I believe that military force can be harnessed for the greater good of humanity and that there is clear evidence to prove that case. As Western democracies evolve from their Cold War backing of brutal dictators – as long as they were our brutal dictators – we can shift to supporting countries that share or aspire to share our values of human rights, accountable institutions and democracy. The imperfection of today’s democratic states is no excuse not to help those ready to suffer and die, as thousands of refugees have died in the Mediterranean this year alone, to experience a fraction of the freedoms we daily take for granted.

In part 1 of this article, I looked at the ideas and ideology behind liberal interventionism through the lens of the ongoing destruction of Syria at the hands of President Bashir Al-Assad.1 Military intervention has a rough ethical history: every country claims justification for its attacks on others. Democracies, especially the United States, have claimed a moral mantle for the most indefensible missions – from Vietnam to supporting blood-soaked Central American death squads. This history has to be acknowledged. In 1999, then–U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested a framework for intervention, based on five questions, now known as the Blair Doctrine:

  1. Are we sure of our case ?
  2. Have we exhausted all diplomatic options?
  3. Are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake?
  4. Are we prepared for the long term?
  5. Do we have national interests involved?

Successful interventions in the former Yugoslavia (1995), Kosovo (1999), Sierra Leone (2000) and Mali (2013) followed this plan with positive results. The failure to stop the Rwandan genocide and the poorly planned mission to Somalia contributed to international interest in the idea of ‘humanitarian intervention,” later codified into the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine embraced by the United Nations in 2005:

  1. The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;
  2. The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;
  3. The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

Anyone who says the United Nations has no mandate to engage in military intervention, in Syria or elsewhere, is wrong. There it is, in black and white. If history can be used to condemn liberal intervention, it can also be used to defend it. For anyone of fair mind who is not a pacifist, the question should not be whether intervention is ever right, or ever wrong, but how to make it work.

Liberal interventionism is a new type of war that coexists alongside conventional war. It has been joined by a still newer type, the so-called War on Terror, a dark distortion of liberal interventionism. Both dismiss state borders while relying on state protection to achieve their goals. Where liberal intervention, or “wars on terror,” can only be carried out by states strong in arms and legitimacy, international terror groups rely on weak states to house them and rogue states to fund and supply them.

In this article I dig deeper into the experience of interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya before making the argument for a liberal intervention in Syria. I look at the reasons why it’s an argument unlikely to be heeded, and the devastating consequences of the West’s newfound suspicion of its power, and our lack of confidence in our own capacity to evolve.

Afghanistan: Breaking our word and Islamist blowback

The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan qualified as a liberal intervention under the five tests of the Blair Doctrine – except the Taliban was never recognized as the legitimate government by Saudi Arabia, only gaining recognition from the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Noam Chomsky. The 9/11 attacks on the United States triggered an ultimately conventional war between NATO and the Taliban, with  the latter treated as the effective if not legitimate government, and that war was UN-sanctioned (Security Council Resolution 1368). Real improvements followed, from infrastructure to education – especially for girls.2 Elections were contested, despite Taliban violence and massive corruption on the part of then-President Karzai’s government.

The perception of failure haunted the Afghan mission. The defeat of successive empires within its borders over the course of thousands of years created a lazy narrative that ignores the fact that life there is better by most measures today than before 2001.3 Al Qaeda – which could not be destroyed with the capture of territory, or even the killing of its leaders – and the Taliban were displaced but not eliminated. We judge conventional wars based on the fall of capital cities and the surrender of armies; Afghanistan denied us that metric.

The Americans seemed to have learned little from their 1993–95 intervention in Somalia, which included a small military force, massive but poorly controlled flows of aid and unreliable allies. The lack of a clear plan for the military, and a clear way of explaining the mission to the American public, meant the mission could not survive the infamous “Blackhawk Down” incident, when 18 U.S. servicemen died in a single day. Two decades after President Clinton ordered his troops home, Somalia has only now begun to stabilize, thanks to the longstanding and costly commitment of the African Union.

In Afghanistan, shifting perceptions of national interest led intervening countries to abandon the international mission. Afghan leaders could see that the West was preparing to cut and run, as many had suspected. I was in Kabul in 2002, meeting with political leaders who had been underground since the time of the Soviet occupation. I assured one, over a huge meal of meatballs and bread, that unlike other promises from other governments, this time the Western alliance would not abandon them. That my government and others made me a liar is something I still find hard to forgive. The fourth Blair test, the commitment to stay engaged for the long term, was broken. With the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Islamist terror spreading in part in response to Western interventions, the perception was that the war had failed on all three counts: conventional, liberal and counterterror.

I’ll return to the problem of democratic countries making long-term commitments. The question of interventionism creating terrorism needs to be addressed head-on. In the case of former Yugoslavia or Sierra Leone, to say nothing of the defeated Axis powers in World War II, there was no “blowback.” There are no Milošević-inspired suicide bombers, no devotees of Foday Sankoh blowing up buses in London. Serbia has just applied to join the European Union. In Sierra Leone Tony Blair is a national hero.4 If intervention does not produce blowback in all cases, it cannot be accused of defining the idea.

It is beyond question that intervention in Islamic countries has produced blowback, in the form of attacks against Western countries and Western interests. Why? The West took its place in the Islamist pantheon of enemies largely on the basis of its support for oppressive regimes in the postwar era. This was compounded by those regimes deflecting internal criticism onto Israel, which was supported by the United States. Domestic repression closed off peaceful means of dissent at the same time as traditional left or Marxist alternatives were discredited, leaving Islamism as a culturally relevant and accessible alternative. That same repression created emigrant communities in Western democracies where Islamist ideas spread for different reasons: in response to prejudice, as a means of rebelling against the dominant culture, or because radical Islam scratches the same itch as previous extremist creeds such as Communism, Fascism, fundamentalist Christianity and so on.

This is not an article about Islamist terror. What is important in this context is this question: Do the complexities and possibility of Islamist terror mean countries likely to create it are exempt from human rights standards? Does fear of suicide bombers or other mass atrocities mean any country or group ready to use those tools is exempt from retribution? If the answer is yes, the world will quickly fall under the sway of such groups, or more likely of countries like Russia or China who act against such groups, and others they disagree with, without due process.

If the answer is no, then terror attacks have to be addressed as a modern challenge to liberal democracy, the same way other extremist ideologies have been successfully confronted. Allowing your opponent to define your rules of engagement is never a good idea.

Iraq: How to do everything right, then wrong, then right, then wrong again

The complexities of Afghanistan and Islamist terror were unnecessarily amplified a hundredfold by the war in Iraq.

George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq just 18 months after 9/11; the quick seizure of Kabul was taken as evidence that the broader Middle East was ready for rapid restructuring. This was not a liberal intervention. It met, at best, only two of the Blair Doctrine’s five tests. The Americans said Saddam Hussein had to be deposed for possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and supporting international terrorism. Longstanding UN sanctions, imposed after the 1990–91 Gulf War, sometimes helped and sometimes hurt the case for war, as Saddam cooperated with and then obstructed weapons inspectors, creating the impression that he maintained a WMD stockpile while avoiding the consequences of doing so.5

The war itself was carefully executed; Baghdad fell within three weeks. Civil conflict began immediately as regional, ethic and religious tensions, repressed by the dictatorship, erupted in violence.

The Iraq war is presented as the signal failure of liberal intervention, discrediting the concept and the author of the Blair Doctrine. Efforts to achieve humanitarian goals in Iraq cannot excuse the failure of the U.S.-led coalition, and efforts by Saddam to muddy the waters cannot be used as an excuse for the failure to make the case for war. It is not the job of the tyrant to make life easy for those who want to overthrow him. While diplomatic options were pursued, there was no consensus that they had been exhausted.

Shockingly, there was no plan for the occupation. U.S. combat troops were drawn down as sectarian militias were formed, and bizarre decisions, such as dissolving the Iraqi military and border patrol, created a horde of armed, unemployed young men. Intent on destroying Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, the United States embarked on a process of de-Ba’athification that far exceeded the de-Nazification imposed on Germany after World War II. This rendered most Iraqi professionals, who had joined the Ba’ath because it was required, unemployable. The Americans added to this army of the desperate by sanctioning torture. Iraq remains chaotic, despite a period of stability during the U.S. troop surge of 2007–10.6

Blair’s decision to take the United Kingdom into the war was driven by a desire to maintain its influence over the United States. He feared the instability that a unilateral U.S. invasion could generate and believed, as the British usually do, that they could mitigate American excesses. Blair’s inability to explain the difference between humanitarian intervention and preserving the trans-Atlantic alliance gravely wounded the concept and its champion.

The Iraq debacle – from the failure of Bush and Blair to plan for the occupation to the failure of Obama to carry the surge to a positive conclusion to the haphazard response to the rize of the Islamic State (Daesh) – was seized upon by Western isolationists of the left and right. The left linked Iraq to American imperialism and hubris; the right said it showed the United States should retreat to a pre-1941 isolationism. Conservatives in other countries had their prejudices against foreigners of all stripes, American and otherwise, reinforced: if the world doesn’t want our help, let’s leave the world alone.

Democratic confusion added to the chaos: unlike wars, which tend to be short, nation-building takes time. This increases the pressure on any government that engages in liberal intervention to win broad support for the project: their domestic opponents may end up responsible for finishing the job. The Bush administration bears responsibility for the post-invasion disaster but deserves credit for the 2007–10 surge, which combined a massive troop buildup with a focus on law and order that allowed Iraqi institutions to strengthen. These steps should have been taken in 2003. The fact they worked as well as they did after years of bloodshed is a sobering reminder of what could have been. It was a lesson that Barack Obama, intent on living up to his campaign promise to end the war, failed to heed. Obama’s disengagement created a vacuum that led to the rise of Daesh. Another president, another unintended consequence, and an unnecessary horror that continues to this day.

Libya: Making the same mistakes

In North Africa, in early 2011, with the Arab Spring in full bloom, Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi responded to initially peaceful protests with ever increasing levels of violence and moved to retake the country by force. On March 19, 2011, as his armoured forces prepared to assault the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, he gave a speech that made his intentions clear: “We are coming tonight. There won’t be any mercy. We will come neighbourhood by neighbourhood, house by house, room by room. We will find you in your closets.”

This threat drove NATO to act. First the French, and then the British and other NATO countries including Canada, bombed Gaddafi’s forces with UN approval. The Libyan leader was stopped. On October 20 Gaddafi was killed. His regime disintegrated.

Recent attempts at revisionism about the Libya mission, most notably the September 2016 report from a U.K. parliamentary committee claiming the threat to civilians in Benghazi was “overrated,” are breathtakingly ignorant.7 Gaddafi, with decades of murdering opponents behind him, responded to peaceful protests with a brutality that continued, and escalated, until his death. Bernard-Henri Lévy, in his well-argued refutation of the Westminster report, said,

Should we have waited (as happened in Syria) until 100,000 people had died – 200,000, 300,000? And those tank columns I saw and filmed in early April 2011 as they levelled the outskirts of Benghazi – would it have been better to let them gut the entire city? Not to mention Misrata. Imagine how the survivors of that shelled and massacred city, with its roads reduced to ash and rubble, its remaining inhabitants fleeing bombs and sniper fire, would respond to the report’s strange questions. And that battle happened in April, lasting through May – weeks and months after Gaddafi had made the threats that today, from within the panelled halls of Westminster, we are urged to consider as having been mere “rhetoric”, not to be taken “literally”.8

The report was correct in stating the plain fact that the coalition lacked an endgame in the Libyan intervention. R2P was used to justify the bombing missions but – despite the disaster of the initial U.S.-led administration of Iraq (2003–06), the success of the surge (2007–10) and the subsequent rise of the Islamic State following U.S. withdrawal (2010–14) – NATO states refused to acknowledge the obvious lesson: any success in R2P requires “boots on the ground.” The coalition splintered and, despite initial optimism, by 2014 the country had descended into civil war. Initial success followed by descent into chaos: Libya was Iraq’s sequel.

4_putinTo the east, Bashar Al-Assad started killing Syrians around the same time that Gaddafi started killing Libyans. There was never an appetite for Western involvement. Gaddafi was an isolated eccentric; Assad had a powerful ally in Putin’s Russia. Syria borders Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, making the military and political costs of engagement very high. The Syrian dictator looked at his country’s streets as they filled with protesters and knew what they did not: he could do what he wanted.

Syria: Why we should intervene, and why we won’t

In part 1 of this article I started with a question: Should the West intervene in Syria? I have argued that liberal interventionism works when a successful and well-planned military operation segues into a plan for nation-building that focuses on the creation, strengthening or transformation of government institutions and quickly – if by necessity only partially – addresses high-profile legitimate grievances. The intervening force has the responsibility to set an example in terms of its conduct by being clear in its mandate and serving as much as possible as an impartial arbiter. Democracy has to be seen to deliver if extremist alternatives are to be denied strength.

In judging intervention in Syria the case is clear. The Blair Doctrine’s five steps are met. Are we sure of our case in Syria? Yes. Mass murder? Ethnic cleansing? Rape as a weapon of war? Using civilians as human shields? Mass torture and extrajudicial killings? Use of weapons of mass destruction? Yes, on all counts. Democratic decision-makers in the West – and that means all of us, with our right to vote – have to ask this question: If Assad’s actions do not warrant the use of force, what atrocities would?

If we decide that Assad can no longer be tolerated, then what? The second test, exhausting diplomatic efforts, is easily met. Assad has repeatedly said he will retake his country by force. Peace talks have been held, most notably in Geneva in 2014 and 2016. Ceasefires have been signed and broken, with the government unashamedly advantaging its forces. At the time of writing, in late September 2016, the latest ceasefire ended with Assad’s Russian allies bombing the first UN aid convoy to reach a rebel-held area.

President Obama first ignored Syria, and then, with Assad’s first use of chemical weapons in 2012, declared their further use to be a “red line” that, if crossed, would precipitate American intervention. The Russians intervened, saying they would guarantee that Syrian WMDs were decommissioned. They weren’t, but the United States welcomed the opportunity to retreat. The cost? Russia was reestablished as an equal interlocutor in the region. Assad did not give up his chemical weapons and continues to use them to this day, the American “red line” covered over with sand.

The pursuit of diplomatic options has strengthened Assad, strengthened the Russians and allowed a war to continue that has now displaced 50 per cent of the country’s population and killed more than 400,000 Syrians. Waves of refugees have flooded across the Middle East and into Europe and beyond. As the West stands by, the Syrian civil war is coming to the West, transforming politics, influencing election results and giving voice to a xenophobia that had been unacceptable for decades. Diplomacy is being used by Assad and Putin to prolong the war, to expend time, to their clear advantage.

The third test: Can a military operation be sensibly undertaken? Pressure for no-fly zones and humanitarian relief corridors were ended by Russia’s intervention in 2015. With Assad vastly stronger in 2016, and opposition fragmented and radicalized, intervention today is more difficult than it would have been in 2011.

In the West little is known of the Syrians who rose up against Assad except Daesh, a millenarian death cult conceived by Al-Qaeda in Sunni-dominated western Iraq. Daesh benefited from the sectarian manner in which the Shi’i regime of Nouri al-Maliki governed in Baghdad. The Americans preferred to leave Maliki in place following the 2010 election, even though he had (narrowly) lost to a nonsectarian Shi’i-Sunni coalition. While its atrocities cannot be excused, Daesh is responsible for a tiny fraction of the civilian deaths in the Syrian civil war. Assad’s forces are responsible for 95 per cent, and all other forces, including the Western countries bombing Daesh, less than 5 per cent.9

The Kurdish YPG, or People’s Defence Force, has received some attention for its use of women’s brigades and bravery in confronting Assad, Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan views the YPG as the Syrian branch of the banned independence party of the Turkish Kurds, the PKK. The YPG have been disciplined and effective, much as the Kurdistan government in Iraq has set an example of effective governance.


The non-Kurd resistance to Assad was led by the Free Syrian Army, a secular formation that arose soon after the civil war began and quickly attracted senior defectors from Assad’s armed forces. By 2012 it started to splinter, as appeals for international assistance were ignored and Islamist groups began to emerge. The non-Islamist resistance is now divided among dozens of groups, fighting both Assad and radical Islamist groups.

The divisions between rebel forces make the creation of a moderate united front a priority. An internationally backed ground intervention today, something many rebels called for in 2011–12, would likely fail: it would be like invading Iraq with the Islamist groups occupying part of the country and with Saddam and the Iraqi military still in place. The High Negotiations Committee, an alliance of Syrian rebel groups struck to participate in the spring 2016 peace talks, showed that a united front is possible if incentives to cooperate are on the table. Access to Western weapons, training, recognition and other supports are strong incentives. Going further, establishing a no-fly zone would be essential, as would be the creation of relief centres and corridors protected by air or ground forces. President Obama refused to take these steps. I will not predict what President Trump will do.


It is a hard choice. Intervention in Syria is now about much more than confronting Assad. It is about confronting Vladimir Putin, who has fashioned himself into an anti-Western superhero. His military adventurism in Georgia, in Ukraine, now in Syria has been primarily aimed at maintaining his popularity ratings at home: his “managed democracy” is failing and foreign distractions are handy tools to unite the people and further repress dissenting voices. Western weakness has made this an easy card to play.

The Russians would resist any effort to displace Assad but they do not have the money or ability to enter a war with the West. To put the Russian dilemma bluntly: If Russia is ruled by rational actors, they will reach an accommodation with the West on Syria. If not, better to find that out sooner rather than later, given the pace of Russian rearmament and the momentum created by a series of successful invasions.

The question that has to be asked is not “why confront Russia?” but “what are the costs of not confronting Russia?” At what point will cyber-attacks on Baltic states and American political parties be stopped? At what point will the repression of LGBT Russians be considered intolerable (they were recently denied the right to drive cars)? Which military occupation or attack on neighbouring states will be one too many?

It is possible that Russia would respond to the deployment of Western-backed troops with ground forces of its own. While radically raising tensions, this would likely lead to a quick and negotiated end to the Syrian war. Similarly, the Iranians, following their nuclear deal with the West, would be willing to negotiate simply for the sake of being included in negotiations and recognized once more as a regional power. At the very least the war would be ended; if the West is successful in bolstering the anti-Assad forces, the dictator could be replaced. Agreements to amnesty Ba’athist, and other, war criminals would stick in the throat, but seeing Assad live out his days in a luxury dacha on the Black Sea would bend the arc of history more toward justice than seeing several hundred thousand more deaths in his name.

If the political will existed to support intervention, Assad’s crimes would make arguments against intervention difficult to uphold. Western governments have built support for military action on much flimsier grounds.

The fourth criterion – are we prepared for the long term? – is perhaps easier to satisfy in Syria than in Iraq or Afghanistan. The border between East and West Germany was, as the border between North and South Korea still is, a frontier between great powers with clearly conflicting aims. To make peace acceptable, the United States stations 28,500 troops in Korea to this day; in the German case, NATO defence of West Germany ended only with the country’s reunification. A Syria divided between Western-dependent and Russian-dependent zones would need long-term help and both sides would be inclined to offer it.

Lessons must be learned from the failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and the more unequivocally successful interventions described earlier. Any occupation of Syria should include a defined but limited de-Ba’athification program to remove leaders of Assad’s party from power. Peacekeeping troops from as many nations as possible, especially Islamic countries, should be deployed along new ethnic and sectarian fault lines while generous infrastructure support should flood the country. Support for institution-building should draw on those with knowledge of those fault lines. The militias, armies and weapons that swamp the country should be taken up in a comprehensive and generous disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process so the curse of Libya, where ubiquitous weapons tempted new political formations to gain power through bullets instead of ballots, is avoided.

Plans for any occupation should be integral to the military operation. Publicizing plans for a post-Assad Syria will erode support for a regime that is based on fear and continues to suffer defections. Early in 2016 even the leaders of Assad’s Alawi community, seen as having the most to gain from his family’s continuation in power, distanced themselves from the regime. Olive branches and amnesties should be extended to any leaders or communities willing to give up violence. A blueprint for a future government will allow intervening countries to better define their contributions and offer rebel groups an incentive to cooperate. This is not to understate the enormous difficulties: addressing the demands of Syria’s Kurds will raise alarm across the region and the ongoing operations against Daesh need to be concluded; fortunately, Daesh appears to be on the defensive.

This takes us to the fifth and final test: Do we have national interests in Syria? The answer, much more than in all the other cases I have discussed, is yes. The longer this war continues the more our liberal societies in western Europe will be challenged by waves of refugees and continuing Islamist terror attacks. We are already seeing a rise in populist isolationism threaten peaceful globalization and democratization. The longer the war in Syria continues, the weaker the West will become, and its self-image as a global beacon for human rights and pluralist democracy, however imperfectly realized, will be made hollow. In Canada we patted ourselves on the back for taking in more than 30,000 Syrian refugees in 2015–16. Germany has taken in over a million. Will Canadians agree to take 100,000? 500,000? The answer is almost certainly no. The only way to avoid asking the question is to address the root cause of the crisis: end the war.

A tragedy in the making

We do not live in vacuum. The West has interests in asserting a place in the world as the Russians are asserting theirs, and as the Chinese are asserting theirs. Choosing not to take a stand is taking a stand: to accept pushback against Western ideas, ideals and power and the territory they influence. We risk sending the same signal to national leaders that NATO sent to those Afghan headmen I talked to many years ago, who would side with the Taliban not from any affinity but out of pragmatism. They knew the West would leave, and the Taliban would not.

As things stand, the people of Syria will continue to die at the hand of their own government, and millions of futures will be distorted or curtailed. If a serious military intervention were launched in Syria there would be no question of a Western military defeat. Defeat for the West comes from political forces operating within the Western democracies. We no longer have the will to intervene, the will to endure the sacrifices that would go with an intervention, or leaders willing to mobilize voters to support a politics that looks beyond national borders.

In 2012 the British House of Commons voted against a military response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Canada didn’t even consider the question of military intervention in Syria. The United States drew a line in the sand and then scuffed it out. Bureaucratic internationalism in the form of the UN and the EU, and multilateral trade agreements seen as unfairly benefiting large corporations and the wealthy, are becoming increasingly unpopular.

The internationalist current in Western politics has died away at the same time as politics based on Enlightenment ideals has faded within Western countries. On the left and right, parties and movements are becoming increasingly narcissistic. The left is more interested in discussing microaggressions on college campuses than mass murder in Syria, or any sort of vision for how a globalized world can be brought into being. The left internationalism that drew thousands to fight Fascism in Spain has been replaced by a multiculturalism that holds all beliefs and practices to be equal no matter how far they stray from the old assertions of confident internationalist socialism: all people are equal, and equally deserving of social and economic justice. Today’s left, obsessed with our culture’s sins and its own self-righteousness, looks backward and inward and is unable to confront the future.

The Western right that mobilized behind Ronald Reagan’s call to “tear down this wall” in the 1980s has evaporated. It has been shamed by Iraq and replaced by nativists like Donald Trump who want to build walls, not tear them down. The War on Terror has already eroded civil liberties more than any other wars the West has fought since 1945. Across the West, the legitimacy of nations having colonial traditions is itself is under question. Allegedly, their historical sins as imperial powers are far worse than any historical sins of other nations and other empires. The new, illiberal, empires stirring in Russia and China embrace military and economic imperialism, respectively, on a foundation of xenophobia and nationalism. How will we respond?

The modern West was built on the (imperfectly realized) ideal of individual freedom and self-determination, and an often misplaced confidence in our ability to shape the world and extend that freedom. It will be a tragedy if just as more and more people accept that message we choose this moment to turn our back and say, “Sorry, now you’re on your own.” Yes, liberal interventionism is difficult and should accept its limited role in the world. We have successes and failures to learn from, and a world filled with suffering. Liberal interventionism offers a way to reduce that suffering, one country at a time. It offers a model for progressive democracies to redefine the future of international relations toward a more just and equitable end.

One hundred and fifty years ago it was hard to imagine a world where everyone had the vote and a social safety net helped us live in educated good health until our eighties. As we grapple with the challenge of renovating our democracies, we should devote some effort to extending our blessings to those less favoured by birth. We should start in Syria. We won’t. That is not just a tragedy for the people of Syria, but for the world. I am afraid liberal historians, if there are any in centuries to come, will look at this decade as the moment the West lost its way.


1 “Syria and Liberal Interventionism,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2016, pp. 6–13.

2 Zachary Warren and Nancy Hopkins, eds., Afghanistan in 2015: A Survey of the Afghan People (San Francisco: Asia Foundation, 2015), retrieved here.

3 For concrete evidence of improvement across many sectors, see Afghan Public Health Institute and Central Statistics Organization of Afghanistan, Afghanistan Mortality Survey 2010 (Kabul, 2011), retrieved here; Central Statistics Organization of Afghanistan and UNICEF, Afghanistan Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2010/11 (Kabul, 2012), retrieved here.

4 Alex Renton, “Sierra Leone: One Place Where Tony Blair Remains an Unquestioned Hero,” The Guardian, April 18, 2010, retrieved here.

5 Iraq had used chemical weapons and pursued a nuclear weapons program during the 1980s and 1990s. Saddam was afraid that acknowledging that these programs had been abandoned would open Iraq to attack from his archenemy, Iran. He remained convinced that Iran was a greater threat than the U.S. coalition until the 2003 invasion began.

6 Emma Sky, The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (New York: PublicAffairs, 2015).

7 United Kingdom, House of Commons, Foreign Affairs Committee, Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options (London, 2016), retrieved here.

8 Bernard-Henri Lévy, “Intervening in Libya in 2011 was the Right Thing to Do,” The Guardian, September 21, 2016, retrieved here.

9 The Syria Campaign, Syria: The Facts and Figures, updated September 3, 2016, retrieved here.

The first part of this two-part article appeared in the Summer/Fall 2016 issue of Inroads.