The recent events in Syria have shown us just how evil humans can be, with thousands dying throughout the conflict and hundreds perishing as the result of a recent suspected chemical weapons attack. The conflict in the region looks unlikely to end soon, and the chemical attack has set off a firestorm of warmongering and calls for action from government officials here in America. As a humanist, I grieve for the loss of so many innocent Syrians, and I sincerely hope that the conflict ends before any more die unnecessarily. But also as a humanist, I feel that I must speak up against the calls for our military to impose America’s will in Syria out of my respect for representative government and my opposition to military interventionism.
Humanists believe strongly in the principles of democracy and representative government, which means that we support the idea that governments should enforce the will of the majority insofar as it does not violate democratic principles or the rights of the minority. When it comes to Syria, the American people are clear in their opposition to American military intervention, and the government must respect that opposition by refusing to become involved militarily in the conflict. A recent poll shows that only 26% of Americans support an American military intervention to stop the killing of Syrian civilians, and only 42% of Americans support taking military action in Syria in response to the suspected chemical weapons strike that was launched by the Syrian government against their own citizens. These figures show that while Americans are concerned about the plight of Syrians, they oppose more of the interventionism that has cost America greatly in terms of money, lives, and international relations.
The growing unpopularity of military interventionism in America is a big part of the opposition to our involvement in Syria. For decades, America has served as the world’s police force, stepping in to confront international “bad guys” while also overthrowing a few democratically elected leaders such as Mohammad Mosaddegh and Salvador Allende to ensure that our interests were protected (in the process allowing for the rise of theocratic Iran and the Pinochet junta). There are several problems with this tradition of interventionism: its repeated violation of national sovereignty, its selective application, and its overall ineffectiveness.
The humanist respect for democracy means that in addition to supporting things like representative government we also support national sovereignty, or the right of a country and its people to rule themselves free from undue foreign intervention. While we may not always agree with the actions of a foreign government or the political inclinations of its populace, we respect the right of those countries to rule themselves according to their own traditions and beliefs. For example, while most Americans support gun laws, we don’t demand that nations which ban gun ownership change their laws or face invasion from American troops.
This also means that we don’t interfere in internal conflicts, violent or not, out of a respect for national sovereignty. Imagine if during the American Civil War a country like Russia invaded America to stop both sides from fighting, and in the process, imposed a Russian political system on the American people. Our country would rebel, and rightly so, as our right to settle our own conflicts and rule ourselves had been compromised by foreign invaders. When this concept is applied to Syria, which is essentially undergoing its own civil war, we should understand why we have no right to interfere militarily in domestic upheavals even though we want to stop the killing of innocents. A qualifier to this concept that should be mentioned is that America and the international community have a right to become involved in the situation in Syria if international laws are violated. The suspected chemical weapons attack, if confirmed, would be such a violation, and the international community would have the right to become involved in Syria. However, in this situation it is not the role of America to act unilaterally, as violations of international law should be met with a response from the international community and not just with the actions of one nation.
Another big reason we shouldn’t continue our practice of military interventionism by becoming involved in Syria is because of our shameful history of selective interventionism. Over the past century, numerous internal conflicts in countries around the globe have gone ignored by America, even in cases where we suspected violations of international law had been committed. While America and NATO stormed into the Balkans to help those that were being massacred, we did nothing in nations like Rwanda that were experiencing similar violent conflicts. This tradition has continued right up until the modern day, with America sending its military to places like Libya that were rebelling against anti-American leaders while doing nothing to assist those rebelling in pro-America Bahrain. The practical effect of these selective interventions is that they embolden pro-America dictators to commit atrocious acts of repression.
Pro-America dictators like those in Bahrain realize that America’s tradition of selective interventionism means that they are free to do what they like to their own people without fear of repercussion. Since our military interventionism is based out of our desire to police the world, leaders who commit atrocious acts but aren’t punished for them by the American military can claim to be legitimate rulers, for if they weren’t, America would surely come and depose them. The reality of the situation is that America is simply unable to enforce its agenda across the world through military intervention, as we don’t have the resources that are required. Still, by claiming that we will continue to intervene to prevent all cases of abuse by world leaders, we inadvertently give legitimacy to those who commit abuses but are not punished for their actions. If we choose to act in Syria after trying to draw down our global military presence we will only give more power to those dictators that we choose to ignore or befriend.
The final reason we shouldn’t militarily intervene in Syria is because external military interventions are so rarely successful, and are often catalysts for even more violence. Not much is certain our world, but one concept seems to hold true regardless of the circumstance: violence begets violence. We’ve seen for ourselves how numerous “military interventions” that were intended to stop violent activities have only created new violent uprisings while deepening sectarian divisions in nations like Libya and Iraq. Must we be reminded yet again that we do not have the power to force change upon a nation? Sure, we might be able to end the worst of the hostilities in Syria for a limited period of time. But after we stop the violence, what then? Do we commit to staying in Syria for decades until sectarian violence is completely eradicated, if such a thing is even possible? Or do we do what we have always done after military interventions, and leave the country as it undergoes wave after wave of sectarian violence in the power vacuum of their post-invasion society?
The events in Syria are tragic, and I suspect they will get even more horrifying as time passes and the conflict reaches its eventual close. While I and so much of America want to help Syrians, we need to realize that another military intervention will only hurt the Syrian people, democratic traditions, and America’s standing in the international community.