by Robert Wright
This week’s abrupt withdrawal of US troops from a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria inspired a variety of criticisms, as politicians and commentators of all major ideological stripes condemned Trump for ordering it.
The main criticisms have a lot of validity, in so far as they go. In greenlighting Turkey’s military incursion into Syria, Trump indeed, as charged: (1) abandoned the Kurds, who at America’s behest had spent the last few years fighting ISIS; (2) probably helped ISIS, at least in the short run, by diverting Kurdish attention and resources toward fighting Turkey; (3) ensured the death or displacement (a.k.a ethnic cleansing) of lots of Kurds.
But there’s one criticism I haven’t heard, and I think this silence is an indictment of the entire Washington foreign policy establishment—and more evidence that it deserves its evocatively pejorative nickname, the “Blob.”
The criticism that went unvoiced is simple: The Turkish incursion that Trump greenlighted is illegal. It violates international law, which prohibits transborder aggression.
If you join the foreign policy establishment in not considering this worth much discussion, I understand. After all, precisely because of the Blob’s longstanding silence on international law, “violates international law” sounds like something abstract and technical, with less emotional force than, say, “committed a felony.”
My own view is that if this doesn’t change—if international law doesn’t come to command the kind of respect that domestic law does—the wellbeing and maybe even the survival of our species will be at risk. The full version of my argument to this effect takes a while to unfold (I spent hundreds of pages on it in my book Nonzero). But you can get at least some sense for why I’m an international law aficionado by reflecting on this question: Why is it that pretty much no one in the entire foreign policy establishment—not liberal internationalists, not neoconservatives, not unilateralist Boltonesque warmongers—complains about Trump’s having just abetted an egregious violation of international law?
Here’s one plausible answer: Because pretty much all of them have themselves advocated egregious violations of international law, and many of them have done so prolifically. Indeed (sorry about the continued italics, but I’m pretty worked up at this point) the Blob’s persistent disregard for international law is one reason Syria is such a mess in the first place.
For example: The US invasion of Iraq—an invasion that wound up spawning the precursor of ISIS, whose subsequent metastasis in Syria helped tear the country apart—was plainly, flatly illegal. Iraq hadn’t attacked us, which means the only way that war would have been legal is if the UN Security Council had authorized it, which it wisely didn’t. And it’s maybe a three-percent exaggeration—max— to say that the entire US foreign policy establishment supported this violation of international law.
International law, at this early stage in its evolution, is in some places amorphous, and often lacking in adjudicatory process, so it’s not always clear whether a blunder embraced by the Blob is, in addition to being a blunder, illegal. Consider regime change in Libya, which in 2011 led to the spewing of weapons into black markets across the region, including in Syria, where these weapons amped up the carnage.
The Security Council resolution authorizing that intervention was about protecting civilian populations (initially in just one city) by establishing a no-fly zone—not about bombing the regime into collapse. But some scholars say the resolution’s wording was broad enough to make bombing the regime into collapse legal. Other scholars disagree, and I’m on their side. But one thing that’s clear is that virtually no one in the Blob even paused to consider the question. That’s not the Blob’s way.
So too with the regime change effort in Syria—an effort supported by President Obama along with European and Arab allies. A few scholars might argue that the effort fully complied with international law (even though the US, in addition to flooding a supposedly sovereign nation with weapons intended to help overthrow its government, actually bombed parts of the country). Most scholars wouldn’t, but in any event, if you spent the Syrian civil war waiting for Blobsters to weigh in on the question one way or the other you were wasting your time. They were too busy intensifying that war by championing the funneling of weapons into dubious Syrian hands.
Indeed, one of the louder Blobist complaints about that exercise is that it wasn’t intrusive enough—that we didn’t do more bombing, perhaps enough to induce the regime’s collapse. (Why we should have expected such an exercise to lead to a happier outcome than it had led to in Libya is one of many Blob-related intellectual mysteries.)
Historical what-ifs are famously tricky. But if international law had been scrupulously respected in the three cases I’ve cited—if, when in doubt about the legality of something, we had erred on the side of caution (as most of us probably do with domestic laws)—I think the world would now be in a better place. There would be way fewer innocent people dead or maimed in the Middle East, way fewer refugees, and therefore less in the way of extreme political reactions to refugees in Europe.
And in Turkey. Though Turkey’s violation of international law has multiple motivations, one of them is to send millions of Syrian refugees currently in Turkey back to Syria. If it weren’t for the American foreign policy establishment, many of those refugees might not be there in the first place.
[Obscure footnote for international relations nerds: People sometimes ask me what the difference is between what I call progressive realism (which I’ve championed, for example, here) and traditional realism. I’ll probably get into this more systematically in future issues of the newsletter, but for now I’ll just mention one difference. Most traditional realists would join me in condemning the series of military interventions—in Iraq, in Libya, in Syria—that helped make the Middle East the mess it is today. But most of them wouldn’t care much about the question of international law. I mean, they’re happy to use international law when it’s handy, but there’s no big emphasis among traditional realists on respecting and nurturing its evolution as a critical part of long-term strategy. I would add, though, that there is a new anti-Blob think tank in Washington—the Quincy Institute—whose mission is broad enough to accommodate both traditional realists and progressive realists, and it will be interesting to see what kind of dialogue between them emerges under its auspices.]
Robert Wright is editor of The Nonzero Newsletter, where this article originally appeared. He is the author of The Evolution of God (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), Nonzero, The Moral Animal (named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review), and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller Why Buddhism Is True. He is visiting professor of science and spirituality at Union Theological Seminary in New York.