The civil conflict in Syria has been highly televised and commented on. The cases for and against intervention have been made by Security Council members, who are very much divided on this issue. This post shall examine the cases for and against humanitarian intervention, in light of the following literature: Micheal Walzer’s article “The Argument about Humanitarian Intervention”, Micheal Ignatieff’s article “Intervention and State Failure” and Stephen Wertheim’s article “When Humanitarianism Hurts”. After examination of the cases for and against intervention, it will be concluded that international community should (not must) intervene when it believes the outcome of intervention will be positive.
Walzer argues that when it comes to problems international arena, there is “a radical break, a chasm, with nastiness on one side and genocide on the other”. We should intervene when there is a case of genocide or ethnic cleansing. However, we should not intervene to correct “the common brutalities of authoritarian politics”, because in these cases the social change will be best achieved from within. Otherwise, it is likely that the intervention might do more harm than good. Similarly, Wertheim argues that intervention is only morally permissible when it is actually feasible. If we have enough resources to intervene, before we do so “we must imagine the plausible and probable consequences and plan realistically and far-sightedly”. He argues that if it is concluded that intervention might do more harm than good, then we must not intervene. Indeed, we can intervene for our benefit rather than the benefit of the victims. For instance, the attempt of intervention makes the interveners feel better about ourselves: they did something to stop the atrocity. However, disregard for consequences of the intervention puts the intervener’s need to be morally blameless above the victims’ actual well-being. Ignatieff has touched on this point in his article. He noted that people in poor countries believe that intervention by the West is often “a lurid exercise in emotional self-gratification” lacking the needed focus on post-reconstruction of conflict area. He highlights that we have “responsibility to follow through”. Once we commit to intervening in conflict, we must provide “sustained follow up”. Thus in the case of Syria, the international community should not intervene without a clear plan for intervention and post-conflict reconstruction and the strong conviction that the end result would do more good than harm. Moreover, since the level of violence has not yet reached the level of genocide, it is difficult to claim definitively that military intervention will do more good than harm, in short and/or long term. It is still possible that that fruitful social change can still come from within the country, which would produce better and more long lasting results than any change imposed from outside.
However, international actors should intervene in Syria when the violence and human rights violations reach the level of genocide. If the government begins using chemical weapons, vast amounts of people will be killed which would escalate the current level of violence to the level of genocide. Walzer claims that we have not only a right to act, but an obligation to intervene in this case. If there are risks involved for the intervening state than international actors have a right to respond if they wish, but they are not morally bound to respond. However, he claims that international states have an obligation to intervene, rather than a right, because “the survival of intervening state is not at risk.” Examining the motives of intervening states, he concludes that the intervention is acceptable if intervening state has self-interest in intervening because then it is more likely to actually intervene to stop atrocities. In fact, he argues that “the leaders of states have a right, indeed, they have an obligation, to consider the interests of their own people, even when they are acting to help other people.” However, it could be argued that this statement challenges his earlier claim that states have an obligation to intervene because their survival is not at risk. If he concedes that states have an obligation to consider the interests of their own people when they decided on helping others, then it is possible that the two obligations could be in conflict. Unless there is massive support (majority) for intervention by the citizens of intervening states, then it is possible that intervening states are disregarding their obligation to their citizens. Moreover, solders are duty bound to act in the interest of the security (or in other interest) of their nation. They take an oath to protect their nation. It is morally questionable to require a soldier to be involved in a military confrontation from which his state does not benefit. Perhaps it would be “the right thing to do” for that a state to intervene, but it is possible that it is not morally obligated to do so when the majority of its citizens are not in full support of the intervention. The state has a duty to use its soldiers only for the benefit of the state because those soldiers signed up to protect the state, not the world, and act in the benefit of the state, not in the benefit of the helpless everywhere.
Perhaps it is best to leave the intervention as a right rather than an obligation. If the international community has an obligation to intervene, on top of that it has an obligation to succeed in its intervention and on top of that it has an obligation to provide “sustained follow up”; then the result would be either no one would intervene or almost everyone would “fail”. Thus international community should intervene in Syria only when there is no hope for successful change to come from within the country. In addition, international community should (not must) believe it can stop the conflict successfully and leave the country in better state than it found it in. The decision to intervene should be well thought through, because no victim will say “well, thanks for trying!” when you made their living conditions a lot worse rather than better.