Bombing the Tracks: U.S. Power and the Future of Arab Democracy

Notes on George Mitchell, Marwan Muasher, and Anne-Marie Slaughter discussing American intervention and the prospects for democratic self-governance in the Middle East
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A French armored column passes through the town of St. Mere Eglise during the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. ( Popperfoto, via Alan Taylor )

ASPEN, Colo.—If you were to imagine trying to array the different justifications for the U.S. war in Iraq along a spectrum of idealism to realism, there would be two at the far-idealistic end, whose credibility ended up more damaged than any others' by the war and America's broader involvement in the Middle East post-9/11: humanitarian intervention and the advancement of democracy.

But according to Anne-Marie Slaughter, humanitarian intervention, particularly in Syria, remains at least as tough-minded a proposition as it is a high-minded one. "If you look at Syria," Slaughter said, speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival this week, "more than half the population has been displaced. ... The number of Syrian refugees in Jordan, as a percentage of the population, is the equivalent of all of Canada moving to the United States. Let's just think what that would mean for our school system, our health system, our infrastructure. ... In a situation where up to a third of the population, or half the population, is destabilized—that is a security concern, as it was in Europe [at the time of the Thirty Years War]."

Marwan Muasher, on the stage with Slaughter, expressed reservations about this framework—or at least about the role he sees it taking on as the U.S. government scopes its foreign policy under circumstances of increasingly acute regional crisis. "I'll give you two kinds of intervention," Muasher said. "You can try to intervene militarily. You've done this before, in Iraq, with 500,000 troops. Did it bring democracy to Iraq today? Obviously not. But you can intervene through other means. For example, encourage the Iraqis to have a political process that is inclusionist. ... That's the kind of intervention that's needed in the region, not the kind of intervention that sends troops ... and sees everything through a narrow security lens to the exclusion of all the other basic problems that are out there in the Middle East."

"Let's stop talking about sending troops," Slaughter said. "Absolutely no one is talking about sending troops into the region. ... It is intellectually dishonest to claim that people who want intervention in Syria want a repeat of Iraq. Iraq was a disaster. Nobody is talking about that."

"I'm all for a political solution," Slaughter said. "I've wanted a political solution from the beginning." Yet "the only time we've seen anything in Syria was when the president suddenly realized that with chemical weapons there we'd better start moving the cruise missiles into place, and we got a deal—and we got all the ISIS people heading for the hills, because they were terrified of our drones."

"So how do we get this political solution—as we ultimately did in the former Yugoslavia, as we did in East Timor, or as we did in World War II?" Slaughter asked. "How do we get to a political solution without a credible use of force? How do we convince any of these guys that they should stop fighting, because the alternative is going to be worse for them? How do we do that?"

Slaughter later came back to the example of World War II, citing accounts from some of the few Western journalists who have managed to get a view inside civil-war Syria. "They say it's the worst thing they've ever seen," Slaughter said. "They say it looks like World War II. We are talking about a government that is using chemical weapons on its own people and dropping barrel bombs on children."

"We didn't bomb the trains [to Auschwitz] in World War II," she continued. "We could have, and it would have made a difference. ... When we have the possibility of saving hundreds of thousands of lives, and forcing a political solution in the only way we've ever been able to, which is: You go to the table when you know if you don't, you face the risk of death. If we do not act, we're going to look back and wonder why we didn't."

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J.J. Gould is the editor of TheAtlantic.com. More

He has written for The Washington MonthlyThe American ProspectThe Moscow Times, The Chronicle Herald, and The European Journal of Political Theory. Gould was previously an editor at the Journal of Democracy, co-published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the National Endowment for Democracy, and a lecturer in history and politics at Yale University. He has also worked with McKinsey & Company's New York-based Knowledge Group on global public- and social-sector development and on the economics of carbon-emissions reduction. Gould has a B.A. in history from McGill University in Montreal, an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in politics from Yale. He is from Nova Scotia.

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