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The Confused Russian Hacking Debate, Trump Victory, and U.S. Global State

18 Dec

 

 

The U.S. Government, with the collaboration of a disturbingly compliant media, seems to have discovered a deeply rusted version of The Golden Rule: “Do not permit others to do unto you, what you have repeatedly done.” Everybody in the slightest degree attentive to the way world works, knows that espionage and covert meddling in foreign elections has long been a standard weapon in the arsenal of geopolitical diplomacy. The U.S. proudly thwarted the electoral success of Communist Parties in Europe after World War II, not to mention countless interferences large and small, overt and covert, in elections throughout the Global South, with an especially dark record in Latin America (“so far from God, so close to the United States”). Beyond that, if the outcome of democratic elections should produce leaders that pursue policies that disturb Washington such as nationalization of resources, adoption of leftist policies, friendship with U.S. adversaries, more than meddling is likely to follow. Such a government can depend vary degrees of delegitimation, destabilization, sanctions, and eventually even military intervention. This pattern has been frequently relied upon in the past, and there are several current instances. (Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954, Chile 1973, to name a few instance of reversing political outcomes that our elected leaders deplore); Iran, Venezuela are examples of present instances. [On Chile see authoritative article by Ariel Dorfman, “Now Americans Know How Chile Felt,” NY Times, Dec. 17, 2016.]

 

The mainstream media in the West has focused relentless outrage on claims of Russian hacking of the American electoral process without even taking note of relevant American practices. The establishment’s most trustworthy public voice of imperial reason, Thomas Friedman, refers to Russian behavior as an ‘act of war.’ The very slippery ex-CIA Deputy Director, Michael Morel, uses even more inflammatory language, describing Russian hacking as ‘the political equivalent of 9/11.’ There are numerous raucous calls for a ‘proportionate response’ by the United States including even such provocative and punitive acts as equipping the Ukraine with offensive weaponry. What is extraordinary, even for those familiar with the geopolitical dimensions of world politics, is for this debate and discourse on alleged Russian hacking to proceed with no questions asked about the thick dossier of comparable American electoral meddling all over the world over the course of decades, including taking much more direct forms via bribery, assassination, and assorted other consequential interferences than anything the Russians have done.

 

When we think further about what has been hacked, the hullabaloo is comedic. Wikileaks is accused only of leaking the awkward disclosures of internal Democratic National Committee documents that revealed embarrassing Democratic staff concerns about the way Hillary Clinton was handling her emails and confirming that the DNC actively worked to undermine the primary prospects of Bernie Sanders. If another Snowden had done the original hacking, it would be treated as another case of whistleblowing with ambiguous consequences. The disclosures would be an admittedly controversial status, especially objections to the intrusions on the privacy, really secrecy, relating to the way political parties manipulate the American electoral process. At the same time the emails allowed citizens to know parts of shabby goings on behind the scenes of party politics. Is this truly an interference with American democracy of a magnitude that warrants dangerously escalating international tensions? Barack Obama, while reacting with calm language, goes along with these exaggerated reactions, falsely implying by silence an American innocence of undertaking similar to, and often far worse than what the Russians, under Putin’s direction, are alleged (without even some supportive evidence) to have done.

 

What is more fundamentally at stake is a challenge directed at the one-sided prerogatives of the United States as the first aspiring ‘global state’ in all of history. The Russians violated the First Law of Geopolitics as implemented by the United States in its role as global state: “You are prohibited from doing to us, what we are doing to you and others.” The Second Law: “You will be severely punished if you violate the Fist Law.” The Third Law: “You are forbidden to object to, or even mention, the First and Second Laws of Geopolitics.” The Fourth Law: “The public media is expected to express outrage when the First Law is violated, call for the implementation of the Second Law, while remaining quiet about the presence of double standards and moral hypocrisy.

 

This way of interpreting right and wrong, or the application of law, inverts normal understanding and expectations. What we expect is that all states are either subject to a legal constraint or that it doesn’t exist. We do not expect some to be subject to constraints and one or more others to be entitled to have discretion to act as it wishes, and do so with impunity. Yet international society has long formally and informally allowed power to take precedence over law and the legal ethos of equality. Even the United Nations Charter in establishing the Security Council embedded geopolitics in the formal structure of the world organization by granting the five winners in World War Two with permanent membership (P-5) and the right of veto. This combination means effectively that for these five states compliance with international law is completely voluntary and only those decisions that meet the approval of the P-5 become mandatory. Put more vividly, the UN was able to act decisively in Libya (2011) because there was no veto, while in relation to Syria over the course of the last five years there has been no capacity for the UN to act due to the right of veto threatened and exercised by Russia and China. Another example–Israel has been consistently shielded from UN censure by the Security Council over the years due to U.S. reliance on its veto power.

 

The geopolitics of the global state are similarly structured, although less explicitly. Standards of criminal accountability apply effectively only to losers of major wars (Germany, Japan after World War Two) or countries in the Global South. The United States has exempted itself from any prospect of accountability except by symbolic actions resulting from civil society initiatives. For instance, during the Iraq War of 2003, there took place a series of legal inquiries conducted under civil society auspices. These culminating in a session of the Iraq War Tribunal in 2005 that reached conclusions through its jury of conscience that the United States and the United Kingdom, and their leaders and collaborators, were guilty of aggressive war and violations of the laws of war. The Western press in the liberal democracies upheld the 4th Law of Geopolitics by maintaining a steadfast silence about these proceedings, although the Iraq War Tribunal proceedings carefully documented its findings and enjoyed the participation of some of the world’s leading jurists.  

The same pattern with minor variations applies across the board with respect to global security issues. The nuclear weapons regime is a prime example, with the United States, in particular, using the instrument of ‘counter-proliferation’ to justify aggressive war and to ignore completely the reciprocal legal duties imposed by the Nonproliferation Treaty. Iraq was invaded, Iran and North Korea repeatedly threatened, because of the geopolitical resolve to avoid Iraqi acquisition and possession of nuclear weaponry despite credible security arguments that such weapons were needed to deter hostile adversaries. As is certainly relevant to the hacking debate, prior to the Iraq War the intelligence community was similarly unified in supporting the false contention that Iraq possessed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and was actively pursuing the development of the capability to produce nuclear weapons. The head of the CIA at the time notoriously reinforced this intelligence consensus by calling it ‘a slam dunk.’

 

The nuclear weapons states, as part of the nonproliferation bargain to induce other states to forgo the weaponry, promised back in 1968 to engage in good faith negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament along the way to demilitarization and general and complete disarmament. Although the International Court of Justice in 1996 unanimously upheld this interpretation of the treaty obligations of the nuclear weapons states there has been no movement in the direction of compliance. In fact, Barack Obama, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize partly because of his anti-nuclear posture, approved of a $1 trillion dollar modernization and development program for the American nuclear arsenal over the next thirty years and for the eight years of his presidency has never called upon the United States and other nuclear weapons states to implement their clear NPT treaty obligation.

 

The same geopolitical structure is present with respect to ‘humanitarian intervention’ and general standards of compliance across the spectrum of human rights violations, ranging from torture to judicially enforced racism. The West under American leadership operates as if it enjoys a right of intervention, preferably to be exercised with UN backing, and a corollary tacit right to be free from reciprocal claims even to correct its most flagrant human rights abuses. When the George W. Bush presidency overtly relied on and justified interrogation practices widely viewed as torture, there was no call for the implementation of the international legal disallowance of torture and related abuses of human rights. For the United States to renew a reliance on waterboarding is, at best, a matter of policy, while for other countries such practices would be regarded as a matter of law.

 

My friend and colleague, Rich Appelbaum, raises an important point. Granted this kind of interference has been used a major foreign policy instrument of the United States, what Russia apparently did with respect to hacking and possibly even tilting the election in Trump’s favor is clearly undesirable, and should be treated as unacceptable. Yet even here the context is complex. First of all, to retaliate against Russia without even acknowledging that the U.S. Government has habitually interfered in foreign elections creates a false consciousness among the American people and invites accusations of hypocrisy.

 

There is also a deeper problem associated with security in a state-centric world with a weak UN. If our leaders were confronted by a foreign election in a major state in which one of the candidates was a warmongering extremist and the opponent a moderate, would it not be rational, and in the national, and even the global interest, to do all that could be done to tilt the election away from the extremist. From the Kremlin’s perspective, Hillary Clinton was perceived as hostile and militarist, while Donald Trump was evidently regarded as friendly and supportive of a lower American military profiles, especially in the Middle East. I think these perceptions are faulty overall, but all the evidence suggests that such views are widely believed in Russia and sincere.

 

Regulating the use of cyberspace is decidedly a gray area. International law and the UN Charter give little guidance beyond the vague directive to respect territorial sovereignty. This Russian hacking incident may serve to provide the political impetus for a lawmaking treaty binding all countries to a framework that at least establishes guidelines for governments of sovereign states to follow. Even if such a framework can be agreed upon, a big if, there are many areas of doubt as to what is best considering the present structure of world order. A first question is whether to keep cyberspace as a playground for geopolitics, and a second is whether it is desirable to prohibit all forms of meddling in foreign societies, and their elections and internal politics, no matter how dangerous and malevolent we perceive foreign developments to be. In a globalizing, interdependent, and nuclear armed world it would be playing with species suicide to decree by law, morality, and practice detachment from developments in foreign societies that pose deep threats beyond territorial borders.

 

In the end, perhaps, the best solution is to treat such hacking incidents and related disclosures the same way as espionage. Our spies are heroes, rewarded and honored in various ways, their spies are notorious intruders subject to the harshest punishments that criminal law can impose. Espionage goes on by every conceivable means, including increasingly reliance on the best tools that innovative technology possesses. The ‘game’ played is to defend our ‘secrets’ against foreign spies and domestic whistleblowers by all available means, but to do everything possible to learn their secrets. We can hope for prudence, but little more, in this double game, and maybe this is the way to handle hacking intrusions in our political space: scream about violation of our electoral process, while doing our best to exert control over theirs, but not succumb to the sort of outrage that raises international tensions in dangerous ways. We should take account of the fact that sometimes espionage provides information about adversaries that is reassuring, and discredits domestic hawks calling for dangerously adventurous policies.

 

I am someone who fervently wished, despite strong reservations about Clinton’s foreign policy inclinations and past record, that Clinton has won the election by norms of the electoral college as well as a result of the popular vote. I regret deeply the Russian role in hacking the DNC, their failure to disclose the RNC hacks, and deplore their profoundly flawed judgment in believing that they and the world would be better off with a Trump presidency.

 

In conclusion, I have long opposed American interferences in the political life of foreign countries, believe in accepting the outcome of the dynamics of self-determination, and have long thought the United States and the rest of the world would be better off if the government accepted the discipline of international law as setting limits on foreign policy options. In my view, such a realization is the unlearned lesson of the Vietnam War. I would repudiate the four laws of geopolitics, and opt instead for a global leadership role for Washington based on the rule of law.

 

Of course, we should not embrace international law, or any law, with illusions.

Law can be twisted in contradictory ways by legal experts. Law often is an instrument of geopolitics. Nevertheless, with eyes wide open, international law, diligently applied in accordance with a culture of human rights and peacemindedness, is a better guide for the national and global future than geopolitics.

Clinton versus Trump: How It Might Matter for the Middle East

3 Sep

 

[Prefatory Note: An earlier version was published on September 1, 2016 in Middle East Eye. This version is modified, and its title slightly changed.]

When it comes to foreign policy, it seems at first glance to be a no brainer. Hilary Clinton is experienced, knowledgeable, intelligent, an internationalist, known and respected around the world. In contrast, Donald Trump repeatedly shoots himself in the foot and others elsewhere, seems clueless on the complexities of the world, makes such reckless hyper-nationalist boasts about how he will crush enemies and make allies squirm. Such posturing makes people everywhere fearful, hostile and even wondering whether the American citizenry as a whole is collectively experiencing a psychotic episode by taking seriously such an outlandish candidate.

 

Choosing Between Militarism or Isolationism

Yet a closer look makes the choice between these two candidates less obvious, and more interesting, although not more encouraging, especially if the focus is what the election might mean for the Middle East. One of the few consistent positions taken by Trump is to voice his deep skepticism about regime-changing interventions in the region, especially Iraq and Libya, and the accompanying expensive delusions of former presidents, as well as Clinton, about policies aimed at producing democracies. As expected, Trump has some awkward inconsistencies in his earlier pronouncements on these issues if you bother to check out what he had to say a few years ago. Still, his present opposition to military interventions in the Middle East has been consistently expressed throughout the presidential campaign. His essential position is summarized by his own words: “After fifteen years of wars in the Middle East, after trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, the situation is worse than it has ever been before.” What follows, then, is the likelihood that Trump will oppose intervention in the Middle East unless there is a clear connection present with a terrorist threat directed at the United States posed by ISIS, and maybe al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

 

Clinton has a consistently hawkish record in foreign policy, which she tried her best to put out of sight during the primary competition with Bernie Sanders, whose progressive views were surprisingly similar to Trump on this central question of military intervention in the Middle East. During her time as Secretary of State (2009-2012), including shaping policy toward Russia, China, Afghanistan, and in the Middle East, Clinton over and over again pushed President Obama hard to adopt more militarist and confrontational positions, most visibly in the region with respect to American military involvement in Libya and Syria. When visiting Libya shortly after Qaddafi was brutally executed in 2011 by rebels when captured in a Libyan town, Clinton chillingly observed, “We came, we saw, he died.” It was a revealing comment, a kind of cold-hearted gallows geopolitical quip.

 

 

Stability First or America First?

 

It is also relevant that Clinton’s regional grand strategy was premised on keeping friendly dictators in power even in the face of overwhelmingly popular uprisings, disclosed rather starkly in her lobbying efforts to stand by Mubarak in his hour of troubles with the Egyptian people back in 2011. Although she now downplays her support for the 2003 aggressive war in Iraq launched against the regime of Saddam Hussein, she clearly supported at its outset the most disastrous American foreign policy decision since the United States committed itself in the mid-1960s so heavily to the losing side in the Vietnam War. Not only did the attack on Iraq bring many deaths, much devastation, massive displacement, and lasting chaos to Iraq and its people, but the long American-led occupation spread disorder beyond Iraqi borders, and was an important contributing cause to the origins and rise of ISIS.

 

Yet, despite these Clinton policy misjudgments in the Middle East, isn’t the world still better off with the steady hand of Clinton than the wildly impulsive Trump. Her morbid quip struck hard at what this distinction could mean: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” Such anxiety is intensified as soon as we realize that there are no political checks limiting the capacity of an American president to use nuclear weapons. This makes us aware of how people everywhere despite their huge stake in prudent American leadership, play no role in determining the outcome of a presidential election in the United States. It may be time to consider a plan to enfranchise the whole world to have a vote of some kind in American national elections if the ideal of global democracy and the rule of law are ever to achieve political traction.

 

Trump has made a number of assertions about nuclear weapons that not only challenge decades of Western conventional wisdom, but also strike fear in the hearts of people wherever they are, including the Middle East. In his preoccupation with conserving American financial resources Trump has suggested that it might not be a bad thing for Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear weapons, and then take over responsibility for their own security. Supposedly he asked a friend, “Why can’t we use nukes?” True, such assertions are not necessarily indicative of what Trump would do as president in the Middle East but neither should they be ignored. Trump seems neo-isolationist in overall outlook, which means fewer international commitments and a desperate search for ways to cut overseas expenditures. It is possible that his unwillingness to give unquestioned support to the nonproliferation regime that has frozen the nuclear status quo for decades might generate a renewed push for phased, total nuclear disarmament, the only decent and reliable long-term solution.

 

There are other worries. Trump opposes the Iran nuclear deal, probably the most constructive diplomatic initiative taken during the eight years of the Obama presidency. Trump thinks it was a terrible deal since it “gave back to Iran $150 billion and gave us nothing.” Scrapping the agreement, or even failing to live up to its commitments, endangers an unraveling of the whole normalizing relationship of Iran within the Middle East, and could tempt Israel to launch some kind of preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities or even give rise to an extremely dangerous nuclear arms race in the region. It should be noted, in passing, that both Trump and Clinton have tied themselves so firmly to the mast of pro-Israeli alignment as to be blind to the desirability of promoting a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone, a proposal that enjoys the support of every Middle Eastern government except Israel, and would probably do more to stabilize the region than any other single initiative.

 

 

 

 

 

Regressive Ideology

 

Thinking that Clinton is more reliable than Trump may be more a matter of style than substance. Supposedly she did not oppose giving Israel a green light to attack Iran during her period as Secretary of State. Also worrisome is her long undisguised admiration for the warped wisdom of Henry Kissinger, and even Robert Kagen, considered the most militarist member of the neoconservative inner circle, and despite being closely identified in the past with Republicans, has endorsed Clinton, and reportedly acts as the most prominent advisor in her foreign policy braintrust. It is hardly a surprise that 50 self-proclaimed Republican national security specialists publicly endorsed Clinton over Trump, but it is a marker of how unusual this contest for the American presidency has become. As has been often observed, Clinton is of the foreign policy/national security establishment that has brought to where we are now, while Trump is seen as a potential spoiler who might pursue policies that would cause structural disintegration and with it, the collapse of the neoliberal economic order, that is, ‘the Washington consensus.’

 

Trump, too, boasts of his meetings with Kissinger, as some kind of certification of his worthiness that overcomes his amateurish qualifications for high political office. Yet his opinions adopt lines of thought that are probably an anathema to this aged master of real politik. Clinton, of course, has reflected more and longer on such matters, and in an effort to please all sides opts for what she is calling ‘smart power,’ a customized blend of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power that is supposed to be responsive to the complexities of shaping foreign policy in the early 21st century. The Clinton formula, not unlike that of other recent mainstream candidates in the U.S., is designed to please as much as possible the warlords of the Pentagon, the wizards of Wall Street, and the champions of Israel, or at least not distress any of these three nodes of American geopolitical primacy.

 

With these profiles as a background, can we predict the foreign policy of a Clinton or Trump presidency in the Middle East? It is possible to make more reliable guesses about Clinton because she has made some of her positions already clear: an escalation of support for anti-Assad Syrian forces (except ISIS), a hardening of diplomatic bargaining with Iran in carrying out the nuclear agreement, a further upgrading of the ‘special relationship’ with Israel, and no change of course with respect to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the other Western-leaning autocracies in the region. In addition, a possible recommitment of American military forces in Iraq, and especially robust military action against political extremism throughout the region,

 

Trump can be expected to indulge his neo-isolationist inclinations, likely moving policy in an opposite direction, withdrawing American combat forces and downgrading military bases in the region, in effect, a pivot away from the Middle East. The exception would seem to be his extravagant pledge to crush ISIS, whatever that might mean in practice, especially as it already seems almost crushed. The related idea of imposing an absolute ban on Muslim immigration to the US, if enacted, is likely to have disastrous blowback effects, fanning the flames of Muslim civilizational discontent.

 

If voting for an American president was only about the Middle East, I would rate the candidates as a tossup, but it isn’t. When the American domestic scene is taken into account, as well the rest of the world, Clinton holds the clear edge unless one feels so disgusted her candidacy as to write in Bernie Sanders on the ballot or cast a vote of conscience for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. I remain uncertain as to which of these choices to make.

 

My liberal friends become angry when even such a possibility is mentioned. They still blame the Ralph Nader candidacy in the 2000 election for depriving Al Gore from a victory in Florida, and thus a national victory over George W. Bush. I remain puzzled by and opposed to such a logic. Why allow third party candidates to seek public office if the pundits view it as irresponsible, or worse, to vote for them if the best candidate? Or maybe, it is okay to vote for them if your state is not ‘a swing state,’ but that again means that it is more important to vote for the lesser of evils to avoid the greater of evils rather than to vote for the best candidate. I take a more nuanced position. It depends on how evil is the greater of evils compared to the lesser evil, and whether this seems to matter. At present, if I were in a swing state I would vote for Clinton, although reluctantly (domestic issues and nuclear weapons policy), but since I live in California I will probably vote for Jill Stein. Somehow I wish Bernie Sanders had wrestled with this dilemma rather than uncritically adopting the liberal consensus, which given Clinton’s slide to the right since the Democratic Party convention should keep him awake some nights.

Reflections on the Brussels Attack

26 Mar

 

[Prefatory Note: A much abbreviated version of this post was published in Al Jazeera English on March 24, 2016. Although the essential analysis is the same, the reasoning here is greatly elaborated. The themes addressed and the policies proposed are advanced in a tentative spirit. Debate and reflection are urgently needed with respect to the political violence that is being unleashed in various forms in the West and non-West.]

 

This latest terrorist outrage for which ISIS claimed responsibility exhibits the new face of 21st century warfare for which there are no front

lines, no path to military victory, and acute civilian vulnerability. As such, it represents a radical challenge to our traditional understanding of warfare, and unless responses are shaped by these realities, it could drive Western democracies step by step into an enthused political embrace and revived actuality of fascist politics. Already the virulence of the fascist virus dormant in every body politic in the West has disclosed its potency in the surprisingly robust Trump/Cruz run to become the Republican candidate in the next American presidential election.

 

Perhaps, the most important dimension of this 21st century pattern of warfare, especially as it is playing out in the Middle East, is the will and capacity of violent extremists to extend the battlefield to those perceived to be their enemies, and to rely on acutely alienated Europeans and North Americans to undertake the suicidal bloody tasks. The British Independent struck the right note in its commentary, almost alone among media commentary that went beyond condolences, denunciations, and statements of resolve to defeat and destroy ISIS. It included a quote from the ISIS statement claiming responsibility for the Brussels attack: : ‘Let France and all nations following its path know that they will continue to be at the top of the target list for the Islamic State and that the scent of death will not leave their nostrils as long as they partake part in the crusader campaign … [with] their strikes against Muslims in the lands of the Caliphate with their jets.’ … ISIS also released an undated video today threatening to attack France if it continued intervention in Iraq and Syria. ‘As long as you keep bombing you will not live in peace. You will even fear traveling to the market,’ said one of the militants, identified as ‘Abu Maryam the Frenchman.'” It follows this statement with the report that there have been 11,111 air strikes launched by Western and Gulf states against targets in Syria and Iraq, causing massive casualties, human displacement, and great devastation, especially in areas controlled by ISIS. Evidently, given the Belgian attack, for ISIS European unity if accepted as a given, making France as a

locater of an epicenter, but Europe as a whole as circumscribing one crucial combat zone

 

Noticing this reality is not meant to diminish or offer a rationalization for the barbarism involved in the Brussels attacks, as well as the earlier Paris attacks, but it does make clear that intervening in the Middle East, and conceivably elsewhere in the Global South, no longer ensures that the intervening societies will remain outside the combat zone and continue to enjoy what might be called ‘battlefield impunity.’ By and large the sustained violence of the major anti-colonial wars, even the long Vietnam War, were confined to the colonized society, at most affecting its geographic neighbors. In the 1970s and 1980s there were sporadic signs of such a tactical shift: the IRA extended their struggle in Northern Ireland to Britain, and the PLO via airplane hijacking, Libyan explosions in a German disco frequented by American soldiers, and the PLO Munich attack on Israeli Olympic athletes also prefigured efforts to strike back at foreign hostile sources believed to be responsible for the failure to achieve political goals. ISIS seems more sophisticated in the execution of such operations, has the advantages of home grown adherents willing to engage in suicide missions that is often accompanied by a religious motivation that validates the most extremist disregard of civilian innocence.

 

As in any armed confrontation, it is essential to take account of innovative features and opt for policies that seem to offer the most hope of success. So far the public Western responses have failed to appreciate what is the true novelty and challenge associated with the adoption by ISIS of these tactics involving mega-terrorism in the homeland of their Western adversaries as asymmetric ways of extending the battlefield.

 

 

The Attack

 

The attacks of March 22 in Belgium occurred in the departure area of the international airport located in the town of Zaventem, seven miles from Brussels and in the Maelbeek metro station in the heart of the city, nearby the headquarters of European Union. Reports indicate over 30 persons were killed and as many as 250 wounded. The timing of the attack made the motivation at first seem like revenge for the capture a few days earlier in Brussels of Salah Abdelslam, the accused mastermind of the Paris attack of November 13, 2015. It hardly matters whether this line of interpretation is accurate or not. It is known for sure that there are clear links between the Paris events and what took place in Brussels, and the scale of the operation depended on weeks, if not months, of planning and preparation.

 

The essence of the event is one more deeply distressing challenge to the maintenance of domestic public order in democratic space as the conflict that becomes ever more horrible, with ominous overtones for the future of human security in urban environments throughout the world. The hysterical surge of xenophobia is one expression of fear and hate as American politicians debate closing off national access to all Muslims and Europeans pay a large ransom Turkey to confine Syrian refugees within their borders. We are not supposed to notice that recent terrorist acts are mainly the work of those living, and often born, within the society closing its doors to outsiders, moves likely to deepen the angry alienation of those insiders whose ethnic and religious identity makes them targets of suspicion and discrimination.

 

So far, the official statements of the political leaders have adhered to familiar anti-terrorist lines, disclosing little indication of an understanding of the distinctive realities of the events and how best to cope with the various challenges being posed. For instance, the Prime Minister of Belgium described the attacks as “blind, violent, cowardly,” and added a Belgian promise of the resolve needed to defeat ISIS and the threat it poses. François Hollande of France, never missing an opportunity to utter the obvious irrelevance, simply vowed “to relentlessly fight terrorism, both internationally and internally.” And using the occasion for the recovery of European unity so visibly weakened by the recent dangerous tensions generated in bitter conflicts over fiscal policy and the search for a common policy on migrants, Hollande added, “Through the Brussels attack, it is the whole of Europe that is hit.” Whether such appeals to unity will lead anywhere beyond flags lowered and empathetic rhetoric seems doubtful. What should be evident now is that it that not only Europe that is under constant threat, and understandably troubled by the prospect of future attacks, worrying aloud about such menacing relatively soft targets as nuclear power plants. It is virtually the entire world that has become vulnerable to violent disruption from these contradictory sources of intervention and terrorism.

 

 

President Obama offered sensitive condolences to the bereaved families of the victims and expressed solidarity with Europe on the basis of “our shared commitment to defeat the scourge of terrorism.” Again it is disappointing that there is not more understanding displayed that this is a kind of war in which the violence on both sides profoundly violates the security and sovereignty of the other. Until this awareness emerges, we will continue to expect that ‘legitimate violence’ is properly limited to the territories of non-Western societies as it was in the colonial era, and insist that retaliatory strikes constitute terrorism, that is, ‘illegitimate violence.’

What is so far missing from these responses is both a conceptual sensitivity to the originality and nature of the threat and a related willingness to engage in the kind of minimal self-scrutiny that is responsive to the ISIS statement that appears to express its motivation. It is not a matter of giving credence to such a rationalization for criminality, but rather finding out how best to realize what might be described as ‘enlightened self-interest’ in view of the disturbing surrounding circumstances, which might well begin with a review of the compatibility of domestic racism and interventionary diplomacy with the ethics, law, and values of this post-colonial era.

 

From this perspective the iconic conservative magazine, The Economist, does far better than political leaders by at least emphasizing nonviolent steps that can be taken to improve preventive law enforcement. The magazine points out that the significance of the Brussels attack should be interpreted from a crucial policy perspective: the current limitations of national intelligence services to take preventive action that would alone protect society by identifying and removing threats in advance. The Economist correctly stresses that it has become more important than ever to maximize international efforts to share all intelligence pertaining to the activities of violent extremists, although it too avoids a consideration of root causes that can alone restore normalcy and achieve human security.

 

This shift from reactive to preventive approaches to defending the domestic social order represents a fundamental reorientation toward the nature of security threats, and how to minimize their escalating lethality. There are three novel aspects of this type of postmodern warfare: striking fear into the whole of society; creating a huge opening for repressive and irresponsible demagogues in targeted societies; and mindlessly unleashing excessive amounts of reactive force in distant countries that tends to spread the virus of violent extremism throughout the planet more than it eradicates it. As has been widely observed, there is no way to know whether drones and air strikes kill more dangerous adversaries than have the effect of actually expanding the ranks of the terrorists by way of alienation and increased recruitment.

 

It is not yet sufficiently appreciated that the state terror spread by drones and missiles extends to the entire civilian society of a city or even country under attack, making it extremely misleading to treat the lethal impact as properly measured by counting the dead. People living in targeted communities or states all live in dread once a missile from afar has struck, an anxiety aggravated by the realization that those targeted have no way to strike back. The United States reliance on drone warfare in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa has recklessly set a precedent that future generations in the West and elsewhere may come to regret deeply. Unlike nuclear weaponry, there is no likely equivalent for drones to a regime of non-proliferation and there is nothing similar to the doctrine of deterrence to discourage use, and even these instruments of nuclear management, although successful in avoiding the worst, are far from acceptable.

 

 

This New War

 

These deeper overlooked aspects of the Brussels attack that need to be grasped with humility, and responded to by summoning the moral and political imagination to identify what works and what fails in this new era that places such a high priority on atrocity prevention as an explanation of the most widespread, growing, and intense forms of human insecurity.

 

First, and most significantly, this is an encounter between two sides that ignores boundaries, is not properly equated with traditional warfare between states, and is being waged by new types of hybrid political actors. On one side is a confusing combination of transnational networks of Islamic extremists and in one instance (ISIS) a self-proclaimed territorial caliphate retaliating against the most sensitive civilian targets in the West, thereby adopting a doctrine that explicitly proclaims a strategy exalting crimes against humanity. On the other side, is a coalition of states led by the United States, which has foreign bases and navies spread around the world that seeks to destroy ISIS and kindred jihadists wherever they are found with scant regard for the sovereignty of foreign countries. The United States has long ceased to be a normal state defined by territorial borders, and for more than half a century has acted as ‘a global state’ whose writ the entirety of land, sea, and air of the planet.

 

Secondly, it is crucial to acknowledge that Western drones and paramilitary special forces operating in more than a hundred states is an inherently imprecise and often indiscriminate form of state violence that spreads its own versions of terror among civilian populations in various countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. It is time to admit that civilians in the West and the Global South are both victims of terror in this kind of warfare, which will continue to fuel the kind of mutual hatred and fervent self-righteousness toward the enemy that offers a frightening pretext for what now seems destined to be a condition of perpetual war.

 

What has totally changed, and is beginning to traumatize the West, is the retaliatory capacities and strategy of these non-Western, non-state and quasi-state adversaries. The colonial, and even post-colonial patterns of intervention were all one-sided with the combat zone reliably confined to the distant other, thereby avoiding any threat to the security and serenity of Western societies. Now that the violence is reciprocal, if asymmetrical (that is, each side employs tactics corresponding to its technological and imaginative capabilities) the balance of forces has fundamentally changed, and so must our thinking and acting, if we are to break the circle of violence and ever again live in secure peace. The stakes are high. Either break with obsolete conceptions of warfare or discover a diplomacy that can accommodate the rough and tumble of the 21st century.

 

Whether a creative and covert diplomacy can emerge from this tangled web that somehow exchanges an end terrorism from above for an end to terrorism from below is the haunting question that hangs over the human future. If this radical conceptual leap is to be made, it is not likely to result from the initiative of government bureaucracies, but rather from intense pressures mounted by the beleaguered peoples of the world.

 

Part of what is required, strangely enough given the borderless compulsion of the digital age and the dynamics of economic globalization, is a return to the security structures of the Westphalian framework of territorial sovereign states. Perhaps, these structures never actually prevailed in the past, given the maneuvers of geopolitical actors and the hierarchical relations of colonial systems and regional empires, but their ideal was the shared constitutional basis of world order. With the advent of the global battlefield this ideal must now become the existential foundation of relations among states, stressing the inviolability of norms of non-intervention in a new territorially based global security system. This will not overnight solve the problem, and certainly only indirectly overcomes the internal challenges posed by alienated minorities.

 

Obviously, this recommended approach could adversely affect the international protection of human rights and weaken global procedures of sanctuary for those displaced by civil strife, impoverishment, and climate change. These issues deserve concerted attention, but the immediate priority is the restoration of minimum order without which no consensual and normatively acceptable political order can persist. And this can only happen, if at all, by de facto or de jure arrangements that renounce all forms of terror, whether the work of states or radical movements.

 

Why Democratic Party Foreign Policy Fails and Will Continue to Fail

5 Mar

 

[Prefatory Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared on March 2, 2016 in The Progressive Magazine. It tries to explain the entrapment of liberal Democrats in an iron cage of militarism when it comes to international security policy. The explanation points in two directions: the militarized bureaucracy at home and the three pillars of credibility constraining elected political leaders—unquestioning support for high Pentagon budgets, opposition to stiff regulation of Wall Street abuses, and any expression of doubts about unconditional support of Israel.]

 

Why Democratic Party Foreign Policy Fails and Will Continue to Fail

For six years (2008-2014) I acted as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine, and found myself routinely and personally attacked by the top UN diplomats representing the U.S. Government. Of course, I knew that America was in Israel’s corner no matter what the issue happened to be, whether complying with a near unanimous set findings by the World Court in the Hague or a report detailing Israeli crimes committed in the course of its periodic unlawful attacks on Gaza. Actually, the vitriol was greater from such prominent Democratic liberals as Susan Rice or Samantha Power than from the Republican neocon stalwart John Bolton who was the lamentable U.S. ambassador at the UN when I was appointed. I mention this personal background only because it seems so disappointingly emblematic of the failure of the Democratic Party to walk the walk of its rule of law and human rights talk.

 

From the moment Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office he never tired of telling the country, indeed the world that we as a nation were different because we adhered to the rule of law and acted in accord with our values in foreign policy. But when it came down to concrete cases, ranging from drone warfare to the increasingly damaging special relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia, the policies pursued seemed almost as congenial to a Kissinger realist as to an Obama visionary liberal. Of course, recently the Republicans from the comfort zone of oppositional irresponsibility chide the government led by a Democrat for its wimpy approach whether in response to Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine, China’s moves in the Pacific, and especially the emergence of ISIS. The Republicans out of office want more bombs and more wars in more places, and seem content to risk a slide into a Second Cold War however menacing such a reality would undoubtedly turn out to be.

 

How are we to explain this inability of Democrats to follow through on a foreign policy that is linked to law and ethics, as well as to show respect for the authority of the UN, World Court, Human Rights Council, and above all, the UN Charter? Such a question can be partly answered by noticing the gap between Obama the national campaigner and Obama the elected president expected to govern in the face of a hostile and reaction Congress and a corporatized media. In effect, it is the government bureaucracy and the special interest groups especially those linked to Wall Street, the Pentagon, guns, and Israel that call the shots in Washington, and it is expected that a politician once elected will forget the wellbeing of the American people as a whole on most issues, and especially with respect to controversial foreign policy positions, if he or she hopes to remain a credible public figure. The boundaries of credibility are monitored and disciplined by the mainstream media, as interpreted to reflect the interests of the militarized and intelligence sectors of the government and the economy.

 

Obama’s disappointing record is instructive because he initially made some gestures toward an innovative and independent approach. In early 2009 he went to Prague to announce a commitment to work toward a world without nuclear weapons, but there was no tangible steps taken toward implementation, and he kept quiet to the extent that his hopes were shattered. He will finish his presidency no nearer that goal than when he was elected, and in a backward move he has even committed the country to modernizing the existing arsenal of nuclear weapons at the hefty cost of $30 billion. The only reasonable conclusion is that the nuclear weapons establishment won out, and security policy of not only this country, but the world and future generations, remains subject to nuclearism, and what this implies about our unnecessarily precarious fate as a species.

 

Obama gave a second visionary speech in Cairo a few months later in which he promised a new openness to the Islamic world, and seemed to acknowledge that the Palestinians had suffered long enough and deserved an independent state and further, that it was reasonable to expect Israel to suspend unlawful settlement expansion to generate a positive negotiating atmosphere. When the Israel lobby responded by flexing its muscles and the Netanyahu leadership in Israel made it clear that they were in charge of the American approach to ‘the peace process,’ Obama sheepishly backed off, and what followed is a dismal story of collapsed diplomacy, accelerated Israeli settlement expansion, and renewed Palestinian despair and violent resistance. The result is to leave the prospect of a sustainable peace more distant than ever. It was clear that Zionist forces are able to mount such strong pressure in Congress, the media, and Beltway think tanks that no elected official can follow a balanced approach on core issues. Perhaps, the Democrats are even more vulnerable to such pressures as their funding and political base is more dependent on support of the Jewish communities in the big cities of America.

 

Occasionally, an issue comes along that is so clearly in the national interest that Israel’s opposition can be circumvented, at least temporarily and partially. This seems to have been the case with regard to the Iran Nuclear Agreement of a year ago that enjoyed the rare support of all five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. Yet even such a positive and sensible step toward restoring peace and stability in the tormented Middle East met with intense resistance at home, even being opposed by several prominent Democratic senators who acted as if they knew on which side their toast was buttered.

 

It seems pathetic that the White House in the aftermath of going against Israel’s rigid views on Iran found it necessary to patch things up by dispatching high level emissaries to reassure Israel that the U.S. remains as committed as ever to ‘the special relationship.’ To prove this point the Obama administration is even ready to increase military assistance to Israel from an already excessive $3 billion annual amount to a scandalous $5 billion, which is properly seen as compensation for going ahead with the Iran deal in the face of Israel opposition. Even the habitual $3 billion subsidy is in many ways outrageous given Israel’s regional military dominance, economic wellbeing, without even mentioning their refusal to take reasonable steps toward achieving a sustainable peace, which would greatly facilitate wider the pursuit of wider American goals in the Middle East. It is past time for American taxpayers to protest such misuses of government revenues, especially given the austerity budget at home, the decaying domestic infrastructure, and the anti-Americanism among the peoples of the Middle East that is partly a consequence of our long one-sided support for Israel and related insensitivity to the Palestinian ordeal.

 

True, the Democrats do push slightly harder to find diplomatic alternatives to war than Republicans, although Obama appointed hard liners to the key foreign policy positions. Hilary Clinton was made Secretary of State despite her pro-intervention views, or maybe because of them. Democrats seem to feel a habitual need to firm up their militarist credentials, and reassure the powerful ‘deep state’ in Washington of their readiness to use force in pursuit of American interests around the world. In contrast, Republicans are sitting pretty, being certified hawks on foreign policy without any need to prove repeatedly their toughness. Until George W. Bush came along it did seem that Democrats started the most serious war since 1945, and it took a Republican warmonger to end it, and even more daringly, finally to normalize relations with Communist China, a self-interested move long overdue and delayed for decades by anti-Communist ideological fervor and the once powerful ‘China Lobby.’

 

Looking ahead there is little reason to expect much departure if a Democrat is elected the next American president in 2016. Clinton has already tipped her hand in a recent speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, the self-anointed voice of the East Coast American establishment. She promised more air strikes and a no fly zone in Syria and a more aggressive approach toward ISIS. Such slippery slopes usually morph into major warfare, with devastating results for the country where the violence is situated and no greater likelihood of a positive political outcome as understood in Washington. If we consider the main theaters of American interventionary engagement in the 21st century, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya we find the perplexing combination of battlefield dominance and political defeat. It is dismaying that neither Clinton nor lead foreign policy advisors are willing to examine critically this past record of frustration and defeat, and seem ready for more of the same, or as it now expressed, ‘doubling down.’ We should not forget that Clinton was the most ardent advocate of the disastrous intervention in Libya, and mainly unrepentant about her support of the Iraq War, which should shock even her most committed backers, considering that it was the most costly mistake and international crime since Vietnam.

 

Ever since the Vietnam War political leaders and military commanders have tried to overcome this record of failed interventionism, forever seeking new doctrines and weapons that will deliver victory to the United States when it fights wars against peoples living in distant lands of the Global South. Democrats along with Republicans have tried to overcome the dismal experience of intervention by opting for a professional army and total reliance on air tactics and special forces operations so as to reduce conditions giving rise to the sort of robust anti-war movement that dogged the diehard advocates of the Vietnam War in its latter stages. The government has also taken a number of steps to achieve a more supportive media through ‘embedding’ journalists with American forces in the fields of battle. These kinds of adjustment were supposed to address the extreme militarist complaint that the Vietnam War was not lost on the battlefields of combat, but on the TV screens in American living rooms who watched the coffins being unloaded when returned home.

 

Despite these adjustments it has not helped the U.S. reached its goals overseas. America still ends up frustrated and thwarted. This inability to learn from past mistakes really disguises an unwillingness that expresses a reluctance or inability to challenge the powers that be, especially in the area of war and peace. As a result not only is foreign policy stuck adhering to deficient policies with a near certainty of future failure, but democracy takes a big hit because the critical debate so essential in a truly free society is suppressed or so muted as to politically irrelevant. Since 9/11 this suppression has been reinforced by enhanced intrusions on the rights of the citizenry, a process supported as uncritically by Democrats as by the other party. Again it is evident that the unaccountable deep state wields a big stick!

 

This is the Rubicon that no Democrat, including even Bernie Sanders, has dared yet to cross: The acknowledgement that military intervention no longer works and should not be the first line of response to challenges emerging overseas, especially in the Middle East. The forces of national resistance in country after country in the South outlast their Northern interveners despite being militarily inferior. This is the major unlearned lesson of the wars waged against European colonialism, and then against the United States in Vietnam, and still later in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. The balance of forces in the Global South has decisively shifted against a military reading of history that prior to the middle of the last century was the persuasive basis of defending the country against foreign enemies, as well as providing imperial ambitions with a cost efficient means to gain access to resources and market in underdeveloped parts of the world. National resistance movements have learned since 1945 that they are able to prevail, although sometimes at a great cost, because they have more patience and more at stake. As the Afghan saying goes, “You have the watches, we have the time.”

 

The intervening side shapes its foreign policy by a crude cost/benefit calculus, and at some point, the effort does not seem worth the cost in lives and resources, and is brought to an end. For the national resistance side the difference between winning and losing for a mobilized population is nearly absolute, and so the costs however high seem never too high. The most coherent intervention initiated by the Obama presidency in 2011 did succeed in driving a hostile dictatorship from power, but what resulted was the opposite of what was intended and expected by Washington: chaos and a country run by warring and murderous tribal militias. In other words, military intervention has become more destructive than ever, and yet its political goals of stability and a friendly atmosphere remain even more elusive than previously.

 

For Democrats to have an approach that learns from this experience in the period since the end of World War II would require leveling with American people on two main points: (1) military intervention generally does not reach its proclaimed goals unless mandated by the UN Security Council and carried out in a manner consistent with international law; and (2) the human concerns and national interests of the country are better protected in this century by deferring to the dynamics of self-determination even if the result are not always in keeping with American strategic goals and national values. Such a foreign policy reset would not always yield results that the leaders and public like, but it is preferable to the tried and tested alternatives that have failed so often with resulting heavy burdens. Adopting such a self-determination approach is likely to diminish violence, enhance the role of diplomacy, and reduce the massive displacement of persons that is responsible for the wrenching current humanitarian crises of migration and the ugly extremist violence that hits back at the Middle East interveners in a merciless and horrifying manner as was the case in the November 13th attacks in Paris.

 

Despite these assessments when, hopefully, a Democrat is elected in 2016, which on balance remains the preferable lesser of evils outcome, she has already announced her readiness to continue with the same failed policy, but even worse, to increase its intensity. Despite such a militarist resolve there is every reason to expect the same dismal results, both strategically and humanly. The unfortunate political reality is that even Democratic politicians find it easier to go along with such a discredited approach than risk the backlash that world occur if less military policies were advocated and embraced. We must not avoid an awareness that our governmental security dynamics is confined to an iron cage of militarism that is utterly incapable of adjusting to failure and its own wrongdoing.

 

We must ask ourselves why do liberal minded Democratic politicians, especially once in office follow blindly militarist policies that have failed in the past and give every indication of doing even worse in the future because the international resistance side is more extremist and becoming better organized. Dwight Eisenhower, incidentally a Republican, gave the most direct answer more than 50 years ago—what he called ‘the military-industrial complex,’ that lethal synergy between government and capital. Such a reality has become a toxic parasite that preys upon our democratic polity, and has been augmented over the years by intelligence services, the corporatization of the media and universities, public policy institutes, and lobbies that have turned Congress into a complicit issuer of rubber stamps as requested.

Under these conditions we have to ask ourselves ‘What would have to happen to enable a presidential candidate of the Democratic Party to depart from the foreign policy failures of the past? That is, to escape from the cage within which foreign policy is now imprisoned: Nothing less than a transforming of the governing process from below that would sweep away this parasitical burden that is ever

more deforming the republic and spreading suffering and resentment to all corners of the planet. American foreign policy is having these harmful effects at a time when decent people of all parties should be exerting their political imagination to the utmost to meet the unprecedented challenges mounted by the accumulating dangers of climate change and the moral disgrace of mounting extreme economic inequalities despite as many as 3 billion people living on less than $2.50 per day.

 

Not only is the Democratic Party failing the nation by its refusal to meet the modest first principle of Florence Nightingale—‘do no harm’—but it is not rising to the deeper and more dangerous threats to future wellbeing and sustainability directed at the nation and the ecological health of the planet, and also of menace to peoples everywhere. What the United States does and does not do reverberates across the globe. Political responsibility in the 21st century does not stop at the border, and certainly is not fulfilled by walls and drones. If political parties cannot protect us, then it is up to the people to mount the barricades, but this too looks farfetched when the most vital form of populism now seems to be of a proto-fascist variety activated so viciously by the candidacy of Donald Trump, and reinforced more politely by his main Republican rivals.

 

 

Slouching Toward Global Disaster: Chaos and Intervention in the Middle East  

22 Dec

 

The Geopolitical Foreground

 

There are many disturbing signs that the West is creating conditions in the Middle East and Asia that could produce a wider war, most likely a new Cold War, containing, as well, menacing risks of World War III. The reckless confrontation with Russia along its borders, reinforced by provocative weapons deployments in several NATO countries and the promotion of governing regimes hostile to Russia in such countries as Ukraine and Georgia seems to exhibit Cold War nostalgia, and is certainly not the way to preserve peace.

 

Add to this the increasingly belligerent approach recently taken by the United States naval officers and defense officials to China with respect to island disputes and navigational rights in the South China Seas. Such posturing has all the ingredients needed for intensifying international conflict, giving a militarist signature to Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia.’

 

These developments are happening during the supposedly conflict averse Obama presidency. Looking ahead to new leadership, even the most optimistic scenario that brings Hilary Clinton to the White House is sure to make these pre-war drum beats even louder. From a more detached perspective it is fair to observe that Obama seems rather peace-oriented only because American political leaders and the Beltway/media mainstream have become so accustomed to relying on military solutions whether successful or not, whether dangerous and wasteful or not, that is, only by comparison with more hawkish alternatives.

 

The current paranoid political atmosphere in the United States is a further relevant concern, calling for police state governmental authority at home, increased weapons budgets, and the continuing militarization of policing and law enforcement. Such moves encourage an even more militaristic approach to foreign challenges that seem aimed at American and Israeli interests by ISIS, Iran, and China. Where this kind of war-mongering will lead is unknowable, but what is frighteningly clear is that this dangerous geopolitical bravado is likely to become even more strident as the 2016 campaign unfolds to choose the next American president. Already Donald Trump, the clear Republican frontrunner, has seemed to commit the United States to a struggle against all of Islam by his foolish effort to insist that every Muslim is terrorist suspect Islam as a potential terrorist who should be so treated. Even Samuel Huntington were he still alive might not welcome such an advocate of ‘the clash of civilizations’!

 

 

 Historical Deep Roots

 It has taken almost a century for the breakup of the Ottoman Empire to reap the colonialist harvest that was sown in the peace diplomacy that followed World War I. In the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement diplomats of England and France in 1916 secretly negotiated arrangements that would divide up the Middle East into a series of artificially delimited territorial states to be administered as colonies by the respective European governments. Among other wrongs, this devious undertaking representing a betrayal of promises made to Arab leaders that Britain, in particular, would support true independence in exchange for joining the anti-Ottoman and anti-German alliance formed to fight World War I. Such a division of the Ottoman spoils not only betrayed wartime promises of political independence to Arab leaders, but also undermined the efforts of Woodrow Wilson to apply the principle of ethnic self-determination to the Ottoman aftermath.

 

As a result of diplomatic maneuvers the compromise reached at Versailles in 1919 was to accept the Sykes-Picot borders that were drawn to satisfy colonial ambitions for trade routes and spheres of influence, but to disguise slightly its colonialist character, by creating an international system of mandates for the Middle East in which London and Paris would administer the territories, accepting a vague commitment to lead the various societies to eventual political independence at some unspecified future time. These Sykes-Picot ‘states’ were artificial political communities that never overcame the indigenous primacy of ethnic, tribal, and religious affinities, and could be maintained as coherent political realities only by creating oppressive state structures. If World War II had not sapped European colonial will and capabilities, it is easy to imagine that the societies of the Middle East would remain subjugated under mandate banners.

 

After World War II

 

Is it any wonder, then, that the region has been extremely beset by various forms of authoritarian rule ever since the countries of the Middle East gained their independence after the end of the Second World War? Whether in the form of dynastic monarchies or secular governments, the stability that was achieved in the region depended on the denial of human rights, including rights of democratic participation, as well as the buildup of small privileged and exploitative elites that linked national markets and resources to the global economic order. And as oil became the prime strategic resource, the dominance of the region became for the West led by the United States as absolutely vital. From these perspectives the stable authoritarianism of the region was quite congenial with the Cold War standoff between the United States and Soviet Union that was interested in securing strategic and economic partnerships reflecting the ideological rivalries, while being indifferent to whether or not the people were being victimized by abusive and brutal governments.

 

The American commitment to this status quo in the Middle East was most vividly expressed in 1980 after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution of the prior year by the enunciation of the Carter Doctrine. President Carter in his State of the Union Address was warning the Soviet Union by a strong diplomatic signal that the United States was ready to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf by force, which because of supposed Soviet superiority in ground warfare was understood at the time as making an implied threat to use nuclear weapons if necessary.

 

After the Cold War

 When the Cold War ended, the United States unthinkingly promoted the spread of capitalist style constitutional democracy wherever it could, including the Middle East. The Clinton presidency (1992-2000) talked about the ‘enlargement’ of the community of democratic states, implying that any other political option lacked legitimacy (unless of course it was a friendly oil producer or strategic ally). The neocon presidency of George W. Bush (2000-2008) with its interventionist bent invoked ‘democracy promotion’ as its goal, and became clear in its official formulation of security doctrine in 2002 that only capitalist democracies were legitimate Westphalian states whose sovereign rights were entitled to respect.

 

This kind of strident militarism reached a new climax after 9/11. The White House apparently hoped to embark on a series regime-changing interventions in the Middle East and Asia with the expectation of producing at minimal cost shining examples of liberation and democratization, as well as secure the Gulf oil reserves and establish military bases to undergird its regional ambitions. The attacks on Afghanistan, and especially Iraq, were the most notorious applications of this misguided approach. Instead of ‘democracy’ (Washington’s code word for integration into its version of neoliberal globalization), what emerged was strife and chaos, and the collapse of stable internal governance. The strong state that preceded the intervention gave way to localized militias and resurgent tribal, clan, and religious rivalries leading domestic populations to wish for a return to the relative stability of the preceding authoritarian arrangements, despite their brutality and corruption. And even in Washington one encounters whispered admissions that Iraq was better off, after all, under Saddam Hussein than under the kind of sectarian and divisive leaders that governed the country since the American occupation began in 2003, and now threaten Iraq with an implosion that will produce at least two states replacing the shattered one.

 

 

 The Arab Spring

 Then came the Arab Spring in 2011 creating an awkward tension between the professed wish in Washington for democracy in the Arab world and the overriding commitment to upholding strategic interests throughout the Middle East. At first, the West reacted ambivalently to the Arab uprisings, not knowing whether to welcome, and then try to tame, these anti-authoritarian movements of the Arab masses or to lament the risks of new elites that were likely to turn away from neoliberal capitalism and strategic partnerships, and worst of all, might be more inclined to challenge Israel.

 

What happened in the years that followed removed the ambiguity, confirming that material and ideological interests took precedence over visionary endorsements of Arab democracy. The reality that emerged indicated that neither the domestic setting nor the international context was compatible with the existence of democratic forms of governance. What unsurprisingly followed was a series of further military interventions and strategic confrontations either via NATO as in Libya or by way of its regional partners, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates as in Iran, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. With few tears shed in Washington, the authentic and promising democratic beginnings in Egypt that excited the world in the aftermath of the 2011 Tahrir Square were crushed two years later by a populist military coup that restored Mubarak Era authoritarianism, accentuating its worst features. What amounted to the revenge of the urban secular elites in Cairo included a genuine bonding between a new majority of the Egyptian people and its armed forces in a bloody struggle to challenge and destroy the Muslim Brotherhood that had taken control of the government by winning a series of elections. Despite its supposed liberalism the Obama leadership played along with these developments. It obliged the new Sisi-led leadership by avoiding the term ‘coup’ although the military takeover was followed by a bloody crackdown on the elected leadership and civil society leadership. This Orwellian trope of refusing to call a coup by its real name enabled the United States to continue military assistance to Egypt without requiring a new Congressional authorization.

 

The folk wisdom of the Arab world gives insight into the counterrevolutionary backlash that has crushed the populist hopes of 2011: “People prefer 100 years of tyranny to a single year of chaos.” And this kind of priority is shared by most of those who make and manage American foreign policy. Just as clearly as the Arab masses, the Pentagon planners prefer the stability of authoritarianism to the anarchistic uncertainties of ethnic and tribal strife, militia forms of governance that so often come in the wake of the collapse of both dictatorial rule and democratic governance. And the masters of business and finance, aside from the lure of post-conflict markets for the reconstruction of what has been destroyed militarily, prefer to work with dependable and familiar national elites that welcome foreign capital on lucrative terms that benefit insiders and outsiders alike, while keeping the masses in conditions of impoverished thralldom.

 

In many respects, Syria and Iraq illustrate the terrible human tragedies that have been visited on the peoples of these two countries. In Syria a popular uprising in 2011 was unforgivably crushed by the Basher el-Assad regime in Damascus, leading to a series of disastrous interventions on both sides of the internal war that erupted, with Saudi Arabia and Iran engaged in a proxy war on Syrian soil while Israel uses its diplomatic leverage to ensure that the unresolved war would last as long as possible as Tel Aviv wanted neither the regime nor its opponents to win a clear victory. During this strife, Russia, Turkey, and the United States were intervening with a bewildering blend of common and contradictory goals ranging from pro-government stabilization to a variety of regime changing scenarios. These external actors held conflicting views of the Kurdish fighters as either coveted allies or dangerous adversaries. In the process several hundred thousand Syrians have lost their lives, almost half the population have become refugees and internally displaced persons, much of the country and its ancient heritage sites devastated, and no real end of the violence and devastation is in sight.

 

The Iraq experience is only marginally better. After a dozen years of punitive sanctions following the 1991 ceasefire that exacted a heavy toll on the civilian population, the ‘shock and awe’ of US/UK attacks of 2003, an occupation began that rid the country of its cruel and oppressive leader, Saddam Hussein, and his entourage. What followed politically became over time deeply disillusioning, and actually worse than the overthrown regime, which had been hardly imaginable when the American-led occupation began. The Iraqi state was being reconstructed along sectarian lines, purging the Sunni minority elites from the Baghdad bureaucracy and armed forces, thereby generating a widespread internal violent opposition against foreign occupation and a resistance movement against the Iraqi leadership that had gained power with the help of the American presence. This combination of insurgency and resistance also gave rise to widespread feelings of humiliation and alienation, which proved to be conducive to the rise of jihadi extremism, first in the form of al-Qaeda in Iraq and later as ISIS.

 

Toxic Geopolitics 

It is impossible to understand and explain such a disastrous failure of military interventionism without considering the effects of two toxic ‘special relationships’ formed by the United States, with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The basic feature of such special relationships is an unconditional partnership in which the Israelis and Saudis can do whatever they wish, including pursuing policies antagonistic to U.S. interests without encountering any meaningful opposition from either Washington or Europe. This zone of discretion has allowed Israel to keep Palestinians from achieving self-determination while pursuing its own territorial ambitions via constantly expanding settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, fueling grassroots anti-Western sentiment throughout the Arab world because of this persisting reliance on a cruel settler colonialist approach to block for seven decades the Palestinian struggle for fundamental and minimal national rights.

 

The special relationship with Saudi Arabia is even more astonishing until one considers the primacy of economic strategic priorities, especially the importance of oil supplied at affordable prices. Having by far the worst human rights record in the region, replete with judicially decreed beheadings and executions by stoning, the Riyadh leadership continues to be warmly courted in Western capitals as allies and friends. At the same time, equally theocratic Iran is hypocritically bashed and internationally punished in retaliation for its far less oppressive governing abuses.

 

Of course, looking the other way, is what is to be expected in the cynical conduct of opportunistic geopolitics, but to indulge the Saudi role in the worldwide promotion of jihadism while spending trillion on counter-terrorism is much more difficult to fathom until one shifts attention from the cover story of counter-terrorism to the more illuminating narrative of petropolitics. Despite fracking and natural gas discoveries lessening Western dependence on Middle Eastern oil, old capitalist habits persist long after their economic justifications have lapsed and this seems true even when such policies have become damaging in lives and financial burdens.

 

Finding Hope is Difficult

 In such circumstances, it is difficult to find much hope in the current cosmodrama of world politics. It is possible, although unlikely, that geopolitical sanity will prevail to the extent of finding a diplomatic formula to end the violence in Syria and Yemen, as well as to normalize relations with Iran, restore order in Iraq and Libya, although such sensible outcomes face many obstacles, and may be years away. The alternatives for the Middle East in the near future, barring the political miracle of a much more revolutionary and emancipatory second Arab Spring, seems to be authoritarian stability or anarchic strife and chaos, which seems far preferable if the alternative is the deep trauma associated with enduring further American military interventions. If you happen to hear the Republican candidates give their prescriptions for fixing the Middle East it comes down to ‘toughness,’ including the scary recommendations of ‘carpet bombing’ and a greatly heightened American military presence. Even the more thoughtful Democrats limit their proposals to enhanced militarism, hoping to induce the Arab countries to put ‘the boots on the ground’ with nary a worry about either igniting a regional war or the imaginative collapse that can only contemplate war as the recipe for peace, again recalling the degree to which Orwellian satiric irony is relied upon to shape foreign policy prescriptions by ambitious politicians. Imaginative diplomacy, talking and listening to the enemy, and engaging in self-scrutiny remains outside the cast iron cage of the military mentality that has long dominated most of the political space in American foreign policy debates with the conspicuous help of the passive aggressive mainstream media. In this respect, American democracy is a broken reality, and conscientious citizens must look elsewhere as a prison break of the political imagination is long overdue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Horrifying Syrian Dilemma Persists

15 Sep

 

 

[Prefatory Note: This post is a somewhat modified version of the text published on the Middle East Eye website on September 9, 2015, and here by prior arrangement.]

 

On its surface Syria offers seems an ideal case for humanitarian intervention. An incredible half of the 23 million Syrians are either internally displaced or refugees living in dire circumstances, aggravating the migrant crisis currently overwhelming Europe. What is worse, mass atrocities have continued under the authority of the Damascus regime since March 2011, and to some degree by actions of the opposition. Further, for more than a year ISIS has emerged as a principal opposition force in Syria, and is responsible for unprecedented barbarism in large areas of the country under its control.

 

Beyond this, a diplomatic resolution of the conflict has so far failed miserably. The UN has appointed several distinguished Special Envoys who have resigned in disgust unable to rely on ceasefire reassurances from Bashar el-Assad. The two Geneva inter-governmental conferences that were convened with great effort ended in utter frustration. The United States is far from blameless, seemingly avoiding Russian compromises early on because it believed that the insurgency was on the verge of victory, and diminishing prospects later by insisting that Iran be excluded from the diplomatic process because of Israeli and Saudi sensitivities.

 

To complete this depressing picture, the parties to the conflict seem badly stuck, neither having a path to victory nor displaying any willingness to work toward a credible compromise. The opposition to the Assad government remains incoherent and disunited, and certainly seems incapable of offering Syria a workable alternative.

 

Not surprisingly given this overall situation, especially the spectacle of persisting civilian suffering, with its regional spillover effects destabilizing Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey, is prompting a renewed call for humanitarian intervention, most influentially, in the form of a no fly zone (NFZ). It is contended that a well implemented NFZ could protect Syrians from the ravages being wrought by notorious barrel bombs. These terrible weapons are mainly used by Damascus to make civilian governance impossible in rebel held areas of the country. Proponents of intervention argue that once a NFZ is established it will ease civilian suffering, and might in due course exert sufficient pressure on the Syrian leadership to produce a political climate in which an acceptable diplomatic solution is finally attainable and this dreadful war brought to an end, a result that might even have at this point the benefit of a nudge from Iran and Russia.

 

Responsibility to Protect

 

The UN recently held a self-congratulatory session celebrating the 10th anniversary of the R2P (or responsibility to protect) norm, while acknowledging that there was work to be done considering the existence of ongoing killing fields as Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and North Korea. Notably absent from the list, a supreme instance of diplomatic tact at its hypocritical worst, was Gaza, and more generally, occupied Palestine, which since 2012 is after all a ‘state’ in the eyes of the General Assembly. Such other geopolitical touchy places as Kashmir, Rakhine, Xinjiang were also conveniently ignored in this effort to assess the record of R2P’s first decade. Leaving these awkward silences aside, at least the question should be asked: ‘Why has the R2P norm not been applied to Syria?’ The answer illuminates what is wrong with the cynical way world order operates in a post-Cold War setting, being more protective of trade and finance than it is of people, more motivated by oil than by a genuine humanitarian rescue mission.

 

The superficial obstacle to a R2P operation in Syria is the geopolitical standoff between states continuing to back the Assad regime and those supporting the opposition. This means that approval of an NFZ as a tactic compatible with the UN Charter is unavailable because of an anticipated Russian veto. Thus any use of force, such as establishing a NFZ, in either the north or south of Syria, or both, would neither have the backing of the UN Security Council nor qualify as self-defense under international law. This means that such an undertaking would violate the Charter on its key principle of prohibiting recourse to non-defensive international force without authorization from the Security Council, thereby disregarding the requirement of UN approval that is a critical feature of the R2P approach.

 

Proceeding outside the UN would further undermine the authority of international law with respect to war/peace issues. A less legalistic and constitutionalist explanation of this blockage arises from the dark side of the R2P precedent set in Libya back in 2011 when Russia and China and other SC members, despite their reluctance, were persuaded to allow a proposed humanitarian NFZ in Libya to be established only to find that the UN debate was a notorious instance of bait-and-switch. It was obvious that NATO’s intentions from the outset were far more expansive than the authorizing resolution in the Security Council, and once the military operation began immediately employed tactics seeking regime change in Tripoli rather than civilian protection for Benghazi. What seemed to skeptics of the R2P approach as an outright deception in its first test of R2P left a bad taste that has definitely discouraged a cooperative approach to Syria that engaged Russia. The Libyan precedent is not the whole story of relative passivity of the international community by any means. Syria’s antiaircraft capabilities also inhibited coercive action by making it more problematic to suppose that air power could shift the balance quickly and at moderate costs against the Assad regime.

 

 

 

 

Kosovo—A Poor Precedent

 

Then there is the earlier Kosovo precedent in which a humanitarian intervention was controversially carried out without UN approval, under the authority of NATO before the R2P norm existed and in the face of strong Russian opposition. Arguably, the operation was a success, Serbian oppressive rule ended, Kosovo and its people saved from an impending episode of ethnic cleansing similar to the Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian males (1995), and despite being ignored in the undertaking, the UN willingly entered the post-conflict scene in a big way to help Kosovo achieve transition to political independence. One influential appraisal of Kosovo pronounced the NATO intervention to be unlawful, yet legitimate, because it effectively removed a credible threat of imminent threat of mass atrocity at a moderate cost.

Several problems arise if relying on Kosovo to justify establishing a NFZ in Syria. First of all, Syria is a much larger country within which a civil war has been raging for more than four years causing an estimated 300,000 deaths, the Syrian government is reported to have sophisticated antiaircraft capabilities. Secondly, Europe was unified with regard to an anti-Serb intervention in Kosovo, with the partial exception of Greece, whereas the Middle East is so deeply divided with respect to Syria as to be engaged on opposite sides of a proxy war with sharp sectarian dimensions. Thirdly, the opponents of NFZ, unless persuaded to change their position, are more deeply involved, and have the capabilities to offset the impact of such an operation against their ally in Damascus.

 

Fourthly, assuming that a Syrian NFZ would be effective, the elimination of Syrian air power might actually work to the advantage of ISIS, which operates exclusively on the ground. Fourthly, unlike Kosovo where the U.S. was eager to demonstrate that NATO still had a role in the post-Cold War world, the geopolitical motivation in Syria remains confused and weak, being uncertain despite the passage of time. Also, the U.S. has had bad experiences with its recent interventions in the region, especially Iraq and Afghanistan, and wants to avoid being drawn into yet another war in a predominantly Muslim country. And fifthly, the present scene in Libya and Iraq show that handling the effects of even a militarily successful intervention can lead to prolonged chaos and militia governance. Such experiences of sustained chaos are not viewed by most of the affected population as improvements over the old authoritarian orders held together by the brutality of Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein, or Assad. When the alternatives are chaos or order, populist sentiments generally opt for order. This pattern has been evident throughout the region, especially in the aftermath of the short-lived Arab Spring.

 

Further in the background are considerations associated with state-centric world order in a post-colonial setting, which in the Middle East has left many bad memories of the harm the European colonial powers did to the region after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. To override the sovereignty of a state, and its capacity for national resistance, ignores the experience of the world in the period since 1945 where almost every Western intervention has ended in political failure.

 

The West’s Dilemma

 

So here is the dilemma: to stand by doing nothing while mass atrocities occur year after year in Syria with no end in sight is an intolerable international failure of moral responsibility for human suffering of this innocent civilian population. Yet to do something that will actually improve the situation is far from obvious, and the record of NFZs in the kind of situation that exists in Syria is not encouraging, nor are other coercive alternatives. General Martin Dempsey, the American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently warned against establishing a NFZ in Syria, pointing out that the government’s antiaircraft capabilities are at least five times greater than what Libya possessed, including some high end systems capable of shooting down high altitude planes.

 

 

There are some alternatives that try to find tactics that do something without making the situation worse. One sort proposal is to propose a more assertive approach by the United States, comprehensively advocated in a recent report of the International Crisis Group, believes that a series of non-military and covert initiatives could make a difference. It argues that this approach should start with what is logistically easier, a focus on the South of the country where moderate anti-regime forces are in greater control, and then if successful, extending such tactics to the more contested Northwest where Syrian antiaircraft pose a greater obstacle and ISIS has its strongholds.

 

All in all, the West cannot stand one more failed intervention in the Middle East, nor can it leave unattended a deep humanitarian crisis that spilling over Syrian borders. The burden in such a tragic situation should be placed on pro-interventionists to show convincingly how a NFZ can be established and maintained in the face of expected resistance from within and opposition from without. So far this burden has not been sustained. There are other ways to help alleviate civilian suffering and to exert greater pressure on Damascus that do not rely on such a blunt and unreliable instrument as a NFZ. In the background is the steadfast refusal of the United States or its European allies to be willing to contemplate an occupation of Syria via a ground attack, not because of legal or moral inhibitions, but due to the lack of political support for any military operation likely to result in significant casualties for the intervenor.

 

There exists a more drastic diplomatic approach that should have been tried long ago, and still seems worth the effort: bringing Iran and Russia into a peace process as major players, overriding objections by Saudi Arabia and Israel. Such a diplomatic atmosphere might at last create the war-ending conditions for compromise and cooperation that include putting pressure on Damascus. In such an altered setting, either a NFZ, or an equivalent proposal could find support within the Security Council or such a measure would no longer be needed. This diplomatic initiative is admittedly a long shot, but better than the alternatives of doing nothing or acting outside the framework of the UN and international law with scant prospects of success and big chances that things would go badly wrong. There are reliable reports circulating that the U.S. Government rejected a Russian backed initiative 2012 that would have included Assad being removed from power because Washington was then so convinced that the Damascus government was about to collapse in any event, and no diplomatic compromise was needed. At least, there is now a more realistic understanding of the balance of forces in Syria, and what form of compromise has any chance of being sustained. Unfortunately, however, with the emergence in the meantime of the al-Nusra Front and ISIS, difficult questions arise as to whether in the situation that prevails at present any compromise is sustainable unless externally maintained by a major international presence, which itself seems politically unattainable. 

What this prolonged dilemma in the face of mass atrocity shows is the deficiency of state-centric world order if appraised from the perspective of human wellbeing rather than national interests. The failures in Syria are not just the shortcomings of diplomacy and manipulations of geopolitics, but also a severe mismatch between structures and capabilities of global authority and the vulnerabilities of the peoples of the world. Until these structures are transformed on the basis of the human and global interests Syrian dilemmas in one form or another are bound to recur.

A Presumption Against Intervention

11 Feb

(Prefatory Note: The post below is a revised and modified version of my chapter in David Held & Kyle McNally, eds., Intervention in the 21st Century [online by Durham, UK: published by Smashwords for Global Policy Journal, 2015]

 

 

 

A Presumption Against Intervention

 

 

            Participating in the intervention debates that have raged periodically ever since the Vietnam War in the 1960’s, and of course earlier in less contested settings, I have been struck by the defining encounter between those who are dogmatically opposed to intervention per se and those who rarely confront a call for intervention that they do not feel persuaded by, limiting any doubts as to matters of feasibility and strategic interest. The traditional focus of policy discussion proceeds on the assumption that it is about forcible intervention by governmental actors to coerce some kind of change in a foreign sovereign state. Those in favor usually rely, at least in part, on a rationale that such an undertaking is necessary and desirable as it would rescue a captive people from a regime responsible for massive crimes against humanity or genocide, or operate as counter intervention (currently the controversy over intervening in the Ukraine to offset and discourage alleged Russian intervention) or as in relation to ISIS where the stated objective of the American led coalition is to destroy or defeat a non-political actor that is exercising governmental control over territory in portions of Iraq and Syria.

 

  1. Systemic Developments

 

            Four developments over the course of the last half-century are radically reshaping the debate on the viability and advisability of forcible intervention as a diplomatic option. The first, and most important, is the collapse of European colonialism, which has often motivated the West, and especially the United States, to assert its goalsf and protect their interests by way of intervention in what were formerly colonies or states whose sovereignty was curtailed by hegemonic authority. A feature of this post-colonial global setting is that the intervening state, if Western, will tend to justify its actions by setting forth an altruistic and self-justifying argument with strong moralizing overtones. Related to this matter of motivation on the side of the intervener is the prospect of effective and persevering national resistance creating formidable obstacles to succeeding with an intervention even with the benefit of military dominance. The combination of motivation and anticipated resistance helps explain why so few major interventions have been viewed as successful. One notable continuity linking colonial memories to post-colonial realities is the invariable geographical location of the intervening political actor in the West and that of the target society being in the non-West.

 

            The second development is the rise of human rights as a dimension of world order and a central feature of the foreign policy rationalizations relied upon by liberal democracies, which in a globalizing world makes boundaries seem less inhibiting from the perspective of international law for a prospective intervener. The implicit major premise of the human rights framework is an affirmation of species solidarity. This means that responsibilities for the wellbeing of others extends beyond the boundaries of one’s own state, and reaches to the most remote parts of the planet. In other words, intervention is supposedly undertaken mainly for the sake of securing the rights of others, and territorial ambitions and the quest for economic benefits are denied. The 21st century intervener claims a purity of intentions, but the configuration of interventions and non-interventions is far more ambiguous, and is more convincingly explained by strategic priorities than by the protection of human rights, especially given the cartography of intervention as situating the locus of intervention in the Global South while identifying the intervening political actors as invariably from the West.

 

            The third development is the increased reliance on military technologies that reduce sharply the casualties of the intervener while shifting the burdens of death and devastation to the target society. This reflects thin political support that accompanies subjecting citizens of Western countries to risks of dying, especially for undertakings that are justified as ‘humanitarian’ rather than ‘strategic.’ This discourse of justification places a premium on weaponry and tactics that minimize the likelihood of casualties even at the cost of battlefield effectiveness. The Kosovo intervention under NATO auspices in 1999 was expressive of this new war fighting paradigm, with the military campaign consisting exclusively of air attacks from fairly high altitudes that increased the casualties on the ground but spared the intervening side altogether from experiencing combat deaths or injuries. A similar pattern was present in Libya in 2013 employing NATO airpower to tip the internal balance of forces in favor of an anti-regime uprising without casualties, the new paradigm being dubbed ‘zero casualty wars.’

 

            The fourth development is the acceptance of the validity of a positive international law rule prohibiting forcible intervention by a sovereign state regardless of justifying circumstances. The only exceptions to this prohibition involve a use of force that can be justified as self-defense against a prior armed attack or an intervention that has been authorized by a Security Council decision. Since controversial interventions tend to involve non-defensive or aggressive uses of force that have been neither authorized by UN procedures nor can be convincingly categorized as instances of self-defense as defined in international law. The result of this pattern of ‘lawlessness’ in recent decades has been an erosion of respect for international law and the UN Charter as constraining the behavior of major sovereign states, and especially the United States in relation to the core norm of the UN Charter (Article 2(4)) regarding recourse to force. The authority of international law in these settings has also been undermined by the extent to which the most pronounced forms of conflict are no longer be territorially circumscribed and involving normal sovereign states as principal antagonists. The most important adversaries in the present world order setting are the United States as a global, non-territorial state and various non-state political networks and formations (such as Al Qaeda and affiliates, and Isis and affiliates).

 

  1. Assessing the Debate

 

            Participants in debates about a prospective intervention are influenced by a variety of considerations that shape their assessments. The pro-interventionists frame their public arguments mainly or exclusively by reference to humanitarian concerns, insisting that when a state severely abuses its own people it inflicts harm on the whole world, and that intervention should follow regardless of its country of origin or its mix of governmental motivations. Ideally, such an intervention should be mandated by the United Nations so as to comply with international law, but if political obstacles prevent such a green light from being obtained, intervention should go ahead anyway if seen as likely to be effective in ending such patterns of severe abuse. Such so-called liberal hawks as Samantha Power, Michael Ignatieff, Susan Rice, and Anne-Marie Slaughter are illustrative North American exponents of interventionary diplomacy, but there are Europeans who take similar positions. One characteristic of the pro-interventionists is their unquestioning good faith in maintaining the claim that interventions are genuinely about helping vulnerable or suffering people, and not about protecting access to oil reserves or ensuring market access. Another feature of such lines of advocacy is its rather blind confidence that if military superiority is brought to bear it can be translated into desired forms of political outcome at acceptable costs in blood and treasure. This confidence in military solutions overlooks the record of repeated failure associated with interventionary diplomacy in the period since 1945, especially in relation to large-scale interventions that generate a strong nationalistic resistance.

 

            The anti-interventionists approach these policy issues differently. They look below the surface of humanitarian rationalizations for the use of force to discern what they believe to be the real motives. They are quick to distrust and dismiss humanitarian explanations for intervention, and search for the presence of strategic interests as revealing the true explanation of a proposed intervention. Most anti-interventionists are extremely suspicious of the justifications given by the pro-interventionists, especially government officials and think tank experts, and skeptical about the claims that positive results will be achieved even if the question of strategic interests is put to one side. Such skeptics, often self-identifying as leftists or progressives, are likely to refer to the failures of past interventions such as Vietnam, or more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan, as cautionary reminders of how often interventions failed from a policy perspective in the period since the end of World War II. They also oppose the tendency of those advocating intervention to ignore the past, seeking to devote their primary attention to questions of feasibility, thereby ignoring the notoriously bad track record of intervention. Since 1945, few of these Western interventions have reached the goals set by their advocates, especially if the target country has a population of over three million and mobilizes a national resistance movement. For anti-interventionists, such as Noam Chomsky, nearly every intervention that is politically endorsed by the West is a poorly disguised example of ‘military humanism,’ and should be viewed as unacceptable. From this perspective, one cost of such interventions is to weaken international law and the UN, as well as respect for sovereign rights. Such a selective use of force imposes the stigma of ‘double standards’ and hypocrisy on the practice of intervention. Chomsky, for instance, asks rhetorically why intervention was undertaken in Kosovo but not on behalf of the large Kurdish minority in Turkey who in the same time period were enduring a cruel counterinsurgency campaign conducted by the Turkish government.

 

            The pro-interventionist tends to stress the moral responsibilities of the United States as a global leader and intervening liberal democracy. In contrast, the anti-interventionist generally dismisses such moral claims as a cover story for the pursuit of strategic interests in a post-colonial world order where the rules of the game are the same, or similar, but the language of justification has changed to make it more acceptable to rely upon ethical rationalizations when seeking to legitimize the use of international force. It is no longer permissible or prudent to admit selfish national motivations, and for this reason a humanitarian and human rights discourse has become fashionable, but it has also obscured the true wellsprings of policy. Anti-interventionists are sometimes so beholden to their suspicions about the maneuvers of the powerful that they can be oblivious to the depth and reality of suffering or the severity of abuse being endured by a people entrapped in genocidal circumstances. Such dogmatic anti-interventionism rejects on principle practical pleas to rescue entrapped and victimized peoples even in situations of genuine emergency. They are so distrustful of authorizing uses of force by those few political actors that possess long distance force projection capabilities and accompanying political will that they refuse to consider the context or weigh the pros and cons of the particular case.

 

Five Sets of Conclusion

 

            Against such a background of antagonistic views about interventionary diplomacy, I would support several general propositions in seeking to develop an approach that was not ideologically predetermined and sensitive to context, yet overall leans toward the adoption of an anti-interventionist position:

            –assess the pros and cons relating to a given situation, including taking due account of the radical uncertainty that arises from unknown and unknowable aspects of the national context and an inability to assess accurately the risks associated with a prospect of national resistance to intervention; such considerations on balance in most situations uphold policies reflective of the presumption against intervention;

            –such a presumption can be only overcome by solid evidence suggesting that a true humanitarian emergency exists, that the persons and communities facing a dire threat can be rescued by a proposed scale of intervention that is effective without encroaching upon rights of self-determination, and to the extent possible, that the intervening political actor receives authorization from the UN Security Council;

            –in situations of exceptional danger to a civilian population as posed by a genocidal campaign the presumption can be put aside even without UNSC authorization, provided there exists a regional consensus supportive of intervention of the character as existed in the Middle East in reaction to Iraq’s occupation and annexation of Kuwait in 1990 and in Europe in relation to Kosovo in 1999; the quality of the regional consensus is inescapably a matter of interpretation, although formal endorsement of or opposition to a proposed intervention by a constituted regional organization deserves serious respect in the absence of clear signals at the global level from the UN Security Council;

            –such a presumption deserves deference if the intervention seems contrary to the wishes of the people engaged in a struggle or if the intervention will tip the internal balance in civil strife contra popular will and the dynamics of self-determination or if it is likely to give rise to proxy wars of regional and global scope as has been the tragic fate of Syria since 2011;

            –it may be possible and desirable to support nonviolent initiatives shaped and carried out by civil society actors. In such circumstances, the presumption against intervention should remain in the background, yet relevant to the avoidance of militarizing the conflict. Even then it is important that civil society actors are independent of government influence and not vehicles for an intrusion upon unresolved civil strife. It is also relevant that there exists convincing evidence of a humanitarian crisis and a realization that the territorial government is incapable of acting protectively or is guilty of crimes against humanity; a strong precedent for such intervention from below was exemplified by the global anti-apartheid campaign that exerted major pressures on South Africa in the early 1990; a more controversial example is the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement currently challenging certain Israeli policies and practices involving Israel’s unlawful settlements, continued occupation of Palestine, and overall interference with Palestinian rights under international law.

 

            These five propositions are rough guidelines for reaching a contextual assessment in relation to any debate proposing a specific intervention or civic action aimed at achieving change in a foreign state. By its nature, there is an imprecision associated with such a framework, but it is an alternative to the sort of doctrinaire approach that has been so common in the polarized public debates about intervention during the past 20 years. Relying on these guidelines I opposed the 2003 intervention in Iraq because of the absence of either a Security Council authorization, an existing humanitarian emergency, and the likely prospect of sustained national resistance. In relation to Libya in 2013, I favored a limited humanitarian intervention to protect the civilian population of the city of Benghazi because there was a UN authorization and a genuine humanitarian emergency, but strongly opposed the NATO enlargement of the mandate to encompass a regime-changing mission. Syria has been the most daunting of challenges as there has existed for several years a severe humanitarian emergency, but there is neither a global nor regional consensus supportive of military intervention. Worse than this, the Syria strife has been greatly intensified by become the scene of multiple interventions by political actors from the Middle East and beyond. Additionally, the uncertainty factors depicted in the first guideline have made it impossible to have sufficient confidence that any foreign military intervention in Syria would not intensify the violence and work against achieving a sustainable peace based on inclusive governance respectful of the human right of all inhabitants. The complexities of the dynamics of self-determination makes it often impossible to reach any kind of clarity with respect to proposed initiatives by external actors. It is important to recall that self-determination remains the most significant anti-intervention norm in a post-colonial global setting, and is so often marginalized in debates for or against intervention. This neglect of the relevance of self-determination has often deepened the tragic plight of state-building in the aftermath of political independence.

 

The New Interventionists: Civil Society Activists

19 Apr

[This essay is a revised and reoriented version of a text that was published online at the Global Policy Website on April 14, 2014 with the title “A Presumption Against Intervention.”]

 

 

            Participating in the intervention debates that have raged periodically in the United States ever since the Vietnam War in the 1960’s, and of course earlier in less contested settings, and elsewhere, I have been struck by a defining encounter between those who are dogmatically opposed to intervention per se and those who rarely confront a call for intervention that they do not feel persuaded by. The traditional focus of policy discussion proceeds on the assumption that what is controversial concerns the forcible character of a proposed intervention by governmental actors to coerce some kind of major change in the regime or policies of a foreign sovereign state. Other lesser forms of intervention, often called ‘interference’ rarely are the subject of public debate, although covert regime-changing intervention is a a crucial exception. Those favoring a particular intervention usually rely, at least in part, on a rationale that such an undertaking is necessary and desirable as it would rescue a captive people from a regime responsible for massive crimes against humanity or genocide or overcome a humanitarian emergency. There are also complexities in analysis if the regime has dubious legitimacy and consents to ‘intervention’ to suppress an insurgent challenge.

 

  1. Systemic Developments

 

            Four developments over the course of the last half century are radically reshape debates about intervention. The first, and most important, is the collapse of European colonialism, which has often motivated the West, and especially the United States, to assert their goals and protect their interests by way of intervention in what were formerly colonies or states whose sovereignty was curtailed by hegemonic authority. A feature of this post-colonial global setting is that the intervening state, if Western, will tend to justify its actions by setting forth an altruistic and unselfish rationale. Related to this matter of motivation on the side of the intervener is the prospect of effective and persevering national resistance creating obstacles to succeeding with an intervention. The combination of motivation and anticipated resistance helps explain why so few major interventions in the recent past have been viewed as successful as compared to earlier. One notable continuity linking colonial memories to post-colonial realities is the invariable geographical locations of the intervener in the West and the target society being in the non-West.

 

            The second development is the rise of human rights as a dimension of world order and a central feature of the foreign policy of liberal democracies, which in a globalizing world makes sovereign boundaries seem less inhibiting from the perspective of international law for a prospective intervener. The implicit major premise of the human rights framework is an affirmation of species solidarity. This means that responsibilities for the wellbeing of others extends beyond the boundaries of one’s own state, and encompasses the most remote parts of the planet. In other words, intervention is supposedly undertaken for the sake of securing the rights of others, and denies territorial ambitions and the quest for economic benefits. The 21st century intervener claims a purity of intentions, but the configuration of interventions and non-interventions is far more ambiguous in its linkages to strategic and material interests.

 

            The third development is the increased reliance on military weaponry and combat tactics that reduce sharply the casualties of the intervener while shifting as much of the burden of death and devastation as possible to the target society. This reflects thin political support in the intervening society that usually accompanies subjecting citizens of Western countries to risks of dying, placing a premium on weaponry and forms of warfare that minimizes the likelihood of casualties even if at the cost of battlefield effectiveness. The Kosovo intervention under NATO auspices in 1999 was characteristic of this pattern, with the military campaign consisting exclusively of air attacks from fairly high altitudes that apparently increased the casualties on the ground but spared the interveners from incurring losses. The attacks launched in 2001 against the al-Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan were notoriously ineffective in attaining their military objectives despite complete battlefield dominance. A similar pattern was present in Libya in 2013 employing NATO airpower to tip the internal balance of forces in favor of an anti-regime uprising while avoiding tactics that might place the intervening forces at high risk.

 

            A fourth development is the acceptance of the validity of a general international law rule prohibiting intervention regardless of justifying circumstances. The only exceptions to this prohibition involve a use of force that can be persuasively justified as self-defense against a prior armed attack or that has been mandated by a Security Council decision. Almost all controversial interventions involve non-defensive uses of force that have not been neither authorized by UN procedures, and are vulnerable to legalistic criticism as violations of international law.

 

II. Assessing the Debate

 

            Participants in debates about a prospective intervention are generally influenced by the presence or absence of a variety of considerations that shape their assessments. The pro-interventionists who rest their case mainly or exclusively on humanitarian concerns believe that when a state severely abuses its own people, intervention should follow regardless of its country of origin or motivation. Ideally, such an intervention should be mandated by the United Nations so as to comply with international law, but if political obstacles prevent such a green light from being obtained, intervention should go ahead anyway if seen as likely effective in ending a pattern of severe abuse. Such North American liberal hawks as Samantha Power, Michael Ignatieff, Susan Rice, and Anne-Marie Slaughter are among the most ardent and intelligent exponents of interventionary diplomacy. One characteristic of these pro-interventionists is their unquestioning good faith of the claims put forward by the U.S. Government that the intervention is truly about helping vulnerable or suffering people, and that allegations by critics about protecting access to oil reserves or ensuring market access should be dismissed as leftist polemics. Another feature of such advocacy is its rather blind confidence that if American military superiority is brought to bear it can be translated into a desired political outcome at an acceptable cost in lives and costs.

 

            The anti-interventionists approach these policy issues entirely differently, essentially on the basis of an ethic of suspicion. They look below the surface of humanitarian rationalizations for unlawful uses of force to discern what they believe to be the real motives. They are quick to doubt the humanitarian explanations offered for an intervention, and instead search for the presence of strategic and material interests. Most anti-interventionists reject the justifications given by the pro-interventionists, especially those put forward by government officials, and are skeptical about claims that positive results will be achieved by an intervention even if the question of strategic interests is put to one side. Such skeptics do often self-identify as left or progressive. They are likely to refer to past failures of intervention such as Vietnam, or more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan. These historical cases are offered as cautionary reminders of how often intervention as a political undertaking has gone wrong. They also sharply criticize advocates of intervention for their willful failure to consider the past and for their near exclusive focus on questions of feasibility, which overlooks the terrible track record of interventions after 1945. Since the end of World War II, few interventions have come close to attaining the goals set by their advocates, especially if the target country has a population of over three million.

 

            For dedicated anti-interventionists, such as Noam Chomsky, nearly every intervention that is politically endorsed by the West is a poorly disguised example of ‘military humanism,’ and as a result, unacceptably weakens international law and the UN, erodes respect for the sovereign rights of smaller and weaker states, and is deeply compromised by the ‘double standards’ that pervade the practice of intervention. Chomsky, for instance, asks rhetorically why intervention was undertaken in Kosovo but not on behalf of the large Kurdish minority in Turkey who during roughly the same time period were enduring a cruel counterinsurgency campaign conducted by the Turkish government. In other words, the suspicion of the anti-interventionists is reinforced by the contradictions in the practice of the intervening states and in the mix of advocacy and silence on the part of the pro-interventionists.

 

            The pro-interventionist tends to believe in the moral contributions of the United States as a global leader that uses its military power for generally benevolent purposes. In contrast, the anti-interventionist generally dismisses such moral claims as a cover story for the pursuit of strategic interests in a post-colonial world order where the rules of the game are the same, or similar, and only the language of justification has changed to require an ethical rationalization to legitimize non-defensive uses of international force. It is no longer permissible or prudent to admit selfish national motivations, and for this reason a humanitarian and human rights discourse has become fashionable, but it has also obscured the true wellsprings of policy. Anti-interventionists captive to their suspicions about the maneuvers of the powerful are on occasion insensitive to the depth and reality of suffering or the severity of abuse being experienced by a people entrapped in genocidal circumstances. Such dogmatic anti-interventionism shoves aside practical pleas to rescue entrapped and victimized peoples even in situation of genuine emergency. They are so distrustful of authorizing uses of force by those few political actors that possess long distance force projection capabilities that they refuse to consider the context or weigh the pros and cons of each particular case, and remain content with a reject of intervention on a purely abstract and dogmatic basis.

 

            Against such a background of polarized views about interventionary diplomacy, I would support several general propositions in seeking to develop an approach that was not ideologically predetermined, but leans toward the anti-interventionist position:

 

            –assess the pros and cons relating to a given situation, including taking due account of the radical uncertainty that arises from unknown and unknowable aspects of the national context and an inability to assess accurately the risks associated with a prospect of national resistance to intervention; the net effect of such an approach is to give rise to a presumption against intervention;

            –such a presumption can be overcome by solid evidence suggesting that a true humanitarian emergency exists, that the persons facing a dire threat can be effectively rescued by the proposed scale of intervention, and that the intervening political actor receives authorization from the UN Security Council;

            –in situations of exceptional danger to a civilian population as posed by a genocidal campaign the presumption should be overcome even without UNSC authorization, provided there exists a strong regional consensus supportive of intervention as emerged in the Middle East in reaction to Iraq’s occupation and annexation of Kuwait in 1990 and in Europe in relation to Kosovo in 1999; the quality of the regional consensus is inescapably a matter of interpretation, although formal endorsement of or opposition to a proposed intervention by a constituted regional organization deserves serious respect in the absence of clear signals at the global level from the UN Security Council;

            –such a presumption should not be put aside if the intervention seems contrary to the wishes of the people engaged in an ongoing struggle to promote change in the target country or if the intervention will tip the internal balance in civil strife contra popular will and the dynamics of self-determination;

            –if the intervention is carried out nonviolently as a civil society initiative, the presumption against intervention should be reversed, provided that the evidence of a humanitarian crisis is clearly established and the territorial government is incapable of acting or is guilty of crimes against humanity; an influential precedent for such an intervention from below was provided by the global anti-apartheid campaign that exerted major pressures on South Africa in the early 1990s; a more controversial example is the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement challenging certain Israeli policies and practices, and is currently directed mainly at Israel’s unlawful settlements and continued occupation of Palestine.

 

            These five propositions are guidelines for reaching a contextual assessment in relation to any debate proposing intervention aimed at achieving change in a foreign state. By their nature, there is an imprecision associated with such a framework, but it is an alternative to the sort of doctrinaire approach that has been so common in the public debates about intervention in the past 20 years. Relying on these guidelines I favored a limited intervention in Rwanda in 1994 while opposing the 2003 intervention in Iraq because of the failure to obtain authorization from the Security Council despite a major effort, the fabrication of a counter-proliferation justification, the absence of an existing humanitarian emergency, and the likely prospect of a surge of national resistance. In relation to Libya in 2013, I favored a limited humanitarian intervention to protect the civilian population of the city of Benghazi because there was a UN authorization and a genuine humanitarian emergency, but opposed the NATO enlargement of the mandate to encompass a regime-changing mission.

 

            Syria has been the most daunting of recent cases as there has existed for several years a severe humanitarian emergency, but there is neither a global nor regional consensus supportive of military intervention. Beyond this, the uncertainty factors depicted in the first guideline have made it impossible to have confidence that any foreign military intervention in Syria would not intensify the violence and work against the dynamics of self-determination, the most significant anti-intervention norm in a post-colonial global setting that has so often been disastrously violated in the Middle East.

 

            Debates about intervention are inevitable in an interdependent world order in which ideals of territorial sovereignty clash with the interests and values of hegemonic political actors. There are no either/or solution for the dilemmas posed. What seems preferable is a contextual assessment tempered by humility arising from the experience of past interventions. Such an outlook is consistent with attitudes of overall respect for international law as binding on the strong as well as the weak. But consistency must yield on rare occasions to conditions of acute emergency even if the motivations of the intervening side are impure and the UN is unwilling to give its approval. And the peoples of the world must shoulder more responsibility via civil society initiatives that have a far cleaner record, both in relation to motivation and results, than do governments when it comes to intervention, which may be deliberately coercive but is not violent.  

           

The Obsolescence of Ideology: Debating Syria and Ukraine

23 Mar

 

            I have been struck by the unhelpfulness of ideology to my own efforts to think through the complexities of recommended or preferred policy in relation to Syria, and more recently, the Ukraine. There is no obvious posture to be struck by referencing a ‘left’ or ‘right’ identity. A convincing policy proposal depends on sensitivity to context and the particulars of the conflict.

 

            To insist that the left/right distinction obscures more than it reveals is not the end of the story. To contend that ideology is unhelpful as a guide for action is not the same as saying that it is irrelevant to the public debate. In the American context, to be on the left generally implies an anti-interventionist stance, while being on the right is usually associated with being pro-interventionist. Yet, these first approximations can be misleading, even ideologically. Liberals, who are deliberately and consigned to the left by the mainstream media, often favor intervention if the rationale for military force is primarily humanitarian.

 

            Likewise, the neocon right is often opposed to intervention if it is not persuasively justified on the basis of strategic interests, which could include promoting ideological affinities. The neocon leitmotif is global leadership via military strength, force projection, friends and enemies, and the assertion and enforcement of red lines. When Obama failed to bomb Syria in 2013 after earlier declaring that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime was for him a red line this supposedly undermined the credibility of American power.  My point is that ideology remains a helpful predictor of how people line up with respect to controversial uses of force, although relying on ideology is a lazy way to think if the purpose is to decide on the best course of action to take, which requires a sensitivity to the concrete realities of a particular situation. Such an analysis depends on context, and may include acknowledging the difficulties of intervention, and the moral unacceptability of nonintervention.  

 

            On a high level of abstraction, it is true that the hard right tends to find a justification for military action as the preferred solvent for any challenge to American foreign policy and the hard left is equally disposed to dismiss all calls for humanitarian intervention as sly anti-imperialist maneuvers, recalling Noam Chomsky’s dismissal of the Kosovo War in 1999 as ‘miltary humanism.’ In this sense it seems easier to proceed by dogma than to engage seriously with the existential complexities and uncertainties of the specifics pertaining to a conflict setting, and thus be willing to conclude either that ‘the situation is horrible, and something must be done’ and yet still believe that ‘the situation is horrible, but military intervention will only make it worse.’ This is the kind of conundrum that has perplexed and troubled me ever since the Syrian uprising in 2011 turned violent, unleashing the criminal fury of the Damascus regime, and attracting a variety of predatory outside forces on both sides. Often those on one side or the other of the debate fail to recognize the consequences of either a failed intervention or a refusal to intervene.

 

            There are at least two problems that bedevil interpretation in these setting. To assess particularities of context requires a genuine familiarity with the specifics and changing dynamics of a conflict if persuasive policy recommendations are to be grounded in relevant knowledge rather than on knee jerk reactions. And secondly, no matter how expert, core uncertainties will persist, and the difficulties of making choices that involve killing and dying of others is a huge weight of responsibility if the policy risks and alternatives are carefully weighed.

 

            I would add a third caveat—in the last fifty years military intervention has rarely worked out well for the target society or for the intervener; that is, historical experience would seem to call for what lawyers call ‘a presumption against intervention.’ This presumption is not intended as an absolute prohibition, but it does impose a burden of persuasion on the advocates of intervention. Often, also, the evidence pro and con intervention is doctored and manipulated one way or another to reflect the views of the government or of special interests.  This was spectacularly illustrated by the lead up to the U.S. led attack on Iraq in 2003 where governmental efforts to strengthen the public case for intervention produced notorious fabrications. Rwanda in 1994, did present an exceptionally strong humanitarian case supportive of a limited military intervention with operational responsibility entrusted to the United Nations, but the bad experience of the Clinton presidency with the Somalia intervention during the prior year led the United States to oppose effectively a UN effort to prevent, or at least mitigate, a genocidal onslaught.

 

            It would seem against such a background that the best solution in such situations might be procedural, that is, leaving the final policy decision in each instance up to a determination by the UN Security Council. If the Bush Administration had accepted the outcome of the Security Council vote that withheld approval for intervening in Iraq it would have been spared a humiliating strategic defeat that damaged America’s status as world leader. Allowing the Security Council to decide whether or not international force is required and justified also is consistent with the presumption against intervention due to the possibility that any of the five permanent members casting a negative vote counts as a veto.

 

            The Obama approach has not fared much better than that of Bush. It induced members of the Security Council opposed to military intervention to accept the plea of NATO countries in 2011 to engage in a humanitarian operation to save the besieged civilian population of the Libyan city of Benghazi by way of establishing a No Fly Zone. Once the operation got underway, it completely ignored these UN guidelines, and used its air dominance to widen the scope of violence and carry out an unauthorized mission of regime-change. The aftermath in Libya casts further doubt on the overall wisdom of authorizing intervention in such a circumstance of internal strife. As well, the spillover from the refusal of the interveners to adhere to the limited UN mandate has been to undermine trust in such a way as to weaken any prospect for the UN to play a more robust role in resolving the Syrian conflict where the case for interference has become stronger than it ever was in Libya.

 

            Beyond this issue of trust are questions of geopolitical alignment, especially encounters that align the U.S. and NATO on one side and Russia and/or China on the other. As yet, fortunately, there is no second cold war, although the neocons, and some in Europe, are beating the war drums in relation to the Ukraine in such a way as to point in that most unwelcome and totally unjustified direction.  Russia’s sensitivity to hostile developments on its borders, previously expressed a few years ago in the 2008 crisis over Georgia, is now more potently evident in relation to the Ukraine and  breakaway Crimea, which contains a strategic Russian naval base at Sevastopol that is the only Russian warm water port, as well as home to their Black Sea naval fleet.

 

            American exceptionalism, or put differently, the geopolitical asymmetry that generates one set of rules for the United States and another for secondary geopolitical actors such as Russia, pushes the United States to claim a license to act against Russian borderland encroachments that would never be tolerated in reverse, if say a radical anti-American takeover took place in Mexico, and Russia was audacious enough to object to American extra-territorial interference, dire consequences would follow. Recall the American readiness to risk World War III to prevent the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba back in 1962. The problems of both Syria and Ukraine are intensified by geopolitical antagonism that restricts the UN role to the margins and prevents a diplomatic consensus from allowing international cooperation to bring pressure to bear that will move parties away from violence and toward a political settlement.

 

            It is true that geopolitical antagonism is not an absolute political obstacle to intervention. The Kosovo War was undertaken despite the perceived inability to gain authorization from the Security Council due to anticipated Russian and Chinese opposition. The interveners relied on the combined legitimating weight of ‘a coalition of the willing’ and a regional consensus that favored intervention to protect the endangered Albanian majority population. A further legitimating factor in Kosovo was the plausibility of undertaking a military operation that could probably succeed quickly, and not produce many casualties on the intervening side. An important additional justification for intervention was the credible prospect of ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces of the sort that had actually taken place in Srebrenica a few years earlier in the midst of Bosnian strife. Finally, in light of this Serbian prior criminal behavior, the aspirations of the Kosovars for an independent political community seemed reasonable. A further post hoc vindication of intervention resulted from the large-scale return to Kosovo of most Albanian refugees after the Serbian control ended, reinforcing the interventionist rationale after the fact by showing its consistency with the dynamics of self-determination.

 

            Nevertheless, a questionable precedent was set in Kosovo by bypassing the Security Council. In effect, the Kosovo intervention involved recourse to non-defensive force without a mandate from the UN, and thus amounted to a deliberate violation of the core articles of the UN Charter and international law that unconditionally prohibits non-defensive threats or uses of force. An effort was made in the Kosovo context by the interveners to stress emergency conditions: the harsh memories associated with inaction in relation to Srebrenica and Rwanda were strong inducements to act beyond the law, and a quasi-legal reliance on a NATO consensus were argued as sufficient to prevent the formation of an unfortunate precedent. When a few years later, the United States, with only the United Kingdom as a credible ally, invaded and occupied Iraq, some negative implications of the Kosovo circumvention of international law became evident, and led the anti-interventionists to reassert their skepticism.

 

            Putting ideology to one side, the question of what is to be done is daunting in the very different challenges poses by Syria and Ukraine. Syria is above all a horrifying humanitarian catastrophe that is also destroying some of the country’s ancient and most cherished cities. It is a situation in which the opposition to the regime is disunited and itself guilty of atrocities, and in which both the governing authorities and insurgency are supported by external actors that treat the civil strife as primarily a proxy war engaging regional interests, and these external forces seem unlikely to yield significantly to their adversary regardless of the humanitarian ordeal being inflicted on the Syrian people. In this respect Syria illustrates regional and global geopolitics in its most cynical and destructive form. One revealing aspect of the disheartening complexity has led the anti-Assad governments to exclude Iran from the Geneva diplomacy that is supposed to be dedicated to finding a war-ending transition to a terrain of political competition. Iran’s exclusion seems irresponsibly submissive to the views of America’s regional allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and works against surmounting the admittedly difficult set of diplomatic obstacles in the quest for peace and political compromise relating to Syria.

 

             The geopolitical realities of the Ukraine are totally different, raising risks of a new cold war, or at least renewed great power rivalry, and is threatening to produce an uneven military encounter between Russia and the Ukraine over moves by Moscow to annex Crimea on the basis of a hastily arranged referendum that went, as expected Russia’s way by an overwhelming (95%) of the vote. Even if the lopsided outcome partly reflected pro-Russian intimidation there is little doubt that the people of Crimea strongly prefer being part of Russia than remaining an autonomous province in the Ukraine. The Western media gives little attention to the strong historical and cultural affinities between Russia and Crimea. It should be remembered that the Crimea had long been part of Russia, its population mostly Russian speaking, and its shift to the Ukraine accomplished by a capricious Kremlin decree in 1954 issued under the authority of Nikita Khrushchev who himself was part Ukrainian. From an international law standpoint the applicability of self-determination is ambiguous in light of this background. From a Ukrainian point of view, the transfer of Crimean sovereignty was a valid legal act 60 years ago, and the population of Crimea do not seem to qualify as ‘a people’ entitled to claim a right of self-determination. Besides, self-determination is not applicable if its exercise fragments an existing state, in this case Ukraine. But as we have seen, when self-determination is asserted successfully, as in former Yugoslavia, the resulting political entities, although fragmenting an existing state, which was a member of the United Nations, the political outcome will be generally accepted, although maybe not formalized immediately.

 

            Putting aside the geopolitical dimension, there are other problems with action (granting the unacceptability of inaction) in the Syria setting. First of all, the regime is not isolated from popular support, although the breadth and depth of the support is controversial, and probably belongs in the domain of the unknowable. Secondly, because the regime is well armed, it would require a major undertaking to have any assurance that intervention would produce regime change, security, and political transition rather than escalation. As recent history has demonstrated over and over again, in the post-colonial era a Western intervention is likely to provoke prolonged, and in the end, effective national territorial resistance, with highly unpredictable political consequences. In Syria, with minimal strategic interests of the United States at stake, the difficulties of achieving regime change by intervention seem too great, especially, as is the case, tactics would be relied upon that cut the casualties on the intervening side to an absolute minimum.  

 

            We are left, then, with the other part of the challenge: the unacceptability of doing nothing in relation to Syria, and a debate about what could be done to promote a more sustainable and satisfactory outcome in Ukraine.  It has been proposed for some time to undertake a series of humanitarian initiatives on behalf of the Syrian people, including a No Fly Zone to protect a humanitarian corridor that would be capable of delivering food and medicine to beleaguered communities in Syria. Such a course of action is beset with problems stemming from a lack of trust giving rise to suspicions about the authenticity of the humanitarian motivations. Concerns also exist as to the control of the scope and magnitude of the forcible action once undertaken, as well as about the genuine difficulties of making such a zone secure without expanding the scale and scope of the use of force.

 

            In the Ukraine, there seems to be no constructive role for the West to play at this stage. Granting that anti-Russian sentiments prevail in the Ukrainian speaking, Catholic, portions of Ukraine, it seems that the upheaval that led the Viktor Yanukovych government to collapse can be viewed as consistent with the internal sovereignty of the country, although not without some inappropriate Western encouragement of destabilizing political opposition. Even granting this kind of interference, it does not create an occasion justifying Russian intervention, and this is so, regardless of the degree to which the new leadership includes a strong fascist component. Fortunately, there is no current prospect of a Russian intervention designed to break up Ukraine, but the impact of Western anger, expressed by the imposition of sanctions personally directed at Putin and some of his close associates seems designed to hurt Russian investment and trade. Such hostile moves could easily trigger Russian retaliation, and give rise to an unpredictable and dangerous escalation of tensions. Given the way the world is organized on the basis of statist logic, reinforced by geopolitical zones of influence, it would be a major move in the direction of global hegemony if the West were to mount a provocative challenge to Russia’s relationship to what was previously known as their ‘near abroad,’ and from any point of view threatened vital Russian security interests.

 

            In relation to both Syria and Ukraine there are internationalist frustrations because of the inability to protect vulnerable people in severe distress. At stake are opposing principles of respect for sovereignty and  human rights, as well as the hostile interplay of dangerous geopolitical rivalries. The effort to uphold the collective rights of weaker countries and their peoples is opportunistically pursued, making current frustrations mainly a reflection of the dysfunctional operations of a structure of hard power world order that accords primacy to state sovereignty, the pursuit of national interests, and the hegemonic claims and conflicts of geopolitical actors having varying ambitions, claims under international law, and diplomatic and military capabilities.

 

            Further in the background is the presence of weapons arsenals filled with nuclear weapons that makes hardly any political or moral goal worth the risk of major inter-governmental military encounters. Until the political cultures of the main countries in the world are prepared to reorient their priorities around concerns with a species sense of identity and solidarity we are stuck with this territorially delimited structure that was initially established in 17th century Europe and then over time exported to the rest of the world. Such a world order is being challenged by functional considerations of sustainability, climate change, and weaponry of mass destruction, as well as by normative considerations associated with human rights, equity, and species survival. The breakdowns of such an order in Syria and Ukraine are emblematic failures of this system, but also in many respects, human tragedies entailing massive suffering and trauma.

Post-Intervention Libya: A Militia State

12 Oct

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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