Libya and Syria; When is Intervention Justified? Part 1

The foreign policy of the Trump administration may be a sharp break with the past. The results of U.S. foreign policy since 2000 may be served up as justification. But before the past is completely disavowed, perhaps a missing a principle of discrimination should be discovered and preserved.

We start with the title question, and will segue into a New-New World Order.

In Does America Need a Foreign Policy?, page 258, Henry Kissinger writes,

Foreign policy is bounded by the circumstances; it is, as Bismarck noted, “the art of the possible,” “the science of the relative.” When moral principles are applied without regard to historical conditions, the result is usually an increase in suffering rather than its amelioration. And if they are applied in light of domestic or international conditions, the desirable is constrained by the concept of national interest, so often castigated by the Wilsonians.

(Note: In the current political spectrum, Wilsonians are approximated by those favoring global trade, low national barriers to commerce and people, and high standards of moral conduct.  Jacksonians, the traditionally opposing group, emphasize national interest. There  seems to be an emotional, if not factual, resonance between Trump and the traditional Jacksonian constituency.)

Published in 2001, the book seems prescient now. If western arms had not been provided to Syrian rebels, the  toll might be a mere fraction of the count, now approaching 500,000. The preceding regime of Hafez Assad quelled insurrections by slaughter of a mere 5000 to 40,000. I claim no prescience. This is a counterfactual history.

Against the casualties, New Hampshire’s motto,  “Live Free or Die”, seems ridiculous. Patrick Henry’s oration to the Virginia State Legislature “Give me liberty, or give me death!” becomes rhetorical flourish. But we haven’t been hypocrites. In the last great struggle, World War II, still in living memory for some, many Americans gave their lives to save liberty for others.

The struggle was remarkably successful. Not long after the Axis was vanquished, all of the liberated countries resumed democracy, followed in less than a decade by the defeated Axis powers. But Liberty faced a new, implacable foe; the Cold War followed  immediately.  The U.S. response was the strategy of containment, first enunciated by George F. Kennan in 1947. It concluded with success in 1991.

But any line of thought offers a psychological hazard called perseveration, continuation  beyond usefulness. The vast human machinery of containment,  vulnerable to  group-think, over-applied the doctrine to contain things other than the original threat. Even Kennan became distressed. The failures  alternate with success:

  • The Korean War saved half of Korea.
  • The Vietnam War was a disaster.
  • The 1991 Gulf War was a success.
  • With the Iraq War of 2003, we won the war and lost the peace.
  • Miscellaneous small interventions are too numerous to tally. Of these, the 1953 overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the elected prime minister of Iran, has had the most enduring consequences, and is most open to counterfactual analysis.

These are monuments of history. But there is also “ground knowledge” that vitally informs. One can get it only by going to the place, or talking with someone who has. So I seek casual conversations with persons of foreign background. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I receive an intelligent, localized perspective of a conflict that is regarded here in geopolitical terms. My most recent discussion was with a multilingual Bulgarian who had grown up in Turkey, but has resided in the U.S. for many years. He is not a religious believer.

Sharing concern for the human suffering, his understanding of the conflict is different from ours. In his view, Syria is more than a Sunni majority; it’s a multi-ethnic place. One thought was shared: there is no apparent solution. Before the current conflict, identifying as Turkish, he had a conversation with a Syrian, who said, paraphrasing, “Unlike your Turkish situation, everybody in Syria gets along with everybody else.”

This seems incredible, considering the history of the conflict.  The spark: some teenagers in Daraa wrote Arabic graffiti on a school wall, in red paint:

                                                طبيب دورك

Translation: “Your turn doctor.” The “doctor” referenced was Bashar Hafez al-Assad.The mukhābarāt arrested them, and tortured them. Half a million dead, over graffiti, though, under the surface, Syria had already disintegrated, with drought and religion the proximal causes (Atlantic.) Yet, incredibly, my Bulgarian’s interlocutor had bragged, “…in Syria gets along with everybody else.”

But does New Hampshire’s motto ever have a place in the real world? The oppressions  of Gadaffi’s Libya and Syria were different in magnitude.  Syria had open borders, and permitted  private lives. In Libya, people were made into children, in  an almost uniquely Orwellian state. Perhaps only Stalin’s Russia compared.

The jury is still out. We must wait another decade before Libyans can decide whether the result was worth the price. But the debacle of Syria, and balancing fate of Libya, gives urgency to the question of this article: When is intervention justified?

To be continued shortly.



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