“The system worked.” That’s how Leslie Gelb famously described U.S. policymaking during the Vietnam War. By this, Gelb meant not that the United States had waged an effective military campaign against its adversaries in Indochina (he believed quite the opposite, calling the war a “quagmire”), but that U.S. strategists had gotten the policy outcome that they wanted. That outcome was a war that was enormously costly and obviously unwinnable but which at least staved off a communist victory in the short-term. Gelb contended that America’s leaders never intended to win the war in Vietnam; they sent tens of thousands of soldiers to their deaths simply so that South Vietnam would not be lost on their watch.
Thirty years later, Samantha Power invoked the same phrase to describe U.S. inaction toward the Rwandan genocide. “The system worked,” she argued, in the sense that America’s policy of nonintervention was not an accident but a deliberate choice by those in power. Decisionmakers in Washington could have opted for an energetic response to the unfolding massacre of more than eight hundred thousand Rwandans if they had so desired. That the Clinton administration did not act was because stopping the atrocities was never a priority. Other policy goals were judged to matter more.
Today, it is fair to say that the system has worked in Syria. This time, however, the blame cannot be placed solely at the feet of faceless bureaucrats and timid politicians in the United States. It is the international system that is at fault.
For throughout seven and a half years of mass slaughter and unspeakable suffering in Syria—as of 2018, over five hundred thousand people have been killed and more than half of Syria’s prewar population has been displaced—the fundamental rules of international society have broadly operated as they are supposed to. What looks like unregulated awfulness is, at least in part, the mostly unsurprising product of an international system that has been designed to serve the interests of powerful states at the expense of the powerless.
International order is not usually regarded as a set of rules that enable the gross mistreatment of civilian populations. The conventional wisdom is that, ever since World War II (and especially after 1991), America and its allies have propagated a common international rulebook that, by and large, has made the world a better, more peaceable, and altogether more civilized place. For a long time, the fear was that authoritarian powers such as China and Russia would upend the liberal order in favor of something less humane. Since the election of Donald Trump, a more prominent worry is that America itself might be the one to tear the liberal rulebook to shreds.
Of course, there are those who argue that the rules-based order was never quite as rules-based or orderly as its proponents like to make out. There is a great deal of truth to these claims. But it would be wrong to dismiss the existence of a rules-based international order altogether. Simply put, there are certain norms and values that the world’s most powerful governments can be observed to hold dear, and which do appear to animate their foreign policies. It is just that these rules do not always privilege the lives and dignity of ordinary people. This dark underbelly of international order has been painfully conspicuous in the case of Syria.
The Syrian Civil War began in March 2011. Within months, regional governments were funding and arming rival groups. Some called for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, arguing that peace could not be achieved unless the dictator stepped down.
It would be three years, however, before the world’s leading powers saw fit to become involved as active participants in the conflict. In that time, tens of thousands of Syrians were killed by forces loyal to Assad, anti-government rebels, and because of disease and starvation. Yet there was no serious discussion of a military or even a diplomatic intervention to force a ceasefire upon the warring parties. If sovereignty was supposed to impose a “responsibility to protect” upon the Assad regime, it did not—and the international community did not insist upon it .
Indeed, instead of cooperating to impose a pause in hostilities, external powers ramped up their efforts to supply arms and equipment, train local fighters, and share intelligence—all but ensuring that the war would continue to rage. For the outside world, ensuring that the “right side” won in Syria was more important than bringing about a cessation of hostilities. It still is .
The first signs that the United States might use its own firepower in Syria came in August 2013, when Assad’s forces used chemical weapons in rebel-held areas of Damascus. The use of such weapons crossed the so-called “ red line ” set by President Barack Obama, who duly began to plan for a limited military strike to punish the Syrian government for its crimes. But the intervention never came. Obama could not even muster political support (at home or abroad) for what John Kerry called an “ unbelievably small ” strike against Assad.