Potomac Fever is the blog of the Hamilton College Semester in Washington Program.
Let's be realistic here, instead of handling foreign affairs as if they were as simplistic and formulaic as a logic puzzle.Sure, it's 'inconsistent' to intervene some places and not others, but recognizing that you can't save everyone everywhere doesn't mean we shouldn't attempt to help where we believe we can. I'd rather be accused of inconsistency in regards to humanitarian intervention than pat myself on the back for being consistent, where that consistency is a consistent enabling of massacre. I certainly wish we could do more to help the Syrians (and I'm disappointed to an extent in how we've engaged the Bahraini situation, where we do hold some forms of leverage), but anything resembling legitimate intervention in Syria probably sparks WIDSPREAD violence with Hezbollah, Iran, Hamas, and plenty of other agitators getting involved, with Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Syria, and basically that entire pocket of the Middle East having the potential to go up in flames. Why, because we want to prove we're logically consistent? Nobody can save everything. Any time we spend money or resources to combat any sort of crisis (either domesticaly or internationally), we are in some sense ignoring some other sort of issue in the world that certainly needs attention (such as say, malaria in Africa). If we were to be logically consistent, we wouldn't try to combat any ill in the world, because we can't solve all the world's problems, and all problems are important, so prioritizing in any form is in one sense hypocrisy. This is, I think, an area where hypocrisy is ok. In regards to the United States, not every Middle Eastern uprising can be treated the same. What the Assad regime is resorting to is beyond repugnant, and I hope those brave men and women standing up to their tyrant rulers emerge successful in their struggle. But it's simply not feasible for us to pursue aggressive action in Syria. Covert operations through an avenue like the CIA perhaps, but one wonders what use that would be.The Libya question is simply about Libya. We have the ability to act there, actions that I think benefit our long term standing in the region while also probably saving thousands of lives and supporting the will of the people (and also acts to prevent the momentum of the 'Arab Spring' from being ground to a halt). Syria is far more tangled in the broader geopolitical mess that is the Middle East, and the simple truth is that we do not have the leverage to go after Assad. So if you're wondering how the Obama Administration can justify acting in Libya but not Syria, it's really quite simple: They live in the real world, where tough choices have to be made and realistic assessments of our capability to produce change have to be made, and the repercussions of any action need to be considered. We're acting in Libya because we can. We're not going to go into Syria... because we can't. It's an unfortunate fact of life that we cannot come to the aid of every person screaming out for freedom in the world. That does not mean that in situations where it is both the morally right thing to do as well as strategically the right thing to do, we should not do anything out of a need to be consistent.
To begin with, I disagree with the example you used about using aid. Diplomatic, economic and humanitarian aid should and usually is given out by the United States on a whole host of problems. (The U.S. is the biggest suppliers of AID’s medication to Africa). The US routinely supports democratic groups and I am all in favor of foreign aid that helps solve problems like Malaria. But you cannot compare that sort of aid to military aid. There is a fundamental difference. For one thing, you are jeopardizing American lives. You are instructing Americans to kill people who pose no direct threat (for the most part in these types of “kinetic demonstrations”) to the United States, and occasionally doing more harm than good (destroying infrastructure, rallying terrorists). If you want to support the Libyan rebels by putting pressure on Gaddafi, fine. The same goes with Syria. I understand where you are coming from overall, but I disagree with your “realist” approach. It seems the height of folly to me to begin to bomb a country that is in the midst of a civil war in the name of “protecting civilians” (and you know my personal views are that the Libyan civilians do not really need that protection) but then turn a blind eye to when civilians who are acting peacefully actually DO get attacked. On the one hand we are intervening to protect rebel forces who are opposing their government with weapons and who made the choice to go to war with the Gaddafi regime, and on the other we are allowing unarmed civilians to be murdered (not even threatened with murder), and your argument is that well, Syria is too risky and cannot be touched. What kind of argument is that? If the U.S. and the U.N. are going to espouse a policy of protecting civilians but then only turn that policy into action when a country possesses oil reserves and antagonistic leaders what message does that send? What good is a policy if you only use it to gang up on relatively powerless and unpopular dictators? The point is that it is a terrible policy. I do not want to go into Syria, I am merely trying to show how arbitrary and foolish a U.N. mandate to protect civilians during a Civil War actually is. You are giving America a blank check to engage in hostilities anywhere in the world that they believe “civilians” are at risk. In what war are civilians not at risk? You also make what I think is a very big assumption. You are assuming that American intervention is better for whatever country we decide to go into. We may go in with good intentions (I could argue that America’s goal to remove Saddam and establish a Democracy was a good goal) but it rarely works out that way. If you look at the history of American intervention in conflicts around the globe you will find a host of problems, not solutions. Vietnam? Disaster. El Salvador? Disaster. Somalia? Disaster. The list goes on. The REALISTIC attitude is the one that says foreign interventions do not work. So you are right, Obama is being realistic in not going after Syria, but he is not being realistic in going after Gaddafi.
I don't see what is so ridiculous about not acting on something because it is deemed too risky. That, to me, would be one of the biggest reasons not to act. There are considerable risks in acting in Libya, but fanning the first flames of a region-wide proxy war between Western forces, Israel, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas is is a CONSIDERABLY bigger risk, and is a big enough byproduct of action in Syria to dissuade me from pursuing action on altruistic grounds. This situation can't be viewed in shades of black and white. There are considerable shades of grey, and as I've said before, each situation has to be approached in a unique way. Now, there is certainly political calculation beyond simple humanitarian responsibility that went into acting in Libya. I don't buy that it was for oil, because intervening and prolonging the conflict only serves to destabilize Libya's oil production... what I saw it more as was a recognition that if no action was made, we would have been seen as enabling a rampaging dictator and overall would be seen by a burgeoning generation of Arabs as having been deeply ambivalent and perhaps even antagnoistic to their democratic aspirations. Not acting to aid every democratic movement will in itself cause some people to grumble, but I say some action is better than none. As I've discussed before, I saw acting in Libya to have much to do with the larger balance of power battle we are waging with Iran over the 'heart' of the Middle East. I don't think the UN or the US was seeking to create a new sort of doctrine behind intervention by acting in Libya. Doctrines and ideologically driven foreign policy strategies are dangerous for many reasons, not least of which has to do with the fact that it typically lends itself to approaching situations and crises without the proper nuance.
So, are we going into Libya in part because it's easier to act against an unpopular, erratic dictator than it is to act against a well-connected Syrian despot? Yes. I don't think that's such a bad thing. It's a recognition of what we are capable of what and what we are not. I know that you believe that foreign interventions are inherently negative in the long run, and we'll just have to agree to disagree on that one, because I believe that the interventions you cited did not fail because they were doomed from the start as an intervention, but because they were poorly conceptualized interventions or of a completely different animal than this (the Vietnam and Iraq bogeymen comparisons do well to sensationalize the topic but do little to inform as to why a limited and internationally-cooperative action like this is bound to fail). As for this argument that you don't believe there was any serious danger for the Libyan civilians, again, I'm just going to have to agree to disagree because we've already discussed that ad nauseum on the blog... though I will point out that you are in a significant minority on that. Even the considerable majority of people who argue against intervention in Libya agree that Libyan civilians were in grave danger... they just don't think that it was our place to save them. We both agree that there are dangerous possible repercussions of acting in Libya, and I think even as this moves towards being a NATO mission now, it's not something anyone on our National Security team can wipe their hands of and move on from, because we have to be vigilant in keeping up with whatever new Libya emerges from this and insure that our short-term actions don't produce long-term negative affects. That is doable, though, with the right kind of structural support and cooperation. I think we're giving ourselves a fighting chance of coming out of this positively though, whereas without acting I think we were going to come out of the situation much worse off no matter what. But I digress... it seems we both agree that we shouldn't send troops into Syria, and I'm sort of tired of having to repeat my same arguments about why I saw Libya as a situation where we needed to act.
Foreign policy, Yeah!
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