The Inroads listserv began in 1997 as a means to link Inroads readers and others interested in policy discussion. With nearly 130 subscribers, it offers one of the few chances for people of diverse views to grapple with social and political issues in depth.

Inroads editors are split between “hawks” and “doves” on the question of military intervention in Syria. John Richards and Dominic Cardy have been critical of the Obama administration for drawing what they see as the wrong conclusions from the Iraq civil war post-2003.1 Henry Milner came to the defence of Obama and suggested the editors read a recent article by Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Richards decided to air Inroads’ “dirty linen” and posted the Power article to the listserv, acknowledging the obvious: Inroads editors disagree. The debate took off from there.

From: John Richards | October 9

Henry Milner has recommended that the editors read a recent New York Review of Books (NYRB) article by Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the UN.2 Power is a very smart policy wonk who has preferred to argue from the inside rather than the outside of the Obama administration. Having made her existential choice, she cannot advocate military actions that run counter to the U.S. administration. Historically, however, she has been a “liberal hawk.” She equivocated on the Iraq invasion in 2003, saying that it would probably improve the lives of Iraqis because Saddam was a monster but would open the United States to massive criticism in the Middle East as a neocolonialist.

I agree with much of the NYRB article. For example, she emphasizes that, in many deeply troubled countries, the core of the problems are internal political/religious dynamics. For U.S. diplomats to have an influence, they must get out of their embassies and try to understand who is lining up with whom, who is killing whom and why. While she uses Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik as a foil, she winds up agreeing with much of his analysis. She departs from Kissinger inasmuch as she almost certainly favours some form of military intervention in Syria. Her concluding paragraph illustrates her continuing ambivalence about use of unilateral U.S. force:

Yet there are of course some foreign policy dilemmas for which deepening our diplomatic engagement and marshaling global coalitions will not offer a ready solution. Such as when the aspirations of the people in a given country cut against our long-standing relationship with its government. Or when we know that a government’s actions are setting back our shared interests, while it also appears absolutely impervious to our diplomatic and economic pressure to change course. Or when we suspect that exerting pressure on a government to move toward a more open system that respects human rights may actually undermine the limited influence we have over it. These are not hypothetical balancing acts; they are challenges we are confronting right now in our relationships with countries across the world.

From: Garth Stevenson | October 9

The issues raised by John and Henry are complex and important, but let me put my cards on the table at the outset by saying that I agree with Kissinger. The primary purpose of foreign policy, and certainly of defence policy, is to protect the security of your own country and other countries whose security is considered essential to your own. Sending your young men and women overseas to fight and die is the most serious decision a government can make. Kissinger in my opinion is a better exemplar of how to make such decisions than Don Quixote. Trying to impose our version of human rights by military means on countries with totally different cultures and at a different stage of development is a fool’s errand whose consequences cannot be predicted in advance. The only thing for certain is that the longer the intervention drags on the less willing the people of your own country, including those who have to put their boots on the ground, will be to support it.

Building a modern liberal democratic state is a long and difficult process, the work of centuries. Along the way there is bound to be lots of disorder and suffering. In France it took a very bloody revolution and in the United States it took a civil war that killed 2 per cent of the population and left the southern states in ruins. England’s King Henry VIII was just as bad as any of the modern dictators in the Middle East. For better or worse, he was a stage along the road to modernity. I doubt if foreign military intervention in any of the countries I have just mentioned could have made things better, any more than intervention in Syria and Iraq is doing today. More likely it would have made people’s lives even worse, as war usually does. Certainly in Syria today there is no evidence that Western policymakers know whom they are supporting or should be supporting. Although I am not an admirer of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, he was right to stay out of the Nigerian civil war (remember Biafra?) despite the murmurings offstage of certain Canadians who wouldn’t have known one end of a rifle from the other.

Admittedly a foreign and defence policy based on realpolitik may mean supporting some regimes whose domestic policies fall far short of our moral standards. FDR coined the expression “He may be a son of a bitch but he’s our son of a bitch.” He could have meant Stalin, who was “our son of a bitch” from 1941 to 1945, but actually he was referring to Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua.

Some people may respond that World War II was fought for human rights, but that is not so, although some human rights eventually benefited from the Anglo-American victory. We fought against Germany and Japan not because of their records on human rights (which as of 1939 were better than Stalin’s) but because their geopolitical ambitions threatened our security. Of course, the surrender of Germany and Japan enabled the victors to impose liberal democracy on most of Germany and all of Japan, but that was a fortunate byproduct of fighting the war, not the reason for it.

From: Reg Whitaker | October 9

It’s been a long time since I agreed with anything Garth has written, so I am pleased to note that I agree with almost everything he says here. Campaigns to spread Western “democracy” (by which is normally meant no more than a voting fetish and the further spread of Western capital) at the point of a gun have been disastrous. Worse, debacles like Vietnam and Iraq have not only failed in the field but impacted most grievously on the domestic politics of the intervening powers (particularly the United States over Vietnam and the U.K. over Iraq), building the long-term distrust of government that is the wind in the sails of right-wing populism. LBJ’s Great Society has turned into Donald Trump’s Angry America; Blair’s New Labour led to Brexit. Being systematically lied to by your government about their bloody interventions abroad leads to easy conspiracy theories of how the elites can no longer be believed.

Western interventions for regime change in other parts of the world are indeed doomed not only to fail but likely to make matters worse (e.g., from Saddam Hussein to the Islamic State). Syria is a case in point. There are no “good guys” to back. Nor are there any conceivable good outcomes. Some outcomes might be worse than others, but all are bad.

The trouble with applying external ethics to complex conflicts is not only the culture shock involved in superimposing a set of standards having little overlap with local cultures but also the problem pointed to long ago in Max Weber’s great essay “Politics as a Vocation.” The absolute ethic (to act in strict accordance with one’s notion of right regardless of context) is applicable to saints and hermits answerable only to their God. Politicians have to weigh the consequences of doing the “right thing” when that may cost more lives and suffering than not doing the right thing. They must employ the ethics of consequences.

Garth is quite right that the ethics of consequences may sometimes lead to alliances with the likes of a Stalin. As Churchill said, a deal with the devil to defeat Hitler was necessary. Once Hitler was defeated, the deal was off. Perhaps a deal with the devils Putin and Assad to defeat the Islamic State et al. in Syria might have been a better idea than a half-assed intervention on behalf of one soi-disant “democratic” jihadist gang of thugs or other, in a quixotic quest to unseat Assad.

The one case where I would qualify nonintervention advice is with regard to non–regime change situations where military intervention can at least stop genocide or large-scale massacres of civilians: Rwanda or Bosnia. In Bosnia, bombing Serb positions around Sarajevo quickly put a stop to the years-long nightmare of the assault on that city. It did not impose a solution on the warring parties, but it did set them on the road to settling. This was, I think, the ethics of consequences in action.

From: Arthur Milner | October 10

Haaretz today had this headline on last night’s debate: “On Syria, Trump was much closer to Obama than Clinton was.” That puts Garth, Reg, Donald, Barack and me on one side; John and Hillary on the other.

The combination of realpolitik and liberal interventionism terrifies me. It allows politicians to lie to themselves and to us.

John trusts the West’s motives, though not its competence. I trust neither. To me, Responsibility to Protect is mostly used as cover for a wide variety of sins.

From: Joe Murray | October 10

To throw a few more arguments into the mix:

  1. There is good empirical evidence that resolving violent conflicts one way or the other in resounding fashion results in fewer deaths and casualties than prolonging them. If one criterion for evaluating how well protection of civilians is handled in a situation is deaths and casualties, then it might be best to let the “bad” guys win convincingly as soon as possible, or to be bloody-minded in suppressing the bad guys. Of course, judging when either of those courses is possible/probable is hard.
  2. I have been unclear on what Putin’s motives are. Obviously he wants to reassert a Russian zone of influence, at least near Russia’s borders, and to be seen to do that. Yes, he’s got to test out and prove the worth of his missile and air force rebuilding efforts. And yes, it is to his advantage to keep the fight against fundamentalist Islam outside Russia’s borders and to take away the Islamic State’s “homeland” for training fighters to be sent to Russia. But the refugee flow from the ongoing conflict has helped split Europe, which benefits Russia. So I’m not clear whether he wants to finish the war through a thorough win over the Islamic State or see the continuation of the refugee flows.
  3. A humanitarian right to forcible intervention in the affairs of another state provides a pretext that will be abused to start wars, so the 19th-century opposition to such a right is still valid. We’re better off keeping a bright line against wars and in favour of the Westphalian doctrine of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other states.
From: John Richards | October 10

Whether the West, the United States in particular, should intervene more aggressively in the Middle East, and if so how, are “big questions” about which very smart people obviously disagree. Maybe your team is right, Arthur, and mine wrong. Here, however, are a few questions for your team to contemplate:

  1. If the West does not intervene in an attempt to end the Syrian civil war, will the proxy states supporting the war escalate their hostilities into a regional conflagration pitting Shi’a against Sunni powers?
  2. (bonus question) What will be the fate of the Kurds?
  3. Will the EU elect many conservative populist governments that eliminate Schengen, put an end to the euro, close borders, curtail immigration?
  4. As of now, approximately 500,000 have died in the Syrian civil war, about three times more than died in the post-2003 Iraq civil war triggered by the U.S. invasion. What is your estimate of the total casualties if it carries on for another five years?
From: John Richards | October 11

In this issue of Inroads, my friend Paul Delany reviews three books on the post-2003 war in Iraq. As a supplement to his review I add another perspective, that of Chris Hill, the “realist” ambassador to Iraq sent to reach a pragmatic solution that would enable the United States to leave Iraq ASAP and the author of a recent memoir.3

The Inroads editorial team is probably bored with my obsessive interest in events in Baghdad in 2010 when, in my opinion, Obama’s team made a fatefully wrong decision. So be it. These are events that deserve rethinking.

Obama and Hillary Clinton, then his secretary of state, enabled Nouri al-Maliki, a sectarian Shi’i, to enjoy a second term as prime minister despite having narrowly lost the 2010 general election. Maliki was willing to implement the wishes of Tehran, which in turn transformed much of the disempowered Sunni Arab elite into supporters of the Islamic State.

Last year I reviewed Emma Sky’s memoir The Unraveling in Inroads.4 Her book is essentially the version of events as perceived by Ray Odierno, the general in charge of the 2007–10 surge that ended the Iraq civil war, and David Petraeus, the general who designed the surge. The success of the surge enabled a reasonably fair election to tale place in 2010, which gave a narrow plurality to a secular Shi’i leader, Ayad Allawi, willing to compromise with the Sunni Arab minority and the Kurds.

Clinton chose Hill as U.S. ambassador to Baghdad in 2009. He was to be the civilian outsider, a realist free from any sympathy with the army view that, at great cost in life and treasure, the surge had salvaged American honour. As with the various narrators in Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic portrayal of alternative narratives), Hill’s version of events in Baghdad bears little resemblance to that of Emma Sky.

Roger Harrison, former U.S. ambassador to Jordan who currently teaches political philosophy at the U.S. Air Force Academy, has written an insightful review of both Sky’s and Hill’s memoirs.5 “The best we could hope for now,” writes Harrison in summary of Hill’s version of events, “was the emergence of a somewhat milder and more inclusive version of the sectarian- and tribal-based autocracy we had come to Iraq to overthrow. That meant a new strong man, and there was, Hill thought, no real alternative to Maliki.” In Harrison’s telling, Hill could not understand that “pragmatism is not always a virtue”:

No wonder Hill and Odierno pulled in opposite directions. Odierno, by more reflective, had become the keeper of the narrative flame , with Sky as his torchbearer. Perhaps a wiser or more adaptable diplomat than Hill would have understood that those who had fought the battle required one final effort to salvage more than mere stability from all the sacrifice and blood that had gone before. Pragmatism argued otherwise, but pragmatism is not always a virtue. He might have understood that any remaining hope depended on a concerted effort of U.S. civilian and military leadership, and that he was fated to be the junior member in this partnership, the “wingman,” as Petraeus had patronizingly dubbed Hill’s predecessor, Ryan Crocker. Crocker had been quietly effective in that role. But Iraq seems to have confounded Hill, just as it confounded the country he represented. What had begun for the U.S. government in confusion and tragedy was now destined to end the same way.

From: Patrick Balena | October 12

John, going back to your post of October 10, I think that your first question reveals a lack of understanding of the nature of war. What do you mean by “intervene in an attempt to end the Syrian War”?

All of the parties involved in the Syrian War are attempting to end the war. The problem is that each party wants the war to end differently, and is willing to kill to make the difference. When you participate in the war, you become another of those warring parties.

What you do in a war is kill people and destroy things, and threaten to kill even more people and destroy even more things, until your enemies, hopefully, yield to your political demands. You kill and destroy to make the difference you want.

So the real questions for you, John, would be these: Whom do you want to kill in Syria? What do you want to destroy? What are your political demands? What is your desired end state, and how much destruction are you willing to inflict – and perhaps endure – to achieve it?

Unless we know that you understand at least the first thing about war, it is hard for us to have a reasonable discussion about the matter.

Nevertheless, I’ll venture into the second half of that question of yours. The only significant Sunni power in the region is Saudi Arabia, and the only significant Shi’a power is Iran. If those two don’t go to open war, then none of the lesser countries are likely to go to open war. The comforting thing is that neither has the capability to wage open war against a peer opponent. Therefore, the sort of proxy conflict taking place between them today is likely to be the worst that we’ll see in the near future.

By far the bigger danger posed to the world by the Syrian War is the possibility of an escalation that would involve direct fighting between powers from outside the region: NATO and Russia. It feels strange even to be writing such a thing, but the risk has become, as the saying goes, “nontrivial.”

Your fourth question provided some estimates of casualties in Iraq and Syria. Do you know that the figure of 470,000 deaths in the Syrian War, given by the Syrian Center for Policy Research (SCPR), is derived from a sampling method similar to, and indeed looser than, the methodology employed by the Lancet, which estimated surplus mortality from the Iraq War?

If you cite a half-million people slain in Syria, you should also accept the death toll in Iraq, approaching one million, which was calculated by the second Lancet survey. If not, you need to explain why a looser sampling method used by SCPR for Syria would be more reliable than the sampling method used by the Lancet for Iraq.

Since you say “three times more,” it would seem to me that you’re comparing the SCPR totals to the Iraq noncombatant deaths estimate given by the Maliki government, which was 130,000. That figure was from, I believe, 2008 or 2009. Since the Maliki government was collaborating with the invading powers in Iraq, the figure would naturally have to be considered lowball. Obviously, more people in Iraq have died in fighting that has taken place since then, although the intensity of fighting has been less than the 2006–07 peak.

Myself, I am suspicious of peacetime sampling methods when employed in war zones. Are the figures derived really all that useful? In any case, these are wars taking place on a substantial scale, and the loss of life, whether combatant or noncombatant, has been fairly heavy.

From: John Richards | October 14

Patrick, you take me to task over the relative deaths attributable to the U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the post-2011 civil war in Syria. I admit I took the 500,000 Syrian death toll from recent news stories, and have done no digging into the legitimacy of that estimate. In the case of Iraq, I tend to believe the Iraq Body Count (IBC) methodology over the extrapolation of dubious sampling undertaken by the Lancet. The IBC arrived at a total of civilian deaths between 2003 and 2010 of 116,000. The IBC adds another 50,000 deaths for the 2011–16 period.

Surely, the blame for resumption of hostilities post-2010 is attributable primarily to the corrupt sectarian government led by Maliki who, more or less, did Tehran’s bidding. Finally, in 2014, in the wake of Islamic State military successes, a combination of domestic Kurdish and Sunni Arab groups, abetted by the Americans, forced his resignation. Maybe, Patrick, you are right to suggest more died in Iraq than in Syria. Your overall conclusion is an understatement that both of us can agree on: the loss of life in both wars “has been fairly heavy.”

While the initial invasion of Iraq was incompetently managed and Bush and Blair bear responsibility for that, the American military learned from the errors of their political masters and had, by 2010, brought about a peace, a new status quo better in almost all respects than the dictatorship run by Saddam pre-2003. As Harrison acknowledges in his review of Sky’s and Hill’s memoirs, Obama’s team was so keen to get out of Iraq that they allowed a sectarian Shi’a thug, not much better than Saddam, to retain power despite having lost a reasonably fair election.

Patrick, I assume your pointed questions to me constitute the case against Western intervention in Syria. Answering these questions to my satisfaction, let alone yours, is beyond the space that the editors are willing to afford us. But I will make a stab.

For your questions to make sense, you presumably conclude that any NATO or U.S.-led intervention will kill more people and inflict more destruction than extrapolation of the status quo ante. The same implicit conclusion underlies critics of U.S.-U.K. intervention in Iraq and NATO intervention in Libya. Critics of Western intervention in the Middle East may, in each case, be right. But maybe not. Increasingly, military and political leaders in Paris, London and Washington are abandoning their post-Iraq conclusions that the international community should live with whatever religious-inspired civil wars arise in the Middle East – and whatever tactical moves Putin undertakes. I admit there is NATO self-interest at play. The wave of Middle Eastern refugees has disrupted politics-as-usual in the EU more dramatically than at any point since World War II.

There is no certainty here, but I submit that some combination of safe havens for refugees within Syria, destruction of Assad’s air force, more arms to the Kurds and more NATO special forces would reduce cumulative casualties relative to extrapolating the status quo. Furthermore, these options might well improve the odds of a diplomatic compromise among the major actors outside Syria: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia and NATO.

I have no illusions of transforming Iraq and Syria into Nordic social democracies. But it is worth recalling cases where unilateral, unsanctioned military intervention has improved matters. When East Pakistan seceded in March 1971, the Pakistani army quickly assumed control. By the summer, up to 10 million refugees had fled to India. In December 1971 the Indians launched a unilateral invasion, and quickly routed the Pakistani army. A low estimate of casualties over the nine-month civil war is 300,000. Whatever the inadequacies of the government installed by the Indians,6 few Bangladeshi regret the invasion.

From: Patrick Balena | October 14

John, it took a lot of verbiage just to get you moving away from the empty formula “attempting to stop the war in Syria” and to a grudging admission that you want NATO to wage war against the Syrian government (“Assad’s air force”). Now at least we know whom you want to kill.

You still shy away from most of the implications of making war. For example, you seem to think that you can pick and choose which service branches of another country’s armed forces you want to fight. I think that is absurd. Has the Syrian government agreed to limit a war according to the terms you specify? Do you believe that the allies of the Syrian government will stand by and watch you wage war à la carte?

Serbia had no allies; Iraq had no allies; Libya had no allies. Those were all countries where the United States or NATO could pick and choose the kind of war they wanted, against a completely isolated opponent that was too weak to alter the terms of the confrontation. But Syria does have allies. While I know that Syria’s allies are much inferior to NATO, nevertheless they might have sufficient power to alter the terms of the confrontation if they so choose.

The military matchups, and ultimate casualty tolls, are endlessly arguable or unknowable until determined empirically. However, you must recognize that there is an elementary power-political difference between the Syrian case and those three above-mentioned triumphs of liberal interventionism.

This brings me to the second thing there is to know about war: no one party to the conflict gets to say in what way it is fought, or how long it continues. The war does not end until there are no more parties willing to fight. No single party can ever end a war, but any single party can insist that the war go on, and any single party can escalate or widen a war. That’s one of the reasons why it is always easier to get into a war than to get out of one.

While it is essential to think about what you want when you wage war, it is not good enough to think only about what you want. You must think mostly about the enemy. You may persuade yourself that it would make no sense for the enemy to continue to resist. But are you certain the enemy reasons in the same way? Do you know why they fight? Do you know what they think is at stake?

It is ludicrous to participate in a war for the sake of reducing casualties. You don’t control how long the war lasts, or how hard others choose to fight. Even when we speak of a “decisive victory” in a war, it is not the victor who makes that decision, but the vanquished.

Your remark about the “incompetently managed” invasion of Iraq in 2003 brings into sharp relief your failure to understand this second thing about war. It was never a question of how the invading powers “managed” their war against Iraq. The point is, other parties decided to fight, and that’s what made the Iraq War what it became.

The invaders assumed that because they were incomparably superior, and because the Iraqi government was weak and unpopular, therefore nobody else in Iraq would mount or sustain a meaningful armed resistance. The invaders’ assumption about their own strength was correct, but the conclusions they drew, no matter how rational in their own minds, proved quite false in the event. Advocates of the Iraq War did not seem to comprehend that a war doesn’t end until everybody else says so.

Do you remember all the stupid talk about “dead enders” in the first few months of that war? Over a decade later, it turned out that some former Iraqi Ba’athist officers were providing military advice to the Islamic State. For a dead end, that road has led awfully far – and the world is still on for the ride.

From: Patrick Balena | October 16

While John might be happier to let the Syrian question drop, nevertheless I think it is necessary for me to drive home the point of how ludicrous, indeed monstrous, it would be for NATO to wage war on the Syrian government for any ostensibly humanitarian purpose.

This listserv’s discussion of the Syrian refugee problem has so far been focused on the EU. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that the largest host of people who fled their homes during the Syrian War – by a wide margin – is the Syrian government. In fact, according to International Committee of the Red Cross and Syrian Red Crescent estimates, the Syrian government is looking after about five million refugees.

That is roughly as many refugees as all of the countries outside Syria put together. The most important direction of refugee flow, throughout the conflict, has been from rebel-controlled or disputed regions toward government-controlled regions of Syria. No matter how one may try to explain away or spin it, the fact remains: Assad’s Syria is doing more to look after refugees than any other country.

Now does it make any sense, from a humanitarian point of view, for NATO to wage war on the state that has been coping with a bigger humanitarian crisis than anybody else? Why would a self-described humanitarian want to further weaken or further disrupt that state? Have you considered what it be like if Damascus, crowded with refugees from all over Syria, got bombarded even a fraction as badly as Aleppo?

John, would the excuse be, to use your words, “NATO self-interest at play”


1 See John Richards, “The Unravelling of Iraq,” Inroads, Winter/Spring 2016, pp. 128–32; Dominic Cardy, “Syria and Liberal Interventionism,” part 1, Inroads, Summer/Fall 2016, pp. 6–13, and part 2 in this issue, pp. 18–30.

2 Samantha Power, “U.S. Diplomacy: Realism and Reality,” New York Review of Books, August 18, 2016, retrieved here.

3 Christopher R. Hill, Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).

4 Richards, “The Unravelling of Iraq.”

5 Roger Gran Harrison, “Leaving Iraq,” The American Interest, July 31, 2015, retrieved here.

6 See my article on pp. 98–106 of this issue.

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