ASPEN, Colo.—If you were to imagine trying to array the different justifications for the U.S. war in Iraq along a spectrum of idealism to realism, there would be two at the far-idealistic end, whose credibility ended up more damaged than any others’ by the war and America’s broader involvement in the Middle East post-9/11: humanitarian intervention and the advancement of democracy.
But according to Anne-Marie Slaughter, humanitarian intervention, particularly in Syria, remains at least as tough-minded a proposition as it is a high-minded one. “If you look at Syria,” Slaughter said, speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival this week, “more than half the population has been displaced. … The number of Syrian refugees in Jordan, as a percentage of the population, is the equivalent of all of Canada moving to the United States. Let’s just think what that would mean for our school system, our health system, our infrastructure. … In a situation where up to a third of the population, or half the population, is destabilized—that is a security concern, as it was in Europe [at the time of the Thirty Years War].”
Marwan Muasher, on the stage with Slaughter, expressed reservations about this framework—or at least about the role he sees it taking on as the U.S. government scopes its foreign policy under circumstances of increasingly acute regional crisis. “I’ll give you two kinds of intervention,” Muasher said. “You can try to intervene militarily. You’ve done this before, in Iraq, with 500,000 troops. Did it bring democracy to Iraq today? Obviously not. But you can intervene through other means. For example, encourage the Iraqis to have a political process that is inclusionist. … That’s the kind of intervention that’s needed in the region, not the kind of intervention that sends troops … and sees everything through a narrow security lens to the exclusion of all the other basic problems that are out there in the Middle East.”
“Let’s stop talking about sending troops,” Slaughter said. “Absolutely no one is talking about sending troops into the region. … It is intellectually dishonest to claim that people who want intervention in Syria want a repeat of Iraq. Iraq was a disaster. Nobody is talking about that.”
“I’m all for a political solution,” Slaughter said. “I’ve wanted a political solution from the beginning.” Yet “the only time we’ve seen anything in Syria was when the president suddenly realized that with chemical weapons there we’d better start moving the cruise missiles into place, and we got a deal—and we got all the ISIS people heading for the hills, because they were terrified of our drones.”
“So how do we get this political solution—as we ultimately did in the former Yugoslavia, as we did in East Timor, or as we did in World War II?” Slaughter asked. “How do we get to a political solution without a credible use of force? How do we convince any of these guys that they should stop fighting, because the alternative is going to be worse for them? How do we do that?”
Slaughter later came back to the example of World War II, citing accounts from some of the few Western journalists who have managed to get a view inside civil-war Syria. “They say it’s the worst thing they’ve ever seen,” Slaughter said. “They say it looks like World War II. We are talking about a government that is using chemical weapons on its own people and dropping barrel bombs on children.”
“We didn’t bomb the trains [to Auschwitz] in World War II,” she continued. “We could have, and it would have made a difference. … When we have the possibility of saving hundreds of thousands of lives, and forcing a political solution in the only way we’ve ever been able to, which is: You go to the table when you know if you don’t, you face the risk of death. If we do not act, we’re going to look back and wonder why we didn’t.”
George Mitchell, also on the stage, countered that if the number of genocidal deaths is the factor the U.S. government should base its decisions about intervention on, “who’s heard any American politician or commentator ask that we intervene militarily in the Congo, where five-and-a-half million people have died?”
“Yes,” said Slaughter. “And why? Because we didn’t intervene in Rwanda, and we’re still living with the results of not intervening in Rwanda, which is a civil war in the Congo.”
“Do you think we should militarily intervene in the Congo?” Mitchell asked.
“I think, had we intervened in Rwanda—and this is exactly why I’m arguing that we have to intervene now, because this is going to be the Rwanda of our time.”
“My fear,” said Marwan Muasher, “and I hope I’m wrong, is that the Obama administration is ending the way the Bush administration did, which is to look at the region from a purely security lens. And that is something that scares me.”
It scares Muasher because the modern history of the Middle East is, as he recounts it, a history of artificially induced stability created by authoritarian regimes and sustained by the international community. For Muasher, the Arab Spring and its often-chaotic aftermath are proof that the region’s artificial stability was simply not sustainable. “Arguing that we need stability and security at the expense of everything else, when we have already seen that it is not sustainable,” he said, “is not a wise option in my view.”
“What we need to be looking at, both in the region and as an international community, is how we go from here toward building pluralistic societies—but not to reminisce about the past and say, ‘Oh, if only we could go back to stability and security.’”
Muasher points out that while the Middle East’s artificial stability was maintained for decades, and while versions of some of the region’s abiding conflicts go back centuries, the historical scale of the post-Arab Spring Middle East is still very small. “There is no transformational process in history that unfolded in three years,” he said. “None whatsoever—not even close.”
If that sounds implicitly hopeful, it is. Muasher believes that despite all the chaos we see now, the Middle East isn’t condemned to a terrible future. Of course, it isn’t guaranteed any good futures, either. But just as there’s always been an unsustainable logic to the artificial stability of Arab strongmen, there’s also an unsustainable logic to the alternative promise of political Islam. “We have seen very clearly with 50 or 60 years of exclusion of Islamist forces by Arab regimes that it has resulted in strengthening them beyond reason,” Muasher said. “And in them promising people everything under the sun without putting their promises to the test. In two short years after they came to power in Egypt and Tunisia, Islamists lost more support than 50 years of exclusion by Arab governments have been able to do to them. So today ‘Islam is the solution’ means far less as a slogan than it meant three years ago.”
“But this means we cannot have just convenient, short, easy answers,” Muasher said. “We will have to go through a process of transformation. And those who will win are those who are able to roll up their sleeves and work on the ground and not pontificate, frankly, from behind podiums.”
So much for that hypothetical idealism-realism policy spectrum, then. While for Slaughter, humanitarian intervention can be a vital security agenda, for Muasher, the advancement of democracy is the ultimate security agenda. His objection to the “narrow security lens” he fears the U.S. government is now using in the Middle East isn’t, after all, that it’s a security lens; it’s that it’s a bad one for seeing any real distance into the future.