From Henry Kissinger, the New Atlanticist: This form of humanitarian intervention distinguishes itself from traditional foreign policy by eschewing appeals to national interest or balance of power — rejected as lacking a moral dimension. It justifies itself not by overcoming a strategic threat but by removing conditions deemed a violation of universal principles of governance.
If adopted as a principle of foreign policy, this form of intervention raises broader questions for U.S. strategy. Does America consider itself obliged to support every popular uprising against any non-democratic government, including those heretofore considered important in sustaining the international system? Is, for example, Saudi Arabia an ally only until public demonstrations develop on its territory? Are we prepared to concede to other states the right to intervene elsewhere on behalf of coreligionists or ethnic kin?
At the same time, traditional strategic imperatives have not disappeared. Regime change, almost by definition, generates an imperative for nation-building. Failing that, the international order itself begins to disintegrate. Blank spaces denoting lawlessness may come to dominate the map, as has already occurred in Yemen, Somalia, northern Mali, Libya and northwestern Pakistan, and may yet happen in Syria.
The collapse of the state may turn its territory into a base for terrorism or arms supply against neighbors who, in the absence of any central authority, will have no means to counteract them.
In Syria, calls for humanitarian and strategic intervention merge. At the heart of the Muslim world, Syria has, under Bashar al-Assad, assisted Iran’s strategy in the Levant and Mediterranean. It supported Hamas, which rejects the Israeli state, and Hezbollah, which undermines Lebanon’s cohesion. The United States has strategic as well as humanitarian reasons to favor the fall of Assad and to encourage international diplomacy to that end. On the other hand, not every strategic interest rises to a cause for war; were it otherwise, no room would be left for diplomacy.
As military force is considered, several underlying issues must be addressed: While the United States accelerates withdrawals from military interventions in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, how can a new military commitment in the same region be justified, particularly one likely to face similar challenges? Does the new approach — less explicitly strategic and military, and geared more toward diplomatic and moral issues — solve the dilemmas that plagued earlier efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan, which ended in withdrawal and a divided America? Or does it compound the difficulty by staking U.S. prestige and morale on domestic outcomes that America has even fewer means and less leverage to shape? Who replaces the ousted leadership, and what do we know about it? Will the outcome improve the human condition and the security situation? Or do we risk repeating the experience with the Taliban, armed by America to fight the Soviet invader but then turned into a security challenge to us? . . .
Military intervention, humanitarian or strategic, has two prerequisites: First, a consensus on governance after the overthrow of the status quo is critical. If the objective is confined to deposing a specific ruler, a new civil war could follow in the resulting vacuum, as armed groups contest the succession, and outside countries choose different sides. Second, the political objective must be explicit and achievable in a domestically sustainable time period. I doubt that the Syrian issue meets these tests. We cannot afford to be driven from expedient to expedient into undefined military involvement in a conflict taking on an increasingly sectarian character. In reacting to one human tragedy, we must be careful not to facilitate another. In the absence of a clearly articulated strategic concept, a world order that erodes borders and merges international and civil wars can never catch its breath. A sense of nuance is needed to give perspective to the proclamation of absolutes. This is a nonpartisan issue, and it should be treated in that manner in the national debate we are entering.
Dr. Henry Kissinger is a member of the Atlantic Council Board of Directors. He served as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under Presidents Nixon and Ford. This essay was previously published in the Washington Post. Photo Credit: AP Photo