An editorial in latest issue of The Economist this week accuses the United States “betraying the Kurds”, enabling Turkey, a NATO member and hence at least formally a US ally, to invade Northern Syria. Turkey’s alleged aim is to create a 30 km wide secure area across its border. A number of other experts and commentators, many of them so-called “liberals”, the vast majority of them “globalist internationalists”, are now bemoaning a lack of power balance in the Middle East, since Trump decided to pull out the 1,000-odd US troops that were assisting the Kurds in the region.
Liberals are generally regarded and certainly regard themselves as the sole custodians of moral principle and action. They normally care and make lengthy speeches about international law, but in this case they would want US troops to occupy territory illegally. The Economist leading article argues that Trump has “uncorked mayhem in Syria”. One more time, it is good to be reminded that it is not Trump who created the chaos in Syria. Chaos in Syria is not something that appeared yesterday. When discussing global order, taking context and the long-term effect of one’s action should be key. Unwillingness to do so implies either careless negligence or stubborn blind faith in one own’s ideas, even when their practical application fails miserably.
Obama famously called the Iraq war a stupid war in the 2008 election and this arguably helped him win the election then. Syria’s war was, however, a pretty stupid one too. The same president who had campaigned as a champion of postcolonialism and non-interventionism, three years later would proclaim: “Assad has to go”. That was quite of a radical change of approach to international issues. As it often happens to many young inspirational politicians, the reality of powers once they get in office transform them from idealistic Messiahs into much more realpolitik leaders.
By now it should be clear that the effort to democratise Iraq and Syria did not go so well after all (and in all other Arab countries that were the main theatres of the Arab Spring for that matter, see Egypt, see Libya) and that the power vacuum in East of the country enabled the rise of the Islamic State.
At the basis of international law there has always been placed state sovereignty in order to avoid international chaos. Most states in the world would tend to agree with this principle. But there are some countries more equal than others, indispensable countries a bit more exceptional than the rest that enjoy high levels of security and have noble universal escatological aims. Liberal interventionists often make use of the concept of “responsibility to protect” implied in international law. International organizations and countries could not just watch on as tragedies are happening, like in Rwanda in the 1990s, and according to the principle of responsibility to protect they would be indeed legally obliged to take action to protect human lives everywhere on the planet. Who could ever possible be against the prevention of genocides?
The responsibility to protect commitment was endorsed by the United Nations in 2005, just two yeas of the US lead invasion of Iraq to allegedly deprive Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction. The problem is responsibility to protect could possibly legitimize many sorts of interventions and effectively deprive states of their sovereignty. It is well documented that the Bush administration sought to maximize its unipolar position in international organizations. At the time responsibility to protect was being presented to the UN, the United States were in all seriousness planning to take out seven states in the Middle East.
“Thoughtless abandonment of the region would be self-defeating. It undermines America’s credibility around the world, which means that the United States will have to work harder to get its way on issues that are vital to its people’s prosperity and their way of life”, writes the Economist in a revealing passage. So does this America’s involvement is maybe not just out of altruism and humanitarianism after all, but is motivated by the need to defend the prosperity of the American people? Should this be the ultimate aim of a country that claims to act purely out of idealism and entirely unegoistically? Are hundreds of thousands of lives not a high price to pay just because the US as a global leader cannot afford to ever project weakness?
People lament that Vladimir Putin is claiming America’s mantle as the guarantor of order in the Middle East. Considering that under US leadership the region has seen over 30 years of war and chaos, maybe a form of order with the assistance of Russian, or Erdogan’s forces for that matter, is not the worst thing it could happen to the Middle East. Many Syrian refugees in Europe, even those who don’t nourish friendly feelings towards the Syrian leader Assad, often nostalgically recall how good was life in Syria just before the hunger for a democratic revolution turned into a war. In the face of millions of deaths, talk about defending human rights to justify endless wars rings hollow and cynical.