Recent days have seen a surprising upsurge in liberals pressing for Obama to intervene militarily in Syria (here, here, here, here ). This is the same group that opposes military action against Iran, opposed military action against Iraq (as well as supported Obama’s withdrawal), and supports a withdrawal from Afghanistan. What’s the disparity? Why should America use force in Syria, where almost everywhere else militarism is opposed?
The answer is surprisingly straightforward. For liberal interventionists, there is a single legitimate metric for applying military force– to stop ‘innocent people’ (whom we know about from CNN) from suffering. This attitude makes for relatively comfortable political engagement: it offers a simple bifurcated view of victims and oppressors, requires no particular knowledge of the details of conflict (‘What more do we need to know? There are people dying!’), and allows for the outpouring of unadulterated moral outrage, firmly placing the purveyor of these opinions in the camp of the righteous.
But there are several problems. First, of course, the details matter. Syria’s Assad is oppressive. But he also represents Syria’s minorities and secular elites. Should we pause to wonder why these groups are so bothered by the prospect of Sunni majority rule? (This is not to mention that in supporting Syria’s ‘rebels’ the West would fight alongside the same Sunni insurgents it took pains to defeat in Iraq. What consequences will this have, in Syria or Iraq?)
Second, and more fundamentally, liberal interventionism constitutes a fundamentally skewed view of national democratic politics, including decision-making on the application of military force. A national government is hired to be responsive to the interests of its national electorate. States pursue national interests. But liberal interventionists find no attraction in this idea: they seek to harness the awesome power of the state for the universal moral agenda they consider important. That is: just as individually liberals feel compelled to pursue the moral life, so their state should pursue the moral life. Who cares what threatens *our* national interests? It’s selfish to think just about *us*! What threatens humanity? Where are the most people to be saved? But this perspective leads to atrocious policy-making for the states’ hijacked in this way. According to liberal interventionists, the US should have fought in Rwanda (how exactly? who cares!), Sudan and now Syria, but it should not be spending money on F-35’s and carrier groups protecting America’s interests world-wide (that money could go to the poor!). That’s self-defeating, costly, and detrimental in almost every way imaginable.
Finally, and ironically, liberal interventionism’s radically democratic Jacobinism also renders it fundamentally unappreciative of what, in various areas around the world, are in fact important conditions of political well-being. In their post-WWII moralistic zeal, liberal interventionists are eager to tear down varieties of ‘dictatorship’ (throw monarchy in there as well) wherever they find them. But many elements of ‘authoritarian government’ actually constitute historically-wrought power-sharing agreements for nations whose primary political consciousness is ethnic and tribal, rather than individual and democratic. As Iraq and Egypt have shown, it is entirely dubious that the destruction of such authoritarian arrangements produces democracy rather than anarchic panic and tribal strife.
So good luck with that in Syria.