5_long-game_coverThis review could easily list 15 or 20 books on U.S. involvement in the Middle East since 9/11, and most of them would agree with David Kilcullen that the United States should be devoting more resources to the “Global War on Terror.” Andrew Bacevich is far outside the foreign policy consensus in arguing that the United States should simply withdraw from the region because its war cannot be won. Derek Chollet makes the case that Barack Obama has steered a sensible middle course between the binary choices of escalation and withdrawal. That course has been something closer to the Cold War strategy of “containment,” whereby you trust that your enemy will eventually fall victim to its own inner contradictions. But if our hope is that Islamist regimes in the Middle East will come round to liberal or Enlightenment values, we may be in for a long wait.

Kilcullen, a former colonel in the Australian army, focuses on the expeditionary wars of the past 15 years against Afghanistan and Iraq. Although he describes Iraq as “the greatest strategic screw-up since Hitler’s invasion of Russia,” he argues that the United States should still be there, and in much greater force. Once you have made the commitment, he writes, you have “only two choices: you can leave early, or you can leave well.” Bacevich, also a retired colonel, views such maxims as excuses for staying indefinitely. He wants the United States to withdraw completely from its project of bing the hegemon of the Middle East.

5_bloodyear-coverHow – and why – did the United States “get in” to begin with? Kilcullen has a strictly military perspective on what he calls “the War on Terrorism since 2001.” Bacevich goes back further, and takes a wider view. Before 1980, he notes, the United States had no significant military presence in the region and suffered few casualties there. Since then, thousands of U.S. soldiers have died in the Middle East (including Bacevich’s son, in 2005), but only a handful everywhere else in the world. What changed?

At the beginning of 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini returned to lead the Iranian revolution, and at the end of the year the Soviet 40th Army invaded Afghanistan. The U.S. strategic response was drafted by a mid-rank Pentagon official, Paul Wolfowitz. The United States had a “vital stake in the Persian Gulf,” he wrote, as a result of “our need for Persian Gulf oil and because events in the Persian Gulf affect the Arab-Israeli conflict.” Wolfowitz’s study led to the “Carter Doctrine” of January 1980, which committed the United States to using military force against any outside power that tried to gain control over the Gulf.

In 1980, America’s reasons seemed clear enough. It would protect the oil fields and Israel – which aim had priority could be left open to debate – and it would keep the Soviets out. But that a Soviet army might arrive at the Gulf was never credible, since it would have had to advance through the middle of the Iran-Iraq War. Afghanistan was more than enough for the Soviets: about 14,000 of their forces died, and perhaps a million civilians. After ten bloody years Gorbachev fell back on a “Bacevich strategy” of total withdrawal. The United States was left as the region’s sole claimant to primacy.

5_andrewjbacevich-americaswarThat primacy was promptly challenged by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. If he had continued into Saudi Arabia he would have controlled up to half of the world’s reserves of oil, so the United States felt bound to move against him. The First Gulf War was fought on classic Westphalian grounds, to eject a nation-state that had violated its neighbour’s territory. The U.S. plan for the war was “Vietnam done right.” It would commit as many troops as to Vietnam at its peak: 500,000. But instead of being trickled in over years, they would assemble in Saudi Arabia and then strike all at once. The ground war was held off for seven months after Saddam’s invasion, but when it came it was over in a hundred hours. George H.W. Bush had gained a lightning victory; not only that, he had persuaded his allies to pay almost 90 per cent of the war’s cost. Bush stopped the war expecting that Saddam would soon be deposed by his own people. Instead he would cling to power until the Second Gulf War removed him.

Thirty-six years after the Carter Doctrine, the United States has not been able to find a consistently successful military or political strategy in the Middle East. The human cost to the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq has been just under 6,000 military deaths (unlike Vietnam, there has been no attempt to count up how many of the enemy, or local civilians, have died). The financial cost has been estimated by Linda Bilmes of Harvard at between $4 and $6 trillion, of which the greater part will be continuing medical and pension costs for veterans. Payments for World War II veterans peaked in the 1980s, so for these recent wars the peak will come around 2050. By then there will be further trillions in interest costs for the deficit financing that paid for the wars. George W. Bush made a shrewd political calculation by actually cutting taxes at the same time as he took the United States into war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even now, neither Republicans nor Democrats (with the exception of Donald Trump) have shown much concern for the economic burden of U.S. military commitments.

But where are we on the war aims defined by Wolfowitz in 1979: “oil and Israel”? Oil has never stopped flowing over the whole period, and the current problem is rather that there is too much of it on offer. Israel, whatever one thinks of its conflict with the Palestinians, is probably more militarily secure and prosperous than at any time since 1948. If the United States remains committed to the Middle East, it is now not so much because it is for something as because it is against something: Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.

If this is what the U.S. presence is about, the question becomes one of tactics. Kilcullen gives an impressively detailed account of the multiple state actors and militias, and of Western attempts to bring them under control. Apart from the blitzkrieg of the First Gulf War, the West has vacillated between two doctrines. One is “Counter-Insurgency” (COIN), which overlaps with the state-building ambitions of the neoconservatives. The invading army tries to gain the support of the local people by protecting them from insurgents and improving their everyday lives. Hopefully, a more prosperous, secure and democratic civil society will come to reject the radicals who threaten it. The major COIN initiative in the Middle East in recent years has been the 2007–08 “surge” in Iraq, led by General David Petraeus. It was hailed as a success at the time, but has not proved a lasting one.

COIN has always had its opponents within the U.S. Army. It requires more personnel and expense than conventional war, over a longer or even an indefinite period. When occupying soldiers live closer to the people, they will suffer higher casualties. But the principal objection to COIN is that it assumes the local population can be won over to democratic values. Andrew Bacevich notes that when the United States moved into the Middle East in the 1980s it paid little attention to Islam. The main danger seemed to be Pan-Arab socialism and its Soviet patron. But if religion is the core issue, can there be any convergence of interests between the indigenous people and those who come from outside, peddling Enlightenment dogmas?

If COIN is doomed to failure by the religious (and linguistic) gulf between East and West, the only alternative strategy becomes Counter-Terror: killing your enemies wherever you can find them, at the lowest possible cost to yourself. Kilcullen, though himself an adviser to General Petraeus on the “surge,” seems to have switched to a Counter-Terror stance in the current struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The United States, he argues, should “go in hard” against the Islamic State with more bombing and more boots on the ground.

Counter-Terror means giving up on the hope that the local population will ever come over to your side – because of unbridgeable cultural differences, or internal conflicts such as Sunni versus Shi’i, or collateral damage from the Western way of war. What remains is something like the Israeli model (which to some extent the United States has deliberately imitated). Euphemisms like “price tags” or “mowing the grass” recognize that the aim is to manage rather than resolve the underlying conflict.

The paradox of Counter-Terror is summed up in the question asked by General Petraeus: “Tell me how this ends?” Kilcullen believes that going to war in Iraq in 2003 was a huge mistake, and seems to agree with General Michael Flynn that “drones create more terrorists than they kill.” But the War on Terror must go on, Kilcullen affirms, for the reason given by then–Australian Prime Minister John Howard: “It is impossible for a multicultural, maritime trading nation like Australia to be secure in an insecure world.” Or as George W. Bush put it, “We must fight them there before we have to fight them here.” By this reasoning, there is no point in asking how the Middle East wars end. We will be living with them indefinitely.

That rationale brings Kilcullen and Bacevich to a kind of agreement about what’s going on, though not about whether it should continue. The war is no longer about securing oil, defending Israel or promoting democracy. Oil will be marketed to buyers, Israel will defend itself and Syrians or Iraqis are not going to turn into Danes. To quote Wolfowitz again, the war is about the mission of the United States to “shape the future.”

It is significant that “shaping” has now become popular as a definition of U.S. strategic aims, because it begs the question of when or how or why the “War on Terror” might end. “Shaping” is not a well-defined war aim. The destiny of the United States, as the “exceptional” or “indispensable” nation, is to take the lead, primarily through the use or threat of military force. In June 2002 George W. Bush made the case for preventive war in a speech at West Point. The first responders to trouble in the Middle East would not be the State Department, but CENTCOM and SOCOM (Special Forces), both headquartered in Tampa, Florida. Leadership requires credibility, which requires projecting force and showing that you are ready to use it. The other side of the coin is that “weakness is provocation.”

Bacevich rejects out of hand the idea of leadership through force. He believes that an American order in the Middle East is unattainable, and that the costs of even trying to create it are too high. In the long run the region must arrive at its own order, through national and sectarian conflicts that will eventually burn themselves out.

Without proclaiming anything so sweeping as a “doctrine,” President Obama has tried to find a middle course between Kilcullen and Bacevich. He has tried to scale down the U.S. military presence and reduce its casualty count through reliance on drones, bombing and Special Forces. Diplomacy has tried to coax Iran into becoming a more liberal and constructive player in the region (which means making it a de facto ally against the Islamic State). Both Kilcullen and Bacevich excoriate Obama for what they see as indecision and half-measures, with Kilcullen complaining that he is doing too little to project American power and Bacevich complaining that he is doing too much. Derek Chollet argues that, given the constraints, Obama’s level of engagement has been about right. He has tried to turn “asymmetric warfare” in his favour: attacking the Islamic State from afar and making it very difficult for them to strike back against his forces. The Islamic State has responded with its own “price tag” campaign, against soft targets in the West.

One problem with criticizing Obama for not doing enough is that we cannot know everything about what he is doing. U.S. Special Forces have a headcount approaching 70,000, and there is also the CIA to be reckoned with (headcount about 21,000), and a shadow army of mercenaries. General Don Bolduc has said that Special Forces are active in 22 countries in Africa alone. David Vine has counted about 800 U.S. bases in 70 countries. Surveys have suggested that a small majority of the population wants the United States to “mind its own business” and do less abroad. But will that persuade the foreign policy and military establishments to change course? As Andrew Bacevich wryly observes, “Wherever the American army shows up, it tends to stay awhile.”

President Trump promises to do more and to do less simultaneously, making it impossible to discern any “Trump doctrine” for the region. But is there any clear path out of the present chaos? And where might Canada fit into such a new order?

Perhaps there is a lesson in China’s foreign policy, which has something in common with the commercial anti-imperialism of Richard Cobden in the 19th century. Why waste money on armies and gunboats, Cobden asked, when most countries do not need to be compelled into trade by military force? Why try to rule over the Persian Gulf when there is a global glut of oil and both friends and enemies are eager to sell it to you? Unlike Cobden, China is not motivated by pacifist idealism, but by a cold assessment of costs and benefits. It takes an aggressive posture in its immediate neighbourhood, but everywhere else it projects economic rather than military power. Its focus in the Middle East is to develop the “New Silk Road” between China and Europe. Having already built the high-speed rail line between Ankara and Istanbul, it has just completed a direct rail link to Iran. Urumqi, in western China, is in fact closer to Tehran than Toronto is to Vancouver. Instead of trying to “fix” Afghanistan, China is simply bypassing it through the Stans to the north. The business of China seems to be business.

Limited as he is by established interests, Obama has nonetheless edged toward a more “soft power” approach to the Middle East. One model might be the European Union’s success in fostering democracy and economic development in eastern Europe since 1989. This is surely a peaceful achievement on a world-historical scale, even if it is now threatened by the rise of nationalist parties across Europe. A comparable process is under way in the Balkans to resolve the savage ethnic wars of the 1990s. Nicolas Sarkozy also tried – prematurely, as it turned out – to move the Maghreb toward integration with Europe.

It may take the rest of this century, but the best hope for the Middle East remains a gradual evolution toward Enlightenment norms, through civil medicine rather than military surgery. If we think of that evolution as an organic process, it will not be furthered by violent interventions from outside. Another limit to U.S. reliance on a military approach is that since 1972 it has been directed against relatively small and weak countries in the Caribbean, Central America and the Middle East. Yet the future of the latter region must hinge on its three major countries: Turkey, Egypt and Iran. Each has about 80 million inhabitants, extensive territory and a diversified economy. No U.S. strategist with a minimum of common sense would be eager to invade them, and no politician would dare to reinstate the draft. That leaves diplomatic, cultural and economic relations as the only feasible means of engagement.


In this perspective, there is plenty for Canada to do in the region other than sending troops and warplanes. Nor should we be sending armaments to Saudi Arabia, whose invasion of Yemen is both a crime and a blunder (sadly, with the active support of the United States and Britain). If Canada took as its starting point “first do no harm,” it would still have many ways to relieve the enormous suffering inflicted by the Middle East wars. Between Kilcullen’s “more of the same” and Bacevich’s “walk away,” can Canada find its own middle path?

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” Continue reading “Can military intervention reduce casualties – or is it a fool’s errand?”

I believe that military force can be harnessed for the greater good of humanity and that there is clear evidence to prove that case. As Western democracies evolve from their Cold War backing of brutal dictators – as long as they were our brutal dictators – we can shift to supporting countries that share or aspire to share our values of human rights, accountable institutions and democracy. The imperfection of today’s democratic states is no excuse not to help those ready to suffer and die, as thousands of refugees have died in the Mediterranean this year alone, to experience a fraction of the freedoms we daily take for granted.

In part 1 of this article, I looked at the ideas and ideology behind liberal interventionism through the lens of the ongoing destruction of Syria at the hands of President Bashir Al-Assad.1 Military intervention has a rough ethical history: every country claims justification for its attacks on others. Democracies, especially the United States, have claimed a moral mantle for the most indefensible missions – from Vietnam to supporting blood-soaked Central American death squads. This history has to be acknowledged. In 1999, then–U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested a framework for intervention, based on five questions, now known as the Blair Doctrine:

  1. Are we sure of our case ?
  2. Have we exhausted all diplomatic options?
  3. Are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake?
  4. Are we prepared for the long term?
  5. Do we have national interests involved?

Successful interventions in the former Yugoslavia (1995), Kosovo (1999), Sierra Leone (2000) and Mali (2013) followed this plan with positive results. The failure to stop the Rwandan genocide and the poorly planned mission to Somalia contributed to international interest in the idea of ‘humanitarian intervention,” later codified into the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine embraced by the United Nations in 2005:

  1. The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;
  2. The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;
  3. The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

Anyone who says the United Nations has no mandate to engage in military intervention, in Syria or elsewhere, is wrong. There it is, in black and white. If history can be used to condemn liberal intervention, it can also be used to defend it. For anyone of fair mind who is not a pacifist, the question should not be whether intervention is ever right, or ever wrong, but how to make it work.

Liberal interventionism is a new type of war that coexists alongside conventional war. It has been joined by a still newer type, the so-called War on Terror, a dark distortion of liberal interventionism. Both dismiss state borders while relying on state protection to achieve their goals. Where liberal intervention, or “wars on terror,” can only be carried out by states strong in arms and legitimacy, international terror groups rely on weak states to house them and rogue states to fund and supply them.

In this article I dig deeper into the experience of interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya before making the argument for a liberal intervention in Syria. I look at the reasons why it’s an argument unlikely to be heeded, and the devastating consequences of the West’s newfound suspicion of its power, and our lack of confidence in our own capacity to evolve.

Afghanistan: Breaking our word and Islamist blowback

The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan qualified as a liberal intervention under the five tests of the Blair Doctrine – except the Taliban was never recognized as the legitimate government by Saudi Arabia, only gaining recognition from the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Noam Chomsky. The 9/11 attacks on the United States triggered an ultimately conventional war between NATO and the Taliban, with  the latter treated as the effective if not legitimate government, and that war was UN-sanctioned (Security Council Resolution 1368). Real improvements followed, from infrastructure to education – especially for girls.2 Elections were contested, despite Taliban violence and massive corruption on the part of then-President Karzai’s government.

The perception of failure haunted the Afghan mission. The defeat of successive empires within its borders over the course of thousands of years created a lazy narrative that ignores the fact that life there is better by most measures today than before 2001.3 Al Qaeda – which could not be destroyed with the capture of territory, or even the killing of its leaders – and the Taliban were displaced but not eliminated. We judge conventional wars based on the fall of capital cities and the surrender of armies; Afghanistan denied us that metric.

The Americans seemed to have learned little from their 1993–95 intervention in Somalia, which included a small military force, massive but poorly controlled flows of aid and unreliable allies. The lack of a clear plan for the military, and a clear way of explaining the mission to the American public, meant the mission could not survive the infamous “Blackhawk Down” incident, when 18 U.S. servicemen died in a single day. Two decades after President Clinton ordered his troops home, Somalia has only now begun to stabilize, thanks to the longstanding and costly commitment of the African Union.

In Afghanistan, shifting perceptions of national interest led intervening countries to abandon the international mission. Afghan leaders could see that the West was preparing to cut and run, as many had suspected. I was in Kabul in 2002, meeting with political leaders who had been underground since the time of the Soviet occupation. I assured one, over a huge meal of meatballs and bread, that unlike other promises from other governments, this time the Western alliance would not abandon them. That my government and others made me a liar is something I still find hard to forgive. The fourth Blair test, the commitment to stay engaged for the long term, was broken. With the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Islamist terror spreading in part in response to Western interventions, the perception was that the war had failed on all three counts: conventional, liberal and counterterror.

I’ll return to the problem of democratic countries making long-term commitments. The question of interventionism creating terrorism needs to be addressed head-on. In the case of former Yugoslavia or Sierra Leone, to say nothing of the defeated Axis powers in World War II, there was no “blowback.” There are no Milošević-inspired suicide bombers, no devotees of Foday Sankoh blowing up buses in London. Serbia has just applied to join the European Union. In Sierra Leone Tony Blair is a national hero.4 If intervention does not produce blowback in all cases, it cannot be accused of defining the idea.

It is beyond question that intervention in Islamic countries has produced blowback, in the form of attacks against Western countries and Western interests. Why? The West took its place in the Islamist pantheon of enemies largely on the basis of its support for oppressive regimes in the postwar era. This was compounded by those regimes deflecting internal criticism onto Israel, which was supported by the United States. Domestic repression closed off peaceful means of dissent at the same time as traditional left or Marxist alternatives were discredited, leaving Islamism as a culturally relevant and accessible alternative. That same repression created emigrant communities in Western democracies where Islamist ideas spread for different reasons: in response to prejudice, as a means of rebelling against the dominant culture, or because radical Islam scratches the same itch as previous extremist creeds such as Communism, Fascism, fundamentalist Christianity and so on.

This is not an article about Islamist terror. What is important in this context is this question: Do the complexities and possibility of Islamist terror mean countries likely to create it are exempt from human rights standards? Does fear of suicide bombers or other mass atrocities mean any country or group ready to use those tools is exempt from retribution? If the answer is yes, the world will quickly fall under the sway of such groups, or more likely of countries like Russia or China who act against such groups, and others they disagree with, without due process.

If the answer is no, then terror attacks have to be addressed as a modern challenge to liberal democracy, the same way other extremist ideologies have been successfully confronted. Allowing your opponent to define your rules of engagement is never a good idea.

Iraq: How to do everything right, then wrong, then right, then wrong again

The complexities of Afghanistan and Islamist terror were unnecessarily amplified a hundredfold by the war in Iraq.

George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq just 18 months after 9/11; the quick seizure of Kabul was taken as evidence that the broader Middle East was ready for rapid restructuring. This was not a liberal intervention. It met, at best, only two of the Blair Doctrine’s five tests. The Americans said Saddam Hussein had to be deposed for possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and supporting international terrorism. Longstanding UN sanctions, imposed after the 1990–91 Gulf War, sometimes helped and sometimes hurt the case for war, as Saddam cooperated with and then obstructed weapons inspectors, creating the impression that he maintained a WMD stockpile while avoiding the consequences of doing so.5

The war itself was carefully executed; Baghdad fell within three weeks. Civil conflict began immediately as regional, ethic and religious tensions, repressed by the dictatorship, erupted in violence.

The Iraq war is presented as the signal failure of liberal intervention, discrediting the concept and the author of the Blair Doctrine. Efforts to achieve humanitarian goals in Iraq cannot excuse the failure of the U.S.-led coalition, and efforts by Saddam to muddy the waters cannot be used as an excuse for the failure to make the case for war. It is not the job of the tyrant to make life easy for those who want to overthrow him. While diplomatic options were pursued, there was no consensus that they had been exhausted.

Shockingly, there was no plan for the occupation. U.S. combat troops were drawn down as sectarian militias were formed, and bizarre decisions, such as dissolving the Iraqi military and border patrol, created a horde of armed, unemployed young men. Intent on destroying Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, the United States embarked on a process of de-Ba’athification that far exceeded the de-Nazification imposed on Germany after World War II. This rendered most Iraqi professionals, who had joined the Ba’ath because it was required, unemployable. The Americans added to this army of the desperate by sanctioning torture. Iraq remains chaotic, despite a period of stability during the U.S. troop surge of 2007–10.6

Blair’s decision to take the United Kingdom into the war was driven by a desire to maintain its influence over the United States. He feared the instability that a unilateral U.S. invasion could generate and believed, as the British usually do, that they could mitigate American excesses. Blair’s inability to explain the difference between humanitarian intervention and preserving the trans-Atlantic alliance gravely wounded the concept and its champion.

The Iraq debacle – from the failure of Bush and Blair to plan for the occupation to the failure of Obama to carry the surge to a positive conclusion to the haphazard response to the rize of the Islamic State (Daesh) – was seized upon by Western isolationists of the left and right. The left linked Iraq to American imperialism and hubris; the right said it showed the United States should retreat to a pre-1941 isolationism. Conservatives in other countries had their prejudices against foreigners of all stripes, American and otherwise, reinforced: if the world doesn’t want our help, let’s leave the world alone.

Democratic confusion added to the chaos: unlike wars, which tend to be short, nation-building takes time. This increases the pressure on any government that engages in liberal intervention to win broad support for the project: their domestic opponents may end up responsible for finishing the job. The Bush administration bears responsibility for the post-invasion disaster but deserves credit for the 2007–10 surge, which combined a massive troop buildup with a focus on law and order that allowed Iraqi institutions to strengthen. These steps should have been taken in 2003. The fact they worked as well as they did after years of bloodshed is a sobering reminder of what could have been. It was a lesson that Barack Obama, intent on living up to his campaign promise to end the war, failed to heed. Obama’s disengagement created a vacuum that led to the rise of Daesh. Another president, another unintended consequence, and an unnecessary horror that continues to this day.

Libya: Making the same mistakes

In North Africa, in early 2011, with the Arab Spring in full bloom, Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi responded to initially peaceful protests with ever increasing levels of violence and moved to retake the country by force. On March 19, 2011, as his armoured forces prepared to assault the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, he gave a speech that made his intentions clear: “We are coming tonight. There won’t be any mercy. We will come neighbourhood by neighbourhood, house by house, room by room. We will find you in your closets.”

This threat drove NATO to act. First the French, and then the British and other NATO countries including Canada, bombed Gaddafi’s forces with UN approval. The Libyan leader was stopped. On October 20 Gaddafi was killed. His regime disintegrated.

Recent attempts at revisionism about the Libya mission, most notably the September 2016 report from a U.K. parliamentary committee claiming the threat to civilians in Benghazi was “overrated,” are breathtakingly ignorant.7 Gaddafi, with decades of murdering opponents behind him, responded to peaceful protests with a brutality that continued, and escalated, until his death. Bernard-Henri Lévy, in his well-argued refutation of the Westminster report, said,

Should we have waited (as happened in Syria) until 100,000 people had died – 200,000, 300,000? And those tank columns I saw and filmed in early April 2011 as they levelled the outskirts of Benghazi – would it have been better to let them gut the entire city? Not to mention Misrata. Imagine how the survivors of that shelled and massacred city, with its roads reduced to ash and rubble, its remaining inhabitants fleeing bombs and sniper fire, would respond to the report’s strange questions. And that battle happened in April, lasting through May – weeks and months after Gaddafi had made the threats that today, from within the panelled halls of Westminster, we are urged to consider as having been mere “rhetoric”, not to be taken “literally”.8

The report was correct in stating the plain fact that the coalition lacked an endgame in the Libyan intervention. R2P was used to justify the bombing missions but – despite the disaster of the initial U.S.-led administration of Iraq (2003–06), the success of the surge (2007–10) and the subsequent rise of the Islamic State following U.S. withdrawal (2010–14) – NATO states refused to acknowledge the obvious lesson: any success in R2P requires “boots on the ground.” The coalition splintered and, despite initial optimism, by 2014 the country had descended into civil war. Initial success followed by descent into chaos: Libya was Iraq’s sequel.

4_putinTo the east, Bashar Al-Assad started killing Syrians around the same time that Gaddafi started killing Libyans. There was never an appetite for Western involvement. Gaddafi was an isolated eccentric; Assad had a powerful ally in Putin’s Russia. Syria borders Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, making the military and political costs of engagement very high. The Syrian dictator looked at his country’s streets as they filled with protesters and knew what they did not: he could do what he wanted.

Syria: Why we should intervene, and why we won’t

In part 1 of this article I started with a question: Should the West intervene in Syria? I have argued that liberal interventionism works when a successful and well-planned military operation segues into a plan for nation-building that focuses on the creation, strengthening or transformation of government institutions and quickly – if by necessity only partially – addresses high-profile legitimate grievances. The intervening force has the responsibility to set an example in terms of its conduct by being clear in its mandate and serving as much as possible as an impartial arbiter. Democracy has to be seen to deliver if extremist alternatives are to be denied strength.

In judging intervention in Syria the case is clear. The Blair Doctrine’s five steps are met. Are we sure of our case in Syria? Yes. Mass murder? Ethnic cleansing? Rape as a weapon of war? Using civilians as human shields? Mass torture and extrajudicial killings? Use of weapons of mass destruction? Yes, on all counts. Democratic decision-makers in the West – and that means all of us, with our right to vote – have to ask this question: If Assad’s actions do not warrant the use of force, what atrocities would?

If we decide that Assad can no longer be tolerated, then what? The second test, exhausting diplomatic efforts, is easily met. Assad has repeatedly said he will retake his country by force. Peace talks have been held, most notably in Geneva in 2014 and 2016. Ceasefires have been signed and broken, with the government unashamedly advantaging its forces. At the time of writing, in late September 2016, the latest ceasefire ended with Assad’s Russian allies bombing the first UN aid convoy to reach a rebel-held area.

President Obama first ignored Syria, and then, with Assad’s first use of chemical weapons in 2012, declared their further use to be a “red line” that, if crossed, would precipitate American intervention. The Russians intervened, saying they would guarantee that Syrian WMDs were decommissioned. They weren’t, but the United States welcomed the opportunity to retreat. The cost? Russia was reestablished as an equal interlocutor in the region. Assad did not give up his chemical weapons and continues to use them to this day, the American “red line” covered over with sand.

The pursuit of diplomatic options has strengthened Assad, strengthened the Russians and allowed a war to continue that has now displaced 50 per cent of the country’s population and killed more than 400,000 Syrians. Waves of refugees have flooded across the Middle East and into Europe and beyond. As the West stands by, the Syrian civil war is coming to the West, transforming politics, influencing election results and giving voice to a xenophobia that had been unacceptable for decades. Diplomacy is being used by Assad and Putin to prolong the war, to expend time, to their clear advantage.

The third test: Can a military operation be sensibly undertaken? Pressure for no-fly zones and humanitarian relief corridors were ended by Russia’s intervention in 2015. With Assad vastly stronger in 2016, and opposition fragmented and radicalized, intervention today is more difficult than it would have been in 2011.

In the West little is known of the Syrians who rose up against Assad except Daesh, a millenarian death cult conceived by Al-Qaeda in Sunni-dominated western Iraq. Daesh benefited from the sectarian manner in which the Shi’i regime of Nouri al-Maliki governed in Baghdad. The Americans preferred to leave Maliki in place following the 2010 election, even though he had (narrowly) lost to a nonsectarian Shi’i-Sunni coalition. While its atrocities cannot be excused, Daesh is responsible for a tiny fraction of the civilian deaths in the Syrian civil war. Assad’s forces are responsible for 95 per cent, and all other forces, including the Western countries bombing Daesh, less than 5 per cent.9

The Kurdish YPG, or People’s Defence Force, has received some attention for its use of women’s brigades and bravery in confronting Assad, Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan views the YPG as the Syrian branch of the banned independence party of the Turkish Kurds, the PKK. The YPG have been disciplined and effective, much as the Kurdistan government in Iraq has set an example of effective governance.


The non-Kurd resistance to Assad was led by the Free Syrian Army, a secular formation that arose soon after the civil war began and quickly attracted senior defectors from Assad’s armed forces. By 2012 it started to splinter, as appeals for international assistance were ignored and Islamist groups began to emerge. The non-Islamist resistance is now divided among dozens of groups, fighting both Assad and radical Islamist groups.

The divisions between rebel forces make the creation of a moderate united front a priority. An internationally backed ground intervention today, something many rebels called for in 2011–12, would likely fail: it would be like invading Iraq with the Islamist groups occupying part of the country and with Saddam and the Iraqi military still in place. The High Negotiations Committee, an alliance of Syrian rebel groups struck to participate in the spring 2016 peace talks, showed that a united front is possible if incentives to cooperate are on the table. Access to Western weapons, training, recognition and other supports are strong incentives. Going further, establishing a no-fly zone would be essential, as would be the creation of relief centres and corridors protected by air or ground forces. President Obama refused to take these steps. I will not predict what President Trump will do.


It is a hard choice. Intervention in Syria is now about much more than confronting Assad. It is about confronting Vladimir Putin, who has fashioned himself into an anti-Western superhero. His military adventurism in Georgia, in Ukraine, now in Syria has been primarily aimed at maintaining his popularity ratings at home: his “managed democracy” is failing and foreign distractions are handy tools to unite the people and further repress dissenting voices. Western weakness has made this an easy card to play.

The Russians would resist any effort to displace Assad but they do not have the money or ability to enter a war with the West. To put the Russian dilemma bluntly: If Russia is ruled by rational actors, they will reach an accommodation with the West on Syria. If not, better to find that out sooner rather than later, given the pace of Russian rearmament and the momentum created by a series of successful invasions.

The question that has to be asked is not “why confront Russia?” but “what are the costs of not confronting Russia?” At what point will cyber-attacks on Baltic states and American political parties be stopped? At what point will the repression of LGBT Russians be considered intolerable (they were recently denied the right to drive cars)? Which military occupation or attack on neighbouring states will be one too many?

It is possible that Russia would respond to the deployment of Western-backed troops with ground forces of its own. While radically raising tensions, this would likely lead to a quick and negotiated end to the Syrian war. Similarly, the Iranians, following their nuclear deal with the West, would be willing to negotiate simply for the sake of being included in negotiations and recognized once more as a regional power. At the very least the war would be ended; if the West is successful in bolstering the anti-Assad forces, the dictator could be replaced. Agreements to amnesty Ba’athist, and other, war criminals would stick in the throat, but seeing Assad live out his days in a luxury dacha on the Black Sea would bend the arc of history more toward justice than seeing several hundred thousand more deaths in his name.

If the political will existed to support intervention, Assad’s crimes would make arguments against intervention difficult to uphold. Western governments have built support for military action on much flimsier grounds.

The fourth criterion – are we prepared for the long term? – is perhaps easier to satisfy in Syria than in Iraq or Afghanistan. The border between East and West Germany was, as the border between North and South Korea still is, a frontier between great powers with clearly conflicting aims. To make peace acceptable, the United States stations 28,500 troops in Korea to this day; in the German case, NATO defence of West Germany ended only with the country’s reunification. A Syria divided between Western-dependent and Russian-dependent zones would need long-term help and both sides would be inclined to offer it.

Lessons must be learned from the failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and the more unequivocally successful interventions described earlier. Any occupation of Syria should include a defined but limited de-Ba’athification program to remove leaders of Assad’s party from power. Peacekeeping troops from as many nations as possible, especially Islamic countries, should be deployed along new ethnic and sectarian fault lines while generous infrastructure support should flood the country. Support for institution-building should draw on those with knowledge of those fault lines. The militias, armies and weapons that swamp the country should be taken up in a comprehensive and generous disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process so the curse of Libya, where ubiquitous weapons tempted new political formations to gain power through bullets instead of ballots, is avoided.

Plans for any occupation should be integral to the military operation. Publicizing plans for a post-Assad Syria will erode support for a regime that is based on fear and continues to suffer defections. Early in 2016 even the leaders of Assad’s Alawi community, seen as having the most to gain from his family’s continuation in power, distanced themselves from the regime. Olive branches and amnesties should be extended to any leaders or communities willing to give up violence. A blueprint for a future government will allow intervening countries to better define their contributions and offer rebel groups an incentive to cooperate. This is not to understate the enormous difficulties: addressing the demands of Syria’s Kurds will raise alarm across the region and the ongoing operations against Daesh need to be concluded; fortunately, Daesh appears to be on the defensive.

This takes us to the fifth and final test: Do we have national interests in Syria? The answer, much more than in all the other cases I have discussed, is yes. The longer this war continues the more our liberal societies in western Europe will be challenged by waves of refugees and continuing Islamist terror attacks. We are already seeing a rise in populist isolationism threaten peaceful globalization and democratization. The longer the war in Syria continues, the weaker the West will become, and its self-image as a global beacon for human rights and pluralist democracy, however imperfectly realized, will be made hollow. In Canada we patted ourselves on the back for taking in more than 30,000 Syrian refugees in 2015–16. Germany has taken in over a million. Will Canadians agree to take 100,000? 500,000? The answer is almost certainly no. The only way to avoid asking the question is to address the root cause of the crisis: end the war.

A tragedy in the making

We do not live in vacuum. The West has interests in asserting a place in the world as the Russians are asserting theirs, and as the Chinese are asserting theirs. Choosing not to take a stand is taking a stand: to accept pushback against Western ideas, ideals and power and the territory they influence. We risk sending the same signal to national leaders that NATO sent to those Afghan headmen I talked to many years ago, who would side with the Taliban not from any affinity but out of pragmatism. They knew the West would leave, and the Taliban would not.

As things stand, the people of Syria will continue to die at the hand of their own government, and millions of futures will be distorted or curtailed. If a serious military intervention were launched in Syria there would be no question of a Western military defeat. Defeat for the West comes from political forces operating within the Western democracies. We no longer have the will to intervene, the will to endure the sacrifices that would go with an intervention, or leaders willing to mobilize voters to support a politics that looks beyond national borders.

In 2012 the British House of Commons voted against a military response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Canada didn’t even consider the question of military intervention in Syria. The United States drew a line in the sand and then scuffed it out. Bureaucratic internationalism in the form of the UN and the EU, and multilateral trade agreements seen as unfairly benefiting large corporations and the wealthy, are becoming increasingly unpopular.

The internationalist current in Western politics has died away at the same time as politics based on Enlightenment ideals has faded within Western countries. On the left and right, parties and movements are becoming increasingly narcissistic. The left is more interested in discussing microaggressions on college campuses than mass murder in Syria, or any sort of vision for how a globalized world can be brought into being. The left internationalism that drew thousands to fight Fascism in Spain has been replaced by a multiculturalism that holds all beliefs and practices to be equal no matter how far they stray from the old assertions of confident internationalist socialism: all people are equal, and equally deserving of social and economic justice. Today’s left, obsessed with our culture’s sins and its own self-righteousness, looks backward and inward and is unable to confront the future.

The Western right that mobilized behind Ronald Reagan’s call to “tear down this wall” in the 1980s has evaporated. It has been shamed by Iraq and replaced by nativists like Donald Trump who want to build walls, not tear them down. The War on Terror has already eroded civil liberties more than any other wars the West has fought since 1945. Across the West, the legitimacy of nations having colonial traditions is itself is under question. Allegedly, their historical sins as imperial powers are far worse than any historical sins of other nations and other empires. The new, illiberal, empires stirring in Russia and China embrace military and economic imperialism, respectively, on a foundation of xenophobia and nationalism. How will we respond?

The modern West was built on the (imperfectly realized) ideal of individual freedom and self-determination, and an often misplaced confidence in our ability to shape the world and extend that freedom. It will be a tragedy if just as more and more people accept that message we choose this moment to turn our back and say, “Sorry, now you’re on your own.” Yes, liberal interventionism is difficult and should accept its limited role in the world. We have successes and failures to learn from, and a world filled with suffering. Liberal interventionism offers a way to reduce that suffering, one country at a time. It offers a model for progressive democracies to redefine the future of international relations toward a more just and equitable end.

One hundred and fifty years ago it was hard to imagine a world where everyone had the vote and a social safety net helped us live in educated good health until our eighties. As we grapple with the challenge of renovating our democracies, we should devote some effort to extending our blessings to those less favoured by birth. We should start in Syria. We won’t. That is not just a tragedy for the people of Syria, but for the world. I am afraid liberal historians, if there are any in centuries to come, will look at this decade as the moment the West lost its way. Continue reading “Syria and liberal interventionism – II”