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Sovereignty, Syria, and the Arab Spring
We should clearly state the principles that guide our actions.

Syrian President Basher Assad and Senator John Kerry meet in Damascus on November 8, 2010.

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Since the earliest days of the Arab Spring, U.S. policy has been waylaid by deep confusion on the vital question of state sovereignty — when we may violate it, and when we should recognize it. Answering that question will help us understand both how to handle decrepit Arab regimes on their way out, and how to shape the emergence of a new order in the Arab world.

The Obama administration’s initial response to the demonstrations at Tahrir Square in Cairo was an early signal of confusion in the government. Was the U.S. position that President Hosni Mubarak had violated an otherwise legitimate constitution? Or was it that the constitution of Egypt, such as it was, was illegitimate?

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If the former, what had Mubarak done to violate Egypt’s constitution? If the latter, what was it about the constitution that made it illegitimate — and in that case, why had we recognized its legitimacy until a mob showed up? The Obama administration never articulated a principled position on the question of why Mubarak’s rule was illegitimate. In the end, little beyond the clamor of a mob in the streets seemed to justify the administration’s position that Mubarak had “lost legitimacy” and should step down. The policy of aligning Obama with the mob was referred to in administration circles as “being on the right side of history,” quite a fancy way to describe a president with his finger in the wind.

Bereft of clear principles, the administration has charted a highly inconsistent course throughout the Arab Spring — staying silent when protesters were shot by U.S.-backed security forces in Bahrain, intervening militarily in Libya on the basis of a U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized no such action, and taking an indefensibly long time even to speak out against the murderous repression of Basher Assad in Syria.

Nearly a year after the uprising began, as Assad’s security forces rain destruction down on whole cities, indiscriminately killing thousands of civilians, the administration focused its urgent action on a useless demonstration in the Security Council, which has served only to unify Russia and China against Syria’s protesters, and to drive Russia into a central position in the Syria crisis.

Now, we will be switching the focus to a “Friends of Syria” working group. Any such working group should start with a precise articulation of the right of humanitarian intervention. If it only does that, it will have done a great thing. The months between NATO’s 1999 Kosovo intervention and September 11, 2011, were busy ones in diplomatic circles. Writing in The Economist in 1999, then–U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan put his finger on the issue with surprising clarity, insisting that regional action must remain a viable alternative when the Security Council fails to act.

The Russians, however, have continued to insist that forcible humanitarian interventions be authorized by the Security Council — and because Russia is one of the veto-wielding members, that means all humanitarian interventions need either the permission of the host government or the permission of the Russians.

That is nonsense, of course, but alas the Russians appear to have the text of the U.N. Charter on their side. Because we’re pretending still to be operating under the Charter’s rules, our diplomatic effort is driven from the careful consideration of effective options with a coalition of the willing, into the Security Council — a forum ideally suited for grandstanding and wasting time while nothing effective gets done.



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