Waging Peace

Ben Franklin on war

A couple of years ago I posted How to wage war on war and last year I reviewed Alan Grayson‘s comments on the Libya conflict, No Fly: A Tactic in Search of a Strategy?

The present situation with Syria is just another in a long list of regional wars and civil wars in which the US has taken an interest. Should we mind our own business?

No. The instinct to intervene between aggressors and victims is in the DNA of  human society. Such empathy is fundamental to morality, justice, and civilization. We turn our backs on injustice anywhere at our own peril.

However no individual nation has the right to police the world, and when anyone does assume that kind of role even for the best of reasons the ends still don’t justify the means.  The rule of law is fundamental to a civilized response to injustice. The US has a poor record on abiding by the rule of law in international relations. Instead of spreading peace and democracy, US intervention has often spread violence and corruption. At the same time that some are motivated to intervene out of a sense of justice and compassion, others are motivated by opportunities for personal, political, or corporate gain. And war is definitely a huge cash cow for the media so they’re all up in bed with the corporate war profiteers.

There is an even more basic set of laws than those established by governments: things like the law of cause and effect, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,  for example. Laws of complex adaptive systems and the principle of uncertainty for example.  US foreign policy has a history of creating horrible blow-back and runaway escalations of violence which (coincidentally?) serve to reinforce the power and profits of the military-industrial-financial complex.

My friend Natural Lefty puts it all in a nutshell: “the issue is how to support the virtuous, secular and democratic groundswell within places such as Syria, without engaging in culturally arrogant social engineering or supporting people with the wrong priorities.”

What can we learn from the historical record and empirical evidence concerning international interventions?

Many of the negative consequences of interventions can be anticipated and thus can hardly be called unintentional. We must maximize the peace utility of our interventions by minimizing conflicts of interest and rejecting means that undermine our ends.

I’m neither a hawk, an isolationist, nor a pacifist. I would prefer a greater level of international law and international law enforcement in the service of peace and justice. Hawks, isolationists, and pacifists are all about the same in terms of their constructive utility, i.e., very little.

The rule of law, human rights, due process, proportionality, transparency, exhausting less violent means before escalating to more violent ones, etc. are all well established principles. I won’t go over that ground here. The US abides by none of those principles anyway. I only want to make a point about utility and dis-utility.

There might be more peace utility in having “Made in USA” labels on lots of items delivered to refugee camps than in similar labels found on tear gas canisters and bomb fragments. In the long run there might be more peace utility in dollars invested in the former than in the latter, too, regardless of the labels. Governments that consider military action and citizens who consider enlisting in the military to defend people in other countries should also consider the relative utility of development over destruction. In recent decades the neoliberal domination and profiteering of big aid and development programs has given them a very bad smell, but there are many NGOs that still do legitimate international aid and human-scale development work in conflict countries.

In any case, no one should ever be allowed to deliver weapons of any kind to any party in a zone of active violent conflict. This principle should supersede all political and military alliances, contracts, etc.

The only exception to this is that duly constituted international authorities such the United Nations should be permitted to send armed forces into such locations for the purpose of protecting all parties from each other–i.e. real peace-keeping. Such forces would maintain direct and exclusive control of their own weaponry at all times.

I realize that the logistics for such intervention would be massive and  the rules of engagement would be complex. Such forces and their international hosts would require far more investment than we have ever devoted to such a purpose (though less than we’ve spent on other kinds of intervention). But failing to do what is right and effective is no excuse for doing anything that is wrong and ineffective.

A straw-man argument against this is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. We don’t have adequately prepared and managed international peace-keeping forces so we must do the next best thing, whatever that may be, which usually turns out to be throwing gasoline (or weaponry) on the fire. Unintended consequences be damned. And that is the argument that generally prevails because most humans have plenty of empathy, but we are too stupid for peace and democracy. If we were smarter, we would be waging world peace through sustainable development and economic justice on a scale that really worked.

Responsibility To Protect (Wikipedia)

The responsibility to protect (R2P or RtoP) is a United Nations initiative established in 2005. It consists of an emerging norm, or set of principles, based on the idea that sovereignty is not a right, but a responsibility.[1] R2P focuses on preventing and halting four crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, which it places under the generic umbrella term of Mass Atrocity Crimes.[2] The Responsibility to Protect has three “pillars”.

  1. A state has a responsibility to protect its population from mass atrocities;
  2. The international community has a responsibility to assist the state to fulfill its primary responsibility;
  3. If the state fails to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and peaceful measures have failed, the international community has the responsibility to intervene through coercive measures such as economic sanctions. Military intervention is considered the last resort.[3][4]

In the international community R2P is a norm, not a law, however it is grounded in international law.[5][6] R2P provides a framework for using tools that already exist, i.e. mediation, early warning mechanisms, economic sanctioning, and chapter VII powers, to prevent mass atrocities. Civil society organizations, States, regional organizations, and international institutions all have a role to play in the R2P process. The authority to employ the last resort and intervene militarily rests solely with United Nations Security Council and the General Assembly.

This doctrine needs to evolve from simply being a voluntary “norm” into a binding covenant among all UN members. The biggest obstacles will be autocratic rogue states like the US.

I think all these “free trade” agreements the US gets up to are largely a tactic to head off the development of good magna-carta-style international law and preempt it with corrupt-cronyism-style (a la East India Company) international law. Nature (and power) abhors a vacuum. If the UN doesn’t get off its ass it will soon find itself in the dustbin of history. The UN or some upgrade of it has to demonstrate something  functional with some teeth before citizens will push politicians in that direction. It will probably require a bunch of countries to impose economic and legal sanctions on the US and perhaps a few other too-big-to-prosecute international warmongers before we will sign on.

Poor Richard

No Fly: A Tactic in Search of a Strategy?

Florida congressman Alan Grayson.

Image via Wikipedia

Received from “Committee to Elect Alan Grayson” today:

One of the unfortunate imperatives of public life is that when something is the lead story, you think you’ve got to be doing something about it. Not just have an opinion on it. Be doing something about it.

Volcano erupts? Prepare a news release on the new anti-volcano policy.

Zombies are multiplying? Introduce anti-zombie legislation.

Well, Libya’s been on the front page for a month now. Demonstrations. Civil unrest. Army attacks, etc. So our world leaders think that they’ve got to be doing something about it.

Hence the Libya no-fly zone.

Here is a link to UN Security Resolution 1973, authorizing the Libya no-fly zone. It shows a laudable, albeit rather repetitive, concern for civilian wellbeing. It also completely fails to explain how a no-fly zone will ensure the safety of civilians.

The Libyan Air Force hasn’t received a major delivery of new aircraft in 22 years. Roughly three-quarters of its “air”craft can’t fly.

It is true that the Libyan Air Force, such as it is, has been deployed. But the serious threat to civilians in Libya is not from the Libyan Air Force. It’s from the government security forces on the ground. A no-fly zone does not take away their guns, or their artillery.

For outsiders like us, there are two questions to answer:

(1) Do you want Gaddafi in or out?(2) Either way, what are you willing to do about it?

Here are my answers:

(1) Out, because Gaddafi is a dictator who has stunted the development of his country and its people (although in a list of the 5,000 things that are most important to America, I’d have to rank this close to the bottom, even if it is on the evening news every night).(2) Economic sanctions, including extending the de facto oil embargo and asset freeze that already are in effect.

And it’s likely that an oil embargo/asset freeze will work. Oil is 95% of Libya’s exports, and 25% of GNP. Libya has about four years of oil revenue in the bank, but with an asset freeze and economic sanctions, that becomes meaningless. Whatever the result in the streets, as soon as Gaddafi runs out of money, he’s gone.

But a no-fly zone? In the case of Libya, that’s a tactic in search of a strategy. The Yiddish word for it is “shmei,” roughly translated as aimless strolling around. A no-fly zone is basically just looking like you’re doing something to remove Gaddafi, at the cost of $60 million in a day (which was the cost of the first day’s worth of cruise missiles launched).

The last time we tried this, in Iraq, we had to sustain it for 12 years. At enormous effort and expense. And it didn’t bring down Saddam at all.

More fundamentally, a no-fly zone in Libya feeds the dangerous fantasy that every problem has a military solution. That the answer to the use of force is the use of more force. That if a hammer doesn’t drive that nail in, try a howitzer.

It was Mao Tse-Tung who said that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Do we really want Mao’s principles running our foreign policy?


Alan Grayson

“I said you wanna be startin’ somethin’
You got to be startin’ somethin’
I said you wanna be startin’ somethin’
You got to be startin’ somethin’”

–Michael Jackson


I agree with Grayson on some but not all points, and he leaves some important issues unmentioned.

Here’s Poor Richard’s take on Libya and similar scenarios:

  • People who just talk about the costs are shitbirds.
  • Let’s not be hypocrites. Prior to (or at least in parallel with) military intervention use all other means, which includes reversing all the ways we have been helping/enabling the regime for decades.
  • Declare US corporations and persons which do business with or aid the regime to be terrorists, war criminals, or whatever shoe that fits. Revoke their corporate charters, passports, freeze their assets, etc. Softer sanctions worked with South Africa.
  • That’s probably enough, but if not, military intervention should be conducted through the UN, or at least through allies from the same region as the regime.
  • Weapons systems we supply to such allies should be loaned and recovered after the conflict.
  • Any direct US military intervention (alone or with allies but not UN approved) must be in defense of non-combatants only.
  • I see the US as a first-responder resource the UN could contract for rapid deployment and if it did so we should be entitled to deduct costs from our dues.
  • I have no doubt that UN process still has serious bugs but we should work sincerely and rapidly to resolve them and make the UN the prime contractor for all humanitarian military intervention.
  • UN blessing must be a very high priority for US (so we must keep dues paid up) and we should expect to pay a penalty or fine of some kind if we jump the gun without UN approval— as sometimes we may still choose to do, and which is consistent with a US that is a good-faith UN partner but still a sovereign and independent nation.
  • Finally, there’s a bit more that must be said about the US exercising military force either as 1) an agent of the UN or 2) working through regional allies. In these cases, which are to be the preferred (in that order) modes of operation, the US Armed Forces must learn to take orders from a UN or foreign chain of command. This is something that many old-school US military personnel and civilians alike cannot swallow. But that’s tough titty. It is not a surrender of sovereignty. It is really just playing well with others. Those who are too immature and insecure to play well with others must STFU, take a time-out, and stand in the corner while those who CAN play by the rules take the field. I believe the terms I’ve outlined here are the only ways we can project our power without rightly being accused of Imperialism, colonialism, hubris, bad-faith, hypocrisy, etc. and without creating a blow-back that is worse than the problems we set out to fix–in other words, that is, without shooting ourselves in the foot.
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