Tag Archives: Obama

Resolving the Syrian Chemical Weapons Crisis: Sunlight and Shadows

15 Sep

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Questioning Obamacare for Syria

5 Sep

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

1 Sep

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

31 Aug

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

             

 

Globalizing Homeland Security (revised)

21 Aug

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Globalizing Homeland Security

20 Aug

Taking Note: The Drift Toward Autocracy

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Ending Perpetual War? Endorsing Drone Warfare?

1 Jun

 

 

            That President Obama chose on 23 May to unveil his second term cautionary approach to counter-terrorism at the National Defense University epitomized the ambiguity of the occasion. The choice of venue was itself a virtual guarantee that nothing would be said or done on that occasion that challenges in any fundamental way the global projection of American military power. Obama’s skillfully phrased speech was about refining technique in foreign policy, achieving greater efficiency in killing, interrogating the post-9/11 war mentality, and all the while extolling the self-mystifying glories of American exceptionalism. That is, only the United States, and perhaps Israel and NATO, possessed an entitlement to use force at times and places of the actor’s choosing without consulting the UN, respecting the constraints of international law, and heeding the admonition in the Declaration of Independence to show “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” Such exceptionalism, especially as enacted by recourse to aggressive wars, invites resistance, polarizes political struggle, and defeats any hope that stability will be achieved by the gradual realization of global justice rather than through the crude tactics of hard power diplomacy and militarism.

 

            There were several points of light in the otherwise dark Obama firmament. Perhaps, the most promising aspect of Obama’s presentation was its carefully hedged call for reexamining the still prevailing response to the 9/11 attacks as  ‘perpetual war.’ From the outset this cautious, yet welcome, questioning represented an ironic inversion of Kant’s prescriptions for perpetual peace. In Obama’s words, “..a perpetual war—through drones or troop deployments—will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways.” Depending on how we read world history since 1939, it can be understood as an era of perpetual war with a brief intermission between the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 attacks. Certainly, during the course of this period the United States has been continuously mobilized to engage in major war on a moment’s notice, and that this posture has definitely militarizes state/society relations in the country. There was nothing in Obama’s speech to draw attention to the perils posed by such a militarized state, having achieve global military dominance, and creating a domestic ‘miliary-industrial complex’ that would make even Dwight Eisenhower tremble with fear. There were no benchmarks that would allow the Congress or the citizenry to appreciate that it was time to bring the war on terror to an end.

 

            Obama also appeared to question the openendedness of the 2001 unlimited legislative mandate to use force overseas without including any requirement of a specific prior procedure of Congressial approval in Authorization to Use Military Force Act (AUMF). In Obama’s words, “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue, but all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.” At the same time, Obama avoided directly challenging this AUMF legislation enacted to give the government precisely the legal authority to use force anywhere and at any time to wage war against supposed terrorist adversaries and their governmental guardians. Such authority can be validly used even where there is no terrorist threat, as was the case for Iraq when it was invaded and occupied in 2003.  At this point, Obama was asking Congress “to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing.” He went on to say that what is needed is “to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF mandate.” Whenever politicians qualify a recommendation with such words as ‘refine’ and ‘ultimately,’ it is an almost sure sign that an end game is not envisioned, and may not even be intended. What Obama made evident is that although he had the right instincts with respecting to changing course with respect to the war on terror, his political will to support any altered course of action was far too weak to produce action, or maybe even too feeble to generate a needed debate on security for the country and the world, given the realities of mid-2013. Obama seems to be comfortable with framing counter-terrorist security policy as war so long as it is moving toward an understanding that war on terror will become more limited in scope at some point, and that at least there will be announced an intention to declare that the war on terror is over.  Obama did not have the resolve to insist that incidents of terrorism should be hereafter handled as criminal acts, which is what happens in the rest of the world—this would certainly have been a major step back from the fire, and might even deserved to be treated as extinguish the fire set for the world on 12 September 2001. The nature of the Boston Marathon murders might have been just the right occasion to make the change, emphasizing the degree to which the major danger was being posed by extremists living within the country. It was no longer necessary to treat the world as a counter-terrorist battlefield.

 

            There is admittedly a genuine security challenge that was posed on 9/11: the United States is vulnerable to well-planned terrorist attacks on the many soft targets of a complex modern society. And although other countries are also subject to major attacks, as was Madrid train bombings in 2004 and the London attacks in 2007, no country is as likely to arouse extremist anger and resentment due to its global projection of hard power as is the United States, and no country is as fearful, despite its military dominance as measured by realist calculations, as is the United States. Such a mismatch suggests that the American global role requires adjustment to the logic of self-determination in the post-colonial world, that the protection of the last remnants of the colonial edifice is a losing effort, and a dangerous one.

 

            To be sure there was in Obama’s speech many rhetorical flourishes that were probably designed to please liberal critics of drone warfare and Guantanamo, the two most awkward features of his presidency.  Such rhetoric invited a comparison with the far more bellicose and imperial language relied upon by George W Bush, but Obama’s approach was in a form that was sufficiently nationalistic to take account of the sensitivities of the right wing jackals that give him little, or no slack. Obama voiced his commitments to fight political extremists wherever they are found, while abiding by law, living up to ethical standards, and upholding the Constitution.  He contended that his presidency “has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists—insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability that is now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday,” a boast bound to raise more than a few skeptical eyebrows. Obama also did acknowledge that “this new technology raises profound questions—about who is targeted, and why; about civilian casualties, and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under U.S. and international law; about accountability and morality.” At the same time, this welcome willingness to suggest the need for some comprehensive rethinking was confusing, hedged by claims that all that has been done up to now has worked and that the drone war, despite a few mistakes, has at all stages been consistent with the international laws of war, the Constitution, and international morality. It is notable that Obama refers to ‘profound questions’ that deserve to be asked and answered, but craftily refrains from answering them himself, just as he was relatively polite to Medea Benjamin, when she interrupted his talk from the floor with a direct challenge to use his authority as Commander-in Chief to close Guantanamo, which he responded to by saying that she deserved an attentive audience, although he was in substantial disagreement with what she was proposing, but without saying why and how. In assessing Obama’s performance, I am reminded of the early downplaying  among Soviet dissenters of Mikhail Gorbachev’s claims to be a radical reformer: “He is giving us glastnost (freer speech) without perestroika (substantive and structural change), but he promised us both.”

 

 

            In large part Obama was reacting to a tsunami of recent criticism from around the world. His explanations at the National Defense University amounted to an admission that the conduct of drone warfare and the maintenance of Guantanamo, for better and worse, had severely eroded America’s diplomatic stature. Beyond this, such behavior had given rise to acute resentment directed against the United States, and was quite likely spawning the very extremists that the use of attack drones were supposed to be killing. The Obama presidency was clearly attempting to retreat from this precipice of disconnect without falling into an anticipated ambush staged by its obsessive detractors at home. As many have pointed out the speech was long on vague generalities, short on policy specifics. It called in several ways for a more ‘disciplined’ approach to the war on terror, yet at the same time claimed in some detail that what has been done during the Obama years was both ‘effective’ and ‘legal,’ and had been climaxed by the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011. In effect, the speech was acknowledging that the projection of American force around the world had become understandably problematic for many, but could be fixed by acknowledgements and a show of concern without making any discernable major shifts in behavior or objectives. Such a proposed tweaking of policy hardly qualifies as ‘profound’ even if its sentiments were to be fulfilled by such gradual shifts in policy as closing Guantanamo and minimizing reliance on drones, moves that at this point still seems quite unlikely.

 

            The speech was notably short even on those specifics that had been anticipated by those who gave their expert opinion as to what to expect. For instance, it was expected that the controversial and ethically outrageous ‘signature strikes’ whereby combat-age males have been targeted and killed in Pakistani tribal areas and in Yemen if they are seen congregating in a place supposedly frequented by terrorists, even if no further evidence exists as to their relationship to political violence, would be repudiated. Obama never even mentioned signature strikes. Nor did he refer to the supposed likelihood of an announcement that the CIA would be confined in the future to its primary role as a spy and intelligence gathering agency rather than acting in a variety of paramilitary modes. Even if this does happen at some point, drone policies relating to authorization and accountability will continue to be shrouded in secrecy and deniability whether or not major responsibility for the use of drones remains headquartered at Langley. Of course, the purported significance of such a reassignment of responsibility for the drones to the Pentagon may be typical liberal hype. It seems unrealistic to expect a great breakthrough in transparency and sensitivity to international law and morality just because the Pentagon rather than the CIA would be presiding over the attacks. It might be illuminating in this regard to ask Bradley Manning and Julian Assange what they thought about transparency at the Pentagon and its respect for international law..

 

            But there is much more at stake than was discussed in the lengthy speech. In trying to make the case that drone warfare is less invasive, resulting in fewer civilian casualties, Obama never even alluded to the severe degree to which attack drones are instruments of state terror, terrorizing the entire region exposed to their habitual use. Drone warfare, this supposedly miracle counter-terrorism weapons system, is in its enactment a new form of intense state terror that is enraging public opinion against the United States around the world, reactions not limited to the places subject to attack, although especially there. A Yemeni citizen, Farea al-Muslimi told the U.S. Senate in recent hearings, about attitudes toward drones in his home village, “..when they think of America, they think of the fear they feel at the drones over their heads.” In Pakistan, American drones have had a disastrously negative impact on public attitudes toward Islamabad’s relationship with the United States, evoking acute and widespread grassroots hostility throughout this key Asian country. Even in Afghanistan, where the political violence shows no signs of abating, the American handpicked leader, Hamid Karzai, is now saying that the prospects for Afghan stability and peace would be enhanced by the departure of American led NATO forces. This is a rather astounding about face for a leader handpicked years ago in Washington and long dependent on American largess and human sacrifice.

 

            Such realities should have at least tempted Obama to raise some genuinely profound questions about the viability and inherent morality of the continued U.S. insistence on projecting its military power to the far corners of the global. For whose benefit? At what costs? To what effects? But there was Obama silence about such underlying questions that are daily being asked elsewhere in the world.

 

            There is another line of prudential concern that was no where to be found in this less unconditional embrace of drones, reliance upon which was deglamorized to some degree, yet remains an embrace. Some 70 countries currently possess drones, although not all of these have acquired attack drones, but the day is not far off when drones will be part of the military establishment of every self-respecting sovereign state, and then what? Obama spoke about the right of the United States to kill or capture suspected ‘terrorists’ wherever they may be in the world if deemed by the government to be an imminent threat to American security interests and not amenable to capture. But is there not a de facto golden rule governing international relations: “what you claim the right to do to others, you authorize them to do to you.” Of course, this is often modified by invoking the geopolitical bronze super-rule that is generally operative, at least in relations with most of the non-West: “we can do to you whatever we wish or feel the need to do, and yet there is no legal, moral, or political precedent created that can be invoked by others.” American exceptionalism has long parted company with the central idea that international law is dependent for its effectiveness on the logic of reciprocity: namely, that what X does to Y, Y can do to X, or for that matter to Z, but with the technology of drones emergent, we may soon come to regret resting our claim on such a one-sided anti-law prerogative that encodes double standards. A hegemonic approach to international law has been relied upon in relation to nuclear weapons, with a somewhat similar pronouncement by Obama in 2009 to work ultimately toward a world without such weapons. Four years later the meager effort to realize such a vision should be a cautionary indication that the future military application of drones is unlikely to be significantly restricted so long as the United States finds their role useful, and given this prospect, a borderless future for violent conflict throughout the world should give Pentagon planners many a sleepless night.

 

            There is another feature of the Obama approach that bears scrutiny. The discipline and care associated with his plea for a more restrictive approach to counter-terrorism is basically entrusted to the suspect subjectivities of governmental good faith in Washington. At least, the Wikileaks disclosures should have taught American citizenry that secrecy at high levels of public sector policymaking is intended to place controversial behavior of government beyond public scrutiny and democratic accountability. Obama is asking the American people to put their trust in the judgment and values of bureaucrats in Washington so as to ensure that democracy can be restored in the country, and a better balance struck between security and the freedoms of the citizenry.  Perhaps, while waving the banner of national security, you can fool most of the people most of the time, but hopefully there are limits to such bromides from on high despite a compliant media. It should be noticed that the Obama presidency has done more to prevent and punish breaches of governmental secrecy than any previous political leadership. In relation to the criminality disclosed by Wikileaks the reaction was to do its best to prosecute the messenger while totally ignoring the message.  

 

            In most respects, the song that Obama sang at the National Defense Univerity did not conform to the melody. Obama refrained from taking what would have been the most natural and welcome step: belatedly putting the  genie of war back in its box, and finally reject this dysfunctional blending of war and crime. After all the deaths and displacements of the wars waged in Afghanistan and Iraq were major failures from the perspective of counter-terrorism, and it would appear that such an adjustment was overdue. The root error committed immediately after 9/11 was to move the fight against Al Qaeda and international terrorism from the discourse of crime to the framework of war without any kind of thoughtful rationale or appreciation of the adverse consequences. In the traumatic atmosphere that prevailed after the attacks, this rushed transition to war was partially done under the influence of neocon grand strategy that had been actively seeking a global writ to intervene well before the attacks occurred, especially in the Middle East. The Bush entourage made no secret of its search for a pretext to take advantage of what was then being called ‘the unipolar moment,’ a phrase no longer in fashion for obvious reasons. It needs to be remembered that back before 9/11 the Democrats were being chided for their wimpish foreign policy during the 1990s that wasted what was alleged to be a rare opportunity to create the sort of global security infrastructure that was needed to realize and protect the full potential of neoliberal globalization, which included a preoccupation with ensuring that the oil reserves of the Gulf remained accessible to the West. Although the United States has been chastened by its military setbacks in recent wars, its underlying grand strategy has not been repudiated or revised, and even now with so much at stake politically and militarily, there are strong pressures mounting to intervene more robustly in Syria and to launch yet another aggressive war, this time against Iran.

 

            If effect, we the peoples of the world, can take some slight comfort in the cautionary approach evident in the Obama tilt away from the hazards of ‘perpetual war,’ but until the more fundamental aspects of the American global role and ambitions, and its related militarism become the crux of  debate, advocacy, and policy, we and others cannot rest easy!

 

 

             

 

 

Rethinking ‘Red Lines’

11 May

The Wrong ‘Red Line’ (expanded and revised Al-Jazeera opinion piece)

 

            There are widespread reports circulating in the media that President Obama had not fully appreciated the political consequences of responding to a question at an August press conference that asked about the consequences of a possible future use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. Obama replied that such a use, should it occur, would be to cross ‘a red line.’ Such an assertion was widely understood to be a threat by Obama either to launch air strikes or to provide rebel forces with major direct military assistance, including weaponry. There have been sketchy reports that Syria did make some use chemical weapons, as well as allegations that the reported use was ‘a false flag’ operation, designed to call Obama’s bluff. As the New York Times notes in a frontpage story on May 7th, Obama “finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.” Such a policy dilemma raised tactical issues for the U.S. Government about how to intervene in the Syrian civil war without risking a costly and uncertain involvement in yet another Middle Eastern war. Not responding also raises delicate questions of presidential leadership in a highly polarized domestic political atmosphere, already shamelessly exploited by belligerent Republican lawmakers backed by a feverish media that always seem to be pushing Obama to pursue a more muscular foreign policy in support of alleged America’s global interests, as if hard power geopolitics still is the key to global security.

 

            What is missing from the debate on Syria, and generally from the challenge to American foreign policy, is a more fundamental red line that the United States at another time and place took the lead in formulating—namely, the unconditional prohibition of the use of international force by states other than in cases of self-defense against a prior armed attack. This prohibition was the core idea embodied in the United Nations Charter, embedded in contemporary international law, and it was also a natural sequel to the prosecution and punishment of surviving German and Japanese leaders after World War II for their commission of Crimes against Peace, which was the international crime associated with engaging in aggressive warfare.  The only lawful exception to this prohibition was a use of force consistent with the terms of a prior authorization given by the UN Security Council. The key hope for world peace was this consensus among the winners in World War II that in the future aggressive war and any acquisition of territory by force, even acquired in the exercise of self-defense, must be outlawed without exceptions. Such authorizations by the Security Council were obtained by the West in the Gulf War of 1991 and again in the NATO Libya War of 2011, but in each instance the actual undertaking became controversial as a result of the scope and intensity of the military operations far exceeding the UN mandate. As a consequence, there was a loss of trust on the part of China and Russia in endorsing limited uses of force under UN auspices, which became evident in the course of the gridlocked debate about what to do in response to the regionally dangerous violence in Syria that combined internal strife with external proxy involvements threatening the expansion of the war zone in a variety of menacing ways.

 

            Actually the Charter red line has been surprisingly well respected over the period since 1945, at least in clear instances of border-crossing sustained violence. The UN authorized the defense of South Korea in response to an armed attack by North Korea in 1950. The UN, with surprising U.S. support, even exerted effective pressure in 1956 on the United Kingdom, France, and Israel to withdraw from territory seized after their attack on Egypt, which was the sole prominent example of law prevailing over geopolitics. In 1991 the UN successfully authorized force that followed sanctions, and succeeded in restoring the sovereignty of Kuwait after Iraq’s aggressive occupation and annexation of the country in the previous year. The UN red line held up reasonably well until the end of the last century, although all along its interpretation was subject to geopolitical manipulations by reference to a variety of loopholes and evasions associated with claims of humanitarian intervention, as well as a variety of strategically motivated covert interventions (e.g. Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954). This pattern of evasion was a prominent feature of the Cold War as both sides intervened in foreign states or in their respective spheres of influence (e.g. South Vietnam, Eastern Europe, Afghanistan) to uphold by force of arms an ideological alignment with one or the other superpower. Such uses of international force by rival superpowers without engaging the UN framework definitely eroded the authority of the anti-aggression red line and its stature in international law, but it did not lead political actors to call for its abandonment in view of the behavior of leading states. It is true that some anti-legalist international law specialists who subscribed to a realist worldview felt that patterns of state practice overrode the claims of international law and the UN Charter, and that, in effect, the red line had been erased, at least for the top tier of sovereign states. Although not made explicit, the American position was increasingly exhibiting the psychological characteristics of geopolitical bipolarity: no red line for American foreign policy, while maintaining a bright red line for others, especially for adversary states.

 

            What weakened this red line even more decisively was undoubtedly the American led ‘coalition of the willing’ attack on Iraq in 2003 after an American plea for UN permission to use force had been rebuffed by the Security Council despite a concerted effort to convince its members that Iraq’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction was such a great menace to world peace as to justify what amounted to a ‘preventive war’. This undisguised defiance of this most fundamental red line of international law by the United States also defied world public opinion that had expressed itself in the most massive anti-war demonstrations in all of history held in some 80 countries on February 15, 2003, a little more than a month before the ‘shock and awe’ start of the Iraq War.  Richard Perle, often touted as the most astute of the neocon intellectuals who fashioned American strategic policy during the Bush years, was exultant about this seemingly definitive breach of the red line, celebrating American aggression against Iraq in a Guardian article aptly headlined, “Thank God for the Death of the UN.” [March 20, 2003] Although the authority of the UN was definitely flouted by the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the UN is far from dead as an Organization in its manifold efforts to address the concerns of the world, and even its red line, although covered with dust, has not yet been erased. Maybe we should really thank God that the collective global consciousness is so forgetful!

 

            What is baffling about the Obama approach is that it purports to be very mindful of the importance of exhibiting respect for international law. Just last September in a speech to the General Assembly Obama said, “We know from painful experience that the path to security prosperity does not lie outside the boundaries of international law..” In his Second Inaugural Obama repeated the sentiment: “We will defend our people and uphold values through strength of arms and rule of law.” And in arguing on behalf of taking collective action against states that violate international law told the Nobel Peace Prize audience in Stockholm, “[t]hose that claim respect for international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted.”

 

            And yet, when reflecting on intervening in Syria or resort to a military option in relation to Iran’s nuclear program, Obama is silent about the relevance of international law, although neither instance of contemplated uses of force can be remotely claimed to be justified as either individual or collective self-defense. And for obvious reasons, there is also no mention of circumventing the red line by failing to seek authorization for a contemplated used of force from the Security Council. Presumably since approval would not be forthcoming due to the anticipated opposition of Russia and China it was not even worth considering as a public tactic. It is true that the Clinton presidency in participating via NATO in the Kosovo War proceeded also to embark on a non-defensive war without seeking prior authorization for somewhat similar reasons as any resolution on Kosovo proposing use of force was sure to be vetoed by Russia and China. The Kosovo precedent generated worries about non-defensive military undertakings lacking a legal foundation. These were offset in the belief that a humanitarian catastrophe had been averted. The Kosovo undertaking was convincingly justified at the time on credible moral grounds of imminent genocide, on political grounds as enjoying support from almost all of Kosovo’s European neighbors, and on practical grounds as a military intervention that was feasible. In effect, the legitimacy of the intervention was allowed to offset its illegality. As it turned out the military undertaking and political follow up was more difficult than anticipated, but still achieved at a reasonable cost, within a relatively short period, and productive of zero casualties among the intervening forces.

            The question raised is whether from an overall perspective, the red line of international law at stake in Syria is more like Iraq or Kosovo/Libya. It is unlike Iraq in the sense that there is an ongoing unresolved civil war in Syria that is actively destabilizing the region and already spilling over national borders to cause unrest in neighboring countries.  Syria is also the scene of severe Crimes Against Humanity that are being mainly committed by the regime. Finally, at present, there is no end of the violence is in sight give the relative strength of the two sides. It is, however, unlike Kosovo/Libya as there are proxy states acting as participants on both sides, the Damascus regime despite its behavior maintains considerable internal support while the opposition is widely viewed with deep suspicion and fear as to its democratic credentials, its lack of inclusiveness, and its uncertain respect for non-Sunni minorities. In a sense it is essential that each conflict be assessed within its own distinctive context, which should raise for discussion whether the red lines of international law and UN authority should be crossed in this instance on behalf of the blue lines of legitimacy (saving a vulnerable people from a humanitarian catastrophe) and white lines of feasibility (likelihood of success with minimum loss of life and high probability of positive net effects).

 

            Finally, it has been argued that the changing nature of conflict has made the red line embedded in the UN Charter obsolete or at least in need of a drastically modified interpretation.  The rationale for rethinking the Charter approach to the use of force is associated with the global security situation that has resulted from terrorist attacks since 9/11 leading to the global war on terror being waged on a battlefield without national limits and increasingly doing the killing via reliance on robotic warfare on the one side and very primitive forms of disruptive violence by political extremists on the other side. Traditional ideas of deterrence, containment, and territorial defense seem almost irrelevant in relation to global security regimes when the perceived assailants are individuals who cannot be deterred, and are operating in non-territorial networks and exhibiting a readiness to die to complete their mission. As matters are proceeding the policy about force is being formulated without bothering with the red lines of international law and the UN, regressively producing once again a world of unregulated sovereign states and extremist non-states essentially deciding on their own when war is permissible. The recent Israeli air strikes on Syrian targets is illustrative: unprovoked and non-defensive, yet eliciting scant criticism in the media or even commentary about the dangers of unilateralism with respect to uses of international force. Such normative chaos in a world where already nine countries possess nuclear weapons seems like a prescription for eventual species suicide, an impression reinforced by the failure to take precautionary steps with respect to the menace of global warming. Never has the world more needed red lines that are drawn by major states, and upheld by them out of the realization that the national interest has also merged with the global interest. Arguably the red lines of the Charter need to be modified in light of the rise of non-state actors and the advent of non-territorial warfare, but such an undertaking is no where on the agenda of major states, and so the world drifts back to the pre-World War I era of unrestricted warfare, at least on the level of geopolitics.

 

            What is strange in all this is that Obama talks the talk, but seems unwilling to walk the walk. Such a disjunction invites cynicism about law and morality, and induces despair on the part of those of us who believe the world we inhabit badly needs red lines, but the right red lines. Redrawing the red lines that fit the realities of our world and keep alive hopes for peace and justice, should be the great diplomatic challenge of our time, the visionary projects of leading diplomats whose imaginative gaze extends beyond addressing immediate threats. The old red lines have been put aside in contemplating what to do in relation to Syria, but without trying to establish new red lines that can serve humanity well in what has been so far a  disorienting journey in the 21st century.

What was Wrong with Obama’s Speech in Jerusalem

24 Mar

 

 

            It was master-crafted as an ingratiating speech by the world’s most important leader and the government that has most consistently championed Israel’s cause over the decades. Enthusiastically received by the audience of Israeli youth, and especially by liberal Jews around the world. Despite the venue, President Obama’s words in Jerusalem on March 21st seemed primarily intended to clear the air somewhat in Washington. Obama may now have a slightly better chance to succeed in his second legacy-building presidential term despite a deeply polarized U.S. Congress, and a struggling American economy if assessed from the perspective of workers’ distress rather than on the basis of robust corporate profits. 

 

            As for the speech itself, it did possess several redeeming features. It did acknowledge that alongside Israeli security concerns “Palestinian people’s right of self-determination, their right to justice must also be recognized.” This affirmation was followed by the strongest assertion of all: “..put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes.” To consider the realities of the conflict through Palestinian eyes is to confront the ugly realities of prolonged occupation, annexationist settlement projects, an unlawful separation wall, generations confined to the misery of refugee camps and exile, second-class citizenship in Israel, ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem, and a myriad of regulations that make the daily life of Palestinians a narrative of humiliation and frustration. Of course, Obama did not dare to do this. None of these realities were specified, being left to the imagination of his audience of Israeli youth, but at least the general injunction to see the conflict through the eyes of the other pointed the way toward empathy and reconciliation.

 

            Obama also encouraged in a helpful way Israeli citizen activism on behalf of a just peace based on two states for two peoples. A bit strangely he urged that “for the moment, put aside the plans and process” by which this goal might be achieved, and “instead..build trust between people.” Is this not an odd bit of advice? It seems a stretch to stress trust when the structures and practice of occupation are for the Palestinians unremittingly cruel, exploitative, and whittle away day after day at the attainability of a viable Palestinian state. But this farfetched entreaty was coupled with a more plausible plea: “I can promise you this: Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.” There is some genuine hope to be found in these inspirational words, but to what end given the present situation.

 

            In my opinion the speech was deeply flawed in three fundamental respects:

                        –by speaking only to Israeli youth, and not arranging a parallel talk in Ramallah to Palestinian youth, the role of the United States as ‘dishonest broker’ was brazenly confirmed; it also signaled that the White House was more interested in appealing to the folks in Washington than to those Palestinians trapped in the West Bank and Gaza, an interpretation reinforced by laying a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl but refusing to do so at the tomb of Yasir Arafat. This disparity of concern was further exhibited when Obama spoke of the children of Sderot in southern Israel, “the same age as my own daughters, who went to bed at night fearful that a rocket would land in their bedroom simply because of who they are and where they live.” To make such an observation without even mentioning the trauma-laden life of children on the other side of the border in Gaza who have been living for years under conditions of blockade, violent incursions, and total vulnerability year after year is to subscribe fully to the one-sided Israeli narrative as to the insecurity being experienced by the two peoples.

 

                        –by speaking about the possibility of peace based on the two state consensus, the old ideas, without mentioning developments that have made more and more people skeptical about Israeli intentions is to lend credence to what seems more and more to be a delusionary approach to resolving the conflict. Coupling this with Obama’s perverse injunction to the leaders of the Middle East that seems willfully oblivious to the present set of circumstances makes the whole appeal seem out of touch: “Now’s the time for the Arab world to take steps towards normalizing relations with Israel.” How can now be the time, when just days earlier Benjamin Netanyahu announced the formation of the most right-wing, pro-settler government in the history of Israel, selecting a cabinet that is deeply dedicated to settlement expansion and resistant to the very idea of a genuine Palestinian state? It should never be forgotten that when the Palestinian Liberation Organization announced back in 1988 that it was prepared to make a sustained peace with Israel on the basis of the 1967 borders. By doing this, the Palestinians were making an extraordinary territorial concession that has never been reciprocated, and operationally repudiated by continuous settlement building. The move meant accepting a state limited to 22% of historic Palestine, or less than half of what the UN had proposed in its 1947 partition plan contained in GA Resolution 181, which at the time was seen as grossly unfair to the Palestinians and a plan put forward without taking account of the wishes of the resident population. To expect the Palestinians to be willing now to accept significantly less land than enclosed by these 1967 borders to reach a resolution of the conflict seems highly unreasonable, and probably not sustainable if it should be imprudently accepted by the Palestinian Authority.

 

                        –by endorsing the formula two states for two peoples was consigning the Palestinian minority in Israel to permanent second-class citizenship without even being worthy of mention as a human rights challenge facing the democratic Israel that Obama was celebrating. As David Bromwich has pointed out [“Tribalism in the Jerusalem speech,”] http://mondoweiss.net/2013/03/tribalism-jerusalem-speech.html Obama was also endorsing a tribalist view of statehood that seem inconsistent with a globalizing world, and with secularist assumptions that a legitimate state should never be exclusivist in either its religious or ethnic character. Obama went out of his to affirm the core Zionist idea of a statist homeland where all Jews can most fully embrace their Jewishness: “Israel is rooted not just in history and tradition, but also in a simple and profound idea: the idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own.” And with embedded irony no mention was made of the absence of any Palestinian right of return even for those who were coerced into fleeing from homes and villages that had been family residences for countless generations.

            Such a regressive approach to identity and statehood was also by implication attributed to the Palestinians, also affirmed as a a lesser entitlement. But this is highly misleading, a false symmetry. The Palestinians have no guiding ethno-religious ideology that is comparable to Zionism. Their quest has been to recover rights under international law in the lands of their habitual residence, above all, the exercise of their inalienable right of self-determination in such a manner as to roll back the wider claims of settler colonialism that have been so grandiosely integral to the Greater Israel vision and practice of the Netanyahu government. And what of the 20% of the current population of Israel that lives under a legal regime that discriminates against them and almost by definition is a permanent consignment to second-class citizenship. Indeed, Obama’s speech was also an affront to many Israeli post-Zionists and secularists who do not affirm the idea of living under in a hyper-nationalist state with pretensions of religious endowments.

 

            In my view, there are two conclusions to be drawn. (1) Until the rhetoric of seeing the realities of the situation through Palestinian eyes is matched by a consideration of the specifics, there is created a misleading impression that both sides hold equally the keys to peace, and both being at fault to the same extent for being unwilling to use them.  (2) It is a cruel distraction to urge a resumption of negotiations when Israel clearly lacks the political will to establish a viable and independent sovereign Palestinian state within 1967 borders and in circumstances in which the West Bank has been altered by continuous settlement expansion, settler only roads, the separation wall, and all the signs are suggesting that there is more of the same to come. Making matters even worse, Israel is taking many steps to ensure that Jerusalem never becomes the capital of whatever Palestinian entity eventually emerges, which is a severe affront not only to Palestinians and Arabs, but to the 1.4 billion Muslims the world over.

 

            In retrospect, worse than speech was the visit itself. Obama should never have undertaken such the visit without an accompanying willingness to treat the Palestinian reality with at least equal dignity to that of the Israeli reality and without some indication of how to imagine a just peace based on two states for two peoples given the outrageous continuing Israeli encroachments on occupied Palestinian territory that give every indication of permanence, not to mention the non-representation and collective punishment of the Gazan population of 1.5 million. Obama made no mention of the wave of recent Palestinian hunger strikes or the degree to which Palestinians have shifted their tactics of resistance away from a reliance on armed struggle.  It is perverse to heap praise on the oppressive occupier, ignore nonviolent tactics of Palestinian resistance and the surge of global solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and then hypocritically call on both peoples to move forward toward peace by building relations of trust with one another. On what planet has Mr. Obama been living? 

 

            

Responding to the Unspeakable Killings at Newtown, Connecticut

15 Dec

 

 

Once again, perhaps in the most anguishing manner ever, the deadly shooting of 20 children (and 8 adults) between the ages of 5 and 10 at the Newton, Connecticut Sandy Hook Elementary School, has left America in a stunned posture of tragic bemusement. Why should such incidents be happening here, especially in such a peaceful and affluent town? The shock is accompanied by spontaneous outpourings of grief, bewilderment, empathy, communal espirit, and a sense of national tragedy. Such an unavoidably dark mood is officially confirmed by the well-crafted emotional message of the president, Barack Obama.

 

The template of response has become a national liturgy in light of the dismal pattern of public response: media sensationalism of a totalizing kind, at once enveloping, sentimental, and tasteless (endless interviewing of surviving children and teachers, and even family members of victims), but dutifully avoiding deeper questions relating to guns, violence, and cultural stimulants and conditioning. What are called ‘difficult issues’ in the media reduce to what some refer to as ‘reasonable gun control’ (that is, a ban on assault weapons, large magazine clips, and somewhat stiffer gun registration rules) and to improved procedures for identifying those suffering the kind of mental disorders that could erupt in violent sociopathic behavior. These are sensible steps to take, but so far below the level of credible diagnosis as to promote collective denial rather than constituting a responsible effort to restore a semblance of security to our most cherished institutions (schools, churches, family dwellings). It is ironically relevant that almost simultaneous with the massacre at Newtown there occurred an attack on children in an elementary school in the Chinese city of Xinyang in the province of Henan, approximately 300 miles south of Beijing. The attacker slashed 22 children with a knife, and significantly there were no fatalities, suggesting the important differences in outcome that reflect the weapons deployed by an assailant. Although this is an anecdotal bit of evidence, it is suggestive that strict gun control is the least that should be done in light of recent experience, with seven instances of mass violence reported in the United States during 2012. It should be noted that Connecticut was one of the few states in the country that had enacted ‘reasonable’ gun control laws, but clearly without a sufficient impact.

 

If what is being proposed by politicians and pundits is so far below what seems prudent there is fostered a societal illusion of problem-solving while sidestepping the deeper causes, and the truly ‘difficult issues.’ It would be a mistake to attribute the overall concerns entirely to the violent texture of the American public imagination, but surely inquiry must address this atrocity-inducing cultural environment. America leads the world in per capita gun possession, violent crime, and prison population, and is among the few developed countries that continues to impose capital punishment. Beyond this, America vindicates torture and glamorizes violence in films, video games, and popular culture. Political leaders support ‘enhanced interrogation’ of terror suspects, and claim an authority to order the execution of alleged terrorist advocates in foreign countries by drone strikes oblivious to the sovereign rights of foreign states, a practice that if attempted against American targets would produce a massive retaliatory response preceded by an outburst of self-righteous outrage. At work, here, is American exceptionalism when it comes to lethal violence, with a claimed right to do unto others what others are forbidden to do unto us, a defiance of that most fundamental norm of civilized peoples an inversion of ‘the golden rule’ and basic biblical commandments.

 

There are other features of American political culture that are disturbing, including the uncritical celebration of American soldiers as ‘the finest young Americans,’ ‘true heroes,’ and the like. Or of America as the greatest country that ever existed, such a claim especially in light of recent history, is a rather pure form of hubris long understood as the fallibility that comes with excessive individual or collective inability to recognize and correct one’s own faults. It is certainly true that the government is asking American servicemen to risk their lives and mental health in ambiguous circumstances that produce aberrant behavior. To undertake counterinsurgency missions in distant countries at a lesser stage of development and much different cultural standards invites deep confusion, incites national resistance and hatred in the combat zones, and prompts responses driven by fear and rage. Recall such incidents in Afghanistan as American servicemen urinating on dead Afghan corpses, burning the Koran, and random shootings of Afghan unarmed villagers. In effect, this ethos of violence against others, constrained by the most minimal standards of accountability has to be part of the violence inducing behavior that is these days haunting civic life here in America.

 

In effect, until we as Americans look in the mirror with a critical eye we will not begin to comprehend the violence of Newtown, Portland, Aurora, Oak Creek, Tucson, Columbine, Virginia Tech. No amount of tears, however genuine, can make our children and citizens safer in the future, and even gestures of gun control seem likely, if treated as solutions rather than palliatives, are likely to be no more than a spit in a national ocean of sanctioned violence. What may be most depressing is that it seems ‘utopian,’ that is, beyond the horizon of possibility, to advocate the repeal of the Second Amendment on the right to bear arms or to renounce the kill doctrines associated with drone warfare or counterinsurgency rules of engagement.  Only moves of such magnitude would exhibit the political will to take measures commensurate with this disruptive and horrifying pattern of violence that has been an increasing source of national torment.

 

President Obama has called, as he has on prior occasions, for “meaningful action,” which is too vague to be of much encouragement. Almost certainly the main effort in American public space will be to explore the individuality of this shocking crime by way of mental disorder or tensions at home rather than to address its systemic character, which remains a taboo inquiry.

 

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