The story of American humanitarian war, as expressed over the last quarter-century, is a tragedy. It’s the tale of well-meaning interventionists like Samantha Power and Susan Rice who—haunted by America’s failure to act in Rwanda in 1994, and emboldened by America’s partial successes in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999—helped orchestrate a 2011 war in Libya that toppled a dictator but created something worse: a jihadist-filled failed state. The impact on President Obama was profound. In his second term, Obama—despite pressure to wage war against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad—made clear by his actions that, at least in Syria, the era of humanitarian war was over.
It still is, kind of. What has emerged under Donald Trump is a macabre sequel: humanitarian war not as tragedy but as farce. Trump is considering a second set of air strikes aimed at punishing Assad for using chemical weapons. His administration has justified this possibility in intensely moralistic terms. It’s “an affront to humanity,” Trump declared after the Syrian government’s chemical attack last April. On Monday, after another apparent attack, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed that, “The images, especially of suffering children, have shocked the conscience of the entire civilized world.”
But calling Trump’s potential strike against Syria a legitimate humanitarian intervention is absurd. The most comprehensive effort to define that notion came from the Canadian government, which in 2001—in response to pleas from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan—empaneled a commission on the concept known as the “Responsibility to Protect.” That commission outlined several criteria that any humanitarian war must meet. No past U.S. intervention has met them fully. A new Syria strike, however, wouldn’t even come close.
One criterion was what the commission called “reasonable prospects.” A military intervention, it argued, must stand “a reasonable chance of success in halting or averting the suffering which has justified the intervention.” When Trump struck Syria for the first time last year, it may have been “reasonable” to hope an American strike would prevent Assad from using chemical weapons again. But it is utterly unreasonable today. That’s because, in the year since Trump’s strike, Assad has used chemical weapons again and again. He didn’t just apparently use them last weekend. According to armscontrol.org, he also allegedly used them on March 11, on March 7 and at least five times in January and February.
Why didn’t Trump’s attempt at deterrence worked? In The New York Times, Max Fisher has offered two reasons. First, “to Mr. Assad, this war is a matter of personal and national survival. If he believes chemical weapons are necessary to his survival, he will abandon them only in the face of some threat to his survival greater than the benefit he thinks they offer him. That requires an existential threat, which the United States is unwilling to impose because of the risks.” Second, “Mr. Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies can easily help him absorb the costs imposed by such strikes. If the United States bombs another Syrian runway, Russian contractors can simply pave Mr. Assad a new one. It’s not exactly a game-changer for him.”
There’s no reason to believe these factors have changed since Trump’s strike last year. Russia and Iran are as committed to Assad as they were back then. The United States is as worried about toppling Assad and creating a jihadist-filled failed state. Which is why, even as Trump officials suggest that this attack, if it comes, will be bigger than the last, none has outlined a scenario by which it will prevent Syria’s further use of gas. When you think about it, it’s extraordinary. It’s easy to find Washington officials and politicians demanding that the U.S. respond to Syria’s latest atrocity by launching a military strike. It is almost impossible—and I’ve scoured the internet looking—to find a single one explaining why such a strike might work.
Another criterion the commission laid out was “right intention.” An intervention’s “primary purpose,” it argued, “must be to halt or avert human suffering.” On this score, too, Trump’s proposed attack manifestly fails. Yes, Trump has spoken angrily about the children Assad’s chemical weapons strikes have killed. But it’s harder to take Trump’s claims of humanitarian motivation seriously when he has essentially shut America’s borders to Syrians: By this time last year the United States had resettled almost 6,000 Syrian refugees; so far this year the number is 44.
When it comes to John Bolton, Trump’s new national-security adviser, we don’t even have to guess about motivations. He’s said explicitly that averting human suffering is no reason to go to war. In 2008 he wrote an entire column entitled “The Case against Humanitarian Intervention.” In a 2012 article in National Review, he argued that, “the chimerical ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine under which Obama justified U.S. intervention [in Libya] is not tethered either to reality or to American interests. To extend ‘responsibility to protect’ to Syria without contemplating the larger consequences for our interests worldwide would simply be irresponsible.”
Bolton has been clear: What Assad does to his own people is not a major American concern. That’s why Bolton opposed Obama’s call (which Obama later withdrew) for striking Assad after he used chemical weapons in 2013. America’s real interest in Syria, according to Bolton, in addition to destroying ISIS, is to weaken Russia and Iran. In The National Review article, he makes clear that the only kind of military intervention in Syria he would support is one that would “not be confined to Syria and would inevitably entail confronting Iran and possibly Russia.” Now that ISIS is largely vanquished, he argued last June, the focus of American policy in Syria should be “pushing back these Iranian and Russian gains” in the country as part of a larger effort to “begin rolling back Russia’s renewed presence and influence in the Middle East.” If Bolton has his way, Trump will use Assad’s latest chemical attacks as a pretext for a military strike aimed not primarily at saving Syrian lives, but at showing that America is still top dog in the Middle East. It’s hard to think of a more blatant violation of the “right intention” standard laid out in 2001.
For years, Bolton has yearned for a cold war with Russia and a hot one with Iran. Ever since taking office, Trump has yearned to show that he’s tougher and manlier than Obama and that he can make America’s adversaries tremble. Because Congress has abdicated its constitutional responsibility to declare war, Bolton and Trump are free to use Syria’s chemical attacks to do this. But the rest of us can, at least, not dignify it with the phrase “humanitarian war.”
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