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US conflicted over Syria

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COMMENTS

23 August 2012 09:36

Rodger Shanahan raised some good points in his piece on Syria: the cautious approach of the US in the face of an impotent UN Security Council could ultimately make the situation considerably worse for Syrians and the region.

I also agree with Rodger's assessment that the 'US risks losing what remains of its moral authority in the Middle East through its hypocritical policy in Syria'. Yes, there is a risk but I would add that this has always been the case and it is a vexed problem that confronts all states-people.

'Where principle is involved, be deaf to expediency,' suggested US Navy oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury. But America's principles are contested and in conflict – both in their relevance and meaning – and must be subject to compromise.

Henry Kissinger, in his book querying the need for an American foreign policy, concluded that 'America's ultimate challenge is to transform its power into moral consensus, promoting its values not by imposition but by their willing acceptance in a world that, for all its seeming resistance, desperately needs enlightened leadership'. Kissinger understood too well the complexities and difficulties of treading the path between principles and the ambiguities of reality: 

The outsider thinks in terms of absolutes; for him right and wrong are defined in their conception.The political leader does not have this luxury. He rarely can reach his goal except in stages; any partial step is inherently morally imperfect and yet morality cannot be approximated without it.

The inimitable Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote about the moral compromises of dealing with distasteful regimes in her 1979 essay Dictatorships and Double Standards. In propounding the doctrine that would eventually bear her name, Kirkpatrick highlighted the differences between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. She also noted the agents of change within each. Authoritarian regimes are concerned with the wielding of power and 'leave in place existing allocations of wealth, power, status and other resources'. Totalitarian regimes, argued Kirkpatrick, seek to remake and maintain control over the entire society.

The contrast between the two regimes leads to significantly different chances of both survivability and democratisation. Hence, one regime, whilst not complying with the liberal ideals of the US, is more preferable to deal with than the other.  

Of course, Kirkpatrick was writing at the time when it was potentially dangerous to destabilise allies of any strain in the fight against the Soviet Union, but the necessity for compromise remains as valid today as it did during the Cold War. Kirkpatrick said 'US policy could effectively encourage...liberalisation and democratisation, provided that the effort is not made at a time when the incumbent government is fighting for its life against violent adversaries, and that proposed reforms are aimed at producing gradual change rather than perfect democracy overnight.'

The underpinning consideration is utilitarian – how does the US reconcile its ideals and interests to produce a satisfactory outcome? The question facing policy makers is not whether principles should be compromised at all, but rather, to what extent should compromise be accommodated and to what end?

Hugh White's new book, The China Choice, and Rodger's contribution on Australian uranium sales to the UAE initiated a question from Sam on the moral dimension of foreign policy with a thoughtful response from Alison Broinowski. This is a most promising debate and one I hope continues. The moral good is not always readily identifiable and certainly not easily approximated or evaluated across competing priorities.

In his characteristically acute style, Stephen Hadley outlines a number of steps for increased US involvement and leadership in Syria. Hadley's approach demonstrates a prudent compromise between US principles and practical considerations. Is cooperating with Saudi Arabia and Qatar hypocritical, as Rodger suggests? Quite possibly. Is it utilitarian and advisable? That is a far more difficult question to answer.

President Obama said that one of the things he had learned after a year in office was that by the time an issue got to his desk, there were no easy answers. This is as true of the US response to Syria as it is to every problem where the US finds its interests and ideals in conflict.

 

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