Beware the Humanitarians


I can’t help but think that the massive increase of popularity of Syrian refugee issues in media coverage is indicative of some kind of growing future drive for a NATO operation.

If not yet, it now will be unless it interferes with the Iran deal. There is one obvious section of society that is always is pro-war because they are hooting and brittle cro-magnons who think its important to ‘show strength’ through constant macho posturing, but there is another which can always be made pro-war by going ‘ermagerd look at the suffering babiez!’ Neither is remotely interested in dealing with the consequences of the policies they unthinkingly support through their id-derived catharsis politics.

Hopefully the complicated alliance networks that the United States is increasingly learning to navigate with some degree of nuance will derail any further attempts to topple what unfortunately is Syria’s only real hope: the Assad regime. Or as it should be referred to-the internationally recognized Government of Syria. This is a very real possibility of course, but the explosion of media coverage regarding refugees should remind us of past examples were wars of choice were fought for dubious reasons.

While humanitarianism is most often deployed indirectly and often even unintentionally as the propaganda wing of other self-serving interests (Kuwaiti babies being murdered by Iraqi troops in ’91-a fiction invented for the wind up to Desert Storm, Germans raping through Belgium in WWI British propaganda, Kony 2012 stirring up tacit hipster support for the rapid and ongoing expansion of AFRICOM, etc. These are clearly P.R. campaigns that serve a valid, if often debatable, strategic interest for someone, somewhere. Thus, they are understandable whether or not you agree with the objectives behind them.

But there are indeed, as Robert Merry and others have pointed out, wars fought entirely for feel-good purposes. Somalia and Bosnia in the 90s *might* have been these depending on how you view them, and Kosovo in 99 certainly was. Victorian wars of prideful redress such as the British Expedition to Ethiopia or the US retaliatory action in 19th Century Korea also fall under a same ‘conflict as catharsis’ framework.  People (usually Democrats) who called for action in Darfur in the middle of the first decade of the 21st Century were also of this ilk.

The problem is two-fold with these knee-jerk reactions. The first one is that there is rarely a situation where such direct involvement can improve a situation, and when that is so it is often in the context of a greater framework. For example, the ending of Axis war crimes was contingent on the Allies winning the Second World War anyway-just as the removal of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese was tied to the greater geopolitical re-alignment of the Sino-Soviet Split. These were great and beneficial outcomes to be sure, but they did not exist in isolate.

The second is that when enacted by a superpower, these types of interventions can be divorced by more grounding influences which often mean their strategies are half-baked and lead to interventions with a big showy entrance and no exit plan. In effect, advocating such humanitarian interventions has the potential to lead to the same kind of quagmires that neoconservative hawks often inflict on the state and its people.

This is one of the great flaws in societies that often shunt the decidedly old-school field of military history aside. People will jump through any number of increasingly preposterous hoops in order to avoid coming to the stark conclusion that military conflict is dangerous for any power no matter how powerful they are so selectivity is key. But even more tellingly on this theme, many will assume something ‘can be done’ lightly, from the air, and in such a way as to minimize conflict exposure to the actors on the ground as some kind of god-like neutral arbiter of justice.

But that is impossible. An actor in conflict is either in it or not. That means pick your battles. And the only way to do that is to combine national interest with your desire to off a particular force. You want to end the Syria crisis? Extend an olive branch to Damascus and focus on the elimination of Daesh as priority. Winning over the worst faction-not helping everyone suffering-should be the first goal. But already NATO has integrated itself into the wrong dog in this fight. Let us hope this mistaken policy is not given popular support by a media and populace who base their views on their emotional reaction to news stories. Or else who knows what horrible scenario might happen.

Further reading from a somewhat different but still interesting perspective at the Stanford News site.

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