Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of (humanitarian) war. That, at least, is what much of the U.S. policy elite seems to be pushing for these days in Syria. That many of the "permahawks," like Fouad Ajami, Max Boot, and Elliott Abrams, who championed the George W. Bush administration's decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein, are now calling for supporting the uprising against Bashar al-Assad's dictatorship should come as no surprise to anyone. Nor should similar calls from most of the liberal writers and editors associated with the New Republic magazine come as a shock. They, too, have been remarkably consistent, and the magazine's current symposium on what needs to be done next in Syria is eerily reminiscent of the one it ran the year after the invasion of Iraq, which tilted so lopsidedly toward justifying the war, though not the way the Bush administration was prosecuting it.
What is surprising, though, is that despite the disaster of Iraq, looming withdrawal in what will amount to defeat in Afghanistan, and, to put it charitably, the ambiguous result of the U.N.-sanctioned, NATO-led, and Qatari-financed intervention that brought down Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime, is how nearly complete the consensus for strong action has been even among less hawkish liberals, whether what is done takes the form of the United States and its NATO allies arming the Free Syrian Army, opening so-called humanitarian corridors, or encouraging Turkey and a coalition of the willing within the Arab League to do so. British columnist Jonathan Freedland summed up this view when he wrote recently in the Guardian that the West must not "make the people of Homs pay the price for the mistake we made in Baghdad."
In reality, though, liberal interventionists were never as shaken by the lessons of Iraq as was commonly supposed. Anyone doubting this need only look at the extraordinary mobilization for some sort of humanitarian and human rights-based intervention in Darfur in 2005 and 2006. This movement included a number of figures who now occupy important positions in Barack Obama's administration, notably Susan Rice, now U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, and Samantha Power, now senior director for multilateral affairs at the National Security Council, and who are generally assumed to have played an important role (if not quite the central one sometimes attributed to them) in persuading Obama to intervene in Libya. Nothing is wrong with intervention, it seems (just as there is nothing wrong with drone strikes), just as long as it is done by good U.N.-loving, multilateralism-oriented Democrats from the coasts, rather than by ignorant, war-worshipping, vulgarly nationalistic Republicans from flyover country.
If anything, liberal interventionists now seem to feel they have the wind at their backs because of the acceptance by the United Nations of the so-called "responsibility to protect" (R2P) doctrine, which has been widely touted -- including by many of the most important human rights organizations that are often at odds with U.S. government policy (notably Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and some of their most important funders, notably George Soros's Open Society Foundations network) -- as resolving many of the ethical and operational problems that accompanied previous iterations of humanitarian intervention. In the words of Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University, who, until last year, was head of policy planning at the U.S. State Department, "R2P is a foundation for increased peace and respect for human rights over the long term, [and] each time it is invoked successfully to authorize the prevention of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave and systematic war crimes, and ethnic cleansing as much as the protection of civilians from such atrocities once they are occurring, it becomes a stronger deterrent against the commission of those acts in the first place."
Like so many of the fundamental assumptions of the human rights movement, there is something quasi-religious about all this. Writing recently on this site, Gareth Evans, the former Australian foreign minister who is one of the principal intellectual and institutional architects of R2P, argued that over the past decade there is "universal agreement that state sovereignty is not a license to kill." He concedes that the Russian and Chinese veto of the Security Council's Syria resolution demonstrates that "for every two steps forward on R2P there is usually a step back" -- but Evans quickly dispenses with this caveat. He quotes U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, noting that henceforth the global debate will be about "how, not whether, to implement the responsibility to protect."