Clark Engaged: Syria

Part 1:  Intervention at the Butler’s Table


Once a week in a remote room far from the center of campus, Professor Michael Butler meets with a class of ten students.  This week’s assignment- deciding whether or not to intervene in Syria and, if choosing US intervention, describing what a ‘successful’ mission would look like.


Prof. Michael Butler and his two cents

Simple, huh?

Just answer the following questions and there you’ll have it.

To intervene or not to intervene? 

  1. Should we intervene on humanitarian grounds alone/is it enough of a reason?
  2. Do we need a UN resolution to do it?
  3. What happens if we do?  What would a new Syria even look like?
  4. At the end of the day, will any military intervention bring about a greater good, or will it only cause more pain and suffering?
  5. And what about international rules?


If you really aren’t sure how to answer all of these burning questions- Welcome, you’ve come to the right remote room on the far end of campus.  As the conversation continues, students use everything they can think of to make a justification for intervention and nonintervention.

This list includes but is not limited to: humanitarianism, weapons caches, US policy towards Latin America in the 1970’s, refugees, asylum-seekers, Jordan, complicated metaphors, Russia, cruise missiles, Al Qaeda, the UN, Somalia in the 1990’s, rational-legal cultures, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Congress, geostrategy, the Arab League, power vacuum, Kosovo, multilateralism, democracy, the media… and the list goes on.  Nobody promised this was going to be easy.


As the conversation rolls on, it starts to reflect most of the broad topics approached in the news.  From an American perspective, the history of intervention from Somalia to Iraq and Libya and everything in between has not produced better results for civilians than they started out with.  At the same time, recollections of genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo proved to trump even some of the worst nightmares.  It left the US and the EU with the question- why did no-one intervene on behalf of civilians?  The answer lies in a combination of nerves, sovereignty, regional politics, and notions of international responsibility that left so many with hollowed families and neighborhoods.

The key term in this discussion is multilateralism- if the US government wants swift intervention in the absence of a diplomatic solution, how do the US and its allies convince skeptic member states of the UN to join in the mission and draft a UN resolution condoning such action?  The sad fact is this: humanitarianism, the want to limit human suffering, death and loss, may not be enough to convince the international system to intervene.  This may either be because the loss of human life does not trump the responsibility one faces if intervention goes wrong, or that if things do go wrong, the ‘humanitarian’ option may bring about more or prolonged suffering for civilians.


Or, after all, is it just international politics gone wrong?

At Professor Butler’s table, students can always expect a challenge.  Where academics hits the pavement is the sudden realization that many of these political science students may aspire to be politicians, diplomats, policymakers, and researchers in coming years.  With that in mind, Butler makes a point to contradict every argument that is presented because it teaches students to think twice.  What should make these students different from anybody else that may have a political opinion should be the notable pause before a response- a slight signal of humanity mixed with analysis because they know that any decision that will be made regarding Syria’s civil war will never be completely right or wholly justified.


For a brief Snapshot of the Syrian Conflict, read our previous article.  You can find it here at
And for other great resources, we recommend the BBC and Al Jazeera English where you can find news, analysis, blogs and more!

Stay tuned for more conversations on Syria, hearing reviews from Clark’s Faculty Panel Discussion on Syria and one Clark graduate’s mission from Boston to Washington to stop intervention in Syria.

High quality photos taken by our very own Demet Senturk.

-Bridget Healy


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