Syria, the Limits of Interventionism, and the International Order

Geschichte / Deutschland / 19. Jh. / Friedrich Wilhelm III.  / Regierungszeit / Vormärz / Wiener Kongreß 1814-15Noted in the comments to the previous post, “A Plague: Contesting Syria, in Context,” is the posting of a reply to it at his blog from my ever wry blogging compadre, Snoopy the Goon. Please do  read it here. Below is my response to, ahem, the Goon.

Dear Snoopy,

How do we go on after that John Lennon crack? I believe forgiveness is all. (Well, something, anyway.) And then there is your introduction. Okay.

I think there is not that much disagreement between us, some points needing just some clarification and refinement.

I note your eloquent and just paean to the “warriors of the cold war,” and what their sacrifice meant to those on the other side of the “curtain.” I agree, too, that the dollars of that war were well, if not all necessarily, spent, but the strategic purpose of my overview of the arms race was not to address the justness of the mission or overspending on it, rather the pattern of hyperbolic fear mongering often to be found in it. That purpose was a foundation to arguing that a variation on such heightened stirring of the passions toward war can be found in much commentary and journalism on Syria, including that compassionate solidarity journalism you reference.

I happily take your point that most Americans on the left and right are opposed to a Syrian intervention, however different the foundations for their feelings. My criticism, though, was of those on the far left who oppose it for thoroughly dishonorable reasons and those on the right – the “superpower imperialists” – who promote it so disingenuously.

Joined with superpower imperialists are those of the left not defined here by anti-imperialism, but internationalism, and a belief in humane interventionism – the “responsibility to protect.” I share this philosophical attachment and you echo its humane considerations. I claim, too, that this heightened attention to the lives of others, across national boundaries and cultures, is a product of already existent achievements in the “slow-developing international order” that challenges your credibility. But there is an irony in this.

I often call attention to the expanding web our affective associations woven by technology. It brings us, for instance, more completely and immediately, and with more vivid reality, news of the horrors of Syria. However, what informs your (and my own) skepticism of that international order is that other human abilities – the capacity, for instance, to act in concert and successfully against the horrors in Syria – have not advanced in conjunction with technology. Because our access to the reality of war is greater than ever before, that does not mean we have learned to end any and all wars whenever our best selves simply feel they cannot bear it anymore. We learn, we witness, we think we should act – our best selves cry out for our action – but we do not know in many cases, including Syria, I argue, how to act in ways that will not make matters generally worse.

When you say that you already perceive, awfully, that Assad has won, I respond, first, that by all appearances, whatever the ultimate varieties of outcome long down the road, what was Syria before will not be again. In that sense, Assad will certainly not have won. Beyond that, as I already argued, it was not previously American or Western policy militarily to overthrow Assad or any of the other tyrants who afflict the world; we need not have been made committed to that end by the outbreak of a civil war. To the degree that Obama’s earlier rhetoric seemed to make that commitment, it was an error of which his general critics regularly remind us and for which he should be criticized. Why, now, should he be criticized for failing to live up to a mistaken promise?

Round-the-clock cable news and Twitter cannot now by their mere existence have morally enjoined us to rush foolishly to intervene in all conflicts. You put it well about Iraq; I argue it to an nth degree about Syria, that

people who commanded the invasion, which was truly a work of inspiration and meticulous planning as far as military part of it was concerned, didn’t have a smidgen of an idea what to do with the hot potato, which was post-war Iraq. Still don’t, which sad fact costs so many lives and will continue to do so for a long time.

On the other hand, about the chemical weapons disarmament program in progress in Syria, the political rather than tactical nature of the response to this development is quite remarkable.

Unless one is already predisposed against Obama, which of course many are, or wishes, in part for that reason, to harp on one’s perception of the messy way the program came about, or harp on all of the things that the program is not, as would those promoters of intervention – who are bound to be profoundly disappointed by it – there is simply no downside to the program at all. Among the many previous fears attendant with the conflict (you can look it up) was the fear that chemical weapons, beyond their possible use by Assad, would fall into the hands of Islamist terror groups. Even if, unsurprisingly, and as is already suspected, Assad is trying to cheat, the volume of dangerous chemical weapons will have been dramatically reduced in a war torn region. Our knowledge of the presence and location of any smaller, still hidden stockpiles will have been enhanced, along with the capacity to strike and destroy or capture them whenever that decision might be made. All in all, the dangers those weapons pose – from Assad or Islamist warriors – will have been dramatically reduced from what it was. Other than providing a political stick with which to club Obama, the current disarmament program, had it been offered at any time outside of Obama’s threat of a military strike, would have been received by all as an opportunity to be grasped without doubt. Nothing changes that.

Finally, I assert again, withdrawal from an imperial expanse and posture in the world does not require the sacrifice of natural and sufficient economic, cultural, and political power or of necessary unilateral military power. These are an appropriate objective for one of the world’s great democracies already the most powerful nation in the world. However, the specific mission of the Cold War is not the same as a mission to ensure unchallengeable domination of the international sphere as a de facto, but by no means formally assented to, nation among nations. The political philosophy that the world shall henceforth be uni rather than multi-polar, and that it shall be so only by the dominating will and power of the existing unipolar power to keep it so, believing unwaveringly in its own justness and exceptionalism, is inherently undemocratic, even, ultimately, tyrannical in nature, if not in purpose. I do not believe the American people, unlike its militarists and supporters of an imperial presidency, would choose to purpose the future of their nation in this way. If they would, it would not be the nation they wish to think it.

The United Nations as an organization can serve as a convenient shorthand for two centuries of evolving Western and international order in various organizational and legal regimes. The deficiencies of that order are those of the humans creating it and can be likewise conveniently highlighted by such failures as the UNHRC or UNRWA. But however slow the progress, and tragic the continuing failures, I do not think many will make the argument that the world would be better were we to return to it to a time before the Congress of Vienna or the creation of the U.N.

It is slow and creeping, it is often inadequate, it is ready for mockery, but beyond a line on a map, a pistol shot in the face, and a drone strike from above, it is what we have.


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6 thoughts on “Syria, the Limits of Interventionism, and the International Order

  1. OK, now I think that we can revert to the comments section. First of all, my apologies for the John Lennon’s unscheduled appearance, it was a low blow indeed.

    I am skipping the points of agreement, of course, some people reading this exchange start to grumble. About “our affective associations woven by technology” – not that I disagree with the paragraph as a whole, it is just that technology that brings all the horrors to our doorstep doesn’t seem to be able to change (not that I have any clear statistics) our behavior. Not to stress too much the sad fact that information technology of all kinds is an abysmal failure in getting the youngsters more interested in the kind of things we are discussing here.

    I don’t really say that Assad won. No matter what the eventual division of Syrian territory between the warring factions will be and no matter whether Assad will come out alive or dead (my personal preference), the humanity has lost – again. And re Obama – I tried to make my post as POTUS-free as possible, and (with the exception of the red herring) I think I’ve succeeded. I really don’t think that Syria case is linked to a specific POTUS. The quote from Ms Applebaum, no matter what the rest of her article says, should not be taken as directed at any acting president, since Syria will daunt any.

    Chemical weapons: I wouldn’t argue this, since the whole issue is considered of little importance here. Any neighbor of ours that will consider using chemical weapons against us knows the consequences…

    UN: I wish I could share your optimism. I am not a great believer in gradual spread of enlightenment, rather in cyclical nature of history, where the difference between the cycles lies chiefly in our growing ability to kill. And, speaking about the UN structure, I am not sure that its implementation as a democratic institution is doing any good. Or will do any good anytime soon.

    And now to the main point that will, probably, remain disputed. I mean the business of “empiring”. When you say “withdrawal from an imperial expanse and posture in the world does not require the sacrifice of natural and sufficient economic, cultural, and political power or of necessary unilateral military power”, I really can’t see how it could happen. The nature abhors vacuum, and withdrawal of a superpower allows encroaching of other powers (should I mention names? I guess not). And, willing or not, even without any special enmity or military acts, the new superpower(s) will diminish the economic, political and cultural influence of US all over the world. And diminished influence will necessary carry a financial price tag.

    We can argue the issue more, but I would like to point out the main “intangible” – the growing sense of tiredness by the world’s problems that lots of Americans express and many American politicians explore (of course, Paul family at the top of the list, but others exploit the same sentiment quite adeptly too). What is tiredness if not the first sign of imperial decline? What is the talk of withdrawal if not another sign of same?

    As long as the division of the world into countries/nations exists, the world will not manage itself as a democracy (not that democracy is an ideal solution, just the lesser evil). As long as it is true, there will be the power play and the scrambling for the top dog position and the riches that position inevitably brings.

    1. To be clear, I promote no optimism about an international order, or life on this planet for that matter, just a way to live on it that has indeed made the lives of its inhabitants better, even as it ever teeters on the edge of a collapse that may well come.

      Yes, our greatest dispute is over the issue of empiring. I fully understand your position. It is a very reasonable one to hold. Rather than repeat points I’ve already made, I’ll offer one rejoinder and one additional, yet crucial argument, not ethical, but strategic.

      In the first instance, the zero sum calculation you make of empire and that range of powers does not, I think, hold up to scrutiny, though it is a very complex subject. While China, for instance, has been growing its military and desires a greater range of geopolitical power, its economic surge over the past thirty years is not the product of a greater imperial challenge to the U.S. Rather, it has worked in the other direction; the economic power enables the military and geopolitical power and challenge. Endless warring is a drain on the economic and social well. China, like Europe, has not had to bear that cost.

      Rather than speak of “withdrawal” or “retrenchment,” which is vocabulary that suggests fatigue and diminished resources, I will offer instead “realignment.” Realignment is strategic, in contrast to the desperate tactic of withdrawal. My argument is not offered as an expression of national fatigue, but, partly, as a recognition of its inevitability under current conditions. There is a profound sense in which the continual militarist-realist exhortations for the U.S./West (really the U.S.) to retain the moral fiber and worldly-wise courageous will never to falter in the face of international evil is as much a a form of ethical argument as is mine about the need for the U.S., internationally, to reflect its national democracy. Let us instead be truly real. Cultural capital and social will are resources no different from any other. Any individual, no matter how fit and well-trained, can lose a fight in the wrong conditions. Any military commander will be sure when possible to preserve adequate supply lines and hold the proper ground while entering battle with superior firepower and troop levels. The greatest general is not a miracle worker. Any military can lose if fielded foolishly. Endless engagements against a replenishing line of foes on far flung fields of battle and at times always of their choosing, with no thought of resupply and renewal or consideration of what territory is not important and what battles need not be fought is an operational plan destined for ultimate defeat.

        1. Thanks for the link. I think his identification of the two unexpected cross-polar alliances exactly right, though there are positions, such as that to be found here on the sad red earth, that fit neither. However, contra the fat man, I also think neither alliance is carrying the day. The Obama administration is representative of neither and is avoiding engagement in Syria for entirely different reasons of just the kind I have sought to describe here. Also, of the two major supporting links the fat man offers, both of which I was familiar with, I will kindly call the first, and its own links, strikingly lacking in credibility. The last is strikingly offensive, an act of verbal terrorism that deserves to be as counterproductive as a writing act can be.

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