what the rebuilding process might entail (and how it can be driven by widely supported local actors) could assuage concerns that R2P is nothing more than an elaborate excuse for invasion.

To be sure, comprehensive post-conflict plans would do little to quell concerns that humanitarian intervention serves as an invitation to violence and control in the colonial dominions of western power. Nevertheless, without due diligence and thorough consideration of all three pillars of protection—the responsibility to prevent, react, and rebuild—prospects for truly ethical humanitarian intervention will be doomed to a holding pattern of half-measures and hand-wringing that offers no escape from the suspicion and realpolitik that mark our current debate.