On Syria and finding ways to make the world ‘less horrible’

I’ve only written two posts about the proposed U.S. military strikes against Syria: “Bombing Syria is not a last resort, so bombing Syria is neither just nor justifiable” and “It is happening again.”

I haven’t written more than that for much the same reason Ari Kohen discusses here:

The reason I haven’t written anything is because there hasn’t seemed to me to be anything useful to write. The situation is horrible, everyone surely knows it’s horrible, and there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do to make it less horrible.

I’m frustrated by all the people who insist they’re staking out some sort of moral position by demanding the U.S. do nothing that involves the military and I’m frustrated by all the people who insist they’re staking out some sort of moral position by demanding the U.S. do something that involves the military. …

… If it seemed clear that U.S. intervention in Syria would lead to a good result for the people of Syria in the long term, I’d support it. … But — given the country’s history, demography, and geography; the make-up of the rebel forces; and the results of other recent U.S. interventions — that doesn’t seem to be the case at all.

And if it seemed clear that the people of Syria would be able to get a good result in the long term without any sort of intervention, then I’d feel better about arguing for the U.S. to stay out things. But — given the death toll of the past two years; the mass exodus of refugees; and the clear willingness of the government and the rebels to [flout] the most basic human rights norms — that doesn’t seem to be the case at all.

I disagree with Kohen somewhat because of a distinction he makes in that second paragraph and then blurs in the fourth. He first writes of “demanding the U.S. do nothing that involves the military,” but then fudges that up, unhelpfully, by equating that with “any sort of intervention” (my italics).

And that, right there, is our problem. The U.S. has become so locked into the idea that “any sort of intervention” must, by definition, “involve the military” that America has become almost unable to act otherwise — or to imagine any way that anyone could act otherwise. And so we end up with this horrible situation in which we think of the only possibilities being either to do nothing while people are being slaughtered, or else to slaughter people in response to people being slaughtered. We’ve become so accustomed to turning to the last resort of military intervention that it has become our first resort and our only resort — the only thing we know how to do and the only thing we can imagine doing or not doing.

That’s why I invoked Gene Sharp earlier. For decades, Sharp has collected and chronicled examples of effective nonviolent action from all over the world. His research — his history — shows that these approaches have been more consistently effective and efficacious than the use of violence.

Mention someone like Sharp and you’ll often encounter a hostile reaction dismissing him (and you, for mentioning him) as a feckless, irrelevant hippie. This is often expressed in a mocking tone, “So, what? You want us to go over there with daisies singing ‘Kumbaya’?” That mocking caricature confirms the problem: A lack of imagination that has ossified into a determined ignorance — an ignorance that clings tightly to remaining ignorant. It confirms that we are unable to find other solutions and other approaches because we have given up looking for them.

We have given up looking for other approaches even when we know that the one approach we’re committed to does not and cannot work. We have given up looking at other approaches even though we know that many such approaches can and do work.

The next step in dismissing any effort to broaden our imagining is a transparent bit of dishonesty. Advocates of military intervention as a first-and-only resort will demand that anyone arguing otherwise must, at this instant, produce an alternative plan that would guarantee a successful outcome of perfect peace and justice. This comprehensive alternative plan, it is demanded, must pass a test that the default call for military intervention has already failed. They cannot provide a magic-bullet solution, but they demand others produce a magic non-bullet solution. Defenders of the military default are thus betting in bad faith: You must pay up if you lose, but they owe nothing when they lose. Such bad faith bets are another clear sign that those demanding them have run out of ideas and arguments.

I don’t have a magic non-bullet solution for the horrible situation in Syria, but I’m far from convinced that more bullets will make that situation any less horrible.

I don’t accept that bombing and “doing nothing”  are the only possible options when confronted with such horrible situations. Surely “any sort of intervention” can be more creative — and more effective — than only interventions that involve bombs and bullets and death.


"A look at Australia's present as our possible future, courtesy of Dopamine's Only Natural Predator."

And his own received him not
"Holding a gun and a flag."

And his own received him not
"For a little while. Court challenges to the policy that prompted this, i.e. prosecuting first ..."

And his own received him not
"... can he even do that without congressional approval? (I'm not saying Republicans wouldn't go ..."

And his own received him not

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jessica_R

    Man, I don’t know. It’s the Middle East and the road to Neo Colonialism is, and has been, paved with good intentions. They have no reason to trust us, armed or not. And it’s simple human nature not to want to be ruled, even “benevolently” by outsiders. I certainly don’t have a solution, only that perhaps it’s long past time America stops “helping” the Middle East.

  • The other issue is that, at times and places, nonviolent means have been tried with less than stellar results*. Example: In the 1990s there was an embargo placed on all arms shipments to any former Yugoslav country.

    The only problem with that was, it froze in place the advantages that were already there: The Bosnian and Croatian Serbs had the backing of the JNA which had most of Yugoslavia’s complement of tanks, planes and other heavy weaponry while the Croats and Bosnian Muslims were left holding the bag.

    So while ostensibly such an embargo could have de-escalated a conflict in place, in practice it let the Serbs get away with a lot until the Croats and Muslims managed to get weapons. Incidentally, as an aside, it’s been reported that Slovenia made a nice mint sending weapons to Croatia.

    One could thus argue that each international incident requires a nuanced response rather than one-size-fits-all thinking.

    * and sometimes they actually worked. See the rest of my post.

  • AnonaMiss

    I don’t accept that bombing and “doing nothing” are the only possible options when confronted with such horrible situations. Surely “any sort of intervention” can be more creative — and more effective — than only interventions that involve bombs and bullets and death.

    Then propose an alternative option.

    We’re already providing as much aid as we can clandestinely send, over the Turkish border. Any more or more-direct aid would require military intervention to deliver.

    Barring some kind of international psychological gambit, I just don’t see where we could even begin to look for the alternative you’re grasping for.

    The world isn’t just, and sometimes bad choices are all you have.

  • brulio2415

    The Onion actually had a good editorial bit, written as Assad, sympathizing with America’s tricky position. We see something awful happening, he have the documentation and evidence, we have bodies on tape. We can’t dismiss the military option, but embracing it will probably blow up in our collective face.

    The problem is that Assad isn’t interested in peaceful solutions. He doesn’t care if the world finds out that he had his citizens killed in large numbers, or allowed his generals to do so. He’s not worried about blowback, in part because he has some powerful protectors in the international community, and in part because he’s plum crazy.

    I dunno, I would rather support military action than no action in this specific case? It seems clear that any non-military action is going to be logjammed at most steps along the way, and the outcome will be a lot of dead Syrians.

    The ideal action would be for the UN to stop giving veto powers to interest-conflicted parties, for the UN to have authority to intercede two years ago, for the world as a whole to break out of the Medieval definition of sovereignty and hold leaders responsible for their crimes, but you can imagine how THAT idea goes over.

  • aunursa

    I, for one, trust our president to do the right thing.

    That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics. Now let me be clear — I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.
    But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaida. I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.

    Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, October 2, 2002

  • Surely “any sort of intervention” can be more creative — and more effective — than only interventions that involve bombs and bullets and death.

    The problem involves bombs and bullets and death, so any intervention has to address bombs and bullets and death. There is simply no getting away from that.

    And the problem is a civil war, where neither side is a friend or ally to the US. The truly cynical view this war the way my dad views games between the Bengals and the Browns. (“Who are you rooting for? Injuries.”) A swift, decisive end to hostilities is not viewed as the best outcome in some quarters; a weak and divided nation lacking unified rule is a better result than either side being victorious and opposed to the U.S.

  • It bugs me a lot that it seems like an awful lot of the people who oppose bombing Syria really oppose any sort of intervention in Syria, and for a lot of them, it’s because “Why should my money go pay to help those people?”

  • Kubricks_Rube

    While I’m skeptical of military intervention in Syria, I resent the false equivalence with Iraq, a conflict in which 1) US soldiers were always expected to be on the ground, 2) Saddam had not just used chemical weapons on his people, and 3) there wasn’t an ongoing civil war before we got involved.

  • Ursula L

    See Fred’s link, above, to the Albert Einstein Institute. Lots of alternatives, and examples of effective non-violent intervention of various sorts in even the worst circumstances.

    Besides, it isn’t incumbent on those who oppose war to provide an alternative option other than “not war.” The burden of proof is on the argument in favor of war. Both that war would be effective for the desired outcome, that the harms done by war won’t be worse than what is already happening, and that nothing but war could possibly work.

  • Then propose an alternative option.

    So how closely did you read the OP? Fred already commented on this:

    The next step in dismissing any effort to broaden our imagining is a transparent bit of dishonesty. Advocates of military intervention as a first-and-only resort will demand that anyone arguing otherwise must, at this instant, produce an alternative plan that would guarantee a successful outcome of perfect peace and justice.

  • Hexep

    The only solution I’ve ever heard to these problems that seems even a little promising is for foreign powers to all step out and let them work it out themselves. A man I respect a great deal once told me that the chief reason Turkey is doing so much better than the Arab countries in every respect (well, they were at the time) is because they don’t regard themselves as a nation of victims. At times, the Turks conquered others; at times, they were conquered by others; so it goes. The Arabs, on the other hand, have spent the last 700 years with other peoples trying to beat the self-respect out of them, and that kind of national abuse doesn’t lead to the good things in life.

    Ultimately, it’s a wound that they will have to heal themselves, and the only thing foreign powers can do is step out and let them do it. But if one foreign power – in this case, Russia – steps in, what can the rest do, but try and step in to counter-balance them?

    Not that that ever helps in the long run, though. It’s the Prisoner’s Dilemma, writ large over half a billion people.

  • AnonaMiss

    I’m not saying propose a perfect option. I’m saying propose any option beyond what we are already doing which will accomplish something and will not entail, either as a means or an inevitable consequence, military conflict. And I’m not an advocate of military intervention. I see three options: to intervene militarily; to cease intervening; or to continue intervening only through clandestine means.

    I see no way of helping, beyond what we have been doing for years to little avail, which does not entail, either as means or as inevitable consequence, military conflict. Nonviolence is reasonable when the oppressor can be shamed, but Assad has shown himself to be beyond the reach of shame-by-the-international-community: with Russia on his side, he doesn’t need to care about the rest of the international community. Just like with the US and Israel.

  • That said, Obama was entirely correct. The USA has sadly vindicated every word he said: Dubya Bush and his swaggering BigStickism have made an absolute dog’s breakfast of Iraq and I’m not sure Afghanistan can be considered to be much better.

  • My King

    Perhaps a valid point. But answer the question, then: Why should our money go to help those people?

  • Matri

    One word: Oil.

  • Matri

    Matthew 25:35-40

    Or how about James 2:14-17?

    Why not?

  • Matri

    You’d gladly spend the money to buy bullets to kill people with, and in the process making them hate you.

    But spending the same money to help people, making them like you and therefore living in accordance to your Bible, is so abhorrent that it is considered the work of the Devil?

  • Erl

    Here is an utterly ridiculous idea:

    What if we bought the Syrian army? All of it, lock stock and barrel. It’s got about 200,000 people and a yearly operating budget of about $2 billion. For the price (the nominal price, not the real price) of one year of war in Iraq, we could buy the Syrian army at a 1800% markup.

    Of course, we’d have to buy the rebels too. They’re smaller and less well equipped, but hell, let’s just stipulate they cost the same amount—equipment, wages, uniforms and canteens. That’s $4 billion a year.

    Of course, we don’t even have to maintain that on an ongoing basis—we have no interest in fighting a war in Syria, after all. So instead, let’s concentrate our spending power up front. Let’s offer disgusting amounts of money to anyone who surrenders a tank at the border. Let’s make anyone who can deliver a chemical weapons cache intact a multi-millionaire and global hero.

    This is a ludicrous idea, of course. It would encourage all sorts of other violence. It would require massive police efforts at the borders to prevent people from smuggling weapons in in order to sell them heading out (though Syria’s entire borders are somewhat shorter than the U.S.-Mexico border). The most active combatants would not give up their weapons for any amount of money; the sort of people who were made rich by this would be, by and large, awful guys.

    But hell, every gun surrendered at the Syrian border (and, let’s say, melted down for scrap, the proceeds from the sale of which are held in trust by an international body with the aim of rebuilding Syria) is one not being fired at a Syrian citizen. Every bullet sold is a bullet that cannot kill. And if we could encourage the theft of Syria’s chemical weapons and their safe disposal, we’d be achieving the same aim that we would pursue militarily.

    This is a ludicrously ineffective strategy, I’m sure. The only thing sillier than this is that it seems to have about as much of a chance of working as the more traditional ones.

  • Veylon

    It’s insane. But it’s particular flavor of insanity that’s hard to pin down as actually stupid. It’s got a weirdly capitalistic/mercenary air of “let the Free Market sort it out.” And isn’t sorting out impossibly complex messes exactly what the Free Market is for? Point at a problem, offer money for solving it, and let the entrepreneurs do their thing.

    There is one aspect of this that’s been kicked around with despots before: buy out Assad. Offer him and his inner circle their remaining lives to live out in luxury – free and unpunished – in a Western nation of their choice. Assad even used to be a optometrist before he was a dictator; treating people’s eyes instead of dictating has got to be looking better and better as the war goes on.

  • Doing that sort of thing tends to annoy the people of the country who had to suffer under the dictator(s) involved. One reason Iran’s government gets so much mileage out of bashing the USA is because of Jimmy Carter’s boneheadedly stupid decision to let the Shah in for treatment instead of hauling his ass up on whatever crimes against humanity charges would stick.

    (And this does not even include the original coup in 1953)

  • Erl

    Yeah. All things being equal, I think we should buy the Syrian army from your average Syrian soldier (who, let us note, is actually carrying the gun and thus well placed to sell it to us) and lock up Assad.

    I also like it for its nice blend of hypercapitalist and thoroughly communist. It makes some assumptions about the loyalty of the average citizen/soldier to the president/general that were last in vogue in socialist/communist anti-war movements. But I think those assumptions might well be justified.

  • dongisselbeck

    “If everyone skied there would be no more war”-Hannes Schneiderfor

  • train_star

    We are not sending all the aid that we could. You can get information from Doctors Without Borders which is still operating hospitals in Syria. They are desperate for supplies. The refugee camps are all underfunded; full funding would cost less than the proposed limited bombing campaign.

  • train_star

    It is not a ridiculous idea. Things like this have been done. Don’t offer ridiculous sums of money though. Just more than an ordinary soldier is likely to make in twenty years.

  • Carstonio

    The folks who would dismiss Sharp as a ” feckless, irrelevant hippie” aren’t necessarily lacking imagination. They’re all about the macho posturing instead. For them, might makes right. Sad that they don’t recognize that true strength involves a refusal to become violent.

  • Eric Boersma

    Yeah, that’s pretty much it.

  • Because it wouldn’t be “our” money if we hadn’t stolen it from the blood, sweat, tears, and RESOURCES of other nations.

  • AnonaMiss

    The operative word there was ‘clandestinely’. They desperately need more, but we are at the limits of our capacity to deliver it without taking military action. Delivering aid to the extent that is needed would effectively be establishing a supply line to the rebels. Supply lines are prime candidates for attack, need to be protected with force, which means boots on the ground.

  • And there is something to be said that the military can be on the ground to PROTECT our aid shipments, but still not engage with military forces. But that kind of thinking requires a nuance most US policy makers aren’t capable of anymore.

    But that would mean no “Black Hawk Down” shit, where we were there to protect the aid, but ALSO attempting to collect high value targets. Just protect the aid.

  • In addition, there are mechanisms in place, like Red Crescent, that would be more than happy to accept and distribute any aid we wish to give.

  • AnonaMiss

    Here is a list of all the actions available for the international community which are listed on http://www.aeinstein.org/organizations103a.html :

    77. International consumers’ boycott US already participating
    94. International sellers’ embargo US already participating
    95. International buyers’ embargo US already participating
    96. International trade embargo US already participating
    151. Changes in diplomatic and other representations US already done
    152. Delay and cancellation of diplomatic events US already done
    153. Withholding of diplomatic recognition
    154. Severance of diplomatic relations US already done
    155. Withdrawal from international organizations
    156. Refusal of membership in international bodies
    157. Expulsion from international organizations

    So. Lots of options still on the nonviolence table right there.

  • Guest

    Saddam had gassed a great many Kurds. No-one did anything about it at the time. Although the war was destructive and cost a great many lives, it’s a small comfort that the guy who did it ‘Chemical Ali’ was eventually caught and the Kurds got some sort of justice.

  • Guest

    We could threaten to take the Olympics away from Russia if they don’t stop selling arms to and supporting Assad. But no-one has the nerve for that. If the gay-bashing ‘s not enough, why would this be?

  • Guest

    Because helping others feels nice and it’s tax-deductable. And because allowing chemical weapons to be used in Syria without some sort of response sets a dangerous precedent for future wars that your country might be involved in. And because war tends to be contagious and so the quicker Syria is stabalised, the less chance there is of this escalating to involve Israel and provoke WWIII.

  • Guest

    And when the bullets start flying to protect the aid shipments how are we not at war? And once our soldiers are under attack how can we justify keeping them their shackled to purely defensive, reactive actions, denying them all ability to to perform more active, strategic actions to reduce their risks?

  • Carstonio

    In my experience, that type of opponent is motivated mostly by xenophobia and by animosity toward Obama, with Rubio and Cruz pandering to such folks. I encounter many other opponents who strongly favor nonmilitary alternatives.

  • Until we started actively offensively in Somalia, US troop casualties were minimal. Your logic is backward.

    And they aren’t “shackled” they are constrained, there are differences(though shackled is more hyperbolic, so kudos!). And there’s nothing about using NOT local intelligence to prepare for convoy attacks.

    But yes the SOLE purpose of any boots on the ground should be to defend aid convoys, FULL STOP.

  • schismtracer

    To your question, a question: do “those people” actually want our help, or will they consider it just another example of US imperialism as evidenced by our long history of exactly that (which will, of course, be leveraged by extremist groups into recruitment drives thereby exacerbating various existing problems)?

    It’s true that there’s probably no available option that’s best for Syrians, but one option (do nothing) is probably best for the US. I realize that kind of cold pragmatism isn’t popular in these parts, but there it is.

  • AnonaMiss

    While I would be completely in favor of this, politically I can’t imagine it ever happening. We’d get in one little fight and the public would get scared, and say “You’re mov-

    Sorry, got sidetracked for a second there.

    But seriously, one or two dead US soldiers and the US would be divided between those clamoring to avenge them, and those clamoring to bring the rest of them home & out of peril.

  • LMM22

    We’re already providing as much aid as we can clandestinely send, over the Turkish border.

    I’m going with Charlie Stross’s suggestion, from here:

    “Mass Sarin attacks are survivable with prompt first aid and hospital support.

    We should be distributing gas masks, field decontamination showers, NAAK kits, and medical resources to everyone in the conflict zones. Government, civilian, rebels, it doesn’t matter. By doing so we would be providing aid that was (a) life-saving (b) cheap, and (c) put a thumb on the side of the balance in favour of whoever isn’t using nerve gas.”

    Everyone in the conflict zone. Freaking air drop the things if you need to.

    Barring that, I’m voting for no action. (See also: Accept refugees. And send funds to other countries that are letting them in.) The US’s underwear gnome foreign policy ((1) Invade country. (2) ?? (3) Peace!) has a shaky track record at best and a piss-poor one at worst.

  • LMM22

    But seriously, one or two dead US soldiers and the US would be divided between those clamoring to avenge them,

    Y’know, somehow no one seems to think that the countries we’re fighting might be just as attached to those people we’d be killing as we are to those people they might be killing. (See also: Gitmo. Secret prisons. Waterboarding.)

    Or, to rephrase this:

    “But, seriously, one or two dead [Syrian combatants] and [the Syrian faction they belong to] would be [filled with] those clamoring to avenge them.”

  • Carstonio

    “Shackled” is simply a recycling of the Vietnam myth that the politicians wouldn’t allow the military to win the war. See: First Blood Part II.

  • Guest

    Well, I did worry about employing that language for exactly that reason. But no, I think there are significant differences. For one thing the Vietnam objections always seemed to at least have a subtext of being in favor of atrocities, near genocide in some cases. I am merely saying I don’t think it’s fair to expect our troops to stand around and get shot at.

    I should note: I am NOT in favor of military intervention, certainly not in a “boots on the ground” sense. I think sending troops to guard aid shipments will logically and inevitably escalate into actual military intervention once the casualties start coming in. In fact it seems far more likely to lead to further involvement than a limited bombing campaign aimed at preventing further use of chemical weapons.

    In the abstract, I actually tend toward pacifism. I am far from convinced by the advocates of the bombing plan, but I am also getting more and more uncomfortable with the arguments of its most vocal opponents, especially those who apparently don’t share my tendency toward pacifism, but instead subscribe to some variation of Just War theory. Their argument seeming to be, bombing isn’t just because it won’t work because…the vast military experience of the internet says it won’t .

  • People who use it now like ot forget that the shackling they were talking about back then is the fact that they weren’t allowed to nuke Vietnam into glass.

  • Turcano

    The thing is that there are only two good choices in this matter: either follow the Powell Doctrine to the letter, or do nothing; any other choice is almost certainly a bad one. Unfortunately, the plan we seem to be going with is a classic Rumsfeld Doctrine affair, i.e. a complete clusterfuck.

  • Matri

    Offer him and his inner circle their remaining lives to live out in
    luxury – free and unpunished – in a Western nation of their choice.

    “Evacuate? In our moment of triumph? I think you overestimate their chances.”

    Grand Moff Tarkin

  • Nick Gotts

    There’s plenty of scope for sending aid to the neighbouring countries, who are now hosting between them around 2 million refugees. One of the main concerns in this situation is its potential to spread to Syria’s neighbours. Lebanon alone has 700,000 or more, while its own population is around 4 million – imagine the strain that many refugees puts on a middle-income and politically very fragile country. We could even let some of the refugees come to our countries (I’m in the UK) – but let’s not get carried away in expecting generosity on the part of our compatriots.

  • Alix

    …Well, you know, there’s always the really cynical take: buy out Assad (or whichever dictator), then renege on the deal when he’s out of the country and in your clutches.

    ‘Course, that has plenty of nasty pitfalls all its own.