Syria and the limits of realpolitik

By Hugh Gusterson | September 6, 2013

Among the cacophony of voices arguing for and against US intervention in Syria, one opinion has stood out both for its cold clear logic and its chillingly frank amorality. The influential defense intellectual Edward Luttwak, writing on the opinion page of The New York Times, argued that in Syria “a prolonged stalemate is the only outcome that would not be damaging to American interests.” Saying that “it would be disastrous” if Assad won because this would strengthen Iran and Hezbollah, he observes that “a rebel victory would also be extremely dangerous” because Islamic extremists, “some identified with Al Qaeda,” would then prevail. “Given this depressing state of affairs,” he argues, “maintaining a stalemate should be America’s objective. And the only possible method for achieving this is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning.”

My corner of the Internet lit up with outrage when Luttwak’s op-ed came out. “How immoral can a man be?” was the title of one message. The fury focused on Luttwak’s apparent indifference to the loss of Syrian life: He seems to see Syria as a piece in a board game rather than a country inhabited by people who can bleed and suffer. But framing a critique of Luttwak in moral terms implies that he may be right on realist grounds—and he’s not. Luttwak’s op-ed was appalling not just because of its callous indifference to Arab life, but because it suggests that many self-styled realists—who argue that states should follow their self-evident interests regardless of morality—still have not learned the intellectual lesson of the failed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, namely that violence, once unleashed, is hard to control. Luttwak’s argument is not only immoral; it is unrealistic and naïve.

Luttwak espouses what we might call a Newtonian approach to international security. His world is full of forces, balances, equilibria, and solutions. Conflict participants are clearly-defined units with positive charges if they are US allies (in this case, Israel), and negative charges if they are not (the Assad regime, Iran, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda). It is the analyst’s job to arrange them in stable configurations that will advance US interests.

Thus the most revealing sentence in Luttwak’s piece is this: “by tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.” Here he makes the dangerously wrong-headed assumption that his units of mass (Assad, Iran, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda) can, first, be made to interact in a way that is stable and contained and, second, that they obey something like the first law of thermodynamics: They constitute a closed system with a fixed amount of aggressive energy, and if that energy is used up in attacks within the system, it will not be available for attacks outside the system on the US and its allies.

But human conflict does not follow the logic of Newton’s laws. Luttwak fantasizes about America’s enemies balancing and burning each other out in a conflict he seems to see as self-contained, but this is to ignore the streams of refugees that the war is already sending into Turkey and Jordan, key US allies in danger of becoming unstable. It is to ignore the possibility that in the mayhem Luttwak seeks to conjure in the country with the largest chemical weapons stockpile in the world, these arms may fall into the hands of terrorist organizations that do not wish Washington well. It is also to ignore the inflammatory effect the conflict may have on others in the region. As a much wiser conservative, David Brooks, wrote on the same opinion page a few days later, Syria is in danger of becoming “a combustion point for spreading waves of violence.” Brooks observes that “as the death toll in Syria rises to Rwanda-like proportions, images of mass killings draw holy warriors from countries near and far.” He warns that the Sunni-Alawite civil war in Syria is becoming entangled with a resurgent Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq, and fears that Syria could ignite “one great big war” across the Middle East.

But there is a still deeper flaw in Luttwak’s argument. From the lofty distance of his Washington think tank, where the Middle East looks like a board game, Luttwak does not seem to understand the profoundly deformative effects of war on those who are, willingly or unwillingly, inside it. While Washington defense intellectuals like to speak of violence in terms of “surgical strikes” and “calibrated attacks,” those who are inside the violence may have a very different experience. The violence that envelops their world may seem thrilling or terrifying, depending on their relationship to it, but in its vividness, unpredictability and sensory force, it is unlikely to feel surgical. They will see children, comrades, and loved ones blown apart and they may break the taboo against killing other humans—a transgression that, however licensed, changes a person forever. Whether they experience the rush of the executioner, the terror of the victim, or the grief of the bereaved, war will remake them. After the war is over, some will pile the skeletons in the mental closet and go on with civilian life, and some will quietly spiral downwards into alcoholism, homelessness, or a chafing mental isolation. But some, twisted and disinhibited by war, will carry the violence forward. Timothy McVeigh, before he blew up the Oklahoma Federal Building, fought in the first Gulf War. Adolf Hitler’s murderous ambitions were shaped by trench warfare in World War I. And in Afghanistan in the early 1980s, Osama bin Laden developed his disinhibition against killing, partly at the US taxpayer’s expense, in a war that American national security officials saw as a cunning way of tying down their Russian adversary—just as Luttwak sees endemic civil war in Syria as a clever way of distracting America’s enemies today.

While Luttwak and his ilk like to think of war as a force that can be wielded and controlled, a way of bending the world to human will, it is actually a self-replicating system that turns humans into its carriers. Each war spreads and mutates in unpredictable ways and, even when apparently over, sows the seeds of future wars. One would think that American defense intellectuals might have finally learned this lesson as they watched their fantasies of Washington on the Euphrates turn into something more akin to the Thirty Years War.

Newton spent much of his life trying to understand friction—a source of entropy in the systems he sought to model. Our foremost theorist of war was also fascinated by friction, making it one of his central concepts. In his book On War, Carl von Clausewitz said, “Everything is very simple in War, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction which no man can imagine who has not seen War. … It is therefore this friction… which makes that which appears easy in War difficult in reality.” Luttwak would do well to go back and read his Clausewitz.

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