Monday, June 17, 2013

More on Syria: Do Non-Interventionists Take the Atrocities Seriously?

Earlier this month, Richard Cohen wrote a column for the Washington Post offering a familiar charge against non-interventionists: they are “cold-hearted,” Cohen argues, and have no compassion for the victims of any human rights abuses other than those perpetrated by America and her allies.  Cohen cites a recent article in the New York Review of Books by David Bromwich as evidence of a "total lack of concern for the misery of Syrians."  He goes on: "Rarely do any of these anti-intervention pieces cry bloody murder at the killing that continues apace in Syria. Liberals, once characterized as bleeding hearts, seem now to have none at all."

The important question for this post is not whether such criticisms are ever justified (I believe they are, and I get as tired as Cohen does of cavalier dismissals from non-interventionists of Assad's "obviously horrible" crimes-- as if such throw-away references did full justice to the scope of the atrocities), nor even whether such criticisms are justified on the basis of the instances Cohen cites (they are clearly not, if you actually read Bromwich's piece-- the whole point of which is that the violence in Syria is so complex and deplorable that it presents no easy solution).  Rather, I want to take issue with a tendency in Cohen's article that comes up time and again in these sorts of polemics: the idea that wishes make reality, and that one is somehow morally absolved on the merit of good intentions.  Here are some examples from the column of what I have in mind:

"The argument is that Syria would be Iraq all over again. This is tendentious. The whole idea of intervening early — it may already be too late — was not to impose some U.S.-friendly regime but merely to stop the killing and avoid an immense humanitarian calamity. Early on, this was possible. The proposal was to arm the moderate rebels, impose a no-fly zone and throw the weight of the United States behind the effort to topple Assad. [...] Syria was never going to be the Iraq war. It was going to be a humanitarian intervention, an attempt to stop the killing, end the misery — use U.S. power to do good. [...] All we wanted — all I wanted — was to end the killing."

I have to wonder what Cohen thinks he is proving by this argument.  To emphasize that all he wanted to do was to "use U.S. power to do good" is apparently to insist that someone thought he wanted to use it to do evil, or that the only relevant consideration in assessing the morality of different courses of action is the intention of the doer.  In what other field of policy or life would we ever apply this standard?  Moral decisions in our personal relations or public policy are not weighted purely on the basis of whether the person making them wanted to bring about a positive result, but also on three other considerations:  First, did that person consider the possible negative consequences of her decision, supposing she has sufficient information to be able to predict them and is of sound mind?  If not, her action is guilty of criminal neglect at best.  Second, did that person choose a course of action which would involve evil actions in the pursuit of a positive result?  If so, then the evil actions are as much a part of her intention as the good, unless one accepts some tortured version of the "doctrine of double effect"-- one which would have us believe that if I knowingly stretch my aching leg precisely where you are walking, then the only thing I "willed" was the muscle relief and not the tripping that resulted.  And thirdly, was there a better way to achieve the same positive end that the decision-maker overlooked?

Obviously, these other considerations should at least affect the moral calculus on Syria.  If Cohen does not find them sufficient to prove the case for non-intervention, he should at least admit that they, and not callous indifference, may play at least some part in motivating his critics.

What most non-interventionists argue with respect to Syria is not in the least that Assad's atrocities have been exaggerated.  They are real, and they are evil.  Nor is the argument that Assad's opponents are his moral equivalent.  While the armed opposition has been guilty of crimes and is likely to commit even more against the Alawite minority should it gain the upper hand, the scales do not come close to balancing at this point.

Rather, the case, at least in the form I find most compelling, rests on the three considerations I listed above.  Firstly, given the sectarian undertones of Syria's civil war and the lack of any clearly defined liberal, democratic, or secular opposition to Assad's regime, it seems incredibly implausible that any attempt to arm one side or another will lead to a cessation of the violence rather than its escalation.  Secondly, arming groups which are almost certain to use them to capture and torture their opponents is itself an evil act- justifiable only if the positive good that will be produced by it is so overwhelming as to nullify its injustice.  In this sense, Cohen does not simply want "to stop the killing," but "to arm people who will kill people in the hopes that this will eventually diminish the amount of killing overall"-- as he surely knows.  Is he quite as sure as he would need to be to meet the criteria above that this course of action is worth its evident risks?  Finally, I believe in general that there are better ways than war to protect human rights-- ones which don't entail violating human rights in the process and that in Syria in particular there are courses of action open to the international community which don't involve putting guns in the hands of armed sectarian groups: for instance, offering asylum to Syrian refugees, continuing with the peace talks, and continuing to pressure Russia to use its influence over Assad to end his brutal and indiscriminate air war against his own citizens.

I understand the feeling that these seem inadequate responses to the scope of the humanitarian catastrophe.  But no amount of bloodshed in Syria can somehow prove the case that we should play a more active role in contributing to that bloodshed ourselves, unless all three considerations above were weighed and found wanting.  But even then, there would be the Kantian argument to consider, and I must say I find it rather plausible.  In other words, even if it could be shown (and I doubt it could be) that the net result of arming Syria's rebels would be positive, this action would still amount to violating the categorical imperative.  It would effectively be treating the government sympathizers and ethnic minorities who would almost assuredly be killed by the sectarian opposition once in power as means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.

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