War will not win democracy

Michael Walzer in conversation with Adam Puchejda · 3 November 2015

Adam Puchejda: The conflict in Syria has been going on for almost four years now and it does not seem to be close to a resolution. In fact, it is getting worse, as new players – like Russia – become engaged. In your opinion, what can we do about Syria? Should we intervene? Or, on the contrary, back Russia, even though we know that Putin supports Assad? Or maybe it is too late to do any of these things and we can only – as you once put it – “watch and be shocked” as things carry on regardless?

Michael Walzer: This is a story which started long before today. From the outset, I did not believe and I do not believe today that our friends in Syria – liberal, democratic, secular Syrians – have the capacity to mobilize followers and win the conflict. I thought from the beginning, as in Egypt, that the people we think of as the “good guys” are very brave, but not very strong. Liberal democrats are not thick on the ground in Syria. The people we would like to support probably cannot win, even with our support, unless it took the form of what the Americans call “boots on the ground”. So the alternatives we face are all unattractive. I wrote at one point that there are Americans, mostly on the right, accusing Obama of dithering over what to do, but it seemed to me that dithering was a rational response to the situation.

But don’t you think that the strategy of dithering, as you put it, has not worked out? The politics of the West toward Syria have been extremely hands-off for years and now the situation appears to be not only intolerable, but intractable and almost impossible to govern.

That is true, but it is not difficult to explain why in the US and possibly also in Europe there was great reluctance to engage. After all, we did not do well in either Afghanistan or Iraq, so we didn’t have the stomach for another intervention. And what we did in Iraq was a catastrophe. Basically, we handed Baghdad to the Shiites and by doing that probably set off a civil war in the Islamic world that is going to go on for a long time and in which it is very difficult for us to intervene. And now, with Russian engagement, what is the most frightening is that they seem to have lined up with the Shiites – Iran, Assad, Hezbollah – and we seem to have lined up with the Sunnis. However, lining up with the Sunnis has this one embarrassing aspect – ISIS is a Sunni organization, whose intellectual background is in Saudi Arabia, which is supposedly one of our allies! So, for most Americans the unwillingness to go into Syria is because what we have created looks like one big mess, and nobody is ready to do anything like that again.

I agree, but even Barack Obama, who moved out almost all of the American troops from Iraq, declared that there is a red line drawn in the Syrian conflict, which is the use of chemical weapons. But when Assad used them, still nothing happened.  

Yes, that was a blunder. It wasn’t wrong to say that there was a red line, but it was wrong not to enforce the red line. There should have been a strong military response. I do not know why Obama pulled back on that one, I do not know how his mind works, but this was a very big mistake. Again, I do not believe that even if there had been a strong response, the good guys would have been able to rally on the battlefield, where they were already losing people to Al-Nusra and different Muslim groups.

It was possible to establish a no-fly zone.

Establishing a no-fly zone was really a humanitarian argument, because it wouldn’t affect the fighting going on in other zones unless we really went after the Syrian air force, which I suppose, we could have done.

And again the West didn’t do anything.

Unfortunately, it didn’t.

But why? When people look for reasons they start to think that maybe Russians are right in their critique of the West? They confront the US and NATO by saying that even though the Americans and the Europeans are all talk about human rights, they don’t really care about the bloodshed in Syria, as long as they it cannot be used it in their own political power games. So it is not about containing Russia, which has suddenly become an aggressor defending the legitimate Syrian government, they say, but about another imperial Western crusade.

First of all, of course, there are no pure moral motives in politics, certainly not in international politics, and even in cases of humanitarian intervention there have always been mixed motives. So it is true that there were times that we have not intervened when we should have, as in the case of Rwanda, for example, perhaps because we had no significant interest there. I think that Kosovo was perhaps a rare case of actual humanitarian intervention without any hidden agenda. I believe that the inspiration for this intervention was what happened in Srebrenica, the humiliation, the sense of shame, which does not often figure in politics. There was a genuine sense that we could not sit and watch another massacre of that kind. But this was not well understood.

I was visiting the Gramsci Institute in Torino during the NATO bombing of Serbia. Now this was a war supported by the center-Left, the Labour Party, the French Socialists, the German Social-Democrats and Greens, the Italian Party of the Democratic Left and others. It was the war of the near-Left opposed by the far-Left. The Refoundation Communists in the Gramsci Institute were very much opposed to the war and insisted that it was an imperialist war, but they had great difficulty figuring out what the imperial interest was and they came up with some very odd arguments. They thought that this was an approach to the Black Sea, that NATO wanted to take the Black Sea, or that maybe oil had been discovered in Macedonia, etc. So it was a similar argument to the one you are quoting.

Secondly, it is implied that if you decide to intervene, when it is the state, the regime that has created the humanitarian crisis, it is very likely to end in an overthrow of that regime. If we had gone to Rwanda, the only possible way to end the killing would have been to overthrow the Hutu regime. And going back to our present situation in Syria or Libya, we need to understand that in the Arab world today if you overthrow a dictator, you are unlikely to get a liberal democracy, but instead create a civil war between Muslim groups. So you overthrow Saddam and you get what we see in Iraq today. You overthrow Gaddafi and you get rival militias which have a regional, but also a religious basis. And if you try to overthrow Assad, you will get anarchy.

So maybe Russians are right when they suggest that we should not overthrow tyrants, even the bloodiest ones?

Maybe. Maybe we shouldn’t try to overthrow tyrants, but once a civil war has begun, we can’t support them. Maybe the biggest mistake for the US was to be too eager to say “Mubarak must go” or “Assad must go”. Maybe the development of Arab democracy is a very long process. Maybe we could help in many ways by working within the civil society of these states, as far as there is space for a civil society, but we shouldn’t be militarily engaged at all. The first thing I wrote when the Arab Spring began was a piece on the Dissent website, in which I said that the likely outcome of the Arab Spring in Egypt was a conflict between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. So what do you do in a situation like that? We were too quick to welcome the Muslim Brotherhood, and now we are too quick to defend the military dictatorship.

Do you mean to say that we were naive? Or maybe not only naive, but worse, reckless, because we have inspired those movements with the values of the free world as we understand it – free speech, women rights, democracy?

I am not sure how large the role of Western inspiration was, but yes, where else could it come from? It is true that the Facebook kids in Egypt, Libya, Syria, etc. were inspired by Western models of politics. The inspiration comes from what the West is. But these people in the Arab world have to understand that we cannot commit ourselves to military engagement on behalf of rebels until they prove their own capacity to fight and win.

There was a magazine published in 1840s and 1850s in the US called “The Democratic Review”. They were Jacksonian democrats, they called themselves radical democrats, and they welcomed the revolutions of 1848 and debated about intervention. They said back then: Look, the American Revolution would have never succeeded without the help of the French navy, and maybe now we owe our democratic comrades in Europe the same thing? So this is a very old debate, but their model was the French intervention in the 1780s. Once George Washington had proved that he could sustain a military struggle for seven years, then the French help was legitimate, but until there is evidence of that sort, it doesn’t make sense to intervene on behalf of people who cannot win unless your intervention is heavier and heavier. In Libya you could see what was happening, the rebel forces moving west along the coast, they literally could not advance a foot, an inch, unless we bombed and bombed right in front of them, and that’s the way they moved westward – and that is not viable.

But isn’t this part of our responsibility? We so often say, you can have democracy, just overthrow your own dictator, but later we just watch the news. Syrians wanted to overthrow Assad, so they started marches, manifestations, and the civil war broke out, but we didn’t do anything to help them. If we are not going to act, maybe we should say right from the beginning that we are not going to do much.

We should not be actively encouraging uprisings. The elder George Bush in Iraq, after the first Gulf War, actively encouraged Iraqis to rebel, and there were rebellions, the Shia Arabs and the Kurds, and we stood and watched the brutal repressions. We should have not done that. We promoted rebellions that we then failed to support, and that certainly is a crime. But I think what we have to be saying to liberal democrats in the Arab world is: this has to be your fight, and you have to create among your own people a social basis for this kind of politics. And if you can’t do it, we can’t do it for you. We should be saying that very, very clearly.

In one of your articles you go even further by stating that countries like Syria and Libya should not be sovereign and independent, but on the contrary should be put under some kind of UN trusteeship.

Once a state fails, as a number of African states have failed, once there is no longer a government that can defend the physical safety of its people, and there is an ongoing civil war, or worse than a civil war, because we usually think of the civil war (like the American Civil War) where there are two sides, but here you have civil wars, where you have 6 or 8 sides. It is more like anarchy. So once that happens, the ideal solution would be the imposition of the UN regime, by force. You establish some kind of occupying power with a mandate that would first guarantee the physical safety of the people and than begin the process of political reconstruction with the goal of leaving the country as soon as there is an internal regime that has enough legitimacy to sustain itself.

It can sometimes take 20, 30 years, or even more.

The League of Nations trusteeships system was designed to be a long term thing. Of course, this was and remains a utopian solution. There is no capacity in the UN today to do this, but it seems to me that once you have the radical breakdown of a political system, whether it happens because of us or for other reasons entirely, then the first goal of the international community has to be to save lives. And the best way to save lives is to impose a cease-fire and then some kind of military occupation until you can hand over power to a local regime that has legitimacy. The accusation against the League of Nations system of trusteeships was that it was another version of colonial or imperial rule, but I do not think that it has to be that, at least in my utopian version. It isn’t that, because there would be a guarantee that this is a temporary intervention, one that is probably costly rather than beneficial to the trustee.

But probing your argument further, I am wondering whether at the heart of this idea there isn’t some kind of negative politics, meaning that we want our freedoms to be protected, we want the world we live in to be safe, and if the countries outside our world are not ready to live our way of life, we will create some kind of a shield over them and wait until they are ready. But this means also that there is no hope for these people. We are putting them behind a wall and trying to forget about their existence. The liberal secular world is not able to give them any promise of a better life. It is no wonder then that they arrive in the hands of religious sectarian groups, which offer them instant salvation.

This is another aspect of the decline of the West.

Some kind of liberalism of fear, but without the positive side of it. We do not have any message of hope and courage that we could offer to those people.

Right. One of the things which was clearest in the Syrian conflict was that there was no readiness anywhere in the West to create an international brigade to go and fight for Syrian democracy, whereas in the Islamic world there was such an entity. In fact, ISIS is an international brigade, its fighters are recruited from 20-30 countries, much like the International Brigades that went to Spain in the 1930s. So we can’t do that and they can do that. On the other hand, if you think about groups like Human Rights Watch or Doctors Without Borders, aid organizations, or any of the NGOs that are working in places like Syria, you can see a liberal version, not a Leftist version, of the International Brigades for our times. Doctors Without Borders claims to be neutral, they take care of the wounded of every sort, but they are there in defense of life, which makes them often oppositional to the murderers. The same goes for groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which are actively working against tyrannical regimes. But they are not like the old communist or socialist parties; they cannot mobilize large numbers of people and send them into a foreign military struggle.

Do you want to say that the positive message that we have to offer, our ideology for a modern world, is some kind of Gandhi-esque politics of non-intervention? I am afraid that is not very reassuring.

It’s a message of human rights but without war, we do not go to war for human rights. We do everything short of war. I defended the no-fly zone over Kurdistan and I would have expanded it. This was the use of force just short of war. We were using force every week for ten years over Northern Iraq, which was the right thing to do; it made Kurdish democracy, or some near-democracy possible. But there were also Kurds on the ground ready to fight. So there are two wings – so to say – one is the new International Brigades like the Médicines Sans Frontièrs and Amnesty International, and the other is limited intervention when there is a need for it.

This would be the new idea for resolving conflicts in the world?

It may not be enough, but these are the two things that we ought to be supporting. Strong civil society response and a governmental response short of war, on behalf of rebels who have proven their readiness to fight and their capacity to fight. Now, at the UN I would work toward something much, much stronger, which would be some kind of UN global police force, that could intervene in a very strong way in places like Rwanda or Syria, and just say we’re going to come and we’re going to shoot anybody who is shooting. We want a cease-fire, we declare a unilateral, UN sponsored cease-fire and we will fire at anybody who doesn’t cease firing. But I would not support a unilateral American or NATO response of that sort, that has to come from a united, global community.

I understand, but to create this kind of united force is almost impossible. Maybe it would be better for the world if the US were its policeman?

If we did the right things in the right places, where we should have done them, I would support that. If we had done better in Afghanistan and won, then yes. If we, with allies from Europe, had intervened in Rwanda, the ideal force in Rwanda should have been the former imperial powers, not the US, then yes. If it had been done in Darfur, and not in Iraq, because in Iraq in 2003 there was no massacre going on and there was no internal rebellion, then yes. So I guess I would favor a role of that sort, if I could be sure we would always do it in the right way at the right time. But then you have the Russian critique, we don’t do it in the right way at the right time, we do it sometimes, and not other times, or we do it badly. And it’s not always us. Many Iraqis say that although the American occupation was brainless, the Americans gave the Iraqis a chance to create a decent political regime, and chiefly because of the leaders of the Shia, of the competing Shia groups, they failed miserably to do it, and the failure was theirs.

But the general rule has to be that it’s not a good idea to support the overthrow of dictators by a set of “good guys” who do not have long-term capacity to take control and rule a given country. I think we must not be drawn into that kind of politics. You can stop a massacre, you can stop the use of poison gas, you can intervene decisively in moments like that, but you cannot be responsible for creating democratic polities in places where the social, cultural basis for democracy doesn’t exist.