The latest edition of the journal Ethics and International Affairs contains a number of interesting articles on international law and the ethics of war. Several of them are worth commenting on, but I want to focus on a piece by Alex Bellamy, Director of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at The University of Queensland, Australia. Bellamy is the author of quite a good introductory book on just war theory. As his job title would suggest, he’s something of an R2P advocate, and in his latest article he tackles the idea that during civil wars outside parties should support the state against insurgents. This idea rests on the principle that the state will probably win, and so it’s best to help it win as quickly as possible, so reducing overall bloodshed. The fact that Bellamy considers it necessary to address the idea is almost certainly a product of the situation in Syria, where government troops are the on verge on launching a final offensive to clear the country of rebel forces. The final triumph of the ‘Assad regime’ now seems so certain that even as hawkish a commentator as Max Boot has said that it would be best at this point if everybody helped Assad so as the get the war over and done with. Bellamy doesn’t like this. He calls it the ‘fatalist approach’ and in his article, entitled ‘Ending Atrocity Crimes: the False Promise of Fatalism’, he urges the likes of Boot to reconsider.
Now, I’m all for people taking on Max Boot, and would normally side with anybody who wants to do such a thing, but in this case, Boot is closer to the truth than Bellamy. For all his aggressiveness, Boot’s ultimately about the forceful pursuit of the national interest, not grandiose ideas of human rights or the international order. Liberal interventionists like Bellamy, by contrast, are all about the latter. And that’s where they go badly wrong.
In his article, Bellamy admits that the idea of helping states to defeat insurgents is not without merit, even in cases where the states in question are guilty of serious crimes. He points out that ‘when states prevail quickly over their domestic opponents, they tend to kill fewer civilians’. Wars in which the rebels prevail and which end in regime change tend, by contrast, to be very prolonged and involve much more death and destruction. Also, peace is normally more long lasting when one side or other wins decisively.
Despite this, Bellamy argues that helping states defeat their rebel enemies is a bad idea. He provides three reasons, which he calls ‘recurrence, precedence, and rights’. First (‘recurrence’), if states learn that they can employ atrocities against their citizens and get away with it, they will do so again and again. As he says, ‘Vladimir Putin came to power by employing indiscriminate violence against Chechnya to good effect in the Second Chechen War, and went on to support similar tactics in Syria.’ Second (‘precedence’), if states see that the international community turns a blind eye to criminal activity by other states, and even helps those states achieve victory, they will draw the conclusion that they can behave badly too. Again, he cites ‘the aforementioned adoption by Syrian government forces of tactics perfected by Russia during the Second Chechen War.’ And third (‘rights’), ‘Privileging order by standing aside as grave violations of rights are committed is patently inconsistent not only with the obligations of international human rights and humanitarian law but also with the principles and purposes of the United Nations itself’. Ignoring such violations in order to bring wars to a quick end would do ‘great harm to the legitimacy of both the international legal order itself … and the compact between states and peoples.’
Bellamy remarks that his approach is a rule-consequentialist one, that is to say that he is arguing about what would be the best rule rather than what is best in any single instance. The fact that in some individual cases supporting a repressive government would bring a war to an end and so reduce suffering is not reason enough to create a rule that one should always do such a thing. If this was done all the time the negative consequences would outweigh the positive ones. One must, therefore, accept the additional suffering in this one case in order to support the rule which does the most good when applied repeatedly.
I have no problem with rule consequentialist arguments and have often used them myself. But they are very dependent upon judgements of future consequences which one cannot actually know. In this specific case, I think that Bellamy’s judgement is rather coloured by inaccurate assessments of how actions in one instance impact upon actions in another. His arguments concerning recurrence and precedence, for instance, draw on the Chechen example and claim that failure to confront Russia in Chechnya led to Russia, and Syria, committing atrocities during the Syrian civil war. But the link between Russian tactics in Chechnya and the methods used in Syria is decidedly tenuous. As I’ve said before, the tactics and level of force employed by the Russians and Syrians are not very obviously different from those employed by the United States and its various allies in places such as Fallujah, Mosul, and Raqqa. And that is for the very good reason that if you’re going to expel a heavily armed and determined enemy from a city, then you don’t have many options other than to act in that way. In short, it’s got nothing to do with recurrence or precedence.
Moreover, as I’ve also said before, the elevation of ‘rights’ over peace is contradictory because by extending war and increasing the level of violence one inevitably undermines people’s rights, in particular the right to life. It’s also wrong to claim, as Bellamy does, that it’s a mistake to prioritize order over rights, for the simple reason that order is an essential precondition of rights. Bellamy ends his article by saying that we ‘need a politics of stubborn resistance.’ I find this phrase rather scary. In the case of Syria, what could this mean but war and yet more war? After all, if we aren’t going to let Assad win, there’s only two alternatives: war without end; or a war to overthrow the government (which only be achieved at a massive cost in human life). It’s hard to see how either option would enhance Syrians’ rights.
In any case, I think that Bellamy is tilting at windmills, in that I don’t think that there are many people who are saying that it should be a general rule that in civil wars one should always support the state. After all, if it’s a war which the state is losing, the logic of ending it quickly would dictate supporting the rebels. Perhaps a better rule might be to support whichever side is most likely to win in order to enable it do so as rapidly as possible. But that also wouldn’t be a very good rule, as it’s not that easy to predict who’s going to win and people are going to get it repeatedly wrong and end up supporting the weaker side, so making things worse. For instance, based on my memories on what was being said at the time along the lines of ‘Assad is doomed’, I’m reasonably confident that when the Americans decided to get involved in the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels they were pretty confident that they were backing a winner. Instead, they backed a bunch of losers, and so prolonged the war and increased the suffering of the Syrian people.
Studies have shown very clearly that, absent foreign intervention, civil wars generally finish fairly rapidly. Foreign intervention is strongly correlated with longer wars and increased suffering. If I may turn Bellamy’s rule consequentialist logic against him, then it is clear that if one is looking for the rule which over time does the least harm, then it isn’t one which says intervene on behalf of the state in civil wars, nor is it one which says intervene on behalf of the rebels, nor is it one which says intervene on behalf the side most likely to win. Rather, it’s one which says ‘Don’t intervene at all!’ For sure, that would require us to refrain from intervening in the few instances when intervention might do some good, but it would also force us to refrain in the far more numerous instances when it would do harm. Overall, the world would be much better off as a result. The dogmatic pursuit of human rights may make people feel virtuous, but in the end morality has to rest on practical realities, and those dictate that the strategy of ‘stubborn resistance’ is deeply counterproductive.