Morals Matter: Why The US Is Obligated To Intervene In Syria

Just two weeks ago, the West was preparing for an imminent intervention in Syria in response to now confirmed chemical weapons attacks on civilians. The intervening diplomatic solution to remove Syria’s chemical arsenal is not only ridiculous on a practical level, it ignores the fact that Bashar al-Assad has lost the legitimacy to govern. In this column, I apply the political philosophy of Immanuel Kant to the situation in Syria and conclude that the use of chemical weapons is not a tipping point or a ‘red line;’ it is rather a particularly egregious example of a leader clinging onto illegitimate power, and more than enough justification of our obligation to intervene.

To understand the crisis in Syria from a philosophical standpoint, we must first determine exactly what a state is and how it’s justified in the first place. Like many classical philosophers, Kant asks us to imagine a situation of lawless freedom where everyone lives unconstrained by a government. In this so called ‘state of nature,’ might literally makes right. In Kant’s view, without an external constraint on human behavior, even humans with complete freedom lack ‘autonomy.’ Far different from mere freedom, autonomy is constrained freedom. When we act autonomously, we are free to choose our actions as long as they do not interfere with others’ ability to do the same. Think of autonomy as a sphere of possible actions we can take that extends just out to the edge of everyone else’s sphere. The key understanding is that if my sphere extends into yours by virtue of my unlawful action, I have violated your autonomy and cease to warrant protection of my sphere from the state. In keeping with Kant’s view of universal morality, each person in the state of nature has a fundamental moral duty to submit to the rule of a republican state, one in which right (or law) is determined by the will of the populous.  Only with such a state can we secure our own autonomy, and thus meet the demands of morality.

In practice, the only way that the state can secure our autonomy is to restrict the spheres of action of others, a responsibility most often executed by a police force that has been delegated limited coercive power from the state and, most importantly, is controlled by the collective citizenry of the state. In summation, Kant writes, “the state is a union of a number of peoples under laws of right that guarantees consistent domains of external freedom for its individual members.” Clearly, the al-Assad government in Syria does not meet the requirements for statehood, which is why the United States, and most of the West has not recognized it as such since last December.

Kant’s moral theory extends to relations between states in the same way it handles relations within states. In the state of nature among states, governments live in an anarchical pre-societal situation in which their autonomy cannot be protected. For Kant, states must submit just as individuals do to a ‘supranational authority’ which governs relations among them, “As concerns the relations among states, there can be no other way for them to emerge from the lawless condition … than for them to relinquish, just as do individual human beings, their wild and lawless freedom, and to accustom themselves to public, binding laws.” Kant called this supranational authority a ‘league of nations,’ and its justification is the same as that of a regular state itself, “By such a congress to preserve peace, and only thus, can the idea of autonomy of nations be realized, one to be established for deciding their disputes in a civil way, as if by lawsuit, rather than in a barbaric or savage way, namely by war.” Just as with individuals, states also have mutually secure spheres of autonomy that protect their actions so long as they do not interfere with other states. When states infringe on other states’ autonomy, they cease to warrant protection from the supranational authority.

The obligation of the supranational authority to intervene in cases of state illegitimacy arises from the obligation of individuals to form a state to secure their autonomy, “the justification of the state ultimately must rest on moral grounds, on the innate autonomy of each person, and on the obligation of each to recognize and respect the autonomy of everyone else.” For Kant, it is morally impossible for the supranational authority, or any state for that matter, to value one person’s right to republican government over another person’s. Just as individuals have obligations to aid others, states have obligations to aid not only their own citizens, but also citizens without the benefit of a state to protect them. The absence of a state and its enforcement mechanism effectively relegates the people of Syria to the state of nature and their obligation to form a state is incompatible with the al-Assad government’s continued power.

For the United States, and the rest of the republican Western governments, nonintervention in the case of Syria amounts to valuing Westerners’ autonomy ahead of Syrians’. In Kant’s view, a state’s failure to secure everyone’s access out of the state of nature is just as immoral as a state’s failure to protect its own citizens’ autonomy. For only in a situation where every individual is also a citizen are we actually morally protecting our own autonomy and making progress towards a supranational authority for all citizens everywhere. Such a supranational authority, however distant, is Kant’s ultimate conception of everyone’s complete escape from the state of nature, and reaching that point requires intervention in cases where an illegitimate power limits the ability of a people anywhere to form a republican state. Indeed, far before the development of modern human rights law, Kant observes, “The growing prevalence of a wider community among the peoples of the earth has now reached the point at which the violation of right at any one place on the earth is felt in all places.”

From a practical standpoint, the United States should act as soon as possible to fulfill its moral obligation to intervene in Syria. The scope of the obligation is broad, but we are constrained by one overriding criterion: successful intervention does not merely limit human rights abuses or punish Mr. Assad for his actions; the United States, as the largest Western republican government, must take action that leads to the eventual removal of the al-Assad government from power. Intervention does not necessitate or imply invasion, and the United States should ideally seek support from other Western republics before acting unilaterally.  Our obligation to intervene does not necessarily rule out diplomatic options – after all Kant’s argument above was developed in Perpetual Peace – but diplomatic options must ensure that Assad is removed from power  and give the Syrian people a chance to leave the state of nature. The recent proposal to force the chemical disarmament of the Syrian Army is as morally backwards as it is practically ludicrous. Whether through diplomacy, the arming of Syrian rebels, or American tanks rolling into Damascus, the legitimacy of the United States’ protection of autonomy is dependent now on the freedom of the Syrian people.

On Saturday, the Syrian Army attacked a Sunni village, killing at least fifteen civilians out of an estimated 40,000 since the start of the conflict. The attack did not involve chemical weapons, but it was no less egregious than the sarin gas attack that sparked calls for intervention in the first place. The al-Assad government’s use of chemical weapons is not a red line for intervention; the red line was crossed months ago. The U. S. is obligated to intervene, chemical weapons or not.


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