By Tom H. Hastings

Everyone knows that diplomacy is the weakest way to deal with insurgencies and civil wars, tough sanctions are next, and if you really want to end a civil war, sorry, you need the military.

Well, everyone thinks that.

OK, not everyone.

Turns out, that order of effectiveness is precisely backward. Three political scientists conducted a historical metastudy of all the movements for self-determination that looked like or actually became civil wars between 1960-2005 that resulted in resolutions by the United Nations Security Council.

The outcomes were clear. Using the UN troops had almost no effect on stopping civil war. Sanctions were better, but diplomatic initiatives succeeded far more often than either of the other approaches.

Is this always true? Of course not, but if you want to go with your best bet to prevent wars, trot out the Ban Ki-Moonies and his coterie of helpers. We in the US generally ignore or chuckle at a Kofi Annan, or a Boutrus Boutrus-Ghali. Ineffectual wimps! Send in the Marines.

Another myth bites the dust.

Think about the cost/benefit matrix. What if we would have sent then-US Secretary of State James Baker or perhaps then-UN Secretary General Javier Pèrez de Cuèllar to deal with Saddam Hussein in August of 1990 instead of instantly mobilizing to go to war? That was a made-for-diplomacy moment that could have avoided 383 US dead, 467 US wounded, $102 billion in US expenses and the lowest estimates are about 20,000 Iraqis killed, half of them civilians. Instead, George Bush the Elder first suckerpunched Saddam by the April Glaspie bumble, giving Saddam a US green light to invade Kuwait and then instantly declaiming “This will not stand,” beginning the buildup and then attacking. All very likely completely avoidable.

This is one of the least costly US wars, in blood and treasure. What if diplomacy could have prevented even one war? Isn’t that worth a very serious effort indeed? Are human lives and the massive energy/money/resource costs worth some serious effort by diplomats, by mediators, by professional interlocutors? In my field of Conflict Transformation we always believe that, and the research is increasingly proving our methods are vastly superior (unless you are a war profiteer, an elite class of people who help shape the media message that we don’t have a clue, that talk is weak, and that only bombing and invading works).

Am I dissenting from US war policy? Yes, I’d say so, and that makes me a traitor and a lawful target for a drone attack, according to a West Point law professor. Should I warn my housemates? Wait—he only says legal scholars who dissent are legitimate targets. I’m a peace and nonviolence scholar, so my dissent isn’t yet qualified as targetable, apparently, or perhaps he simply assumes that activist scholars like me have been lawful targets all along.

I should probably inquire to see if I can get a little help from the UN on this one. My chances would be improved, at least according to the science.