Why Syria Needs a Superhero (or 10)

Steve Saideman on the great power and even greater responsibilities that rebuilding Syria will involve.

By: /
8 May, 2013
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

In the discussions of Syria, most of the focus is on whether and how to intervene and break the current stalemate. Today I was reminded that the toughest challenges come after, not before an invasion.

At first, I wanted to reply that invasion or destruction is a two or three dimensional problem—how to use your land, sea, and air assets to destroy the forces of the other side—and that reconstruction/peacebuilding/nation-building is a seventeen dimensional problem.  But upon some reflection and twitter-inspiration (thanks mostly to @elSnarkistani), I figured the best way to illustrate how hard it is to rebuild a country and develop a self-sustaining political order would be to continue the Marvel Comics analogy.  This may seem silly, but it will make clear how truly complex and multi-dimensional these “whole of government” efforts are.


To start, the Hulk is probably the wrong superhero you want to deploy if you want to rebuild after the initial combat, as Hulk smashes pretty much everything.  Iron Man would be far more discriminant in the use of force.

Once you defeat the regime (Taliban, Hussein, Qaddafi, whomever), you need to develop rule of law—functional courts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, decent laws, and so on.  Why? Because if people do not trust the government to protect them and deal with their grievances, they will take matters into their own hands.  So, Daredevil, whose alter ego is a genius lawyer, Matt Murdock, would need to be deployed.  Far better than to whom NATO gave the Judicial Reform pillar in Afghanistan. (Italy.)

For reforming the indigenous military, given that counter-insurgency is best done by the locals, you would need someone who is well-respected but also capable of knocking heads judiciously: Captain America.

For developing the economy, Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four might be super-genius enough to turn a wrecked economy into something productive.  I am sure he could come up with inventions that could turn cluster bomb fragments, land mines, and all the other weaponry into the equivalent of ploughshares. 

One cannot underestimate the problems of water shortages and sewage treatment in the aftermath of a conflict.  Thus, Storm of the X-Men would be needed to provide enough rain for freshwater, and to re-direct the sewage away from the populace.

Black Panther is the obvious choice for helping out with governance, since he governs his own nation and is tough enough that we would not have to waste money on a security detail of private military contractors.

This post-conflict stuff is really hard, and just finding the right folks to put into the right positions requires a great deal of luck.  Or magic, which is where Doctor Strange and Scarlet Witch come in (or telepathy, so Professor X might be handy).

To deal with the crimes of the past, truth and reconciliation processes have become an important post-conflict management effort.  For this, Ghost Rider may be the best imagined character to provide incentives for people to admit what parts they played and what crimes they committed in the conflict. 

For public outreach, especially in these places where the population is heavily skewed towards those under eighteen, Spider-man seems to be the obvious choice.  His tragic backstory combined with his cool powers and his sense of humour make him a far more accessible Special Representative of the international community than most superheroes.

This only scratches the surface.  Of course, these superheroes only exist in our imaginations (and on many movie screens this summer).  Which means that it is up to ordinary humans to cooperate, coordinate, and engage in tremendously difficult efforts to re-build in the aftermath of conflict. 

What I am suggesting in this post is that the increased sense of urgency to act in Syria will not be met with a vigorous response.  Why?  Because we lack the superheroes needed to do the heavy-lifting—politically, economically, socially, and so on.  Moreover, most countries are exhausted by the efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and elsewhere AND face steep fiscal challenges at home.  And this leaves us where?  In the Land of Lousy Alternatives.™

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