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The Price of Peace

Critics of U.S. foreign policy attribute the world’s ills to American power.
September 17, 2020
The Price of Peace
A Syrian child, one of those who fled from government forces' advance on Maaret al-Numan in the south of Idlib prvoince, sleeps on a futon in the open at a camp for the displaced near the town of Dana in the province's north near the border with Turkey, on December 27, 2019. (Photo by Aaref WATAD / AFP) (Photo by AAREF WATAD/AFP via Getty Images)

In the midst of America’s expedition to Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, Noam Chomsky predicted a “silent genocide” was in store for the Afghan people. What transpired instead was something else entirely: Nearly 2 million Afghans, refugees who had either fled during the brutal Soviet occupation or the ghastly period of Taliban rule, returned to their own country. Paul Berman was among those who noticed that whereas genocide reduces populations, the invasion of Afghanistan increased the population by nearly 10 percent. As Berman pointed out in a sharp rebuke of Chomsky: “Instead of genocide, genogenesis.”

Nearly twenty years later, Chomsky’s intellectual brethren are desperate to suggest that American power is premised on the scattering if not the annihilation of Muslim populations in the lands of Islam. One prominent example of this tendency recently grabbed headlines:

The United States’ post-9/11 wars have contributed significantly to the dramatic increase in recent years in the number of people displaced by war and violent conflict worldwide: Between 2010 and 2019, the total number of refugees and IDPs globally has nearly doubled from 41 million to 79.5 million.

With this salvo, a new report written by American University anthropologist David Vine and his students and published by Brown University’s Costs of War Project purports to tally one element of the balance sheet of America’s military activity in the 21st century. It’s hardly the only factor involved in the intricate moral calculus of U.S. foreign policy in matters of war and peace, but it is a salient one. It would therefore be a weighty indictment of U.S. policy if American arms were actively driving scores of millions from their homes and across treacherous terrain in search of refuge.

As it turns out, however, this calculation is grossly flawed, arising from shoddy methodology applied by authors plainly driven more by rigid ideology than rigorous investigation.

Let’s start by stating the obvious: The number of refugees caused by American military actions is more than zero. Even limited and precise and thoroughly justified military interventions can displace people. And estimating the number of refugees displaced by any given event can be complicated.

That said, the contention that America’s role in the Middle East—the primary realm of U.S. kinetic activity in recent years and the primary focus of this report—caused the global migration surge that the report attributes to it is fatuous nonsense. The single largest migratory wave of this century, without a close second, has emanated not from America’s wars in Afghanistan or even Iraq, but from the long and bloody Syrian war. This must come as a devastating shock to those who do not know how to process world events except through the provincial prism of U.S. global supremacy, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

How, then, does the Cost of War Project deal with the inconvenient truth that some of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of our time have unfolded in the absence of American power? Vine and his coauthors recycle the conventional left-wing view left that the Syrian war, or at any rate a vast amount of its human cost, was at least “shap[ed]” by America’s ill-fated expedition to neighboring Iraq. The sacking of Saddam Hussein, this facile argument runs, spurred a jihadist onslaught with which many nations, and particularly Syria, are still contending—and whose lethal consequences are almost purely America’s fault. This narrative is at once disgraceful and bizarre.

The report does offer the caveat that the U.S. government is not “solely responsible for the displacement” of Arab masses, conceding that “causation is never so simple” and that even in seemingly simple cases, other factors, including environmental and economic factors can play a part. But it then goes on to disregard all those complicating factors, effectively saddling the American-led “war on terror” (a term it never uses without sneering quote marks) with all the human costs that have accrued from a wide-ranging combat against theocratic terror.

The sleight of hand involved in suggesting that jihadist insurgencies (such as the one in postbellum Iraq) are only inflamed and never suppressed by U.S. military action, and have no other principal causes, is a species of moral idiocy. It presumes that the only actor with historical agency is the American hegemon, and therefore that all the miseries of the Middle East are to be laid at its feet. The established order of power in the Middle East, to say nothing of the cynical interventions of foreign states, is given fleeting attention. Thus are U.S.-led coalition forces—including local allies and indigenous partners—indicted for battling against the scum of the earth while organized cadres of proven killers responsible for unbridled mayhem are left out of the account, ignored and exculpated. Of course, if the United States bowed out of its vocation as guarantor of regional peace and security, and called a swift halt to its military operations, a host of secular and theocratic despots would rise to reduce the region to utter ruin.

And what of the Syrian rebellion that broke out in March 2011? Its roots are to be found in the Arab Awakening, and the Syrian people’s robust determination to take part in this historic movement against tyranny—all of which cuts against the report’s presumption of American culpability for the Syrian ordeal. Vine and his coauthors are forced to concede that U.S. involvement there has been “relatively limited” compared to the rogue’s gallery of Syrian government forces, foreign militants, and Russian airpower that have wrought excruciating havoc in the country. While maintaining its supine posture in the face of Bashar al-Assad’s unrelenting crimes against humanity, Washington only brought its power to bear in Syria in 2014 to contain and defeat the caliphate.

The report therefore derives its calculations from “people displaced from five Syrian provinces where U.S. forces have fought and operated since 2014.” A less conservative and, the report avers, “arguably more accurate” approach would include the displaced from all of Syria’s provinces since 2014 or as early as 2013 when the U.S. government began backing Syrian rebel groups—as if the paltry amount of lethal aid delivered by the Obama administration was at all consequential (or could conceivably have contributed to mass human flight, as opposed to Assad’s malicious butchers or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s medieval sadists).

In point of fact, Washington’s threadbare assistance to the Syrian Democratic Forces remains a humiliation for the Obama administration and a stain on American honor. There can be little doubt that a decisive but modest deployment of U.S. military force in Syria would have saved many more lives than it would have taken, and prevented the displacement of millions of Syrians. The United States, at minimal risk, could have declared Syria a no-fly zone on the model of Iraqi Kurdistan after the Gulf War of 1991. It could have destroyed the regime’s air force on the ground, cratering its airfields for the duration of the conflict. In one fell swoop, the Assad regime would have lost the strategic initiative and American deterrence would have assured that the Russians would have stayed out and watched helplessly as their foul client contemplated a fin de régime.

It might seem curious that a report ostensibly committed to “overlooked” civilian suffering did not find time to offer a word of regret that Washington did not choose to exert a fraction of its strength to bring about a more benign outcome. But doing so would have left the impression that the most pressing duty was the relief of mass suffering rather than opposition to American hegemony. The Cost of War Project report subordinates the former in service of the latter, starkly refusing to grapple with competing moral imperatives. It therefore ranks not only as a tendentious enterprise but a morally unserious one.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.