Syria – Sept 3, 2013

I’ve been struggling with what the proper U.S. response should be to the crises in Syria. Both obvious answers (intervention or not) leave a tremendous amount to be desired. I will assume the readers of this thought are well informed and spare them the recap. I do, however, highly recommend the work of Michael Totten. He has an incredible grasp for the dynamics of the neighborhood.

At this point in this post, I don’t place myself in the knee-jerk intervention or knee-jerk non-intervention departments. By the end of the post, I will probably have a clear position. I just don’t know what it is yet 🙂

Going back to fundamentals, I believe law should support creation while enabling people to rest and thus spiritually capitalize on the fruits of their creative activity. This in turn enables them to create – as Diana Nyad said after her historic swim across the Florida Strait, “It’s amazing how the emotional can lift the physical.”

There is, potentially, a virtuous circle.

This concept has a few implications. For example, law should be predictable. If it isn’t then people will:

  • be unlikely to invest and create
  • be unable to experience rest due to the lack of predictability around them

In my analysis, law that supports the principles of creation and rest will be:

  • Predictable (and with it, understandable etc…)
  • Embedded in the fabric of the community (not just a legal or governmental function)
  • Supportive of creative work and investment (in part by enabling people to reap the rewards of their creative work)
  • Protective against real world risks (e.g. through welfare, government or not)
  • Connective us to times past and future
  • (you’ll notice I’m missing many standard rule of law criteria like equality, that’s a discussion for another day)

The obvious question to ask is, what does this have to do with Syria?

A law, of some form, emerges in any community. It can be a community of individuals or a community of nations. The law of nations is not written by the U.N. or set by treaty – those laws only have force if the involved nations actually, basically, obey them. Israel and the U.S. are rare for generally not signing conventions they won’t adhere to. A traditional law – maybe not a good one – is that the big boy will flatten you if you piss him off.

I see international law as having two levels. Law between states and international agreements on laws within states. Laws between states can be predictable, embedded, risk mitigating and connective to times forward and past. However, states themselves don’t tend to be productive – their citizens do. Laws within states, on the other hand, can have the full package.

So what is the state of international law? I would say historically that this period in human history has more mitigation of international risk than most. Democracies (of which there are many) don’t go to war willy nilly. The costs of war are so detrimental to modern state structures – even non-democratic – that they tend to shy away from it. The real war mongers are non-state actors like Al Qaeda. I found France’s effort in Mali and the Sunni Awakening to be comforting. They reinforces the notion that embedded international law doesn’t support these wild-card actors.

On the internal measures, we are terrible. We have lots of treaties that guarantee many many things for individuals and groups and that are routinely ignored (in some cases, for the better).  The embedded law of the nations is quite different from the paper law of the U.N. This gas attack is just the latest example. For these laws to be followed, there needs to be a realistic threat of enforcement. But there is no enforcer.

Obama talks about the U.S. as a potential enforcer (e.g. we can’t allow people to flaunt international conventions). However, even if we had the power (which we might) and the will (which we don’t) we lack the track record to be that enforcer. An enforcer who has a reputation for backing off when the enforcement gets tough is worse than useless – it is like a parent who threatens to spank their child but gives in after a minute of caterwauling. The threat becomes useless – so you have to follow through every time instead of setting a few examples and having others believe. It gets expensive for all parties while never establishing the rules at hand.

On predictability, we score a bit lower than some other periods. When I look at long-term minority populations around the world a remarkable trend emerges. Each of them has a predictable coping pattern. I know I am oversimplifying here, but I think the overall trend is very real. Here are some examples:

  • Jews (traditionally), had a few key people embed themselves as useful knowledge workers to people in power. They supplied advisory services, banking services etc… In return, they worked to protect their greater communities. There were few reservations about cheating to survive. When things hit the fan, they kept their heads low. They were predictable.
  • Druze go with the wind. They are loyal to whomever is in power in their area. If the winds of power shift, so do they. They are predictable.
  • Alawites (traditionally) assassinate those who oppress them. It kept a cap on anti-Alawite activity. And it was predictable.
  • Sikh hired themselves out as mercenaries – but if you got them angry you’d know they’d attack you and with enough concentrated force to be problem. It was predictable.
  • etc….

The trend is that these groups behave predictably – although individuals might be different. Because you know what to expect, you can interact with them appropriately. But recently, the position of some of these groups (notably Jews and Alawites) has changed dramatically. They suddenly don’t know how to behave – although the old habits die hard. The Alawites are brutal assassins to protect their interests – but the tool doesn’t work the same way when you’re in power.

Among the unpredictable groups is the U.S. We ride to the rescue when things go really really bad. We protect our own interests – but occasionally feel badly enough about it that we stop. And we sort of spasticaly get involved in protecting what I’d call good law within nations. This all gets worse because we are *so* powerful. We have a lot of weight to throw around, but we actually make international law less predictable because nobody knows when we’ll do it. If they knew, Iran and Syria wouldn’t be on their current path and we wouldn’t need to threaten them.

In looking directly at Syria there are a few clear factors.

First, we aren’t seen as predictable. Our long-term threats carry no weight. People know we won’t do it. We do blow the crap out of things occasionally. But because we’re afraid of entanglement, and our enemies know it,  they can win if they can survive an initial burst of activity.

Second, the Alawites will slaughter people to survive. It is what they they do. They have chemical weapons for a reason – to use them. I don’t think they’ll do it if they don’t feel fundamentally threatened. We can depose them – in a few hours we could eliminate their airport capacity and stop the flow of arms into and around the country (as well as air support functions). But if we do that, they will feel fundamentally threatened. They might realistically be genocided by their neighbors. They’ll line the runways with prisoners (done that already) and on the way out, they’ll gas everything and fly kamikaze missions into our ships (promised this).

The only way they won’t feel fundamentally threatened while we threaten to punish them is if we simultaneously promise to depose them and protect them. For example, we could offer to protect an Alawite homeland and secure a % of Syrian oil revenues in return for their retreat. The problem is, nobody believes we’re reliable enough to guarantee this sort of deal. Ironically the only people who could guarantee the (non-oil) protection and be trusted is Israel. Israel could populate the Golan with exiled Alawites (by the way, Israel developed a plan to do this over two years ago).

In theory we do need to enforce our red-lines. But a half response won’t make us believable and a full response will be too risky. The reason we need to enforce them over this little issue is so that others will believe we’ll enforce them on things that matter far more to our national interests (e.g. energy and nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists). But a Syrian attack is risk for a potentially very minor credibility win. Furthermore, the real issues can be addressed with a short and devastating attack that won’t trigger chemical revenge.

With these issues in mind, I think the appropriate U.S. response is two-fold.

  1. Ignore Syria. Nobody will believe us even if we launch the missiles and the side effects are tremendously dangerous. We won’t establish any of the credibility we already lack. Plus, Syria isn’t the real threat, Iran is.
  2. Do the short-term mission that we have to do because our red-lines aren’t trusted. Bomb the crap out of Iran’s nuclear establishment and religious leadership. It will cost more in munitions – but it will cost less in fallout. The Persians aren’t going anywhere, we can protect oil shipping, and I doubt they think we’ll care much if they decide to create a little pain in their immediate neighborhood.

To be clear, I’d love international law – between and within states – to be predictable etc… But we don’t have that. I do think a consistent U.S. approach to threats and acts of evil would go a long way towards creating it. That, however, is an issue for another day.

For now, while we might arm our proxies in this way we should stay out of direct involvement. We should, post haste, get to frying the real fish.

What do you think?



7 thoughts on “Syria – Sept 3, 2013

  1. International law has never been seriously predictable, because it’s not enforceable. For all practical purposes, there is no such thing as international law, because there is no overriding authority that creates it; it’s all about treaties and other agreements. It always depends upon the goodwill of the participants in a given agreement to adhere to it. That is to say, international law is not predictable in its application precisely because nations – like people – will always act in their best interests, and sometimes that means breaking agreements. (And if it’s better for the other parties, efficient breach makes it even better….)

    What’s predictable is a nation acting in (what it perceives to be) its best interests. The problem with the U.S., on that front, is that this perception change with much regularity because of our frequent elections, which permits power to be exchanged frequently (whether it actually happens or not). People also protecting their best interests, they will do whatever is more likely to keep them in office, and that means bending to the will of the electorate. At times, the American electorate is hungry for blood for whatever reason (good or bad); at other times, it is weary of war and just wants to stop. And because the electorate drives the political machine and is itself not predictable, the lawmakers and executors cannot be predictable.

    It’s not for lack of will to be predictable, it’s the nature of the beast.

  2. But it isn’t the nature of the beast. People tend to react predictably ‘in their own best interest.’ Why? Because, just as with individuals, there is value in being predictable. It helps others understand what you’re going to do and minimizing miscommunication. If your interpretation of how to enforce your best interest vacillates wildly you better be powerful – otherwise others will dampen your abilities substantially.

    Even the Mongols were predictable. Don’t do what we say, or resist, and we’ll kill every man, woman and child. Even once failing to do that would have fallen out of their ‘best interest.’ But us doing it even once would fall out of ours.

    Only those who value chaos and lack strength try to be unpredictable. It creates fear and uncertainty – which has value for a real aggressor, but few others.

    There is international law just as there is law among street gangs. It might not be good law, but there are rules and their predictability is often a sign of the strength of the community.

    1. FYI, we have done slaughtered villages (not as a national policy). And it has hurt our national interest after the Indian Wars (when it was wrong, but arguably to our advantage). We did it, for example, in the Philippines.

  3. People predictably react in their best interests, of course, but as their perceptions of that interest changes, so will their reactions change.

    1. Of course – but predictability is one of those interests. As a country you want to do things that promote good outcomes even if it puts off or acts against short-term benefits.

      This often involves putting off short-term gain, promoting peace, discouraging parasite forces far from home (e.g. pirates, our first foreign war), creating an environment conducive to trade – even by enemies etc…. Even paying for useless organizations like the UN 🙂

  4. I believe that people acting in this way is in fact implicit law. It just isn’t codified or enforced law. People and nations have unspoken rules about how they behave. If they didn’t, there’d be chaos – no matter what codified law or enforcer existed.

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