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The Syrian Dilemma – Why the West Should Avoid a New War

In 2008 Barack Obama, the first black candidate for the presidency of the United States, held a speech in the German capital, Berlin, in front of thousands of people. In those days Obama was a superstar. With the power of his words and the message of hope that he spread throughout America and the world, he conquered the hearts of millions of people who believed that he would bring change and, most importantly, that he would be different, completely different from his predecessor. Many believed that Obama would inaugurate an era of peace, economic prosperity, and international co-operation.
 
I felt privileged for having the chance to take part in that historic event. I remember how, in the late afternoon of July 24, I and a friend of mine joined the crowds of people who flooded the 17th of June Street in the centre of the German capital. That street was named after the uprising of 17 June, 1953, during which East German workers took to the streets to protest against the economic policy of the Communist regime. The revolt was brutally suppressed by the East German government with the help of Soviet tanks.
 
The street leads to another symbol of German history, the ‘Victory Column’, which was constructed after German unification in 1871 to remember the glorious victory of the German troops against France. It was in front of this monumental column that Barack Obama held his inspirational speech. It was a beautiful, sunny day, the atmosphere was great, and it seemed that the US was ready to become again worthy of its role as the country of liberty and prosperity.
 
So many years after that speech, there is no denying that Obama has disappointed many of his former supporters, including me. He has not radically changed American economic policy and has not delivered the recovery everyone had hoped for. The United States of today is still a country where the wealth gap is too wide, where industry struggles to compete with the rest of the world, where not enough jobs are created, and where hard work does not equate high wages. 
 
But at least – many people thought – under Obama the US has not plunged into another disastrous war. Yet now even this very last hope risks to be frustrated. 


According to US intelligence, Syria’s Assad regime used chemical weapons to kill 1,429 people, including 426 children, on August 21 in the suburbs of the capital Damascus. This report was cited by US Secretary of State John Kerry.
 
On Friday 30, President Obama said that the attack was “a challenge to the world” that threatened America’s “national security interests”.
 
“We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale”, he stated. “The world has an obligation to make sure that we maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons” (note).
 

Humanitarian Intervention or Aggression?

 
The legal status of humanitarian interventions is highly controversial. According to Aidan Hehir, humanitarian intervention can be defined as a “[m]ilitary action taken by a state, group of states or non-state actor, in the territory of another state, without that state’s consent, which is justified, to some significant extent, by a humanitarian concern for the citizens of the host state” (The Responsibility to Protect: Rhetoric, Reality and the Future of Humanitarian Intervention, Aidan Hehir 2012pp. 58-59).
 
The UN Charter does not mention the right either for individual states or for the Security Council to launch military invasions for humanitarian purposes in sovereign states. In fact, Article 2.7 explicitly forbids the interference in other states’ domestic affairs. In 1965, General Assembly Resolution 2131 confirmed that military intervention, ‘for any reason whatsoever’, was a threat to peace, and that ‘armed intervention is synonymous with aggression’. Many treaties, resolutions, and statements reiterated the strong will to uphold the principle of non-aggression, non-interference, and inviolability of the territorial integrity of member-states (ibid., p. 59).
 
Until the end of the Cold War, the main goal of the UN was to guarantee peace and stability, i.e., to avoid a new World War. The preamble of the UN Charter states that “the peoples of the United Nations [are] determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person” (Just War or Just Peace?: Humanitarian Intervention and International Law, Simon Chesterman 2001, p. 45).
 
As Simon Chesterman has noted, there is a “tension between the belief in the justice of a war waged against an immoral enemy and the emerging principle of non-intervention as the corollary of sovereignty” (ibid., p. 7).
 
The question that this tension raises is: who decides when a war is just or unjust? Who decides when a government acts against human rights and dignity? And who decides that waging a war against injustice is not in itself an act of injustice? As Chesterman explains, all too often humanitarian intervention has been bound to the political will of the Great Powers. The UN Security Council has been either by-passed or used as an instrument to bless a war that had already been planned by powerful governments. Therefore, humanitarian interventions have de facto jeopardised the international system based on the rule of law and the equality of all nations. Instead, they have created a pyramidal system with the US at the top, playing the role of both judge and police. There cannot be stability, rule of law and international co-operation if one country and its allies place themselves above the law and believe they alone possess the moral and military superiority to speak in the name of justice and freedom. This system is self-contradictory. 
 
Following the Cold War and the American / Western belief in the superiority of their own system, in the 1990s the Security Council reformulated its interpretation of Chapter VII which regulates the use of force on the part of its member-states.  Article 39 states that the Security Council can determine ‘the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression’ (Hehir 2012, p. 59).
 
Therefore, a ‘threat to peace’ is now understood not only as an act of aggression of a state against another state, but also as an act of a government against its own people which allegedly violates human rights. However, this theory is extremely inconsistent and ambiguous. It not only promotes hypocrisy (who is ever going to invade a powerful state like China, Russia or the United States in case of human rights violations?), but what’s more, it creates arbitrariness and instability. 
 

The Reagan Doctrine and Its Successors

 
A popular belief holds that World War II proves that humanitarian interventions are just. ‘If we had stopped Hitler before he unleashed its war of aggression,’ many people think, ‘the Holocaust and the death of millions of soldiers and civilians would have been prevented.”
 
The so-called ‘Reagan Doctrine’, formulated in the 1980s, is obviously derived from such logic and has shaped American foreign policy after the end of the Cold War. As a result, all American Presidents (with the only exception of Obama, at least so far) have been involved in military interventions in other sovereign nations.
 

Mirroring basic American constitutional principles, the Reagan Doctrine rests on the claim that legitimate government depends on the consent of the governed and on its respect for the rights of citizens. A government is not legitimate merely because it exists, nor merely because it has independent rulers. Nazi Germany had a de facto government headed by Germans; that did not make it legitimate (Chesterman 2001, p. 93).

 
 

Hitler, Stalin, and Why ‘Humanitarian Wars’ Are Wrong

 
The anti-Fascist rhetoric is very powerful. It gives supporters of military intervention a psychological tool that allows them to depict themselves as the defenders of justice and human rights. This rhetoric was also employed by G.W. Bush in order to justify the Iraq War in retrospective, after no weapons of mass destruction had been found. 
 
However, what the advocates of the WWII-myth fail to understand is that the anti-Hitler war was not motivated by humanitarian concerns. The reason why the Allies fought against Hitler and other Fascist(oid) regimes was that these regimes threatened world peace in a very objective way: both Japan’s and Germany’s foreign policy was based on aggression. Their goal was to conquer foreign nations and enslave or exterminate their peoples. 
 
Therefore, after being attacked at Pearl Harbour, the US joined the war against Fascism. But who were the allies of the United States? Well, the American allies were themselves first-class human rights violators. Stalin was a Communist dictator who was responsible for the death of millions of people, Churchill was the Prime Minister of an Empire based on the subjugation of foreign peoples, and Chiang Kai-shek was a dictator who suppressed opposition to his one-party rule. According to the Reagan Doctrine, the US should not have allies itself with these countries, but should have actually fought against them, too.
 
What does this political constellation show? It shows that World War II was a just war because it was a war against aggression. The moral superiority of the Allies lied exactly in the fact that they could claim to be fighting against aggressors who craved world hegemony. When World War II ended, the United States did not invade the Soviet Union, or China, Franco’s Spain, or Salazar’s Portugal. They did not invade non-democratic states. And to go back to the 17th of June Street in Germany, they did not attack East Germany when its government put down the peaceful popular protest on that fateful day of 1953. 
 
The United States, on the contrary, pursued a policy of non-aggression, whose main goal was to prevent a new world conflict. Different political systems co-existed. This wise policy saved humankind from total destruction. But exactly this wise policy has been abandoned in favour of a vague policy of humanitarian interventions that creates chaos and injustice.
 
I know that the issue of humanitarian interventions is controversial. However, as far as I am concerned, the political line the West should follow is clear. The West should 1) submit itself fully to the authority of the UN; 2) appreciate that only the UN can give the mandate to wage war legally; 3) uphold the principle that meddling in sovereign states’ domestic affairs creates instability and disorder; 4) uphold the principle that the only just war is a war against a sovereign state that attacks another sovereign state.
 
These four points explain very clearly why the US could not co-exist with German and Japanese militarism and expansionism, but it could co-exist peacefully with the Soviet Bloc. If we want peace, order, prosperity, and stability for the present and the future, the only way is to reject the principle of humanitarian intervention, and to uphold the principle that war is only acceptable when a state invades another state and therefore an objective threat to world peace exists.    
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