Unapologetic Non-Interventionism

Book review: The Syria Dilemma

03/03/2014 | by Toby Vogel

Category: Near and Middle East/North Africa, Worldwide

This collection of essays outlining the current debate over Syrian policy suggests that a conflict-shy West missed its opportunity to intervene early in a limited and meaningful manner in Syria, resulting in a muddled and contradictory situation, described by Richard Falk, whereby “To stand by is unacceptable, but to act without some realistic prospect of improving the situation is equally unacceptable.”

In a poem entitled “Sarajevo,” first published in English in The New Republic in October 1993, Czesław Miłosz, then well into his eighties, wrote:

It was a sham, the rebellion of the young who cried for a new earth,

and that generation has written the verdict on itself,

Listening with indifference to the cries of those who perish

because they are just barbarians killing each other.

The generation to which Miłosz referred was that of 1968, trapped in its certainty that nothing good can ever come from American leadership. But that generation also included some – Bernard Kouchner, André Glucksmann, and Daniel Cohn-Bendit come to mind – who showed moral seriousness, even courage, over the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina by throwing out their certainties when they clashed with events on the ground. They recognized that the only action that would stop the state-sponsored Serb rampage in Bosnia (and later in Kosovo) was military intervention. They also recognised that such intervention would not be led by Europe.

Miłosz’s poem opened The Black Book of Bosnia, a 1996 collection of reports, essays, and editorials that had appeared in The New Republic over the previous years. The collection is evidence of the depth of intellectual engagement with what was happening at the time in the former Yugoslavia. It charts the momentum that had developed in policy and intellectual circles toward liberal interventionism, nation building, and the prevention of mass atrocities, not least thanks to hard-hitting reporting from the front lines.

If Miłosz was being harsh on the generation of '68 and unfair to some of its more serious members, one cannot help but wonder what the poet, who died in 2004, would have made of the post-'68 generation – the one that invented the concept of a “responsibility to protect” in the wake of the Yugoslav wars, only to avert its eyes from the horror of Syria less than two decades later. No ideological certainties appear to have been shaken by the Syrian tragedy. The horrific atrocities that its civilians have been forced to endure both from the regime and, lately, from Islamist factions among the rebels seem to have left few traces in the prevailing zeitgeist.

The Syria Dilemma, edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel and published late in 2013 after two-and-a-half years of war in Syria, is a sequel of sorts to The Black Book of Bosnia. It is an indispensable guide to the current debate on what can and ought to be done about Syria – not a trivial achievement, even though the policy answer appears to be, “not much at all.” Hashemi and Postel, professors at the University of Denver, are careful to point out in their preface that “morally serious people disagree over what should be done.” Theirs is a balanced collection that gives space to several of the more thoughtful anti-interventionists such as Fareed Zakaria and Marc Lynch. But taken in its entirety, it is hard to come away from this book with anything other than a strong feeling that some form of intervention should have taken place early in a conflict that by now has claimed the lives of an estimated 130,000 people and displaced around seven million, and that some form of intervention will still be needed to bring it to an end.

At the same time, The Syria Dilemma highlights just how shallow and sterile the intellectual environment is in which the intervention debate takes place. Syria, unlike Bosnia, has not prompted any serious reexamination of our understanding of international affairs, of the role of military force in ending wars, or of the responsibility to protect civilians against mass atrocities. The Syrian tragedy has had surprisingly little resonance given that it takes place in a pivotal country in a region whose strategic importance has been a premise of Western policy for decades. The Obama administration, by contrast, has decided that Syria is a humanitarian issue with no strategic implications, writes Vali Nasr, a former Obama administration official, in a short, poignant piece in the New York Times.

The Black Book of Bosnia contained a dispatch from an Irish-American woman who at just 22 years old had gone to Bosnia to report on the violence there, and who came away with a deep conviction – or so it seemed – that preventing mass atrocities ought to be an overarching goal of US foreign policy, and that military force may be an appropriate means to that end. Conflicts such as Bosnia’s were precisely not a primarily humanitarian issue. The reporter, Samantha Power, later wrote a book on genocide and US foreign policy, A Problem from Hell, that not only won a Pulitzer Prize but became a seminal text for liberal international interventionism.

Today, Power is Obama’s envoy to the United Nations and in charge of defending the administration’s spineless policy of doing nothing on Syria. Cynical or clueless, that policy of abandoning Syria’s uprising – peaceful in its early stages, then pushed to armed self-defence by the relentless, calibrated regime violence – has resulted in the takeover of the rebel cause by an assortment of violent Jihadis whose atrocities are morally on the same level as the butchery that Assad has unleashed on his own people. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have hijacked the Syrian civil war in their proxy war against Iran, just as Iran and its Lebanese stand-in Hezbollah have hijacked the Syrian civil war in pursuit of their vision of a revolutionary Shia Middle East. This proxy war is unfolding against the backdrop of an America that has all but opted out of the Middle East and of a Europe that stubbornly refuses to accept that its foreign relations might have any strategic dimension, even in its neighborhood.

Today, the two main antagonists in Syria’s war appear close to indistinguishable in their nihilistic brutality; they would appear to have turned into “just barbarians killing each other.” As a consequence, those who believe that outside intervention is the only means to stop mass killings are in despair – a despair reflected in The Syria Dilemma.

“Surely mass murder in the tens of thousands is enough for action, on both moral and strategic grounds,” writes Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former State Department official and professor at Princeton University. But what such action should entail – and there is no prospect at present of it being taken – is not a trivial matter. As Slaughter’s Princeton colleague Richard Falk writes: “To stand by is unacceptable, but to act without some realistic prospect of improving the situation is equally unacceptable.” That is perhaps the most succinct summary of the Syrian dilemma.

Falk’s essay is among the most interesting of the collection. Suffused with a deep skepticism about what can be done, it escapes at the same time the sort of facile pseudo-realpolitik that has determined the West's Syria policy for three years now. Falk, in fact, was opposed to intervention until he attended a conference last January organised by Hashemi and Postel, from which many of the contributions to this book emerged. “I left dissatisfied with my position that nothing more could or should be done at the international level to help end the violence in Syria or to assist the struggle of the Syrian people,” he writes. “I became convinced that human solidarity with the ordeal of the Syrian people was being deeply compromised by the advocacy of passivity in the face of the persisting criminality of the Damascus government, although dilemmas remain as to discerning a genuinely constructive course of action.”

What makes reading The Syria Dilemma so depressing is that the arguments advanced here appear pointless. The intervention dilemma is real – but it is completely unreal in the policy world. In Bosnia and Kosovo, violence produced a groundswell of interventionist feeling, if not in public opinion then certainly in published opinion. In Syria, the rise of Islamist factions among the rebels, a direct product of Western inaction, has put out any pro-intervention feeling which might have existed before. If not even the use of chemical weapons, as marginal to the overall war as it has been, proved insufficient to spur action, how grotesque would the violence have to get for Western powers to intervene? What the “Stop the War” crowd in the West refuses to acknowledge is that neither the US nor its allies are or were in any way keen on intervention.

The refusal to get involved has various sources. The wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq had nothing to do with humanitarian intervention, but they have turned Western opinion makers profoundly anti-interventionist. Libya brought a brief respite from that stifling sentiment that the fate of far-away countries means nothing to us (perhaps because it wasn’t quite as far away as Iraq and Afghanistan). It also gave us a glimpse of what European leadership might look like. But the military campaign over, France, the UK, and the US completely abandoned the country, instead of strengthening moderate factions and the institutions of government. The results have been depressingly predictable. (Nothing scares liberal democratic governments as much as the prospect of open-ended involvement in nation building.) If Europe has shown itself unwilling to support moderate forces in a nearby country in which it has a direct strategic interest, what are the prospects it will act decisively in a country such as Syria, whose importance the Europeans refuse to acknowledge?

The Syria Dilemma does not dwell on the European dimension, nor should it. The policy here has been as erratic as in the US, with France and the UK pushing the EU to lift its arms embargo against the rebels only to drop any plans to actually provide arms. What has been consistent in both Europe and the US is an absolute refusal to contemplate the human, political, and strategic cost of non-intervention. It is not surprising that those in power should prefer not to ponder the hard questions. Why Europe’s and America’s opinion makers should join them is a mystery.

Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel (editors). The Syria Dilemma. Boston Review Books/MIT Press: 2013. 272pp. Hardcover, $14.95.


TOBY VOGEL is a staff writer with European Voice in Brussels and a co-founder of the Democratization Policy Council (Washington and Berlin).

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