Wednesday, October 8, 2014

US Syria policy is the symptom. Aftermathophobia is the disease

There are many good explanations for US policy failures.  Ignorance, stupidity, arrogance all play a part, as do more specific desires to control various happenings in various parts of the world.  But what all these failures have in common is a certain sort of naÏve cowardice, a fear of ever encountering any bad consequences of any decision.  I call this aftermathophobia.

Perhaps the fear is not so much of the consequences themselves as of what Americans will think of them:  US foreign policy is increasingly determined by what will play well or badly in the next election.  The increase may be due to America's realization that events abroad affect their interests even less than previously imagined.  Assuming America ever wants to influence anything or anyone abroad, this has gone too far.  The contempt of American 'power' has become pervasive and overwhelming - a shame, because America's love for vile régimes has faded and the US might actually do some good abroad.  An understanding of aftermathophobia might help push the US in better directions - and at the same time drag it out of virtual helplessness on the international scene.

The US showed the world how to manage an aftermath with the post-World-War-II Marshall Plan, a resounding success.  It went downhill from there as the decline in America's military fortunes bred an acute failure of nerve.  Korea, an ambiguous 'draw', at least produced a stable, prosperous South Korea, not least because the US was again prepared to station large forces there for decades.  Then the defeat in Vietnam gave way to an aftermath entirely out of America's control, not only there but in Laos and Cambodia.  This disaster apparently spawned a pathologically broad and deep fear of bad outcomes, complemented by an incorrigible desire to minimize painful losses by substituting money for blood.

When the US saw the failure of its client army in Vietnam, it responded by deploying more American troops.  This failed.  Since then the US had adopted the bizarre strategy of dogged reliance on client armies while reducing US troop support.  In Afghanistan, over many years now, the US has saved American lives by relying on laughably unreliable proxies, as if these client troops could count for anything in the forces deployed against the Taliban.  In Iraq it avoided an aftermath altogether by refusing to enter Baghdad in the first Gulf War:  that this led to a gruesome strangling of the country and many thousands of civilian deaths mattered little.  In the second Gulf War it relied again on client forces and never committed the resources even to maintain basic control of its conquest, with the terrible results we see today.  No matter, it seems.  American lives were saved.

This fixation on saving of American lives has all but displaced consideration of policy objectives.  It entirely eclipses concern for the lives of anyone else.  It has propelled the fear of bad consequences to ridiculous extremes.  America now abhors bad consequences even when the risk to Americans is negligible, far less than in its militarily modest Afghan and Iraqi adventures.  Take note of how ludicrous this fear has become.

For one thing, it's apparently now gospel that the US should never pursue any alternative that might lead to arms falling into the wrong hands.  American leaders and analysts, perhaps too far removed from the realities of warfare, can't get over its sloppy unpredictables.  We never hear the end of how the US armed Bin Laden with, among other things, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.  Is that because these weapons enabled him to mount the 9-11 attacks with, um, a few box-cutters?  Are we obsessed with the knapsacks used in the July 7th bombings in London and the Madrid attacks?  Is it really supposed that, had we just not armed Bin Laden, all would be well in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is doing just fine without the benefit of American equipment?  American strategizing has been reduced to a childish sort of score-keeping, where real disasters like the second Iraq war are as nothing compared to even the most distant prospect of Americans, however few, being killed with American weapons.

The full idiocy of the obsession with arms emerges with the concern that IS now has American weapons.  Why does it have them?  Because it captured them from the government.  In civil wars, the insurgents typically do capture their weapons from the government.  So unless you don't arm governments at all, some weapons you provide will fall likely into insurgent hands.  Why is this any particular concern?  Would it somehow be better if the government had been armed with non-American weapons and the dreaded insurgents wielded them instead?

Another childish obsession that guides US policy is 'trust'.  We must have trusted allies.  What sort of trust is expected?  Eternal love?  In the world wars, the various allied powers had a more mature attitude.  The Americans, British and French allied with the Soviet Union yet fully believed the Soviets had the intention and quite possibly the means to destroy them.  The Soviets had the same sort of beliefs about their allies.  Both judged it best to ward off one threat of destruction now and deal with another possibly resulting threat later.  They made specific preparations to do this.  In other words, they dealt with the fact that, of course, their allies were not entirely to be trusted.  They saw the prospect of friends becoming enemies as an eventuality to be confronted, not as some terminally humiliating faux-pas.

Instead of planning to deal with the undesirable consequences of a strategy, the U.S. now looks for a strategy without undesirable consequences.  This is not an adult approach to foreign policy.  Indeed it is not an adult approach to policy of any kind and it's not one practiced in domestic politics.  Obama's Medicare policies, for example, are full of measures designed to avert potential undesirable consequences: one of them is that small businesses get tax credits to avoid excessively high health insurance premium costs.  No one stops building transportation links even though we know new links mean more usage and more fatal accidents.  But in the Middle East, you don't deal with dangers or disadvantages.  You run from them.  You search for a future which, however unlikely or horrific, has great potential to protect you from the accusation that you've 'done stupid shit'.

How does this phobic behavior surface in the US' Syria policy?

It is this phobia which makes the US fixated on creating its own *trustworthy* client force in Syria, despite the fact that it has failed miserably to create such forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.  This ponderous, useless effort reflects a desire to be certain there will be no bad consequences from supporting the rebels.  The same phobia accounts for the disastrous strikes on Jabhat al Nusra, dedicated fighters against Assad.  On the US' own account, the bombing campaign cannot but benefit him.  That doesn't matter to the Americans because so many rebel groups are 'untrustworthy'.  However much this helps Assad, however much horror it causes and prolongs, however much it encourages anti-American extremism, however much it undermines the prospects of regional stability - none of this matters.  All that matters is that America does nothing whatsoever that could possibly have some bad results.

Of course this caution is myopic. America's decisions don't avoid bad consequences; they just make sure the bad consequences don't obviously proceed directly from American actions.  For example, the US doesn't provide serious support to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) because it doesn't want to empower the Islamists within the group, or the more radical Islamists outside the group.  It's horrified to see a mere handful of FSA weapons appear in 'extremist' hands.  The result?  The FSA is crippled.  The extremists provide, therefore, the best defense against Assad.  They gain adherents.  They capture far more weapons, 'advanced', 'heavy' and otherwise from the régime than they would ever have acquired from the FSA.  Indeed there is not a single type of American-supplied weapon that has fallen into IS' hands, from tanks to anti-tank missiles to heavy artillery and small arms, that IS did not possess in abundance before its rise to power.  Almost all of it was captured from government bases.

But what of the future?  Even the US knows the rebels that dumping the rebels would cement its growing reputation for weakness, cowardice and betrayal, not to mention signing on to destabilizing horror.  But what if supporting the FSA will just lead to sectarian-fueled chaos?  Again, no matter that such an outcome is equally likely if the US does not support the FSA.  But what matters to the US is not the outcome, but that the outcome is produced while the US stands on the sidelines.  No matter that the decision to stand on the sidelines is just as much a decision and just as much responsible for the results.  What matters that it will be a bit harder to blame the government for those results come the next election.

This phobic approach produces paralysis when, as is usually the case, all options raise at least the chance of bad consequences.   All possible bad consequences, avoidable or unavoidable, are taken to be fixed quantities, deal-breakers.  All possible good consequences count for nothing.  If an option raises even a chance at anything bad, even if all options have that taint, it counts as a 'bad option'.  Bad options are to be avoided, so the result is aimless fussing about how there are no good options.

Bleating that "there are no good options" is infantile; it's like expressing outrage at the discovery of an imperfect world.  Grown-ups refine their assessment of bad options.  They seek ways to make bad consequences less likely and good ones, moreso.

In Syria, for example, it won't do just to moan about how there are so many groups, so disunited, so unreliable, so cozy with 'extremists'.  Of course there is disunity; of course there are extremists; of course the moderates associate with extremists; of  course they're so impure that some of their weapons may end up in extremist hands.  But disunity and extremism are far from fixed phenomena.  Observers on the ground have noted that many Syrians side with extremists as the only option for fighting Assad in their area, not to mention the only way to get enough of a salary to feed a family.  The 'extremists' themselves are not all human bogey-men.  They include the sixteen year old kid who loves Al Qaeda "but also George Bush".  They also include the many who change allegiance as soon another group provides greater hope of security and well-being.  So an adult perspective on aiding the FSA would be to understand that half-ass assistance has bad consequences, while serious aid makes these consequences much less probable.  If the FSA is built into the most powerful group, one which can pay decent salaries, there will be less 'disunity' because more people will gravitate towards the most powerful, well-funded alternative.  And with serious aid, the US is in a much better position to demand good governance in rebel-held areas, which again will bring more adherents.  This sort of support will also make 'extremists' less extremist, because the US will be seen as a real help.

Of course none of this will even in the best circumstances guarantee that Syria will be run by squeaky clean secularist lovers of Freedom and Democracy.  Some of the reasons go back to when the US started getting hysterical about possible aftermaths.  Since the 1950s, no indigenous movement for fundamental change, no attempt to overthrow ossified old orders, has been good enough for the West. They couldn't stomach the communists in Iran or Iraq or Afghanistan.  They couldn't handle the Arab nationalists and their 'Arab socialism'.  Now they abhor Islamists, 'political Islam'.  Yet political Islam is the only credible alternative left now that, partly thanks to American fears about bad outcomes, secularism has produced little but the most blood-thirsty, politically vacuous governments in the region's history.  So yes, even if the US takes a first step towards amending the disgraceful secularist record, it is not likely to produce a régime in love with Western democracy.

Yet Western concern about aftermaths is almost comical.  The idea seems to be that disaster looms if the West isn't free to 'build nations'.  Yet there is little reason to see tragedy in the region's future falling from Western hands.  The places where the West really was forced to leave, where some dreaded local solution was imposed on the West by force of arms, also count as some of the few places where, from a strictly Western point of view, the aftermath has worked out very well.  The French defeat in Algeria brought nothing but excellent and mutually profitable relations between Algeria and France.  The American defeat in Vietnam has evolved into such good relations that America has just approved arms sales to that country.  And what of the dreaded domino effect that did in fact envelop Laos and Cambodia?  Not that Western interests were at stake, but the horrors of Pol Pot were stopped, not by the West but by the dastardly Vietnamese communists.  Today Laos and Cambodia must be among the nations that pose the least worry for America and its allies.  Contrast this with the places where the West had limitless opportunity to indulge its fantasies of 'nation-building'!

Perhaps then it is time to learn something from what international politics was in the days of Metternich and Bismark, before Woodrow Wilson imposed a blundering American Protestantism on its practice.  The old-school diplomats didn't go fussing about the 'values' of other nations.  Unlike some of the cheerleaders for colonial  empires, they didn't want to promote their own 'values'.  This doesn't mean the West needs to emulate their callousness and brutality.  Perhaps, though, it's time to realize that problems go away only when there is fundamental change, and fundamental change most often comes from forces more radical than those who bleat about 'freedom and democracy'.  In particular it seems clear that, having destroyed or connived at destruction of the left in the Middle East, the West likely has no choice but to  accept Islamist solutions if there's any hope for an end to the domination of ossified élites, and the oppression that breeds extremist responses.  Arm the rebels in Syria, with full knowledge that the outcome may bring some 'bad guys' to power.  Don't suppose that the bankrupt strategies of client armies supplemented by timid injections of American ground forces are better than the less risky policy of supporting local forces but letting them choose their own futures. And do grow up about 'bad guys'.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

James Foley: An outrageous death among many others

Of course the outrage is justified.  It's not hypocritical either, but it's narrowly focused.  We don't exactly accept comparable brutalities like those committed by Western powers.  However we're so used to them, we omit them from any moral balance sheet.

The brutalities are the oldest of old news: when the US conducts air strikes, it knows with certainty that civilians will be killed.  It conducts them anyway.  As result, living innocents get their arms torn off, their eyes blasted away, their legs severed.   The US also knows some of these people aren't adults.  They are children.  (These acts of the Obama régime are no worse than many acts of many other régimes, North and South, East and West, throughout recent history.)

Again, to be clear:  the US acts with certain knowledge of the atrocious mutilations and killings that will result from its actions.  If I blow up a house when I know I will shred or squash to death several innocent people, it doesn't really matter if I just 'intended' or 'wanted' to kill a someone I considered a very bad person.  I am judged a murderer and held responsible for these crimes.   That's a judgment often and rightly visited on Israel, with appropriate repugnance.   But I never, I mean never, see that holding-a-dead-rat-by-the-tail disgust at the US among those who vent their outrage at Foley's killers.

IS commits in-your-face atrocities.  The US commits off-stage atrocities.  The US victims suffer exactly the same agonies, are just as human, just as innocent, and end up just as maimed or dead.  They gush blood; their guts spill out into the dust. If you cannot maintain ongoing repugnance at US actions - and I'm not saying you should - don't get all shocked by IS actions.  It's not a good idea.  Better to understand that no, not everyone is outraged at Foley's death, quite the contrary, and they are no more morally skewed than you are.   Unlike you, they do keep in mind what the US has done off-stage, and how its lovely decent Western allies hardly make a peep about it, and about how the lovely sensitive Western public is equally unperturbed.

To bear that in mind is maybe an important step in promoting a world in which James Foley doesn't meet a brutal death at brutal hands.  To reduce brutality probably requires an honest understanding of what it is.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Gaza: a bare-bones moral assessment

The following attempts a systematic, unsparing look at the moral rights and wrongs of the Gaza war.  There's no discussion of international law, because laws can be morally good or bad, and whether something accords with a law doesn't tell us much about moral right and wrong.

People talk a lot about moral diversity but if any right is well-recognized across times and places, it's self-defense.  It's of course central to the Gaza conflict.

Self-defense needn't apply only to immediate, swift and obvious threats.   Suppose we live in the desert, and you gradually deprive me of water without which my crops will fail and I will die.  That is a threat to my existence, and I have a right to defend myself against it.

What that right allows me to do depends on my alternatives.  I'm probably obliged to choose the least destructive or harmful alternative available to me.   I can't go and kill you if just filling in your drainage ditch will put a permanent end to the threat.

This restriction on self-defense is often questioned.   If you are posing a mortal threat to me, some say I needn't make nice calculations about what response is least destructive.   So what alternatives need be considered before adopting a radical one is a bit uncertain.

Now apply these generalities, not simply to the Gazans, but to the Palestinians.  Their fates are inextricably intertwined.  It would be irrational for either party to suppose that, if one is the object of a mortal threat, the other isn't.

Are the Palestinians faced with such a threat?  That seems to be the case.   Its obvious manifestation might be the occupation, but it has deeper origins.  They relate to the founding principles and institutions of Israel.

Israel was founded as, implemented as, and intended as a 'Jewish state'.  The Israeli government and a very solid majority of the Israeli people are deeply committed to this idea.  What does that mean?

In this context 'Jewish' has a quasi-racial definition:  'Jews' from anywhere, whether or not they profess or practice the Jewish religion, are entitled to citizenship.  This kinship notion of 'Jewish' ultimately relies on whether or not your ancestors were considered Jews.   Since these ancestors too may not have professed or practiced Judaism, the criterion makes tacit reference to biological traits.  This distinguishes it from the citizenship criteria of other states whose rules grant entitlement to those whose parents had nationality based on their language or place of residence.

The theory is complemented by the reality.   Israel is a Jewish state in a sense which has nothing whatever to do with religion.  Its citizenship policies solicit and embrace immigration according to criteria which have nothing to do with belief, place of birth or language, but only with lineage.

So much for 'Jewish'.  What about 'state'?  A state, according to the conventions of political science, is an entity that holds a monopoly on violence in a certain geographical area.  That means that the state alone decides everything, including who lives and who dies, in the area it controls.  Whoever controls that state therefore has the power of life and death over whoever lives there.  In a Jewish state, it is Jews who control the state.   So in the Jewish state, Jews have the power of life and death over everyone, Jewish or non-Jewish, who lives there.  When Jews are selected on quasi-biological criteria, the Jewish state's operating principle is something very close to racial sovereignty.

What then of the non-Jews who live in Israel or in the occupied territories?  Within Israel, it does not matter what rights Palestinians receive at the good pleasure of the Jewish rulers or for that matter, the Israeli electorate. (After all, Jewish sovereignty implies, in Israel, the preservation of a Jewish majority.) Since the state is committed to maintaining Jewish sovereignty, it is committed to the preservation of Jewish sovereignty.  Non-Jews, whatever their rights, must therefore accept that their very life is in the hands of Jews.  Jews decide whether they live or die.  As for those Palestinians living in the occupied territories, their position is if anything worse.  They live under the full force of the state without enjoying even the fragile rights that they would possess as Israeli citizens.

Is living under Israeli rule a mortal threat to non-Jews?  Someone might reasonably suppose so.  In democracies, your life is said to be in the hands of an electorate to which you yourself belong, and this is supposed to mitigate the threat.  In Israel, belonging to the electorate does not mitigate the threat, because the state guarantees that you fall outside the ultimate decision-making process:  it guarantees that elections will not take sovereignty out of the hands of the Jews.

Someone might think this argument a bit over-dramatic, a bit too one-sidedly theoretical.  After all, nowhere is it written that Israeli Jews have the power of life and death over non-Jews:  that's just an inference from definitions of 'Jewish' and 'sovereignty'.  So if non-Jews are living under a mortal threat - which would of course activate rights of self-defense - that might require more than a look at Israel's principles.

If so, well, more is abundantly available.  It isn't primarily about the long history of violence, some of it initiated by Palestinians.  It's about land and resources.

Israel (and before it the Zionists), to an ever-increasing extent, have been after the land and resources that support the Palestinians' existence.  Perhaps at some point in the past, this objective wasn't enough of a reality to constitute a mortal threat.  That point was certainly passed with the start of the occupation or its accompanying settlement policy.  Before then, before 1967, it might be said that Israel left the Palestinians enough to live on, and had no intention to take more.   Today, and long before today, no one can say that.

For some years now, it has been clear that Israel intends to keep building settlements and therefore to keep confiscating Palestinian land and resources.   Is it also clear that non-Jewish inhabitants of Israeli-controlled territory have no ultimate say in the matter.  It is clear that the 'internationally community', cowed by Israel and paralysed by America's UN veto, will do nothing to stop the process.  It has also been abundantly clear the Israel is committed to supporting the process with the very effective violence it has placed in the hands, as it likes to say, 'of the Jewish people'.   Finally it is clear  that sentiment within Israel itself has no prospect even of moderating the pace of expropriation.

This doesn't add up to absolute certainty that the Palestinians are faced with a mortal threat.  Who knows?  maybe peace, love and understanding will break out tomorrow, just as, perhaps, the person holding a knife at your throat may suddenly break down in tearful remorse.  However it's more than enough for rational Palestinians to perceive, with ample justification, just such a threat.  This threat is particularly ominous because it originates from a state that has proclaimed rights of racial sovereignty over the Palestinians. In these circumstances, the right to self-defense is very extensive.  The threatened person may use whatever means he has, including violence, in his defense, provided only that he has no grounds to believe there's a readily available alternative.

How specifically does this apply to current events?  Palestinian actions against the continual menace of the settlements and the occupation must be judged according to whether the Palestinians have rational grounds for believing there are less violent and indiscriminate alternatives readily available.   The alternatives must also be at least as effective in countering the threat, that is, in slowing Israel's relentless expropriation drive.

I leave that argument to others.  Ideally these others would be both experts in asymmetric warfare and intimately familiar with Palestinian realities.   Given the increasing savagery of Israeli policies, Israel's apparent immunity from international sanction, and above all the truly enormous disparity of Israeli and Palestinian power, I would not bet on the fortunes of those who presume to moralize about Palestinian conduct.  What's clear is that even if some Palestinian attacks prove to be unjustified, Israel has no right to a violent response.  You may be unjustified in attacking me, but I have no right to violence if I can simply withdraw from the scene.  Indeed Israel's continual and illegitimate appeal to violent self-defense, coupled with its increasingly savage appetite for collective punishment, only add weight to the Palestinian perception of a mortal threat.

This assessment is based on the narrowest of moral assumptions, a basic right of self-defense.  It makes no appeal to human rights, which Very Important People formulated in the past century and which they love to apply 'even-handedly' to both sides.  It doesn't consider other rights, such as resistance to non-lethal oppression.  Still it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Israel hasn't a shred of justification for its actions.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Standing against and standing for - in Syria

The Islamic State movement (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) has enjoyed spectacular success in Iraq.  More recently it has done very well against the Assad regime in Syria.  Why is that?

Another question: why has it done better, overall, than the moderate rebels in Syria?  The reasons cited for the moderates' difficulties seem also to apply to IS.  Neither, contrary to some ideologists, have huge outside funding.  Neither have protection against air cover.  The moderates have had to fight both the régime and IS, but IS of course has chosen to fight the moderates and, when it was not heavily engaged with the régime, the Kurds.  Though the moderates were often said to lack heavy weapons, like ISIS they now possess quite a few tanks, armored cars and heavy artillery.

Especially in Syria, moderate and especially secular activists have often dismissed IS as a bunch of thugs, or worse, foreign thugs.  Yet some report that despite their atrocities, IS has popular support.  In the areas it controls, IS is said to offer clean government, justice, social services and infrastructure, as well as Draconian assaults on crime.   In these areas, apparently, it is the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that is characterized as a bunch of thugs.  Certainly no one disputes that some groups claiming to be secularist rebels sometimes act that way.

But even if any of this explains IS' success, a puzzle remains.  The moderate (or relatively moderate) opposition is known to include many individuals - almost certainly many thousands - of outstanding ability, decency, and courage.  Is there something they lack that the extremists (Jabhat al Nusra as well as IS) possess?  Well there is.  Whether or not it makes any difference I can't say, but it's there.  The extremists stand for something.  The moderates may seem to stand for something as well.  But on closer inspection, they don't.

When someone considers the prospect of joining or being ruled by IS, they know what they're going to get - at least if they know IS' record.  For a substantial number of Syrians, that prospect isn't unmitigated horror.  I can't even speculate why, but I offer one factor for consideration.

IS imposes a society nothing like what has gone before.  Its justice, however perverse, is thought to be even-handed in the sense that at this point it is not the province of a privileged élite.  Their world is no longer that of the 'notable families' whose prominence in Syria goes back to Ottoman times, nor of the rich who were favored by Assad.  All in all, their rule represents a profound social change, at least for now.  And if they have at least seemed to sweep away the society of past decades, even generations, someone might suppose that further change is possible.  Maybe things are better, and maybe they could get a lot better still.

What then do moderate and especially secular rebels represent?  Freedom and democracy, we often hear.  But 'freedom' is no longer a code word for some American-style paradise that has become a faded memory in America itself.  It now is a very vague promise that there won't be a repressive dictatorship.  So freedom has become little more than the handmaiden of its partner, democracy.

The trouble is, democracy is not a society, not a social order.  It is an institutionalized procedure. People vote, they decide on things according to majority rule, perhaps restricted and improved by a bunch of 'safeguards'.  The Syrian people, it is said, will at last shape its future.  Well, what shape will that future take?  The question hangs in the air, unanswered.

In other words, when it comes to programs or policies or objectives for Syria, the moderates stand for approximately nothing.  What then might someone expect if they win?  There's little to go on, but one hint can't be ignored.  The moderate and especially secular leadership, unlike IS' leadership, isn't a collection of shadowy figures.  Many of them are known.  Some of them come from those same families that have been 'notable' for so long.  Some are highly educated professionals, in other words from Syria's more comfortable classes.  A cynic might suppose that the moderates' triumph would amount to little more than a reshuffling among the élites that have dominated Syrians in the past.  There could be a great liberation from Assad's horrors.  Beyond that, there's little reason to expect change.

Moderate resistance movements of this sort have frequently been eclipsed by movements which offered something more concrete.  In roughly the World War II era, this often mean communists, who gained more support than liberal democrats in, for instance, China, Nazi-occupied France, Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece.  Syrians moderates are said to be divided, but they might still find some programmatic common ground, or at least be divided over concrete visions of Syria's future.  Perhaps they might promise, even implement in areas they control, the beginnings of social democracy, or some other equalizing society.  Perhaps the only realistic alternative, for now, is a moderate Islamic state.  Would standing for something, in this sense, make a difference?  I don't know; I can't say if it's possible; I can't even say it's worth a try.  That is for others to consider in their search for more effective ways to counter IS and its escalating horrors.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Is anything to be done about Israel?

(this is the original English text of an email interview on Israel and especially the Boycott/Divest-ment/Sanctions movment.  An Italian translation appeared 21 July 2014 in Il Secolo XIX

Do you agree with Mr. Chomsky when he says that parallels drawn between campaigns against Israel and apartheid-era South Africa are misleading?
Which are in your opinion the differences between this two cases?

-- Chomsky is correct when he says that Cuban intervention in Angola played a significant role in ending Apartheid.  So did the township violence.  The effect of BDS in South Africa has been exaggerated.  But so what?  The situation of the Palestinians and of black South Africans under apartheid have practically nothing in common except that they are cases of oppression.   Internally and externally, Israel is in a much, much stronger position that the Boers ever were.   Moreover there was never any shortage of land or resources in South Africa; there was always enough for all.

Beyond that I am like others, a bit unclear just what Chomsky's objections are.   There is a lot of worrying about the right of return, which in any case isn't always part of BDS demands.  (I wonder if Chomsky is even arguing in good faith when he brings this up.)  But the demands and therefore the right of return don't matter in the least.  What matters is to make Israel uncomfortable or, ideally, to actually harm its economy.  This isn't a little game about small matters; it's about Palestinian survival.   It's time to stop fussing about what sort of impression BDS might make on Jews, or Israel, or Western governments.  None of these parties are going to make some momentous decision that offers up a solution in a blaze of moral grandeur.  This is about putting pressure on Israel, period.  Israel complains bitterly about BDS.  That's all the justification the movement needs.   As for Chomsky's apparent but obscure concern about how BDS might affect the Palestinians, well, the Palestinians are completely screwed if Israel doesn't get pressured.  It's hard to see how some concern about BDS could outweigh that simple fact.

Members of the BDS say that the movement is merely 9-years-old, while the BDS in South Africa was already 30 years old when it started to have success in the 80s. Do you think it can only be a matter of time?

---  In a way.  I'm surprised at the speed with which BDS has grown.  But as in South Africa, BDS can at most contribute to any real solution - and to an unknown extent - not provide one.  So it's not a matter of when BDS will, say, end the occupation.  It certainly won't on its own.  To repeat, its role is to pressure Israel, because only pressuring Israel can produce results.  Since BDS is already exerting pressure on Israel, it has already had some success.  That's more than can be said for many other pro-Palestinian initiatives, and more than enough to justify the movement.

The whole discussion of BDS proceeds, as is so often the case, as if the Israel-Palestine conflict was something to be settled between Westerners and Israel, with the Palestinians as an audience of victims and the rest of the Middle East completely out of the picture.  This is annoyingly antiquated.  The West is now too weak, too terminally timid, and too irresolute to do anything much about Israel.  If there is any solution it will come from within the Middle East.  That means Turkey and, if there is drastic change, Egypt, Syria, and perhaps Jordan.  Iraq, Iran and the Gulf States can play a role if any of these nearby powers become active.  When Israel believes that the wishes of its neighbours are worth considering, things will change, and not before.

Change doesn't require any of these nations become much stronger but it does require Israel to believe that might well happen.  Frankly the new element most likely to push things along is if some Middle Eastern power stated its intention to develop nuclear weapons.   In any case efforts to change Israel should look far more at the Middle East itself and not at feckless Western governments or the paralytic United Nations.  BDS is a positive development because it at least aims to pressure Israel itself, rather than to 'demand' that Western powers take actions they are never going to take.

You are one of the few critical voice of Israel, what do you think of this initiative that call Jewish academics to condemn the actions of Israel in Gaza?

--  It's hard to say.  I tend to think it's not utterly useless because Israelis seem very sensitive to criticism, so the initiative might have an effect on their morale.  But it has nothing to do with initiating any useful dialogue within Israel.  If we know anything we know Israel's commitment to settlement expansion increases with the passage of time, and that dissident voices within Israel are mere voices, without influence.  So if the call is useful, it is in its potential to cause discomfort, not any potential to change minds.  In addition I'm a bit uncomfortable with the antiquated suggestion that Jews in particular speak with special moral authority about Israel.

Finally I don't think you can still say there are 'few critical voices'.   On the contrary criticism of Israel, even revulsion against its cruelties, is more widespread than ever before.  Only in certain limited North American environments does it even seem otherwise.  What a pity that Israel has lost the battle of public opinion only when it is too strong to care about public opinion any more.

By chance do you know and you have any opinion about the newest spokesperson of Hamas, Azmi Bishara?

--  I'm sorry, I know nothing about him and wouldn't venture an opinion if I did.  I don't feel in any position to evaluate the Palestinian leadership or even Palestinian strategies and I'm surprised by others' confidence.  The Palestinians presumably have a much more fine-grained understanding of Israeli strategies and intentions, as well of course of the Palestinians' own needs and tolerances.   I'm not sure why someone outside Palestine would suppose they know better.  We outsiders are much better situated to understand the West and we can have a good knowledge of Israel's stature in the world.  That seems a more profitable point of departure than any attempt to second-guess Palestinian political developments.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The secularist's extremism problem

Extremist (and not-so-extremist) Islamic movements in Iraq and Syria receive the most minute attention.  Yet amid all the cataloging, analysis and advice, one element essential to any response to these movements is conspicuous by its absence:  an assessment of the alternatives.  By this I mean alternatives that someone in the region might actually have available to them, political choices they are likely to be able to make.

The choices don't include the never-neverland ideals like justice and freedom and democracy so often offered up as if, inexplicably, Middle Eastern people were in a position to accept or reject these fine things.  The real alternatives are those which seem plausible in the light of recent history and contemporary experience.  So, for example, a Syrian might look at what secularism has had to offer in the recent past, and think it a good guide to what it might offer in the future.  Secularism, then, might be associated with Nasser, the Assads, or a host of short-lived governments that usually usher in a brutal dictatorship.

Nothing could be further from the minds of Arab and Western secularists when they pass judgement on extreme Islamists.  The result is a complete inability to accept that even extremist Islamism might be a rational alternative, not to secularist ideals, but to secularist realities.  Instead secularists adopt the sort of half-truths and falsehoods typical of close-minded perspectives on social movements.  The extremists, they say, are foreigners, they are a bunch of thugs, they are funded by rich Gulf State Arabs, they are creations of the Syrian regime, they are allies of that regime...  they are anything but a local movement with its strength deriving from deep-seated local injustice.  This makes it impossible even to conceive of a serious strategy against them.

Why the seeming inability to compare the secularist and Islamist realities?  It seems that secularists do not look at their record because they do not even conceive of such a thing as a secularist record.  Were they to concede that secularism is most fairly represented by what it has delivered rather than what it promises, the shocking excesses of extreme Islamists would fall into an unpleasant perspective.

Take the 'Islamic State' movement.  What exactly have they done?  Cut off hands and heads, flogged dissidents, killed perhaps several hundred civilian 'apostates' and several hundred - but possibly several thousand - prisoners of war, largely for sectarian reasons.  In addition they have placed the most severe restrictions on women, suppressed free speech, persecuted religious minorities, employed 'child' - that is, adolescent - soldiers, destroyed ancient monuments, and desecrated the shrines of 'heretics'.  They have preached hatred and promoted all sorts of reactionary values.  They abhor democracy.

Understandably this record, combined with a reputation for relatively un-corrupt judicial procedure and efforts to maintain public services, has won them quite a bit of support.  After all, it is so much better than what secularism has brought to so many!  The level of misery they inflict is in about the same league as secularists Nasser or Sisi, not as sadistic as Pinochet, but these are small-time players.  Every one of the far worse catastrophes visited on, broadly speaking, the Middle East, was the work of secularists, and there are many instances of this.

The secularist record

If it's obvious to you that Islamist extremism hasn't anything like as bad a record as secularism's, please skip this section.

There is the excruciating slaughter Saddam Hussein brought on both Iranians and Iraqis in the Iran-Iraq conflict.  There are the atrocities he inflicted on his own people.  There are perhaps a million deaths the Western democracies caused in their decades-long campaigns to remove him.  There are the horrors attributable to the Shah of Iran.  Reaching further back, there is the French repression in Algeria, a comparable toll.  And topping all this, there is Assad.  One 'analyst' speaks of him 'slaughtering demonstrators', as if he had killed dozens rather than hundreds of thousands.  That's just one example of the paroxysm of dishonesty that engulfs allegedly sober analysts of the Islamist menace.  And of course there is Israel's kindler, gentler, decades-long attempt to wipe the Palestinians off the map.  Oh, and the secularist murder-fest in Lebanon: sectarian carnage is no less a blot on secular states for being sectarian.

Beyond the Middle East, just looking at atrocities visited on Muslims,  there are the agonies of Bosnia and earlier, the raging communal massacres of India - under secularist rule - in 1947.  But why stop there, since secularism is hardly a Middle Eastern phenomenon? Forget old stories like American slavery and King Leopold's Congo.  There is there is the enormous slaughter in Indonesia in 1965.  There is the ongoing Congolese civil war, an ignored and secularist phenomenon that may be the greatest horror since World War II.  There are Pol Pot's killing fields for millions, and the millions who died in the Vietnam war.  Earlier in the century there is of course Hitler, the Ukraine famine, the Armenian genocide, the rape of Nanking and so many other Japanese atrocities.  There is Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Vile dictators and warlords like Idi Amin and Bokassa and Charles Taylor? all secularists.

What a tiresome recitation!  But it needs reciting because there is not the faintest recognition that what all these blotches on humanity have in common is secularism.  This probably hasn't escaped the notice of 'jihadis', who for all the contempt visited on them seem to have paid some attention to history.  And of course the atrocities are not even in same ball park as those committed by the secularists, including Western democracies.

Much the same might be said of the secularist record in less dramatic areas. No doubt there are relatively 'comfortable' secularist nations, as there are relatively 'comfortable' Islamic nations like the Gulf States.  However the greatest cesspools of injustice and misery such as India and Mexico are without exception secularist.  No one even claims that secularism has worked wonders in, say, sub-Saharan Africa.

But the point of the exercise is not to highlight Western hypocrisy - hypocrisy is in itself a quite minor and enjoyable sin.  It is that effective opposition to 'extreme Islamism' can't even get started without appreciation of the secularist record.  Many may find it absurd to lump all these horrors together in one historical category.  It hard, though, to see how secularists can complain.  The label 'secularist' doesn't seem less dubiously broad than 'Islamist', which encompasses both Mohammed Morsi and Boko Haram.

Secularists opposing Islamic extremism

What, in the light of this record, can the West do about Islamist extremism?  Military action may sometimes be necessary, but it can never be sufficient.

It should be pretty clear by now that military defeats of extremist Islamism are ephemeral, because the same tendencies pop up again at a different time or place.  So nothing lasting can be gained by examining the minutiae of 'jihadist' alliances or killing individuals tendentiously identified as 'key operatives'.  Beyond that, few even believe that wreaking destruction on an Islamist territory is productive.  This strongly suggests that the only effective counter to extreme Islamism is to destroy, not its adherents, but its motivation.

The idea isn't new.  The Bush administration, despite its criminal idiocy, at least realized that extremism could not be countered by force alone: hence its project to remake the Middle East into mini-American democracies.  This is just a stupid way of saying that extremism is going to take root in bad societies, not good ones.

There are limits to this project.  There will always be religious fanatics, so some level of extremism is inevitable.  More important, the idea that there is some 'we' who will make good societies in the Middle East is an infantile fantasy.  No one is going to bring justice and freedom to the Middle East, or for that matter anywhere else.  In the real world, the most that can be achieved is to improve secularism's record by countering or removing some of its very worst - most extreme - excesses.  And for the West today, that boils down to one significant act:  supporting the Syrian revolution.

Why is that?  There is nothing the West can do in Iraq that won't simply blacken its reputation even further.  It hasn't the will to repress ISIS on its own.  If it deploys massive air power - the only politically possible move for nations utterly unwilling to incur high casualties on the ground - there will be massive civilian deaths.  So the West in Iraq could only aid Maliki's criminal régime and Iran.  At this point backing Maliki would entail giving Iran a free hand in Syria to back the criminal secularist Assad, hardly a redeeming move.  And it is hard to see just how the West might actually obtain justice for Muslims elsewhere in the world - certainly not in Israel, which by now is virtually immune to outside pressure. That leaves Syria as the only theatre in which secularism can combat the worst excesses of secularism.

For secularists, supporting moderate forces in Syria is all the more urgent because it is the only practical way secularism can begin to redeem itself in the Middle East.  It is an option which does not require massive bombing campaigns or supporting criminals, nor does it hark back to the ambitious idiocies of the Bush era.  And it is the only option that can actually save millions from misery or death in short order.  Finally it will contribute to isolating and overcoming ISIS, which will find itself cut off from its main supply routes.  Yet aiding the Syrian rebels won't reinforce Maliki or any other criminal regime.

The support moderate forces need is simple - not the insolent offer of 'training', but lots of good arms and ammunition.  It should be very clear that, given this strategy, significant quantities of those arms are certainly going to end up in extremist hands.  To panic about this is again to misunderstand the situation.  Extremists have never gained ascendancy because they find access to 'advanced arms'.  On the contrary, extremists have never had access to the latest and greatest in weaponry.  They don't seem particularly interested in changing that.  They do very well with simple, obsolescent weapons such as are readily available all over the world - no arms control measures have shown the slightest prospect of eliminating that supply.

It's not fancy weaponry that nourishes extremism, but injustice.  Though there isn't much the West can do to eliminate that problem, it must do what it can if it is to have any hope of countering the extremism with which it is so uselessly obsessed.  Arming the Syrian rebels is the first, and for now, the only step.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Islamist 'majoritarianism': could dishonesty about Egypt do harm in Syria?

Shadi Hamid has explored the prospects of "illiberal democracy" in Temptations of Democracy, a masterful work of political science in which he assesses the agenda and fortunes of Islamists in the 'Arab Spring', especially in Egypt.  In a New York Times op-ed he identifies the challenge the events present to the West:

This poses a thorny question for Western observers: Do Arabs have the right to decide — through the democratic process — that they would rather not be liberal?

An important question but at the same time an odd one, because Western electorates have constantly decided - through the democratic process - that they would rather not be liberal as well.

Though there must have been times when the American electorate joyously endorsed liberal legislation, I can't think of a single instance.* The liberal tendencies of American politics were imposed on the people by the Bill  of Rights, not voted through their representatives.  The implementation of these rights generally involved the decisions of an unelected Supreme Court and a good deal of political horse-trading far removed from the electoral process.  Americans were virtually dragged kicking and screaming into liberal statutes on obscenity, the right to organize trade unions, the right of adults to their sexual preferences, and right to equal treatment for all races and sexes.  Never was their resistance termed undemocratic.

Defending the Bill of Rights has been the constant battle of one of the most unpopular organizations in the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union.  You might ask them how things have gone since 9-11.  Beyond this there are a constantly changing set of restrictions on private life that go beyond traditional criminal law, especially in the realm of pornography and sexual practices.    In Western Europe, illiberalism is much more prevalent, manifesting itself in strong restrictions on racist or holocaust denial utterances, religious dress and various forms of political advocacy.

Yet Hamid was quite right to ask his question, because alleged 'liberals' (especially in Egypt) have loosed a tide of obfuscation against the Islamist threat.  We hear the Islamists are undemocratic and that the liberals - who recently endorsed murderous, vicious repression - are the true defenders of democracy, even of 'freedom'.  However his is a work of political science, more concerned with political realities than with the distortion of that reality by ideologues.

What follows might serve as an appendix to his writings.  It sets out some very basic ideas about democracy and liberalism that used to be plain to everyone.  They have all but vanished due to wishful thinking, self-deception and outright dishonesty.  Restoring these ideas might make a dialogue between Islamists and their opponents a bit more feasible.  Perhaps more important, it could temper the obsession with Islamists in Syria, which has induced panic in Western policy makers.  This panic, through its tendency to choke off support for the Syrian revolution, is responsible for untold horror.

I'll look at three questions:  what is democracy, what is liberalism, and how does these relate to something dreamed up in recent years, 'majoritarianism'?  My spell-checker wonders was that means.


Democracy has been clearly defined for hundreds of years.  It is government according to the will of the people.  The will of the people is understood to be determined by voting.  It is what the majority decides.

Democracy, therefore, is a procedure for making decisions.  It is a form of politics.  There is nothing in democracy that guides those decisions towards wisdom or insanity, good or evil.  A terrible decision is every bit as democratic as a wonderful decision.

Pure democracies are of course rare but clear cases of democracy are not that rare.  Their purity isn't related to how respectful they are of individual rights.  It's a matter of how closely they adhere to the principle of majority rule.  There are many problems about this, most notably whether the people's will can really be expressed through its elected representatives.  Believers in democracy think it can.  These questions of purity have been of interest primarily to theorists.

Other questions have more practical importance.  It sometimes takes centuries for an electoral system to become democratic, and established democracies can corrupt themselves.  The corruption and the slow pace of democratization have to do with deviations from majority rule such as restricting the suffrage, or arranging electoral districts so that some voters have more say than others.  These practices are undemocratic.


Another undemocratic practice is the implementation of a liberal agenda.

Liberalism defends the individual against 'the state' by promoting rights, especially to freedom of speech, assembly, religion, and a private sphere in which you can do as you like, provided you don't harm others.  Its progenitor, John Stuart Mill, was quite aware that in a democracy, the promotion of these rights would thwart the will of the majority.  That was his intention.  Liberalism is not only undemocratic, it is anti-democratic.

In other words, it is very odd indeed to ask if Islamists have a right to create an illiberal democracy.  If they don't, they don't have the right to democracy at all, but only to a system in which popular will, majority rule, is less than sovereign.  Advocates of democracy might better ask whether there can be a right to liberal democracy.  Does the majority have the right to decide what people are permitted to believe, to wear, to say, to do, perhaps on pain of death?   If your standard is accordance with 'democratic values', they certainly do.  Liberalism with its civil liberties is an external *constraint* on democracy.  That is its anti-democratic nature.

It this seems shocking or perverse, it indicates 'democratic' has become an empty honorific.  The more genuinely democratic a government, the less reason there is to assume its decisions are good.  This is a problem for rights advocates, including liberals, who can't bring themselves to say that they reject the central, the only democratic 'value', belief in the supremacy of the majority.  They believe that in many important cases, the majority should not reign supreme.   Typically they refuse to say that, even to themselves.


From this dishonesty about the anti-democratic liberal agenda comes 'majoritarianism'.  It has two meanings.

The first is 'the ideology of a democracy I don't like'.  Liberals like liberalism, so if a majority were to enact anti-democratic liberal measures, that wouldn't be called impure democracy.  It would be celebrated as democracy in its purest, highest form, a far cry from anything as ignoble and vulgar as 'majoritarianism'.  But if an Islamist majority were to enact anti-liberal measures, that would be distasteful.  So as not to admit that such a government would be democratic, indeed far more democratic than a liberal government, it is called 'majoritarian'.  That means exactly and precisely the same thing as 'democratic', just as 'bitch' can mean exactly the same thing as 'woman'.  It is merely a pejorative that, unlike 'bitch', hides its pejorative function.

If this sense of 'majoritarian' is sleazy, its other sense is childishly absurd.  In Egypt, 'majoritarian' is often applied to democratically elected administrations that don't share power with the minority.   Please note this has absolutely nothing to do with the rights of *individuals* in the minority.  A majority might scrupulously defend all the civil rights of all those individuals.  It might never stray one micron from liberal principles.  No matter: it would still be 'majoritarian' in this second sense.  To avoid the label, it would have to give the minority *parties* a substantial say in government.

Never mind that it is common (though not universal) practice in Western democratic countries for an incoming administration to allocate to itself as many government positions as possible.   If it refrains from doing this it is praised as 'bipartisan'. It's praised because that's supererogatory:  it goes above and beyond the call of political duty.  No one calls a partisan administration 'majoritarian' or suggests that its practices are undemocratic.  But in Egypt, this silly suggestion passes for intelligence.  A Martian would find accusations of 'majoritarianism' as pathetically mortifying as the excesses of Sisi-worship that bring shame on Egypt.

No doubt the liberal secularists have legitimate concerns about Islamists, but being undemocratic isn't one of them.  So are liberals.  In Syria as in Egypt, it is wrong to demonize Islamists just because, like liberals, they 'don't believe in democracy'. Again, this applies equally well to liberals.

If a majority endorses an Islamist agenda, if it gives that agenda 'democratic legitimacy', then liberal opponents have a problem that isn't going to be addressed, much less solved, by talk about 'majoritarianism'.   Liberals concerned about Islamist rule will have to offer more than absurdities and special pleading.  With so bankrupt a response, the inevitable consequence is that liberals line up with violent repression of popular will.  In Syria, in Egypt, nonsense about who's democratic makes its own modest contribution to bloodshed.


*maybe ending Prohibition, if it's liberal to want a drink...

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The duty to proliferate

There are people who oppose 'arms proliferation'.  What is that?  According to dictionaries it is a "rapid growth or reproduction of new parts".  In arms proliferation talk rapidity is secondary to reproduction.  Arms proliferation specialists seem to worry about two things: (i) the spread of qualitatively new weaponry - it's proliferation if a nation produces even one nuclear weapon - and (ii) the transfer of existing weaponry.  These transfers could go to people who lacked arms altogether, or who had some but wanted more, or who had some but wanted better.  In other words, arms proliferation means a lot of things.

Proliferation specialists can go wrong if they look only at scenarios while ignoring probabilities.  Often concerns seem based entirely on imagining some terrible outcome.  There's no attempt to determine the outcome's likelihood.  This leaves room for a lot of prejudice.  In exactly the right circumstances, an ancient grenade launcher may indeed shoot down a 747.  That's wildly unlikely to happen.  A squadron of Sweden's new Saab JAS 39 Grippens could deliver at least 60 tons of high explosives on a peaceful city.  No one worries about that, and no one should. But perhaps, in that case, there's too much concern about the grenade launcher.(*)

It's impossible to anticipate all the scenarios that proliferation monitors might imagine.  The most important seem to be terrorism, inter-communal massacres, and 'making things worse' in an ongoing conflict.  We'll see if these concerns are reasonable, and what they mean for Syria.


It's a little difficult to understand how terrorism could be such a concern among arms proliferation specialists.  The whole trend in terrorist tactics has been to get away from fancy weaponry and move towards simplicity:  box-cutters, homemade poisons and explosives, knapsack delivery.  Indeed that trend pre-dates 9-11: the devastating Oklahoma City attack used a fertilizer bomb.  Even where a wide range of manufactured weaponry is available, as in the Kenya mall assault, the already ubiquitous AK-47 was used: what would have more been achieved with the latest and greatest automatic weapons?  Increased security and terror awareness has only made such tactics more attractive.

Yet high-tech weapons in the hands of terrorists remain an obsession.  The most popular bogeyman seems to be the use of MANPADS to bring down a commercial airliner.  I have dealt with this at some length elsewhere.   Even before 9-11, these attacks were extremely rare outside a war zone, where proliferation concerns are futile because the weapons have already proliferated.  Despite their widespread dissemination, not one MANPADS attack has occurred in modern, highly secured post-9-11 airports.  MANPADS are costly, very hard to conceal and deploy, not particularly effective against large commercial planes, and almost useless against prize targets such as El Al airliners equipped with countermeasures.  Certainly the threat exists, just as the threat of poisonous snakes in your bathtub exists, but it is no premise on which to build policy.  What's more, proliferation does little to increase the threat.  MANPADS exist and are deployed in their hundreds of thousands all over the world.  They are manufactured by many countries, some of whom are not particularly sensitive to nonproliferation issues.  A terrorist attack on an airline does not need dozens or hundreds of MANPADS; it only needs one launcher and one or two missiles.  The notion that the already small threat can be substantially reduced by controlling the delivery to MANPADS to fighters in Syria or elsewhere is more paranoid than rational.

Someone might argue that proliferation matters, not because terrorists will deploy proliferated weaponry in terrorist attacks, but because it will help them secure terrorist-training bases and secure areas.  This too seems wrong-headed.

Terrorist groups do not seek to establish themselves in the Loire Valley or the Catskills where they would be isolated and up against opponents whose weaponry and numbers they could never hope to match.  They establish themselves in remote areas such as the Sahara Desert or the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan or the mountains of Yemen, where central authority is already weak and mobile, lightly armed fighters can hold their own against superior forces.  Here, indeed, MANPADS might be useful.  But here again, nonproliferation efforts are very likely fruitless.  In these lawless, areas terrorists easily obtain the weaponry used to hold an enclave.  Because they are not fighting pitched battles, they don't need much of anything like sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles.  The few black-market systems they require won't be stopped by nonproliferation efforts.

More important, here anti-terrorist measures, if effective at all, consist in comparatively large-scale operations by modern armies who aren't coming on scene with 747s, but with contemporary military aircraft.  Syria has shown that even the less than state-of-the-art Assadist helicopters and jet fighters are hardly sitting ducks; French or American backed forces would be far, far less vulnerable.  Finally this is a military threat to military forces, not a danger to innocent civilians.  So while the threat exists it is easy to blow it out of proportion.

Intercommunal (and other) massacres

Obviously arms proliferation is not sufficient to produce communal massacres; you also need the murderers.  But neither are proliferated arms a necessity.  Virtually all the most horrific post-World-War-II intercommunal massacres, from India 1947 to Indonesia 1965 to Cambodia 1970 to Rwanda 1994 to (more recently) the Central African Republic, were accomplished without modern weaponry.  In Yugoslavia, there was no weapons proliferation; the combatants already possessed abundant arms from Yugoslav arsenals.  One must not confuse the real danger of massacres with the remote possibility that arms proliferation will cause or even exacerbate them.  There certainly have been and almost certainly will be more such massacres in Syria, but the acquisition of new arms doesn't seem to make the possibility much more likely.  Even the most horrendous killings have been carried out with small arms and knives.

Making things worse

Certainly it's possible that foreign intervention can start or exacerbate ethnic, sectarian or tribal conflict:  Gaddafi's interventions in Africa may fit that description.  But this is not like the worry about MANPADS bringing down an airliner.  We pretty well know that certain weapons make possible attacks that would otherwise be impossible; it's just a matter of seeing whether human beings are likely to use the weapons that way.  But given what we know about no-tech intercommunal or civil conflict, the idea that arms makes it worse is necessarily speculation.  Would the conflict in Sierra Leone have been less brutal without firearms, or would it have been another Rwanda?  It's unanswerable.  (Few killings in Sierra Leone were conducted with advanced weaponry.)  Moreover a least some interference involving one form of arms proliferation probably helped rather than hurt.  Things got better with the use of well-armed foreign mercenaries (Executive Outcomes) and worse after their departure.  It got better again with a second intervention by well-armed British troops.

The most concrete test case for whether proliferation makes things worse involves Israel's two invasions of Lebanon, in 1982 and 2006.  Between the two dates, Hezbollah acquired massive amounts of weaponry, far more sophisticated than what they had the first time.  This is clearly proliferation.  The circumstances of the two invasions are about as similar as one could expect in a constantly changing world.  In the first invasion, 19,000 Lebanese and Palestinians killed.  In the second invasion, 1300 Lebanese and 165 Israelis killed.

So did proliferation make things better, not worse?  You might reply that a great deal contributed to the casualty figures other than mere weaponry.  But that's kind of the point.  Proliferation alone is only a very partial cause whose effects are very hard to gauge.  That's why it's far from obvious that it makes things worse.

Even conceding that arms make conflicts worse, that can't make any kind of blanket case against proliferation.  Some interference - which involves proliferation - can also save countless lives.  It did so in Cambodia when the Vietnamese invaded - something they probably wouldn't have done without Soviet-supplied weaponry.  It did so in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia.  These are clear cases where the introduction of superior weaponry stopped rather than started or intensified a slaughter.  So if such interventions and 'meddling' typically involve arms proliferation, they show that proliferation isn't always undesirable.

Proliferation and resistance

Indeed it seems dangerously obtuse to claim that proliferation "just makes things worse".  Providing non-state actors with firearms does indeed threaten the social order.  It does indeed sometimes 'make things worse' if that means intensifying the fighting.  But in some cases that is not only a desirable outcome but an urgent need.  In the New York Times, Charles Savage wonders " many of those AK-47s and RPG-7s we see Islamists waving around today passed through the Midwest Depot on their way to freedom fighters in past decades?”  He does not wonder how many fell into the hands of moderate, secular Syrian civilians desperate to defend themselves and their children.  He does not ask how many have been used against the most extreme or the extreme Islamists.

In most conflicts you cannot defeat an enemy without intensifying the fighting and therefore 'making things worse'. That's not much of a reason for anything, because sometimes the failure to defeat would be even more disastrous.  What if the enemy ought to be defeated?  Murderous states that simply massacre any unarmed opposition constitute such an enemy.  They can be resisted only with violence.  To suppose otherwise amounts to ruling out any right of revolt, literally no matter what massive and capriciously sadistic orgy a state unleashes on its population.  Advocacy of non-violence in such circumstances is willfully, repugnantly obtuse.  So is 'demanding action' from an obviously non-existent or incurably paralyzed 'international community'.  What's more, you cannot both defend the right of citizens to take up arms against an oppressive state and deny a right to acquire those arms. How then can there be no duty to provide the arms? It is perhaps no accident that those most concerned about arms proliferation live in comfortable lives in relatively comfortable societies where any violence seems a horrific intrusion on their existence.

Proliferation in Syria

Let's be clear. If you oppose 'proliferation'- all  proliferation, anywhere - you must oppose supplying arms to Syria's rebels.  In fact you must favor *blocking* all arms to the rebels.  What you favor would assure Assad a victory.  So you prefer his victory to the possibility that half a dozen 1970s-vintage anti-tank missile systems make it into the wild.  In fact you also prefer the rebels not capture any arms.  Arms proliferation obsessives regularly refer to such captures as "looting arms depots", a paradigm case of proliferation.  On the other hand Assad's use of arms raises no proliferation concerns.  He represents a state and of course his activities violate no proliferation strictures.  So you prefer that the rebels not get any arms - best would be if they lost the arms they already have - and you have no proliferation concerns about Assad's weaponry, as long as he keeps control of it.

Not only do you have this preference, you vigorously work to implement it.  You can't do much about the looting but you do what you can.  By rights you should work to expose every aspect of the arms proliferation process, not only cases of weapons purchase and transfer but also the collection and transmission of funds for these 'illicit' activities.  Of course your successes will benefit Assad in ways he could not possibly achieve - with luck, your intervention might even be decisive.  A Martian might say you were Assad's ally.  But no matter, because in your world of thoughts and words, you are completely against Assad and deplore his absolutely appalling behavior, which runs contrary to various worthy human rights conventions.  You may even 'demand' that all sorts of authorities do all sorts of things - though nothing substantial without UN Security Council approval.  Anything else would be contrary to international law, and you are all for international law.  To summarize, inside your head you are an impartial bien-pensant working to disarm the bad guys. In the world, where actions rather than intentions count, you are working for Assad.

Alternatively, you could admit to yourself that, in the world outside your head, we have an obligation to proliferate arms in the direction of the Syrian rebels.  Make no mistake, some of these arms will most certainly get into 'the wrong hands'.  This will have little immediate tendency to down civilian airliners or export mass murder because the arms supplied will be, uh, used.  It's after the fighting that large quantities of arms will be available for use outside Syria.  Perhaps, therefore, the time to work against proliferation is after the rebels win, not before.

(*) Rationality demands that you consider not only the probability of the outcome but its value, positive or negative.  Suppose the 747 catastrophe is much more likely than the Grippen catastrophe.  Nevertheless the Grippen catastrophe is much, much worse.  So it's worth asking which outcome is more to be feared - especially since we can't seriously assess the probabilities in either case.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

International law: a destructive addiction

For something whose existence is so tenuous, international law has an imposing presence.  Part of this comes from the usefulness of international tribunals in adjudicating trade and boundary disputes.  But what about war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other more dramatic affairs?  We constantly hear that this or that action or practice violates international law, as if this alone made the heinousness of the act self-evident.  The fact is that obedience to international law may also be heinous.  If we don't see this, it's because the West's supremacy in the 1990's gave international law an exalted reputation it never deserved.  We'll see how the decline of that supremacy requires a reassessment of what international law has to offer.

To appreciate what's happened, it's necessary to distinguish between actual law and judicial-sounding moralizing.  Any bunch of dignitaries can write down some sentences and call them law, but that's not enough. What more do we need?

A traditional answer, understandably contested by international lawyers, is enforcement.  Some contemporary theorists disagree. They cite "the law of contract, tort or family law, none of which rely directly on the need for enforcement by the state in order to function properly."  This is precarious.  The traditional enforcement requirement does not say that reliance on enforcement must be 'direct'.  It says there will be consequences if you break the law.  Contract, tort, and family law don't come with penalties prescribed, but the fact is these rules wouldn't be called laws if you could flout them with impunity.  If I don't pay alimony or the agreed price of goods and services; if I don't honour my commitment to spouse or children; there is some recourse.  You can sue me, or bring charges of non-support, and if you married me, I better not have married someone else in countries not recognizing polygamy.  Defiance of the judgements involved can ultimately lead to losing my liberty.  If I forcefully resist arrest it can even lead to my death.

Suppose, though, that some international laws rest on nothing more than mutual understanding or good will.  Trade agreements, for instance, may have no sanction other than the bad reputation you get if you break them (well, and the very real consequences of a bad reputation).  Call all this law if you like, even law in the full sense of the term.  Whether or not law by definition requires enforcement, the international 'laws' governing murder and atrocity certainly do require it.  Otherwise they merely express an arid idealism which promises no effect other than disappointed indignation.  That's indeed what we have today.  Anyone unaware of this hasn't noticed how the realities of enforcement have changed.

The contemporary version of international 'criminal' law - the sort related to violence - comes into being with the United Nations.  It was created by the countries which won World War II.  The permanent members of the Security Council probably represented the most complete monopoly on military force the world has ever known.  When the UN drew up its Charter, which forms the basis of non-commercial international law today, there was no question but that it had muscle behind it.  However this muscle was not employed to enforce the UN's "Universal Declaration of Human Rights": that was an aspirational document no one took very seriously.  The preoccupation of the Security Council, the institution most resembling an enforcement arm of noncommercial international law, was the avoidance of world war through the maintenance and adjudication of spheres of great power influence.

Stalin was deeply serious about this, willing to pay a real price for Western cooperation.  He let the West crush a well-developed Greek communist uprising and made no attempt to block the massive intervention against North Korea.  His successors followed his lead.  They showed no inclination to invoke the UN Declaration against Western-sponsored atrocities in Latin America, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia. In all these compromises, on both sides, it was understood that human rights would count for nothing.  Israeli violations of these rights were noted in General Assembly resolutions, but no one expected enforcement because of the US veto.  And until recently, even human rights organizations showed no sign of supposing that the perpetrators of human rights violations would ever be brought to justice, much less interrupted in their pursuits.  The focus was on public campaigns to free individual dissenters or the mere exposure of violations: back before smartphones, atrocities weren't joyfully recorded on video for all the world to see.

What holds for the UN Declaration also holds for the 1987 Convention against Torture, another aspirational document that has not, I believe, ever come close to enforcement.  Even the 1998 arrest of the notorious Pinochet in London came to nothing.  The interpretation and especially the enforcement of international law, under the auspices of the UN, was always subordinate to reasons of state.  This should come as no surprise.  The UN was born and continues to be a forum for states to pursue and balance their interests, not an institution dedicated to the just treatment of individual human beings.

For a while, deceptively, it looked like things had changed.  What brought the appearance of a human rights revolution in international law may have seemed to involve legal mechanisms of enforcement.  In fact it had to do with a fundamental change in the balance of power.  Western powers, perhaps commendably, were able to 'enforce' provisions within scenarios that had at best only very weak juridical legitimacy.  How did this happen?

With the fall of the USSR and, even more important, Russia's subsequent near-collapse into the arms of the West, the Western powers, led by the US, reigned supreme.  They had an interest in establishing human rights standards and in enforcing them in certain parts of the world, notably Yugoslavia.  It is not necessary to see this as hypocrisy or the cynical pursuit of self-interest: perhaps the West saw the opportunity to indulge itself in some slightly selective idealism. (The torturers and murderers of Latin America don't sit in the jails of the International Criminal Court.) The fact remains that the seeming advances in the cause of human rights occurred because the West had unprecedented dominance in world affairs.

Their dominance was crucial to evading the core requirement governing enforcement of contemporary international law, namely UN Security Council assent. NATO intervened in Kosovo under the pretense of enforcing UN resolutions.  Legally, though, it was not up to NATO unilaterally to decide whether the resolutions were being honored, or what was to happen if they were not.  Yet without this intervention the famous Yugoslavia war crimes trials would never have taken place.  Though Russia has allowed the tribunal to proceed, it questioned both its efficacy, fairness and competence.  This was a faint presage of things to come.(*)  As soon as the imbalance of power weakened, non-Western nations found reasons, again good or bad, to blow the house down.

The story is very recent and very well known.  Russia was furious at being outmaneuvered into agreeing to a UN Security Council resolution on Libya that authorized the West to intervene against Gaddafi.  Furious, perhaps, at itself as well:  it apparently didn't read the resolution carefully.  But Russia was no longer falling apart and no longer prepared to accept humiliation.  It decided to reassert its own sphere of influence concerns, and has blocked any attempt to intervene in Syria on the basis of human rights.  But this is more than great-power special pleading.  Russia's stance has exposed the fundamental incapacity of international law to protect human beings from atrocity.  The damage is irreparable.

The reason emerges from the founding document of the United Nations.  Though referred to as "The UN Charter", it is actually called "Charter of the United Nations and Statute of the International Court of Justice."  Claims that the Charter is the central document of contemporary international law would be hard to defeat.  And clearly, the main concern of the Charter is the prevention of war and consequently of aggression against sovereign states.  This is apparent from the language of its articles.

When it comes to matters of war or aggression, the charter doesn't mince words. It clearly enjoins any such actions. Thus Article 4 says that "All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state...". Article 39 says that "The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken ... to maintain or restore international peace and security."  Prohibitions are clear and enforcement is clearly envisaged.

On the other hand the Charter does mince words when it comes to human rights.  It merely reaffirms faith in these rights. It intends to encourage respect for them, and suggests various socioeconomic efforts to 'assist in the realization' of human rights (Article 13).  The Charter is vastly more activist and enforcement-oriented with respect to national sovereignty than with respect to the rights of individual human beings.

What then of UN support for human rights within sovereign states - supposedly robust in the emergence of a "Responsibility to Protect"?  The closest thing to such protection is discussed in Paragraph 139 of the 2005 "Outcome Document" summarizing the deliberations of the General Assembly.  It's worth quoting in full.

139. The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. We stress the need for the General Assembly to continue consideration of the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and its implications, bearing in mind the principles of the Charter and international law. We also intend to commit ourselves, as necessary and appropriate, to helping States build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assisting those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out.  (
No wonder member states approved this: it's scrupulously toothless about domestic atrocities.  No nation engaged in massive atrocities against its own people is likely to lose much sleep over the UN's stated resolve "to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means".  As for "In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council... should peaceful means be inadequate", no one with friends on the Security Council has anything to fear either.  At one point the language is ludicrous:  the 'international community' does not even commit itself to helping states build the capacity to protect: it only "intends" to have this commitment!  In short international law offers no protection for individuals unless all the great powers want to act.  But if all the great powers want to act, who needs international law?  In such rare circumstances, action will follow whether or not the law concurs:  one can hardly imagine the great powers having so much respect for legal niceties that they would be deterred from acting in such circumstances.  So international law is either impotent or superfluous in the defense of human rights.(**)

But it's much worse than this.  The repeated appeals to international law cannot but create the presumption that it should be obeyed.  In normal times like today, when there is a balance of power in the world, this offers excellent opportunities for powerful opposition to humanitarian intervention: a Security Council veto is all it takes to render any such intervention contrary to international law.  Yet decent, compassionate people keep treating this law with unbridled respect.

Activists of all sorts constantly appeal to international law.  This is a habit born of post-World-War-II optimism and the brief moment of Western supremacy in the 1990s.  There is every reason to suppose that moment will not repeat.  On top of that, Western supremacy not only offers no guarantee of respect for human rights: it offers a guarantee that human rights will not be respected when they conflict with Western interests.  The now firmly established status quo is that international law will be used to frustrate any but universally approved attempts to enforce the much-vaunted Responsibility to Protect.  No one should suppose, because they can muster some argument or other that responsibility to protect trumps non-aggression, that such arguments have the slightest chance of carrying the day.  The UN is an assembly of nations.  All of them distrust any weakening of their sovereignty.  They care about human rights only when it accords with their political agenda.  The idea that the UN Security Council, in such circumstances, will enforce the responsibility to protect in contentious cases is a non-starter.

Those tempted to moralize on the basis of international law need to remember the simple fact that laws can be good or bad.  International law is no exception.  It almost certainly situates non-aggression over human rights.  'Almost certainly' is more than good enough when great powers disagree on the interpretation of the law, that is, when they have different political agendas.  To appeal to international law is to legitimate the sort of obstruction we see in Syria today, and this is the tip of an iceberg.  Efforts to impose international law on any officially respectable country rife with atrocious violations of human rights - India and Mexico, for instance - can't even be imagined, because it is so obvious that the Charter provisions against non-aggression would kill any attempt at enforcement as soon as it surfaced. All things considered, the preponderant tendency of international jurisprudence is to forbid outside intervention in sovereign states literally no matter what the level of atrocity they inflict on their citizens.  Indeed it's hard to see how there can be progress towards international justice as long as international law is considered irreproachable.

The greatest harm inflicted by faith in international law is the extremely tenacious belief that somehow, if sufficiently outrageous truths are known, some properly outraged international community will invoke the law of nations which, in its majesty, will put a stop to the atrocities.  This flies in the face of all the evidence; its level of denial is impressive.  It is a crutch.  The sooner it is kicked away, the better.  Where laws are catastrophically wrong, they must be broken.  At some point human suffering must count for more than the bare possibility that a discredited ideal will redeem itself in some implausible future.

*  Russia's doubts have just been dramatically vindicated by the West itself:  the European Union has decided to set up an international tribunal "focusing exclusively on crimes allegedly committed by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian rebels during their war with Serbia".  The Associated Press reports that "Plans for an independent tribunal amount to an admission of failure by the West to hold its ethnic Albanian allies accountable for war crimes. The rebels had the backing of NATO during the war — and the West has staunchly supported Kosovo in its efforts to emerge from the conflict as an independent state. But the ethnic Albanians have also come under increasing pressure from the international community to reckon with their own war crimes, including alleged organ harvesting." 

** For similar interpretations from an authoritative source, see Mary Ellen O'Connell, "Ukraine Insta-Symposium: Ukraine Under International Law".