Tag Archives: Barack Obama

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.  

 

Responses to Questions on avoidance of an American Attack on the Assad Regime

14 Sep

Prefatory Note: The following questions were put to me by Patricia Lombroso of the Italian publication, Il Manifesto.

1] How much you think the opposition of the entire world for another war influenced US to put on hold the go ahead to intervention with military attack in Syria.

IT IS DIFFICULT TO MEASURE, AS SUCH AN INFLUENCE IS NEVER ADMITTED. AT THE SAME TIME, I THINK THERE IS NO DOUBT THAT THE ADVERSE OUTLOOK OF THE WORLD’S PUBLIC, ESPECIALLY IN EUROPE, WAS A CLEAR FACTOR IN HALTING THE DRIFT INTO WAR. EVEN MORE IMPORTANT WAS THE REFUSAL OF THE BRITISH PARLIAMENT TO BACK DAVID CAMERON, THE BRITISH PRIME MINISTER. ALSO SIGNIFICANT, WAS WAR WEARINESS IN THE UNITED STATES, WHICH OBAMA MENTIONS FREQUENTLY, WHICH IS A CODED WAY OF ACKNOWLEDGING THE FAILURES OF AMERICAN WAR POLICIES IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN.

2] How much is the ideology favoring “military intervention” on behalf of supposed “humanitarian wars,” still operative in US and the Western world as suggested by finding Hilary Clinton and John McCain on the pro-interventionist side of the Syrian debate.

I THINK THE MILITARIST WING OF BOTH POLITICAL PARTIES TENDS TO CONVERGE ON POLICY OPTIONS THAT ARE DEBATED IN PRE-WAR CONTEXTS WITHIN THE UNITED STATES. SUCH ADVOCACY IS INCREASINGLY OUT OF TOUCH WITH THE POLITICAL CLIMATE IN THE USA, WHICH IS NO LONGER SUPPORTIVE OF WARS THAT SEEM TO LACK A STRATEGIC MAJOR JUSTIFICATION. THERE IS ALSO A  GROWING AWARENESS THAT AMERICAN MILITARY INTERVENTION HAS NOT LED TO SUCCESSFUL POLITICAL OUTCOMES, AND HAVE ENTAILED SERIOUS ECONOMIC DIVERSIONS OF RESOURCES AND HUMAN CASUALTIES THAT ARE NOT JUSTIFIED. THE AMERICAN PUBLIC HAS BEGUN TO UNDERSTAND IS POSSIBLE TO WIN ON THE BATTLEFIELD AND YET LOSE THE WAR. THIS SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE MAJOR LESSON OF THE VIETNAM WAR, BUT IT HAS NOT BEEN LEARNED BY THE POLITICAL LEADERSHIP WHO DERISIVELY REFERRED TO SUCH LEARNING AS ‘THE VIETNAM SYNDROME,’ SOMETHING TO BE OVERCOME. IT WAS GEORGE H.W. BUSH’S FIRST CLAIM AFTER THE GULF WAR IN 1991 THAT “WE HAVE FINALLY KICKED THE VIETNAM SYNDROME.” PROBABLY THINK TANKS ARE ALREADY PRODUCING POLICY PAPERS ON HOW TO GET OVER ‘THE IRAQ SYNDROME”!

3] Is your opinion that the explosion of a war in the Middle East as too

risky in relation to its probable consequences that might have persuaded Obama

to be cautious in planning his moves against the Assad regime in Syria?

IT WAS PARTLY THE SENSE THAT ONCE SUCH AN ATTACK OCCURRED THERE COULD BE SERIOUS UNANTICIPATED CONSEQUENCES AND COSTS THAT UNDERMINED ITS INITIAL RATIONAL. ALSO, THE PROPOSED SCOPE OF THE CONTEMPLATED INVOLVEMENT MADE NEITHER STRATEGIC NOR HUMANITARIAN SENSE. SUCH A CONTEMPLATED ATTACK WAS NOT CAPABLE OF WINNING SUPPORT IN THE UN, IN CONGRESS, AND AMONG PUBLIC OPINION AT HOME AND ABROAD. EVEN IF THE ATTACK WAS SUCCESSFULLY CARRIED OUT IT WOULD NOT LIKELY ALTER EITHER ASSAD’S CONTROL OF THE SYRIAN GOVERNMENT OR THE COURSE OF THE CIVIL OR PROXY WAR AFFLICTING SYRIA. THE IMPULSE TO LAUNCH AN ATTACK BECAUSE  ASSAD HAD CROSSED OBAMA’S RED LINE ABOUT CHEMICAL WEAPONS SEEMED LIKE AN OVERLY PERSONAL, ARBITRARY, AND UNTENABLE JUSTIFICATION FOR MILITARY ACTION WITH ITS VARIOUS RISKS AND HUMAN COSTS, INCLUDING THE ALMOST CERTAIN DEATH OF INNOCENT PERSONS. THE FACT THAT OBAMA WAS RESCUED BY PUTIN AND OPPOSED BY A REACTIONARY CONGRESS ADDED AN IRONIC DIMENSION TO THE TWISTS AND TURNS OF U.S. POLICY ON SYRIA. THE SITUATION IS STILL UNFOLDING WITH NO CLEAR WAY TO PREDICT THE OUTCOME, ALTHOUGH THE RENEWED TURN TOWARD DIPLOMACY ENGENDERED A GLIMMER OF HOPE. FOR THE SAKE OF THE SYRIAN PEOPLE, AND THE STABILITY OF THE REGION, THE PRIME GOAL SHOULD BE A DOMESTIC POLITICAL PROCESS THAT PROJECTS A FUTURE FOR SYRIA THAT COMBINES UNITY WITH THE DEVOLUTION OF AUTHORITY IN EFFECTIVE FORMS THAT BRING HUMAN SECURITY TO THE VARIOUS ETHNIC AND RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES THAT CONSTITUTE 21ST CENTURY SYRIA.

AFTERTHOUGHT: THE U.S. AND RUSSIA HAVE NOW REACHED AN AGREEMENT THAT HAS BEEN ACCEPTED IN DAMASCUS TO THE EFFECT THAT SYRIA WILL AGREE TO ACKNOWLEDGE ITS STOCKPILES OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS, AND HAVE THEM DESTROYED BY MID-2014 UNDER INTERNATIONAL SUPERVISION AND VERIFIED BY UN INSPECTORS. THE PROVISIONAL OUTCOME, ASSUMING IT HOLDS UP, REPRESENTS A MASTER TRIUMPH OF RUSSIAN DIPLOMACY, A GEOPOLITICAL SETBACK FOR AMERICAN GLOBAL LEADERSHIP, AND AN AMBIGUOUS VICTORY FOR THREAT DIPLOMACY. THE OVERALL RESULTS IN RELATION TO HOLDING LEADERSHIP DEMOCRATICALLY ACCOUNTABLE BEFORE LAUNCHING NON-DEFENSIVE WARS AND DETERRING THE USE OF WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION REMAINS TO BE SEEN.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

             

 

Contra Syria Attack

30 Aug

At this stage Informed opinion agrees that the response to the presumed Assad regime’s responsibility for the use on August 21st of chemical weapons in Ghuta, a neighborhood in the eastern surrounding suburbs of Damascus, is intended to be punitive. This is a way of signaling that it is a punishment for the alleged use of chemical weapons, and at the same time denies any ambition to alter the course of the internal struggle for power in Syria or to assassinate Bashar el-Assad. Of course, if it achieved some larger goal unexpectedly this would likely be welcomed, although not necessarily, by such convergent  centers of concern on Syrian policy as Washington, Ankara, Riyadh, and Tel Aviv.

Why not necessarily? Because there is a growing belief in influential Western circles, highlighted in a cynical article by Edward Luttwak published a few days ago in the NY Times, [“In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins,” Aug. 24, 2013] that it is better for the United States and Israel if the civil war goes on and on, and there are no winners. Accorded to this warped reasoning, if Assad wins, it would produce significant regional gains for Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah; if the Syrian Free Army, and its Nusra Front and Al Qaeda allies win, it is feared that it would give violent extremist forces a base of operations that would likely work strongly against Western interests. Only Turkey, the frontline opponent of the Assad regime, and Saudi Arabia, the regional champion of Sunni sectarianism, stand to gain by resolving the conflict in favor of the Sunni-led opposition forces as that would both contribute, as Ankara and Riyadh see it, to greater regional stability, augment their preferred sectarian alignment, and inflict a major setback on Iran and Russia.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are split on whether it matters that upon the fall of Assad, a regime would be defeated that has repeatedly committed crimes against humanity in waging a war against its own people. Their contradictory responses to the el-Sisi coup and massacres in Egypt are illuminating on this score: Turkey adhered to principle despite a sacrifice of its short-term material and political interests in the Middle East, while Saudi Arabia has rushed in to provide Cairo with massive economic assistance and a show of strong diplomatic support for a military takeover that is crushing the leading Muslim political organization in the country.

Another way of thinking about the grand strategy of the United States in the Middle East after the dust from the Arab Spring began to settle in the region is suggested by the noted Israeli peace activist and former Knesset member, Uri Avnery [“Poor Obama,” August 31, 2013]: the U.S. Government at work frantically behind the scenes to restore the function of governance to military dictators, with Egypt the new poster child. Avnery attributes these Machiavellian machinations to CIA masterminds swimming in dark waters, entrapping Obama by overriding his strong rhetorical support for democracy in the Arab world, articulated in his Cairo speech back in 2009.

The rationale for an American-led attack on Syria is mostly expressed as follows:

–America’s credibility is at stake after Obama ‘red line’ was crossed by launching a large-scale lethal chemical weapons attack; doing nothing in response would undermine U.S. global leadership;

–America’s credibility makes indispensable and irreplaceable contributions to world order, and should not jeopardized by continued passivity in relation to the criminal conduct of the Assad regime; inaction has been tried for the past two years and failed miserably [not clearly tried—Hilary Clinton was avowed early supporter of rebel cause, including arms supplies; recent reports indicate American led ‘special forces operations’ being conducted to bolster anti-Assad struggle];

–a punitive strike will deter future uses of chemical weapons by Syria and others, teaching Assad and other leaders that serious adverse consequences follow upon a failure to heed warnings posted by an American president in the form of ‘red lines;’

–even if the attack will not shift the balance in Syria back to the insurgent forces it will restore their political will to persist in the struggle for an eventual political victory over Assad and operate to offset their recently weakened position;

–it is possible that the attack will unexpectedly enhance prospects for a diplomatic compromise, allowing a reconvening of the U.S.-Russia chaired Geneva diplomatic conference, which is the preferred forum for promoting transition to a post-Assad Syria.

Why is this rationale insufficient?

–it does not take account of the fact that a punitive attack of the kind evidently being planned by Washington lacks any foundation in international law as it is neither undertaken in self-defense, nor after authorization by the UN Security Council, nor in a manner that can be justified as humanitarian intervention (in fact, innocent Syrian civilians are almost certain to loom large among the casualties);

–it presupposes that the U.S. Government rightfully exercises police powers on the global stage, and by unilateral (or ‘coalition of the willing’) decision, can give legitimacy to an other unlawful undertaking; it may be that the United States remains the dominant hard power political actor in the region and world, but its war making since Vietnam is inconsistent with the global public good, causing massive suffering and widespread devastation; international law and the UNSC are preferable sources of global police power than is reliance on the discretion and leadership of the United States at this stage of world history even if this results in occasional paralysis as evidenced by the UN’s failure to produce a consensus on how to end the war in Syria;

–U.S. foreign policy under President Barack Obama has similarities to that of George W. Bush in relation to international law, despite differences in rhetoric and style: Obama evades the constraints of international law by the practice of ‘reverential interpretations,’ while Bush defied as matter of national self-assertion and the meta-norms of grand strategy; as a result Obama comes off  as a hypocrite while Bush as an outlaw or cowboy; in an ideal form of global law both would be held accountable for their violations of international criminal law;

–the impacts of a punitive strike could generate harmful results: weakening diplomatic prospects; increasing spillover effects on Lebanon, Turkey, elsewhere; complicating relations with Iran and Russia; producing retaliatory responses that widen the combat zone; causing a worldwide rise in anti-Americanism.

There is one conceptual issue that deserves further attention. In the aftermath of the Kosovo NATO War of 1999 there was developed by the Independent International Commission the argument that the military attack was ‘illegal but legitimate.’[1] The argument made at the time was that the obstacles to a lawful use of force could not be overcome because the use of force was non-defensive and not authorized by the Security Council. The use of force was evaluated as legitimate because of compelling moral reasons (imminent threat of humanitarian catastrophe; regional European consensus; overwhelming Kosovar political consensus—except small Serbian minority) relating to self-determination; Serb record of criminality in Bosnia and Kosovo) coupled with considerations of political feasibility (NATO capabilities and political will; a clear and attainable objective—withdrawal of Serb administrative and political control—that was achieved). Such claims were also subject to harsh criticism as exhibiting double standards (why not Palestine?) and a display of what Noam Chomsky dubbed as ‘military humanism.’

None of these Kosovo elements are present in relation to Syria: it is manifestly unlawful and also illegitimate (the attack will harm innocent Syrians without achieving proportionate political ends benefitting their wellbeing; the principal justifications for using force relate to geopolitical concerns such as ‘credibility,’ ‘deterrence,’ and ‘U.S. leadership.’ [For an intelligent counter-argument contending that an attack on Syria at this time would be ‘illegal but legitimate,’ see Ian Hurd, "Bomb Syria, Even if it is Illegal," NY Times, August 27, 2013; also “Saving Syria, International Law is not the answer,” Aljazeera, August 27, 2013]

Globalizing Homeland Security (revised)

21 Aug

Taking Note: The Drift Toward Autocracy: Revised (several modifications that clarify and reinforce the original text)

            It is not just one thing that should worry us about the authoritarian tendencies of the Obama presidency, but one thing after another. The cumulative effect of it all.

            The latest sign of the times was the August 19 detention of David Miranda, under the British anti-terrorist law for nine hours. His laptop, cell phone, and other electronic devices were also confiscated, and presumably examined. We need to wonder what is so frightening about ‘the Snowden documents’ that it induces these flagrant intrusions on the privacy and confidentiality of journalists, and now even their associates who are not known to be accomplices. keeps reassuring Americans, and indeed the world, that he shares a concern for protecting elemental rights, and yet he seems to spare no means to move against disclosures of information that seems awkward for the United States and some allies even when not of particular interest to Al Qaeda and the like. Just as 40 years ago the government sought to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg, revealing secrets being kept primarily from the American people, and not from the ‘enemy’ in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. It was not a matter of secrecy for secrecy’s sake, but secrecy to sustain the trust of the citizenry by a cover up of lies and deception in an increasingly unpopular and failed war taking many Vietnamese and American lives.

            Keep in mind that by the rules of the road in international affairs, Moscow could not extradite Snowden, and yet Washington insisted, and when spurned, ‘punished’ itself more than Russia and Putin, by canceling the presidential meeting scheduled for Russia in September to discuss issues of common concern, including Syria, Iran, North Korea, nuclear arms control, and presumably the horrifying turmoil that is turning the Middle East into a war zone. Any fool would realize that at this point the United States has much more to gain from a cooperative rather than an alienated Russia, and so what is the point of showing Snowden childish pique by this rebuff of Putin? It would seem that Washington’s concept of such cooperation between the two countries is entirely hegemonic: the United States sets the tune, and Russia is supposed to sing the song. There are no honest disagreements. Obama’s much heralded ‘reset’ approach to U.S./Russian relations is a one-way street as near as I can tell, and when the songsters in Moscow provide their own lyrics, the music makers in Washington turn hostile, claiming disappointment, dismissing the Russian version of the song as disruptive ‘noise.’

 

            Also, it is not an unfriendly gesture to accord Snowden asylum in view of his political crimes, the punitive approach adopted by the Obama presidency for breaches of secrecy, and the unwarranted cancellation of his passport depriving him of valid travel documents by state fiat without even granting a day in court. On the contrary, asylum for Snowden is what a human rights culture should lead us to hope for in such situations. Was it really sensible diplomacy to use America’s leverage in the NATO region to disrupt the European flight of Evo Morales, violating the civil air international navigational rights of Bolivia, and also encroaching upon its sovereignty and insulting its leader. As it turned out, this effort to capture Snowden while he was mistakenly thought to be on his way to asylum in Bolivia, angered and affronted all whole  of Latin America, including the usually placid Brazil, which even speculated that it might not now continue with its plan to make a large purchase of fighter aircraft from Boeing. It would seem that the Obama presidency loses its composure and moral compass as soon as some of its dirty secrets are told, whether involving war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan or human rights violations around the world.

There are two principles at stake that both are protective of Snowden: first, extradition is not legally permissible because of the political nature of his crime; secondly, asylum is appropriate because of the evident intention of the United States to punish Snowden for the disclosure of information that is protective of the global public good, exposing surveillance, intrusions on privacy, and threats to democracy both in the United States and throughout the world.

 

            Instead of such a display of childish frustration manifest as statist fury, Obama would have helped his cause much more by declaring the Snowden disclosures as a ‘teaching moment,’ an occasion both to discuss the post-9/11 pressures to gain information and the threats poses to freedom and democracy by the inflated demands of ‘homeland security,’ especially when the homeland becomes equated with the world.

 

            The road to autocracy in America, aside from the plutocratic ride of the 1%, tunnels through mountains of secrecy, a panopticon of surveillance, drone warfare, White House approved assassination lists, death squads roaming foreign lands, and a globe-girdling militarism manifest in a network of hundreds of foreign bases, space satellites, provocative military exercises, and outmoded strategic doctrines.

Globalizing Homeland Security

20 Aug

Taking Note: The Drift Toward Autocracy

 

            It is not just one thing that should worry us about the authoritarian tendencies of the Obama presidency, but one thing after another. The cumulative effect of it all.

 

            The latest sign of the times was the August 19th detention of David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald’s partner, at Heathrow Airport under the British anti-terrorist law for nine hours. His laptop, cell phone, and other electronic devices were also confiscated, and presumably examined. We need to wonder what is so frightening about ‘the Snowden documents’ that it induces these flagrant intrusions on the privacy and confidentiality of journalists, and now even their associates. President Obama keeps reassuring Americans, and indeed the world, that he shares a concern for protecting elemental rights, and yet he seems to spare no means to move against disclosures of information that seems awkward for the United States and some allies even when not of great interest to Al Qaeda and the like. Just as 40 years ago the government sought to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg for revealing secrets being kept from the American people, and not from the ‘enemy’ in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. It is not a matter of secrecy for secrecy’s sake, but secrecy to sustain the trust of the citizenry by a cover up of lies and deception.

 

            Keep in mind that by the rules of the road in international affairs, Moscow could not extradite Snowden, and yet Washington insisted, and when spurned, ‘punished’ itself more than Russia and Putin, by canceling the presidential meeting scheduled for Russia in September to discuss issues of common concern, including Syria, Iran, North Korea, nuclear arms control, and presumably the horrifying turmoil that is turning the Middle East into a war zone. Any fool would realize that at this point the United States has much more to gain from a cooperative rather than an alienated Russia, and so what is the point of showing Snowden childish pique by this rebuff of Putin? It would seem that Washington’s concept of such cooperation between the two countries is entirely hegemonic: the United States sets the tune, and Russia is supposed to sing the song. There are no honest disagreements.

It is a one-way street as near as I can tell, and when the songsters in Moscow provide their own lyrics, the music makers in Washington turn hostile, claiming disappointment.

 

            Also, it is not an unfriendly gesture to accord Snowden asylum in view of his political crimes and the punitive approach adopted by the Obama presidency for breaches of secrecy. On the contrary, it is what a human rights culture should lead us to hope for in such situations. Was it really sensible diplomacy to use America’s leverage in the NATO region to disrupt the European flight of Evo Morales, not only violating the navigational rights of Bolivia, and also encroaching upon its sovereignty and insulting its leader. As it turned out, this effort to capture Snowden while he was mistakenly thought to be on his way to Bolivia, angered and affronted all of Latin America, including the usually placid Brazil, which even speculated that it might not now continue with its plan to make a large purchase of fighter aircraft from Boeing. It would seem that the Obama presidency loses its composure as soon as some of its dirty secrets are told, whether involving war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan or human rights violations around the world.

 

            Instead of such a display of childish frustration, Obama would have helped his cause much more by declaring the Snowden disclosures as a ‘teaching moment,’ an occasion both to discuss the post-9/11 pressures to gain information and the threats poses to freedom and democracy by the inflated demands of ‘homeland security,’ especially when the homeland becomes equated with the world.

 

            The road to autocracy in America, aside from the plutocratic ride of the 1%, tunnels through mountains of secrecy, a panopticon of surveillance, drone warfare, White House approved assassination lists, death squads roaming foreign lands, and a globe-girdling militarism manifest in a network of hundreds of foreign bases, space satellites, provocative military exercises, and outmoded strategic doctrines.

What If a Russian Snowden?

9 Aug

Political Crimes’ are Non-Extraditable and Snowden’s Transfer to the United States for Prosecution would have been a Setback for Human Rights and International Law

 

What is most troubling about how the Snowden case has played out diplomatically and via the media is the almost total refusal to focus attention on the central legal, moral, and political issues. The United States Government from the outset has acted as if it is entitled to have Snowden transferred to its custody because he is a fugitive from American criminal justice. Pursuing this line of reasoning, Washington has exerted pressure on Latin American governments not to grant Snowden asylum and expressed disappointment with Hong Kong, China, and Russia for their refusal to comply with the U.S. request. The assumption has been that this is a simple instance of cooperative law enforcement, and it is thus unfriendly and unreasonable for another government to shelter Snowden by a grant of asylum.

Barack Obama has underscored the importance he gives to this issue by canceling a scheduled a high profile summit meeting in September with Vladimir Putin. He even contends that Russian non-cooperation in relation to Snowden exhibits a ‘Cold War mentality’ that backslides from recent instances of Russian-American cooperation such as after the Boston Marathon bombing. Fairly construed, it would seem that it was Obama, not Putin, who was guilty of Cold War posturing. Recall that even during the Cold War Nixon agreed to meet with Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow at the height of international tensions. It is Obama who frequently tells us of his readiness to negotiate even with the most obdurate of Republican hardliners, but apparently this willingness does not extend to foreign leaders who fail to do what Washington’s wants! Further, it should be appreciated that it is Putin who has affirmed from the outset that he didn’t want the Snowden incident to harm Russia’s relations with the United States. Even after the cancellation of the diplomatic meeting of heads of state, Putin has expressed regret rather than righteous indignation, or even disappointment. As so often, the misuse of political language, 1984 style, inverts reality, and misses what could have been used as ‘a teaching moment’ on the protection of human rights and the promotion of political pluralism in a world of sovereign states.

The misleading character of this Snowden discourse also goes largely unnoticed because it has been not substantively contested, especially by China and Russia. The Latin American triumvirate of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua base their offers of asylum on a principled human rights rationale, but even they do not explain their reasoning, especially its legal roots and political justification. All of this leaves a false impression that both sides of the debate about Snowden are acting within a domain of pure discretion, and even leading human rights organizations have reinforced such a misunderstanding by remaining largely silent spectators. As a result, Obama’s petulant cancellation of the summit, and with it an important opportunity on which to explore ways to end the Syrian internal war and to avert a military confrontation with Iran is irresponsibly lost, and for what?

The overall situation could have been far better understood if all parties involved had put forward arguments that articulated their claims in a coherent manner. The United States could have then insisted that despite Snowden’s claims of a political motivation, his acts of espionage and conversion of government property, should not be viewed as ‘political crimes.’ Such a position could have included the assertion that the revelation of American surveillance efforts endangered national and global security, putting the American people and foreign countries at risk, and that there existed a world interest in preventing terrorism creating a shared interest in the enforcement of criminal law. Such a rationale would doubtless include an insistence that present levels of secrecy and scrutiny were reasonable, restricted, and necessary. Further, it would be claimed that the collection of data was done in a non-invasive manner protective of privacy to the extent possible, and designed only to identify suspicious behavior. In effect, the U.S. Government could have argued that what Snowden did was tantamount to complicity with ‘terrorism’ and should be dealt with as a matter of transnational criminal law enforcement and diplomatic cooperation so as to serve the global public good and promote human security.

The Russian position would rest on a contrary line of reasoning based on the belief that Snowden’s acts clearly constituted a ‘political crime’ because of the political nature of what was revealed, the absence of any commercial motivation, the absence of any violent acts, and the evident intention of Snowden to warn the peoples and governments of the world about legally dubious secret and excessive encroachments on privacy and confidentiality of communications. This means that even if an extradition treaty between the countries had existed to oblige Russia to cooperate with the United States in relation to the enforcement of criminal law, a request to extradite Snowden would be rejected because of the nature of his alleged crimes. It is standard practice, long upheld in doctrine and practice by the United States as well, to include a political crimes exception to the mutual obligation to extradite.

In fact, if Russia had transferred Snowden to the United States for prosecution, there would have been a widespread public outcry, no doubt intensified by the perception that other whistleblowers in the security area, especially Bradley Manning and Julian Assange have been recently subject to vindictive and abusive treatment for comparable breaches of American secrecy in the name of national security. The Russian decision that Snowden’s acts should be treated as political crimes seems convincing and reasonable, although regrettably  not articulated along these lines.

As should be obvious, my sympathies lie with the governments that seek to provide Snowden with sanctuary, treating him in effect as ‘a prisoner of conscience’ and someone whose acts will be remembered not for their alleged criminality, but because they raised vital concerns about the nature and proper limits of democratic governance in the 21st century. What Snowden did was not easy. It has established him for many of us as a brave individual who had the courage to step outside the edifices of government and corporate bureaucracy to scream ‘enough!’ Perhaps, the scream has come too late, past the tipping point in this ominous revelation of a digital panopticon. Let us hope not.

In each of these instances where government secrets of the United States were disclosed, the leadership of the country has refused to discuss the substantive issues raised beyond a monolithic denunciation of ‘the leaker’ and a less than credible plea, ‘trust us!’ Trust us, the national security government as we have the experience, knowledge, and sensitivity to strike the right balance between the requirements of security and the protection of freedom. ‘Fooling most of the people most of the time’ is not a prescription for sustainable democracy even acknowledging the vulnerability of the country to the difficulties of addressing the security threats posed by extremist violence in the post-9/11 world.

Unfortunately, also, the most influential media in the United States has not helped clarify the terms of debate by reference to the legal, moral, and political issues. Instead it has largely exhibited its lack of independence and pro-government bias in the Snowden Affair in three major ways:

–consistently referring to Snowden by the demeaning designation of ‘leaker’ rather than as ‘whistleblower’ or ‘surveillance dissident,’ both more respectful and accurate;

–totally ignoring the degree to which Russia’s grant of temporary refugee status to Snowden for one year is in full accord with the normal level of protection to be given to anyone accused of nonviolent political crimes in a foreign country, and pursued diplomatically and legally by the government that is seeking to indict and prosecute; in effect, for Russia to have turned Snowden over to the United States under these conditions would have set a morally and politically scandalous precedent considering the nature of his alleged crimes; such a decision would have been especially objectionable as there was no extradition treaty that established any legal obligation to hand over individuals accused of crimes by a foreign government, and thus to transfer Snowden would have meant doing  gratuitously what even a treaty had it existed would not have required;

–failing to point out that espionage, the main accusation against Snowden, is the quintessential ‘political offense’ in international law, and as such is routinely excluded from any list of extraditable offenses; there are good reasons why the safety valve provided by whistleblowers and dissidents is especially valuable for the citizenry of democratic societies at the present time. When the nature of security threats is so widely dispersed, and can extend to citizens and the far corners of the earth, the possibility of anti-democractic abuse is great. What Snowden has revealed, shows that this danger is more than a possibility, and calls for remedial action in the United States that establishes more restrictive guidelines on what the government may do in relation to privacy and confidentiality than previously existed. In effect, Snowden performed a public service that is being indirectly acknowledged by new attention given in Congress and by the media to a rebalancing of security and freedom more responsive to the values of privacy.

If these elements had been clearly articulated, the United States Government would have seemed ridiculous to complain about the willingness of some foreign governments to give Snowden asylum, and worse than complain, to use its diplomatic leverage in relation to small and vulnerable government to induce them to do the wrong thing. The Obama administration, and Senate hot heads could call Snowden a traitor and bemoan his unavailability for prosecution to their heart’s content, but such behavior would be then seen for what it was: a petulant empire exhibiting its rage and frustration because its hard power global presence was of no use, and its policy options were effectively constrained because other countries abided by the rule of law. Under these conditions to be threatening foreign governments with adverse diplomatic consequences if they refuse to play ball is not only exhibiting a child’s frustration, but it is self-defeating. If properly presented, those countries that offered asylum or refused Washington’s demand for the transfer of Snowden to American custody were behaving in accord with the best teachings of human rights. What should be surprising is that more governments were not forthcoming, leaving it to such small countries as Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua to withstand the strong arm tactics of the United States, perhaps signaling a welcome new resolve throughout Latin America to no longer accept their former regional identity of providing a backyard for the benefit of the colossus of the North.

If anything, President Vladimir Putin, considering the nature of the Snowden disclosures about the global reach of American surveillance systems, acted with an exceptional respect for the sensitivities of the United States. Instead of merely pointing out that Snowden could not be transferred to the United States against his will, Putin went out of his way to say that he did not want the incident to harm relations with the United States, and beyond this, to condition a grant of temporary asylum on Snowden’s unusual pledge to refrain from any further release of documents damaging to American interests.

Such a tactful approach to a delicate situation hardly merits the hyperbolic aggressive words of the supposedly liberal Democratic senator from New York, Charles Schumer: “Russia has stabbed us in the back..Each day that Mr. Snowden is allowed to roam free is another turn of the knife.” We should ask these deeply aggrieved senators for honest answers, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who added their own fiery denunciations of both Snowden and Russia, what they would have done if the situation had been reversed—if a comparable Russian whistleblower had revealed a Russian surveillance system that was listening in on secret government deliberations in Washington as well as invading the privacy of ordinary Americans. I suspect they would have demanded that Obama cancel the meeting because of what such disclosures revealed about Russia’s wrongdoing.

I would expect that the righteous indignation surrounding such revelations and the gratitude in the United States that would be bestowed on a Russian Snowden would know few bounds. The American media too in that situation would have been quick to produce experts on a nightly basis explaining why extraditing such a person would be wrong, and that there existed a contrary duty to provide sanctuary from the harsh workings of the Russian criminal justice system. Pious suggestions would be made that this Russian Snowden is deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize.

In a not so subtle way, the Snowden diplomacy is yet another illustration of American exceptionalism: that is, there is an obligation for others to do what our government would never think of doing. What might be called ‘the iron law of hegemony.’ International law and morality operate on a contrary logic: equal situations should be treated equally. Revealingly, American domestic law is clear about its commitment to protect a Russian Snowden: “No return or surrender shall be made of any person charged with the commission of any offense of a political nature.” 18 United States Code §3185. The United States has repeatedly shielded even individuals associated with violent political acts if the target involves a hostile government or its citizens and property, most notoriously Cuba.

##

Protecting Snowden

4 Jul

Such self-designated ‘wise men’ of our time as David Brooks and Tom Friedman, highly influential opinion and opinionated writers of the NY Times, have been telling their readers that Edward Snowden was decent and intelligent, but overstepped the law by arrogating to himself the disclosure of the ‘total data’ surveillance programs of the National Security Agency of the U.S. Government. By deliberately releasing abundant evidence of the astonishing breadth and depth of surveillance, Snowden was clearly motivated by the concern that rights of privacy, the quality of democratic life, and respect for the sovereignty of foreign countries and the confidentiality of diplomatic events were being placed in jeopardy. For some, this bold decision to expose American intelligence gathering made Snowden a villain, called ‘a traitor’ by a variety of public officials including John Kerry, the Secretary of State. There is no doubt that Snowden is guilty of violating espionage laws, which automatically almost constitutes treason for those who possess an ultra-nationalist mentality. Those who think this way believe Snowden deserves to be punished to the limits of the law, and that foreign governments friendly to this country should accede to Washington’s request for his detention and expulsion to the United States to face charges.

Of course for many others Snowden is a hero for our times, actions that should be honored by a Nobel Prize. Snowden put democratic accountability ahead of his own career and security, knowingly placing himself at great risk by daring to challenge the security policies of the government of his own mighty country for the sake of avoiding a gathering Orwellian political storm. What President Obama speaking after the Snowden leaks described in Germany somewhat disingenuously as “a circumscribed, narrow system directed at us being able to protect our own people.” What protection of the American people have to do with listening in on the diplomatic communications of European Union members seems more than far fetched!

There are many sober voices declaring themselves worried about the dangerous implications of such a massive breach of national security, especially following the major discrediting disclosures of those recent master whistle blowers—Bradley Manning and Julian Assange. In effect, given the kind of security threats that exist in the post-9/11 world the public must trust the government to strike the right balance between protecting the country against threats to national security and upholding the liberty of its citizens and respecting the sovereignty of other countries. As Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and later the NSA, put it after these events: “We are now going to target the U.S. as if it were a foreign country.” Should Snowden’s violation of his oath and of espionage laws be welcomed as ‘a safety valve,’ a check upon abusive government, or as a gaping hole in governmental operations that needs to be closed as tightly as possible? The Belt Way insiders’ argument is that unless this latter approach is taken governmental policymaking will suffer because the needed institutional confidence that secrets are kept will be lost.

I find the Big Brother fears more credible than these anxieties about leaks in the secrecy enclosures relied upon by supposedly constitutional governments in defiance of the democratic ethos of accountability, transparency, and participation. What one finds consistently in government practice is an excess of secrecy via promiscuous classification tendencies that seem frequently used often to avoid embarrassing politicians from exposing dubious behavior or protecting bureaucrats from second-guessing and hostile commentary by journalists and the public. What is evident is that the government, even in a country that prides itself on freedom and privacy, tends to view information gathering in a spirit similar to weaponry—do whatever the technology allows so long as the costs are reasonable and the risks can be contained at moderate levels. And with the advent of digitized information technology, the sky is the limit: the PRISM program that was what Snowden was working on in his role as private contractor in the employ of the consulting firm of Booz, Allen, and Hamilton, and —-, was an indiscriminate data collection process that didn’t confine its intrusions to those for whom there existed grounds of suspicion. Indeed, every person everywhere was now living under a cloud of suspicion, there were no roster of ‘usual suspects’ to be rounded up in the aftermath of serious criminal incidents. The distinction crucial for the political wellbeing of people living in a liberal society between suspect and citizen now seems superseded and irrelevant, and this is an ominous development that should be challenged.

Two major developments brought this unsavory reality into being, and given ‘libertarian politics’ a new credibility. First, the most feared existential security threat became associated with potential political extremists who could be anywhere, within or beyond national borders, with or without affiliations to a political network. Consider such instances as the Norwegian Islamophobic right wing sociopath, Anders Breivik, guilty of a massacre on July 22, 2011 or the Tsarnaev brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombers on April 15, 2013. It is truly the case that the presence of isolated individuals, as well as transnational terrorist networks, pose severe threats to the viability of constitutional democracies. Many have voiced fears that a repetition of 9/11 in the United States would produce a slide into a kind of reactive fascism, and thus some sacrificing of freedoms, placing our trust in elected leaders and representative institutions, and hoping for the best is a kind of situational necessity. Politicians contend that such information trolling in the private domains of peoples’ lives has already contributed to the avoidance of terrorist attacks and horrifying incidents in as many as 90% of the cases of successful prevention. That is, the kind of threat that dominates our current fears can only be addressed in a responsible manner by giving up any expectations of autonomous citizenship or the promises of accountable government. Such a democratic slippage may simply have become a fact of 21st century life about which most of society has accepted, even if with scant awareness of what is happening.

The second important factor is the ‘can do’ quality of digital technology as applied to the temptations of mass surveillance whether for purposes of governmental control or private profit. Information can be gathered, enlisting the social networking infrastructures of modern society, stored, analyzed, coded, and made available for a wide range of licit and illicit uses. There is a sinister continuity between the technological capabilities of the massive data collection program of the NSA known as PRISM and the lethal drone missions controlled by civilian operators acting far from any combat zone, carrying out battle plans based on the selection of targets from a kill list presented daily to the president, and approving in secret the execution of American citizens and those living in foreign countries who owe no allegiance to American laws. Such is the nature of the ‘global war’ unleashed by George W. Bush after 9/11 and continued by Barack Obama. There are reassurances that care is taken, efforts are made to minimize mistakes, and only the most imminent of threats are targets. The objective assessment of the killing fields tell a different story—of innocent persons killed, of ‘signature’ strikes targeting for death those against whom there is only vague circumstantial evidence, of a reign of terror in areas where suspects are supposed to be based.

In actuality, what Snowden did was surprisingly responsive to national security concerns, including the protection of secrecy surrounding controversial overseas undertakings. Snowden has indicated that he never had an intention to release any documents that implicate particular agents engaged in covert operations or that reveal the location of CIA bases in foreign countries. In effect, Snowden was acknowledging that the government has ‘secrets’ that deserve keeping, and that he was distinguishing these from the those that were not justified by security considerations and posed a severe threat to the future quality of constitutional democracy. It is undoubtedly the case, as Snowden has hinted, that he had good reason to believe without such an unauthorized disclosure, the public would have no way of finding out what was going on and no say in shaping the privacy/security balance, and the government would undoubtedly continue to rely on excessive claims of secrecy to insulate itself from procedures of accountability, including the rather unconvincing forms of oversight that are entrusted with avoiding wrongdoing in its surveillance gulag. I think there is good reason to conclude that it is only the obtrusiveness of whistleblowers that produces these occasional glimmers of sunlight that illumine to some degree the dark corridors of governmental power.

The three major whistleblowing incidents of the last half century bearing on national security, (Ellsberg (Pentagon Papers), Bradley Manning (Iraq and Afghanistan document trove), and Snowden (the NSA Prism Program of Surveillance) had one thing in come, disclosures of state crimes that had been long covered up, and were integral to structures of impunity that seem vital to the performance of the dirty work of empire. Daniel Ellsberg in a Salon interview with Brad Friedman on June 14, 2013 [Salon.com] insisted that a more permissive political atmosphere existed in 1972 when he released the Pentagon Papers. There was then at least the possibility of getting the story out without being thrown into prison under conditions of solitary confinement (Manning) or hounded as if a common criminal (Assange, and now Snowden). Under current conditions it seems as if the only way for Snowden to have some opportunity to give his reasons for doing what he did was to go abroad, and then seek asylum.

What seems most dismaying about the Snowden affair is the prosecutorial zeal of the Obama presidency, supposedly liberal in its outlook on matters of personal freedom and the values of constitutional government. What Snowden has done is so clearly ‘a political crime,’ if it is a crime at all, and in recognition of this there has existed since the French Revolution been seen as inconsistent with the generally desirable policy of inter-governmental cooperation in the apprehension of suspected criminals. In such circumstances it is unseemly to instruct the Vice President to call around the world exerting leverage to discourage grants of asylum or sanctuary to Snowden, or worse yet, to use American influence to interfere with international flights thought to be associated with Snowden’s attempt to seek asylum, itself a right conferred in Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Maybe it is a legal stretch to insist on Snowden’s right of asylum considering that the ‘persecution’ he might face if returned to the United States would be nothing more (or less) than prosecution under applicable American criminal law, which presumably would be carried out in a judicially supervised manner as constitutionally prescribed by due process standards. But given the vindictive response to the Manning release of a cache of documents to WikiLeaks, and the refusal of the government to acknowledge the implications of policies that are criminal in nature, asylum should be granted to Snowden, and the failure to do so exhibits two features of present world order: American exceptionalism (would the US Government really turn over to China or Cuba a person who had risked everything to disclose state secrets to the world? The following statutory language is certainly suggestive of an answer: “No return or surrender shall be made of any person charged with the commission of any offense of a political nature.”); and the logic of major states that share an interest in collaborating with each other so as to keep the lid of secrecy covering their most nefarious practices.

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