Opinion

The Great Debate

Civil wars and Syria: lessons from history

A man at a site recently hit by what activists said was a Scud missile in Aleppo’s Ard al-Hamra neighborhood, February 23, 2013. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman

Most of the international debate about Syria policy focuses on how to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power.

Options for NATO states and key Arab League partners include everything from enlisting Russia’s help in a diplomatic approach, with a conference now envisioned for early June, to arming the rebels to perhaps even supporting them with limited amounts of airpower. Removing Assad, however, would no more end the Syrian conflict than overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003 brought stability to Iraq. The United States must create a more integrated overall strategy.

Not just the Iraq example, but broader scholarly studies on civil war onset and recurrence suggest that should the House of Assad fall, the likelihood of continued bloodshed in Syria will remain uncomfortably high.

Studies indicate that more than a third of all civil conflicts have some form of relapse after they end. Though there is much disagreement about the particular causes of war renewal, certain factors are widely recognized as relevant. Many are present in the current Syrian context.

A ‘Game of Thrones’ in Damascus

In last Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones, Lord Baelish and Lord Varys, perhaps the show’s most Machiavellian characters, discuss their political philosophies. While admiring the <a “href=”http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Iron_Throne”>Iron Throne, the show’s iconic symbol of absolute power, they debate the true nature of the realm: What power, they ask, holds the seven kingdoms of Westeros together?

Lord Baelish: “Do you know what the realm is? A story we agree to tell each other over and over until we forget that it’s a lie. But what do we have left once we abandon the lie?”

Lord Varys: “Chaos. A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.”

It might be bleak and melodramatic, but this resembles today’s global order. In the wake of the financial crisis, the first Group of 20 summit helped save the financial system, but it was fear for survival rather than fealty to a common worldview that drove progress. Since then, it’s become all too clear that the G-20 is more of an aspiration than an institution: There are simply too many member countries with too many conflicting interests.

Weighing U.S.intervention: Syria v. Congo

President Barack Obama, in a January New Republic interview, was asked bluntly if the United States should actively intervene in Syria’s civil war. He thoughtfully explained his reservations. Several concerned Syria, but the last one pointed to larger ethical issues. “And how do I weigh,” Obama asked, “tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”

With this comment, Obama cut to the heart of an age-old dilemma about humanitarian military intervention — whether it is worth addressing some conflicts when you know that others continue to simmer, or boil over, at the same time?

This was the case in the 1970s when wars in the Horn of Africa, Uganda, Cambodia and elsewhere killed many hundreds of thousands. It was true in the 1980s when conflict intensified in places like Afghanistan, Angola and Central America. And in the 1990s when the Balkans and Rwanda and parts of West Africa blew up, while Sudan, Somalia and other wars continued.

Petraeus: A loss of real military standards

 The sudden departure of General David Petraeus from the CIA probably tells us more about the state of our nation than it does about Petraeus. President Barack Obama should not have accepted his resignation.

We now seem to care more about the sex lives of our leaders than the real lives of our soldiers. We had years of failed generalship in Iraq, for example, yet left those commanders in place. Petraeus’s departure again demonstrates we are strict about intimate behavior, but extraordinarily lax about professional incompetence.

“A private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war,” Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling wrote in the Armed Forces Journal in 2007.

The neocons’ war against Obama

The neoconservatives who rebuffed the Republican establishment’s warnings about the perils of war in Iraq have now opened another front —against President Barack Obama.

The neocons, unlike the muscular Democrats who led the U.S. into the Vietnam War—including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk— are not reflecting about what went wrong in Iraq. Nor are they dodging the public spotlight.

They have instead signed on as foreign policy advisers for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.  He is now strongly denouncing Obama as an abject failure, intent on appeasing the world’s dictators. Romney, who has scant foreign policy experience, is now championing a new “American Century,” featuring a pre-emptive foreign policy agenda, a $2-trillion increase in the Defense budget and, most likely, hostilities with Iran — not to mention skirmishes with China and Russia.

Hitchens was an atheist who believed

By James Ledbetter
The opinions expressed are his own.

It seems entirely possible that Christopher Hitchens will be primarily remembered in America for his public atheism. I suspect Hitchens himself was surprised at how wildly popular God Is Not Great became, giving much-needed voice and ammunition to thousands of godless heathens in the land of the drive-through church.

Yet it’s an inadequate way to remember the man, and not because Hitchens did little more in that book than to lay some tracing paper on the Enlightenment’s best thinkers and draw giddily (though with acidic and often very funny ink), or because—this is not an exaggeration—the American public regards atheists on about the same level as rapists.

The problem is that splitting the atheism away from the body of Hitchens’s work debases it into a kind of rascally parlor trick—“Uncle Christopher, say the mean thing about Mother Teresa again!”—and distracts from the thorny paradox at the heart of Hitchens’s thinking. Which is: While certainly an enemy of superstition and an eager chronicler of the sins and idiocies of the world’s religions, Hitchens was actually a lifelong believer, if strictly in man-made gods. It is impossible to contemplate his prodigious and passionate writing without recognizing that it was always animated by crusades, holy men, and devils.

Why the U.S. couldn’t stay in Iraq

By Christopher R. Hill
The opinions expressed are his own.

So be it. In a perfect world, the United States and Iraq would have worked out an arrangement by which some U.S. forces would have remained – probably considerably less than 10,000 – to continue to train Iraqi units, to cooperate with Iraqis on anti-terrorism operations, and to provide the necessary signal to all the neighbors – and not just Iran – to keep their hands off Iraq. But this isn’t a perfect world.

Why the deal didn’t happen had little to do with the so-called immunity issues that the U.S. insisted on, protections that our troops have when deployed to many other far-flung countries in the world. The reason was very simple: even Iraqis who benefitted enormously from the security provided by our troops, and for whom the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was the happiest moment of their lives, could not, in the end, support a continuation of foreign troops in their country. Call it visceral. Call it cultural. The fact is, no one likes to be invaded and occupied, and for eight years, told what to do and how to behave. To extend the stay of even just a few U.S. troops was to extend what many Iraqis, mindful of their country’s history, considered another occupation. In the end, Prime Minister Maliki got very little support from any other Iraqi political identity. The Sunnis opposed the extension. So did the Shia. The Kurds, the third element in Iraq’s body politic, may have supported an extension, but they could not carry the day without the Iraqi Arabs.

What happens next, of course, is what everyone wants to know. President Obama talked positively about counting the days until Christmas when the troops will be home. But for many Iraqis, there has been a longstanding, deep-seated view that somehow the Americans, like the many previous foreigners in their lands, would never leave voluntarily. Those Iraqis, many of whom are on the violent fringes of Iraq’s politics, are about to learn something new about these latest “occupiers.”

Obama’s bold gamble on Iraq

By L Paul Bremer, III
The opinions expressed are his own.

In announcing that all American troops will be out of Iraq by year’s end, President Obama has placed a big bet on the future of Iraq and on America’s position in a restive Middle East. While the initial public response to his decision, in America and in Iraq, may be positive, this will not shield him from the consequences if his bet goes sour.

The single most salient lesson in countries emerging from tyranny is the importance of providing security for the population.  This is not just one of many tasks that must be addressed: security is the essential prerequisite to progress in the other two foreseeable challenges—in Iraq, Egypt and now Libya: beginning a process of political reform and starting economic reconstruction.

The American government learned this lesson the hard way in Iraq.  For several years after Saddam was thrown out, we lacked the comprehensive counter insurgency strategy and sufficient forces needed to provide security to the Iraqi people.  Predictably, security deteriorated as an unholy alliance of Sunni and Shia terrorists, the first backed by al Qaeda, the other by Iran, took advantage the situation.  The deficiencies in strategy and troops while Iraq’s own national security forces were still in training produced a bloody and chaotic year in 2006.

9/11 in history: chapter or footnote?

By Dominic Streatfeild
The opinions expressed are his own. 

Historians like to break up human progress into bite-sized pieces. It’s a useful technique: segregated and labelled, historical eras offer prisms through which to view the past, making it easier to comprehend. Typically, they’re bookmarked by inventions: the wheel, the steam engine, the atom bomb. Intellectual movements fit nicely, too: the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Modernism. Each innovation provides a paradigm shift, ushering in a way of thinking previously inconceivable but, after its emergence, unignorable.

Occasionally, waypoints are provided by momentous events. A happening of sufficient magnitude (the argument goes) jars the historical process decisively, severing the connection between past and future, sweeping away the old and paving the way for the new. The Flood in Genesis, the birth of Christ, the attack on Pearl Harbor – all “watershed” moments. Bookmarking such events not only provides useful academic waypoints, it also offers another important service: reassurance. With the sweeping away of the old comes trepidation. The birth of a “new era” provides a link to the past: there have been epochal events before. Things have changed rapidly, and not always for the better. We have survived them. We will again.

The impact of American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8.46 a.m. on 11 September 2001 was immediately labelled a watershed event. Seventy-six minutes later, after both the South Tower and the Pentagon had been hit, United Airlines Flight 93’s calamitous descent into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania,marked the end of the attacks – and the start of a still-ongoing attempt to define what, exactly, they meant.

The 9/11 generation

By David Rohde
The opinions expressed are his own.

In a speech last week at the American Legion convention in Minneapolis, President Obama rightly hailed what he called “the 9/11 generation,” the five million Americans who served in the military over the last decade.

“They’re a generation of innovators,” he declared. “And they’ve changed the way America fights and wins at wars.”

The following day, at a ceremony marking his retirement from the military, Gen. David Petraeus affirmed Tom Brokaw’s similar praise as the two men toured Iraq in 2003.

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