“Lifeboat diplomacy” – a rejoinder to Sam Harris, suggesting America aught to abandon the “rogue nation” doctrine, and mediate in conflict exercising social intelligence and with foresight of outcomes


Your “waking up” podcasts are profoundly educational for those of us who are living in these conflicted times, and keen on seeing a better world order. Your interviews (https://soundcloud.com/samharrisorg) are far more interesting than the humdrum analysis of violent conflict as portrayed on news channels like CNN or BBC.

I am relieved to discover that I’m not alone in denouncing the hypocrisy of pacifism, a view I suspect many liberal thinkers would share at heart, but dare not speak openly about for fear of being stereotyped as rightwing fanatics. The world is full of truly errant beings, from whom we must protect ourselves violently when all else fails. In my own country, Sri Lanka, we had what amounted to a 30-year failed experiment in pacifism, having had countless peace talks1 with a particularly ruthless terror group – the Tamil Tigers2 – before the then Colombo administration finally abandoned their pacifist qualms and defeated the Tigers militarily in 2009.

The defeat of the Tamil Tigers caused collateral damage3 that was deeply distressing, nonetheless blameless in my personal opinion, given the context of the well-publicized, cautionary approach that successive Lankan governments adopted6, even during the height of the fierce, final battle at Puthukkudiyirippu. Much of the credible accounts of civilian deaths were “caused” by the Tigers, who held over a hundred thousand civilian hostages as human shields4, 5. The government forces gave up on heavy weapons and resorted to hand-to-hand combat: nonetheless the fierce fighting couldn’t prevent the loss of civilian lives.

Coming from a country that won a battle against one of the worst terror groups in the world (not a single shot has been fired after the defeat of the Tigers nearly seven years ago, and the country’s economy boomed afterward), I agree completely with the instincts of your esteemed guests like Willink and Reitz. When you do decide that violence is the only recourse, and when everyone involved agrees with you that the forces driving the perpetrators are unbelievably immoral and impossible to manage by peaceful means (in a secular, rational analysis of the problem), that you must strike hard to kill.

However, I see a marked difference between governments fighting terrorists in their own countries, and powerful nations attempting to improve the lot of failing nations like Syria (or Libya or Iraq in the past). I believe that powerful countries like the United States must adopt a more imaginative approach to deal with entire nations that are failing or appear to be “rogue nations” at first estimation, by recognizing them explicitly as entities different from terrorist groups, requiring a different strategy of engagement. Let me elaborate this idea by way of a response to an idea that surfaces in your podcasts.

It seems to me you advocate (or at least toy with) the idea that the establishment in the USA, whose constituent individuals have a superior ethical grounding as compared with the leaders of ISIS (or any other professed terror group or rouge regime), cannot make cataclysmic blunders because their moral instincts (and intentions) are fundamentally good.

Your own caricature of this undertone sounds like this, to me at least. “Someone as “radical” as Dick Cheney would probably not see Ramadi carpet bombed (if he could help it), he’d probably try to make Ramadi like Southern Nebraska instead. I wonder why people can’t see this [and perhaps reduce their dislike of America?]”.

I personally feel that the good intentions of the political leadership in the USA have little bearing toward America regaining global respect for its foreign policy. It is the track record of US intervention in conflicted zones that has tarnished America’s image as a “helpful superpower”. America engages with conflicted regions often sans correct intelligence, foresight, due diligence, and, most importantly, without an informed philosophy for “conflict resolution” appropriate for the 21st century.

Let us delve in the “bad attitude” that is historically evident in US foreign policy, when it comes to mediating in conflicts in remote parts of the world. It is this attitude that makes not only terrorists but also nice, intelligent people dislike American foreign policy, in spite of the fact that they adore American culture, learning and intellectual leadership. Since I am not an expert on the pertinent hotspots like Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan, and because I have better knowledge of America’s attitude and approach to Sri Lanka during and after the Elam Wars, many of my supporting arguments come from this comparatively nameless experience.

  1. An obvious reluctance to decisively share a view about a given conflict (i.e. name terrorists) until “shit hits the fan” – even in cases where evidence was overwhelming from the beginning, but political interest was averse. Instead, in the case of Sri Lanka, successive American administrations adopted the “politically correct” approach of “cautioning both sides” to stop violence, indirectly fuelling the legitimacy of the completely unethical aspirations of terrorists – the Tamil Tigers. Consider this statement by Obama six years ago: https://youtu.be/gahJwnMLwtE

This is clearly a well-intentioned statement in itself, arising out of Obama’s genuine concern for the lives of civilians held by the LTTE as human shields, during the last stages of the “humanitarian operation” to free the North and East of terrorism. So, what’s wrong with this seemingly humane face of America?

What’s wrong is that for 30 years there was a brutal terrorist movement whose underlying aspiration7, 8 was to ethnically cleanse the North and East of Sri Lanka, and to carve out a “Tamil homeland”, pushing aside demographic realities and all known moral principles. The LTTE leveraged the most inhuman tactics ever know to mankind to further this ambition, ranging from the ritual disembowelment of babies in remote villages, to the crippling tens of thousands of civilians with their trademark “Jony Batta” landmine9, to the use of pregnant suicide bombers, to the assignation of heads of state like Rajiv Gandhi of India or Ranasinghe Premadasa of Sri Lanka.

When the LTTE is on the brink of defeat by a democratically elected government after 30 years of hell, and after many failed attempts at peace – including an open invitation to govern the North and East of the country for 10 years, unfettered by elections10 – America pops up at the 11th hour to express its concern for civilian casualties. Too little, too late, too biased.

What would have been impactful diplomacy is if an American president had made a statement of concern 30 years before this date – when the LTTE had shot and killed the democratically elected (Tamil) Mayor of Jaffna and began lobbying internationally for Elam War 1 – urging the Tamil community to stop trying to correct the poor administrative legacy left by the imperial British in Sri Lanka through violence. Not once (even after the banning of the LTTE in the USA on the advice of the secret services) did an American president openly declare the LTTE’s political agenda (carving out a race-centric “Tamil homeland”) to be morally unacceptable and absurd, and urge the Tamil community to shun the LTTE’s violent culture and help return Sri Lanka to normalcy.

  1. Making a stand on conflicts based on sectarian lobbying, as opposed to a close study of the history, moral justification and ethical merits of the demands of the parties involved in a conflict. In other words, carelessly equating sensible democratically elected governments with terrorist organizations, because representatives of these terrorist ideologies have better lobbying power in congress or the white house.

The former Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka was viewed as an “unsound postwar peacemaker” by America, as openly acknowledged by John Kerry: https://youtu.be/Tnn-43OK4To

Kerry, whilst condemning terrorism unequivocally and condoning the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, goes on to insinuate that the Rajapaksa government didn’t have a sound approach towards “building the peace”. Furthermore, he says that civil liberties and a free press “are returning” since the government changed. This is intellectual dishonesty at its finest, considering the fact that it was a free press overflowing its gutters that caused the last change of government, with more or less every newspaper siding with opposition forces for years prior to the elections11! The slander against the government was so brazenly false at times that some officials challenged the press and won back their dignity in court. It didn’t help them however, as public opinion had shifted, and they bowed out of administration most democratically, as acknowledged earlier by Kerry himself12.

What we see here is more sinister than a mere absence of knowledge, or even a cheeky leaning towards one side of Sri Lanka’s political landscape by the US Secretary of State. The Rajapaksa administration steadily refused to give credence to the Tamil Tiger’s divisive, morally unsound “aspiration” for an ethnically cleansed “Tamil homeland”. What ordinary Americans might not know is that the Tamil diaspora led by the likes of Raj Rajaratnam invested buckets of money into pro-LTTE lobbying in the Americas. Rajaratnam may have been jailed for insider trading, but the opinion drummed up by Tamil Tiger lobbyists funded by the TRO (Rajaratnam’s proxy organization) had already taken root in the minds of “nice” people like Kerry. The Rajapaksa administration had become known as a “racist” one in Congress and the White House.

  1. A record of mercilessly allowing USA’s poor geopolitical relations with the two big powers (Russia, China) to shape opinion regarding the governments of smaller countries. There seems to be a particular fondness for “freedom fighters” that are opposed to governments of small countries, which are aligned with big powers that are considered “enemies” of America in one sense or another. Without going far, let us recall the Mujahideen and Taliban. It was genuinely “nice people” like Regan and Bush Senior who were in charge when these anti-Russian terrorists were funded by America, inclusive of Osama Bin Laden.
  2. A track record of American conflict management “diplomacy” having an underlying philosophy that is rather primitive, of the “Gog and Magog” (or brimstone and fire, call it what you will) variety. The world has seen 70 years of black-and-white US diplomacy, where countries are stack-ranked as “enemies”, “neutrals” and “friends”. Yesterday’s neutral becomes today’s enemy, if the said neutral happens to bolster their relationship with top ranking enemies. In the bad old days of Vietnam, open warfare against “evil communists” was the game plan. The salient technique these days for the punishment of “enemies” seems to be to orchestrate a “toppling of governments” by way of supporting civil disturbances led by otherwise marginal internal political factions, leading to “regime change”.

Syria is a classic example. Heartened by the “successes” (questionable really) in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the US/UK-backed freedom seekers tried to “drive out” the “horrible” pro-Russian (and anti-Saudi) Syrian administration. Unfortunately for everyone (and I really want to stress this – perhaps it would have been better for Syria if Assad had caved in), the administration fought back viciously, instead of rolling over like puppies, or getting lynched like Gadhafi.

As your rather unworthy pen-friend Chomsky might tell you (mind, I find you far more palatable than him), there were many other shining examples of this lousy American foreign policy.  Like annihilating millions of people in Vietnam four decades ago in a war fuelled by cold-war ideology, only to find the Vietnamese yearning to become best friends with America a mere two decades later. Why couldn’t America foresee this?

What the world needs instead is a sort of “lifeboat diplomacy” where America recognizes the threatened state of mankind and the planet as a whole, and “rows together” with misguided leaders of apparently rogue nations, displaying some “social intelligence”, foresight of outcomes and concern for the ordinary peoples of these nations. America must realize that it is a strong (if not the strongest) member in an ungainly team of “global leader” nations, who must somehow work together and not make the boat capsize. If there were a rogue member in a lifeboat battling the high seas, we’d somehow try to get her on our side and row together for the common cause of survival.

Someone might argue that this is high-flying ideology – how does one put this “lifeboat diplomacy” theory into practice? The answer is actually quite easy. Assad, whether we like it or not, was the legitimate leader of his country at the time the civil disturbances began, as accepted by the existing norms and traditions of that country. He was no more a tyrant than the Saud family, or Saddam when he was a darling of the American secret service14 – and arguably less so. In fact, Assad was probably closer to Bill Clinton in his personal moral standing, and gave wartime directives with good intentions, that cost human lives (recall your email exchange with Chomsky). No one wants to firebomb old Bill’s house (except perhaps Chomsky) in retaliation for his blowing up hundreds of civilians in a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, simply because of the unfortunate presidential order he gave, that caused massive collateral damage. Many however, consider Assad worthy of annihilation because of his geopolitical leanings.

If we were to consider the single biggest moral transgression Assad is accused of – the Ghouta chemical attack – the UNHCR’s independent international commission that investigated chemical weapon use confirmed that limited amounts of toxic chemicals were indeed used in four attacks in the civil war, but the head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro, said the U.N. could not determine who used chemical weapons in Syria after evidence had been delivered by the United States, Britain and France15.

If America had no part in instigating the civil disturbances in Syria, they should have immediately condemned it in principle. They could have negotiated their concerns with Assad, without pointing the finger at him instinctively. They should have obtained consensus in the UN and approached Syria respectfully, asking the administration to show reforms, in return for better commercial and strategic relations with the USA and the UK. They should have put a whole variety of carrots before the stick. As mentioned previously with the example of Sri Lanka, Americans sometimes don’t know the history and ethical underpinnings of a conflicted country well enough to jump forward, stick first. How can a nation that had absolutely false intelligence of WMDs in Iraq know for certain if Assad is truly an immoral being, a monster worthy of getting rid of at any cost to the country’s ordinary citizens, or the rest of the world for that matter (consider the migration crisis for example)?

So yes, Dick Cheney is a minor saint in comparison to Jihadi John… or perhaps even Assad. But if Cheney’s successor’s foreign policies include playing dangerous games in other countries like arming terrorists, then we must expect at least some intelligent sections of society to develop a distaste for America. America must be cautious of punishing entire nations and their populations, simply because their leaders won’t play ball with them, or align themselves with superior Western morals and political frameworks. They should stop carrying out experiments like supporting “Arab Springs” which invariably involve terrorism and bloodshed. America should stop acting like an unruly global cop thrashing hither and thither, and then refusing to take responsibility when innocents suffer.

Bernie Sanders, who appears a rather promising democratic candidate for the upcoming US election, has promised in New Hampshire to change America’s approach to conflict resolution, by discarding its role as “global policeman”. It may be that we finally have an American political leader who understands that while the greatest crime on earth is to do nothing in the face of human suffering, one can also escalate suffering by orders of magnitude through selfish, partisan interference and an absence of negotiation skills, borne of arrogance.


  1. Peace attempts during the war against terror in Sri Lanka: http://www.defence.lk/pps/peaceattempt.pdf
  2. Ruthlessness of the Tamil Tigers: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_attacks_attributed_to_the_LTTE
  3. Civilian casualties in Sri Lanka: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualties_of_the_Sri_Lankan_Civil_War
  4. Tigers using human shields: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/srilanka/5161118/Britain-accuses-Tamil-Tigers-of-using-civilians-as-human-shields.html
  5. Elam War 4: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eelam_War_IV
  6. Zero civilian casualty policy during the final battle: http://www.priu.gov.lk/news_update/Current_Affairs/ca201112/FINAL%20LLRC%20REPORT.pdf
  7. Thimpu Principles: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thimpu_principles
  8. Tamil Elam: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamil_Eelam
  9. Jony batta mine: http://www.sundaytimes.lk/081109/Plus/sundaytimesplus_00.html
  10. Tigers offered the North and East for 10 years: http://archives.dailynews.lk/2001/11/21/pol08.html
  11. Press freedom gone haywire in Sri Lanka: https://izombi.wordpress.com/2015/07/11/on-being-right-about-right-and-wrong/
  12. Kerry on democratic transition of power: https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/i-commend-president-rajapaksa-for-accepting-the-results-us-secretary-of-state/
  13. Rajaratnam funds the LTTE:



  1. America helped Saddam: http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/08/26/exclusive-cia-files-prove-america-helped-saddam-as-he-gassed-iran/
  2. Ghouta chemical attack: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghouta_chemical_attack


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