America still doesn’t quite grasp the novelty of what Obama is doing in Syria. This is an intervention driven primarily by humanitarian concerns. There is no chance we’d have reached this point without those chemical attacks. The chemical-weapons issue is not a pretext for some broader strategic play, much as many conservatives would like it to be. That is why Obama keeps assuring us that the strike he plans will be limited.
The president’s speech confirms that he is committed to taking significant strategic risks on behalf of strictly humanitarian goals. That is not typical of American foreign policy, which is precisely what U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power aims to change, and precisely why we’ve run into trouble.
We did see an earlier humanitarian intervention with Clinton’s campaigns against Serbia, but that was a rare case, and fraught with far less strategic risk than a strike against Syria.
This speech was a close reflection of Power’s views. The overwhelming emphasis was on humanitarian goals, with a brief, secondary, and noticeably weak effort to buttress that case with talk about threats to our interests.
Power’s core argument is that American foreign policy has historically “refused to take risks” for humanitarian ends. Power chastises American leaders for declining to “invest the military, financial, diplomatic, or domestic political capital” necessary to prevent massacres. U.S. officials, she complains, consistently “play up the futility, perversity, and jeopardy of any proposed intervention.”
Well, drawing a humanitarian red line in conformity with Power’s goals has brought us face to face with the prospect of a genuinely futile and counterproductive intervention. The president’s speech tonight failed to persuade that the risks mooted in our debates over Syria are not in fact grave. Obama’s line about taking humanitarian steps when it’s merely a matter of “modest effort and risk” comes straight out of Power’s work. Unfortunately, the risks in Syria are far from modest.
Power complains in her book that when faced with humanitarian catastrophes in the past, American diplomats have said there isn’t much we can do to stop them. Her reply is that we’ve never really tried, never made a serious effort to ascertain what a systematic application of diplomatic and military pressure could achieve on behalf of humanitarian ends. Well, we’ve finally put Power’s policy prescriptions to the test. The consequences have been ascertained, and they are disastrous.
If we do strike Syria, it will not stop Assad, and will likely only provoke him further. Moreover, the price we’ve paid for the mere appearance of a humanitarian solution is the near-collapse of our strategic position in the Middle East.
A foreign policy that intentionally subordinates traditional calculations of strategic interest to humanitarian ends will inevitably sacrifice our strategic interests. And having lost strategic position, our ability to sustain humanitarian ends, insofar as we can do so consistently with out interests, will be correspondingly reduced. This is what happened in Libya and Syria when we put Power’s policies into practice. So not only are we now facing a substantial reduction of our influence in the Middle East and the rise of Russia in our place, but the Syrians are unlikely to give up their chemical weapons in the end.
All of this follows logically from Power’s theories. Move humanitarianism to the center of our foreign policy at the expense of traditional strategic concerns, and strategic disaster follows. In the end, that means more humanitarian problems, not less.
Humanitarian interventionism has been tested in the Middle East and found wanting.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.