Our options in Syria are, as far as I can see, all bad. Any action or non-action involves chaotic possibilities — probabilities — well beyond confident prediction.
In our increasingly interconnected, interdependent, dynamic — and therefore complex — world this seems to be the one source of consistency on which we can depend: Outcomes are uncertain.
There may even be a corollary: The more confident one is of a specific outcome, the more likely the confidence is misplaced.
Even as our tools of observation, analysis and action become more powerful our capacity to accurately anticipate results seems to recede until — not unlike our oldest ancestors — we are left arguing analogies.
Is this Hitler’s Rhineland or Poland or Stalingrad? 1914 Serbia or 1938 Czechoslovakia? Are we in the midst of a new Thirty Years War or merely the newest wrinkle in a 3000 year-old-struggle? Is our best model a new Treaty of Westphalia or Ataturk’s solution or some sort of Ottoman consensus or expanded Concert of Europe? Are we truly latter day Crusaders or closer to Pax Romana administrators (with our share of both Pilate’s and Pliny’s)? The historical comparisons are endless and treacherous.
I will add one more analogy which is less about a specific outcome — ultimate or ephemeral — than how context can be shaped.
A true story: Once upon a time long-ago, but no longer so far away, the Great King-of-Kings was challenged by a minor kinglet from the edge of the civilized world. Despite the overwhelming resources available to the King-of-Kings, prior encounters with the upstart had not ended well, costing the empire considerable lives, treasure and prestige.
When various political and diplomatic efforts failed and the provocations persisted, even increased, the King-of-Kings decided patient persistence required the reinforcement of other techniques. Accordingly and with careful political deliberation, military planning and battlefield execution the King-of-Kings gathered all he needed at a time and place of his choosing. Ancient sources disagree on details, yet all concur the balance of forces was at least 2-to-1 and credibly as much as 5-to-1.
But an unexpected oblique upended the established order. The King-of-Kings was chased from the field of battle, his centuries-old empire imploding, and a whole new cultural reality emerging from this unexpected loss.
What the clearly weaker party could claim as comparative advantage was mobility, flexibility, curiosity, discipline, diversity, unity, speed, innovation, and considerable self-confidence. These strengths were demonstrated on that battlefield 2344 years ago on October 1. Even more important, the upstart’s culture demonstrated the same characteristics, long surviving the short life of its victorious king.
I don’t have an answer for what we should do in Syria. But whatever we do — or don’t — and whatever the outcome here and abroad, I hope our choices will nurture the characteristics of this and many other upstarts across history. These are the intellectual and spiritual foundations of resilience.
We will be challenged, sometimes horribly. We will make bad choices, sometimes tragically. But our homeland will enjoy greater security the more we embrace mobility, flexibility, curiosity, discipline, diversity, unity, speed, innovation, and self-confidence.