Syria and North Korea, April 2017

This essay is on Wikiversity to encourage a wide discussion of the issues it raises moderated by the Wikimedia rules that invite contributors to “be bold but not reckless,” contributing revisions written from a neutral point of view, citing credible sources -- and raising other questions and concerns on the associated '“Discuss”' page.

In April 2017, the US government claimed that the humanitarian crisis in Syria justified military action and the potential nuclear threat from North Korea justified "considering all options." In interpreting those claims, we should consider the historical record of similar claims and their treatment by the mainstream media in the US.

Two comparable examples include the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident and the 2002-2003 Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction program: There is substantial evidence available today indicating that both were frauds perpetrated by the US executive branch with the eager complicity of the mainstream commercial media.[1]

Less well known is that members of the Saudi royal family and employees of the Saudi embassy and consulates in the US helped some of the 19 perpetrators of the September 11 attacks get training they needed in the US to do what they did on that fateful day. This is documented in “The 28 Pages” of material omitted from the December 2002 report of a joint US House and Senate inquiry into intelligence community activities before and after September 11, 2001. Those 28 pages were redacted from that report, because the G. W. Bush administration insisted their release would gravely damage the national security of the US; most of that material was declassified July 15, 2016.[2]

The US government had this information before it invaded Iraq and probably before it invaded Afghanistan. Why did it:

  • Suppress this evidence of high-level Saudi involvement in 9-11?
  • Refuse requests from the Taliban to provide evidence of Bin Laden's involvement in 9-11?
  • Invade both Afghanistan and Iraq on questionable grounds while suppressing evidence of high-level Saudi involvement in 9-11?[3][4]

A 2008 RAND study on “How terrorist groups end” found that only 20 out of 268 terrorist groups that ended between 1968 and 2006 (7 percent) were defeated by military force. Terrorists were more likely to win than be defeated militarily. Eighty-three percent of the terrorist groups either converted to nonviolent political actors (43 percent) or succumbed to law enforcement (40 percent).[5] Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIL) seem to be following this pattern.

  • Why does the West rely on the least effective approach to terrorism?

In 1922, Walter Lipman wrote that the function of the media is to manufacture the consent of the public for policies selected for them by their elites.[6] This is consistent with the de-facto mission of media organizations:

For example, on February 28, 2016, Les Moonves, President and CEO of CBS, told an investor conference that the Trump campaign “may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS. ... The money's rolling in, this is fun.”[8]

For more on the media and conflict, see “Winning the War on Terror” on Wikiversity.[9]


Regarding Syria, would the US and its allies care about what happens there if there were no fossil fuels (or anything else worth stealing) in that region? Would the mainstream commercial media in the US care if the international fossil fuel industry (or some similar group) did not advertise?[10]

International petroleum interests got a pipeline through Syria after democracy there was destroyed by a military coup in 1949.[11] In 1953 the US and Britain organized a coup that similarly destroyed democracy in Iran to sustain the power of the Ango-Iranian Oil Company.[12]

One contributor to the current conflict in Syria has allegedly been the desire by Qatar and international fossil fuel interests to build a natural gas pipeline through Syria, and Assad's refusal to allow that, allegedly because it might offend his ally Russia.[13]

The current Syrian Civil War began nonviolently as part of the Arab Spring. We now review that briefly in relation to the other countries marked in the accompanying map.

Some of the countries in the Arab Spring: Bahrain (BHR), Egypt (EGY), Libya (LBY), Morocco (MAR), Saudi Arabia (SAU), Syria (SYR), and | (TUN).

The countries featured here are (from left to right), MAR, TUN, LBY, EGY, SRY, SAU, and BHR.

Arab SpringEdit

Arab Spring Democracy: Polity IV scores 2009-2015 for Bahrain (BHR), Egypt (EGY), Libya (LBY), Morocco (MAR), Saudi Arabia (SAU), Syria (SYR), and Tunisia (TUN).

The Arab Spring began with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on 17 December 2010. Bouazizi was a 26-year-old street vender, frustrated with harassment and humiliation by Tunisian authorities. Broad segments of Tunisian society shared his frustrations and organized largely nonviolent protests. Longtime president Ben Ali fled less than a month after Bouazizi's suicide. The nonviolent organizers continued working together to produce substantive improvements in democratizing Tunisia, as documented in the “TUN” line in the accompanying plot.[14]

Similar though much less intense demonstrations in Morocco led to more modest changes in government there,[15] documented in the “MAR” line in the accompanying figure.

This is consistent with the results of research by Chenoweth and Stephan, who created a database of all the major violent and nonviolent governmental changes efforts of the twentieth century. They found that on average violence promotes tyranny, while nonviolence builds democracy: 25 percent of their 217 violent revolutions were successful, while 54 percent of their 106 nonviolent campaigns were. In other words, revolutionaries are more than twice as likely to succeed with nonviolence than with violence.[16]

More importantly, nonviolence tended to improve the level of democratization, while violence was more likely to support tyranny.[17][18]

This phenomenon can threaten every autocrat in the world who wants to retain power. It can also threaten every executive of a multinational company, who prefers dealing with authoritarian regimes that often suppress dissent from people who might otherwise want to peacefully push for better wages, working conditions or environmental protections. This further seems to impact the editorial policies of the mainstream commercial media, who don't want to offend their major advertisers.

Egypt initially responded to the nonviolent agitation there with modest democratic reforms. Unfortunately, those reforms led to the election of an Islamist, Mohamed Morsi, whose failures to protect non-Muslims and secular Egyptians encouraged the Army to take control of the government;[19] see the “EGY” line in the accompanying figure.

As the Arab Spring moved into Libya, the US did what one might expect of a superpower afraid of democracy but unwilling to admit that openly: First it got a “no fly zone” authorized by the United Nations. Then it used the air power assembled pursuant to that UN authorization to support violent ground operations by anti-Gaddafi elements in ways that many believed violated their authorization.[20] The impact on democratization there appears in the “LBY” line in the accompanying figure. This looks more like what Chenoweth and Stephan predicted for nonviolent than violent campaigns: The Polity score improved from autocracy to anocracy, but not as much as Tunisia.

As the Arab Spring moved into Bahrain, the Saudis organized a military invasion to suppress the nonviolent protests. The impact on democratization there is documented in the “BAH” line in the accompanying figure. This was similar to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when the Soviet Union invaded to violently reverse a liberalization responding to largely nonviolent protests:[21]

The US, the Saudis, and others supported violent anti-Assad elements in Syria. The results have been an unmitigated disaster for the Syrian people. The mild decline of the "SYR" line in the accompanying figure is consistent with the findings of Chenoweth and Stephan but fails to indicate the magnitude of the suffering this conflict has inflicted on the civilian population.

However, this human catastrophe seems to have helped insulate the Saudis and other autocrats from domestic power sharing demands: It demonstrated the high costs that might be exacted upon anyone who might challenge their rule, even nonviolently. Meanwhile, the arms merchants have made out like bandits.

  • How might these events have evolved differently if the US had worked to strengthen rule of law and promote effective nonviolent action, consistent with the findings of Jones and Libicki (2008) and Chenoweth and Stephan (2011)?

North KoreaEdit

  • It's not smart to tease a rattlesnake.

US Vice President Mike Pence warned North Korea of US resolve shown in Syria and Afghanistan.[22] These threats combined with the recent US use of force in Syria seem to reinforce North Korea's need for nuclear weapons to deter possible attacks by the US.[23][24] North Korea's deputy U.N. ambassador, Kim In Ryong, accused the US of creating "a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment."[25]

However, North Korea hardly needed this warning from Vice President Pence. Some might argue that the US has done everything in its power to ensure that North Korea and Iran obtain nuclear weapons short of directly providing the technology -- by creating the need. Quite apart from instigating the coup that destroyed democracy in Iran in 1953, the US supplied chemical and biological warfare technology (weapons of mass destruction) to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and has threatened Iran repeatedly on other occasions.

In Korea after World War II, the US opposed leaders like Kim Il-sung, who had fought for the peasants under Japanese occupation. Instead the US supported corrupt leaders who had either sat out the war in the US, like Syngman Rhee, or had actively collaborated with the Japanese, like Park Chung-hee. This history, combined with everything else that is known or widely suspected about US international activities since World War II could convince many supporters of the current North Korean government that they need nuclear weapons to deter possible US aggression.

What to do?Edit

As suggested in a companion commentary on “Winning the War on Terror,” if you don't want to be stampeded into actions contrary to your best interests, turn off ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox and cable television, and support instead noncommercial investigative journalism with transparent funding that puts everything they produce on the web in the public domain. Every individual and group has a right to defend themselves. Every nation needs a strong, effective national defense.

But nobody needs cowboys running all over the world, manufacturing enemies faster than they can be neutralized. Regarding nuclear weapons in particular, the US should consider unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Does there exist one plausible scenario under which the US could profitably use nuclear weapons without an unacceptable risk of excessive damage to its own interests and those of the rest of humanity? Do those questionable benefits outweigh the real potential of an ill-advised nuclear war, whether triggered by mechanical accident or by rogues in the US military or by misunderstanding or miscalculation in the US executive branch? Andrew Bacevich, retired Colonel, US Army, and professor emeritus from Boston University, claimed that no such scenario exists, and that maintaining a nuclear arsenal also legitimates the pursuit of nuclear weapons by terrorist organizations, which may not see armageddon as unacceptable.[26]

On the international stage, we need rule of law. We do NOT need “law and order,” because demands for “law and order” have too often been used to mobilize vigilante justice that generally reduces more than it increases safety and security long term. Different parties to conflict rarely agree on the facts and often seem ignorant of the concerns of the others. Moreover the mainstream media on each side often has conflicts of interest in accurately portraying the reality of the conflict. Judicial procedures in courtrooms with rules of evidence and discussion fora like the United Nations are far from perfect but generally provide better vehicles for conflict resolution than massive use of force -- especially in situations like Syria and North Korea that already seem to suffer from excessive use of force in the past.


  • Chenoweth, Erica; Stephan, Maria J. (2011), Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Columbia U. Pr., ISBN 978-0-231-15683-7. For their data see, Chenoweth, Erica, NAVCO Data Project, Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, retrieved 2017-03-17


  1. “The war deprived the Great Society reforms of some executive energy and money. But Johnson believed—and he knew how to count votes—that had he backed away in Vietnam in 1965, there would have been no Great Society to deprive.” (emphasis in the original) Bator, Francis M. (2007), NO GOOD CHOICES: LBJ and the Vietnam / Great Society Connection (PDF), American Academy of Arts and Sciences, p. 1, ISBN 0-87724-063-9, retrieved 2017-04-22
  2. The 28 Pages, Wikipedia, retrieved 2017-04-22
  3. Jamail, Dahr (17 September 2009), "Afghanistan: Where Empires Go to Die", Truthout, retrieved 2017-04-23
  4. Anacharsis in ancient Athens, said, “Laws are spider-webs, which catch the little flies, but cannot hold the big ones. "Anacharis", Wikiquote, Wikimedia Foundation, retrieved 2017-04-19
  5. Jones and Libicki (2008)
  6. Lipman said that this was necessary in time of war but problematic otherwise. Lippmann, Walter (1922), Public Opinion, Harcourt, Brace and Company, retrieved 2017-04-18. See also Wikipedia, “Public Opinion (book), Public Opinion (book), Wikipedia, retrieved 2017-04-18 and Herman, Edward S.; Chomsky, Noam. Manufacturing Consent. Pantheon Books. 
  7. "3.2. The political economy of the media", Winning the War on Terror, Wikimedia Foundation - Wikiversity, retrieved 2017-04-19
  8. Fang, Lee (February 29, 2016), "CBS CEO: "For Us, Economically, Donald's Place in This Election Is a Good Thing"", The Intercept, First Look Media, retrieved 2017-03-22
  9. "Winning the War on Terror", Wikiversity, Wikimedia Foundation, retrieved 2017-04-19
  10. Commercial media organizations are businesses. They make money, and they don't do it by biting the hands that feed them. They must of necessity flinch before disseminating any information that may displease a major advertiser. "Winning the War on Terror", Wikiversity, Wikimedia Foundation, retrieved 2017-04-19
  11. "March 1949 Syrian coup d'état", Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, retrieved 2017-04-21
  12. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company had for decades paid more in taxes to the British government than they paid on concessions to Iran, had refused to submit their financial records to be audited, and had resisted efforts to renegotiate the contract to grant terms more favorable to Iran and more like their contracts with Saudi Arabia. See "Anglo-Persian Oil Company", Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, retrieved 2017-04-19
  13. "Qatar–Turkey pipeline", Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, retrieved 2017-04-22
  14. Tunisian Revolution, Wikipedia, retrieved 2017-04-21
  15. 2011–12 Moroccan protests, Wikipedia, retrieved 2017-04-21
  16. Chenoweth and Stephan (2011)
  17. Effective defense, Wikiversity, retrieved 2017-04-21
  18. Chenoweth and Stephan (2011)
  19. Egyptian revolution of 2011, Wikipedia, retrieved 2017-04-21
  20. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, Wikipedia, retrieved 2017-04-21
  21. Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Wikipedia, retrieved 2017-04-21
  22. Rampton, Roberta; Wong, Sue-Lin (Apr 17, 2017), Pence warns North Korea of U.S. resolve shown in Syria, Afghan strikes, Reuters, retrieved 2017-04-21
  23. Syria strike 'vindicates' North Korea's nuclear choice, BBC News, 8 April 2017, retrieved 2017-04-25
  24. Sumner, Mark (2017-04-21), "100 Days of Trump—bans, bombs, and chocolate cake", Daily Kos, Kos Media, LLC, retrieved 2017-04-21
  25. Lederer, Edith M. (2017-04-17), "North Korean official accuses U.S. of trying to start a nuclear war", Chicago Tribune, retrieved 2017-04-21
  26. Bacevich, Andrew J. (2008), The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Metropolitan Books, pp. 178–179, ISBN 0805090169 See also "2.5. Bombing to Win", Winning the War on Terror, Wikimedia Foundation - Wikiversity, retrieved 2017-04-22