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.