Tag Archives: ISIS

Failures of Militarism in Countering Mega-Terrorism

27 Aug

[Prefatory Note: I am posting on my blog a short article just published in a very good journal devoted to terrorism, Perspectives of Terrorism. It was originally presented at a conference in Washington, DC, and later revised. As always, civil comments welcome.]

 

 

Failures of Militarism in Countering Mega-Terrorism

 

Abstract

The introduction of this article is devoted to the distinctive challenges posed by this era of mega-terrorism initiated by the 9/11 attacks. The article offers a critique of the American response which is based on a ‘war’ rather than a law enforcement paradigm. An argument is then made to adapt international law to new modalities of conflict while at the same time learning the right lessons from the repeated militarist failures of transnational counterterrorism. These issues are further considered via the parallel analysis of American counterterrorism policy by the distinguished diplomat, Chas Freeman.

 

Keywords: Militarism; intervention; terrorism; international law

 

Introduction: Tensions Between Post-9/11 Counterterrorism and International Law

There are multiple complexities arising from the interactions between sovereign states and large-scale political violence of extremist groups and individuals associated with, or inspired by, such groups. These complexities profoundly challenge the efforts of international law and the capabilities of national governments to contain and minimize political violence. They also raise serious questions about the relations between war, territorial sovereignty, law, and morality under contemporary conditions.

To begin with, international law evolved in the last century to prohibit all uses of force that cannot be convincingly validated as claims of self-defense or as authorized by the UN Security Council. These are innovative and core ideas of the UN Charter that were agreed upon in the aftermath of World War II when the uppermost priority was the establishment of constraints on discretionary recourse to international force by states in the course of international disputes. Article 51 of the Charter further restricts valid claims by limiting self-defense under international law to situations in which a government is responding to “a prior armed attack.”[1] As suggested, supplemental to self-defense claims are authorizations to use force that are given to political actors by the UN Security Council. This was the case with respect to the 2011 NATO regime-changing intervention in Libya, although the precedent remains controversial as the scope of the use of force exceeded the evident intent and language of the authorizing resolution.[2]

Also, within the UN framework, recourse to force is required to be a matter of last resort, that is, after the failure of good faith diplomatic efforts.[3] Arguably, the practice of states during the Cold War was deeply inconsistent with this restrictive view of legally valid uses of force, and so there emerged a degree of uncertainty and disagreement as to the effectiveness of law in regulating recourse to international force.[4] Because of the absence of governmental institutions on a global level, there is a blurred line separating violations of existing international law and the practice of states that can have lawmaking impacts as a result of patterns of behavior that establish precedents.[5]

The kind of transnational political violence that reached its climax in 2001 with the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. World Trade Center and the Pentagon poses a more systemic challenge to the UN framing of lawful uses of international law. First, both al Qaeda (in attacking) and the United States (in responding)—whether prudently or not—viewed the ensuing political violence through the prism of ‘war’ rather than ‘crime,’ expanding the scope and magnitude of the violence. The 9/11 attacks had characteristics blurring the boundaries separating traditional terrorist acts from traditional acts of war, giving political leaders in the United States the choice of whether to respond within a war paradigm or a crime paradigm. That the leadership at the time in the United States immediately chose war partly reflected the neoconservative worldview of the presidency of George W. Bush, the traumatizing and symbolic nature of the targets, the gravity of the harm done, and a feared vulnerability to additional attacks by Al Qaeda.[6]

Second, Al Qaeda’s political violence was uniformly described as ‘terrorism.’ A non-state actor who lacked a territorial presence in the targeted country had attacked major civilian targets in the United States. This feature of 9/11 had the immediate effect of transnationalizing the interaction between terrorism and counterterrorism. In the process a new species of war was borne. By and large terrorism had been largely a state/society interaction, previously treated as a law enforcement challenge to be addressed within the boundaries of the targeted state or, internationally, with the cooperation of foreign police and security forces or through covert special operations. This international militarization of counterterrorism was essentially a new political phenomenon, although there had been a foretaste in the decades before in the form of retaliatory strikes (as distinct from extended military campaigns) against foreign countries thought to have sponsored terrorists, harbored them, or were otherwise complicit in the attacks.[7] The contemporary nature of transnational extremist politics and the forcible responses of geopolitical actors are contributing to the restructuring of world order by way of deterritorializing armed conflict.[8]

Third, the absence of a clear territorial base from which terrorists launched their provocative attacks made it more challenging to design a military response able to engage, defeat, and destroy such an adversary. On the terrorist side, the dispersal of its bases of operations, which are often inter-mingled with the civilian population, had several effects: turning the entire world into a potential battlefield, subverting notions of territorial sovereignty, eliminating legal options of neutrality in situations of armed conflict (as George W. Bush famously put it, “you are either with us or with the terrorists”), and strengthening incentives to engage in political assassinations that undermine the core distinction of international humanitarian law between civilians and combatants.[9]

Fourth, this kind of conflict also shifts the strategic focus away from deterrence and retaliation toward preemption and prevention. Such an anticipatory orientation expands the UN Charter’s conception of self-defense by allowing a threatened state to strike first rather than being compelled by law to wait until attacked.[10] This shift also encourages the adoption of legally and morally controversial tactical and weapon innovations intended to enhance counterterrorist effectiveness, including reliance on torture, drones, and special operations (covert military groups seeking to find and destroy terrorist targets in foreign countries) as necessitated and justified by the distinctive character of the security challenge.[11] The shift also reflects the politically motivated goal of minimizing casualties on the counterterrorist side even at the sacrifice of effectiveness so as to avoid the rise of anti-war sentiments of the sort that were thought by the U.S. government to have interfered with the prosecution of the Vietnam War.

Fifth, the insistence on treating the adversary as ‘terrorist’ identified as ‘evil’ substantially eliminates both diplomacy and self-scrutiny as instruments of counterterrorist statecraft. In the past, many ‘terrorist’ entities were at some stage in a conflict treated as political actors, enabling negotiated arrangements that succeeded in bringing high levels of political violence to a virtual end. Without this option, there is the prospect of permanent war, already acknowledged to some extent by the Pentagon in its designation of the struggle as the ‘long war,’ with side effects that increase the authority of the state and correspondingly decrease the freedom of the citizenry. The decision to treat an international adversary as a ‘terrorist entity’ is a highly subjective determination that can be withdrawn at any point that it becomes convenient to treat the enemy as a political actor.

These five clusters of issues deserve a detailed treatment that is critical of the self-serving manipulation of international law to free state actors from prior constraints on the use of international force. It is also appropriate to consider revisionist steps that loosen the constraints of international law in reasonable response to a series of grave new security challenges.[12] In this regard, the old international law is not reasonably calibrated to address this new generation of transnational mega-terrorist threats, but neither is the wholesale rejection of normative constraints justified, nor practically necessary. How to strike a proper balance is the central question being addressed here by distinguishing between the contextually rational use of counterterrorist force and, at the same time, striving to uphold those features of international law that in the past sought, with admittedly mixed results, to minimize political violence and the human suffering caused by warfare during the past hundred years.[13]

 

 

Critical Challenges

 

These background considerations inform and structure an assessment of how best to fashion an effective response to the ISIS phenomenon. There are two overlapping challenges associated with ISIS. There is the challenge of selecting the best tactics to address the immediate territorial and security threats presently posed by ISIS in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and other parts of the world. In short, within the Middle East and North Africa, the challenge is essentially at this point both territorial and political, which is producing a new hybrid form of armed conflict and asymmetric warfare that gives rise to new tactics of combat that should, in turn, lead to corresponding modifications in the framework of international humanitarian law. So far, this has not happened. As far as Europe and the United States are concerned, the terrorist events have involved mainly individuals or small groups operating independently, although claiming allegiance to, or inspiration from, ISIS, but essentially posing traditional internal state/society challenges.

For these reasons, at least for the present, the challenges emanating from outside the Middle East and North Africa directed at the established order should be treated primarily as an issue of crime prevention, and not as an occasion for war. Turkey situated next to ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria is faced with several types of threats, the radical destabilization of neighboring countries and the disruptive spillover generated by refugee flows and isolated acts of terrorism apparently intended both as retaliatory responses to Turkish counterterrorist initiatives jointly undertaken with the United States and as efforts to widen the conflict theatre and extend the zone of subversive and destabilizing influences attributable to ISIS. The Turkish case is complicated by the priority presently accorded by Ankara to anti-Kurdish operations; creating tensions with counterterrorist goals as has been the case in Syria.

A third deeper challenge associated not only with ISIS, but also with other expressions of jihadism, including Al Qaeda and its affiliates, is to alter relations with the Islamic world in ways that minimize the prospect of the continuing (re-)emergence of anti-Western extremist political organizations and movements. In my view, the militarist and politically deficient character of present and past Western, particularly American, counterterrorism policies has unwittingly contributed to the rise, spread, and success of jihadist militancy. Such movements have in common the perception that the West is their supreme enemy as a result of intervening in the politics of the region as well as engaging in resource exploitation, especially oil and gas, and by a globally influential popular culture perceived to be undermining Islamic values.[14] The West is also viewed as responsible for upholding Arab governments regarded by ISIS and kindred groups as corrupt, incompatible with Islamic ideas of political community, and viewed for other reasons as illegitimate. The very origins of ISIS are bound up with the US/UK occupation policies pursued in Iraq since 2003, particularly the sectarian purge of Sunni elements in the Iraqi armed forces and governing process.

The main focus of this article is on this structural challenges to the West that can only be effectively met by abandoning certain patterns of past behavior, including an attitude toward global security, which has in the past given rise to jihadism that arose to resist foreign military occupation, but adopted perverse types of liberation strategies, including the repeated commission of crimes against humanity which are viewed generally as atrocities. From this perspective, a critique of Western militarism is put forward both with regard to past ineffectiveness in achieving its goals and with respect to the normative unacceptability of the counterterrorist modalities of response. The distinct interpretative lens concerned with policy assessments of counterterrorist containment efforts are sufficiently interrelated with structural dimensions as to cause some overlap in analysis while still respecting the differences between immediate security threats in combat zones and the underlying conditions that give rise to the threats.[15]

The attention given here to the reliance on the military instrument in the service of counterterrorist policy cannot be separated from the surrounding historical circumstances that led to the present conditions, nor be oblivious to prospects for change. The surprises surrounding the Arab Spring events of 2011 should encourage humility with regard to any effort to evaluate the lasting significance of the reactive counterrevolutionary political turn of the last several years.[16] The situation remains in flux as to what will endure and what is likely to change.

This critique of a militarist orientation also reflects skepticism as to whether current terrorist threats to the security of sovereign states and their populations are being adequately interpreted as a new species of international warfare that calls for a rethinking of the proper role of international force. There is also the related question as to whether–by having recourse to war rather than to the criminal justice machinery–the established political order did not unwittingly create a self-fulfilling prophesy, generating the very threat it is designed to suppress. The dysfunctional application of a war approach to counterterrorism indirectly encourages extremist political movements to emerge, especially through treating a non-state movement as if it were a state, and then, being shocked, as in the case of ISIS by the actuality of its territoriality. This heightening of status by establishing a terrorist identity is illustrated by the transition from al-Qaeda in Iraq to ISIS.

 

 

Militarism and the Military Instrument

 

The distinction between ‘militarism’ and ‘military’ instruments of security is central to an understanding of a structural critique of Western post-colonial policy in the Middle East and North Africa over the course of the last century. By militarism is meant the compulsion to address threats and conflict situations primarily by reliance on a militarist reflex, that is, by an over-reliance on the use of force without giving appropriate consideration to such non-military alternatives as diplomatic negotiations, removing legitimate grievances, adhering to international law, and engaging in self-scrutiny as to the roots of, and responsibility for, the emergence, persistence, and appeal of ISIS and other kindred threats. The argument put forward here is not pacifist, but is directed at the misuse of military capabilities that has led to serious blowback phenomena. This should give rise to an overdue occasion for stocktaking with respect to counterterrorist tactics and doctrine since 9/11.[17]

This misuse reflects, in large part, the failure to adjust to altered historical circumstances. At the height of the colonial era, essentially up until 1945, military superiority was used effectively in the Arab world and elsewhere, to satisfy the colonial ambitions of Europe at acceptable costs to the colonizers. What changed politically was the rise of self-confidence on the part of nationalist forces, the influence exerted by strong global anti-colonial support at the UN and elsewhere under the leadership of the Soviet bloc, and the weakening of European colonial powers due to the losses suffered in the two world wars. Although the United States endeavored to fill the geopolitical vacuum left by the collapse of colonialism, it failed to appreciate the accompanying shift in the balance of forces that shape the outcomes of internal political struggle. Hence the US found itself caught between loyalty to alliances and friendships with European colonial powers and an anti-colonial tradition strongly reinforced by recent historical trends – something that goes back all the way to the American Revolution, which was the first fully successful anti-colonial war.

Despite experiencing a series of frustrating setbacks, the United States continues primarily to rely on innovations in military technology (e.g. drones) and doctrine to sustain a false confidence in militarist approaches to the maintenance of the established political order in non-Western settings of strategic interest. It does so by ignoring a record of frustration and failure associated with military interventionism.[18]

The American failure in Vietnam was expected at the time to generate a more realistic understanding of the limits of military superiority in shaping the political outcome of asymmetric wars. In Vietnam the United States military possessed complete and essentially unchallenged control of air, sea, and land dimensions of the battlefield, and yet could not get the assigned job done to win the war. It was unable despite a decade of effort to crush the Vietnamese political will to continue national resistance to foreign intervention whatever the costs, and finally it was Washington gave in, calculating that it was not worth the effort to continue. In effect, the unconditional will to resist prevailed over the conditional will to intervene, and controlled the outcome, but this core explanation of the Vietnam experience was never understood by the American policy community as providing the key lesson for the future. Instead, the lessons learned were to take steps to blunt the rise of opposition to such foreign wars by abolishing the draft, relying on a professional army, and making a greater effort to enlist the media in support of an ongoing war effort.

A second lesson could have been learned in Afghanistan: those opportunistically trained and equipped as allies in a secondary struggle (in this case, containing the spread of Soviet influence) may turn out to be enemies in a more primary sense (the direct attack of 9/11 would never have been undertaken by the Soviet Union, which is inhibited because vulnerable to retaliation).[19] In effect, short-term geopolitical opportunism was pursued at the expense of intermediate-term security and stability. Al Qaeda’s anti-Soviet collaboration in Afghanistan was followed by launching a struggle to dislodge the United States from the Islamic world, especially its large military deployments in close proximity to the sacred sites located in Saudi Arabia.

A third lesson should have been learned in reaction to the spectacular failures of the Iraq policy pursued by the United States ever since 1992, reliant on punitive sanctions, aggressive war, and a badly mishandled occupation.[20] The aims of imposing ‘democracy,’ influencing oil pricing, securing military base rights, containing Iran, and reconnecting Iraq with the world economy were all frustrated. What is worse from Washington’s strategic point of view, the war intensified sectarian tensions throughout the Middle East, which, contrary to the intention of the mission, increased Iran’s regional influence, led to the formation and local popularity of ISIS, and damaged the American reputation in relation to both the effectiveness of its military diplomacy and the propriety of its political goals and methods.

In my view, the U.S. response to security threats posed by transnational terrorism and specifically, by the rise of ISIS, has often been deeply flawed due to this persistence of militarism. The 2016 presidential campaign discourse in the United States on how to deal with ISIS, especially the policies proposed by the opposing presidential candidates, are surrealist exaggerations of this militarist mindset that has so badly served American and regional security needs in the 21st century. This militarism has also intensified widespread suffering and chaos throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It has also accentuated violent disorder and devastation in other parts of the post-colonial world.[21]

This critique of militarism as 21st century counterterrorism should not be understood as a disguised pacifist plea for an unconditional renunciation of force in response to mega-terrorist threats. There are appropriate counterterrorist roles for military power, although its efficiency and effectiveness in achieving global, national, and human security has markedly declined in the period since the end of World War II, especially when used to wage wars of choice in political struggles for the control of foreign states.

The colonial wars after 1945 confirmed the declining historical agency of military power in recent decades. The colonial powers, despite enjoying overwhelming military superiority in relation to national resistance forces, lost almost every colonial war. The French experience in Indochina and Algeria were, perhaps, the clearest instances of this decisive shift in the operation of the balance of forces in conflict situations in the global South. The genocidal behavior of ISIS along with the regional and global consensus that has formed around its containment and defeat provides a legitimate basis for reliance on military power if coupled with a recognition of its narrow utility, given the mix of political circumstances, including the prior Shi’a abuses in Sunni areas of Iraq and the insistence of parts of the population, especially in Iraq, to be freed in the future from Shi’a governance. The superior military capabilities of the intervening forces do not assure an enduring victory even if it achieves temporary control over a combat zone; what counts is a sense that the political future is entrusted to the indigenous society and to a legitimate national government rather than managed and manipulated by outsiders. It is surprising that the colonial record of failure with respect to military interventions under Western auspices in the period since 1945 did not yield a much more selective approach toward uses of force by the West when addressing security threats in the Middle East and elsewhere in the South.

The U.S. war efforts’ outcome in Vietnam was lamented in Washington, provoking much handwringing with respect to why the Vietnam War was lost, but without questioning the militarist mindset that had, for more than ten years, guided American participation in the struggle. After the Vietnam War a variety of steps were taken to fix the military instrument so that it could function more effectively in the future. However, what was not done, was an assessment of why military intervention had itself become intrinsically dysfunctional late in the 20th century–in contrast to earlier times when it provided an efficient instrument of force projection and allowed the assertion of control over foreign societies. It was true that after the Vietnam experience the American public, for several reasons, became disillusioned about getting involved in distant wars seemingly unrelated to national defense or clearly explainable national interests. Militarists derided this public disillusionment by derisively speaking of ‘the Vietnam syndrome,’ a label intended to convey the unhealthy reluctance of the American public to support the use of military power. The Gulf War, and then the NATO Kosovo War, seemed to remedy the political situation by the delivering quick military victories, and–this is crucial–achieved with minimal casualties, accompanied by national enthusiasm that was bolstered by the militarist claim that warfare could now bring victory to the West in what were approvingly labeled ‘zero casualty wars.’ This change in war fighting tactics was promoted by militarists who were trying to regain their political traction in Washington. They sold it as ‘a revolution’ in the conduct of warfare: no boots on the ground, precision targeting from the air and heavy explosive payloads accurately delivered over long distances with ‘shock and awe’ drama, and a supposedly more respectful relationship between intervening forces and the indigenous population.

It is not surprising that President George H.W. Bush’s first exultant words after victory in 1991 were “We have finally kicked the Vietnam Syndrome”. This is best translated as saying “we can again confidently use military force as a potent instrument of American foreign policy, without encountering either anti-war resistance at home or facing the prospect of a disillusioning long war that ends in defeat.” Actually, it was not as innovative as claimed. The neoconservative Project for a New American Century made this clear in its influential 2000 report, which regretfully acknowledged the absence of a political mandate to support the regime-changing military interventions that it strategically favored in the Middle East.[22] The report contended that ‘a new Pearl Harbor’ was needed to create a political atmosphere in the United States that would be supportive of the aggressive geopolitics that neoconservatives believed promoted American interests in the Middle East after the Cold War. Subsequent developments would show this particular analysis of public sentiments was correct. After 9/11, the public and Congress endorsed, on the basis of a bipartisan consensus, militarist and interventionist undertakings in the Middle East that had no persuasive justification as necessary to meet threats of mega-terrorism. As it turned out, carrying out the interventionist agenda has clearly had the opposite effect of generating and intensifying terrorism in the region and beyond, implementing a misguided neoconservative diplomacy centered on upholding ‘special relationships’ with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Iraq War, launched in 2003, was a disaster from a counterterrorist point of view. It transformed a stable autocracy into a strife-ridden, occupied country that became a fertile breeding ground for extremist resistance movements.[23]

The mood of militarist optimism with respect to American uses of military force was short lived; it was discredited by the distinctive challenges of the post-9/11 world. This new approach to war fighting, while enjoying success in removing Iraq from Kuwait and persuading Serbia to withdraw from Kosovo, had not been tested in conflict situations in which the goal was to shape the outcome of political, religious, and ethnic strife in medium-sized states, in response to counterterrorist regime-changing interventions, and in relation to dispersed extremist base areas situated in countries with which the United States is at peace. The threats posed in the post-9/11 world were unlike either the kind of missions undertaken in the failed anti-colonial wars or the success stories of the Gulf War and Kosovo. George W. Bush mindlessly sold the government and the public on a militarist response to 9/11. And surprisingly, there have been no fundamental conceptual reassessments during the Obama presidency despite the major disappointments experienced in Afghanistan, and even more so, in Iraq. At most there have been several controversial and ambiguous cautionary retreats made during the Obama presidency.

Three costly and misleading tactical ideas overlapped. First, that regime change as a result of military intervention could control the post-conflict state’s (re-)building process under the mentorship of a foreign occupation that was subsidizing economic recovery. The actual outcomes witnessed the rise of regimes that proved totally unsatisfactory from a counterterrorist point of view – regimes that seemed not even capable of providing orderly governance within their national borders. Secondly, that eliminating an unfriendly regime or a regime supportive of international terrorism or unable to prevent the use of its territory for international terrorist activities, would lead to the elimination of the terrorist threat rather than its dispersal, reconfiguration, and renewal. In different ways, both Afghanistan and Iraq, are illustrative of these unexpected blowback consequences. Without viewing conflict through a militarist lens, these consequences would have been anticipated, and the fact that they were not, strengthens the contention that policy shaped within a militarist box will not grasp the nuances of post-9/11 security challenges in the Middle East. And thirdly, that a regime-changing intervention would enhance internal security and promote the regional and global security goals of Washington. Even now those that defend the Iraq War claim, without showing why, insist that the Iraqi people are better off without the dictatorial leadership of Saddam Hussein. It seems obvious that a second coming of Saddam, despite many misgivings, is the only way to overcome the violent forms of disorder that continue to dominate the everyday landscape of Iraq.

An obvious puzzle is ‘why do smart people of good faith continue to behave dysfunctionally in the face of such costly military failures?’ There is no simple answer, and none that applies to all conflict situations. There are some elements of the ISIS type challenge that seem useful to take into account in shaping a tentative answer to such a question. I would here only mention six worth analyzing:

  • The difficulty of turning the ship of state around on fundamental issues of security. This is partly because political leaders and their advisors continue to subscribe to hard power versions of political realism, which affirms an abiding faith in the agency of military power in international conflict situations.
  • A combination of bureaucratic and special interests (military-industrial complex) that resist all efforts to reduce the defense budget, and are inclined to justify with militarist bravado high fiscal outlays to augment military capabilities even in peacetime, reinforced by exaggerating security threats that are usually accompanied by fear-mongering; a compliant media has the effect of setting limits on ‘responsible’ debate, marginalizing the critics of militarism.
  • A prevalent feature of collective political consciousness, which views current forms of terrorism as both evil and extremely frightening, with restored security depending on their elimination, and not an eventual negotiated accommodation.
  • More controversially, the merger of counterterrorist tactics with a broader American program of global pacificiation that depends upon a structure of military globalization that is given the unacknowledged mission of upholding the neoliberal world economy. This necessarily mixes the pursuit of geopolitical goals that arouses anti-West resentment with the realization of somewhat inconsistent counterterrorist objectives.[24] The Iraq War, its motivations, frustrations, and eventual failure, exemplify the tensions and contradictions caused by pursuing geopolitical goals beneath a banner of counterterrorism.
  • The adoption of this militarist agenda by the United States is tantamount to a partial rejection of the ethos of self-determination in the post-colonial era and as such opposes the flow of history.
  • The militarist mindset, by its very nature, does not adequately explore alternative and complementary nonmilitary responses to terrorist provocations, and as a result tends to produce outcomes that are the opposite of what is set forth as initially justifying military intervention. For instance, the attack on Iraq was seen as part of a policy to contain Iran, yet its effects were to expand the regional influence of Iran, including the irony of bringing Iraq into its sphere of influence. In this respect, the United States, at great expense, produced widespread devastation and casualties. It not only failed to achieve its goals, but has become worse off than had it accepted Saddam Hussein’s autocracy as it did gratefully during the Cold War due to anti-Soviet, rather than anti-Iran priorities, and then, incidentally, turning a blind eye toward the abusive human rights record.

In my view, the basic conceptual mistake of militarism is its inability to recognize the limits of the military instrument in achieving desired security goals under current historical conditions and in light of the essentially non-military distinctive challenges responsible for the rise of jihadist extremism. As argued, not only does militarism not achieve its goals, it makes matters worse. This has been the experience of warfare generally after 9/11, and most concretely in relation to the ISIS phenomenon. More precisely, the successes of counterterrorist operations have been essentially preventive law enforcement actions, the failures have been foreign wars.

 

 

The Diplomatic Critique of Militarism

 

One of the most seasoned and thoughtful American diplomats in the Middle East, Chas Freeman, has similarly diagnosed this failed militarism in the region from a mainstream perspective–with illuminating insight. As Freeman put it, “the major achievement of multiple interventions in the Muslim world has been to demonstrate that the use of force is not the answer to very many problems but there are few problems it cannot aggravate.”[25] Or more succinctly, the militarist impulse is a goad to action, in his words, “Don’t just sit there, bomb something.” Freeman’s main point is that not only has military intervention failed almost wherever it was relied upon, despite enjoying the benefit of overwhelming superiority in capabilities, but that it has made the situation worse than it would have been had the situation been left to fester on its own. Again Freeman expresses this assessment in clear language: “Our campaign against terrorism with global reach has multiplied our enemies and continuously expanded their areas of operation.”[26]

When it comes to ISIS, or Da’esh as he prefers to call it, Freeman’s diagnosis is a direct challenge to mainstream thinking: “Given our non-Muslim identity, solidarity with Israel, and recent history in the Fertile Crescent, the U.S. cannot hope to unite the region’s Muslims against Da’esh.” Freeman adds that we cannot stop Da’esh “without fixing the broken political environment in which extremism flourishes.”[27] What this might mean is uncertain, and whether such goals are within reach of the US and its allies is dubious even if recalibrated. Yet, what makes Freeman’s approach worthy of close attention is that he is a Washington insider who dares to think outside the militarist box, and has paid a political price for doing so. His views acknowledge the fundamental failures of military intervention, blaming the rise of ISIS (Da’esh) on American mishandling of Iraq and Syria. The failure is not just the formidable difficulty of translating ‘mission accomplished’ results on a battlefield into a program of political transformation designed to produce results congenial to Western ideas of regional and global security. It is the more generic matter of territorial resistance encountered in the 21st century whenever a Western intervening power seeks to override the politics of self-determination.

The political side of the Freeman story is revealingly relevant. When President Obama near the beginning of his presidency proposed Freeman to be the chief of National Intelligence Estimates, a pushback of tsunami proportions blocked the appointment. An official, no matter how qualified, who was situated outside the militarist box would naturally be expected to be a subversive presence inside the box, and for this reason would not be wanted by the Washington nomenclatura. Perhaps, Freeman’s real Achilles’ heel was his willingness to question along the same lines ‘the special relationship’ with Israel in framing his critique of American foreign policy in the Middle East. As the controversy heated up, the White House abruptly withdrew Freeman’s name from further consideration. In effect, this amounted to an undisguised surrender to the militarist worldview with the Israel Lobby serving as the No. 1 enforcer. The Freeman experience confirms the opinion that the militarist bias of governmental policymaking is currently impenetrable. Thus, there is little likelihood of adopting an approach to the menace posed by ISIS and related phenomena that is any less prone to blowback and harmful adverse consequences.

Not all of Freeman’s policy recommendations seem helpful. He is too ready to work toward stability by collaborating with the most authoritarian political actors in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, while overlooking their miserable record in human rights, including crushing popular uprisings. And worst of all, overlooking the massive Saudi financial and diplomatic commitment to the international dissemination of a fundamentalist version of Islam. Freeman puts himself on the wrong side of history by repudiating the Arab Spring from its inception, and is even critical of the American failure to lend support to such old allies as the corrupt and oppressive leader of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak. In these respects, Freeman seems insensitive to the mass misery experienced by impoverished populations in the Middle East; he would likely be antagonistic to the still unfolding effort of the peoples in the region to control their destinies. The appropriate diplomatic posture for the United States is one of non-intervention, not one of either regime change or regime stabilization. Admittedly, this posture of detachment may produce results that bring chaos and strife to a foreign country, but it seems preferable to accept the dynamics of self-determination than to embark on the futile and destructive work of opposing populist and nationalist challenges to the established order.

 

 

A Concluding Note

 

In light of the analysis offered, it is essential to draw a sharp distinction between dealing with ISIS as a present reality and pursuing policies, as in the past, that create conditions conducive to the emergence of jihadist challenges. In this regard, coping with ISIS requires some reliance on military power to contain and preempt its violent activities and, if possible, engage with its forces in battlefield combat in which it is likely to be defeated, but combined with a willingness to have exploratory negotiations and even a receptivity to possible diplomatic compromise. Such an outlook would be in line with the extended effort in Colombia to find an end to the prolonged strife between FARC and the state, in the Philippines to end the rebellion on the island of Mindanao.

On the broader issues of security, abandoning militarism as the cornerstone of counterterrorist strategy would be a dramatic starting point. President Obama has gone part of the way by seeking to reduce American combat activities in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, but with only limited success and an uncertain will. Obama is to be praised for his insistence that the ‘global war’ against terrorism not be treated as a ‘perpetual’ conflict, but the policies pursued by his administration seem insufficiently modified to give such ideas real world credibility.[28] Instead, Obama’s approach is seen as an instance of ‘weak militarism’ that pleases neither militarists nor critics, but has more continuities than discontinuities with his neocon predecessor in the White House.

There are several connected policy proposals that seem responsive to the global and regional setting that exists at the present time. First of all, desist from policies of military intervention that are unlikely to succeed at acceptable costs and will likely generate conditions conducive to the rise and spread of transnational terrorism. Secondly, recognize that the security priority of the West is to prevent attacks within Western homelands or against Western targets, making the challenge more in the nature of law enforcement, inter-governmental collaboration, terrorist prevention than the sort of traditional military undertakings associated with deterrence, defense, retaliation, and foreign territorial occupation. This understanding makes international collaboration with police, intelligence, and internal security forces of foreign countries the most promising way to address this category of mega-transnational terrorist threat.

It also seems sensible to discourage, and even restrict, Islamophobic sentiments and activities, but without abridging freedom of expression. The political response to the Charlie Hebdo incident was exaggerated, and illustrative of how the Western establishment should not respond. Western leaders took the occasion of a horrifyingly brutal and murderous incident to identify unnecessarily and excessively with an often viciously anti-Muslim magazine. And although some display of solidarity with the victims of such a vicious attack was certainly justified as a counterterrorist affirmation of freedom of expression, it was widely perceived and presented to the world as a seizure of an opportunity to slam Islam through appearing to endorse the inflammatory outlook of Charlie Hebdo with greater vigor than was being devoted to upholding the abstract principle of freedom of expression. Beyond this, why should this incident have drawn such a display of global solidarity, with many heads of state joining the huge Paris demonstration, than earlier or subsequent comparably brutal incidents of terrorist violence?

As suggested, the emergence of ISIS was definitely a byproduct of American-led militarism, and its containment will not be effectively achieved by reliance on militarism. The needed policies for such a hybrid war is a mixed strategy that emphasizes the political, seeks the higher moral and legal ground, and is imaginative about and receptive to diplomatic opportunities to restore security.

 

Notes

[1] See United States v. Nicaragua, ICJ Reports 1986.

[2] See UN Security Resolution 1973, 17 March 2011.

[3] For views that practice of dominant states alters legal norms by setting precedents, see Anthony C. Arend & Robert J. Beck, International Law and the Use of Force Beyond the Charter Paradigm (New York: Palgrave, 1993); Mark Weisbrud, Use of Force: The Practice of States Since World War II (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1997); see especially, Ruchi Anand, Self-Defense in International Relations (New York: Palgrave, 2009); for strong geopolitically oriented jurisprudence, see Michael J. Glennon, Limits of Law: Prerogatives of Power: Interventionism after Kosovo (New York: Palgrave, 2001).

[4] There is a good case to be made that Vietnam War was the turning point. In post-Cold War settings, the NATO Kosovo War and the Iraq War of 2003 were both non-defensive wars undertaken without the authorization of the UN Security Council.

[5] In struggling with the relationship between legal norms, defying patterns of state practice, and the absence of strong central institutions, some scholars have identified ‘the law’ with ‘reasonable expectation,’ which turns out to be deferential to dominant political actors. For an influential attempt along these lines, see Myres S. McDougal & Florentino P. Feliciano, Law and Minimum World Public Order (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1961).

[6] An intense fear of further attacks after 9/11 as undermining respect for international legal constraints is depicted from a governmental insider’s perspective in Jack Goldsmith, Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment inside the Bush Administration (New York: Norton, 2007)

[7] For critical commentary on retaliatory strikes in a pre-9/11 atmosphere, see E.P. Thompson & Mary Kaldor, Mad Dogs: The US Raids of Libya (1986); there were also retaliatory responses to the Al Qaeda attacks on the USS Cole and on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

[8] See for a challenging interpretation of the impact of transnational terrorism on the nature of world order: Philip Bobbitt, Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century (New York: Knopf, 2008).

[9] George W. Bush, September 20,, 2001, speech to Joint Session of the US Congress.

[10] Nicaragua vs. United States, ICJ Reports (1986) is the most authoritative judicial treatment of the scope of self-defense, refrains from expressing an opinion on the legality of anticipatory self-defense. In §194 of the decision the following statement appears: “In view of the circumstances in which the dispute has arisen, reliance is placed by the Parties only on the right of self-defence in the case of an armed attack which has already occurred, and the issue of the lawfulness of a response to the imminent threat of armed attack has not been raised. Accordingly the Court expresses no view on that issue.”

[11] On the torture debate, see Sanford Levinson (Ed.), Torture: A Collection (New York, Oxford, 2004); Marjoried Cohn (Ed.), Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse (New York: New York University Press); Alfred McCoy, Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012).

[12] This suggestion of a middle course is not represented in the literature very well; there assessments are either apologetic or denunciatory. For example, Philippe Sands, Lawless World: Making and Breaking Global Rules (New York: Penguin, 2006); compare John Yoo, Crises and Command: The History of Executive Power from George Washington to George W. Bush (New York: Kaplan, 2005).

[13] For two attempts, see Richard Falk, The Great Terror War (Northampton: Interlink, 2003) and Gens David Ohlin, The Assault of International Law (New York: Oxford, 2013).

[14] The root cause of the Arab political encounter with the West was explicitly associated by ISIS with the artificiality of the states generated by colonial ambition in the aftermath of World War I, and originally delineated in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. The other underlying explanation of perceived injustice is traced to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, a pure colonialist pledge by the British Foreign Secretary to support the commitment of the world Zionist movement to establish a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine. See David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (New York: Henry Holt, (19—); David A. Andelman, A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today (New York: John Wiley, 2003); Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (New York: Random House, 2010); Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of the Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (London: Verso, 2015); Daniel Byman, Al Qaeda, The Islamic State, and the Global Jidhadist Movement: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[15] Western diplomacy has also contributed to the spread of jihadist politics as through the ‘special relationship’ with Saudi Arabia despite its encouragement of jihadism in numerous ways, including billions of dollars to finance madrasas throughout the Islamic world. See Richard Falk, “Saudi Arabia and the Price of Royal Impunity,” Middle East Eye, 6 October 2015.

[16] See Marc Lynch, The New Arabs Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East (New York: Public Affairs, 2016); also: Richard Falk, Chaos and Counterrevolution: After the Arab Spring (Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, 2015).

[17] See Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York, Henry Holt, 2000).

[18] See the rise of David Petraeus as a result of his influential text revising counterinsurgency thinking: U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual: U.S. Army Field Manual No. 3-24 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). See Fred Kaplan, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013); the failure of such tactical onslaughts as ‘shock and awe’ in the 2003 attack on Iraq as essentially a belief that political ends could be achieved by a traumatizing show of military superiority.

[19] Effectively explored in Deepak Tripathi, Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2011).

[20] Richard Falk, The Costs of War: International Law, the UN, and World Order after the Iraq War (New York: Routledge, 2008).

[21] See books cited in Note 14.

[22] “Rebuilding American Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century,” Project for a New American Century, Sept. 2000.

[23] See Note 12.

[24] See Jeff Halper, War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians, and Global Pacification (London: Pluto, 2015).

[25] Chas Freeman, “The End of the American Empire,” April 2, 2016, Remarks at the Barrington Congregational Church, Barrington, RI.

[26] Chas Freeman, America’s Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East (Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, 2016), 238.

[27] Note 24, 17

[28] See President Barack Obama, “U.S. Drone and Counterterror Policy,” National Defense University, March 23, 2013.

 

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Reflections on the Brussels Attack

26 Mar

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

The Attack

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

This New War

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A New World Order? ISIS and the Sykes-Picot Backlash

17 Dec

 

I

 

One of the seemingly permanent contributions of Europe to the manner of organizing international society was to create a strong consensus in support of the idea that only a territorially delimited sovereign state is entitled to the full privileges of membership. The United Nations, the institutional embodiment of international society recognizes this principle by limiting membership in the Organization to ‘states.’ Of course, there is an enormous variation in the size, population, military capabilities, resource endowments, and de facto autonomy among states. At one extreme are gigantic states such as China and India with populations of over 1 billion, while at the other are such tiny countries such as Liechtenstein or Vanuatu that mostly rely on diplomacy and police rather than gun powder and armies for security. All four of these political entities have the same single vote when it comes to action in the General Assembly or as participants at global conferences such at the recently concluded Paris Summit on climate change, although the geopolitics is supreme in the Security Council and the corridors outside the meeting rooms.

 

From the point of view of international law and organizational theory we continue to live in a state-centric world order early in the 21st century. At the same time, the juridical notion of the equality of states that is the foundation of diplomatic protocol should not lead us astray. The shaping of world order remains mainly the work of the heavyweight states that act on the basis of geopolitical calculations with respect for international law and morality displayed only as convenient. Yet the political monoculture of territorial states remains formally the exclusive foundation of world order, but its political reality is being challenged in various settings, and no where more so than in the Middle East.

 

This is somewhat surprising. It might have been expected in past decades, especially in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa where the ‘states’ were often arbitrarily imposed a century or more ago to satisfy colonial ambitions and took little or no account of the wishes and identities of the people living in a particular geographic space. Yet without exception nationalist movements and their leaders throughout the world, although aware that the colonial demarcations of boundaries were arbitrary and exploitative, thus lacking the legitimacy of ethnic, religious, and historic experience, nevertheless refrained from challenging the idea that a politically independent state should be delimited by the same boundaries as the prior colonial state. It seems that this worldwide acceptance of the territorial status quo reflected two different considerations. Questioning colonial boundaries would open a dangerous Pandora’s Box filled to overflowing with nasty ethnic conflicts and contradictory territorial claims. Beyond this, achieving control over an existing territorial state was seen in international law as the proper fulfillment for a people seeking liberation through the exercise of their right of national self-determination. Such an outcome was increasingly endorsed as the proper goal of nationalist movements throughout the global South, regardless of whether the ideological animus of a given movement leaned left or right. This conception of self-determination was also endorsed at the United Nations, thereby reversing the earlier acceptance of colonial rule as consistent with international law.

 

Of course, here and there were some rough edges and intense splits at the dawn of the post-colonial era, but surprisingly few of such a character as to produce new delimitations of territorial domain. Malaya split into Malaysia and Singapore, and more significantly, Pakistan broke off from India, and then Bangladesh later split from Pakistan in a bloody struggle. Yet in all these instances the result of political fragmentation was the establishment of an additional coherent territorial sovereign state that had some sort of cultural, religious, or historical rationale. There remain several thwarted movements of national liberation, most notably Palestine, Western Sahara, Kashmir, Tibet, Chechnya, Kurdistan, that is national movements to create independent states that have been under prolonged occupation. It is appropriate to regard these peoples as living in ‘captive nations’ contained by oppressive structure imposed by the dominating state. There is a small degree of ambiguity present as the right of self-determination cannot supposed be validly exercised in any manner that results in the fragmentation of an existing sovereign state. For clarification see UN General Assembly Resolution 2625 on International Law Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, with particular attention to the commentary given with respect to the principle of self-determination. In practice, however, when fragmentation results from successful movements of secession, the new political entities are accepted as ‘states’ for purposes of membership in international society. The breakup of Yugoslavia into component parts illustrates the subordination of the legal principle of state unity to the political realities of fragmentation.

 

There seemed to be no other concept of sovereign political community that challenged the European notion of the state as it evolved out of the Peace of Westphalia (1648). Again there are a few inconsequential exceptions. The Vatican despite being an essentially religious community is acknowledged for some purposes as a state, although denied full membership in the UN. More recently, as a result of decades of frustration, Palestine has succeeded in being accepted by the UN General Assembly as a non-member observer state, but without any right to vote or participate as a member in debates within the General Assembly or Security Council. Palestine as a kind of ‘ghost state’ is accepted as a member of UNESCO, as a state party at the International Criminal Court, and even allowed to fly its national flag outside of UN Headquarters.

 

Perhaps, the most fundamental formal challenge to a purely statist world order arose from the emergence of the European Union. The EU does represent the interests of its 25 member states for many purposes, including at some international conferences. And yet the EU has not been given membership or an independent vote at the UN, nor have there been objections to the permanent membership of both the United Kingdom and France in the UN Security Council. Despite recent tensions associated with fiscal policy, counter-terrorism, and statist reactions to refugee flows, the EU retains the possibility of evolving at some point into some novel kind of post-Westphalian regional polity that represents its members in a variety of global venues, and thus challenges the foundational principles of state-centric world order. Just now the European Commission has issued new rules strengthening European border control in a manner given precedence over Westphalian traditions of national border control.

 

More challenging at present is the meta-territorial operational provenance of the United States, with its vast network of foreign bases, its naval and space capabilities able to target any point on the planet, and its claim of ‘presence’ in all regions of the world. The United States is the first ‘global state’ in world history, with its territorial sovereignty only the psychophysical basis of its non-territorial global reach. It is not an empire as that term was understood to rest on formal and overt control, yet it far from being a normal state that generally confines its security operations and diplomatic claims to its geographic boundaries unless it finds itself involved in a distant war.

 

Sporadic efforts to endow civil society with international status have not gained political traction despite widespread support for the establishment of a ‘global peoples parliament’ modeled on the European Parliament. Populist support for some kind of policy role for civil society at a global level has been reffectively esisted by governments and international institutions opposed to any dilution of the Westphalian template.

 

II.

 

It is against this statist background that some recent Islamic practices with regard to political community and world order is innovative and challenging. When explaining the revolutionary process in Iran that unfolded in 1978-79, Ayatollah Khomeini insisted that what was happening in Iran should be treated as an ‘Islamic Revolution’ rather than an ‘Iranian Revolution.’ What was being asserted was that the most relevant community was the Muslim umma, which has not been actualized in recent times but deserves the primary loyalty and adherence of believers whatever their location in national space happens to be. Such a view was more aggressively articulated in the declarations of Osama Bin Laden whose worldview was Islamic, transcending the secular realities of statehood and nationalism, and expressing what might be described as an Islamic Cosmopolitan worldview.

 

The most significant challenge of all directed toward state-centricism has been mounted by ISIS, and especially its proclamation of a new caliphate in the Middle East, whose contours were based on its de facto territorial governance patterns in Syria and Iraq rather than on the boundaries of existing sovereign states. ISIS leaders also boasted of ‘the end of Sykes-Picot,’ the Anglo-French originally secret agreement in 1916 that led to the formation of the modern statist Middle East in the territories formerly administered by the Ottoman Empire. It was this Sykes-Picot colonialist vision that successfully undermined Woodrow Wilson’s post-colonial advocacy of self-determination as the organizing basis delimiting the Middle East after World War I. So far, ISIS has made good on its claim to govern the area it controls by sharia law strictly applied, and has thus managed to defy the sovereign territorial authority of both Syria and Iraq. ISIS is sometimes described as a ‘quasi-state’ because of its territorial control but utter lack of international diplomatic legitimacy, and perhaps because its durability has not been established for a sufficient length of time.

 

There are at least three elements of this non-state pattern of control that are worth noticing. First, ISIS seems to have no current goal or prospect of being internationally accepted as a state or to be treated as a vehicle of self-determination for Syrians and Iraqis living under its authority. ISIS rests its authority to govern exclusively on a sectarian Sunni claim to be applying sharia to those living under its authority. Secondly, by discrediting those Sykes-Picot states that were imposed on the region after World War I ISIS is claiming for itself a superior political legitimacy to that conferred by international diplomatic procedures or through admission to the United Nations, and the claim has some resonance for those living under its dominion. Thirdly, significant portions of the Sunni population that is dominant presence in the ‘caliphate’ welcomed ISIS, at least at first, as a liberating force freeing the population from Shia oppression and discrimination and more effectively offering social services at a grassroots level.

 

In effect, ISIS has effectively, if harshly, raised questions about the political legitimacy of states imposed by colonial authority and accepted by indigenous nationalist movements during the process of achieving political independence. This questioning of European statism in the Middle East is likely to be more enduring than ISIS itself. From an ethnic angle, the Kurdish movements in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, never having been content with Sykes-Picot borders are now constituting new ethnically delimited political communities that in Iraq and Syria possess the attributes of de facto states. As with ISIS, these emergent entities are being called quasi-states or states within states. In other words we are so entrapped in statist language that we must misleadingly link these innovative political realities to the statist framework.

 

From this perspective it is worth noticing the double proposal of the neocon former American ambassador to the UN, John Bolton. [See “To Defeat ISIS, Create a Sunni State,” NY Times, Nov. 24, 2015] As a resolute interventionist, Bolton wants the West to go all out to destroy the ISIS caliphate, but couples this militarist initiative with the rather startling assertion that Iraq and Syria have lost their statist entitlement to reclaim these territories. Instead, “Washington should recognize the new geopolitics. The best alternative to the Islamic State in northeastern Syria and Western Iraq is a new, independent Sunni state.” As might be expected, Bolton’s rationale is totally neo-colonial in conception and implementation, proposed by a Washington insider, designed to keep Moscow out, to restore U.S. influence in the region, and to support indirectly the anti-Shiite goals of the Gulf monarchies. In other words, what Bolton favors is remote both from Westphalian logic and from the practice of self-determination.

 

True, Bolton’s Sunni state is an externally imposed political construction that is expected to be accepted as a traditional state with authority limited to its international borders. This contrasts with the ISIS caliphate that claims authority based on its extreme Salafi interpretation of Islam, and while it maintains and guards the borders that define the territory under its control, its claimed community of adherents is non-geographical, and notions of citizenship and nationality do not apply. It is suggestive that even Bolton opposes an American approach based on “striving to recreate the post-World War I map.” What makes Bolton’s proposal of interest is only that it unwittingly confirms the ISIS challenge to the legitimacy of how Europe constructed the post-Ottoman Middle East in the colonialist atmosphere that remained dominant after World War I.

 

III

 

It seems obvious when considering the complexity of the world as it now functions that the Westphalian model of state-centricism is no longer, if it ever was, descriptive. To take account of the realities of the U.S. global state, the EU, and ISIS requires a more hybrid framework of concepts, policies, and practices that also is more sensitive to multi-level linkages of authority and power, as well as the elaborate patterns of transnational networks and localized systems of control that produce the complex governance structures that provide billions of people with order and stability on a daily basis. A fuller inquiry into these diverse organizational structures would also need to incorporate the role of transnational corporations and financial institutions that create the operational and exploitative realities of neoliberal globalization.  

 

Responding to Megaterrorism after Paris

6 Dec

 

[Prefatory Note: the post below is based on an opinion piece published by Middle East Eye on December 1, 2015 under the title “A Different Response to ISIS after Paris.” My modified text places its focus on the originality of megaterrorism and its distinctive challenges, suggesting that the choice of response needs to be extended beyond the iron cage of militarism and vengeance. Also, it is essential for analysts and leaders to envision the response to the response as well as being preoccupied with how best to hit back. Increasingly, American politicians treat the challenge as if playing poker whereas the realities of the situation call for a chess players’ natural disposition to think ahead as many moves as possible. Finally, given the religious and civilizational dimensions of current versions of megaterrorism, it is vital to guard against various manifestations of Islamophobia.]

 

What separates megaterrorism from other more customary forms of terrorism is the theme of this post. It is not possible to give a precise definition of megaterrorism by pointing to a threshold of casualties or the magnitude of response. Each megaterrorist event is decisively shaped by its distinctive sociopolitical and psychological context. The focus here is take account of this radical new category of threat posed in a variety of settings, critique the ‘war’ reflex and the war/crime binary, briefly consider alternate paths of response, and recommend risk  and cost assessments that take into account adversary responses to the prescribed response. The 21st century experience with responding to megaterrorist events does not create confidence in either most conceptualizations of the challenges being posed or the responsive strategies chosen to be implemented.   

 

 

The horrific Paris attacks of November 13th challenge the West more deeply in some ways than did the 9/11 attacks 14 years ago. The attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center mounted by al-Qaeda were directed at the twin centers of American power: global military dominance, and were in reaction to especially large-scale deployments of American armed forces near the holiest of Islamic religious sites in Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s. There was a terrorist logic associated with striking such symbolic blows, although it aroused an American led unified Western response that was relied upon as a mandate for intervention in Afghanistan and then started to fracture when extended to Iraq after failing to win approval from the UN Security Council. These wars have had the major ‘blowback’ effect contributing to the origins and emergence of the current primary menace of ISIS, above all by its willingness to send suicide bombers to attack ‘soft targets’ of ordinary people that included in Paris a sports arena, a music hall, and several neighborhood restaurants in the city center. In other words, to a greater extent than even was the case with Osama Bin Laden’s manifestos, ISIS has initiated a merciless totalizing campaign against the West, soliciting followers and recruits from around the world, and appears to have the will and capability to continue the effort for the foreseeable future no matter what retaliatory blows it receives as a result of intensified Western military efforts.

 

Such a grave crisis is deepened, rather than mitigated, by the bellicose stupidity of François Hollande who immediately after the event declared ‘war’ on ISIS, promising to be unremittingly merciless in response. Hollande’s words to the French Parliament: The acts committed on Friday night in Paris and at the Stade are acts of war. This constitutes an attack against our country, against its values, against its youth, against its way of life.” In so framing the French response Hollande repeats the muscular mistakes of George W. Bush. It should be clear by now that ‘war’ with the West is not only what these movements claim and seek, but its nature is such that the capabilities at the disposal of the West, magnify rather than reduce or eliminate the threats posed. Or as maybe more precise, seemingly at first effectively reduce the threat, but later on find that the original threat has somewhat changed and been displaced, and is emergent anew in a somewhat altered, yet even more extreme form. In this regard, there was the belief that when Osama Bin Laden was found and executed, al-Qaeda had been most destroyed and substantially contained, Yet it did not take long that the earlier megaterrorist threat had shifted its locus to ISIS and its various ‘cosmic warriors’ (Mark Juergensmeyer) spread around the world who make it their mission to resort to mass indiscriminate violence against purely civilian targets as a matter of religious devotion.

 

One alternative response available to Hollande was to denounce the acts of 11/13 as a monstrous ‘crime’ that called for an unprecedented national and international law enforcement effort. This is the manner in which such non-state violence of political extremists has been addressed before 9/11 and should at least be considered in response to a metaterrorist event before leaping into the fires of war. It remains instructive to examine the Spanish response to the March 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings, a megaterrorist event as measured by the scale of the casualties and the fear generated. The political leader in Spain at the time, José Maria Asner, a junior coalition partner of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq defying Spanish public opinion that opposed such involvement. After the Madrid bombing Asner immediately pointed an accusatory finger at the Basque Separatist movement, ETA, which turned out to be wrong, and his fear-mongering was evidently resented by many Spaniards. The real culprits turned out to be Moroccan Muslim extremists. It happened that there was a national election in Spain a few days after the bombing, Asner was defeated, and the Spanish Socialist Workers Party prevailed, resulting in José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero becoming the new head of state. As the new leadership promised in its electoral campaign, the Spanish government quickly announced the removal of its troops from Iraq and simultaneously embarked on an all out hunt for the criminals. In effect, by removing Spanish troops, the Spanish government was not only respecting the public will of its citizens but also indirectly acknowledging the legitimate grievances associated with the unlawful regime-changing attack and occupation of Iraq. This response to the megaterrorist challenge in Spain could not, of course, remove the deep and tragic personal losses resulting from the attacks, but Spanish society was allowed to move away from shadows of fear, and has not experienced subsequent major terrorist events.

 

This conjunction of circumstances in Spain will not always be present, and the originality of the megaterrorist challenge, neither can often not be met by the mechanical application of either paradigms of war or crime as traditionally understood. We lack the language or the public awareness needed to capture the dark originality of megaterrorism, and hence often seem to be acting ineffectively or even in a manner that increases the threats of recurrence. At times, the gravity of the event is so great that an aroused and frightened citizenry demands and expects an immediate and proportionate response that usually cannot be generated by acting within the crime paradigm, and yet the war paradigm while responding to public outrage tends to produce policies that spread havoc, expand the zone of strife and devastation, and in the name of security encroach excessively on domestic freedoms at home.  This combination of action and reaction is descriptive of the American experience post-9/11. This American case was further complicated by the fact that neoconservative political leadership controlled the U.S. Government response, and as a result the counter-terrorist response became intertwined with quite distinct and controversial grand strategy goals in the Middle East that largely account for the American led decision to attack and then occupy Iraq in 2003.

 

The American Vice President, Joe Biden, seemed recently to retreat from ‘the war on terror’ discourse, but only slightly. Biden argued not for war, but unconvincingly urged raising the level of interventionary violence higher against ISIS as the right course of action after Paris, above all, to demonstrate an enhanced commitment to the defeat of ISIS. Biden believeseveryone knows what needs to be done and there’s no doubt we’ll prevail, but we need to do a hell of a lot more. We all have to step up our level of engagement: more troops, more planes, more money. This thing will go on for years unless we do.” Depressingly, the Democratic presidential hopeful, Hilary Clinton, told the Council of Foreign Relations more or less the same thing a few weeks ago, just prior to the Paris attacks. Obama as is his way, seemed to recognize the undesirability of an open ended or permanent war posture without altering the analysis and essential response of his neocon predecessor in the White House. [See speech defending drone warfare at the National Defense University, May 23, 2013] After Paris, and in response to the shooting in San Bernadino, California there is a renewed insistence by the Republican opposition that America is ‘at war’ whether its elected leader acknowledges it or not.

 

All of these views, despite covering a range of tactical positions, hold in common a shared militarist definition of the proper response to the ISIS threat. Further the response is exclusively focused on offensive tactics and weaponry that are intended to destroy this elusive enemy, but without much prospect of doing so. There is no commitment discussed or made to defending those minorities that are threatened with ‘boots on the ground’ or exploring what kind of political options might make sense. It should not be forgotten that the core capabilities of ISIS arose in response to the anti-Sunni and oppressive tenor of the American led regime-destroying occupation of Iraq that lasted for more than a decade and had been preceded by a devastating UN authorized air war in 1991 that was followed by a punitive peace, featuring a sanctions regime imposed for over ten years that is believed responsible for several hundred thousand Iraqi civilian deaths.

 

 

The fact that some of the elements of this enormous crime  committed in Paris were transnational is not decisive in altering its character. By elevating the status of ISIS to that of a belligerent against whom it is necessary to mobilize the society that was targeted perversely adds to the gains of the attacker, and creates incentives for it to do more of the same. If handled as a version of the most dangerous type of crime that deeply threatens human and state security, the society would still be fully mobilized to protect itself as fully as practicable, and other governments would become more inclined to do whatever they can by way of cooperative criminal law enforcement. The magnitude of the crime could be further recognized by prosecuting the Paris attacks as an international crime against humanity as well as the most serious of violations of French criminal law. This was the approach taken centuries earlier by many governments to international piracy. The entire world was presumed to have a shared interest in suppressing piracy, and many governments cooperated to prevent and punish, and continue to do so in response to modern piracy. The realization that the criminals engaged in the Paris attacks had grown up in the heart of Europe further compounds the mistake of externalizing the evil, situating the threat in the Arab World, antagonizing even more the people suffering in that already inflamed region, and in the process inflating the stature of the criminals as combatants in a war.

 

The Bush/Hollande way of reacting also is harmful in two other fundamental respects: it precludes attention being given to root causes and steadfastly refuses self-scrutiny that might lead to some acknowledgement that extremist motivations of the criminal perpetrators might have taken shape in reaction wholly or partly to legitimate grievances. The best sustainable remedy for terrorist violence, whether large or small, is to address its root causes and legitimate grievances. Otherwise, as even some conservative and militarist political figures have admitted (including Rumsfeld, Mubarak), recourse to warfare, whether by war through a concerted campaign (e.g. Iraq) or by a program of targeted assassinations (e.g. drones) quite possibly generates many more militants than it eliminates, and certainly spreads the zone of violence and devastation more widely causing massive displacements of people, generating refugee flows that give rise to the sort of deep alienation and anger that creates a new pool of recruits that can be attracted to extremist causes, as well as encourages a reactionary backlash in whatever countries are chosen as sanctuaries.

 

To consider the Paris attacks by a reductio of good versus evil has the further consequence of excluding diplomacy and political accommodation as instruments useful in restoring stability and human security. How many of the supposedly intractable conflicts of the past, including the conflict with Britain that occasioned the American Revolution, were resolved by bringing the terrorists in from the cold? I would not suggest that this is currently a plausible option with ISIS, but keeping open this possibility, however remote and distasteful it now seems, is to be sensitive to the ‘lessons of history.’

 

More significantly, to avoid self-scrutiny by opting for unconditional war is to miss the best opportunity to undercut in the long-term the extremist rationale for attacking the West. It needs to be better appreciated that extremism does not flourish in a political and moral vacuum. It is probably the case that ISIS cannot be fully explained as a reaction to regional sectarianism, the Palestinian ordeal, and the mayhem brought to the people of Iraq, but absent the widespread sense of injustice associated with Israel’s regional role and millions resultant deaths and displacements, which partly embody the outcomes of the U.S. geopolitical agenda, the emergence of al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, and ISIS might never have happened, at least in their present form. Such a conclusion is reinforced when it is appreciated that the Arab governments, dependent on American protection, proved incapable, and in the end unwilling, to secure even the most minimal post-colonial interests and honor the values of Islamic and Arab peoples, including the provision of jobs and the elimination of extreme poverty. Arguably, given the Sykes-Picot legacies, including the artificial state formations of a century ago, the region has never yet managed to cast off the colonial mantle.

 

In conclusion, when dealing with the traumas and threats posed by megaterrorist movements it seems appropriate to acknowledge that neither the war nor the crime template as conventionally understood is capable of providing satisfactory answers. The context must be considered, and like skillful chess players a response should not be undertaken without evaluating the likely range of responses of ISIS and others to a range of possible Western responses. It is easy long after the fact to critique what the Bush presidency started to do on 9/12, but doing this in retrospect overlooks the actuality and intensity of the 9/11 challenge. Of course, when the Iraq War was folded into the counter-terrorist rationale that was initially internationally accepted with respect to launching an attack on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, it became obvious that other controversial American strategic goals were being pursued, and that the likely result would be a major foreign policy failure as well as an aggravation of the megaterrorist challenge. Beyond this, an unlawful invasion of a sovereign state by the leading member of the UN strikes a severe blow at the authority of UN Charter and the core norms of international law limiting force to situations of self-defense absent Security Council authorization.

 

As the French response to 11/13 confirms, nothing much has been learned about how to address the distinctive challenges of mega-terrorism. To encourage such learning four preliminary policy prescriptions can be endorsed: (1) the importance of restoring respect for UN authority and international law in the shaping of responses to megaterrorist challenges, including some further development of international law; (2) the need to develop a template for addressing megaterrorism that is more sophisticated than mechanically than opting for either/or logic of war or crime; (3) the revision of tactical and strategic thinking to include a process of looking ahead beyond the response to a megaterrorist event to envision as well as possible the chain of responses and counter-responses likely to ensue; (4) the practical desirability of making and taking account of assessments of root causes and legitimate grievances in clarifying the interpretation of the motivation of those who support, plan, and enact megaterrorism and with an emphasis on the reduction and eventual elimination of such threats to societal wellbeing.

 

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The Horrifying Syrian Dilemma Persists

15 Sep

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Responsibility to Protect

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Kosovo—A Poor Precedent

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

The West’s Dilemma

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Remembering 2014 (Badly)

25 Dec

 

Considering the year that is about to end is a time to pause long enough to take stock of what went wrong. In the United States not much went right aside from Barack Obama’s surprising initiative to normalize relations with Cuba after more than 60 years of hostile and punitive interaction. Although the sleazy logic of domestic politics kept this remnant of the worst features of Cold War diplomacy in being for a couple of extra decades, it is still worth celebrating Obama’s move, which when compared to the rest of his record, seems bold and courageous. As well, Obama exhibited a strong commitment to doing more than previously on climate change, using his executive authority to circumvent Congressional unwillingness to act responsibly. Obama’s immigration reform proposals also seem on balance to be positive, although whether they will be implemented remains an open question.  

 

Drifting Toward Cold War II: Remembering World War I

 

There are several signs of a worsening global setting that seemed to gain an ominous momentum during 2014. Perhaps, worst of all, is a steady drumbeat of anti-Russian rhetoric backed up by Western sanctions, that seems almost designed to produce Cold War II. No less a figure than Mikhail Gorbachev, speaking at the Brandenburg Gate an event observing the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, warned of a renewed Cold War, and wonder aloud as to whether it had already started. There is little reason to praise Vladimir Putin, but there is far less reason to transform the tensions generated by the confusing and contradictory happenings in the Ukraine into a renewal of high profile geopolitical rivalry, replete with crises and confrontations that pose world-shattering threats that could be actualized by accident, miscalculations, or the over-reactions of extremists bureaucrats and leaders.

 

In this year when the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I is being observed in many countries it is helpful to remember that this ‘Great War’ was started rather frivolously and proclaimed to be “the war to end all wars.” Instead, it is better remembered as the war that helped produced political extremism in Europe, unleashed forces that led to an even more devastating Second World War, and created the conditions that brought the nuclear age to the world. Perversely, as well, the origins of the contemporary turmoil in the Middle East today can be traced back to the world war one diplomacy that produced both the Sykes-Picot Agreement carving up the region by establishing artificial states to satisfy the greedy appetites of British and French colonial ambitions and the Balfour Declaration that committed the British Foreign Office and the League of Nations to the Zionist Project of establishing a Jewish homeland in the heart of historic Palestine without ever bothering to consult the indigenous population. Although some of the mistakes associated with the punitive aspects of the peace imposed on Germany by the Versailles Peace Treaty were corrected after World War II, these colonialist moves converted the collapse of the Ottoman Empire into an ongoing regional catastrophe that shows no signs of abating in the near future. We cannot rewind the reel of Middle Eastern history to learn if things would have turned out better if things had been handled more in accord with Woodrow Wilson’s premature advocacy of a self-determination ethos as the foundation of legitimate political communities deserving of membership in international society as sovereign states. These developments of a century ago are to an extent lost in the mists of time, but we should at least be alert about the roots of the present ordeal of chaos, strife, and oppression.

 

Torture Revelations

 

On December 9th after months of delay and controversy, the 500 page Executive summary of the 6,000 page Senate Intelligence Committee Report on CIA Torture was released. It contained some grizzly additional information and interpretations to what had been known previously, adding such practices as ‘rectal re-hydration’ to the repertoire of state terrorists, and indicating that there were at least 26 individuals tortured by the CIA who were improperly treated as suspects.

 

Perhaps, the most disturbing feature of this phase of the controversy about the treatment of terrorist suspects is the absence of remorse on the part of those associated with the policies relied upon during the Bush presidency in the period of hysteria following the 9/11 attack. Dick Cheney was particularly out front about his readiness to do it all over again, and refused even to lament the abuse of those detained by mistake.

 

The former Deputy Director of the CIA, Mike Morrell, has attempted to insulate the CIA from blame by suggesting the reasonableness of CIA’s reliance on the ‘torture memos’ prepared by John Yoo and Jay Bybee that encouraged the CIA to think that their forms of coercive interrogation were ‘legal,’ and argued the reasonableness of the post-9/11 inclination to take exceptional measures to gain information given the fears that abounded at the time within the U.S. Government of further attacks, including according to him, of a credible threat of al-Qaida’s access to a nuclear weapon within national borders. George W. Bush, never one bothered by nuance, assures us that the CIA torturers were ‘patriots’ who were engaged in doing the good work of protecting the security of the country. Bush seems to be saying that patriotism wipes clean the slate of individual criminal accountability.

 

Morrell, and his colleagues, conveniently ignore the fact that the Nuremberg Judgment concluded that even ‘superior orders’ are no defense for someone charged with violating fundamental rules of international humanitarian law. If we stop for the briefest of moments, and consider how we would view the interrogation practices of the CIA if roles were reversed, and white American males were seen as the victims rather than dark Muslim men from the Middle East, it would seem clear beyond a reasonable doubt, that the label ‘torture’ would fit, and the description ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (further euphemized as EITs) is a malicious evasion of reality.

 

Even liberal centers of opinion, including the ever cautious New York Times, have reacted to the Senate Report with calls for criminal investigations leading to probable indictments of those responsible for implementing torture, with the ladder of responsibility leading up at least as high as Cheney as Vice President, and conceivably to George W. Bush. [See editorial, “Prosecute Torturers and Their Bosses,” Dec. 22, 2014] The even more cautious American president, Barack Obama, has disconcertedly combined his repudiation of EIT culture and practices with a steadfast refusal to besmirch the reputation of the CIA or to look backward in time. Obama’s strange view, which is entirely destructive of any notion of governmental accountability ever, is that with respect to torture allegations the effort should be to prevent such behavior in the future, but not to investigate or impose any accountability for what was done in the past. I am led to wonder why he does not apply a similar logic to the leaks associated with such well-intentioned whistleblowers as Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and above all, Edward Snowden! Perhaps somewhere in the dark recesses of Obama’s mind he distinguishes between crimes of government (deserving impunity) and crimes against government (deserving severe punishment).

 

It is not that Obama is necessarily wrong in his disposition to overlook the past when it comes to torture revelations, although he supplied the citizenry with no appropriate justification for this de facto conferral of impunity. It is not at all certain that the United States political system could manage such self-scrutiny without experiencing such a deep polarization as to put domestic and world peace at risk. It is evident that the country is split down the middle, and the risks of strife and a surge of support for the extreme right in the event of arrests and prosecutions are far from being paranoid excuses of the timid. We need to face the reality, with all of its shortcomings in relation to law and justice, that we live in a world of pervasive double standards when it comes to the official treatment of criminal accountability for international state crime, whether perpetrated within the American domestic legal structure or at black sites around the world. It is plausible to hold defeated dictators like Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and Qaddafi, accountable, but quite another matter to indict Bush, Cheney, and Tony Blair, although both groupings have been responsible for heinous crimes.

 

Part of the liberal concept of legality is to overlook what it is not feasible to do and focus on what can be done. From this perspective it was good to prosecute surviving German and Japanese leaders at Nuremberg and Tokyo because those charged were associated with vicious behavior and it was important to discourage and deter in the future. The fact that the indiscriminate bombing of German and Japanese cities by the victorious democracies, and the unleashing of atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would also by any criminal court be deemed as crimes is true but irrelevant. It is better not to go there, and leave it to dissident anti-imperialist scholars to whine about ‘victors’ justice’ and ‘double standards.’ “We liberals do what we can to make the world better, and to fight against the nihilistic nationalism of the extreme right.” Such is the liberal credo.

 

What liberalism ignores is the relevance of structure and the organic connectedness of equality with the rendering of justice. If we are unwilling to prosecute the most dangerous perpetrators of state crime, is it not hypocritical to go after only those whose behavior appalls or angers the reigning hegemon? Does it not make the rule of law susceptible to dismissal as a cynical exercise in the demonization of ‘the other,’ whether belonging to an adversary religion, ethnicity, a marginalized class, or defeated nation? The experience of the International Criminal Court during its first thirteen years of operation is illustrative of this two-tier discriminatory approach to individual accountability. This parallels the more overtly discriminatory approach to nuclear weaponry adopted via the profound shift away from the initial concern about apocalyptic dangers posed by the weaponry to anxiety about its spread to certain unwanted others.

 

Although these questions about criminal accountability are rhetorical, the prudential dilemma posed is genuinely challenging. I am not convinced that it would on balance be constructive in the present national atmosphere to attempt the punishment of political leaders in the United States who in the past authorized the practice of torture. The potential costs and risks seem too high compared to the benefits. The related question is whether or not to create some kind of equivalence at lower levels of expectations. If ‘well-intentioned’ torturers are given a free pass why not do the same for ‘idealistic and responsible whistleblowers’? It would seem almost beyond debate that the whistleblowers should not be prosecuted if the torturers are beneficiaries of such a pragmatic form of impunity. I would make the case that Assange, Manning, and Snowden deserve an honorific form of pardon, namely, the application of a doctrine of ‘principled impunity” as distinct from the notion of ‘pragmatic impunity.’ Here I think the social system in the United States would benefit despite producing some severe political strains that would almost certainly follow. I would argue that the highest pragmatic virtue of prudence would mandate taking such steps, namely, protecting one of the few safety valves available to citizens living in a modern national security state, which when added to the principled recognition of selfless and virtuous citizenship makes an overwhelming case for decriminalization. If we cannot have accountability for certain categories of abhorrent state crime, at least we should encourage transparency, making whistleblowing integral to the preservation of political democracy.

 

It would be a mistake not to connect the torture revelations to related issues of police brutality associated with the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and of Eric Garner in Staten Island New York. Beyond this, the militarization of American political culture has been reaffirmed at the level of the citizenry by polls confirming the highest level of support for gun rights in the history of the country. It is little wonder that the elected leadership, as reinforced by the entrenched bureaucracy, cannot think much outside the military box when it comes to conflict resolution. Above all the resources of the moral and legal imagination have been degraded for so long as to be virtually irrelevant, which of course satisfies the comfort zone on ‘political realists’ who continue to distort our perceptions of 21st century realities.

 

 

 

Multiple Atrocities

 

More than in previous years, 2014 seemed to be a time of multiple atrocities, events that went beyond the ordeals of warfare and massive poverty, to shock the conscience by their violent aggression against the purest forms of innocence—deliberate brutality directed at young children, exhibiting depraved political imaginaries. By calling attention I have no intention of downplaying the widespread suffering associated with such continuing struggles at those taking place in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Kashmir, and many other places on our tormented planet.

 

ISIS or Daesh: This extremist movement, claiming an Islamic identity, emerged suddenly in the early part of 2014 as an occupying force in Iraq and Syria, proclaiming a new Sunni caliphate under its authority, and representing a sociopathic and sectarian response to the failed American occupation of Iraq. Initially welcomed by many Sunni Iraqis living in the northeastern parts of the country as liberation from Shiite abusive domination that resulted from American policies of debathification following the 2003 regime change in Baghdad, ISIS outraged the world by its televised beheadings of Western journalists, by its uprooting and slaughter of Shiite males belonging to the mainly Kurdish-speaking minority Yazidi community, and its alleged practice of turning Yazidi girls and women into sex slaves. Yazidis are considered an old religious sect that adheres to a pre-Muslim syncretist beliefs drawn from Zoroastrianism and ancient Mesopotamian religions, and drawing on other later religions as well. It would seem that the American-led response to ISIS is proceeding by way of yet another military intervention mainly in the form of air strikes. Although the political impact are yet to be clear, this does not a constructive path to restore peace and order.

 

Boko Harem: Another manifestation of sociopathetic extremist politics gained world attention in April by the kidnapping in Nigeria of some 200 schoolgirls who were later abused in various ways, including being sold into slavery. Boko Harem has controlled parts of northern Nigeria since 2009, and has continued to engaged in behavior that constitutes crimes against humanity, and a total disregard of the innocence of Nigerian children, repeatedly engaging in kidnappings and wholesale destruction of villages. As recently as December 18th, Boko Harem forces kidnapped at least 185 young men, women, and children from a village in northern Nigeria. Its political goals, to the extent evident, are to protect Muslims in the country and establish a strict version of sharia law for areas under their control.

 

Pakistani Taliban: The mid-December attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School by the Pakistani Taliban produced the massacre of an estimated 134 children and 14 others. The writer, Pervez Hoodbhoy, says that the Taliban, in ways that he believes parallel the ambitions of the Afghani Taliban, Boko Haram, and ISIS, are “fighting for a dream-to destroy Pakistan as a Muslim state and recreate it as an Islamic state.” The implication is a radical transformation from some kind of religious normalcy into a fearsome embodiment religious fanaticism.

 

Israel’s Military Operation ‘Protective Edge’ Against Gaza: For the third time in less than six years Israel launched a vicious attack against Gaza that continued for 51 days, with the resulting humanitarian crisis caused accentuated by imposing a punitive ceasefire that has hampered recovery. The entire viability of Gaza is at severe risk. The attacks, known by the IDF code name of Operation Protective Edge, produced heavy civilian casualties (over 2,100 Palestinians killed including 519 childen, about 11,000 wounded, and as many as 520, 000 displaced, many homeless; on the Israeli side 70 were killed, 65 of whom were IDF, and one child) including among children, and traumatized the entire population locked into Gaza, with no exit available even for women, children, and disabled seeking sanctuary from the attack.

 

Identified above are just a few highlights from this year’s catalogue of atrocities. It is also evident that there exists a pattern of numbed response around the world that amounts to a collective condition of ‘atrocity fatigue.’ Beyond this these incidents and developments illustrate the inability of many governments in Africa and the Middle East to exert effective sovereign control over their own territory, as well as the inability of the United Nations to protect peoples faced with threats underscoring their acute vulnerability. Account must also be taken of geopolitical priorities that accords attention to ISIS and Pakistan’s Taliban but much less to Boko Haram and none at all to Israel’s IDF. If there is any hope for effective responses it is a result of national and transnational activations of civil society that do their best to fill these normative black holes.

 

Climate Change and Nuclear Weapons

 

Without dwelling on these familiar issues threatening the future of the entire human species, it is worth noticing that little of a constructive nature took place during the year. A notable exception, which may make a difference, was the U.S./China agreement in November to regulate emissions and to cooperate in an effort to prevent the global buildup of greenhouse gasses. These two dominant states are responsible for almost 50% of this buildup, and suggest that geopolitical cooperation may produce more positive results than the dilatory movements of unwieldy UN mechanisms that involve the more than 190 states that make up its membership. On its surface the agreement was not impressive with the U.S. agreeing to cut emissions by 26-28% by 2025 and China agreeing to peak its emissions in 2030, and by meet its energy needs by relying for 20% on zero emissions sources, but the very fact of such an agreement was looked upon as ‘a game changer’ by some. I would be more skeptical, especially of the American side of the commitment, given the possibility that a Republican could become president in 2016, and might well ignore such an agreed target, especially if it is perceived as slowing economic growth. The UN Conference in Peru a month later ended up doing little more than issuing the Lima Call for Climate Action was one more disappointment. The bickering among states pursuing their distinct national interests was manifest and a resulting race to the bottom. It does not generate any confidence that the hope for a 2015 breakthrough in Paris will actually address climate change in a manner that heeds the warnings of climate scientists. Relying on voluntary guidelines so as to circumvent domestic debate, especially in the United States, is not an encourage feature of what is expected.

 

As for nuclear weapons, the less said the better. Obama’s Prague visionary statement in 2009 has been swept aside by the nuclear weapons establishment, not only in the United States, but in all the nuclear weapons states. And even the possibility of bringing a measure of stability to the Middle East by eliminating nuclear weapons from the region has been taboo because of Israeli sensitivities. Instead the United States is embarked upon an expensive program on its own to upgrade its arsenal of nuclear weaponry. There is no serious initiative evident within international society to move toward the one solution that has long been obvious and yet unattainable—phased and verified nuclear disarmament as a prelude to a wider demilitarization of the global security system.

 

What is at stake, above all, is whether the species as a species can manifest a collective will to survive in strong enough forms to meet these mounting unprecedented challenges of global scope. The species will to survive has never been seriously challenged previously, with all past survival collapses being of civilizational or sub-species scope. Humanity has been facing something new since the advent of nuclear weaponry, but has responded managerially rather than either with moral clarity or prudential wisdom.

 

Conclusion

 

Despite all, we can look to 2015 with some measure of hope, almost exclusively because there seems to be a slow awakening of civil society, at least in the domains of the BDS Campaign relating to Palestinian rights and in the form of the separate emergence of a transnational movement that takes global warming as seriously as the realities suggest. As for the future, we see, if at all, through a glass darkly, and thus have no excuse for refraining from a dedication to the struggle for global justice in its many shapes and forms. A posture of cynical hopelessness or despair worsens prospects for positive future developments, however empirically based such a negative assessment seems. All of us should recall that those who struggle for what seems ‘impossible’ today often turn out to be the heroes of tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

ISIS, Militarism, and the Violent Imagination

18 Sep

 

 

 

 

Before ISIS

 

The beheading of American and British journalists who were being held hostage by ISIS creates a truly horrifying spectacle, and quite understandably mobilizes the political will to destroy the political actor who so shocks and frightens the Western sensibility, which is far from being free from responsibility for such lurid incidents. Never in modern times has there been a clearer example of violence begetting violence.

 

And we need to ask ‘to what end?’ Political leaders in the West are remarkably silent and dishonest about what it is that they wish to achieve in this region beset since 2011 by a quite terrifying outbreak of political extremism, whether from above as in the cases of Syria, Egypt, and Israel or from below as with ISIS and al-Nusra.

 

It is difficult to recall that at the start of 2011, just three years ago, progressive voices around the world were inspired by the Arab upheavals, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, that burst upon the political scene unexpectedly. These extraordinary events appeared to repudiate the prevailing patterns of authoritarian, exploitative, and corrupt collaboration between oppressive domestic elites, neoliberal economic forces, and the regional imperial juggernaut that had kept this humanly disastrous reality stable for so long. Yet even during that time of optimism about the Arab future, a closer scrutiny of what was happening disclosed many reasons to be worried. It is helpful to look to this recent past to have some comprehension of the perplexing present.

 

A Revolutionary Spirit Without Revolutionary Action

 

The goals of these upheavals were far too ambitious to be realized by such limited challenges directed at the established order. These movements were essentially confined to getting rid of a hated ruler. Associating single individuals such as Mubarak, Ben Ali, or Assad with the grievances of an exploited and oppressed people overlooks the degree to which class interests and entrenched bureaucracies constituted structures. The popular forces bravely challenging the status quo lacked leadership, program, and even a clear agenda, and naively expected the remnants of the old regime to disappear or go along with the anguished call of mass discontent that sought bread, freedom, and dignity as the effect of removing the hated leader.

 

This innocence of exaggerated expectations made what had seemed a remarkable achievement of doing the impossible more vulnerable to reversal than was generally understood at the time when the immediate results seemed so stunning. What particularly impressed thoughtful commentators was being described as ‘a new subjectivity’ of the Arab masses. It had long been presumed that these Arab publics were reconciled to their fate, and would remain passive victims of their sorry fate. That they rose up with such force and resolve surprised the world, and themselves, by these courageous displays of self-empowerment and political creativity. It was also impressive that these upheavals, each distinct, shared a vision of an inclusive democracy that when established, would henceforth govern society with respect for all classes, religious and ethnic identities, genders, and political persuasions.

 

The reluctance to challenge the old order more fundamentally and punitively became coupled with a paradoxical and perverse situation of dependence on the old regime to manage in good faith the transition to the promised new dawn of constitutional democracy and freely elected political leaders. There seemed to be no understanding that these old elites in each country had interests that had been generally served by the previously established order, and would inevitably be threatened by the longings of the people, including expectations of moves toward greater social and economic equity threatening the prior acceptance of predatory arrangements with neoliberal globalization.

 

Preconditions for Transformative Political Ambitions

 

In this sense, there seemed little awareness in these movements of Lenin’s insistence that a successful transformative politics necessarily depends on substantially destroying the prior state structures; (“you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”), that is, by rebuilding the new transformed state from the ground up and getting rid of the old bureaucracy. This generalization is especially true if the old order was managed by indigenous leadership, and not imposed from without as in the colonial era. Also, as Hannah Arendt argued in her book on revolution, if the overthrow of the former regime does not have a radical social agenda, as was the case with American Revolution, only then does the possibility of a smooth and peaceful transition exists. [See Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (1969). Excluding the prospects for improved material conditions, including jobs for youth, was a political impossibility in the Arab world, where conditions of mass misery were what partially explained the role of oppressive structures and the assignment of security forces to prevent workers from organizing effectively.

 

Revealingly, in contrast to the activists in Tahrir Square, Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran encouraged a kind of Islamic Leninism, rejecting all pleas to reach compromises with the Shah’s regime in exchange for social peace and shared political power. From the perspective of late 2014 we take note of contrasting realities: Iran’s Islamic Republic is celebrating its 35th anniversary without a serious threat to its governance, while the so-called Egyptian Revolution barely lasted two years before the old regime in a more extreme form was fully restored under the bloody military leadership of General Sisi.

 

 

 

Underestimating Political Islam

 

There were additional factors at work in Egypt and the region. Perhaps, most significantly, those who sought to liberalize the governance structures without shaking their foundations greatly underestimated the electoral strength of political Islam, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the ideals of the Tahrir movement affirmed inclusionary democracy, the assumption of many who initially championed a new political order was that the MB would participate as a minority presence that would not displace the old urban ruling classes or threaten its privileges. When this turned out to be wrong it immediately shifted the political balance in such a way as to promote counter-revolution. As Europe discovered after 1848, nothing is worse for progressive politics than revolutionary ambitions to exceed revolutionary means.

 

This situation was further stressed by the rich and influential Gulf oil dynasties that felt deeply threatened by the Arab upheavals, and cared far more about their own stability than they did about promoting Sunni politics in the region. These governments were disturbed by the fall of Mubarak, and hoped for a political reversal in Egypt, welcoming the counter-revolution led by Sisi with an avalanche of funding, without blinking when this new military leadership proceeded to commit major atrocities against members of the MB and to criminalize the organization. It should not be ignored that this counter-revolutionary violence also served the strategic interests of Israel and the United States, restoring stability, marginalizing Muslim and democratizing forces, and avoiding the emergence of governments much more inclined to support Palestinian aspirations and to challenge neoliberal links with global capitalism. Into this mix that emerged in Egypt, must also be added the political ineptness of the MB, neither appreciating its popular support nor recognizing that MB political hegemony would never be accepted by either the remnants of the old regime nor by secular liberals who wanted Mubarak overthrown, but not the system. In this sense, it appears in retrospect that it was a great mistake of the MB to withdraw their earlier pledge after the Tahrir success story to refrain from seeking either to dominate the parliamentary elections or compete for the presidency.

 

Not Forgetting Iraq or Syria

 

If we consider other developments in the region there is another disturbing ‘truth’: the region at this stage seems better off being governed in an authoritarian manner than by either the sort of ‘democracy promotion’ that was the theme song of the George W Bush presidency (2000-2008) or through the political responses to the kind of popular uprisings that erupted in Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, elsewhere, but turned out to be unsustainable. The least bad outcomes as of now appear to be those countries where the old authoritarian regimes prevailed without much struggle (e.g. Morocco) and made a few gestures of reform averting both civil strife and a more brutal turn in authoritarian rule. The alternatives to authoritarian in the region now seem far worse: terrible civil warfare (as in Syria) or chaos without respite (as in Libya). Given the mess that unfolded in Iraq during a decade of American occupation, what Washington policymaker would not at this point secretly consider the second coming of Saddam Hussein in Iraq as a gift of the gods?

 

Syria, as well, sent the wrong signal throughout the region. First, there occurred a popular challenge to the Assad regime that occasioned a bloody counterinsurgency campaign. Then outside forces, Turkey, the United States, Gulf countries teamed up as ‘Friends of Syria Group’ to help the insurgency prevail, badly underestimating the military capabilities and political support of the Damascus government, which enabled it to withstand these efforts to repeat the Mubarak/Qaddafi experience of overthrow either from below (by a mass movement) or from without (by a NATO air campaign). In Syria instead of regime change there occurred an ongoing civil war that has taken upwards of 200,000 lives, caused millions to flea the country as refugees and millions more to become internally displace.

 

Three negative political effects also followed: neighboring countries were destabilized, the unresolved Syrian struggle gave rise to various forms of Islamic extremism within Syria and in the region, and the atrocities of Assad gave license to others in the region (such as Sisi) to commit crimes against humanity with the prospect of impunity.

 

What lessons can we learn? Above all, beware of what is wished for. In effect, above all else, the last several decades should teach the West that the days of staging successful colonial interventions at acceptable costs are long past, and that premising post-colonial interventionist diplomacy on a moral crusade of human rights, democracy, and counter-terrorism fools almost no one except some of the people in the metropole, and wins few real friends in the target societies other than cynical opportunists or desperate insurgents. If intervention is followed by military occupation many of those who were initially willing to accept any and all outside help to get rid of the hated leader quickly get disillusioned and turn on their earlier benefactor, a process dubbed ‘blowback.’ [For identification of the phenomenon and its naming see Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, 2004) If the intervention is not followed by an occupation the results are not much better. Piles of bodies and debris are left behind, but the new reality is likely to be, as in Libya, the kind of ungovernable chaos with armed militias substituting for the rule of law. Washington tends to call such situations ‘failed states’ as if it had nothing to do with the collapse of governance.

 

America’s and NATO’s Unlearned Lessons

 

America and NATO should have learned the limits of military superiority and the problematics of occupation from their failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Military superiority and shock and awe tactics can generally overwhelm a Third World government and quickly destroy its military capability, but that is only initial and easy phase of an effort to control the political future of a targeted country. Notoriously, Bush didn’t understand this in relation to Iraq when he infamously announced ‘mission accomplished’ to the world immediately after Iraqi military resistance crumbled and Saddam Hussein was driven from power.

Phase two of the Iraq undertaking involved occupation and state-building neoliberal style, and the emergence of formidable political resistance. The early glow of victory soon fades away, and a variety of troubles start to overwhelm the intervening side. A movement of national resistance takes shape, and adopts insurgent tactics against the foreign invader that takes away many of the benefits of military superiority that earlier achieved an easy battlefield victory. Resistance consists of various acts of violent disruption that gradually turn a hostile and foreign occupation into a long nightmare. The high tech weaponry of the occupier remains an effective killing machine, but it increasingly kills the wrong people, alienates far more, and seems helpless to establish minimal order much less to deliver on the promise of democracy, economic prosperity, and human rights for all. The prime objective of the occupier becomes one of crafting a graceful exit that disguises the abandonment of the original enterprise, and if that fails, leaving in a humiliating manner without being able to disguise the defeat. It should have been evident from the outset in Iraq that the effort to embed democracy is in tension with the strategic goal of integrating the country in accord with Western ideas of security and political economy. The idea of turning over security to an indigenous and partisan army trained to make safeguard the government put in place by a military intervention is truly a ‘mission impossible.’

 

Strategic Failure

 

What was the real outcome of both of these major military interventions that cost many lives, generated mass refugee and internally displaced populations, and expended trillions of dollars on these futile ventures? In Afghanistan the results were a mixture of chaos, destabilization of Pakistan, and the reemergence of the Taliban as a formidable political force. In Iraq, the ironic outcome after a decade of occupation was a strategic victory for Iran and its pro-Shi’ite foreign policy, along with sectarian strife and widespread chaos, culminating during this past year with the eruption of ISIS occupying a significant expanses of territory in Iraq, and Syria. ISIS had the audacity to proclaim itself the Islamic State and to found a new caliphate without regard to international borders.

 

In both societies these results are exactly the opposite of the goals set by the intervening side. What were the real motivations of the intervenors? There are, I believe, three overlapping answers given varying weights by commentators: for oil, for arms sales and the political economy of militarism, and to ensure the desired strategic hegemony of the American/Israeli partnership throughout the Middle East.

 

The failure results from a basic disconnect. Securing the neoliberal priority of assuring access to Middle Eastern oil at stable prices bolstered by a maximum Western private sector investment depends upon maintaining good relations with stable governments and receptive societies. Stable political structures, given the American commitment to Israel, together with capitalist predatory behavior, produces a hostile cleavage between state and society throughout the region, making political order fully dependent on effective authoritarian governance. Under these conditions it is evident that any claimed commitment to human rights and democracy is hypocritical, and at best peripheral. Such claims serve as misleading rationalizations for intervention in a post-colonial era where naked imperial justifications are no longer credible. It puts the West in the position of inevitably collaborating with national elites that suppress the most fundamental human right of their own peoples—that of the right of national self-determination, which is highlighted as common Article I of both the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

 

Remembering Vietnam

 

There is a further disconnect. Relying on military intervention to achieve the goals of foreign policy is not a new recipe for political failure, and such an approach should have been discarded long ago for realist reasons. A repudiation of interventionary diplomacy should have been the crucial lesson learned from the Vietnam War. Remember America won all the big battles, controlled every combat zone, and yet lost the war. A Vietnamese military commander’s response is worth pondering made to an American official who insisted that despite the political outcome of the war, the United States was never defeated militarily by Vietnam: “Yes, that is true, but it is irrelevant.”

 

Understanding why it is irrelevant is the great unlearned lesson in relation to the conflicts taking place the period since World War II. It should by now be clear even to the most dimwitted real politik analyst that every colonial war since World War II was won by the militarily inferior side. Perhaps, the most dramatic instance of people power triumphing over imperial power occurred in India’s defeat of the mighty British Empire without firing a shot. In Indochina and Algeria French colonialism finally gave way to national movements with far worse weaponry. National resilience in the end proves stronger than foreign military and police control.

 

The real untold story of this string of losses sustained by the West is the empowerment of people. This empowerment was eventually accorded moral and legal respect by a global diplomatic process that now seems a false gesture of imperial disempowerment. Acceptance of the moral claims of and legal right to self-determination was formally acknowledged, but the geopolitics of power and wealth went on as before, and continued at great costs to seek by force of arms what could not otherwise be justly acquired.

 

The recent Israeli military operation against the helpless people of Gaza is an extreme illustration of this dynamic. No people in the Middle East have endured as much cruelty and suffering during their long national movement for independence and sovereignty than have the Palestinians. And no state has been as determined as Israel to rely on its vastly superior military means to maintain control, expand, and ruthlessly suppress opposition. And yet after nearly 70 years of dispossession, occupation, militarist subjugation, and Western backing, the Palestinians are far from defeated. In the recent one-sided Protective Edge campaign over 2100 Palestinians were killed, 75% of whom were civilians, as compared to Israel reporting losses of 70 dead, of whom 66 were members of the IDF. It suggests that ‘state terrorism’ is far deadlier for the civilian population than is the violence of enemy resisters. But consider the political dynamics: the Israeli reasons for staging this horror show seemed to be mainly to convince the collaborationist leadership in Ramallah to stop cooperating with Israel and to weaken decisively the organization structure and political support of Hamas. As with the cases mentioned earlier, the military dominance produced great devastation combined with a political defeat: instead of weakening Hamas, the organization gained in popularity not only in Gaza, but even more so in the West Bank where new polls show that in any forthcoming election Hamas would easily win over the Palestinian Authority, which was unlikely before Israel launched its latest deadly attack to once more ‘mow the lawn’ in Gaza.

 

The next concern, following from what has been argued, is ‘why such a clear pattern of repeated failures should not lead to policy adjustments?’ There are two explanations: the political elites of the world are hard-wired to think within an anachronistic realist box in which military power is the controlling force of history. Such thinking is also part of the political culture of the United States where security is correlated with hard power, no matter the facts are. This defiance of reality is sadly reinforced by American political culture. When recent horrific crimes in movie theaters and schools where innocent persons are willfully slaughtered by a deranged heavily armed individual, the militarized mentality of the citizenry leads it not to demand the prohibition of assault weapons in private hands, but perversely to a surge in private arms sales.

 

The ISIS Challenge Revisited

 

This brings us back to ISIS, and what might be done that improves the situation rather than worsen it. Barack Obama has presided over shaping the regional response. He was confronted by a multifaceted dilemma. He had been elected president twice partly to end American engagement in overseas wars, especially in the Middle East, and here he was once more rallying the region and Europe for yet another war against an adversary that posed no discernable threat to the American people. To overcome this awkward fact, it was necessary to dramatize the barbarism of ISIS tactics, pointing to the

American victims of ISIS atrocities, and at the same time promise there would be no American casualties. Barbarous as were these atrocious acts, beheadings were unfortunately not new to the region, and were regularly used upon by the Saudi Arabian government in punishing convicted criminals. True, these incidents involved American and British nationals who were innocent of wrongdoing, but the emphasis was not so much placed on their innocence as on the horrifying technique used to carry out the executions.

 

Here is the core problem: America’s leadership in the region depends on actively protecting the authoritarian status quo, especially in the Gulf, and so doing nothing about ISIS was not an option. What Obama is proposing to do repeats the old formula of failure: air strikes; training, arming, and advising friendly forces (Iraqi Kurds, moderate Syrians, Iraqi military units), disrupting ISIS overseas recruiting and funding. Obama’s program is a pale version of post-Vietnam counter-insurgency doctrine where risks of American casualties must be minimized while air power, including drones, plus native ground forces with their own political agendas are relied upon to carry out the dirty work. Yet, as in earlier encounters, the likely result is to induce chaos and alienation arising from accidental targeting of innocent civilians arousing public resentment, and a no win/no lose standoff that causes great suffering to the society, including producing many refugees and internally displaced persons. It is illustrative of thinking within the old militarist box, and its prescriptions are almost certain to make any particular situation worse than if left alone.

 

Of course, there are far preferable options, but to adopt these requires looking below the surface. It would have to start with the admission that the American occupation of Iraq was the proximate cause of the emergence of ISIS, especially due to the purge of Bathist elements in the government and armed forces, and the encouragement of Shi’ite sectarianism. Abandoning sectarian maneuvers is one way to avoid some of the worst recent mistakes.

 

Another productive path presupposes an American diplomatic outlook oriented around wider ethical and world order concerns. Such an adjustment would require loosening the dependency ties to Israel, and follow a rational line of geo-strategic self-interest in the Middle East. Such a course of action, hardly ever mentioned because it seems too unrealistic, would involve taking three steps: bringing Iran into the effort to find a political solution for the Syrian civil war; proposing a nuclear free zone throughout the Middle East; exerting pressure on Israel to uphold Palestinian rights under international law. This is a distinctly political approach that contrasts with militarism that has produced destructive turbulence in the region in the period since the partial stabilities of the Cold War era collapsed along with the Berlin Wall in 1989.

 

Militarist geopolitics seems destined to lead to yet another Western catastrophe in the tormented Middle East. There is no political will visible anywhere on the horizons of world politics that might pose a humane challenge to such disaster-prone policymaking. And so the murderous cycle of violence repeats itself yet again, the alien militarism of this Western led coalition is confronting the indigenous violence of ISIS that the mistakes of earlier interventions by the West have helped to nurture. And so dispiriting repetition occurs instead of uplifting innovation, and the wheels of violence turn with accelerating velocity.