A Rejoinder to Anne-Marie Slaughter

Anne-Marie Slaughter argues that America should enter the fighting in Syria and Iraq. In doing so, she argues that there is little distinction between strategic interests and humanitarian impulses. I’m personally, fearfully, sympathetic towards some assistance to the Iraq state in denying ISIS control of whole cities. But Slaughter’s cosmology is truly startling.

In an article that begins in self-pity, and ends in glib counter-factuals, she makes it all sound so simple.

Here goes:

FOR the last two years, many people in the foreign policy community, myself included, have argued repeatedly for the use of force in Syria — to no avail.

That’s because many people in the rest of the American community, who don’t enjoy the privilege of defining themselves in such exalted terms, think that weighing in to a brutal conflict between an authoritarian regime and an Islamist-infested rebellion isn’t smart.

We have been pilloried as warmongers and targeted, by none other than President Obama, as people who do not understand that force is not the solution to every question. A wiser course, he argued at West Point, is to use force only in defense of America’s vital interests.

Slaughter has been pilloried as a warmonger because she is one. A warmonger is someone who is eager for a nation to go to war. She has called for the America use of force in Rwanda, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, and now for Iraq again. Many of these campaigns have not been triumphs. Her self-pity now doesn’t change that.

At West Point, Obama judged that ‘to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution. Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action, without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required.’ But even this, apparently, offends Slaughter.

This is where the White House is most blind. It sees the world on two planes: the humanitarian world of individual suffering, where no matter how heart-rending the pictures and how horrific the crimes, American vital interests are not engaged because it is just people; and the strategic world of government interests, where what matters is the chess game of one leader against another, and stopping both state and nonstate actors who are able to harm the United States.

In fact, the two planes are inextricably linked. When a government begins to massacre its own citizens, with chemical weapons, barrel bombs and starvation, as Syria’s continues to do, it must be stopped. If it is not stopped, violence, displacement and fanaticism will flourish.

Let’s just stop the tape, right there. Slaughter isn’t just saying that America sometimes should use force prudently where and when it can, selectively and judiciously. As she formulates it, every time a government commits atrocities against its own citizens, it ‘must be stopped.’ Since the world is a large place, and since there are more than a few authoritarian regimes about, this inescapably would implicate the US, and condemn it to endless war. Robert Mugabe violently oppresses his citizens in unspeakable ways. All sorts of regimes use starvation as a weapon, and the North Korean regime has with-held food from those it deems disloyal. A brutal civil war raged for years in Sri Lanka. Must all these regimes ‘be stopped?’

Secondly, civil wars can indeed create ‘violence, displacement and fanaticism.’ But so indeed can well-intended, liberal interventions by a benign superpower to arrest disorder, the kinds of constabulary efforts Slaughter calls for. Slaughter’s blindness to the chaos that our own efforts can fuel points to the main problem in her world view: the West is bringer of order into chaos, not the unwitting cause of chaos except when it passes on fighting wars Slaughter advocates.

Just in case you doubt this, have a look at the Show So Far in Libya, after the ‘textbook’ intervention there brought the rebellion to power. Mass incarceration and torture of black Africans, mounting chaos with a state that can barely govern against militias, the disruption of oil production.

Third, Slaughter repeats the never-ending cliche that any disorder, any violence, any displacement, any fanaticism, is a security threat to the United States, which must therefore perpetually tame the world back into order. This is quite untrue. In a world darkened in some places by any or all of these things, Americans are more likely to be injured falling off ladders than in a terrorist attack, which incidentally were more common in the 1970’s that today. Most first world countries are not deeply threatened by eruptions just anywhere. And as Daryl Press and Eugene Gholz have shown, even when world economics are interdependent, hard cases show how well states can adapt and even prosper while others fight wars. The ability of other states to flourish even during the Iran-Iraq war is a case in point. Contrary to the spirit of Slaughter’s liberal imperialism, actually not everything is deeply connected, and security is divisible.

None of this is a reason to dismiss these events – giving aid generously is a decent response where one can. But Slaughter refuses to recognize any gap, enthusiastically conflating humanitarian crisis with a clear and present danger. Ultimately, for her America’s security interests are universal and limitless, so its little surprise that she tirelessly urges Washington to reach for its gun.

Deciding that the Syrian government, as bad as it is, was still better than the alternative of ISIS profoundly missed the point. As long as we allow the Syrian government to continue perpetrating the worst campaign of crimes against humanity since Rwanda, support for ISIS will continue. As long as we choose Prime Minister Maliki over the interests of his citizens, all his citizens, his government can never be safe.

Well, the fall of the Syrian government would probably unleash horrific atrocities, just as the unseating of Saddam Hussein opened up a vacuum of communal bloodletting, crime and sectarian conflict which is again raging. The fate of the Christian minority of Syria would probably be dark.

Also, notice Slaughter’s hubristic language. Things only happen because ‘we’ ‘allow’ them to, and politics evolves in Iraq because ‘we’ prioritise Maliki over his people. It just couldn’t be, could it, that there are real limits on American power.  In other words, despite all evidence to the contrary, America’s power is vast in a region that it can shape almost at will.

The answer to those questions may well involve the use of force on a limited but immediate basis, in both countries. 

A ‘limited and immediate’ basis, how comfortingly surgical, again the illusion of control. Remember the war in Kosovo, which Slaughter is about to cite approvingly, as the supposedly swift bombing campaign that ended up dragging on for 78 days? Remember the invasion of Iraq that was supposed to be a rapid demonstration of overwhelming force?

Enough force to remind all parties that we can, from the air, see and retaliate against not only Al Qaeda members, whom our drones track for months, but also any individuals guilty of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. Enough force to compel governments and rebels alike to the negotiating table. And enough force to create a breathing space in which decent leaders can begin to consolidate power.

This is a broad net indeed, cast over a target-rich environment. If our mandate is to retaliate against ‘any individuals guilty of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity’, like murder, torture or dispossession,  it is time to turn our guns on the Egyptian military regime, the Maliki regime, Hezbollah, Assad, ISIS, Iran, the Mahdi Army, Israeli settlers, Hamas, or the house of Saud. This, you can be confident, would not create a space for the ‘decent leaders’ to do anything much. But in Slaughter’s world view, where others’ violence is unacceptably threatening, American violence just creates space for dialogue, or brings down justice from the skies. There are not difficult tradeoffs, no dilemmas, no tragic problems in Slaughter’s ‘How to Do it’ guide to international relations. Just one large harmony of interests, that AJP Taylor warned of years ago.

On the legal side, we should act in both countries because we face a threat to global peace and security, precisely the situation the United Nations Security Council was established to address. If nations like Russia and China block action for their own narrow interests, we should act multilaterally, as we did in Kosovo, and then seek the Council’s approval after the fact. The United Nations Charter was created for peace among the people of the world, not as an instrument of state power.

Well, hell’s bell’s, I thought acting legally included only using force against other sovereign states with the prior approval of the UNSC, unless strict self-defence was established.Kosovo, by the way, wasn’t such a model of superb interventionism. It helped ensure that lots of Serbians would be wiped out in revenge reprisals by the KLA. But Slaughter claims the US and its allies enjoy a privilege that other UN members don’t, of overriding the letter of the law when it suits them, or claiming it retro-actively. The UN Charter was not just created ‘for peace among the people of the world’, a cause Slaughter has a funny way of pursuing. It was also created to enshrine the principle of sovereignty, and to oppose the ‘scourge of war.’ Again, there are no difficult choices in Slaughter’s account. The UN was designed to suit liberal values, she reckons, so state sovereignty be damned.

Strangely enough, other states can invoke the same principle Slaughter embraces, and wage their own wars to protect endangered peoples when it suits them. The very cavalier doctrine Slaughter supports – do what you feel is right and worry about procedure later – enables the thing she claims to oppose, namely cynical and selective realpolitik. As it happens, I am skeptical about international law as a concept. But precisely because of the evasion and have-it-both-ways hypocrisy that its members exhibit, and which Slaughter indulges in.

This is not merely a humanitarian calculation. It is a strategic calculation. One that, if the president had been prepared to make it two years ago, could have stopped the carnage spreading today in Syria and in Iraq.

I’m not sure weighing into Syria militarily could have done much to avert carnage, and certainly not at acceptable cost. Besides, strategy is about limits – the limits of power and knowledge, the need to align goals and scarce resources, the need to rank interests and set priorities, and a prudent regard for how difficult it is to make war serve policy, not just serve itself. Calculations that estimate that a superpower has almost godlike capacity, and limitless interests, are not successfully strategic. They reflect narcissism, still preached by an unreflective ‘community’ of establishment hawks that still believes in waging perpetual war for perpetual peace.


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