The Kirkpatrick Doctrine in Syria

The Assad regime's chemical weapons attack on its own citizens on April 4, followed by the Trump administration's resolute military response a few days later, should prompt a reevaluation of the direction of our foreign policy during the preceding decades. With clearer vision, we see again that despots have the will and the means to attack the foundations of civilized order to advance their ambitions. In more recent years, our foreign policy has been driven so timid by the traumas of the interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and by the interventionist peacekeeping missions of the 1990s, that many of us deceived ourselves that creating a world of decreased American responsibilities would advance the security of our own interests and values. Yet when free countries abide by the principle of nonintervention while despots remain free to help other despots, the now-all-too-clear outcome is that free countries become spectators to a world where aggressors impose their will on human societies at the expense of the rule of law, state sovereignty based on the consent of the governed, and basic human rights.

"Aggressors," observed the late Jeane J. Kirkpatrick in her final book Making War to Keep Peace, "are a constant in history." The pattern is always the same. "They seek to impose their will on governed masses, which are denied any voice in their own destinies and any recourse to justice." The observation applies to non-state actors like Al Qaeda just as well as it does to totalitarian dictators like Josef Stalin. The common denominator is the imposition of will wherever force is unable or -- as has been the case lately with the United States -- unwilling, to thwart it. Further, and as the chemical attack against civilians in Syria reminds us, realizing the international norms underlying the West's conception of a civilized and prosperous world order is not, to borrow a phrase from Kirkpatrick, "the priority of all groups who seek power in the world." It's the same lesson we learned after September 11: Not only are our values not universally shared the world over, there are groups devoted to and motivated by principles and conceptions of world order at direct odds with our own, and they are prepared and even eager to unleash violence, war, and revolution to realize their values.

It is difficult to pinpoint the moment with precision, but the regional order in the Middle East that emerged following the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 fell apart sometime during Obama's tenure as president. Two key features of the old order in the Middle East were America's stabilizing role and the absence of a permanent Russian military presence. In 2011, Obama withdrew a limited number of troops from Iraq despite warnings from military advisers that the withdrawal was premature. ISIS quickly filled the resulting power vacuum most prominently on the Sunni side, while Iranian agents and clients filled the vacuum most prominently on the Shiite side. In 2013, after Syria used chemical weapons against its own people, Obama accepted Putin's overture to allow Russia to work with Syria to remove Assad's chemical weapons from the country, inflating Putin's perceived stature so much that hardly a protest was registered when, in September 2015, the Russian military unilaterally intervened in the Syrian Civil War -- and thus definitively established itself as a military power in the Middle East. The rise of ISIS destabilized not only Iraq but Syria and Lebanon, and the power vacuums created by Obama's withdrawals and sustained by his calculated adherence to nonintervention created the perfect openings for Iran and Russia to entrench themselves much more deeply into the Middle East.

Jeanne Kirkpatrick was fond of John Stuart Mill's teachings, including those on the principle of nonintervention. "The doctrine of non-intervention," Mill wrote (and Kirkpatrick quoted approvingly),

to be a legitimate principle of morality, must be accepted by all governments. The despots must consent to be bound by it as well as the free states. Unless they do, the profession of it by free countries comes but to this miserable issue, that the wrong side may help the wrong, but the right must not help the right. Intervention to enforce non-intervention is always rightful, always moral, if not always prudent.

On Kirkpatrick's interpretation of Mill, the first principle of international relations is reciprocity, a situation where each actor is bound equally by whatever the legal principle in question is. As applied to nonintervention, this means that unilateral nonintervention -- a doctrinal approach toward Syria, for example, advocated by many across the political spectrum in America today -- is unacceptable as a doctrine (as distinct from a tactic), because that amounts to a situation where "the wrong side may help the wrong, but the right must not help the right." When the United States abides by the principle of nonintervention while Russia and Iran remain free to help a criminal regime in Syria, the outcome is that we become spectators to a world where autocrats impose their will on human societies at the expense of the pillars of civilization.

Now that the United States has reawakened to the ice cold realities of tyranny, it's time to introduce Russia and Iran to the Kirkpatrick doctrine in Syria, which does not necessarily imply either intervention, nonintervention, or withdrawal as tactics, but does have strategy implications for dealing with ISIS, Russia, and Iran.

First is the destruction of ISIS, which controls geographically-defined territory and threatens to become a permanent haven for terrorists. As ISIS is dismantled, it will become necessary to empower non-radical Sunnis in Syria. This will be an enormous challenge, given how thoroughly Al Qaeda's offshoots have integrated with Sunnis there. Nevertheless, the challenge is far from insurmountable: Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War and the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, for example, have developed comprehensive strategic plans for dealing with these Sunni populations.

With respect to Russia, Putin's military role in the region is already a geopolitical fact. While the mutual interest in the defeat of ISIS may have presented an opportunity for cooperation with Russia in the recent past, relations with Russia are probably soured for the foreseeable future. Given that Russia is an expansionist power that explicitly opposes the American conception of world order, the immediate strategy must be to reduce Russia's influence and perceived importance in Syria and the region, which will require a reassertion of the American role as not only a purveyor of stability in the Middle East, but as a staunch ally of the Arabs -- Shiite as well as Sunni -- against Putin, who should be branded as thoroughly as possible as a destabilizing pro-Iranian dictator.

Finally, with respect to Iran, the broader geopolitical goal for America in the Levant and surrounding area must be to eliminate the lock Iran and Hizb’allah have established over the administrative and military levers in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, because they are expansionist aggressors with a radically illiberal conception of world order. Regaining a preponderant influence over Iraq and Lebanon relative to Iran would put America in roughly the geopolitical position it was prior to Obama's premature withdrawal from Iraq, wherein not all Arab Shiites were allied against Sunnis and Iran had greater difficulty than it does today arming its terrorist confederates throughout the Middle East.

None of this will be easy, but something must be done, and the trajectory of our foreign policy must be altered. Decades of arguing over the tactics of intervention and nonintervention caused us to lose focus on a general strategy grounded in our most fundamental values. We forgot the lessons of history, which show unmistakably what happens when despotic actors gain administrative control over states. "We cannot protect ourselves or others," Kirkpatrick said, "against the resurgence of aggressive powers or the reoccurrence of evil unless we face the fact that tyranny and war have the same source -- in persons who use force to expand their control of others." All we need to succeed is the resolve to preserve civilized order while, in Kirkpatrick's words, "preserving our military and reserving our sovereign right to wage war to maintain true peace."

Anthony Tsontakis is an attorney with the Arizona Legislature. Views expressed are personal to the author.

The Assad regime's chemical weapons attack on its own citizens on April 4, followed by the Trump administration's resolute military response a few days later, should prompt a reevaluation of the direction of our foreign policy during the preceding decades. With clearer vision, we see again that despots have the will and the means to attack the foundations of civilized order to advance their ambitions. In more recent years, our foreign policy has been driven so timid by the traumas of the interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and by the interventionist peacekeeping missions of the 1990s, that many of us deceived ourselves that creating a world of decreased American responsibilities would advance the security of our own interests and values. Yet when free countries abide by the principle of nonintervention while despots remain free to help other despots, the now-all-too-clear outcome is that free countries become spectators to a world where aggressors impose their will on human societies at the expense of the rule of law, state sovereignty based on the consent of the governed, and basic human rights.

"Aggressors," observed the late Jeane J. Kirkpatrick in her final book Making War to Keep Peace, "are a constant in history." The pattern is always the same. "They seek to impose their will on governed masses, which are denied any voice in their own destinies and any recourse to justice." The observation applies to non-state actors like Al Qaeda just as well as it does to totalitarian dictators like Josef Stalin. The common denominator is the imposition of will wherever force is unable or -- as has been the case lately with the United States -- unwilling, to thwart it. Further, and as the chemical attack against civilians in Syria reminds us, realizing the international norms underlying the West's conception of a civilized and prosperous world order is not, to borrow a phrase from Kirkpatrick, "the priority of all groups who seek power in the world." It's the same lesson we learned after September 11: Not only are our values not universally shared the world over, there are groups devoted to and motivated by principles and conceptions of world order at direct odds with our own, and they are prepared and even eager to unleash violence, war, and revolution to realize their values.

It is difficult to pinpoint the moment with precision, but the regional order in the Middle East that emerged following the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 fell apart sometime during Obama's tenure as president. Two key features of the old order in the Middle East were America's stabilizing role and the absence of a permanent Russian military presence. In 2011, Obama withdrew a limited number of troops from Iraq despite warnings from military advisers that the withdrawal was premature. ISIS quickly filled the resulting power vacuum most prominently on the Sunni side, while Iranian agents and clients filled the vacuum most prominently on the Shiite side. In 2013, after Syria used chemical weapons against its own people, Obama accepted Putin's overture to allow Russia to work with Syria to remove Assad's chemical weapons from the country, inflating Putin's perceived stature so much that hardly a protest was registered when, in September 2015, the Russian military unilaterally intervened in the Syrian Civil War -- and thus definitively established itself as a military power in the Middle East. The rise of ISIS destabilized not only Iraq but Syria and Lebanon, and the power vacuums created by Obama's withdrawals and sustained by his calculated adherence to nonintervention created the perfect openings for Iran and Russia to entrench themselves much more deeply into the Middle East.

Jeanne Kirkpatrick was fond of John Stuart Mill's teachings, including those on the principle of nonintervention. "The doctrine of non-intervention," Mill wrote (and Kirkpatrick quoted approvingly),

to be a legitimate principle of morality, must be accepted by all governments. The despots must consent to be bound by it as well as the free states. Unless they do, the profession of it by free countries comes but to this miserable issue, that the wrong side may help the wrong, but the right must not help the right. Intervention to enforce non-intervention is always rightful, always moral, if not always prudent.

On Kirkpatrick's interpretation of Mill, the first principle of international relations is reciprocity, a situation where each actor is bound equally by whatever the legal principle in question is. As applied to nonintervention, this means that unilateral nonintervention -- a doctrinal approach toward Syria, for example, advocated by many across the political spectrum in America today -- is unacceptable as a doctrine (as distinct from a tactic), because that amounts to a situation where "the wrong side may help the wrong, but the right must not help the right." When the United States abides by the principle of nonintervention while Russia and Iran remain free to help a criminal regime in Syria, the outcome is that we become spectators to a world where autocrats impose their will on human societies at the expense of the pillars of civilization.

Now that the United States has reawakened to the ice cold realities of tyranny, it's time to introduce Russia and Iran to the Kirkpatrick doctrine in Syria, which does not necessarily imply either intervention, nonintervention, or withdrawal as tactics, but does have strategy implications for dealing with ISIS, Russia, and Iran.

First is the destruction of ISIS, which controls geographically-defined territory and threatens to become a permanent haven for terrorists. As ISIS is dismantled, it will become necessary to empower non-radical Sunnis in Syria. This will be an enormous challenge, given how thoroughly Al Qaeda's offshoots have integrated with Sunnis there. Nevertheless, the challenge is far from insurmountable: Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War and the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, for example, have developed comprehensive strategic plans for dealing with these Sunni populations.

With respect to Russia, Putin's military role in the region is already a geopolitical fact. While the mutual interest in the defeat of ISIS may have presented an opportunity for cooperation with Russia in the recent past, relations with Russia are probably soured for the foreseeable future. Given that Russia is an expansionist power that explicitly opposes the American conception of world order, the immediate strategy must be to reduce Russia's influence and perceived importance in Syria and the region, which will require a reassertion of the American role as not only a purveyor of stability in the Middle East, but as a staunch ally of the Arabs -- Shiite as well as Sunni -- against Putin, who should be branded as thoroughly as possible as a destabilizing pro-Iranian dictator.

Finally, with respect to Iran, the broader geopolitical goal for America in the Levant and surrounding area must be to eliminate the lock Iran and Hizb’allah have established over the administrative and military levers in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, because they are expansionist aggressors with a radically illiberal conception of world order. Regaining a preponderant influence over Iraq and Lebanon relative to Iran would put America in roughly the geopolitical position it was prior to Obama's premature withdrawal from Iraq, wherein not all Arab Shiites were allied against Sunnis and Iran had greater difficulty than it does today arming its terrorist confederates throughout the Middle East.

None of this will be easy, but something must be done, and the trajectory of our foreign policy must be altered. Decades of arguing over the tactics of intervention and nonintervention caused us to lose focus on a general strategy grounded in our most fundamental values. We forgot the lessons of history, which show unmistakably what happens when despotic actors gain administrative control over states. "We cannot protect ourselves or others," Kirkpatrick said, "against the resurgence of aggressive powers or the reoccurrence of evil unless we face the fact that tyranny and war have the same source -- in persons who use force to expand their control of others." All we need to succeed is the resolve to preserve civilized order while, in Kirkpatrick's words, "preserving our military and reserving our sovereign right to wage war to maintain true peace."

Anthony Tsontakis is an attorney with the Arizona Legislature. Views expressed are personal to the author.

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