As the civil war in Syria drags on and extremists kill and pillage in northern Mali, one would expect regular and loud cries for the United States to do something to protect innocents. We are now in the fifth year of a Democratic administration, which in theory should be more receptive to this line of thinking. Yet there is little such talk. Where have all the liberal interventionists gone? Have they reformed? Are they in intellectual exile?
A recent lecture by David L. Phillips, a former Clinton administration official, is instructive. A member in good standing of the liberal-interventionist camp, Phillips had been closely involved in shaping U.S. policy toward the Balkans during that period, and delved into lessons he had learned from America’s handling of the Kosovo affair with the aim of applying them to present crises.
The lessons were rather radical. Among them was that when democratic aspirations are being suppressed and human rights are being violated, political violence can be legitimate. Phillips flirted with applying this label to the Kosovo Liberation Army, which the United States had nearly branded a terrorist group, and which was implicated in a range of abuses. Yet while the KLA could engage in terrorism and still be legitimate, in his view atrocities by the Serbian government deprived it of its legitimacy, making way for the involvement of international actors.
Another lesson was on the role of international law in governing intervention. Phillips interpreted the UN Charter as an intervention-friendly document, suggesting that it allows for the UN Security Council to become involved in the domestic affairs of states, even though this is explicitly prohibited in Chapter I.
However, the Security Council’s approval, he suggested, is not vital when launching interventions. Other multilateral institutions like NATO can come into play when the UNSC fails to fulfill its obligations—for example, when states like Russia and China begin to play a blocking role. He glossed over the potential risks of acting over the objections of a great power with interests in the area—there was, for instance, a famous confrontation between British and Russian troops at the airport in Pristina that could have turned into a major international incident had cooler heads not prevailed.
Taken together, the lessons added up to a deeply revisionist foreign policy, one where the United States readily becomes entangled the domestic affairs of other states, one that would be a threat to many autocracies with which Washington does not presently have bad relations, and one which could lead U.S. rivals—Russia and China—to increase resistance in order to protect their own interests. It is difficult to argue that the gains of such a policy are worth these risks—in the case of Kosovo, American security does not hinge on precisely where the borders are drawn in the Balkans, or on the domestic behavior of loathsome but globally insignificant figures like Milosevic. Yet this is the argument the liberal interventionists imply by their policy recommendations.
It was thus quite surprising, after such radical lessons learned, to hear how Phillips proposed we apply these lessons to the case of Syria. He suggested that the U.S. must only respond when it has interests at stake, and defined these interests as the prevention of the spread or use of weapons of mass destruction by the al-Assad government. Nothing of the sort had come up in relation to the Serbs and Kosovo, yet the intervention there was sustained and international; the urgency of bypassing an again-deadlocked UNSC and using other institutions was not addressed. In fact, he would state the case against intervention in Syria rather well.