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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Syria and the Overlapping Consensus

Cross-posted at Opinio Juris.

David Rieff has an interesting – and somewhat polemical – article in the latest Foreign Policy.  Rieff, you will recall, was an early supporter of intervention, a policy position no doubt influenced by his time spent in Bosnia which culminated in Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West.

Although initially hawkish on intervention, and willing to support liberal interventionism in Iraq, Rieff had a change of heart after the Iraq war failed to achieve any liberal goals.  Not only did Rieff renounce the Iraq war, but he also went further and started renouncing the liberal interventionism that he once championed.

These debates are always about historical comparisons and parallels. Which ones are correct and which ones are wrong?  Was Iraq more like Vietnam (intervention not OK) or more like World War II (intervention permitted or even required)?  Was Libya more like Kosovo or Iraq?  And is Syria more like Kosovo or Iraq?

Rieff does a number of things in this article.  First, he points out the lack of concrete and impartial information on the ground in Syria.  He is also particularly concerned about the possibility of Islamic extremists and terrorists among the rebels; on this score he is channeling the recently departed Christopher Hitchens.  Finally, he wants to throw a cautionary wrench into the interventionist assumption that unilateral interventions will make matters better, not worse:
During the Bush administration, Democrats often boasted that -- unlike the president and his aides, who were consumed by millenarian dreams of remaking the Middle East in the image of American democracy -- they were part of the "reality-based community." In fact, the neoconservatives were paragons of modesty compared with the liberal interventionists and R2P supporters who saw in Libya and now see in Syria the chance to move one step closer to remaking the world in the image of the human rights movement. Infatuated by their own good intentions -- and persuaded that their interventionist views incarnate a higher morality -- those who view Libya as a triumph and Syria as an opportunity to cement the practice of humanitarian intervention are in full crusading mode. If the looming victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the failure of the democratic project in Iraq, and the fact that the most significant political outcomes of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya have been instability and the victory of political Islam have not chastened them -- and clearly they haven't -- nothing will. Welcome to the second decade in a row of humanitarian war.
I don’t necessarily agree with what Rieff is saying, but I do worry about the possibility of an overlapping consensus supporting intervention.  On the one hand, some people support foreign interventions because they are necessary to stop extremism – think of Hitchens on Iraq or Afghanistan.  Liberals, on the other hand, support intervention under R2P or just a general belief that innocent victims ought to be protected, as they were in Kosovo, or as they should have been (but weren’t) in Rwanda.

The danger, of course, is that such an overlapping consensus is rather thin, i.e. it doesn’t go very deep, and disagreements about the conduct of the war will then be exposed.  That’s one reading of what happened with Iraq.  Neo-conservatives supported the war, as did some prominent liberal interventionists on the theory that what we really needed to do was protect the Kurds and other ethnic groups from Saddam’s rule.  But when it became clear that we were failing to significantly protect the civilian population and provide adequate security, that liberal support started to vanish.  But at that point it was too late.

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