Western 'realists' inspire the deadly stalemate in Syria

Henry Kissinger has outlined a form of non-interventionism almost certain to perpetuate Syria's suffering.

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You knew it was just a matter of time before Henry Kissinger would take the dismal path on Syria. In an article published in the Washington Post last week, the onetime American secretary of state argued against outside intervention in the Syrian crisis, but then failed to admit how the foreign policy approach that he has advocated for decades is partly responsible for the calamities there.

Mr Kissinger is a political realist, for whom foreign policy is primarily defined by the pursuit of national interest. He remains an advocate of the post-1648 political order that emerged from the Treaty of Westphalia, which enforced sovereignty as a principle of inter-state relations and "separated international from domestic politics". This system has perpetuated stability, the former secretary of state has long held, and has been sustained by mechanisms of equilibrium - or what is known in the political jargon as a balance of power.

However, Mr Kissinger is worried that the recent Arab uprisings, among other international developments, are leading to new demands that are undermining the post-Westphalia system. There is an "increasing appeal - most recently in Syria - of outside intervention to bring about regime change, overturning prevalent notions of international order", he writes. The diplomacy generated by the Arab upheavals, he believes, "replaces Westphalian principles of equilibrium with a generalised doctrine of humanitarian intervention".

In other words, conflict is increasingly viewed through a prism of values, specifically the need to spread democratic standards. "Outside powers demand that the incumbent government negotiate with its opponents for the purpose of transferring power. But because … the issue is generally survival, these appeals usually fall on deaf ears. Where the parties are of comparable strength … outside intervention, including military force, is then invoked to break the deadlock."

The battle between political realists and those advocating a more value-based foreign policy is hardly new. In my days as a student, the fault line was defined as being between realists and liberals. This distinction lost much of its meaning during the first decade of the 21st century, when many liberals found themselves siding with realists in opposing the interventionist policies of President George W Bush, in particular what was perceived as democratisation by force.

In truth, it was during the 1990s that the concept of humanitarian intervention developed a momentum all its own. The conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, with their appalling costs in human life, acted as reminders that states were obligated to act on moral grounds.

Today, this principle is referred to as a "responsibility to protect". The problem is that such involvement rests on a foundation of absolutes. If states intercede to prevent crimes in one place then they must do so everywhere to remain morally consistent.

This is Mr Kissinger's worry as he watches events unfolding in Syria. If states are invariably destined to remove conditions deemed a violation of universal principles of governance, he asks, does this mean the US is "obliged to support every popular uprising against any non-democratic government, including those heretofore considered important in sustaining the international system?"

God forbid, one can hear Mr Kissinger rumbling in his Teutonic monotone. In office he had no qualms about dealing with autocrats, realists like himself. Christopher Hitchens's ferocious The Trial of Henry Kissinger, a denunciation of the secretary's misdeeds in Chile, Cyprus, East Timor, Bangladesh and Indochina, remains a bracing polemic against a man whose reputation has seemingly flourished in direct proportion to his cynicism.

But what is most objectionable in Mr Kissinger's Washington Post article is how selective it is. In defending international steadiness against the excess of humanitarian intervention, he downplays how realist attitudes are at odds with what we are witnessing today in the Arab world. Mr Kissinger seems unaware that the separation between domestic and foreign policy has become increasingly artificial.

Surely that was one powerful lesson from the Arab uprisings last year. In an age of proliferating media, the boundaries between national experiences have been greatly blurred. Nor does Mr Kissinger examine how extensively authoritarian systems are sustained by silence. It was possible for Hafez Al Assad to crush the revolt in Hama in 1982 because no one knew the magnitude of the butchery until it was over. In contrast, Bashar Al Assad, if he falls, will probably have a detailed indictment awaiting him.

Mr Kissinger also fails to consider how the realists' coddling of dictators under the guise of upholding state sovereignty generated the profound frustrations that have pushed Arab societies into the streets. Perhaps that's why oppositions in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain and Syria have remained so wary of western countries, even when they have requested their assistance. Rare was their tormentor who did not receive the red-carpet treatment in America or Europe on the grounds, as Mr Kissinger would affirm, that they were considered important in sustaining the international system.

Mr Kissinger is on firmer ground when he argues that the conditions for international intervention in Syria are not ideal. There is no consensus on what should come after the Assads, especially if the conflict there turns into a regional proxy war; and there is little domestic will in the West to embark on another open-ended military campaign to stop "one human tragedy" that might "facilitate another".

But Mr Kissinger does not come across as a man preoccupied with tragedy. What he outlines is a form of non-interventionism almost certain to perpetuate Syria's suffering. Sometimes, assertions of perspicacity and caution are mere excuses for intentional inaction. Realism offers no salvation for Syria.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

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