From Vietnam to Syria: The Sorry Story of Liberal Imperialism

Looking nowhere for the future. Photo credit: Muftah
Looking nowhere for the future.
Photo credit: Muftah

“Western intervention in the affairs of other civilizations is probably the single most dangerous source of instability and potential global conflict in a multicivilizational world” (Samuel Huntington, 1997).

After winning the wide support from both Democratic and Republican leaders, it becomes clear that US president Obama will launch an attack against Syria, making it the third major Muslim countries to be “intervened” by the US, though he declares that military actions will be limited.

Arguing for the case, he stated that that punishing Syrian regime for using chemical weapons is a “test for the world” and that “international community’s credibility is on the line” after the massacre in Damascus’s suburb.

Is it really so?

Flawed logic

The demand to strike Syria comes when the UN is still investigating the case and the US cannot provide clear evidence to charge al-Assad’s regime of using sarin nerve gas. Obama’s closest ally, UK Prime Minister David Cameron even admitted that there is no “100 percent proof” that al-Assad is behind the incident.

It doesn’t matter much anyway, since the White House has said “al-Assad remains responsible as the leader of the country and its military.” So whether al-Assad did or did not use chemical weapons, he is still the one to blame. Ironically, saying that means the US recognizes al-Assad’s legitimacy to rule Syria, something that they have relentless denounced.

In addition, using force without the UN Security Council approval is not only illegal, as warned by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, but also doesn’t reflect any kind of “international community” that the US wants it to be. Big players like China and Russia have already opposed the plan, while small ones do not have the right to voice their opinions, simply because the case hasn’t been brought to the General Assembly.

It is most correctly an act of aggression from a sovereign state against another, says the US against Syria, since there is no law stating that the US has a right to police the world and punish others for wrong-doings. Everything must go through the UN, yet Obama & Co. is willing to ignore the process.

To be sure, crime against humanity like the use of sarin nerve gas in Syria must be strongly condemned and punished. However, the end cannot justify the means, particularly when it carries more political than moral purposes. It is a mystery (somehow) that the West is so eager to attack a “suspect” when everything is far from clear.

Vietnam analogy

What Obama and his allies go wrong here is the pure assumption of “good guys” and “bad guys” in the case. The brutal dictator al-Assad, whose family has oppressed Syrians for more than 40 years, is “bad” and of course the only one possibly behind such a horrific crime in Damascus.

This way of argument could nevertheless have angered liberal thinkers, not least founding fathers of the United States like Thomas Jefferson, who said that “all men are created equal” and thus should have equal justice under law. Al-Assad can be a bad guy (and sure he is), but he remains innocent until being proved otherwise. Actions follow an assumption can lead to disastrous consequences.

At this point Mr President should have a look at the history of the Vietnam War. Right after the French colonialism lost to Vietnamese communists, the Geneva Peace Conference was hold in 1954 that promised a unified general election in Vietnam two years later. Yet when US president Eisenhower learned that 80% of Vietnamese could have voted for the communist leader Ho Chi Minh if the election was to be held, he chose to install a puppet government in the South Vietnam instead.

He assumed an ABC principle: Anything But Communists. The Vietnamese might not know how terrible the communists are, so we Americans should shed a light for them.

Needless to say, the result was catastrophic. The first South Vietnamese president was Dictator Ngo Dinh Diem, who is no less a monster like that of al-Assad or Saddam Hussein. The US then got involved in a 20-year war, losing more than 58, 000 young men and trillions of dollars.

The worst consequences were left for the people they intended to help. More than two million Vietnamese died in the war. Million others were poisoned by Agent Orange, the chemical weapon that the US used during the war that could have devastating impacts until the third generation of the infected. Until now, 40 years after the war ended, more than one million of Vietnamese children have disabilities and health problems related to the toxic, estimates the Red Cross. It is now a bit ridiculous when the US government talks about chemical weapons like an all-time moral compass of the world.

Anyway, Vietnam’s situation is no way similar to Syria, and Ho Chi Minh is certainly much more popular than al-Assad. Yet the West’s approach remains the same: imposing liberalism in the countries that are not ready to absorb.

I myself support the core basic liberal values of liberal democracy, open market economies, civil and political liberties, as many people around the world do. But in my opinion it requires time and efforts, rather than bullets and bombs, for a country to make it way to modernity. Doing otherwise is just a new form of colonialism, the period in which the “modern” West invaded to “civilize backward peoples” in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Liberal imperialism will not work

The 20th century has seen the strongest waves ever of democracy and liberal values. Nowadays, only 37 % of the global population live in authoritarian regimes, something unthinkable just decades ago. The United Nations, the only genuine global organization that can claim to represent the human race, operates under the core liberal values.

Yet it remains at a standstill when it comes to the problems regarding the promotion of liberalism. After the 9/11 incident, the US makes it a matter of “national security” and vowed to defend “liberty and justice because these principles are true and right for people everywhere,” even with the use of force.

It sounds right. Yet is the US legitimate to judge whether a country is “liberal” or not? And even if it is the case that a regime is illiberal, is the US legitimate to punish them? I doubt that many of us will say yes.

In any case, liberty means the freedom to act without imposition or obstruction by others. So by trying to impose values and ideas on other peoples, particularly by the use of force, the US is itself non-liberal.

Admittedly, it is easy to argue that in order to have a freedom of choice people must have the right to choose first. In an authoritarian regime, that is impossible.

Then should outsiders, like the US, come in and topple the bad guys?

Well, still a no. If Syrians are fed up with al-Assad, they must stand up against him by themselves. If Vietnamese don’t like the communists, they should be the one to decide their fates. The US can tell them, help them, but cannot do it for them. The way they have been doing poses a risk of “paternalistic behaviour, of knowing what is best for others and acting on their behalf,” said Georg Sorensen, a political scientist. In other words, that is liberal imperialism.

Rather, the White House must look back at history. To assist a people to liberalism and democracy doesn’t always require force. In fact, the biggest successes of democratization in former Soviet bloc, South Korea, Indonesia, or Taiwan came peacefully by the will of these people rather than the muscle power of the West. Change must always take root from within. If it were possible to bomb an autocracy into a democracy, then the world could have been a much easier place to live.