Echoes of victims call out to us over television or even twitter with bloodied images of civilians suffering. Those with empathy want to stop it. There is vast appeal for a fast fantasy of firepower solution. I sing along with Canadian Bruce Cockburn's song "If I had a rocket launcher" with Syria's President Assad and Uganda's warlord Joseph Kony in mind too.
But in Libya, Syria, Uganda, not to mention Afghanistan, Iraq and Colombia, firepower solutions have already or will bring even more suffering for civilians. You don't have to be a pacifist to understand the failed strategic logic of killing civilians to save them.
The fantasy of firepower rests on a faulty assumption that "evil" resides in a group of people that need to be killed in order to restore peace. A realist understands the civil wars in Libya, Syria and Uganda are far more complex than killing some 'bad guys." Like pouring toxic chemicals into an oil spill, the solution of pouring weapons into a civil war just doubles the agony for civilians and prolongs instability.
Appealing as firepower may be, wars require political solutions to reach a sustainable peace that ends civilian suffering. The shortest way to get there is not dropping bombs, selling rocket launchers, or guns to rebels in Libya or Syria to fight their government.
Military victory rarely leads to democracy or peace. Victory only ends a tiny percentage of wars. Far more wars end by peace agreements and power sharing, with military forces used only in peacekeeping roles. The history of successful transitions from brutal regimes to democratic governments illustrates that nonviolent civil society-based movements, like the one in Egypt today, have been far more successful. Peaceful protests worked even against brutal dictators like Chile's Pinochet who for decades systematically tortured and killed any citizen who uttered a word against his iron fist. Violent rebel movements like the one in Syria are less likely to bring about positive change and result in more civilian deaths compared with nonviolent civilian movements, regardless of the level of repression against them.
Success in Syria, Uganda and elsewhere requires vast international pressure on repressive governments, rebels and warlords alike, a peace process with robust diplomacy by skilled mediators, and on-the-ground peacekeepers who don't hand out weapons, but take a defensive stance between civilians and those firing on them.
Libya is hailed as a success story for international military intervention. There were thousands of casualties in the Libyan conflict by all sides. Gadafi's forces killed many civilians in Libya. But the New York Times' account details the untold numbers of civilian casualties from NATO forces. We'll never know how many civilians died resulting from NATO's 7,700 bombs or missiles dropped on Libya. We also won't know how many civilians Libyan rebels killed. We do know weapons sold to the rebels were handed out to 7 year old boys. We also know that some rebels carried out horrific massacres against anyone of African decent, accusing every African of being a mercenary.
The long term consequences of shipping arms to rebels are well known. And now that small arms and weapons are spread throughout Libya, interethnic violence is on the rise and the future is not assuredly peaceful.
This week the viral video to increase the notoriety of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony faced criticism from the very people who have spent their lives trying to address the root causes of Kony's violence in Uganda. As CNN commentator notes, the Kony 2012 video basically supports the status quo in Uganda by making the case to fight Kony's violence with more violence, to support the violent Ugandan government which creates the fuel for Kony in the first place, and to "dismiss intricate steps of social change and make a narrow ideology mass-compatible by having millions of unquestioning people raise their fists in support."
Local Ugandan organisations working to end violence have largely decried the presence of US troops supporting the Ugandan government's fight against Kony. But it seems nobody in the US government or the makers of Kony 2012 thought to ask Uganda civil society democracy experts working to support peace in their own country. Instead of just decrying Kony, foreign governments and NGOs could do much more to support the peace process in Uganda and to stop working with and supporting the repressive Ugandan army.
Likewise, as we watch the carnage in Syria continue, it is hard not to fall back on the fantasy of firepower. But Western finger pointing at Syrian President Assad is ironic, given the amount of US weapons sold to similar Middle Eastern dictators over the last decades. Assad's bullets and rockets have the same effect on civilians as the bullets sold to these regimes by the US that are now landing in the bodies of democracy activists in Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, not to mention the atrocities by US allies killing human rights activists in Colombia and elsewhere.
There is an important step those of us in the West can do to stop civilian suffering in Syria, Uganda, and elsewhere. But it isn't supporting a military intervention.
Instead of calling for airstrikes, call for an end to the weapons trade. Instead of falling for simplistic analysis of "good guys versus bad guys", look for a political process to address the root causes fueling violence. Instead of hoping for a quick solution, look for long term sustainability. Instead of just pointing fingers at these regimes, look at how Western policies in these regions have too often perpetuated rather than lessened violence.