Where’s The Line On Intervention?

Andrew Sullivan —  Sep 13 2013 @ 2:38pm

A reader writes:

I have watched a bit of Anderson’s new show, and I am so excited to see you on as a regular guest. The revelation for me so far (with my limited viewing) is Christiane Ahmanpour. I’ve not known her as an opinion journalist, but she is quite compelling to watch. Might I add that she is not the least bit intimidated by her male counterparts at the table, which I love. I saw a clip of her very emotional appeal for Syrian intervention (which, by the way, I think is perfectly fine as long as it is coupled with the kind of intellectual heft and reflection that someone like Ahmanpour can bring to bear), and I think it raises a legitimate question that I have posed here before. Where is the moral line for humanitarian intervention? Does a situation have to reach Holocaust proportions or are we talking Srebrenica before we act?

America is arguably the world’s only superpower. There are obligations that come with that privilege, and we now live in an era in which that is simply not a welcome burden thanks to the abuses of the Bush/Cheney years. Why am I not hearing this obligation being debated? Isn’t there a line out there that we don’t want crossed for myriad reasons? Where is that line?

Christiane’s passion is admirable and I respect her enormously. But of course, our decision matrix on whether to intervene to stop moral atrocities has to take into account the cost, context, and consequences of such a decision every time we approach it. The impulse to intervene in Somalia was a decent and good one, for example, just as Christiane’s impulse to stop these horrifying attacks is a good and decent one. But it led to a military and strategic disaster which forced us to leave in a hurry. Ditto the moral impulse to save tortured children in Saddam’s Iraq. But does the gravity of the crime matter? Of course it does, as Reuel Marc Gerecht pointed out.

To be honest, as a function of being on vacation when the attack happened, I did not experience the shock that many experienced in real time. That may have made me seem more callous than I am. I also have to say that the images of the slaughter I subsequently watched affected me deeply, as they would anyone with a heart or soul. I shifted a little because of it. But I insist nonetheless that unless there is a way to prevent that kind of horror without intervening in Syria’s civil war, we shouldn’t intervene. Maybe Obama’s “unbelievably small but not a pinprick” strike could do that, and I was open to persuasion. But now that Assad has caved on that specific issue with no missiles fired, the issue for me now is moot. If he attacks with poison gas again, we may have to reassess.

There is no eternal line defining when or when we should not intervene in these circumstances. We have to judge each incident as it occurs. Christiane and I have different judgments about that. It’s up to readers and viewers to decide which one makes the most sense to you. That’s the messy way we do it in democracies – but it’s better than any moral “red lines” without any practical consideration of the costs involved.