The left, the right and Syria

Nick Cohen’s new year’s day call for the West to militarily intervene in Syria prompts an end to the break I took from blogging in December.  This break was forced in part by the amendments I was making to my book, which will be out this year, as well as the write -up of the paper I am presenting at the University of Kent later this month; and yes, I did take a holiday.

Anyway, Cohen’s argument (and the 319 comments it has attracted) is an interesting resource for my current project because it provides a snapshot of the left’s take on military intervention and distinguishes parts of it from the Cameron’s liberal conservatism, while allying other parts of it to the neoconservatism of the Henry Jackson society.

I’d put Cohen’s argument on the line that divides neoconservatives from those Tony Smith (A Pact with the Devil) called “neoliberals”, Benjamin Miller (Millennium 2010) “offensive liberals” and Anthony Burke, (Ethics and International Affairs 2005) “new internationalists”.  Neocons and Neolibs share a commitment to regime change and democracy promotion and both have faith in western military force being able to advance that agenda.  As the title of Smith’s book implies, these liberals made a pact with neoconservatives in the Bush administration in order to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq; and, as many of the comments on this piece suggest, Cohen is seemingly willing to repeat history by advocating that the left support the Henry Jackson Society’s proposal for military intervention in Syria.

The structure of his argument is familiar to anyone who followed neoliberal/neoconservative argument for war against Iraq: create moral outrage by recounting allegations of human rights abuses; dismiss the multilateral efforts to peacefully resolve the conflict as unreasonable – Cohen does this for Syria by noting the observer mission is headed by a Sudanese supporter of Bashir who is wanted by the ICC; dismiss the multilateral efforts to peacefully resolve the conflict as a failure; pre-empt leftist criticism of imperialism by focusing on Arab calls for intervention and insisting that we should not ‘black box’ the “Arab world”; make the consequentialist argument that the costs of inaction outweigh the costs of action.

What, I suggest, distinguishes the neoliberal from the neoconservative on the use of force is the position they take on the role the United Nations Security Council plays in the decision to use force.  The neocon position on this is well known.  Indeed, the Henry Jackson Society seemingly dismisses the relevance of the UN.  It

[b]elieves that only modern liberal democratic states are truly legitimate, and that the political or human rights pronouncements of any international or regional organisation which admits undemocratic states lack the legitimacy to which they would be entitled if all their members were democracies.

This kind of normative attack on the UN lent support to the realists like of Cheney and Rumsfeld, who wanted to go to war against Iraq without first going to the UN.  Yet there were other realists like Powell, who argued that it was in the US interest to go to the UN, and neoliberals like Blair who shared the neocon postion but tried to square it with a “doctrine of international community” by insisting on the UN route. This was a necessity in terms of the domestic and ideological constraints on Blair.  But the question of whether one tries to square a moral imperative to use force, with the legal imperative to act according to a consensus at the UN Security Council, does separate the neoliberal from the neoconservative (see my BJPIR article for elaboration).  Cohen doesn’t mention the UN Security Council, which suggest that he either reduces the “duty” to use military force to a question of morality and can justify illegal interventions; or he insists international law has no moral relevance.

It is also interesting that the question of consensus at the Security Council does not really figure in the comments section either.  It should be said that the comments are overwhelmingly against Cohen.  One might characterise them in terms of what I would call “defensive liberalism”.  The question of the UN mandate might be absent, but there is still concern about by-passing the multilateral efforts that are presently in place, notably the Arab League’s observer mission.  For another example of the importance of these efforts see Jonathan Steele’s emphasis on dialogue in this article on 26th December. 

The importance of giving the Arab League a chance was usually accompanied in the responses to Cohen by the claim that western nations lacked moral authority to intervene despite their democratic credentials, and that Syrian self-determination was still important.  See for instance the comment by Jochedbed1

It’s true that the Arab League … is worse than useless. But “we” have so many, and so many dishonourable, ulterior motives in the Middle East that it is likely we’ll only make things worse in Syria. Not for us, for the Syrians, who have had quite enough foreign powers messing with them, thank you very much – the Ottoman Turks, the French…we (in the shape of NATO?) don’t have to stick our oar in as well. This conflict is for the locals to sort out – and I’m saying that as a person who knows enough Syrians to gauge the Janus-faced but sadistic Assad tyranny, father and son.

There are also important responses to Cohen’s charge that those who defend inaction have blood on their hands.  RichJames, for instance, notes that there are forms of action short of military intervention, such as opening borders to Syrian refugees.  These complement the many comments that argue Cohen’s consequentialism draws the wrong conclusion.  Many cite Iraq to argue that military intervention by western nations will make the situation worse, for the Syrian people themselves.  This is often complemented by the charge that Cohen’s position is not sufficiently informed by area expertise.

This last point reveals a different kind of policy coalition across left and right.  The argument that the international community has a responsibility to protect the victims of repressive regimes but that military action might not always be appropriate, defines Prime Minister Cameron’s ‘liberal conservatism’. It has it seems led the UK government to the conclusion that where military action could protect in Libya it could not in Syria. 

There is also what might be called a traditional “realist conservatism” in the comments on Cohen’s article. This insists that the British government’s first duty is to advance the interests of the British people and that dictates a policy of non-intervention. It should be said, however, that most engage Cohen on the question of whether intervention is in the interests of peace and democracy in Syria, not how the UK might advance and protect its particular interests.

Finally, there is the familiar charge of liberal imperialism based on the socially constructed distinctions between the “civilised western” and “uncivilised Arab” worlds; as well as a demeaning kind of paternalism that is conveyed in Cohen’s opening line – “The Syrian Revolution is a motherless child” (seeDaniel873).  Merowe too dismisses the Henry Jackson Society report as “nothing more than White Man’s Burden 2.0”.

The lack of discussion about whether military intervention could command a legal mandate is interesting.  It suggests that the first consideration on whether to use military force is a political and moral one, and that the Security Council’s position will be assessed accordingly.  That is, those arguing against Cohen would use the lack of consensus at the Security Council to support their own conclusions on the substantive political/moral questions.  Would they be willing to change their position if Cohen and others managed to persuade the Security Council to vote for military action?  I doubt it. They would probably argue the outcome of that particular dialogue reached an unreasonable conclusion i.e. the use of force.  If this is the case, then it suggests these critics would be adopting a kind of reverse neoconservatism.  That is, they put little store in the UN process unless it confirms their position. Is an openness to be persuaded a principle of a centre-left foreign policy?  It would seem to me that it is if the claim to be acting on behalf of ‘international community’ is at the core of the centre-left’s approach.

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About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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One Response to The left, the right and Syria

  1. Stephen Hoffman says:

    Interesting. I consider myself a neo-con on economics, a classical liberal socially and on foreign affairs somewhere in between. I generally agree with what Nick is saying and agree that some semblace of support has to come from groups like NATO.

    That said in my view the UN as proved by Hillel Neuer at UN watch in my view is a bumbling joke. It recently held two minutes silence for the death of Kim Jong Il. Truly the UN seems to living in another universe. Until they come back to the land of reality, they cannot when it comes to humanitarian intervention have a leg to stand on.

    I also agree with Nick Cohen and incidentally Ian Gow who wrote on the Bosnian conflict that those who just look on or impose sanctions where you try to impose some sort of moral equivalence when there is none have blood on their hands. I’m reminded here of a famous quote by Margaret Thatcher on that doyen of One Nation Toryism Douglas Hurd. She said about him I believe in relation to the Bosnia-Serb conflict. “Douglas, Douglas, you would make Neville Chamberlain look like a warmonger” This holds true today in Syria.

    I honestly think just because you cannot intervene in some areas, doesn’t mean you just ignore suffering. Of course, it doesn’t mean you intervene willy nilly, but I cant stand the cold-hearted realist arguments which take morals out. I guess that makes me a liberal interventionist.

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