Tag Archives: Congress

Resolving the Syrian Chemical Weapons Crisis: Sunlight and Shadows

15 Sep

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

##

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: Obama’s Surprising (and Confusing) Latest Moves

1 Sep

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

*****************************************************************

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

*******************************************************************

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 ##