Anne Smedinghoff Didn’t Have to Die Part 2

[ Last week, Zen hosted Pete Turner’s guest post, PRT and State Department Ignorance Fails Us All. Here is part 2 of that article — posted by Charles Cameron for Zen ] . ** Last week I wrote about the tragedy of Anne Smedinghoff, who died on a patrol in Qalat Afghanistan.  This is part […] Read more »

Guest Post: PRT and State Department Ignorance Fails Us All

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]             Anne Smedinghoff ZP is pleased to bring you a guest post by Pete Turner, co-host of The Break it Down Show and is an advocate of better, smarter, transition operations. Turner has extensive overseas experience in hazardous conditions in a variety of positions including operations: […] Read more »

Guest Post: Duncan Hunter and Human Terrain System by Turner

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]         ZP is pleased to bring you a guest post by Pete Turner, co-host of The Break it Down Show and is an advocate of better, smarter, transition operations. Turner has extensive overseas experience in hazardous conditions in a variety of positions including operations: Joint Endeavor (Bosnia), Iraqi […] Read more »

True believers never hide

[ a guest post by Melissa Roddy ] ‘ Tim Furnish recently taught a course on Jihad, Apocalypse and Terrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and suggested to Melissa Roddy, one of his students, that she should submit this piece for our consideration. I’m happy to welcome Melissa as a guest […] Read more »

Guest Post: Syria – Remembering Reality

Uditinder Thakur is a foreign affairs analyst, focused primarily on issues related to the broader Middle-East and South Asia. A graduate of American University’s School of International Service, he holds a degree in International Studies with concentrations in U.S. foreign policy, International Conflict Resolution, and Islamic Studies. He can be found on twitter @UditThakur_

As President Obama analyzes the ongoing crisis in Syria, compounding threat variables and all, his assessment should be tempered by a now unquestionable and unfortunate reality. The state of Syria, the Arab world’s “beating heart,” has slipped into critical condition and is not likely to recover anytime in the foreseeable future. All signs show that the destruction of the nation is in its final stages, as a once peaceful struggle has now descended into conflict marred by sectarian strife and aspects of proxy warfare. A sense of cohesive Syrian national identity has largely broken down only to be replaced by loyalties to one’s religious group, ethnicity and/or family. Additionally, instances of coercion and excessive uses of force by both competing parties in the conflict further complicate the situation on the ground. With such a complex mixture of interests and loyalties, establishing uniform measurements of moral action is understandably problematic. Whatever happens next we can be sure of the following: The chaos in Syria is sure to get far worse before it gets any better. 

Yet, despite the several sobering complexities on the ground, there are still those that call out for the United States to do something. This plea seems to be at the heart of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent piece in the Washington Post; “Obama should remember Rwanda as he weighs action in Syria.” The title itself hearkens back to a moment of shameful tragedy, one worthy of remembrance in its own right whenever policymakers approach issues of conflict today. However, aside from invoking a shared emotional narrative, Slaughter’s Rwanda-Syria comparison and the deeper underpinnings of her piece have a number of factors that prove to be flawed.

First, the basic framework of comparing the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 with the ongoing Syrian Civil War is highly problematic. Rwanda’s genocide emerged from a conscious agenda to wipe out an entire ethnic group. Syria, on the other hand, morphed quickly from a situation of peaceful protest to one of all out civil war. Qualitatively the circumstances and contexts in either case are hardly comparable. It is also worth noting that genocide in Rwanda was a one-sided affair perpetrated by massive mobs of Hutus wielding machetes, while Syria exists as a complex civil war involving heavily armed rebel groups and even more heavily armed regime forces. These differences I’m sure are not lost on Professor Slaughter, and yet she seems to prioritize evoking the emotional similarities of the two cases, with our feelings of helplessness and shame taking precedence over any sort of strategic discussion.

This emphasis on abstract characterizations of conflict continues, as Slaughter addresses the issue of the Assad regime’s suspected use of chemical weapons. Instead of addressing the actual significance of chemical weapons, knowing how limited U.S. options in Syria are, Slaughter simply accepts them as a game-changer and describes a situation in which one increasingly feels as though the U.S. has no choice but to act. Paul Pillar, former national intelligence officer and current professor at Georgetown University, has warned against this type of false dichotomy between chemical weapons use and the need for an escalated U.S. response as he notes the following:  

So once again—as was the case ten years ago—a factual question with a presumed yes-or-no answer about a regime's use or possession of a certain category of weapons gets treated as if the answer dictates a certain policy course, even though it doesn't.

Following up on Pillar’s criticism of the game-changing nature of chemical weapons is important. At present, the President’s logic on chemical weapons dissects the issue into two dimensions, one based on a concern for international legal and moral norms while the other focuses on the strategic threats posed by the proliferation of such weapons. President Obama clarified his approach during his most recent news conference, in which he defended his chemical weapons red-line by stating:

[…] we have established international law and international norms that say when you use these kinds of weapons you have the potential of killing massive numbers of people in the most inhumane way possible, and the proliferation risks are so significant that we don't want that genie out of the bottle. So when I said that the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer, that wasn’t unique to -- that wasn’t a position unique to the United States and it shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Due to the fact that the violence in Syria already constitutes a violation of several international norms, particularly regarding the targeting of civilians, the President understands that any arguments for increased U.S. involvement will have to be based primarily on an approach that emphasizes the threats posed by chemical weapons proliferation. He gave evidence that this approach will most likely be the one he favors as he went on to say:

[…] if I can establish in a way that not only the United States but also the international community feel confident is the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, then that is a game-changer because what that portends is potentially even more devastating attacks on civilians, and it raises the strong possibility that those chemical weapons can fall into the wrong hands and get disseminated in ways that would threaten U.S. security or the security of our allies.

While such an approach by the President would show a slight bias towards pragmatism, his persistent caution shows some signs of the fact that he is weighing the realities of the situation. Arguing that chemical weapons pose a hypothetical threat to U.S. national security is not enough to justify increased U.S. action. Instead, the President now faces the task of weighing the potential threats. He must now determine whether the threats emanating from possible proliferation of chemical weapons outweigh the threats posed by the fact that increased U.S. action could actually exacerbate violence within the region. Within the context of this debate, over which threats poses the greatest threat, Slaughter’s analogy to Rwanda takes on an all too familiar rhetoric.

Professor Slaughter’s argument assures us that while anti-Americanism in the region currently exists as “a cancer,” the lack of a strong US response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons puts us at risk of cementing such sentiments throughout the Muslim world. Herein lays a greater problem with Slaughter’s characterization of action versus inaction in Syria. In Slaughter’s formula, action exists as a solution framed in the language of moralism as opposed to morality. The President and readers are asked to believe that somehow the perceived injustices of fifty plus years of U.S. foreign policy failures within the Middle-East have culminated up until this point, and that our actions in this particular conflict hold the key to shifting our entire image in the region. Such wishful thinking avoids the fundamental conflicts between stated U.S. strategic interests in the region and the aspirations of the people of the Middle-East and North Africa. Anti-Americanism is the result of a set of structural deficiencies in U.S. foreign policy, all of which stem from unfortunately irreconcilable differences between U.S. interests in “stability” in a region characterized by increasing popular demands for greater sovereignty. Until one is willing to come to terms with that fact, and place morality and espoused values clearly above all other strategic interests, the people of the region will have no major shift in their views towards U.S. policy.

The lesson in all of this however, is not that we should eschew action or inaction in Syria. More importantly is the question of how our actions in this conflict must be framed. Discussing Syria from the perspectives of moralism or American exceptionalism will not simplify the cold-hard realities of the present situation. As it stands today, whether the US imposes a no-fly zone, provides lethal aid to the rebels, or does nothing at all, it is virtually guaranteed that at least hundreds if not thousands more will die. That is the nature of a conflict in which central themes of revenge and justice have emerged in reaction to accounts of atrocities on both sides. It is precisely this complex nature of conflict that should have been among the most important lessons learned from our experiences in Iraq. Andrew Sullivan expressed this lesson in his 2008 piece titled “What I Got Wrong About Iraq,” where he made the following admonition:

I recall very clearly one night before the war began. I made myself write down the reasons for and against the war and realized that if there were question marks on both sides, the deciding factor for me in the end was that I could never be ashamed of removing someone as evil as Saddam from power. I became enamored of my own morality and this single moral act. And he was a monster, as we discovered. But what I failed to grasp is that war is also a monster, and that unless one weighs all the possibly evil consequences of an abstractly moral act, one hasn't really engaged in anything much but self-righteousness. I saw war's unknowable consequences far too glibly.

Here rests a final critique of the ideology behind Slaughter’s problematic plea for us to “remember Rwanda.” Her comparison calls us to remember only our immediate and emotional responses to conflict, while altogether avoiding the fact that there is no outcome in Syria that does not end with at least thousands more causalities. The prevalence of this moralist rhetoric in referring to conflicts is rampant, and while I may be referring specifically to Professor Slaughter’s piece I am by no mean’s singling her out as a unique offender. The practice of confusing strategy with ideology, or prioritizing the latter at the cost of the former, has been referred to as a growing problem in U.S. foreign policy by a number of leading international relations theorists. The importance of this theme cannot be over-emphasized, especially in the case of Syria, and we must be careful to guard against its potentially disastrous effects.

It is supremely important for us to approach the Syrian conflict differently than we have approached challenges in the past. The usual language of moralism and poli-speak will not cut it. Regardless of what actions we end up taking in response to a prolonged conflict, policy makers and citizens alike will have to understand the profound ramifications such actions will have considering the realities of American power.  Over-estimating our capabilities and imagining post-Assad Syria as a more peaceful environment runs contrary to reality, and as such has no connection to self-professed notions of morality.

However this conflict ends we can rest assured that it will force us to understand just how limited our ability to dictate the outcome of events in places like Syria has become.

Therefore, it goes without saying, the question the President must answer is not the one that Dr. Slaughter poses in regards to chemical weapons. The question has been, and remains:

Does the U.S. have the capacity to end the violence, in any meaningful way, within the immediate future?

The answer, at present, remains a resounding no.

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