Tag Archives: Bashar al-Assad

Visiting Nuremberg, Reflecting on the Ambiguous Legacies of Nuremberg

2 Oct

 

I spent two days at Nuremberg to attend the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award ceremony on September 22, 2017. The reason we were in Nuremberg was that my wife had been a member of an international jury that selects an awardee every second year. The recipient in 2017 was the ‘Caesar Group,’ the undercover work of an official Syrian police photographer, who had managed to smuggle out of Syria a hard drive with 28,000 photographs of 6,000 prisoners of Bashar al-Assad’s detention centers in Damascus. These extraordinary images of tortured and dead bodies were truly horrifying in ways that statistics or even first-hand stories told by victims and their families, rarely are. The name Caeser is a pseudonym for this brave Syrian photographer who is living incognito in Britain, understandably fearing for his life. The Nuremberg award honors not only Caesar, but those who helped in the complex work of archiving the photographs and doing whatever possible to disseminate them to the world. The Caeser Group also performed the grim task of giving several family members a morbid closure about the whereabouts of their loved ones who had disappeared without a trace into the dreaded Syrian prison archipelago, and were now identified as among the victims of the brutal Damascus regime.

 

At the very moving ceremony held in the grand Nuremberg Opera House some excellent orchestral music of a contemporary Syrian-American composer, Kareem Routom, and a powerful address by a French journalist, Garance Le Caisne, who accepted the award on Caeser’s behalf, expressing strong sentiments of admiration for his courage, the importance of such documentation, as well as reminding the audience that other political actors in the complex Syrian descent into Hell these past six years were also responsible for atrocities against the civilian population of Syria, although there seems to be agreement among specialists that the Assad regime is responsible for upwards of 90% of civilian casualties.

 

There were also well-crafted speeches by Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch, which had convincingly documented the authenticity of Caesar’s photographs, and Stephen Rapp, a former American ambassador, who had been a chief prosecutor at the international criminal trials held in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide and at the Special Court constituted to address crimes committed in the Ivory Coast.

 

The speeches of Roth and Rapp focused on the desirability of bringing Bashar al-Assad to trial as a war criminal, and the formidable obstacles to doing so. This naturally led me to think about the legacy of the Nuremberg Trials held nearby in this city in 1945. The Nuremberg Judgment found all but three of the 22 Nazi leaders being prosecuted as guilty of war crimes, with twelve sentence to death, three to life imprisonment, four to long-term imprisonment, while three were actually acquitted. Ever since the Nuremberg trials and verdict have been memorialized as not only punishing those guilty of the most evil imaginable behavior but also for establishing the legal principle that those who act on behalf of a sovereign state, even at its highest levels of political leadership and military command, remain subject to accountability for severe violations of international criminal law. The overall significance of this experience was given an authoritative formulation in the Nuremberg Principles adopted by the UN General Assembly on the recommendation of the International Law Commission in 1947 [GA Res. 177(II)]. The trial was also praised at the time for providing the defendants with due process of law, which was reflected in the sentences that distinguished degrees of individual guilt and variations in the quality of incriminating evidence in the minds of the judges.

 

There was also a certain moral and political ambiguity that created dark clouds in the skies above the Nuremberg Proceedings in 1945 that most commentators at the time refrained from noticing lest the party be spoiled. The defendants were not allowed to excuse their actions or even make reference to war crimes of the victorious nations in the war, which engaged in a variety of tactics, especially strategic indiscriminate bombings intended to terrorize and demoralize the civilian populations of Germany. Such tactics cannot be reconciled with international law or international morality.

 

This impunity of the accusers became more difficult to obscure in the companion Tokyo War Crimes Trials held against surviving Japanese leaders, especially in view of the use of atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki despite indications that Japan was at the time prepared negotiate terms of surrender similar to what was agreed upon following the atomic attacks. There is little doubt that if either the Germans or Japanese had used atomic bombs against Allied cities, and then later lost the war, such acts would have been criminalized in a confident and convincing manner. It not surprising that within Japan, in particular, critics described the war crimes trials as ‘victors’ justice.’ As well, there was a long dissent and finding of ‘not guilty’ by the Indian judge on the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal stressing the inclusiveness of evidence charging the Japanese defendants with aggression (‘Crimes Against Peace’) in view of the pre-war policies of economic strangulation pursued by the United States. Unlike Nuremberg, the Tokyo tribunal included judges other than those drawn from the ranks of the four main victorious Allied powers in the European theater of combat. For many years it was almost impossible to find Judge Radhabinod Pal’s lengthy opinion in even the best American libraries. In Japan Pal is honored to this day, including a statue to his memory in the notorious Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japan’s war dead and serving recently as a rallying cry for the rebirth of a version of Japanese militarized nationalism.

 

There were several notable attempts to find a middle ground to address this moral and legal deficiency at the heart of what was achieved at Nuremberg. The chief American prosecutor at Nuremberg, Robert Jackson (previously a member of the U.S. Supreme Court) indicated in his historic closing statement that the validity of the Nuremberg results would be tested in the future by whether the countries that pass judgment against these Nazi defendants abide by the same framework of accountability relevant to their future behavior. The eminent German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, argued in a similar vein that the punishments inflicted on these German defendants will be regarded as justified if and only if those governments that imposed the punishments uphold similar standards with respect to the future behavior of their own political and military leaders.

 

We all should know that the loophole of victors’ justice has not been closed. Quite the contrary, the United States and Russia, the two main victors in World War II, have done their best to obstruct any development of international criminal law that might hamper their freedom of maneuver, and refused all efforts at accountability that might apply to their own leaders or those of their allies, while still self-righteously pressing the case for imposing criminal responsibility on adversaries.

 

Syria and the Nuremberg ceremony fit into this ambiguous legacy, suggesting the relevance of this concern. The Roth/Rapp speeches were exclusively directed at ‘the enemy,’ without even considering whether there should be criminal responsibility imposed on other actors, including the United States. It has always been the case that the Western liberal temperament, especially as orchestrated by Washington, pushes ahead with the implementation of international criminal law without ever compromising the geopolitical structure that imposes responsibility selectively while invoking the authority of law with great moral pretension. Such a dynamic confuses law with power, and somehow turns a blind eye to the uncomfortable realization that law is not fully law that treats equals unequally.

 

It can be argued that so long as the law is applied in accordance with due process against those that have committed severe crimes it is reasonable to claim that justice is being served. Surely, we should not shed tears for Bashar al-Assad should he ever be hauled into court to defend against his documented record of bloody atrocities committed over and over again against his own people. Not tears, but still concerns that such proceedings give the high moral and legal ground to the most dangerous and powerful political actors whose behavior remains outside the law. Besides the misleading jurisprudential character of geopolitically grounded impunity, there is the impression created that the West remains the guardian of civilized values although it has been more responsible during the last several centuries for far more massive human suffering than those being solemnly apprehended.

 

One final observation: this gap in the implementation of international criminal law has been challenged by civil society initiatives, starting with the Bertrand Russell Tribunal organized during the Vietnam War. This symbolic

contribution to the idea of international criminal responsibility has been carried forward over the years, above all, by the Permanent Peoples Tribunal established in 1976 under the inspirational leadership of the Italian jurist, Lelio Basso. A variety of independent initiatives along these lines have occurred over the years at times when neither governments nor the UN would respond to either war crimes or severe violations of human rights. As important as these events have been in keeping the flame of global justice burning, there is no capacity to make these judgments enforceable or otherwise challenge the discretionary prerogatives of geopolitical actors and repressive governmental regimes. The gap remains. The human costs remain.

 

In Nuremberg it is unavoidable to reflect upon the distinctive history of the city. This history weighs heavily not only on the minds of visitors but more tellingly on the city’s citizens in several notable respects. First, and above all, is the association of the city with the Nuremberg Rallies held each year on the vast parade grounds and surrounding park. Secondly, there are the notorious Nuremberg Laws that first formalized the anti-Semitic persecution directed at Jews. Thirdly, is the keen awareness, especially on the part of older residents, that 90% of the old city of Nuremberg was destroyed by the Allied bombing campaign. Thirdly, in the early years after 1945 there was a serious tension between those who wanted to forget the Nazi past of the city and those who insisted on remembrance, remorse, and the extensive documentation of the horrors. Fourthly, what prevailed in the end was the view that the symbolic role Nuremberg played in the rise and practice of Nazism and Hitler throughout Germany should be fully exhibited, but accompanied by the careful avoidance of any glorification of Nazi pageantry. For instance, the museum dedicated to the Nazi experience is called ‘a documentation center,’ and its architecture is intended to convey a sense of violation and menace. There is also a reluctance to show Leni Riefenstahl’s extraordinary propaganda film, “The Triumph of the Will” for an acknowledged fear that it might stimulate feelings of nostalgia rather than remorse. Finally, for those willing to probe a bit more deeply into the Nuremberg story in bygone centuries one encounters a disquieting series of pre-modern incidents of anti-Semitic persecution of Jews, common throughout Europe at the time, but still inevitably part of the history of this now vibrant and seemingly normal city.

Advertisements

Why Congress Should Say to ‘No’ on Syria

6 Sep

[I am not sure this attempt at clarifying the present stage of the Syria debate adds much to my prior posts, yet I hope that it provides a kind of summary that is helpful in following the unfolding debate; all along I have felt that the Syrian impasse presented the UN and the world with a tragic predicament: trapped between doing something to stop the Assad regime from committing atrocities against its own people so as to retain power and the non-viabiility and illegality of military intervention, a predicament further complicated by the proxy war within the region along sectarian lines, by the strategic involvement of the U.S. and Russia on opposite sides, the maneuverings behind the scenes by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel, and the avowed Turkish support for regime-changing intervention; also, the overall regional turmoil, and past bad feeling in relation to the UN role in the overthrow of Qadaffi posed additional obstacles; efforts to shape the political outcome by military means, because of the proxy war dimensions (including an increasingly evident, although still surprising, tacit alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia) have so far only escalated the violence on the ground in Syria; Turkey, Russia, and the United States have all along  oscillated between principled and pragmatic responses favoring one side or the other, and exhibiting an ambivalent commitment to equi-distant diplomacy.]

There are three positions that have considerable support in Washington circles, although rarely acknowledged and not popular with the public, partly because of recent foreign policy failures, and partly too removed from perceptions of genuine security interests:

–undertake an attack to uphold ‘red line’ credibility of the president and the United States Government;

–undertake an attack too avoid an insurgent defeat, but on a scale that will not produce an insurgent victory; goal: keep the civil war going;

–undertake an attack to convince Iran that Obama is ready to use force if diplomatic coercion doesn’t work.

There are several other considerations that need to be taken into account:

–the Assad regime is guilty of numerous crimes against humanity aside from and prior to its probable (although far from assured) responsibility for the August 21st attack with chemical weapons on Ghouta; Syria lacks a legitimate government from the perspective of international criminal law; with respect to the violation of the Geneva Accord with respect to chemical weapons, the responsibility of Assad personally and the Syrian government generally has not been established beyond a reasonable doubt at this point;

–nevertheless, the Assad regime retains considerable support from various segments of the Syrian population, possesses substantial military capabilities, and is unlikely to collapse without a major ground invasion; the Assad government retains a measure of legitimacy from the perspective of the politics of self-determination;

–insurgent forces are divided, without coherent leadership, and are also responsible for committing atrocities, and contain political extremists in their ranks; a victory by the insurgency does not seem likely to lead to legitimate governing process from the perspective of law and morality;

–the negative American experiences of relying on war in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan should create a presumption against the authorization of force and reliance on military option in conflict situations; there is mounting evidence from past cases that the costs and risks associated with military options tend to be grossly understated during pre-war debates in the United States due partly to the political mobilization role played by mainstream media;

–the diplomatic alternative to force has been handicapped by its past abuse in the UN Security Council with respect to Libya authorization of ‘responsibility to protect’ undermining the trust of Russia, China, and others, and by the refusal to bring Iran into the political conversation as a key actor.

Against this background there are four important independent reasons for Congress to withhold authorization in this instance:

–a use of force that can neither be justified as self-defense, nor is authorized by the UN, is contrary to the UN Charter, which is an obligatory treaty, as well as being the most serious type of violation of international law in a post-Nuremburg world; the Nuremberg precedent with regard to crimes against peace (as the ‘crime of crimes’) should be respected, especially by the United States, which continues to serve for better and worse, as  the main normative architect of world order;

–the Kosovo precedent of ‘illegal, but legitimate’ is not applicable as a military attack is not likely to achieve either its political goals of ending the civil war and of causing the collapse of the Assad regime, nor its moral goals of stopping the slaughter and displacement of the Syrian people, and the devastation of their cities and country;

–even if the political and moral goals could be achieved, Congress, as well as the president, lacks the authority to authorized foreign policy uses of force that are incompatible with the UN Charter and international law;

–Congress should defer to domestic and world public opinion that clearly is opposed to a proposed military attack in the absence of an exceptional demonstration can be made as to the positive political and moral benefits of such an attack; for reasons mentioned, no such demonstration can be made in this instance; even the European Union has withheld support for a military attack on Syria at the

September meeting of the G-20 in St. Petersburg; only France among America’s traditional allies supported Obama’s insistence on reliance on a punitive military strike, supposedly for the sake of enforcing international law, bizarre reasoning because the rationale reduces to the following proposition: in view of the political realities, it is necessary to violate international law so as to be able to enforce it.

##

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

31 Aug

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

             

 

Contra Syria Attack

30 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this rationale insufficient?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 Oct

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Syria: Geopolitical Mentoring versus Rehab for Addicted Geopolitical Leaders

19 Aug


             On August 18th President Barack Obama rendered judgment and gave guidance. While affirming that “[t]he future of Syria must be determined by its own people” he added these words, “Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way.” And so comes the conclusion: “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” This American leader’s advice was orchestrated to coincide with the release of a joint statement along similar lines by the leaders of Germany, France, and Britain, the three most important countries in Europe, that instructed President Assad to “leave power in the greater interests of Syria and the unity of its people.”

 

            More than advice was being offered. Sanctions against Syria were imposed and tightened involving energy imports, business connections, and weapons. Other countries were urged to stop their support for the Syrian regime, and “get on the right side of history.” Such words seemed appropriate given the violent behavior of the regime toward its people, except that the source of this utterance was the American Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, who herself might well have been the recipient of the same message, refusing heeding this prudent admonition in the course of conducting American foreign policy during the Obama presidency.

 

            The Republicans, always quick to seize any opportunity for a partisan snipe, attacked Obama for waiting so long before telling the Syrian leader to get out of his home town. With a perfect ear for geopolitical mentoring, the leading Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, was clear in his portrayal of the proper American role: “America must show leadership on the world stage and work to move these developing countries toward modernity.” Of course, decoding ‘modernity’ suggests the United States model of government and economy: be like us and you will be modern, and successful.

Not a message likely to get a favorable hearing in Pakistan or most anywhere in the South, but maybe such ‘modernity’ is what the people of Alabama and Arizona desire.

 

            But it was not only Republicans that had this idea that the United States offers the world the best model of humane and legitimate governance. Hilary Clinton made clear that governments sharing American values should join together in opposing the Syrian regime through the use of what she called “‘smart power,’ where it is not just brute force, it is not just unilateralism,” but rather it is behavior shaped by shared commitments to “universal freedom, human rights, democracy, everything we have stood for and pioneered over 235.” Clinton seems to be proposing what was previously called ‘a coalition of the willing’ in relation to the wars fought over Kosovo in 1999 and Iraq since 2003.  But what makes these sentiments worthy of comment is their seeming unawareness of how starkly they contradict the America record throughout those 235 years. And, of course, it is not only a matter of bad history as the ongoing interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya are pretty much displays of brute force and, if not unilateralism, then at least West-centric interventions that sought to superimpose a West-oriented secular governing process onto the internal workings of the politics of self-determination.

 

            President Obama’s guidance on Syria is equally suspect, although less blatantly so. What does it mean to tell the established leadership in Damascus to step aside while affirming the role of the Syrian people in shaping their own future? Such inescapable incoherence must be hiding something deeper!

 

            This theatrical exhibition that I am describing as ‘geopolitical mentoring’ seems both regrettable and discrediting. To begin with, the words and ideas relied upon by Obama and Clinton seems to emanate directly from the good old days of undisguised colonialism. The language chosen suggests a kind of ideological regression that is forgetful of the very flow of history that Secretary Clinton was keen to invoke by way of discouraging such countries as Russia, China, India, and Iran from maintaining normal relations with the Damascus regime. What this self-righteous posturing discloses is the familiar imperial trait of talking endlessly about what others should do but never listening to what others tell us to do. A half century ago Adlai Stevenson made a similar observation when he quipped, “the item of technology that America most needs is a hearing aid.” Without genuine listening there is no learning. This is the price being paid by all of us for this self-entrapment of the imperial mind.

 

            But there is also the unwillingness to address global problems in a more plausible and constructive manner. To be sure Obama/Clinton wish to rely on collaborative diplomacy, a contrast with the greater unilateralism of the Bush II presidency, so as to shed the image and avoid the costs of acting alone. But is this really the best that smart power can do in the 21st century?  If the NATO intervention in Libya is one instance of such multilateralism then it hardly brings hope or engenders support. What is needed is an institutional capability detached from the priorities of the geopolitical mentors, what I have previously called for in the form of a UN Emergency Disaster Relief and Atrocity Prevention Force (this is along the lines proposed in “UN Emergency Peace Force,” ed. Robert C. Johansen, published in New York City, 2006, on behalf of Global Action to Prevent War, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and the World Federalist Movement, http://www.responsibilitytoprotect.org/files/UNEPS_PUBLICATION.pdf; similar ideas also depicted by Citizens for Global Solutions in an instructive paper “UN Emergency Peace Service: One Step Towards Effective Genocide Convention,” http://globalsolutions.org/files)

 

            Getting back to geopolitical mentoring: it sounds condescending even if sincere in the context. It is relevant that none of the emerging geopolitical actors, including Brazil, China, and India have joined the American led choir, and told Assad to move on. Even Turkey that has leaned strongly on Assad in recent weeks to stop state violence, provide reforms, and abide by human rights has refrained from joining in the call for his removal from power. Instead of geopolitical mentoring, it is time for some kind of geopolitical rehab program that might allow the United States to grasp the character and full extent of its actual role in the world, which continues to be dominating by an addictive relationship to military solutions. Why else linger in Iraq and Afghanistan, why kill babies in Libya? There are better ways of exhibiting empathy for the victims of state violence and brutality!

 

            There is also the issue of double standards that constantly taints the moral core of American foreign policy. How can the silence about Israel’s oppressive occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem otherwise be explained or the unlawful collective punishment of the people of Gaza that have endured a harsh blockade that has persisted for more than four years be allowed to go on unchallenged? Or why the indulgence of Saudi Arabia’s systemic suppression of women?  The architects of grand strategy in Washington know that smart power in world politics has been and still is all about manipulating double standards. Given the words quoted above this means that our current political leaders are either not smart or they are merely running moral interference for the smart policymakers who remain faithful to an ethos of raison d’etat, which entails that law and morality be damned.

 

            I do not deny that state atrocities of the sort the world has been witnessing in Syria and Libya during recent months are unacceptable and should not be tolerated. Moral globalization is incompatible with viewing the boundaries of sovereign states as absolute or treating their leaders as situated beyond legal and moral standards of accountability. Yet, it is a sorry commentary on present global conditions if the best we can do is either mount an airborne military intervention that destroys much of what is to be saved or engage in self-satisfied exercises in geopolitical mentoring.

 

            Of course, the future should not be entrusted to the political leaders representing sovereign states. It is up to the peoples of the world to propose and demand better solutions for the unfolding global tragedies that are sidestepped by the egocentric behavioral goals of national governments. Populist complacency is part of what gives this geopolitical posturing a semblance of credibility in our post-colonial era. A benign human future, whether in relation to state/society relations and human rights or the abatement of climate change, depends ultimately on a struggle for peace and justice mounted by energized and dedicated transnational movements. Only a global populism of as yet unimaginable intensity and vision, can provide us with the possibility of a hopeful future that we earthlings need and desire. It is too soon to say whether the Arab Spring is this first glimmering of a Global Spring, or just another thwarted challenge to an exploitative and oppressive established order? 

VIII.19.2011