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Syria and “Values-Free” Foreign Policy

Fred Hiatt declares Obama’s West Point speech to be “values-free”:

A values-free foreign policy isn’t sustainable for most Americans, and if another humanitarian crisis confronts the president in the next 30 months, I doubt it will be sustainable for him.

There are few readings of Obama’s speech that could be more ridiculous than this one. There were any number of problems in the speech, but it was anything but “values-free.” It takes a truly stupid observer to think that this is the meaning of the speech. For that matter, it isn’t “values-free” to oppose multilateral military action that is undertaken for ostensibly humanitarian reasons. As we have seen, proponents of “humanitarian” intervention usually fail to consider the consequences of the policy they support, and their “values-based” policy can be a disaster for the country that they claim to want to help. Almost no one considers the Libyan war a “model” intervention now. It is much more likely to be viewed as a cautionary tale of what not to do. Opponents of “humanitarian” intervention are often motivated by concern for the harm that such interventions do to the civilian populations on both sides of a conflict, and they frequently have more respect for international law and U.S. constitutional law than than many of the supposed champions of American “values.” On the other hand, the people that shout the loudest about “values” in foreign policy are often the first to justify compromising and violating those values in practice.

It’s true that Obama was prepared to bypass the Security Council to order the bombing of Syria last year, but he was wrong about that. Even if one accepts the “responsibility to protect,” the requirements of that doctrine rule out taking unilateral military action without U.N. authorization. Those that choose to treat the “responsibility to protect” mainly as a license to attack other governments don’t understand the doctrine in the first place. I don’t know that Obama has realized that he was wrong about the abortive intervention in Syria, but it is only too clear nine months later that he had no justification for military action in Syria. If the West Point speech is an indirect acknowledgment that Obama understands that, it is a belated but welcome development. My impression is that Obama doesn’t think the standards he laid out in the speech last contradict his rhetoric about Syria from last year, but if he does that is to Obama’s credit and it is anything but “values-free.”

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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