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Syria: What to Do Now

26 Feb

 

            There is a new mood of moral desperation associated with the ongoing strife in Syria that has resulted in at least 135,000 deaths, 9.3 millions Syrians displaced, countless atrocities, Palestinian refugee communities attacked, blockaded, and dispersed, and urban sieges designed to starve civilians perceived to be hostile. As the second round of negotiations in Geneva-2 ended as fruitlessly as the earlier round, there is a sense that diplomacy is a performance ritual without any serious intent to engage in conflict-resolving negotiations. Expectations couldn’t be lower for the as yet unscheduled, but still planned, third round of this Geneva-2 process.

 

The Damascus regime wants an end to armed opposition, while the insurgency insists upon setting up a transition process that is independently administered and committed to the election of a new political leadership.The gap between the parties is too big, and getting bigger, especially as the Damascus government correctly perceives the combat tide as turning in its favor, leading the main opposition forces seemingly to seek to achieve politically and diplomatically what they appear unable to do militarily. Also, it is unclear whether the opposition presence in Geneva has the authority to speak on behalf of several opposition groups in the field in Syria.

 

In light of these frustrations it is not surprising to observe an acrimonious debate unfolding between American interventionists who believe that only force, or at least its threat, can thread the needle of hope. The interventionists, invoking the responsibility to protect norm that was used effectively to mobilize support in the Security Council to mandate a no fly zone in Libya back in 2011, suggest that such an approach should be used again in 2014 either to establish a no fly zone opening a corridor that will allow humanitarian aid to flow to besieged cities or to achieve regime change in Syria as the only way to end the ordeal by ridding the country of a governing process guilty of repeated mass atrocities against its own people.

 

The anti-interventionists point out that the Libyan precedent of 2011 is tainted by the deliberate expansion of the humanitarian scope of what was authorized by the UN Security Council to undertake a much wider campaign with the clear intent of regime change, which in fact ended with the capture and execution of Qaddafi, then the head of state in Libya. It is also somewhat tarnished by the post-Qaddafi realities of widespread militia violence and the failure to develop a coherent and legitimate governance structure. The anti-interventionist argue that introducing external military force almost always makes matters worse, more killing, more devastation, and no politically sustainable outcome, and there is no good reason to think this will not happen in Syria. Furthermore, without a Security Council mandate such a use of military force would once again be undertaken in violation of the UN Charter and international law as it could not be justified as self-defense.

 

Providing humanitarian relief in a situation mainly free of internal political struggle should be sharply distinguished from the realities amid serious civil strife. The response to the Somali breakdown of governability during the presidency of George H. W. Bush in 1992, is illustrative of a seemingly pure humanitarian response to famine and disease characterized by a posture of political non-interference and by the shipment of food and medical supplies to a people in desperate need. This contrasted with the supposedly more muscular response to a troubled Somalia during the early stages of the Clinton presidency in 1993 when the humanitarian mission was fused with anti-‘warlord’ and political reconstruction goals. Difficulties soon emerged as robust national armed resistance was encountered culminating in the Blackhawk Down incident that resulted in 18 deaths of American soldiers, prompting an almost immediate American pullout from Somalia under a cloud of intense criticism of the diplomacy of ‘humanitarian intervention’ within the United States. This had the disastrous spillover effect of leading the supposedly liberal Clinton White House to discourage even a minimal humanitarian response to the onset of genocide in Rwanda in 1994, which might have saved hundreds of thousand of lives.  In the Rwanda context the United States Government even discouraged a modest upgraded response by the United Nations that already had a peacekeeping presence in the country, and whose commander urged reinforcements and authority to protect the targets of genocidal massacres. This failure to act in Rwanda remains a terrible stain on America’s reputation as a humane and respected world leader, and is frequently interpreted as a racist disregard of threats confronting an African population when no major strategic interest of Western countries were present on the side of the victims.

 

The Syrian reality since its inception was dominated by a political uprising, later an insurgency, demanding regime change in Damascus.  It was also beset with a leadership deficit and by factionalism that only became worse with the passage of time. It was further complicated and confused by its proxy dimensions, both in relation to the supply of arms and with respect to diplomatic alignment.

 

The humanitarian relief argument to be credible, much less persuasive, needs to deal with the complexities of Somalia 2, and not act as if the humanitarian response can be addressed in detachment from the political struggle as was the case in Somalia 1. When political objectives become intertwined with a humanitarian rationale, forces of national resistance are activated on the reasonable assumption that the real goal of the mission is the political one, and the humanitarian relief is being used as a cover. As we can foresee, this complexity makes for a stiffer climb facing an advocate of humanitarian intervention in the current Syrian tragedy. There exists a more difficult burden of persuasion, although not an impossible one. Indeed, against the background of recent failed interventions, every proposed intervention confronts such a burden at some level. The Syrian case makes this burden more formidable, given the record of past interventions in the region and considering the mixture of forces that make up ‘the opposition,’ which is so far from unified even in carrying on the struggle against the Assad regime, on occasion diverting attention to take action against a rival faction.

 

In fact, the Syrian situation has an originality that makes the Somalia template clarifying, but hardly definitive. The Syrian political struggle is more acute and vicious than was the case in Somalia 2. Also the humanitarian crisis is deeper and the plight of many Syrians caught in the maelstrom of this horrifying war that is both internal and contains regional proxy elements in ways that make it more confusing as to the probable effects of threats and uses of force on behalf of genuine humanitarian goals.

 

My basic contention is that there are no easy answers at this stage as to what should be done about the Syrian situation, and dogmatic discourse for or against intervention misses the deeply tragic nature of the policy predicament for all political actors. I would feel more comfortable about the intervention debate if it were expressed in a discourse that accords prominence to the virtue of humility. Too much in Syria remains unknowable to have any confidence that a clear line of advocacy will be historically vindicated.

 

For me the fundamental question is what it is best to do or not do in such a desperate situation of radical uncertainty. It is not only that the interventionists, and perhaps the anti-interventionists are motivated by a convergence of humanitarian/moral considerations with geostrategic ambitions, but that the nature of these hidden calculations are discussed in governmental circles behind locked doors and transcribed in secret policy memoranda. Until we address these questions of consequences and secret goals in the context of uncertainty and unknowability, the public discourse on what to do about Syria offers limited insight into how best to evaluate policy options being endorsed by policymakers and leaders. I hope that such a discussion will ensue, and replace the rather pointless and dogmatic self-righteous indignation of both interventionists and anti-interventionists.

 

I remember hearing the senior State Department diplomat, George Ball, speak just weeks after he left the government in the closing years of the Vietnam War. His primary message was that he only began to understand the war when he stopped reading the cables, that is the secret highly classified messages being sent by the military commanders and their civilian counterparts in the war zone. In effect, rather than make policy more transparent its counter-intuitive reality was to shroud the reality of Vietnam in greater obscurity. It is easy to explain why. Those in the field were committed to achieving victory, and were determined to provide reassurance, however false, to the leaders back in Washington so that they could deal with growing anti-war pressures that were a combination of public fatigue after almost a decade of engagement  and skepticism based on what became known as ‘the credibility gap’ between the claims of continuing progress in the war and what was actually taking place in Vietnam.  

 

An American Idol: Should the United States ‘Govern’ the World?

21 Jan

(Prefatory Note: this post consists of a much expanded text of an opinion piece that was published by AJE on January 18, 2014; it seeks to discredit imperial and neoliberal claims that the United States is a benevolent hegemon, providing global public goods to the world as a whole, including  supposed geopolitical and ideological rivals)

 

 

            It might not have seemed necessary in the 21st century to ask or answer such a ridiculous question. After all, in the last half of the prior century European colonialism collapsed politically, morally, and even legally, its pretensions and cruelties thoroughly exposed and totally discredited. As well, the Soviet empire fell apart. And yet there are those who muster the temerity to insist that even now it is only the global governing authority of the United States that underpins the degree of security and prosperity that currently exists in the world. Without such a role played by the United States, this reasoning alleges, there would be widespread chaos, economic stagnancy, and far more frequent international warfare. Not surprisingly, the proponents of this conception of world order as dependent on U.S. military, economic, diplomatic, and ideological capabilities are themselves exclusively American. It is even less surprising that the most articulate celebrants of this new variant of a self-serving imperial approach to global security and prosperity are situated either in mainstream academic institutions or in supposedly liberal media outlets.

 

            I consider Michael Mandelbaum to be the most unabashed and articulate advocate of this American ‘global domination project’ that he felicitously calls ‘the world’s de facto government.’ He champions this role for his country in book after book starting with The Case for Goliath: how America acts as the world’s government in the twenty-first century (2005), followed by Democracy’s Good Name: the rise and risks of  the world’s most popular form of government (2007), and then by Frugal Superpower: America’s global leadership in a cash-strapped era (2010). Mandelbaum’s one-eyed approach has been repeatedly endorsed and embraced by the neoliberal media star, Thomas Friedman. They even partnered as guru and pundit to collaborate on a tract (That Used to be Us: how America fell behind in the world it invented and how we can come back (2012)) arguing ever so coyly that the world is far better off to the extent that others leave their political destiny in the trustworthy hands of White House and Pentagon policy planners. Such an outlook would certainly please the global snoopers in the National Security Agency (NSA). For those with some institutional memory, it adopts the general outlook in the notorious 2002 document of the Bush White House, entitled “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America.” Actually, the Bush text, while as self-serving as Mandelbaum/Friedman, is less pretentious, appealing to U.S. strategic interests and its tortured construction of China’s self-interest when explaining why it would be best for others to leave global security in American hands while limiting their own international ambitions to trade and development.

 

            Recently Mandelbaum has restated this grandiose argument in a short essay, “Can America Keep Its Global Role?” that appears in the January 2014 issue of Current History. His thesis is straightforward: “[America] provides to the whole world, not only its allies, many of the services that governments furnish to the countries they govern.” Or more simply, “..the United States stands alone as the world’s de facto government.” It is crucial to take note of the claim that unlike past empires and hegemonic states, the United States has undertaken a systemic or structural role, and is not to be understood as serving only those states that are allied by friendship, values, and binding arrangements. In this respect this novel form of world government although administered from its statist headquarters in Washington, is according to its promoters, meta-political, and unselfish. It should be appreciated by all people of good will as contributing to the betterment of humanity. It should be a cause of some embarrassment, then, to explain cross-national polling results that indicate time after time that the United States is viewed by virtually the entire world as the most dangerous country from the perspectives of peace, security, and justice.  I suppose the best riposte from the Mandelbaum true believers is that ‘they just don’t know how lucky they are!,” and like those who vote Republican in Kansas, non-Americans are unable to pursue their own interests in a rational manner.

 

            What makes Mandelbaum so cocky about the beneficence of the American global role? It is essentially the traditional realist conviction that it is American military power underwriting the established order that avoids wars and protects countries against aggressive behavior by states with revisionist foreign policy goals and irresponsibly aggressive leaders. More concretely, Europe can rest easy because of the American military presence, while Russia as well can be assured that a resurgent Germany will not again seek to conquer its territory as it tried to do twice in the last century. Similarly in the East Asian setting, China is deterred from imposing its will regionally to resolve island and territorial disputes, while at the same time being itself reassured that Japan will not again unleash an attack upon the Chinese mainland. There is some slight plausibility to such speculations, but it seems more like the supposed dividends of alliance relationships in historical settings when recourse to war as a solvent for international conflicts seems more and more dysfunctional. And it doesn’t pretend to work with a rogue ally such as Israel, which has insisted, for example, on its willingness to attack Iran whether or not the White House signals approval, presumably with the political clout in the U.S. to drag a disbelieving America in its bloody wake.

 

            The complementary claim about providing a template for global economic prosperity is also misleading at best, and likely flawed. The United States presides over a neoliberal world order that has achieved cumulative economic growth but at the cost of persisting mass poverty, gross and widening inequalities, unsustainable consumerism, cyclical instability, and a rate of greenhouse gas emissions that imperils the human future by giving rise to dangerous forms of climate change.  The management of the world economy, entrusted to groupings such as the G-20, seems unable to modify these inequities and dangers, and United States influence seems marginal and neither sensible on issues of sustainability or sensitive on questions of fairness and distributive justice.

 

            Beyond this, the American role is praised by Mandelbaum for using its capabilities “to counteract the most dangerous trend in twenty-first century security affairs: the spread of nuclear weapons to countries and non-state actors that do not have them and would threaten the international order if they did.” What is not mentioned by Mandelbaum, and suggests strongly the absence of anything resembling ‘world government’ is the inability of existing global policy mechanisms, whether under U.S. or other auspices, to solve the most urgent collective goods problems. I would mention several: poverty, nuclear weaponry, fair trade, and climate change. Neither imperial guidance nor the actions of state-centric policymaking initiatives have been able to uphold the human or global interest, which would demand at the very least nuclear disarmament, enforceable restraints on carbon emissions, and the end of agricultural subsidies in North America and Europe.

 

            The U.S. Government is not even able to get its own national act together, being constrained by the military-industrial-complex, vested economic interests in the energy field, and paralyzed by powerful lobbies (e.g. AIPAC) that pull many of the strings of American foreign policy in the Middle East. Considering that the United States it itself unable even to align its foreign policy with global equity, peace, and sustainability, how can it possibly pretend to do this for the entire world? Mandelbaum and followers suffer from a geopolitical malady that I would diagnose as ‘normative hubris,’ the false consciousness associated with being a planetary benefactor while in fact being unable even to adopt policies that serve national interests. It should not shock us that humility is the most unappreciated virtue in the imperial mentality.

 

            If we put aside this awkward inability of America to pursue a policy agenda that uphold its own national interests, an inability that Mandelbaum fails to acknowledge, and perhaps does not admit. Mandelbaum, and similar outlooks that conflate national and global interests, seem utterly blind to the tensions between what is good for the United States and its friends and what is good for the world and its peoples. And no more serious blindness, or is it merely acute myopia, exists than does the Mandlebaum contention that the greatest danger from nuclear weapons to the human future arises from those political actors that do not possess these weapons rather than from those that do, have used such weaponry in the past, and continue to deploy nuclear weapons in contexts of strategic concern. To obsess about proliferation risks while ignoring disarmament imperatives is to ensure the enduring illegitimacy of world order, whether or not led by the United States. To live contentedly with a world of nuclear haves and nuclear have not countries couples hierarchy with arrangements that over time embed unacceptable risks of an apocalyptic future.

 

            Aside from the use of the atomic bomb against Japanese cities in 1945, the American-led crusade against proliferation served as the main rationale for aggression against Iraq in 2003 and is the pretext for continuing unlawful threats of a military attack directed at Iran’s nuclear facilities over the course of the last decade. Recall also that some decades ago the United States had few qualms about the nuclear program of the Shah’s Iran, and even fewer, about Israel’s covert acquisition of capabilities and weaponry. Such discriminatory behavior confirms the primacy of America’s identity as an alliance leader, and the weakness of its credibility as a political actor inclined to act altruistically for the benefit of the whole rather than to promote the interests of its part. In discussing global security in the current historical moment, one can only wonder about the absence of the word ‘drone’ in Mandelbaum’s account of why the world should be grateful for the way the United States globally projects its power. A question is posed. Should Mandelbaum to be viewed as naïve or as a dogmatic advocate of empire? In effect, the wardrobe of world government seems to function as a disguise.

 

            Before dismissing Mandelbaum’s conceptions altogether, I would agree that he is convincing when he selects the United States rather than the UN as the political actor with the best global governmental capabilities, credentials, and ambition. The UN lacks the hard power capabilities to implement its decisions unless backed by relevant geopolitical forces; its constitutional makeup is also deferential to the sovereignty of states, and its formal role is to prevent war between states, but not to interfere with war within states. As a result, the UN has been largely a spectator in relation to the broad trends of security, democracy, and development, a handmaiden of the United States in most settings, but hampered in even this questionable undertaking by the veto power exercised by Russia and China in many peace and security situations, and obstructed by the United States whenever the Organization seeks to induce Israel to live up to its international obligations. When the United States and a few allies failed to persuade the Security Council to back its proposed attack on Iraq in 2003, the coalition of the willing went ahead anyway flaunting the authority of the UN and ignoring the constraints of its Charter.  As such, it underlined the weakness of the UN to fulfill its constitutional role and the willingness of the United States to behave as an unaccountable superpower whenever so disposed, a perception strengthened after the fact by the disastrous aftermath of the Iraq War during the lengthy occupation and withdrawal phases, and the strife-ridden country that the departing forces have left behind.

 

             There are additional difficulties with Mandelbaum’s global vision, including a glaring internal contradiction. He praises America for exerting a pro-democracy influence throughout the world, which is partially deserved, but fails to note either the inconsistencies in its application or the complete failure to consider the consent of the peoples and other governments in relation to U.S. de facto world government. I doubt that there would be many supporters of the Mandelbaum vision of governing the world in Moscow and Beijing despite the benefits that are supposedly bestowed upon Russia and China. Somehow, the politics of self-determination and procedural democracy are fine for state/society relations, but when it comes to governing the world, democratic values and procedures should be abandoned.  It is quite okay to base global government on an authoritarian logic that is not dependent on any kind of procedure of consent or approval, but governs by arbitrary and non-accountable fiat, relying heavily on military clout. The United States makes extensive use of killer drones, and refuses even to take responsibility for ‘accidents’ that end the lives of innocent civilians. This is a metaphoric message as to what kind of world government is being provided by the United States.

 

            In depicting the future Mandelbaum calls our attention to three scenarios that bear on how his thesis will play out. In what he calls “the most favorable of these,” those that have most to gain by receiving free protection, namely, Europe and Japan would assist the United States, and lighten the burdens of world government. Such a prospect is really a thinly disguised alliance-oriented approach, although in a presumably less overtly conflictual global setting. He does not view this pattern as the most likely one. The least favorable scenario would mount a challenge from China that would induce a return to balance of power world order in which countervailing alliances produce a security system that resembled international relations during the Cold War, but it is assumed by Mandelbaum contends that the Chinese are too wily to opt for such a risky future. What Mandelbaum views as the most likely future is a continuation of present arrangements without great help from allies or much hindrance from adversaries. He properly acknowledges as a major unknown whether the American public will continue to finance such a system of world government, given recent setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as growing domestic pressures to cut public spending, reduce taxes in response to the burdens of a rapidly aging population, and the absence of much enthusiasm among the citizenry for devoting resources to internationally idealistic projects.

 

            It is well to appreciate that this new discourse of imperial duty and prerogative is framed as a matter of global scope. This is genuinely new. Yet it is quite old, present throughout the entire course of modernity. The West has always cast itself in the role of being the savior of the whole of humanity even if the actual reach of its influence was not previously capable of embracing the globe. In the colonial era Europeans described their gift to humanity  in the language of ‘white man’s burden’ or proclaimed their role to be the ‘civilizing mission’ of the West. As those throughout the global South are well aware, this lofty language provided the cover for a variety of sinister forms of violent exploitation of the non-West. For Mandelbaum the new rationale for Western dominance is ‘de facto world government.’ It purports to be a service institution for the world, yet at no point does Mandelbaum pause to admit that America bears responsibility for a disproportionate amount of the violence, militarism, and appropriation of resources that goes on under its hegemonic aegis.

 

            With a measure of historical perspective, American since its earliest beginnings claimed that its domestic reality and international behavior were superior to what Europe had to offer, with not even a thought as to whether non-Western ideas and actors might have anything to contribute to a more humane world order. In the last century is was Woodrow Wilson, in the aftermath of World War I, who projected an American vision of world order onto the global stage with disastrous results, although it too was motivated by the sense that what America represented, if globalized, would lead to a positive future for everyone. The disasters that befell the world, eventuating in World War II, death camps and atomic bombings, did not pour cold water on America’s global ambitions, giving rise to a more geopolitically humble United Nations that assigned the major tasks of keeping the peace to the leading states and their coalitions. In this respect, Mandelbaum’s preferred world builds on a long tradition of American hubris, which is tragically impervious to the historical record, and thus bound to repeat past mistakes.  In the meantime, Michael Mandelbaum and Thomas Friedman will likely be welcomed as honored guests of corporate gatherings and bankers’ retreats,whether at Davos or at the confidential meetings of the Bilderberg Group.

Beholding 2014

3 Jan

 

2013 was not a happy year in the chronicles of human history, yet there were a few moves in the directions of peace and justice. What follows are some notes that respond to the mingling of light and shadows that are flickering on the global stage, with a spotlight placed on the main war zone of the 21st century—the Middle East, recalling that Europe had this negative honor for most of the modern era except for the long 19th century, and that the several killing fields of sub-Saharan Africa are located at the periphery of political vision, and thus their reality remains blurred for distant observers. Also relevant are the flaring tensions in the waters around China in relation to territorial disputes about island ownership, especially Diaoyu/Senkaku  pitting China against Japan, and reminding us that some old wounds remain unhealed.

 

Many persons in many places suffered greatly, and often with no better prospects in 2014, although our capacity to project a dismal present into the future is so modest as to make dramatic changes in direction quite plausible.

While highlighting some particularly troubled countries, we should not overlook those tens of millions throughout the world living in dire poverty, without healthy drinking water, sufficient food, adequate medical facilities, lacking proper housing, and deprived of education and employment opportunities. These chronic conditions of acute suffering generate migration flows, and underscore the terrible ordeal worldwide of economic migrants and refugees, always at risk, often living ‘unlawful’ lives of unbearable vulnerability. Such a general reflection on the human condition is meant to encourage serious reflections and commentary about whether the current state-centric structures of global governance deserve to be considered legitimate, and if not, what sorts of alternative arrangements can be envisioned to raise hopes for a better future.

 

What follows is a brief look at some of those situations of conflict that generate particular concern at this time:

 

            –the Syrian plight has been situated in the realm of the unspeakable for almost three years, and although punitive bombing was avoided in 2013 and chemical weapons arsenals destroyed, the killing (now far in excess of 100,000; some speculate 73,000 in 2013 alone), refugee exodus (2.3 million out of a population of 22.4 million), massive internal displacement (with estimates running as high as 6.3 million), and extreme material hardships are increasingly prevalent (with latest estimates that basic needs are unmet for as many as 9.6 million); what is also illuminating in a negative way is the incapacity of the UN and external actors to bring the political violence to an end, much less to find a solution to the conflict that protects minorities and enhances more generally the lives of the Syrian people; perhaps proxy antagonist states will act less irresponsibly in 2014, perhaps international relief efforts will increase; perhaps, the prospects of some kind of accountability for endless crimes against humanity will have some bearing on how the various participants work toward a just peace; at least, we must not avert our gaze from the slaughterhouse that Syria has become, and at least do what can be done to mitigate the humanitarian catastrophe that continues to unfold there and inhibit its already disastrous spillover effects in such countries as Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey;

 

            –the Palestinian plight persists in Gaza most disturbingly where underlying political and environmental challenges of viability involving water, food, and medical supplies have been cruelly aggravated by disastrous storms, polluted waters, fuel shortages, power failures, political antagonisms creating a humanitarian emergency that persists virtually unnoticed, and threatens to become even more horrendous; Palestinians throughout Palestine are also enduring a continuous  process of encroachment upon their most basic rights in relation to land, residence, water, settlements, wall, Jerusalem, refugees; the persistence of belligerent occupation for more than 45 years should not be tolerated, especially if the wellbeing of the civilian population is being continuously undermined, but under present circumstances this unfortunate set conditions cannot be effectively challenged directly; more promising is the widening Legitimacy War being waged to mobilize civil society and win the battle to sway the public mind by the imagery of Palestinian victimization and peaceful struggle, as well as the degree to which both sides fare in the underlying debate about who is right and who is wrong; it is important that in a Legitimacy War the target is definitely not the state of israel, but rather the policies and practices of the Israeli government; the end sought in this Legitimacy War is a just, inclusive, and sustainable peace for both peoples, but with the contours of peace fixed more by rights than by interplay of hard power capabilities;

 

            –the Egyptian people who had so illuminated the darkness three years ago by their remarkable rising in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the country, now face a darker future than even during the bleak Mubarak years. As grim as this unfinished revolutionary process is in Egypt, not less discouraging has been the silence, or worse, of neighboring governments who poured in funds after a military coup, undeterred by subsequent bloody massacres that exhibit the features of crimes against humanity, and have now been outrageously extended by declaring a civic organization that fairly won democratic elections to be ‘a terrorist organization’ despite its long sustained pledge of nonviolent political engagement, implying that mere membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is itself a serious form of criminality; that such extreme behavior by the el-Sisi post-coup leadership can pass beneath the geopolitical radar screen of the liberal democracies in Europe and North America is also cause for lament, and further proof that 21st century global governance is afflicted with double standards, hypocritical condemnations, malign neglect, and a multitude of unholy alliances;

 

            –the Arab Spring that brought such hope and joy three years ago to many peoples entrapped in the cramped political space provided by authoritarian regimes now seems entrapped anew, whether in atrocity-laden  civil strife as in Syria or in militia-dominated chaos as in Libya or in reworking

of the non-accountable oppressive state as in Egypt or in the sectarian strife that still daily torments the people of Iraq; these regional patterns are not yet firm, and there remains a plausible basis for not renouncing all hopes that made the upheavals so promising in 2011;

 

            –the Turkish domestic downward spiral is also a cause for deep concern as 2013 draws to a close: the lethal dynamics of polarization took an unexpected turn, swerving from the apparent confrontations of the summer in Gezi Park that pitted the forces of a severely alienated secularist opposition, including new youth elements, against the entrenched AKP establishment that reacted with excessive force and political insensitivity; now attention has turned to the split between two leading forces previously united but newly warring: the Fetullah Gulen hizmet movement versus the Erdogan-led AKP now fighting it out in relation to corruption charges, but also each seeking to gain the upper hand in a nasty struggle to sway public opinion to their side; the Kemalist old order embodied in the CHP is presently sidelined, but likely waiting in a mood of excited anticipation for the principal gladiators to exhaust themselves on the field of battle, creating a political vacuum that could then be filled. In the background is the ‘zero problems’ approach to foreign policy so ingeniously constructed a few years ago by the energy and brilliance of Ahmet Davutoglu, the great Turkish Foreign Minister, which showed the world how soft power can gain ascendancy, then moved into a shadowland of disillusionment after a series of Syrian miscalculations, and now seems to be reemerging in more selective and principled form in improving relations with Iran, Iraq, Israel, and the United States, although the situation remains precarious so long as the Turkish currency sinks to new lows against the dollar and the domestic confrontation remains far from resolved;

 

            –Europe should not be forgotten. The economic downturn of recent years as well as the uneven recovery of the various EU members has exposed the follies of premature enlargement after the end of the Cold War and the problems associated with proceeding too quickly on the economic track of integration and too slowly on the political track; also, at risk, is the European reorientation of its global engagement by way of soft power geopolitics; despite the difficulties, the EU undertaking remains the most ambitious world order innovation since the birth of the modern state system in the middle of the 17th century, and its success in establishing ‘a culture of peace’ in Europe that had been for centuries the cockpit of warring states is an extraordinary achievement; at the same time, without a renewed commitment to going forward, risks of regression, even collapse, remain cause for worry;

 

            –and then there is the United States, which has had a somewhat mixed year, finally ending its combat relationship to Iraq, overriding the Israel’s objections to  dealing constructively with the new leadership and mood in Iran through interim arrangements relating to Iran’s nuclear program, and winding down its military operations in Afghanistan; but there were many problematic sides of America’s global role: drones; chasing Snowden; abusing Chelsea Manning, threatening Assange, and not facing up to the foreboding consequences of totalizing the global security state in the 12 years since 9/11—the new formula for democracy in the United States: making the lives of the citizenry as transparent as possible while keeping key government operations and policies shrouded in layers of secrecy. This is why the ‘crimes’ of WikiLeaks, Snowden, and Manning are seen as so subversive of public order by the new security entrepreneurs that unfortunately seem to include the top elected leaders. We the people are asked to throw caution aside, and despite acknowledged governmental lying and doctrines of deniability, put our trust in governmental prudence, integrity, and self-restraint. At the same time, the leaders, starting with Barack Obama, act as if this new dystopia of drones and the NSA panopticon is nothing other than business as usual, branding those who express doubts as suspicious characters, forcing brave journalists to behave like spies or Mafia operatives to get the truth out, as in the case of Glenn Greenwald.  There is also the disappointing abandonment by the supposedly less constrained second term Obama presidency of the first term visionary commitments to work toward a world without nuclear weaponry and to turn a new page toward reconciliation in addressing the grievances of the Muslim world, with especial attention to the Palestinian struggle to achieve self-determination and end the cardinal ordeal of prolonged occupation.

 

Looking ahead, there are several salient, although contradictory, realities that should help direct political energies and shape hopes for the future:

            –the inability of existing problem-solving mechanisms to find satisfactory responses to collective action challenges: climate change, nuclear weaponry, drone warfare, economic migration;

            –the failures of military intervention as a protective approach to

humanitarian catastrophe in tension with the futility of relying on diplomacy;

            –the growing importance of global civil society activism in promoting global justice, nonviolence, and sustainable development;

            –the increasing promise of soft power geopolitics in overcoming realist skepticism about compliance with international law and reliance on international cooperation.     

Northern Ireland and the Israel/Palestine ‘Peace Process’

22 Dec

Richard HaassUnknown-1UK flagIrish flag

            I visited Belfast the last few days during some negotiations about unresolved problems between Unionist and Republican (or Nationalist) political parties, I was struck by the absolute dependence for any kind of credibility of this process upon the unblemished perceived neutrality of the mediating third party. It would have been so totally unacceptable to rely on Ireland or Britain to play such a role, and the mere suggestion of such a partisan intermediary would have occasioned ridicule by the opposing party, confirming suspicions that its intention must have been to scuttle the proposed negotiations. In the background of such a reflection is the constructive role played by the United States more than a decade ago when it actively encouraged a process of reconciliation through a historic abandonment of violence by the antagonists. That peace process was based on the justly celebrated Good Friday Agreement that brought the people of Northern Ireland a welcome measure of relief from the so-called ‘Time of Troubles’ even if the underlying antagonisms remain poignantly alive in the everyday realities of Belfast, as well as some lingering inclination toward violence among those extremist remnants of the struggle on both sides that reject all moves toward accommodation. The underlying tension remains as Republican sentiments favor a united Ireland while the Unionists Having continue to be British loyalists, deeply opposed to any moves toward a merger with the Republic of Ireland.

 Indyk Kerryimages

            The current round of negotiations going on in Belfast involve seemingly trivial issues: whether the flag of the United Kingdom will be flown from the Parliament and other government buildings on 18 official holidays or everyday and whether the Irish tricolor will be flown when leaders from the Republic of Ireland are visiting Belfast; the degree to which annual Unionist parades passing through Republican neighborhoods of the city will be regulated to avoid provocations; and how might the past be addressed so as to bring belated solace to those who have grievances, especially associated with deaths of family members that were never properly addressed by those in authority at the time.  Apparently, in recollection of the achievements attributed to George Mitchell, the distinguished American political figure who was principally associated with developing the proposals that produced the Good Friday Agreement, the present phase of an evolving accommodation process is being presided over by another notable American, Richard Haass. Haass is a former State Department official and current President of the Council on Foreign Relations, the influential establishment NGO in the foreign policy domain. In this setting the United States Government (as well as its leading citizens) is seen as an honest broker, and although the government is not now directly involved, an individual closely associated with the established order has been chosen and seems acceptable to the five Northern Ireland political parties participating in the negotiations. This effort to ensure the continuation of stability in Northern Ireland seems responsive to the natural order: that negotiations in circumstances of deep conflict do benefit from third-party mediation provided it is perceived to be non-partisan, neutral, and competent, and acts credibly and diligently as a check on the gridlock of partisanship.

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            The contrast of this experience in Northern Ireland with what has emerged during the past twenty years in the effort to resolve the Israel/Palestine conflict could not be more striking. The negotiating process between Israel and Palestine is generated by an avowedly partisan third party, the United States, which makes no effort to hide its commitment to safeguard Israeli state interests even if at the expense of Palestinian concerns. This critical assessment has been carefully documented in Rashid Khalidi’s authoritative Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (2013). Beyond this taint, sand is repeatedly thrown in Palestinian eyes by White House gall in designating AIPAC related Special Envoys to oversee the negotiations as if it is primarily Israel that needs reassurances that its national interests will be protected in the process while Palestinian greater concerns do not require any such indication of protective sensitivity.

 

            How can we explain these contrasting American approaches in these two major conflict-resolving undertakings? Of course, the first line of explanation would be domestic politics in the United States. Although Irish Americans by and large have republican sympathies, Washington’s multiple bonds with the United Kingdom ensure a posture of impartiality would be struck from the perspective of national interests. The United States had most to gain in Ireland by being seen to help the parties move from a violent encounter to a political process in pursuing their rival goals. Such would also seem to be the case in Israel/Palestine but for the intrusion of domestic politics, especially in the form of the AIPAC lobbying leverage. Can anyone doubt that if the Palestinians had countervailing lobbying capabilities either the United States would be excluded as the diplomatic arbiter or it would do its best to appear impartial?

 

            There are other secondary explanatory factors. Especially since the 1967 War, it has been a matter of agreement with American policymaking circles, that Israel is a reliable strategic ally in the Middle East. Of course, interests my diverge from time to time, as seems recently to be the case in relation to interim agreement involving Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but overall the alliance patterns in the region put the United States and Israel on the same side: counter-terrorist operations and tactics, counter-proliferation, containment of Iran’s influence, opposition to the spread of political Islam, support for Saudi Arabia and conservative governments in the Gulf. Since 9/11, in particular, Israel has been a counter-terrorist mentor to the United States, and to others in the world, offering expert training and what it calls ‘combat-tested weaponry,’ which means tactics and weapons used by Israel in controlling over many years the hostile Palestinian population, especially Gaza.

 

            A third, weaker explanation is purported ideological affinity. Israel promotes itself, and this is endorsed by the United States, as the ‘sole democracy’ or ‘only genuine democracy’ in the Middle East. Despite the many contradictions associated with such an assertion, ranging from eyes closed when it comes to Saudi Arabia or the Egyptian coup to a wide-eyed refusal to notice the Israeli legalized pattern of discrimination against its 20% Palestinian minority. It has been persuasively suggested that part of the reason that Arab governments are reluctant to support the Palestinian struggle is the fear that its success would destabilize authoritarian regimes in the region. In this regard, it was the first intifada, back in 1987, that seems in retrospect to have been the most important antecedent cause of the 2011 Arab Spring. It is also notable that despite the profession of democratic values in the Middle East, Israel showed no regrets when the elected government in Egypt was overthrown by a military coup whose leadership then proceeded to criminalize those who had been chosen only a year earlier by the national electorate to run the country.

 

            These are weighty reasons when considered together, help us understand why the Oslo Framework and its Roadmap sequel, and the various negotiating sessions, have not produced an outcome that remotely resembles what might be fairly described as ‘a just and sustainable peace’ from a Palestinian perspective. Israel has evidently not perceived such a conflict-resolving outcome as being in its national interest, and has not been given any sufficient incentive by the United States or the UN to scale back its ambitions, which include continuous settlement expansion, control over the whole of Jerusalem, denial of Palestinian rights of return, appropriation of water and land resources, intrusive, one-sided, and excessive security demands, and an associated posture that opposes a viable Palestinian state ever coming into existence, and is even more opposed to give any credence to proposals for a single secular bi-national state. What is more, despite this unreasonable diplomatic posture, which attains plausibility only because of Israel’s disproportionate influence on the intermediary mechanisms and its own media savvy in projecting its priorities, Palestine and its leadership is mainly blamed for the failures of the ‘peace process’ to end the conflict by a mutually agreed solution. This is a particularly perverse perception given Israel’s extreme unreasonableness in relation to resolution of the conflict, the U.S. partisanship, and Palestine’s passivity in asserting its claims, grievances, and interests.

 

            Finally, we must ask why Palestinian leaders have been willing to give credibility for so long to a diplomatic process that seems to offer their national movement so little. The most direct answer is the lack of the power to say ‘no.’ This can be further elaborated by pointing to the lack of a preferable alternative. A further indication of Palestinian diplomatic dependence, is the degree to which the United States exerts pressure on Ramallah because it finds the management of this bridge to nowhere of the peace process to be useful, despite its many frustrations and failures, allows Washington to exhibit both a commitment to peace and to Israel. The American Secretary of State, John Kerry, has in recent months pressured the parties to resume peace talks, talking often of ‘painful concessions’ that both sides would have to make if the negotiations are to succeed. This misleading appeal to symmetry overlooks the gross disparity in position and capabilities of the two sides. Whether such a disparity is so great as to make it dubious to use the language of conflict is itself an open question. Would it not be more forthright and revealing to ask due to the degree of inequality, whether Palestine has any capability to say anything about the terms of a resolution other than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to what Israel is prepared at any time to offer? In this sense it more closely resembles the end of a war in which there is a winner and loser except that here the loser at least retains the sovereign right to say ‘no.’ Also it needs to be observed, that this perception is deeply misleading because it overlooks what might be called ‘the other war,’ that is, the Legitimacy War that the Palestinians are winning, and given the history of decolonization, seems to have a good chance of controlling the political outcome of the struggle.

 

             Returning to the inter-governmental approach, it should also be noticed that the diplomacy does not take account of the historical background. Did not Palestine concede more than enough before the negotiations even began, accepting a frame for territorial proposals that seems content with 22% of historic Palestine, although this territory is less than half of what the UN partition plan proposed in 1947, and seemed then to be unfair given the ethnic demographics at the time? We should also take account of the relevance of the supposed basic UN policy against the acquisition of territory by the use of force, which would seem to mandate a rollback of Israeli territory at least to the 1947 UN proposals contained in General Assembly Resolution 181. The implication of Kerry’s painful concession rhetoric is that Israel would only be expected to remove some isolated settlements and outposts in the West Bank even though they were unlawful ever since established, and could retain the valuable land it has appropriated for the settlement blocs established since 1967 despite their existence being in flagrant violation of Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In other words, Palestine is expected to give up fundamental rights while Israel is supposed to abandon some relatively minor unlawful aspects of its prolonged occupation of the West Bank and retain most of the ill-gotten gains.

 

            What do we learn from such an analysis?

(1)  Third-party intermediation only works if it is perceived to be non-partisan by both sides;

(2)   Partisan intermediation can only succeed if the stronger side is able to impose its vision of the future on the weaker side;

(3)   Analyzing the Palestine/Israel diplomacy underscores the relevance of (2), and should not be confused with its claimed character as an instance of (1);

(4)   Perhaps in the aftermath of a Palestinian victory in the Legitimacy War the sort of framework for constructive diplomacy achieved in Northern Ireland could be devised, but its credibility would depend on non-partisan intermediation.

             

The Chomsky/Vltchek Worldview

19 Oct

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            Recently I read On Western Terrorism: from Hiroshima to Drone Warfare, published in 2013 by Pluto Press here in London, and consisting of a series of conversations between Chomsky and the Czech filmmaker, journalist, and author, Andre Vltchek, who is now a naturalized American citizen. Vltchek in an illuminating Preface describes his long and close friendship with Chomsky, and explains that these fascinating conversations took place over the course of two days, and was filmed with the intention of producing a documentary. The book is engaging throughout, with my only big complaint being about the misdirection of the title—there is virtually nothing said about either Hiroshima or drone warfare, but almost everything else politically imaginable!

 

            Vltchek, previously unknown to me, consistently and calmly held his own during the conversations, speaking with comparable authority and knowledge about an extraordinary assortment of topics that embraced the entire global scene, something few of us would have the nerve to attempt, much less manage with such verve, insight, and empathy. After finishing the book my immediate reaction was that ‘Chomsky knows everything’ and ‘Vltchek has been everywhere and done everything.’ Omniscience and omnipresence are not often encountered, being primary attributes commonly attributed by theologians to a monotheistic god! Leaving aside this hyperbole, one is stunned throughout by the quality of the deep knowledge and compassion exhibited by these two public intellectuals, and even more by their deeply felt sympathy for all those being victimized as a result of the way in which the world is organized and Western hard power has been and is being deployed.

 

            The book left me with a sense of how much that even those of us who try to be progressive and informed leave untouched, huge happenings taking place in domains beyond the borders of our consciousness. It suggests that almost all of us are ignoring massive injustices because they receive such scant attention from mainstream media and our access to alternative sources is too restricted. And, maybe also, are capacity for the intake of severe injustice is limited for most of us. The book is well worth reading just to grasp this gap between what we care about and what is actually worth caring about.  Somehow, part of what is so amazing about this exposure to the range of concerns that preoccupy Chomsky and Vltchek is the degree to which their knowledge and ethical sensitivity seems so comprehensive without ever appearing to be superficial. How do they find the time, perseverance, and energy? Of course, it helps to be blessed with high intelligence, clarity of spirit, astonishing retentive gifts, and a seeming refusal to sleep, rest, and recreate (which was among the traits I found so intimidating long ago in Noam’s Vietnam writing, my first encounters with his political thought, having earlier been awed by his revolutionary linguistics approach).

 

 

            While appearing to be on an equal footing throughout this dialogic text, Vltchek does acknowledge his reverential admiration for Chomsky, this extraordinary iconic American intellectual who has remained situated on the front lines of global critical debate for the past half century. In Vltchek’s words: “”The way I saw it, we were fighting for the same cause, for the right of self-determination and real freedom for all people around the world. And we were fighting against colonialism and fascism, in whichever form it came.” “For Noam, fighting injustice seemed to be as natural as breathing. For me, it became both a great honor and great adventure to work with him.” (ix) Vltchek believes that the lines of inspiration beneath a photo of the great English scholar/seer/activitst, Betrand Russell, which hangs ion the wall in Chomsky’s MIT office are also descriptive of what drives Chomsky to such heights: “”Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.” (vi, xv).

 

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             Vltchek shares with Chomsky an outlook that interprets the world on the basis of a deep structure of moral and political indictment directed at Western imperialism. Vltchek expresses this shared understanding clearly: “After witnessing and analyzing numerous atrocious conflicts, invasions and wars on all continents, I became convinced that almost all of them were orchestrated or provoked by Western geopolitical and economic interests.” (ix). The extent and gravity of the accusations is expressed statistically by Vltchek: “Along with the 55 million or so people killed as the direct result of wars initiated by the West, pro-Western coups and other conflicts, hundreds of millions have died indirectly in absolute misery, and silently.” (1) Chomsky agrees, wondering about which is the worst crime that should be attributed to the West, positing the destruction of the 80-100 indigenous people living in the Western Hemisphere before the European settlers arrived, as one option. In reflecting upon this, he abruptly shifts direction by observing, “..we are moving toward what may in fact be the ultimate genocide—the destruction of the environment.”(2) Chomsky laments that despite the overwhelming evidence of this self-destructive momentum, the challenge continues to be largely ignored by the public and the government, even in the face of dire warnings from the scientific community.  The capitalist obsession with profits and capital accumulation, combined with psycho-political control over the dissemination of knowledge in even the most democratic of societies, makes it almost impossible to ‘see’ these threatening dimensions of social, economic, and political reality.

 

            In a sense these conversations are an extended intellectual journey through the cartography of victimization brought about by Western colonial and post-colonial undertakings. Vltchek says early on “Colonialism continues but it appears that it is much more difficult for local people to point the finger and say exactly what is happening and who their enemies are.” (6) Chomsky responds “Some of the worst atrocities in the world have been committed over the last few years in the Eastern Congo. Three to five million people have been killed.” Aside from the magnitude of such a catastrophe what is so startling is its relative invisibility. This process of horrifying violence and unawareness is deeply troubling to both Chomsky and Vltchek. Chomsky repeatedly, and tellingly, refers to such victims as ‘un-people,’ those in non-Western realms whose death and suffering barely register on Western consciousness unless there are self-interested geopolitical reasons in a particular context to take non-Western suffering seriously. Both of these authors also view such tragedies as outcomes of global corporate greed, the struggle for control of Africa’s abundant natural resources leading these private sector actors to fund factions and militias that are out front, doing the fighting and killing. The true culprits hide behind curtains of evasion to remain invisible to the public. The media is shockingly complicit by reporting only on what is in view, avoiding critical investigative journalism.  Chomsky and Vltchek help us to realize that an array of powerful forces are using their wealth and influence to prevent us from seeing. We are allowed to see only as much as the gatekeepers of the public mind want us to see, and yet we are not relieved from using our capacities for sight. Reading Chomsky and Vltchek removes the scales from our eyes, at least temporarily, as they have managed to elude these gatekeepers, but at considerable risk, with a display of moral courage, civic responsibility, and extraordinary intellectual energy. I learn a lesson in civics from their vigilance: as citizens of constitutional democracies we retain the freedom, and hence possess a heavy responsibility to see for ourselves what is being done in our name, and not being content by becoming informed about distant victimizations, but learning to heed above all those that are proximate, and once we see what is nearby, we have a responsibility to act.

 

            Without venturing onto the terrain of ‘Orientalism’ the conversations are sensitive to what Chomsky refers to as “intellectual and moral colonization” that reinforces patterns of “political and economic colonization.” In this regard, he goes on to observe that “The main achievement of hierarchy and oppression is to get the un-people to accept that it’s natural.”(17), that is, to induce passivity and resignation among the ranks of the victimized.  The moral consciousness of the perpetrators is also deliberately neutralized. When Chomsky inquires as to whether Europeans have “any consciousness of colonial history” Vltchek responds: “No, grotesquely there is very little consciousness.” He adds that such ignorance is “shameful and revealing”: “Europeans make sure that they remain ignorant of their horrid crimes, about the genocides they committed and are still involved in. What do they know about what their governments and companies were and are doing in DR Congo?” (20)

 

            But just as the devil resides in the details, so too do angels of perceptions many of whom inhabit the pages of this book, and a few can be briefly mentioned here. The conversations weave a fabric of awareness that shifts back and forth between lamenting inattention and denial to the exposure of occurrences and realities that are unfamiliar yet crucially revealing. Without extending this commentary too much further, let me note some of the areas of agreement between Chomsky and Vltchek that corrected or collided with my own understanding. First, the comparison between China and India in which China is praised almost without reservation and India is condemned almost without qualification, surprisingly close to the approach taken by that arch consevative V.S. Naipaul [See Naipaul’s India, A Wounded Civilization(1977)] Their essential argument is that India is exceptionally cruel in its cultural practices, and has done relatively little to alleviate poverty, while China has made extraordinary progress that is spread widely throughout the country. Both confirm, contrary to Western propaganda and consistent with what I also experienced during a visit a year ago, that young university students in China seem fearless, raising sensitive controversial issues in public venues. In effect, India gets too much credit in the West because it possesses the trappings of liberal democracy, while China’s achievements are downplayed because socialist values are mixed with predatory capitalist practices. My own love of India has blinded, or at least numbed me, to the worst of India, and has consistently thrilled me with its cultural vibrancy and rich heritage, which included Gandhi and his incredible mobilization of a militant nonviolent challenge to the then still mighty British Empire.

 

            The two conversationalists agree that the most encouraging political moves in the world from a progressive perspective have been made in Latin America. There are political experiments, as in Bolivia and Venezuela, that express the energies of a socialist populism with original regional and national features, and there is an encouraging set of hemispheric moves to repudiate the main signs of a crippling past dependency on the United States. Chomsky and Vltchek point out that in Latin America, and Asia, the United States has supported vicious and repressive political forces so as to secure the wealth generating interests of corporate America, personified by what might be called ‘the United Fruit Syndrome,’ or more popularly, the perpetuation of ‘banana republics.’ A telling argument made in the book is that the military dictatorships in Latin America that the U.S. helped install and sustain in the 1970s and 1980s were far more oppressive and exploitative of their populations than were the Stalinist governments in control of East Europe during the Cold War decades.

 

            There is agreement among the authors that the heroes of the liberal establishment should be recast as villains. Two such exemplary individuals are Winston Churchill, reviled here for his criminal outlook toward African colonial peoples, and George Kennan, who is portrayed as a leading architect of the American global domination project put into operational form during the period of American ascendancy soon after World War II. Part of this exercise of demonization by Chomsky and Vltchek is to illustrate the mind games of liberal hegemonic ideology that treat such political luminaries as paragons of moral virtue. It continues the tradition of critical perception of the ruling elites that Chomsky so brilliantly set forth in American Power and The New Mandarins back in 1969.

 

            Chomsky and Vltchek both persuasively accord great significance to the almost forgotten Indonesian massacre of 1965 in which more than a million people were sacrificed in a massive bloodbath designed to clear the way for a neoliberal takeover of the wealth producing capacity of the country. The governments of the United States and Australia have much blood on their hands in encouraging this atrocity, and its aftermath that included genocidal incidents in East Timor.  The authors are negative about Asia other than China, supposing that it has swallowed a huge dose of poisonous cool aid called ‘neoliberalism.’

 

            Such illustrative discussion just scratches the surface of these exceptionally perceptive conversations. It would be misleading to suggest that these two progressive interpreters of the whole world were in complete agreement. Chomsky is somewhat more tentative about developments in Turkey or in writing the obituary of the Arab Spring than is Vltchek who seems less nuanced in some of his commentary. Chomsky welcomes improvements and positive trends, while Vltchek believes that only structural change can make a sufficient difference to bring real hope to oppressed peoples.  

 

            In a similar vein, Chomsky seems more convinced than in the past that keeping hope alive is almost a duty expressive of solidarity with those currently victimized. More than before Chomsky is articulate about his belief that without the belief that positive change is possible, there will be no challenge mounted against an intolerable status quo.

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            The book ends with Chomsky depicting two trajectories for the human future: either a continuation of ecological sleep leading to species suicide or an awakening to the ecological challenge, with accompanying improvements. (173) As Chomsky has aged, although far more gradually than is normal, he has somewhat mellowed, and seems less pessimistic and assured overall than when I first came to know him in the late 1960s. I would say that Chomsky’s maturity has endowed him wisdom that acts as a complement to his astonishing command over the specifics of the whole spectrum of political concerns. This substantive authoritativeness set him apart long ago as our foremost intellectual and most beloved commentator on the passing scene of world events, but now he has also become a ‘wise elder,’ and whose views of the world deserves the greatest respect from all of us.

 

 

 

Resolving the Syrian Chemical Weapons Crisis: Sunlight and Shadows

15 Sep

 

            The Putin Moment: Not only did Vladimir Putin exhibit a new constructive role for Russia in 21st statecraft, spare Syria and the Middle East from another cycleof escalating violence, but he articulated this Kremlin initiative in the form of a direct appeal to the American people. There were reasons to be particularly surprised by this display of Russian diplomacy: not since Nikita Khrushchev helped save the world from experiencing the catastrophe of nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 by backing down and agreeing to a face-saving formula for both superpowers, had Moscow distinguished itself in any positive way with respect to the conduct of international relations; for Putin to be so forthcoming, without being belligerent, was particularly impressive in view of Obama’s rather ill-considered cancellation only a few weeks ago of a bilateral meeting with the Russian leader because of Washington’s supposed anger at the refusal of the Russian government to turn the NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, over to the United States for criminal prosecution under American espionage laws; and finally, considering that Putin has much blood on his hands given past policies pursued in relation to Chechnya and in the autocratic treatment of domestic political opposition, it was hard to expect anything benevolent during his watch. And so Putin is emerging as a virtual ‘geopolitical black swan,’ making unanticipated moves of such a major character as to have the potential to transform the character of conflict management and resolution in the 21st century.  It should be understood that Putin could have stayed on the sidelines, and benefitted from seeing Obama sink deeper and deeper into the Syrian quagmire, and instead he stepped in with a momentous move that seems to have served the regional and global interest.

Putin has explained in a coherent manner in his opinion piece that was published in the NY Times on September 11th (without invoking the symbolism of  the twelfth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks) that his approach to Russian foreign policy relies on two instruments: soft power and economic diplomacy. He acknowledged American leadership, but only if exercised within a framework of respect for international law and the UN Charter. And he appropriately took issue with Obama’s sentiments expressed a night earlier to the effect that America in its leadership role had a unique entitlement to use force to overcome injustice in situations other than self-defense and even without authorization by the UN Security Council. It was Putin, perhaps disingenuously, who claimed (quite correctly) that such a prerogative was “extremely dangerous.” He rejected Obama’s pretension that a unilateral discretion with respect to the use of force could be inferred from American exceptionalism. Whether disingenuous or not, the requirement of a Security Council authorization for non-defensive uses of force, while sometimes preventing a peacekeeping response by the UN to certain tragic situations of civil strife and humanitarian crisis overall contributed to finding diplomatically agreed upon solutions for conflict and enabled the UN (unlike the League of Nations) to persist despite severe tensions among its dominant members. Let hope that this Putin vituoso exhibition of creative diplomacy prompts his counterpart in the White House to explore more diligently soft power opportunities that will better protect American national interests, while simultaneously serving the global interest in war prevention and the rejection of militarism, and might also have the added benefit of reversing the steady decline of American credibility as a benevolent global leader ever since the end of the Cold War.

Constitutional Balance: Perhaps what might be of even greater importance than averting an ill-considered punitive attack on Syria, is the grounding of recourse to war on the major republican premise of Congressional authorization. There is little doubt that here the efficient cause and anti-hero was David Cameron, who turned to Parliament to support his wish to join with Obama in the attack coalition despite the anti-war mood in British public opinion. Cameron was politically spared by the vote of the House of Commons to withhold authorization. It is hard to believe that Obama’s decision to seek authorization from the U.S. Congress was not a belated realization that if Britain deferred to its Parliament as an expression of constitutional democracy, it would be unseemly for the United States to go to war without the formal backing of Congress. Of course, the Putin initiative saved Obama from the near certain embarrassment of being turned down by Congress, which would mean that either he would follow in Cameron’s and face savage criticism from his hawkish boosters or insist upon his authority as Commander in Chief to act on his own, a prerogative that seems constitutional dubious to support a bill of impeachment. Beyond this, the War Powers Act that would seem to require some emergency justification for the presidential bypassing of Congress in the context of a proposed military action. Hopefully, we are witnessing, without an accompanying acknowledgement, the downfall of the ‘imperial presidency’ that got its start during the Vietnam War. The governmental pendulum in the United States may have started to swing back toward the separation of powers and checks and balances, and thus be more in keeping with the original republican hopes of limited executive authority, especially in relation to war making. This renewal of republican constitutionalism, combined with growing populist skepticism about military adventures abroad, might make this Syrian crisis of decision a welcome tipping point, reversing the unhealthy subordination of Congress in war/peace situations during the last half century and anti-democratic disregard of the views of the citizenry.

But it is also possible that the imprudence of the proposed punitive strike against Syria will turn out to be a one-off experience, and that when and if Iran clearly crosses the weapons threshold in its nuclear program, the presidency will retrieve its lost claims to be the unilateral guardian of national, regional, and global interests without feeling that it must await authorization from the Congress and the UN. Note that Congressional approval, even if in concert with the President, cannot sanitize a use of force that is illegal under international law. It is the state as a whole that is bound by the constraints of international law, and not just the head of state. There are two distinct issues present: the domestic constitutional requirement of collective authorization for recourse to war by the United States; and the complementary international requirement of acting in compliance with international law and the UN Charter (which is itself acknowledged in supremacy clause of the Constitution with respect to validly ratified treaties).

Coercive Diplomacy: Obama/Kerry contend that Syria’s chemical weapons would never have been put under international controls and in an atmosphere of unprecedented international cooperation, but for the credible threats mounted by the U.S. Government. In this regard, the poker style bluff can be said to have worked without any sure proof that the threat would have been carried out in the face of a refusal by Congress to authorize and the public failure to show support for an attack. As matters now seem to be unfolding, assuming that the plans for abolishing the chemical weapons of Syria proceed as agreed, threat diplomacy will be applauded by the Obama administration without any widespread sensitivity to the fact that the international law as embodied in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits ‘threats’ as well as ‘uses’ of force, although such a prohibition has not been taken seriously as part of the ‘living law’ despite its status as a prime instance of ‘positive law.’ The categorical language of Article 2(4) is unmistakeable: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity and political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

Syria and its People: In the background of the diplomatic controversy about what to do in response to the large-scale lethal use of sarin gas against the people of Syria on August 21st, was the awareness that such an attack did not even pretend to end the violence in Syria or to produce regime change in Damascus or to change the balance of force in the civil war. From this perspective, it seemed mainly a punitive strike that upheld Obama’s red line credibility, although there was an additional argument set forth that a military strike would have a deterrent impact on any contemplated future recourse to chemical weaponry by the Assad regime and other political actors, assuming that the allegations that the Syrian government order the attack are confirmed and reinforced by the reports of the UN inspection team and other respected sources.

What tends to be given only a secondary glance is the effects of an attack on the Syrian people who have been subject to a harrowing ordeal these past two years that has resulted in over 100,000 deaths, countless wounded, and an estimated 7,000,000, almost one-third of the population, as either internally displaced or forced into overcrowded and under-resourced refugee camps in neighboring countries. Beyond this, the always vulnerable Palestinians have endured Syrian attacks on their refugee camps forcing them to flee once more, to become, quite incredibly, refugees from their refugee arrangements, a largely untold Palestinian tragedy hidden within the larger Syrian tragedy. There is almost no political will on the outside to do anything to stop either the proxy war being waged by states external to Syria or the internal struggle being waged by a fragmented opposition against a discredited government that has been incredibly cruel to its own citizens and strangely indifferent to the great cultural and religious heritage of their own country. There are even grotesque murmurings in the background of strategic chatter in Western circles, suggesting that the best outcome is not an end to the violence, but its indefinite continuation with an effort to calibrate future arms supplies and humanitarian aid with the principal aim of making sure that neither side can achieve victory. If this is not an exposure of the raw immorality of strategic discourse at its immoral nadir, I am not sure what would be.

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Why Congress Should Say to ‘No’ on Syria

6 Sep

[I am not sure this attempt at clarifying the present stage of the Syria debate adds much to my prior posts, yet I hope that it provides a kind of summary that is helpful in following the unfolding debate; all along I have felt that the Syrian impasse presented the UN and the world with a tragic predicament: trapped between doing something to stop the Assad regime from committing atrocities against its own people so as to retain power and the non-viabiility and illegality of military intervention, a predicament further complicated by the proxy war within the region along sectarian lines, by the strategic involvement of the U.S. and Russia on opposite sides, the maneuverings behind the scenes by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel, and the avowed Turkish support for regime-changing intervention; also, the overall regional turmoil, and past bad feeling in relation to the UN role in the overthrow of Qadaffi posed additional obstacles; efforts to shape the political outcome by military means, because of the proxy war dimensions (including an increasingly evident, although still surprising, tacit alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia) have so far only escalated the violence on the ground in Syria; Turkey, Russia, and the United States have all along  oscillated between principled and pragmatic responses favoring one side or the other, and exhibiting an ambivalent commitment to equi-distant diplomacy.]

There are three positions that have considerable support in Washington circles, although rarely acknowledged and not popular with the public, partly because of recent foreign policy failures, and partly too removed from perceptions of genuine security interests:

–undertake an attack to uphold ‘red line’ credibility of the president and the United States Government;

–undertake an attack too avoid an insurgent defeat, but on a scale that will not produce an insurgent victory; goal: keep the civil war going;

–undertake an attack to convince Iran that Obama is ready to use force if diplomatic coercion doesn’t work.

There are several other considerations that need to be taken into account:

–the Assad regime is guilty of numerous crimes against humanity aside from and prior to its probable (although far from assured) responsibility for the August 21st attack with chemical weapons on Ghouta; Syria lacks a legitimate government from the perspective of international criminal law; with respect to the violation of the Geneva Accord with respect to chemical weapons, the responsibility of Assad personally and the Syrian government generally has not been established beyond a reasonable doubt at this point;

–nevertheless, the Assad regime retains considerable support from various segments of the Syrian population, possesses substantial military capabilities, and is unlikely to collapse without a major ground invasion; the Assad government retains a measure of legitimacy from the perspective of the politics of self-determination;

–insurgent forces are divided, without coherent leadership, and are also responsible for committing atrocities, and contain political extremists in their ranks; a victory by the insurgency does not seem likely to lead to legitimate governing process from the perspective of law and morality;

–the negative American experiences of relying on war in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan should create a presumption against the authorization of force and reliance on military option in conflict situations; there is mounting evidence from past cases that the costs and risks associated with military options tend to be grossly understated during pre-war debates in the United States due partly to the political mobilization role played by mainstream media;

–the diplomatic alternative to force has been handicapped by its past abuse in the UN Security Council with respect to Libya authorization of ‘responsibility to protect’ undermining the trust of Russia, China, and others, and by the refusal to bring Iran into the political conversation as a key actor.

Against this background there are four important independent reasons for Congress to withhold authorization in this instance:

–a use of force that can neither be justified as self-defense, nor is authorized by the UN, is contrary to the UN Charter, which is an obligatory treaty, as well as being the most serious type of violation of international law in a post-Nuremburg world; the Nuremberg precedent with regard to crimes against peace (as the ‘crime of crimes’) should be respected, especially by the United States, which continues to serve for better and worse, as  the main normative architect of world order;

–the Kosovo precedent of ‘illegal, but legitimate’ is not applicable as a military attack is not likely to achieve either its political goals of ending the civil war and of causing the collapse of the Assad regime, nor its moral goals of stopping the slaughter and displacement of the Syrian people, and the devastation of their cities and country;

–even if the political and moral goals could be achieved, Congress, as well as the president, lacks the authority to authorized foreign policy uses of force that are incompatible with the UN Charter and international law;

–Congress should defer to domestic and world public opinion that clearly is opposed to a proposed military attack in the absence of an exceptional demonstration can be made as to the positive political and moral benefits of such an attack; for reasons mentioned, no such demonstration can be made in this instance; even the European Union has withheld support for a military attack on Syria at the

September meeting of the G-20 in St. Petersburg; only France among America’s traditional allies supported Obama’s insistence on reliance on a punitive military strike, supposedly for the sake of enforcing international law, bizarre reasoning because the rationale reduces to the following proposition: in view of the political realities, it is necessary to violate international law so as to be able to enforce it.

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Questioning Obamacare for Syria

5 Sep

When it comes to war, Obama is okay just this once, especially for Republicans

 

            There is something particularly distressing about the ongoing debate on authorizing an internationally illegal and immoral military attack on Syria: a show of political support on the right. Such a ‘coming together’ of some of the center and much of the right in the American Congress has been sadly absent during Obama presidency until now, whether the issue was health, taxes, social services, keeping the government running, and immigration. And this support emerges on the rare occasion when a majority of American citizens, not known for their cosmopolitan sentiments or affection for the UN Charter, oppose attacking Syria, as was the British Parliament, and as is public opinion throughout Europe. In such a setting, it is not only international law and the UN are being repudiated in a war/peace situation, but the whole fabric of democratic accountability to law and the judgment of the people.

 

            At least we can conclude that the reactionary tendency in American political life over the course of the last decade or so is consistent in its adherence to irresponsible means in the pursuit irresponsible ends. It appears that the real selling point for the looming attack on Syria is not for the sake of the Syrians, but to warn the leadership of Iran that it is next on the White House hit list unless it soon surrenders to Washington’s demands, echoing those more stridently made by Israel. Is this what global leadership of the United States has come to mean? To let adversaries be reminded that the global bully means business.

 

            And what about damaging the Obama legacy? There is a loss/loss feeling about the eventual attack, if indeed it should happen. If the attack on Syria is truly limited and does not produce many civilian casualties, his Republican champions, including such hawkish stalwarts as Senators McCain and Graham, will quickly change sides, arguing that doing such a slap on the wrist is worse than doing nothing. The broadening of the Congressional resolution suggests that the hawk support depends on launching a major attack that has much wider ambitions than what Obama seemed to favor in his call to Congress for authorization. Does he heed his earlier concept of the attack or go along with his more militarist supporters?

 

            If, as seems probable, there are casualties, retaliations, escalation, diplomatic fallout, persisting civil strife, cross border spillover effects, then Obama is almost sure to face a grassroots protest movement expressing national and global disaffection, and including some of those Democrats who go along because a ‘red line’ once drawn by an American president needs to get respect, even if the cost of doing so is irresponsible, irrational, imprudent, illegal, and immoral. Carrying out Obama’s preferred course of action would mean reverting to the once derided ‘Nixon madman’ approach to foreign policy, that is, inhibiting the Kremlin during the height of the Cold War by making their leaders believe that the American president was trigger-happy and crazy. Do whatever it takes to make sure else that America is feared around the world, endowing even its ill-advised threats with maximum potency. This iron fist style of ‘keeping of the peace’ is totally divorced from adherence to international law and support for the UN. It excessively values keeping ‘the military option’ on the table at all times in the hope of either annihilating its enemies or make them suffer the consequences of opposition to Washington ideas about how to run the world.

 

            If Congress responds with an authorization for force in Syria, and even in a form that exceeds what the president requested, it will no doubt recall the last major Congressional dark folly: the infamous Gulf of Tonkin resolution, giving LBJ a blank check to widen the Vietnam War in ways of his devising. His first step was to escalate the American engagement by attacking North Vietnam from air and sea in 1965. It is never pleasant to revive bad memories except possibly to avoid another foreign policy fiasco, as well as to deepen the impression that America as a imperial superpower has lost its capacity to learn from past mistakes.

 

            Dear friends, if the only way America can seem strong is to cast itself in the role of global bully, supplanting the earlier somewhat more understandable imperial cover of pax Americana, then the wise and virtuous will conclude, if they have not already, that America is actually weak. In this century true strength will not be measured by degrees of military dominance and battlefield victories, but by helping to solve the growing agenda of national, regional, and global problems endangering the future of humanity.

Such a constructive path can only be taken if the major states show respect for international law and the UN Charter as the foundational premises of a sustainable world order. Thinking otherwise, that the history will be interpreted from the militarist perspectives of those who base human and societal security on a global war machine places global civilizations, and even the human species, on a slippery slope of extinction, nothing less! At this time, we need to fear more a clash of rationalities than a clash of civilizations, although both should be transcended.

 

            Could it not be offered in response that such thoughts are a hysterical over-reaction to what will be at worst a flash flood soon to be forgotten? Along these lines, it is contended that any attack on Syria is likely to be over in several days (although the current language of the resolution offers a wide open window to war making by extending authorization to 90 days), the reaction by Syria and its friends, if any is forthcoming, will probably be muted, and life in America, the Middle East, and the world will return to what passes for ‘normalcy.’ Even if we assume that such a moderate unfolding is more or less accurate foretelling, yet even so, the effect would be deeply destructive. It will enable most of us to remain ignorant of an underlying frightening reality: our body politic suffers from this crippling disease of ‘martialitus’ for which there is no known cure, and at present not even a widely agreed upon diagnosis. Indeed, the disgraceful edifice of global surveillance may have as its primary task suppressing knowledge that our political leaders suffer from severe versions of this disease. Snowden, Manning, and Assange were likely seen to pose such a great danger because they were attempting to remove the geopolitical cataracts clouding our vision of such a distressing political reality. After such knowledge, there would be no forgiveness, only urgent responsibilities. Under these conditions cultivating the false consciousness of normalcy is itself an ominous sign of a collective refusal to acknowledge the disease, much less to begin treating it by such moves as a Congressional resolution requiring the president to obtain authorization for non-defensive force from the United Nations and under all circumstances act in accordance with the requirements of international law as objectively determined. It would be also important to insist that the government move toward fulfilling its obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 by tabling a proposal for phased and verified nuclear disarmament. It may also be appropriate to introduce a resolution in Congress that would make mandatory a declaration of war in all instances where international force was to be used by the United States other than in circumstances of genuinely imminent foreign attack.

 

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Syria: Obama’s Surprising (and Confusing) Latest Moves

1 Sep

 

 

            President Obama’s August 31st remarks from the White House Rose Garden will long be remembered for their strangeness, but the final interpretation of their significance will have to await months if not years. There are three dimensions, at least, that are worth pondering: (1) seeking Congressional authorization for a punitive military attack against Syria in support of the treaty prohibition on recourse to chemical weapons in an armed conflict; (2) reconciling any endorsement of an attack by Congress with United States obligations under international law and with respect to the United Nations and its Charter; (3) assessing the degree to which American war making prerogatives continue to operate within an unacceptable domain of American exceptionalism.

 

            In framing the issues at stake Obama set forth the fundamental policy choices in a rather incoherent manner:

 

            –first of all, he asserted that on the basis of evidence available to the United States Government, that the Assad regime was without doubt responsible for the massive chemical weapons attack of August 21st directed at the Ghouta residential neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus, and causing over 1,000 civilian deaths, including several hundred children. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, clearly articulated the grounds for skepticism about this American construction of the Ghouta atrocity. He put forward a strongly worded request that the allegations be confirmed by the release of convincing evidence. This is a reasonable demand. Many around the world have questioned why Assad would launch such a provocative attack to coincide with the arrival of UN inspectors, and when the battlefield balance was tipping in favor of the Damascus regime. All along such important figures in the Obama administration, especially John Kerry and Joe Biden, have arrogantly dismissed the relevance of any information provided by the UN inspection team. In light of the gigantic deception relating to Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) arsenal, which was more politely described long after the event as an ‘intelligence failure,’  it would have been appropriate for Washington to admit that it has a credibility problem in winning governmental and popular support for an attack on Syria. Its refusal to acknowledge such an issue merely deepens suspicions.

 

            –secondly, Obama informed listeners that “..after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets.” He added that he made this decision “as Commander-in-Chief on what I am convinced are our national security interests.” This conclusion was explained to rest on the importance of punishing such a crime against humanity and deterring future recourse to chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction by Syria, as well as sending a message to Iran and North Korea about America’s readiness to use force to uphold such norms of international law.

 

            –thirdly, there was no effort in Obama’s remarks to show why, absent a UN mandate, the United States in coalition with a few other countries, had the legal authority to attack a sovereign state in a circumstance other than self-defense.

 

            –fourthly, although the decision against involvement by the British Parliament was noted, there was no consideration as to whether such an outcome should bear on American policy. Nor was the German or Italian

unwillingness to join in the attack noted, nor that of the Arab League. But the French support was duly appreciated, including a dig at the United Kingdom, by reminding his listeners around the world that it was France that was America’s “oldest ally.” (It is worth noting that the roles of these two European friends were directly reversed in the context of the Iraq War; then, it was the French more conservative led government that opposed participation, while now a socialist leader in Paris supports an attack against Syria).

 

            –fifthly, and in the most dramatic passage in the speech, Obama announces that because the United States is a proud democracy he has made “a second decision: I will seek the authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress” by calling for a debate and vote. No mention is made of a time frame, nor how he would react in the event

that authorization was not forthcoming. Such an eventuality would set up a potential tension between his duties to uphold national security and an obligation of deference to a decision by Congress on the vital matter of authority to wage war. Obama touched all the bases by saying, “Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective.” In effect, there is no constitutional legal requirement to obtain Congressional authorization, but doing so will create a more effective response. But what if authorization is withheld? Or Congress is split with approval by the Senate, and disapproval by the House?

 

            –sixthly, there is an implicit endorsement of American exceptionalism. After saying that the case for an attack will be made internationally, as well as domestically, Obama reaffirms a national prerogative of illegal unilateralism. He uses this phrase: “But we are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus.” That is no matter that others disagree, the United States alone has the duty to act as it sees fit. It is correctly presumed that such discretion is not vested in other sovereign states. Otherwise the world would be in flames. In effect, Syria, Iran, North Korea are bound by international law, as interpreted by the United States, while the United States and its closest allies are guided by assessments of their national security interests.

It is this double standard that is at the core of American exceptionalism, and also underpins the debate as to whether it is more instructive to view the United States as ‘global leader’ or ‘imperial power,’ or possibly some blend;

 

–there is something rather sinister about announcing an intention to strike a vulnerable country with which the United States is not at war, coupled with the announcement that the needed military capabilities are in place, but will not be used until convenient;  in effect, a lethal strike against Syria can take place at any point from now on until a time weeks or months from now, depending only on the workings of the internal American political process and the disposition of its Commander-in-Chief. If this is deemed to be in the interest of the Syrian people, I would like to know how.

 

*****************************************************************

 

Even if the controversy as to the facts is ignored, and the problems associated with double standards as to the relevance of international law to the use of force, there are some other reasons for concern about the approach adopted by President Obama:

 

–it denies constitutional status to the request for Congressional authorization, making it a discretionary presidential judgment call that is not necessitated by the Constitution, but is an expression of Obama’s belief in democratic procedures. To not rest this request on the Constitution itself is a missed opportunity, and thus amounts to yet another reassertion of excessive authority by the Executive Branch of government;

 

–it makes no effort to assess what would be of benefit to the people of Syria, and rather makes the case for a narrow strike as a combination of punishing (without intending to displace) the Assad regime and abstract American national security interests in its self-appointed role as preventing the use and spread of WMD;

 

–it fails to advocate in a serious manner a diplomatic approach to ending the violence of the conflict by calling for a second Geneva conference with the full participation of Iran that would deal with regional peace and security issues, as well as the war in Syria;

 

–it undermines the authority of the UN and international law by vesting in the U.S. Government the final word on when it is appropriate to use international force in non-defensive modes and fails to make war a matter of ‘last resort’;

 

–it draws an overly sharp a distinction between this incident involving chemical weapons and other massacres that have occurred during the course of two years of strife in Syria; regardless of the weaponry deployed both forms of violence are crimes against humanity that deserve a serious and effective response, if available.

 

*******************************************************************

 

It is as yet possible that Congress will rescue Obama from having to respect a red line he ill-advisedly proclaimed a year ago. It would be ironic if this one time the anti-Obama Republicans saved him from the worse foreign policy excess of his presidency!

 

It is possible that Obama will be pushed by pro-interventionists to override a Congressional failure to give  authorization. It is also possible that Congress will authorize, and public opinion strongly oppose. And we are left to wonder whether Congress can constitutionally authorize a use of force that violates international treaty law. Of course, we would be unlikely to find out given the passivity of the U.S. Supreme Court when it comes to challenges directed at legally dubious foreign policy and national security matters.

 

All of the above suggests that the revitalization of American republicanism requires, as a matter of urgency, a constitutional convention with an explicit mandate to restore the separation of powers and checks and balances in relations to war/peace issues. The U.S. Government has longed strayed from this vital pillar of republican democracy.

 

Nothing would do more to restore confidence in the United States as a global leader! Such a momentous event will not happen without massive grassroots pressure; it will never be decreed from on high.

 

A final word of blurred appreciation: CNN talking heads are very fond of referring to Obama as epitomizing ‘the reluctant warrior.’ And reluctant he is, but also warrior he has been, and continues to be, casting a rather dark shadow over the Nobel Peace Prize decision process. The reluctance is articulated over and over again in his words and sometimes reflected in his policies, and certainly seems sincere. And such reluctance may be credited, at least subconsciously, with this welcome move to broaden the domestic authorization process with respect to this non-defensive use of international force. Obama would deserve less ambiguous praise if he had recognized the role of Congress prior to the decision of the British Parliament. And prior the many demands from Congress for a greater role gathering political momentum.

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Syria: U.S. War Making at the Expense of Democracy

31 Aug

 

             The U.S. Government rains drone missiles on civilian human targets anywhere in the world, continues to operate Guantanamo in the face of universal condemnation, whitewashed Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and the torture memos, committed aggression against Iraq and Afghanistan, and invests billions to sustain its unlawful global surveillance capabilities. Still, it has the audacity to lecture the world about ‘norm enforcement’  in the wake of the chemical weapons attack in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus. Someone should remind President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry that credibility with respect to international law begins at home and ends at the United Nations. Sadly, the American government loses out at both ends of this normative spectrum, and the days of Washington being able to deliver pious messages on the importance of international law are over. No one is listening, and that’s a relief, although it does provide material for those teams of writers working up material for the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and the many standups at Comedy Central. Yet, of course, this geopolitical TV series is no laughing matter for the long ordeal of the Syrian people.

 

            There is yet another disturbing dimension of this pre-war pseudo debate about recourse to force in retaliation for an alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad against his own people: should a democracy empower its elected leaders to commit the country to war without at least securing specific legislative authorization? The contrast between the approach of the British and American approach to this issue is illuminating. David Cameron, as Prime Minister, along with his Foreign Secretary, strongly favored joining with the United States in launching a punitive attack against Syria, but arranged a prior Parliamentary debate and vote, and clearly indicated his immediate acceptance of the surprising refusal to win backing for such a policy, a show of Parliamentary independence that had not occurred in the country since the late 18th century. Of course, given polls showing only 11% of British citizens supporting an attack on Syria, Cameron may be privately breathing a deep sigh of relief that the vote came out as it did! Obama should be so lucky! If only his powers as Commander-in-Chief included a tool with which to erase imprudent ‘red lines’!

 

            Compare now the Obama approach: speeches informing the country about why it is important to punish the Assad regime so as to uphold American national security interests and to engender respect for international law and several consultations with Congressional leaders. What is absent from the Obama discourse is the word ‘authorization’ or ‘a decent respect for the opinions’ of humanity, as expressed at home and in the world. In my view, this continuing claim of presidential authority to wage war unilaterally, and absent a UN mandate, is creating a deep crisis of legitimacy not only for the U.S., but for all governments that purport to be democracies but commit to war on the decision of the chief executive, as France and Turkey appear to be doing. It is time to face up to this crisis.

 

            Above all, the foundational idea of American republicanism was to demonstrate that the power to declare and wage war was subject to ‘checks and balances’ and ‘separation of powers,’ and in this crucial respect, was unlike the monarchical powers of English kings in war/peace contexts. This makes the Parliamentary rebuff to Cameron not only a revitalizing move for British democracy, but an ironic commentary on the degree to which American ‘democracy’ has perversely moved in an absolutist direction.

 

            It is true that government lawyers as hired hands can always find legal justifications for desired lines of policy. We can count on White House lawyers do just this at the present time: working into the night at Office of the Legal Counsel to prepare breifing material on the broad scope of the powers of the president as Commander-in-Chief, reinforced by patterns of practice over the course of the last several decades, and rounded out with an interpretation of the War Powers Act that supposedly gives the president 60 days of discretionary war making before any obligation exists to seek approval from Congress. Lawyers might quibble, but democracy will be the loser if procedures for accountability and authorization are not restored with full solemnity. In this respect the law should follow, not lead, and what is at stake is whether the republican ideals of limited government would be better served by the original ideas of making it unconstitutional for a president to commit the country to war without a formal and transparent process of public deliberation in the Congress, which is that part of government charged with reflecting the interests and values of the citizenry. Let the lawyers be damned if they side with the warrior politicians, however ‘war weary’ they claim to be.

 

            It is worth also noticing that the common arguments for presidential authority do not pertain. The United States is not responding to an attack or acting in the face of an imminent threat. There is no time urgency. Beyond this the American public, as is the case with the publics of all other Western democracies, oppose by large majorities acts of war against Syria. What makes this situation worse, still, is the refusal to test diplomacy. By international law norms, reinforced by the UN Charter, a use of force to resolve an international conflict is legally a matter of ‘last resort’ after diplomatic remedies have been exhausted. But here they are not even being tried in good faith, which would involve bringing Iran into the process as a major engaged player, and enlisting Russia’s support rather than exhibiting post-Snowden pique. Obama claims that no one is more war weary than he is, but his behavior toward Syria, Iran, Egypt, and Russia convey the opposite message.

 

            And finally, some urge what be called ‘a humanitarian right of exception,’ namely, that this crime against humanity committed against the Syrian people requires a proportionate response from the perspective of international morality, regardless of the constraints associated with international law. Disregarding ‘the slippery slope’ of moral assessments, this particular response is being presented as directed against the Assad regime, but not motivated by any commitment to end the civil war or to assassinate Assad. There are reasons for viewing Washington’s moralizing reaction to the horrifying chemical attacks of August 21, especially the rush to judgment with respect to attributing responsibility to the Assad regime without awaiting the results of the UN inspection team and the odd timing of a such a major attack just as the inspectors were arriving in Damascus. It is not only habitual skeptics that recall Colin Powell’s presentation of conclusive evidence of Iraq’s possession of WMD to the UN Security Council in the lead up to the unlawful Iraq War. We should by now understand that when a foreign policy imperative exists for the occupant of the White House, factoids replace facts, and moral/legal assessments become matters of bureaucratic and media duty.

             

 

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