On Consistency, Precedents and Humanitarian Intervention
Posted by Eric Martin
Daniel Trombly wrote a thorough and well-argued critique of three recent pieces that advocate, or at least consider, the use of military force by Western powers in Syria. While the whole piece is well worth the read, there is a particular aspect that I wanted to highlight due to its relevancy to topics previously discussed on this site.
The following is from the Anne-Marie Slaughter article that Trombly takes issue with:
If the Arab League, the U.S., the European Union, Turkey, and the UN Secretary General spend a year wringing their hands as the death toll continues to mount, the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine will be exposed as a convenient fiction for power politics or oil politics, feeding precisely the cynicism and conspiracy theories in the Middle East and elsewhere that the U.S. spends its public diplomacy budget and countless diplomatic hours trying to debunk.
Slaughter thus argues that by targeting the regime in Syria the US can debunk certain "conspiracy theories" rampant in the Middle East that claim that the United States cynically pursues its national interests, and places a higher priority on such interests than human rights concerns and democratic norms.
A variation of the argument was made in support of the Libya intervention, though it originally debuted as part of the case for invading Iraq. It remains just as dubious in each of its incarnations.
There are two primary reasons that this argument is deeply flawed:
First, it's not exactly a "conspiracy theory" to suggest that the US pursues its national interests with a certain degree of cynicism. Such a non-controversial contention is true not only of the US, but of most (if not all) other states, throughout known history.
For example, the US does actually support (and lavish aid on, and sell arms to, etc.) undemocratic states in the region with atrocious human rights records, including states like Yemen and Bahrain that violently suppressed pro-democracy movements during the recent, and ongoing, Arab Spring uprisings. Not only did we not have a responsibility to protect those beleaguered populations, apparently, but we feel justified in green-lighting large arms sales to at least one of the regimes in question.
Second, if the United States is trying to convince local populations that it has adopted a different approach whereby it prioritizes human rights and democracy over narrower self-interests, attacking an adversary like Syria (or Libya or Iraq), while continuing to support the same despotic regimes that earned it the reputation in the first place is unlikely to succeed.
If we are truly interested in setting a consistent precedent for the valuation of democracy and human rights ahead of other considerations (not that I'm suggesting that such an approach is necessarily prudent in all contexts), it seems that we should start by cutting off support for those despotic regimes that we consider "friendly" rather than using humanitarian concerns as a casus belli to target regimes that we otherwise find problematic when viewed through the prism of less sentimental national interests.