Thursday, September 5, 2013
The Damaging Human Rights Policy of President Carter and its Impact on Syria
President Obama’s decision to approach Congress and receive formal approval for his “limited strike” plans inside Syria is indicative of a person appearing suddenly uncomfortable with the wide latitude given Presidents in this era of the Imperial Presidency. His concern with credibility is certainly valid, but a much more pressing issue for the President is the legitimacy of his actions. I was taught in my International Relations classes that credibility is one’s reputation for effective action, whereas legitimacy involves the efficacy of one’s actions.
In the book National Defense, James Fallows introduced the concept of “friction” when deciding on proper courses of action. Friction includes everything that could possibly go wrong, from weapons performing at the tail end of their curve to other actors behaving in ways contrary to what was anticipated. This is clearly the problem with Syria and the reason why I am apprehensive about taking what will be seen as unilateral military action.
My real reason for writing today is actually to trace back the genesis of this preoccupation with acting in support of human rights issues, and in this regard we need to assign blame to our well- intentioned President Jimmy Carter. Prior to Carter, human rights were never considered a core variable when creating foreign policy. Foreign policy has always been built with the lenses of national defense and national security. By making protection of human rights a key part of the calculus he has left our policy forever trapped in the morass evident in the internal affairs of unstable nation-states. This has further led to a situation where “nation building” has suddenly become a goal of US foreign policy. It is a wonderful thought to stabilize nations and introduce democratic institutions, but unfortunately those two goals are often times mutually exclusive, given the way sovereign borders had been constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Frankly, if you really want to bring greater stability to regions like Africa and the Middle East, we would need to sit down at a huge summit where borders are constructed that actually reflect the demographics of the region.
President Obama has put himself in a major bind, a bind that has its roots in the human rights imperative advanced by President Carter several decades ago. Until someone will renounce human rights as a fundamental determinant when constructing foreign policy, our Presidents will forever struggle to construct a coherent policy regarding the use of force. Let’s hope Obama gets it right with Syria. The stakes grow starker and starker.