Governments bomb despots, or do nothing. It is time to explore the alternatives. And that's where you come in ...
They may call it political science, but it's rarely like that. Politics tends to be messy, rather than exact. Yet under way in the Arab world is what might be described as an uncontrolled experiment, testing what has emerged as one of the defining questions of 21st-century international relations: when is armed, foreign intervention necessary to remove a brutal tyrant? On one side of the Middle Eastern laboratory stands Libya which, thanks to the help of Nato firepower, has shaken off all but the last remnants of the vicious Gaddafi regime. And on the other stands Syria, where impossibly courageous people continue to brave bullets and rocket-propelled grenades, as they work to topple the pitiless Assad regime, certain that there will be no British, French or US fighter jets to lend them a hand. The uprising that received foreign help has succeeded. What if the one fated to fight alone fails?
On its face, the Libya case seems to settle definitively a debate that has raged for most of the last decade, reaching its hottest point nearly a decade ago in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. Once again the two sides, interventionists and their opponents, have been saddling up and doing familiar battle against each other. Since last week's fall of Tripoli, it has been the interveners' chance to crow – taunting the anti-war crowd with the claim that, had they had their way, the colonel would still be riding around in his golf cart, wearing his phoney uniforms, having slaughtered any Libyan who had dared rise up against him. The discovery of farm buildings filled with charred human remains testifies to the dictator's cruelty but also to the apparent necessity of foreign military action. Without it, Gaddafi could have gone on killing.
Meanwhile, those who opposed the Nato operation have been left to argue that things could yet go horribly wrong, especially if the western allies decide to hang around, as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan, or that it would have been so much better if the Libyan rebels had toppled Gaddafi all by themselves. Of course that would have been the ideal – but all the evidence said it was impossible. If a dictator is as determined as Gaddafi, and as ruthlessly ready to deploy force, then it amounts to a kind of callous indifference to tell the people crying out for help – as the Libyan rebels were – that they are on their own. If Assad continues to murder his own people and clings on to power, then that will prove the point in morbid fashion.
But what if there is a flaw in the experiment, a flaw indeed in the way this long, wearying debate over intervention has run for most of the last 10 years? For what the Libya-Syria comparison assumes is a crude binary choice: either we bomb the hell out of a wicked despot or we do nothing. But that dichotomy might be false. A far fuller range of options might be available.
The thought should be appealing even to those who support military intervention. All but the most gung-ho concede that such action comes at a cost. Greatest, of course, is the loss of human life inevitable in any military deployment. Nato pilots returned unscathed from their Libyan sorties, but those on the ground did not. Perhaps the new masters in Tripoli will say those lives were a price worth paying to remove the tyrant. But not all the grieving families will see it the same way.
What's more, armed intervention can have a distorting effect once the dictator has gone. By aiding the Benghazi rebels, for example, Nato may have given greater muscle to that particular element of the anti-Gaddafi forces than would have been the case had Libya's revolution unfolded the way change came to, say, Egypt. And because western armies were its midwife, the new authority is born with a legitimacy problem. So could there be another way to act, one that might have all the efficacy of the Libya intervention but with fewer of the costs?
Enter Carne Ross, a former high-flying British diplomat who resigned after serving as our lead man on Iraq at the UN security council. In a powerful new book – part fiercely self-critical memoir, part idealistic polemic – Ross argues that we have, for too long, expected governments to take care of the world's problems and that they are no longer up to the job. He calls instead for a Leaderless Revolution – the book's title – in which people will reclaim control over their own lives and futures, through even the tiniest individual actions. Having served at the diplomatic frontline in several western interventions, Ross has particularly strong views on what outsiders might do when they witness brutality far from their shores.
He is no pacifist; he does not rule out the use of force (and, had he been an MP, would have voted for it in Libya). But he says that all too often we turn to it as a first, not last, resort. In Iraq or Libya there was much that could have been done to oust those hated regimes non-violently long before the west finally acted. Rather than waiting for an uprising to begin, says Ross, outsiders could embark on any combination of these three steps, depending on the circumstances: "Boycott, Isolate, Sabotage."
So Gaddafi could have been shunned, rather than embraced by Tony Blair while his sons were feted in London. We might have mounted cyber attacks on the colonel's infrastructure. Ross cites approvingly the Stuxnet computer worm, which has wreaked such havoc with Iran's nuclear programme. Such methods entailed no violence and yet might have hastened Gaddafi's downfall – and are applicable to today's Syria. The target would emphatically not be the Syrian people but the Assad regime, restricting the travel and freezing the bank accounts of the key players, making their lives difficult if not impossible.
But Ross goes further. Yes, there are non-violent routes that governments fail to pursue. But why leave it all to the politicians? "Why do we think that all we can do is write to an MP or sign a petition?" Ross asked when I spoke to him today. "I used to think those were mechanisms of action. I don't anymore."
Instead, he suggests individuals can act, especially in concert with others. Such talk sounds fanciful until he recalls the example of the Spanish civil war, when 30,000 foreign volunteers went to fight for the republic. Ross asks the question: "Why do people not do that anymore?" He's not suggesting a stampede of Brits to Syria – though he says that "when I was 22 I might have done it" – but he is laying down a challenge. Why not boycott companies that trade with Damascus? Or lend your bandwidth to an effort like Access Now, whose "proxy cloud" enables internet users in repressive states to reach blocked sites? Hackers might even want to help the Anonymous effort to launch "distributed denial of service" attacks on Syrian government websites. Just as governments have come to believe their only tool is force, so citizens have come to believe only governments can stand in the path of a foreign tyranny. But they might be wrong.
The white-coated scientist would be tempted to stand back and do nothing for Syria, for the sake of the purity of the experiment – to see whether Syrians can liberate themselves unaided. But this is no cold, academic inquiry. Lives are at stake. Even if there is to be no military help for the people of Syria, that does not mean we have to do nothing. We can act – and we surely must.