Archive | May, 2013

Responding to The Syrian Challenge

27 May

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Advertisements

On Political Preconditions

15 May

 

 

            To the extent that diplomacy solves international problems it depends on the satisfaction of the political preconditions that must be met for negotiations betweensovereign states to reach sustainable and benevolent results. To clarify the point, in situations where there is a clear winner and loser, political preconditions are irrelevant, as the winner can dictate the terms, either imposing them as was done after World War II in response to the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan, or offering proposals on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis. This is what Israel has attempted to do over the course of the twenty years that the Oslo Framework, the Roadmap, and the Quartet, have provided the ground rules for diplomacy with respect to Israel/Palestine negotiations. Israel has performed as if the winner, and expected Palestine to act as if the loser, but so far this scenario has not produced the desired outcome, a ‘peace’ essentially framed in accordance with Israel’s priorities (retaining settlements by critical land swaps, annexing the whole of Jerusalem, maintaining access to West Bank aquifers, ignoring refugees, de-linking Gaza). Palestine although occupied, without a sympathetic intermediary, and despite many of its people living as refugees or in exile, has not given up the struggle for a fair outcome as defined by international law and international morality.

 

            My point here is conceptual in large part. It applies to various forms of advocacy, including the abolition of nuclear weapons or the establishment of world government. In neither instance, are the political conditions present for the realization of such goals, assuming that in some form such outcomes would be desirable. In relation to nuclear weapons, leading state actors are not willing to part with such weaponry, especially as its retention is strongly supported by entrenched bureaucratic and private sector interests, as well as being ideologically grounded in political realism, which continues to shape the worldview of most national elites. With respect to world government, there is no climate of opinion that is strong enough to challenge the nationalist orientation of every government and citizenry that exists in the world. Besides, trying to consolidate governmental authority in the presence of the degree of radical inequality that presently exists is more likely to produce global totalitarianism than a benevolent form of centralized humane global governance.

 

            The reason for addressing this subject at this time is the feverish efforts by the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, to stimulate the resumption of direct peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine. On neither side are the political preconditions present. The Netanyahu led government is clearly committed to achieving the political embodiment of Greater Israel, and would not settle for anything less. It is seeking as much legitimation as possible for this expansionist objective, hopeful that adroit diplomacy with American help can yield such a result. For Ramallah, and the Palestinian Authority, there is a lack of representational coherence and political unity, as the elected governing authorities of Gaza are not represented, nor is the wider Palestinian community of refugee communities in neighboring countries. Even if Palestinian negotiators were to accept under pressure some version of Israel’s Plan A, it is almost certain that it would not be accepted by the Palestinian people. Given this setting, political preconditions for direct negotiations do not exist, and any resumption of direct negotiations appears to be worth less than nothing.

 

            Why worse than nothing? If past efforts are any indication, the side with the weaker standing in the international community and the media, is likely to receive most of the blame for the almost certain breakdown at the site of negotiations, and this has been Palestine’s previous experience. Beyond this, both sides will probably react to diplomatic failure by pursuing with renewed unilateral vigor their respective conception of Plan B: Israel will complain about the absence of a partner for peace and proceed with accelerated expansion of settlements and related road construction, as well as continuing with its promotion of the unification of the city of Jerusalem; Palestine, on its side, will seek to intensify resistance, possibly emphasizing more its confidence in the global solidarity movement building around the BDS campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions, highlighted recently by Stephen Hawking’s much heralded boycott of Israeli President Shimon Peres’ fifth annual conference of global notables on the theme of Facing Tomorrow.

 

            Time is not neutral in situations of gross disparity. The side with hard power control can encroach further on the prospects of the weaker side. If we look back at the developments of the past twenty years, we take note of the extraordinary growth in the number of Israeli settlers and the ethnographic and infrastructural changes in the city of Jerusalem, making it difficult to continue to lend credence to Palestinian self-determination being realized by a ‘two-state’ solution, which remains the American oft-repeated mantra. What might have seemed like a viable Palestinian state in 1967 when Security Council Resolution 242 was adopted, became less so, when the Oslo Framework was accepted on the White House lawn in 1993, and by 2013 it is a delusionary goal.

 

            Understanding the relevance of political preconditions is crucial to rational behavior in seeking solutions to long festering problems. Also where there are gross disparities of power and expectations a conflict is almost never ripe for resolution. Of course, the opposite is also true. When political conditions exist for a fair solution, then it is imperative to move forward, flexibly and with an eye on a win/win outcome. Given the perspectives of the two sides, if win/win does not seem realistic, then patience is preferable to a demoralizing charade of false consciousness.  

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.