Belmont Club

Irrational Numbers

Gary Gambill at the Middle Eastern Forum  examines the logic of “Arms for Peace” that he claims is being mooted as a model in foreign policy circles to guide policy in Syria. Arms for peace. How does that work? Gambill explains:

As the Syrian civil war rages on with no end in sight, many advocates of U.S. intervention are claiming that an infusion of Western arms to carefully vetted rebel factions will help bring about a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Though hardly the first time that tools of war have been recast as instruments of peace, this curious proposition has gained unprecedented currency across the ideological spectrum, from liberal internationalists to conservative hawks.

Unfortunately, the magic bullets theory doesn’t hold much water. Arming the rebels might bring the war to a close sooner by helping “good” guys kill “bad” guys more efficiently, but there’s no compelling reason to believe it will entice them to stop fighting.

The superficial logic of arms-for-peace is elegant, to be sure, rooted in the classic diplomatic axiom that a political settlement to an armed conflict is possible only when, for all relevant players, the expected utility of a negotiated peace, E[u(p)], is greater than the expected utility of continued war, E[u(w)]. There are several arguments as to how a calibrated infusion of arms into Syria will help produce this rare condition (presumably absent from the large majority of civil wars in the modern era that ended in the military defeat of one side or the other).

Stripped of its quasi mathematical trappings the notion comes to this: if the administration can fix it so nobody can win in Syria then they’ll be forced to make peace. There is a facile appeal to this idea, but Gambill is unpersuaded, and rightly so.

Even if no one were actually considering this as a guide to Syrian policy the idea of negotiations as an end in itself already appeared in many guises. Today victory and it’s flipside, defeat, definitely have a bad name. It’s had a bad name since Vietnam when the sophisticated consensus was that War.Is.Good.For.Absolutely.Nothing.

All war and its outcomes do is perpetuate the Cycle of Violence. Therefore when victory is possible, it should be avoided at all costs. Forcing one side to surrender is now regarded as an immoral act, almost — if one may risk excessive irony — a war crime.

For example when the Tamil Tigers were on the verge of complete defeat in Sri Lanka, Marie Colvin, writing in the UK Times described how tragic that development would be. “Now that their military hopes are dashed, the fear in western capitals is that the Tamil Tigers will again turn to terrorism. If the Tamil leadership goes ahead with their threats of suicide will there be anyone left to negotiate with? ”

Colvin might be right, for judging by appearances the main task of diplomacy today is to keep wars going forever. The world is full of conflicts where the UN intervenes when one side or the other threatens to prevail.  When Israel fires back at rockets in Gaza, ceasefire! When the Hezbollah are getting worsted, ceasefire!

Older readers of this site may still remember the infamous Highway of Death.  During the first Gulf War, Saddam’s forces were using this road in their headlong flight from Kuwait, having singularly failed to administer the Mother of all Defeats to the US Armed Forces who were advancing on them.  The retreating columns were pasted by US airpower. “The scenes of devastation on the road are some of the most recognizable images of the war, and were publicly cited as a factor in President George H. W. Bush’s decision to declare a cessation of hostilities the next day.”

Bush had to stop because the US Armed Forces were beating Saddam’s forces too badly. It was hard to say which was more disturbing, the sight of so many thousands of charred and ruined vehicles or the explosion of the myth that America was a pitiful, helpless giant. “Many Iraqi forces, however, successfully escaped across the Euphrates river, and the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimated that upwards of 70,000 to 80,000 troops from defeated divisions in Kuwait might have fled into Basra, evading capture.”

Afterwards these surviving units went on to massacre the Marsh Arabs and then it was the international community’s turn to appeal to Saddam to stop. Of course Saddam didn’t stop. But that is another story.

Peace ain’t what it used to be. The fact that millions have perished in the process of achieving the not quite victories, not quite defeats of our time is nothing to the point. We meant well.

Gambill continued his examination of the “arms for peace” concept by examining some of the arguments for it.

The most common arms-for-peace argument, frequently invoked by Obama administration officials, is that arming the rebels will begin shifting the balance of power away from pro-government forces and signal Western resolve to tip it further, thereby diminishing E[u(w)] for the regime, its domestic supporters, and/or its Russian and Iranian backers. “Altering the balance of power on the ground … is the only way a politically negotiated transition can become possible,” writes Dennis Ross. Negotiations “will amount to little given the current power asymmetry,” concurs Elizabeth O’Bagy. …

A second family of arms-for-peace arguments hold that Western patronage of the rebels will increase E[u(p)] for the regime and/or its supporters (particularly lower echelon security personnel and civil servants). One strand of this reasoning holds that American sponsorship of the rebellion will alleviate their fears of Sunni domination and retribution by strengthening moderate rebels vis-à-vis extremists and obliging the former to act more responsibly. A second strand holds that equipping and supplying the rebels will unify their ranks so that they can make credible commitments to possible pro-regime interlocutors (at present, no one has the power to ensure that disparate rebel forces comply with anything).

There is something a little unsettling about hearing these sophisticated arguments, as if one had come into contact with an intelligence that had retained the ability to calculate while having utterly lost the ability to think. But it is easy to see how minds molded in that climate can create concepts like “leading from behind” or “responsibility to protect”. Their calculus is entirely consistent. But is arguably mad.

Just now the New York Times is reporting that thousands of refugees are pouring into Iraq. The BBC has further details of the human stream into Kurdistan, just a small part of the nearly 2 million Syrians who have fled the country. Photos at the BBC site show an astounding stream of refugees crossing a bridge on the Tigris. What does arms for peace do for them?

Patience friends. Arms for peace are on the way. Well not quite yet. The Los Angeles Times says the “U.S. has yet to deliver arms to Syria rebels”, adding “the Obama administration remains conflicted about sending weapons that could fall into the wrong hands, as is evident by the slow pace of delivering on its promise of military aid.” Perhaps they’re still trying to calculate the values for E[u(w)] and E[u(p)] to an acceptable number of digits. Until then, they remain ‘conflicted’.

Personally I think one can make the argument for sending arms if it will lead to the victory of the better and more humane side. But it seems eminently pointless and not a little cruel to dispatch deadly implements to Syria without any desire for seeing our guys — if one can use the word — on top.

The problem with the Obama administration’s policy in the Middle East is that is all cunning and no sense. It is a fine tuned watch that keeps 13 hour time. There is no real public consideration about the wisdom of installing one faction or the other in Damascus, nor is there the least consideration of what might be good for the people in the region and for American interests. What the public is offered instead is a kind of mad logic, if the term “logic” can be so abused.

But things are not so neat as they imagine in the real world. The BBC says the Syrian rebels and the Kurds are now fighting. “A number of fierce battles between jihadists and armed Kurdish groups in Syria have added another layer to what is increasingly being described as a civil war within a civil war.” Time to refine the model.

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I would not be surprised to learn that some journalist, wandering unattended into the Oval Office, came across a ream of paper on which was meticulously typed, for some apparent reason in  single space  hundreds of pages of this repetitive script. “Hope and change and hope and change and hope and change …”

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