By Robert C. Koehler
Maybe half a million dead, half a country — 10 million people — displaced from their homes, jettisoned onto the mercy of the world.
Welcome to war. Welcome to Syria.
This is a conflict apparently too complex to understand. The U.S. brokered a ceasefire with Russia, then proceeded to lead a bombing strike that killed 62 Syrian troops, injured another hundred — and gave tactical aid to ISIS. Later it apologized . . . uh, sort of.
“Russia really needs to stop the cheap point scoring and the grandstanding and the stunts and focus on what matters, which is implementation of something we negotiated in good faith with them.”
These are the words of U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, as reported by Reuters, who went on to point out, with exasperation, that the U.S. was investigating the air strikes and “if we determine that we did indeed strike Syrian military personnel, that was not our intention and we of course regret the loss of life.”
And. We. Of. Course. Regret. The. Loss. Of. Life.
Oh, the afterthought! I could almost hear the “yada, yada” hovering in the air. Come on, this is geopolitics. We implement policy and make crucial adjustments to the state of the world by dropping bombs — but the bombing isn’t the point (except maybe to those who get hit). The point is that we’re playing complex, multidimensional chess, with, of course, peace as our ultimate goal, unlike our enemies. Peace takes bombs.
But just for a moment, I would like to step back into the middle of that quote by Samantha Power and point out that, in the wake, let us say, of 9/11, no one in the United States, speaking in any capacity, official or unofficial, would have spoken thus about the victims: with cursory regret. The fact that their deaths occurred in a complex global context didn’t somehow minimize the horror of the event.
No. Their deaths cut to the national soul. Their deaths were our deaths.
But not so with the dead of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan — not so with the victims of our bombs and bullets, the victims of our strategic vision. Suddenly the dead become part of some larger, more complex picture, and thus not our business to stop. The “regret” we express is for PR purposes only; it’s part of the strategy.
So I give thanks to Jimmy Carter who, in a recent op-ed published in the New York Times, took a moment to look beyond the moral unintelligence of our militarized worldview. Speaking of the fragile Syrian “ceasefire” brokered by the United States and Russia, he wrote: “The agreement can be salvaged if all sides unite, for now, around a simple and undeniably important goal: Stop the killing.”
He presented this not as a moral imperative but a strategically smart plan:
“When talks resume in Geneva later this month, the primary focus should be stopping the killing. Discussions about the core questions of governance — when President Bashar al-Assad should step down, or what mechanisms might be used to replace him, for example — should be deferred. The new effort could temporarily freeze the existing territorial control . . .”
Let the government, the opposition and the Kurds keep their arms, focus on stabilizing the territory they control and guarantee “unrestricted access to humanitarian aid, a particularly important demand given the strike on an aid convoy near Aleppo,” he wrote, detailing some of the long-term realities and urgent needs any legitimate peace negotiations must confront.
Compare this with the simplistic moral righteousness of bombing our way to peace. Last June, for instance, the Times reported: “More than 50 State Department diplomats have signed an internal memo sharply critical of the Obama administration’s policy in Syria, urging the United States to carry out military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad to stop its persistent violations of a cease-fire in the country’s five-year-old civil war. . . .
“The memo concludes,” the Times informs us, “‘It is time that the United States, guided by our strategic interests and moral convictions, lead a global effort to put an end to this conflict once and for all.’”
Oh yeah, that should pretty much fix everything. War is addictive, whether you wage it from a terrorist cell or from some perch in the military-industrial complex of the most powerful country on the planet.
The Center for Citizen Initiatives responded at the time: “Similar statements and promises have been made regarding Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. In all three cases, terrorism and sectarianism have multiplied, the conflicts still rage, and huge amounts of money and lives have been wasted.”
The statement, signed by 16 peace activists, also says: “We are a group of concerned U.S. citizens currently visiting Russia with the goal of increasing understanding and reducing international tension and conflict. We are appalled by this call for direct U.S. aggression against Syria, and believe it points to the urgent need for open public debate on U.S. foreign policy.”
The time is now. Foreign policy should no longer be classified, hidden, the province of an unelected government engaged in a game of global chess and high-tech terror, a.k.a., endless war.
Peace starts with three words: Stop the killing.
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
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