NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
President Obama faces increasing pressure to intervene in Syria, where the civil war has killed an estimated 70,000 people and displaced more than a million more. Artillery, tanks and anti-aircraft fire - and aircraft fire on civilians, and now there are reports that nerve gas has been used as well. The U.S. would justify any action as a humanitarian intervention to protect civilians, the same ground cited in Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq and Libya. And as those instances suggest, the president faced tremendous risks and very little prospect of reward. That's the conclusion of Gary Bass, a professor of politics in international affairs at Princeton University. He's the author of "Freedom's Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention," and he joins now via Skype from his home in New York. Good of you to be with us today.
GARY BASS: Thank you.
CONAN: And it's hard to talk about this topic without bringing up Syria, where the president is being asked to intervene under pressure to do so.
BASS: That's right. And increasingly, people are talking about it. Seventy thousand dead, how can this go on day after day?
CONAN: And interesting that often the question that's being asked, how many Srebrenicas do there need to be in Syria? That, of course, the massacre in the former Yugoslavia that finally triggered intervention back in the Clinton administration.
BASS: Yeah. Well, Srebrenica was part of the reason why the United States finally got involved in Bosnia. Srebrenica fell in July of 1995, but the United States was also committed to helping out a U.N. mission that was already in placed in Bosnia.
CONAN: Now, you've suggested the president's - there could be a lot of motives to do this, but that the political benefit shouldn't be one of them because it sounds likely to ensue.
BASS: Well, I think there's potentially some political benefit but the calculation, I think, weighs heavily against intervention, that if the war goes bad, then Obama has to deal with the, you know, the kind of things that Bill Clinton had to deal with in October of 1993 when 18 American troops were killed in Mogadishu, and the American public was very unhappy about that. And conversely, Barack Obama did do an intervention relatively early in Libya where he was afraid that the town of Benghazi would fall - would be overrun by Moammar Gadhafi's troops and that there would be a major massacre, something like the Srebrenica. And in that case, the Obama administration acted. The Obama administration did intervene.
And the, you know, there's been some political upside, but nobody - because we never saw a terrible massacre like the Srebrenica happening at Benghazi, people don't remember that because that never happened, right? And instead, what Benghazi means to the American public, as you just mentioned at the top of the hour, is this terrible incident with the death of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans. And that was kind of the only foreign policy issue that Mitt Romney seemed to bring up in the presidential campaign.
CONAN: And you mentioned the penalty, the price that President Clinton paid for Somalia. You also noted that he paid, politically at least, no price for his failure to intervene in Rwanda, the thing he now says he - his greatest regret of his time in office.
BASS: Yeah. I think he paid some price but much less than the price - if you think about the price of intervention in a war - this is the political price domestically that you pay. It doesn't mean whether or not morally it's the right thing to do, but politically the price you pay. You think of what happened to George W. Bush in Iraq - which I don't think is a humanitarian intervention - but he paid domestically. There was a very, very high price, a lot of it paid by John McCain in his presidential campaign, or Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam or Harry Truman in Korea. When a war goes bad, it's very, very bad for a presidency.
CONAN: And it's interesting, you wrote a book about the history of humanitarian intervention, and these are consistent patterns.
BASS: Yeah. I mean, there's - over and over again, you see that, you know, their countries are very reluctant to do this. And what pressures a democratic government into this kind of intervention is a lot of pressure from the media, from human rights groups, and that finally sort of, over time, can come to take root with public opinion.
CONAN: And it's often the case that what is stated to be a humanitarian intervention may have other motives.
BASS: Definitely. I mean, you'll have cases where you have a strategic motive or an imperialist motive. And I think that there, you know, there is always a lot of suspicion that when a super power says we're intervening, but the reason why we're doing it is because we have the highest interest of humanity in mind, that a lot of people around the world are very suspicious of this. And I think that also Americans tend to forget that after Iraq, after Abu Ghraib, after Guantanamo, the U.S. credibility around the world is a lot less than it used to be when the United States says this is the country that's just speaking in the name of human rights. That's something that's a harder sell these days than it used to be.
CONAN: And there was also the question of, well, you intervene in some cases but not in others. It seems if there's a lot of oil under the ground, intervention might be more likely.
BASS: Yeah, although, actually, I think Saddam Hussein would've been perfectly happy to sell the United States lots and lots of oil; would've provided a certain amount of stability. But that's right. I mean, I think there's always this question, why are you intervening in one place rather than another? And I don't think you're ever going to get complete consistency, and I don't even think that that's right standard, that you, you know, you would say there are many places around the world where really terrible things are happening. And morally, if you can do something in one of those, I'm not sure how much sense it makes to wait for perfect consistency.
David Rieff had once wrote, I'll see your Bosnia and raise you East Timor. Right? We don't have to act perfectly in every part of the world in order to be able to act.
CONAN: And it's obviously easier in a situation like Libya where it was relatively smaller military force that you are facing. The United States had access to bases. It had international partners, and it had approval from the Arab League and from the United Nations.
BASS: That's right. I mean, these are military campaigns, and it does matter hugely what your military options are. So when NATO intervenes in Bosnia, then there are dug-in positions, artillery pieces, tanks that have been sitting in siege of Bosnian cities for 3 1/2 years. And these make very good targets for NATO air strikes. Libya, as you mentioned, sort of an easier thing to do, and Syria, a lot of military analysts think, would be a more difficult prospect.
CONAN: And no nearby bases as there were in Italy. Yet there's also the case of - it's going to be very difficult to get international or at least United Nations backing for an intervention in Syria.
BASS: That's right. The chances of getting that past Russia and China, I think, are - that would be a very, very heavy lift. You had - when Bill Clinton went to war in Kosovo, he knew that he couldn't get Russia to approve that through the U.N. Security Council. And instead what he said was that I'll get the approval of NATO. So it won't just be an American mission. This will be a multilateral venture. So it's not just the United States saying that the United States is acting in the name of humanity. It's a whole lot more governments also saying the same thing. And I think that gives it an added credibility and added legitimacy.
As you mentioned, the Arab League supported the campaign against Gadhafi in Libya. In the present-day case with Syria, the chances of getting something through the Security Council are harder and in part because China and Russia feel as though the U.N. Security Council approval, which is sort of the standard for international legitimacy, that the U.N. Security Council resolution that they approved was to stop potential mass killing but not necessarily to overthrow Gadhafi's regime.
CONAN: That President Obama looked at what a no-fly zone could do and realized it would not do enough. He needed to authorize that aircraft could strike ground targets as well.
BASS: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, almost all of these things, once you start, there is significant pressure for it to escalate. So when, you know, another example, when Bill Clinton starts NATO air strikes in Serbia, in the Kosovo War in 1999 to protect Kosovar Albanians who were being massacred by Serbian nationalists, then the Clinton administration starts out doing air strikes and then comes under lots and lots of pressure to say air strikes aren't enough, air strikes are not really saving civilian populations on the ground. You need to do more.
So I think, you know, I think when the Obama administration looks at this, then there's a debate about - on the one hand, you could say - and it's not that the Obama administration is considering troops on the ground because they're definitely not. But if you're arming the rebels in Syria, does that create more pressure for you to support them or does it mean that the rebels can stand on their own two feet, which means less pressure on the Obama administration to get involved?
CONAN: Well, you're talking about the law of unintended consequences. If you're supporting them and recognize them and they start to lose, what do you do then?
BASS: Right. I mean, do you - having made a commitment to them, do you then say, oh, well, we, you know, were making a limited commitment and now we're done, or having started down that road, are you under that much more pressure to keep going down that road?
CONAN: And there's also the possibility that you're supporting them and they're the ones responsible for some terrible atrocity.
BASS: Absolutely. I mean, I think the, you know, I think people come into debates about humanitarian intervention and the thing that is, you know, that comes to people's minds first is Nazi, Germany and the Holocaust and, you know, the wish that the United States had done more during World War II to stop the Holocaust. But that's in some ways a very unusual case where that's completely one-sided genocide. In a lot of these cases where you're talking about a terrible civil war, then you're not going to have one side that is entirely the abuser and one side that's entirely innocent.
If you have a rebel group, that rebel group is unlikely to have totally clean hands. You're never, you know, it's unlikely that you're going to get a completely clean local partner. The United States, in some quite successful interventions in the Balkans, worked alongside with some quite unsavory partners. The government of Croatia, which expelled a lot of Serbs from a region called the Krajina, the KLA, a Kosovar Albanian rebel group, which also didn't have clean hands. So there's never going to be kind of a pure-looking intervention. There's always going to be some moral ambiguity.
And I think waiting for perfect clarity, saying that we're, you know, we're only intervening on the side of an angelic rebel force, that's just not going to happen.
CONAN: Gary Bass is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, the author of "Freedom's Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we're talking about military intervention here. There are a lot of other ways to try to change a regime's actions - diplomatic sanctions, diplomacy, that sort of thing.
BASS: Absolutely. And I think that even though the conversation will inevitable wind up being - part of that is going to be a military conversation, military steps are a last resort. They're - as you mentioned before, exactly right - they're always - there's always these fears of unintended consequences. And you can get, you know, sometimes, you can get a lot done simply by putting pressure on government. So in Sudan, something that the - that George W. Bush's administration had considerable success with was putting pressure on the Chinese government, that China during the worst of the killing in the Western region of Sudan called Darfur, during the worst of the killing in 2003, 2004, the Chinese government was standing very firmly behind Sudan - the abuse of government in Sudan.
And the Bush administration turned up the pressure on China and actually got quite a lot of success out of it, that China then turned around it. China, which had a lot more a credibility and a lot more leverage over Sudan than the United States could ever hoped to have, that Sudan was, you know, sort of a one of China's not really - not fully a client state, but a government that quite reliant on Chinese support. And when China put pressure on the Sudanese government, the Sudanese government really had to respond in a way that they wouldn't than if it was just directly coming from the United States. And the Obama administration's done some of that same thing in Sudan too, again, with considerable success.
CONAN: You also wrote about the importance of the role of the media and public outrage. There was an official quoted in the Rwanda case saying a Western reporter with a phone line to the West was worth a battalion on the ground.
BASS: Yeah. I mean, I think the - because as you mentioned, there is, you know, there are civil wars, there is trouble in a lot of different places. You need, you know, effective and serious reporting to figure out all of the confusion out there and bring a message home to, you know, to the American public or the British public in a reliable and credible way about what's happening over there. And that's something that, you know, since the Crimean War, that's something that's being done by foreign correspondents, professionals who have an understanding of these complex situations who go around the world.
And something that, you know, that we've been seeing in recent years has been the collapse of that, that all sorts of major newspapers who used to have lots and lots of foreign bureaus that would bring back a lot of important foreign reporting have had to close them. So, you know, the Baltimore Sun, the Boston Globe, great newspapers that used to do very, very distinguished foreign reporting have because of, you know, presses from the Internet have unfortunately had to get rid of those. And that's something that I think also kind of makes it harder for you to get serious public pressure to, you know, on President Obama to take human rights seriously. And also beyond that. I mean, it just makes it harder and harder for the American public to have a good debate about what the United States should be doing in all sorts of places around the world.
CONAN: Instead, you have various forces covering themselves and putting out little propaganda films on YouTube.
BASS: Yeah. And it's very hard to figure out. You do, you know, there are wonderful things about new media where you get, you know, people have phones with cameras on them and videos on them in all sorts of places so you can get extraordinary footage, but trying to figure out what's reliable, what's credible, which reports from refugees are credible and which ones are sort recycled rumors. Those are the sorts of things that you only get from reporters who, you know, who have real field experience and afterward figure these things out.
CONAN: Gary Bass, thanks very much for your time today.
BASS: Thank you.
CONAN: His book is the "Blood - his new book, "The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide." Political Junkie tomorrow. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.