CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Will we ever have a meaningful debate about how to respond to moral atrocities such as those that now occur in Syria every day?
In her Pulitzer prize-winning account of America's failure to act against or even acknowledge genocide throughout the 20th century when "it could have and should have," Samantha Power (now our U.N. ambassador and a close adviser to President Obama) argues that U. S. policymakers chose not to respond to mass murders because "they posed little threat to American interests, narrowly defined."
To avoid the moral taint and political fallout associated with ignoring slaughter on an industrial scale, "U.S. officials overemphasized the ambiguity of the facts" and "played up the likely futility, perversity and jeopardy of any proposed intervention." There was, in most cases, little or no public pressure to act; indeed, "the battle to stop genocide" was "repeatedly lost in the realm of domestic politics" whenever stout-hearted professional diplomats or concerned citizens sought to draw attention to the problem.
Power acknowledges an exception to this pattern: the successful NATO bombing campaign in Bosnia that brought an end to genocide "after Senate majority leader Bob Dole united with elite and grassroots activists to make President Clinton feel he was 'getting creamed' for allowing Serb atrocities." The high-altitude bombing campaign that followed a few years later in Kosovo brought an end to mass executions by Serbs and the forced removal of 1.3 million Kosovars from their homes. Both actions had some fragile popular support, but only after unusual efforts were undertaken to avoid U.S. casualties, even at the expense of significant civilian casualties in Kosovo.
Of course, the disastrous military intervention in Iraq and the absurd effort to recreate an Afghan nation with military forces, built upon an edifice of lies and arrogance that had nothing to do with humanitarian intervention, has fostered deep amnesia about the militarily limited and diplomatically focused successes of the 1990s.
The shame invoked by the non-response to genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica in the early 1990s has been long forgotten. Anything the United States does now is likely to be seen as mere imperialist pretension or as folly and distraction from needs at home. The strictly limited, multilateral engagement with Libya under Obama prevented the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people in Benghazi, yet the administration received little credit, because of the subsequent murder of our ambassador and a lack of effective control over armed militias by the new Libyan government. (Recent successful interventions by the French in Mali and the Ivory Coast ended mass slaughter and received little criticism, despite that country's tendency to see itself as the "gendarme" for its former colonies.)
Opposition to a Syrian intervention is not irrational. Proclaimed "humanitarian interventions" are often linked to imperial motives. Military action may not be effective, or could contribute to the rise of Islamist terrorists and facilitate a larger regional conflict. American hubris, based upon the fallacious notion that we have the capacity to remake the world into our own image, has often had horrendous consequences and undermined U. S. credibility. Acting without widespread international support now could diminish America's reputation even further.
Nonetheless, we should not pretend that massacres in other countries are none of our business. Taking on international responsibility while building a moral consensus to act in the face of what Hannah Arendt once called "radical evil" is not the same thing as being the world's policeman. Too often, those who oppose intervention abroad have also refused to act to remedy or even acknowledge evils within our own society. Others who are justifiably furious over what Obama once called "dumb wars" and the large human consequences of rampant imperial adventures should not let their indignation obscure the need to act abroad when it is possible to do so in a limited and reasonable manner.
The world is a messy place. It does not lend itself to simplistic answers, and certainly will not get less messy if we just pretend we can't do anything about it. In his careful account of successful and unsuccessful efforts to reduce armed conflict around the world, Joshua S. Goldstein (in his book "Winning the War on War") claims that the trend toward a reduction of battle deaths and affiliated civilian slaughter has been remarkably successful since 1989, despite widespread assumptions to the contrary.
He notes, in particular, the rise of "complex peace operations -- those having civil/political as well as military components" operating successfully in places as diverse as Namibia, El Salvador, Cambodia and Mozambique, despite the fact that other operations in Angola, Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia (before NATO intervention in 1995) failed to achieve their goals. Progress has occurred, albeit unevenly, just as we might expect with any human endeavors.
It may be that military intervention is a bad idea. Certainly the negative reputation of the United States, as well as Russia's use of its veto power to hamstring U.N. actions even as it continues to supply Assad's murderous operations, has made it difficult to find a pathway to meaningful action.
Nonetheless, however maladroit his actions have been at times, it is possible to respect President Obama's desire to address a moral disaster that most Americans seem to want to ignore. We live in a world where moral progress is not only possible, but evident, however difficult it has sometimes been to achieve it. Let's not reverse course now.
Dr. Beller, retired West Virginia State University professor, is a Gazette contributing columnist. His e-mail address is gerrybel...@gmail.com.