I have seen a lot of left wing commentary opposed to western military action in Syria. Here’s one example. Well, I really hope Bush hasn’t made all lefties isolationists. We live in a globalised world that is, as Marx recognised, divided yes by culture but largely by arbitrary national borders. As left wing people we feel that we should be spreading wealth around globally through (at a minimum) increased foreign aid, fair trade and other measures (including, for some, a world revolution), because it is only luck that some are born in Zimbabwe and others in Bel Air and you don’t deserve to starve simply because you were born in Zimbabwe. And because you don’t deserve to starve, we have some responsibility to try and help out where we can and do something to improve the situation. If we recognise that, shouldn’t we also recognise that it is only through luck that some are born in countries where genocide is taking place and others aren’t? And hence don’t the people who are born in safety and comfort have some responsibility to end the genocide if at all possible? One reason why left wing people might feel averse to the latter but not the former proposition is that instead of just sending money and food, sometimes the latter requires sending bombs. And Vietnam and Iraq have left an understandably unpalatable taste for bombs in the mouths of the left.
But let’s get one thing straight. There is a big difference between Bush style neo-conservative imperialism and responsibility to protect. And it’s not just that one was the policy of a republican administration and the other the policy of a democratic administration! Neo-conservative imperialism was about advancing American/western interests, securing a New American Century through spreading capitalist markets and bringing about the end of history by ensuring the triumph of liberal democracy. The hallmark of this policy was regime change – replacing hostile dictators with western friendly democracies through ground invasions.
Responsibility to protect on the other hand, is an emerging movement in international law (championed by Australia’s own former Labor foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans) that says simply that the international community has a responsibility to protect people from genocide. This policy does not advocate regime change. It advocates using diplomatic, economic and, as a last resort, military action to prevent mass slaughter of people. As I envisage it, it remains neutral to the ideology, make up and practice of an offending government; it’s just that if any government of any persuasion starts wiping out its own people on a mass scale it will find its military capabilities destroyed by international airstrikes.
Pragmatically speaking responsibility to protect makes a lot more sense than neo-conservatism. First there is the obvious point that making a country a democracy does not make them pro-western, Palestinians and Egyptians are fairly likely to freely elect anti-western leaders. Secondly, clearly as Iraq showed no matter how many troops you send in you cannot easily set up a liberal democracy from scratch. Third even if you are eventually successful in this aim, it costs hundreds of thousands of lives (some reports say more than a million have died in Iraq since the war started) and the question has to be asked ‘was it worth it?’. Fourth, there are too many dictatorships antagonistic to the west and not enough troops for America to make the whole world a democracy.
Philosophically speaking responsibility to protect is also on a lot safer ground. In political philosophy we have two camps, the ideal theory camp with the likes of G. A. Cohen and the non-ideal theory camp with the likes of Amartya Sen. (John Rawls is often placed in the ideal theory camp but I think his later work places him somewhere in the middle.) Ideal theorists argue that philosophers should search for justice independent of facts about the real world. The major criticism of the purists is obviously that they would run into trouble if people ever tried to apply their theories to the world to make the world a more just place. I think this is the neo-cons problem. They have decided in their heads that liberal democracy is the ideal form of government and they then tried to apply this ideal theory to the real world and it all came unstuck. One reason it came unstuck is because their idea of the ideal form of government is hotly contested. And so they found themselves in a place where they were trying to enforce their ideals on others, many of whom disagreed with them.
I would equate responsibility to protect with the non-ideal theory camp. Amartya Sen argues that not only is there much disagreement about what an ideal form of government is, much of that disagreement is reasonable. And to that extent, where trying to enforce American ideas on the Middle East, the Americans are being imperialistic, moralistic and patronising. Yet I have seen this accusation of imperialistic moral crusading also thrown at Obama over Libya and potential involvement in Syria and here is why that charge is unfair. Amartya Sen argues that what we can agree on is what equates to gross injustice. This seems right to me. Since we can’t claim authority on knowing what the ideal form of government is, even if we think we’re pretty sure that it is liberal democracy, we can’t go around enforcing our own theory on others. But what we can do, in fact what we must do, is to do what we can to stop gross injustice. And genocide is grossly unjust. Using chemical weapons on your own people is grossly unjust. Military action against, say a Syrian airforce base, to disable their ability to slaughter their own people on a massive scale, is not moralistically enforcing our own contested ideology, it is doing our duty. Our duty as left wing people that care about the people beyond our national borders. It is not our duty to force Assad from office, but it is our duty to stop him from committing genocide (if, I stress, it is feasible to do so).
Of course the facts matter, and I am talking mainly theory because I don’t have all the facts. I don’t know for sure if it was the Syrian military who used the chemical weapons. I don’t know for sure if the US is capable of knocking out the required military installations to prevent further slaughter. I’m not necessarily saying we should rush into action. I am saying though that not all US military action should be automatically condemned by the left as imperialistic. It is overly simplistic to confuse neo-conservatism and responsibility to protect. And it is reactionary to hop into bed with the Ron Paul isolationists of this world and revert to an ‘everybody is own their own’ mentality.
Elliot Brice has an Honours degree in philosophy from the University of Melbourne and is currently studying a Masters of Teaching (Secondary) from the same institution.