Glenn Greenwald thinks it’s funny that while a year ago, we were told that it was an absolute emergency to bomb Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and arm insurgents fighting to overthrow him, now we’re being told that it’s an absolute emergency to bomb Assad’s main military opponents. Greenwald concludes that the main constant of US foreign policy is that we always have to bomb people; exactly whom we have to bomb right now is much less important.
I don’t dispute Greenwald’s thesis as far as it goes, but there is another important way to look at the situation, which is that appearing to commit the US government to the project of overthrowing the Syrian government was a poorly-thought through and deeply immoral strategic blunder in the first place, and now we have a strategic opportunity to correct that historic blunder. “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” as the saying goes; this crisis is a good opportunity to “shake the etch-a-sketch” on the foolish and dangerous idea that the US government had an obligation to overthrow the Syrian government.
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If we take the statements of US government officials and members of Congress about non-democratic US allies in the region at face value, or even if we look at actual US engagement on democracy and human rights with these allies, it’s a lie to say that the only choices in Syria are “overthrow the Syrian government” or “forget about human rights and democracy.”
I will pass over, as Cicero said, the question of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
Consider instead cases that are more obvious from the point of view of the majority of Americans: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain are not democracies by any meaningful definition of the term; they are all committing grave violations of human rights, and yet we are not seeking to overthrow their governments. Turkey is a democracy with severe human rights issues. Iraq and Iran are “majority rule” countries (more than you can say for Bahrain) that have severe human rights issues, which in the case of Iraq, are generally conceded to be a key cause of the fact that the Iraqi government has lost control of Sunni Arab areas to Sunni Arab insurgents.
If we were to ask US officials, “Does the fact that the United States is not seeking to overthrow these governments mean that the United States is not trying to promote democracy and human rights in these countries?” they would say no, and they would not be lying. They would, if they were being fully honest, say that we are dealing with these countries on a case-by-case basis, and subject to the constraints of the facts that our “national security concerns” take first priority, and the fact that our ability to influence these countries varies, we are doing what we can to promote democracy and human rights in these countries.
We can and should dispute whether the United States is doing everything it can in these countries to promote democracy and human rights subject to those constraints – fuzzy constraints which are notoriously subject to tendentious interpretation. But suppose we take it as a given that this is how US officials and people who have influence on them view the situation. Why would it be a moral outrage to view Syria the same way?
Suppose that, from now on, we adopt the following policy with respect to democracy and human rights in Syria: “Subject to the fact that our national security concerns take first priority, and subject to the degree of influence we have in Syria, we will do what we can in Syria to promote democracy and human rights.” That is, suppose we were to adopt the same policy in Syria that we have with respect to other non-democracies and human rights abusers in the region. Why would that be a moral outrage? Why should our unwillingness to commit to overthrowing the Syrian government be a litmus test of our commitment to promoting democracy and human rights?
In particular, given what happened in Libya (among many other examples) after the United States helped overthrow Libya’s government, shouldn’t we question the automatic assumption that US overthrow of a government automatically leads to an improvement in the human rights situation in the country from the point of view of the country’s residents? And what other point of view should have greater weight than the views of the country’s residents?
Finally – and perhaps most importantly – recall that a year ago, the argument that was supposed to be trumping inside Washington for bombing the Syrian government was that it was necessary to “confront Iran.”
Well, Iran is our most powerful ally on the ground right now on the issue of the day, confronting the so-called “Islamic State” Sunni Arab insurgency. Haggling over boring technical details continues indefinitely in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. What’s the urgency now, or in any future that we can see, to “confront Iran” by overthrowing the Syrian government?