As the Obama administration contemplates military intervention in Syria, with heightened enthusiasm (or is it urgency?) following the disclosure of the Syrian government’s probable use of chemical weaponry against its own citizens, we the citizenry are cycling through the now well-trodden exchanges: How successful can military intervention be? (And what does that even mean?) Should we take a utilitarian outlook that privileges lives spared or money saved in the short run; or recognize the imperialist tradition and the long-term destabilizing influence our legacy of intervention has wrought? How carefully—and to whom—are the Western powers obligated to respect the various international bodies, laws, and traditions that have been set up to manage this kind of thing—particularly those in the region?
At our first meeting of the semester last night, the Leopard table—of which i was not a part—dove into this topic with some tensions of its own. I’ll leave it to them to share their opinions. But among the evidence that was invoked was one of a series of recent posts at the Monkey Cage, a widely renowned political science blog. Spurred on by developments in Syria, peace and international studies scholar Erica Chenoweth has been sharing excerpts from the recent research into the efficacy of military intervention in civil wars—and it has given me quite the pause.
For those who don’t know, i was vehemently anti-war during the lead-up to the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq, and even went to DC in 2005 for what had become an annual protest. Over time, however, i was disabused of some of the central reasons liberals gave for opposing the war, formulated a humanistic case of my own in favor, and became a cautious supporter—too late to impact the dialogue on Iraq, but just in time to make support for the intervention in Libya an easy choice for me. Lately my internal pendulum has been swinging back, and the studies shared at the Monkey Cage are hastening it along.
We seem to learn that military intervention on behalf of (or irrespective of) the prevailing government can amplify that government’s use of violence against its own people, but simultaneously that intervention that tips the balance toward either side incentivizes the other toward violence against civilians (with no mitigating influence attributable to democracy or international organizations detectable). Finally (so far), we are told that those civil wars in which foreign powers intervene tend to last longer.
Of course, every case of possible intervention is different. Still, helpful comparisons can be made, and factors that tend to favor “successful” interventions can be identified and promoted. And my reading of the situation in Syria, and of the United States’ and its allies’ outlook on it, doesn’t look promising in these terms.
Now, i am not any sort of political science enthusiast or foreign policy wonk. I really don’t know what i’m talking about here—but, again as an informed citizenry, we are obligated to each other to understand issues as best we can with the information available to us, express our opinions (with tentativeness proportionate to our uncertainty), and update them as better information and new considerations come our way. So, if you have strong and informed opinions, if you take considerations i haven’t laid out into account, and if you have evidence that can help me and others better situate ourselves on these topics, please share!