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We Need Smarter Solutions to Damned-If-You-Do-or-Don’t Dilemmas Like Syria

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As of this writing, the U.S. has still not produced definitive, “smoking gun” evidence linking President Basshar al-Assad to a chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of civilians last week, The New York Times reports today. Officials in Russia and elsewhere still question whether the Syrian government carried out the attacks.

Photo taken by Syrian "citizen journalist" of victims of alleged chemical attack in Arbeen, Syria. How should U.S. and other nations respond to such atrocities?

But even if the Syrian government is just killing its own people with “conventional” (that grotesque euphemism) bombs and bullets, the question remains: What should the U.S. and other nations do about it? This is what I call a damned-if-you-do-or-don’t dilemma. Doing nothing seems immoral, but military intervention poses terrible risks. Those who support military actions against Syria should check out the “Costs of War” project, a nonpartisan initiative based at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies.

According to Costs of War, U.S. military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan have cost the U.S. more than $3 trillion and almost 10,000 American lives (counting contractors as well as troops). The Veterans Administration has processed 671,000 disability claims for U.S. soldiers.

The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq “resulted in the eviction of two of the world’s most repressive regimes,” Costs of War acknowledges, but at what price to Afghans and Iraqis? More than 17,000 Afghan civilians have been killed and 134,000 Iraqi civilians. These are conservative estimates, that do not count civilian deaths resulting from conflict-related degradation of health care, nutrition and housing.

Costs of War notes that the post-war Iraqi government “has become increasingly authoritarian and is characterized by serious human rights violations and repression of journalists. Poverty, insecurity, a deteriorated social welfare system, and corruption effectively block citizens from meaningful democratic participation.” The U.S.-backed government of Afghanistan ranks as the world’s third most authoritarian, corrupt government, behind only North Korea and Somalia.

The U.S. at this point is contemplating air strikes against Syria rather than a ground invasion. So Libya perhaps offers a better analogy to Syria than Afghanistan and Iraq. Two years after NATO air strikes helped Libyan rebels violently overthrow Muammar Qaddafi, Libya “seems to have been fatally destabilized by the war to remove its dictator, and it is increasingly out of control,” Jon Lee Anderson wrote recently in The New Yorker.

I oppose U.S. military intervention in Syria because I think it will do more harm than good. Every time the U.S. employs deadly military force—including drone strikes–it legitimizes the use of deadly military force by other groups and thereby perpetuates militarism. American use of force, which often results in civilian casualties, has also severely damaged our moral credibility. When the U.S. criticizes the Assad regime for its brutality toward civilians, many people justifiably think, What about all the women and children that U.S. forces have killed over the past decade? According to one estimate, between 2003 and 2011 U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq killed 14,906 civilians, including at least 1,201 children.

I am neither a pacifist nor an isolationist. I don’t advocate just watching events unfold in Syria and hoping for the best. Nor can I see any obvious nonviolent solution to the horrible conflict in Syria (although in Postscript below I offer guidelines for finding such solutions). But it’s not my job to find solutions. It’s the job of Barack Obama and other elected politicians and of the tens of thousands of people working in the massively-funded Departments of Defense and State and other security agencies to solve conflict-related problems. Our votes and taxes support these officials and agencies. We should demand that they do a better job finding smarter, nonviolent—or at least less violent and less costly—solutions to damned-if-you-do-or-don’t dilemmas.

Photo: Local Committee of Arbeen, Syria, and Times of Israel.

Postscript: Here are some more thoughts about the just use of force, which I have posted previously on this blog. I believe people have the right to defend themselves against violent attacks. We also have the right–and sometimes the duty–to help others being threatened by bullies. But given war’s terrible unpredictability, and its tendency to exacerbate rather than solving problems, we should do all we can to solve damned-if-you-do-or-don’t dilemmas nonviolently—or, if that fails, with minimal force. I don’t have any special formula for determining exactly when and how to use force. I just have a few simple—simplistic, some might say—rules.

First, we should heed the Hippocratic command to do no harm. In other words, whatever we do, we shouldn’t make a bad situation worse, which is just what the U.S. and its allies did in Afghanistan, Iraq and, arguably, Libya. We should stop using mines, bombs and other weapons that kill indiscriminately. That includes the drones that the Obama administration has deployed to carry out assassinations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and probably elsewhere.

Minimizing casualties, even of combatants, should be the highest priority. The manner in which police employ force should be the model. In the U.S. and most other democratic countries, police are legally required to avoid hurting civilians and even criminals. If police know that a psychotic, armed killer is holding hostages in a building, they don’t immediately bomb the building or storm it with machine guns blazing. In fact, they try to capture rather than kill the killer so that he can be tried by the justice system, as occurred last week in the case of the suspected Boston bomber. Often, this means that police patiently try to talk the criminal into surrendering without hurting his hostages.

The approach I’m advocating resembles the “just policing” philosophy of the theologian Gerald Schlabach. He sees three key differences between police work and conventional warfare. I’ve already mentioned two: Police officers place the safety of civilians above all other goals, and they strive not to kill criminals but to bring them to justice. The third difference identified by Schlabach is rhetorical. Whereas wartime leaders often employ charged, emotional language to rally a nation against the enemy, competent police officials seek to tamp down rather than inflaming emotions.

These rules are restrictive enough, but I have one more that, if followed, may result in even fewer armed interventions: Whatever our response is to a damned-if-you-do-or-don’t dilemma, we should formulate it with the larger goal of abolishing war, and even the threat of war, once and for all. This means that, if we employ violence, we must do so in a way that does not legitimize violence as a solution to problems. This may seem to be a tricky, even impossible, proposition, but police pull it off when they’re doing their jobs well.

The end-of-war rule demands that we consider not only the immediate consequences of our actions but also how they will be perceived by others. Will our actions be viewed as disproportionately violent? Will they provoke reprisals? Will our intervention, which we claim is purely altruistic, look to others like muscle-flexing? A demonstration of our nifty new stealth fighter or drone? A reminder to other nations around the world of our overwhelming military superiority? An attempt to seize oil reserves? Are our actions consistent with the principle that war is immoral and needs to be abolished? Or will they make it easier for other groups to justify their violence?

These questions are directed primarily at the U.S., which—let’s face it—is a major impediment to world peace. I love my country, but I am often embarrassed by the chasm between our lofty rhetoric and our actions. We denounce Al Qaeda, rightly, for the moral nihilism and illegitimacy that it demonstrates when it kills thousands of innocent American civilians. So how does the U.S. respond? By invading two countries and killing thousands of civilians who had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.

We claim to revere peace and human rights yet we embark on wars of choice, in which we treat alleged enemies and even innocent civilians cruelly. We pay lip service to the principles of national sovereignty and international law while secretly carrying out deadly drone and commando raids. We spend as much on arms and armies as all other nations combined, and we are by far the biggest arms dealers on the planet. We are guilty of shameful hypocrisy. If we practiced what we preached—if we showed through our actions that we recognize how wrong war is—we Americans could lead the entire world to an enduring peace.

Post-Postscript: In the Postscript above, I said that when contemplating how to respond to damned-if-you-do-or-don’t dilemmas, we should be guided by the end-of-war rule, which prohibits actions that help perpetuate and legitimize militarism as a solution to problems. The end-of-war rule leads me to oppose not only military strikes by the U.S. against the Syrian government but also military aid to the armed Syrian rebels. If we give arms and other military aid to the Syrian rebels, that legitimizes their use of violence, which can be just as brutal as that of the Assad regime. Worse, our aid to the Syrian rebels might encourage other groups around the world to take up arms in the hope that the U.S. or other outside groups will give them military aid. We should advise groups seeking political change on how to achieve their ends nonviolently, perhaps by adopting the tactics of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and political scientist Gene Sharp. We should not do anything that encourages these groups to take up arms. Of course, to be morally consistent, the U.S. should also stop supplying military aid and arms shipments to other nations and should stop engaging in drone strikes and other violent actions.

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. tuned 11:38 am 08/29/2013

    1) No society has ever survived that passively “resists” evil.
    2) The world is like an addict, still in denial of the truth that the UN will ever be effective in such matters.
    Superpowers will never (foolishly)really give up their power. The oft proven corruption in the UN barely allows it to be a good help to the poor in need even. “Doctors Sans Borders” is better.
    3)The best (small) chance is to pass a UN resolution that ANY nation that blocks a UN vote on such matters as genocide, WMDs, etc. is COMPLICIT in them ipso facto and their vote is voided.

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  2. 2. M Tucker 1:12 pm 08/29/2013

    “In the U.S. and most other democratic countries, police are legally required to avoid hurting civilians and even criminals.” Boston was an exception because the terrorists had not killed any cops before they were spotted and pursued. Did the Boston cops evacuate the surrounding neighborhoods before they moved in on the lone suspect hiding in the boat? What happened in LA when that former cop went on his rampage and killed and attacked some cops? You did hear about the civilians who were attacked right?

    AND policing is nothing like a war. “If police know that a psychotic, armed killer is holding hostages in a building, they don’t immediately bomb the building or storm it with machine guns blazing.” Yeah but the cops are usually not taking fire from other buildings. Police usually do not take mortar rounds. You have some nice sounding ideals That Have Never Once Been Used in an actual war.

    You don’t even have any real solutions to the dilemmas we face today. If the US is going to do what it wants outside negotiations in the UN what the hell good is the UN? If the Assad government really did launch the chemical attack and if the rest of the Western world wants to avoid punishing Syria in any way, either sanctions or a military attack, what does that say about their morals (not just US morals)? If the rebels launched the chemical attack and McCain and his neocon Republican friends want to arm the rebels what does that say about their morals?

    It is easy to lob criticism and point your finger at others and demand they do something as long as their decision does not upset your sensibilities. Well you will never, ever, get that kind of response from government.

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  3. 3. Noone 2:49 pm 08/29/2013

    It seems the me the real cowardice is not taking out sadist foreign leaders out of fear someone will come after you someday. Being a president ALREADY gives you a 1 in 5 chance of being shot at!

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  4. 4. TTLG 3:21 pm 08/29/2013

    Good analysis, which can be applied to pretty much any war. Looking back from the present day to the American Revolutionary war, I see pretty much the same thing: those who promote the conflict care nothing for the general population of the US, the enemy or the country supposedly being liberated. Again and again, the only ones who seem to benefit are those at the top of the social order. My guess is the same applies to pretty much every country’s military conflicts.

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  5. 5. plswinford 3:26 pm 08/29/2013

    “These questions are directed primarily at the U.S., which—let’s face it—is a major impediment to world peace.”

    So if the US did not exist, the tyrants and would-be-kings would all lay down their swords and join in the singing of Kumbayah?

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  6. 6. gesimsek 6:50 am 08/30/2013

    Policing international order is a good idea but an old problem regarding who should guard the guardians remains

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  7. 7. rkipling 6:32 pm 08/30/2013

    Mr. Horgan,

    The solutions you seek may not exist. The Geneva Convention is ignored. Whatever new rule book you devise would be as well. Your goal is a noble one, but I believe it’s unachievable because of complexity and interpretation of rules. World leaders will interpret them as they wish and go right on with whatever they want to do.

    With extremely few exceptions, those who have seen the carnage of war detest war.

    Until everyone in positions of power around the globe begins to sing “Imagine”, you will, like the Miss America contestants of yesteryear, must wish for world peace in vain. Unfortunately for us all, there are people with armies and weapons of war who don’t share your valuation of human life. If we took your approach and disarmed, those armies and weapons would soon be turned on you. Or after this country surrendered, they would come for you. I’m assuming you would be just as outspoken under any government.

    I have no grand stratagem for world peace. And, I don’t believe drastic reduction in military spending would benefit people in the U.S.

    As far as the Middle East goes, perhaps the best plan is to frack our way to energy independence. Decades ago someone from the Middle East wrote that before oil was discovered, savages there killed each other in the sand. They continued by predicting that when the oil was gone they would go back to killing each other in the sand. The savages haven’t waited. And, I doubt anything can be done about it. They don’t seem capable of civilized self-governance. Nation building would take generations of occupation if it were even possible. For the sake of innocents, for the sake of the children, we all wish there was an answer. In my opinion, U.S. disarmament isn’t it. And there probably is no answer.

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  8. 8. marclevesque 7:46 pm 08/31/2013


    Getting along is not too hard. Though it may be hard when dysfunctional behavior from certain groups is misunderstood, ignored or not called out.

    “Decades ago someone from the Middle East wrote that before oil was discovered, savages there killed each other in the sand. They continued by predicting that when the oil was gone they would go back to killing each other in the sand. The savages haven’t waited”

    That is incoherent.

    “I doubt anything can be done about it. They don’t seem capable of civilized self-governance. Nation building would take generations of occupation if it were even possible. For the sake of innocents, for the sake of the children, we all wish there was an answer”

    In a nut shell, maybe less bombing for start. You leave people alone for a while they will recover. You bomb them and destroy their infrastructures you make things worse. You are taking away the structure, organization, and stability that supports the path to democracy. You bomb you are making room for more fundamentalism. Same thing would happen to us if our roles where reversed.

    Raise basic help to the citizens themselves, to women, to education and to local enterprise, and lower foreign geopolitical activities, and moreover foreign top down commercial and economic activities.

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  9. 9. rkipling 8:11 pm 08/31/2013


    Your reply is non-responsive.

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  10. 10. marclevesque 6:06 pm 09/1/2013


    “The savages haven’t waited … They don’t seem capable of civilized self-governance”

    Who are ‘they’ ? Do you mean ‘they’ are not people just like you and me ? and why don’t they seem capable of civilized self-governance to you ?

    “Nation building would take generations of occupation if it were even possible.”

    I think we are already imposing our ‘nation building’ and ‘occupation’ on others, and it doesn’t seem to help, and often, if not always, it seems to make things worse.

    “In my opinion, U.S. disarmament isn’t it”

    Me too and I don’t think anyone here is proposing that.

    “And there probably is no answer”

    And I probably agree, answers or solutions are usually frozen in time, they are most likely not well adapted to the complexities of cultural conflict and wellbeing, and they do not inherently adapt to the reality of ongoing change. But we can envisage and instantiate ongoing incremental changes in our direction, changes in our posturing, attitude, perspective, goals and actions. That is and has always been the case. And I think Horgan’s article is exploring our options and that is inherently useful.

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  11. 11. rkipling 1:09 am 09/2/2013


    I don’t say your opinions are necessarily incorrect. I just offer my own. It’s a discussion. If you want it spelled out, here’s what I think.

    The culture in the Middle East beginning in the 7th century has been dominated by Islam. Ask a Muslim, “If a stone is thrown into the air, will it fall to earth?” he will say, “If Allah wills it.” Ask anyone else in the world and they will tell you the stone will fall to earth due to gravity. As a culture they are stuck in the Stone Age. Women are basically property. They are for the most part savages by the standards of any other culture. I heard an expression recently that describes attempts at nation building there. It was, “It’s like trying to teach a snake to juggle.”

    The mullahs ruling Iran believe that the 12th Imam (a 5 year-old with a broad forehead and a pointed nose, who hid in a cave in the 13th century) will emerge from hiding to conquer the world for Islam. Sounds crazy, right? Look it up if you don’t believe me. And it is crazy.

    I agree nation building doesn’t work. I was attempting to make that point with exaggeration by saying it would take generations. Trying to occupy an area for generations is absurd. Afghanistan can’t field a modern army because 90+% of the soldiers can’t read. They are little more than Stone Age people. Buildings and machinery left behind will fall to ruin. Everything after the initial attack was a waste of blood and treasure.

    Regarding disarmament, in my opinion Mr. Horgan would be fine with that approach. I may be wrong. But when Horgan says that the U.S. is a major impediment to world peace and very directly morally equates the U.S. to Al Qaeda, I have to question his assertion that he loves his country. Well, unless this isn’t his country? Or unless he loves BOTH the U.S. and Al Qaeda since he sees them as moral equivalents.

    I don’t see this article as a meaningful exploration of options. I see it as a fundamental misunderstand of the U.S. and reality. I don’t say it in anger. I’m pretty sure his opinion matters just about as much as mine. That is to say, not at all.

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  12. 12. marclevesque 5:35 pm 09/2/2013


    “I’m pretty sure his opinion matters just about as much as mine. That is to say, not at all.”

    I disagree. Both your opinions matter more than that.

    “The culture in the Middle East … They are for the most part savages by the standards of any other culture.”

    Imagine for centuries foreign powers to various degrees for various reasons have occupied and controlled your land, your politics, and your economy.

    Today, in Saudi Arabia we support and help increase the power of dictators who support stoning and don’t permit women to drive or vote, in Kuweit we do much the same. In Afghanistan, we install a puppet government that is considered one of the worse, if not the worse, corrupted government in the world today, and we bomb Afghan civilians by mistake by the tens of thousands (and we are perpetuating the same kind of mess the Russians were fostering before we took over), and women there today say things are a lot worse for them and their children than before the US and its allies arrived. All over the middle east the same kind of occupation or violent aggressions are going on and have been taking place for centuries.

    Following all this aggression, what would be surprising today is if there wasn’t lot of countries with ‘stone age’ social structures, rich and fundamentalist dictators, or relatively poor and military or quasi democratic military governments. I believe, the average westerner’s intentions are good but that they are misinformed about these issues. I also believe the choice of actions, and the actual outcomes, of our governments’ operations (US, France, England, Russia, China …) abroad are the main cause of the problems we see today (if we can speak of a main cause at this level of analysis), and the personification by western powers of middle easterners as the main or original cause of these conflicts is what one would expect from any group who is in a position of clear power and doesn’t know how or is unwilling to behave otherwise.

    The US is not *the* cause, the situation is complex. For example, in Syria the players on one side are: the rebels, the US, the Arab league to name a few, on the other side the government of Syria and Russia along with various regional alliances. Though complex, for the sake of the people suffering and dying there by the tens of thousands we need to work on reducing military escalations and the underlying conflicts.

    We obviously also all need to stop the escalation of partisan rhetoric and propaganda. These kinds of conflict do not get solved through violence or blame, and though conflict in itself is not hard to resolve, it seems the deescalation needed to get there is.

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  13. 13. rkipling 7:38 pm 09/2/2013


    I said I thought staying in Afghanistan was a bad idea. We need to be energy independent. We need to keep them from having WMD the best we can and leave it to them. Saudis are among the worst just as you say.

    One place where we disagree is that they would do any better if we stay out of it. We should stay out of it, but it won’t help them do any better in my opinion. At least we wouldn’t be wasting blood and treasure on them.

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  14. 14. marclevesque 7:50 pm 09/3/2013


    “We should stay out of it, but it won’t help them do any better in my opinion”

    In todays world I think it is hard to stay out of anything. There is the expression “you broke it you fix it”, I think that is two categorical but the idea still applies here. I think we need to slowly reduce some of the things we tend to do in these, and similar situations, and increase some other things we do. To give at least one example of things we can do more of: we can build schools, form teachers, and finance their everyday operations, ie we can respond to there needs and help them realize them without any expectation of return.

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  15. 15. rkipling 10:55 pm 09/3/2013

    I would be for that if they didn’t kill the teachers and the girls trying to go to school.

    I understand you mean well.

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  16. 16. marclevesque 10:42 am 09/4/2013


    “I understand you mean well”

    Me too, vice versa

    “I would be for that if they didn’t kill the teachers and the girls trying to go to school”

    Yes, that has happened. But it is not a reason to not continue ‘good’ work. When the extremity of the more extreme extremists rises to actions of that kind then it’s pretty clear our military escalation has become counter productive. Complex situations.

    Even ‘doing good’ with misplaced motivations creates problems:

    “UK spent millions on health and education centres that Karzai government can’t afford to keep open” “Of course we built too much,” said one [UK military] official. “We didn’t think about how the Afghans would pay for it [...] We wanted to show them what we could do for them, but without regard for sustainability.”

    But that isn’t the whole picture:

    “School enrollment is at its highest in Afghanistan’s history. Currently, there are approximately six million students in school, with an estimated 35% being girls. The number of girls currently enrolled in school exceeds the total school enrollment under the Taliban – there were 900,000 students enrolled in school under the Taliban and now there are over two million girls in school. However, according to the Ministry of Education, approximately five million school-aged children remain out of school.”

    “Ayni Education International [American organization] builds schools, computer centers, and teacher training programs utilizing local labor and community support.”

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  17. 17. marclevesque 7:42 pm 09/12/2013

    @Marclevesque 9/02/2013,

    “women there today say things are a lot worse for them and their children than before the US and its allies arrived”

    That comment seems to contradict the US stats on the situation for girls and education in Afganistan today, but maybe not as much as it seems because the US wants its numbers to look good so they may exagerate. That said, I guess the apparent contradiction could also arise many other reasons, for example conditions could be better for the woman who live in cities or closer to cities and be worse for the rest who do not, hence the two views, things are better and things are worse, depending on which group you are polling.

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