I got wound up by this whilst reading news on my phone while sitting in a boring meeting. So I’ll vent here.
The usual scheme of things that we see so often is that bad things happen (the Assad regime in Syria); it goes on and on and people wring their hands, or ignore it, and anyway whilst bad the people are useful anti-commies or somesuch; and then it gets bad enough that the locals start revolting. At this point, its very much a “which way are you going to jump” issue for everyone in the country. Do they throw in their lot with a pile of untested rebels? Or do they sit on the fence quietly? Or do they take this as a chance to ingratiate themselves with the regime by demonstrating loyalty? If you’re such a person, what the international “community” is going to do matters a lot. If you expect the “community” to intervene actively on the side of Justice and Freedom, to vigourously hunt down war criminals and prosecute them and confiscate their assets, then you have a strong incentive to jump onto the rebel side. But if you expect the West to be a useless shower like usual you have an incentive to hang on in and loot the country for as long as possible, meanwhile doing your best to be as nasty as possible and polarise the fight in order to commit people onto your side, by making it impossible for them to live under a changed regime. After not very long it becomes clear that attempting to talk about regime change is a waste of time, and so the people on the rebel side that come to the forefront are those with the least to lose, those most deeply committed to violence – in short, we do our best to marginalise those who we’re pretending to favour. And pretty well inevitably this is a chance for the Al-Quaeda types to step in; at which point the idiots who argue for nothing but talks chirp up brightly with “see! We told you so! Violence just encourages Al Quaeda”. Whereas its really the do-nothing-but-talk people who are recruiting for Al Quaeda. And don’t get me started on the Russian govt, whose role in this is so utterly stinkingly amorally sadistic.
[Update: the NYT says that Syria is starting to break apart. The other classic mistake the West usually makes is to try to enforce territorial integrity of artificial borders. Iraq is a case in point – the obvious thing it to allow Kurdistan to break away. But that would make the Turks Really Very Sad. We shouldn’t listen to them -W]
[Further update, 2014/01/11: when I last looked, things were not looking rosy. And Syria has disappeared from the news, which suggests the long-drawn-out grinding to destruction continues. So I’ll add two further thoughts:
1. Hobbes says (somewhere, though this is from memory) that citizens are allowed to rebel, but only if they succeed. Or something like that. Which naturally you can’t know in advance. But the point is that civil war is such an evil that almost anything else is better. And also that the legitimacy of the Civil Sword depends on it being in power; if its not in power – if it doesn’t provide the protections that we gave up our freedoms for – then the obligation to submit vanishes. In a sense, its self-defining. I think, at this point, Hobbes would like say that his conditions were not met; that the good people of Syria should not have rebelled.
2. An opinion piece in a paper suggesting that the West made almost the opposite mistake to what I’m suggesting: that it encouraged the rebels with fake words promising fake help. And instead, it should have made clear that we’re useless. Though I would have thought experience would have said that much louder.]
[2015/07/11: The Economist agrees with me.]
* Boris in 2015