Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been a vociferous advocate for action against the Syrian regime’s brutality against its opposition, as his recent interview with French national television amply demonstrates. To his credit, McCain has been a consistent voice for measured, forceful intervention, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya and Syria. He has become an extraordinary voice for the obligation to protect (O2P), comparing the moral imperative facing the international community in Syria to the examples of Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda. While a cease-fire appears to be holding, opposition demonstrations are ongoing and the regime of Bashar al-Assad has demonstrated extraordinary willingness to wield violence in order to maintain control over the country.
McCain recently returned from Turkey where he visited camps filled with Syrian refugees fleeing the regime’s repression. This is perhaps an important reminder of the necessity for finer judgment in these matters, as similar camps filled up after the invasion of Iraq and refugees poured into Syria and Jordan fleeing the violence and chaos of sectarian anarchy in the wake of invasion. The Syrian regime’s collapse would no doubt benefit American interests in the region, depriving Iran of a proxy and Hezbollah and Hamas of a paymaster. But it’s much harder to anticipate the unforeseen outcomes of centrifugal forces cut loose in the event of the regime’s demise.
Nonetheless, McCain’s intriguing and clearly genuine and heartfelt appeal not to allow al-Assad his waltz of death over a yearning opposition reveals the tensions inherent to an age-old theoretical question, particularly in the wake of a series of violent and non-violent, successful and unsuccessful revolutions in the Islamic world. I am writing about the relationship between power and force, which for too long have been roughly and lazily equated.
The point of departure is McCain’s insistence that a multinational intervention against the Syrian regime, likely led by NATO, could effectively level the tools of force between the opposition and the government. This is quite a practical assessment. The regime retains the monopoly of force, McCain notes, with heavy weapons, including tanks and helicopter gunships. The Free Syrian Army is fighting mostly with firearms and video cameras. “Right now it’s artillery and tanks against Kalashnikovs,” McCain told France 24. “This is not a fair fight.”
Libya serves as the model in McCain’s thinking. There, NATO aircraft leveled the fight by eliminating the Libyan air force and “tank plinking” — a practice derided over Kosovo — destroying Libyan armor with precision strike. I’m not an operator so I hesitate to assert that the NATO campaign was carried out easily and with few civilian casualties. But by eliminating the monopoly of force, the Libyan army was put on the same footing as the armed Libyan opposition forces, making it “a fair fight”.
Perhaps most importantly in Libya — and this more closely serves my point — once heavy armor and attack aircraft were swept away, the full power of the population was liberated. Whole cities rose up against the regime and the regime found itself outmatched. Guns are little use against the masses, especially when fear is no longer a factor.
McCain didn’t allude to this, but it must have informed his thinking. Armor and aircraft make repression and killing a distant, impersonal, impervious thing. Civilians and fighters alike flee in terror from the rumble of tanks and the roar of jet engines and rotor wash. It is much harder — although the Iranian regime did its level best — to instill that kind of fear over a mass of human beings from the end of a gun.
The armed revolution aside, we saw precisely this triumph of power over force in Egypt and Tunisia. Masses of people cowed and then overthrew their dictatorships. In Tunisia, the revolution moved too quickly for the regime to react, but in Egypt the important factor was the neutrality of the Army. The people could face down the relatively lightly armed police and internal security forces. Confronted with a million people in Tahrir Square in Cairo (and hundreds of thousands gathered in other cities), the security forces — used to dealing with individuals or dozens of people at most — no longer could assert authority in any meaningful way. It was only a matter of time before the regime would collapse.
This was in large strokes a replay of actions that took place in Central Europe during the Velvet Revolution. Poland lived for 10 years under martial law — the rule of armor in the streets — but even this was no match for the growing power of the Polish people. Once the rest of the enslaved states of Central Europe were unable or unwilling to roll down their people as they began to march en masse — and the Center in Moscow importantly renounced the Brezhnev Doctrine of intervention as it had in Czechoslovakia and Hungary to put down popular rebellion — the state revealed itself to be made of matchwood. The power of the powerless was let loose on the world.
So power and force are not the same thing. I should emphasize that force can trump power, as we have seen in Iran and elsewhere. And power can dissipate, as we saw in Ukraine. But this does not alter the fundamental difference between them. Power is a moral concept and that is why it is inherent to politics. As a moral concept, power resides exclusively in the mind of men and women. Power is infinitely scalable, as we saw mobilizing by the millions across middle Europe and the Mahgreb.
Hannah Arendt wrote very clearly in On Violence that violence and power were not one and the same but opposites. She also wrote that war (that is, applied force) was not the result of some primal human urge toward self-destruction but, finally, the ultimate means to resolve dispute. To illuminate her insight more, I would argue that force and power are not opposites but opposing means to the same end: to change political behavior. Force is mobilized by a state (or quasi-state); power requires mobilization by something other than the state for legitimacy (although in many societies state structures are regularly put to work creating those non-state mobilizations). Force is legitimate when it is wielded by the accepted state (or quasi-state) authority; power is legitimate when it is given freely and without coercion.
The Syrian regime has learned well from the examples of both its neighbors and from history. As seen in Homs and Hama, force can trump power. Murder dismembers the political opposition. Guns and Tanks terrorize the ordinary and the innocent. But I also know that this is only a temporary terror. Whether the horror in Syria continues is a prediction someone better informed can make. Real power ultimately prevails because it is found in the minds and morals of millions of men and women. The leaders in Damascus, Moscow, and Minsk, and in Pyongyang, Tehran, Beijing, and Havana must know this.