Earlier this week, a human rights group disclosed that over four hundred citizens of an autocratic country had been killed in government crackdowns. This is part of a wave of protests sweeping across the country in what is now called the “Arab Spring.” These demonstrations, which started as a demand for the lifting of a draconian emergency powers law that grants the government vast authority, have morphed into a broader demand for greater opportunities, rights, and freedoms. The government’s horrific and criminal actions, which include firing on civilians, the use of heavy weaponry, and attacking innocent citizens while they are asleep in their homes, have provoked condemnation from many nations and international organizations.

Reading the above description, you could be forgiven for thinking that I am describing a new wave of violence in Libya, the country on which the United States and NATO are currently waging a quasi-war in support of a rebel faction fighting to overthrow the leader Muammar Qaddafi. Instead, I am referring to the recent wave of protests, government crackdowns, and violence in Syria. Protestors have clashed with the Syrian government, which has responded by sending the army into cities where protests are centered and firing into civilian homes in the early hours of the morning. The response to these actions has been astounding. There have been no direct threats of intervention or of increasing sanctions already in place, just muted and generic condemnations from President Obama and the United States State Department.

While certainly not identical, these two situations are arguably similar enough that any country pursuing a rational and sustainable foreign policy should respond to them in a similar fashion. By rational, I mean a policy that serves the strategic and tactical needs of the country implementing the policy. By sustainable, I mean a policy that can be employed multiple times simultaneously without putting undue strain on those countries’ resources. That has not been the case. The United States issued powerful condemnations against Libya, worked for and supported a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the protection of civilians by force, launched massive air strikes and now drone strikes, and is sending material aid to rebel forces. Against Syria? To quote the administration, “condemning in the strongest possible terms the use of force by the Syrian government against demonstrators.”

This is a shocking inconsistency in policy. The United States chose to respond in two completely different ways to similar situations in similarly repressive countries. These countries are both predominantly Muslim nations, with colonial pasts, and have autocratic and repressive dictators. In the past, they have committed horrific crimes against their people. While these countries are in different regions and have different internal dynamics, their similarities are strong enough to render the comparison valid.  This is evidence of a United States foreign policy that is confused and unsustainable. If our decision to become involved in Libya were correct and sustainable, we should have no qualms about implementing it again in Syria to stop the government from getting away with, quite literally, murder. If we are weary of the commitments, risks, and drain on our resources that Libya entails, then our decision to intervene in Libya was a mistake. We need to decide which path we want to take—right now we don’t have a consistent foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa. We have hastily prepared ad hoc “solutions” to specific problems that are implemented without regard to the big picture of geopolitics or long-term costs.

There are, of course, arguments as to why Libya was a special case. It has oil, which increases its geopolitical value. The United States and Libya have a history of military engagement, and Qaddafi is a longtime enemy of the United States Libya’s proximity to Europe also galvanized the usually passive EU to put military options on the table, therefore giving greater support to those who wanted a military intervention. There are also special arguments for Syria. Syria endorses violence towards Israel and shares a border with Iraq. It is also a close ally and enabler of Iran and continues to meddle in Lebanon’s affairs and funnel money and arms to Hizbollah and Hamas.

All of this aside, I think this divide shows a fundamental problem with United States foreign policy. Currently, the United States does not have the resources it once did to launch international adventures. As a consequence, our foreign policy must be based on policies that are sustainable. Clearly, we can’t (and don’t) use Libyan-style air strikes against every dictator that attacks his people. Yet President Obama also wants to make our foreign policy moral. Allowing hundreds of innocent civilians to die in Syria is not ethically excusable at all. A foreign policy must be found that serves the interests of the United States by being smart and sustainable, as well as ethical. Right now, our policy does neither.


Blinderman is a member of the class of 2014.

  • Marni

    Yo, that’s what’s up truhtfluly.