Blogs: Paul Pillar

Safeguarding Privacy, Inside and Outside Government

Building on the Syrian Truce

Foreign Policy and Presidential Politics as a Team Sport

Rudolf Hess at Guantanamo

1914 and Aleppo

Paul Pillar

If the Syrian conflict were to escalate and expand greatly, it would not be because any one player intended that to happen. What happened in 1914 was not intended either. The tragic possibilities would involve lesser steps leading to unforeseen larger results. Nor would catastrophic escalation require us now to foresee and spell out in advance a particular scenario for that happening. Allison wrote in his piece two years ago, “Claims that war is 'inconceivable' are not statements about what is possible in the world, but rather, about what our limited minds can conceive.” Perhaps relevant in this regard is that the leader of one of the major players involved, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, has shown himself to be a better short-term tactician than a long-term strategist.

A repeat of 1914 and the outbreak of another Great War is very unlikely. But it is a risk. Even small risks need to be taken account of in policy-making if the risked contingency would be extremely harmful. Remember Dick Cheney's one percent doctrine? The outbreak of another Great War would be many times more harmful than somebody's unconventional weapons program.

Taking account of this or any other risk should not be the sole consideration as far as policy decisions are concerned. This is one factor among many. In the case of Syria, this risk is an additional reason among other reasons—including avoiding lesser harms and curtailing the human suffering from the war—to work to deescalate and defuse rather than to escalate and expand. It is a reason to give high priority to efforts to secure cease-fires and to realize that tamping down this still-local war is more important than prosecuting the war to obtain a particular local result.        

Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor to the National Interest. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a nonresident senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Zyzzzzzy.