In vetoing a Security Council resolution calling for Bashar al-Assad to step down in Syria, Russia and China have provided cover for the regime’s on-going brutal crackdown and, as such, criticism from the U.S., France, and a host of other countries and organizations was immediate and forceful.
So now what?
If the Security Council can’t even call for Assad to step down, it’s pretty clear that some more meaningful action isn’t forthcoming. Unless it comes from, for example, NATO. And some of the language we’re hearing today from Obama, Clinton, and Rice makes the possibility seem pretty realistic.
But the point of this post isn’t really to ask whether or not the U.S. — with NATO and the Arab Leagues as allies — will intervene militarily in Syria. Nor is the point to ask whether or not it ought to do so. If you want to know what I think, you can read some of my posts on Libya from last year (here and here, for example). Clinton has said, “military intervention has been absolutely ruled out and we have made that clear from the very beginning.”
But as I watched the social networking reactions to the Security Council proceedings, I started wondering about the reactions of progressives and (some) libertarians. From what I’ve seen from these groups, there’s condemnation of the Syrian crackdown and of the Russian and Chinese vetoes. But that condemnation doesn’t extend to a call for anyone to actually do anything. And that’s to be expected because these are groups who worry about what happens when people start thinking about acting rather than simply condemning. Indeed, I’m fairly confident that these strange bedfellows will resume their complaints about intervention as soon as planes are in the air; they’ll point out that the U.S. keeps targeting Muslims, they’ll insist that the U.S. has ulterior motives for its involvement, and they’ll point to all of the other places in the world in which the U.S. doesn’t intervene as proof for the first two arguments even as they demand that the U.S. stop dropping bombs on people entirely.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with those arguments, though it’s easy enough to disagree with them. The trouble is that it’s tough to want things you can’t have. In this case, it’s tough to want people to be able to choose their leaders and not to be murdered by their government while at the same not wanting to get too deeply involved when they can’t choose and when they’re being killed.
But let me be clear about this last point. I am well aware that, in the process of using force to help people in Syria, some of the people we intend to help will be harmed. This is the point on which my critics will hang their hats, as they did the last time we had this conversation. And so I’ll say again what I think is a pretty important point when it comes time to consider the costs and benefits of military intervention on behalf of people who are suffering under a murderous regime:
The choice we face is between people being killed and people being killed. I don’t want to sugar-coat that at all. In both instances, people die and it’s violent and bloody and awful. But in one instance — when we eschew intervention — the people who generally die violently are those who are attempting (and failing, due to inferior military capabilities) to throw off a tyrant. In those instances, it’s my position that to fall back on pacifism or isolationism because all warfare is awful or imperalistic or costly amounts to something of a moral failing insofar as it amounts to siding with the tyrant.
Choosing not to involve ourselves in what happens overseas doesn’t mean that people in Syria will suddenly be safe and happy and alive; it means that we can fool ourselves into thinking that we don’t have any blood on our hands because we didn’t directly harm anyone.
We can all be outraged with the choice that the Russians and the Chinese made today. And we surely ought to be outraged about what the Assad regime has been doing for months and months now. But if that outrage just means that we wag our fingers at Assad, the Russians, and the Chinese, rather than actually doing something about the terrible crimes being committed in Syria, then how outraged are we, really?
Most of the people who didn’t want the U.S. to get involved in Syria have gotten pretty quiet in the past six months because the U.S. hasn’t really gotten involved … at least not in the way that the U.S. got involved in Libya, to the endless breast-beating of these same people. In fact, there’s very little discussion of Syria from the non-interventionists these days, though the violence there continues apace.
Honestly, I’m curious: Do people think the Libyans are better off now than they were? And how do people think the Syrians would answer that question?