Building Real Peace

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

By Robert C. Koehler

“Imagine if we sent 5,000 well-trained nonviolent peacekeepers from throughout the world to protect civilians and work with local civil society in building the peace.”

Indeed, imagine if we knew that doing this was an option.

Mel Duncan, cofounder of an organization called Nonviolent Peaceforce, was talking about Syria, the country we almost bombed and maybe still will. In lieu of tossing godlike lightning bolts at Bashar al-Assad, “The CIA has begun delivering weapons to rebels in Syria, ending months of delay in lethal aid that had been promised by the Obama administration,” the Washington Post reported last week.

“The shipments began streaming into the country over the past two weeks, along with separate deliveries by the State Department of vehicles and other gear — a flow of material that marks a major escalation of the U.S. role in Syria’s civil war.”

So our war with Syria is only partially averted, apparently. It plunges back into something covert, minimally publicized, silently lethal, silently insane: our normal relationship with so much of the world. “. . . the efforts have lagged because of the logistical challenges involved in delivering equipment in a war zone and officials’ fears that any assistance could wind up in the hands of jihadists.”

The aim of peacebuilding is peace, not strategic advantage. It’s not an “international chess game” or any other sort of game. It’s basic humanity. With an extraordinarily small commitment of money — and a large commitment of courage — we could have peace and stability on this planet in relatively short order.

The main problem is that peacebuilding, at least in the volatile, resource-rich, up-for-grabs regions of the world, is also a complete irrelevance to most of the world’s elite political and corporate players, who are interested mainly in gaming the situation for strategic advantage — our children and our future be damned. I doubt we have any chance of moving out of this spiral of global violence until we figure out how to bypass them, that is to say, until we stop being spectators.

In the wake of the aborted U.S. missile assault on Syria, I heard encouraging talk about “the other superpower” — the ordinary people of the world, tired of war, organizing for peace. The late Dr. Robert Muller, former assistant secretary general of the United Nations, used that term in 2003 to describe the millions of people around the planet who took to the streets to protest the invasion of Iraq. The idea was: Now they’re back, demanding a non-military solution in Syria.

I believe there is another superpower out there, but it has to do better than show up once a decade to protest a looming war, then disappear when the headlines fade. This leads me back to my conversation the other day with Mel Duncan, whose U.N.-sanctioned NGO has been doing fieldwork in troubled regions of the world — such places as South Sudan, the Philippines, Myanmar and Sri Lanka — for the last 10 years.

The work is intense, culturally engaged, disciplined and professional. Field workers, who receive serious training before they are placed, build trust with every side in local conflict situations. They have succeeded in defusing violent tribal feuds and establishing weapon-free zones — always the long, slow, hard way, from the ground up, by working with local peacemakers and convincing all parties that their best interests are served by cooperation. This isn’t easy, but it’s doable.

“Peace can never be achieved using a one-size fits-all model, and effective, long-term projects that last are those that are created by the communities themselves,” concludes a Nonviolent Peaceforce paper on the establishment, by widespread mutual agreement, of a weapon-free zone in the town of Yirol, South Sudan.

Compare this slow, painstaking work with the U.S. government’s approach: When missiles are too politically awkward to use, it ships weapons and hopes they remain in the hands of our alleged allies among the rebels, which, of course, will never happen. All it’s doing is fueling the violence in yet one more country it fails to understand. Yet there’s no discussion in the mainstream media about alternative courses of action; and those who support “doing something” generally can’t imagine any form of intervention except military. This is a failure of imagination of enormous proportions.

The good news is that not everyone among the “other superpower” is content being a spectator. “We are advancing our exploration of a peacekeeping project in Syria,” Duncan told me.

A group of Nonviolent Peaceforce members visited the country in May. On their return, Duncan wrote in MinnPost: “At this very moment, courageous Syrian women and men are working for a peaceful settlement. They are mostly ignored by the world. Most of them are opposed to the government. Some lean toward the regime. They are doing peacebuilding and reconciliation work. They are establishing local cease-fire zones. While differing in viewpoints, they share a commitment to a peaceful, pluralistic and democratic Syria.”

If an international team of trained peacemakers could assist the locals and, at the same time, give their efforts global credibility and a place at the negotiating table — my God, give women a place at the table — the gangbangers wouldn’t have it all their way. As another Nonviolent Peaceforce paper notes:  “. . . in many cases, belligerent parties are not necessarily legitimate representatives of their societies.”

Duncan told me that it costs his organization about $50,000 a year to keep one peacekeeper in a given country. Compare this to the million dollars per year it costs the United States for each soldier in Afghanistan, or the billion dollars per month that Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimated it would cost to maintain a full-scale military operation in Syria of the sort originally planned.

“We’re the fiscal conservatives in this equation,” Duncan said. “We’re not your big-spending militarists.”

The Post article about weapons delivery notes that the U.S. has committed itself to “a $250 million effort to support moderate factions of the Syrian opposition” — a mere trickle of spare change, in Defense spending terms. Yet that’s what it would cost to sustain Duncan’s vision of sending 5,000 trained peacekeepers to Syria for a year.

This sounds like the next thing we, “the other superpower,” should demand. We stopped a war, or at least drove it out of the headlines and back into the shadows. Now let’s turn our effort toward building real peace.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at, visit his website at or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.