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Syria and "characteristically middle eastern violence"

In the ideal society, violence is an absolute last resort, chosen with somber decorum as the least destructive way to preserve some vital interest in a community. For example, a police officer might legitimately shoot a kidnapper to save the life of a child hostage, or a besieged Britain might fight a Nazi invasion.

In the middle east, violence is not chosen this way. In the middle east, international relations often seem to be conducted by lobbing explosive-filled rockets or mortar shells over an international boundary, arming militias opposed to your enemies, and generally exporting pain and destruction to your neighbors. In other words, violence is a *first* resort, the default means of cross-border communication. Why? The stated rationale is often "because it's the only language they understand."

Second, middle eastern violence is often the impulsive choice of the few, not the rational choice of the many. Good long-term decisionmaking is quite problematic in dictatorships, but even representative democracies can and often are herded into war by anger, hatred, official lies, and the fear of appearing weak. Reason, forgiveness, inclusiveness, morality, legality, and humanity are low on the list of considerations.

Finally, middle eastern violence is often destructive to the ultimate aims of the perpetrator. For example, the vast majority of Israeli and Palestinian people want to live in peace with their neighbors. Yet as ground incursions and airstrikes are met by suicide bombers and rocket fire in an escalating tit-for-tat spiral, each society's foundations are not being built up, but chipped away. A heavily militarized shoot-first-ask-questions-never concrete fortress is not David's promised land of milk and honey; nor does a screaming hive of fundamentalist bombmakers match the ideals of the religion of peace.

It should be clear that I think the Syria plan coming out of the White House early this week (briefly "teach them a lesson with cruise missiles") was, in fact, characteristically middle eastern violence. The cruise missile plan begins and ends with violence, ignoring negotiation, sanctions, medical aid, and all the other tools of diplomacy. It's a knee-jerk response to an atrocity, without a clear goal or endgame. And not only would it fail to advance America's aims in the region, the president acting as a dictator violates both the letter and spirit of the US Constitution.

I was thus pleasantly surprised to hear that Obama will ask Congress for authorization for military action in Syria. We the people should insist on clear war aims--"Punish the dictator for using nerve gas on his own people" would be acceptable and achievable with cruise missles, as would "End the dictator's brutal regime" although this would require a huge commitment of air and ground troops. We need to have an inclusive national discussion about what makes this important to the country, and how to use the full spectrum of our considerable power to get there.

Some claim that spending a few weeks to gather allies and think things through makes us look weak. But America has thousands of thermonuclear warheads; global-reach weapons delivery systems including drones, cruise missiles, stealth bombers, aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines; and the undisputed ability to vaporise anything on the planet. We do not look weak.

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September 2013

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