The question of humanitarian intervention is complicated even if we pretend it is not.
A U.S.-led humanitarian intervention in Syria remains unlikely, even as sanctions intensify and the Free Syrian Army’s struggle against the al-Assad regime increasingly resembles a civil war. China and Russia recently vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution against the regime, true to Russia’s word. The veto, along with ongoing carnage in Homs, has refocused the world’s attention on the savagery in Syria.
America’s military will likely remain on the sidelines this time. Despite what its March intervention in Libya might suggest, America remains averse to armed conflict. Many favorable circumstances surrounded the Libya foray; these are absent in Syria. So emerges the difficult question: do we intervene?
Robert Pape’s nuanced New York Times op-ed establishes a potentially useful rule, or at least a significant independent variable, for determining the viability of humanitarian intervention: control by opposition forces of a large region of the country. This condition was met in Libya, he writes; in Syria, the extent of the Free Syrian Army’s foothold remains unclear for now.
That Pape opposes humanitarian intervention in Syria (for now) does not make him unusual: see my earlier post on this matter. What makes him unusual is that he does so intelligently.
Below are five much less intelligent but much more common ways to oppose humanitarian intervention.
1. Recalling That the United States Has Done Bad Things Before
“What about the Native Americans? What about Vietnam and Cambodia? What about slavery? What about Abu Ghraib?”
Good questions. What about them? Would you have opposed moving to stop those atrocities or not? If so, then you’re categorically opposed to humanitarian intervention. If not, then you support it sometimes and need to explain why you oppose it in this case, as Pape does. If you’re just bringing these episodes up in order to question America’s right to impose humanitarian intervention elsewhere, then remember that many of America’s past crimes are crimes of passivity. What about Rwanda? What about Darfur? If you believe these outrages should have been prevented (and know of a country without sin that can cast the first Tomahawk in America’s stead), speak up now.
2. Pointing Out That the United States Does Not Intervene Every Time Bad Things Happen
“What about North Korea? What about Zimbabwe? What about Saudi Arabia?”
Pointing out that we do not consistently invade or not invade every unhappy place on earth does not, on its own, constitute an argument against humanitarian intervention. The question, then, is why these other cases are being raised. If they are being raised to argue that the United States should never intervene abroad, period, then so be it: Rwanda and Cambodia are our success stories. If the point is that the United States always should, then more interventions are being argued for, not less. If neither of the above points is being made, as is usually the case, then no point is being made at all.
3. Grumbling That the United States Has Ulterior Motives
OK, I take that back. Someone might also bring up other unsavory regimes to make a different point: that the United States is hypocritical for seeking to bring down one evil regime while it protects, arms, and funds others. This is a sound argument for some purposes, but not for opposing a given instance of humanitarian intervention. No country needs impeccable moral credentials in order to do the right thing today, and no country will ever have them.
Alternatively, it might be argued that while the intervention is the right thing to do, we are doing it for the wrong reasons (often “oil” or “imperialism”). This also does not delegitimize the intervention itself.
4. Warning That Things Will Go Wrong
As Pape shows, this argument can be made well. Having researched the role of air power in the past, he writes that it “alone would probably not be sufficient to blunt the Assad loyalists entrenched in cities, and a heavy ground campaign would probably face stiff and bloody resistance.” It is true that, unlike Qaddafi’s vulnerable and isolated attack force, al-Assad’s forces are difficult to bomb.
To be credible, though, this argument must come with an acknowledgement that nothing about the future is certain, and that inaction has its own consequences. Syria is no exception to this rule: civilians will die with or without an intervention, and the international community is responsible both for what it does and for what it does not do.
This is an easy one, and you don’t need to know anything to do it. Most opposition to humanitarian intervention takes this form.