In appraising political developments, most of us rely on trusted sources, our overall political orientation, what we have learned from past experience, and our personal hierarchy of hopes and fears. No matter how careful and judicious, we are still reaching conclusions in settings of radical uncertainty, which incline our judgments to reflect a priori and interpretative biases. As militarists tends to favor reliance on force to resolve disputes among and within sovereign states, so war weary and pacifist citizens will seek to resolve even the most extreme dire conflict situations by insisting on the potentialities of non-violent diplomacy.
In the end, even in liberal democracies, most of us are far too dependent on rather untrustworthy and manipulated media assessments to form our judgments about unfolding world events. How then should we understand the terrible ongoing ordeal of violence in Syria? The mainly polarized perceptions of the conflict are almost certain to convey one-sided false impressions that either the atrocities and violence are the work of a bloody regime that has a history of brutal oppression or that this hapless country has become the scene of a proxy war between irresponsible outsiders, with strong religious sectarian overtones of the Sunni/Shi’ia regional divide, and further complicated by various geopolitical alignments and the undisclosed ambitions of the United States, Russia, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others. Undoubtedly, the truth lies at some point between the two poles, with many ambiguities, undisclosed interferences, and assorted unknowns undermining our capacity to reach any ‘objective’ understanding, and leading many to discount the extremely dirty hands of all the major participants, seen and unseen, so as to permit a clear partisan position of being for or against.
The difficulties are even greater. If, in contrast, we seek to interpret the conflict from all angles with as much detachment as possible, the result is likely to be paralyzing so far as action is concerned. There is too much uncertainty, secrecy, and complexity to give rise to the clarity needed to shape policy with any confidence, and without confidence, no responsible conclusion can be reached. In effect, only over-simplification, that is, polarized interpretations, are capable of overcoming passivity, but at a high cost. Arguably, in relation to the Syrian maelstrom, passivity functions as a political virtue, or put differently, as the lesser of evils.
In such a situation, assuming we repudiate proxy and geopolitical agendas as the desired bases for determining the future for Syria, what should we hope for? A rapid end of the violence, some sort of now unimaginable accommodation between the two (or many) sides in the struggle, a recognition by the various ‘interested’ third parties that their goals cannot be attained at acceptable costs, an abdication by Bashar al-Assad, an arms embargo uniformly enforced, the completely implausible emergence of constitutional democracy, including respect for minority rights. Merely composing such a wish list underscores the seeming hopelessness of resolving the situation in as acceptable manner, and yet we know that it will somehow be eventually resolved.
From the perspective of the Syrian factions and participants, so much of their own blood has been spilled, that it probably seems unacceptable and unreliable to be receptive at this point to any offer of reconciliation, and when the only hope is for either an unconditional victory for the self or the extermination of the other. And with such extremist attitudes, it is not surprising that the bodies keep piling up! What are we to do when every realistic trajectory adds to an outcome that is already tragic?
My approach in these situations of internal conflict has been to oppose and distrust the humanitarian and democratizing pretensions of those who counsel intervention under the alluring banner of ‘the responsibility to protect’ (R2P) and other liberal rationales supportive of military intervention, what Noam Chomsky tellingly calls ‘military humanism.’ Yet in concrete situations such as existed in Kosovo in 1999, Libya in 2011, and Syria today, to counsel a passive international response to the most severe crimes against humanity and genocidal atrocities would seem to deny the most elemental ethical bonds of human solidarity in a networked, globalized world, bonds that may turn out in the near future to be indispensable if we are to achieve environmental sustainability before the planet burns us to a crisp.
There are structural issues arising from the statist character of world order in the post-colonial era that make political choices in such situations of bitter internal conflict a tragic predicament. On the one side, is the statist logic that endows territorial governments with unconditional authority to sustain their unity in the face of insurgent challenges, a political principle given constitutional backing in Article 2(7) of the UN Charter, prohibiting UN intervention in internal conflicts. This statist logic is deeply confused and contradicted by legitimizing the inalienable and emancipatory right of self-determination conferred on every ‘people,’ and not on governments. In the background, as well, are the various non-Western collective memories, uniformly bad, of colonial rule, and well-founded contemporary suspicions that humanitarian interventions, however described and unwittingly, represent attempted colonialist revivals, both ideologically and behaviorally.
On the other side of the policy fence, there is an odd coalition of liberal internationalists who sincerely regard intervention as an essential tool for the promotion of a more humane world along with more cynical geopolitical strategists who regard conflict zones, especially where large oil reserves exist, as targets of opportunity for extending Western interests. Further, normative confusion arises from the drift of practice on the part of the UN that has been understood to vest in the Security Council unlimited competence to interpret the Charter as it wishes. (See World Court decision in the Lockerbie case, which coincidentally involved Libya.) In this regard, the rhetoric of human rights has been used to circumvent the Charter limits restricting UN competence to address conflicts internal to states: for instance, the Security Council in 2011 authorized a ‘No Fly Zone’ for Libya that was immediately converted by the NATO interveners into a de facto mandate for ‘regime change’; the whole undertaking was validated for most advocates of the broadened undertaking because it freed Libya from a murderous dictatorship; others approved, believing that the operation involved a proper invocation of the R2P norm, and still others endorsed the intervention on the basis of its supposed post-conflict state-building successes, avoiding chaos, and especially the rather impressive efforts to base the governance of Libya on democratic procedures. As the situation continues to evolve, there exists controversy as to how to assess the positive and negative aspects of post-Qaddafi Libya.
In evaluating our positions for or against a given intervention, should our sense of strategic motivations matter? For instance, the Kosovo intervention was at least partially motivated by the desire in Washington and among many European elites to show that NATO was still useful despite the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet threat that generated the alliance in the first place. Do such strategic considerations matter if indeed the people of Kosovo were spared the kind of ethnic cleansing endured not long before by the people of Bosnia, culminating in the genocide at Srebrenica in 1995? [Editor’s note: the escalation of atrocities and ethnic cleansing on the ground in Kosovo was a predicted consequence of NATO’s bombing campaign.] Might it not be claimed that only when strategic incentives exist, will an intervention be of sufficient magnitude to be effective? In effect, altruism alone will not produce effective forms of humanitarian intervention. Does the existence of double standards matter? Certain crimes against humanity generate an interventionary response while others are overlooked, for instance, the persisting collective punishment of the people of Gaza. Should we drink from a glass that is only half full? The same question applies to the recent surge of criminal prosecutions under the authority of the International Criminal Court.
There are other ways of evaluating what has taken place. For example, should the consequences of intervention or non-intervention color our assessments of the policy choice? Let’s say that Kosovo evolves in a constructive direction of respect for human rights, including those of the Serbian minority, or in contrast, becomes repressive towards of its minority population. Do we, should we, retrospectively reexamine our earlier view on what it was preferable to do back in 1999? And finally, should we give priority to the postulates of human solidarity, what might be called ‘moral globalization,’ or to the primacy of self-determination as the best hope that peoples of the world have of achieving emancipatory goals, recognizing that the grand strategies of the geopolitical actors are indifferent, at best, and often hostile to such claims?
My argument reduces to this: in such a global setting we cannot avoid making disastrous mistakes, but to renounce the effort to find the preferred course of action, we should not withdraw from politics and throw up our hands in frustration. We can expose false claims, contradictions, double standards, and we can side with those who act on behalf of emancipatory goals, while not being insensitive to the complexity, and even contradictions, of ‘emancipation’ in many political settings. There are often ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ sides from the perspective of international morality, international law, and global justice, but not always. When all sides seem deeply ‘wrong’ as in Syria, the dilemmas for the engaged global citizen is heightened to the point where the only responsible posture may be one of humility and an acknowledgement of radical uncertainty. In such circumstances, the most salient moral imperative is to refrain from acts that are likely to intensify the violence, intensify suffering, and increase dying and killing. This may not be a heroic political posture, but it may offer the most constructive response to a particular mix of circumstances, minimizing prospects of further escalation.
Finally, it is not very helpful to observe, ‘time will tell whether this was the best response.’ Perhaps, we can learn for the future about factors overlooked that might have altered our assessment, but our past decision was based on what we knew and perceived at that time, and should not be revised by taking account of subsequent developments. In some situations, such as the many struggles of oppressed and occupied peoples, it seems desirable to be hopeful even in the face of the realization that the eventual outcome could bring deep disappointment. We should, I feel, as often as possible be guided by our hopes and beliefs even when, as nearly always, we are confronted by the dilemmas of radical uncertainty. We should also do our best not to be manipulated by those media savvy ‘realists’ who stress fears, claim a convergence of benevolence and interests, exaggerate the benefits of military superiority, and especially in America serve as the self-appointed chief designers of exploitative patterns of geopolitically shaped security.
With hope we can often overcome uncertainty with desire, and engage in struggles for a just and sustainable future that celebrates human potential for moral growth, political enhancement, and spiritual wisdom.
Without hope we fall victim to despair and will be carried along with the historical current that is leading nation, society, civilization, species, and world toward catastrophe.
We live in what can be described both as the Information Age and cope daily with information overload. We are supposed to shape policy on the basis of knowledge, yet when it comes to crucial issues such war/peace or climate change, we act and advocate without sufficient knowledge, or even ignore an informed consensus, and what is worse, we put aside law, ethics, and our spiritual sensitivities.
Finally, to think, act, and feel as a citizen pilgrim provides the necessary foundation for hope, and its two sisters, wisdom and spirituality.