Syria is Libya on Nightmare Mode

Writing against an American military intervention in Syria, Walter Pincus says this:

Syria is not a video game. Americans need to understand that. President Bashar al-Assad and his regime, fighting to stay in power, are using increasingly brutal force against their own people. It is becoming a civil war, with both political and religious elements complicating the picture. Syrians are killing each other, military and civilian, children as well as the aged. It is uncomfortable to watch. But like it or not, here in the United States, President Obama cannot push a button,* end the slaughter and bring peace. (emphasis mine)

First, an acknowledgement: I am not going to be making an argument here about Syria. Others have done so at length, and anything I said here would be a retread of better posts. Instead, I am interested in the choice of “video game” for the metaphor here.

What I think Pincus means to say, and which I’m sure most readers interpreted him to mean, was that US military intervention in Syria would be a complicated and uncertain affair, and a lot harder than just wishing it instantly fixed.  I agree with the thrust of his argument here: Syrian intervention has costs far beyond just the expenditure of weapons. Where I disagree with Pincus is in the complexity with which video games handle the difficulty of prolonged conflict. In fact, I would go so far as to say that certain video games offer a good metaphor for why we would want to avoid such an intervention.

As I wrote in my guestpost at Rethinking Security:

Simulating unrest means that conquest becomes just as much about taking and holding territory from enemy armies as it does about pacifying the population recently conquered. If precautions against unrest are not taken, the unrest will start spawning rebel forces, or even in some cases cause the complete expulsion of garrisoned forces and return of the province to its prior owner. Unrest slows advances, thins armies as they detach units to garrison cities, and in some cases requires sending agents into the targeted regions years in advance so that they can create a core population favorable to [their new rulers]

Later, in the same piece,

…the net effect is that wars of choice are thought of in terms of lasting effect, and because the player remains in power long after the decision has been made, the consequences have to be dealt with along that scale as well.

While I was describing a game that specifically deals in conquest, the difficulty it shows even in adding contiguous territory, by force, against a hostile nation is illustrative of the broader challenges of forcible regime change even under explicitly imperial ambitions. If, instead, one were to undertake a similar campaign to drive out a hostile regime and its militant loyalists, but were to do so with extended lines of supply and multiple non-cohesive nominally allied guerrilla groups as the main source of local support, it would become an incredibly difficult task.  Add to that a hostile enemy funneling fighters, weapons, and expertise towards the embattled regime in an attempt to bleed the US dry, and you have what gamers refer to as Nightmare Mode: the hardest setting a player could attempt.

In fact, the change in difficulty level help explain why the US was willing to intervene in Libya and not Syria. As Fareed Zakaria noted:

For a number of reasons, military intervention is unlikely to work in Syria. Start with the geography: unlike Libya, Syria is not a vast country with huge tracts of land where rebels can retreat, hide and be resupplied. Syria is roughly one-tenth the size of Libya but has three times as many people. Partly for this reason, the Syrian rebellion has not been able to take control of any significant part of the country.

In addition, Libya had no external allies, a military chronically undermined by a Colonel fearful of another coup, and was a conflict that European allies were ready to fight. Setting aside for a moment concerns of national interest and grand strategy,** Libya posed less of a challenge in terms of simple operational considerations. As wars of choice go, Libya was very close to easy mode. If we are going to be evaluating policies based on their similarity to video games,*** we should at least understand the medium.


*”Push a button and end the slaughter” is still not something that happens anywhere, virtual or tangible. If Pincus meant “like the intervention to save Benghazi did,” then it’s worth noting that while Benghazi was saved, slaughter resulting from the Libyan Revolution continues, and has spilled over into the now-destabilized Mali.

**Just set them aside for a moment! They’re important and better arbiters of action than feasibility, and ideally should guide policy more than media pressure, whim, or “oh, that’d be easy to do? Well, let’s do that, then!,” but policy is hardly ever formed from ideological purity.

***Which we shouldn’t do, that’s crazy talk. I like games and see value in them as simulations, but there’s a very finite amount of light that games can shed on international conflicts.


About kdatherton

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2 Responses to Syria is Libya on Nightmare Mode

  1. doylechrist says:

    See, when you are old, the video game reference may take on a different meaning. On first read, I took his analogy as a reference to the Gulf War in which we glued ourselves to CNN as the scud stud described the scenes. Back then, it was often referred to as a video game war. Sanitized, digital, removed. I take it as Pincus offering caution against any notion that waltzing into Syria would be a Libyan style cakewalk. Militarily that was but strategically, it was a disaster. Syria’s potential for interventional catastrophe is exponentially greater.

    • kdatherton says:

      true! I forget the nuance contained within generational differences. I don’t disagree with Pincus in his assessment of Syria, or in his skepticism about the success of intervention. I just think videogames are a richer metaphor (perhaps for younger folk) than he gives them credit for.

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