Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Syria: An Interventionist Questions This Proposed Intervention

I tend to be an interventionist when it comes to American foreign policy and our place and responsibility in the world.  In a dangerous world inhabited by tyrants who abuse their own people and threaten others, the one nation in the world with the greatest power to do something about it has a moral obligation to do something about it ― at least when it can do so effectively.

Of course, military force should be employed only when diplomatic efforts fail ― although diplomatic talks should not become mere cover for a tyrant to buy more time while continuing to massacre his people and shore up defenses against a military engagement.  And, to be sure, discretion and judgment are required, so as to be able to evaluate when the introduction of American force has a good chance of both immediate and long-term success or instead has the potential to make things worse.  I do appreciate that people of good faith and good judgment will make different calls, and indeed many on the Mirror of Justice would conclude that military intervention almost inevitably makes things worse.  Mindful of pragmatic concerns, I nevertheless think it often important to take direct action to achieve clear goals.  As I’ve said before, we should pray for peace ― but we should not accept the false peace of international indifference and passivity.

And I can provide the bona fides to demonstrate that my support for an interventionist foreign policy as a moral foreign policy has not been seasonal, depending on which party occupies the White House.  Being a Republican, I nonetheless praised President Clinton’s intervention for human rights reasons in Kosovo (questioning only the delay and the restriction to an air campaign as allowing too many more innocents to die before the end).  On the Mirror of Justice, I’ve supported President Obama’s intervention for humanitarian reasons in Libya, in a posting I openly titled “Thanking President Obama for Saving Lives in Libya.”  Again, my only criticisms were that the intervention was late in coming and was not sufficiently targeted to remove the tyrant (although fortunately that came later).

Indeed, as part of that earlier posting, I noted that near the end of his life, Pope John Paul II began to establish the case for military intervention for humanitarian reasons:

[A]n offense against human rights is an offense against the conscience of humanity as such, an offense against humanity itself. The duty of protecting these rights therefore extends beyond the geographical and political borders within which they are violated. Crimes against humanity cannot be considered an internal affair of a nation. . . .

Clearly, when a civilian population risks being overcome by the attacks of an unjust aggressor and political efforts and non-violent defence prove to be of no avail, it is legitimate and even obligatory to take concrete measures to disarm the aggressor. These measures however must be limited in time and precise in their aims. They must be carried out in full respect for international law, guaranteed by an authority that is internationally recognized and, in any event, never left to the outcome of armed intervention alone.

All that being said, I am quite uneasy with President Obama’s move toward military force being applied in Syria.  For the life of me (and I fear for the lives of many others in Syria and perhaps in the United States armed forces), I cannot figure out the actual substance of this President’s foreign policy toward Syria or how launching missile strikes or dropping bombs from planes for a couple of days will advance that policy.

Now if President Obama had a coherent Middle East foreign policy that promised to remove the tyrannical Assad regime and now had highlighted the atrocities against civilians including the use of chemical weapons as the immediate provocation for taking more direct steps toward that end, I might well be on board.  But he doesn’t, and he hasn’t.

And it may well be too late.  Two or three years ago, direct American support for the then-largely secular rebel movements might have toppled the Assad regime and replaced it with a moderate government that would resist radicalization and oppose terrorists.  But as the civil war has dragged on and on, as the United States and the so-called “international community” has dithered, and as the civilian population has been battered, slaughtered, and displaced, the opposition to Assad has become radicalized and increasingly composed of extremist elements affiliated with terrorists.

So why are we thinking about doing anything militarily at this point?

Is it just because President Obama feels the need to do something?  As K.T. McFarland writes, “It’s understandable that we want to ‘do something.’”  But that’s no justification for military action.

Is it because President Obama has laid down so many “red lines” that keep being crossed that he has boxed himself into a corner from which he cannot now escape?  George Will cynically writes that military intervention here “will not be to decisively alter events, which we cannot do, in a nation vital to U.S. interests, which Syria is not.  Rather, its purpose will be to rescue Obama from his words.”  Now I don’t share George Will’s view that it is not possible to “decisively alter events” (although it certainly is much more difficult now after years of delay).  But surely few believe that the limited military response that President Obama apparently is planning will actually change the course of events on the ground in Syria.

Is an air campaign over Syria designed to prevent the Assad regime from further use of chemical weapons?  That in itself would be a laudable goal.  But it is far from clear that a quick in-and-out air campaign could have that effect.  For one thing, the present thinking is that American forces could not target chemical weapons caches for fear of their accidental release.  Destroying helicopters might degrade the regime's ability to use chemical weapons, but probably not much.  Chemical weapons can be fired from small mobile missile launchers.  To truly be sure that we had eliminated chemical weapons, we probably need boots on the ground.  And President Obama will not take that bold step.  No one believes that option is even on the table.

In sum, I hear lots of strong words emanating from the White House about lines being crossed, and international law being violated, and messages needing to be sent.  But I hear very little that hangs together as a strategic policy for Syria generally or a specific plan of military action that makes a difference.  A couple of days of bombings simply doesn’t qualify.

So, for now at least and until a better policy and plan are articulated, count me as one interventionist who says ― not this time, not this place, and not for this reason.


Sisk, Greg | Permalink


                                                        Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The United Nations is not capable of taking decisive actions against human rights violations because so many of its members do not recognize the truth about the inherent dignity of every human life, and the right to have one's life protected from those who seek to do harm.

Posted by: Nancy | Aug 30, 2013 10:48:12 AM

Actually, his Middle East policy has been largely coherent and in continuity with Western policy through the last one hundered or so years if you take away the sentimental blather about human rights. To understand how this is coherent, one must understand the importance of the Saudi-Sunni (Gulf States) relationship with the West and the United States.

Obama, like the Saudis, support and ignore the atrocities made by the Egyptian military coup. There, the interest and importance to the Saudis and the West is in control of the Suez Canal (people cannot forget the economic importance of the Suez). Obama, like the Saudis, are appalled by the alleged atrocities made by the Alawite Shia regime, but in reality this is a foil for trying to take out an ally of the Iranians. The Iranians (constitutional theocracy of Shia) are a huge target for the Saudi-Sunnis (theocratic dictatorship of Sunnis with zero religous or women's rights, worst dictatorship in the region), primarily for the competitive oil and secondarily for intense hatred of the Shia.

To further understand the coherence of Obama's (i.e. Western-Saudi) policy in the Middle East, one must look back to Western involvement in the late 19th, early 20th century, and one must remove the sentimental blinders of human rights, etc.

Posted by: ck | Sep 3, 2013 10:42:37 AM