Arguments over intervention, whether in Afghanistan, Libya, or Syria, often seem over-familiar over time, with the same points being made irrespective of which conflict is being discussed.
One example is the type of argument that paints the foreign country as culturally inhospitable to democracy. Invoking Sweden as a contrast to the country in question is one way to highlight the abyss that separates us and them, as in “Why can’t Afghanistan be more like Sweden?” Like Sweden? Ridiculous, obviously. Using Jeffersonian as an adjective is another way of depicting democracy as intrinsically Western. It’s not their culture! They’ve not been raised on Rousseau, Burke, and John Stuart Mill like us Western citizens.
As if Western voters all brush up on Jefferson or Mill before heading to the ballot box.
In recent years one fortifying tonic against such xenophobic justifications for despotism has been Normblog, the pioneering political blog of Norman Geras. For example this post from 2006 which offers a snippet of Amartya Sen citing the aforementioned Mill:
Democracy, to use the old Millian phrase, is "government by discussion," and voting is only one part of a broader picture (an understanding that has, alas, received little recognition in post-intervention Iraq in the attempt to get straight to polling without the development of broad public reasoning and an independent civil society). There can be no doubt at all that the modern concepts of democracy and of public reasoning have been very deeply influenced by European and American analyses and experiences over the last few centuries (including the contributions of such theorists of democracy as Marquis de Condorcet, Jefferson, Madison and Tocqueville). But to extrapolate backward from these comparatively recent experiences to construct a quintessential and long-run dichotomy between the West and non-West would be deeply misleading.
Since traditions of public reasoning can be found in nearly all countries, modern democracy can build on the dialogic part of the common human inheritance.
Here’s another Normblog post, this one from 2004. It excerpts portions of an interview with former Polish dissident Adam Michnik concerning Michnik’s support for the invasion of Iraq:
We [Michnick and other east European former dissidents] take this position because we know what dictatorship is. And in the conflict between totalitarian regimes and democracy you must not hesitate to declare which side you are on. Even if a dictatorship is not an ideal typical one, and even if the democratic countries are ruled by people whom you do not like. I think you can be an enemy of Saddam Hussein even if Donald Rumsfield is also an enemy of Saddam Hussein.That interview was published in Dissent magazine.
It's simply that life has taught me that if someone is being whipped and someone is whipping this person, I am always on the side of those who are being whipped. I've always criticized U.S. foreign policy for forgetting that the United States should defend those who need to be defended. I would object to U.S. policy if it supported Saddam Hussein, and I have always criticized the United States for supporting military regimes in Latin America.
I don't think it is utopian to want to install democratic rule in Iraq. If it won't be an ideal democracy, let it be a crippled democracy, but let it not be a totalitarian dictatorship.
And this week we have Normblog recommending a post by former Dissent editor Michael Walzer. But instead of the old reliable tonic, we’re slipped a Mickey Finn. Geras quotes Walzer thus:
Many people have been criticizing President Obama for dithering over what to do in Syria. Not me; dithering seems an entirely rational response to what's going on there. The difficulty is that we don't really know what we want to happen - I mean we don't know which among the likely possibilities would be the least awful. Of course, readers of Dissent would be happy to see the victory of Syrians who have been studying John Stuart Mill or who take their cue from Swedish social democracy. But nothing like that lies anywhere on (or near) the horizon.
Norman Geras couples this with a quote from Monday’s Human Rights Watch statement on Syria., focusing on the widely reported video of a Syrian Rebel commander apparently mutilating a corpse:
Human Rights Watch has reviewed graphic evidence that appears to show a commander of the Syrian opposition “Independent Omar al-Farouq” brigade mutilating the corpse of a pro-government fighter. The figure in the video cuts the heart and liver out of the body and uses sectarian language to insult Alawites. The same brigade was implicated in April 2013 in the cross-border indiscriminate shelling of the Lebanese Shi’a villages of al-Qasr and Hawsh al-Sayyed.
There’s no question that such corpse mutilation is a war crime. There’s no question that indiscriminate shelling of villages is a war crime. But if the question is, in Walzer’s words, “which among the likely possibilities would be the least awful,” then in trying to answer it we should look at the relative scale of atrocities by the various parties, and their relative susceptibility to pressure to stop.
This is not a nice task. It means for example comparing the mutilation of the dead soldier with a gruesome New York Times report of massacres by regime forces in Tartus province:
After dragging 46 bodies from the streets near his hometown on the Syrian coast, Omar lost count. For four days, he said, he could not eat, remembering the burned body of a baby just a few months old; a fetus ripped from a woman’s belly; a friend lying dead, his dog still standing guard.
It means for example comparing last month’s shelling of the Lebanese villages of al-Qasr and Hawsh al-Sayyed by the rebel Omar al-Farouq Brigade, killing two civilians and wounding three, with last month’s HRW report on Syrian government air and missile attacks on civilian areas of Aleppo:
During a recent seven-day mission to Aleppo, Human Rights Watch researchers documented five attacks that took place between March 18 and April 7, 2013:
• On April 7, an airstrike in the Ansari neighborhood of Aleppo killed at least 22 civilians, including 6 children.
• On April 3, a cluster bomb attack in the Sheik Sa’eed neighborhood of Aleppo killed 11 civilians, including 7 children.
• On March 29, a cluster bomb and ballistic missile attack in the town of Hreitan in northern Aleppo killed at least 8 civilians, including 2 children, and injured dozens more.
• On March 24, an airstrike in the town of Akhtarin in northern Aleppo killed 10 civilians, including at least 4 children.
• On March 18, an airstrike on Marjeh neighborhood in the city of Aleppo killed at least 33 civilians, including at least 17 children.
It means for example comparing rebel executions of prisoners, such as the three publicly executed in Raqqa this week apparently by Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamists, with Aleppo’s river of corpses, described in detail in this Guardian report by Martin Chulov.
It means asking which scenario holds the better chance of some measure of accountability, of a future Syria ruled by law: a victory by rebels, or by the regime?
Regarding the rebels, Time reports Brigadier General Salim Idris, head of the Syrian Military Council (SMC), which oversees, according to its leadership, about 90% of the rebel forces as saying “it is very clear that these kinds of behaviors, this cutting of bodies, is not allowed. If there is evidence that fighters from the FSA are doing something against human rights or international law, they will be brought before the court.”
As for the Assad regime, its chief backer in the UN Security Council, Russia, is blocking the possibility of referring both regime and rebel crimes to the International Criminal Court.
On one side is a fragile hope, more endangered with every day of war, on the other is no hope at all. Every day of dithering over Syria weakens that fragile hope further.
UPDATE: Norm has written a response, In defence of uncertainty (over Syria), and I thank him for it, especially given what a difficult time this is for him.
He clarifies that “there is not a balance of atrocity in this matter so far as I'm aware.” For Norm, the key point is “the crucial justifying condition that external intervention must have a reasonable chance of making a difference for the better.”
I explained my own views on what kind of intervention I believed was needed on just such a basis of likely consequences in March of last year. My view has not substantially changed since then, and I believe events since that time confirm the accuracy of much of my analysis.