John Arquilla

Saving Syria -- and Ourselves

America needs to plot a middle path for military intervention.

Last night, the many contradictions in Barack Obama's strategy toward the Syrian conflict finally came into sharp focus. He reiterated his commitment to deterring any further use of chemical weapons, but said nothing at all about the Assad regime continuing to kill the innocent by more conventional means. No mention was made that, since the sarin attack three weeks ago, regime forces have kept up their offensives against the rebels throughout Syria, inflicting heavy casualties. In a war in which the death toll has now reached well above 100,000, the president's policy does nothing to stop continued use of the weapons that have already accounted for 99 percent of the killing. Last time I checked, deliberate targeting of noncombatants was still a war crime -- whether caused by chemical or conventional munitions.

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The Syrian Abyss

What Nietzsche would say about striking Assad.

Americans from President Obama to the average citizen are about to have a "Nietzsche moment": the kind of experience that the German philosopher predicted when he said, "If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you." In the case of our collective contemplation of what to do about the Syrian crisis, Nietzsche's meaning may be that, in the face of such complexity, as much may be revealed about ourselves as about the dictator we seek to rein in.

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Arsenal of Hypocrisy

No matter where you look in the world, American words don't match American deeds.

In his ode to free thinking, "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson had it right when he affirmed that "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen." He understood the need for nuance, in daily life as well as world affairs. But Emerson was careful to note that not all consistency is foolish, and the flip side of his aphorism might well be that hypocrisy is the dark spirit toward which too many great leaders are drawn. The term of art used to rationalize the more questionable aspects of statecraft is realpolitik; the operative adjective is "Machiavellian." Both words, when heard in the public discourse, should set warning flags snapping in the wind. That's because a little wiggle room in your positions is a perfectly good thing. Radically veering from one position to the next is a recipe for something awful. 

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Outfoxing Beats Outgunning

What we can learn from one of the most brilliant deceptions of World War II.

On Sunday, the 70th anniversary of the end of the World War II battle for Sicily, the Sons of Italy's Garibaldi-Meucci Museum on Staten Island screened the terrific 1956 film, The Man Who Never Was. Clifton Webb starred in this true story, a retelling of one of the war's most famous deceptions. A briefcase seeded with sensitive papers was chained to the wrist of a dead man carefully selected from a British morgue, dressed as a Royal Marine, and taken by submarine and floated ashore on the coast of Spain where Nazi spies were known to have links to local officials. The papers included indications that the next Allied invasion -- after Operation Torch had helped liberate North Africa -- would be in the Balkans. A jovial reference to sardines in a letter from one senior leader to another led the Germans to believe that a landing on Sardinia was also possible.

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Last War Standing

Why preemption is the only thing that can keep America safe.

The three tools of security strategy most heavily relied upon for the past 70 years -- deterrence, prevention, and preemption -- have never worked very well. Today they are on life support, sustained because of their appeal to civilian policymakers' and military strategists' habits of mind and institutional interests. There is no more pressing need today than to rethink these concepts, perhaps even to jettison long-accepted practices associated with them.

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