Life, liberty, and the pursuit of chemical weapons

Trigger warning: Syrian civil war, war crimes

The Republican Presidential Primary has now seen five debates. Since the second one, at which former CEO Carly Fiorina made her national debut, there’s been few changes in the rhetoric and claims made by candidates in appearance after appearance.

One of the most interesting consistencies is Senator Rand Paul’s fierce insistence on a mildly pro-Assad stance. Part of the strangeness of this is that this puts him outside of the Assad-critical consensus which includes everyone from his competitors in the primary to President Obama. These aren’t just rare politics, however, but ones that speak to an intriguing contradiction at the heart of American libertarianism.

The still technically reigning president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, essentially inherited his position from his father after his brother, initially favored, died unexpectedly in a car accident. He has held a prominent national position since the mid-1990s, with only dubious democratic checks on his rule. Ignited by the international Arab Spring in 2012 and fueled by local droughts and famines, much of Syria has been engaged in open revolt against his regime for several years now. The remnants of al-Assad’s government have resorted to widespread use of chemical weapons, prompting the current US administration to categorically reject any involvement in Syria designed to shore up his rule.

The son of a charismatic leader thrust into protracted and toxic battles to retain territory, perhaps al-Assad reminds Senator Paul of himself. Whatever personal readings he has of the man, his libertarian ethos seems to take a backseat to a curiously pro-Assad policy plank without question. Paul stands with, intriguingly enough, a large chunk of the US and broader world in insisting that we can’t back Daesh and other islamist groups in the prolonged Syrian conflict. As he put it last night:

We had people coming to our Foreign Relations Committee and saying, ‘Oh, we need to arm the allies of Al Qaida.’ They are still saying this. It is a crazy notion. This is the biggest debate we should be having tonight is is regime change a good idea; has it been a good idea.

This uncontroversial carefulness when picking people to support in Syria (and the broader Islamic world), based on more than simply opposition to dictatorships, is woven into his larger, stranger political view of the Middle East, however. As he also explained in that debate:

“I think that by arming the allies of ISIS, the Islamic rebels against Assad, that we created a safe space or made that space bigger for ISIS to grow.”

This reduction down of the Syrian conflict into a binary choice between locally quite bloodthirsty secular dictatorship and theocracy with aspirations of terrorizing the globe seems politically useful, if you want people outside of Syria to ultimately accept al-Assad and his regime as a “lesser of two evils”. Unfortunately, it presumes a lot of not necessarily true facts: that someone has to be supported in the Syrian conflict, and that no alternatives to al-Assad’s government and Daesh exist (the Kurdish separatists, among others, are apparently not worth mentioning).

syria conflict map
Syrian military blocs’ holdings, as of his summer, from here.

What’s truly shocking, however, is to hear this acceptance of systemic violence and despotism as inherently how Syria and perhaps the broader Islamic world simply have to be coming out of the mouth of libertarian widely criticized for his idealism. The idealist rhetoric which permeates Senator Paul’s worldview, or at least political perspective within the US’s borders, melts away, leaving behind an undemocratic and even imperialistic skeleton.

An interesting implication of this is that all of the language favored by libertarians, or at least the ones who agree with Senator Paul, obscures something. It’s not possible that all human beings have inalienable rights to life and liberty, if Syrian’s lives and liberties can so coolly be considered and bartered away on the other side of the world.

It suggests that only some people are truly included in the loftiest defenses of all “human beings” or that “life and liberty” are so incoherently defined in practice that dictatorships like al-Assad’s can quite easily still fit into the definition of a government which provides them. Maybe it’s both – that liberty in (at least some forms of) libertarianism is a privilege reserved for a select few and one defined in a broken way designed to excuse and permit quite literal autocracy.

Something no one seems to be asking is for Senator Paul to explain himself on his, how someone who claims to center a universal human right to liberty in his politics can also be one of the leading figures calling for us to tacitly or even directly support one of the most violent regimes on the planet. I hope he we can hear his answer to gain some clarity on what’s happening here.

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