When it comes to foreign policy, most progressives agree that intervention in another state’s internal affairs is ill-advised. With regards to Syria, Foreign Policy in Focus columnist Stephen Zunes summed this argument up well back in March.
“Empirical studies have repeatedly demonstrated that international military interventions in cases of severe repression actually exacerbate violence in the short term and can only reduce violence in the longer term if the intervention is impartial or neutral. Other studies demonstrate that foreign military interventions actually increase the duration of civil wars, making the conflicts longer and bloodier, and the regional consequences more serious, than if there were no intervention. In addition, military intervention would likely trigger a ‘gloves off’ mentality that would dramatically escalate the violence on both sides.”
Speaking generally, if Vietnam hadn’t soured us on intervention, Iraq sure did. In the case of Syria, U.S. intentions, as Rob Prince and Ibrahim Kazerooni explain at Focal Points, remain suspect since the United States has long sought the its destabilization. It’s sort of a twofer to the United States, since bringing down Bashar al-Assad’s regime removes a key ally of Iran. Another objection to intervention in Syria is that it would conflict with Russia’s wish to keep Bashar al-Assad’s regime intact. We already see this beginning to happen when a Russian cargo ship allegedly transporting helicopter gunships to Syria was ordered out of British waters after its insurance coverage was revoked.
This author understands those rationales, but, in his gut, he balks. It’s not just how progressives go all libertarian and label liberals who call for intervention liberal hawks. Nor how it makes progressives look soft on defense. What most troubles me is the reflexiveness with we resist intervention.
Granted, the word intervention is maddening in its neutrality. Here, for instance, is its military definition: “Action taken to divert a unit or force from its track, flight path, or mission.” But, to me, the most heroic use of the military is not to defend our soil — that’s its everyday job. It’s to save the lives of innocent people — of any nation — who are in peril. It’s true that I personally have a rescuer complex; I suppose some background is in order.
What opened up the world of foreign policy to me personally was the Rwanda massacre and the refusal of the United Nations and the United States to make more than token attempts to prevent it or halt its progress. I read books on the subject such as Philip Gourevitch’s 1998 classic We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux).
That led to read a series of books about the Holocaust, as well as Problem From Hell : America and the Age of Genocide (Basic Books, 2002), for which author Samantha Power was unjustly smeared as a liberal hawk. Much of that book was devoted to Rafael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide and whose ceaseless lobbying led the United Nations to adopt the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
The concept of genocide, though, is limited by its requirement that the existence of a group of people or an ethnicity be threatened. Mass killing isn’t always confined to one race. As Timothy Snyder made crystal clear in The Bloodlands (Basic Books, 2010), during World War II, 14 million people of different races and nationalities were killed by both Hitler and Stalin in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine, and western Russia. Nothing, though, obliterates the concept of genocide like nuclear weapons, the ultimate in equal-opportunity mass killing.
Needless to say, from the Holocaust to Rwanda, intervention came too late or not at all.
Walking the subject of mass killing back from millions dead spanning continents to thousands in one state, Syria could provide a test case for a new approach to intervention. Instead of thinking in terms of halting a repressive and murderous regime, which is a punitive act, focus instead on incentives — but not just to the regime. Also dangle incentives to the insurgents, as a way to identify the so-called good guys and force bad actors among them to mend their ways.
In other words, clear guidelines need to be codified — not only for Syria, but for opposing all tyrannies — which, if conformed to will result in the reward of assistance in the form of arms from other states, NATO, and the United Nations or even intervention. These guidelines would include the obvious, such as refraining from: savage retaliation against the regime’s forces, killing civilians, and blocking monitoring by human rights groups.
Of course navigating around obstacles such as, in Syria’s case, Russian and Chinese opposition to intervention, might prove impossible. Nevertheless, incentives for insurgents might help in separating the wheat from the chaff, such as extremist Islamists in Syria.