Save Us from the Liberal Hawks

Syria's a tragedy. But it's not our problem.

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."

Welcome to the "End of History," human-rights style. Like Francis Fukuyama's famous argument, there is simply no basis other than our hopes and our preferences to make us think that though the road toward this radiant future, to use the old Soviet expression, will be neither straight nor smooth, nevertheless it only goes one way, and that is in the direction of progress, peace, justice, and rights.

It is this religious quality to the support for R2P that helps account for the odd reaction among those who believe that something must be done to stop the Assad regime's war against much of its own people despite the Russian and Chinese vetoes. Obviously, some of this is purely political posturing. But it is not only spin. The moral outrage, however misplaced, is real enough. In her contribution to the New Republic symposium, Suzanne Nossel -- formerly Richard Holbrooke's deputy when he was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, founder of, former chief operating officer of Human Rights Watch, and now executive director of the U.S. branch of Amnesty International -- illustrated this faith-based ethical triumphalism perfectly when she insisted that though the Russian and Chinese vetoes of the Security Council resolution had been "a sharp political defeat," it had also represented a "potent moral victory" and a "tectonic shift" in the advancement of a global human rights regime whose victory is now inevitable, no matter what kind of sovereigntist rear-guard actions the Russians and Chinese may continue to mount.

The implication is clear. Three years after the adoption of R2P by the U.N. General Assembly and more than a year after the beginning of the Arab Spring, not only is the Assad regime on the wrong side of history, but the Russians and Chinese are as well. In her New Republic piece, Nossel even goes so far as to imply that the Russians and the Chinese know this themselves. They cast their votes out of fear of this human rights-based future, she writes, claiming that the "bell of international condemnation and isolation tolling now for Damascus sounds an uneasy note in Beijing and Moscow." Even by the hubristic standards of the human rights movement, these are extraordinary claims. One doubts, however, that they will cause either Vladimir Putin or Hu Jintao to quake in his boots as this owl of Minerva flies by, presumably with a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights held in its beak.

Beneath all the incantatory bluster, however, a certain nervousness shows through. To judge by the fevered, angry response of U.S., French, and British officials, it seems as if they genuinely believed the Russians and Chinese would be obliged to truckle before the historic inevitability of the human rights revolution. How else to account for the spectacle of Ambassador Rice storming out of the Security Council chamber in fine, old, Khrushchev-era Soviet style once the vetoes had been cast, or her declaration shortly after that Russia and China had held the council "hostage" (one can only wonder how long until those words are thrown back at her the next time the United States vetoes a Security Council resolution on Israel-Palestine, as it has so often in the past).

Safely out of government, Slaughter was able to go further, demanding that the United States and its allies do something to bring the carnage in Syria to an end. Otherwise, she wrote, R2P would be exposed as a "convenient fiction for power politics or oil politics." So convinced is she of the positive value of the responsibility to protect as a force for peace and international security that she seems perfectly willing to envisage an end run around that pesky Security Council veto the Russians and the Chinese had the gall to invoke. To be legitimate, she writes, all that would be required from the United Nations would be the "authorization of a majority of the members of the [Security Council]," as an exercise of R2P, "with clear limits to how and against whom force could be used built into the resolution." Like the iconic U.S. officer in Vietnam who told a reporter that his troops had been obliged to burn the village in order to save it, Slaughter seems to be willing to undermine the structural foundations of international order, which, for better or worse, is based in large measure on the Security Council, in order to further it. Peace is war; war is peace. George Orwell, call your office.

Meanwhile, despite the astonishing propaganda barrage in the media (for once, CNN, the BBC, and Al Jazeera were all on the same page!) that for all intents and purposes endorsed the claims about dead and wounded made by the anti-Assad insurgents (the disclaimers tended to come at paragraph three or four of a print piece, or the tail end of a video segment), the reality on the ground in Syria was far more complicated. A McClatchy news story quoted U.S. government sources as confirming that the recent attack against a Syrian government building in Aleppo had probably been the work of al Qaeda, thus confirming at least to some extent the claims the Assad regime has made about the role of jihadists in the rebellion. Qaddafi made the same claim; it was dismissed at the time, but now appears to have had at least some foundation. In the Syrian case, though, there is no need to trust either Assad or anonymous sources in the U.S. intelligence world, because al Qaeda's support for the uprising has been confirmed publicly by Osama bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who, in a recent video, praised the "lions of Syria" for their rebellion. And even if al Qaeda's role is overstated, the degree to which what is going on today in Syria pits Sunnis against Assad's Alawite base was underscored by the early January testimony to the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee by Israeli army chief of staff Benny Gantz, who said the Israel Defense Forces was already making contingency plans to cope with the thousands of Alawites likely to try to flee to Israel should Assad be driven from power.

These nightmare scenarios are anything but far-fetched. What is taking place in Syria may have begun in part as a democratic insurrection, but it has become a low-level (at least for the moment) interconfessional civil war. The last time we got involved in one of those was in Iraq, whose principal legacies, however unintended, are almost certain to be increasing Iranian power and influence -- and setting the stage for the disappearance of Christianity in one of its most ancient homelands. There is simply no reason to believe that things in Syria will turn out any better and at least some reason to assume that the result will be even worse. But in the brave new world of R2P, this does not seem to matter very much to a born-again liberal interventionism eager to flex its muscles.

During the Bush administration, Democrats often boasted that -- unlike the president and his aides, who were consumed by millenarian dreams of remaking the Middle East in the image of American democracy -- they were part of the "reality-based community." In fact, the neoconservatives were paragons of modesty compared with the liberal interventionists and R2P supporters who saw in Libya and now see in Syria the chance to move one step closer to remaking the world in the image of the human rights movement. Infatuated by their own good intentions -- and persuaded that their interventionist views incarnate a higher morality -- those who view Libya as a triumph and Syria as an opportunity to cement the practice of humanitarian intervention are in full crusading mode. If the looming victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the failure of the democratic project in Iraq, and the fact that the most significant political outcomes of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya have been instability and the victory of political Islam have not chastened them -- and clearly they haven't -- nothing will. Welcome to the second decade in a row of humanitarian war.

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The Counterterrorism Consensus

How did liberals end up supporting the Obama administration’s continuation of George W. Bush's secret war on terror?

There are few areas of greater disappointment for liberal supporters of President Barack Obama than his policies on civil liberties. From the failure to close Guantanamo Bay and his ramped up drone war to the continued reliance on indefinite detention, military commissions for accused terrorists, and the recent National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that potentially allows for the killing of American citizens without due process, Obama's presidency, or so the argument goes, has been one broken promise after another.

Yet, none of this seems to be having any effect on Obama's political standing -- even among Democrats. The results of a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll provide compelling evidence of how little a price Obama has paid for these policies. According to the poll, 70 percent of respondents support the president's decision to keep Guantanamo Bay open. Indeed, backing for Gitmo is actually higher today than it was in 2003. Among the president's political base, 53 percent who self-identify as liberal Democrats -- and 67 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats -- are also supportive.

What about drone strikes? In total, 83 percent of Americans are on-board with the use of drones -- a mere 4 percent are strongly opposed. Even more shocking, when asked if they still back the policy if American citizens are being killed without due process (like Anwar al-Awliki), 65 percent approve and only 26 percent disapprove. Among Democrats, the policy has broad, majority support.

What is one to conclude from these numbers? Are progressives, as Glenn Greenwald suggests, "repulsive hypocrites" who have shifted their position on civil liberties simply out of political expediency? Well, perhaps. After all, in December 2008, 52 percent of Democrats were in support of closing Guantanamo Bay -- in February 2009 just after Obama took office and promised to close the facility the number jumped to 64 percent. It's not hard to draw the conclusion that Democrats who strongly opposed Bush-era policies on civil liberties are a tad less outraged today at the same decision because their party's president is in the White House.

Still base partisanship may not fully capture what is happening here. Rather, the more likely conclusion is that no matter who is sitting in the White House there will be strong support for policies that are seen to be thwarting terrorists and keeping Americans safe -- no matter the legality or moral probity.

First of all, Guantanamo has generally had majority support among Americans since 2003. The biggest exception was in 2008 and 2009 -- but that was also a time when both Obama and his opponent Sen. John McCain wanted to close down the facility. As a result, support for keeping Gitmo open became something of an outlier in U.S. political debates. So it would not be surprising if Americans were taking their cues on the issue directly from their political leaders.

Second, opposition to Gitmo has never necessarily been about Gitmo, per se. The detention facility became, during the Bush years, a stand-in for opposition to the president's policies in fighting the war on terrorism. It was a short-hand symbol for torture, for warrantless wiretapping, for secret prisons, for the failed war in Iraq, for Abu Ghraib, and indeed for every shady or nefarious act perpetrated or allowed by the Bush administration in the name of fighting the war on terrorism. Gitmo became the symbol for the short-sighted decisions that diminished America's image in the world.

Today, the worst excesses of the Bush years have, for the most part, been ended or at the very least are no longer front and center in public debates. As the most disturbing public elements of the war on terror have been eliminated, it is understandable that there is less reason to be opposed to Guantanamo's continued presence. Yet, all of that changed in the spring of 2009 when Obama's plan to close the facility and transfer its inmates to prisons in the United States met with fierce political opposition in Congress.

Shutting down Gitmo might have elicited polite applause on the campaign trail or a nod of the head, but that was before it meant terrorists would be shipped from Cuba to prisons in Illinois or for trials in New York City. And this, says political pollster and former Clinton administration National Security Council official Jeremy Rosner, activated the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) effect.

Suddenly closing Gitmo didn't seem like such a hot idea. The fears of costs and security risks from such transfers were mightily overstated, but when key Democrats like Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, and independents like Mike Bloomberg (not to mention practically the entire Republican Party) were complaining about allowing terrorists to be tried in American courts, it's not hard to imagine that public support for keeping Gitmo open quickly rose.

But what about drones? I asked Alex Cole, a political communications strategist, about this issue and he said to me that some of the early research on public attitudes toward the war on terrorism revolved around the analogy of the United States as a hunter and terrorists as the huntee. The key takeaway is that Americans generally prefer a more discrete method for killing terrorists rather than an all-consuming approach -- and the drone war fits that bill. One might say that Americans are both pragmatic and a bit ruthless on the subject of killing terrorists.

Today, with U.S. engagement over in Iraq and winding down in Afghanistan, the drone war looks like the single best means for keeping potential terrorists at bay -- and, more important, keeping U.S. troops out of harm's way. Indeed, at the same time that Americans want to maintain current policies on drones and detention they are also strongly supportive of returning troops home from Afghanistan.

This almost certainly is how the Obama administration is approaching the issue. Over the past nine months or so, the White House has taken crucial steps toward ending the legacy of the war on terrorism. Obama killed Osama bin Laden, pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq, and has began ending the war in Afghanistan. But maintaining the current policies on detention and drones is a nice back-up strategy: not only is it an effective way to fight the dwindling groups of jihadist terrorists, but it limits the administration's political exposure if something terrible does happen.

None of this should come as a huge surprise if one looks closely at Obama's rhetoric from the 2008 campaign. Many of the administration's liberal critics on the left have strong memories of Obama blasting the Bush's civil liberties record. They recall Obama's pledge to close Gitmo, extend habeus corpus to terrorists, end torture and, in general, turn the page from the worst excesses of U.S. foreign policy during the Bush years.

But they have a slightly selective memory. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find many examples of candidate Obama pledging to close Guantanamo (though that was clearly and unequivocally his position). He didn't mention it, for example, at the acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008. Instead he said this: " I argued for more resources and more troops to finish the fight against the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11, and made clear that we must take out Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights. You know, John McCain likes to say that he'll follow bin Laden to the Gates of Hell -- but he won't even go to the cave where he lives."

Not quite so touchy, feely there. Indeed, when Obama gave his major foreign-policy speech in July 2008 he said this, "We need more troops, more helicopters, more satellites, more Predator drones in the Afghan border region. And we must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights."

During 2008, even after the frustration of the Bush years, Obama's loudest public pledge when it came to terrorism was not to do less, but rather more. As a Democrat seeking the White House at a time of war this could hardly have come as a surprise; and now as a president seeking re-election it is even less surprising that he has continued this approach. But for those looking to Obama for leadership on this issue -- well, that would likely have to wait until after Election Day, if even then (a fact that was brought into stark relief by Obama's retreat on the NDAA debate).

In fairness, Obama -- even if he wanted to -- likely wouldn't be able to shut down Guantanamo (though he remains in support of closing the facility) or hold civilian trials for alleged terrorists in the United States. As for the drones, that policy isn't likely to stop unless the United States runs out of terrorists to kill. With more than 70 percent of the American people on his side there is little impetus for him to shift course -- no matter how much it might upset his liberal base of supporters (or the constitutional lawyer within him).

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