Sunday, September 8, 2013

Doing Justice to Syria's Dead

On August 21st, the Syrian Armed Forces almost certainly and intentionally unloaded Sarin gas attached to rockets on the people of Ghouta, near Damascus, killing several hundred civilians, according to the most modest estimates, and hospitalizing countless others.  These toxins operate by inhibiting communication between the brain and the muscles of their victims, meaning that the lungs and other essential organs cannot receive the cues they need to function.  The victims of Sarin cannot breath, think straight, chew or swallow-- in short, if exposed to enough of this chemical agent, they cannot live-- and three weeks ago, hundreds of them ceased to do so, most likely on the orders of their own head of state, Bashar al-Assad.  The attacks occurred in the small hours of the morning and killed children, parents, and other civilians while they were still asleep in their beds.

The Six Foot Turkey team has come out against intervention in Syria in previous posts and regular readers might well wonder whether these recent events have altered our stance.  The answer is no, not fundamentally, but they do mean that anti-interventionists have some extra work to do in justifying their position.  They have to account for how they would do justice to the innocent victims of these attacks without seeking military retribution against the government which carried them out.  And if full justice is not possible in this situation, they must demonstrate that they nonetheless take the atrocities seriously and do not brush them aside.

Before proceeding to our own position, however, we can dispense with some of the most common and unconvincing justifications for intervention which are put forward by its proponents.  The first is that American intervention would help to topple Assad and bring the rebels to power.  This is a bad argument both because it is unconvincing and, if true, its results would probably be undesirable.  If all the Obama administration hopes to do by military strikes in Syria is to bomb a few military targets, temporarily confuse Assad, and then back away, it is unlikely it will alter the balance of forces enough to have a real impact on the progress of the war.  If, on the other hand, these strikes would be the prelude to increased covert aid to the rebels, outright military support for their cause, or an all-out air war against Assad, then we could well bring the rebels to power-- and thereby open yet another Pandora's box of mujahideen, al-Qaeda affiliates, sectarian thugs, etc.  It would be Afghanistan all over again, and I mean this not merely by way of analogy-- it would also involve many of the same actors.  As reported on Democracy Now! from a story released by the Wall Street Journal (of all places) the CIA has already enlisted some of the same unsavory characters in its covert operations in Syria as it did in Afghanistan's civil war in the '80s.  

Crucially, this argument against bringing the Syrian rebels to power does not rest on drawing a moral equivalence between their present atrocities, as horrible as these are (mostly involving the torture and arbitrary killing of prisoners) and Assad's much more expansive and systematic policy of terror.  It is enough to say that such atrocities have taken place, and that the burden of proof falls on the rebels to show that my intuition-- that such crimes have been more limited so far only because the rebels have lacked the means and state equipment to pursue them to their logical conclusion-- is not valid.  

It is not entirely clear whether the Obama administration would in fact seek to topple Assad or merely to try to knock out certain of his military capacities and then leave the situation alone (which always sounds so easy as reported in these terms, doesn't it?).  The administration has been decidedly Janus-faced on this point so far, suggesting at the very least that we can't be entirely confident that it would end its Syria involvement at the point of marginally weakening Assad's capacity to detonate chemical weapons.

What other arguments for intervention have been put forward?  Well, as alluded to in this Glenn Greenwald piece, there's the rather bizarre claim emanating from some hawk(ish) corners (Jeff Goldberg, e.g.) that intervention will have little impact, positive or negative, on the situation on the ground, but that America will "lose credibility" if Syria is allowed to brazenly disregard the lines we draw in the sand.  This argument is closely allied to the one placed by Ross Douthat into the mouth of a fictional version of Obama, and only lukewarmly endorsed, if that, by Douthat himself: the argument that America will not be able to achieve any measurable good in Syria, but we must nevertheless throw our weight around in front of petty bullies like Assad to show him who's boss-- like, well, a slightly less petty bully.  This is rather grandiosely termed "Pax Americana."

One wonders whether those who employ this term really think that hearkening back to the "Pax Romana" and the "Pax Britannica" is a point in their doctrine's favor.  Shall we modestly remind them that these previous Paxes were not entirely peaceful for all parties concerned?  Shall we point out that "credibility" and "hegemony" are rather vague abstractions on which to hang the killing of conscripted soldiers and (most likely) some innocent civilians?  It is surely a disturbing sign of how little we think about the consequences of violence in our society that such phantasms can actually induce us to start loading the planes.  

Regardless, the "credibility" and "Pax Americana" argument is fraught with other absurdities: for one thing, it rests on the notion that we improve our credibility by stretching our military thin across an ever greater swathe of the Middle East, and that dictators are dissuaded from doing things like developing nuclear weapons when they are spooked by the imminent prospect of invasion-- yet the entire recent history of the region refutes both claims (more on this later).  Plus, come on!  Hasn't every center of power in history, including the United States, attempted to justify its hegemony with specters of unknown evils which might unfold if its authority is diminished?  The argument that "We may not be perfect, but the other guys would be even worse" deserves a Pulitzer in lameness.  It is no original insight to say that power will be abused unless it is checked by countervailing centers of power-- and if this situation does not yet obtain on the international stage then the answer is not to take advantage of its absence to make ourselves into a military Hegemon.  

In short-- the argument of the fictional version of Obama, Jeff Goldberg, etc. fails both as a moral case of intervention and as realism.  It just plain fails.

"Countervailing power"-- "international stage"-- it sounds like I am making a case for letting our multilateral institutions make the decisions on Syria.  Yes, up to a point-- but I do believe there are situations in which a humanitarian crisis is sufficiently dire that "international law" starts to seem like no better an altar on which to let people perish than "credibility" would be.  In other words, there are times when we have to simply acknowledge the failure of our current international institutions and intervene unilaterally to prevent further death.  In cases of genocide and other vast crimes against humanity, it would be absurd to talk about "countervailing power" without asking: where is the countervailing power to resist the rockets unloading Sarin gas on sleeping children?  What principle of "sovereignty" would protect Assad's government when he perpetrates such crimes?  International law is meaningless unless it has something too to say about the rights of individuals.  When it dramatically fails to protect the latter in the case of true acts of inhumanity, I am comfortable in saying that the United States, or any other power, has a right in principle and if it could actually help to intervene.

The only case for intervention in Syria, then, which I would find remotely plausible, would be a humanitarian one-- and one that was modestly framed: something along the lines of: we have no desire to see the rebels win the conflict, we are not taking sides, and we will not stay put for long.  All we want to do is make it moderately less likely that Assad will employ chemical weapons a second time against his own people. And we will do this by showing him that there will be some (limited) consequences for such acts.

I do not find this argument utterly implausible, as I say.  But I nonetheless reject it because it hinges on questions which cannot be answered with confidence.  For instance, it may well be the case that the Syria intervention vote goes down in defeat in Congress.  And let us suppose Obama does something that seems unlikely these days and actually respects Congress' judgment-- so we do not retaliate against Assad for the chemical weapons.  If all this transpires, it may well happen that I will be eating my words from this blog post if Assad feels empowered by the inaction of our military and starts dumping more of the same toxins.  

BUT, it may also happen that we do intervene, that Assad feels cornered and dumps everything he can on his own people as quickly as possible, leading us to intervene again-- perhaps even to install a rebel government this time which degenerates into unstable warlordism and becomes a haven for Islamist terrorists who attack us ten years later, leading to speculation in this country as to whether this was all due to a genetic or purely a cultural handicap on the part of Syrians (because we, the virtuous "liberal Empire" could surely never be implicated ourselves).  

Yes-- all of this could also happen.  Maybe not, of course. But recent history seems to indicate that dictators don't exactly respond to the logic of "deterrence."  As numerous commentators have pointed out, a big reason why Iran so relentlessly pursues its nuclear program is that it has noticed that the enemies of the United States who do not possess such weapons tend to be invaded.  Moreover, dictators are relatively insulated from the consequences of sanctions, limited strikes, etc., meaning that such actions nearly always end up exclusively harming the victims.  I'll say it again-- the logic of punishing the people of a country in the hopes of altering their government is not only morally wrong-- it also tiresomely, predictably, just. doesn't. work.

So we are left with uncertainty.  And as Ajay pointed out to me in a recent conversation on this topic, uncertainty is not a neutral position in matters of war.  When we are proposing to bomb and incinerate people from the air, we don't have the luxury of trying things out and seeing what happens.  We can't just close our eyes and hope for the best.  We are proposing to unleash violence, which is a very serious matter.  We therefore need something more than uncertainty.  Another way of putting this is to quote Noah Millman on the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq invasion: "war is hell, and [...] unleashing hell is not just another policy option."

So what, then, do nothing?  No!-- concentrate our resources on things which we know can have a positive impact, and which do not risk escalating the violence, such as providing asylum to Syrian refugees at higher rates and pressing for a trial of Assad in absentia in the International Criminal Court so that, if he ever left the country, he could be instantly extradited to the Hague.  These and other options have been routinely and intelligently floated by Connor Friedersdorff as alternatives to the treacherous path of war.

But would these do justice to Syria's dead, as promised in the title of the post?  No, not fully.  They would not answer the need justly felt by many people to have Assad suffer some consequences to his own person for committing crimes against humanity.  This is a burden on the conscience, but imagine what that burden will become if we do not put our resources into diplomacy, into pursuing an ICC trial, or into humanitarian aid, and instead ratchet up the level of violence in an already intolerable situation.  Could we live with that any more easily?  We need to put special emphasis here, it seems to me, on the final clause of Neibuhr's famous "Serenity Prayer": 
"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference."


  1. I agree- definitely need an ICC trial, and the US should endorse the ICC!

  2. This is a great and thoughtful piece. Thanks!

  3. Wow...Josh. Well stated and eloquently so. Your voice is clear, thoughtful, and measured. Best of all, you lead us all to better understand the choices before us as a nation. Speak up....this country needs your discourse and leadership. Bravo!

    1. Thank you so much-- and it's really great to hear from you!! Hope you stick around on the blog!