Tag Archives: intervention

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.

 

 

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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 Toxic Residue of Colonialism: Protecting Interests, Disregarding Rights

8 Feb


At least, overtly, there has been no talk from either Washington or Tel Aviv, the governments with most to lose as the Egyptian Revolution unfolds, of military intervention. Such restraint is more expressive of geopolitical sanity than postcolonial morality, but still it enables some measure of change to take place that unsettles, temporarily at least, the established political order. And yet, by means seen and unseen, external actors, especially the United States, with a distinct American blend of presumed imperial and paternal prerogatives are seeking to shape and limits the outcome of this extraordinary uprising  of the Egyptian people long held in subsidized bondage by the cruel and corrupt Mubarak dictatorship. What is the most defining feature of this American-led diplomacy-from-without is the seeming propriety of managing the turmoil so that the regime survives and the demonstrators return to what is perversely being called ‘normalcy.’ I find most astonishing that President Obama so openly claims the authority to instruct the Mubarak regime about how it is supposed to respond to the revolutionary uprising. I am not surprised at the effort, and would be surprised by its absence, but merely by the lack of any signs of imperial shyness in a world order that is supposedly built around the legitimacy of self-determination, national sovereignty, and democracy. And almost as surprising, is the failure of Mubarak to pretend in public that such interference in the guise of guidance is unacceptable, even if behind closed doors he listens submissively and acts accordingly. This geopolitical theater performance of master and servant suggests the persistence of the colonial mentality on the part of both colonizer and their national collaborators.

The only genuine post-colonial message would be one of deference: ‘stand aside, and applaud.’ The great transformative struggles of the last century involved a series of challenges throughout the global south to get rid of the European colonial empires. But political independence did not bring an end to the more indirect, but still insidious, methods of indirect control designed to protect economic and strategic interests. Such a dynamic meant reliance on political leaders that would sacrifice the wellbeing of their own people to serve the wishes of their unacknowledged former colonial masters, or their Western successors (the United States largely displacing France and the United Kingdom in the Middle East after the Suez Crisis of 1956). And these post-colonial servants of the West would be well-paid autocrats vested with virtual ownership rights in relation to the indigenous wealth of their country provided they remained receptive to foreign capital.  In this regard the Mubarak regime was (and remains) a poster child of post-colonial success. Western liberal eyes were long accustomed not to notice the internal patterns of abuse that were integral to this foreign policy success, and if occasionally noticed by some intrepid journalist, who would then be ignored or if necessary discredited as some sort of ‘leftist,’ and if this failed to deflect criticism than point out, usually with an accompanying condescending smile, that torture and the like came with Arab cultural territory, a reality that savvy outsiders adapted to without any discomfort. Actually, in this instance, such practices were quite convenient, Egypt serving as one of the interrogation sites for the insidious practice of ‘extreme rendition,’ by which the CIA transports terrorist suspects to accommodating foreign countries that willingly provide torture tools and facilities. Is this what is meant by ‘a human rights presidency’? The irony should not be overlooked that President Obama’s special envoy to the Mubarak government in the crisis was none other than Frank Wisner, an American with a most notable CIA lineage.

There should be clarity about the relationship between this kind of post-colonial state, serving American regional interests (oil, Israel, containment of Islam, avoidance of unwanted proliferation of nuclear weapons) in exchange for power, privilege, and wealth vested in a tiny corrupt national elite that sacrifices the wellbeing and dignity of the national populace in the process. Such a structure in the post-colonial era where national sovereignty and human rights infuse popular consciousness can only be maintained by erecting high barriers of fear reinforced by state terror that are designed to intimidate the populace from pursuing their goals and values. When these barriers are breached, as recently in Tunisia and Egypt, then the fragility of the oppressive regime glows in the dark. The dictator either runs for the nearest exit, as did Tunisia’s Ben Ali, or is dumped by his entourage and foreign friends so that the revolutionary challenge can be tricked into a premature accommodation. This latter process seems to represent the latest maneuvering of the palace elite in Cairo and their backers in the White House. Only time will tell whether the furies of counterrevolution will win the day, possibly by gunfire and whip, and possibly through mollifying gestures of reform that become unfulfillable promises in due course if the old regime is not totally reconstructed. Unfulfillable because corruption and gross disparities of wealth amid mass impoverishment can only be sustained, post-Tahrir Square, through the reimposition of oppressive rule. And if it is not oppressive, then it will not be able for very long to withstand demands for rights, for social and economic justice, and due course for solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

Here is the crux of the ethical irony. Washington is respectful of the logic of self-determination so long as it converges with American grand strategy, and oblivious to the will of the people whenever its expression is seen as posing a threat to the neoliberal overlords of the globalized world economy or to strategic alignments that seem so dear to State Department or Pentagon planners. As a result there is an inevitable to-ing and fro-ing as the United States tries to bob and weave, celebrating the advent of democracy in Egypt, complaining about the violence and torture of the tottering regime, while doing what it can to manage the process from outside, which means preventing genuine change, much less a democratic transformation of the Egyptian state. Anointing the main CIA contact person and a Mubarak loyalist, Omar Suleiman, to preside over the transition process on behalf of Egypt seems a thinly disguised plan to throw Mubarak to the crowd while stabilizing the regime he presided over for more than 30 years.  I would expected more subtlety on the part of the geopolitical managers, but perhaps its absence is one more sign of imperial myopia that so often accompanies the decline of great empires.

It is notable that most protesters when asked by the media about their reasons for risking death and violence by being in the Egyptian streets respond with variations on the phrases “We want our rights” or “We want freedom and dignity.”  Of course, joblessness, poverty, food security, anger at the corruption, abuses, and dynastic pretensions of the Mubarak regime offer an understandable infrastructure of rage that undoubtedly fuels the revolutionary fires, but it is rights and dignity that seems to float on the surface of this awakened political consciousness. These ideas, to a large extent nurtured in the hothouse of Western consciousness and then innocently exported as a sign of good will, like ‘nationalism’ a century earlier, might originally be intended only as public relations moves, but over time such ideas gave rise to the dreams of the oppressed and victimized, and when the unexpected historical moment finally arrived, burst into flame. I remember talking a decade or so ago to Indonesian radicals in Jakarta who talked of the extent to which their initial involvement in anti-colonial struggle was stimulated to what they had learned from their Dutch colonial teachers about the rise of nationalism as a political ideology in the West.

Ideas may be disseminated with conservative intent, but if they later become appropriated on behalf of the struggles of oppressed peoples such ideas are reborn, and serve as the underpinnings of a new emancipatory politics. Nothing better illustrates this Hegelian journey than the idea of ‘self-determination,’ initially proclaimed by Woodrow Wilson after World War I. Wilson was a leader who sought above all to maintain order, believed in satisfying the aims of foreign investors and corporations,  and had no complaints about the European colonial empires. For him, self-determination was merely a convenient means to arrange the permanent breakup of the Ottoman Empire through the formation of a series of ethnic states. Little did Wilson imagine, despite warnings from his Secretary of State, that self-determination could serve other gods, and become a powerful mobilizing tool to overthrow colonial rule. In our time, human rights has followed a similarly winding path, sometimes being no more than a propaganda banner used to taunt enemies during the Cold War, sometimes as a convenient hedge against imperial identity, and sometimes as the foundations of revolutionary zeal as seems to be the case in the unfinished and ongoing struggles for rights and dignity taking place throughout the Arab world in a variety of forms.

It is impossible to predict how this future will play out. There are too many forces at play in circumstances of radical uncertainty. In Egypt, for instance, it is widely believed that the army holds most of the cards, and that where it finally decides to put its weight will determine the outcome. But is such conventional wisdom not just one more sign that hard power realism dominates our imagination, and that historical agency belongs in the end to the generals and their weapons, and not to the people in the streets. Of course, there is blurring of pressures as the army could be merely trying to go with the flow, siding with the winner once the outcome seems clear. Is there any reason to rely on the wisdom, judgment, and good will of armies, not just in Egypt whose commanders owe their positions to Mubarak, but throughout the world? In Iran the army did stand aside, and a revolutionary process transformed the Shah’s edifice of corrupt and brutal governance, the people momentarily prevailed, only to have their extraordinary nonviolent victory snatch away in a subsequent counterrevolutionary move that substituted theocracy for democracy.  There are few instances of revolutionary victory, and in those few instances, it is rarer still to carry forward the revolutionary mission without disruption. The challenge is to sustain the revolution in the face of almost inevitable counterrevolutionary projects, some launched by those who were part of the earlier movement unified against the old order but now determined to hijack the victory for its own ends. The complexities of the revolutionary moment require utmost vigilance on the part of those who view emancipation, justice, and democracy as their animating ideals because there will be enemies who seek to seize power at the expense of humane politics. One of the most impressive features of the Egyptian Revolution up to this point has been the extraordinary ethos of nonviolence and solidarity exhibited by the massed demonstrators even in the face of repeated bloody provocations of the baltagiyya dispatched by the regime. This ethos has so far refused to be diverted by these provocations, and we can only hope against hope that the provocations will cease, and that counterrevolutionary tides will subside, sensing either the futility of assaulting history or imploding at long last from the build up of corrosive effects from a long embrace of an encompassing illegitimacy.