The aspect of the Syria issue that is getting the most attention right now has the least to do with calls for intervention. I wouldn’t for a second belittle the suffering people there have faced; what I’m saying is that those demanding that America do something about that suffering, apparently care very little about it.
I’ve written previously about how strangely open many of these interventionists are about what an intervention in Syria would mean. Before Rick Santorum dropped out of the presidential race, his Syria talking point was the following: “Syria is a puppet state of Iran. They are a threat not just to Israel, but they have been a complete destabilizing force within Lebanon, which is another problem for Israel, and Hezbollah.” And Romney: “The key ally of Iran, Syria, has a leader that’s in real trouble. And we ought to grab a hold of that like it’s the best thing we’ve ever seen.”
Rep. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is rumored to be one of Romney’s choices for VP, said recently in a video message to his constituents that arming and aiding the Syrian opposition is “in our national security interest” because “Iran,” which he described as “the number one immediate threat facing the world and the United States,” has “no stronger ally in the world than Syria” and “the loss of the Assad regime in Syria is the single, most damaging thing that can happen to Iran’s regime.”
This is nothing new. But the narrative about a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria obligating the U.S. to intervene on behalf of innocent civilians is still the dominant one. In the headlines of the major newspapers and on network news, the suffering of the Syrian people is prompting calls to “do something” to “stop this,” and so on. But the suffering going on in Syria – as horrendous as it is – is only as prominent in our news media and political debate because of the geopolitics.
I was struck by a segment on MSNBC’s Morning Joe wherein former National Security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski faced off against a chorus of Syria interventionists. Brzezinski was being eminently reasonable in arguing against intervention in Syria and against using the conflict to justify being a belligerent bully on the world stage – particularly towards Russia. Then he said that the conflict “is not as horrible or as dramatic as it is portrayed,” especially when compared to other recent conflicts around the world, like “the horrible war in Sri Lanka, the killings in Rwanda, the deaths in Libya and so forth – you know, let’s have a sense of proportion here.” He added, “Let’s not exaggerate this conflict…Look, I think what we are hearing is a lot of hand-wringing and hysteria…”
It’s an important point. To watch American media and listen to haranguing politicians right now, you’d think Syria was the worst hell-hole in the world. It’s bad (as I said above, I would never belittle it), but something like 800,000 people were murdered in Rwanda in the 1990s and we heard very little about intervention there. The civil war in Sri Lanka lasted for over two decades and led to 100,000 or so violent deaths, ending in a shaky resolution only in 2009. I can’t agree with Brzezinski about Libya, but consider the Sudan. There was something on the order of 400,000 civilians dead in the Darfur conflict, again only petering out in very recent years, while the conflict largely persists. In March 2011, a civil war in the Ivory Coast broke out with incredible massacres of civilians, but I’d bet Rubio couldn’t find it on a map, much less argue for intervention.
People like McCain and Romney and John Kerry and the other powerful people in Congress calling for more direct intervention in Syria like to present themselves as being genuinely concerned with the suffering of their fellow man. But that is evidently not the case. Syria is strategically located in the Middle East, is geographically a close neighbor of Israel and a close ally of Iran. President Bashar al-Assad is a puppet of the Russians who value their last close ally in the region because it affords them geo-political influence and a chance to defy U.S. imperialism. And this is why the conflict in Syria is being portrayed as disproportionately grave. And this is why pundits and politicos are calling for intervention. The conflict is merely a pretext.
[Luckily, the Obama administration has been able to perceive the costs of intervention and so have stated opposition to military action. Still, they have provided elements of the opposition with both lethal and non-lethal aid, which is probably helping to prolong the conflict.]
Here is the MSNBC segment: