Syria and the Overlapping Consensus

Syria and the Overlapping Consensus

Cross-posted at LieberCode.

David Rieff has an interesting – and somewhat polemical – article in the latest Foreign Policy.  Rieff, you will recall, was an early supporter of intervention, a policy position no doubt influenced by his time spent in Bosnia which culminated in Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West.

Although initially hawkish on intervention, and willing to support liberal interventionism in Iraq, Rieff had a change of heart after the Iraq war failed to achieve any liberal goals.  Not only did Rieff renounce the Iraq war, but he also went further and started renouncing the liberal interventionism that he once championed.

These debates are always about historical comparisons and parallels. Which ones are correct and which ones are wrong?  Was Iraq more like Vietnam (intervention not OK) or more like World War II (intervention permitted or even required)?  Was Libya more like Kosovo or Iraq?  And is Syria more like Kosovo or Iraq?

Rieff does a number of things in this article.  First, he points out the lack of concrete and impartial information on the ground in Syria.  He is also particularly concerned about the possibility of Islamic extremists and terrorists among the rebels; on this score he is channeling the recently departed Christopher Hitchens.  Finally, he wants to throw a cautionary wrench into the interventionist assumption that unilateral interventions will make matters better, not worse:

During the Bush administration, Democrats often boasted that — unlike the president and his aides, who were consumed by millenarian dreams of remaking the Middle East in the image of American democracy — they were part of the “reality-based community.” In fact, the neoconservatives were paragons of modesty compared with the liberal interventionists and R2P supporters who saw in Libya and now see in Syria the chance to move one step closer to remaking the world in the image of the human rights movement. Infatuated by their own good intentions — and persuaded that their interventionist views incarnate a higher morality — those who view Libya as a triumph and Syria as an opportunity to cement the practice of humanitarian intervention are in full crusading mode. If the looming victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the failure of the democratic project in Iraq, and the fact that the most significant political outcomes of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya have been instability and the victory of political Islam have not chastened them — and clearly they haven’t — nothing will. Welcome to the second decade in a row of humanitarian war.

I don’t necessarily agree with what Rieff is saying, but I do worry about the possibility of an overlapping consensus supporting intervention.  On the one hand, some people support foreign interventions because they are necessary to stop extremism – think of Hitchens on Iraq or Afghanistan.  Liberals, on the other hand, support intervention under R2P or just a general belief that innocent victims ought to be protected, as they were in Kosovo, or as they should have been (but weren’t) in Rwanda.

The danger, of course, is that such an overlapping consensus is rather thin, i.e. it doesn’t go very deep, and disagreements about the conduct of the war will then be exposed.  That’s one reading of what happened with Iraq.  Neo-conservatives supported the war, as did some prominent liberal interventionists on the theory that what we really needed to do was protect the Kurds and other ethnic groups from Saddam’s rule.  But when it became clear that we were failing to significantly protect the civilian population and provide adequate security, that liberal support started to vanish.  But at that point it was too late.

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World War II (intervention permitted or even required)
What does this even mean? Whose entry into WWII was an intervention? It was an international armed conflict.
“innocent victims ought to be protected, as they were in Kosovo”
Tell that to the Roma, Gorani, and Serbs that were ethnically cleansed under the watch of NATO.
If ‘liberal’ interventionists were so damn concerned with preventing violence, I would think that we’d hear more about non-military solutions to these conflicts. Its this manifest bad faith on the part of the ‘liberals’ – illustrated so well in their rejection of negotiations in Libya and Syria – that gives the lie to concerns about protecting human rights.

Rhodri Williams

David Rieff’s piece certainly makes a forceful case against liberal interventionism but it doesn’t leave me with much of a sense of what defensible alternatives he would promote. The bottom line is that situations like that in Syria manifestly do constitute a threat to international peace and security. R2P can be seen as a belated recognition of that fact. Israel is making contingency plans to receive an influx of Alawite refugees not because of something Susan Rice did or something that Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote, but because the al-Assad dynasty turned the Sunni numerical majority in Syria into a political minority and responded with overwhelming and brutal force when this state of affairs was called into question. In doing so, it radically destabilized the long-term prospects of the (numerical) minority communities that formed its own base of support. So while I certainly subscribe to David Rieff’s concern that doing something *risks* making things worse than doing nothing, I think his piece overlooks the fact that doing nothing may not only be morally indefensible in some cases but also self-defeating. From this perspective, I was more taken with Alex de Waal’s recent criticism of liberal interventionism in Africa, which not only questioned… Read more »

Yisrael Medad

a) bit mixed up.  is “liberal interventionism”, an intervention by liberals (do any serve in any army?) or one directed by liberals in government (but most such officials are automatically branded neo-cons once they intervene) or that the intervention is somehow managed in a liberal way or follows, after the battles, policies that encourage liberal accomplishments?

b)  does this somehow portent a lack of willingness to interject NATO or US troops on the ground between the state of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, an idea that has upon occasion been mooted?

p.s. since this comment form does not include an automatic update inform feature, I apologize for belated returns here.


These are interesting responses, especially from a consequentialist viewpoint or concern.  However, what I was struck with is the ultimately self-centered attitude inherent in such — there is no evident concern for the views of people in Syria, for example, who are being attacked by their own government.  Instead, there seems to be a self-oriented concern — you Arabs in Syria who are seeing your family members killed and tortured are not really entitled to human dignity, human rights, much less democracy, because we have determined that you are better off under a dictatorship and we are concerned what might come next.  But please, if you do succeed in regime change or, at least, stopping the crimes against humanity on your family members and neighbors, please remember that it was China and Russia that stood in the way.

Rhodri Williams

Thanks Jordan. At a personal level, I find the crimes in Syria incredibly disturbing. I think David Rieff does too, but his concern seems to be that interventionist agendas have become an end in themselves rather than a response to such atrocities and that in cases like Syria they may cause more net suffering than if other avenues were explored for stopping the violence (in essence, Saddam Hussein was bad, but the aftermath of the 2006 Samarra bombing was worse). 

My frustration with David Rieff’s piece is that he doesn’t really elaborate on what those other avenues are and I think he also misses the point that there is a pretty clear rationale for intervention without having to twist the UN Charter into a pretzel. But these kind of debates can get pretty arid, as you point out. Maybe its a defensive mechanism that lets lawyers talk about it things at a professional level that they can’t begin to process at an emotional level (and that they can’t affect meaningfully at a political level either, for that matter).