A number of prominent Middle East specialists, ex-government types and the like have started to make the case for foreign military intervention in Syria in order to put an end to the regime’s killing of its own people. This is easy to understand and even sympathise with. While I think there is a real possibility that events in Syria are being misreported and casualty figures perhaps exaggerated to some extent, it is clear that horrific violence is taking place in Syria and that shelling of heavily populated residential areas by regime security forces for example has killed numerous innocent people in recent days, which it is only natural for good-hearted people to want to stop. However I nevertheless want to make a case for why they are wrong to call for the use of external force in the case of Syria, and usually also wrong when doing so more generally.
My case isn’t about hypocrisy and selectiveness, though it might be argued that there’s some of that going around; there is no reason not to do good in some cases just because you don't do it in others. It largely isn’t about the fact that we don’t actually have a very good picture of what is going on in Syria, how many people have been killed and to what extent who is really doing the killing (the fog of war being unusually thick here given that media reports are relying very heavily on opposition activists, while evidence that opposes to dominant narrative, such as the Arab League report is being ignored), or about the fact that we don't really know if most Syrians would support an intervention - and some evidence strongly suggests they don't. It isn’t just about the facts that military intervention can have severe unintended consequences, rarely leading to the establishment of democratic states and often triggering civil war – though that’s an important part of it. It’s primarily about opportunity costs and the fact that foreign military intervention is almost always at best an incredibly inefficient way to save lives.
That sounds both coldly calculating and boring, and it’s an argument that even anti-war types rarely make, but it’s actually extremely important.
People are justifying foreign intervention in Syria, as they did in Libya, Iraq and elsewhere, largely on the grounds that someone needs to stop a dictator murdering his own people – that those lives need to be saved. Looked at out of context, ignoring the direct and indirect costs, that’s a persuasive argument.
But what’s happening in Syria, what was happening in Libya, what happened in Iraq were not the only things killing innocent people around the world on a daily basis, not by a long stretch. People - many or most of them innocent children - in the third world are crippled and die every day from things we could prevent such as malnutrition and preventable diseases, and we could save magnitudes of order more lives if we used the resources put into wars to save them. According to the WHO, eight million children die a year from malnutrition and mostly preventable diseases. Two thousand African children die a day from malaria, which can be prevented by mosquito nets and prophylactic drugs, and cured when it is contracted. 164,000 people, mostly children under five, died of measles in 2008 even though the vaccine against it costs less than a dollar. Those are just some examples. This is a boring, almost trite thing to say; most people realise this, shake their heads and carry on. But it nonetheless happens to be true; vast numbers of people - as many or more as die in conflict - including millions of children from causes that we could undoubtedly prevent.
As an alternative to stepped-up efforts to solve these problems, "humanitarian" wars are an incredibly cost-ineffective way to save lives. Look at a relatively “cheap” example of foreign intervention, Libya. It cost a few billion dollars, over approximately six months, and supposedly saved maybe several tens of thousands of lives in Benghazi and elsewhere. (I’m extremely skeptical about that - Hugh Roberts for example makes a convincing case that while many people would undoubtedly have died in the retaking of Benghazi, there was little reason to believe Ghadafi intended the mass slaughter of its inhabitants - but whatever). The point is that that “just” a few billion dollars spent on Libya could for example have been used to wipe out some preventable diseases that kill tens or hundreds of thousands of people every year FOREVER. Based on the figures above for example, even accounting inevitable waste and logistical costs, it could have eradicated measles many times over, saving tens of thousands of children's lives every year, with ample change to spare. Instead we got a war that, though it toppled a brutal regime, also left us with an extremely precarious Libya where militia groups, some of whom committed mass murder, summarily incarcerated hundreds of people for being black, just recently killed unarmed civilian refugees and continue to torture people to death, now threaten to start fighting each other.
And Libya was just a campaign of air strikes on the cheap. Now look at a much larger scale undertaking, Iraq, which obviously was not really fought for humanitarian purposes but which plenty of liberal hawks ostensibly supported based on them. The immediate out-of-pocket costs of the Iraq war run into the high hundreds of billions of dollars, and when other indirect costs are taken into account, economists such as Joseph Stiglitz believe the cost could be as much as three trillion dollars. That’s three thousand billion dollars.
What did the Iraq war do? Well, it toppled a horrific dictator who had killed tens of thousands of his own people and started a war that killed hundreds of thousands more (though western egging on played a role in the latter too). But it also it killed tens thousands of people in its own right and led to a civil war that killed tens or hundreds of thousands more as well as displacing millions of others, causing incalculable misery. It significantly increased the overall death rate in a society that had by being sanctioned into abject poverty had already seen hundreds of thousands of deaths that would not have happened without the sanctions. And of course it took place at a time when the people that had suffered the most at the hands of Saddam, Iraqi Kurds, were effectively no longer seriously threatened by him or living under his rule. A very optimistic reading of the war might calculate the overall net number of lives saved being a wash, that the net number of lives saved by getting rid of Saddam counterbalanced the number of lives lost because of the war (ignoring the vast numbers killed by unnecessary sanctions). The war arguably also lead to a spike in the price of oil that significantly affected global economic growth and helped trigger a western debt crisis that cost countless jobs.
And all of this at the cost of resources that charities tackling preventable diseases that kill millions of people will not see in a century or more. Just think what even a fraction of three trillion dollars could do if invested in things like clean water provision, vaccination campaigns, mosquito nets, hospital building, literacy campaigns and so on and so on and so on could do for parts of the third world.
People may argue that this is a false choice – that you can intervene in places like Syria and still spend or even increase foreign aid; or that the money would not have been spent on aid anyway. I don’t agree. In the case of Iraq for example, the magnitude of money wasted on the conflict was just so vast and the global consequences so extreme, that there is just no way to argue that; the money that was wasted on the war could have done incalculable good if spent elsewhere and there is no way anything like that amount of money could have been simultaneously raised for charitable purposes or that it did not for example lead to a long-term reduction in aid budgets compared to an alternative universe where there was no war. But even “cheap” interventions like Libya have a real cost; in difficult economic times in the west governments are pinching pennies and any money spent “helping” countries like Libya through war is almost certainly money that is lost to better causes. Furthermore the hysteria that pro-intervention governments and pundits whip up around these kinds of events diverts everyone’s attention away from issues like the Somalia famine, never mind issues that barely manage to register on the media radar like preventable diseases, helping to kill any public pressure for a serious push on non-deadly aid.
People of real influence are putting serious work into campaigning for wars that they could have used to make a real difference pushing for things like increased aid spending. They take up valuable time of decision makers and drown out others calling for more resources for non-violent interventions to save lives. And again, all of this without even mentioning the very real possibility that the foreign military interventions they push for can and often do actually make things worse.
It is clearly much easy to get angrier at an evil dictator like Bashar al Assad or Saddam Hussein than it is against malaria, or rabies, or dysentery, or polio, or the famine sweeping Somalia, whether you’re a humanitarian or a trigger-happy neocon nut-job. People killing other people obviously arouses anger in a way that “natural causes” killing people just doesn’t, even when they result in vastly more people dying. That’s understandable, and it’s even more understandable that Syrians for example are desperate for something, anything to stop the violence in their country. But when it comes to choosing how to spend extremely scarce resources to save real lives, there isn’t any room for emotional and often irrational preferences to fight personified evil rather than less tangible forms of mass death, and policy professionals with real influence should be making these calculations rather than allowing themselves to be swayed by the interventionist cause of the day.
War is extremely unpredictable, often making matters worse, and is extremely costly in the form of the lives of soldiers fighting it and “collateral damage.” When it comes down to it, it kills people no matter what, for a very uncertain gain. Vaccination campaigns kill almost no one and can save orders of magnitude more lives for the same cost. Not only that, but no one really knows or can predict how many people will die in Syria without foreign intervention; maybe many, maybe comparatively few. By contrast, there is absolutely no question that many millions will die from illnesses and the like that these funds could help prevent.
And to make matters worse these people are also calling for foreign countries to make war in Syria before negotiations have even been tried to resolve the conflict, dismissing the Russian initiative to mediate between the two and the regime’s apparent agreement out of hand. Yes, the prospects of successful negotiations are probably poor. Yes it’s regrettable to have to negotiate with the likes of Assad, who have buckets of blood on their hands. But the alternative is undoubtedly extreme violence of one sort or another, while negotiations are virtually cost free. The West should be pressuring the likes of the SNC and the FSA, the leaderships of which are extremely susceptible to foreign pressure, to at least give the possibility of a negotiated resolution to the conflict a chance before they call for stepped up violence. Instead they're calling for the backing of one side in a potentially incredibly brutal civil war. (On that point, though I haven't seen wider evidence that it's representative, I noted that the printed message on this picture that was reproduced alongside some news reports on the Homs massacre, says something along the lines of "Yes Asma (al-Assad, Bashar's wife), we're going to execute you and kill your children like you killed the children of Syria." The Assad children are 11, eight and seven years old. While to be fretting over threats to Assad's pampered children while other children are dying in significant numbers in Homs for example may be misplaced, people should be doing their absolute utmost to avoid any kind of a war when elements on the good side are threatening to murder children).
Campaigning for the start of an extremely unpredictable new war in Syria whose absolute, not at all likely best case outcome is a net saving of perhaps several tens of thousands of lives, at the serious risk of causing more problems than the war would solve and at a likely cost of billions or tens of billions of dollars that could save many times more if properly spent elsewhere, all without even trying some apparently available non-violent avenues to resolve the crisis, is not humanitarian, even if the motives behind it are. It’s madness. Rather than waste them on another war, we need to call wealthy western and Arab oil monarchies countries to spend their billions on saving incalculably more lives through peaceful means.