Mid-Week Reader: The Justice of US Intervention in Syria

I’d like to announce a new weekly series of posts that I will be making: the Mid-Week Reader. Every Wednesday (hopefully), I will post a series of articles that I find interesting. Unlike most ventures in micro-blogging, though,  I will try to make all the articles focus on a specific topic rather than leave you with a random assortment of good articles (which Branden already does so well most weekends). This week’s topic: with Trump bombing Syria last week despite ostensibly being a dove (hate to say I told you so), I give you a series of articles on the justice, historical background, and press reaction to the bombing.

  • Fernando Terson and Bas van der Vossen, who are co-authoring on the topic of humanitarian intervention, each have interesting pieces at Bleeding Heart Libertarians debating the bombing of Syria from the perspective of Just War Theory. Terson argues that it was just, Vossen disagrees.
  • Over at The American Conservative, John Glasser of the Cato Institute has an article arguing that Trump’s invasion is neither legally authorized nor humanitarian.
  • Any discussion of foreign policy is incomplete without Chris Coyne’s classic paper “The Fatal Conceit of Foreign Intervention,” a political-economic analysis of foreign policy which concludes all sorts of foreign intervention are likely to fail for similar reasons that socialist economic intervention fails.
  • As perhaps a case study of Coyne’s analysis, Kelly Vee of the Center for a Stateless Society has an article summarizing the history of United States’ actions in Syria going back to World War II and how it’s gotten us into the current situation.
  • At Vox, Sean Illing interviews CUNY professor of journalism Eric Alterman on how the press fails to critically assess military intervention.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. From a nation of romantic philosophers, Russia is today a bastion of rationalism and pragmatism
  2. India’s merchant class aided the British instead of the Indian elite
  3. Why is Ethiopia building a space program?
  4. When Charlie Chaplin met Pablo Picasso

From the Comments: New Republics, Westphalia, and Russian Strategy

Thomas L. Knapp (check out his two contributions to the most recent Cato Unbound symposium on voting) has a great comment about Ukraine (Russia) that deserves further scrutiny:

In order for Putin to “pull out of” Ukraine, he’d first need to be in Ukraine.

The new republics which seceded from Ukraine are not in Ukraine.

Knapp brings up an interesting point that most geopolitical outlets and experts rarely consider (the Washington Post‘s Worldviews is a notable exception, as is Ilya Somin over at Volokh Conspiracy), and because of that these outlets fail to provide any depth or light to the world around us. There are three aspects of Knapp’s excellent comment that I’d like to hone in on.

The new republics

First, what are these “new republics” Knapp mentions? If you don’t count Crimea (wiki), which Moscow formally recognized in 2014, then the new republics that declared their independence from Ukraine are Luhansk (wiki) and Donetsk (wiki). Both polities are roughly 3300 square miles in area and house roughly 1.5 million people (you can get the exact numbers from the wiki links I provided above). Here is a map:


Alarmingly, both republics style themselves “people’s republics” and (less alarmingly) have aligned publicly with Moscow. Russia, by the way, has not recognized these “new republics,” for geopolitical reasons I hope to make clear below.

Westphalian sovereignty

Russia does not like to recognize new polities (“republics”) because of its adherence to the ideal of Westphalia, which is state sovereignty (elsewhere at NOL Barry Stocker argues that the Westphalian ideal can be better understood as an early modern cosmopolitanism rather than state sovereignty). All throughout the Cold War Russia and China were staunch supporters of the Westphalian ideal (as were states in Africa and Asia that broke away from colonial empires), and they became even more so after the collapse of socialism in 1993. State sovereignty is the idea that states (“countries”) have sole control over what goes on in their own borders, and that any interventions of any kind, by any type of organization, needs to be approved by the state. It is called “Westphalian” because of the Treaty of Westphalia that was signed by a number of major and minor European states in the 17th century. The major states were able to maintain a balance of power and the minor states were able to assert more sovereignty over their territories than ever before because they were signatories of an international treaty. (Edwin van de Haar’s article in the Independent Review [pdf] on the balance of power as the most libertarian option available is worth reading, and is made stronger, I believe, by Giovanni Arrighi’s argument [pdf] that the balance of power led directly to the “capitalist oligarchies” that eventually pushed feudalistic institutions out of Europe beginning in the late 15th century.)

Russia, China, and other autocratic regimes prefer an international system that is respectful of state sovereignty because of the fact that this idea helps their governments to administer an amount of coercion on populaces that Western states consider immoral or rights-violating.

Russian strategy

Why did Russia hint at recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk, but ultimately decide not to recognize them? Because the West has been recognizing separatist republics since the USSR fell apart, and it has done so in the traditionally Russian sphere of influence (noticeably carving up Yugoslavia at Serbia’s geographic expense). The West has not carved up post-Soviet space by simply recognizing the sovereignty of self-proclaimed republics, but also by incorporating these polities into the international system that it dominates. Russia wants to show elites (but not necessarily the public) that it is tired of policymakers ignoring Westphalian notions of sovereignty (which are enshrined in the UN charter that almost all recognized states have signed; when they sign it they get rent-seeking privileges, but that’s a story for another day…).

This is fairly straightforward logic on Moscow’s part. When the West supported Kosovo’s secession from Serbia (in defiance of Article 2(4) of the UN charter), Russia responded by supporting South Ossetia and Abkhazia breaking away from Georgia before annexing them. The interesting thing here is that Russia even mimicked Western use of force to back up its play. When the West supported Montenegro’s secession from Serbia (in defiance of Article 2(4) of the UN charter), Russia responded by supporting Donetsk, Crimea, and Luhansk breaking away from Ukraine before annexing Crimea. The interesting thing here is that Russia even mimicked Western use of force to back up its play. Both Russia and the West used minimal military resources to achieve their objectives, and both played the sovereignty card to back up their actions.


Western policymakers will never be able to bring liberty to Russia, and liberty will never be known by Russians if the rule of law is trumped by geopolitics. The West dominates the world’s international governing organizations. It has made the rules. It has drawn up the contracts. It has invited the non-West to participate. It has given concessions in order to gain the non-West’s support. So when the West breaks the rules it first outlined and drew up, the non-Western polities it convinced to join IGOs in the first place cannot be expected to take such rules seriously. The fact that Russia does play by the West’s rules, by taking seriously the claims of breakaway regions, suggests that the West has been in the wrong post-1993.

American media pundits and critical thinking

All of this leads me back to sensationalist headlines about nefarious Russian meddling in the American presidential election. Don’t believe any of that garbage. Firstly, look at how often American foreign policy pundits have been wrong. Just look! Amid the cries of Russian meddling in the Clinton-Trump contest you can surely hear the faint echoes about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Secondly, all good analyses of geopolitical affairs provide at least some bit of historical context to them. Does your foreign policy pundit use history as a guide? Thirdly (and lastly), when thinking about a country remember that most accounts will have a point of view that shadows the consensus found in the world’s political and financial centers, which are useful but will sacrifice important details in the name of efficiency (and efficacy).

American libertarians, of all the factions out there, realize this best. Unfortunately, until they can shake the isolationist dogma that has paralyzed the movement since the Rothbard era of the 70s and 80s, they will continue to be marginalized in contemporary discussions about foreign policy, either as token libertarians in a Republican administration or as token libertarians in the “anti-war” movement (I put “anti-war” in scare quotes because by now it should be obvious that this movement represents the Democratic Party [pdf], not an ideal; see, though, Michael Kazin’s excellent, if ultimately unconvincing, argument for a different take on the disappearance of the anti-war movement once Obama and the Democrats came to power). New republics, secessionist movements, and other endeavors of exit are often embraced by American libertarians because of their autonomist appeal, but if they don’t pay attention to how state actors view such movements, especially regional and global hegemons, they may end supporting some very nasty regimes in the name of liberty.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. The Strange Story of a Strange Beast
  2. Dagestan (a region in Russia), religion, and female genital mutilation
  3. Why partitioning Libya might be the only way to save it
  4. Google versus Palestine (h/t Michelangelo)
  5. False consciousness | The value of Marx in the 21st century
  6. The evolution of the state (in two simple pictures)
  7. Round the Decay of that Colossal Wreck

“Landscapes of Nationalism” interview

Here is an interview a colleague of mine did with me last month regarding my summer trips, which somewhat are connected by a same thematic thread – on how I stumbled upon incidents of big and small nationalisms. It appeared in our obscure university newsletter with an open access. An excerpt:

When I left Estonia and arrived in St. Petersburg, which is in northern Russia, the first thing I saw, when coming out of the airport, was a large posh car that was passing me. Its windshield was decorated with an orange and black “St. George ribbon”; this ribbon (a symbol of the patron saint of the Russian military) is currently a badge of patriotism for millions of my former compatriots. The back of the car sported big letters in blue: “Onward to Berlin! I honor WWII vets.” The irony of the situation was that the car driven by that well-to-do patriot was a German Mercedes! By the way, the topic of World War II is a “sacred cow” in Russia. From the Soviet times to the present, the government and conservative elements have been constantly bombarding people with two pieces of propaganda. First, they have being arguing that the Soviet Union/Russia had singlehandedly saved the world from fascism. For this reason, the whole world owes them everything. Second, since the country lost in that war more people than any other country, Russians suffered more than anybody else and, again, for this reason, the world owes them. Many people internalized this mythology.

From the Comments: A libertarian solution to Daesh (ISIS/ISIL) and the civil war in Syria

I have 3 scenarios in mind, and multilateralism is a must for all of them. 1) I’m still a proponent of recognizing the separatist aspirations of Mideast factions and introducing new, smaller states into the international order (haphazard though it may be). This was done after WWI but in the wrong manner. There was an international element to it then (UK, France, etc. working together), but there were also representatives of various Mideast factions at the table and they were ignored (the reasons why are many and I won’t delve into them here). This time, placing those Mideast factions on an equal footing with Western players (and Russia) is a must for things to work out.

2) North America has to perform a delicate balancing act now that Ankara screwed up. NATO has to stand strong against Putin’s public condemnations and tough talk and back Turkey in all public and behind-the-scenes forums. At the same time I would use Turkey’s mistake to initiate a new state in the Kurdish region, one that is not explicitly Kurdish of course but one that encompasses most of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq. Use the UN Security Council to do it; exploit Putin’s anger and get him to renege on his policy of not recognizing separatist aspirations because of the sovereignty argument. Then get him to recognize that a new state in the Kurdish region (that doesn’t change Turkey’s current borders) is more than enough revenge for shooting down a plane.

3) North America should get out of France’s and Russia’s way in Syria for the time being (this should be done in tandem with the diplomacy I advocate above). Let them work together and let off some steam. The two of them, with Assad’s help, might be able to destroy ISIS (neither Russia nor France is as careful as the US when it comes to civilians, and in this scenario their ruthlessness might be a plus for long-term peace; the fact that the US won’t get blamed for the violence is a big plus, too). Assad would then be able to stay in power, but this is a big MAYBE and he will have lost the the Kurdish part of the state (remember Russia helps with Kurdistan becoming a reality because it angers the Turks). With hundreds of thousands of dead people from all over the world and millions of displaced people, Assad’s record of incompetency will most likely force the French and Russians to find a way to push him out of office and usher in a new strong man (only a strong man can govern a state like Syria). While Paris and Moscow search for a strong man, the West should continue its policy of recognizing regions that want out of Damascus’s orbit; keep Russia in the loop on this. By the time Paris and Moscow find a new strong man, what’s left of Syria might actually be able to hold elections and have a government that is constrained by a constitution and the strong man won’t be needed.

3b) ISIS in Iraq: Recognize ISIS’s territorial claims in Iraq (the ones that don’t overlap with Kurdistan’s, of course). That’ll force it to actually govern and will bind it to international law. We’ll see ISIS quickly collapse, and in its place will be a small country that is war-torn but with manageable problems (unlike in a large state like Iraq). This new country would be free to join up with Baghdad again or it could choose to go its own way. There would be at least three states in what is now Iraq, a big step forward in a world that is more interconnected economically and thus less in need of a big bad military to fight massive, bloody wars over territory.

(I’d be happy to argue with others about how libertarian my argument is, too.)

This is from yours truly, in response to a question from Professor Amburgey about libertarian foreign policy. Is this feasible? Absolutely. Is it likely? No, but when has that ever stopped libertarians from using logic and history to debunk statist fantasies?

Libertarians try to build off of the individual when it comes to policy, which means their policies are going to be both internationalist and skeptical of the state’s ability to accomplish an aim. I think my short answer in the threads does this in a mostly competent manner. It’s a multilateral approach which eliminates any ‘central planning’ aspect, and it acknowledges both the process of the rule of law (however haphazard it may be) and the inability of large states to govern populations competently (thus my argument for decentralization – through the legal process).

Turkey just shot down a Russian fighter jet

Yes, folks, things just got way more real in the Levant.

Here is NOL‘s first-ever post on Syria (by yours truly). It’s from 2012 (which means NOL is nearly four years old!) and it holds up pretty well if you ask me.

Jacques Delacroix, an ardent hawk who recently quit NOL (again) and who ironically criticizes libertarians for being “dogmatic” and “predictable,” had this to say about Syria in 2012:

Russia would not risk to go to war with us on behalf of Syria because that country is just not important enough to the Russians’ game.

And also this:

The current murderous situation [in 2012 Syria] is not acceptable. Therefore, the risk of some sort of Islamist take-over is worth running.

Jacques and other military interventionists have been getting the Middle East wrong for decades, and yet people still take them seriously. Just to be clear: Jacques and other hawks were perfectly aware that attacking Assad would mean opening up a space for ISIS and other nasty Sunni organizations to grow. Jacques just thought Islamists would be better than Assad because they’d at least have some form of democratic legitimacy. Then, after the recent massacres in Paris, Delacroix and other hawks began arguing that Islamists have to go, too (along with Assad). The Russians, who Jacques (and other hawks) confidently told the public would not dare intervene in Syria, think that Islamists have to go (too many Russian commercial airliners are blowing up in the sky) but not Assad. Not a pretty picture, and Western hawks are largely responsible for the mess.

Here is an old post detailing just how wrong Jacques was on Libya, and instead of acknowledging just how wrong he was (he was really wrong), Jacques changed the subject and repeated oft-debunked litanies.

Anyone can be wrong, of course. I thought Mitt Romney would beat Obama back in 2012 (the economy was in terrible shape…), but I learned from my mistake and people can generally learn something from me (even if it’s only to see things from a slightly different angle) when I write on American politics.

When Jacques and other hawks are wrong they become dishonest about their past mistakes, though. They don’t acknowledge them. They don’t try to learn from them. They instead repeat their sacred litanies over and over again, hoping that they will eventually be proved correct (a broken clock is right twice a day, after all). This moral failing on the hawks’ part is what’s responsible for the violence and carnage in Syria. It might be responsible for World War 3 (Turkey is a NATO member). Their dogmatism and the dishonesty it entails is far more of a threat to individual liberty than Islamist terrorists or even the violent policy prescriptions (and cultural chauvinism) Jacques and his ilk call for (and rely upon in the public sphere) on a daily basis.

Jacques and the interventionists (cool band name, by the way) are responsible for hundreds of thousands of dead people and millions of displaced ones. They initiated this carnage using made-up “facts,” poor logic, and appeals to violence. Where is the outrage? How can we change the climate of opinion so that those who lie constantly and unabashedly lose influence and prestige? Is incompetence that prevalent in our open society, or is dishonesty to blame?