The Realist Case for Intervening in Syria

I can only imagine that IR theorists of the realist persuasion pick up a newspaper detailing the scores of dead bodies and mass graves in Syria and let out a collective yawn, before turning to the sports section. The world is a messy place, anarchical even. We cannot intervene in areas where there is no overriding or vital national security interest. Consider the countless bloodbaths in sub-Saharan Africa and in pockets of Asia that do not dominate the headlines. What is special about Syria?

Obama is a realist of the Kissingerian mold. He favors mending relations with the great powers – the Russias and Chinas of the world — at the expense of smaller fry like Georgia or Tibet. He concerns himself with power, interests, and capabilities, not values or intentions, despite what his preachings in Oslo and Cairo might have suggested. His hands-off approach to uprisings across the Arab world are by now etched in history. Libya was an outlier, a function of a perfect storm – a madman in power, several humanitarian interventionists with the president’s ear (namely Susan Rice and Samantha Power), and timed far enough ahead of an election year. Those same stars are not aligned this time around.

Back to realism for a moment: the notion that realists are above carrying out humanitarian interventions is not exactly historically accurate. A case in point is the elder Bush’s administration, which counted card-carrying realists like Colin Powell and James Baker as members. Consider northern Iraq. Shortly after the February 27, 1991 ceasefire of the Gulf War, Bush urged the Iraqi people, including the Kurds, to “take matters into their own hands.” The result was a bloodbath and refugee crisis. There was little appetite for intervening in what was deemed to be an Iraqi civil war. Americans were more interested, according to the historian Robert Diprizio, in excising Vietnam’s ghost and inaugurating a “new world order” (the end of the Cold War would usher in a series of similarly empty phrases among foreign policy experts, culminating in the current administration’s call for “smart defense” and “smart power”).

Some columnists such as the hawkish William Safire harped on Bush to do more to help the Iraqis, but he generally faced little pressure to intervene. Helped along by first-hand testimony from Secretary Baker from the Turkish-Iraqi border, Bush launched Operation Provide Comfort, which altered Iraq’s balance of power by providing emergency aid to refugees and a no-fly zone in the north. In short, America’s intervention in northern Iraq was motivated almost solely by humanitarian concerns, not by any larger strategic objective to overthrow the Iraqi regime or stabilize American oil supplies. This was a mission carried out almost entirely by realists in the White House. Shocking.

Flash-forward one year and Bush faced yet again another humanitarian catastrophe on his watch – this time in the Horn of Africa, a part of the map most Americans could not find. There was no shortage of internal fighting and banditry. The threat of starvation hung over the region. But there was no clamoring for U.S. intervention, no threat of terrorism (yet) emerging from the region, no vital security interest present. Somalia was just one more trouble-spot among many fragile states. On the eve of the National Republican Convention no less, Bush launched Operation Restore Hope, a mission to secure areas of southern Somalia in order to deliver food aid. The mission, Bush said, was limited and “humanitarian.” The mission would later be aborted after the Black Hawk Down incident. But its original intention was not flawed, only its execution (and mission creep).

This administration has announced plans to intervene in Syria solely if chemical weapons are used, which essentially raises the bar to an impossible threshold (no rational actor, not even Assad, would use these weapons since they virtually guarantee outside intervention and his removal from power). This leaves the conflict in a holding pattern, as far as outside intervention is concerned: the U.S. will not do anything, provided the violence stays contained and chemical weapons are not used. Assad knows this, so he has no incentive to deviate from what he has been doing for the past 18 months, which amounts to serious war crimes.

In a realist world, states are presumably free to do whatever they like within their sacrosanct borders, even if it includes mass war crimes. But even realists have a kinder, gentler side, as our previous interventions in northern Iraq and Somalia have demonstrated. If Obama can save lives in Syria, he should. Even a cold-blooded realist would agree.

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5 thoughts on “The Realist Case for Intervening in Syria

  1. Pingback: IB Online (8/8): eine kleine Netzschau « Bretterblog

  2. The historical reminder in this post is interesting. I think, though, it’s debatable whether a no-fly zone or something similar would save lives in Syria (I don’t know enough about the details). As for “Obama is a realist in the Kissingerian mold,” maybe, but that hasn’t stopped the Republicans from issuing the standard complaints that Obama is too concerned with “coddling enemies” (e.g. Iran) and not concerned enough with “supporting friends” (e.g. Israel), that he projects an image of apologetic weakness rather than strength, etc. One can dismiss this simply as election-year sloganeering, which it is, but insofar as it points to differences about how the US should present itself to the world, it may qualify the statement about Obama’s ‘realism’.

  3. I’d find that the act of violating the inherent national sovereignty of states can only be justified as realism in the sense of “Might is right” and “Under conditions of global anarchy, any (powerful) state can do anything to any other (weak) state without fear of any retaliation whatsoever”. That’s not moral. That’s not right.

    And I think that’s the main reason that realists recoil at the horror of intervention. It’s because realism doesn’t JUST believe in the idea that a state should only care for the national security interests of its own. Realists also believe that states inherently matter in the first place, and that they have some special status that makes them worthy of being taken into account. That “status” is often times referred to as national sovereignty (states have the right to govern its own affairs without fear of interference by other states). The violation of such national sovereignty seems so painful that realists instantly react violently towards that.

    Here’s a liberal case against intervening in Syria. Undermining the norms of national sovereignty that currently underpins international law will make future interventions more likely, leading to more inter-state conflicts that will eventually spiral out of control. After all, did not Saudi Arabia intervene in Bahrain to stop the protest movement? Did not Russia intervene in South Ossetia to prop up the regime against an Georgian invasion? Right now, the international community cannot really determine whether an intervention is “humanitarian” or not, nor could they effectively punish an illegitimate intervention. Essentially, humanitarian intervention can serve as a useful casus belli for invading other countries. So long as that casus belli exists and can be invoked, states may not desire to engage in dialog with other states, instead resorting to threats (and ultimately) war.

    The “norm violation” of an Syrian intervention will ultimately cost lives in the long term.

    It is also unlikely that, in the short term, any lives will be saved intervening now, though lives could have been saved had intervention occurred long ago. At the same time, the quick and prompt intervention would also undermine the norms of “national sovereignty” more quickly, as some states may believe the Syrian crisis may not be as serious as NATO/Turkey/USA/Saudi Arabia believed it was.

    • And yes, not all realists subscribe to the idea that borders are sacrosanct, instead believing that strong states can (and should) do whatever they want. But that is NOT “kinder and gentler”, because the Thucydides’ sentiment of “the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must” is not at all kind or gentle, but ugly and disgusting.

      • @ Realist Writer, You would have a point if any state could stage a military intervention and claim it was for humanitarian reasons. But under international law (Article 2(4) and Ch VII of the UN Charter), the only case in which a state is permitted to use military force is either in self-defense or under the principle of collective security (that is, a UN Security Council authorized mission). Neither Saudi Arabia nor Russia’s actions were backed by the UNSC and so in the eyes of the international community their actions were not legitimate. People are dying nearly every day in Syria and the UN can do nothing because Russia and China will not sign off on any decisive response.

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