Hippocrates and Hobbes, Assad and ISIS

Speaking Out


Many scholars and practitioners view the current international system as the embodiment of Thomas Hobbes’ assessment of the state of nature: anarchic at its core. In such a world, survival is the central value, and enhancing one’s own security relative to others the guiding maxim of behavior.

The words “first, do no harm,” although not actually in the Hippocratic oath, are widely considered a legitimate guiding principle for physicians. They rarely appear in the lexicon of statesmen, however, though President Barack Obama’s foreign policy injunction, “don’t do dumb things” (sometimes rendered more earthily), might be considered a variation on the theme. Unlike the physician, the diplomat’s primary concern is not to avoid harm to others, but to himself and his fellow citizens.

Fortunately, most international transactions do not occur within a Hobbesian system, because they do not involve the kind of life-or-death decisions that we usually refer to in the international sphere as vital interests.

In this commentary, I will use the terms “Hobbesian system” and “Hobbesian rules” as shorthand for, respectively, the state of nature and the human behaviors resulting from it that Hobbes posits in Leviathan.

Identifying Vital Interests

If vital interests are involved, Hobbesian system rules presumably apply. But what rules apply when the interests involved are not vital? This is an issue that Ted Galen Carpenter recently discussed with regard to U.S. policy toward authoritarian regimes (bit.ly/23IdeBh).

Carpenter posits a spectrum of interests ranging from vital to barely relevant, then suggests that U.S. standards for relationships with dictators should grow increasingly strict as interests move down that spectrum. Only on the very rare occasions when genuinely vital U.S. interests are involved should we enter into alliances with regimes that have odious human rights practices.

Putting this principle into practice poses some practical problems, however. The first of these involves reaching agreement on where particular interests lie on Carpenter’s spectrum. The second involves deciding just how odious particular regimes are.

U.S. policy has generally been less ethical and more pragmatic than Carpenter advises. Washington engages with dictatorships and authoritarian regimes when it believes that significant national interests require it to—and it has defined “significant” to include interests that Carpenter sees as barely peripheral.

For instance, the United States supported Hosni Mubarak in Egypt for three decades. It supports even more brutal regimes in Saudi Arabia and in the Persian Gulf states, to name just a few. It seeks to engage the Chinese leadership, not isolate it. It asks all of them nicely—generally behind closed doors—to moderate their policies around the edges, but does not expect any of them to take steps that would threaten their hold on power.

The hope, one supposes, is that over time, out of this process of moderation, will emerge constitutional monarchies, à la Great Britain. That faint hope is the ethical underpinning for an engagement policy that narrows the universe of principles to resources and interests.

It is a policy that is easy enough to administer in quiet times, because ethical principles take second place to the recognition of power realities. But these priorities are frequently stood on their head when what appears to be a genuine moderate reform movement arises and then begins to be violently repressed by an authoritarian regime, as happened repeatedly during the Arab Spring.

In such times, the urge to do good, to uphold ethical principles, may become the dominant influence in policymaking. The same inflated view of U.S. interests that led it to support authoritarian regimes may lead it now to advocate or support their overthrow.

The Nature of the Beast

This is exactly the point at which a kind of Hippocratic oath for statesmen might be a better guide to policy than the urge to do good. Is the nature of the regime in the respective country a matter of vital interest to the United States, or is it not?

My personal view is that the essence of vital national interest is defense of the homeland against armed or economically crippling attack from abroad. A regime that undertakes or advocates such attacks, or harbors and supports those who do, is operating in a Hobbesian system, and should be treated accordingly.

Short of such a threat, however, domestic developments in a foreign country will rarely affect American vital national interests. Thus, actions to effect regime change should not be undertaken unless there is reasonable certainty that they will not do more harm than good.

There is a certain inherent legitimacy in acting with appropriate force to defend one’s vital interests. There is no inherent legitimacy in using force to overthrow an established government, even a bad one.

Before undertaking such an action, three questions need to be answered satisfactorily: (1) How will the action be made legitimate? (2) Are those undertaking it able and willing to bring enough power to bear to achieve the overthrow expeditiously and with limited harm to the general population? (3) What is the probability that the people of the country will be better off, rather than worse off, as a result?

Legitimacy in such cases is what I would call “process” legitimacy. The United Nations is the institution that can provide it, and a Security Council resolution the means. An essentially unilateral “coalition of the willing” will not do.

Getting such a resolution will generally be difficult, and it should be. The grounds must be weighty enough to overcome the presumption that states do not interfere in the internal affairs of other states.

It would be irresponsible to seek such a resolution unless one were certain of being able to bring sufficient power to bear to accomplish the objective without inordinate loss of life among the people affected. A people may be fully justified in overthrowing a corrupt, authoritarian regime, but encouraging them to assume the risks of doing so gives the outside power some responsibility for what follows.

The United States never recognized the incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but it was responsible enough also to never let them think that it would be able to help them break away.

The greatest uncertainty may lie in trying to predict whether the result of regime overthrow will leave the population better off or worse off. But the question cannot be answered if it is not asked, something the United States has often failed to do.

There is enough expertise available here and in other countries to address such questions, and to put together a course of action that leads to the reasonable conclusion that the affected country can be left better off.

But the question needs to be asked in advance, not during or after the event. And if the answer is not affirmative, the outside powers need to have the integrity to step back, lest they do more harm than good.

ISIS and Syria: Paved with Good Intentions

In Syria, the Obama administration did the opposite of doing no harm. It declared publicly in 2011 that Assad must go, while greatly underestimating his ability to resist; overestimating the strength, cohesion and morale of the moderate opposition; and failing to appreciate the danger posed by the radical opposition.

That opposition, in the form of the so-called Islamic State group (ISIS), has emerged as the genuine threat to fundamental U.S. interests that Assad never was. ISIS has amply demonstrated that it is willing to organize attacks on the U.S. homeland, or at least to harbor or support those who would.

America’s ineffectual support for the overthrow of Assad did not create ISIS; but together with its failed democracy-building effort in Iraq, Washington did help create the power vacuum into which ISIS moved.

The United States now faces increasingly hard and unpleasant choices in Syria. Its preferred outcomes—defeat of ISIS and removal of Assad—are potentially mutually contradictory and can only be achieved by bringing a lot of force to bear. There is little stomach in the United States for any substantial ground force involvement in this civil war, in no small part because there is little confidence that such involvement would produce a desirable outcome.

America’s preferred proxies, the moderate opposition to Assad, are unable or unwilling to fight ISIS, and will be crushed by any likely successor regime in Syria. The Assad regime is willing to fight ISIS, but equally determined to fight the other groups opposing it.

In aligning itself with the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, Washington has found a group that is willing to fight ISIS, and capable of doing so effectively—but only in the context of advancing the Kurdish desire for a homeland, if not a state of their own.

This desire for self-determination sets up a direct conflict with Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian interest in preserving their territorial integrity. And our provision of military assistance to the Kurds puts the United States on a potential collision course with the vital interests of a NATO ally.

In this situation, invoking a moral principle such as “A ruler who barrel-bombs his own people cannot be allowed to stay in power” is not ethical, but rather fatuous and self-indulgent.

The Preferred Option

Assad’s fate is not a matter of significant U.S. interest. We do not have process legitimacy in attempting to overthrow him. Nor are we willing to bring to bear the necessary force to accomplish the objective.

Moreover, the chances that his overthrow would improve the lives of the Syrian people are pretty low. If he can be negotiated out of office, fine; but that should not be a precondition for building an alliance against the real threat.

The fate of ISIS, on the other hand, is a matter of vital U.S. interest; as such, Hobbesian rules apply.

ISIS gains support and followers through its success in acquiring territory and taking on the attributes of statehood, not by its invocation of an obscurantist interpretation of Islam that most Muslims disavow. The United States cannot “do no harm” by allowing it to continue to exist. On the contrary, its very existence will increase harm.

For practical and political reasons, the preferred option is to destroy ISIS as a geographic entity by using air power and local forces on the ground. That option had some success in recent months. If the effort stalls or is reversed, U.S. ground forces may have to be employed.

That is not a recommendation made lightly, as successive administrations since the early 1990s have provided case studies in how not to use military power to achieve national objectives. On the other hand, the American military showed in the first Iraq war that, when the country’s political leadership provides the necessary resources and does not allow military success to lead down a slippery slope of ever more grandiose objectives, it can carry out a clearly defined, limited mission and then withdraw.

Allowing ISIS to continue to exist with the attributes of statehood would satisfy neither Hippocrates nor Hobbes. Ensuring that it does not won’t solve the problem of international terrorism, but it is a necessary step in the right direction.

Raymond Smith served as an FSO with the State Department from 1969 to 1993. His many Foreign Service assignments included tours as political counselor in Moscow and director of the Office of the Former Soviet Union and Eastern European Affairs in State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. A longtime international negotiations consultant, he is the author of Negotiating with the Soviets (1989) and The Craft of Political Analysis for Diplomats (2011).