Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

The Interventionists’ Double Standards

If we held our government accountable for its destructive policies instead of berating them for "inaction," we would end up with a wiser, juster foreign policy.
yemen airstrikes sa'ada

Matt Purple comments on the disparity between Western outrage over the carnage in Aleppo and general indifference to comparably horrible events in Africa:

None of this should be read as a case for nation building or military intervention in Africa. It’s meant merely to marvel at the most glaring hypocrisy of our foreign policy, a blind spot that blots out an entire continent, which bestows the status of global supervillain on Bashar al-Assad while Salva Kiir remains an unknown. The West has a double standard when it comes to Africa.

Purple is certainly correct about that Western media and interventionist political leaders respond to the terrible effects of conflicts in various parts of the world very differently, but the way that responsibility is assigned for these effects is even more telling. It has become commonplace to blame Obama for the horrors of Syria’s war because he “allowed” them to happen or “failed” to stop them, which takes for granted that the U.S. has both the authority and the ability to halt or at least ameliorate the effects of foreign civil wars at an acceptable cost. Obama is almost never faulted for his role in helping to stoke the conflict, because that doesn’t fit the bogus “withdrawal” narrative that his hawkish critics want to promote. It would also require acknowledging that the U.S. is already involved in the war and its involvement has only made things worse (as opponents of our involvement said it would).

By contrast, when the U.S. actively enables and fuels an atrocious war that is causing civilian casualties and creating famine conditions (i.e., the war on Yemen), the responsibility of the Obama administration is rarely mentioned in reports about the war and the extent of U.S. involvement is always minimized or omitted all together. When the Syrian government and its patrons devastate rebel-held parts of Aleppo or other parts of Syria, Obama is blamed when other governments are primarily responsible. When the U.S. is directly contributing to one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in the world, the president is almost never criticized. When others are to blame for terrible crimes, the U.S. is absurdly faulted for “letting” them commit them, but when our government helps client states commit comparable crimes against a civilian population it goes almost completely unnoticed. The problem here isn’t just a double standard with regard to the plight of people in different war zones. The more alarming problem is that we fail to hold our government accountable for the things that it does that cause enormous harm overseas, but at the same time we pretend that U.S. military action is well-suited to remedying the evils of other foreign conflicts through the application of more force. Interventionists hold up military action as the answer to extremely difficult foreign political problems, and so they dismiss the extensive evidence from recent and ongoing military interventions that prove that it is usually is no such thing.

The demand to “do more” in Syria is fundamentally a disingenuous one, because almost no one making the demand is willing to spell out what it would cost to carry out an intervention that has the slightest chance of success, and even fewer are willing to support the major commitment that it would take. Emile Simpson made an important point that the only practical way that the U.S. might have been able to halt the bloodletting in Syria was with a major, open-ended military commitment:

Conversely, if the West had hypothetically deployed its own forces on the ground in Syria in 2011, it is likely that our forces would have soon faced an Islamist insurgency, if Afghanistan and Iraq are anything to go by. And this would have been a long haul: Look no further than Afghanistan, where Western forces still haven’t left, or Iraq, where they had to return to avert state collapse.

All the commentators grandstanding over the fall of Aleppo to castigate the West for not having “done more” militarily are welcome to explain how they would have rallied U.S. public support in 2011 for another major counterinsurgency effort in Syria. By 2011, after thousands of soldiers had died in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the multitrillion-dollar cost of those campaigns, which was piled on the back of the 2008 financial crisis, the idea that there would have been U.S. public support for such an endeavor is fantasy.

We don’t need to speculate about the lack of political support for a major war in Syria. There was no political support for one in Libya, which is why the intervening governments had no plan for what should follow the collapse of the regime. They had no intention of sticking around to find out what came next. There would have been even less interest in a long-term commitment in Syria. When there was the prospect of an “unbelievably small” air war against the Syrian government, the public backlash was intense and overwhelmingly negative. The opposition to a major ground war would have been and would still be even stronger. The reason for that opposition is that the U.S. and its allies had just wasted a decade in fruitless wars at enormous cost. There was understandably no appetite for repeating that error, and it would have assuredly been a grave error.

Michael Dougherty has said that lamenting the fall of Aleppo is a “freebie” for moralizing Westerners because it costs them nothing to do it, but it could end up costing all of us more down the road. The danger is that the lesson many people will draw from Syria is that the U.S. needs to be much faster in taking sides in foreign wars. The correct lesson to be learned here is that the U.S. and its clients need to refrain from fueling other nations’ civil wars so that we don’t prolong and intensify the conflict. If we spent much more time holding our government accountable for the destruction it causes abroad and less time berating them for their supposed “inaction,” we would end up with a wiser, juster foreign policy that would be better for America and the rest of the world.



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