Current Events

We Should Not Intervene in Syria

As some of you may know, I have long argued that humanitarian intervention is morally and legally permissible (see here).  I stand by those arguments, and that is why I firmly believe that we should not intervene in Syria. I have several reasons, but two are prominent.

1) A justified intervention must be on behalf of those who have a just cause. In Syria, the available evidence shows that neither side has a just cause. The government is your standard Middle Eastern oppressor, while the rebels are dominated by Al Qaeda and similar sinister characters.

2) It is unjust for our government to tax American citizens to try to help people who do not want to be helped and who, even after they have been helped, instead of thanking us for liberating them, they viciously turn against us for domestic political gain or some other spurious motive. Iraq and Afghanistan are cases in point. The U.S. and their allies helped them get rid of their tyrants, only to see the new governments posture about how bad Americans are. When this happens, our response should be simple and direct: we will leave you alone to lead your miserable lives. And if you dare attack us, we will kill you or bring you to justice.

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    The burden of proof for any intervention should be enormous. In my opinon it would fail under most scenarios.

  • matt b

    There’s very few cases in which there are clear good guys and bad guys. Was it unjust to tax Americans to fund the mujahedeen’s campaign against the Soviets? I don’t think there were many liberal minded people there. Assad is a brutal autocrat who has slaughtered over 90 thousand people, aids Hamas and Hezbollah, and is allied with Iran, our number one enemy in the region. There would be major humanitarian benefits in setting up a no fly zone and using our air power to take out government targets and a major strategic benefit in riding ourselves of a state sponsor of terror and Iranian ally. I’d rather have us deal with an opposition that is not unalloyed in its liberalism than a regime that is utterly illiberal and that will never co-operate with us in making Syria more peaceful, secular, democratic, liberal, and market oriented.

    • j r

      Iran, our number one enemy in the region

      Says who? I’m no fan of the mullahs that control Iran and I’m not happy to see them get nukes, but I’m not sure why I should dislike that regime more than any number of other crappy governments around the world. As for the people of Iran, I don’t even come close to considering them an “enemy.” I’m really not even sure what meaning that word has in the way that you’re using it.

      • matt b

        I never said the people of Iran were in anyway our enemy just to be clear. The difference between the mullahs and other “crappy government” are many. First of all, they have the blood of hundreds of American soldiers on their hands from various terrorist attacks they funded against our military throughout the years. They fund Hamas and Hezbollah, two genocidal terrorist organizations who play a big role in making Israeli-Palestinian peace impossible. They came into being on the slogan of “death to America” and “death to Israel” and we have every reason and justification to work against their acquisition of nuclear weaponry because of their statements and their actions. The fact that ending this regime would also lead to the liberation of women, gays, religious minorities, and all other Iranians is more than a small side benefit.

        • j_m_h

          CNN was showing scenes from Iran in the days just befoe the election. I was surprised at the number of women dressed in western clothes in Tehran. While I’m not saying the government of Iran or even a number of Iranians want to be my friend, I suspect that the story we get in the USA is biased.

          • matt b

            Biased in what way? Are you suggesting they don’t really kill gay people or fund terrorism worldwide or aren’t really seeking nukes?

          • j_m_h

            The impression I get is that Iran is suppose to be a completely totalitarian, Islamic country run but Islamic fundamentalists who hate everything western.

            The pictures I saw suggested a large number — couldn’t tell if it was a large minority or a small majority — people seemed to look largely like they could have been walking around NY, LA, DC. London, Frankfurt, Paris, Madrid or Moscow.

            That is not the picture I have in my mind when reading the USA version of what’s going on in Iran.

            I’m not disputing there’s a serious problem that exists both between Iran and the USA governments and between middle eastern countries and the west, with the USA acting as the poster child/leader or the group. As Damien mentions, there is some history here that needs to be taken into account.

            Within that context I really don’t have a hard time seeing that Iran and other middle eastern countries wouldn’t see a number of the USA’s actions as those of terrorism — or at the very lest the modern version of gunboat diplomacy. The idea that they might want a similar level of power to fight back seems unsurprising.

            So, yes we’re getting biased versions of how things and that will color how one interprets any of the facts, such as Iran want nuclear weapons versus wanting nuclear energy or Iran wants all “Americans” dead. Or if Islam takes over we will live by archaic rules and everything western will be stomped out.

          • Michael Philip

            Their leadership is just a pack of savages, who hate western values, especially liberty. All their actions, starting with their brutal oppression of their own people, to their support of Hezbollah, to their attempts to silence dissent all the way to London (does the name Salman Rushdie mean anything to you?) and Copenhagen and many more, prove that. They’re emboldened by general weakness, however it manifests itself: it’s everything from our unwillingness to do what’s necessary, to our willingness to waste resources where it isn’t necessary.

        • Damien S.

          “death to America” is partly because we overthrew their elected government in 1953, and supported a dictator and his secret police until the Revolution.

          It’s better to be a woman or minority in Iran than in Saudi Arabia, our beloved ally. It was better to be a woman in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, too.

          • matt b

            That’s actually false. The mullahs hated that government because it was far too secular for its taste. They embraced death to America as a slogan because they view us as heathens. And the government we overthrew was quite authoritarian at the time that we orchestrated its downfall. It was replaced by a brutal dictator no doubt but let’s not pretend that what existed before it was particularly liberal.

            I’m not sure who considers SA a “beloved ally” except for a few former ambassadors who consider apologizing for its savagery the cost of living a millionaire’s life. Given that Hussein murdered hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, I’m guessing it wasn’t better to be those women. At least now there is a chance for liberalism to take hold over time.

          • j r

            This sort of simplistic understanding of a very complicated region with a very complicated history is a pretty good argument for maximizing caution when considering intervention.

          • matt b

            What is “simplistic” about it? What nuances and subtleties am I missing? I find this word comes up again and again when I talk to libertarians about foreign policy. For them, property rights are clear are clear yet when you say something that should be totally uncontroversial like “The Iranian government is wicked and we have every reason to want to rid the world of it” the word “simplistic” comes up.

          • Mike

            Please name a national government somewhere in the world that is not wicked? You could probably make a convincing case for Iceland, or Tuvalu maybe.

            Then explain exactly why Iran is so much worse than Saudi Arabia which also funds terrorism and kills gay people.

            Or worse than the US which props up brutal totalitarian regimes (when it suits US goals, of course), bombs civilians in foreign countries, and imprisons a vastly disproportionate proportion of racial minorities while offering no meaningful democratic choice about these policies. And has nukes.

            I’m sure you can make a case that on many dimensions Iran is “worse”. Or the Syrian government worse than (some of) the (incredibly varied and in some cases frankly terrifying) Syrian rebels. But enough to justify aggression with unpredictable consequences? Do not be surprised if you fail to convince thoughtful people, especially those not from the US.

          • Damien S.

            More liberal than mullah Iran. Probably more liberal than the Shah in not having secret police torturing people, not to mention elections, even if the Shah oversaw some social liberalization. As for the mullahs, they may have hated that government, but they’d also have hated the Shah — and common Iranians would also remember our government’s actions.

            We sell lots of weapons to Saudi Arabia, if not outright military aid.

            Iraqi women not murdered — most of them — and Iranian women, had/have more education, freedom and power than Saudi women. Iranian women have to cover up; they’re also voters, doctors, professors, and parliamentarians. Vs. inability to drive and being burnt alive because the morality things won’t let schoolgirls be rescued. If we cared about human rights it’d be Saudi Arabia under sanctions, not Iran.

          • Michael Philip

            “We sell lots of weapons to Saudi Arabia, if not outright military aid. If we cared about human rights it’d be Saudi Arabia under sanctions, not Iran.”

            If we cared about our national interests Saudia Arabia wouldn’t be our ally but Iran has proven itself to be a danger to the civilized world again and again for decades.

          • j r

            It is funny how hollow these neocon talking points sounds so hollow after the events of the past ten years. “Moral clarity?” I want to engage, but I have a hard time even taking it seriously.

          • Michael Philip

            If the 1979 Iranian revolution had resulted in a civilized modern state instead of a wild-eyed theocracy which is the world’s foremost state sponsor of terror since that year then they wouldn’t be facing so much opposition today. The present attitude of the U.S. toward Iran is justified by Iran’s recent and current behavior on the blowback theory. Iran has no justification to keep nursing along the America hate since 1979. Compared with American diplomatic relations with Vietnam today which was unified only in 1975, the Iranian situation is not natural or to be expected

  • Both of these reasons seem pretty problematic to me; given that your topic is humanitarian intervention, it’s odd that you say in your first reason that no one presents us with a just cause and then that your two sides are the government and the rebels. But a humanitarian intervention might be carried out on behalf of the people who are suffering at the hands of both the government and the rebels. The second reason just has all sorts of really unpleasant undertones that are reminiscent of a “leave those savages to tear one another apart since they won’t accept our civilizing mission” kind of mentality; perhaps that wasn’t your intent, but that’s very much how it comes across to this reader.

    • Fernando Teson

      I did not use the words “savage” or “civilizing mission”.
      If the question is whether Western institutions are better than whatever they have in Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen, my answer is yes. If the question is whether those societies would do well in adopting pro-freedom, pro-market institutions, the answer is, again, yes. If these statements offend some readers’ politically-correct sensibilities, that is their problem, not mine.

      • Barry_D

        Fernando, if the question was ‘should we airdrop ‘Western institutions’ on Syria’, then I’d vote ‘yes’.

        That’s not the question.

        • j_m_h

          Nor is it possible — but I don’t think that was quite was Fernando was saying in his answer.

  • j_m_h

    Following other comments (Ari) I think we need to understand what you’re thinking a bit more clearly, Fernando.

    What is “humanitarian intervention”? Only providing humanitarian aide — medicine, helping the refugees get out of the war zones, providing refugee camps…. Or, are we talking about forcefully joining in the fight to protect some innocents that are either fighting to protect themselves or are caught in the cross fire.

    I agree that we should not get involved just everywhere and that any intervention needs to be very carefully considered — I’m just not sure exactly what the criteria should be. Purely defensive? Purely humanitarian? Political (probably not for me but it’s hard to separate that form a number of other criteria), other than perhaps contractual?

    • Fernando Teson

      JMH: In the literature, “humanitarian intervention” is a term of art that denotes military intervention. Aid is a different story. As you say, the criteria for the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention are many and complex, and are exhaustively examined in the relevant literature. The bottom-line is that war, any war, is justified only in defense of persons. There is no other just cause for war. Yet, even if a government has a just cause, the intervention may be banned for other reasons –most commonly, because it would be disproportionate, or would be an unjust imposition on that government’s citizens. In Syria, my suspicion (but who really knows?) is that none of the different factions pursues a just cause. Assad doesn’t, for obvious reasons. The rebels don’t either, because although deposing Assad would be justified, they are likely bent on imposing their own unjust rule. All of these are empirical calls based on the available evidence. If someone has proof that the Syrian rebels are the modern equivalents of Jefferson and Madison, I’d like to see it.

      • j_m_h

        Thanks for clarifying the terminology.

        While I realize now that you’re speaking from a given literature and terminology I must say I question the euphemism. If we’re talking about going to war (either for one side or the other or even against both sides) let’s call it that. One reason I suggest that is that “going to war” will necessarily place a higher hurdle on making the decision. I realize that this comment will not change the terminology in the literature — or even in the general press — but I cannot help but think it emerged in order to sell the option to the public more easily.

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  • jtlevy

    “It is unjust for our government to tax American citizens to try to help people who do not want to be helped and who, even after they have been helped, instead of thanking us for liberating them, they viciously turn against us for domestic political gain or some other spurious motive. Iraq and Afghanistan are cases in point. The U.S. and their allies helped them get rid of their tyrants, only to see the new governments posture about how bad Americans are. When this happens, our response should be simple and direct: we will leave you alone to lead your miserable lives.”

    This seems to me like an awfully problematic way to gloss the history of those two interventions, neither of which had as its primary legitimating purpose a humanitarian intervention, and neither of which were carried on in some morally blameless “liberating” fashion by the US such that blame for subsequent tension should just be dumped on the local inhabitants leading their “miserable” lives and acting “viciously” or ungratefully.

    The Iraq War in particular was carried out so abominably by the US as to amount to a humanitarian catastrophe in its own right, and “thanking us for liberating them” would be a very strange response to it. The US assumed responsibility for the peace and order of Iraqis with the war and the disbanding of the army; and it failed utterly of that responsibility.

    • Fernando Teson

      Sure. Saddam Hussein was a wonderful ruler.

      • jtlevy

        That’s not even remotely implied by what I said. But If I stop you from being mugged by a genuinely malicious and evil mugger, and I’m so incompetent at the task that I end up saving your wallet but (good-heartedly!) costing you a few limbs, you don’t owe me gratitude, and you’re entirely right in criticizing me.

        Libertarians are supposed to be good at remembering that good motives on the part of government officials are not some magic excuse for terrible unintended outcomes and consequences. Do you think that, e.g., the people whose lives are ruined by the war on drugs owe *gratitude* for it just because many drugs are genuinely bad and the state is trying to prevent bad drugs from destroying lives?

        Your standard here really does seem to do away with American responsibility for consequences– no matter how disastrously the American state throws around its military force, as long as a tyrant got overthrown or killed that’s literally all that matters.

      • Mike

        Argument lost right there, Fernando. Get back to me after you’ve intervened everywhere else with a problematic ruler.

  • Damien S.

    “even after they have been helped, instead of thanking us for liberating
    them, they viciously turn against us for domestic political gain or some
    other spurious motive. Iraq and Afghanistan are cases in point. The
    U.S. and their allies helped them get rid of their tyrants”

    Man what.

    We invaded Afghanistan for revenge/retribution, then got distracted and didn’t put much effort in reconstruction, and still haven’t really “gotten rid” of the Taliban. We got distracted by invading Iraq on false pretences, and completely botched the post-invasion period there too, creating conditions ripe for violence and civil war. In both countries, many of the ‘insurgents’ are thought to be outsiders, come to make trouble.

    But sure, blame the people for not being suitably grateful for our bombs.


      Gee, why did you omit the rest of FT’s quote: “…only to see the new governments posture about how bad Americans are.” This seems like a clumsy attempt to distort what he actually says. He said nothing about the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, only their governments; a rather important distinction, no?

      The rest of your sloppy analysis is not responsive to the two points made by Fernando. But, if we were after “revenge/retribution” in Afghanistan, we would have been far better off nuking or carpet bombing the place, rather than overthrowing the Talliban government, and then relying largely on small-unit combat and drone strikes. Not to mention the many billions spent on trying to move the place out of the 7th century. Spending such sums seems to me a strange form of revenge. If you’ve got a spare billion or two lying around, please take revenge on me and send it my way.

      In Iraq, the Kurds are no longer subject to genocidal attack and chemical warfare, and are building the closest thing to a liberal democracy in the region, outside of Israel. The rest of the Iraqis have the opportunity to build something far superior to Saddam’s brutal dictatorship, and our last soldier has been withdrawn many months ago. It is perfectly possible to oppose the Iraq war without implausibly denying that any good has come of it.

      • matt b

        Very well argued Mark. There is a bizarre tendency on the part of many libertarians, though I know Damien does not consider himself to be a libertarian any longer, to, if you can pardon my French, shit on everything the US does while constantly explaining away the murderous actions of states like Iran as being understandable or not real at all but rather a product of US “neocon” propaganda. The embrace of radical blame America first websites like Anti War and the flirtation with far right isolationists like Pat Buchanan only serving as two pieces of evidence of this unfortunate tendency.


          Thanks. The tendency you identify is produced, I believe, by the compulsion to shoehorn messy facts into rigid and tight intellectual boxes. Rothbard claimed that all states are equally bad, and to make this absurd statement into something not laughably false on its face, one must exagerate our flaws and minimize the crimes of others.

          • matt b

            You got it.

        • j r

          Where is this libertarian defense of Iran of which you speak? I can’t say that I’ve seen it.

          • matt b

            I never said libertarians defended Iran. Where did you get that? I said explaining away as in “Oh yeah that’s bad but it’s the fault of the US or Israel somehow.”

  • Alberto

    I’m sorry but I don’t see how Iraq and Afghanistan “are cases in this point”, because let’s call things the way they are: WAR in Iraq, and WAR in Afghanistan.
    Don’t call it humanitarian intervention. That was a poor excuse. And even if humanitarian motives were what led the “intervention”, it was badly performed. That’s exactly why R2P now includes rebuilding after intervening. There is outstanding empirical evidence (and this is why “they viciously turn against us”) about how US couldn’t care less about rebuilding those nations destroyed by war.

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  • Marc Clair

    I responded to this over at my website. While I of course agree with a non-intervention stance in Syria, I find Teson’s reasoning troubling to say the least.

  • Jonathan Jaech

    Based on the comment thread, stating that state-enforced “humanitarian intervention is morally and legally permissible” on a libertarian website sure brings out the war-mongering statists. It’s like serving fine whiskey at an AA meeting. Highlighting the important truth that intervention is only moral when ALL those intervening or harmed by the intervention’s foreseeable consequences have voluntarily consented to the intervention, without coercion. Ergo, intervention by the State or any other entity that coerces participation is inherently immoral.

  • Ishmam Ahmed

    The Bleeding Heart Libertarians are becoming more right-wing by the day. That is such a shame.

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