Stalemates and “Interests”

I’m still watching the situation in Syria with trepidation and thinking a lot about the ethics and realpolitik of the imminent intervention by the US, which inside sources say to NBC could start as soon as Thursday.

I just wanted to briefly engage one false argument that has been making the rounds, which is the one made by Edward N. Luttwak in the New York Times the other day. He argues that the only sensible option for the US is an indefinite stalemate. Why? Because the opposition, he says, are extremist islamic thugs while the Assad regime is in bed with Iran, Hezbollah and so forth. The United States and its allies should just allow the Assad administration to break 100-year-old humanitarian law because the interests of the United States is an ongoing, bloody civil war killing hundreds of thousands of people in perpetuity, apparently.

1.5 million refugees from the civil war less than thrilled with mr. Luttwak’s argument. Photo: US State Dept /

This is an unbelievably stupid idea. I’m honestly surprised that mr. Luttwak has been working with war and security issues all his life and not learned one of the fundamental things to know about what war is: really destructive. 

Not just in the most important sense that it creates material and human loss, but also in the sense that the longer wars tend to last, and the more evenly the sides in the engagement are matched, the more wars complicate the nature of postwar settlement. Peace negotiations are complicated by entrenched animosities, destruction of civic infrastructure and persistent conflicts. Especially if the fighting lasts for longer than a generation. Children growing up in a country which has always been at war tend not to understand that peace with the other side is possible.

I also think I should just for a second address the idea that the rebels are all crazy radical islamist al-Qaeda terrorists. While some of them quite clearly are, they still appear to be a fractious minority among the rebels, with People’s Front of Judea-style infighting. And although they are clearly influential for their size, they are up against bigger and more organised fractions. I’m not sure where Luttwak gets the idea that the Syrian opposition are uniformly or even predominantly crazy, bearded salafis.

Most of the islamists Luttwak seem to be worrying about are Muslim Brotherhood-style sunnis. They aren’t salafists and they aren’t al-Qaeda. While they also, clearly, are not great friends of human rights for women and democratic values — as recent events in Egypt demonstrated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood — I have trouble seeing in what way the US in particular and the international community in general is served by continuing a bloody and destructive war instead of accepting an ideologically backwards government that represents the will of the people. They may not wind up being great friends and allies, but it’s hard to see Syria going Taliban based on the current strength of the radicals in the rebel factions. But more importantly, it’s hard to see any situation that favours the crazies more than exactly what Luttwak argues for: a prolonged war in which they get to show one thing they are indisputably good at, get to make alliances, create bonds of loyalty and generate support in the population.

The difficult thing we should be talking about is not who gets to be in power but how they get there. Achieving some form of democracy is the important thing here, trying to build a culture of deliberation and separation of powers. It takes time, so the sooner Syria gets back on that track, the better, and there does seem to be a pretty good support structure and a general agreement with the Syrian opposition coalition that the end-point is some form of elections.

The central point here is that war is generally corrosive to civil society, to human rights, humanitarian law and liberal democracy. Traumatised people are less amenable to checks and balances, the rule of law or separation of powers. They want to crush their enemies. We need to do everything we can to prevent that end-state. What levers do we have to do that? I am not convinced one of them is doing nothing.

So what kind of Middle East does Luttwak believe he is building here? While it’s obviously true that a victory for Assad or a victory for the opposition in the short run doesn’t look like a good deal for the US, what other options are on the table, exactly? Obviously one of the parties to the war is going to win in the long run. If not, there will be some sort of negotiated settlement which the parties could both agree to. This means that the things Luttwak fears will eventually come to pass anyway. We get the things Luttwak doesn’t want to happen no matter what. The only difference is whether or not we get them after a prolonged conflict that would almost certainly degrade the democratic culture and the public’s ability to recreate civil society after the war.

Also, we seem to be forgetting the obvious thing, which is that what we glibly call “stalemates” and “United States interests” in NYT op-eds is another word for tens of thousands of people being killed and injured. Those kinds of human costs need more than just this Kissinger-style surrealism to consider.

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2 comments
  1. Interesting post. I posted something on this topic a while ago; baring in mind what you’ve written you may be interested. rileyfrost.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/what-are-the-concequences-of-military-intervention-in-syria/

  2. Release said:

    Thanks for the link! I commented on your post as well. As I said there, I think the do nothing vs the do something question is the big, burning thing here.

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