Over the weekend, once again, global elites decided Syria was an unfolding disaster that needed to be stopped. Navi Pillay, the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights, joined a chorus of American and European pundits calling upon the international community to stop the violence. Pillay condemned the ongoing crackdown as “crimes against humanity” and said “the perpetrators must be held to account.”
What that “account” is remains uncertain. The west used up any political capital that might have convinced Moscow and Beijing to permit action last year when it violated the U.N. Security Council Resolution in toppling the Gaddafi regime in Libya. There is the possibility of limited retaliatory strikes against the Assad regime, though that would carry huge geopolitical risks and might not deter wider conflict. There is also the possibility of simply discarding the Security Council vote and assuming that a majority is sufficient legitimacy for action, though that carries the risk of working against a future American veto (say, over condemning Israel’s policies toward Palestine).
There is the possibility, too, of opting instead to publicly “shame” Russian and Chinese diplomats and officials every time they appear publicly — confronting them with images of the slaughter in Homs and elsewhere every single time they appear in public, at an official event, or at diplomatic meetings. But confronting Russia and China over the crisis in Syria would probably elicit a very discomforting response: Bahrain.
Last year, the security forces of U.S.-allied Bahrain launched a surprise nighttime attack on the protesters peacefully occupying the central square of the capital city, Manama. In the ensuing melee, the government of Bahrain killed dozens of protesters, tortured more to death, and attacked hospitals that treated the wounded. In other words, the government of Bahrain broke just about every convention that governs the acceptable conduct of security forces, and clearly committed crimes against humanity in targeting medical personnel.
Yet, as Forbes’ Mark Adomanis notes, these actions were largely met with indifference, including from the U.S. government. No outcry over the torture and murder, no celebrities or celebrity-columnists taking to the Internet or the TV demanding action in response. No official condemnation of the violence by the U.S. government. Nothing.
The U.S. silence on Bahrain’s crackdown and its saber rattling in Syria reveals a fundamental hypocrisy in the methods and guidelines of intervention that have yet to be addressed. (One can make a similar argument about Egypt, where the military government’s crackdown enjoyed tacit support from the U.S. until Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s son was caught in their dragnet against U.S. NGOs). But there are other places where the silence of the global elite is especially damning.
The roiling dispute over the fate of South Sudan, lauded by human rights and other activists as a victory when the small country was established last year, has created unspeakable misery. The conflict is not just affecting the Sudanese, either — Chinese oil workers have gotten caught up in the conflict as well. It is inexplicable that the international community should clamor for intervention in Syria but not to protect civilians in South Sudan.
Similarly, the last 11 years of unspeakable bloodshed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has inspired… well, not all that much, really. There has been a small, toothless U.N. mission there, but no calls in the Security Council to immediately end the violence against civilians. And what about the continuing crackdown in Yemen, where dozens are killed weekly by the corrupt and failed U.S.-allied government? Crickets, for the most part.
Somalia’s militia-driven famine barely warrants a passing mention in most news outlets, even though it is almost entirely a result of the brutal civil war there. U.S.-allied Saudi Arabia is a notorious abuser of human rights, and engages in the sort of rampant abuse, social violence, but no one is clamoring to collapse the Saudi family regime for the sake of its people. In Western Sahara, U.S.-allied Morocco engages in “[t]orture, arbitrary arrest and detention, and repression of civilians by Moroccan government forces.” But most interventionists don’t even know where that is on the map.
There is a theme linking these places together (and it’s actually not a strategic alliance with the United States): YouTube. The Syrians have been proactive in getting images and video of the mass slaughter onto the Internet and in front of a global audience. The Congolese, Yemenis, Sudanese, and others we’ve ignored have not been as effective at getting their global audience and thus, the global call for intervention.
“Because we saw it and it’s horrible” is not a valid reason for intervening in another country’s affairs. Nor is claiming that the international community should do whatever it can when it can and not worry too much about inaction elsewhere. Without set standards, the debate about when to intervene is relegated to being largely emotional, rather than a rational, considered one about how best to end state-sponsored violence against civilians.
The current debate over sovereignty and interventionism also brings up a more disturbing realization: Pushed to the extremes, neo-conservatism and liberalism meet up again to create a remarkably similar set of policies. Accusing a regime of violating international law, threatening its neighbors, risking regional conflict, and engaging in heinous crimes against its own citizens are just as applicable to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as they are to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. The justifications neocons and liberals use to justify their flagrant disregard of international norms, institutions, governing frameworks, and behavior are different, but the result is almost the same: relatively powerful western countries meddling in regimes they dislike.
The blatant hypocrisy of those same western countries not intervening in their own abusive client regimes — while angrily condemning the Russians and Chinese for identical policies — is, one supposes, to be ignored. After all, there is a massacre going on in Syria. Who are you to say we shouldn’t try to stop it?
Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and a columnist at TheAtlantic.com.