Should the west ever go to war for purely humanitarian reasons? Welcome to one of the great foreign policy dilemmas of the modern era; a question that’s been routinely provoked by no shortage of ghastly overseas massacres, genocides, and civil wars, in both this century and the last.
No one’s ever offered a firm answer, and to extent there are possible case studies — France’s 1979 invasion of the Central African Empire to depose their insane cannibal dictator, the NATO war against Slobodan Milsoveic’s Serbia in the 1990s, America’s entire 2003-2011 Iraq occupation — such examples are clouded by ambiguous political rhetoric and multi-faceted justifications that designated humanitarianism as merely one motive of many. And now comes another opportunity for consideration, care of Barack Obama and Bashar al-Assad.
Assad, it’s now pretty much agreed in every foreign capital but Moscow, has used chemical weapons against his own people multiple times as part of his two-and-a-half-year war against internal dissent. According to the ace reporting of Dexter Filkins at The New York Times, the precise number of uses may be as high as 35, in fact. But the only figure anyone’s concerned with at the moment is 1,400 — the number of Syrians US intelligence believes were killed in a single, unprecedentedly vicious Damascus gas attack on August 21 of this year.
While some will obviously never again give US intelligence the benefit of the doubt in the aftermath of Iraqi WMD-gate, to dispute the existence of Syria’s chemical weapons is to straddle the line from skeptic to denier. Bodies pulled from the attack site have tested positive for the nerve agent sarin. Intercepted phone calls have caught regime officials discussing the August 21 attack with officers in the country’s chemical weapons unit. Dozens of amature videos have documented the sheer scope of human suffering, and poison experts have verified their symptoms.
In any case, the evidence has certainly been ample and media-friendly enough to make thorough mockery of Barack Obama’s now-infamous “red line” comment of August 2012, in which the President seemed to imply that he’d launch a military strike against Syria the moment Assad broke out the chemical weapons. His argument at the time — which was almost certainly not completely well-thought-out, coming as it did at the very end of spontaneous press conference — held that America was willing to shoulder the burden of protecting the Syrian people from their murderous government, but only if such murderousness crossed some arbitrary, well, “red line,” of savagery.
The moral incoherence of this logic was immediately apparent: as Obama laid out his thesis some 20,000 Syrians had already been slaughtered through “conventional means” in the Assad crackdown – and another 80,000 have been killed since. As far as the overall body count is concerned, any victims of chemical weapons are destined to remain in the war’s minority. Yet under the Obama doctrine, it’s the cause of death that matters more than the amount of it, and after news of August 21 began to percolate across the globe, Obama finally declared Saturday that yes, he would officially seek Congressional approval to begin bombing.
It’s extremely unclear if this is an idea capable of rallying bipartisan support in both chambers. Public support for American involvement in yet another US war in the Muslim world (by some counts, Iran will now be the only Middle Eastern nation America has not invaded, bombed, droned, or occupied militarily in some fashion since 9/11) is said to sit somewhere between nine to 20%, an opposition so robust it clearly transcends ideology.
Critics on both right and left alike argue there’s little evidence to suggest striking Syria at this point will actually help anything; the anti-Assad opposition has become so thoroughly infiltrated by foreign al-Qaeda mercenaries and cash from the fundamentalist gulf state monarchies it’s hardly obvious if the country’s humanitarian crisis will improve in any meaningful way if the dictator falls. The “best” case scenario, it seems, is that the civil war will just get bloodier and more anarchic once its central personality is eliminated, while the worst case scenario would see the rise of an extremist Sunni regime eager to wage a vindictive war of extermination against the country’s Assad-friendly Shiite minority who oppressed them for so very long.
Such anxieties have prompted Obama to clarify that “regime change” is not the goal of his planned raids — nor even altering the civil war’s balance of power — but that only raises further questions. If ending the war and ending the regime are both off the table, then what exactly is the mission? Bombing Assad’s chemical warehouses in order to merely prevent a certain type of killing which isn’t even the war’s most prolific or deadly?
Secretary Kerry, Jay Carney and others have argued the global community must uphold its policy of zero-tolerance against the use of chemical warfare in any context, but of course there’s no real precedent of this consensus ever being enforced. Saddam Hussein got away with using chemical warfare twice in the 1980s, first against Iran and then the Kurds, and it’s believed the USSR once used it to quell a protest in Georgia. No one intervened in those cases, because the larger geopolitical realities were deemed comparatively more important than the lives of a few foreign civilians. Such callous calculations — a hallmark of Cold War thinking — wasn’t the west’s proudest hour, but they were arguments of principle, however cynical. Bombing chemical plants in isolation, in contrast, strikes me as the ethical equivalent of that famous catch-phrase about the neutron bomb: they’ll “destroy weapons but leaves killers intact.”
In a recent op-ed in the National Post, former Canadian cabinet minister Irwin Cotler, a well-known booster of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine of humanitarian intervention, argued that “if mass atrocities in Syria are not a case for R2P, then there is no R2P.” Like a good liberal internationalist, his suggestions to President Obama were typical fare — convene the Security Council, establish no-fly zones, boost aide for refugees, send Assad to the Hague, etc. It was an agenda as breathtakingly naive as it was ridiculously idealistic, but was also useful for offering a glimpse of the impossibly high bar any genuine western-led, internationalist effort to solve the Syria problem in a concrete or lasting way would have to meet.
Whether Congress approves it or not, the Obama plan does not even meet the standard of being too idealistic. His agenda is neither liberal nor realist, principled nor pragmatic. It leaves Syria no safer, America no stronger, Assad no weaker, and the fundamental question that started all this — is the United States a benevolent superpower prepared to exert her military might to safeguard the rights of the world’s oppressed? — still lacking a clear answer.