The misguided logic behind moral wars

July 30, 2012

CALGARY, AB, Jul 30, 2012/ Troy Media/ – Last December, nearly a year after violence and security crackdowns captured the attention of the international media, the U.S. State Department pronounced Syrian President Bashar al Assad a “dead man walking.”

Moral condemnations by many governments followed. Al Assad and his regime may have stumbled, but they are still walking around very much alive.

Verbal condemnation of a tyrannical regime is one thing, but actually acting against tyrannies for reasons of morality alone invariably invites disaster. Canadians ought to know this better than citizens of other Western democracies.

For years, under the guidance of liberal and Liberal moralists, we were schooled in the virtues of soft power and the goodness of the UN. A former prime minister thought he was praising the Canadian Forces by comparing them to the Boy Scouts. Under Paul Martin and Stephen Harper we have at least abandoned the infantile disorder that Canadians are too morally sensitive to fight.

The Americans have had the same problem. Not that they invented moral reasons to refuse to fight, but they did ignore the advice of John Quincy Adams: “do not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Recently they have been all too willing to find unrealistic moral justifications to go to war. Either way, moralism is central.

This is why the Iraq invasion was never “all about oil” or any other genuine national interest. The objective was regime change, relieving an oppressed people of the chains of a tyrant, and bringing the gift of democracy. Similar moral purposes explain why Western troops remain in Afghanistan.

The same misguided logic drives the discussion about what is to be done in Syria: extinguish al Assad, they say, and human rights or some other morally elevated objective will flourish. This is wrong, not least of all because a major reason Syria is in play at the moment is a result of the unrealistic moralism that sent Western troops into Mesopotamia.

The effort to introduce human rights to Iraq disturbed the regional balance of power between Shiites and Sunnis. Baghdad today may not be under direct Iranian control as a result of the Iraq war, but it is strongly influenced by the ayatollahs of Shiite Persia. In the last decade, Tehran created the famous “Shiite crescent” that so agitated King Abdulla II of Jordan and that extends from western Afghanistan to his backyard in Syria and Lebanon.

Last Monday was the bloodiest day in two years, as al-Qaeda struck one dozen Iraqi cities almost simultaneously, striking mostly government offices, security forces and Shiite neighbourhoods.

But what about us outsiders? Do we really have a dog in that fight?

Some regional leaders have argued that the Syrian disorders provide an opportunity to reduce Iranian influence in the Levant. This is why the Turks and Saudis have been supporting the opposition to al Assad. Theirs is largely an argument about interests. In theory it makes sense, but the prospective costs in the context of the Shiite-Sunni confrontation are huge.

First, the Baathist Alawites who currently control Syria are not exactly Shiite, but they certainly fear the majority Sunni community, as do members of the other minority sects. The Alawites saw what happened next door in Iraq when Baathist Saddam was removed. The Iranians will protect their investment on their far western flank, including Hezbollah in Lebanon. Thus the Syrian regime is strongly motivated to fight as (for different reasons) are its backers.

A look at the actual opposition to al Assad, as distinct from external moralizing cheer-leaders, is sobering. Their forces already contain a significant number of militant Sunni Islamists and jihadis, including supporters of an al-Qaeda inspired transnational Caliphate. Almost by definition, these people, funded by Saudi petrodollars, dream big. Their ambitions extend far beyond the Levant, and they seek a regime ruled in accord with their version of sharia.

Their “success” in Syria and Lebanon would mean enormous chaos and loss of life. A Sunni-jihadist regime there would quickly turn its attention to Shiite-dominated Iraq. Given the experience gained by the now successful militants in Syria, this is not good news for the Iraqi people.

None of this will happen overnight and maybe not at all. But pursuing human rights visions produced by Western moralism is as dangerous as pursuing visions of a sharia paradise, especially for the victims.

Barry Cooper is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

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