Syrian Refugees & Why Realists Are The Real Ethicists

December 23, 2013

“We should cease to talk about vague…unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”

– George Kennan, Head of the U.S. State Department Policy Planning Staff, “Memo PPS No. 23,” February 28, 1948


Syria is twice afflicted this winter.  This convulsing country is suffering through the most deadly conflict in its history and just experienced its most violent winter storm in a century, making life all the more intolerable for those caught in the middle.  I am writing to you today, War on the Rocks readers, to ask you to help Syrian refugees.

In no small part because of statements like the one that introduces this article, the realist school of thought is often portrayed as being disdainful of humanitarianism and ethics.  Critics charge that realism’s professed amorality makes it, in effect, immoral and accuse realists of handicapping the “better angels of our nature” by emphasizing a pessimistic view of human nature.  This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, according to some.

In light of this, my plea on behalf of Syrian refugees might seem somehow out of touch with realism. And realism is, after all, the central message and mission of War on the Rocks.  As such, you might expect me to argue here that helping Syrian refugees is somehow in America’s strategic interests. It might be, but that is not the rationale behind my appeal.  More fundamentally, I take issue with the idea – offered by critics and some proponents of realism alike – that realism is unconcerned with ethics.  Viewed in its appropriate historical context, realism is actually more seriously concerned with ideals than idealism and its modern-day successors, neo-conservatism and liberal internationalism.

Now hold on a minute, you might be thinking, that is just absurd.  How could a school of thought that self-consciously subordinates ideals to more narrowly defined national interests be more seriously concerned with ideals than paradigms that hold ideals at their very heart?  Because ideologies have to be judged by their results. And the real-world fruits of neo-conservatism and liberal internationalism have been poisonous.

In the words of the humanitarian ethicist Hugo Slim, “unless we are truly realistic about the challenges in applying our ideals, we are unlikely to succeed in realizing any of them.”  Unfortunately, most liberal internationalists and neo-conservatives are failing this test when it comes to Syria, just as they failed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. If you are really serious about the spread of enlightenment values, human rights, human security, the mitigation of armed conflict and all the rest, pursuing these goals through externally-imposed armed political transformations is more likely to imperil these lofty goals than to advance them.

And while Kennan’s quoted words might sound harsh and heartless, they were a more ethical response to the time (1948) and place (the Far East) than competing arguments.  Kennan and other famous realists like the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr understood that the true path to immorality and catastrophe was found in mistaking the ought for the is. Indeed, one cannot read Kennan’s elegantly written memoirs without being affected by the man’s ethical foundation and deep sense of empathy no matter where he was stationed – be it Prague, Berlin, Moscow, or Washington – as well as his fine eye for moral hypocrisy.

If you examine nearly every American decision to go to or expand an existing war in the last ten years – the decision to invade Iraq and the “surge” that followed, the “surge” in Afghanistan, and Operation Unified Protector, which toppled Qaddafi – the benefits accrued as far as human rights and human security are concerned are dubious at best, and fig leaves covering greater injustices at worst.  It was the realists who offered the more ethical options at every turn.  True, the world is a less dictatorial place without Saddam Hussein, but the war to topple him and establish a new regime, itself with questionable democratic credentials, cost at least 116,000 civilian lives, almost ten thousand of them in the last year alone.  Rates of violence in Afghanistan are just as high as they were before the “surge” there, which I witnessed first-hand.  The Afghan government the United States installed is an opium republic: a malign kleptocracy that rests its security in no small part on a police force that has institutionalized the rape of children.  Libya is a morass of violent militias, and entire swaths of Africa were destabilized by the fall of Qaddafi.  Perhaps worse, after the West had successfully induced Qaddafi to renounce weapons of mass destruction and the United States had announced that his regime was in compliance with Biological Weapons Convention and nuclear nonproliferation obligations, it played a lead role in its destruction, sending a very clear message to every other tin-pot dictator with a nasty arsenal: do not cooperate with the international community.

And yet, as the call to battle in Syria was sounding, the same discredited arguments draped in so-called morality were dusted off to convince Americans that another war in another country was the right thing to do.   Prominent liberal internationalists and neo-conservatives alike have offered their prescription for Syria – direct or indirect armed military intervention against the Assad regime and its military forces.  This intervention, in their imagining, would be on behalf of the Syrian people – yes, somehow all of them in their fractured factions – but in practice would favor hardline elements among the Sunni Arab majority. And armed intervention would – contravening every civil conflict where outside powers armed local proxies – somehow mitigate rather than aggravate the civil war.

Regardless, liberal internationalists and neo-conservatives have lost this argument. Absent another blatant deployment of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, U.S. military intervention is decidedly not on the table for a host of reasons.  Could Washington have done more to help resolve the Syrian crisis, short of military intervention? I do not doubt it, nor have I endorsed President Obama’s current course.

Can we, however, as individuals, do something and provide some relief from the deplorable, horrific state that Syrians find themselves in?

Yes, we can,

Help the refugees. Stop advocating anti-solutions like arming proxies or dispatching Western forces “settle” the conflict.  Syria’s 2.2 million* refugees, including 1 million child refugees, need your help and you can give it to them without even leaving your couch.  It isn’t geopolitics, but it will make an undeniably positive moral contribution to a child’s life.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is asking you to help them save Syria’s children from the hardships of war, winter, and displacement.  You can make a direct financial contribution (click here if you are British, here if you are Canadian, and here if you are Australian), sell something on eBay and give the proceeds to UNICEF, and even get your employer involved.  The UN finds itself unable to meet the demand posed by this conflict.  It is running out of money.

The United States may not be in a position to “save Syria,” but you can help the refugees.


Ryan Evans is the assistant director of the Center for the National Interest and the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.


*This number represents a tenth of Syria’s population and the real number is likely far higher.


Photo credit: Freedom House