Preventing war ‘is 60 times cheaper than fighting it’

Threat of US strikes may have been averted, but war goes on

Forces loyal to Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad carry the national flag as they ride on motorcycles in Qusair. Photograph:  Mohammed Azakir/Reuters

Forces loyal to Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad carry the national flag as they ride on motorcycles in Qusair. Photograph: Mohammed Azakir/Reuters


Sometimes Twitter is not just a cesspit full of people who love to hate. Last week, Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole tweeted his take on John Kerry’s proposal to put chemical weapons in Syria beyond use.

Kerry: We won’t attack . . . if you do this impossible thing.

Syria: Oh? We’ll do it.

Russia: They’ll do it.

UN: They’ll do it.

Kerry: Shit!

It may be amusing, but what is far from funny is that the threat of US strikes has been averted but the deadly war goes on with no sign of abating.

It is an incredibly complex situation, with no viable “goodies” clearly visible. Just ask the residents of Maaloula, a Syrian Christian village, one of only three sites in the world where they still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Reports from the area are confused, but according to the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen last week, rebels were still engaging in battle with government troops and pro-government militia, while most of the residents had fled.

As the BBC commented, “Many [Christians] fear that if the secular government is overthrown they will be targeted by Sunni jihadist rebels calling for the establishment of an Islamic state and that Christian communities will be destroyed, as many were in Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003.”

Of course, it is not just Christians who are suffering in Syria, as the two million refugees who have poured over Syrian borders testify.

Until the proposal of putting chemical weapons beyond use emerged, “surgical strikes” or standing helplessly by were presented as the only possible responses.

Surgical strikes are of course a myth, as US experience with drones, which has included deaths of children, has shown.

The remotely controlled drones allow the US military and Central Intelligence Agency to follow someone for months and then, one day, death rains down from the sky.

The US classifies any male present at the site of a drone strike as a combatant, unless there is exonerating evidence, which explains why civilian death figures are not far higher.

Teju Cole also had a series of tweets about drones in which he adapted seven famous first lines from literature. Here’s Moby-Dick: “Call me Ishmael. I was a young man of military age. I was immolated at my wedding. My parents are inconsolable.”

Mark Bowden’s article in this month’s edition of the Atlantic, “The Killing Machines: How to Think about Drones” should be mandatory reading for anyone seeking to understand drone strikes.

Bowden describes a 19-year-old soldier continents away from Afghanistan controlling a drone with a joystick and a monitor, and watching a small US marine patrol that had come under fire unexpectedly. Using the appropriately named AGM-114 Hellfire missile, he targeted the truck that was attacking the marines, leaving only a smoking crater where four attacking militants had been.

Months later he still could not come to terms with what he had done. He had sat in complete safety and killed others. It still felt horribly wrong to him even though this example is morally far less ambiguous than targeting someone going about his daily life, unaware of imminent death.

Aside from the in human lives, the drones are enormously expensive. The Friends Committee on National Legislation, a US lobby organisation drawn from the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers, has highlighted that in 2012 alone at least $5 billion was spent on drones.

The Quakers give examples of what the money spent on the military could buy instead. For example, $2.5 million was the cost of two drone strikes in Pakistan, but also a two-year conflict management project during which about 1,600 Iraqi mediators were trained and 130 disputes were successfully resolved.

Three years’ worth of drone spending, $15 billion, buys one US navy aircraft carrier or two years of US contributions to the United Nations, including all funding provided for peacekeeping operations and development assistance. Based on research presented to a House of Representatives subcommittee in 2009, US Quakers estimate that preventing war is 60 times cheaper than fighting it.

Nunn-Lugar programme
When it comes to savage regimes such as that of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, those who advocate peacemaking are seen as somehow hopelessly idealistic and out of touch. However, in August 2012 Richard G Lugar, then a Republican senator from Indiana, urged Russia and the US to team up to eliminate stockpiles of chemical weapons in Syria.

He is not some naive peacenik. He made his suggestion while in Moscow to press for an extension of the Nunn-Lugar co-operative threat reduction programme, an effort named after Lugar and former senator Sam Nunn.

The programme, which began in the early 1990s, is credited with the deactivation of 7,500 nuclear warheads in the former Soviet Union and with constructing a facility in Siberia that is working on destroying two million Soviet chemical weapons.

His suggestion about eliminating stockpiles of chemical weapons in Syria went nowhere, of course. Yet with earlier interventions that promote prevention and diplomacy, including using development aid to help prevent divisions festering, and by strengthening civil society, so much more could be achieved than targeting enemies as if they were figures in a video game.

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