Syria and the Threshold Problem (29/05/2012)

Over 100 people were massacred in Syria. Kofi Annan, United Nations and Arab League special envoy said, "I am personally shocked and horrified by the tragic incident in Houla...which took so many innocent lives, children, women and men". Arguments are raging in the United States about the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq; 6,000 service men and women dead, over $1 trillion dollars spent. To what end?

What is tolerable? At what point do we say enough is enough and change behavior? President Obama, it appears, became disenchanted with his military advisors when they asked for more troops and more time in Afghanistan without being able to specify how much it would cost and without clear doable objectives. The civil war in Syria continues to rage with innocent lives lost every day. Even Russia, Syria's ally, has condemned the violence, yet there has been no fundamental change in behavior from the warring parties or the international community.

When does the tolerable become intolerable and cause fundamental changes in behavior?

Two of my most vivid school day memories are examples our teacher gave us what not to do. "First," she said, "don't steal more than $99 since over a $100 dollar theft is much more serious than $99 and you risk being put in jail". The second was even more alarming. "If you commit a crime in New York, do not go to New Jersey. As soon as you cross the state line, you become subject to federal laws and can be chased by the Federal officers, the F.B.I." Suffice it to say that these lessons given over 50 years ago have remained vivid in my mind.

A more sophisticated version of these anecdotes is what lawyers call The Threshold Problem. How much are we talking about? What is the level of the situation involved? Politicians have no such set of criteria. Robert McNamara told me that a major factor in changing his attitude towards the Vietnam War were conversations with his daughter and her friends. Forget the thousands of protest marches, forget levitating the Pentagon, forget the riots in Chicago; dinnertime chats seem to have been the threshold.

President al-Assad has not come to that moment. As the New York Times notes: "Mr. Assad has repeatedly shown himself to be impervious to international pressure". How the intolerable moment is reached in Syria cannot happen fast enough. This time 100 dead, next time how many more?

May 29, 2012




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