Humanitarian intervention is often premised on a fetishizing exercise. Protecting civilians has become the time immemorial justification for interventions that rarely achieve that. Often, the slaughter is exacerbated. Undesirable substitute regimes are cultivated. The human subject returns quietly to a toiling, pawn-like existence, to materialise before the next power which might deem them useful. Be it the images of slaughter in Sarajevo during the 1990s or the catastrophic proclamations of massacre at Benghazi last year, the civilian looks large as a rhetorical device states revel in using.
The various attempts to place civilian protection high on the list of the international agenda in the Syrian conflict – notably by members of the Arab League and an assortment of Western powers – show how the Libyan rhetoric is again being deployed. This time it is as unconvincing as ever, and Western powers are cautious. The landscape is proving more complex, filled with nuances. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are offering clandestine support to the Free Syria Army; Turkey has offered a safe haven for the combatants currently receiving a pummelling at the hands of Bashar al-Assad’s forces. That said, some form of interference is still being pushed under the falsely contrived humanitarian credo; dispensation will be granted for the heroic intervention designed to protect civilians. And it all reeks of a fetid righteousness.
The Obama administration’s approach to the issue of protecting civilians is the most problematic aspect of its latest rumblings towards Syria. Repeatedly, one sees the message from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the killings should stop, that civilians should not be targeted. ‘The longer the Assad regime continues its attacks on the Syrian people and stands in the way of a peaceful transition, the greater the concern that instability will escalate and spill over throughout the region’ (Jan 31).
This is hardly convincing, coming from the former First Lady of the President that authorised the assault on the Waco compound on the grounds of eliminating the Branch Dravidian leader David Koresh. The inferno resulting from the assault by FBI an BATF agents that day on April 19, 1993 saw 74 people perish. Then again, the Branch Dravidians were consciously ostracised from any legal framework, the disposable freak show.
Nor are Clinton’s condemnations consistent in a current political context, marred as ever by a fickle inclination. Time and time again, the US stance towards Bahrain, home of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, suggests that a civilian living in that state has a different capital value, or at least moral worth, to those living in Syria.
Just to affirm and sweeten the relationship with the Bahraini government, Washington made a $53m arms deal which was only suspended under protest. Evidently, the US is entitled to have ‘strategic’ interests when it comes to backing one horse over another, while the Chinese and Russians, those silly sods, are not. Maryam Alkhawaja, head of foreign relations for the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights put it rather succinctly. ‘To the Bahraini protestors, the US is to Bahrain as Russia is to Syria’ (Al Jazeera, Feb 15).
This is an administration that is swimming in the murky waters of a suspended legal order, yet very keen to parrot a juridical line in resolving disputes. While distortions and loopholes in the law were manufactured with religious commitment during the Bush administration, Obama’s time in office has been characterised by more subtle, some might argue dangerous, interpretations. The Yoo-cradled missives for the Bush administration justifying torture were the stuff of a cruel advisor convinced that a state’s priority to exist took precedence over the subject. One harms to live. Obama’s legal thrust is less obvious, but devastating.
Take the administration’s position on the killing of US citizens. The murder, for it was simply that, of Al Qaeda’s Anwar al-Awlaki last year suggested that due process rights are simply the clutter that can be removed when an operation has to take place. The defenders of the policy have argued that the killing of al-Awlaki was specific, exceptional and not designed to be a permanent policy, the nefarious brain child of David Barron and Martin Lederman in the Office of Legal Counsel. ‘However,’ claims the Washington Post in disagreement (Oct 11, 2011), ‘having established an operational precedent with al-Awlaki, it would be naïve to believe that future cases would not simply default to the same logic.’
With all of this in mind, the concept of the human, let alone the concept of rights attached to that being, is so eviscerated it makes any conversation on the subject regarding intervention weak. As for Syria, it has also had the unintended effect of making the stance taken by China and Russia plausible, at least in an amoral sense.