Thoughts on peace strategy

In my preceding posts, I developed a paradigm for conflict that suggests the leaders of the combatant parties are predisposed to continue fighting, and therefore will resist peace. This paradigm developed not because of any preconceived notion on my part, but because the conventional paradigm failed to explain the actions of the combatants. I spent literally years studying the Sri Lankan conflict, including three semesters of intensive study at my university, trying to understand how otherwise intelligent leaders could make so many “mistakes” that perpetuated the war.

The conclusion I finally came to relied on Occam’s Razor: “The simplest solution tends to be the best one.” Thus, I postulated that these leaders were not making mistakes, they were taking rational actions that served unseen goals. The paradigm worked, and I came to believe that in the absence of pressure to the contrary, the leaders will continue the war because it serves them to do so.

When the Iraq conflict began, I was interested to see whether the paradigm still worked. It does. It explains the behaviour of the combatants in a way no conventional explanation does.

Even though the leaderships of all combatants have a vested interest in continuing the war, this does not mean peace is impossible. Rather, it means that a peace strategy must address this fact and counter it. Here are some thoughts on peace strategy based on my work with the peace movement in Sri Lanka– which, while it has not yet ended the war, has seen some successes.

To be effective and accomplish his or her goals, a combatant leader needs two things: support from his/her constituency, and funding from outside. These are two levers that can be used to change the perspectives of the leaders. And it can work. In Sri Lanka, presidents committed to peace have come to power twice. And in the north, at one point the LTTE sent strong signals that it was willing to change. Unfortunately these didn’t happen at the same time.

One of the great challenges of peacemaking is that the national dialog, as controlled by the combatants, allows only two scenarios to be considered: military victory or military defeat. Defeat, obviously, is not an option, which leaves only the pursuit of victory as a “patriotic” goal. Alternative viewpoints are kept out of the media– either by intentional censorship, or by the simple fact that war gets better media ratings than peace.

The second challenge is that if a peace movement adopts an adversarial approach, they can be dismissed as irrelevant, or worse, labeled as enemy sympathizers. Likewise if a peace movement appears (or can be made to appear) sympathetic to one side or the other, the opposing side can dismiss them (or attack them) as “enemy.” Since the combatant leaders control the media, this is virtually a death sentence for the peace movement (sometimes quite literally).

So a peace strategy must have several characteristics: It must address either the constituency or the financial support of the combatant leaders. (My work has involved the constituency approach, so that where I will focus.) It must work outside traditional media channels, typically face-to-face contact with the grassroots members of the constituencies (or alternatively the financial supporters). It must work with all constituencies to be effective, since peace cannot be one-sided. And it must develop a paradigm alternative to the “us vs. them” paradigm promoted by both leaderships.

Lastly and most importantly, the peace strategy must do all of this without pointing fingers at the leaders– it must invite them to join in. In most conflict situations, even the opposition candidates who claim to support peace suddenly find “national security” reasons to continue the war once they are in office. So leadership change cannot be counted on to end a conflict. Rather, the leaders themselves must be changed.

To put it in crude terms, the leadership must see a mass of its constituents moving toward peace– and have the opportunity to jump in front and lead the parade.