by Ambassador Rick Barton
As the Arab Spring protests spread into Syria in 2011, the collapse of Bashar Assad’s hated regime seemed inevitable. Repressive governments in Tunisia and Egypt had fallen overnight and nonviolent demonstrators jammed Syria’s streets. Military defections would quicken and the Free Syrian opposition took charge of local governments everywhere. It was just a matter of time before Assad would step aside.
Encouraged, the United States sought ways to support Syria’s nascent revolution. With the violent repression of Assad’s totalitarian state, few knew how to govern. Over decades, promising political figures had been jailed, tortured, killed, or exiled. In the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), we began an overt program to bring opposition groups together. In Southern Turkey, just across the border from Syria, activists would meet and learn about basic governance and secure communications, while receiving “nonlethal” assistance of food, medical supplies, satellite phones, and laptops.
At the conclusion of a 2012 training session with thirty talented “Free Syria” local leaders, participants stood to thank our team. We heard the usual courtesies and appreciation. Then one man stepped forward. As he walked to the front of the room, he grabbed a laptop computer from a table and raised it over his head. Holding it flat, like a shield, he cried out, “This won’t save my life when the barrel bombs fall!”
Faced with growing resistance, Assad chose to put down the peaceful protests and divide the opposition forces by bombing his own people. As the death toll neared 12,000 and refugee flows accelerated, Syrians told us, “We will win, but if the United States does not stop the bombing, 100,000 will die.” Optimism would give way to bravado and then despair as the bombing continued and the suffering increased.
We sought to encourage the deep Syrian desire for change and survival. Within six weeks of the laptop incident, our State Department office began to offer a new kind of training: search, rescue, and triage. In that first session, we trained 23 people from North Aleppo. Two days after their return to Syria, they rescued a family of four from a bombing site. This was the beginning of the White Helmets, who by mid-2017 had mobilized an all-volunteer force of 3,350 in 135 locations and saved more than 92,000 lives. The United States spent about $750,000 to train the first 78 groups, though demand quickly outstripped our ability. Annual international support would reach $20 million.
The White Helmets remain one small point of light in a stubbornly intractable conflict.1 They may have saved tens of thousands, but the death toll in Syria stands at more than 400,000. The torrent of 12 million refugees strains Syria’s neighbors and threatens to crack the liberal European order. The bombings ended the peaceful protests, sowed chaos among opposition factions, and created space for extremists like the Islamic State to flourish. At the United Nations, Russia blocks attempts to intervene, furthering Assad’s impunity. Meanwhile, 168 White Helmets have died, with more than 500 injured—often in targeted airstrikes.
On a visit to an Istanbul earthquake-training site in 2013, I saw a Syrian team preparing for the destruction they faced at home. Surrounded by collapsed concrete and rubble, a Syrian pediatrician and 20 colleagues searched for missing people. Under the glare of generator-powered lighting, they shifted huge chunks of debris, shouting out, cursing, and encouraging each other, sweating under the strain. This was the doctor’s new reality in Idlib: with little warning, aerial attacks killed, maimed, and chased neighbors from their homes. Relentless bombing terrorized cities and other liberated areas.
The doctor wanted to save lives, but not this way. Only in his mid-30s, the Syrian’s sensitive face bore the fatigue, sadness, and worries of war. He saw little reason for hope. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he spoke of his inability to take care of the children. “I cannot even find the simplest medicine. Illnesses that I could once treat within minutes are now a chronic problem.”
The enormity of the conflict in Syria overmatched everything America and its allies were willing to do. Parts of the U.S. government tried innovative ideas and yet the situation kept getting worse. From my office within State, we asked, could any of our plans address a brutal air campaign, growing extremist terror, and a fleeing population desperate for change? Or, were we just another fig leaf, saving lives but unable to alter the facts on the ground?
Syria is like so many of today’s proliferating complex conflicts. It is part of America’s dilemma. The United States has the resources to do nearly anything to try to make the world more peaceful—from a tiny investment in White Helmets to the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of the world will follow our lead or respond to our economic or political pressure. At least on paper, we dearly value the freedom that so needs defending in many of these conflicts. Yet our record in the last 25 years—Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria—is a powerful argument for humility.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, we continue to put lives at risk and spend billions of dollars for questionable gains—in security for America and stability for the people of those distant lands. We have tried other ways with no better luck: In Libya, we looked to allies and the United Nations to own the post-invasion political transition, and chaos ensued. In Syria, where the West left the war to worsen, it ate away at the hope of Syria’s people, at Middle East stability, and ultimately at the Western vision of openness. We must acknowledge that the conflicts where we have invested the most money and attention torment us. Why is this? Can it change? Our record of accomplishment in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and so many others suggests that we do not know how to help. This has been true for decades, in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Each president of the past 100 years engaged the United States in a foreign intervention. By choice, of necessity, desired, or accidental,
American forces took part in full-scale wars, occupations, stabilization, or rescue operations in every part of the world. Since the 1990s, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now, to a lesser extent, Syria consumed America’s national security community. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates often points out that he did not predict even one of these events in the past twenty years.
This is not an argument for a flawed practice to continue; rather, it’s an acceptance that threats overseas will continue to produce fresh challenges. Wars in distant places have a way of becoming American priorities.
Despite President Donald Trump’s “America First” bluster, this may be truer now than ever. Trump is contradictory and unpredictable, which only increases the odds that we will find ourselves, by choice or not, in a mess somewhere overseas. As volatile as the world may be, the United States cannot risk burying its head or striking out in erratic ways. Trump’s emphasis on military strength and distaste for other parts of our national security mean that we will be unprepared, with fewer tools at our disposal. Trump’s plans are not tailored to the instability, war, and “problems without borders” that dominate our national security. Trump calls for more, when better is the greater need.
Still, a restless American electorate presents an opportunity for serious reform. Our public believes that the current approach is failing. Thousands of lives and billions of dollars went into the conflicts of the past 20 years, yet the dominant practices of the key institutions barely changed. Intelligence, defense, diplomacy, and development remained disconnected from local people—weak on the ground and slow to react. Humanitarian aid’s steadfast apolitical posture produces short-term relief but not change. The number and complexity of conflicts have grown, but our record remains poor. There is a chance for sensible change—if fresh thinking, thoughtful experiments, and renewed public attention supplant traditions, tired habits, and vested interests.
What’s more, the world’s conflicts will not wait around for our political dysfunction. Those conflicts are the fundamental reason we need change. If we do not build a clearer understanding and better solutions, we allow threats to grow and thus we become more vulnerable, to say nothing of the suffering we abet from the sidelines.
My interest in this work is a gift from my parents. My dad was a Marine captain in the maelstrom of Iwo Jima and in Japan at the end of World War II. His tale was one of survival, not heroism. His experience led him to a commitment that he and my mother made to each other to dedicate the rest of their lives to a more peaceful world. They chose to do that work as American diplomats.
My parents, two brothers, and I became a Foreign Service family, honored to represent the United States in Uruguay, Argentina, Spain, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, and Mexico. From a young age, our parents sought to expand our appreciation of other cultures, insisting that we go to local schools, speak Spanish, and have friends from the host country. They built my interest in public service and taught me to seek out and understand people, wherever I went. Their example was full of respect for the people of our host countries, belief in America’s ability to make a difference, and humility in the face of large challenges. Two lifelong values derived from their example anchor this book.
First, I argue for an approach that makes local people our primary concern. Often the United States overlooks a country’s greatest strengths—the ingenuity of its own people—in favor of a do-it-ourselves approach. Without local partners, this work will not succeed or carry far into the future.
Second, America must remain catalytic. Our assistance is most valuable when it arrives early, supports local initiative, and jump-starts promising changes. America should think of itself as a venture capitalist, not a pension manager: provide seed funding and accept longer odds, with the possibility of greater rewards. Within that outlook, there is an inherent humility and risk tolerance, because success is infrequent. That is appropriate for dangerous places and fits our taxpayers’ commitment.
This book will provide a principle-driven guide for citizens and practitioners that is consistent with these two core values—which I believe reformers can use to pursue a better way forward. Among the foundational beliefs that will appear throughout the book are the following:
- Every situation is complex, so listen, stay curious, and learn.
- There is too much to do, so focus on the truly important.
- Improvement is always possible, so measure progress.
- Public support matters, so communicate tirelessly.
- Institutional practices may not fit the circumstances, so find innovative ways to work.
- If we keep these core principles in mind, America’s conflict work will fulfill its promise.
It is possible to save lives and taxpayer dollars and produce a more stable world for trade, travel, and peaceful exchanges. I recognize that there will be many failures and still believe that the United States must “lean in.” Risks may be high, but great returns are also possible. The people I have seen coming in and out of violence have transformed me: a Bosnian translator, a Syrian pediatrician, a Rwandan orphan, Haitian women, Pakistani bloggers, Nigerian filmmakers, and Kenyan farmers. War is not a dry policy question; real lives are at stake.
Since 1994, I have been at the center of several efforts to make the U.S. government, the United Nations, and our allies more agile and effective in fragile and conflict countries—some of the most marginal and difficult in the world. Brian Atwood, the administrator of USAID under President Bill Clinton, asked me to lead a new Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) in March 1994. With the former Soviet Union in full collapse and a world of countries in distress, Brian had an idea for a “political development” program to ease the transitions.
Frustrated by six months of institutional inertia and resistance, Brian wanted an outsider’s perspective—and even optimistic naiveté. In a chance visit to his office, he saw those qualities in me. For my part, I loved building organizations and soon found the challenge to be among the most stimulating on earth. Brian gave me a start on what became my life’s mission: to advance peaceful, democratic change.
OTI was the right place at the right time. The competition with communism defined the work of those who came in the decades before. Post-9/11 Afghanistan and Iraq consumed those who came after. At the end of the 20th century, when I started, we faced an outbreak of wars and atrocities and few limits on how we could seek to solve them. From Angola to Indonesia, I was able to test ideas and build experiments in dozens of conflicts. That immersion produced innovation and a sense of promise. We saw that it is possible to build peace.
Five years later, I became the Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, a frontline U.N. agency that was stuck in political quagmires like Bosnia. Fighting would break out, hundreds of thousands would leave their homes, suffering would spread, and the primary response was “call in the humanitarians.” Then they stayed, and stayed and stayed. My boss, High Commissioner Sadako Ogata, saw “the gap” between humanitarian assistance and development aid and wanted to address it. We could help refugees subsist, but to help them thrive—to resolve the conflict’s roots—required a different approach. I worked on Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and West Africa, and sought to pull together new coalitions with the World Bank and the U.N. Development Program (UNDP).
After that post, I spent most of seven years teaching and learning at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). It was a liberating environment that allowed me to imagine new frameworks and policies. I studied reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan, the role of religion in conflicts, the use of new technologies, and the emerging crises in Pakistan and elsewhere—always challenging the status quo and suggesting constructive alternatives.
When President Obama took office, I went back to the United Nations as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), where I saw a world waiting for the reengagement of American leadership. In October 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked me to lead the new Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, a second opportunity to start a new part of the U.S. government. She wanted to increase State’s agility in global hot spots. Over the next three years, we worked on a huge range of issues in every part of the world. From gang violence in Northern Central America to ethnic reconciliation in Burma, we created a culture to improve U.S. effectiveness and coherence. We made clear that the United States needed to focus on a few places, develop a deep understanding, and catalyze local promise. Much work remains.
The United States has not become appreciably better at dealing with these crises even as they have consumed American military and diplomatic attention. My role has been only one among many, but I have been in the privileged position to see how specific obstacles and patterns have impeded American effectiveness. These problems are not solely American. Similar systemic and bureaucratic challenges plague the United Nations, the European Union, and our partners in places like the United Kingdom and Canada. We also share serious challenges in fragile states.
In the coming chapters, I will look at several major cases where I worked to see what we did right and wrong to build a how-to guide for improvement. The first section will look at the state of the threats and America’s history of interventions and successes. Then a review of the wars of the 1990s in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Haiti; the missed opportunities to build the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 21st century; the more recent case of Syria; and how future challenges are playing out in Nigeria, Pakistan, Burma, and Kenya. A chapter is then dedicated to how our own dysfunctions make this work even harder. The book ends showing how a fresh approach could make America more successful in conflict situations. Peace Works brings together history, stories, policy, and local insights to apply pragmatic lessons.
The enormity of constant 21st-century conflict and our own lack of preparation for it are two addressable challenges. We can learn from experiences—many of them described in this book—and chart a new course. We are not powerless to change the situation on the ground—or in Washington. We must do it better—from how we prevent these conflicts to how we help countries recover. Violent breakdowns in civilization will not go away. In 23 years working in more than 40 war-torn places, I have seen conflicts arise, return, and abound. Whether we want to or not, we will have to engage. As we have learned, conflicts will come and find us.
Ambassador Rick Barton teaches at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. He has served as an American ambassador to the United Nations and the Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees at the U.N., and was the first Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations under President Obama.