February 28, 2014

Is it now — has it always been — too late for the West to save Syrian lives?

The Syria Test

Palestinians waiting for food at the Yarmouk camp in Damascus a month ago -- in a photo released yesterday by United Nations.

Palestinians waiting for food at the Yarmouk camp in Damascus a month ago — in a photo released yesterday by United Nations and printed on page A7 of the New York Times today. (UNRWA Photo)

With Iraq and Afghanistan bleeding in our rear-view mirror, is there a case still to be made for American intervention with anything more than words in Syria’s miserable meltdown? The news and pictures from Syria are perfectly awful – sarin gas against civilians succeeded by barrel bombs on Aleppo, millions of Syrians on the run, all varieties of torture, targeting of children and doctors, a death toll in two-and-a-half years of warfare approaching 150,000, and no end in sight. But is there anything like a constructive case for American intervention?

Our guest Steve Walt from Harvard was a leader of the “realist” school of American strategy before it was fashionable. He warned all along that war with Iraq would undermine the US interest; today he’s saying we should be fighting the temptation to commit American power in Syria. Our guest from London, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, is the historian of folly in Iraq, the “Neoconservative War,” he calls it. But he’s telling us that Syria is different – a murderous tyranny that only the threat of American force can check. And Nabih Bulos, the Los Angeles Times journalist, is just back from Damascus and a tour of the besieged city of Homs and Yarmouk refugee camp inside the city.

What should we have done, what can we still do, and is it too late to pass the test in Syria?

Guest List
Stephen Walt
Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University, author of the bombshell book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad
a Pakistani-born academic, a commentator at Pulse, and author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War.
Dr. Laurence Ronan
a staff physician at Mass General Hospital, director of the Thomas S. Durant, M.D., Fellowship in Refugee Medicine, and medical director for the Boston Red Sox, calling in from spring training.
Nabih Bulos
professional violinist and war correspondent, born in Jordan to Palestinian parents, who returned from a trip to Damascus two weeks ago.
Reading List
Understanding Syria: From Pre-Civil War to Post-Assad
William Polk, The Atlantic
The veteran foreign-policy thinker William Polk wrote a long explainer of the roots of the civil war in Syrian history and geography for The Atlantic.
Use of Force to Save Starving Syrians
Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi, New York Times
"Children of Aleppo"
FRONTLINE documentary

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  • Potter

    I am so glad you are going to talk about this!

    I don’t think this has slipped off the front page at all. The NYTimes has been on it including the photography to go with it. We are being asked practically daily to imagine some thing worse than we were told about the day before. Tonight on the PBS newshour, it was a scene that had to put tears on anyone claiming to be human. I think the big mistake ( as we always make one!) was to say “this is a civil war” “let them fight it out”
    But the thing is one side has the might, the overwhelming firepower. For God’s sake, it’s far from a fir fight AND it’s innocents that are dying suffering severely and fleeing en masse. And so here we ( the US) are- so sick and tired of warring these last years and with an impotent UN. So now we hear there is an unamimous UNSC resolution to stop (the worst) of it ( barrel bombs etc) or else. Or else WHAT!!???

  • Jeff

    Haven’t we learned anything from failed interventions of the past? Yes, things are awful in Syria, but the US and its repressive allies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf bear much of the responsibility. The idea that the US would sincerely intervene on humanitarian grounds or that our involvement wouldn’t make things worse is a pure fantasy. There are evils in the world — some of which we caused, some of which we cannot fix unilaterally. If the US had a consistent stance in support of democracy and self-determination, maybe our involvement would have some credibility, but the US record of supporting friendly dictators and opposing or overthrowing elected governments we don’t like makes any further US involvement hypocritical at the least. If we want to do something to help Syria, then humanitarian relief and support for the refugee population — along with multilateral diplomacy is the only credible option.

  • This Radio Open Source discussion on Syria was very illuminating and needs the additional dimension adumbrated below: The Central Element of Neocon Global “mayhem-ization” strategies and their Impact on Syria today. It is true that when we think of snakepit-type regimes as those of the Assads, father and son, and Syria, the mind goes back to movies like “Brigadoon” and “Thief of Bagdad” (moved over to Damascus) and Orson Welles playing “Colonel Haki” in the 1943 Eric Ambler thriller “Journey into Fear.” That isn’t enough as is signaled by your guest’s book title and subtitle: the forthcoming “The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War,” by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, a Pakistani academic in England and a commentator at Pulse.

    There’s a global backdrop that’s integral to the current situation and that is the neocon plan around Wolfowitz, Kristol, Perle, Feith, Abrams, et al to “mayhem-ize” the Arab world to benefit Israel’s landgrab and to derail globalization which they perceive as a threat to Israel and themselves. They wanted to engineer a “clash of civilizations” so as to head off a potential “rendezvous of civilizations. (Obama’s 2009 Cairo Speech is a central document in this potential rendezvous process). Professor Francis Boyle, like Prof. Juan Cole, an oasis of honesty on the Middle East and a critic of American “Orwello-Zionism” (whereby Israel-type war and “mayhemization” and managed chaos and tension equals peace), explains some of this in a recent interview where he links Ukraine and Syria.

    Professor Francis Boyle is a Professor in International Law at the University of Illinois College of Law in Champaign, Illinois. He goes into further detail (see the hyperlinks above) on the linkages between US Ukraine policy and Syria policy in a way that was not mentioned on the “Syria Test” Radio Open Source show.

    The ROS listener might want to add this “hidden dimension.”

    • Potter

      @ melson So, that’s really, the objective here of Syria, against Syria, is as they did to Libya: to crackup Syria as a state into its constituent, religious and ethnic units not only for the United States but also for the benefit of Israel.

      My antennae go up when I read this kind of stuff. It makes no sense to me. I need more than a recitation of old neo-con goals to convince me. It does not benefit Israel to have mayhem all around, nor does it benefit the US. It appears to me that the US and Israel are moving further apart, or at least the US is at odds with the present Israeli government (but clearly in support of Israel ultimately and not against the Arabs or Iran). I want to believe that Obama is more evolved. We have always wanted Israel to survive, but our ideas about how that happens now clearly diverge. Kerry is sincere. Israel, by the way, is actually helping refugees, providing aid and medicine. I realize that this can be construed any way depending upon one’s frame of mind…

      I have to admit I have not listened yet to this show and aim to asap. Mine above was simply a cri de coeur about the horror and what to do to stop it. Obviously Assad, or whoever is advising him, has made a good bet on the geo-politics of the moment especially in Western Europe and now the US against the use of military force. I am blaming Russia for this. Yes I know Russia helped stop our intervention early on– that is fodder for yet another theory.

  • When US interferes its chaos everywhere. Iraq, Libya, Syria., these are some countries where people used to live happily (i agree peace was not perfect but they lived without any problems). But interfering with countries internal issues and making them worse is a something sadistic. Each and every country US interfere has creates raged civil wars. Innocent people are dying each and everyday. I have been reading on news regarding Sri lanka, and bringing them for some sort of a justice.. Why? because as far as i know they are the only country who defeated terrorism by war. Fortunately people over there haven’t heard a single blast since 2009. But why does US and UN not help countries like that for development rather than putting them in the ground. Messing with internal affairs get things much worse.

    All i can say is there is no hope for peace in this world!

  • potter

    I had a hard time listening to Stephen Walt with the exception of a very few things he said at the end. He’s managed to numb, or worse, cut out his heart so that his mind could be “practical”. For him no action could possibly be positive; all we can do is make things worse. So what are we out here supposed to do, stop looking at the photos, stop listening to the news, stop reading the paper? Should we cultivate numbness because this is the “CNN effect”? It’s the CNN effect! Naming it, one can then recognize it and say “I must not let it get to me”.

    At least our dear host, who does feel, gave the other good guests some very good questions.

    That’s an incredible panorama banner above your main page (and here). When we see scenes like that and other much more horrific pictures and we read reports, should we prevent ourselves from asking basic questions like what we are here on Earth for? Because we have made mistakes, does it render us impotent forever? What do we need all this military power for? Can we refine how we use it, or threaten? Let’s look at why the UN is impotent.

    Putin (now in the Ukraine too) and Assad need some response. I don’t like war but when others take cynical advantage of that prevailing feeling to create such horrors, it’s a test.

    There was a sober op-ed in the NYTimes last week by Michael Ignatieff

  • chris

    I know what you mean, Potter, about the hyper-rationality of a “policy” that enjoins us to avert our attention — what could be our rescue power — from the torture of children. But more strenuously, dear Potter, I gotta say Michael Ignatieff might be the very last man who could persuade me to chase that “humanitarian intervention” impulse. He became a shameless apologist — a “poster boy,” as he said to me in public — for the fraudulent pitch to “liberals” that Iraq was a good-guys’ war to save innocent lives from Saddam Hussein. The good news about Michael Ignatieff is that his gift for double-talk destroyed his political ambitions in Canada. The bad news is that his egregious misjudgments about the real course of military intervention in Iraq have not yet shut him up.

    On the matter of military interventions to save lives, I heard a thought-provoking admonition the other night: when we find ourselves tempted to expand a war to make things better, calculate the cost in dollars and figure how many lives could be saved by applying that sum to expanding access to clean water, in a peaceful poor country that needs the help. Focus on the saving of lives. And turn the incentive around by putting peaceful societies at the top of the list of who gets attention.

    And yes, Potter, I can’t get that picture of the Yarmouk camp in Damascus out of my head.

    • Potter

      You lost me after the first sentence dear Chris because your argument against doing something to stop Assad and/or Russia is based not on it’s merits, but on Ignatieff’s past bad positions and about your anger over Iraq (which I share). I would feel better with an argument on the merits of his argument which is basically, maybe there is something we can do– which is what your other guest was also saying. I am with Ahmad. And my question about what we are supposed to do then (just feel bad? tell ourselves it’s the “CNN effect?” keep looking, watching, listening, and holding our hands to our hearts?) remains. We don’t need to expand war, I agree. The trick is how to stop what is happening. Anyway, you asked the right questions… and of course I love you.

  • Prof. Stephen Walt’s instincts expressed in this ROS appearance are appealing in the sense that they fit with Secretary of State John Quincy Adams’s July 4 1821 dictum about the US, that “she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy”.

    One also welcomes a policy stance that is not quixotic or maniacal. One is attracted to a Hippocratic “first do no harm” commitment applied to foreign policy.

    On closer examination, Prof. Walt’s stance does not comport with globalization, for these reasons:

    1. Amy Chua’s important book, “World on Fire” from about ten years ago, shows how and why globalization exacerbates ethno-economic tensions and violence, directed against commercially dominant minorities. The Chinese in Indonesia and the Philippines are a prime example. Jews in pre-WWII Rumania, Hungary, Poland, are another example of such a commercially dominant minority. (Abram Leon calls such a group a “people-class.”)
    2. The neocon idea was to throw gasoline on this world on fire and ancillary fires via the Iraq War.
    3. Thus a Walt-type “Don’t just do something, stand there!” instinct feeds into the fissiparous tensions described by Amy Chua and amplified knowingly by the neocons. (who haven’t gone away and are still lobbying for global mayhem via perpetual war.)

    What one needs, as an underpinning for globalization, is a UN/NATO/US commitment to outlaw genocides and ethnic cleansing.

    One cannot really have a successful globalist New World Order and allow the despoiling of the Palestinians, people of Darfur, Rwanda, or the Muslims of Bosnia.

    Prof. Walt’s intuition is somewhat “irrelevantized” by these globalization processes.
    These processes are anticipated in a novelistic way in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1902) in the phrase, “Exterminate all the brutes”! and have never been coped with.

  • Potter

    What one needs, as an underpinning for globalization, is a UN/NATO/US commitment to outlaw genocides and ethnic cleansing.

    I wish we could discuss this. (I was listening to Samantha Power last night on PBS. Chris interviewed her many moons ago.)

    I could not say it better than you, only maybe with more emotion. I would add that we should uphold international law in our own actions as we get behind it abroad. We don’t have such high ground, not especially after Bush’s Iraq War.

    But there is no doing nothing and no “first do no harm” or it’s cousin “we will/can only make it worse”. The war-mongerers advocating muscularity, Lindsay Graham and John McCain are at the same time completely out of line. I think there is unfortunately only uncertainty ahead into which we try to shine some light or wisdom we have gained hopefully and painfully. There is no non-participation in this world if there ever was, and certainly not for the US lest we deny our whole history. But we are a lot more humble now… and should be. Nor is there non-participation for any of the others who aspire to or who are globalized or globalizing. Whatever we here do or don’t do, thousands may live, thousands may die. And so I think our leaders have to be very sober, very intelligent, sharp, and enlightened about what to do or not to because inaction is also form of action.

  • Potter

    Back on the front page, it was hard to pick out a quote from this article, all horrible.

    The report said that medical providers often amputated the limbs of children with grievous injuries because they lacked the equipment to treat them and that amputation was the only practical alternative to death from uncontrolled blood loss.

    The shortage of painkillers and surgical drugs is so pervasive, the report said, that in some cases, patients opt “to be knocked out with metal bars for lack of anesthesia.”

    The report cited examples of newborns dying in incubators because of power cuts, and panicked parents with wounded children who arrive at empty hospitals and attach intravenous tubes to the children themselves.

    Report Cites Devastating Toll on the Health of Syria’s Children