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.
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.