Sunday, September 15, 2013

"OR ELSE!" (What the U.S. threat of force against Syria teaches us)

TR and his "big stick"
Now that an agreement is being forged with respect to Syria's chemical weapons, and the immediate threat of a U.S. attack is on hold, it is necessary for those of us in the antiwar movement to confront and evaluate a problem: did the threat of U.S. force contribute to moving the parties toward an agreement?

Many people will argue that it was only because the U.S. made a threat of force that Syria offered to enter into an agreement on chemical weapons. The sequence of events certainly suggests some relationship between the two.

There is the risk that people consciously or unconsciously adopt "the 'threat of force' conclusion" -- namely, that conflict can be resolved (and can only be resolved) by threat of force -- and that the possibility that force might end up being used following the threat is an irrelevant factor in the matter. In other words, they believe that concessions happen if (and only if) there is a threat of force; and stalemate happens if (and only if) there is an absence of threat of force.

It is important for the antiwar movement to look at this question, and really think deeply about it. It is important from the standpoint of external communications -- engaging in the public discourse -- but even more important for our own internal integrity. What is the truth?

I do not know the answer. But I think the first step is to lay some questions and propositions out on the table.

(1) Association? Or causality?

The first caution of science is to make a distinction between association and causality.

The agreement on chemical weapons was, unquestionably, closely associated with a threat of force. However, does that mean that the threat led to an agreement?

(2) What other associations are we missing?

September, 2013: World leaders gather in St. Petersburg
Is it possible that there are other factors that we are ignoring?

For instance: the U.S. was making a threat of force, but several other things were happening at the same time, including:
* Congressional resistance - in fact, perhaps more important than the threat being made by Barack Obama was the resistance to the threat being exhibited by the American people, and by Congress. How did these factors affect the outcome?

* proximity to summit meeting - is it lost on anybody that this agreement came about shortly after Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin spent some brief moments together in St. Petersburg? (Those were moments when they were said to be barely talking with each other; imagine what might have been accomplished if Obama had, in fact, gone to Moscow for full discussions as originally planned!) Did it matter that eighteen other world leaders were in on the discussions?

* worldwide attention to American behavior - the events in the past few months have put U.S. antagonism toward Syria in the world spotlight, including U.S. determination to bring about regime change, and its arming of rebels over the past two years. Is it possible that it was only when Syria could see that this side of the story was being fully registered by the international community that it could feel confident to enter into negotiations?
Might some of these have been factors that were more important?

And, to the degree that they were important, do they, in fact, tend to support the opposite argument -- i.e. that the longstanding threat of force by the U.S. against Syria has been obstructing negotiations and agreement?

(3) What's special about this time?

Even if the U.S. threat of force can be said to have "led to" negotiations and an agreement -- what does that prove?

In other words, even if "this threat led to an agreement," does that prove that "all threats lead to agreements" ?

(4) What might have been accomplished without a threat of force?

Even if an agreement was reached in the face of a threat of force, that tends to mask the fact that we now do not know if an agreement could have been reached without the use of force.

(In the field of logic, this relates to the rule that the truth of one proposition does not prove the truth of the converse of that proposition. "All threats lead to agreement" does not mean "all agreements are led to by threats.")

(5) What makes us think the threat of force would necessarily stop at being a threat?

Peter and the Wolf:
"What if the hunters hadn't come along? What then?"
Conversely, we don't know how likely it was, in fact, that the threat of force would have lead to actual use of force? (In the words of the grandfather in Peter and the Wolf, "What if the hunters hadn't come along? What then?")

Base on the experience of the last decade, the likelihood that the U.S. would have, in fact, used violent force seems quite high, indeed.

Moreover, we should talk about the devastation that U.S. threat of force has brought to country after country. (There are no "pinpricks" or "unbelievably small" attacks.)

(6) By any means necessary?

Finally: even if it's true that the threat of force led to an agreement, we do not need to accept that it should have been done.

(This one carries us into a much deeper discussion. A first question might be: if the "threat of force" conclusion is correct, would you want your own children to adopt it?)

This is by no means a complete list, but rather a starting point for assembling the arguments necessary to consider in a complete way the use of force, and threats of force, by the U.S.

Gordon Shull
The possibilities are so complex. I was helped by a letter that was published in The New York Times on September 7 that put in common sense terms -- without all the complicated language -- a proposal for an alternative for how an agreement might have been arrived at:
Consider two scenarios. In the first, the United States strikes Syria unilaterally. In the second, dozens of countries, while refraining from military action at least for now, join the United States in condemning the Syrian atrocities, adopting nonmilitary sanctions against the regime and calling upon Russia and China to join in.

Which, in the long run, would make American leadership more credible? And which would be more effective, in the long run, in deterring future use of chemical warfare?

Wooster, Ohio, Sept. 6, 2013

[NOTE: read more about Gordon Shull and his work for peace.]
I found Gordon Shull's brief exposition of the situation very helpful, because it provides just the kind of calm and reasonable language that I think we need to avail ourselves of more often.


3D "negotiating space"
The Shull proposition is formulated as binary -- either/or -- but in it are embedded several factors. These include:
* degree of multilateralness -- is the country under discussion being told what to do by one other country? or by the community?

* degree of consistency -- are the same rules being made to apply to everybody?

* degree of commitment -- this includes the threats of sanctions of various kinds, only one of which is military force.
If we see the range of possibilities for each of these factors as lying along a continuum, and imagine these three factors interacting independently, we can begin to envision a three-dimensional "negotiating space."

Based on this model, I regret to say, we are on very weak ground in terms of having a reliable agreement with Syria.  Even assuming the U.S. threat of force represented a high degree of commitment -- and is this really true? -- we are nowhere in terms of multilateralness or consistency.

Now would be a very good time for us to ask why Russia and China put on the brakes in the UN Security Council when the U.S. tries to use force. 

Now would be a very good time for us to ask why we expect other countries to forgo chemical and nuclear stockpiles when the U.S. (and Russia) still have such large ones.

"The Big Stick in the Caribbean Sea":
Teddy Roosevelt playing in
America's "pond"

I don't know whether any of the points raised above is conclusive, or if, in total, they add up to anything conclusive.

I do think that our ability to think and talk through these possibilities in a comprehensive way makes us a stronger movement.

In particular, it makes us able to participate in discussion with people who don't already agree with us, and do it from a position of calm and open-mindedness. That will be essential to bringing more people into the movement in the days ahead.

The U.S.-Syria confrontation isn't over. Not by a long shot. The details of whether and how force will be threatened against Syria are central to the daily developments on the Syria negotiations.

Equally importantly, the U.S. "big stick" will be waved in people's faces many more times before our work as a movement to end war and violence is done.

Let's open some minds -- starting with our own.

Related posts

How do you formulate a statement that can somehow convince the United States to eliminate its threatening nuclear weapons?  How do you formulate the 10th request? Or the 100th? Knowing all the time that the United States is in the position -- will always be in the position -- to say, "No" ?  At what point does it dawn on you that the United States will never give up its nuclear weapons, because it has the power and the rest of the world doesn't?

(See 360 Degree Feedback in New York (2014 NPT Prepcom and How the World Views the United States))

The problem: the U.S. "pivot to Asia."

The opportunity: asking ourselves, "What would we do differently if we revised our myths of Asia?"

(See U.S. Militarism in Asia: THINK DIFFERENT!)

To those of us who have worked hard to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, it is flabbergasting to see reports that U.S. officials see a "need" for someplace else to send troops and material: apparently, there's no such thing as demobilization, only re-deployment.

(See AFRICOM: The Heart of Darkness)

Other related links

"The Obama Doctrine: Speak softly and carry a big drone."
Bob Englehart, Hartford Journal
June 2, 2014 - Cartoons of the day: Obama foreign policy - "Editorial cartoonists Nate Beeler and Bob Englehart both compare Obama’s foreign policy to that of Theodore Roosevelt’s 'Speak softly and carry a big stick,' though not exactly favorably."