When the sordid Sergey Lavrov demanded to know “the endgame” of the Security Council’s attempt to interfere with Bashar Assad’s atrocities against his people, Hillary Clinton replied that “the endgame in the absence of us acting together as the international community, I fear, is civil war.” According to many press accounts, there is already a civil war in Syria. Lavrov later remarked about the Security Council resolution that he and his Chinese colleague had villainously gutted and then scuttled that it would have meant “taking sides in a civil war.” In Washington, “Syria experts” told The New York Times that the absence of unified international action at the United Nations might “provid[e] a recipe for all-out civil war,” and that the arming of the Syrian opposition “could lead to civil war.” It is important to note, in the light of all this, that there are things more dire than civil war—the massacre of a population by a government, for example. If a civil war is taking place in Syria, then a substantial part of the Syrian population is opposed to the Syrian regime, and Assad’s interpretation of the freedom movement as a terrorist conspiracy hatched by Syria’s enemies is exposed as a lie. And if a civil war is taking place in Syria, it is a sign of the moral and psychological soundness of the Syrian resistance, which has recognized that there are types of violence against which non-violence will avail nothing. Their peaceful demonstrations were met by wanton force, and it is proper that they should defend themselves and their better conception of their country.
Civil wars are regular crucibles in the formation of nations, which sooner or later must decide how they wish to be governed and why. (Our civil war was the deferred war of our constitution.) Of course the civil war in Syria is also a tribal war, but the blame for the ethnic explosiveness of Syria rests with its dictator, who rules tribally. As for Lavrov’s warning about taking sides in a civil war, it is a vile hypocrisy. His government has already taken sides in this civil war, along with the government of Iran. Outside powers have already intervened in Syria, and on the side of the killers. It is only the civilians in the streets who are friendless.
THE ANXIETY ABOUT civil war is not the only fallacy that mars the discussion of what must be done in and for Syria. There is also the view that the failure at the Security Council was, as Clinton said, “tragic.” A sense of tragedy is not what is needed now. The indifference of Russia and China to human rights and the moral analysis of state policy is no surprise.
We must be clear about what an international consensus establishes and what it does not. It was useful that the Security Council and the Arab League and certain Arab states endorsed military action against Qaddafi in Libya, but the justice of the Libyan operation was not proved by its popularity. The whole world may support something wrong. And even if the Western powers had chosen to go it alone in Libya, they would have been right. The Libyan precedent may have an unfortunate consequence for the consideration of intervention in moral emergencies, rather like the precedent of the first Gulf war: it confers upon “the international community” more authority than it deserves, and by creating an unrealistic expectation of broad unanimity about the extreme cruelties of certain regimes it makes action by limited coalitions and alliances, not to mention unilateral action by (perish the thought!) the United States, seem unlikely and even illegitimate.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.
The above article will be published in The New Republic Magazine’s issue of March 1st, 2012 and is available at tnr.com.