Small Steps toward Peaceful Ends through Peaceful Means

Conscientious objection is not a total repudiation of force; it is a refusal to surrender moral responsibility for one’s actions. – Kenneth Barnes

In 2011, President Obama issued Presidential Study Directive 10 making the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities “a core national security interest and core moral responsibility of the United States.”  Today, violence in the Central Africa Republic (CAR) that has been called “pre-genocidal” by United Nations officials, is putting that commitment to the test.  Over recent months, decades of chronic conflict, poverty, and poor governance in CAR have crystalized horrifically into a new phase of violence characterized by the targeted slaughter of civilians, focused along religious lines in a country where Christians and Muslims have lived peacefully together for generations.  How can such violence be stopped?  Are peaceful means available to do so?

The U.S. response to the crisis in CAR has been impressive in its speed and scope.  From President Obama himself calling for nonviolence and reconciliation through a radio message aired across the country, to direct funding for religious peacemaking efforts and radio networks to help dispel rumors and promote peace, to added millions in humanitarian assistance and support to African peacekeepers, the United States has mobilized across different agencies, civilian and military, to try to help halt the violence in CAR.  Last week US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power flew to CAR herself to demonstrate US commitment and meet with government officials and civil society leaders.

Still, the balance and nature of the response to the unfolding violence in CAR illustrate the problem of reacting after the killing has already begin, and with a still heavily militarized US foreign policy toolbox.  The US mobilized over $100 million to support the African-led peacekeeping mission, $15 million in additional humanitarian assistance, and $7.5 million in conflict mitigation, peacebuilding, and human rights funding.  Civilian peacemaking and human rights work is inherently less expensive then military operations, but the balance says something about US funding priorities and the tools available to US policymakers.  We are still much better at thinking of and funding military solutions than we are at imagining creative, nonviolent responses that could interrupt violence without adding to it.  And once violence is underway, the options for creative response shrink drastically.

What peaceful means are available to halt the kind of organized killing we have seen in CAR?  The most powerful forces for peace have been the courageous religious leaders – Muslim and Christian –  who stepped into the midst of the violence in their country to protect people who fled to their churches and mosques and to directly mediate with those doing the killing.  In many cases, they put their own lives directly at risk to try to save others, carrying nothing but a Bible or Koran as protection.  The fact that supporting these leaders was at the top of the interagency priorities in responding to the CAR crisis says something about the important progress being made in US policy to lift up peaceful options for responding to violence. But why aren’t we providing such support for local peace builders long before the violence erupts and in ways that help support and sustain their work through tensions and social and political upheaval?

Moreover, once violence is underway and, as in CAR, civilian rule of law no longer exists, halting the killing and creating a space for such peacemaking becomes extremely difficult.  Some peacebuilding pioneers, like the Nonviolent Peaceforce, imagine and work toward the day when nonviolent peacekeepers are ready and equipped to quickly step into such situations in adequate numbers and appropriately supported to succeed.  But that day remains a long way off.  UN and regional peacekeeping forces, in the meantime, remain a flawed but critical tool that will sometimes, as in the case of CAR, be the best response the international community has available to it once violence is underway.  To minimize violence and harm, however, such forces should be trained and prepared to protect civilians and help restore rule of law so the real peacemaking can take place.  That is a very different task than fighting and defeating an enemy, and requires more of a civilian policing approach than a war-fighting one.

Creating more peaceful means for peaceful ends for the future means investing in much earlier prevention through civilian peacebuilding and just development long before a crisis erupts.  After all, the CAR was caught for decades in cycles of conflict and with some of the world’s lowest development indicators.  It also means changing the balance and make up of the US foreign policy toolbox – getting rid of outdated military machinery that serves little purpose in today’s world and investing seriously in nonviolent tools to protect civilians, prevent violent conflict, and build durable peace.

US response to the situation in CAR shows we are making baby steps forward in that direction, but a much bigger paradigm and resources shift is still needed.


Question of the week: Iran — What’s next?

This week we’re talking about Iran. Michael Shank and Aura Kanegis posed the question below to a group of experts around the world. 

Based on the inroads made in Geneva between the P5 +1 and Iran,what are the necessary next steps the Administration can and should take to further develop their diplomatic game plan with Tehran?

To learn more about P5+1 talks, check out these artlicles from CNN and Reuters.

You can read all of the responses here, or read individual responses from Bridget MoixJoe Volk, Welling HallJames Matlack and Doug Bennett.

The Challenge of U.S – Iranian Negotiations

By Jim Matlack

This is a response to our question of the week. You can read all of the responses here.

For most Americans the basis of U.S.-Iranian relations lies in events that took place exactly forty-four years ago—the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran and the long imprisonment of U.S. diplomats. This episode bred persistent distrust and enmity. Most Iranians see the relationship between the two governments filtered through their resentment over events in 1953 when the United States led the overthrow of a popularly elected President Mohammed Mosaddegh and the restoration of the Shah to power. The Shah was toppled in 1979 by revolutionary forces that created the current Islamic-led Iranian regime. Continue reading

Next Steps with Iran

By Welling Hall

This is a response to our question of the week. You can read all of the responses here.

The President has been alluding to the different memories that Americans and Iranians have of their past relationship (thank you Joe Volk!). Notably, in his speech to the General Assembly, the President was echoing some of the sentiments that JFK made in his olive-wielding speech to the Soviets at American University in 1963. Changing the narrative from one of Inherent Bad Faith to one in which it is possible to think about areas of common interest has to be part of the diplomatic game plan not only in relations with Iran, but in talking about the relationship with suspicious domestic partners (like Congress). Indeed, it is hard to imagine how relations with Iran can improve much so long as the President is constrained by the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010. You can’t do much negotiating with your right hand when your left hand is targeting the potential business partner with economic restrictions that are intended to be crippling. Continue reading

US-Iran Diplomacy — 2 Essential Next Steps

by Joe Volk

This is a response to our question of the week. You can read all of the responses here.

Beth & I are in Vietnam as I reply to your questions about the U.S. – Iran diplomacy initiative.  Today’s (Oct. 30th) news says that former V.P. Dick Cheney called for a US war on Iran.  That brings back memories. Dick Cheney supported the US war in Vietnam, avoided military service at the time, and went to work in the White House.  I opposed the US war, refused to go with my army unit to Vietnam, and went to work for Quakers.  We disagreed then on Vietnam; we disagree now on Iran. Though very different countries, the Vietnam case might have something to teach us about Iran. Continue reading

A Shared Security Future in the Middle East?

By Bridget Moix

This is a response to our question of the week. You can read all of the responses here.

Can the recent return to diplomacy between Washington and Tehran be sustained, and even expanded to include broader regional issues, like curbing violence in Syria and Afghanistan? Or will the distrust of decades between the two nations prove too great an obstacle to real peacemaking?

Let’s first recognize the remarkable shift in relations that recent engagements between US and Iranian officials represent. Earlier this year, the two nations seemed on the brink of war. FCNL was lobbying hard that “war is not the answer” and to just keep the option of diplomacy on the table as the U.S. Congress imposed a continuous barrage of painful sanctions on Iran and the administration kept the door closed on direct engagement. The possibility of a US war against Iran seemed both real and urgent. Continue reading

Finding a Way Forward With Iran

By Doug Bennett

This is a response to our question of the week. You can read all of the responses here.

This fall there are glimmers of hope for better relations with Iran.  There has even been a recent telephone exchange between the Presidents of the two countries. Are these glimmers just fool’s gold, or might there be real possibilities?

In recent years, a key issue in contention between the U.S. and Iran has been the prospect of Iran’s becoming a nuclear power.  The next round of the negotiations over this issue are scheduled to begin on November 7. Those at the table will be diplomats from the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain, and Germany – the so-called P5+1. Iran now has the capability to refine uranium into weapons grade material. The U.S. has been staunchly opposed to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons; the Iranians contend that their envisioned uses of nuclear power are entirely peaceful. The United States has imposed economic sanctions against Iran and persuaded most other countries to join it in imposing these sanctions, which have pinched hard. Continue reading

The Grand Presumption

by Doug Bennett

“President Obama’s policy toward Syria has failed, and it’s time to try a tougher approach.” Nicholas D. Kristof wrote those words in a column in the New York Times on August 28th. He went to urge that the U.S. arm those opposing President Assad, and launch missile strikes against the Syrian regime.

Kristof was hardly alone in urging military action when he wrote those words, and a good deal has changed since then. Kristof’s support of military action was striking because he seems like one of the least likely commentators to urge such a course. Most days and most situations, he would urge an approach grounded in dialogue, respect for human rights, and adherence to international agreements. But beyond the surprise of his hawkish urgings in this case, I want to focus on his judgment that U.S. foreign policy had “failed.”

By “failed,” I think Kristof means that we hadn’t gotten our way; our efforts did not produce the outcome we wanted. We hadn’t gotten the Assad regime to stop the violence against its own citizens.

That is an astonishing expectation: that the United States will always get its way in foreign relations. and if we do not, we should count the effort a failure. What anyone else wants doesn’t matter and doesn’t count. If we don’t get what we want, we fail.

Let us call this ‘the grand presumption.’

Continue reading