Leo: This is the most horrifying part of your liberalism. You think there are moral absolutes.
Bartlet: There are moral absolutes.
Leo: Apparently not. He’s killed innocent people. He’ll kill more, so we have to end him. The village idiot comes to that conclusion before the Nobel Laureate.
(We Killed Yamamoto – The West Wing)
In early 1994, Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire, UN Forces Commander in Rwanda, notified the United Nations Secretary General of ongoing plans by the Hutus to exterminate the Tutsis as evidenced by the discovery of four major weapons caches. As part of his contingencies, he made plans for UN troops to seize the caches. His superiors’ response at the UN was that it was not part of his mandate to intervene. In the first half of that year, more than 500,000 Tutsis were exterminated under the eyes of the UN Mission and the whole world. Six years later, the UN officially declared its reaction to Rwanda a “failure.” Commenting on his lack of support for the country when needed, then-President Clinton admitted: “I blew it.”
A year later, when the four-year war in Bosnia culminated in the killing of 8,000 Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica, the reaction was swift. Without consulting with civilian UN officials, NATO launched “Operation Deliberate Force” against more than 300 Bosnian Serb targets. After evening out the battlefield, belligerents were invited to sign the Dayton Peace Accords, enforced by 60,000 NATO troops until 2004. Far from being a developed country, Bosnia faces many issues nowadays. War is not one of them.
Humanity learns a great deal from history. As a student of International Relations, I have always admired the liberal school’s emphasis on cooperation and progress. The liberal school gives laws and treaties supremacy over the individual interest of states, and says that mutual understanding and goodwill ought to be behind any international endeavor. Contemporary institutions like the European Union and the United Nations are a testament to the wisdom of such an approach. But as a student of history, I am also aware that all the laws and institutions in the world cannot fully check harmful human impulses. If humanity can be credited with implementing a liberal international order, it should also bear the blame for tragedies like the World Wars, the Holocaust, Sabra and Chatila, 9/11, and the War in Iraq. Oftentimes, brutal and unjustified force can only be met by force.
In September 2013, the Obama Administration said it was seriously considering a series of strikes against the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons against civilians. Anti-war movements worldwide woke up from what seemed like a deep sleep. In Washington DC, New York, Toronto, Beirut, Paris, and Rome, protesters saw weapons of mass destruction as an all-too-familiar excuse for starting a war. Watching the protests, I could only feel that these protesters were totally out of touch with the situation in Syria. The country was already in an irrefutable state of war, with the Syrian regime having the upper hand. Schools, bakeries, and apartment blocks were being bombarded by the Syrian Air Force. Ethnic and religious minorities were being targeted depending on their level of support for the regime. Where were the massive protests condemning Bashar Al Assad for his crimes? The anti-war movement’s main concern appeared to be the denunciation American expansionism, not the loss of life. If anything, protesters worldwide seemed to be just reacting to the news of another “imperial adventure,” with no contextualization of events.
Our collective memory seems too short to recall that the war in Syria started out as peaceful protests in the context of the Arab Spring, with civilians taking to the streets and chanting for freedom and reforms. Few remembered that when the international community gathered at the UN to condemn the Syrian regime, Russia and China were the only obstacles to an effective resolution. Our apparent short-term memory loss reached its peak when anti-war protesters lauded Vladimir Putin, a man with a hand in the Syrian tragedy, for an op-ed in the New York Times against US intervention. Reiterating a set of self-explanatory arguments, he deliberately omitted the two central components of the Syrian issue: the massive loss of Syrian civilian life, and his own military and diplomatic protection of the regime that makes it possible. For a moment, a technicality of international law—the veto—became the only obstacle to fulfilling the spirit of international law—protecting human life.
Some point out that China and Russia are just protecting their interests in Syria. Conspiracy theorists say that the Syrian crisis is just a chess game among superpowers. One player is always ignored in these analyses: the Syrian people. With the help of Russia and China, Bashar Al Assad’s major accomplishment over the last two years is turning a genuine movement of reform into a civil war. When Barack Obama justifies intervention by the need to end human suffering, there is no way of checking that he is genuinely concerned about the lives of Syrians. But nor is there a way of checking that he is not. On the other hand, the Russian and Chinese disregard for Syrians’ lives is evident in their logistical, legal, and rhetorical protection for Bashar’s murderous regime. When we oppose intervention based on the United States’ expansionist history, we fail to address the crucial point that today, only the United States and its allies are trying (and failing) to put an end to the Syrian regime’s atrocities. The history of Rwanda’s genocide shows, with devastating clarity, that they could have chosen not to.
As a Middle Easterner who matured politically through the onset of the Arab Spring, I could not conceive of putting the current US administration on equal moral footing with Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China. Russia and China’s actions are a clear threat to the Middle East’s recent democratization movements, movements that have produced notable advances in representative government and individual liberties. The United States may not have a pristine record sheet, but at least they are not actively working to crush the Syrian people’s democratic aspirations. At the end of the day, as an advocate of democracy, that is all I need to know.