how to actually win hearts and minds

I just saw a headline on my Google News home page: “Mali mission has barely begun: experts”. It’s from the Montreal Gazette. I haven’t read the article, but the headline prompted a disturbing series of thoughts.

The thoughts are about imperialism, not just in Africa but worldwide. Strong countries like to intervene in the affairs of weaker countries. When France sent troops into Mali recently, most commentators said that French president François Hollande had “no choice” in the matter. Why? Because the internal disturbance might spill into neighboring countries, and France’s main supplier of uranium is nearby Niger. Anyway, northwest Africa is France’s backyard, and we all have a right—nay, a responsibility—to maintain order in our own backyard, do we not?

When unrest erupts in a country, that is, a country in which an imperial power has an economic or military interest, the imperial power is quick to send “help”. This help is always mainly military. We want to help with the killing and destruction (I say we because Canada is increasingly eager to offer this kind of help, as in Afghanistan). And as long as that economic or military interest is there, and as long as there is killing and destruction to be done, we’re staunch about staying for “as long as it takes.”

I’d like to suggest an alternative way of helping countries in trouble. I’d like to propose that all the resources that are thrown into helping with the killing and destruction be thrown instead into helping with the healing and nurturing. All these supposedly well-intentioned interventions in troubled countries have resulted in enormous destruction and suffering—much more, I am sure, than anything we’re permitted hear about back home. The normal state of affairs in these interventions is fiasco and unintended consequences, all negative. So instead of helping to turn these distressed people into corpses, how about helping those of them who are refugees?

I’ve read that the number of refugees that have fled Syria is about 600,000. They will have fled to Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, maybe Lebanon. What’s happening to them there? How are they being accommodated? What is their housing like? Food? Medical services? I’m not sure, but I’ll bet they could be improved. I’ll bet they could be improved quite a lot.

So far, imperialists have not ventured into Syria, I’m assuming because unlike, say, Libya, there are no natural resources there. But if the rhetoric about wanting to help “the people of Syria” is true, then we should be willing to dedicate as many resources to looking after Syrian refugees as we are to, say, bombing “insurgents” in Afghanistan.

If you want to win hearts and minds, this is the way to do it. There are 600,000 Syrian hearts and minds who have fled their homes in fear for their lives, and have sought refuge outside the borders of their own perilous country. If they, every one of them, could find decent shelter, food, and medical care in their place of refuge, it would make a much bigger and more positive impression than any amount of destruction or slaughter you may do on their supposed behalf. And I have little doubt that Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon would welcome a hand in managing the human tide that has washed over their borders: more hearts and minds that might be favorably impressed.

Might good conditions for refugees encourage some people to flee a country when otherwise they might not? It might. And maybe it should. For why should people who simply want to live their lives be forced to remain in the deathtrap of a civil war? Let them decamp to decent, safe, dignified accommodations while the combatants kill each other. And let the rich world pick up most of the tab—or all of it.

If you read the Iliad you will see vividly that war has always been grim and terrible. But by the 20th century it stopped being glorious, because there is no glory in massacring civilians. That is what war has become, and there is no excuse for a country that calls itself civilized to engage in it, except perhaps to repel actual incursions over its own border, and then only to the point when the aggressor has departed.

My wife Kimmie and I are donors to Doctors Without Borders, who offer medical care to refugees and others in the poor world. They represent the paradigm of how the rich world should be intervening in the poor world during emergencies. Their disinterested, compassionate, and skilled help needs to be scaled up to meet the size of the demand, which is very large.

But we can afford it. We spend vastly more trying to slaughter “bad guys.” It’s time to beat our swords into plowshares, or perhaps our drone assassination bombs into clinic beds. It’s worth doing; and if we believed our own rhetoric, it’s what we would do.

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