Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Why the US should establish a no-fly zone over Syria

Forget humanitarian arguments.  US policy is almost entirely driven by an obsession with Man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADs) falling into the hands of 'terrorists' and 'jihadis'.   It would rather every single Syrian die than facilitate the spread of these weapons - after all, if a US or Israeli aircraft was blown up by one, the president might lose the next election!

At this point, there's little to worry about. The FSA has SAM-7s, a Soviet-era model which, in long experience, has proven just about useless against fixed-wing aircraft.   By now, even commercial airliners either have or can acquire countermeasures against these devices.  But without a no-fly zone,  the FSA will doubtless do its utmost to acquire more capable MANPADs.   It's unlikely they could get the US Stinger, but presumably there are more advanced Soviet/Russian systems available.   Serbia and Iraq have had one such system, the SA-16, for years.  The Tamil Tigers acquired one and it saw service in El Salvador and Angola.  It has a good record even against fairly advanced aircraft.  Commercial airliners would be sitting ducks.

The implications are clear, at least on the assumption that Turkey and Jordan could be persuaded to cooperate.   If the US does not establish a no-fly zone, that greatly increases the probability of what it fears most, the proliferation of effective MANPADs.   If the US does establish a no-fly zone, it greatly diminishes that probability.   Perhaps this is obvious to American intelligence organizations.   But since US policy shows no sign of intelligent direction, it seems worth pointing out.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Libya and Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch (henceforth HRW) has released a report on the killings of 66 men who were with Qaddafi's convoy when he himself was killed.   It's complete with video narrated by a man with an unctuous voice, terribly concerned.   These people were abused, he says, though neither video nor testimony shows anything more than you'd expect from an arrest of someone the cops disliked anywhere in the world.   But there is convincing evidence - convincing because meticulously documented - that many of these men were later executed, hands bound behind their back.

This thing is, important human rights are violated around the world, at least tens of thousands of times a day.  I don't refer to such important rights as having enough to eat, in which case the violations would be in the hundreds of millions.   Suppose there is good reason to focus on the more dramatic violations - like the prisoners who suffer brutal beatings, rape, and torture, or the women whose faces are splashed with acid, or the street kids shot by police as they sleep in doorways, anti-logging activists gunned down by hired thugs.   There are also those who may well indeed be guilty of something but who are 'summarily executed' by vigilante mobs, or police.

Then, of course, there are all those innocents mutilated, tortured to death or blown to bits by Qaddafi-like régimes such as Assad's, or by the cruel militias of the Congo.  Such an embarrassment of riches!  How to choose?  And when?

HRW has chosen to investigate human rights violations committed in what might be called the most extenuating of circumstances, and a time when it will benefit as bad a violator of human rights as exists on this earth today.   Misrata fighters, who had suffered months of the most brutal assault on their city by a half-crazed sadistic dictator, took bloody vengeance on those who seemed - and still seem, for all we've heard - complicit in this atrocity.   The investigation is a propaganda gift to Assad, whose defenders will hasten to make comparisons with Libya and who will point out that these same Libyan fighters are, in some cases, on the ground with the FSA in Syria.  The propaganda will be all the more effective because HRW has in effect given its stamp of approval to focus on similar killings in Syria, even though they cannot compare with Assad's atrocities.  Was this the right investigation at the right time?

It's not as if the bad effects are balanced by good ones.   No one seriously believes that the investigations will improve the human rights situation in Libya, or indeed anywhere else.   Those who suffered Qaddafi's oppression will not find that the report - which tells them nothing new - should count more than the horrors they've seen and experienced.   And the world has never shown itself more prone to respect human rights because of any HRW report, much less some exposé of victims' revenge.  Some of the reports may have the limited good effect of benefiting a good cause, but that's just what this report doesn't do.

I suppose it would be too much to ask that HRW investigators even consider alternatives that would do most to further the cause of human rights.   After all, such alternatives - like arming the FSA - would come outside the specialized self-mandated writ of the organization.   Let's suppose this writ is more important than actually reducing human rights violations.   So here's another idea:  chose violations whose exposure at least won't play into the hands of the worst violators.  That way, at least the investigations won't actually work in favor of an increase in horrific crimes.

But that runs up against another of HRW's high moral principles:  to investigate without fear or favor.   Pay no mind to politics.  Pay no mind to the effects of your activity.  Squeeze consequences out of  your field of vision and concentrate only on the details of individual cases,  even if this plays into the hands of the worst human rights violators.  Be impartial, not only in the investigations themselves, but in your choice of what to investigate.  In short, don't corrupt your choice of investigation by considering whether it is helpful or harmful.  We should, it seems, be indifferent to whether we make the world better or worse.

HRW will protest that they have also investigated, for years, human rights violations in Syria.   This is irrelevant to whether they should have investigated the killings in Libya.   The question is not whether all the choices HRW has made are bad.   It whether the choice to investigate the killings in Libya was bad.

HRW may also say that investigating the Libya killings ups its credibility generally, which is a good thing.   However there are many ways to improve one's credibility - is this one of the better ways to do so?   If the reports on Libya increase HRW's credibility, that will make HRW all the more useful for Assad's apologists.   And  it is not clear whether HRW actually needs more credibility.   It seems that, credible or not, people accept or ignore HRW reports according to their political agendas, not according to their standards of evidence.

HRW may remind us that circumstances and resources don't permit investigating all violations and Libya is one case where they could conduct a thorough investigation.   This too doesn't help.   Suppose, in some town, there are rapes of whites by blacks, and of blacks by whites.   Since the whites are well-protected and plan meticulously, HRW can issue reports only on the black-on-white rapes, resulting in a boost for violent anti-black racism.   Are we to accept that if HRW sighs, "we just do what we can"?

In the end, HRW bases its choices on on their effects on HRW itself.   Do the investigations show the organization to conform to its own guidelines and principles?    Do they show the organization to have integrity, impartiality, and other signs of good character?   Well, fine then.   Whether the investigations actually further the cause of human rights is neither here nor there.   Unsurprising, perhaps, from those who have not themselves experienced oppression.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Morsi and Egypt: A Plea for Cynicism

150 injuries in Tahrir.  Why?

Many of the thousands who gathered in Tahrir Square were angry at this week's court ruling that acquitted former officials charged with ordering a camel-and-horseback charge on protesters in the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak last year.
But even before that ruling, Mursi's opponents had called for protests against what they say is his failure to deliver on his promises for his first 100 days in office.

So Morsi had opponents who had a demonstration planned, and nothing was going to be more important - especially not an improper move against the old régime:
Even some political groups who wanted Mahmoud out questioned the way Mursi had done it. The liberal Free Egyptians Party said changing the prosecutor should be an independent judicial move.
And for some, Morsi could not be supported because he might as well be the old régime.  As one activist put it,

"Now I regret [having voted for Morsi to prevent former Mubarak loyalists from winning] because they are just two faces of the same coin," Waleed said. "Morsi has done nothing for the revolution. I want to say I am so sorry for bringing in another repressive regime."
These regrets rest on a dubious assumption.  No one has brought in another 'regime'.  Whatever Morsi's ultimate agenda may be, there is no régime yet.  There is a President attempting to establish executive authority and a judiciary attempting to prevent him from doing so.  There is no valid constitution, only a bunch of past documents.  These documents, the products of an undemocratic, unjust past, can't possibly be seen as legitimate in the eyes of anyone claiming to be a revolutionary.  There is no consensus on how to obtain a new constitution.  His control over the police and the military is problematic. Above all, there is no legislative branch.  Anyone fighting a Morse 'regime' has mistaken a work-in-progress - one that isn't going all that well - for a settled reality.

This isn't surprising, because there are aspects of the reality that many secular  liberals don't want to recognize.  Those who have fought for democracy need to concede that Morsi is the people's choice.  It doesn't matter if you add up various parties in the last election and get more votes than Morsi.  Morsi got a plurality; that's how it works.  His presidency has more legitimacy than any other institution in the state.
That doesn't in itself oblige anyone to support him. There are certainly moral and even political principles of justice and liberty that don't yield to an election.  But these principles themselves cannot be invoked to justify actions that militate against them.  That's what seems to be happening in recent days.
What a spectacle!  Liberals defend 'the independence of the judiciary'.  What independence? the judiciary is the tool of the old régime forces.  One might even ask, what judiciary?  These are not simply the appointments of some past régime.  They are the appointments of a dictatorship so unjust, so cruel, so hated that Egyptians in their hundreds of thousands braved snipers, beatings, prison and torture to destroy it.  Now would be a good time to remember the words of Sara Carr:

The real problem is that The Former Regime is spoken of like it is an inanimate object, some lurking monster growling in the corner when in fact - and this isn’t breaking news - the regime is the people themselves.

Apparently this applies even to some of most outspoken secular liberals.  Why else would they speak of 'the independence of the judiciary'?  It is as if Russian people, having overthrown the cruel Tsarist régime in 1917, were somehow obliged to respect the decisions of the judges who had, on a regular basis, done their utmost to legitimate torture, repression and murder.  The comparison is almost too exact.

Better some moderate cynicism than this grotesque idealism.  Morsi took a crucial step to destroy the most deeply entrenched elements of a régime still capable, as if from the grave, of torture and murder.  Who cares what it says in, I don't know, the constitution of 1923?  Who cares if you had some nice demonstration all planned to protest some maneuverings around the drafting of a new constitution?  How does that justify fighting - literally fighting - an attempt to remove perhaps the chief remaining obstacle to adopting a constitution of any sort?  Yes, for all I know, Morsi may be on the way to establishing an extreme fundamentalist theocracy.  But this is only a theory, only a possibility, only one spectre among many.  It cannot be addressed until the groundwork of the revolution is at least close to completion, and that requires destroying, not defending, the old judicial apparatus.  Less abstractly, it requires bringing to justice the bastards who killed many  innocent people, all to preserve the privileges of an élite who still manage to act with virtual impunity.

Morsi is not going to be stopped by a few thousand liberals fighting with a few thousand Islamists.  If the liberals turn out in force to oppose his attempts to get rid of the old régime, how is that supposed to make Islamist domination less rather than more likely?  How is it supposed to strengthen the liberal forces?  Rather than espouse this mystifying strategy, why not help rather than hinder his attempts?  Rather than leaping to the defense of the very people who tortured, murdered and imprisoned liberal activists, why not have a little less faith in baleful predictions about theocracy?  It's not a good sign if "but we had a nice demonstration all planned!" turns into a protest whose net effect is to support the remnants of the old order.  Maybe it would be better to pay less attention to constitutional maneuverings and more attention to present realities.  Bad timing can ruin even the most admirable political agendas.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

NuffSilence on US Policy in Syria: Let 'Em Bleed?

I'm a great admirer of NuffSilence (@NuffSilence), who blogs and tweets about Syria.   He is always principled and insightful, sometimes brilliant, often witty.   I would never question his judgement on Syria, but I am less confident about his judgement on the US.   He believes that the US has not helped the Syrian resistance because it prefers to let it bleed:
As long as the crisis in Syria can attract the funding and the willing Salafi fighters of the region, divert their effort from other crisis areas where they can disturb American interests, why not?

Why not allow this to go on, let the guys have their fight endlessly with ridiculously primitive weapons against the superior but gradually flailing power of the regime. Why not let the crisis go on until it exhausted both the Jihadis and the regime. Let the regime get weaken rather than fall with a knock-down.
I'm disputing this because it may be useful to have an accurate understanding of American non-policy on Syria.  I believe nuffsilence's analysis is doubtful for the following reasons.

First, one must distinguish between the pathetic idiots in the US Congress and the pathetic weaklings in the US executive branch, where foreign policy is conducted.   The policy-makers don't know much, but they do know a little.   They know not only the difference between Islamists and Salafis, but also between Salafis and 'Al Qaeda' in its many incarnations.   Unlike Congress, they know these 'jihadis' are not the Al Qaeda of 9-11, and therefore haven't a strong motive to base their Syria policy on any such assumption.

Second, if they were terribly frightened of the 'Jihadis' or Salafis in Syria, they certainly wouldn't want them armed and financed.   That wouldn't really be to repeat their mistake in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but it would be close enough.  The Obama administration would see a grave domestic disadvantage in countenancing the financing of 'Jihadi terror'.   That would add to their already substantial embarrassment at being allied with the Saudis (notorious for their backing of 'jihad').   And this embarrassment matters more than Syrian lives, more even than their position in the Middle East, because it would hurt their standing with the American electorate.   It can never be over-emphasized:   Americans don't really care about foreign policy and certainly not about foreign countries or their inhabitants.   Saudi financing of 'jihadis' would not be seen in foreign policy terms but as a domestic issue:  is the President tough on terror?   The President cares more about this domestic issue than he does about Syria.

Third, the Americans are highly unlikely to place bets on the 'jihadis' bleeding out.   Why would they?   On the contrary, for America, and perhaps even in reality, fundamentalist terrorism is extremely resilient.   Indeed Americans believe that the Arab or Muslim world harbors literally millions of discontented young men just dying to participate in 'Jihad', not to mention hundreds of billionaire Arabs only too happy to finance them from bottomless coffers.   All this militates against the idea that the US would adopt a bleed-them-out strategy.

Fourth, there is no evidence that the US does or ever has adopted such an approach.   It did not do so in Libya, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, nor anywhere else.   Sure, American policymakers might have a new idea.  But when they do,  at this level of generality, they have never been discrete about it.  Their changes in policy have been accompanied by endless 'analyses'  touting the flavor of the month, be it building democracy or war on terror or neoliberalism or neoconservatism.    Yet bleed-'em-dry is nowhere to be found.

Fifth, supposing the US did want to adopt such an approach, it wouldn't do so in a country that borders Lebanon, Israel and Iraq.  The Americans are far too worried about destabilisation, which in their fevered imagination would provide even more opportunities for 'jihadis', and even more occasion for arms to fall into extremist hands.

Finally, the reasons behind US policy are clear, and depressing.   For anything larger than a Grenada-scale military action, the US has always wanted one of two things - international approval or the invitation of a sovereign government, however illegitimate (e.g., Vietnam).   Until recently, the US has been able to obtain this diplomatic fig leaf virtually on demand.  Even in Kosovo they could claim to be implementing a UN resolution and reacting to events condemned by the UN Security Council.    In Syria, for the first time, the US encountered direct, explicit and decisive opposition to UN involvement.   This means that large-scale intervention, in the air as well as on the ground, is out of the question.   Only if Turkey or Israel invoke defense treaty violations can anything happen.

So all that remains is to supply, semi-covertly, arms.    The US may have some hand in backing GSA supplies of these arms, but this extends only to pretty useless, lightweight stuff, and inadequate supplies of ammunition.   What the US will not countenance, under any circumstances whatever, is giving the FSA what it needs, namely advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft shoulder-fired missiles (MANPADs).   And the reason is simple:  the US is utterly terrified that such weapons end up being used in attacks on Americans, on Israel, or on any sort of civilian aviation, anywhere.

This is what lies behind all the bogus talk about 'needing to know who we're dealing with' and, more recently, 'unity'.   A few days ago, a news story gave the game away.  It had to do with, allegedly, why the Qataris were not shippng arms to the Syrian opposition:
"They were very clear that we needed to get organised and present a proper plan," said one opposition leader present at the talks, who gave the nom-de-guerre, Abu Mohsin.
"The Qataris were concerned because they had not been able to get back a lot they gave to the Libyan [rebels] and they did not want the same situation to happen in Syria.
"The Qataris said that the Americans were very worried about this happening again."
What this says is that the Qataris are not big fans of unity because they care whether the Syrian opposition lives or dies.   They're fans of unity because they absolutely have to get all the good unused stuff back when it's all over.   The 'unity' ploy, so widely used, is an excuse for doing nothing: Qatar knows damn well that the FSA cannot and will not 'unify' into a conventional force, let alone one so 'trustworthy' that it can guarantee that what will become of its weapons in some indeterminate future.  Nor would this be as wonderful as claimed:  a united movement would have a command detached from all-important local, immediate realities, and its strategic decisions would not necessarily produce a better result than what's happening right now.

One has to conclude that the US is dead set against sending serious weaponry, either directly or indirectly.   Its intention isn't to bleed anyone dry; it is to keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists.   It knows the FSA isn't terrorist and it knows it can, by picking the recipients, have some imperfect assurance that the weapons won't fall into the hands of terrorists.  It doesn't care;. It wants an absolute certainty it knows it can't have.  It goes without saying that the Europeans are too timid to do anything without the US.

The implications of this may be useful.   There really is no point trying to assure the West that the FSA is moderate, scrupulous, or anything else.   There is  no point trying to please the West in any way, much less tailoring strategy to that end.   And perhaps there is some point in making this clear to the West.  Perhaps that will make the West understand to what extent they have alienated and infuriated tbe Syrian opposition.   Maybe, just maybe,  the fears that engenders will outweigh the fears of supporting the FSA.