Tag Archives: Libya

Post-Intervention Libya: A Militia State

12 Oct

 

            Two apparently related and revealing incidents have turned public attention briefly back to Libya just after the second anniversary of the NATO intervention that helped anti-Qaddafi rebel forces overthrow his regime. The first incident involved the infringement of Libyan sovereignty by an American special forces operation that seized the alleged al Qaeda operative, Abu Anas al-Libi (also known as Nizah Abdul Hamed al-Ruqai), on October 5, supposedly with the knowledge and consent of the Libyan government. The second incident, evidently a response to the first seizure, was the kidnapping a few days later of the country’s prime minister, Ali Zeidan, while he lay asleep in his hotel lodgings in the center of Tripoli. He was easily captured by a squadron of 20 militia gunmen who arrived at the hotel around 6:00 am and proceeded without resistance from security guards to carry off the head of the Libyan state. Such a bold assault on the state’s essential character as the sole purveyor of legitimate violence (according to the famous conception of Max Weber) is a telltale sign of a political system of shadow governance, that is, without security.

 

            The capture of Ali Zeidan was reportedly prompted both by anger at the government’s impotence in the face of such an overt violation of Libyan sovereignty by the United States, as well as serving to warn the political leadership of the country that any further effort to disarm militias would be resisted. Ali Zeidan seizure was largely symbolic. He was held by his captors for only a few hours before being released. Nevertheless, the ease of the kidnapping sent shivers down the spine of the Western countries that had been so proud two years ago of their regime-changing intervention under NATO auspices. The incident also reinforced the impression in the West that prospects for lucrative foreign investment and substantial oil flows would have to be put on hold for the indefinite future.

 

            According to journalistic accounts, which should perhaps be discounted as unreliable rumors, the militia responsible for this daring challenge to governmental authority in Libya, seems to have recently formed, and is headed by Nuri Abusahmen, who is the speaker of the General National Assembly. RMr. Abusahmen sat serenely besides the prime minister as he addressed the nation shortly after regaining his freedom, but there are reasons to doubt the veracity of this account.  For those conscious of Libyan realities, if such a juxtaposition were accurate it would be a further indication that the capabilities of the elected government in Tripoli are modest as compared to that of the militias, and can be overridden at will by recalcitrant civil society forces. Perhaps, more to the point, there appears to be a seamless web in Libya between the government and the militias, between what is de jure and what is de facto, and between what is lawful and what is criminal. Of course, it was also highly disturbing that a prominent al Qaeda operative was roaming freely in Libya, and seemingly enjoying some level of national support.

 

            There is no doubt that Libya is so pervasively armed that even the National Rifle Association might find excessive. Supposedly, every household is in possession of weapons either distributed to Libyans supportive of the Qaddafi government during its struggle to survive or acquired from NATO benefactors. Unlike several of the other countries experiencing a troubled aftermath to the Arab Upheavals, Libya is a rich economic prize, with the world’s fifth largest oil reserves generating a cash flow that could be a boon to the troubled economies of Europe that carried out the intervention, and have acted subsequently as if they have an entitlement to a fair market share of the economic opportunities for trade and investment.

 

            Two years ago the concerns that prompted NATO to act were overtly associated with Qaddafi’s bloody crimes against his own people. The use of force was authorized in a circumscribed March 17, 2011 Security Council Resolution 1973 premised on protecting the entrapped civilian population of Benghazi against imminent attacks by the regime primarily through the establishment of a no-fly zone. The non-Western members of the UNSC were skeptical and suspicious at the time of the debate about authorizing military action fearing that more would be done than claimed, but agreed to abstain when it came to a vote, relying with reluctance on reassurances from pro-interventionist members of the Security Council that the undertaking was of a purely ‘humanitarian’ rather than what it became, a political initiative with a ‘regime-changing’ character.

 

            As it turned out, almost from day one of the intervention it became clear that NATO was interpreting the UN mandate in the broadest possible way, engaging in military operations obviously intended to cause the collapse of the Qaddafi government in Tripoli, and only incidentally focused on protecting the people of Benghazi from immediate danger. This maneuver was understandably interpreted as a betrayal of trust by those Security Council members who had been persuaded to abstain, especially Russia and China. One effect of such an action was to weaken, at least in the short run, the capacity of the UN to form a consensus in responses to humanitarian crises, as in Syria, and may also have undermined prospects for stable governance in Libya for many years to come.

 

            The Libyan future remains highly uncertain at present with several scenarios plausible: partition based on fundamental ethnic and regional enmities, essentially creating two polities, one centered in Benghazi, the other in Tripoli; a perpetuation of tribal rivalries taking the form of cantonization of the country with governing authority appropriated by various militia, and likely producing a type of low-intensity warfare that creates chaos and precludes both meaningful democracy and successful programs of economic development; ‘a failed state’ that becomes a sanctuary for transnational extremist violence, and then becomes a counter-terrorist battlefield in the manner of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, the scene of deadly drone attacks and covert operations by special forces. There is even talk of the return to power of Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, who might indeed provide the only road back to political stability. The seizure of al-Libi and the subsequent kidnapping of the prime minister may be metaphors of what ‘governance’ in Libya has come to signify.

 

            The European media and political leaders worry aloud once more about these disturbing scenarios, but rarely hearken back to reassess the imperial moves of 2011 that were at least partly designed to restore European influence and create economic opportunities. It is one more instance of post-colonial unwillingness to respect the sovereign autonomy of states, or at least to limit their interference to operational undertakings in genuine emergency actions strictly within the scope of a UN mandate and truly restricted to the prevention and mitigation of humanitarian catastrophes. The dynamics of self-determination may produce ugly strife and terrible human tragedy, but nothing can be much worse than what Western intervention produces. The logic of state-centric world order needs to be complemented by regional and world community institutions and procedures that can address the internal failures of sovereign states and the machinations of global private sector manipulations of domestic tensions that has contributed so insidiously to massive bloodshed to sub-Saharan Africa. [See Noam Chomsky & Andre Vltchek, On Western Terrorism from Hiroshima to Drone Warfare (2013) for convincing elaboration of this latter contention]

 

            There are obviously no easy answers, but there is no shortage of  obscurantist commentary. For instance, there is an image of a ‘failed state’ as one that poses a threat to Western interests or fails to govern in a manner that precludes its territory from being used to mount hostile violence directed at the West or its property. But is not Egypt as much, or more, of a failed state than Libya, and yet it not so regarded? A strong and oppressive state, especially if not anti-Western, is seen as compatible with geostrategic interests even if it commits terrible crimes against humanity against its domestic opponents as has been the case with the al-Sisi led coup in Egypt.

 

            We can only wonder whether Libya as of 2013 is not better understood as a ‘militia state’ rather than a ‘failed state,’ which seems like an emerging pattern for societies that endure Western military intervention. The parallels of Libya with Iraq and Afghanistan are uncomfortably suggestive.

Responding to The Syrian Challenge

27 May

 

 

            The issue facing the U.S. Government at this stage is not one of whether or not to intervene, but to what extent, with what objectives, and with what likely effects. More precisely, it is a matter of deciding whether to increase the level and overtness of the intervention, as well as taking account of what others are doing and not doing on the Assad regime side of the conflict. Roughly speaking, there have been interventions by the Turkey, the United States, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the EU on the insurgent side, and by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah on the regime side, with a variety of non-Syrian ‘volunteers’ from all over being part of the lethal mix.

 

            From an international law perspective the issues are blurred and controversial, both factually and jurisprudentially. The Assad government remains the government of Syria from most international perspectives, despite having repeatedly perpetrated the most despicable crimes against humanity. Such behavior has eroded Syria’s status as a sovereign state whose territorial integrity, political independence, and governmental authority should be respected by outside actors including the UN. Under most circumstances the UN Charter obligates the Organization to refrain from intervening in matters internal to states, including civil wars, unless there is a clear impact on international peace and security.  Such an impact certainly seems to exist here, given the large-scale regional proxy involvement in the conflict. Given the pull and push of the current situation in Syria, the UN Security Council could, if a political consensus existed among its permanent member, authorize a limited or even a regime changing intervention under a UN banner. For better or worse such a consensus does not exist, and never has, since the outbreak of violence usually dated as commencing on March 15, 2011 with the violent suppression of previously peaceful anti-government demonstrations in the cities of Aleppo, Damascus, and especially Daraa, often known as ‘the cradle of the revolution.’ The situation is further clouded by bad geopolitical memories, especially the Security Council authorization to use force in Libya to protect the civilian population of Benghazi in March 2011. On that occasion, Russia and China, as well as Germany, Brazil, and India, put aside their anti-interventionist convictions, and allowed an intervention under NATO auspices to go forward by abstaining rather than voting against the authorization of force.  But what happened in Libya thereafter was deeply disturbing to the abstainers—instead of a limited authorization to establish a no-fly zone around Benghazi, a full-fledged air campaign with regime-changing objective in mind went forward without any effort by the intervenors to expand their mission or even to explain why the limits accepted in the Security Council debate and resolution were so blatantly put to one side. After such a deception trust was broken, and the difficulties of obtaining UN approval to act under the norm of ‘responsibility to protect’ were greatly magnified.

 

            Should it not be argued that the people of Syria should not be sacrificed because of this betrayal of trust in relation to Libya, and besides, Western leaders contend is not Libya and the world better off with Qaddafi gone. If this outlook is persuasive, and China and Russia continue to thwart a rescue of the Syrian people by threatening to veto any call for action, would it not be justifiable for a group of states to act without UN authorization, claiming Kosovo-like legitimacy. Yet there are major costs involved when the restraining ropes of law are loosening for the sake of moral and political expediency.  To cast aside the Charter regime is a move toward restoring the discretion of states when it comes to waging war, which was the main rationale for establishing the UN in the first place.

 

            This prohibition on non-defensive force holds legally even if a strong humanitarian justification for intervention can be made. The Kosovo precedent suggests that in the face of an imminent humanitarian catastrophe, an intervention will be widely endorsed as legitimate by the organized international community even if it is clearly unlawful. If such an undertaking is reasonably successful in ending the violence and saving lives, there is likely to be an ex post facto endorsement of what was done, especially if seems to most respected observer that humanitarian objectives were not invoked by the interveners to obscure the pursuit of strategic goals. This is what happened after the NATO War to remove the Serbian presence from Kosovo. The UN watched from the sidelines without condemning the unlawful use of force, and has played a central role in the post-conflict reconstruction of Kosovo. More surprisingly, the UN, to its regret, even attempted to play such a role after the flagrantly unlawful and illegitimate attack upon and occupation of Iraq, despite having earlier rebuffed the concerted American effort to win the approval of the Security Council prior to the war. It should not have come as a great surprise that the Iraqi resistance forces targeted the UN Headquarters in Baghdad, apparently regarding the UN as having becoming an arm of the occupying and invading foreign forces. Unlike Kosovo where the Serbs were driven out, in Iraq despite a massive displacement of civilians, resistance forces stayed in the country to fight against the occupiers and on behalf of their vision of a post-occupation Iraq.

 

            There are important world order issues present aside from the questions of legality and legitimacy. There are also pragmatic and prudential dimensions of any decision about what to do in response to Syria’s descent into chaos and horrific violence, with no early end in sight. Although the sovereign state is not an absolute ground of political community, it is the basic unit comprising world order, and the logic of self-determination should be allowed to prevail in most situations even when the results are disappointing. The practical alternative to the logic of self-determination is the hegemonic logic of hard power, and its record is not a happy one if viewed from the standpoint of people and justice. Sovereign equality has been the weave of the juridical order ever since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, although the existential inequality of states has offered a counterpoint that as given rise to a variety of geopolitical regimes, e.g. the European colonial period, the bipolarity of the Cold War, the unipolarity of the 1990s, and perhaps, the emerging multipolarity of the early 21st century.

 

            When crimes against humanity cross a certain threshold of severity,  which is itself necessarily a subjective judgment, or where genocide is credibly threatened or actually taking place or credibly threatened, the normally desirable and applicable norm of non-intervention and its internal complement of self-determination, gives way to claims of ‘humanitarian intervention,’ a practice somewhat sanitized recently by being accorded normative authority in the form of a ‘responsibility to protect.’ National primacy gives ground to the primacy of the human in such exceptional circumstances, and the human interest can justify a full-scale intervention provided prudential and pragmatic factors seem likely to allow intervention to succeed at acceptable costs, and to be procedurally endorsed in some secondary way.  Of course, there is also the question of disentangling strategic motives for intervention from the humanitarian justification. There is no easy formula for distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable blends of the strategic and the moral, but as Noam Chomsky warned during the Kosove intervention, ‘military humanism’ is not believable because double standards are so rampant. Why are the Kosovars protected but not the besieged population of Gaza? Why the Libyans but not the Syrians? The presence of double standards is not the end of the story. Without some strategic incentive it is unlikely that the political will is strong enough to succeed with a military undertaking that is purely a rescue operation. Recall how quickly the United States backed away from its involvement in Somalia after Black Hawk Down incident in 1993. In that sense, the presence of oil, maritime shipping lanes, pipeline routes is a strategic interest that will offset the costs of war for a considerable number of years as the Iraq invasion of more than ten years ago illustrated, but even in Iraq an eventual acknowledgement of the inability to achieve the strategic objectives led to a conclusion to give in and get out, time ran out. A democratic public does not accept the human and economic costs of a non-defensive war indefinitely, no matter how much the media plays along with the official line. That is the lesson that is imperfectly learned by politicians in a long list of encounters, most prominently, Vietnam, Iraq, and now Afghanistan.

 

            Arguably, in 1999 what happened in Kosovo was a positive scenario for interventionary diplomacy. NATO intervened without a green light from the UN, and yet managed, although without achieving complete success, to provide the great majority of the Kosovar population not only with security but with support for their claim of self-determination. Before the intervention, most of the Kosovo population was living under oppressive conditions, and faced a severe threat of worse to come. As many as a million people, almost half of the population, sought temporary refuge in nearby Macedonia, but ratified the intervention by returning to their homeland as soon as NATO had forced their Serbian oppressors to leave. There are complexities beyond the debate about the use of force. Who would settle the question of competing sovereign claims mounted by Belgrade and Pristina? It appears that the resolution of this dispute will be resolved for the foreseeable future by the de facto realities, which is to say in favor of Kosovar claims of political independence and in opposition to Serbian claims of historic sovereign title.

 

            Such a positive outcome didn’t occur in Iraq, which was attacked in 2003 without UN authorization, and in the absence of a humanitarian emergency, and the effects of the undertaking were horrendous in terms of level of devastation and loss of life, agitating sectarian conflict, with no stability or decent government put in place or in sight. A ruthless dictator who brought stability to Iraq was replaced by an authoritarian regime beset by enemies from within, including even the loss of control of the northern regions run by the Kurdish majority as a virtually of a state within the state. Such an intervention was neither legitimate nor lawful. The Libyan intervention of 2011 seems an intermediate case, if evaluated either from the perspective of just cause or overall consequences. The dust has certainly not settled in Libya, and at this point it is difficult to tell whether the future will resemble more the strife of Iraq or the relative calm of, say, Bosnia.

 

            How does Syria fit into this picture based on recent experience with large-scale interventions? The situation in Syria qualifies for intervention on behalf of a beleaguered population that have endured great suffering already, and in this respect, even absent UN authorization, the legitimacy rationale of Kosovo would seem sufficient. According to a variety of reports there have been at least 80,000 killed in the Syrian conflict, with an incredible 4 million Syrians internally displaced, with an additional 1.5 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, especially, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.  This massive spillover is giving rise to severe destabilizing tensions in these countries, and creating a rising risk that the internationalized civil war in Syria will further engage other countries directly in combat operations. Israel has already three times struck at targets in Syria that were allegedly connected with weapons shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and there are reports that Beirut has been hit by a rocket sent from Syrian rebel forces. Also relevant is the line in the sand drawn by Obama in relation to the use of chemical weapons by Damascus, or the depots used to store these weapons falling into hostile hands, and the Assad threats of retaliation, and some signs of violence on the border separating Syria from the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. And finally, the allegations by Israel and some right wing member of the U.S. Congress urging more aggressive moves in relation to Iran, with Netanyahu contending that Iran is seeking to become a ‘nuclear superpower’ with a program larger than that of either North Korea and Pakistan, both already members of the nuclear weapons club.

 

            The dangers of widening the war zone in a disastrous manner and of acting in behalf of the questionable agendas of states other than Syria greatly complicates the response to the Syrian internal crisis. It also gives a heavy weight to the question: how to take account of prudential considerations that relate to probable costs and effects of various alternative courses of action? Here there is much less prospect that sufficient force could and would be used to tip the conflict in favor of the disunited rebel groups in the direction of an acceptable outcome, or even that a sustainable ceasefire could be achieved. The more likely result of any further escalation of external intervention is to magnify the conflict still further, and this would likely include encouraging counter-moves by the powerful foreign friends of the Assad government. It needs to be realized that outsiders are engaged heavily on both sides, and each can credibly blame the other, although it does seem to be widely agreed that by far the greatest share of responsibility for the commission of atrocities belongs to the governing authorities operating out of Damascus. There is something strange about the alignments, with the conservative Arab governments in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States and Western Europe, backing the revolutionary insurgency, despite it being increasingly dominated by radical Islamic participation, especially Jilhat al-Nusra. On the other side, Iran’s religiously oriented government finds itself aligned to the secular Ba’athist leadership in Damascus. 

 

            Against this background only a diplomacy of compromise seems both justifiable as the best among an array of bad option and prudent in having the best hope of ending the violence and putting Syria on a trail that could lead to political normalcy. But a diplomacy of compromise accepts the stalemate on the battlefield as its necessary starting point, and does not set preconditions, such as the removal of Bashar al-Assad from his position as head of state and the demand for a post-Assad transitional government in Damascus. Nor in like measure can a diplomacy of compromise expect the opposition to trust the government or to lay down their arms if the Assad regime is left in control of the governance structures in the country. Such a process can only hope to be effective if the two sides, at least subjectively, realize that they are trapped in an endless and irreversible downward spiral, and act accordingly, although not needing to admit such an unsatisfactory outcome in their public utterances. There are pitfalls. A ceasefire, even if bolstered by a major peacekeeping presence and some devolution of political authority that takes account of which side controls which city and region.

 

            The Syrian situation is further bedeviled by the absence of a unified insurgent leadership, making it unclear who can speak authoritatively on behalf of insurgent forces. Just a week ago some of the opposition forces met in Istanbul under the auspices of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, issuing a 16 point proposal that called for the departure of Assad from the country, the establishment of a coalition government to manage the transition, with the inclusion of some members of the Assad leadership, and impunity for all allegations of criminality associated with the strife. Such a proposal seemed to arouse controversy even at the coalition meeting, and seems without great support in Syria if the views of the various opposition groupings are all taken into consideration. In the meantime, the United States is acting strenuously to convene a second conference in Geneva during the month of June to exert pressure on the Assad government to negotiate an end to the war on the basis of the removal of Assad as president and the establishment of a pluralist transitional government tasked with organizing elections. The American Secretary of State, John Kerry, is energetically pushing this plan, which is linked to a threat—either negotiate along the lines we propose, or the arms embargo will be lifted, and the rebel militias will receive arms. Although the language being used by the United States and others in UN Action Group for Syria and the Friends of Syria is respectful of the role of the Syrian people in shaping the future of the country, there is a coercive aura surrounding this surge of diplomatic initiative that is dysfunctional to the extent that it seems based on the insurgency having the upper hand rather than there being a stalemate. Under the conditions prevailing in Syria, by far the role for external actors is to assume a facilitative mode that is fully supportive of a framework for negotiations based on a diplomacy of compromise. The litmus test for a diplomacy of compromise is the mutual realization that a battlefield stalemate cannot be broken by acceptable means. When and if this realization takes hold negotiations can proceed in a serious manner and a ceasefire is more likely to hold. What this would mean concretely is difficult to discern, and would undoubtedly be difficult for the parties to agree upon. An urgent preliminary step would be to invite trusted international envoys from non-geopolitically activist governments to talk with the entire spectrum of political actors to ascertain whether such a diplomacy of compromise has any traction at the present time, and if not, why not.

 

            Suppose such an initiative fails, and cannot it be said that this approach has already been tried under UN and Arab League auspices, designating such respected global figures as Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi to undertake a similar mission? Perhaps, such initiatives preceded the recognition by the Syrian antagonists that the military path is blocked and bloody, and that now the timing is better, although maybe not good enough. It could be that such an appreciation led Moscow and Washington to agree on convening a conference of interested governments in Geneva next month that is expected to include the government of Syria.  Such an international effort suggests that outsiders might be able to find enough common interests to put their geopolitical weight behind a diplomacy of compromise, but they should not attempt to do anything more by way of imposing conditions. An effective and legitimate diplomacy of compromise must be seen as coming from within, and not a maneuver that is executed from without. Of course, such restraint is not inconsistent with upgrading efforts to soften the hardships of Syrian refugees and those internally displaced, nor upgrading efforts to meet uregent relief needs in Syria, which probably calls for allowing reliable NGOs to take over the bulk of the humanitarian challenge, but again in a manner faithful to the ethos of compromise, which includes suspending disbelief as to who is right and who wrong.

 

            But what of the Jalhat al-Nusra extremists in the insurgent ranks, credited with doing the most arduous recent fighting on the insurgent side? And what about the war criminals running the government in Damascus? Or their Hezbollah allies also given major combat roles in the last several weeks? Can these realities be wished away, and if not how to respond? Radical uncertainty prompts caution with respect to every alternative course of action, including throwing up one’s hands in despair. Obviously a diplomacy of compromise is not a panacea, and likely is a non-starter, but in such a desperate situation it seems worth trying, provided it does not become a different kind of battlefield in which the goals sought by violence are being pursued by statecraft, doing nothing more than instituting an intermission between periods of unrestrained violence for the weary combatants. My essential argument is that until the parties engaged in hostilities on both sides recognize their inability to achieve a political victory by way of the battlefield, and external actors acquiesce in this recognition, there can only take place an unproductive and wrongheaded coercive diplomacy of partisanship, supporting the claims of the anti-Assad side. It should have become clear after more than two years of bloodshed and atrocities that no amount of geopolitical arm-twisting will lead Damascus and their own constituencies to place the destiny of Syria on this kind of diplomatic chopping block. 

On Syria: What to Do in 2013

19 Jan

 

            I took part last week in an illuminating conference on Syria sponsored by the new Center of Middle East Studies that is part of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. A video of the keynote panel featuring Michael Inatieff, Ken Roth, and Rafif Jouejeti can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95Ku-7SgzKg. This Center has been recently established, and operates under the excellent leadership of Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, who previously together edited the best collection of readings on the Green Revolution in Iran published under the title THE PEOPLE RELOADED: THE GREEN MOVEMENT AND THE STRUGGLE FOR IRAN’S FUTURE ( a valuable resource not only on the Green Movement itself, but in relation to movement politics in a setting of oppressive governance; obtain the book: http://www.mhpbooks.com/books/the-people-reloaded/).

 

            The conference brought together a mixture of Syrian specialists, Syrian activists, and several of us with a more general concern about conflict in the region, as well as with human rights and as participants in the heated debates of recent years about the virtues and vices of ‘humanitarian intervention’, what is now being called ‘Responsibility to Protect’ of ‘R2P’ in UN circles and among liberals. I came to the gathering with a rather strong disposition to present myself as a confirmed R2P skeptic, regarding it as a cynical geopolitical euphemism for what Noam Chomsky labeled as ‘military humanism’ in the context of the controversial NATO Kosovo War of 1999. Ever since the Vietnam War I have viewed all Western claims to use force in the post-colonial non-West with suspicion. I support presumptions in favor of non-intervention and self-determination, both fundamental norms of international law. But I left the conference dissatisfied with my position that nothing more could or should be done at the international level to help end the violence in Syria or to assist the struggle of the Syrian people. I became convinced that human solidarity with the ordeal of the Syrian people was being deeply compromised by the advocacy of passivity in the face of the criminality of the Damascus government, although what to do that is genuinely helpful remains extremely difficult to discern.

 

            In the immediate background of the debate on Syrian policy are the bad memories of stealth diplomacy used by the United States and several European partners in March 2011 to gain UN Security Council backing for the establishment of a No Fly Zone to protect the beleaguered and endangered population of the Libyan city of Benghazi. What ensued from the outset of the UN authorized mission in Libya was a blatant disregard of the limited mandate to protect the population of a city from a threatened massacre. In its place, the NATO undertaking embarked on a concerted regime-changing NATO mission that ended with the unseemly execution of the Libyan dictator. What NATO purported to do was not only oblivious to Libya’s sovereignty, it was unmistakably a deliberate and dramatic extension of the authorized mission that understandably infuriated the autocrats in Moscow. A case could certainly have been made that in order to protect the Libyan people it was necessary to rid the country of the Qaddafi regime, but such an argument was never developed in the Security Council debate, and would never have been accepted. Against such a background, the wide gap between what was approved by the UN Security Council vote and what was done in breach of the mandate was perceived as a betrayal of trust in the setting of the Security Council, particularly by those five governments opposed to issuing a broader writ for the intervention, governments that had been deceptively induced to abstain on the ground that the UN authorization of force was limited to a single one-off protective, emergency mission.

 

            Global diplomacy being what it is and was, there should be no surprise, and certainly no condescending self-righteous lectures delivered by Western diplomats, in reaction to the rejectionist postures adopted by Russia and China throughout the Syrian crisis. Of course, two wrongs hardly ever make a right, and do not here. NATO’s flagrant abuse of the UN mandate for Libya should certainly not be redressed at the expense of the Syrian people. In this respect, it is lamentable that those who shape policy in Moscow and Beijing are displaying indifference to the severity of massive crimes of humanity, principally perpetrated by the Assad government, as well as to the catastrophic national and regional effects of a continuing large-scale civil war in Syria. The unfolding Syrian tragedy, already resulting in more than 60,000 confirmed deaths, one million refugees, as many as 3 million internally displaced, a raging famine and daily hardships and hazards for most of the population, and widespread urban devastation, seems almost certain to continue in coming months. There exists even a distinct possibility of an intensification of violence as a deciding battle for control of Damascus gets underway in a major way.  Minimally responsible behavior by every leading governments at the UN would under such circumstances entail at the very least a shared and credible willingness to forego geopolitical posturing, and exert all possible pressure to bring the violence to an end.

 

            Some suggest that an effect of this geopolitical gridlock at the UN is causing many Syrians to sacrifice their lives and put the very existence of their country in jeopardy.  This kind of ‘compensation’ for NATO’s ultra virus behavior in Libya is morally unacceptable and politically imprudent. At the same time it is hardly reasonable to assume that the UN could have ended the Syrian strife in an appropriate way if the Security Council had been able to speak with one voice. It both overestimates the capabilities of the UN and under appreciates the complexity of the Syrian struggle. Under these circumstances it is also diversionary to offload the frustrations associated with not being able to do anything effective to help the rebel forces win quickly or to impose a ceasefire and political process on the stubborn insistence by Russia and China that a solution for Syria must not be based on throwing Assad under the bus.

 

            The Syrian conflict seems best interpreted as a matter of life or death not only for the ruling regime, but for the entire Alawite community (estimated to be 12% of the Syrian population of about 23 million), along with their support among Syria’s other large minorities (Christian 10%, Druze 3%), and a sizable chunk of the urban business world that fears more what is likely to follow Assad than Assad himself. Given these conditions there is little reason to assume that a unified posture among the permanent members of the Security Council would at any stage in the violent months have had any realistic prospect of bringing the Syrian parties to drop their weapons and agree to risk a compromise. The origins of the crossover from militant anti-regime demonstrations to armed insurgency is most convincingly traced back to the use of live ammunition by the governing authorities and the armed forces against demonstrators in the city of Daraa from March 15, 2012 onwards, resulting in several deaths. Many in the streets of Daraa were arrested, with confirmed reports of torture and summary execution, and from this point forward there has been no credible turning away from violence by either side. Kofi Annan, who resigned as Special Envoy for the UN/Arab League

In late January 2013 indicated his displeasure with both external actors, criticizing Washington for its insistence that any political transition in Syria must be preceded by the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power, a precondition that seems predicated on an insurgent victory rather than working for a negotiated solution.  

           

            Without greater diplomatic pressure from both geopolitical proxies, the war in Syria is likely to go on and one with disastrous results. There has never been a serious willingness to solve the problems of Syria by an American-led attack in the style of Iraq 2003. For one thing, an effective intervention and occupation in a country the size of Syria, especially if both sides have significant levels of support as they continue to have, would be costly in lives and resources, uncertain in its overall effects on the internal balance of forces, and involve an international commitment that might last more than a decade. Especially in light of Western experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither Washington nor Europe, has the political will to undertake such an open ended mission, especially when the perceived strategic interests are ambiguous and the political outcome is in doubt. Besides, 9/11 has receded in relevance, although still insufficiently, and the Obama foreign policy, while being far too militaristic, is much less so than during the presidency of George W. Bush.

           

            Another approach would be to press harder for an insurgent victory by tightening sanctions on Syria or combining a weapons embargo on the regime with the supply of weapons to the opposition. This also seems difficult to pull off, and highly unlikely to bring about a positive outcome even if feasible. It is difficult to manage such an orchestration of the conflict in a manner that is effective, especially when there are strong proxy supporters on each side. Furthermore, despite much external political encouragement, especially by Turkey, the anti-Assad forces have been unable to generate any kind of leadership that is widely acknowledged either internally or externally, nor has the opposition been able to project a shared vision of a post-Assad Syria. The opposition is clearly split between secular and Islamist orientations, and this heightens the sense of not knowing what to expect what is being called ‘the day after.’ We have no reliable way of knowing whether escalating assistance to the rebels would be effective, and if so, what sort of governing process would emerge in Syria, and to what extent it would be abusive toward those who directly and indirectly sided with the government during the struggle.

 

            Under such circumstances seeking a ceasefire and negotiations between the parties still seems like the most sensible alternative among an array of bad options. This kind of emphasis has guided the diplomatic efforts of the UN/Arab League Special Envoys, first Kofi Annan, and now Lakhdar Brahimi, but so far producing only disillusionment. Neither side seems ready to abandon the battlefield, partly because of enmity and distrust, and partly because it still is unwilling to settle for anything less than victory. For diplomacy to have any chance of success would appear require both sides to entertain seriously the belief that a further continuation of the struggle is more threatening than ending it. Such a point has not been reached, and is not in sight.

 

           Despite the logic behind these failed efforts, to continue to pin hopes on this passive diplomacy under UN auspices seems problematic.  It grants the governing Assad regime time and space to continue to use means at its disposal to destroy its internal enemy, relying on high technology weaponry and indiscriminate tactics on a vast scale that are killing and terrifying far more civilians than combatants. Bombarding residential neighborhoods in Syrian cities with modern aircraft and artillery makes the survival of the regime appear far more significant for the rulers than is any commitment to the security and wellbeing of the Syrian people and even the survival of the country as a viable whole. It is deeply delegitimizing, and is generating a growing chorus of demands for indicting the Assad leadership for international crimes even while the civil war rages on. This criminal behavior expresses such an acute collective alienation on the part of the Damascus leadership as to forfeit the normal rights enjoyed by a territorial sovereign. These normal rights include the option of using force in accord with international humanitarian law to suppress an internal uprising or insurgency, but such rights do not extend to the commission of genocidal crimes of the sort attributable to the Assad regime in recent months. Although it must be admitted that the picture is complicated by the realization that not all of the criminal wrongdoing is on the regime side, yet the great preponderance is. The rebel forces, to be sure, are guilty of several disturbing atrocities. This is sad and unfortunate, as well as politically confusing so far as taking sides is concerned.  Overall, it adds to the victimization of the people of Syria that is reaching catastrophic proportions because it makes more difficult the mobilization of international support for concerted action.

 

           

            Essentially, the world shamelessly watches the Syrian debacle in stunned silence, but it is fair to ask what could be done that is not being done? So far no credible pro-active international scenario has emerged. There are sensible suggestions for establishing local ceasefires in the considerable areas in the countryside under the control of rebel forces, for supplying food and medical supplies to the population by means of protected ‘humanitarian corridors,’ and for taking steps to improve the woeful lot of Syrian refugees currently facing inadequate accommodations and unacceptable hardships in Lebanon and Jordan. Such steps should be taken, but are unlikely to hasten or alter outcome of the conflict. Can more be done?

 

            I would further recommend a broad policy of support for civil society activists within Syria and outside who are dedicated to a democratic inclusive governing process that affirms human rights for all, and promises constitutional arrangements that will privilege no one ethnic or religious identity and will give priority to the protection of minorities. There are encouraging efforts underway by networks of Syrian activists, working mainly from Washington and Istanbul, to project such a vision as a program in the form of a Freedom Charter that aspires to establish a common platform for a future beneficial for all of Syria’s people. The odds of success for this endeavor of politics from below seem remote at present for these activist undertakings, but they deserve our support and confidence. As often is the case when normal politics are paralyzed, the only solution for a tragic encounter appears to be utopian until it somehow materializes and becomes history. This dynamic was illustrated by the benign unraveling of South African apartheid in the early 1990s against all odds, and in opposition to a consensus among experts that expected emancipation of the victims of apartheid to come, if at all, only through success in a long and bloody war.

 

            Another initiative that could be taken, with great positive potential, but against the grain of current of Western, especially American, geopolitics, would be to take the Iran war option off the table.  Such a step would almost certainly have major tension-reducing effects in relation to regional diplomacy, and would be a desirable initiative to take quite independent of the Syrian conflict. The best way to do this would be to join with other governments in the region, including Iran, to sponsor a comprehensive security framework for the Middle East that features a nuclear weapons free zone, with an insistence that Israel join in the process. Of course, for the United States to advocate such moves would be to shake the foundations of its unconditional endorsement of whatever Israel favors and does, and yet it would seem over time even to be of greater benefit to Israeli security than an engagement in a permanent struggle to maintain Israeli military dominance in the region while denying the right of self-determination to the Palestinian people. If American leaders could finally bring themselves to serve the national interest of the United States by acting as if the peace and security of Israel can only be achieved if the rights of the Palestinian people under international law are finally realized it would have many likely positive effects for the Middle East and beyond.  As matters now stand, the dismal situation in the region is underscored by the degree to which such prudent proposals remain in the domain of the unthinkable, and are kept outside the disciplined boundaries of ‘responsible debate.’

 

            If the imagination of the political is limited to the ‘art of the possible’ then constructive responses to the Syrian tragedy seem all but foreclosed.  Only what appears to be currently implausible has any prospect of providing the Syrian people and their nation with a hopeful future, and we need the moral fortitude to engage with what we believe is right even if we cannot demonstrate that it will prevail in the end.

Hope, Wisdom, Law, Ethics, and Spirituality in relation to Killing and Dying: Persisting Syrian Dilemmas

12 Oct

 

            In appraising political developments most of us rely on trusted sources, our overall political orientation, what we have learned from past experience, and our personal hierarchy of hopes and fears. No matter how careful, and judicious, we are still reaching conclusions in settings of radical uncertainty, which incline our judgments to reflect a priori and interpretative biases. As militarists tends to favor reliance on force to resolve disputes among and within sovereign states, so war weary and pacifist citizens will seek to resolve even the most extreme dire conflict situations by insisting on the potentialities of non-violent diplomacy.

 

In the end, even in liberal democracies most of us are far too dependent on rather untrustworthy and manipulated media assessments to form our judgments about unfolding world events. How then should we understand the terrible ongoing ordeal of violence in Syria? The mainly polarized perceptions of the conflict are almost certain to convey one-sided false impressions that either the atrocities and violence are the work of a bloody regime that has a history of brutal oppression or that this hapless country has become the scene of a proxy war between irresponsible outsiders, with strong religious sectarian overtones of the Sunni/Shi’ia regional divide, and further complicated by various geopolitical alignments and the undisclosed ambitions of the United States, Russia, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others. Undoubtedly, the truth lies at some point between the two poles, with many ambiguities, undisclosed interferences, and assorted unknowns undermining our capacity to reach any ‘objective’ understanding, and leading many to discount the extremely dirty hands of all the major participants, seen and unseen, so as to permit a clear partisan position of being for or against.

 

The difficulties are even greater. If, in contrast, we seek to interpret the conflict from all angles with as much detachment as possible, the result is likely to be paralyzing so far as action is concerned. There is too much uncertainty, secrecy, and complexity to give rise to the clarity needed to shape policy with any confidence, and without confidence killing or allowing the killing to continue, no responsible conclusion can be reached. In effect, only over-simplification, that is, polarized interpretations, are capable of overcoming passivity, but at a high cost. Arguably, in relation to the Syrian maelstrom, passivity functions as a political virtue, or put differently, as the lesser of evils.  

 

In such a situation, assuming we repudiate proxy and geopolitical agendas as the desired bases for determining the future for Syria, what should we hope for? A rapid end of the violence, some sort of now unimaginable accommodation between the two (or many) sides in the struggle, a recognition by the various ‘interested’ third parties that their goals cannot be attained at acceptable costs, an abdication by Bashar al-Assad, an arms embargo uniformly enforced, the completely implausible emergence of constitutional democracy, including respect for minority rights. Merely composing such a wish list underscores the seeming hopelessness of resolving the situation in as acceptable manner, and yet we know that it will somehow be eventually resolved.

 

From the perspective of the Syrian factions and participants, so much of their own blood has been spilled, that it probably seems unacceptable and unreliable to be receptive at this point to any offer of reconciliation, and when the only hope is for either an unconditional victory for the self or the extermination of the other. And with such extremist attitudes, it is not surprising that the bodies keep piling up! What are we to do when every realistic trajectory adds to an outcome that is already tragic?

 

My approach in these situations of internal conflict has been to oppose and distrust the humanitarian and democratizing pretensions of those who counsel intervention under the alluring banner of ‘the responsibility to protect.’ (R2P) and other liberal rationales supportive of military intervention, what Noam Chomsky tellingly calls ‘military humanism.’ Yet in concrete situations such as existed in Kosovo in 1999, Libya in 2011, and Syria today, to counsel a passive international response to the most severe crimes against humanity and genocidal atrocities would seems to deny the most elemental ethical bonds of human solidarity in a networked, globalized world, bonds that may turn out in the near future to be indispensable if we are to achieve environmental sustainability before the planet burns us to a crisp.

 

            There are structural issues arising from the statist character of world order in the post-colonial era that make political choices in such situations of bitter internal conflict a tragic predicament. On the one side, is the statist logic that endows territorial governments with unconditional authority to sustain their unity in the face of insurgent challenges, a political principle given constitutional backing in Article 2(7) of the UN Charter, prohibiting UN intervention in internal conflicts. This statist logic is deeply confused and contradicted by legitimizing the inalienable and emancipatory right of self-determination conferred on every ‘people,’ and not on governments. In the background, as well, are the various non-Western collective memories, uniformly bad, of colonial rule, and wellfounded contemporary suspicions that humanitarian interventions, however described and unwittingly, represent attempted colonialist revivals, both ideologically and behaviorally.  

 

On the other side of the policy fence, there is an odd coalition of liberal internationalists who sincerely regard intervention as an essential tool for the promotion of a more humane world along with more cynical geopolitical strategists who regard conflict zones, especially where large oil reserves exist, as targets of opportunity for extending Western interests. Further, normative confusion arises from the drift of practice on the part of the UN that has been understood to vest in the Security Council unlimited competence to interpret the Charter as it wishes. (See World Court decision in the Lockerbie case, which coincidentally involved Libya) In this regard, the rhetoric of human rights has been used to circumvent the Charter limits restricting UN competence to address conflicts internal to states: for instance, the Security Council in 2011 authorized a ‘No Fly Zone’ for Libya that was immediately converted by the NATO intervenors into a de facto mandate for ‘regime change’; the whole undertaking was validated for most advocates of the broadened undertaking because it freed Libya from a murderous dictatorship; others approved, believing that the operation involved a proper invocation of the R2P norm, and still others endorsed the intervention on the basis of its supposed post-conflict state-building successes, avoiding chaos, and especially the rather impressive efforts to base the governance of Libya on democratic procedures. As the situation continues to evolve, there exists controversy as to how to assess the positive and negative aspects of post-Qaddafi Libya.

 

In evaluating our positions for or against a given intervention, should our sense of strategic motivations matter? For instance, the Kosovo intervention was at least partially motivated by the desire in Washington and among many European elites to show that NATO was still useful despite the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet threat that generated the alliance in the first place. Do such strategic considerations matter if indeed the people of Kosovo were spared the kind of ethnic cleansing endured not long before by the people of Bosnia, culminating in the genocide at Srebrenica in 1995? Might it not be claimed that only when strategic incentives exist, will an intervention be of sufficient magnitude to be effective? In effect, altruism alone will not produce effective forms of humanitarian intervention. Does the existence of double standards matter? Certain crimes against humanity generate an interventionary response while others are overlooked, for instance, the persisting collective punishment of the people of Gaza. Should we drink from a glass that is only half full? The same question applies to the recent surge of criminal prosecutions under the authority of the International Criminal Court.

 

There are other ways of evaluating what has taken place. For example, should the consequences of intervention or non-intervention color our assessments of the policy choice? Let’s say that Kosovo evolves in a constructive direction of respect for human rights, including those of the Serbian minority, or in contrast, becomes repressive towards of its minority population. Do we, should we, retrospectively reexamine our earlier view on what it was preferable to do back in 1999? And finally, should we give priority to the postulates of human solidarity, what might be called ‘moral globalization,’ or to the primacy of self-determination as the best hope that peoples of the world have of achieving emancipatory goals, recognizing that the grand strategies of the geopolitical actors are indifferent, at best, and often hostile to such claims?

 

My argument reduces to this: in such a global setting we cannot avoid making disastrous mistakes, but to renounce the effort to find the preferred course of action, we should not withdraw from politics and throw up our hands in frustration. We can expose false claims, contradictions, double standards, and we can side with those who act on behalf of emancipatory goals, while not being insensitive to the complexity, and even contradictions, of ‘emancipation’ in many political settings. There are often ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ sides from the perspective of international morality, international law, and global justice, but not always. When all sides seem deeply ‘wrong’ as in Syria, the dilemmas for the engaged global citizen is heightened to the point where the only responsible posture may be one of humility and an acknowledgement of radical uncertainty. In such circumstances, the most salient moral imperative is to refrain from acts that are likely to intensify the violence, intensify suffering, and increase dying and klling. This may not be a heroic political posture, but it may offer the most constructive response to a particular mix of circumstances, minimizing prospects of further escalation.

 

            Finally, it is not very helpful to observe, ‘time will tell whether this was the best response.’ Perhaps, we can learn for the future about factors overlooked that might have altered our assessment, but our past decision was based on what we knew and perceived at that time, and should not be revised by taking account of subsequent developments. In some situations, such as the many struggles of oppressed and occupied peoples, it seems desirable to be hopeful even in the face of the realization that the eventual outcome could bring deep disappointment. We should, I feel, as often as possible be guided by our hopes and beliefs even when, as nearly always, we are confronted by the dilemmas of radical uncertainty. We should also do our best not to be manipulated by those media savvy ‘realists’ who stress fears, claim a convergence of benevolence and interests, exaggerate the benefits of military superiority, and especially in America serve as the self-appointed chief designers of exploitative patterns of geopolitically shaped security.

 

            With hope we can often overcome uncertainty with desire, and engage in struggles for a just and sustainable future that celebrates human potential for moral growth, political enhancement, and spiritual wisdom.

            Without hope we fall victim to despair and will be carried along with the historical current that is leading nation, society, civilization, species, and world toward catastrophe.

 We live in what can be described both as the Information Age and cope daily with information overload. We are supposed to shape policy on the basis of knowledge, yet when it comes to crucial issues such war/peace or climate change, we act and advocate without sufficient knowledge, or even ignore an informed consensus, and what is worse, we put aside law, ethics, and our spiritual sensitivities.

Finally, to think, act, and feel as a citizen pilgrim provides the necessary foundation for hope, and its two sisters, wisdom and spirituality.

Global Revolution After Tahrir Square

9 Nov


            This history-making global Occupy Movement with a presence in over 900 cities would not have happened in form and substance without the revolutionary awakening of the world’s youth that resulted from the riveting events culminating in the triumphal achievement of driving Hosni Mubarak from the pinnacles of Egyptian state power. We need also to acknowledge that the courage exhibited by those gathered at Tahrir Square might not have been exhibited to the world if not for the earlier charismatic self-immolating martyrdom of an unlicenced street vendor of vegetables, Mohamed Bouazi, in the interior Tunisian city of  Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010. Perhaps, as well, the eruptions would have stopped at the Tunisian border were it not for the readiness of Egyptians to erupt after the Alexandria death of Khaled Said on June 6, 2010. This brutal police murder ignited the moral passion of Egyptians, best expressed and widely disseminated through a Facebook campaign, “We are all Khaled Said.” We also must not overlook the mobilizing talents and social networking of digitally minded younger urban Egyptians without whom the movement might never have taken off in the first place, or the later encouragement provided by TV portrayals of the encounters between gangs of Mubarak hooligans and the demonstrators.

 

            History is always over-determined when transformative events are analyzed in the aftermath of their occurrence and so it is, and will be, with Tahrir Square, which has quickly become a shorthand to signify the hopes, fears, and methodology of the 21st century’s first revolutionary moment, both narrowly conceived as an Egyptian happening or more broadly as the inspirational foundation of this revolutionary impulse that has expanded to be a phenomenon of genuine global scope.  What is beyond doubt is that the world Occupy Movement proudly and credibly claims an affinity with Tahrir Square, although not without celebrating their important particularities.  It is reasonable to believe that these numerous protest movements around the world would either not have occurred, or taken a different form without the overall inspiration provided by the several dramas encompassed beneath the banner of the Arab Spring, and not only by Tahrir Square understood in isolation from its regional setting.

 

            I want to stress the unique South-North character of this inspiration as the core of its originality, and relatedness to a broader realignment of the political firmament that is slowly taking account of the collapse of the Euro-centric imperial order that started happening more than half century ago with the collapse of the British rule in India. This decolonizing process still has a long way to go as recent military operations in Libya, threats to Iran, colonialist defiance of Israel to international law daily reminds us. The interventionary currents of transnational political violence continue to flow only in one direction North-South. After World War II the United States militarily replaced the European colonial powers as the principal global custodian of Western interests. This anachronistic West-centricism continues to dominate most international institutions, especially evident in the UN Security Council that constitutionally endows the Euro-American alliance with a veto power used to block many efforts to promote global justice and prevents such emergent political actors as India, Brazil, and Turkey from playing a role commensurate with their stature and influence.

 

            What is exciting, then, about this resonance of Tahrir Square is that the youth of the North looked Southward found inspiration when engaging in their incipient struggle for revolutionary renewal of the world economic and social order, as well as equity in their immediate circumstances. Not only because of its priority in time, but for its conception of how to practice democratic politics outside of governmental structures, this political learning process was evident in the various Occupy sites. The ethos of revolution in Tahrir Square, and elsewhere in the region, with the partial exception of Libya, was nonviolent, youth-dominated, populist, leaderless, without program, demanding drastic change of a democratizing character. On its surface such a revolutionary orientation seems extremely fragile, subject to fragmentation and dissolution once the negatively unifying hated ruler is induced to leave the stage of state power, and if the challenge from below turns out to be more durable, possibly vulnerable to a violent counter-revolutionary restoration of the old regime. The irony of ironies associated with the Arab Spring is that only in Libya does the old order seem gone forever, and there the uprising was tainted in its infancy by its dependence on thousands of NATO air strikes and its reliance on a leadership that seemed mainly contrived to please the West.  When in Egypt a few months ago, in the still exalted aftermath of what was achieved by the January 25th Movement, there was a self-aware and wide chasm between those optimists who spoke in the language of ‘revolution’ and those more cautious observers who claimed only to have been part of an ‘uprising.’ At this moment, these latter more pessimistic interpretations seem more in line with an Egyptian process that can be best described as ‘regime stabilization,’ at least for now.

 

            What happens with the Occupy Movement is of course radically uncertain at present. Is it a bubble that will burst as soon as the first cold wave hits the major cities of the North? Or will it endure long enough to worry the protectors of the established order so that state violence will be unleashed, as always, in the name of ‘law and order’? Are we witnessing the birth pangs of ‘global democracy’ or something else that has yet to be disclosed or lacks a name? We must wait and hope, and maybe pray, above all acting as best we can in solidarity, keeping our gaze fixed on horizons of desire. What is feasible will not do!

Libya After Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Execution

30 Oct

 

The death of the despised despot who ruled Libya for forty-two years naturally produced celebrations throughout the country. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s end was bloody and vindictive, but we should remember that his rants against his own people—and his violent repression of what was initially a peaceful uprising—invited a harsh popular response. Recalling W.H. Auden’s famous line, “Those to whom evil is done/do evil in return,” it is almost inevitable in the absence of strong moral and political discipline, which was not present, that when a leader refers to his opponents as “rats” and pledges to hunt them down house by house, the stage is set for the unacceptable kind of retribution that played out recently in Sirte where NATO air strikes leveled the city and anti-Qaddafi forces executed at least 53 Qaddafi loyalists. It is an ominous warning sign for the future that this massacre at Sirte along with the execution and burial of Qaddafi should have exhibited such vengeful and undisciplined behavior, raising renewed doubts about the character and approach of Transitional National Council leadership, although there still exist possibilities for redeeming this loss of confidence.

 

These unfortunate happenings make overall accountability for war crimes an early test of whether the TNC will yet prove capable of managing the formation of a political and morally acceptable governmental structure. Will the TNC undertake investigations of the alleged wrongdoings of its own forces in a manner that corresponds with international standards, or will such inquiry be avoided because such an international confidence-raising process would clearly internal factionalism in which any finger-pointing will seem like an encouragement of ethnic and tribal conflict? Will the TNC cooperate with the International Criminal Court to ensure that those charged with war crimes in the service of the Qaddafi regime will receive a fair trial? At the same time there is reason to view with a cynical eye the demands of self-righteous NGOs in the West that seem to expect from Libya what the liberal democratic regimes of the West refuse to do. It should be appreciated in this regard that the United States

goes to extraordinary lengths to exempt its soldiers and leaders from potential criminal accountability while it pushes hard to have its enemies subject to the harsh severity of international criminal law. Double standards pervade. As with so much that involves North Africa after the glories of the Arab Awakening, all roads to the future seem destined to have many twists and turns, as well as treacherous potholes.

 

 

The leadership vacuum in Libya is not likely to be filled anytime

soon. We don’t know whether tribal or regional loyalties will emerge as primary political identities now that the great unifier—hostility to

the Qaddafi regime—can no longer suppress antagonistic goals and ambitions. The TNC lent international credibility to the anti-Qaddafi forces, but much of the fighting in the last stages of the struggle was under the control of semiautonomous militia commanders that seemed a law unto themselves. We will soon learn whether the TNC can sufficiently represent the collective will of Libyans during the interim process that is needed before establishing an elected government able to draft a new constitution. Its first attempt to establish a new unity was premised on a call to implement political Islam. The Chairman of the TNC, Mustafa Adbel-Jalil, made the following strong assertion along these lines at the victory celebration in Benghazi: “We are an Islamic country. We take the Islamic religion

as the core of our new government. The constitution will be based on our Islamic religion.”

 

Some pessimists have contended that Libya’s future is prefigured by

the chaotic violence that befell Somalia after the overthrow of

dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, a tragic set of national circumstances that have persisted ever since. But on a more hopeful note, it is worth observing that the fall of Qaddafi—unlike that of Hosni Mubarak, whose overthrow has not yet altered

the power structure in Egypt—gives the victorious Libyan opposition a

seemingly clean slate that could be more receptive to genuine democratic nation-building if such a political will emerges. Libyans have given themselves this opportunity that rarely comes along in history to achieve a real revolutionary transformation of their political, economic and cultural life. Thus, it could turn out paradoxically to be helpful, rather than an impediment, to observe that Qaddafi left no institutional infrastructure behind upon which to construct a modern state. What has happened in Libya, unlike Egypt, is for better or worse a total regime change.

 

Libya starts out on this new path with some additional major advantages, most obviously oil and a relatively

small population. An important test in the months ahead will be the

extent to which the new leadership restores normalcy to the economy without mortgaging the national wealth to foreign predators, corporate, financial, and governmental. Of course, in the background is the sense that NATO was integral to the overthrow of Qaddafi and may expect more than a thank-you note. Already there are media murmurs about great business opportunities for the West in the new Libya, including the challenge of rebuilding what NATO destroyed, which seems like a disturbing vindication of Naomi Klein’s groundbreaking book, The Shock Docrtrine, a devastating critique of the contemporary logic of the neoliberal world economy.

 

Considering Libyan experience from an international perspective raises several additional concerns. The public appraisal of NATO’s intervention will be mainly shaped by whether Libya emerges as a stable, democratic, and equitable nation. This will not be knowable for years, but aspects of the intervention already make Libya a troubling precedent no matter what the future of the country. The UN Security Council, which authorized the use of force by way of an application of the recently affirmed principle known as “responsibility to protect” or R2P. The five abstaining states were either duped or complacent,

and likely both. The authorizing Security Council Resolution 1973 was broadly framed by reference to establishing a no-fly zone by all necessary means, with the justification for force at the time associated with protecting the population of Benghazi from an imminent massacre. Yet this restricted mandate was disregarded almost from the outset. NATO forces were obviously far less committed to their assigned protective role than to making sure that the balance of forces in the struggle for the future of Libya would be tipped in the direction of the insurrection. If this intention had been clear at the outset, it is almost certain that Russia and China would have vetoed the UN resolution. During the debate these two states expressed their grave misgivings and suspicions about encroaching on Libya’s sovereignty, and were joined in the expression of such doubts by India, Brazil and Germany who also came to abstaining when it came to voting in the Security Council. If NATO’s broader intention was manifest Chinese and Russian vetoes were a virtual certainty.

 

Of course, there was a dilemma present. If NATO had disclosed its goals there would have been no UNSC authorization, and the Benghazi massacre would have appeared to be a humanitarian catastrophe invited by UN inaction. If NATO had circumscribed its intervention in the manner agreed upon, then a lengthy civil war might have followed, and also brought about a humanitarian disaster for the people of Libya. The perils of intervention have to be balanced against the perils of noninternvention in each instance, but if some tasks of global governance entrusted to the United Nations are to evolve in a constitutionally responsible way, then the minimum to expect is an honest disclosure of intent by member states pushing for intervention, a vigilant monitoring by the authorizing UN organ of any use of force, and a scrupulous regard by implementing actors for the limits imposed on a mandate to use force.

 

From these perspectives, it is extremely disturbing that a restricted UN mandate was totally ignored, and that the Security Council did not even bother reconsider the original mandate or censure NATO for unilaterally expanding the scope and nature of its military role. By ignoring the UN’s limits, NATO may have diminished the prospects for future legitimate uses of the R2P principle, and whether this is good or bad is difficult to say in the abstract.

 

There are several dimensions of this concern. To begin with, the UN Charter was drafted to minimize the legitimate role of force in world politics, making war a last resort, and then only in strict circumstances of self-defense. To this is added the secondary undertaking of the Charter, which is to assure that the UN itself is bound by Article 2(7) to refrain from intervening in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of states unless under exceptional conditions it is decided as necessary to maintain international peace and security. The NATO intervention seems impossible to reconcile with either of these two core principles of the UN Charter, which is the constitutional framework that is supposed to guide the behavior of the UN. It is true that these principles have been eroded by practice since their enactment in 1945. Human rights has become such a strong dimension of world order as to take precedence over sovereign rights in certain situations of extreme abuse, which helps explain the rise of the R2P norm over the last decade, especially in the aftermath of the controversial NATO Kosovo War of 1999. Despite these developments the Charter still provides the operative guidelines for uses of force. In this regard, it might have been legally and morally acceptable, given the circumstance prevailing in Libya when the authorizing resolution was adopted on March 17, 2011, to mount a narrowly conceived protective mission—although it is worth noting that even at the moment of approval, there was widespread skepticism at the UN, either because some members distrusted the pro-interventionist reassurances of the United States and its European partners or anticipated that pressures on the ground would likely produce mission creep as the locus of the violence shifted beyond Benghazi.

 

The Libya experience raises deeper questions about reliance on the R2P norm as a basis of principled UN action on behalf of a vulnerable people endangered by abusive behavior of their own government. Some doubts already existed about the selectivity of the Libyan application of the norm, especially given the UN’s failure to lift a finger on behalf of the beleaguered civilian population of Gaza, which has suffered under a long and punitive Israeli blockade, with the UN even supporting the Israeli position when the blockade was being challenged by civil society activists seeking to deliver humanitarian assistance directly to the people of Gaza. But aside from this glaring example of double standards, there is also the widespread sense that in Libya, R2P was quickly, and without serious debate, transformed into an opportunity to destroy and oust, with an as yet undetermined array of harmful consequences.

 

If such protective undertakings are to achieve credibility in the

future, they must become detached from geopolitics and operationalized according to a robust regime of law that treats equals equally. Perhaps the most practical mechanism for reaching these presently unattainable goals would be the establishment of a UN Emergency Force that could only be activated by a two-thirds vote in either the Security Council or General Assembly, and not ever be subject to veto. Such a force would need to be funded independently of national governments, possibly by imposing a tax on international air flights or currency transactions. However sensible, such an arrangement will not be easy to bring into being, precisely because its existence would threaten current geopolitical prerogatives that depend on self-interested motivations of leading states. And even this recommended UNEF framework could be manipulated. But at least if it existed there would be a greater prospect that authorizing guidelines for humanitarian uses of force under UN auspices would be respected, that compliance would be supervised, and that more consistent practice would replace the current brand of humanitarian diplomacy that is deformed by the prevalence of double standards.

 

Against such a background, we can only wish that the Libyans will defy pessimistic expectations, and manage to establish a viable and independent democratic state that is respectful of human rights and energetic in its efforts at reconstruction, without becoming overly

hospitable to foreign investors and companies. After such a

devastating air campaign of some 20,000 sorties, the NATO countries should have the decency to stand aside and respect the Libyans’ inalienable right of self-determination. It is a sad commentary on the global setting that to set forth these hopes for the future of Libya and its long suffering population seems like an utopian indulgence!

 

Preliminary Libyan Scorecard: Acting Beyond the UN Mandate

6 Sep


            In Western circles of influential opinion, the outcome of the NATO intervention in Libya has already been pronounced ‘a victory’ from several points of view: as a military success that achieved its main goals set at acceptable costs, as a moral success that averted a humanitarian catastrophe, and as political success the creation of an opportunity for freedoom and constitutionalism on behalf of a long oppressed people. This is one of those rare results in an international conflict situation that seems to please both conservatives and liberals. Conservatives because it was a show of force that reaffirmed Western primacy based on military power. Liberals because force was used with UN backing in accordance with international law and in furtherance of human rights and liberal values.

 

Qaddafi and his loyalists are apparently a spent force, and the future of Libya now becomes a work in progress without any clear understanding of who will call the shots from now on. Will it be the Libyan victors in the war now battling among themselves for the control of the country? Will it be their NATO minders hiding behind the scenes? Will it be the NATO representatives doing the bidding of the oil companies and the various corporate and financial interests that make no secret of seeking a robust profit-making stake in Libya’s future? Or will it be some combination of these influences, more or less harmoniously collaborating? And most relevant of all, will this process be seen as having the claimed liberating impact on the lives and destinies of the Libyan people? It is far too early to pronounce on such momentous issues, although sitting on the sidelines one can only hope and pray for the best for a country substantially destroyed by external forces. Even before the dust of the original conflict settles it is not too soon to raise some skeptical questions about the unconditional enthusiasm in mainstream Western circles for what has been done and what it portends for the future of UN peacekeeping.

 

            What has transpired since March when the UN Security Council gave its go ahead for the use of force to protect civilians in Libya should never have become an occasion for cheering despite the military and political outcome of the intervention. This unfortunate triumphal spirit was clearly voiced by the normally critically sensitive Roger Cohen. Writing in the New York Times Cohen insists that the Libyan intervention should be viewed as a historically momentous discharge of the global moral responsibility that somehow rests on the shoulders of post-colonial pro-active leaders in the West:  “..the idea that the West must at times be prepared to fight for its values against barbarism is the best hope for a 21sr century less cruel than the 20th .” This rather extraordinary claim cannot be tested by reference to Libya alone, although even narrowly conceived the grounds for such confidence in Western uses of force in the global south seems stunningly ahistorical. But if the net is enlarged, as it must be, to encompass the spectrum of recent interventions under Western auspices that include Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan the self-absorbed gaze of Cohen seems like a dangerously misguided form of advocacy relating to the use of force in international relations. Looking at this broader experience of Western intervention makes one squirm uncomfortably in reaction to the grandiose claim that the willingness of leading Western countries to police the world is humanity’s ‘best hope’ for the future. Cohen is not timid about insisting that the Libya operation up to this point provides a positive model for the future : “The intervention has been done right—with the legality of strong backing, full support of America’s European allies, and quiet arming of the rebels.” A contrast with Iraq is drawn, presumably, in contrast, an intervention ‘done wrong.’

 

            There is a heavy dose of implicit paternalism, condescension, and passé consciousness, not to mention wishful thinking, present if the West is to be identified as the best hope for the future just because it managed to pull off this Libyan intervention, that is, even assuming that the post-Qaddafi experience in the country is not too disillusioning in this one set of circumstances. What about putting the failed interventions into the balance, and then deciding whether it is helpful or not to encourage the West, which means mainly the United States, to take on this protective role for the rest of the world? I seem to remember not that long ago such self-empowering phrases as ‘white man’s burden’ and ‘civilizing mission’ being used by colonial apologists with a straight face. The West has quite a record of barbarism of its own, both within its geographic confines and in its encounters with others.  It seems arbitrary and contentious to situate barbarism geographically, and it certainly seems strange to think that the long exploited and abused non-West generates a new breed of barbarians at the gates.

 

            And let us not be to quick to heap praise on this Libyan model? It is certainly premature to conclude that it has been a success before acquiring a better sense of whether the winners can avoid a new cycle of strife and bloodshed, and stick together in a Libya without the benefit of Qaddafi as the common enemy. Or if they do, can they embark upon a development path that benefits the Libyan people and not primarily the oil companies and foreign construction firms. Any credible assessment of the Libyan intervention must at least wait and see if the new leaders are able to avoid the authoritarian temptation to secure their power and privilege within the inflamed political atmosphere of the country. The majority of the Libyan people undoubtedly have strong expectations that their human rights will now be upheld and that an equitable economic order will soon be established that benefits the population as a whole, and not the tiny elite that sits on the top of the national pyramid. These are expectations that have yet to be satisfied anywhere in the region. The challenge is immense, and perhaps is beyond even the imagination and aspirations of the new leaders, posing a challenge that exceeds their capabilities and will.

 

            Yet such worries are not just about the uncertain future of Libya. Even if, against the odds, Libya turns out to be the success story already proclaimed, there are still many reasons to be concerned about the Libyan intervention serving as a precedent for the future. These concerns relating to international law, to the proper role for the UN, and to the shaping of a just world order have been largely ignored in the public discussion of the Libyan intervention. In effect, once NATO helped the rebels enough to get rid of the Qaddafi regime, it has been treated as irrelevant to complain about aspects of the undertaking and such issues have been completely ignored by the media. In the rest of this blog I will try to explain why the Libyan intervention is far from providing future diplomats with an ideal model. I believe we should learn from the Libyan experience, and reject it as a precedent.

 

            As the World Court made clear in the Nicaragua decision of 1986, modern international law does not allow states to have recourse to force except when acting in self-defense against a substantial prior armed attack across its borders, and then only until the Security Council acts. The United Nations, normally the Security Council, but residually the General Assembly, has the authority to mandate the use of force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter on behalf of peace and security, including on the basis of UN evolving practice, for humanitarian ends under extreme circumstances of the sort that arguably existed in Libya during the latter stages of Qaddafi’s rule. This humanitarian extension of UN authority has been challenged as opening a loophole of indefinite dimensions that can be used to carry out a post-colonial imperialist agenda. Even granting that humanitarian ends should now be understood to have been legally incorporated into prevailing ideas of ‘international peace and security,’ a crucial further question exists as to whether the force used by NATO remained within the confines of what was authorized by the Security Council.

 

            The Security Council debate on authorization indicated some deep concerns on the part of important members at the time, including China, Russia, Brazil, India, and Germany, that formed the background of SC Resolution 1973, which in March 2011 set forth the guidelines for the intervention.This extensive resolution articulated the mission being authorized as that of protecting threatened Libyan civilians against violent atrocities that were allegedly being massively threatened by the Qaddafi government, with special reference at the time to an alleged imminent massacre of civilians trapped in the then besieged city of Benghazi. The debate emphasized the application of the norm of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) endorsed by the Security Council a few years ago that sought to allay fears about interventions by the West in the non-West by refraining from relying on the distrusted language of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and substituting a blander way of describing the undertaking as less of a challenge directed at the territorial supremacy of sovereign states and more in the nature of a protective undertaking reflecting human solidarity. The R2P norm relies on a rationale of protecting vulnerable peoples from rulers that violated basic human rights in a severe and systematic fashion.

 

            But once underway, the NATO operation unilaterally expanded and qualitatively shifted the mission as authorized, and almost immediately acted to help the rebels win the war and to make non-negotiable the dismantling of the Qaddafi regime. NATO made these moves without even attempting to explain that it was somehow still acting primarily to protect Libyan civilians. This was not just another instance of ‘mission creep’ as had occurred previously in UN peacekeeping operations (for instance, the Gulf War of 1991), but rather mission creep on steroids! It would have been possible during the Security Council debate to explain in a forthright manner what obviously must have been the real intentions all along of NATO. It would have been possible and respectful of the integrity of UN discourse to have made the attempt to convince the members of the Security Council that the only way the Libyan people could be protected was to help the rebels win the civil war and to be sure that Qaddafi was taken out of the picture. Presumably such forthrightness was avoided by the pro-interventionist states because it would almost certainly have turned several of the already reluctant abstaining five countries into negative votes, including in all likelihood, those of China and Russia that are permanent members whose votes have a veto effect, which in this case would have prevented the Security Council from reaching a decision. So the pro-interventionists admittedly faced a genuine dilemma: either dissemble as to the ends being pursued and obtain the legitimacy of limited advance authorization from the UN or reveal the real goals of the operation and be blocked by a veto from acting under UN auspices. If so blocked, then the further issue arises as to whether to intervene in the absence of a UN mandate.

 

A similar dilemma faced the intervening governments prior to the 1999 NATO’s Kosovo War. It was resolved by ignoring the legalities altogether, with NATO acting without any UNSC authorization. It was also a controversial precedent, and some blamed the Kosovo reliance on ‘a coalition of the willing’ or on a military alliance as providing a sufficient authorization, for the later claim of de facto authority to carry out the Iraq invasion without gaining prior UN approval. In both Kosovo and Iraq circumventing the UN’s legally prescribed role of deciding when to authorize non-defensive force on behalf of international peace and security was criticized, but the unlawfulness of the action led to no clear repudiation of either intervention after the fact, and rather highlighted the weakness of the UN. In both cases the UN after the fact acted to ratify the results of uses of force that clearly violated the UN Charter’s unconditional prohibition imposed on all uses of non-defensive force by member states. The rogue recourse to force was especially disturbing in Iraq as the attack legally amounted to a war of aggression, a crime against the peace in the language of the Nuremberg Judgment rendered in 1945 against surviving Nazi leaders after World War II.

 

            With regard to Libya, the culprits are not just the states that participated in this runaway operation, but the members of the Security Council  that abstained from supporting Resolution 1973 and the Secretary General of the United Nations have a special duty to make sure that the limits of authorization were being respected throughout the undertaking. It would seem to be a matter of constitutional responsibility for all members of the Security Council to ensure respect for the Charter’s core effort to prevent wars and seek peaceful resolution of conflicts. When exceptions are made to this generalized Charter prohibition on the use or threat of force it should always be strictly formulated, and then continuously monitored and interpreted, and if limits are exceeded, then the supervisory authority and responsibility of the Security Council should kick in as a matter of course, and in a spirit of upholding the autonomy and legitimacy of the United Nations. The Secretary General also has secondary responsibility to take appropriate steps to call the attention of the membership to such blatant departures from an authorizing resolution as an essential aspect of his role as custodian of the integrity of UN procedures and as the UN’s de facto ombudsman in relation to ensuring fidelity to the Charter. This allocation of responsibility seems more important when it is realized that the actions of the Security Council are not subject to judicial review. This controversial doctrine of judicial self-restraint within the UN System was ironically decided by the World Court in the 1992 Lockerbie case involving sanctions imposed on Libya in apparent violation of relevant treaty law. The majority of the judges concluded that whatever the Security Council decided needed to be treated as authoritative even if it went against international law, that the Security Council always had the last word in shaping UN policy even when it was acting unwisely or irresponsibly.

 

            Against this background, the abstaining states were also derelict at the outset by allowing a resolution of the Security Council involving the use of force to go forward considered that it contained such ambiguous and vague language as to raise a red flag as to the scope of the proposed authorization. Although Security Council Resolution 1973 did seem reasonably to anticipate mainly the establishment of a No Fly Zone and ancillary steps to make sure it would be effective, the proposed language of the resolution should have signaled the possibility that action beyond what was being mandated was contemplated by the NATO countries and would likely be undertaken. The notorious phrase ‘all necessary measures’ was present in the resolution, which was justified at the time as providing the enforcers with a desirable margin of flexibility in making sure that the No Fly Zone would render the needed protection to Libyan civilian.  Almost immediately once NATO launched its operations it became obvious that an entirely new and controversial mission was underway than what was acknowledged during the debate that preceded the adoption of 1973. The U.S. Supreme Court has often invalidated Congressional action as ‘void for vagueness,’ and this is something in the UN setting that Security Council members should have been prepared to do on their own in their role as final guardians of constitutional integrity in relation to war making under UN auspices. Given the Charter emphasis on war prevention and peaceful settlement of disputes, it should be standard practice that exceptional mandates to use force would be interpreted strictly to limit the departure from Charter goals and norms, but the UN record even before Libya has been disappointing, with geopolitics giving states a virtually unlimited discretion that international law purports to withhold.

 

            There is a further related issue internal to best practices within the United Nations itself. The Security Council acts in the area of peace and security on behalf of the entire international community and with representational authority for the whole membership of the Organization. The 177 countries not members of the Security Council should have confidence that this body will respect Charter guidelines and that there will be a close correspondence between what was authorized and what was done especially when force is authorized and sovereign rights are encroached upon. This correspondence was not present in the Libyan intervention, and this abuse of authority seems to have barely noticed in any official way, although acknowledged and even lamented in the corridors and delegates lounge of UN Headquarters in New York City.

 

This interpretative issue is not just a playground for international law specialists interested in jousting about technical matters of little real world relevance. Here the life and death of the peoples inhabiting the planet are directly at stake, as well as their political independence, the territorial integrity, and economic autonomy of their country. If the governments will not act to uphold agreed and fundamental limits on state violence, especially directed at vulnerable countries and peoples, then as citizens of the world, ‘we the peoples of the United Nations,’ as proclaimed by the Preamble to the Charter need to raise our voices. We have the residual responsibility to act on behalf of international law and morality when the UN falters or when states act beyond the law. Of course, this imperative does not imply a whitewash for tyrannical rule.

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