When to enter a neighbors war or family dispute

As I write this, our favored insurgents in Syria have been over-run by our disfavored insurgents, who may be over-run by the government we are trying to topple. We have also committed to help Japan and Vietnam in their disputes with China. I’ve also had the experience of dealing with a couple going through a bitter divorce. So here are five thoughts for myself and president Obama on getting involved in other people’s problems. I’ll hope that at least one person (me) listens.

1. Learn how to wait without committing to either side so you don’t step in something really smelly. Commiserate with both sides; yes you have grievances, yes what they’ve done isn’t nice. Suggest outside review. Just don’t commit until you feel comfortable sticking with this one side in victory, defeat, or (possible) reconciliation.

In a war, even simple gifts of food or transport are support; avoid these gifts, and especially avoid gifts to both sides. Assume any support to a side will be considered treason from the other side. Supporting both sides just causes havoc, and it’s always possible that your gifts will fall in the hands of the wrong side, as in Syria.

Being helpful isn't always helpful. Matthew Deffee, The New Yorker

Being helpful isn’t always helpful, or appreciated. Learn to wait. Matthew Deffee, The New Yorker

Remind yourself that disputes are a normal part of life, that peace always comes eventually, and that disputes are sometimes good in the long run. Offer sympathy only until you really want to support one side or the other — or until they make peace. When peace comes, it’s possible that the resolution will be better than the status quo-anti. As such, perhaps long-term non-intervention is the best cure. Time often answers what wisdom does not.

2.  If you choose to support a side, only support one that openly, and traditionally supports us. No Syrian leaders have openly pledged support to the US and its allies; why ally with someone who won’t support you? The enemy of your enemy might be another enemy, as with the Taliban. In a marriage dispute, lean to support your close relative or friend — it’s less offensive than the opposite, and less likely to cause hurt. As bad as it is when two sides attack each other, it’s worse when both attack you.

Only support someone who could rule reasonably honestly and well. Chaos is worse than a dictator. Kanin from the New Yorker.

Only support someone who could rule reasonably well. Chaos is worse than a dictator. Kanin from the New Yorker.

3. If you feel it’s important to act in a neighbor’s dispute, you don’t always have to ally with either side. You can retaliate for someone blowing up a ship or killing an advisor, or beating their children by intervening at a distance. Perhaps you can use a missile (ideally against a pointless target), or sanctions, or by the UN or a volunteer force (this tends to work for the US). In family disputes, it’s often best to send a councilor or the police or child protective services. There is room to escalate or de-escalate an action like this depending on how things play out. And it’s easier to distance yourself from a 3rd party’s actions than from one’s own. It is not necessary to support either side to achieve a personal goal or protect children in a divorce.

4.  If you decide to choose sides, make sure to keep in mind the end you seek: what good you want to do, what reasonable peace you seek, then act. Do not worry that you can not do everything, but make sure you target a viable end, and that you support a side that could win and rule. Try to pick a side that’s moral and perceived as legitimate from within, but if you can’t, at least pick one that could rule the country or manage the family without your help. Don’t support a loser, or one who can’t stand on his/her own. Chaos is worse than a crooked dictator; see, for example, the French Revolution. In a fight between parents, make sure the one you support could actually raise the kids. And once the goal is achieved, don’t stay too long. If a friend tells you to go, as in Afghanistan, leave quickly. Independence is the goal we hope for — for our children, our friends, and our neighbors.

Being a fair broker of peace is a great role -- in the proper time. From the New Yorker

Being a fair broker of peace is a great role — but only for the right person in the proper time. From the New Yorker

5. Be willing to serve as an honest broker of the peace. An honest broker is very valuable, and it requires that you’re perceived as unbiassed by both sides. Wait till the right moment before offering this service, and offer it like the precious jewel it is. Offer it when asked or when the fighting dies down. If the offer is refused, be willing to go away and return to the first rule. T. Roosevelt won the Nobel peace prize for ending the Russo-Japanese war because he was a good, honest broker: someone who understood the situation and could stand back when not needed.

Robert E. Buxbaum, Dec 18, 2013. Blessed are the peacemakers.