Media outlets reported on Friday that Bashar al-Assad’s government killed 37 more people in the ongoing crackdown in Syria against pro-democracy protesters. This mounting death toll, combined with horrific images of activists and civilians alike mowed down by tanks and machine guns, will surely contribute to the growing consensus that the West should intervene to stop the massacres. Considering NATO displayed a marked keenness to step in when Muammar Gaddafi brutally repressed the insurgents who rose up against him, many observers have denounced what they have perceived as hypocrisy. Are Syrian lives somehow worth less than Libyan lives? Is al-Assad any less of a cruel despot than Gaddafi was? The West, these commentators argue, has nothing less than a moral obligation to intercede on behalf of the Syrian people, who stand no chance against the much more well-armed Syrian security forces. Institute a no-fly zone, begin bombing Damascus, supply weapons to the rebels – the whole nine yards.
Of those voices sounding off against intervention, they offer a rationale that Syria represents a different situation than Libya did when the West rode in to the rescue. Unlike Libya, they say, civil war has not torn Syria asunder. The anti-government movement holds no territory of its own, and given the dominance and sophistication of the Syrian armed forces, any internal conflict is likely to be a one-sided affair. Additionally, Syria can count on support from its nearby allies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran, whereas Gaddafi lacked friendly neighbors. Gaddafi could also not credibly warn that he would launch a suicidal attack on Israel the moment the first U.S. cruise missile hit his country’s soil. On top of all this, these voices note, Russia and China – two illiberal countries exasperated with the Arab Spring and this whole fascination with free and fair elections – are putting their collective feet down, putting the kibosh on an emerging precedent of the West liberating citizens aspiring for freedom under authoritarian rulers. In other words, the West is not being hypocritical in “freeing” Libya and leaving Syria to descend into chaos; it is just that Libya represented a unique opportunity, with its tribal divisions, pariah state status and lack of resources. His tyranny only needed a slight push (in the form of air raids and drone strikes, plus crates of automatic weapons) to bring down.
The only thing keeping the West from fulfilling its ethical responsibility of preventing slaughter of the innocent, according to this line of thinking, are unfavorable conditions particular to the Syrian case. Yet Western inaction concerning Syria is not the exception; it is by far the norm. You might find reams of words on “respected” news and commentary Web sites dedicated to Western outrage over oppression and butchery in Syria, and going back a little farther, will find similar impassioned editorials and blog posts about the persecution of homosexuals in Uganda or the “ethnic cleansing” of Africans by Arabs in Darfur. You will find much fewer paragraphs demanding a Western intervention in places like Bahrain, where over a dozen people have died over the last year due to government use of tear gas against peaceful protestors, or Saudi Arabia, where demonstrations are illegal and the Shiite minority in the eastern provinces has been viciously dealt with, sometimes fatally. In addition, could you imagine the backlash that would occur if The New Republic or The Atlantic – much less TIME or The Washington Post – ran a piece advocating that the United States bomb or invade Israel to end its illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip, which leaves a densely populated area without access to imported food, machinery and medicine?
The scholar Mahmood Mamdani has done an excellent job studying why some human right violations and global bloodbaths receive more attention than others do. In his deconstruction of the campaign to save Darfur, Mamdani notes the silence in the West when the United Nations reported that 1,000 people were dying every day in Angola between May and October 1993, and how 3.9 million dead in the Democratic Republic of the Congo did not raise a murmur in 2004. By way of explanation, Mamdani cited the work of the journalist Lara Pawson, who observed that it was no coincidence that the U.S. received eight percent of its oil imports from Angola during its spiral into violence, while 18 British-based companies currently enjoy access to Congo’s rich mineral deposits. It would therefore not be in the economic interest of the West for military operations to disrupt the extraction happening in these countries, despite the bloodshed. Yet Mamdani goes beyond economic factors, and argues that the “Save Darfur” campaign framed a complex and nuanced problem as simplistic acts of political violence. It did not inform Westerners about what happened or was happening in Sudan, but played into the hands of the War on Terror, providing yet another example of “Arab Muslims behaving badly.” As in all marketing strategies, the message was clear enough for all to understand: “Muslims, who are evil and just so crazy, are killing Christians, and we all know how religion just makes people do crazy things, not like here in the secular world, am I right?”
It is mentally easy to connect war with profiting from natural resources, to boil wars down to “blood for oil.” Yet I tend to agree with Mamdani as well as the analysis by Immanuel Wallerstein that Western governments and civic institutions are not riled up for refineries, diamond mines and gas reserves alone. There is also genuine bleeding heart liberal faith that the West has a “responsibility to protect,” to institute a “liberal imperialism” to defeat the “bad guys” and preserve the right to life, liberty and the American way – which, at Fukuyama’s “End of History,” is now the international way. If this sounds like the neoconservative ideology, that is because it is. Critics of Mamdani have reviled him for linking the “Save Darfur” movement, an offspring of the U.S. Left, with Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and other neocons. Let us not forget, however, the reason why the intellectual originators of neoconservatism are not called simply “conservatives” is that they used to be radical left-wingers, yet flocked to the imperialist right-wing over what they perceived as a lack of adamant democracy promotion – such as through regime change. It would of course be incorrect to lump all pro-interventionist left-wingers and neoconservatives together, but in essence, their idealism springs from the same conceit: that the West, with its unchallenged power and enormous wealth, has license to stop the worst excesses of humanity, embodied by the Holocaust, from ever taking place again. The West, like a global Robespierre, should decide who lives and who dies, all for the sake of making the world “better.”
There has been a lot of hand-wringing on the Left over siding with traditional anti-imperialist arguments or being guilt-tripped into supporting excursions to topple dictators, end wanton murders and establish democracies. Yet those who struggle with this question should remember the adage to judge a policy by its consequences, not its intentions. Western interventions, even when they have been “successful,” have done little to get at the heart of a cleavage or a conflict, to address the long-standing issues that led to this civil war or that uprising. They have been flash-in-the-pan exercises – bombs and bullets, followed by rushed negotiated settlements that either unravel or barely contain the unsatisfied resentments of all parties. The bottom line is that the “white man’s burden” – to bring civilization and order to backward, bloodthirsty “savages” – is morally bankrupt, regardless of whether it is used as cover by the self-interested or is sincerely believed by naïve pseudo-leftists.