When the sordid Sergey Lavrov demanded to know “the endgame” of the Security Council’s attempt to interfere with Bashar Assad’s atrocities against his people, Hillary Clinton replied that “the endgame in the absence of us acting together as the international community, I fear, is civil war.” According to many press accounts, there is already a civil war in Syria. Lavrov later remarked about the Security Council resolution that he and his Chinese colleague had villainously gutted and then scuttled that it would have meant “taking sides in a civil war.” In Washington, “Syria experts” told The New York Times that the absence of unified international action at the United Nations might “provid[e] a recipe for all-out civil war,” and that the arming of the Syrian opposition “could lead to civil war.” It is important to note, in the light of all this, that there are things more dire than civil war—the massacre of a population by a government, for example. If a civil war is taking place in Syria, then a substantial part of the Syrian population is opposed to the Syrian regime, and Assad’s interpretation of the freedom movement as a terrorist conspiracy hatched by Syria’s enemies is exposed as a lie. And if a civil war is taking place in Syria, it is a sign of the moral and psychological soundness of the Syrian resistance, which has recognized that there are types of violence against which non-violence will avail nothing. Their peaceful demonstrations were met by wanton force, and it is proper that they should defend themselves and their better conception of their country. Civil wars are regular crucibles in the formation of nations, which sooner or later must decide how they wish to be governed and why. (Our civil war was the deferred war of our constitution.) Of course the civil war in Syria is also a tribal war, but the blame for the ethnic explosiveness of Syria rests with its dictator, who rules tribally. As for Lavrov’s warning about taking sides in a civil war, it is a vile hypocrisy. His government has already taken sides in this civil war, along with the government of Iran. Outside powers have already intervened in Syria, and on the side of the killers. It is only the civilians in the streets who are friendless.
THE ANXIETY ABOUT civil war is not the only fallacy that mars the discussion of what must be done in and for Syria. There is also the view that the failure at the Security Council was, as Clinton said, “tragic.” A sense of tragedy is not what is needed now. The indifference of Russia and China to human rights and the moral analysis of state policy is no surprise. We must be clear about what an international consensus establishes and what it does not. It was useful that the Security Council and the Arab League and certain Arab states endorsed military action against Qaddafi in Libya, but the justice of the Libyan operation was not proved by its popularity. The whole world may support something wrong. And even if the Western powers had chosen to go it alone in Libya, they would have been right. The Libyan precedent may have an unfortunate consequence for the consideration of intervention in moral emergencies, rather like the precedent of the first Gulf war: it confers upon “the international community” more authority than it deserves, and by creating an unrealistic expectation of broad unanimity about the extreme cruelties of certain regimes it makes action by limited coalitions and alliances, not to mention unilateral action by (perish the thought!) the United States, seem unlikely and even illegitimate. Yet it is one of the historical responsibilities of the United States to be, as Pat Moynihan used to say, “in opposition,” even if it is wise, on practical grounds, to act in concert rather than alone. In recent days President Obama has spoken ringingly about “the Syrian government’s unspeakable assault against the people of Homs,” and declared that Assad “has no right to lead Syria”; but the rhetorical escalation aside, the administration seems at a loss about what to do in the absence of the Security Council’s cover. “Look, don’t expect another Libya,” an American official dogmatically told the Times. Why not? Consistency in matters of first principles is not too much to ask. How can the president dine out on Libya if he is not prepared to do the same for Syria? Assad is perpetrating in Homs, Hama, Dara’a, and elsewhere what Qaddafi only threatened to perpetrate in Benghazi. Stability—tyranny’s only allure—is over. And the strategic prize is significant: the fall of Assad would damage Hezbollah and Hamas, and hobble the Iranian position in the region. In the case of Syria, our interests accord with our values. Lead again from behind!
JUST WHEN HE THOUGHT he was out they pull him back in. The Syrian crisis comes at an inconvenient time for Obama. He is presiding over a momentous transition in foreign policy and security policy. We are done with the wars, and with military interventions in places with Muslims and sand, and with ambitious counterinsurgency strategies (what Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, the strategy document released by the administration a few weeks ago, calls “large-scale, prolonged stability operations”), and we will rely on dazzling drones and stirring SEALS to rid ourselves of persons who imperil us. We are leaving the Middle East (except for Israel and the Iranian nuclear nightmare) and Central Asia for Asia-Pacific: Af-Pak is out, As-Pac is in. I am overstating it, but not altogether. There is much to be said for and against these various changes in plans and doctrines, and if Obama’s eastward turn denotes a more sober apprehension of China as a nasty power and a global rival, it will be for the good; but a fierce American response to Assad’s savagery is certainly not in the spirit of what the new security document calls “small-footprint approaches.” An American official remarked that “there is a growing danger that if the slaughter which Assad has been engaging in continues, others might step forward to aid the opposition.” That is the danger? We should be those others. We should aid and arm the Free Syrian Army, perhaps with the Saudis and the Qataris and Obama’s regional idol Erdogan, and offer protection to the parts of the country that they control. We should immiserate the Assad regime economically and banish it to a North Korean purgatory diplomatically. Like the army proposed by the Pentagon, we must be “agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies.”
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 1, 2012 issue of the magazine.