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Idly By: The Case Against Anti-Interventionism in Theory and in Practice

There is a moral case for intervening in Syria.

Be Warned: This article ends by featuring pictures from Syrian activist blogs the day of the gas attacks, which pictures are extremely graphic and traumatizing. They depict rows of dead children. I believe seeing them has informed my evolving opinions on this pressing issue in a useful and rational way, and that doing so is necessary to give the issue the human face that it demands.

Why Not Intervene?

There is a moral case for intervening in Syria. The foreign policy position of anti-interventionism, in general in American politics, and in particular in the current discussion of intervention in Syria, is lazy, callous, and wrong.

It seems that today the same Americans who use the word “globalized” at every opportunity can’t see any valid rationale for the use of force outside of a country’s own borders except for immediate defense. Many people see American military interference in a foreign conflict as inherently wrong.

This anti-interventionism policy has become the de facto foreign policy for middle of the road American Liberals and Conservatives alike, quite probably as a reactionary rebuke to George Bush and his war-hungry cadre of so-called Neocons.

(A exemplary comment from a friend of a friend arguing about this on Facebook a mere few minutes ago: “We need solid evidence first. Second, we need an a decent reason. we ignore mass murder everyday, why should this one be important? and finally, is this sort of conflict really what the people want? this isn’t the bush era anymore. we need more than ‘a hunch.'” It takes special kind of imagination and moral cowardice to think that the existence of lots of mass murders justify allowing more, rather than fewer, mass murders to go on. That’s not to mention what it takes to ignore the factual evidence for an Assad led chemical attack.)

That said, recent developments indicate that congressional Repblicans will be at least partially supportive. Speaker Boehner, ranking Republican in congress, has announced today that he support President Obama’s push for Congressional approval of military intervention.

The American people and government are now deep in a conversation about whether The U.S. and a small-ish coalition of other concerned parties should intervene in Syria following the death of over 100,000 people, including about 1,500 in a single recent gas attack on a sleeping civilian neighborhood outside Damascus. Although support is likely growing, especially in Washington, public support for intervention is still quite weak. It is plausible and indeed likely that support is weak because this conversation, from both sides, is plagued by a fallacious attachment to anti-interventionism.

It isn’t even a new trend. Consider that it took Pearl Harbor to get Americans to think that entering World War II was a moral and political necessity (to the point that many people still claim that the U.S. allowed or even orchestrated Pearl harbor to justify entering the war; Shades of 9/11 “trutherism” anyone?).

Anti-interventionist foreign policy is unethical. It is dogmatic. It is morally and intellectually lethargic. It gets too many people killed.

Moralizing Intuitions

In his landmark paper, Famine, Affluence, and Morality, ethicist Peter Singer presents a simple thought experiment. I am going to appropriate it here (in a way that Singer himself might resent, but no matter):

You, a strong swimmer, are walking past a pond. In that pond you see a child drowning. You know that the child will drown if you do not save her. You know that you can save her.

Singer asks some questions about the situation. Do you, simply because you can save the child, not have an active moral duty to do so? Wouldn’t you be doing something wrong if you decided to simply keep walking?

I will demonstrate how this thought experiment criticizes the position of American anti-interventionists. But first, I will describe why I think both Liberals and Conservatives are wrong on this issue.


I get especially frustrated and disappointed when Liberals group think their way into immorality because they are the party that is supposed to have the moral high ground. We need one of those!

Consider this: When a Conservative wants to insult a Liberal as harshly as possible, the Conservative calls the Liberal a bleeding heart. Take a minute to think about that. The very worst thing about a Liberal, according to the opposite ideology, is that he or she has too much empathy.

This is why I am so upset by the modern Liberal opposition (nay, indifference) to foreign military intervention. America does not need another party of callous cynics.

Certain Liberals think it is wrong to interfere in a foreign conflict because America has acted recklessly, immorally, and selfishly in the past. And, if we may be honest with ourselves for a moment, Liberals often genuinely revel in American failures (as though ‘America’ means anything other than ‘the officials and citizens presently constituting the population). There is no mistaking the look of relish on the face of somebody responding to a call for American intervention by listing the havoc that American foreign policy from decades past has wreaked in places like Iran, Haiti, Egypt, and pretty much all of central America.

The line usually goes something like: “Well we can’t condemn Syrian gas attacks on civilians because we were complicit in Iraq’s use of gas in the 90s.” This is an obvious non sequitur;the fact that someone has done something wrong before by no means implies that they can never do something right again. In real life, there are no set roles of The Good Guys and The Bad Guys. States and individuals should try to identify the right thing to do case by case.

In the modern discourse, though, all of these considerations bow to the creeping desire to declare all cultures and values equivalent. But this false equivalence is faulty, even on its own terms. The question this position takes is, What gives America the right to determine the fate of the Syrian people? But even more deferential to global human values than that question is this one: What the hell gives Assad that same right (to an infinitely higher degree)?

Liberals are also extremely sensitive to anything that smacks of imperialism. Should America ever involve herself in a foreign conflict, expect to hear cries, almost immediately, that America does not have the standing to intervene in foreign conflicts due to genuinely ethical or impersonal concerns.

Never mind the facts that Kosovo, if terribly bungled after the fighting stopped, was justified by the moral necessity of stopping a genocide, and rightly so. Never mind that the 2001 status quo in Iraq might very plausibly have been better for the oil supply than was war. Never mind that anybody who was even conscious in 2001 knows by direct experience that, whether this is a good motivation or not, American blood lust at that time was motivated by a very real desire for justice and retribution.

In the twisted worldview of this side of modern American politics, real motivations for U.S. wars are always, regardless of the facts, either oil, chauvinistic control of non-white foreign populations, or more oil.

Of course, the real claim here, which is nothing more than intellectual posturing, is that anything America does is immoral by definition. I’d like to remind Liberals that just because they are more moral than conservatives does not make them moral.

To quote a pair of rhetorical questions that many politicians have been fond of employing: If not us, who? If not now, when?


Conservatives in America since 2004 are, more than anything else, guided by a desire to distance themselves from George Bush in the public eye. 

As the more traditionally hawkish party on military issues in foreign policy, they lost arguably the more important debate in American policy, public support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was a blow so bad that current American young people are more Liberal than any generation so far.

Conservatives are also terribly concerned with the deficit, or at least they pretend to be. They never come out against military spending, which is considered political suicide, but they must privately note that American military spending accounts for nearly 40% of total global military spending (China, number two, accounts for a mere 9.5%).

So a Conservative concerned with his or her appearance today (read: any public figure or sitting congressperson) might be forced by politics, if not conscience, to espouse an anti-interventist foreign policy.

That’s not to assume that their conscience is in the right place but being ignored. One of the most useful and therefore harmful types of political posturing is giving off the appearance of realpolitik while actually just choosing to forego taking a stand. Using the current conversation about Syria as an example, it is all to easy too imagine a modern Conservative American’s being simply indifferent to the plight of a nation which is geographically, religiously and racially far removed.

We are all tired of war. There are American children who can now walk around cities alone and do relatively complex mathematics who cannot remember a time when their country was not at war. Because of this weariness, many conservatives think that it is simply no longer our job to forcefully forbid crimes against humanity. Why, they say, does it have to be us?

Since Conservatives also tend to be the group which most closely believes in American exceptionalism, this is especially vexing. If it has to be America, it has to be America because America can. If it has to be America, it has to be America because no one else will. If Conservatives are going to believe in American exceptionalism, they sure as hell better work to make sure America is exceptional.

Let’s go back to Peter Singer’s thought experiment. Everybody with half a heart or half a brain sees something wrong with walking right by the drowning child. But how is that case analogous to the issue of American military intervention?

The moral intuition that the thought experiment highlights dictates that if a person can help, the person must help. And, if there were other people standing around that pond with the drowning child, but none of them went in to save the child, that would not excuse the first person from guilt for not going in.

Just because somebody who ought to help does not do so does not mean that everybody who ought to help should not do so.

Intuiting Morals

Political affiliations aside, there is simply no justification for the immoral inaction that anti-interventionism breeds as a foreign policy.

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The reverence for the depth of evil that took place in The Holocaust has taken on a religious nature. But, there is really no reason to think of it as a crime which is different in type, rather than degree, from similar events in history. Looking just at the last century, one is compelled to consider the Armenian Genocide, the Khmer Rouge, The Genocide in Rwanda, The Ethnic Cleansings in East Timor, Saddam Hussein’s gassing of Iraqi Kurds, Stalin’s enforced famines, Mass disappearances under Pinochet, the mass killings in Indonesia, The Rape of Nanking, and on and unfortunately on.

For whatever reason, people often talk about using time machines to go back and kill baby Hitler. Less fantastical, I would hope, is the slogan that people use to declare what the historical horror of The Holocaust has taught us as a society about how to react to crimes against humanity: “Never again.”

Let’s be clear about exactly what is at issue with the present situation in Syria: A brutal dictator is killing his own people. Almost a third of the citizens of a country of 21 million people are displaced. Over a tenth of them have fled their home country entirely, in favor of refugee camps.  The dictator is, among other things, using weapons so horrific that the generation which fought in the trenches of World War I was so collectively traumatized by them that it came together in 1925 to specifically internationally outlaw the use of such weapons ever again. The dictator used those weapons on a sleeping suburban neighborhood. He did so in flagrant violation of both international law, and of a red line which America set backed by the force of its credibility as a military force dedicated to stopping crimes against humanity. Among about 1,500 dead in the gas attacks, more than 400 of them were children.

I don’t know who should run Syria in the event of a sudden power vacuum. But, only limited intervention is being discussed. America can plausibly make sure that the artillery, air force, and or chemical weapons producing capabilities of Assad’s regime are diminished or destroyed. That is worth doing.

If somebody were to decide that the cost of apprehending and trying a child murderer in America were too high, we would call that a fatal miscarriage of justice.

But, just because somebody has a different colored passport than you does not mean they do not matter. Just because a child is Syrian does not mean that everybody is not beholden to seek justice for her when she is woken up by being gassed to death. We cannot avoid problems because we are tired and they are far away.

We have a responsibility to strive to make “Never Again”, on any scale, a reality. Well, this is real. This is happening. Again.

Take a look at the horrifying images from activist blog The Revolting Syrian below, allegedly taken the day of the Damascus the gas attacks, and try to think that this is an issue which does not demand yours and America’s moral attention and action.

Lead image courtesy of


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