March 15, 2012
PEACE, n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.
So wrote that intractable cynic Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary, published in 1906. His definition still rings true after over a century, even when peace, in international affairs, is a decidedly relative term.
I'll give you my own definition, aways subject to change: Peace is a short episode of amnesia leading to the unwitting reenactment of past wars.
Having already forgotten Iraq, the war based on rumor, and Afghanistan, the war based on revenge, and most recently Libya, the war that was never called war, Republicans in Congress and on the presidential stump are already turning their bellicose eyes to Syria.
Actually, Libya wasn't forgotten, it was mythologized. It's now seen by most Americans, military and civilian alike, as the truly Lovely War, orchestrated but not executed by the United States, approved in a vague way by the United Nations, expending all that pent-up European firepower so long aching for blessed relief, and with no loss of Allied life to boot. What could be better? It was a test-case and model for the New Warfare: state- of -the-art, conducted from above, noble in purpose, limited in scope, started and ended in seven months.
But even Lovely Wars have unlovely consequences. While the NATO forces may have helped the Libyan rebels trap and skin that old fox Qaddafi, they left a leaderless land, with a nominal government unable to rein in the numerous factions still flush with armaments plundered from the dictator's vast stores. The place is a literal panoply of powder-kegs, just waiting for a spark.
Senator John McCain — and remember, he could have been President — is leading the fight to fight in Syria, calling for a Libya-like strategic bombing campaign to cauterize the ruthless forces of Bashar al-Assad's regime and establish "safe havens" to serve "as platforms for the delivery of humanitarian and military assistance" and provide space for the opposition to "organize and plan their political and military activities against Assad."
This must be done, he said in a speech on the Senate floor on March 5, without authorization by the United Nations, and not by coalition forces but by the United States alone, "the only one nation that can alter this dynamic" of Assad's brutality.
"Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary," McCain asserted, "but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower."
Old war-hawks never die, they just lose their eyesight.
In response to this speech, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, "This is an extremely complex crisis. Intervention at this time could very well exacerbate problems inside the country."
No kidding. If McCain thinks action against Assad would be another Lovely War, he should consult his World Almanac:
Libya: Total area, 680,000 square miles; population, 6 million; population density, 8 persons per square mile.
Syria: Total area, 16,000 square miles; population, 19 million; population density, 265 persons per square mile.
Any child can see that air strikes in Syria, no matter how precise, will inevitably result in a "slaughter" of non- combatants exponentially greater than occurred in Libya (the number of which, by the way, NATO has refused to investigate or disclose).
Though he may not know his demographics, McCain surely knows his geography, which makes his stance crazier still. Libya is bounded by Egypt, Chad, Niger, Algeria, Tunisia, and the Mediterranean Sea. Syria is bounded by Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon — almost every one of those countries a hot- spot in itself. Any interested teenager can see that bombing Syria could blow the Middle East apart.
And then there's that military-aid component. Even without the air strikes, shoveling armaments to the opposition forces is a recipe for internal disaster. It's doing for Syria from the outside what Qaddafi did from the inside, providing the opportunity for the "Free Syrian Army" — whatever that is — and "other opposition groups" — whoever and however many they are — to annihilate not only Assad but each other.
Such actions would further defile — and in a far greater way than those against Libya did — the spirit of the Arab Spring, a movement that has toppled dictators and democratized governments by the disciplined practice of nonviolent resistance. Indeed, there are many in the Syrian opposition — perhaps a majority — who continue to reject force of arms as an instrument of regime change. Unilateral intervention by the U.S. would in fact "alter this dynamic," as McCain put it, but in perverse ways he seems unable to conceive.
As Gene Sharp, the political theorist whose booklet, From Dictatorship to Democracy, formed the blueprint for the Arab Spring movement, wrote: "The historical record indicates that while casualties in dead and wounded must be expected in political defiance, they will be far fewer than the casualties in military warfare. Furthermore, this type of struggle does not contribute to the endless cycle of killing and brutality."
The stories of repression and murder that are smuggled out of Syria daily are truly appalling, and McCain and his sympathizers, like almost everyone else in the world, want to put an end to it.
But his alternative would be so much worse.