Syria and the Tragic Flaw in American Foreign Policy

by Rich Rubenstein on September 7, 2013 · 21 comments

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Once again, with the United States on the brink of war with Syria, we are arguing about the wrong issues. The problem is not that these issues are irrelevant or unimportant, but rather that they leave out something absolutely essential: the continuing urgent need for a peaceful and just resolution of the Syrian Civil War. We know that a U.S. military strike against Syria cannot be justified unless it is a last resort. The tragic flaw in American foreign policy is that we go to war repeatedly without having made serious efforts to resolve conflicts peacefully.

The issues currently dominating discussion in Congress, the news media, and the streets leave us caught between two apparent alternatives: punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons or “do nothing.” But there is another alternative: convene a peace conference, as the Russians have suggested, make sure that all the conflicting parties participate, and conduct the conference according to conflict resolution principles, and not as a typical Versailles-style exercise in hard bargaining and power politics.

I will describe these principles further in a moment. First, though, it is worth noting how inconclusive the debate has been over the three issues most often discussed: who used chemical weapons, the scope and consequences of intervention, and the question of legal and moral norms.

#1: Who used chemical weapons? The administration maintains that Syria’s Assad regime launched rockets containing poison gas against civilians in the suburbs of Damascus, killing several hundred people (Obama spokespeople claim more than 1400 deaths). Skeptical critics maintain that the case against Syria is not convincing and that anti-Assad rebels may have used these weapons themselves, as they seem to have done in March, in an attempt to provoke the Americans and French to attack the regime directly. The U.S. intelligence information summarized for Congress has been classified so that nobody (including Congressional reps) knows exactly what it says.

#2: The scope and consequences of intervention. Some commentators believe that an American attack against Syria can be precise, short-lived, and limited to making it more difficult for Bashar al-Assad to use chemical weapons against his enemies. Others are fairly sure that patterns of “mission creep” and escalation associated with previous U.S. military adventures will be repeated in Syria. The first group doesn’t expect that there will be effective retaliation against America or its allies; the second worries about a possible overflow of violence throughout the region and against U.S. installations worldwide. Everyone is basically guessing.

#3: Legal norms and deterrence. Certain analysts argue that, assuming that Syria has committed a war crime, a military response is needed to vindicate the international norm against the use of weapons of mass destruction, and to deter the future use of such weapons. Others feel that an attack without U.N. approval it itself illegal, and that punishing Syria selectively will neither strengthen the norm (since the U.S., France, and others have used chemical weapons themselves or supplied allies like Saddam Hussein with them) nor deter their future use. They argue that the parties to intensely violent conflict will use whatever weapons are available when the incentive to do so is high enough, as it was when the U.S. dropped two atomic weapons on defenseless Japanese cities in August 1945.

In all this argument and counter-argument, the issue that is NOT being discussed (except by the Russians, Germans, Brazilians, South Africans, and others willing to defy the Obama administration) is peaceful conflict resolution. Why not? Because the “realists” in Washington consider the idea utopian. Max Fisher of the Washington Post recently summarized their position by noting, “There’s no indication that either side is interested in [peace talks] or that there’s even a viable unified rebel movement with which to negotiate” (Wash. Post, 8/29/13).

Conflict resolution professionals are all too familiar with this sort of glib pessimism. Upon arriving in Northern Ireland, mediator George Mitchell was informed by all parties, Catholic and Protestant alike, that he was wasting his time because (1) too much blood had been shed, and (2) the parties were too disunited to participate in negotiations. Max Fisher’s reasons for declaring a Syrian peace conference impossible are equally spurious.

Neither side is willing to talk? Even before its recent military successes (which some analysts consider the real reason for America’s turn toward direct intervention) the Syrian regime declared its willingness to enter into negotiations with the rebel leaders. Clearly, if the Russians and Americans agree to make peace talks happen, the Assad government will have no choice but to participate. Last year, one greatly respected opposition figure also agreed to attend a peace conference, but he was repudiated by competitive leaders. Did the U.S. then use its vast power to persuade its clients to pursue a diplomatic solution to the conflict? Or did it look aside with mock disengagement while its Saudi, Qatari, and Emirati allies poured billions in money and weapons into the rebel coffers?

You know the answer to that one.

Of course, administration officials are quite right to note that the rebel movement is not unified. But we also understand that when parties to conflict insist that they have no “partner for peace,” this generally means that they are uninterested in peacemaking! Disunity is clearly not an insuperable obstacle to peace talks. If it were, there would have been no Northern Irish or South African negotiations, since both sides in those conflicts were riven by deep internal differences, nor would Secretary John Kerry’s current attempt to re-start Palestinian-Israeli talks have the slightest chance of succeeding.

In fact, engaging in processes of conflict resolution sometimes helps to create a unity that seemed illusory before talks started. The IRA long declared its passionate opposition to Northern Irish peace talks, finally joining in when it became clear that they would otherwise lose their chance to help shape the new Northern Ireland. In Syria, some militant Islamists may also be induced to participate, as the Taliban is now preparing to do in Afghanistan and, possibly, in Pakistan.

What accounts for the current opposition among Syrian rebels to joining in peace negotiations? Three related reasons seem germane. First, the anti-Assad forces are losing the war and are fearful that any peace agreement will ratify the status quo on the battlefield. Second, they believe that they can depend on the Americans and their allies to keep them alive, despite military reversals, because they would rather see Syria bleed to death (as one Israeli figure recently put it) than abandon their hope for regime change. Third, they do not understand that, unlike traditional negotiations “from strength,” conflict resolution does not mean ratifying the military status quo. It means exposing and solving the underlying problems generating the civil conflict.

This is a crucially important point. What happens in a conflict resolution process – and often not in traditional diplomacy – is that experienced, independent facilitators assist the warring parties to confront and deal with the social-constitutional questions that are tearing their country apart. Without this kind of discussion (as we now see in Iraq) power-based diplomacy only sets the stage for future conflict. In the case of Syria, these social-constitutional issues include not only governmental forms and behaviors, citizen rights, abuses of power, and the like, but also the need to reorganize and stabilize relations between Sunni and non-Sunni communities; the best and most acceptable methods of regulating the oil industry and distributing its vast revenues; rethinking Syria’s relationships with neighboring powers and the need for a regional confederation; rebuilding the nation’s ruined agricultural economy; reintegrating returning refugees, and more.

Because conflict resolution means attending to such underlying issues, not merely imposing somc outsider’s “peace plan” on the parties, it is important to engage the Russians, as well as the Europeans, Americans, and Syrians, in discussions of what a multilateral peace conference would entail. Among the many horrible examples of conferences that ended up producing even worse conflicts, one recalls the Versailles Conference following World War I, in which traditional power-based diplomacy actually exacerbated the conditions that would end a few decades later by killing more than 60 million people, most of them civilians.

Peace is the goal in Syria, which, heaven knows, deserves security, prosperity, and freedom after losing more than 100,000 of its people in an atrocious civil conflict. Peace is not an impossible dream, if all parties concerned determine that serious peace talks must be attempted before any new attacks on the Syrian regime are launched. We can still remedy the tragic flaw in American foreign policy by insisting that peace is the means as well as the end, and that no military action can ever be considered a last resort without going all out for conflict resolution.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Gloria Meyer DeSole September 7, 2013 at 7:46 pm

Thank you for a clear and emphatic argument against a US strike.


El Fraser September 7, 2013 at 8:19 pm

Thank you Dr Rubeinstein. I wish you could head-up a conflict resolution team – carefully constructed of the right people. Dr. Scott Bonn in NJ would be another addition… and also I would think some global finance experts should be on board to define what actually is going on behind those curtains, for all parties concerned. Say Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman. Your brilliance is organizing the realities of a very bad situation, into a cohesive and readable overview – as always – is just fabulous. I was waiting for you to wade in. All my best, El


Kevin Clements September 7, 2013 at 9:28 pm

Fantastic blog as always Rich…. I have shared it on my Facebook page. Obama looked weak and pathetic in St Petersburg. Its about time that political leaders stopped moralising on behalf of the rest of the world. Now that the UK parliament has placed a question mark over the inevitability of the Anglo-American alliance it is also a ripe moment to begin rethinking the “Western Project” . Its just the US , France and Japan at the moment! And its also a moment for the US to stop promoting its own interests while trying to be global cop ! Anyway good sense as always I have suggested that you replace Samantha Power !!! cheers kevin


Andy Shallal September 7, 2013 at 9:34 pm

A great article – Thank you Rich for outlining the issues in such a cogent way.


Robbie Dunn September 8, 2013 at 6:59 am

Great article I totally agree with you.
More missiles and bombs will solve nothing. The USA is gone war crazy.
I have a song on U Tube from my Irish man’s opinion album called “War is just for Losers” Robbie Dunn if you want to have a listen


michaelkplatzer September 8, 2013 at 8:52 am

I am so glad to read that there is an alternative!


Bob Griendling September 8, 2013 at 2:40 pm

Well done, Rich.


Sonja Dahl September 8, 2013 at 6:41 pm

Regarding #3, you were doing very well discussing deterrence until you said, “They argue that the parties to intensely violent conflict will use whatever weapons are available when the incentive to do so is high enough…” The examples you gave for when nonconventional weapons (chemical, biological, or nuclear) were used were examples where the perpetrator was undeterred. The only times nuclear weapons have ever been used in a war was when there was no possibility of retaliation in-kind (as only one nation had nuclear weapons). In World War I, chemical weapons were widely used by several countries in the war. The world was so shocked by this, the Geneva Protocols of 1925 were agreed upon banning the use of chemical weapons. But because it did not ban the stockpiling of these weapons, countries retained their capability to retaliate if other nations tried to use these weapons again. Surprisingly, with a few exceptions (Japan used some chemical weapons against China), and in spite of huge stockpiles, these weapons were not utilized in WWII. The history of nuclear weapons tells a similar story. Arms control treaties, combined with deterrence, are very effective in preventing the use of non-conventional weapons in war. Most cases where chemical weapons have been used is when the calculation was that they could get away with it.


Rich Rubenstein September 9, 2013 at 2:56 pm

This is an ingenious argument that doesn’t quite hold up under analysis. Deterrence may work if there is a threat of “mutually assured destruction,” as under the Cold War regime, but that is surely not relevant to the Syrian case. (Who will deter the United States from using any weapons against Syria that it pleases?)
As for chemical weapons, they were used by Britain in Mesopotamia, Italy in Ethiopia, France in Algeria, the U.S. in Vietnam (Agent Orange), and, most gruesomely, Iraq in the Iraq-Iran War (sarin and other gasses) not because of the absence of a deterrent, but because their use seemed to be the only way to avoid defeat. Poison gas, which took upwards of 100,000 Iranian lives, was Saddam Hussein’s answer to the human wave attacks mounted by the Iranian regime in the bloodiest struggle after World War II. If Iran had threatened chemical retaliation, it is hard to see that that would have made any difference at all.
In any case, if the Assad regime used chemical weapons against the rebels (still a big “if”), that is past action, non-deterrable by definition. Perhaps the writer means to suggest that an American attack now would deter future use of these weapons by the Syrians. But if that is the rationale, why kill people now? Why not take a resolution promising to retaliate against either side for any future use of these weapons to the UN Security Council, which would very likely adopt it?
The answer, I fear, is that the Obama regime wants to prevent Assad from winning the Syrian civil war AND that the president is unable to give up the hubristic vision of America as the world’s chief source of law, order, and morality. Thus does soft power tend over time to become hard power. Empire by any other name is still empire.


Charles Martin-Shields September 9, 2013 at 6:08 pm

One thing I’ve noticed in this debate is the fixation on whether one takes action dependent on who used the weapons. Granted, there are a more codified set of laws and protocols when a state uses these weapons, but in this circumstance I think the argument should be “these weapons were used, period.” Either the Assad government used them in contravention to international law, or the rebels are using them and Assad’s government has completely lost territorial and military control. Either way, there is an argument for action (though not necessarily military action). To that end I agree with you Rich, that a serious effort to a negotiated resolution using CR principles is the most sustainable way to go if the goal is a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict.


ACT September 11, 2013 at 8:03 pm

Deterrence is a negative. It is the non-occurence of something. To prove that deterrence ‘works’ is to prove a negative. Good luck on that project.

As I like to say deterrence deters until it doesn’t.


Assaf Graif October 1, 2013 at 2:03 am

“Who will deter the US from using any weapons against Syria that it pleases?”- Russia. And they did it quite elegantly, without actually threatening anyone.

Except the Iran and Iraq, all the mentioned countries, used chemical weapons, against foes that were “non contiguous” and had no way of retaliating against their homeland, due to sheer logistics, or the deployed forces because lack of actual chemical capabilities. I would call these “absence of deterrent”.

An effective “resolution” to attack if chemical weapons are used was made, with not so many words, when Obama conjured “red lines”. A UN resolution will have to face the non altruistic interests of Russia and China, in maintaining Assad’s regime, and might not be so readily adopted. Dare I say that, ironically, the former USSR country and the worlds largest communist country’s financial interests in Syria, will trump the worlds most capitalistic country’s “philanthropic” attempts at peacekeeping?

Regarding the main article, why would Assad negotiate when he is beginning to win the war, and has a still powerful “godfather” in Putin (whose penchant for totalitarism is obvious)?


Sonja Dahl September 10, 2013 at 3:54 am

I absolutely agree that a UN-negotiated settlement is the best answer to resolving conflicts such as the civil war in Syria. For the vote on the first Gulf war back in 1990, I lobbied in DC members of Congress, with coaching from Daniel Ellsberg, and made the case that this, being the first major conflict in a post-cold war world, that we develop a new model for resolving conflicts that didn’t involve US as judge, jury and executioner. For as much as most American view this war as “good”, there is a direct line from US involvement in the first Gulf war to 9/11, after Bin Laden was outraged at US troops stationed in his homeland of Saudi Arabia. The second Gulf war made by the second Bush president was such an obvious fraud — I have a friend in the State Department that told me in Aug. 2002 that everyone in State knew “that Bush was an idiot” and there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. (Even today, people take the “slam dunk” quote out of context.)

In the examples you mention where there have been uses of chemical weapons in the last century, where was the deterrence for Mesopotamia, Ethiopia, Algeria, Iran? In Vietnam, the obvious deterrent was the fact that, with some of the heaviest conventional bombing in the history of warfare, there was not an escalation to nuclear weapons.

The reason it is tough to deter the United States is that, most retaliation ends up being tactical, meaning the US can hit anywhere in the world, but more difficult to retaliate against the US proper. When Saddam Hussein was lobbing Scud missiles at Israel during the first Gulf war, what I saw was Hussein attempting a strategic response. With the changing alliances of a post-cold war world, I think there were great incentives for these historically “non-aligned” (or formerly under the Soviet deterrent umbrella) nations to develop ballistics or other means of deterring the US, as long as the US is using its strategic monopoly to intervene.

Unlike what Republican Senators, such as McCain are arguing, I think our response in Syria to use of chemical weapons should not be decisive or mean greater involvement of the US in the civil war. I think the message should be, “You use chemical weapons against civilians, you lose an airfield. Do it again, you lose a lot more.” It would be so much better if the UN could act, but the Russian veto prevents this. I’m hearing today that there may be an opportunity for a negotiated settlement where Assad gives up his chemical weapons to avoid strikes by the US. This would be a great outcome and could hopefully lead to more negotiations around ending the civil war.

Exactly, I am saying that Assad was undeterred (obviously, because chemical weapons were used) and that a limited, targeted strike would deter further use of chemical weapons and help preserve the weapons control regimes of the last century.

So to wrap it up, history shows that arms control works, negotiated settlements work, and deterrence works. These are the tools in our toolbox. Wars don’t work well for anything.


pacifist September 10, 2013 at 5:54 am

check out this link, for some examples of red lines being crossed…


Terry Beitzel September 10, 2013 at 2:56 pm

I appreciate your perspective and writing on this important topic. I am curious about your thoughts on the ICC and the US. Should a movement be better organized and promoted in the US to have the US sign the Rome Statute? As citizens, we seem to have few options when attempting to influence foriegn policy; is this something we could/should pursue as citizens? Thoughts?


Rich Rubenstein September 10, 2013 at 5:32 pm

Thanks for this interesting comment, Terry. I agree that organizing to have the US sign the Rome Statute is a good idea. The only apparent reason we have not yet done so is fear that the law might be applied to us! But we need to continue to distinguish between legal responses to problems — even good legal responses — and methods of solving the problems that generate lawbreaking. Where there is crime (international or domestic) criminal law is needed — but it’s not enough!


Terry Beitzel September 10, 2013 at 8:33 pm

Sure! I agree with your analysis of why the US does not sign and also that the ICC is not enough. It just seems this could be one way for US citizens to act in a positive and possibly meaningful way. (I have published twice on the very limited role of the ICC, see West Africa Review and International Criminal Justice Review–my arguments promote restorative jsutice, etc.). I am just thinking about constructive things US citizens can do to further the discussion you are suggesting. A sustained discussion around WHY the US refuses to sign might open the door for critical domestic dialogue that might lead to greater respect for conflict resolution processes and creativity in expanding the debate? Without advocating adverserial “criminal law” only solutions to deeply embedded social and political conflicts, I am curious if confronting directly our own points of hypocracy about international law and norms is a piint of useful direct nonviolent domestic engagement. As always, I enjoy your thoughts…


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Rich Rubenstein September 25, 2014 at 2:43 pm

Thanks! I hope that you do write something. The U.S. in Syria is a story that just won’t end! I will post something new on this shortly.


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