David Rieff reflects on the triumphalism of liberal interventionists:
The moral outrage, however misplaced, is real enough. In her contribution to the New Republic symposium, Suzanne Nossel — formerly Richard Holbrooke’s deputy when he was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, founder of DemocracyArsenal.org, former chief operating officer of Human Rights Watch, and now executive director of the U.S. branch of Amnesty International — illustrated this faith-based ethical triumphalism perfectly when she insisted that though the Russian and Chinese vetoes of the Security Council resolution had been “a sharp political defeat,” it had also represented a “potent moral victory” and a “tectonic shift” in the advancement of a global human rights regime whose victory is now inevitable, no matter what kind of sovereigntist rear-guard actions the Russians and Chinese may continue to mount.
The implication is clear. Three years after the adoption of R2P by the U.N. General Assembly and more than a year after the beginning of the Arab Spring, not only is the Assad regime on the wrong side of history, but the Russians and Chinese are as well. In her New Republic piece, Nossel even goes so far as to imply that the Russians and the Chinese know this themselves. They cast their votes out of fear of this human rights-based future, she writes, claiming that the “bell of international condemnation and isolation tolling now for Damascus sounds an uneasy note in Beijing and Moscow.” Even by the hubristic standards of the human rights movement, these are extraordinary claims.
Nossel’s article contains some of the same flaws that I criticized in Steinglass’ cheerleading for the “foreign policy success” that the double-vetoed resolution represented. There is the same misleading assertion of Russian and Chinese “isolation,” which the Syria resolution vote exaggerated, and there is even a claim by Nossel that the vote represented “their abandonment by the rest of the sovereignty-first camp.” There is the same boasting about “moral victory” in the midst of complete failure.
One of the great flaws of any sort of triumphalism is that it quickly becomes detached from reality. The “sovereignty-first camp” (i.e., governments outside of North America and Europe) is more in agreement than ever that armed intervention is the wrong answer. There is more outright opposition to international action based on R2P than there was eleven months ago, and there is far less international support for military intervention to respond to Assad’s abuses. Libya undermined what consensus there used to be, and the debate over Syria has destroyed it. Security Council support for the Syria resolution was so broad because the resolution had been worded to avoid any hint of foreign intervention. Had it been any more demanding, that support would dropped away. There is no credible way to portray this as success or progress on the liberal interventionists’ own terms.