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Liberal Interventionists and Syria

John Allen Gay notices [1] that liberal interventionists are not very vocal at the moment:

As the civil war in Syria drags on and extremists kill and pillage in northern Mali, one would expect regular and loud cries for the United States to do something to protect innocents. We are now in the fifth year of a Democratic administration, which in theory should be more receptive to this line of thinking. Yet there is little such talk. Where have all the liberal interventionists gone? Have they reformed? Are they in intellectual exile?

Liberal interventionists haven’t gone anywhere, and I don’t think any have changed their views all that much in recent years. What has happened is that liberal interventionists successfully pushed for one major military campaign in Obama’s first term, and now there is not much appetite for any more military interventions in the near future. In the case of Syria in particular, many of the Libyan war’s supporters have not endorsed military action in Syria and some have become skeptics of pro-intervention arguments.

There are still some vociferous advocates for a more aggressive and activist Syria policy [2] but there is nowhere near the same degree of intensity or breadth of support that existed two years ago. This is because some liberal interventionists recognize correctly that intervening militarily in Syria would much more dangerous, contentious, and counterproductive than the war in Libya was, as well as being illegal. Others may not want to apply the Libya and Kosovo precedents to the Syrian case because they don’t want to be perceived as knee-jerk proponents of new wars. It’s likely that the election campaign and the administration’s reluctance to take a more activist position also account for some of what Gay observes. While there was significant support inside the administration to intervene in Libya, that is noticeably lacking this time around, so some liberal interventionists may not be interested in berating Obama for “inaction” when he is already coming under attack from Republican hawks for the same thing. In this case, partisan loyalty might actually be blunting interventionist impulses rather than encouraging them. The memory of the Iraq war remains a powerful obstacle to any new war in Syria, but I suspect that the realities of the Syrian conflict are having a far more significant influence in discouraging support for a larger American role there.

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11 Comments To "Liberal Interventionists and Syria"

#1 Comment By Zathras On February 25, 2013 @ 2:08 pm

There’s one other element missing for Syrian intervention: other countries aren’t interested in intervening either. Liberal interventionists typical like the multilateral approach taken in Libya, for which there was an international consensus in the West that something could and should be done. There is no such international consensus with respect to Syria, and with the spirit of multilateralism missing, there is much less interest on the part of liberal interventionists to do anything.

#2 Comment By Barry On February 25, 2013 @ 2:21 pm

“Liberal interventionists haven’t gone anywhere, and I don’t think any have changed their views all that much in recent years. What has happened is that liberal interventionists successfully pushed for one major military campaign in Obama’s first term, and now there is not much appetite for any more military interventions in the near future. In the case of Syria in particular, many of the Libyan war’s supporters have not endorsed military action in Syria and some have become skeptics of pro-intervention arguments.”

Or they are smart enough to see the difference between Libya and Syria. As a matter of fact, they are two separate countries.

#3 Comment By Kordo On February 25, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

I couldn’t tell you the first thing about Liberal Interventionists (foreign-policy-by-heartstrings), but I’d be willing to bet the Russians have already let it be known that any messing about by our side with Syria is a non-starter…

#4 Comment By Frank OConnor On February 25, 2013 @ 3:33 pm

I think a little credit needs to go to Obama here. My impression is that he is much less interventionist than the Clinton wing of his Party. To paraphrase Russell Kirk on Ike, Obama is not an interventionist, he’s a golfer. (And thank God for that).

#5 Comment By beejeez On February 25, 2013 @ 3:43 pm

Or there really aren’t many liberal interventionists to begin with, just Democrats bullied by their opponents or bribed into the machismo machine.

#6 Comment By collin On February 25, 2013 @ 4:17 pm

From all reports, Hillary was trying to pull Obama into spending more resources in Syria but was basically was turned down due to the coming elections. By the time the elections were , the good people in Russia have engaged with the Assad and mucking the civil war up even more. (Good Luck Putin!) Now the liberals are quietly complaining about drone warfare and any interference with Syria is only to make matters worse. It has gotten to point of no return in Syria and interferring will only length the war.

#7 Comment By CharleyCarp On February 25, 2013 @ 4:31 pm

I think a lot has to do with the credibility (and inclinations) the military establishment. If the military leadership thinks a particular mission can be accomplished at low cost in blood and treasure, and is believable, any politician is going to be under some real strain to do something.

With Syria, istm that (a) no one in their right mind is asserting that we can get a low cost good outcome by getting further involved and (b) if anyone were doing so, given the track record over the last 2 decades, no one would believe them.

#8 Comment By CharleyCarp On February 25, 2013 @ 5:26 pm

I can imagine that several people from the Clinton administration are haunted, to this day, by their inability to find a way to meaningfully intervene. It’s easy for us to say that they ended up doing the right thing by doing nothing — and I think that’s true. But the people who actually heard out the various schemes and plans and either decided to recommend against, or, in the case of the President, formally and finally decided against, carry a heavy load even having been right.

I doubt anyone from the current administration will look back at Syria and feel like they should have done more.

(One wishes that the people who made the wrong calls in prior administrations would feel some burden from that, but that may be asking too much.)

#9 Comment By CharleyCarp On February 25, 2013 @ 5:27 pm

First sentence in that comment was supposed to end “in Rwanda”!

#10 Comment By James Canning On February 25, 2013 @ 5:33 pm

The Russian position is that the Syrian government must not be required to agree to give up power, prior to negotiations with the rebels. Sensible.

#11 Comment By icarusr On February 26, 2013 @ 9:10 am

These are all good observations, but I think you’re missing an important – perhaps the determining – factor: how liberals, “liberal” interventionists, conservatives and “conservatives” process information.

By and large, most liberals tend to recoil from inflicting death and destruction, even for a good cause, and tend to favour diplomacy and international collaboration, even if it slows down the process. The basic conflicts at the root of R2P as a legal concept reflects the inherent contradictions of liberal interventionism, and most liberal interventionists recognise these contraditions: we have a responsibility to protect, even a duty to intervene, but not at the cost of violating the laws of war or international law generally. Serbia/Kosovo stands out in this respect, but even there, there is a history. The US would likely not have got involved in Serbia had it not been for the failure to stop the genocides in Burundi and Rwanda, and our European allies would not have pushed us to intervene (and they did) without the trauma of the Yugoslav civil war and the displacement of 400,000 Bosniacs. There is a class of “liberal” interventionist – Wieseltier and Peretz come to mind – who are interventionist mostly when it comes to Muslims and Arabs, but not really all that interested in the rest of the world.

Conseravtives tend to be skeptical about grand ideology, rash action, abstractions, grand talk and upsetting the status quo. R2P is a dangerous abstraction because it does not, as a principle, take into consideration “circumstances”, and because its consequences are invariably destabilising: Benghazi could not have been saved without overthrowing the regime; we had, and still have, no idea what Libya will turn into.

But “conservatives” receive and process information, or “information”, in a fundamentally different way than the rest of us. A year ago, Russia was the greatest foe of the United States; now it is Iran. Neither really is, and nothing has happened between a year ago and now, but a “conservtive” needs not only to project power but deploy force; not only to direct affairs but loudly dictate the direction; not only to blunt threats, but to ensure that there are “threats” that require forceful opposition. And it does not help that their sources of “information” misinform more than they illuminate, and consider any action short of obliteration of the Other as weakness and treason.