The Western media have reacted predictably to the Syria crisis, separating Security Council adversaries as usual into two camps. The “good guys” are seen as champions of a new post-sovereign international order while the “bad guys” defend blood-thirsty dictators in a cynical use of the doctrines of non-interference and national sovereignty.
The media congratulate the US and its European allies for upholding the international community’s right and responsibility to intervene in states’ domestic affairs to “protect civilians” and to get rid of nasty regimes. Russia and China – among other offenders – are framed as backward obstructionists clinging to outdated notions of “sovereignty” while civilians are massacred by the thousands. “Emerging powers” like India and South Africa are chastised for falling prey to the Sino-Russian arguments, for recalling the Western interventions that shaped their own colonial past, and for not wholeheartedly embracing the West’s enthusiasm for its selective version of human rights and democracy.
The media analysis conveys little about the history and the current high stakes politics. The web of great power interests and rivalries largely disappears. We hear little about the control of oil, military bases, clandestine operations, and murky alliances – except, of course, when it comes to the bad guys.
At the UN, the “Permanent 3” (P3) - the US, the UK and France – have consistently framed the issue in these crude terms. In public and in private, the P3 ambassadors have expressed their dismay at Russia and China’s willingness to put ideology before the lives of innocent civilians. After Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution on Syria on February 4th, US Ambassador Susan Rice immediately announced that she was “disgusted” by their use of the veto and that "any further blood that flows will be on their hands."
The New York Times, along with most of the media, has echoed this line. Neil MacFarquhar, the NY Times’ bureau chief at the UN, sums up the issue in the following terms:
"Fundamentally, the argument over Syria reflects a deeper divide between those who would use the Security Council to confront nations over how their governments treat civilians, versus those who consider that it has no role whatsoever in settling domestic disputes. Syria is the latest example in an argument that stretches back through all recent conflicts."
Such clichés were abundantly on offer at the time of the Libya intervention too, and they are daily repeated by the press and, unfortunately, by many NGOs as well.
Great powers invoke “sovereignty,” “human rights” and other moral and legal terms to further their own interest and to generate public support. Rarely, if ever, do they take into account the real suffering of the victims of these crises – the ordinary people.
Indeed, the P3’s commitment to a post-sovereign world is blatantly inconsistent. The P3 had no problem in letting Saud Arabia exercise its sovereign right to violently repress demonstrations. Nor did they hesitate to protect the government of Bahrain when popular protests flared there. Throughout the years, they have been unconditionally supportive of Israel’s sovereign “right to defend itself,” irrespective of what this meant for Palestinians.
We should not forget that these advocates of a post-sovereign world are keen to hold on to their own sovereign powers. The United States, first and foremost, rejects inroads on its sovereignty. It refuses to put its troops into a UN peacekeeping mission under the command of a foreign national and it intensely opposes International Criminal Court jurisdiction over its leaders and military chiefs.
The record of Western intervention is not encouraging in terms of protection of civilians and promotion of democracy. Iraq provides one striking case in point. So do Haiti, Afghanistan, Somalia and many others. Before we get enthusiastic about the interventionist approach and succumb to the tempting calls of “something has to be done,” it is well to consider the historical record and to examine the options.
We can well hope that Bashar al-Asad and his regime disappear as quickly as possible and that the Syrian people enjoy democracy in the nearest future. But it will be wise to avoid the cynical, emotion-laden arguments of the Western diplomats and their uncritical media note-takers. Serious thought, not simplistic reactions, will be needed if a durable and democratic future is to be won in Syria.