5,000 people dead, including 300 children. Hundreds, perhaps thousands missing. Ongoing violence. Gun battles in the streets, aerial bombardment of cities.
Welcome to Syria, where the awesome moral force of the “duty to protect” can be seen in all its majesty and might.
Every day we hear more about Butcher Assad’s war on activists, protestors, rebels, civilians. We hear about the army’s bombardment of Homs, of the slaughter of civilians at a funeral; we see videos of dead Syrian children and read horror stories of torture and death in Syrian prisons. Occasionally, we are treated to jaw-droppingly obtuse and depressingly aloof statements from the regime claiming that those killed were soldiers and police, and the killers armed rebel thugs.
And the world yawns. We have no appetite for this. Day after day the slaughter continues, but nothing changes. International organizations like the Arab League and the UN cry out in alarm, stamping their feet and saying to Assad “Stop this immediately!” Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International offer their strongest condemnation of each new atrocity. The US and Europe sanction the regime, stop importing oil, and attempt to strangle Assad’s access to the material he needs to maintain power. But the beatings and the killings go on.
International sanctions are destroying Syria’s economy but not the wealth, standing, and determination of the regime. Citizens suffer because food prices have shot up; winter is coming and many have no money to pay for heating oil, and no access to oil even if they have the money. Many say that sanctions give the regime more power, not less.
Where is NATO, which cheerfully bombed the Great Loon’s forces in Libya? Where are the Saudi troops, which marched resolutely across the causeway to Bahrain in order to stop Iranian “meddling”? Where are the Qatari warplanes that joined the fight in Libya? Where are the Turkish soldiers, who threatened to join an international intervention in Syria? Where are the American troops that invaded Iraq to topple a mass murderer? Where, in short, is the international “duty to protect”?
It has failed. A humanitarian movement that can’t stop the slaughter of 5,000 civilians, a massacre broadcast to the world every single day, unmasks itself as hypocritical and incoherent. Here we have a powerful regime killing civilians as well as rebels, simply so it can remain in power. We have evidence of human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity, perhaps enough evidence to prosecute some Syrian leaders in the International Criminal Court. But we do not have the will to do so.
To be clear, I am not urging intervention in Syria. But then I think the “duty to protect” is a pious wish more than a real force in international politics and that much vaguer concept, international law. It expresses a natural and — so far as it goes — noble human wish to help and protect those in danger, and those being repressed by inept and crude governments, but there is no sensible way to embody it as a sound basis for foreign policy in the present world. “Mild urge to protect” is a better description of the actual reality; both public opinion at large and world leaders are often queasy and unhappy at the spectacle of mass suffering abroad, and would sort of kind of like to do something about it. On the other hand, they don’t want to be made to feel too bad when, as normally happens, they don’t intervene.
The “duty to protect at all costs” crowd thinks the rest of us are lousy moral slackers. To some degree they are right, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Conscience is like Hitler, insatiable; if you give it Czechoslovakia it wants Poland. The United States, NATO, and the UN can’t be the policemen of the world. If the forces of order manage to stave off another generation of mass bloody warfare and repression around the world, that would be a good enough thing to start with. The humanitarians who act as if their dearest wishes were — or soon could be — facts, sometimes propel history in a positive direction, but just as often they are actually forces of confusion and evil, making it harder for political leaders to get the basics done.
If the world isn’t mounting a crusade, pardon me, jihad — whoops — righteous act of secular humanitarian intervention in Syria that doesn’t mean the skids aren’t being greased for Assad. The Europeans, the Saudis, the Turks, the Americans and a very large number of Syrians want him out. But his capital error wasn’t murdering his own people. Look at Bahrain. If Assad hangs (which he seems to deserve), the real cause will be geopolitical not humanitarian crimes. He rejected overtures from the western and Sunni worlds to secure his rule by switching his allegiance; the rest is just business.
Nattering to ourselves about the “duty to protect” won’t save any children or deter any dictators, alas. We are and always will be too inconsistent and too concerned by other priorities to have a fireman foreign policy, with the rhythm of our activity entirely dictated by the incoming calls on global 911. In fact, the first duty of a president is to make sure that in the distraction of daily emergencies the US does not lose sight of the big picture.
That big picture has a lot more going on than a few thousand courageous people being mowed down by thugs. Doing what we can to maintain the peace in Asia for the next generation, for example, so that half the world’s population can concentrate on defeating poverty and living ordinary human lives without tens of millions killed in political upheaval and military conflict, is much more important than anything happening in Syria today — or in Libya last spring, for that matter. Preserving and even enhancing American military, diplomatic and economic power is a legitimate aim of foreign policy as well; we need the resources, the standing and the strength to help keep the world at peace.
The world needs more strategic humanitarianism and less ambulance chasing. Dean Acheson argued for a moral rather than a moralistic foreign policy, and this is part of what he meant. Our foreign policy should always be humane in its vision and orientation, but it cannot be run as a humanitarian rescue squad.
The most moral foreign policy is the one that is grounded in a serious, long-term strategic view of where the world is headed, what the principal dangers are, and how the United States can preserve and develop its own strength and prosperity so as to do what needs to be done on the international scene.
In Syria that means helping grease the skids for Assad, more because it weakens and isolates Iran and undermines Hezbollah than because Butcher Assad is a vicious and bloodthirsty tyrant. A moment could come in which military intervention with the right partners and under the right circumstances would make sense, but it looks as if Assad’s growing weakness will spare us from having to make that decision. Preventing a US-Iranian war is a humane and appropriate goal for our foreign policy, and driving the mullahs away from the Mediterranean could help get that done.
In other places a humane and moral foreign policy means doing different things. It means maintaining civil and open relationships with governments in China and Saudi Arabia, for example, despite our instinctive moral distaste for much that those governments do. The moral vigilantes call this hypocrisy, but this kind of behavior is a necessary part of making life better for people all over the world, including Americans.
“Duty to protect” is a vapid slogan leading to stupid foreign policy choices when invoked by the clamorous in support of the urgent, but the reality is that a considered, thoughtful long term foreign policy aimed at securing essential American interests, preventing destructive great power rivalries and wars and building a world in which more and more people have more and more freedom to work and live as they choose is the best way to fulfill our duties to ourselves and to those who need us.
Seriously considered, the “duty to protect” sometimes means that we have a duty to ignore.