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Getting Off the Wheel of Misfortune: US Policy and Syrian Suffering

As political commentators argue on the pros and cons of punishing Assad, most conclude that the U.S. has found itself in yet another catch-22 in its seemingly endless wheel of foreign policy misfortune. The fantasy of a firepower solution in Syria is tempting. In an age of space exploration and genome mapping, you'd think humanity would be able to fix this problem of wretched men committing mass atrocities. But saving Syrian lives requires nothing less than overhauling U.S. foreign policy.

First, Syria is a symptom of a world of double standards. In Iran, political leaders routinely ask how the U.S. can request other countries to not develop nuclear weapons while continuing to manufacture and stockpile thousands of nuclear weapons itself. In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. forces used chemical weapons known as white phosphorous in their communities and secretly supported then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein when he was killing many civilians and disfiguring children. Human rights activists ask the U.S. to support international laws against the use of chemical weapons and for the protection of civilians, and to support the use of the International Criminal Court against Assad. But U.S. policymakers show little interest or support for these institutions, in theory because these international institutions would apply an equal standard, calling U.S. actions into account and thereby breaking the double standards that currently apply.

Second, Syria is a symptom of a troubled region. In part, these troubles relate to historic discord with how colonial powers drew state lines in the Middle East and how the U.S. has propped up these states with billions of dollars in military aid. The concept of a state is not "natural" -- it is a relatively new human creation. And in many places in the world, this human invention has caused far more problems than it solved by dividing ethnic and religious groups from their communities of origin. New "state building" initiatives cannot undo the rage of people who are occupied and persecuted by a repressive state. Across the Middle East, this exclusion and persecution leads to rebellion, violence, and instability. U.S. policy has too often sided with the state, propping up dictators, making deals with leaders like Assad, doing business as usual in other countries in the region to ensure we can extract oil without paying attention to the state's festering perpetuation of injustice. Fixing Syria means fixing historic injustices by opening up to a wider range of governance options in the region. It also means making sure that U.S. policy doesn't send millions and billions of dollars of aid to countries that occupy and oppress others.

Third, Syria is a symptom of failed diplomacy with Russia, China, Iran, and an inability to make progress on peace processes between Israel and Palestine or between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It is impossible to look at the problem in Syria without looking at the problems in U.S. relations with countries supporting Assad. Exerting real political pressure or influence requires more diplomats, improved diplomatic skill, a focus on human security as the overarching U.S. interest, and an ability to plan ahead to see that all this failed diplomacy is adding up to a world where the U.S. loses an ability to achieve any of its goals.

Washington insiders too often assume that elite political and economic interests should trump ordinary Americans' humanitarian concerns and desire to be part of a family of nations rather than king of the hill, documented by recent polling. Too often, U.S. foreign policy serves the elite at the expense of fostering real human security desired by most Americans. U.S. policy in Syria would look differently if the U.S. put human security as its guiding foreign policy principle.

But Congressional underfunding of the State Department means there are too also few diplomats. And the U.S. tradition of appointing diplomats in accordance with someone's campaign contributions instead of rewarding real talent, skills, and experience undermines appointing those most qualified. On top of all of that, U.S. diplomats are not sufficiently prepared or rewarded for taking risks in principled negotiation. Too often they simply resort to coercive diplomacy. A diplomat laying out conditions like "we'll bomb you unless you do what we say" is not demonstrating any sort of skilled negotiation skills or political persuasion. U.S. diplomats need far more training in negotiation, mediation, conflict transformation and peacebuilding.

Too often, people think diplomacy with perpetrators of atrocities like Assad is naïve or useless. But lasting resolution to civil wars where there are widespread grievances, like those in Syria, requires political negotiations. Instead of military action being a last resort, it is a first resort after the self-fulfilling prophecy of too few diplomats using coercive diplomacy wondering why ruthless leaders like Assad won't just do as we say.

Syria is yet another tragedy where the U.S. has no good options, and this is partly a result of its own inconsistent and contradictory policy and goals. Ending violence in Syria requires a long-term solution. There just isn't any quick fix. Syrian supporters for U.S. military action in Syria recognize that strikes against Assad are not enough. While American guilt and conscience may be assuaged by air strikes, the safety of Syrian children rests on our ability to persuade U.S. policymakers to be equally part of the family of nations with a common goal of shared human security; to fully invest in diplomacy, international law and the International Criminal Court; and to think outside the "box" of current state lines by imagining that someday we'll have to undo the damage done by colonialists who thought they knew what was best for the region when they chopped it up as they did.