— The Guardian (@guardian) February 26, 2014
I’ve been asked to debate Danny Postel on the question of Syria, and so have read the op-ed he co-authored with Nader Hashemi, “Use Force to Save Starving Syrians.” Excellent responses have been published by Coleen Rowley and Rob Prince and probably others. And my basic thinking on Syria has not changed fundamentally since I wrote down my top 10 reasons not to attack Syria and lots and lots of other writing on Syria over the years. But replying to Postel’s op-ed might be helpful to people who’ve read it and found it convincing or at least disturbing. It might also allow Postel to most efficiently find out where I’m coming from prior to our debate.
So, here’s where I’m coming from. Postel’s op-ed proposes the use of force as if force hadn’t been tried yet, as if force were not in fact the very problem waiting to be solved. What he is proposing is increased force. The arming and funding and training of one side in Syria by the CIA, Saudi Arabia, et al, and the other side by Russia, et al, is not enough; more is needed, Postel believes. But “force” is a very non-descriptive term, as are all the other terms Postel uses to refer to what he wants: “air cover,” “coercive measures,” “Mr. Assad … [should] be left behind.”
I find it hard to imagine people on the ground while NATO dropped thousands of bombs on Libya pointing to the sky and remarking “Check out the air cover!”
Or this: “What happened to your children, Ma’am?” “They experienced some coercive measures.”
Or this: “What became of Gadaffi?” “Oh, him? He was left behind.”
When people who experience modern wars that wealthy nations launch against poor ones talk about them, they describe detailed horror, terror, and trauma. They recount what it’s like to try to hold a loved one’s guts into their mutilated body as they gasp their last. Even the accounts of recovering and regretful drone pilots in the U.S. have much more humanity and reality in them than do Postel’s euphemisms.
I’m not questioning the sincerity of Postel’s belief that, despite it’s long record of abysmal failure, humanitarian war would find success in a nation as divided as Syria, of all unlikely places. But Postel should trust his readers to share his conclusion after being presented with the full facts of the case. If Postel believes that the people whose lives would be ended or devastated by “air cover” are out-weighed by the people who he believes would be thereby saved from starvation, he should say so. He should at the very least acknowledge that people would be killed in the process and guesstimate how many they would be.
Postel claims Somalia as a past example of a “humanitarian intervention,” without dwelling on the chaos and violence aggravated and ongoing there. This seems another shortcoming to me. If you are going to make a moral decision, not only should it include the negative side of the ledger, but it should include the likely medium-term and long-term results, good and bad. Looking at Somalia with a broader view hurts Postel’s case, but so does looking at Libya, Afghanistan, or Iraq. Studies by Erica Chenoweth and others have documented that violent solutions to oppression and tyranny are not only less likely to succeed, but if they succeed their success is shorter lived. Violence breeds violence. “Force,” translated into the reality of killing people’s loved ones, breeds resentment, not reconciliation.
So, I think Postel’s case for dropping tons of deadly “coercive measures” on Syria would be a weak one even were it likely to resemble his outline. Sadly, it isn’t. The war on Libya three years ago was sold as an emergency use of “force” to protect supposedly threatened people in Benghazi. It was immediately, illegally, predictably, cynically, and disastrously turned into a campaign of bombing the nation to overthrow its government — a government that, like Syria’s, had long been on a Pentagon list to be overthrown for anything but humanitarian reasons. Postel presents a quick and antiseptic “leaving behind” operation to provide food to the starving, but surely he knows that is not what it would remain for any longer than it takes to say “R2P.” Why else does Postel refer so vaguely to leaving Assad behind?
It may be worth noting that it’s not aid workers advocating for “coercion” strikes on Syria. I spoke with a U.S. government aid worker in Syria some months back who had this to say:
Before we contemplate military strikes against the Syrian regime, we would do well to carefully consider what impact such strikes would have on our ongoing humanitarian programs, both those funded by the U.S. and by other countries and international organizations. These programs currently reach hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people throughout Syria, in areas controlled both by the regime and the opposition. We know from past military interventions, such as in Yugoslavia and Iraq, that airstrikes launched for humanitarian reasons often result in the unintended deaths of many civilians. The destruction of roads, bridges, and other infrastructure, which such airstrikes may entail, would significantly hamper the delivery of humanitarian aid in Syria.
The provision of this assistance in regime controlled areas requires the agreement, and in many cases the cooperation, of the Asad government. Were the Asad regime, in response to U.S. military operations, to suspend this cooperation, and prohibit the UN and Nongovernmental Organizations from operating in territory under its control, hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians would be denied access to food, shelter, and medical care. In such a scenario, we would be sacrificing programs of proven effectiveness in helping the people of Syria, in favor of ill considered actions that may or may not prevent the future use of chemical weapons, or otherwise contribute to U.S. objectives in any meaningful way.
Let’s grant that the crisis has continued for months and worsened. It remains the fact that it is advocates of war advocating war, not aid workers advocating war. The option of ceasing to arm both sides, and of pursuing a negotiated settlement, is simply ignored by the war advocates. The option of nonviolent efforts to deliver aid is avoided entirely. The failure to provide adequate aid to refugees who where that can be reached seems far less pressing than the failure to provide aid where that failure can become a justification for an escalated war.
“Humanitarian interventions,” Postel writes, “typically occur when moral principles overlap with political interests.” This seems to be an acknowledgment that political interests are something other than moral. So, there’s no cry for “humanitarian intervention” in Bahrain or Palestine or Egypt because it doesn’t fit “political interests.” That seems like an accurate analysis. And presumably some interventions that do fit political interests are not moral and humanitarian. The question is which are which. Postel believes there have been enough humanitarian interventions to describe something as being typical of them, but he doesn’t list them. In fact, the record of U.S. military and CIA interventions is a unbroken string of anti-humanitarian horrors. And in most cases, if not every case, actual aid would have served humanity better than guns and bombs, and so would have ceasing pre-existing involvement rather than escalating it and calling that an intervention.
But once you’ve accepted that the tool of war should be encouraged in certain cases, even though it’s misused in other cases, then something else has to be added to your moral calculation, namely the propagation of war and preparations for war. Those of us who cannot find a single war worth supporting differ only slightly perhaps from those who find one war in a hundred worth backing. But it’s a difference that shifts opposition to support for an investment that costs the world some $2 trillion a year. The United Nations believes that $30 billion a year could end serious starvation around the world. Imagine what, say, $300 billion could do for food, water, medicine, education, and green energy. Imagine if the United States were to offer that kind of aid to every nation able to peacefully and democratically accept it. Would polls continue to find the U.S. viewed as the greatest threat to peace on earth? Would the title of most beloved nation on earth begin to look plausible?
Members of the nonviolent peaceforce, Nobel peace laureate Mairead Maguire, and other advocates of de-escalation in Syria traveled freely around Syria some months back. How were they able to do that? What might trainers in creative nonviolent action offer Syria that CIA and military trainers aren’t offering? The alternative is never even considered by advocates of war-or-nothing. Postel wants to back “democratically oriented” rebel groups, but is violence clearly democratically oriented? Turning our eyes back on ourselves suggests a rather disturbing answer. In September 2013, President Obama gave us the hard sell. Watch these videos of suffering children, he said, and support striking their nation with missiles or support their ongoing suffering. And a huge majority in the U.S. rejected the idea that those were the only two choices. A majority opposed the strikes. An even larger majority opposed arming the rebels. And a large majority favored humanitarian aid. There is a case to be made that democracy would be better spread by example than by defying the will of the U.S. people in order to bomb yet another nation in democracy’s name.
Postel, to his credit, calls the “Responsibility to Protect” a “principle.” Some have called it a “law.” But it cannot undo the U.N. Charter. War being illegal, its use damages the rule of law. That result must also be factored into a full moral calculation of how to act. Act we must, as Postel says repeatedly. The question is how. Rob Prince presents a useful plan of action in the article linked above.
Postel’s most persuasive argument is probably, for many readers, his contention that only threatening to act will save the day. He claims that Syria has responded positively to threats of force. But this is not true. Syria was always willing to give up its chemical weapons and had long since proposed a WMD-free Middle East — a proposal that ran up against the lack of “political interest” in eliminating Israel’s illegal weapons. Also false, of course, were claims by the Obama administration to know that Assad had used chemical weapons. See Coleen Rowley’s summary of how that case has collapsed in the article linked above.
Granted, there can be a good honest case for an action for which misguided, false, and fraudulent cases have been offered. But I haven’t seen such a case yet for taking an action in Syria that would, to be sure, dramatically declare that action was being taken, release a lot of pent-up tension, and enrich Raytheon’s owners, but almost certainly leave Syrians, Americans, and the world worse off.