Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.--Tacitus
Tacitus—the Roman historian whose father-in-law Agricola was the greatest general of his age—understood his nation’s military doctrine exceptionally well, and he describes it in the famous quotation above, which, translated into English, reads: “to ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”
Tacitus wasn't just making a commentary on Roman strategy, however. He was offering us a universal truth about war: that armies are mainly good at breaking things. Then, as now, the most powerful army in the world could kill large populations, destroy functioning governments, and make large areas of land uninhabitable for centuries. But these, it turns out, are the easy things. Armies have a much harder time fixing things—protecting populations, creating functioning governments, and making places fit to live. Nobody has ever bombed anybody out of the stone age.
America has learned this lesson over and over again, but we keep forgetting. In Vietnam, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, we used our vast military might to break a lot of stuff that we couldn’t fix. For a brief time, however, under the leadership of General David Petraeus, it looked like the American military was going to make some strides towards fixing things as well.
Before he became a late-night punchline, you may recall, Petraeus was known as the “most effective American military commander since Eisenhower” and the guy who brought us back from the brink of disaster in Iraq. His doctoral research had convinced him that America failed in Vietnam because we tried to win a conventional war of territory and troop strength, when what we should have been doing is using our power to influence public opinion in our favor. Petraeus understood what Tacitus did not: that it is possible (even if just barely) to use military power to win people's hearts and minds.
If we end up getting in a protracted conflict in Syria, we will probably end up moving to a hearts-and-minds phase eventually. But we could actually skip all of the bad stuff and apply one simple principle of the “Petraeus Doctrine” right away: we could take the billions of dollars currently slated for converting people into corpses and try spending them in some way that might convince the people of Syria that we care about their future.
We might, for example, try using our diplomatic and economic power to secure safe havens for Syrian refugees. Or maybe we could, as a good friend of mine suggested, flood likely chemical weapons targets in Syria with injectable atropine and instructions on what to do in case of a chemical attack. Or we could try using military power to protect people by setting up a no-fly zone that would prevent Bashar from using forbidden weapons to kill his own people illegally. This would have the added benefit of preventing him from using perfectly acceptable conventional weapons to kill people legally.
Whatever we do, we should start with the assumption that the majority of Syrians do not much care which group of thugs wins the current war because they are focused on keeping their families alive and their livelihoods intact. Somebody is going to win the civil war, and, when they do, the hearts and minds of the Syrian people are going to matter once again.
But looks like we are going to take the easy way out. We will either do nothing, or, if Obama gets his way, we will break a lot of stuff and kill a lot of people. We have been assured that this will be a targeted, specific, and brief military action designed to punish the Syrian government for using chemical weapons. Then we will get out of the civil war and let the two sides continue killing each other—and everybody else in the country—with conventional (but not chemical) impunity.
This is how you go about making a desert, and there are quite enough deserts in that area of the world. Our long-term interests in the region lie the hearts and minds of the people.