Home/Daniel Larison/Nick Kristof and Liberal Interventionism Run Amok

Nick Kristof and Liberal Interventionism Run Amok

Apparently there are very few humanitarian crises that Nick Kristof doesn’t think would be ameliorated by some form of military intervention:

So what could be done? In Syria, we should make clear that unless the security forces depose Assad in the next 30 days, our Middle Eastern allies will arm the Syrian opposition. We should work with these allies, as well as with major powers like Russia and China, to encourage a coup, or a “retirement” for Assad.

In Sudan, we should disable the military runways that bombers take off from to attack civilians in the Nuba Mountains, or destroy an Antonov bomber and make clear that we’ll do the same to others if Sudan continues to bomb its people. Then we should support efforts by private aid groups to bring food and seed into the Nuba Mountains, by airdrops in this rainy season when roads are impassible.

Regional states already are reportedly arming the Syrian opposition with some U.S. support. Threatening to do what is already being done isn’t likely to provide much leverage over elements inside the Syrian government. Perhaps the U.S. and other states could threaten to increase arms supplies unless Assad is overthrown, but it seems unlikely that there is anyone inside the Syrian regime inclined to trust the promises of the U.S. or the Gulf states.

Suppose that the U.S. can prevail on Russia to support and help facilitate a coup in Syria. Would that end the conflict, or would it simply install a new leader committed to keeping the current regime in power? Isn’t Kristof proposing “Assadism without Assad”? After all, it’s not as if Assad is engaging in the brutal crackdown by himself or simply to perpetuate his personal rule. If removing Assad from power isn’t going to halt Syria’s civil war, it isn’t clear what such a coup would accomplish beyond deposing the ruling family.

The situation in Sudan is somewhat different, since it involves conflicts inside what is still Sudan and a related conflict between the two Sudans. Naturally, the liberal interventionist instinct is to call for bombing targets in Sudan. Kristof seems content for now to call for a minimal show of force, but it is almost inevitable that such a “limited” intervention will pave the way for greater involvement later on. Let’s say that Obama does what Kristof wants and orders Sudanese runways to be bombed. Should U.S. planes be ordered to bomb them every time they are repaired? How long are U.S. forces to keep doing this?

Kristof seems genuinely shocked that regime change is not official U.S. policy, but I’m not sure why he is. If the U.S. still does not favor regime change, this is probably informed by a few things: 1) making regime change in Sudan the explicit goal of U.S. policy makes even greater escalation of conflict between Sudan and South Sudan more likely; 2) threatening Sudan with regime change without being willing to take the actions needed to achieve that goal will put the administration in the very same absurd position that it is in on Syria; 3) carrying out a policy of regime change in Sudan would contribute to significant regional instability at what would likely be seen as an unacceptable cost to the U.S.

That doesn’t address what U.S. interests would be served by pursuing such a policy. There would seem to be no vital U.S. interests involved. This is something that Kristof ignores entirely in spite of his boilerplate reference at the beginning of the column to “American interests and values.” Indeed, nowhere in Kristof’s column is there any mention of what American interests are at stake in these countries, and he does not consider the possible consequences or costs of the courses of action he recommends. Granted, there is only so much one can fit into an opinion column, but the burden should be on advocates of military support or military action to provide credible answers to these questions. On Syria and Sudan, Kristof has failed to provide any.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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