Thursday, March 27, 2014

Kindly allow us to watch while you die

Three years into Syria’s conflict, one still wonders why the monumental magnitude of the suffering there continues to provoke so little outrage in the West.

In the New York Times last week, Anne Barnard highlighted the limited aid provided to alleviate the Syrian tragedy. For example, some $20 million in private donations were given to Mercy Corps, an international aid group, after the Haiti earthquake, while only $2 million has been given for victims of the Syria war.

Barnard wrote, “The disparities play into a rising frustration among international aid workers, and Syrians themselves, that the enormous human toll and strategic impact of the conflict have not mobilized a stronger and more urgent international response.”

Accounts of human misfortune can become very powerful and move reluctant political leaders. In the 19th century, there was a movement in Britain to support the Greeks in their war against the Ottoman Empire, and later the Bulgarians in their war against the Ottomans. Indignation at the massacres of Christians in Mount Lebanon and Damascus in 1860 led France to send an army to the Levant in 1860-1861. Similar reactions allowed President Bill Clinton to deploy American forces, along with NATO, to end the Bosnian conflict in 1995 and to intervene in Kosovo in 1998-1999.

In all these cases, public attitudes in the West served to buttress military interventions to end atrocities – real or exaggerated. As Gary Bass has written in his excellent “Freedom’s Battle,” on the origins of humanitarian intervention: “Humanitarian intervention emerged as a fundamentally liberal enterprise, wrapped up with the progress of liberal ideas and institutions.” In other words, it emerged from the way Western societies perceived themselves and from the liberal ideology defining their sense of purpose.

That liberalism was certainly visible when the Arab uprisings broke out in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011. The response in the West was broadly favorable, and Western governments came to reflect the mood of their publics. The Obama administration had no choice but to push its ally Hosni Mubarak out of office, or risk finding itself “on the wrong side of history” in Egypt, to borrow a sentence American officials seem to use indefatigably these days.

Recall that in 2012, the White House used the same formulation when describing the backers of President Bashar Assad, including Russia. As the spokesman, Jay Carney, put it at the time: “I would simply say that it is our belief ... that supporting the Assad regime is placing oneself or one’s nation on the wrong side of history.”

Perhaps, but those on the wrong side of history appear to be winning in Syria, while those on the right side stand by and do nothing. Meanwhile, Western publics look at the conflict, find it all very complicated, shrug their shoulders and avert their eyes.

Last week, Carla del Ponte, previously a prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and today a commissioner of the independent United Nations commission investigating human rights violations in Syria, made a surprising statement. At a news conference, she called for an international tribunal to judge those guilty of war crimes in Syria.

The statement was surprising because it went against the grain in the West. In the last two decades, several ad hoc tribunals have been set up under U.N. auspices – for the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, the Sierra Leone conflict and the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. But today, there is no international impetus to create a tribunal for Syria, despite the mass of evidence justifying one.

Part of the problem is that the justification of humanitarian intervention often needs to be simplistic: It requires a clear victim and villain. In Syria, many in the West see a brutal regime fighting what they believe to be extreme Islamists. As one-dimensional as that impression may be, it makes taking sides more difficult.

Less understandable is Western indifference when a crime is well recognized. Last year, for example, a New York Times/CBS News poll, conducted after chemical weapons were fired against civilians near Damascus, showed that 60 percent of respondents opposed retaliatory strikes by the United States. Such opposition was expressed despite the fact that 75 percent of the respondents said they thought Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons.

On the basis of the evidence then available, this represented an abandonment of any notion of international norms of behavior. To admit that mass murder occurred and then to add that it’s not our problem, is roughly the equivalent in international terms of failing to come to the assistance of someone in danger. It ridicules any expectation of a rules-based international order.

But there is a more controversial reading of Western attitudes toward Syria also making the rounds. It holds that there will always be less sympathy for Arab victims from Western publics. While the evidence is scant (after all, the Egyptian, Libyan and Tunisian uprisings captured the Western imagination), there may be truth in that Syrian victims often seem strange. Many are from rural areas, ill-educated and poor, so they appear profoundly alien to Westerners in search of a moral cause.

This incomprehension can lead to unwanted outcomes. When global indifference is mixed with a sense of victimhood, it can make for an explosive cocktail. Those looking to strike against the West can draw on the ensuing resentment to justify their violence.

But beyond that, such apathy says something about Western societies themselves. It tells us that the universal values they claim to embody and that characterize them are worthless in some contexts. Worse, it makes us pity the Syrians for having revolted at a moment when the West has been so self-absorbed.

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