The latest development in the ongoing civil war in Syria didn’t occur in Syria, actually, but in Washington, DC. The Obama Administration announced they have what is in their eyes definitive proof that the nominal Syrian government has used sarin gas against its own people, and thus has crossed what the president called a “red line.” The consequences of passing the red line, previously rather hazy, are now coming into view:
The Obama administration, concluding that the troops of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria have used chemical weapons against rebel forces in his country’s civil war, has decided to begin supplying the rebels for the first time with small arms and ammunition, according to American officials.
Understandably, this freaks a lot of people out. Josh Marshall — last seen taking a whole lot of flack from his Left — calls it a “bad idea” and says of the Middle East:
This is a neighborhood we’re trying to get out of, not get deeper into. For all the individual reasons to try to get involved, I think, given our experience over the last quarter century, we’re at the ‘just say no’ stage of military interventions in the heart of the Middle East.
Daniel Larison, one of the most principled critics of US adventurism, meanwhile, writes:
This move will almost certainly prolong and intensify the conflict, which will mean that even more Syrians on both sides of the war will suffer and die. It’s a serious mistake, and one that will probably lead to even bigger ones in the future. Because it will prove to be ineffective in changing the course of the war, as opponents of this measure have said for years, it will serve as an invitation to further escalation in the coming months and years.
But — and no matter the issue, this tends to be the case — no one is as worked up as Andrew Sullivan, who’s written two longish posts already decrying the move as a “betrayal” by Obama of his most fervent supporters (Sullivan chief among them). I’ll always read a good Sullivan freak-out; but there’s a snippet of his second post that touches on something I’ve been kicking around in my skull lately:
Once you have committed to one side in a civil war, you have committed. The pressure from the neocons and liberal interventionists to expand this war will only increase – because either you fight to win or you shouldn’t fight at all. Yes, it’s the same coalition that gave us the Iraq catastrophe.
I can’t tell whether this is Sullivan’s position or rather that of the neocon/liberal interventionists, but it’s definitely a major factor in the politics of intervention. And it sucks because, really, it’s the pivot point at which an international action to stop an atrocity becomes something much closer to regular old imperialist meddling. The obvious example, to my mind, is Libya, where an intervention that was initially sold as an attempt to stop a potential genocide almost immediately turned into regime change.
I know there’s some naivety in thinking the United States — or any major power — would put the kind of prestige on the line that comes with armed conflict and not expect out-and-out victory in return. But that’s what the Responsibility to Protect demands; and if the project of stopping the kinds of evil we saw in Rwanda and the Balkans during the 90s is going to succeed, the liberal interventionists need to disentangle the interests of the individual nation-states from those of the broader international community.
Otherwise interventions on behalf of human rights will continue to be seen by many — and not unreasonably — as neoimperialism’s trojan horse.