DE GRACIA: President Obama shouldn’t intervene in Syria

The memory of Rwanda steers Democrats astray in foreign policy. Photo: President Obama is under immense political pressure to erect a no-fly-zone in Syria. (U.S. Air Force File Photo)

HONOLULU, June 15, 2013 – Since the Rwandan genocide America’s institutional liberals have been plagued with false guilt. When Bill Clinton told CNN’s Erin Burnett “had we sent 10,000 troops [to Rwanda] … we might have been able to save a third of the people who died” the former president revealed how personally responsible he felt for the internal affairs of a foreign state.

Liberals sincerely believe the biggest failure of the Clinton Administration was doing nothing in Rwanda. Since then, in academia and electoral politics alike, Democrats have adopted a “never forget, never again” attitude toward civil wars and ethnic unrest.

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Not surprisingly, President Barack Obama’s pick for United Nations Ambassador was none other than Samantha Power, a former journalist who described in A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide her perspective of U.S. foreign policy as follows:

“Indeed, on occasion the United States directly or indirectly aided those committing genocide. It orchestrated the vote in the UN Credentials Committee to favor the Khmer Rouge. It sided with and supplied U.S. agricultural and manufacturing credits to Iraq while Saddam Hussein was attempting to wipe out the country’s Kurds. Along with its European allies, it maintained an arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims even after it was clear that the arms ban prevented the Muslims from defending themselves. It used its clout on the UN Security Council to mandate the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers from Rwanda and block efforts to redeploy there. To the people of Bosnia and Rwanda, the United States and its Security Council allies held out the promise of protection – a promise that they were not prepared to keep. The key question, after a century of false promise, is: Why does the United States stand so idly by?”

Power is correct in her historical review but flawed in her political conclusion. While the loss of human life to war or intrastate violence is detestable to anyone with even a modicum of conscience, believing the United States has a responsibility to intervene and stop the internal affairs of a foreign state brings America into dangerous quagmire territory.

International Politics 101: Do Unto Others …

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The current international order exists as a result of the long held, three century old understanding gained from the Peace of Westphalia which guarantees states the sovereignty over their lands and citizenry.

Contrary to contemporary confusion, when the United Nations charter was signed 297 years from the Peace of Westphalia on June 26, 1945 its framers were careful to codify in Chapter I, Article 2, Paragraph 7 a restriction that “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter”.

The United Nations was intended as a forum for states to resolve conflicts. (Reagan Library File Photo)

The United Nations was created out of the macabre specter of two world wars as a means for states to have a forum for resolving international conflicts peacefully. Whenever liberals accuse the United Nations of “standing by” or neoconservatives call for its abolishment (in favor of a beefed up NATO) for being “too weak and powerless” both groups demonstrate an incredible lack of historical understanding.

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The United Nations was never intended to be an endorsement agency for mass aerial bombardment campaigns as we saw in Operation: Odyssey Dawn or for sending troops to police the internal affairs of states. The UN, at its core, is still very much an organization founded with the Peace of Westphalia in mind.

Fostering communication between State A and State B to avert war is a legally legitimate function of the United Nations. Picking sides between rebel and dictator within State C is not a legitimate United Nations function. If we assume that subjective outrage in States A and B is significant justification to use the collective power of the United Nations to intervene in the internal affairs of State C, there is absolutely nothing to stop the UN membership from being swayed to later intervene in States A and B later.

As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger aptly observed, “The diplomacy generated by the Arab Spring replaces Westphalian principles of equilibrium with a generalized doctrine of humanitarian intervention. In this context, civil conflicts are viewed internationally through prisms of democratic or sectarian concerns … If adopted as a principle of foreign policy, this form of intervention raises broader questions for U.S. strategy. Does America consider itself obliged to support every popular uprising against any non-democratic government, including those heretofore considered important in sustaining the international system?”

As the United States continues to wane in economic strength and military power, the Obama Administration should consider the dangerous precedent established by intervening in the internal affairs of foreign states.

Say America goes into Syria on the basis that Assad crossed a red line. When – not if – the United States economy collapses, will the legal precedent set by our “humanitarian” interventions abroad permit Russia or China the future justification to claim the U.S. is in a state of chaos and request United Nations permission to erect no-fly-zones over American soil? What is to stop Russia or China from saying the United States has crossed a “red line” towards American citizens?

Most reasonable Americans would probably consider the sight of Russian T-80 main battle tanks in white hulls with UN lettering rolling through the streets of New York, Los Angeles or San Antonio in the name of “humanitarian assistance” a military invasion and a violation of international law. Why then does a double standard exist where Washington D.C. policymakers see no trouble doing the same to African and Middle Eastern nations?

War Is Hell: Do Interventions Keep Conflicts On Life Support?

Another troubling issue raised by anti-genocide intervention abroad is the question of whether or not political solutions can substitute military victories or defeats as a final end to conflict. According to Carl von Clausewitz, war is the continuation of state policy by other means.

In conflict, Clausewitz writes, “military power must be destroyed, that is, reduced to such a state as not to be able to prosecute the War.” We further learn “There are two considerations which as motives may practically take the place of the inability to continue the contest. The first is the improbability, the second is the excessive price, of success.”

Conflict is truly concluded when political leaders no longer have the means to execute their state policies or recognize potential losses far exceed potential gains. So long as conflict is arrested between hostile factions, the root problem – an undeterred desire to dominate the other – remains.

Remember Benghazi: Rash calls to intervene in Syria may worsen the regional crisis and expose American military forces to unnecessary danger. (U.S. Navy File Photo)

As strategic military theorist Dr. Edward Luttwak warned in a scathing Foreign Affairs essay, “Since the establishment of the United Nations and the enshrinement of great-power politics in its Security Council … wars among lesser powers have rarely been allowed to run their natural course. Instead, they have typically been interrupted early on, before they could burn themselves out and establish the preconditions for a lasting settlement. Cease-fires and armistices have frequently been imposed under the aegis of the Security Council in order to halt fighting … But a cease-fire tends to arrest war-induced exhaustion and lets belligerents reconstitute and arm their forces. It intensifies and prolongs the struggle once the cease-fire ends – and it usually does end.”

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Barack Obama may, in his personal life, truly detest the scourge of war, genocide, oppression and injustice. But the Obama Administration must come to terms with the fact that the world is a chaotic place and the United States barely has enough resources to sustain her own crumbling empire.

Enough is enough.

An intervention in Syria raises far too many legal questions and stirs demons of war that cannot be controlled. It is time to stop the insanity. For liberals, starting a war in Syria is about guilt over Rwanda. For neoconservatives, Syria is the backdoor to eventually strike Iran.  For the average American, Syria is one more scandal we can’t afford.

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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, Danny has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. Now working on his first novel, Danny resides on the island of Oahu.

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