It pains me to take issue in any degree with my very esteemed friend Henry Kissinger, with whose foreign-policy views I have almost always agreed, but I think some degree of intervention in Syria is justified. Dr. Kissinger wrote otherwise in the Washington Post recently and invoked the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. I have had the opportunity to discuss his column briefly with him. As he wrote, that war may have killed as many as a third of the people of Central Europe, and “competing dynasties” did send “armies across political borders to impose religious norms.” But as he well knows, there was a good deal more to it than that, and the central event was that the French leader, Cardinal Richelieu — generally reckoned the most astute statesman, with Bismarck, in the modern history of continental Europe — recruited the Lutheran Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus, to carry havoc into Catholic Central Europe and specifically to atomize Germany and confound the Habsburg (Holy Roman) Empire in Vienna. Richelieu was chiefly interested in sundering Germany into as many pieces as possible, and confounding the Holy Roman Empire, in order to assure the preeminence of France in Western Europe.
Richelieu’s cynicism shocked his contemporaries. It was he, largely, who composed the treaty of Westphalia and left his outline to his successor, Cardinal Mazarin. Richelieu died in 1642, causing the then-pope, Urban VIII, to observe that “if there is a God, the cardinal will have much to answer for; if there is not, then he was a great man.” Richelieu’s, and Westphalia’s, argument against international intervention was generally a convenience to reinforce the fragmentation of Germany into 300 self-governing entities, not a rigorous espousal of the sanctity of national borders. Wars continued in Europe at their traditional pace, challenging national boundaries, though not on such a general and destructive scale for 150 years. Richelieu, like subsequent European leaders from Napoleon to Metternich, Stalin, de Gaulle, and Margaret Thatcher, realized that a united Germany could dominate Western and Central Europe. The former and future British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, said that, quite prophetically, when Bismarck undid Richelieu’s work and founded the German Empire in 1871. The truthfulness of that view is not the least important element of the current economic crisis in Europe. I don’t think Westphalia really applies to Syria.
Dr. Kissinger must be correct that there should be a defined and agreed international standard for defining humanitarian outrages (and levels of collapse of failed states) that justify interventions to save the lives of large numbers of people; the world should not have tolerated the massacres of millions of innocents in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur, as it did not tolerate what would have happened in the former Yugoslavia in the absence of Western intervention. It was to Senator Robert Dole’s (and America’s) credit when he forced President Clinton’s hand with the lift (the embargo) and strike (the Serbian aggressors from the air) resolution in response to the unctuous European acquiescence in the ethnic cleansing of Yugoslavian Muslims. Scores of thousands of lives were undoubtedly saved. Such a standard might have to be worked out despite the opposition of China and Russia, which are engaged in ethnic cleansing of their own and object to the principle of righteous international intervention, as they could be afoul of it, however improbable it may be that any countries would attempt such a course with such formidable nations. But both of them had foreign armies on their soil in living memory.
Dr. Kissinger must also be correct that humanitarian intervention in Syria now would be impractical and mistaken unless there were enough enthusiasm for prolonged nation-building to ensure a reduction in violence, and there is no such assurance. But the argument for intervention isn’t primarily humanitarian. The Assad regime, father and son, in Damascus has been extremely hostile to legitimate Western aims in the Middle East and has frequently been an active supporter of terrorism. Henry Kissinger says he is emulating Napoleon in saying that if he wanted to take Vienna, he would (and Napoleon did) do so, meaning here that if the objective is to constrain Iran’s baleful influence in the Middle East, and especially on Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, action should be directed explicitly at Iran.
Here is where we slightly part company. It would be much easier to dispose of Assad and exact from whatever regime or even contest of factions that succeeded him — as a pre-condition of assistance — that Syria cease to be a conduit of aid to Hamas and Hezbollah, than it would be to strike directly at Iran, a much larger state not now discommoded by a civil war as Syria is. On the equally authentic Napoleonic maxim of achieving a strategic goal at minimum cost and by applying adequate pressure on the most vulnerable point, getting rid of Assad could be done in a day at minimal risk to the lives of intervening forces; military assistance to the rebels and some air support would do it. Even eliminating the Iranian nuclear military threat, which I believe should be done, would be a serious aerial undertaking and might have to be repeated at intervals, and it would not necessarily affect Iranian support of terrorist activity.
There is also the much more widely held, accepted, and practiced principle, which in other circumstances Henry Kissinger has strongly approved, in office and out, of replying to provocations. Syria has severely provoked the West, repeatedly and illegally and often in the most brutal manner, including attempts to blow up civilian airliners and high complicity in the assassination of the prime minister of Lebanon, as well as participation in Iran’s terroristic meddling. Dr. Kissinger effectively laments that Libya has now become an arms-reshipment point for international troublemaking. But Qaddafi blew up an American airliner over Scotland, killing hundreds of people, in 1986; President Reagan almost killed him in his home with an aerial attack soon after, and if the West made a habit of killing those who had committed capital crimes against the West, there would be fewer such crimes. This is the lesson of Ariel Sharon’s handling of suicide bombing in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. There may be no shortage of such dynamite-fodder as volunteers, but when the Hamas leadership was killed in return after each such outrage, official enthusiasm for suicide bombing as an instrument of Palestinian policy quickly declined. Even bin Laden, after all his posturing as eager to die for his cause, lived and died as a coward.
It need not be an excessive concern of the West what level of humanitarian solicitude is practiced by regimes that succeed those we have deposed, as long as they do not engage in genocide or repeat the provocations against the West that motivated our action against them. Barring Syrian reenactment of the Cambodian Killing Fields, which would require international action to stop, whatever Moscow and Beijing thought of it, lifting the one finger now necessary to get rid of Assad would create a strategic improvement for the West, without a deterioration in present standards of civil government in Syria. It is not the case that any sane person seriously expects the Arab Spring to produce much democracy, and as a final principle (one that Napoleon would surely have agreed with, given his methods in times of domestic political unrest in France and elsewhere), if a hostile regime is being undermined anyway (as this one is, by the Saudis), we should be sure to be close enough to the activity to take some credit for the success of it. As it stands now, U.S. policy has earned the animosity or at least disdain of all sides and factions, as it has with its shilly-shallying and, until recently, outright appeasement of the maniacal theocracy in Iran. America must do better than this; Henry Kissinger certainly would if he were in charge.