OK, so we're possibly days away from going to war. Again.
I can't help but remember a page from one of my history textbooks in high school. It showed a map of Europe on "The Eve of World War II." I remember thinking that was kind of a comical way to put it, since I usually associated the word "eve" with Christmas. We all knew when Christmas eve was coming (and were excited for it!) but with war, how could you know until afterward that it was "the eve?" Well, as I later learned, sometimes the signs are pretty clear.
Sure, maybe we could still avoid it. Maybe the Senate won't give its approval to military action. If they do, maybe the House won't. It's been one part fascinating, two parts mind-numbing to watch an endless stream of journalists and pundits try and pick apart how the legislature is going to shake down on the question of going to war in Syria. That's not a dig against the pundits, they're only doing their jobs, of course. But there's been a bit too much made over the fact that anti-war progressives will suddenly find themselves in bed with conservative hardliners(!) who will do anything to derail President Obama, or that right-wing hawks will find common cause with left-wing humanitarian doves, lions will lie down with lambs, swords to ploughshares, etc. and so forth. Yes, the debate over military action has transcended the heavily partisan political dynamic that's dominated the last few election cycles, or at least flipped it upside down for the moment. Still, I think the bigger question, and the bigger story, is whether the people who elected all these characters will be in support of the decisions their representatives ultimately make. Will our (still hypothetical but increasingly likely) intervention in Syria have the backing of the American people?
It looks more and more as though it wouldn't/won't.
I'm not the first person to suggest this, certainly. Long-time war protester Medea Benjamin, writing for Al Jazeera, pretty clearly thinks the Obama/Kerry one-two punch is trying to hoodwink us on this one. If so, where's our outrage, our vociferous opposition to having our collective will hijacked by the foreign policy old guard who see no alternative to humanitarian intervention by force? Well, several people from both my own social circles (such as they are) and the news media have used the phrase "war-weary" to describe American skepticism. While I imagine the people who inhabit the war zones are much more wearier than are we, it's a fair way to characterize the mainstream response I've seen so far. We're vaguely distrustful of our leadership's slow grind toward military action, but there seems to be a certain weariness to arguing against it as well. There's both a sense that Obama could still easily proceed with the "limited" strikes he's looking for with our without congressional or multilateral approval, and that our path comes down to a choice between the lesser of two evils.
Guess what? I'm calling shenanigans on the "no good options" line of reasoning. First, we have options. Medea Benjamin has a couple- including addressing the refugee crisis that the Syrian civil war has created. Matt Yglesias at Slate suggests working with the United Nations. That will probably lead to stalemate between the Western and the Sino-Soviet votes, and maybe the U.N. still doesn't have the kind of teeth necessary to take on an assignment like punishing Assad for chemical weapon use. That's a common and somewhat valid criticism of the U.N., but if we keep refusing to work with them and going it alone, we'll never develop the kind of mature multilateral institution that can meet challenges like this. Even if we can't count on the U.N. for a police action, we can still activate its potential for creating networks of facilitators at different levels both within Syria and without, to begin a constructive dialogue and search for nonviolent solutions. That last one comes from Johan Galtung, the father of my discipline and one of the world's foremost minds in the prevention of violence.
Though some of these options are perhaps overly simplified, I can't understand why they're not being explored and fleshed out, or even exposed to a wider audience. No, support for refugees or working toward a mediated solution won't immediately stop the killing in Syria, but then again, neither will U.S. intervention, whether it's cruise missiles or boots on the ground. In fact, there's evidence to suggest that intervention would actually multiply the violence against civilians, since government forces become more desperate when an armed rebellion receives support from a foreign power. More Syrians will die before a solution is reached, and that's truly heartbreaking and tragic, but as soon as we step in with our own armed forces, the pace will only pick up.
So if we're not likely to end the violence by doing more violence, and strikes against the government will lead to even more widespread suffering, why not at least search for a path which doesn't damage our legitimacy as an international actor? Why not be the sort of world leaders we describe ourselves as in inaugural addresses and stump speeches, and help usher in the advent of collaborative, non-violent solutions to violent conflicts?
Because al-Qaeda, obviously. Because Iran. Because if we don't back up Obama's "red line" comments about chemical weapon use (for whatever that's worth,) we'll be seen as weak. Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rouhani will doubt our commitment to projecting power into the Middle East. And if the wrong (read: Islamist) rebels win, al-Qaeda will gain a foothold in a country currently ruled by a fiercely secular government. Perhaps that might not be great for U.S. interests.
And that's why, on Syria, non-US government actors are ultimately going to be much more productive in stopping the violence, punishing the state's atrocities, and finding a sustainable political solution to the crisis. It's time to create some space for that to happen. So, guys, maybe don't fire any missiles just yet, huh? Instead, let's work on creating space for dialogue, mediation, and legitimate action. Who's with me?
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them- Albert Einstein