Syria: Conviction or Responsible Intervention?

You may demonstrate to a convinced syndicalist, believing in an ethic of conviction, that his action will result in increasing the opportunities of reaction, in increasing the oppression of his class, and obstructing its ascent–and you will not make the slightest impression upon him. If an action of good intent leads to bad results, then, in the actor’s eyes, not he but the world, or the stupidity of other men, or God’s will who made them thus, is responsible for the evil. However a man who believes in an ethic of responsibility takes account of precisely the average deficiencies of people; as Fichte has correctly said, he does not even have the right to presuppose their goodness and perfection. He does not feel in a position to burden others with the results of his own actions so far as he was able to foresee them; he will say: these results are ascribed to my action. The believer in an ethic of conviction feels ‘responsible’ only for seeing to it that the flame of pure intentions is not quelched: for example, the flame of protesting against the injustice of the social order. To rekindle the flame ever anew is the purpose of his quite irrational deeds, judged in view of their possible success. They are acts that can and shall have only exemplary value.

–Max Weber, Politics as Vocation

I do not claim to be any sort of an expert on Syria – and have honestly avoided reading too much on the highly polarized topic of late.  But now that the US Congress is deliberating limited action, I can’t help but ask – is this a conviction or responsibility?

The choice to intervene in Syria because of the alleged use of chemical weapons leaves a bitter taste, mostly because it is based on a unilateral attempt to uphold an international norm.  The Responsibility to Protect (RTP) transforms sovereignty from something that is a legitimately endowed right of states into a privilege that has to be earned through actions condoned by the international community (see Kuperman 2009).

Certainly, there are international norms against particular offenses – genocide, mass killings, and yes, the use of chemical weapons.  States have an obligation to their citizens to provide security first and foremost, and when a state fails to do so, the citizens have a right to either flee or resist the supremacy of the state.

When the state is endowed with enough resources to push back against a resistant population indefinitely and with brutal force, the international community may intervene to protect the rights of these citizens.

On the other hand, the RTP presents a dilemma.  If we accept the notion of the responsibility to protect, we must look beyond what Max Weber termed the “ethic of conviction”.  We must consider the “ethic of responsibility”.

While the US may be compelled by an ethic of conviction to enforce an international norm by sending a signal to Syria, they must be guided by an ethic of responsibility, which includes pragmatic consideration of the possible outcomes from such actions.  If such actions result in high casualties, a further entrenchment of the offending regime, and/or a premature toppling of the regime by al-Quaeda linked rebels (as Kuperman has warned against), then the ethic of responsibility should override conviction and nonintervention is necessary.

Even if the ethic of responsibility and conviction both deem action by the US, an international norm requires international assent to intervention.  This seems like a highly unlikely course of action at present. Such approval would require the UN Security Council to pass a resolution condemning the attacks and calling for a multilateral force to “punish” the offending regime. Such approval is improbably considering the cozy relationship between Syria and Russia – which holds veto power in the UN Security Council.

So, while the White House has drawn a red line regarding chemical weapons in Syria, their best attempts to claim that this red line has been drawn by the international community may be fruitless without international support.  In an ideal case, the US Congress would approve action – but such action would be contingent upon international approval.  Given that international approval is unlikely, any intervention in Syria will be implemented outside the bounds of the institution that holds the mandate to secure international norms.

Thus, the international norm of RTP is presently being tested, as is the ability of international institutions to uphold such international norms. Also at stake, though, is the ability of the US to make decisions based on responsibility rather than mere conviction.


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