There are many foundations underpinning the hawkish elements of mainstream American foreign policy, importantly an approach that Donald Trump appears to embracing with increased fervor with every passing day. One of these is the belief that the US has a unique role in the world. At its best, this view emboldens the US to provide assistance to people and need and even occasionally intervene in foreign conflicts to save lives. However, there is another side of this approach as well, one that we see in the rhetorical dance too many in the foreign policy establishment make. That is the view that is so deeply held that it is rarely noticed, let alone questioned-that the rules don’t apply to us. For example, it is much easier to feel righteous in our criticisms of Assad’s use of chemical weapons, if we make sure that our collective memory does not include our own use of those horrific and murderous weapons.
As the brutal suppression of opponents of Bashar al-Assad by supporters of his regime in Syria continues, the U.S. and other western powers are faced, yet again, with the question of whether or not to intervene in a violent North African conflict that, absent western intervention, could lead to even more violent deaths and suppression. The similarities between the dilemma facing the U.S. in Syria in 2012 and the one it faced roughly a year ago in Libya is, while not the same, quite similar, at least in some respects.
The U.S. is asking, without success, for the Iranian, Syrian, Russian and Chinese governments to do things that, from their perspective, are not in their interests. It is not really a big surprise that Iran is not giving up their weapons because the U.S. wants them to or that Moscow and Beijing are less anxious than the U.S. to call for a leader to resign because he has used excessive force on the citizens of his own country. The U.S., on the other hand, is asking Egypt to do something that is neither against their interests nor a very big reques
Every image of a New York City or Oakland policeman abusing his position, every story about how a veteran or senior citizen was injured by one of these policeman, every image of a university police officer casually pepper spraying a few college students doing nothing more than sitting quietly at a demonstration damages the ability of the U.S. to influence people and governments around the world and provides fodder for those authoritarian leaders who would like to ignore American entreaties before killing or beating up demonstrators in their own countries.
The U.S. has been in a difficult position regarding Syria as American relative inaction in Syria is a stark contrast to U.S. policy in Libya where the U.S. has played a major role in ongoing military intervention against that country’s authoritarian leader. While the situations in the two countries are not identical, there are ample similarities. The failure of the U.S. to become involved in Syria highlights both the deep inconsistency of American foreign policy as well as the limits on American, and indeed NATO’s, ability to be everywhere at once. The specific problem which the U.S. faces regarding Syria and Libya is that of leaving itself open to criticism for intervening in one country while not intervening in another similar case.
The criticism of the intervention in NATO on the grounds that if the west intervenes to stop mass killings in Libya, they should do it everywhere else as well, is troubling because the corollary is that if the west cannot stop mass killing somewhere, it shouldn’t try to do it anywhere. Nonetheless, the intervention in Libya sets a precedent and creates expectations in the region that can create problems for the U.S. and its European allies.
Since 1989, most authoritarian leaders have probably thought that the consequences for blithely killing hundreds of demonstrators in the main square of the capital, including being cut off from foreign assistance, facing massive civil unrest facilitated by better communication technology, trade sanctions or foreign intervention outweigh the short term gains those actions would bring. The Syrian government is currently challenging this received wisdom of the last two decades. Ironically, because Syria is a much smaller, less powerful and more ordinary country than China what happens there may be more important for other countries than what happened in China 22 years ago. Therefore, if the al-Assad regime remains in power after killing and torturing hundreds of its own people, it is likely that will set a more powerful precedent than the Chinese government set in 1989.