A Liberal Case Against Military Intervention in Syria

The Syrian state is continuing to murder its own citizens, and the pace of that killing appears to be picking up. In a pensive blog post that made its way onto my screen this morning, scholar and writer Jillain York observed:

From opinionators on Syria, be they Syrian or foreign, there are two dominating views: The first is the viewpoint of the Syrian National Council (SNC), or farther right. This “view area,” so to speak, ranges from the precise position of the SNC in calling for intervention, to the hawkish calls–such as this by Daniel Byman in Foreign Policy–for foreign intervention. The second dominant view comes from the anti-imperialist crowd. By and large, the anti-imperialists have largely failed to denounce the Assad regime, and those who have imply that any alternative is worse.

I don’t see myself fitting into either of those two camps she describes, so I thought I would try to lay out my thoughts on what has to be one of the most difficult and important foreign-policy questions of the moment in hopes of clarifying them for myself and contributing to the wider discussion.

What is happening to scores of civilians in Syria every day is horrifying. States are among the most powerful organizations in the world, but state boundaries are not moral boundaries. I want to live in a world where we–not the United States or NATO, but the larger “we,” humanity–can and do stop these kinds of atrocities, punish their perpetrators, and enable the establishment of the accountable government Syrians are literally dying to create. I want to live in a world where attempts to deliver those just ends only save lives and build peace.

We do not (yet?) live in that world. Instead, in the world I see around me, the actions our governments undertake in pursuit of good intentions around the world are often ineffective at best and more often have unintended consequences that run counter to their stated ends. This disconnect is most obvious in the grand state-building schemes winding down in Iraq and still underway in Afghanistan, but it also afflicts most other militarized efforts to achieve humanitarian ends.

As Ben Valentino convincingly shows in a recent Foreign Affairs article, military intervention for the purpose of civilian protection almost always comes with a much steeper price tag than we realize when we contemplate it. Intervening forces often end up accidentally killing many civilians and empowering groups that perpetrate their own atrocities. Harder to see but at least as important, armed interventions and the peacekeeping or nation-building missions that often ensue carry substantial opportunity costs; the resources they absorb might have been applied elsewhere against problems where we can be more certain that they would have saved lives or improved well-being–for example, to public-health problems like malaria or diarrhea that are preventable but still kill millions every year.

The point of all this for making foreign policy is that good intentions are not sufficient. I consider myself a classical liberal, as, I’m sure, do many of those ardently advocating the use of American military power for civilian protection. The first principle of Millian liberalism, however, is to seek the greatest happiness, not to be seen as having acted in defense of liberalism. The consequences of our actions are what really matter, and those consequences are not burnished by the values our actions were meant to uphold.

In that moral universe, it is right to be more humble about our capabilities and more circumspect in our actions. States are not moral islands, and injustice in other states should concern us as moral beings. But it doesn’t always follow that our government can be, or even ought to be, the agent of ending that injustice and promoting liberalism. In situations where the costs and consequences of forceful action are uncertain and might be steep, liberal principles encourage us to consider capabilities as well as ends, and the two will not always align.

In the case of Syria, the recommendations for military intervention I’ve seen all either assume the best, best-case scenario for how that intervention will unfold or simply declare that the current path is unacceptable and then fail to discuss in depth what kind of intervention we should undertake and the many consequences those actions might carry. Unless and until advocates of forceful intervention can make a convincing case that this time will be different, I will infer from the historical record that it will not be different, that the most likely outcome is a clash of armed forces that will itself kill many civilians, will likely require a substantial long-term commitment of forces and money, and could plausibly spiral into a wider war that would kill and destroy many more soldiers and civilians.

Where does that leave me? In Jillian York’s words, “I am an observer of tragedy.” I am convinced that the proper course of action for the U.S. government is to continue to encourage and engage in diplomacy aimed at stopping the killing of civilians and encouraging political change in Syria that will respond to the just demands of the resisters. I realize that might not work, and that the Assad regime may kill thousands more civilians as diplomacy founders. I realize that, but I do not see a better alternative.

(For clear and brilliant thinking about the larger question of how to end mass atrocities, see this essay from the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, brought to my attention by blogger Daniel Solomon.)

Leave a comment


  1. Filipok

     /  February 8, 2012

    I think the main cost of an intervention in Syria is the Sunni retaliation after the fall of Assad. See what happened in Libya with Tawergha. We risk Yugoslavia or Rwanda.
    Armed peacekepers (from Turkey, Gulf states?) would be needed to micromanage mixed cities (Homs) and rural areas.

  2. I don’t have an answer but would point out that there is something in between mil. intervention and diplomacy — namely, furnishing intelligence and/or arms to the FSA. Easier said than done, no doubt.

    • On the idea of arming the opposition, I found Marc Lynch’s take compelling. For a very thorough and cold (in the useful way) assessment of U.S. policy options and possible futures, it’s hard to beat Dan Trombly’s recent blog post.

      • “…hard to beat Dan Trombly’s recent blog post.”

        Except for the fact that it’s the length of a substantial magazine article and I haven’t had a chance to read all of it yet.

        Thanks for the M. Lynch link.

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