Tag Archives: Saddam Hussein

Syria: Obama’s Surprising (and Confusing) Latest Moves

1 Sep

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Obama’s Libyan Folly: To be or not to be..

5 Apr

The outcome in Libya remains uncertain, but what seems clear beyond reasonable doubt is that military intervention has not saved the day for either the shadowy opposition known as ‘the rebels,’ and certainly not for the people of the country. It has seemingly plunged Libya into a protracted violent conflict with the domestic balance of forces tipping decisively in favor of the Qaddafi regime despite a major military onslaught managed by the American-led coalition, which in recent days has been supposedly outsourced to NATO. But since when is NATO not an American dominated alliance? The best that can be hoped for at this stage is a face-saving ceasefire that commits the Libyan leadership to a vague power-sharing scheme, but leaves the governing process more or less as it is, possibly replacing Qaddafi with his son who may offer the West the cosmetic trappings of liberal modernity, which may exhibit a genuine interest in reform.

President Barack Obama has chosen Libya as the place to draw a line in the sand, although it is a rather wavering and fuzzy line. It was finally drawn in response to what was being called two weeks ago an imminent atrocity about to be inflicted upon the people of Benghazi, although the evidence of this prospect of dire bloodletting was never present much beyond the bombast of the dictator. Obama stopped what the more ardent interventionist in his camp were derisively calling his ‘dithering.’ Heeding these criticisms Obama on March 28 came out clearly in support of military action, although carefully circumscribed in scope and nature by reference to its supposedly narrow humanitarian undertaking of protecting Libyan civilian.  The futility of preventing a Qaddafi victory on the ground by establishing a No Fly Zone, even as inappropriately expanded to become a No Drive Zone, should have been obvious to anyone conversant with the course of numerous political struggles of recent times being waged for the political control of a sovereign state. What the world actually witnessed was mainly something far different than an effort to protect Libyan civilians. It was rather a an unauthorized attempt to turn the tide of the conflict in favor of the insurrectionary campaign by destroying as many of the military assets possessed by Libya’s armed forces as possible, clearing the path for a rebel advance.

The campaign and character of the opposition has never been clearly established. It is still most accurately described as a motley gathering of opposition forces mysteriously referred to as ‘the rebels.’ In contrast to the seeming failure and ineptness of its military challenge, the public relations campaign of the rebels worked brilliantly. Most of all it mobilized the humanitarian hawks inhabiting the Obama presidential bird nest, most prominently Samantha Power, Hilary Clinton, and Susan Rice, as well as the recently departed former State Department Head of Policy Planning, Anne-Marie Slaughter. Samantha Power particularly has long called upon the United States Government to use its might wherever on the globe severe human rights abuses should occur (unless in a large country beyond interventionary ambitions), apparently analogizing every humanitarian crisis to the totally different circumstances of Rwanda (1994) where a small effort to mitigate major genocide was inappropriately blocked by the Clinton White House. And in the media the celebrants of this intervention have been led by the NY Times pious stalwarts, Nicholas Kristof and Thomas Friedman.  At least Friedman, the patron saint of ‘wars of choice’ was sensible enough on this occasion to acknowledge that Obama would need major help from Lady Luck if his Libyan policy would have any chance of a happy ending, which is welcome contrast with his cheerleading of the Iraq intervention. If lives were not at stake, it might be amusing to note the new cosmic humility of this most arrogant of journalists, who in the past was forever fond of addressing world leaders by their first names in his columns while dishing out his unsolicited guidance, now being reduced to treating the Libyan intervention as the equivalent to a night out in Las Vegas!

The PR full court press by the rebels, aided by that high flying French publicity seeking French enthusiast for intervention Bernard-Henri Lévy, also misleadingly convinced world public opinion and several Western political leaders that the Qaddafi regime was opposed and hated by the entire population of Libya making him extremely vulnerable to intervention. This encouraged the belief that the only alternative to military intervention was for the Western world to sit back and bear witness to genocide against the Libyan people on a massive scale. This entire portrayal of the conflict was at best premature, and likely misleadingly intended to make it appear that the only choices available to the UN and the global community was to intervene militarily or sit back and take the consequences. Among other options, diplomacy and the search for a ceasefire was never seriously embarked upon.

Even without the spurious wisdom of hindsight, the international undertaking could be criticized from another angle as having been designed to fail: a questionable intervention in what appeared increasingly to be an armed insurrection against the established government, yet falling far short of what would be needed to secure the only outcome proclaimed as just and necessary—the fall of the Qaddafi government. How can such a struggle, involving one more paternalistic challenge to the dynamics of self-determination, be won by relying on the bombs and missiles of colonial powers, undertaken without even the willingness to follow the attack with a willingness to engage in peacekeeping on the ground? Had this willingness been present it would have at least connected the dots between the interventionary means adopted and the political mission being proclaimed. Even with this more credible posture the odds of success would still remain small. If we consider the record of the past sixty years very few interventions by colonial or hegemonic actors were successful despite their overwhelming military superiority. The only ‘success’ stories of interventionary politics involve very minor countries such as Grenada and Panama where organized resistance was absent, while the failures were in the big and prolonged struggles that took place in Indochina, Algeria, Indonesia, elsewhere.

In Libya the prospects were further worsened by the incoherence, inexperience, and lack of discipline exhibited by rebel forces. This effort of a weak and unorganized opposition to induce foreign forces to secure for themselves an otherwise unattainable victory is reminiscent of the bill of goods that wily Iraqi exiles sold to neoconservative operatives such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz during the lead up to the Iraq War (2003). Remember those promises of flowers greeting the American troops arriving in Baghdad or regime change being ‘a cakewalk’ that would be achieved without notable American casualties or costs. As in Libya the case for intervention rested on the false assumption that the foreign occupiers would be welcomed as liberators and that the Saddam Hussein regime lacked any popular base of support. Obama sang this interventionists’ lullaby when he lauded the villager

who thanked an American pilot whose plane crashed accidentally over some rebel held territory.

Such a negative assessment of the Libyan intervention seems clear enough. Such an assessment was offered at the outset of the crisis by the most qualified high official in the Obama inner circle, Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense. Why did Obama not heed this sensible advice? Unfortunately, every Democratic president, and none more than Obama, struggle to maintain their image as willing to use force in the pursuit of national interests whenever the occasion arises. We must pause to give credit as Obama has pursued a generally militarist foreign policy while still managing to collect a Nobel Peace Prize, something that W’s handlers could never have achieved, and likely didn’t seek. And here in Libya, the risks of inaction must have seemed too great to bear. Instead Obama attempted to have it both ways: lead the diplomatic effort to obtain a mandate from the UN Security Council and then provide most of the military muscle for the initial phase of the operation, and then hastily withdraw to the background while NATO supposedly takes over. This middle path is littered with contradictions: to convince the Security Council, and avoid a Russian or Chinese veto, it was necessary to portray the mission in the most narrow humanitarian terms as being only for the protection of civilians, while to protect the rebels (who are not ‘civilians’ as legally understood) required a much more ambitious scale of attack than is implied by establishing a No Fly Zone; beyond this, if the unconditional goal was the elimination of the Qaddafi regime, then the intervention would have to go far beyond the boundary set by the Security Council decision. It would have to tip the balance in the conflict. As has become clear, the approved military objectives have been dramatically exceeded in the flawed effort to protect the rebels and help them win, but seemingly to no avail.

Of course, the abstainers also have blood on their hands, and share some of the responsibility for what has gone wrong. These abstaining members of the Security Council went along with a mandate to use force that seemed inconsistent with the Charter assurances of refraining from UN intervention in matters essentially within domestic jurisdiction, as this struggle surely was and is. They also allowed the backers of the Securitry Council to twist enough arms to get their mission creep hopes raised by inserting the permissive clause ‘by all necessary means.’ China, Russia, India, Brazil, and South Africa should be ashamed of their posture, criticizing before the vote, abstaining so as to assure that authorization would be provided, and then resuming criticism afterwards to undertakings that should have been anticipated and precluded by much more constricted language in 1973. The vote was 10 in favor, none opposed, and five abstaining.

Such disregard of the limits of the UN Security Council authorization, awkwardly reinforced by the failure of the Security Council to play any subsequent supervisory role to ensure that its approval of force did not go beyond what had been agreed, has once again weakened the UN as a body operating within the constitutional framework of the UN Charter. It makes the UN in the peace and security area appear to be more an agent of geopolitical and neoimperial forces in the West than an objective body seeking to implement the rule of law in relation to the strong and weak alike. We all should remember that when the UN was established in the aftermath of World War II it was assigned the primary responsibility of minimizing the role of war in human affairs.  The inspirational opening words of the Preamble to the UN Charter should be recalled and solemnly reaffirmed: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” To allow these words to be selectively overridden by the recently endorsed norm of ‘responsibility to protect’ or R2P is to provide a selective tool that shamelessly exhibits double standards. Where were those humanitarian and paternalistic voices when the civilian population of Gaza was subjected to a murderous attack from land, air, and sea for three weeks by the Israeli Defense Forces (Dec. 27, 2008-January 19, 2009)

Throughout this period of revolutionary ferment in the Arab world, Obama’s paternalism has been pronounced. While intermittingly celebrating these popular risings, Obama has unblushingly felt entitled to pronounce on which leaders should stay and which should go as if he is indeed the first designated global chief executive. And these pronouncements lack even the pretense of coherence and consistency unless measured from an exclusively geopolitical standpoint. The White House was fine with Mubarak until the popular movement made his continued presence untenable, and then he was instructed to leave. In Yemen the leader is told to step down after he failed to quiet the protests, while in Bahrain the Al Khalifa royal family is supported by Washington although governed as an absolute monarchy, which has not only recently relied on extremely violent means to quell unarmed demonstrators, but has even inviting its stronger neighbor, Saudi Arabia, to send military forces across the border to help restore order. Restoring order in Bahrain  is a matter of making further repressive moves to thwart robust popular calls for a new political order based on democracy and human rights.

Obama’s maneuvers in and out of the limelight during the unfolding of events in the Arab world reveals the two sides of the current American dilemma: it is not yet ready to shed the mantle of imperial overseer in the post-colonial regions of the world, but it is faced with the contradictory pressures of imperial decline and overstretch.  This fledgling patriarch can lecture the world, and even manage a military thrust or two, but nothing is sustained, and little achieved. Obama seems to be auditioning to play Hamlet in this unfolding global tragedy.

IV..5…2011

IRAQI OCCUPATION AND HIGHER EDUCATION: THE GHENT CHARTER

4 Jan


For Americans, the long occupation of Iraq, dating back to 2003 when George W. Bush notoriously proclaimed ‘mission accomplished,’ is measured almost entirely by the American casualty count and the cost of the war to taxpayers, now estimated to be over $3 trillion, an amount large enough to make major inroads on global poverty and preventable disease. The loss of Iraqi lives or the devastation of the country, or the long suffering inflicted on the people of Iraq, does not enter into calculations. Much attention is given to whether the outcome can be called ‘a success’ or somehow beneficial for the people of Iraq, but without any notice of the enormous human price paid by a people that was never consulted in typical imperial behavior. Iraq is the poster child of post-colonial colonialism that disregards the ethos of self-determination in pursuit of geopolitical goals such as oil, regional hegemony, Israeli priorities.

For Iraqis, the occupation followed a frightening ‘shock and awe’ onslaught in 2003 that had been preceded by twelve years of punitive sanctions that took hundreds of thousands of civilian lives following the Gulf War of 2001 that deliberately devastated the infrastructure of the country to a degree that a respected UN Report described the country as bombed back to ‘the stone age.’ A phenomenon that Madeleine Albright notoriously described at the time on prime time TV “as worth it” when confronted with the estimated civilian losses due to sanctions as 700,000.

During this period Iraq shifted its status from being the country with the most impressive development statistics in the region with respect to social indicators to becoming a failed state in every sense: increasing poverty, loss of skill personnel in all sectors, declining literacy, declining life expectancy, staggering unemployment, destruction of cultural life, pervasive civic violence, lethal religious conflict, all forms of acute insecurity.  (See some salient statistics in the Ghent Charter with link at end of text below)

(additional information is contained in an excellent article by Dirk Anriaensens, “Iraq: The Age of Darkness,” <www.brussellstribunal.org/> International Seminar on the Situation of Iraqi Academics, under ‘publications’)

True, Iraq under Saddam Hussein had been oppressively governed, especially for the Kurdish minority and the Shiite majority, but there was a high degree of social order, material progress, and economic stability. True, Iraq was a disruptive presence in the region, attacking Iran (with U.S. encouragement) in 1980, and then invading and annexing Kuwait in 1990. Yet nothing can vindicate the American led response based on war, punitive sanctions, and prolonged occupation. By now it should be evident that the forcible destruction of the regime of Saddam Hussein caused a far worse humanitarian catastrophe than did the abuses, however dreadful, associated with his governance. Military intervention has been uniformly shown to be a darkly dysfunctional corrective for abusive governance, especially in the post-colonial era. The tragedy inflicted on the people of Iraq is a direct result of American crimes of aggression, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, the offenses for which German and Japanese leaders were prosecuted and punished after World War II at the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals. If there is a lesson in all this, it is that imperial grand strategy as it is playing out in the Middle East and Central Asia is intrinsically criminal, and its cruel impositions can only be defeated by campaigns of global solidarity.  Neither states nor the United Nations possess the political will or capabilities to oppose effectively these extensions of colonial behavior in the post-colonial era. As far as human rights are concerned, their realization is essentially a societal challenge, and unless abuse reaches the level of genocide or ethnic cleansing, violations should never serve as a pretext for military intervention even if disguised as ‘humanitarian intervention’ or fulfillments of the norm of ‘responsibility to protect.’

By now, there are no excuses left to ignore the horrors that accompany foreign military occupation. The prolonged experiences of Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan provide a consistent confirmation that benevolent claims of the occupier are disguises for exploitation, corruption, oppression, and violence against innocent civilians.

My focus in this blog is on the terrible condition of institutions of higher learning in Iraq.

The shocking portrait of what occupation has meant for academicians and students is depicted by the Ghent Charter that has been endorsed by prominent educators in Europe and elsewhere, including the Rector of the University of Ghent. The BRussell Tribunal has played a leading part in exposing these realities afflicting Iraqi universities, and has organized a seminar to take place in Ghent, Belgium, March 9-11, 2011, with the title “Defending education in times of war and occupation.” It is important that all of us, especially those paying taxes in the United States to pay for this occupation, understand that our silence is complicity. Especially those of us associated with teaching and research in American universities bear an additional responsibility to exhibit even now our solidarity with those who have suffered and are suffering in Iraqi academic communities. We know that many faculty members have been murdered since 2003 (over 500 confirmed cases), particularly those who spoke out and acted against the occupation, and many more have fled the country permanently. The departure of university personnel is part of a wider exodus of middle class Iraqis, estimates are over two million, leaving the country deprived of the sort of national social fabric essential to avoid predatory forms of foreign economic exploitation of the country. We who devote our lives to higher education realize the importance of educated and dedicated young people for the wellbeing of a country. If Iraq’s future is to be restored to some semblance of decency, its institutions of higher learning will need to become safe and hospitable for students and faculty.

In the meantime, read the Ghent Charter and weep! Ghent Charter in Defense of Iraqi Academia