Archive | August, 2011

SOMALIA TRAGEDY, ISLAMIST EXTREMISTS AND CLIMATE CHANGE SKEPTICS

27 Aug Map of Somalia-1

[This post is written jointly with Hilal Elver. It reflects our experience as members of the Intellectual Forum that held meetings in Istanbul during May 2011 parallel to the UN inter-governmental conference on the problems and future of the LDCs, and our continuing role in the Academic Council that was established by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to provide an intellectual input to the policy forming process, both by way of critique and prescription.]

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by Hilal Elver and Richard Falk

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         The unfolding tragedy in East Africa is a dramatic indicator of what humanity as a whole can expect in the near future ‘if business as usual’ continues to be the phrase that most accurately expresses global climate change policy. The unwillingness of the developed countries to provide adequate humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable peoples in the world also helps explain this worsening regional tragedy has reached such dire extremes.

East Africa is currently suffering from its most severe drought in 60 years. According to UN estimates 12.4 million people are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance. 25% of Somalia’s 7.5 million people are currently displaced. Famine has spread to all parts of the Horn of Africa. As we write, 4.8 million Ethiopians, 3.7 million Somalis, and 3.7 million Kenyans are being catastrophically victimized.

Somalia has been hit worst of all countries in the region. An aggravating cause of the Somali crisis arises from the fact that much of the countryside is controlled by the Islamist Shabab movement that forbids most international aid agencies from entering territory controlled by its forces. More than 100,000 people have arrived in Mogadishu in the last two months in desperate search for food and subsistence, some by walking as much as 100 kilometers.

It is generally accepted that the larger continental expanse of sub-Saharan Africa is now the region of the world most negatively affected by global climate change, particularly by global warming. Such a generalization needs to be qualified as not all African countries are suffering from climate change to the same extent, the degree of impact from country to country reflecting varying conditions on the ground. Farms in moist or dry savannah are more sensitive to higher temperature and reduced rainfall than are farms in humid and forest areas. These latter areas may actually experience higher agricultural yields despite adverse climate change trends.

Drought is not a stranger to the peoples of East Africa. According to Klaus Toepfer, the former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program: “It is a natural climatic phenomenon. What has dramatically changed in recent decades is the ability of nature to supply essential services like water and moisture during hard times. This is because so much of nature’s water and rain supplying services have been damaged, destroyed or cleared. These facts are especially poignant when you factor in the impact of climate change which is triggering more extreme weather events like droughts.”  These remarks support our belief based on the evidence that climate change is a significant element of African humanitarian crises. Toepfer’s words also show us why human induced environmental damage further aggravates preexisting adverse environmental and economic conditions.

It is not possible to determine conclusively that the famine in Somalia is attributable to climate change alone or even predominantly, or is a result of the wider environmental context, as well as a belated consequence of colonial and post-colonial exploitations of Somali resources. A post-colonial example of this Western role in aggravating Somali misery involved the destruction of Somali coastal fisheries due to the activities of high technology distant fishing fleets that virtually rendered traditional Somali fishing obsolete.

Also contributing to Somalia’s downward spiral was illicit toxic dumping by global corporate interests. With no patrols along its shoreline after the collapse of government in 1991, Somalia coastal waters became a dumping area for the developed world’s toxic wastes resulting in severe damage to the fish stocks upon which the Somali fishing industry and population had so heavily depended. Westerner economic actors were desperate to discover places to escape from strict and expensive environmental regulations in their own countries that regulated the discharge of their industrial wastes. As a result, the lives and livelihoods of Somali fishermen along Somalia 3333-km coast were being seriously jeopardized.

 

It is tragic to realize that piracy has replaced fishing as the dominant coastal means of livelihood for these traditional Somali communities. This piracy has been criminalized, but without   account being taken of Western responsibility for depriving Somalia of a leading source of its food and in the process destroying employment opportunities in a previously vibrant commercial activity.

Taking advantage of this difficulty of connecting the dots of causation, the climate deniers are making the most of a highly selective use of meteorological statistics to insist that there is no occasion for special worry or measures in response to Somalia’s crisis. These problems should be interpreted as nothing more threatening than a routine phase of the African weather cycle that the region has been living with for centuries.

Climate change skeptics are not alone in their contentions, but have some unexpected allies. Somalia’s extremist Islamist group, allegedly linked to Al Qaida, Al Shabab, contends that the “drought is caused by Allah and people should pray for rain.” This evasion of problem-solving by reliance on a pre-modern religious mentality has become politically fashionable even in Western countries. Not long ago the governor of Oklahoma urged residents to pray for rain to end a state-wide drought and the Republican Party presidential hopeful, Rick Perry, preceded the recent announcement of his candidacy by holding a public prayer meeting. Another American presidential candidate, Michelle Bachmann, sounds remarkably similar to Al-Shabab militants when she warns that advocates of action to reduce greenhouse gasses are displacing the work of God.

In addition to its presumed distrust of foreign intrusions, Al-Shabab has a material reason for its belief that the Somali drought and famine were not a result of human behavior. A UN investigator, Matt Bryden, recently concluded that “Al-Shabab has evolved from a small, clandestine network into an formidable organization that generates tens of millions of dollars a year by organizing charcoal export to Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.” Bryden suggests that the deforestation that has taken place in areas under the control of al-Shabab have probably contributed to the famine by their indiscriminate plunder of forest areas. It is well established that unregulated deforestation is responsible for reduced rainfall.

To be sure, Al-Shabab has its reasons for denying that the famine in Somalia is due to environmental damage, including the detrimental impacts of global warming. Perhaps, if its membership were more sophisticated about the nature of climate change, Al-Shabab would shift their argument, and blame the West, which can be presented as overwhelmingly responsible for the harmful impacts currently being felt in Africa due to almost two hundred years of industrialization with its accompaniment of unregulated greenhouse gas emissions. There is little serious dissent from the view that it is the engines of modernity that have led the climate change challenge to reach its present crisis proportions.

It seems likely that the leaders of Al-Shabab do not have the scientific background needed to appreciate the seriousness and nature of climate change as it bears on the future of Somalia. Their leaders do seem to operate themselves according to the major premise of capitalism, to wit, that selfish economic interests come before the wellbeing of people, even those starving to death. From such a perspective, the leadership of Al-Shabab rejects what must seem to them to be an unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of their country by the international community, plausibly fearing that their own political existence might be jeopardized under the pretext of carrying out ‘humanitarian’ operations under Western auspices. Recalling the disastrous effort of the Clinton presidency to impose a centralized governmental structure on Somalia in 1993, this suspicion about Western intentions seems reasonable, although tragically costly for the people on the ground daily suffering from inadequate supplies of affordable food.

In such a situation it is not surprising that many Somalis are blaming Al-Shabab for the severity and prolongation of the food shortage, which has weakened the movement’s political credibility with the populace. Islamists in Somalia themselves now seem deeply divided. Earlier Al-Shabab enjoyed considerable popular support during a period when chaotic conditions prevailed due to the absence of a competent  government. Prior to the onset of the current emergency in 2006, the majority of the Somali people longed most for an end to the lawlessness and rampant corruption that has paralyzed the country since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, and saw Al-Shabab as offering this prospect.

For all these reasons, combined with the abject poverty of the country, Somalia has become the international poster child for failed states, environmental disaster, and human misery. This has also made Somalia seem to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world, both because of these extreme internal conditions and due to its appropriation as a base for international terrorism. Despite these perceptions, the Turkish Foreign Minister observed in relation to the Turkish Government’s state visit to the country in August of 2011 that “there is no reason that Somalia could not recover from its problems.”

Despite the crisis, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, took the highly unusual step of visiting Somalia in the company of several ministers in his cabinet, their families, and a group of Turkish business leaders. This was truly a dramatic initiative that contrasts with the approach taken toward Somalia in recent years by other governments. It a fact that despite its woes Somalia is one of the few countries in the world that no Western leader has dared to enter over the course of the last 20 years, presumably fearful of the chaos and unrest, as well as concerned by security threats posed by religious extremists, warlords, criminal gangs, and worried about the health risks associated with the uncontrolled presence of several lethal infectious diseases.

Against such a background, it is only natural to wonder ‘why’ Turkey has decided to take such an initiative at this time. Several important symbolic and functional reasons have been given by Turkish officials to explain the timing and purpose of this high profile diplomatic event situated outside of Turkey’s geographic orbit of normal diplomatic activity. “The purpose of the visit was first symbolic,” Erdogan declared. He went on to say “[t]here was a perception that nobody can go to Mogadishu; we try to destroy the perception. We came, many others can come.”

There is a second kind of explanation not far in the background. A few months ago Turkey hosted in Istanbul the Fourth United Nations Least Developed Countries (UN-LDC) Summit. Somalia may well be the most afflicted of the 48 LDCs, and so Turkey singling the country out in this way to call attention to its broader concern with world poverty. After all, the LDC summit was held under Turkish auspices because Ankara had expressed a willingness to take on the responsibility for shaping UN policy towards these ‘poorest of the poor’ during the next 10 years. In view of this initiative it would have been difficult for the Turkish government to close its eyes to the desperate situation in Somalia. Such a show of indifference would also have seemed incompatible with its professed desire to do everything possible to help address the challenges faced by the LDCs.

Thirdly, as a devout Muslim, Prime Minister Erdogan was undoubtedly moved by the ordeal confronting the Muslim community in Somalia during the holy month of Ramadan. As all Muslims are deeply aware, this is a time when religious devotion encourages generosity to others less fortunate. The Somalia case presents a compelling opportunity for Erdogan and associates to fulfill their religious duties during Ramadan.

It is also relevant to observe that shortly before the Somalia visit, Turkey hosted a major meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) at which $500 million was set as a goal pledged by the assembled government to assist drought and famine stricken Somalis. The Turkish government is additionally sponsoring a national campaign for Somali emergency relief that is seeking to raise an additional $250 million in funds from private Turkish donors.

In the course of an impassioned speech to Muslim leaders during the OIC meeting, Erdogan provocatively called negative attention to the luxurious life styles of the leaders of oil rich countries. Some commentators interpreted these remarks as an attack on capitalism, but it is more reasonably understood as a warning and diatribe against the excesses of some capitalists! And the importance of acting responsibly toward those who are less fortunate.

We need remind ourselves that Turkey has done very well in the Erdogan period of leadership by adhering to economic policies based on free market principles. Erdogan and the AKP are far from the orientation of such avowedly anti-capitalist leaders as Hector Chavez or the Castro brothers. Yet his ideological affinities with capitalism does not mean that Erdogan is not responsive to the social principles of Islam, or that he is being inconsistent when he calls for what used to be promoted by Western leaders under the banner of ‘compassionate capitalism.’  In some speeches to Turkish audiences Erdogan does not hesitate to use language that incorporates Islamic thought, which probably comes very naturally to him when he speaks, as he often does, spontaneously, and without a prepared text. This Muslim influence or style of advocacy was not common in Turkey during the Kemalist years when strictly secular politicians were running the country, and it remains somewhat unfamiliar to those Turks whose identity is derived from European models.

Erdogan also does not hesitate to criticize the West. While in Somalia, he said: “The tragedy in Somalia is testing modern values. What we want to emphasize is that the contemporary world should successfully pass this test to prove that Western values are not hollow rhetoric.” Such a direct challenge seems warranted when the leading Western countries have turned increasingly away from the humanitarian emergency conditions affecting not only Somalia, but all the LDCs. Also neglected by the affluent societies are the large enclaves of extreme poverty in a variety of countries that have relatively high average per capita incomes, but skewed income distribution patterns favoring the ultra-rich and containing deep pockets of extreme poverty.

We can affirm the Turkish initiative associated with the recent visit to Somalia as an imaginative and brave step to mobilize public concern throughout the world. The real test of its worth comes during the years ahead when Turkey and AKP will be under self-imposed pressures to take the lead in tangibly exhibiting empathy for the most deprived segments of humanity along with displaying an increased sensitivity to the seriousness of the climate change dimensions of these economic conditions.  Of course, this Turkish role should not be interpreted as offering a free ride to other countries, including those in Europe, North America, and Asia. The governments of these countries have the resources and responsibilities to act as world citizens in an era of ever increasing globalization both in relation to pursuing economic policies that could dramatically reduce world poverty and taking on climate change for which their past and present activities are primarily responsible.

Libya without Qaddafi: Decoding an Uncertain Future

26 Aug

 

            There is so much spin surrounding the Transitional National Council victory in Libya that it is difficult to interpret the outcome, and perhaps premature to do so at this point considering that the fighting continues and the African Union has withheld diplomatic recognition on principled grounds.  Almost everything about the future of Libya has been left unresolved, beyond the victory of the rebel forces as massively assisted by NATO air strikes as well as a variety of forms of covert assistance given to the anti-regime Libyans on the battlefield. Of course, in the foreground is the overthrow of a hated and abusive dictator who seemed more the outgrowth of the surrealist imagination than a normal political leader who managed to rule his country for more than 42 years, and raised the material standards of the Libyan people beyond that of other societies in the region.  

 

It does seem that the great majority of the Libyan people shared with others in the region a thirst for political freedom. The initial uprising seems definitely inspired by the Arab Spring.  But unlike the other populist challenges to authoritarian Arab states, in Libya the anti-regime forces abandoned nonviolent tactics at early stage and became an armed uprising. This raised some doubts and widespread fears about the onset of a civil war in  the country, but it also brought forth a variety of explanations about the murderous behavior of the regime that left its opponents no alternative.

 

Now with Qaddafi gone as leader, if not yet captured or killed, a new central concern emerges. What will the morning after bring to Libya? At the moment it is a matter of wildly divergent speculation as the unknowns are so predominant. There are a few observations that clarify the main alternatives. More favorably than in Egypt or Tunisia, this populist uprising possesses a revolutionary potential. It has seems poised to dismantle the old order altogether and start the work of building new structures of governance from the ground up. The fact that the TNC resisted many calls for reaching an accommodation or compromise with the Qaddafi regime gives the new leadership what appears to be a clean slate with which to enact a reform agenda that will be shaped to benefit the people of the country rather than foreign patrons. This opportunity contrasts with the messy morning after in Egypt and Tunisia where the remnants of the old order remain in place. In Cairo numerous demonstrators were sent to jail, and reportedly tortured, after new demonstrations were held in Tahrir Square led by those fearful that their political aspirations were being destroyed by the same old bureaucracy that had provided Mubarak with his oppressive structures of authority that made the country safe for neoliberal exploitation and unsafe for constitutional democracy.  Let’s hope that the TNC can sustain Libyan unity and commit itself to the building of a democratic constitutional order and an equitable economy step by step. It will not be easy as Libya has no constitutional experience with citizen participation, an independent judiciary, or the rule of law. Beyond this, political parties, non-state controlled media, and civil society were absent from Libya during the Qaddafi era.

 

And then there is the big possible problem of NATO’s undefined post-Qaddafi role. The air war inflicted widespread damage throughout the country, and already NATO entrepreneurial interests are staking their claims, and TNC spokespersons have indicated that those who lent their cause support will be rewarded in appreciation. Fortunately, NATO does not purport to be an occupying force, but the United States and the principal European countries that took part in the war are pulling strings to release billions of dollars of assets of the Libyan state that were frozen in compliance with Security Council Resolution 1973 and various national directives, and may well be playing a major advising role behind the scenes. Will this dynamic of enabling the new leadership to achieve a finance recovery and reconstruction in Libya come as part of a package containing undisclosed political conditions and economic expectations?  There are signs that oil companies and their government sponsors are scrambling to get an inside track in the current fluid situation. It does not require paranoia about imperialist geopolitics to take note of the fact that the two major military interventions in the Arab world within the last decade were both situated in significant oil producing countries whose leadership rejected integration into a world order in which global energy policy was under the firm control of the market interests of international capital. And, oh yes, the other likely target of major Western military action is Iran, and it too ‘happens’ to be a major oil producer. Let us recall that the UN failed to respond in oil-free Rwanda in 1994 when a small expansion of a peacekeeping presence already in the country might have saved hundred of thousands from an unfolding genocidal onslaught. In the realm of world politics, it may be worth observing, coincidences rarely happen.

 

There are also significant unresolved issues associated with the precedent set by the UN in authorizing a limited protective intervention that when acted upon ignored the guidelines set forth by the drafters of the Security Council resolution. The actual scope and ill-disguised purpose of the intervention shortly after it became an operational reality in Libya was to tip the balance in a civil war and achieve regime change. Such goals were never acknowledged by the pro-intervening governments in the course of the extensive and sharp Security Council debate, and had they been, it is almost certain that two permanent members, China and Russia, given their reluctance to approve of any use of force in the Libyan situation, would have blocked UN action by casting a veto. The UN is confronted by a dilemma. Either it refuses to succumb to geopolitical pressures as was the case when it withheld approval from the United States plan to attack Iraq in 2003, and steps aside while a so-called ‘coalition of the willing’ is hastily formed to carry out an attack, or they grant some kind of limited authority that is cynically overridden by the far more expansive goals of the intervening governments as has been the case in Libya. Either way respect for the authority of the UN is eroded, and the historical agency of geopolitics is confirmed.

 

In the Libyan case, the evaluation of the UN role is likely to depend on what happens in the country during the weeks and months ahead. If a humane and orderly transition takes place in the country, and national resources are used to benefit the people of Libya and not foreign economic interests, the intervention will be effectively marketed as a victory for humane governance and a demonstration that the international community can engage in humanitarian intervention in an effective and principled manner. If the country descends into chaos as the Libyan victors fight among themselves for the political and economic spoils or take revenge on those associated with the Qaddafi regime, the intervention will be retrospectively discredited. This will happen also if the country becomes one more neoliberal fiefdom in which the majority of the population struggles to subsist while tiny elites sitting in Tripoli and Benghazi collaborate with foreign financial and corporate interests while skimming billions off the top for themselves.

 

This assessment of the intervention as a precedent is based on considering only its consequences. As such, it does not take into account the importance of maintaining as a matter of principle, the integrity of UN authorizations of military force both in relation to the UN Charter and with respect to confining the military undertaking to the strict limits of what was authorized. I will consider in a companion essay this issue of sustaining constitutionalism and the rule of law when the Security Council authorizes military action.

 

The Tet Offensive in the Rear View Mirror of the Afghanistan War: Disengaging from Problematic Interventions

24 Aug

Prefatory Note: A few days ago I published an earlier version of this article in Al Jazeera English, but have revised it to take account of the developments in Libya of the last several days, as well as some comments about the criminality of prior Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The essential points remain that foreign military intervention, even with a UN mandate, is costly, unclear in its impact on human rights, and likely to interfere with political dynamics governed by the play of internal forces and the logic of national self-determination.

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On January 31, 1968 the combined forces of North Vietnam (DRV or Democratic Force of Vietnam) and the NLF (National Liberation Front) launched a spectacular series of attacks throughout the contested territory of South Vietnam. As many as 100 Vietnamese cities and towns were simultaneously attacked, 36 of 44 provincial capitals were captured, and the once impregnable American Embassy complex in Saigon was penetrated and several guards killed. These attacks were all repelled in a few days, with the Vietnamese taking huge losses, 37,500 estimated deaths, which came on top of 90,000 lost soldiers in the preceding months. The American commander, General Westmoreland, had confidently predicted prior to the Tet Offensive that the NLF would never be able to replace such losses, and victory for the United States in the Vietnam War was near at hand.

 

            During the Tet Offensive the American losses were announced as 2,500. This ratio of comparative deaths, and the fact that the DRV/NLF could not maintain their presence in any of the urban areas that they briefly controlled, led Westmoreland and counterinsurgency experts to claim a military victory for the American side. Add to this the evidence that the Vietnamese objective of these coordinated attacks on the points of Saigon’s governmental control in Vietnam was not primarily to kill or even to seize control of the country but to inspire popular uprisings by the people of Vietnam, and these hopes of Hanoi never materialized anywhere in the country.  This ‘defeat’ was acknowledged by the DRV commander General Tran Do who confirmed that the purpose of the Tet Offensive had been to stimulate a spontaneous uprising among the Vietnamese population against the continuing American military occupation of their country. This convergent perception of the Tet Offensive by both sides seemed authoritative, and yet, and this is my point, yet it proved to be politically irrelevant. General Do’s words uttered after the fact emphasize the secondary objective of the Tet Offensive: “In all honesty, we didn’t achieve our main objective, which was to spur uprisings throughout the South. Still, we inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans, and their puppets, and this was a big gain for us.”

 

            But what made these American casualties so important was not the loss of life. What made these death so deeply disturbing was their unsettling impact on both backers and opponents of the war in Washington, the backers because their belief that victory was at hand was shattered and the critics because the lies emanating from Washington had been finally exposed. If General Westmoreland was not deceived or lying the American casualties sustained during the Tet Offensive could not have happened given the supposed decimation of the Vietnamese enemy. If these expectations of an imminent victory had not been discredited by the Tet Offensive, the dramatic event would have been coolly diagnosed as a desperate lost gamble by the Vietnamese, and rather than turning attention to an exit strategy would have led to an intensified effort to achieve total victory on behalf of the Vietnamese regime in Saigon that had welcomed the American intervention.

           It was the shock effect on the American mood about the war that transformed the Tet Offensive into a big victory for the Vietnamese regardless of what their intentions for the mission had been or the unacceptable level of losses sustained.  The scale, scope, and surprise of the Tet Offensive had an immediate traumatic impact on American public opinion and related Congressional support for continuing the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese military leadership was also slow to appreciate the real importance of Tet. As General Do put it,  “As for making an impact in the United States, it had not been our intention—but it turned out to be a fortunate result.” The Tet Offensive was interpreted by all sectors of opinion on the war as opening a ‘credibility gap’ between the government and the citizenry. This gap consisted of the space separating the excessively optimistic assessments relied upon by the White House to quiet opposition to a growingly unpopular war from the reassurances being given to the increasingly restive backers of the war. The Tet Offensive conclusively demonstrated to the vast majority of the American people that the prior claim by Washington that the Vietnamese adversary was abjectly knocking on the door of defeat, on the verge of surrender or collapse, was far removed from the truth. The Tet Offensive had such an unsettling effect on the American body politic that the incumbent president and assumed candidate for reelection in 1968, Lyndon Johnson, acknowledging his failure to achieve victory in the Vietnam War abruptly withdrew from the presidential race, declared a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam allegedly to give diplomacy a chance to end the war through negotiations, and firmly rejected a request from U.S. commanders in Vietnam for a troop surge.

 

          It is true the war dragged on for several more years with heavy casualties on both sides, but the Tet Offensive radically altered the American goal from ‘victory’ to ‘peace with honor,’ that is, ‘defeat in disguise.’ At the time Henry Kissinger, the foreign policy architect of the Nixon presidency, was only hoping for ‘a decent interval’ between the American withdrawal and the collapse of the client regime in Saigon. The subsequent Christmas bombing of Hanoi and the disastrous air attacks on the Cambodian countryside (that led directly to the Khmer Rouge genocidal takeover of the country) were part of the futile effort by the Nixon/Kissinger presidency to produce the token victory that they called ‘honor.’ Actually, when the war finally came to an end in 1975, the dominant image was of Vietnamese collaborators with the American intervention desperately seeking to escape from Vietnam by clamoring aboard a helicopter taking off from the roof of the U.S. embassy. Not honor but humiliation, chaos, and defeat became the end game for the United States in Vietnam, or put differently, the price paid with thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and American lives to avoid wounding American pride and geopolitical standing was all in vain.

 

                To this day, counterinsurgency professionals in Washington think tanks and the Pentagon contend that the United States snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. This distorted reading of history partly explains why American policymakers have failed (and refused) to learn the defining lesson of the Vietnam War: the virtual impossibility in the early 21st century of turning military superiority on the battlefield enjoyed by an intervening party into a favorable political outcome against an adversary that effectively occupies the commanding heights of national self-determination. That is in this century the symbols of legitimacy count in the end for more than drone technology and the weaponry of destruction. This American and NATO learning disability has led directly to embarking upon subsequent legally and strategically problematic interventions, especially in the period since the 9/11 attacks of a decade ago: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Military superiority succumbs over time to the strong historical tides of the last seven decades favoring the forces aligned with the politics of self-determination. Among other explanations for this conclusion that cuts against the grain of political realism is this:  the intervening side gets tired of an unresolved struggle long before fatigue sets in for the side defending national territory. An Afghan aphorism expresses this insight: “You’ve got the watches, we’ve got the time.” Since 1945 nationalist endurance consistently outlasts and outwits geopolitical endurance, and by so doing eventually offsets the asymmetries of military capabilities.

 

          But my reason for recalling the Tet Offensive is less about this primary feature of conflict in our time, especially in the setting of what Mary Kaldor has usefully called ‘new wars,’ than it is to comment upon contradictory perceptions of victory and defeat. These conflicts tend to be resolved on political battlefields far from sites of military violence, although each struggle has its own story to narrate. What seems to count most in the end is a decisive shift in political perceptions on the home front of the intervening side.  Neither the successful response to the attacks in terms of casualties or restored control of the cities in South Vietnam, nor the failure of the attacks to be followed by popular uprisings by the Vietnamese people mattered so far as the historical significance of the Tet Offensive is concerned. It was also not relevant that the military appraisal made by both sides was wrong, although the Vietnamese side was less wrong as the spike in American casualties added strongly influenced the political reassessments of the conflict by the White House and caused widespread consternation among the American people that increased pressures to withdraw from the war.

 

              This recall of the Tet Offensive is not meant to be an exercise in historical memory or even in the differences between how the military thinks and how the political process in a liberal democracy works.  It is rather a frustrated commentary on the increasingly absurd refusal of the Obama presidency to acknowledge the American failure to defeat the Taliban and put the governmental structure in Kabul under pro-Western secular custody, the role confidently assigned years ago to Hamid Karzai.  As with Vietnam, the American public is continually being told by the military commanders and political leaders about how well things are going, and even when unexpected setbacks do take place, these are quickly dismissed as ‘one-off’ incidents that should not become occasions for reappraisal. There was a recent disappointment in some liberal establishment circles within the United States that were growing skeptical about continuing the intervention in Afghanistan when the execution of Osama Bin Laden in May was not followed by a credible and liberating claim from Washington of ‘mission accomplished,’ which would have positively reclaimed the notorious miscalculation by George W. Bush in the early months of the Iraq War. Such a claim would have played well throughout the American heartland, and probably given Obama a clear path to an electoral victory in 2012. Public opinion according to recent polls would applaud an accelerated withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan: 59% of Americans would like to see all American troops taken out of Afghanistan immediately or within a year, while only 22% believe that the United States has sufficiently defined goals to make the war worthy of American military engagement.

                The American people have become generally opposed to foreign military intervention, although this attitude could quickly be reversed in the event that foreign extremists were able to inflict major damage on perceived American interests. According to Newsmax, August 11, 2011, only 24% of Americans support the U.S. military role in Libya, and 75% believe that the United States should not engage in overseas military action “unless the cause is vital to our national security.” It is obvious that for most Americans Libya was never seen as ‘vital,’ and the justification relied upon by the White House did not even pretend that ‘security’ was the rationale for military intervention, but invoked ‘humanitarism,’ which never qualifies in political arenas as a cause worth dying for. Of course, leaders will always argue that an intervention undertaken is vital, and could hardly do less, considering that lives of their citizens are put at risk. But what these poll results show is the common sense currently displayed by American public opinion: reject humanitarianism as an adequate basis for war making along with distrust of the post-facto security arguments put forth by elected leaders; healthy doubts about the self-serving claims of the military to be closing in on victory if only the public is patient and the leaders dispatch more troops. But such wars go on and on, however dysfunctional, the bodies pile up, and the political opposition is disregarded, and this despite what would have hoped was the cautionary influence exerted by the realization that the American empire teeters on the edge of financial disaster.

              True, after months of NATO bombing the anti-Qaddafi movement seems on the verge of victory. As with Kosovo in 1999, the Libyans seem overwhelmingly opposed to Qaddafi dictatorial rule and solicited the intervention. In these circumstances military intervention can succeed, but at a high price in terms of devastation and civilian collateral damage, especially in a casualty-safe war carried on from the air. Yet the outcome yet make clear, as the respected foreign policy expert on the UN and the Arab World Phyllis Bennis reminds us, whether it will be the Libyan people or the oil companies and NATO that benefit from the war and the destruction of the Qaddafi regime. We do already know, or at least should realize, that the whole NATO operation sets a bad precedent for the UN. Its authorization of the use of force back in March 2011 in Security Council Resolution 1973 was framed in terms of protecting civilians in imminent danger of massacre, but the NATO operation was carried out in such a manner as to achieve regime change by tipping the balance in what became an all out civil war. In this respect that guidelines in 1973 were so vague and loose as to be worthless or NATO exceeded the authority granted, despite the language of ‘all  necessary measures,’ and there was no effort to contain the military operations within the intended scope of 1973. In this latter regard, the five abstaining states (China, Russia, India, Brazil, and Germany ) are derelict in their failure to insist on adherence to the guidelines associated with civilian protection, which certainly did not extend to bombing the personal compound of Qaddafi or the state TV facilities.

              Several observations follow. During the Vietnam Era public opinion counted for more when the government was making its political calculations about continuing an unpopular war. Unquestionably, there has been a decline in democratic accountability in the United States with respect to war/peace issues. In part, this reflected the presence of a robust peace movement during the Vietnam War, which in turn arose as an angry response to the military draft that threatened the wellbeing of middle class America. Now there is no draft, the war is fought with professional soldiers, drones, and private contracting firms. Furthermore, the weaponry and tactics are designed to minimize American casualties relative to the destruction inflicted. Unfortunately, the lessons learned from a decade of warfare in Vietnam were not about whether to intervene in new wars but how. It may be that in place of international law and political prudence, both of which should rationally discourage interventions at odds with the logic of self-determination, the new source of restraint will derive from fiscal pressures to reduce defense spending. So far the militarist consensus in Washington has largely exempted the bloated U.S. defense budget from the knives of the cost cutters, who openly advocate socially regressive cost-cutting while calling for increases in defense spending. Even the more socially sensitive Obama democrats have largely continued to acquiesce in this willingness to treat the defense budget as non-discretionary, as well as proudly claiming to have increased military assistance to Israel. 

              When an American helicopter was shot down on August 6th, the 66th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, and all 30 persons aboard were killed, including 22 members of the Navy Seals Elite Unit, I hoped that this would administer a Tet-like shock. The Obama administration could have used the occasion to say that it was time to bring American troops home and end involvement in the struggle over the political future of Afghanistan. It is common knowledge by now that the Afghanistan War is being fought against the nationalist Taliban and on behalf of a corrupted and incompetent Kabul regime for the political control of the country. It should be understood that the prior period of Taliban rule exhibited fundamentalist rule in an unusually violent and harsh form that exposed the Afghan population to massacres and crimes against humanity. Whether today’s Taliban, a less centralized organization would repeat its crimes of the past unknown in advance, and does lead to reasonable disagreement about the best course of action, which seems to be the choice of what seems to be ‘the least worst option’ at the moment.

             The unresolved conflict in Afghanistan is a clear and complex instance of the sort of ‘new war’ that will not be decided once and for all on the battlefield by soldiers and weapons or through the anachronistic agency of foreign intervention. The strategic justifications advanced to justify the war—preventing a future sanctuary for a reconstituted Al Qaeda and avoiding the takeover of Pakistan by extremists– seem highly questionable. It is more plausible to promote such security goals by closing out a military intervention that fans the flames of anti-Americanism, gives extremism a good name in Pakistan, and exhibits once again the impotence of American imposed military solutions.

 

Such an analysis yields a single moral, legal, and prudential imperative: when foreign intervention is losing out to determined national resistance, leave the country quickly, stop the killing immediately, and declare victory with pomp and circumstance or leave in dignified silence acknowledging the uncertainties surrounding the future, especially as to whether the Afghans on their own can work out accommodations and whether the Taliban this time round is ready to compromise and is less dogmatic in its understanding of Islamic governance. At this stage of the conflict in Afghanistan these are the only outcomes within reach for the United States. Moving toward their embrace might also help avoid such misadventures in the future. This would require replacing the palace guard in Washington that has been calling the shots in American foreign policy for many years. I admit that a Beltway realist reading these musings would likely respond: “Dream on!” And that is the problem!

Syria: Geopolitical Mentoring versus Rehab for Addicted Geopolitical Leaders

19 Aug


             On August 18th President Barack Obama rendered judgment and gave guidance. While affirming that “[t]he future of Syria must be determined by its own people” he added these words, “Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way.” And so comes the conclusion: “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” This American leader’s advice was orchestrated to coincide with the release of a joint statement along similar lines by the leaders of Germany, France, and Britain, the three most important countries in Europe, that instructed President Assad to “leave power in the greater interests of Syria and the unity of its people.”

 

            More than advice was being offered. Sanctions against Syria were imposed and tightened involving energy imports, business connections, and weapons. Other countries were urged to stop their support for the Syrian regime, and “get on the right side of history.” Such words seemed appropriate given the violent behavior of the regime toward its people, except that the source of this utterance was the American Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, who herself might well have been the recipient of the same message, refusing heeding this prudent admonition in the course of conducting American foreign policy during the Obama presidency.

 

            The Republicans, always quick to seize any opportunity for a partisan snipe, attacked Obama for waiting so long before telling the Syrian leader to get out of his home town. With a perfect ear for geopolitical mentoring, the leading Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, was clear in his portrayal of the proper American role: “America must show leadership on the world stage and work to move these developing countries toward modernity.” Of course, decoding ‘modernity’ suggests the United States model of government and economy: be like us and you will be modern, and successful.

Not a message likely to get a favorable hearing in Pakistan or most anywhere in the South, but maybe such ‘modernity’ is what the people of Alabama and Arizona desire.

 

            But it was not only Republicans that had this idea that the United States offers the world the best model of humane and legitimate governance. Hilary Clinton made clear that governments sharing American values should join together in opposing the Syrian regime through the use of what she called “‘smart power,’ where it is not just brute force, it is not just unilateralism,” but rather it is behavior shaped by shared commitments to “universal freedom, human rights, democracy, everything we have stood for and pioneered over 235.” Clinton seems to be proposing what was previously called ‘a coalition of the willing’ in relation to the wars fought over Kosovo in 1999 and Iraq since 2003.  But what makes these sentiments worthy of comment is their seeming unawareness of how starkly they contradict the America record throughout those 235 years. And, of course, it is not only a matter of bad history as the ongoing interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya are pretty much displays of brute force and, if not unilateralism, then at least West-centric interventions that sought to superimpose a West-oriented secular governing process onto the internal workings of the politics of self-determination.

 

            President Obama’s guidance on Syria is equally suspect, although less blatantly so. What does it mean to tell the established leadership in Damascus to step aside while affirming the role of the Syrian people in shaping their own future? Such inescapable incoherence must be hiding something deeper!

 

            This theatrical exhibition that I am describing as ‘geopolitical mentoring’ seems both regrettable and discrediting. To begin with, the words and ideas relied upon by Obama and Clinton seems to emanate directly from the good old days of undisguised colonialism. The language chosen suggests a kind of ideological regression that is forgetful of the very flow of history that Secretary Clinton was keen to invoke by way of discouraging such countries as Russia, China, India, and Iran from maintaining normal relations with the Damascus regime. What this self-righteous posturing discloses is the familiar imperial trait of talking endlessly about what others should do but never listening to what others tell us to do. A half century ago Adlai Stevenson made a similar observation when he quipped, “the item of technology that America most needs is a hearing aid.” Without genuine listening there is no learning. This is the price being paid by all of us for this self-entrapment of the imperial mind.

 

            But there is also the unwillingness to address global problems in a more plausible and constructive manner. To be sure Obama/Clinton wish to rely on collaborative diplomacy, a contrast with the greater unilateralism of the Bush II presidency, so as to shed the image and avoid the costs of acting alone. But is this really the best that smart power can do in the 21st century?  If the NATO intervention in Libya is one instance of such multilateralism then it hardly brings hope or engenders support. What is needed is an institutional capability detached from the priorities of the geopolitical mentors, what I have previously called for in the form of a UN Emergency Disaster Relief and Atrocity Prevention Force (this is along the lines proposed in “UN Emergency Peace Force,” ed. Robert C. Johansen, published in New York City, 2006, on behalf of Global Action to Prevent War, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and the World Federalist Movement, http://www.responsibilitytoprotect.org/files/UNEPS_PUBLICATION.pdf; similar ideas also depicted by Citizens for Global Solutions in an instructive paper “UN Emergency Peace Service: One Step Towards Effective Genocide Convention,” http://globalsolutions.org/files)

 

            Getting back to geopolitical mentoring: it sounds condescending even if sincere in the context. It is relevant that none of the emerging geopolitical actors, including Brazil, China, and India have joined the American led choir, and told Assad to move on. Even Turkey that has leaned strongly on Assad in recent weeks to stop state violence, provide reforms, and abide by human rights has refrained from joining in the call for his removal from power. Instead of geopolitical mentoring, it is time for some kind of geopolitical rehab program that might allow the United States to grasp the character and full extent of its actual role in the world, which continues to be dominating by an addictive relationship to military solutions. Why else linger in Iraq and Afghanistan, why kill babies in Libya? There are better ways of exhibiting empathy for the victims of state violence and brutality!

 

            There is also the issue of double standards that constantly taints the moral core of American foreign policy. How can the silence about Israel’s oppressive occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem otherwise be explained or the unlawful collective punishment of the people of Gaza that have endured a harsh blockade that has persisted for more than four years be allowed to go on unchallenged? Or why the indulgence of Saudi Arabia’s systemic suppression of women?  The architects of grand strategy in Washington know that smart power in world politics has been and still is all about manipulating double standards. Given the words quoted above this means that our current political leaders are either not smart or they are merely running moral interference for the smart policymakers who remain faithful to an ethos of raison d’etat, which entails that law and morality be damned.

 

            I do not deny that state atrocities of the sort the world has been witnessing in Syria and Libya during recent months are unacceptable and should not be tolerated. Moral globalization is incompatible with viewing the boundaries of sovereign states as absolute or treating their leaders as situated beyond legal and moral standards of accountability. Yet, it is a sorry commentary on present global conditions if the best we can do is either mount an airborne military intervention that destroys much of what is to be saved or engage in self-satisfied exercises in geopolitical mentoring.

 

            Of course, the future should not be entrusted to the political leaders representing sovereign states. It is up to the peoples of the world to propose and demand better solutions for the unfolding global tragedies that are sidestepped by the egocentric behavioral goals of national governments. Populist complacency is part of what gives this geopolitical posturing a semblance of credibility in our post-colonial era. A benign human future, whether in relation to state/society relations and human rights or the abatement of climate change, depends ultimately on a struggle for peace and justice mounted by energized and dedicated transnational movements. Only a global populism of as yet unimaginable intensity and vision, can provide us with the possibility of a hopeful future that we earthlings need and desire. It is too soon to say whether the Arab Spring is this first glimmering of a Global Spring, or just another thwarted challenge to an exploitative and oppressive established order? 

VIII.19.2011          

The Afghanistan War in the Mirror of the Tet Offensive: When ‘Defeat’ Became ‘Victory’

14 Aug


             On January 31, 1968 the combined forces of North Vietnam (DRV or Democratic Force of Vietnam) and the NLF (National Liberation Front) launched a spectacular series of attacks throughout the contested territory of all of South Vietnam. As many as 100 Vietnamese cities and towns were simultaneously attacked, 36 of 44 provincial capitals were captured, and the impregnable American Embassy complex in Saigon was penetrated. These attacks were all repelled in a few days, with the Vietnamese taking huge losses, 37,500 estimated deaths, which came on top of 90,000 lost soldiers in the preceding months. The American commander, General Westmoreland, had confidently predicted prior to the Tet Offensive that the NLF would never be able to replace such losses, and victory for the United States in the Vietnam War was near at hand.

 

            During the Tet Offensive the American losses were announced as 2,500. This ratio of comparative deaths, and the fact that the DRV/NLF could not maintain their presence in any of the urban areas that they briefly controlled, led Westmoreland and counterinsurgency experts to claim a military victory for their side. Add to this the evidence that the purpose of these coordinated attacks on the points of governmental control in Vietnan was not to kill or even to seize control of the country but to inspire popular uprisings, and these never materialized.  This was acknowledged by the DRV commander General Tran Do who affirmed that the purpose of the Tet Offensive was to stimulate a spontaneous uprising among the Vietnamese population against the American military occupation of the country. This perception of defeat by both sides seemed authoritative, and yet, and this is the point, irrelevant. In General Do’s words at the time: “In all honesty, we didn’t achieve our main objective, which was to spur uprisings throughout the South. Still, we inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans, and their puppets, and this was a big gain for us.”

 

            But far more consequential than the American casualties that was certainly upsetting to backers of the war in Washington, was the traumatic impact of the Tet Offensive on American public opinion and related Congressional support for continuing the Vietnam War. This impact was also foreign to the military imagination of the Vietnamese at the time. As General Do put it,  “As for making an impact in the United States, it had not been our intention—but it turned out to be a fortunate result.” Exposed by the Tet Offensive was what was called at the time ‘the credibility gap,’ the space between the optimistic assessments by the White House that the war was being won, and the realities of the conflict.  The Tet Offensive was understood at the time throughout the United States as a massive refutation of the claim that the Vietnamese adversary was knocking at the door of defeat, on the verge of surrender or collapse. As a result of the Tet Offensive, Lyndon Johnson decided to withdraw from the presidential race for his reelection in 1968, declared a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam to give diplomacy a chance, and rejected a request from Saigon for additional American troops.

 

It is true the war dragged on for several more years with heavy casualties on both sides, but the Tet Offensive changed the American goal from ‘victory’ to ‘peace with honor,’ that is, ‘defeat in disguise.’ The subsequent Christmas bombing of the North and the disastrous invasion of Cambodia in 1970 were part of the bloody effort during the Nixon/Kissinger period of American leadership to produce ‘honor.’ Actually, when the war finally came to an abrupt end in 1975, the dominant image at the time being that of Vietnamese collaborators with the American intervention desperately seeking to escape from Vietnam by clamoring aboard a helicopter taking off from the roof of the embassy. Not honor but humiliation, chaos, and defeat became the end game for the United States in Vietnam, or put differently, the price paid with lives and devastation to achieve what was called ‘a decent interval’ between the American departure and the collapse of the client regime in Saigon.

 

To this day, counterinsurgency insiders contend that the United States snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and this conviction has partly explained why American policymakers have failed (or refused) to learn the defining lesson of Vietnam: the virtual impossibility in the early 21st century  of turning military superiority on the battlefield enjoyed by the intervening side into a favorable political outcome against an adversary that occupies the commanding heights of national self-determination. This learning disability has led directly to subsequent failed efforts, especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Military superiority succumbs over time to the strong historical tides of the last seven decades favoring the logic of self-determination. Among other explanations for this conclusion that cuts against the grain of political realism if this:  the intervening side gets tired of a unresolved struggle if it last more than a few years. As the Afghan saying goes: “You’ve got the watches, we’ve got the time.” Nationalist endurance is far stronger than is geopolitical endurance, and this acts as an equalizer with respect to the asymmetries of military capabilities.

 

But my reason for recalling the Tet Offensive is less about this primary feature of conflict in our time, especially in the setting of what Mary Kaldor has usefully called ‘new wars,’ than it is to comment upon contradictory perceptions of victory. These conflicts tend to be resolved on political battlefield far from the sites of military struggle, although each in its own way. What seems to count most in the end is a decisive shift in political perceptions on the home front of the intervening side.  Neither the successful response to the attacks in terms of casualties or restored control of the cities in South Vietnam, nor the failure of the attacks to be followed by popular uprisings mattered in the end so far as the historical significance of the Tet Offensive is concerned. It hardly mattered that the military appraisal made by both sides was wrong, although the Vietnamese side was less wrong as the spike in American casualties added considerable weight to the political reassessments of the conflict by the White House and aroused much anger among the American people.

 

This recollection is not meant to be an exercise in historical memory or even in the differences between how the military thinks and how the political process in a liberal democracy works.  It is more an expression of frustration about the unwillingness of the Obama presidency to acknowledge the failure of the mission to achieve its goals in Afghanistan.  As with Vietnam, the public is continually told by the military commanders about how well things are going, and even when unexpected setbacks take place, these are discounted as ‘one-off’ incidents that should not be allowed to become occasions for reappraisal. There was recent disappointment in some circles within the United States that were skeptical about continuing the intervention in Afghanistan when the execution of Osama Bin Laden was not followed by a credible and liberating claim from Washington of ‘mission accomplished,’ an ironic recourse to the Bush miscalculation in the early months of the Iraq War. Such a claim would have played well throughout the American heartland, and probably given Obama a clear path to reelection in 2012. Public opinion according to recent polls reinforces such an interpretation: 59% of Americans would like to see all American troops taken out of Afghanistan immediately or within a year, while only 22% believe that the United States has sufficiently defined goals to make the war worthy of American military engagement.

 

This same skepticism among Americans about foreign military intervention now applies more generally, although it could shift quickly if a foreign source of terrorism was able to inflict major damage on perceived American interests. According to Newsmax, August 11, 2011, only 24% of Americans support the U.S. military role in Libya, and 75% believe that the United States should not engage in overseas military action “unless the cause is vital to our national security.” It is obvious that the Libya does not qualify as ‘vital,’ and the justification relied upon did not even pretend that ‘security’ was the rationale for military intervention, but invoked ‘humanitarism.’ Of course, leaders will always argue that an intervention undertaken is vital, and could hardly do less, considering that lives of citizens are put at risk. But what these poll results show is the relative wisdom of the unacknowledged force of public opinion: reject of humanitarianism as an adequate basis for warmaking and disbelief in the post-facto security arguments put forth by elected leaders; healthy doubts about the self-serving claims of the military to be on the verge of victory. But such wars go on, however dysfunctional, the bodies pile up, and the political opposition is disregarded, and this despite the American empire teetering on the edge of financial disaster.

 

Several observations follow. During the Vietnam Era public opinion counted for more when the government was making its political calculations about continuing an unpopular war. Unquestionably, there has been a decline in democratic accountability in the United States with respect to war/peace issues. In part, this reflected the presence of a robust peace movement during the Vietnam War, which in turn arose as a response to  the military draft that touched the lives of middle class America. Now there is no draft, the war is fought with drones and private contracting firms. Furthermore, the weaponry and tactics are designed to minimize American casualties relative to the destruction inflicted. Unfortunately, the lessons learned from a decade of warfare in Vietnam were not about whether to intervene in new wars but how. It may be that in place of international law and political prudence, both of which should rationally discourage intervention contra the political weight of self-determination, the new source of restraint will derive from fiscal pressures to reduce defense spending. So far the militarist consensus in Washington has largely exempted the bloated U.S. defense budget from the knives of the cost cutters, who while besides being social reactionaries are military hawks. Even the more socially sensitive Obama democrats have largely continued to acquiesce in this willingness to treat defense spending as non-discretionary, as well as sustaining Israeli militarism with enhanced annual subsidies.

 

I had hoped that the helicopter incident on August 6th, the 66th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, in which 30 persons died, including members of the Navy Seals Elite Unit, would provide the excuse the Obama administration should have been waiting for to say finally that it was time to bring American troops home and end involvement in the struggle over the future of Afghanistan. It is common knowledge by now that the Afghanistan War is being fought against the nationalism Taliban and on behalf of a corrupted and incompetent Kabul regime for the political control of the country. This is a clear instance of a new war that will not be decided once and for all on the battlefield by soldiers and weapons or through the anachronistic agency of foreign intervention. The strategic justifications for the war in relation to a future sanctuary for a reconstituted Al Qaeda or in relation to the destabilization of Pakistan are extremely speculative, and seem more intelligently addressed by withdrawal from a military engagement that fans the flames of anti-Americanism, gives extremism a good name, and manifests the impotence of American imposed military solutions.

 

It adds up to a single moral, legal, and prudential imperative: when in doubt, stop the killing and the dying!

 

Can Humanitarian Intervention ever be Humanitarian?

4 Aug


             Not since the debate about the Kosovo War of 1999 has there been such widespread discussion of humanitarian intervention, including the semantics of coupling ‘humanitarian’ with the word ‘intervention.’ At one extreme of this debate about language stands Gareth Evans, former Foreign Minister of Australia, who is a staunch advocate of displacing the discourse on ‘humanitarian intervention’ by relying on concept of ‘responsibility to protect’ (known as R2P). Evans was, in fact, co-chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty that came up a decade ago with the idea of R2P. This approach to intervention was skillfully marketed it to the international community, including the United Nations. Arguing the conceptual case for R2P, Evans writes, “[b]y changing the focus from the ‘right’ to ‘responsibility,’ and from ‘intervene’ to ‘protect,’ by making clear that there needed to be at much attention paid to prevention as to reaction and non-coercive measures, and by emphasizing that military coercion—which needed to be mandated by the UN Security Council—was an absolute last resort in civilian protection cases.’ [Evans, “Humanitarian intervention is only justified when…” Global Brief, Summer 2011, 60.]

 

Insisting that the coercive actions in the Ivory Coast and Libya show the benefits of this approach, as contrasted with the supposed failures of the 1990s to take action in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo, Evans feels so vindicated by recent events as to make the following plea: “So let us please lay ‘humanitarian intervention’ language to rest once and for all.” This raises three questions: should we? will we? does it really matter? My answer to the first two is ‘no,’ and to the third, ‘not much.’ My basic problem with the R2P approach is that it downplays the role of geopolitics in the diplomacy of both decisions to intervene and to not intervene. By hiding this fundamental element in the decision process behind a screen of moralizing language talking of R2P rather than humanitarian intervention invites misunderstanding, as well as encourages imperial ambitions. 

 

            At the other semantic extreme is Michael Walzer, who writing in Foreign Affairs, insists that the idea of humanitarianism has become a central feature of world politics in the early 21st century. He starts his article with some hyperbolic language to this effect: “Humanitarianism is probably the most important ‘ism’ in the world today, given the collapse of communism, the discrediting of neoliberalism, and general distrust of large-scale ideologies.” [“On Humanitarianism,” Foreign Affairs 90(No.4): 69-80.] I find such a sentiment to be so exaggerated as to defy reasoned discussion. One wonders has how such an incredible sentence escaped the scrutiny of the eagle-eyed editors of Foreign Affairs. Walzer appears to be suggesting that humanitarianism now eclipses realism and nationalism as an influential global force in the world of ideas and statecraft, which is not only farfetched and wrong, but especially surprising considering that Walzer is without question one of the world’s most respected and influential thinkers on the ethical dimensions of relations among sovereign states. His overall effort in the article is to demonstrate that this humanitarian impulse is a matter of duty for governments, and should not be treated as a species of charity, a potentially valuable distinction that becomes clear when he comes to discuss humanitarian intervention without even mentioning the R2P approach, presumably because it obscures rather than illuminates the underlying issues of choice.

 

            Walzer looks behind the semantics of intervention to appraise the responses to situations where populations are genuinely at risk. He faults the UN Security Council as having a dismal record in the past due to its failures “to rescue those in need of rescuing,” giving Rwanda  and Bosnia as examples. Walzer goes on to conclude that the “UN Security Council rarely acts effectively in crises, not only because of the veto power of its leading members but also because its members do not a strong sense of responsibility for global security, for the survival of minority peoples, for public health and environmental safety, or for general well-being. They pursue their own national interests while the world burns.” [75] This passage sounds to me like an old-fashioned reaffirmation, after all, of realism and nationalism, and is far more descriptively credible than Walzer’s assertion that humanitarianism is the recently emergent dominant ideology.

 

            Coming to specifics, Walzer understandably turns his attention to Libya

as having generated a new debate about humanitarian intervention. He summarily dismisses leftist suspicions about Western recourse to hard power solutions to international conflict situations, but also acknowledges that this NATO intervention does not seem to be succeeding in making good on its initial humanitarian claim. Nevertheless, he gives the intervenors a surprising clean bill of health as far as their intentions are concerned: “Their motives were and are humanitarian, but not sufficiently shaped by considerations of prudence and justice.” [77] Walzer is alive to the complexity of international political life that makes him skeptical about endorsing generalized solutions to such general problems as what to do about a menaced civilian population.  Instead he advocates a situational approach to gross civilian vulnerability. He argues that any state can serve as a humanitarian agent even without necessarily receiving permission from the international community for a use of non-defensive force. In Walzer’s words, “[t]here is no established procedure that will tell us the proper name of the agent.” He gives approval to several non-Western examples of humanitarian intervention: Vietnam in 1978 contra the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, India in 1971 contra Pakistan in what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh, and Tanzania in 1979 contra the bloody tyranny of Idi Amin in Uganda. These uses of force are endorsed as serving humanitarian ends even though they failed to receive any mandate to act from the Security Council and although in each instance, despite rescuing a vulnerable population, the predominant motivation to intervene seemed clearly non-humanitarian in character. In contrast, Walzer pushing to the outer limit his central thesis as to the rise of  humanitarian diplomacy writes “In these circumstances, decisions about intervention and aid will often have to be made unilaterally…The governing principle is, Whoever can, should,” [79] which is the second extraordinary statement made in his article.

 

Such a volitional framework governing interventionary initiatives negates, without even an explanatory comment, the essential effort of contemporary international law to prohibit all international uses of force that are neither instances of self-defense (as defined by the UN Charter in Article 51) nor authorized by the UN Security Council. In this respect, Walzer seems to be endorsing a kind of ethical anarchism as the best available means for achieving global justice in these situations. At this point he veers back to his confidence in the purity of geopolitical motives by contending that ‘what drives’ these uses of force “is not only humanitarian benevolence but also a strong sense of what justice requires.” [79] This is written as if imperial ambitions even if packaged as ‘grand strategy’ should not be a concern. What about the protection of vulnerable states that are victimized by geopolitical maneuvers associated with resources, markets, and congenial ideology? It might be well to recall that it was a notorious tactic of Hitler’s expansionist foreign policy to intervene or threaten to do so for the sake of protecting German minorities being allegedly abused in neighboring countries.

 

            Returning to a comparison of perspectives, Evans sets forth a series of guidelines that he believes will make it more likely that uses of force in these interventionary settings will be respectful of international law while at the same time recognizing the sensitivities in the post-colonial world about giving approval to military encroachments upon sovereign space, which are invariably of a North/South character if acted upon by the United Nations, that is, the North as agent of intervention, the South as the site where force is used. His five criteria are law-oriented, and deferential to the authority vested in the Security Council: (1) seriousness of the risk; (2) purposeful and discriminate use of force to end threat of harm; (3) force as a last resort; (4) proportionality of military means authorized with respect to the humanitarian goals of the mission; (5) the likely benefit of the contemplated use of force for those being protected. Since Evans, unlike Walzer’s willingness to live with unilateralism, seeks a consensual foundation for such uses of force, he insists that the final mandate for an R2P operation must be shaped within the five-part framework set forth and based on a formal Security Council authorization. Walzer argues more opportunistically, geopolitically naively, that states should be empowered to act even without proper authorization if they have the will and means to do so. His examples  of humanitarian interventions by non-Western states (Vietnam, India, Tanzania)were all neighbors of the target state, and at the time contested to varying degrees due to the play of geopolitical forces, not as a reflection of different levels of humanitarian urgency. In this regard, the strongest humanitarian argument was undoubtedly present in support of the Vietnam intervention in Cambodia to stop a massive genocide, but also the most controversial as it contravened the American policy at the time of placating China so as to increase pressure on the Soviet Union.  Acting under the umbrella of R2P is most likely to generate intense controversy when the United States acts with or without European backing (Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Libya), especially if the humanitarian claim seems marginal or as a cloak hiding strategic and imperial goals. Only in the Libyan debate did R2P figure prominently, and maybe led several of the members of the Security Council, including China and Russia, to abstain rather than to vote against SC Resolution that gave NATO the green light to commence its military campaign.

In this sense, Evans’ claims need to be taken seriously, but not because they represent a step forward, but rather because they weaken the overall effort of the UN and international law to minimize war and military options in international political life.

 

            What makes these discussions serious is their bearing on life and death issues for vulnerable peoples and their supposed benefactors. On the one side, Noam Chomsky is right to worry about ‘military humanism,’ which he depicts as the grand strategy of hegemonic political actors being cleverly disguised as global public works projects. In effect, humanitarianism is the pathetic fig leaf selected to hide the emperor’s nudity. Chomsky points to ‘double standards’ as proof positive that whatever the explanation given for a particular intervention by the United States or NATO, the claimed humanitarian motivation is window dressing, and not the primary consideration. He treats Western silence about decades of brutal Turkish suppression of the Kurdish movement for human rights as an illuminating example of geopolitical blinkering whenever it seems inconvenient to take action on behalf of a victimized minority. In my view, the most extreme instance of double standards involves the failure of the UN System or ‘a coalition of the willing’ to take any action protective of the Palestinian population enduring an oppressive occupation for more than forty-four years,

despite the direct UN and colonialist responsibility for the Palestinian ordeal.  

 

On the other side of this debate among progressives is Mary Kaldor who worries that without the intervention option dreadful atrocities would take place with even greater frequency. She supported intervention to protect the endangered Albanian population of Kosovo, fearing that otherwise the genocidal horrors of Bosnia would likely have been repeated, including even the risk of reenacting the grisly massacre of Srebrenica. At the same time, Kaldor was not indifferent to the risks of great power abuse, and tried, in the manner of Gareth Evan, to condition her endorsement of intervention with a framework of guidelines that if followed would make the restraints of international humanitarian law applicable and minimize the exploitative opportunities of intervening powers. This framework was embodied in the report of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo on which Kaldo was an influential member. That report also took account of the inability of the intervenors to win UN Security Council approval (in this instance, because of the expectation of Russian and Chinese vetoes). The report took the position that in situations of imminent humanitarian catastrophe it would be legitimate to intervene if the capabilities were available to exercise effective proportionate force, although unlawful given the UN Charter prohibition on all non-defensive claims to use force. It is, of course, not generally desirable to create exceptions to restraints that enjoy the status of fundamental rules of international law, but it can seem even more discrediting for the role of law in world affairs to be paralyzed in humanitarian emergencies by rigid rules and procedures that produce inaction, and expose vulnerable peoples to the ultimate abuse of genocide or severe crimes against humanity.

 

There is no right and wrong in such a debate. Both orientations are in touch with relevant realities, and there is no principled way to choose between such contradictory concerns beyond an assessment of risks, costs, and likely effects of intervention or inaction in each instance depending on its overall properties. Judgment here is necessarily operating in a domain of radical uncertainty, that is, nobody knows! This raises the crucial question, what to do when nobody knows? It is this unavoidable responsibility for a decision when the consequences are great and available knowledge is of only limited help that points to the difficulties of the human condition even putting to one side the distorting effects of greed, ambition, civilizational bias, and the maneuvers of geopolitics. The late great French philosophical presence, Jacque Derrida, explored this dilemma in many discourses that related freedom to responsibility, with some collateral damage to Enlightenment confidence in the role of reason in human affairs. For Derrida, making such decisions is an unavoidable ordeal that is embedded in what it means to be human, combining helplessness with urgency.

 

            I would suggest two lines of response. First, there are degrees of uncertainty, making some decisions more prudent and principled, although inevitably with the unclear contours with respect to envisioning outcomes given ‘the fog of war.’ In this regard everything is guesswork when it comes to composing a balance sheet of horrors. Still, it seems plausible to insist that Rwanda in 1994 was a lost opportunity spare many lives taken in a genocidal onslaught, a claim strengthened now and later by the preexisting presence of a UN peacekeeping force in the country, and the informed judgment of both the UN commander on the ground and many observers. General Roméo Dallaire indicated at the start of the crisis that 5,000 additional troops plus a protective mandate to act from the UN could have prevented most of the killings, estimated to be over 800,000. (Dallaire commanded the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda; see also Linda Malvern, Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide, Verso, 1994.). From the perspective of prudence, the fate of minorities trapped in major states is almost always an unattractive option, although non-military initiatives of support and censure may have positive effects in some instances. It is unattractive because the costs would be high, the target state has major capabilities, the scale of an effective intervention would exceed the political will to protect a threatened minority, and most important, there would be a high risk of starting a general war.

 

The Libyan intervention in 2011 was falsely labeled and the mission authorized was light years away from the operational goals of the NATO operation. In effect, this amounts to a disguised form of an unlawful use of force, but coupled with a dereliction of duty on the part of the Security Council to ensure that the gap between its mandate and the actual operation was closed. Besides, those who are being protected, or more accurately, being helped in a struggle for control of the country, were a shadowy organization thrown together on the spot, lacking in cohesion, and almost from the outset having recourse to violence in a manner that violated the spirit and character of the inspiring Arab Spring popular movements in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. At the same time, there was a humanitarian challenge, as the dictatorial leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, was delivering bloody rants and the civilian population, under siege in Benghazi, was definitely in a situation of imminent risk. Under these circumstances, a carefully delineated protective move under UN auspices could have been justified, but it would have depended on placing NATO troops in situations of potential danger. The kind of air campaign that has been waged by inflating and exceeding the actual UN mandate depicted in Security Council Resolution 1973 has been discrediting for UN peacekeeping and authority. It has been ineffectual in stopping the violence in Libya, and likely responsible for its spread. At the same time, so far the intervention has resulted in not a single NATO casualty (while causing a rather large number of Libyan civilian deaths). Whether the stalemate in the conflict will produce a negotiated compromise remains uncertain, but the shaping and execution of the intervention is suggestive of the inadequacy of either allowing the decisions and policies relating to humanitarian catastrophe to be made by governments on the basis of their own calculus or through reliance on a UN framework that is susceptible to major geopolitical manipulation.

 

There is a preferable, although imperfect, alternative that has been around for several years: the establishment of a UN Emergency Peace Force (UNEPF) capable of being activated through the joint authority of the Secretary-General and a super-majority of two-thirds of the membership of the UN Security Council in reaction to either a humanitarian catastrophe arising from political policies or conflict, or a natural disaster that exceeds the response capabilities of the national government. The UNEPF should ideally be funded through some kind of small global tax imposed on the sale of luxury goods, international travel, currency transactions in financial markets, or some combination. If this proves to be impractical, then voluntary contributions by non-permanent members of the UN Security Council would be acceptable. The whole idea would be, to the extent possible, to break the present links between ‘humanitarian interventions’ and geopolitics. The only means to do this would be through the creation of a maximally independent international agency for such undertakings that would engender confidence in its good faith and through its prudent tactics and effective operations. Unlike such delegated interventions as the Gulf War of 1991, the Kosovo War of 1999, and the Libyan War of 2011, UNEF would rely on tactics that were geared toward minimizing risks for a threatened population and would operate under the strict supervision of the mandating authorities while carrying out an interventionary or relief mission. UNEPF capabilities would be constructed from the ground up, with separate recruitment, training, doctrine, and command structure.

 

            This seems like such a sensible innovation for the benefit of humanity that it may seem puzzling why it has never gained significant political support from UN members, but it should not be. For decades global reformers have been advocating a UN tax (often named a ‘Tobin Tax’ after James Tobin, an Nobel economist who first floated such a proposal) and the kind of UNEPF recommended above (for instance, carefully outlined in a proposal developed by Robert Johansen in collaboration with other scholars, a prominent political scientist who has for years been associated with the Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies at Notre Dame). Such a practical solution to this daunting challenge is not on the table because it would weaken the leverage of geopolitical actors over the resolution of conflict situations. Reverting to the earlier discussion of Walzer, it is precisely because humanitarianism is marginal to the conduct of world politics that makes the UNEPF proposal seem utopian. In relation to Evans, geopolitical forces can accommodate his framework, which is probably well-intended, but provides intervening states with a rationalization for their desired uses of force without significantly interfering with the discretion to intervene and not to intervene. As the Libyan debate and decision confirms, geopolitics remains in control despite recourse to the framing of action by reference to R2P. If we want more principled and effective action in the future, it will require a great deal of pressure from global civil society in collaboration with middle powers, the sort of coalition that led to the surprising establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002 over the opposition of such international stalwarts as the United States, China, Russia, and India.

 

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