brief thoughts on an imminent disaster

In the U.S. intelligence community, as, I would imagine, in most professions, analysts maintain a tacit code: if you don’t have to write something, don’t. In many ways, this consensus underscores my current thinking on the U.S. government’s allegedly impending strike against Syrian military installations. The bottom line hasn’t changed much, and I don’t have access to privileged information about U.S. government decisions, Syrian military planning, or the micro-dynamics of violence in Syria. The question that inevitably dominates the blogosphere–whether the U.S. should use military force, and how much–is tragically boring, and as I’ve discussed largely marginal to the task of preventing mass death. Military interventions, broadly speaking, are blunt instruments of statecraft, and in mass atrocity contexts are therefore rare, if not as rare as they should be. But this blog is about mass atrocities, and Syria is, by anyone’s definition, a mass atrocity, so here’re some miscellaneous comments, in no particular order:

Is the Obama administration’s plan, as it has been (very publicly) discussed, an intervention? Yes, and whoever tells you otherwise is cutting corners. An “intervention,” basically defined, is the exertion of military force by an external actor to achieve a particular policy outcome. The “humanitarianism” of the force is just window-dressing, even if said window-dressing carries very real consequences for the effort’s strategic, operational, and tactical implementation. Zack Beauchamp is right to say that humanitarian interventions generally do not target the tactics of mass atrocity–that is, what perpetrating organizations use to kill large numbers of people–as a theoretical strike against Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal would. But he’s also wrong, because such interventions inevitably come up against the strategic and operational fog of civil conflict–who controls the weapons arsenal, who determines their use, and who controls the territory and infrastructure that houses them. Even if U.S. military installations just “lob a cruise missile,” in the indelicate and inaccurate parlance of military braggadocio, those strategic, operational, and tactical dilemmas remain in place. Sure, a limited strike is incomparable to a protracted engagement in civil conflict, as in Libya, but the professed strategic goals do not alter the real, existing nature of violence.

Does it matter that we’re not using U.S. military forces to protect civilians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? No, and that’s a silly argument. We can think about the “opportunity costs” of a hypothetical operation in Syria, as it’s generally being discussed, in two ways: whether such an operation would prevent us from exercising other tools of statecraft; and, whether said tools of statecraft would valuably contribute to, for example, protecting civilians in the DRC. Regarding the first dilemma, it is not clear that there is a one-to-one relationship between our discreet military operations–on a fiscal level, Syria-related expenditures would probably mirror a joint military exercise, and not “an Iraq,” or “an Afghanistan”–and reduced funding for socially preferable programs, like the State Department’s conflict prevention initiatives, for example. This is a systemic, and not specific issue: those responsible for fiscal appropriations–Congress, in all its wisdom–largely have greater confidence in military institutions than in their Foggy Bottom counterparts. We can all agree that this is systemically and systematically problematic, but the argument that a brief, limited military engagement in Syria enables this culture, in a general sense, requires various logical leaps I’m not quite comfortable taking.

Regarding the second dilemma, it seems clear to me that, whatever the plausible benefits and/or detriments of a military operation in Syria, those same outcomes likely do not apply to all conflict contexts, mass atrocity-related or otherwise. For a broader understanding of why, and why it’s important to grapple with the inherent complexity of a mass atrocity’s external environment, see my recent essay.

Is a military intervention, as it is generally discussed, a good idea? Probably not. Most have voiced their opinion on this issue, and I don’t really have an added analytic value over political scientists, chemical weapons experts, or conflict specialists. But, as far as the qualitative understanding of mass atrocities is concerned, I may have something to add. Stepping back from the explicitly moral lens: I recently posited an understanding of a mass atrocity, like Syria’s current conflict, as an evolving, cyclical ecosystem, which rests on the interaction between two factors: the internal organization of violence, and its external environment. This remains, in my mind, a helpful perspective for understanding, if not explaining, Syria’s metastasizing violence. Assad’s endgame is a small subset of the empirical problem: as various Syria observers have noted, a mix of perpetrating actors, many of whom operate at least partially outside of the central regime’s control, comprise the internal organization of Syria’s mass atrocity. It is clear that those actors are influenced by various elements of an amorphous, ever-changing environment. Beyond the U.S. government’s various efforts, military and otherwise, transnational institutions, regional governments, and non-state networks are both enablers and mitigators of ongoing conflict. Syria’s chemical weapons are an important cornerstone of the atrocity’s internal organization, and their apparent use by Assad’s close affiliates are an important signal of the regime’s perceived stakes of institutional survival. Even so, chances for external control, the fundamental justification for force, are slim, and limited violence won’t change that.

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