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An Indian Perspective on Syria

One of the benefits of traveling is getting exposure to different perspectives on contentious international issues. Case in point: this op-ed from earlier this week in The Hindu encouraging India not vote with the West in the Security Council on Syria. Prem Shankar Jha writes:

If there is a bloodbath in Aleppo, the West is bound to table yet another resolution in the Security Council, this time seeking permission to use “other means” if necessary to topple Bashar al-Assad and “save civilian lives.” Will India again vote with the West? Before it does so, it would do well to remember that its own nation building project is still incomplete. So whatever conventions it allows or helps the West establish on the Right to Protect or Intervene may well come back to haunt it in the years that lie ahead.

The unfinished nation-building project in this case is a reference to Kashmir. If Responsibility to Protect were to become a widely-accepted precedent, Jha suggests, it would both allow Western do-gooders to interfere in what India considers internal affairs and give Pakistan a fig leaf to cover its meddling.

As we noted earlier this week, India has been a stalwart of the strict non-interventionist, absolute sovereignty school of thought in international relations best exemplified today by Russia but also given lip-service by Brazil and China. Though these attitudes may be changing among Indian policymakers, this op-ed proves that the old way of thinking is still deep-seated in certain parts of the elite.

Jha goes on to argue that the media haven’t given Assad a fair shake:

The world learned virtually nothing about Mr. Assad’s efforts because the international media, which reported several of his pronouncements, did so with sneering scepticism and no attempt at analysis. But on February 26, 2012, 57 per cent of Syria’s electorate crowned Mr. Assad’s efforts with success by turning out to endorse the new constitution. The large turnout showed that the vast majority of Syrians still wanted a peaceful transition to a secular democracy, and did not mind Mr. Assad remaining in power to manage the transition. For the Free Syrian Army, whose leaders knew (just as LTTE leader Prabakaran did when forced to negotiate with New Delhi in 1987) that the return of peace would erode most of the support they enjoyed among the people, the only alternative that remained was to bring in foreign fighters in the name of jihad.

Jha’s argument is weakest when he implies that Assad is somehow still a legitimate ruler after all that has transpired, but he’s on point when discussing the problematic nature of the resistance. Via Meadia wouldn’t exactly endorse this take on the Syrian tragedy, but the article is certainly worth reading in full. In any case, readers should reflect on the way that people around the world often see issues very differently than we do. We may think the views Jha expresses here, which are widely shared among people in Indian politics, don’t make a lot of sense, but to some degree that’s not the point. India’s here, what it thinks matters — if not so much about Syria about other things we care about — and people who make foreign policy in the US have to take those views into account.

That’s one of the many reasons foreign policy is so hard to do well. Figuring out the best policy from the standpoint of your own interests and values is often very hard to do — if there are any easy and obvious answers to America’s Syria dilemma Via Meadia hasn’t heard about them yet. But when you then have to take into account not only your interests and concerns but those of other countries who matter to you — that’s when life starts getting even more complicated.

The press generally likes to cover these issues from the position that there are obvious, easy answers out there and only the cowardice or the idiocy or some other simple mistake is preventing our policy makers from getting things right and making everything work fine. Life isn’t like that; it wasn’t like that when Democrats trashed the Bush administration for eight years and it isn’t like that now when people complain that the Obama administration hasn’t pulled a magic rabbit out of its hat to fix Syria.

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  • carvaka

    there is another reason why india prefers a non-interventionist policy. or doesn’t even try to “promote” democracy.

    a lot of indians think that democracy can’t be a top down process. you have to build institutions – which is a long and torturous process. and that often happens best during long struggle , when you have to take a lot of interest groups along with you.

    when an intervention is needed it often means the struggle inside the country is not strong enough , their alternate political structure is much weaker.

    so most probably removing assad will bring another assad (somewhat better or worse) but not democracy.

    i am not saying international community should just watch while assad butchers people. but there is a lot of things between regime change and doing nothing.

    india is also skeptical about west’s intervention approach because it looks to us selective. it is done to weaker nations and it is done to those who are often in the opposite side.
    so to a lot of people it looks like there is an ulterior motive, even if there is none.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    As a Jacksonian I am against intervention for Wilsonian do-gooder reasons, and think that when the do-gooders start mucking about they just make things worse and prevent a clear decision of “Trial by Combat” from settling the issues. The Diplomatic impulse that demands peace at any price is irresponsibly foolish, and costs far more blood and treasure in the long run. Give War a chance, it is the only way 2 cultures can establish which is superior.

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