Non-Interventionist David Rieff is Wrong on Syria

Last September, two weeks after Tripoli fell to rebel forces fighting the monstrous regime of Muammar el-Qaddafi, David Rieff wrote a short online piece for the New Republic titled “Why Is the Press Spending So Much Time Obsessing About Libya?” Rieff—who had himself spent the previous six months obsessing about Libya (see here, here, and here), namely, reiterating his belief that the NATO mission in support of the rebels was both foolish and fruitless—seemed unimpressed that the rebels had finally won. He wondered why the “internationally-minded remnant” of Americans “should have been so concerned with events in Libya to the virtual exclusion of any other part of the world.” Libya, he wrote, “is a tiny country, far from the political center of gravity of the Arab world.”

Rather than eating a bit of crow and admitting he might have been wrong, Rieff attacked the media for portraying the fall of Tripoli as some sort of victory for human rights. He went so far as to blame “liberal supporters of the Libyan intervention” for “occlud[ing] the central role of Qatar, a country that the U.S. State Department itself has criticized for keeping the foreign workers who make up the majority of its population in many cases ‘under circumstances that constituted forced labor’”—an odd point on which to base opposition to an intervention. (Were FDR and Churchill wrong to ally their wartime governments with Joseph Stalin in the struggle against Nazism?) As for the actual Libyans who did the fighting, they didn’t seem to care too much about the Qatari government’s poor treatment of its foreign workers, at least given the number of Qatari flags I saw flying along the road from the Tunisian border to Tripoli in the days surrounding their victory. But what mattered to Rieff was not the on-the-ground reality in Libya or the views of actual Libyans (none of whom he interviewed) but the political implications of the NATO intervention: that “these liberal interventionists can point to success in Libya.”

Now that calls for some sort of American intercession in Syria—where President Bashar al-Assad’s military and security forces have killed upwards of 7,000 people during the course of a year-long uprising—have picked up, Rieff has returned to his old hobby horse: attacking liberal interventionists. Last week, in a piece for Foreign Policy titled “Save Us from the Liberal Hawks,” helamented the fact that “the consensus for strong action” in Syria has been unhindered by “the disaster of Iraq.”

Yet those calling for action in Syria don’t want an Iraq-style intervention, which saw tens of thousands of US and coalition troops launch a land invasion and occupation of a country. Indeed, advocates for intervention want nothing more than what was provided to the Libyan rebels: formal recognition, weapons, and tactical and logistical support in their struggle against a murderous dictator who, in addition to being a bloodthirsty sadist, also happens to be a steadfast enemy of the United States and its interests. As the Libyan intervention demonstrated, the provision of such support to rebels is not a slippery slope that makes ground invasion, and all of its attendant responsibilities, inevitable.

In arguments about armed intervention, either of the humanitarian or national-interest variety, the burden of proof rests on those arguing in its favor, which is as it should be. If American troops are going to sacrifice their lives for a cause, then it is the responsibility of those arguing for their deployment who must make a convincing case. But this standard, especially in the post-Iraq age, gives non-interventionists like Rieff a free pass; all they need to do to “win” the argument is to point at the negative externalities of the Iraq War—as if everything bad that has happened in the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein is the fault of the United States and its allies, and will be repeated wherever the US decides to intervene.

If liberal hawks and other interventionists are to be blamed for all that has gone wrong in Iraq since 2003, and if the threshold for intervention rests solely on their shoulders, then, by this logic, it is fair to hold those on the other side of the argument accountable for the consequences—and the victims—of the non-interventionism they advocate. That means not only the tens of thousands of Libyans who would surely have been murdered in Benghazi and elsewhere had Qaddafi been given the chance to fulfill his promise of killing his own people “house by house.” It also means the 800,000 Tutsis killed in the Rwandan genocide. It means the untold hundreds of thousands of Darfuris who perished during the mass murder in Sudan. And it means the scores of Syrians who have been dying on a weekly basis over the past several months, and who will continue to die if the West does not intervene.


The case for intervention in Syria has been recycled from the Libya campaign, Rieff argues, and will have consequences akin to those witnessed in Iraq. Yet such an argument refuses to see the situation in Syria as a unique one, with its own particular challenges and strategic opportunities. Rieff portrays the support for intervention in Syria as being motivated primarily by a humanitarian impulse, which conveniently helps him recycle his own, frequently repeated arguments and flay interventionists of all stripes. This is a useful argumentative trick on his part; after all, the world is full of humanitarian nightmares that tug on the American conscience. Yet Rieff ignores the primary rationale for supporting the Free Syrian Army: the fall of the Assad regime is in the manifest interest of the United States. Syria is Iran’s closest ally, the conduit by which it smuggles weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has also long been the host of Hamas. Deal a deathblow to the Assad regime, and the baleful influence of “the resistance” in both Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority lessens dramatically.

The real flaw in Rieff’s critique comes when he states that Syria is experiencing a civil war, and that

The last time we got involved in one of those was in Iraq, whose principal legacies, however unintended, are almost certain to be increasing Iranian power and influence—and setting the stage for the disappearance of Christianity in one of its most ancient homelands. There is simply no reason to believe that things in Syria will turn out any better and at least some reason to assume that the result will be even worse.

But the fall of Assad would, before anything else, mean the lessening of Iranian influence in the region. It is hard not to see this as anything other than a substantially positive development for the region, never mind America. Regardless, Iraq is not Afghanistan, which is not Libya, which is not Syria. Yet in Rieff’s analysis, they are all the same, because all interventions are the same. And Iraq, which Rieff considers a disaster, is the template through which he views intervention.

The one point on which Rieff is absolutely correct is in his assessment of the liberal hawks’ naïveté regarding the Russian and Chinese vetoes of the UN Security Council resolution calling on Assad to halt the violence and step down. Their response to this highly predictable occurrence, Rieff wrote, betrayed a sense that “they genuinely believed the Russians and Chinese would be obliged to truckle before the historic inevitability of the human rights revolution.” That the world’s two largest authoritarian powers (each with tangible and theoretical interests in Assad’s continued rule) came out against calls for his departure should not have come as a surprise to even the most cursory student of international affairs, never mind the professors, diplomats and NGO activists who comprise the Responsibility to Protect movement. But where Rieff and the liberal hawks are both wrong is in their reluctance to understand that the cynical recalcitrance on the part of Moscow and Beijing is an argument for more robust American leadership and less deference to highly problematic multilateral institutions like the Security Council.

Ultimately, Rieff’s analytical failure is a failure of discernment. He displays the same moral certainty about the inherent wrongness of intervention as he claims the liberal hawks display with regard to its inherent rightness. Last September, as anti-Qaddafi rebels claimed victory in Tripoli, Rieff attacked liberal interventionists who said that the NATO mission there was “different” from the war in Iraq. And he predicted that similar arguments about future interventions “will be just as false.” If we need “saving” from anyone in this debate, it’s from those who denounce their intellectual adversaries for seeing the world in black and white while they themselves often miss the many shades of gray.


Photo Credit: Elizabeth Arrott

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