Don't Blame Obama for Syria

What's happening in Syria is a tragedy. But John Hannah needs to recognize that the civil war was never ours to win or lose.

Syria is a tragedy. Too much blood has flowed to imagine a negotiated transition and apparently not enough to warrant an effective intervention by a divided, cautious, and self-interested international community. And it may well be that the real struggle for Syria -- the one that determines its future character -- has yet to begin.

But to lay this bloody mess at President Barack Obama's doorstep, as John Hannah (a guy I respect and admire) does in his recent post for FP, is both wrong and unfair.

I write this not so much in defense of Obama's policies as in recognition of the cruel reality and terrible choices the United States has faced with regards to the Syrian uprising and civil war.

During this entire two-year debate on what Obama should or shouldn't have done on Syria, I have yet to hear a single military strategy that the administration could have adopted that would have been feasible, effective, and consequential in altering the bloody arc of this crisis for the better

Real game-changing moves -- weeks of air and missile strikes on Syrian military assets and leadership targets, a no-fly zone, and a sustained effort to provide the fragmented opposition with lethal weapons -- were rightly deemed too risky, too uncertain, and too open-ended to be viable. At the end of the day, Syria hawks simply could not assure Americans that they wouldn't be stuck with yet another Middle East quagmire.

The less risky steps -- sending in humanitarian assistance and non-lethal aid to the opposition, positioning Patriot missile batteries in Turkey, and launching political efforts to coordinate the opposition -- carried little risk. Admittedly, they have not had much real consequence in altering the course of the conflict. But that doesn't mean that taking more aggressive measures would be good for the United States. And at the end of the day, that's what U.S. foreign policy has to be about.

We will never know about the what-ifs, of course. In the world of counterfactuals, the what-might-have-beens can never be fact checked, let alone held to any kind of empirical standard. And there are risks to everything in life -- action and inaction. Some argue that trying more ambitious policies -- even if they failed -- would have been better than not trying at all. But they haven't persuaded me, or too many others.

Hannah's critique -- the first of many, I suppose, in the renewed "who lost Syria" debate -- is somewhat overwrought. That is perhaps consistent with the understandable and emotional urge to have prevented the thousands of lost lives, undermine Iran, and reverse America's declining relevance in the Middle East -- the most common knock on the president's foreign policy.

But it's no substitute for a workable plan. The critique really does lack context: Hannah blames the White House for "put[ting] its faith in Vladimir Putin" and engaging in the "indulgence" of U.N. diplomacy, but nobody I know in the administration ever believed that these steps would actually solve this thing.

There were never any good or easy options in Syria. All involved risk, and there was no guarantee any U.S. moves would stop what became a civil war -- or even ameliorate the situation. What's more, they all held the very real prospect of a slippery slope into military intervention, as failed half-measures would have required additional steps to preserve U.S. credibility.

Nor did our supposed allies in the region -- the Turks in particular -- seem particularly interested in a muscular response. (Turkey was always ambivalent about a more active policy, including a no-fly zone. That it's taken the Turks this long to request Patriot missiles from NATO -- for defensive purposes only -- reflects that ambivalence.) Iraqis worked actively against us, and the Israelis rightly watched from the sidelines. We sell sophisticated aircraft to the Saudis and others -- where were they when it came to organizing a coordinated Arab military response? I think I know the answer.

Let's face the facts: The United States can't determine the outcome in Syria -- at least not at a cost that makes any sense. Syria isn't Libya, where Muammar al-Qaddafi's weakness, along with regional and international circumstances, made an effective and relatively-cost free NATO intervention possible. It also isn't Egypt, where, even though we send a billion dollars plus a year to Cairo and enjoy a long relationship with the Egyptian military, we can't seem to influence the course of its political future.

And thank God it isn't Afghanistan or Iraq where, despite years of effort, billions of dollars, and thousands of lives lost, we have not achieved anything commensurate to the level of the sacrifice.

Yes, Syria is important. But like the Arab Spring itself, it was never ours to win or lose. We may yet be drawn in, but our caution and reserve there -- given its complexities, the limitations of our leverage, and our own priorities -- was warranted. We aren't the world's top cop nor its primary case worker. And it's about time we realized it.

National Security

Hey, Foreign Policy, the World Really Is Getting Safer

Responses to John Arquilla's "The Big Kill."

By Steven Pinker

When I began to examine trends in warfare while writing The Better Angels of Our Nature, I quickly realized that without a fixed yardstick you can demonstrate any trend you want. If you wish to paint a historical period as violent, just include killings of all kinds, lump together deaths on the battlefield with indirect deaths linked to famines and epidemics, and accept the highest estimates that have been bruited about. Conversely, if you want to portray a period as peaceful, restrict yourself to declared wars between governments, count only the battlefield deaths, and be stringent about which estimates you allow in.

There is only one way to elevate a discussion of war trends above the level of a barroom argument, and that is to consult quantitative datasets assembled by disinterested scholars who define what they count as a "war," stick to one criterion for which deaths to tally, and exhaustively list all wars known to have taken place during a set interval.

Several of these datasets are available, such as those of the Human Security Report Project (HSRP). Most of the scholars who have examined them agree that the decades since 1945 have seen a decline in wars among great powers and developed states (what I call the Long Peace), and the decades since the end of the Cold War have seen a decline in deaths from wars of all kinds (the New Peace). Disagreement persists, to be sure, about the causes of the declines and how long they will last.

John Arquilla's Dec. 2 article "The Big Kill," which claims that war is on the increase, is a good illustration of the pitfalls of cherry-picking conflicts, mashing up categories, and credulously selecting extreme estimates when they help an argument along.

To explain away the decline in deaths on the battlefield, Arquilla recycles the urban legend that the proportion of war deaths suffered by noncombatants has risen from 10 percent during World War I to 90 percent in the wars of today. But this factoid has been debunked by three political scientists (Andrew Mack, Joshua Goldstein, and Adam Roberts), who each discovered that it compares battle deaths in one era with battle deaths, indirect deaths, injuries, and refugees in another.

Arquilla then tries to make the decline go away with a different tactic: he claims it is "skewed" by population growth since 1940. But this defies the mathematical principle that a tendency can be estimated only by dividing the number of occurrences of an event by the number of opportunities for it to occur; it's like choosing to have surgery at a small hospital with a high complication rate rather than at a large hospital with a low rate because the larger hospital has a greater absolute number of complications. A tripling of the world population since 1940 means that there are three times as many people who can start wars and three times as many people who can be killed in them. Even if the number of war deaths had been constant over that interval, it would indicate a sharp decline in the likelihood that a person will be killed in a war. In any case the absolute number has not remained constant. It plunged from 224,000 a year in the 1950s to 85,000 a year in the 1990s and 31,000 a year in the 2000s, so it doesn't even matter whether you look at rates or absolute numbers.

A decline is apparent even if one totals up the sheer number of armed conflicts in the HSRP dataset, ignoring their annual death tolls (which can be as low as 25): the count fell from 53 in 1991 to 30 in 2010, the most recent year available. Arquilla points out that the 1991 peak represents an increase from the 1950s, but that is consistent with the New Peace, which refers to a worldwide decline in all kinds of war after the Cold War ended (as opposed to the post-World War II decline of wars among great powers and developed states).

Arquilla turns to what he calls "big-kill" wars, those that led to a million deaths, and claims they have doubled every half-century since 1800. This trend, too, is being measured with a rubber ruler. For the 20th century, Arquilla includes both wars and genocides (such as those of Stalin and Pol Pot); for the 19th, he includes only wars, omitting the massive death tolls associated with colonial wars, the Atlantic and Mideast slave trades, the man-made famines in British India, and the depredations in the Congo Free State. For that matter, his list of pure wars is selective, omitting Shaka Zulu, the Panthay Rebellion, and the Mahdi revolt, all with death tolls which exceed a million if one includes indirect deaths, as Arquilla does for his 20th century. Indeed, for the second half of the 20th century, Arquilla cites nonstandard highball estimates for the Rwandan genocide and the Mozambique civil war, waffles between absolute and relative death counts, and tries to sneak in near-misses (such as the Iran-Iraq war), none of which he does for the earlier periods.

The casual attitude toward data extends to quotations. Arquilla has me writing that the past 70 years have seen "no spikes, just a couple of ‘blips." In fact, I do refer to "spikes" during this period, while the word "blip" appears nowhere in the book.

Steven Pinker, the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, is Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.

Next: Andrew Mack and Sebastian Merz of the Human Security Research Project also respond.

By Andrew Mack and Sebastian Merz

One of the most enduring myths about the last hundred years of warfare is that, as John Arquilla's recent article puts it, "the deaths of noncombatants due to war has risen, steadily and very dramatically." No compelling evidence has ever been produced to affirm this assertion.

This is not surprising. There is none.

A careful review of the available data on the deadliness of 20th century conflicts by Uppsala University's Margareta Sollenberg found that there was no clear trend over time in the ratio of civilian-to-military deaths in warfare -- let alone the century-long increase from 10 percent to 90 percent that Arquilla and many others claim has occurred.

In most wars about half the fatalities are civilians. There is variation in the ratio, of course, but no evidence that civilian deaths have been inexorably increasing relative to combatant deaths over the past 100 years.

Arquilla points to the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as an example of what he and many others believe to have been rising civilian death tolls in recent wars. Ninety percent of the victims, he notes, were non-combatants. But these are not civilians killed -- intentionally or otherwise -- as a result of wartime violence. The overwhelming majority of these "indirect deaths" are individuals who are assumed to have died as a result of war-exacerbated disease and malnutrition.

Arquilla is referring here to the much-cited survey research undertaken by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which found that some 5.4 million individuals perished in Congo between 1998 and 2007. These were individuals who would not have died had there been no war.

But the IRC's findings were seriously flawed in a number of ways. Most importantly, two other surveys, the most recent by UNICEF, found that nationwide mortality rates in the DRC were approximately half those reported in the IRC's surveys.

Moreover, both the UNICEF survey and the earlier survey by the "gold standard" DHS organization show a slow decline in mortality rates prior to and throughout the war. The IRC shows a huge increase in mortality after the war starts in 1998.

If the IRC is right, then the findings of two of the world's major survey organizations must both be wrong.

This isn't the only problem with Arquilla's use of the Congo death toll to help make his case. Reported death tolls in the other "big kill" wars of the last 60 years don't normally include "indirect" deaths caused by war-exacerbated disease and malnutrition. If they did, the toll for the Korean War would likely be some 5-6 million greater than the estimates of direct combat-related deaths -- usually estimated at between 1.5 and 2 million.

Critics may seize on such figures to argue that they demonstrate that war is deadlier than "optimists" like Steven Pinker and the Human Security Report Project suggest. They would be wrong to do so. While it is true that the best estimates of battle deaths from armed conflict tend to be conservative, the critical issue here is not absolute numbers, but trends -- whether or not wars are becoming more or less deadly.

While no one doubts that "indirect" war death tolls can exceed those of violent battle-related deaths -- sometimes substantially -- the evidence suggests that, over recent decades, "indirect" death tolls have likely declined to an even greater degree than violent deaths related to combat.

First, today's wars are not only much less deadly in terms of battle-related deaths, they also tend to be highly localized, with less than 20 percent of the national territory on average being directly affected by repeated fighting.

Second, peacetime health interventions -- notably the immunization programs that have covered greater and greater percentages of national populations over the past three decades -- save lives in wartime.

Third, since the end of the Cold War there has been a huge increase in funding for humanitarian assistance to war-affected countries.

In both the latter cases, countless thousands of individuals have survived who would likely have died in previous decades, when there were far fewer health interventions and much less humanitarian assistance.

During the past two decades, international efforts to prevent wars and stop those that couldn't be prevented have increased dramatically. If wars are increasing in number and deadliness as Arquilla argues, these efforts will have been -- at best -- futile.

This is why getting it right about war trends matters.

The evidence as we read it clearly indicates that major wars are becoming less deadly and less frequent. And this -- and other evidence -- suggests that the large upsurge in peacekeeping and peace-building policies since the end of the Cold War are having an important -- and positive -- impact.

Andrew Mack is director and Sebastian Merz is associate director of the Human Security Report Project at the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.