Humanitarian Wars and the Political Factions of the Arab World: A Concise Primer

Take this as you will. You know where the ‘comments’ section is, and we could probably learn more together by arguing than we could by reading my informal musings.

Humanitarian war, justified theoretically and morally by the Responsibility To Protect doctrine (R2P) , has become the go-to excuse for military action by hawks on both the Left and the Right in the West for the past 20 years or so. Humanitarianism as an excuse for war has been around for as long as humans have, and it has been going in and out of fashion for just as long, but since the end of the Cold War it has become prominent in all the right circles again.

The first thing careful readers will notice about R2P proponents is their seeming inability to consider the fact that their overtly political goal is couched in the language of humanitarianism rather than for the purely political purpose that it actually is. This is entirely subconscious, which makes it all the more dangerous because proponents of R2P truly believes that what they state is pure and noble.

Is it not true that, by definition, anything the government does is the essence of the political?

Perhaps I am being unkind to advocates of R2P. Perhaps I am simply knocking down a straw man. I hope advocates will lay down a better, preferably more concise, definition for me in the ‘comments’ threads. Yet when people have such strong beliefs in their own intuitions that they actually call for a government to enforce those intuitions at all costs, how can I not be unkind?  My freedom is at stake whenever good intentions are used to empower others.

At any rate, it’s finally time to explain how factions in the post-colonial world operate. This explanation is geared toward both conservatives, Leftists, and uninitiated libertarians, and will use Syria as an informal case study. Once you grasp the principles behind my argument (and feel free to use the ‘comments’ section to flesh out any fuzziness) you can easily apply them to anywhere in the post-colonial world. You can also use these principles to better understand how politics in rich, industrialized states actually work.

I’m going to do this by quickly detailing the main factions involved in the Syrian conflict and then delving into the implications of arming one side and bombing the other, as the Obama administration has been doing.

First up is the Assad regime itself. Despite the violent protests that stared us in the face at the beginning of the upheavals in Syria, the Assad regime actually enjoys a fairly broad base of support. The regime is Ba’athist, like the Hussein regime in Iraq, and as such enjoys support from secularists, educated women, the business class, socialists, the military, religious minorities (Christian and non-Sunni Muslim) , labor unions, ethnic minorities and the professional class (lawyers, doctors, engineers and academics). These are the classes that believe that state can be wielded to further it noble ends (which includes secularizing all of Syrian society and raising the standards of living of all Syrians). The term used to describe such a conglomerate is ‘national socialist’.

Prior to the start of the civil war in Syria, the Assad regime faced a two-pronged attack from would-be reformers. As with everywhere else in the world – from Greece to Brazil to China to the United States* – Syria is facing social unrest.

One of these dissenting prongs – the weaker of the two – is composed of secularists, educated women, the business class, socialists, the military, labor unions, ethnic minorities and the professional class. You read that correctly: opposition to the Assad regime had, prior to the civil war, come from other national socialists dissatisfied with the status quo. It is this second group of national socialists that Leftists and conservatives wish to arm. Aside from the massive amounts of fairy dust such a program would require, what do R2P advocates think they would accomplish by replacing one batch of national socialists with another?

I am digressing. The second of the prongs (the more powerful one) is made up of various Islamist groups, including many branches of al-Qaeda. This faction is conservative and largely dominated by young, Arab and Sunni Muslims. Because of its religious flavor, this faction is dominated by actual peasants or the lumpenproletariat and is run by a parochial and decentralized leadership. It gets its funding from the brutal Arab Gulf regimes (which are, in turn, protected by the American state). Due to the very nature of the national socialist economy, a large population of very poor people dominates the demographic landscape of Syrian society today. GDP (PPP) per capita stood at about $5,101 in 2011.

Liberalism, the alternative to socialism and conservatism that advocates free trade, the rule of law and property rights, and individual liberty, does not exist in Syria today. It was murdered in its infancy by British and French imperialism.

When the shooting started – and we will, like the first Anglo-American War, never know who started the shooting – the national socialists opposing the Assad regime took one look at their potential allies (the Islamists) and either went crawling back to Damascus for protection or attempted to flee the country. Taking a long, slow look at the Islamists now fighting the Assad regime, it’s not hard to see why the national socialists marching against Assad took the routes that they did.

So, ideologically, there are only conservatives and socialists competing for hearts and minds in Syria. Liberals simply emigrate to the West. Letting the post-colonial world devolve into smaller and smaller political units would limit conflicts and casualties, but the road to a peaceful and prosperous Middle East is going to be a long, hard haul without  way to re-introduce liberalism into the region (Jacques has put forth a doable proposal, as has Rick, but my own is too ambitious).

* I mention this only because there is a small faction in American politics trying to argue that the Arab Spring is a direct product of the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. It is not. The unrest around the world is due to the inherent failures of the post-war economic consensus (which was anything but laissez-faire).

13 thoughts on “Humanitarian Wars and the Political Factions of the Arab World: A Concise Primer

  1. 1. So liberals should only ‘rescue’ other liberals?
    2. How about cases of genocide?
    3. There is really not much Western intervention in Syria at all, except for Muslims going there to fight with the assorted opposition factions?
    4. I agree, in general military interventions have not been succesful, certainly not from an American viewpoint.
    5. I disagree that there can never be a reason to intervene, even Smith and Hume thought this should be a policy option. See http://www.amazon.co.uk/Just-Unjust-Military-Intervention-European/dp/110704202X/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&qid=1410118021&sr=8-8&keywords=military+intervention
    6. Let alone Hayek the Hawk…

    • I’m glad we agree on Point 4 Dr van de Haar! Although when I clarify my points I think you’ll find that there is little we do not agree on.

      On Point 4, though, I’d like to remind everyone that there is a big difference between military intervention and declaring war. Liberal states excel at the latter (see “…The ‘Strong Defense’ Argument Against Libertarian Realism,” “A Cheaper, Stronger Army?,” and “Would A Libertarian Military Be More Lethal?” for more on what I mean).

      Re: Point 1. No, and I don’t know from where in my post you drew this conclusion. I do maintain that only a liberal state will lead to a more peaceful and prosperous society, and that the Arab world is eons away from reaching a decent balance between the ideological triad, but I don’t argue that liberal states should only rescue other liberal states. (That would sort of be akin to sleeping with my sister.)

      Re: Points 2, 5, and 6. Good questions, though I don’t recall ever arguing that there is never a good reason to justify military intervention. That would be dogmatic. I know there are libertarians who do employ such reasoning, but they are an almost unheard of minority in the general scheme of things.

      My initial thesis in this post was to outline the factions that can be found in the post-colonial world (hopefully you agree with my analysis?) and illustrate why common calls for military intervention based on humanitarianism are short-sighted and will probably lead to even worse outcomes.

      Pointing out the short-sighted nature of calls for military intervention does not mean that I argue nothing can or should be done, of course. My recent post on the Islamic State, for example, explores options that I think are much smarter than what the West currently has on the table. I have mused on alternatives to the military intervention/non-intervention paradigm on other occasions, too.

      Re: Point 3. I apologize but I don’t quite understand your question. Are you asking if the West is currently not involved in Syria?

    • I was a bit quick with 1. My third point I raised because you use Syria as an example in a piece on interventionism, more specific the (intended) American military operations there (you were very topical given president Obama’s plan published today!). Lastly: no I did not “accuse” you of anaything, just raised the questions!

    • Ah gotcha. Thanks for the clarification. Californians have a weird linguistic trait where we often use questions as a way to form statements, so when I am conversing with non-natives (even those with a better command of English than I!) I sometimes get confused.

      I think military intervention in Iraq and Syria will lead to more problems, not less. I do not support another invasion of Iraq or an initial one against Syria; I do not support another bombing campaign against Iraq or an initial one against Syria; I do not support another round of economic sanctions against either Iraq or Syria.

      Nor would I support, say, a Dutch contingent or a British contingent of soldiers or statesmen attempting the same thing as the US.

      I would support a Russian attempt at invading and occupying the territory claimed by ISIS. I would also support an Iranian attempt to do the same (much in the same way that Siamak and Payam, two of our Iranian readers, support a re-invasion of Iraq by the US in order to spare Iranian society from the costs of doing so itself). I would support a Chinese attempt to do the same.

      I would support the attempts of authoritarian regimes to rid the Middle East of evil because I know that such attempts would weaken their power.

      There are smarter ways to re-introduce liberalism into the region.

      My question to you, Dr van de Haar, is this: Do you support military intervention in Iraq or Syria? If so, why?

  2. I think I amonly echoing Edwin.

    “Humanitarian war, justified theoretically and morally by the Responsibility To Protect doctrine (R2P) , has become the go-to excuse for military action by hawks on both the Left and the Right in the West for the past 20 years or so. ”

    Sure thing but are you arguing that the US – with its huge military power, for better or for worse – should not intervene on behalf of the religious minorities of Iraq facing imminent massacre? We should just sit here? How about the Kurds who have been our fiends for a long time and have proved capable beyond all your descriptions of middle-Eastern incompetence? (This is a different question, you will note.) Perhaps you have addressed these two question and I have missed or misunderstood the argument.

    It seems to me that the fact that an argument with moral force is nearly always misused does not make it lose its moral force.

    A rare occurrence but there is a concept in French law I like: “Non-assistance a une personne en danger.” If you are capable of helping someone whose life is endangered by anything and you don’t, your passivity is a crime in its own right. It’s probably residual Christianity; not a problem.

    • Oh my! What’s this? Dr Delacroix being polite and on-topic? Sounds like your book signing at Lulu’s went better than expected.

      Sure thing but are you arguing that the US – with its huge military power, for better or for worse – should not intervene on behalf of the religious minorities of Iraq facing imminent massacre?

      No. I am arguing that the US should not intervene because it has no idea what is happening in Iraq or Syria. A re-invasion of Iraq will only make life for Iraqis worse than the initial 2003 invasion has done.

      We should just sit here?

      No. Why do hawks always makes the fallacious leap in logic from “I don’t support military intervention” to “therefore nothing should be done”? See my recent post on Islamists experimenting with libertarianism for more on what the West needs to be doing.

      How about the Kurds who have been our fiends for a long time and have proved capable beyond all your descriptions of middle-Eastern incompetence?

      I think the West should recognize Kurdistan as a state. I don’t know why it hasn’t happened yet (again, see my post on Islamists experimenting with libertarianism, linked above). However, I don’t see how Kurdistan not having an independent state bolsters the argument for military intervention in the region. It is logic like this that forces libertarians into saying ‘No’ often rather than giving them time to elaborate on what a libertarian foreign policy would look like. Libertarians have to spend much of their time debunking bad logic and false facts instead of thinking about ways that could improve upon libertarianism.

    • “If you are capable of helping someone whose life is endangered by anything and you don’t, your passivity is a crime in its own right.”

      Why? If this principle is better than merely residual Christianity, there ought to be an argument for it over and above attributing it to the French. The principle actually strikes me as preposterous in itself, and a very bad analogy for the situation under discussion.

      Preposterous in itself: the possession of a capacity doesn’t by itself give you an obligation to exercise it. Right now, the streets of Newark, New Jersey are full of homeless people “endangered” by homelessness. I live close enough by to drive over there and help maybe half a dozen of them tonight. But I’m just sitting here engaged in callous “non-assistance a” all those “personnes en danger.” By your principle a “crime” has been committed. But I don’t feel like a criminal, and if you think I am one, I’d like to know why. I’m not my brother’s keeper, whether in Newark or Damascus.

      Bad analogy: even if one accepts a legal duty to assist–and regards non-assistance as a crime–the principle in question doesn’t oblige anyone to put life and limb on the line in an ongoing, years-long (!) campaign for someone else’s freedom. But if an air war doesn’t work in Syria, we will have to put boots on the ground (for years), and there is no way to guarantee that an air war will work. if you will the end, you must will the means. And Special Forces will have to be put on the ground even if there is nothing but an air war–perhaps they’ll wear sneakers so that no American boots will touch Syrian ground. (That sounds like a joke, but they promised ‘no boots’ in Libya, didn’t they? And yet there were.)

      The truth is that R2P has no “moral force.” It’s the latest legal-rhetorical fashion masquerading as a moral principle, but that doesn’t give it any “moral force.” We’ve now put up with thirteen years of warfare based on rhetorical bluffing and deceptions. It’s about time that those who want yet more military interventions come up with better than they so far have.

  3. Brandon: I have not exercised bad logic (or hardly any logic at all). I just asked two questions and explained a little why I asked these two questions. You respond as if you were reading my mind and finding convenient windmills there. Your giving me a reading assignment is not a good way to answer. A better way would be to say, “Yes” or “No” and then to direct the reader to another reading.

    I would love to read something about a “libertarian foreign policy.” I would gladly contribute promising to stay mum for a reasonable amount of time. In fact, I just started.

    • Your giving me a reading assignment is not a good way to answer. A better way would be to say, “Yes” or “No” and then to direct the reader to another reading.

      You mean like how I did in my initial response? Dude, look:

      No. Why do hawks always makes the fallacious leap in logic from “I don’t support military intervention” to “therefore nothing should be done”? See my recent post on Islamists experimenting with libertarianism for more on what the West needs to be doing.

      Dr Dueh-luhcroix strikes again!

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