Archive | March, 2011

Again Libya

27 Mar

Again Libya

It is that time

It is that time again

to call a spade a heart

Protecting the people of that desert country

by killing them

Doing so with righteous zeal

these faux servants of the UN

Humanist hawks and nostalgic imperialists

gather in a single tent

To once more break bread spill blood

Yes, but:

Qaddafi a genuine monster on the prowl

a demented killer

Addressing his tormented people as ‘rats and dogs’

Promising a hunt ‘alley by alley,

house by house, room by room’

Decreeing death for those fools

who dare snuff his candle

But war for whom? For what? Whose war?

For the clouds above

and their shadows below

For those who breakfast on oil

For surly arms dealers with mean grins

this war pleases merchants of death

As surely giant purchase orders will follow

Almost as the guns fall silent

The ‘rebels’ cheer the advent of missiles

but who are the rebels

Even their flags seem ill-chosen, evoking a lost past

Their struggle seems real, their bravery real

And yet does it matter– it is no longer their war

It has become our war to win lose or draw

They asked for this happening perhaps unknowingly

Didn’t they? Didn’t we?

As night falls Mars keeps smiling

Unlike some gloom at the Pentagon

where past lost wars are less easily forgotten

And yet these sullen military faces cannot bring peace

nor even rouse their tasered citizenry to dissent

Nor ban news channels glutted with agit-prop

at best a few wisely searching elsewhere for the real

Even sports or animal shows tell more truths these days


Qaddafi, Moral Interventionism, Libya, and the Arab Revolutionary Moment

20 Mar

Qaddafi, Moral Interventionism, Libya, and the Arab Revolutionary Moment

Long ago Qaddafi forfeited the domestic legitimacy of his rule, creating the moral and political conditions for an appropriate revolutionary challenge. Recently he has confirmed this assessment by referring to the disaffected portion of his own citizenry as ‘rats and dogs’ or ‘cockroaches,’ employing the bloodthirsty and vengeful language of a demented tyrant. Such a tragically criminal imposition of political abuse on the Libyan experience is a painful reality that exists beyond any reasonable doubt, but does it validate a UN authorized military intervention carried out by a revived partnership of those old colonial partners, France and Britain, and their post-colonial American imperial overseer?

From a personal perspective, my hopes are with the Libyan rebels, despite their reliance on violence and the opaqueness  of their political identity.  As many credible exile Libyan voices attest, it would seem highly likely that a rebel victory would benefit the people of Libya and would be a step in the right direction for the region, especially the Arab world, but does this entail supporting Western-led military intervention even if it is backed by the United Nations? I believe not.

Let us begin with some unknowns and uncertainties. There is no coherent political identity that can be confidently ascribed to the various anti-Qaddafi

forces, loosely referred to as ‘rebels.’ Just who are they, whom do they represent, and what are their political aspirations? It is worth observing that unlike the other regional events of 2011 the Libyan rising did not last long as a popular movement of a spontaneous character, or unfold as a specific reaction to some horrific incident as in Tunisia. It seemed, although there is some ambiguity in the media reports, that the Libyan oppositional movement was armed and reliant on military force almost from the start, and that its political character seems more in the nature of a traditional insurrection against the established order than a popular revolution in the manner of Tahrir Square inspired by democratic values. This violent political reaction to Qaddafi’s regime seems fully justified as an expression of Libyan self-determination, and as suggested deserves encouragement from world public opinion, including support from such soft power instruments as boycott, divestment, and maybe sanctions. By and large, the international community did not resort to interventionary threats and actions in Libya until the domestic tide turned in favor of Tripoli, which means that the intervention was called upon to overcome the apparent growing likelihood that Qaddafi would reestablish order in his favor, and therefore this international intrusion on the conflict represents a coercive effort to restructure a country’s governing process from without.

The main pretext given for the intervention was the vulnerability of Libyan civilians to the wrath of the Qaddafi regime. But there was little evidence that such wrath extends beyond the regime’s expected defense of the established order, although admittedly being here undertaken in a brutal manner, which itself is not unusual in such situation where a government and its leadership is fighting for their survival. How is this Libyan response different in character than the tactics relied upon by the regimes in Yemen and Bahrain, and in the face of far less of a threat to the status quo, and even that taking the form of political resistance, not military action. In Libya the opposition forces relied on heavy weapons, while elsewhere in the region the people were in the streets in massive numbers, and mostly with no weapons, although in a few instances, with very primitive ones (stones, simple guns) that mainly were used in retaliation for regime violence.

It may have been the case that the immediate Libyan governmental response was predictably brutal and militarist, and that the rebel opposition felt that it had no choice. But it should have been clear from the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan that military intervention against a hated and brutal regime is not the end of the story, and before the ending is reached violence cascades to heights far beyond what would have likely resulted had there been no intervention. In the process heavy casualties are inflicted and massive displacements occur causing immense suffering for the entrapped and innocent population. In effect, overall historical trends vindicate trust in the dynamics of self-determination despite the fact that short-term disillusioning disasters may and do occur from time to time. These trends similarly underscore the inherently problematic character of intervention, even given the purest of motivations, which rarely, if ever, exists in world politics on the side of intervening parties.

But it can be asked, what about Rwanda, Bosnia (especially, the massacre at Srebrenica)? Are not these instances where humanitarian intervention should have been undertaken and was not? And didn’t the NATO War in Kosovo demonstrate that humanitarian intervention does sometimes spare a vulnerable population from the ordeal of genocidal ethnic cleansing? With respect to Rwanda and Bosnia, the threat of genocidal behavior was clearly established, and could likely have been prevented by a relatively small-scale intervention, and should have been undertaken despite the uncertainties. The facts surrounding the alleged genocidal threat in Kosovo remain contested, but there was a plausible basis for taking it seriously given what had happened a few years earlier in Bosnia. But just as the Libyan rebels raise some suspicion by seeking Euro-American military intervention, so did the KLA in Kosovo engage in terrorist provocations that led to violent Serb responses, allegedly setting the stage in 1999 for NATO’s ‘coalition of the willing.’ NATO went ahead in Kosovo without the benefit of a Security Council mandate, as here, for military action ‘by all necessary means.’ But with respect to Libya there is no firm evidence of a genocidal intention on Qaddafi’s, no humanitarian catastrophe in the making, and not even clear indications of the extent of civilian casualties resulting from the fighting. We should be asking why did Russia signal its intention to veto such authorization in relation to Kosovo, but not with respect to Libya. Perhaps, the Russian sense of identification with Serb interests goes a long way to explain its opportunistic pattern of standing in the way on the earlier occasion when interventionary forces gathered a head of steam in the late 1990s, while standing aside in 2011 in deference to the Euro-American juggernaut.

One of the mysteries surrounding UN support for the Libyan intervention is why China and Russia expressed their opposition by abstaining rather than using their veto, why South Africa voted with the majority, and why Germany, India, and Brazil were content to abstain, yet seeming to express reservations sufficient to produce ‘no’ votes, which would have deprived the interventionist side of the nine affirmative votes that they needed to obtain authorization. Often the veto is used promiscuously, as recently by the United States, to shield Israel from condemnation for their settlement policy, but here the veto was not used when it could have served positive purposes, preventing a non-defensive and destructive military action that seems imprudent and almost certain in the future to be regarded as an unfortunate precedent.

The internal American debate on the use of force was more complex than usual, and cut across party lines. Three positions are worth distinguishing: realists, moral interventionists, moral and legal anti-interventionists. The realists, who usually carry the day when controversial military issues arise in foreign policy debates, on this occasion warned against the intervention, saying it was too uncertain in its effects and costs, that the U.S. was already overstretched in its overseas commitments, and that there were few American strategic interests involved. The moral interventionists, who were in control during the Bush II years, triumphantly reemerged in the company of hawkish Democrats such as Hilary Clinton and Joseph Biden, prevailing in the shaping of policy partly thanks to the push from London and Paris, the acquiescence of the Arab neighbors, and the loss of will on the part of Moscow and Beijing. It is hard to find a war that Republicans will not endorse, especially if the enemy can be personalized as anti-American and demonized as Qaddafi has been, and it always helps to have some oil in the ground! The anti-interventionists, who are generally reluctant about reliance on force in foreign policy except for self-defense, and additionally have doubts about the effectiveness of hard power tactics, especially under Western auspices. These opponents of intervention against Qaddafi were outmaneuvered, especially at the United Nations and in the sensationalist media that confused the Qaddafi horror show for no brainer/slam dunk reasoning on the question of intervention, treating it almost exclusively as a question of ‘how,’ rather than ‘whether,’ and once again failing to fulfill their role in a democratic society by giving no attention to the full spectrum of viewpoints, including the anti-intervention position.

Finally, there arises the question of the UN authorization itself by way of Security Council Resolution 1373. The way international law is generally understood, there is no doubt that the Security Council vote, however questionable on moral and political grounds and in relation to the Charter text and values, resolves the legal issue within the UN system. An earlier World Court decision, ironically involving Libya, concluded that even when the UN Security Council contravenes relevant norms of international law, its decisions are binding and authoritative. Here, the Security Council has reached a decision supportive of military intervention that is legal, but in my judgment not legitimate, being neither politically prudent nor morally acceptable. The states that abstained acted irresponsibly, or put differently, did not uphold either the spirit or letter of the Charter. The Charter in Article 2(7) establishes a prohibition on UN authority to intervene in matters ‘essentially within the domestic jurisdiction’ of member states unless there is a genuine issue of international peace and security present.  Here there was not the basis for an exception to non-intervention as even the claim was supposedly motivated solely to protect the civilian population of eastern Libya, and hence was squarely within the domestic jurisdiction of Libya.

Besides, the claim to intervene as stated was patently misleading and disingenuous as the obvious goals, as became manifest from the scale and nature of military action as soon as the operation commenced. The actual goals of the intervention were minimally to protect the armed rebels from being defeated, and possibly destroyed, and maximally, to achieve a regime change resulting in a new governing leadership for Libya that was friendly to the West, including buying fully into its liberal economic geopolitical policy compass. The missile attacks in the vicinity of Tripoli, especially the early missile hits on the Qaddafi compound are unmistakable signatures of this wider intention. As the Gulf War in 1991 demonstrated, once the Security Council authorizes military action of an unspecified character, it gives up any further responsibility for or effort to maintain operational control and accountability.

Using a slightly altered language, the UN Charter embedded a social contract with its membership that privileged the politics of self-determination and was heavily weighted against the politics of intervention. Neither position is absolute, but what seems to have happened with respect to Libya is that intervention was privileged and self-determination cast aside. It is an instance of normatively dubious practice trumping the legal/moral ethos of containing geopolitical discretion in relation to obligatory rules governing the use of force and the duty of non-intervention.  We do not know yet what will happen in Libya, but we already know enough to oppose such a precedent that exhibits so many unfortunate characteristics.  It is time to restore the global social contract between territorial sovereign states and the organized international community, which not only corresponds with the outlawry of aggressive war but also reflects the movement of history in support of the soft power struggles of the non-Western peoples of the world.

If ordinary citizens were allowed to have foreign policy doctrines mine would be this: without high levels of confidence in a proposed course of military action, the UN should never agree to allow states to engage in violent action that kills people. And if this cautionary principle is ignored, governments should expect that their behavior would be widely viewed in the public as a species of international criminality, and the UN is likely to be regarded as more of a creature of politics than law and morality. For these reasons it would have been my preference to have had the abstainers in the Security Council voting against Resolution 1973. It is likely that the coalition of the willing would have gone forward in any event, but at least without the apparent UN seal of approval.

Learning from Disaster? After Sendai

15 Mar

Learning from Disaster? After Sendai

After atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki there was in the West, especially the United States, a short triumphal moment, crediting American science and military prowess with bringing victory over Japan and the avoidance of what was anticipated at the time to be a long and bloody conquest of the Japanese homeland. This official narrative of the devastating attacks on these Japanese cities has been contested by numerous reputable historians who argued that Japan had conveyed its readiness to surrender well before the bombs had been dropped, that the U.S. Government needed to launch the attacks to demonstrate to the Soviet Union that it had this super-weapon at its disposal, and that the attacks would help establish American supremacy in the Pacific without any need to share power with Moscow. But whatever historical interpretation is believed, the horror and indecency of the attacks is beyond controversy. This use of atomic bombs against defenseless densely populated cities remains the greatest single act of state terror in human history, and had it been committed by the losers in World War II surely the perpetrators would have been held criminally accountable and the weaponry forever prohibited. But history gives the winners in big wars considerable latitude to shape the future according to their own wishes, sometimes for the better, often for the worse.

Not only were these two cities of little military significance devastated beyond recognition, but additionally, inhabitants in a wide surrounding area were exposed to lethal doses of radioactivity causing for decades death, disease, acute anxiety, and birth defects. Beyond this, it was clear that such a technology would change the face of war and power, and would either be eliminated from the planet or others than the United States would insist on possession of the weaponry, and in fact, the five permanent member of the UN Security Council became the first five states to develop and possess nuclear weapons, and in later years, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have developed nuclear warheads of their own. As well, the technology was constantly improved at great cost, allowing long-distance delivery of nuclear warheads by guided missiles and payloads hundreds times greater than those primitive bombs used against Japan.

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki there were widespread expressions of concern about the future issued by political leaders and an array of moral authority figures.  Statesmen in the West talked about the necessity of nuclear disarmament as the only alternative to a future war that would destroy industrial civilization. Scientists and others in society spoke in apocalyptic terms about the future. It was a mood of ‘utopia or else,’ and ‘on the beach,’  a sense that unless a new form of governance emerged rapidly there would be no way to avoid a catastrophic future for the human species and for the earth itself.

But what happened? The bellicose realists prevailed, warning of the distrust of ‘the other,’ insisting that it would be ‘better to be dead than red,’ and that nothing fundamental changed, that as in the past, only a balance of power could prevent war and catastrophe. The new name for balance in the nuclear age was ‘deterrence,’ and it evolved into an innovative, yet dangerous, semi-cooperative security posture that was given the formal doctrinal label of ‘mutual assured destruction.’ This reality was more popularly, and sanely, known by its expressive acronym, MAD, or sometimes this reality was identified as ‘a balance of terror,’ both a precursor of 9/11 language and a reminded that states have always been the supreme terrorist actors.  The main form of learning that took place after the disasters of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to normalize the weaponry, banish the memories, hope for the best, and try to prevent other states from acquiring it. The same realists, perhaps most prominently, John Mearsheimer, have even gone so far as to give their thanks to nuclear weaponry as ‘keepers of the peace’ during the Cold War.  With some plausibility these nuclearists insisted that best explanation for why the Soviet Union-United States rivalry did not result in World War III was their shared fear of nuclear devastation.  Such nuclear complacency was again in evidence when in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a refusal to propose at that time the elimination of nuclear weaponry, and there were reliable reports that the U.S. Government actually used its diplomatic leverage to discourage any Russian disarmament initiatives that might expose the embarrassing extent of this post-deterrence, post-Cold War American attachment to nuclearism. This attachment has persisted, enjoys wide and deep bipartisan support in the United States, is shared with the leadership and citizenry of the other nuclear weapons states to varying degrees, and is joined at the hip to an anti-proliferation regime that hypocritically treats most states (Israel was a notable exception, and India a partial one) that aspire to have nuclear weapons of their own as criminal outlaws subject to military intervention. The counter-proliferation geopolitical regime has been superimposed upon the legal regime, and currently being used to threaten and coerce Iran in a manner that violates fundamental postulates of international law and the UN Charter.

Here is the lesson that applies to the present: the shock of the atomic attacks wears off in a few years, is unequivocally superseded by a restoration of normalcy surrounding the role of hard power whether nuclear or not. Because of evolving technology, this meant creating the conditions for repetition of the potential use of such weaponry at greater magnitudes of death and destruction. Such a pattern is accentuated, as here, if the subject-matter of disaster is clouded by the politics of the day that obscured the gross immorality and criminality of the historical use of the weapon, that ignored the fact that there are governmental forces associated with the military establishment that seek maximal hard power as an unconditional goal, and overlooked the extent to which these professional militarists are reinforced by paid cadres of scientists, defense intellectuals, and bureaucrats who build careers around the weaponry. This structure is, in turn, strongly reinforced in various ways by private sector profit-making opportunities, including a globally influential corporatized media. These conditions also apply with even less restraint across, undergirding the dirty business of international arms sales. At least with nuclear weapons the main political actors are much more prudent in their relations with one another than was the case in the pre-nuclear era of international relations, and have a shared and high priority incentive to keep the weaponry from falling into hostile hands.

We should also take account of the incredible ‘Faustian Bargain’ sold to the non-nuclear world: give up a nuclear weapons option and in exchange get an unlimited ‘pass’ to the ‘benefits’ of nuclear energy, and besides, the nuclear weapons states, while furtively winking to one another when negotiating the notorious Nonproliferation Treaty (1963) promised in good faith to pursue nuclear disarmament, and indeed general and complete disarmament. Of course, the bad half of the bargain has been fulfilled, although selectively, even in the face of the dire experiences of Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986), while the good half of the bargain (getting rid of the weaponry) never gave rise to even halfhearted nuclear disarmament proposals and negotiations (and instead the world settled irresponsibly for managerial fixes from time to time, negotiated arrangements known as ‘arms control’ measures that were designed to stabilize the nuclear rivalry of the U.S. and Soviet Union (now Russia) in mutually beneficial ways relating to financial burdens and risks. Such a contention has been recently confirmed by the presidential commitment to devote an additional $80 billion for the development of nuclear weapons before the U.S.  Senate could be persuaded to ratify the New START Treaty in late 2010, the latest arms control ruse that was falsely promoted by Washington as a step toward disarmament and denuclearization. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with arms control, it may usefully reduce risks and costs under certain circumstances, but it is definitely not disarmament, and should not presented as if it is.

It is with this background in mind that the unfolding Japanese multidimensional mega-tragedy must be understood and its effects on future policy discussed in a preliminary manner. This extraordinary disaster originated in a natural event that was itself beyond human reckoning and control. An earthquake of unimaginable fury, measuring an unprecedented 9.0 on the Richter Scale, unleashing a deadly tsunami that reached a height of 30 feet, and swept inland in the Sendai area of northern Japan to an incredible distance up to 6 kilometers. It is still too early to count finally the number of the dead, the injured, the property damage, and the overall human costs, but we know enough by now to realize that the impact is already colossal, and will continue to grow, that this is a terrible happening that will be permanently seared into the collective imagination of humanity, perhaps the more so, because it is the most visually recorded epic occurrence in all of history, with real time video recordings of its catastrophic  ‘moments of truth’ and sensationalist media reportage, especially via TV.

But this natural disaster that has been responsible for massive human suffering has been compounded by its nuclear dimension, the full measure of which remains uncertain at this point, although generating a deepening foreboding that is perhaps magnified by calming reassurances by the corporate managers of nuclear power in Japan (Tokyo Electric Power Company or TEPCO) who already had many blemishes on their safety record, as well as by political leaders, including Prime Minister Naoto Kan who understandably wants to avoid causing the Japanese public to shift from its impressive posture of traumatized, yet composed, witnessing to one of outright panic. There is also a lack of credibility based, especially, on a long record of false reassurances and cover ups by the Japanese nuclear industry, hiding and minimizing the effects of a 2007 earthquake in Japan, and actually lying about the extent of damage to a reactor at that time and on other occasions. What we need to understand is that the vulnerabilities of modern industrial society accentuate vulnerabilities that arise from extreme events in nature. There is no doubt that the huge earthquake/tsunami constellation of forces was responsible for great damage and societal distress, but the overall impact has been geometrically increased by this buying into the Faustian Bargain of nuclear energy, whose risks, if objectively assessed, were widely known for many years, yet effectively put to one side. It is the greedy profit-seekers, who minimize and suppress these risks, whether in the Gulf of Mexico or Fukushima or on Wall Street, and then scurry madly at the time of disaster to shift responsibilities to the victims that make me tremble as I contemplate the human future. These predatory forces are made more formidable because they have cajoled most politicians into complicity and have many allies in the media that overwhelm the publics of the world with steady doses of misinformation and tranquilizing promises of greater future care and protestations of societal need.

The reality of current nuclear dangers in Japan are far stronger than these words of reassurance that claim the risks to health are minimal because the radioactivity can even now be contained to avoid dangerous levels of contamination, although the latest reports indicate that already in nearby regions milk and spinach have tested as containing radiation above safe levels. A more trustworthy measure of the perceived rising dangers can be gathered from the continual official expansions of the evacuation zone around the six Fukushima Daiichi reactors from 3 km to 10 km, and more recently to 18 km, and more, coupled with the instructions to everyone caught in the region to stay indoors indefinitely, with windows and doors sealed. We can hope and pray that the four explosions that have so far taken place in the Fukushima Daiichi complex of reactors will not lead to further explosions or fires, and that a full meltdown in one or more of the reactors will not occur. Even without a meltdown the near certain venting of highly toxic radioactive steam to prevent unmanageable pressure from building up due to the boiling water in the reactor cores and spent fuel rods is likely to spread risks and harmful effects.  It is a policy dilemma that has become a living nightmare: either allow the heat to rise and confront the high probability of reactor meltdowns or vent the steam and subject large numbers of persons in the vicinity and beyond to radioactivity, especially should the wind shift southwards carrying the steam toward Tokyo or westward toward northern Japan or Korea.  In reactors 1, 2, and 3 are at risk of meltdowns, while with the shutdown reactors 4,5, and 6 pose the threat of fire releasing radioactive steam from the spent fuel rods.

We know that throughout Asia alone some 500 new reactors are either being built or have been planned and approved in the pre-Fukushima mood of energy worries, with as many as 150 destined for China alone. We know that nuclear power has been touted in the last several years as a major source of energy that is needed to deal with future energy requirements, a way of overcoming the challenge of ‘peak oil’ and of combating global warming by some decrease in carbon emissions. We know that the nuclear industry will contend that it knows how to build safe reactors in the future that will withstand even such ‘impossible’ events that have wrought such havoc in the Sendai region of Japan, while at the same time lobbying for insurance schemes to avoid such risks. Some critics of nuclear energy facilities in Japan and elsewhere had warned that these Fukushima reactors some built more than 40 years ago had become accident-prone and should no longer have been kept operational. Similar reactors are still operating around the world, including in the United States, with several near earthquake zones and close to large cities.And we know that governments will be under great pressure to renew the Faustian Bargain despite what should have been clear from the moment the bombs fell in 1945: This technology is far too unforgiving and lethal to be managed safely over time by human institutions, even if they were operated responsibly, which they are not. It is folly to persist, but it is foolhardy to expect the elites of the world to change course, despite this dramatic delivery of vivid reminders of human fallibility and culpability. We cannot hope to control the savageries of nature, although even these are being intensified by our refusal to take responsible steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but we can, if the will existed, learn to live within prudent limits even if this comes to mean a less materially abundant and an altered and less consumerist life style. The failure to take seriously the precautionary principle as a guide to social planning is a gathering dark cloud menacing all of our futures. Some specialists, including Amory Lovins and Jeremy Rifkin have argued that a blend of conservation, energy efficiency, and safe energy sources would satisfy the energy cravings of modern society without life style adjustments. Others, including Thomas Homer-Dixon, advocate the development of new major energy sources, in his case, deep geothermal drilling to tap into the heated core deep below the surface of the earth. [Globe and Mail, March 17, 2011, Canada]

Let us fervently hope that this Sendai disaster will not take further turns for the worse, but that the warnings already embedded in such happenings, will awaken enough people to the dangers on this path of hyper-modernity so that a politics of limits can arise to challenge the prevailing politics of limitless growth and consumerist profligacy. Such a challenge must include the repudiation of a neoliberal worldview, insisting without compromise on an economics and a human-centered vision of development based on needs and people rather than on profit margins, capital efficiency, and macro-economic indicators. Advocacy of such a course is admittedly a long shot, but so is the deadly collectivized utopian realism of staying on the nuclear course, whether it be with weapons or reactors. This is what Sendai should teach all of us!  But will it?

III..15…2011 (updated III..20…2011)


8 Mar


Since my blog was posted several responses and developments lead me to think further about the essential issues, but not to change course.

It has been suggested that, perhaps, a no fly zone would enable the rebel forces to deal more effectively with the foreign militias being relied upon by the Qaddafi regime to do much of its dirty work. It is difficult to know how a particular version of the no fly zone would impact on the battlefield. We are

speculating on the basis of radical uncertainty, and in such circumstances, it is almost always better to refrain from coercive action than to engage in it. Furthermore, there is a wide spectra of no fly zone scenarios depending on the governments who are taking such an initiative, its degree of dependence on correlated air strikes, and the options available to the rebels and Qaddafi to either take advantage of its effect or to circumvent them. For instance, it is politically more palatable to have a no fly zone established and administered under the auspices of the Arab League or as has been proposed, a joint Egypt/Turkey undertaking than to have it done by NATO or a United States-led ‘coalition of the willing.’ The UN as sponsor is out of the question given Russian opposition, and Chinese reluctance. At the same time, given the logistical and technological demands, it is more likely that the effectiveness of a no fly zone would be greater under NATO/U.S control. A failed no fly zone would embolden Libya, and likely improve his prospects to prevail in the internal struggle.

Furthermore, the tactics and character of the rebel movement seems dramatically different than the uprisings elsewhere in the region, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia. In Libya, the movement lacks the inspiring quality of nonviolence, human solidarity, and social/political demands for justice. It was violent from the outset, tribalist in spirit, recipient of weaponry from external actors, preoccupied with control over the oil-producing areas, indistinct in political outlook (a rebel segment flying the pre-Qaddafi flag of the Libyan monarchy), and uncertainly linked to private sector international oil interests. This looks more like a struggle for control of the state or possibly an effort to establish a secessionist second state if a stalemate emerges. Under this mix of circumstances one must be suspicious about the focus on Libya and the call for full consideration of military options. It would seem to be the case that if feasibility hurdles could be overcome, the political climate in the United States and Britain would support a large-scale intervention, possibly with Arab regional acquiescence. See illuminating analysis by Michel Chossudovsky, “Insurrection and Military Intervention: The US-NATO Attempted Coup d’Etat in Libya?” March 8, 2011.

With these considerations in mind, I think the case for nonintervention remains overwhelmingly persuasive from moral, legal, and political perspectives. Perhaps, the most compelling rationale for reaching such a conclusion was well stated by Roger Cohen: “But the deepest reason is the moral bankruptcy of the West with respect to the Arab world. Arabs have no need of U.S. or European soldiers as they seek the freedom that America and the European Union were content to deny them.” (NY Times, March 7, 2011) It is not often that I have the opportunity to quote approvingly from the New York Times when the subject-matter involves the Middle East, and so I want to make the most of it.

Perhaps, there is another way to exhibit the shabbiness of the argument being made on behalf of a protective no fly zone. Why no comparable proposal on behalf of the civilian population of Gaza trapped behind a merciless blockade for more than three years?

Aside from issues of nonintervention, always important, there is here the paramount relevance of support for dynamics of self-determination. This does not assure the triumph of justice in conflict situations. Qaddafi may win or the rebels may prevail, and prove as distastefully oppressive as the Qaddafi regime. On balance, what means most in the 21st century is to allow the peoples of the world make their own history. Western military paternalism and economic exploitation have been deservedly discredited.

As suggested, there is no way to seal the borders of territorial states. Neither pure noninterventionism nor insulated self-determination are ever possible given the porousness of borders and the interventionary incentives of a range of outsiders. There are various low profile ‘interventions’ taking place. Weapons are being supplied, perhaps, special forces are covertly present as advisors or even fighters. In this respect, the most that can be done is to oppose gross forms of overt governmental intervention, as well as limit assistance to governments, including the Tripoli regime, that violate the fundamental human rights of their own people. In this respect, sanctions are appropriate if authorized by the UN so long as not coupled with intervention, and take responsible account of competing moral, legal, and political claims.

Keep in mind that Libya has over 3.5% of the world’s oil reserves, which is twice the amount present in the United States. Without being an economic determinist, oil certainly helps explain the preferential treatment being given to insurrection in Libya!

Will We Ever Learn? Kicking the Intervention Habit

7 Mar

Will We Ever Learn? Kicking the Intervention Habit

What is immediately striking about the bipartisan call in Washington for a no-fly zone and air strikes designed to help rebel forces in Libya is the absence of any concern with the relevance of international law or the authority of the United Nations. None in authority take the trouble to construct some kind of legal rationalization. The ‘realists’ in command, and echoed by the mainstream media, do not feel any need to provide even a legal fig leaf before embarking on aggressive warfare.

It should be obvious that a no-fly zone in Libyan airspace is an act of war, as would be, of course, contemplated air strikes on fortifications of the Qadaffi forces. The core legal obligation of the UN Charter requires member states to refrain from any use of force unless it can be justified as self-defense after a cross-border armed attack or mandated by a decision of the UN Security Council. Neither of these conditions authorizing a legal use of force is remotely present, and yet the discussion proceeds in the media and Washington circles as if the only questions worth discussing pertain to feasibility, costs, risks, and a possible backlash in the Arab world. The imperial mentality is not inclined to discuss the question of legality, much less show behavioral respect for the constraints embedded in international law.

Cannot it not be argued that in situations of humanitarian emergency ‘a state of exception’ exists allowing an intervention to be carried out by a coalition of the willing provided it doesn’t make the situation worse? Was not this the essential moral/political rationale for NATO’s Kosovo War in 1999, and didn’t that probably spare the majority Albanian population in Kosovo from a bloody episode of ethnic cleansing at the hands of the embattled Serb occupiers? Hard cases make bad precedents, as is well known. But even bad precedents need to find a justification in the circumstances of a new claimed situation of claimed exception, or else there would a strong reinforcement for the public impression that the powerful act as they will without even pausing to make a principled argument for a proposed departure from the normal legal regime of restraint.

With respect to Libya, we need to take account of the fact that the Qaddafi government, however distasteful on humanitarian grounds, remains the lawful diplomatic representative of a sovereign state, and any international use of force even by the UN, much less a state or group of states, would constitute an unlawful intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, prohibited by Article 2(7) of the UN Charter unless expressly authorized by the Security Council as essential for the sake of international peace and security. Beyond this, there is no assurance that an intervention, if undertaken, would lessen the suffering of the Libyan people or bring to power a regime more respectful of human rights and dedicated to democratic participation.

The record of military intervention during the last several decades is one of almost unbroken failure if either the human costs or political outcomes are taken into proper account. Such interventionary experience in the Islamic world during the last fifty years makes it impossible to sustain the burden of persuasion that would be needed to justify an anti-regime intervention in Libya in some ethically and legally persuasive way.






There are also serious credibility concerns. As has been widely noted in recent weeks, the United States has had no second thoughts about supporting oppressive regimes throughout the region for decades, and is widely resented for this role by the various anti-regime movements. Qadaffi’s crimes against humanity were never a secret, and certainly widely known by European and American intelligence services. Even high profile liberal intellectuals in Britain and the United States welcomed invitations to Tripoli during the last several years, apparently without a blink of conscience, accepting consulting fees and shamelessly writing positive assessments that praised the softening authoritarianism in Libya. Perhaps, that is what Joseph Nye, one of the most prominent of these recent good will visitors to Tripoli, would call a private use of ‘smart power,’ commending Qadaffi for renouncing his anti-West posture, for making deals for oil and weapons, and most of all for abandoning what some now say was at most a phantom nuclear weapons program.

Some Beltway pundits are insisting on talk shows that the interventionists after faltering in the region want to get on the right side of history before it is too late. But what is the right side of history in Libya seems quite different than it is in Bahrain or Jordan, and for that matter throughout the region. History seems to flow according to the same river currents as does oil! Elsewhere, the effort is to restore stability with minimal concessions to the reformist demands, hoping to get away with a political touch up that is designed to convert the insurrectionists of yesterday into the bureaucrats of tomorrow.

Mahmoud Mamdani has taught us to distinguish ‘good Muslims’ from ‘bad Muslims,’ now we are being instructed to distinguish ‘good autocrats’ from ‘bad autocrats.’ By this definition, only the pro-regime elements in Libya and Iran qualify as bad autocrats, and their structures of must at least be shaken if they cannot be broken. What distinguishes these regimes? It does not seem to be that their degree of oppressiveness is more pervasive and severe than is the case for the others. Other considerations give more insight: access and pricing of oil, arms sales, security of Israel, relationship to the neoliberal world economy.

What I find most disturbing is that despite the failures of counterinsurgency thinking and practice, American foreign policy gurus continue to contemplate intervention in post-colonial societies without scruples or the slightest show of sensitivity to historical experience, not even the recognition that national resistance in the post-colonial world has consistently neutralized the advantages of superior hard power deployed by the intervening power. The most that has been heard is a whispered expression of concern by the relatively circumspect Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, that it may not be prudent at this time for the United States to intervene in yet another Islamic country. The absence of any learning from Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq is startling, underscored by the glorification of General David Petraeus who rose to military stardom soon after he was credited with refurbishing the army’s approach to counterinsurgency, which is the Pentagon jargon for pro-regime intervention. Major current illustrations are Afghanistan, Iraq, and several other places in the Middle East. Technically speaking, the proposed intervention in Libya is not an instance of counterinsurgency, but is rather a pro-insurgency intervention, as has also been the case with the covert destabilization efforts that continue in Iran.

It is easier to understand the professional resistance to learning from past failure on the part of military commanders as it is their life work, but the civilian politicians deserve not a whit of sympathy. Among the most ardent advocates of intervention in Libya are the last Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, the supposedly independent Joe Lieberman, and the Obama Democrat John Kerry. It seems that many of the Republicans focused on the deficit although cutting public expenditures punishes the poor at a time of widespread unemployment and home foreclosures would not mind ponying up countless billions to finance acts of war in Libya. There exists a worrying readiness to throw money and weapons at an overseas conflict, seemingly as to show that imperial geopolitics is not yet dead despite the growing evidence of American decline.

In the end, I suppose we have to hope that those more cautious imperial voices that base their opposition to intervention on feasibility concerns carry the day!

What I am mainly decrying here in the Libyan debate are three kinds of policy failure:

(1) the exclusion of international law and the United Nations from relevance to national debates about international uses of force;

(2) the absence of respect for the dynamics of self-determination in societies of the South;

(3) the refusal to heed the ethics and politics appropriate for a post-colonial world order that is being de-Westernized and is becoming increasingly multi-polar.


Commentary on Recent Developments: Interview Responses

2 Mar

The following Q & A interview consists of my responses to questions put to me by the outstanding Greek journalist, C. J. Polychroniou, and is being published in the Sunday edition of the Greek newspaper, Eleftherotypia, March 6, 2011.

1.   Various Arab leaders, from Egypt and Tunisia to Bahrain and Libya, have blamed either Islamic fundamentalist forces or Al-Qaeda for the uprisings, thus refusing to accept the uprisings as popular, secular revolutions.   An indication that the Arab leaderships are truly of of touch with reality in their own country or there is something indeed into their claims?

Such allegations by these embattled dictatorial leaders have no basis in fact as far as I can tell, and seem to be a grasping at straws while straining to survive in the midst of a political maelstrom. Such irresponsible allegations seem to be rather desperate reminders to the West, especially to Washington, that these Arab autocrats have been loyal servants for many years, that it should be appreciated that they are the enemy of the American number one enemy (Al Qaeda), and that these regimes should therefore be treated as trusted friends, and repression of the protestors welcomed. Such pleas are seeking to convey a sense that these uprisings if allowed to succeed will be damaging to Western and American interests, bringing hostile elements into political control of the respective governments, and replacing compliant current officialdom with more antagonistic leaders. Of course, each country is different in its particulars. Mubarak could reasonably pretend to have been serving Western interests during his 31 years of rule, and has long been supported and free from critical scrutiny because of this. Qaddafi, in contrast, until recently was seen by the West as a dangerously hostile presence in the region, a supporter of radical anti-Western political action. He made himself acceptable as a trading partner some years ago when he appeared to cave in geopolitically, abandoning Libya’s nuclear program and renouncing support for terrorist causes. It is almost forgotten that the Bush presidency in the period after its invasion of Iraq in 2003 claimed as a major diplomatic success this dramatic shift in Libya, suggesting that its efforts at ‘democracy promotion’ were bearing fruit.

Looking at the issue more objectively it seems clear that the rise of these democratic popular forces throughout the Arab World is taking place in spite of the Al Qaeda reality in the background rather than as a result of it. As is well known, even the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has an intensely antagonistic relationship with Al Qaeda, and has developed during the last decade a nonviolent and low profile political program that points in a moderate direction. Also, the experience of political Islam in Iran over the past 30 years seems to have influenced other Muslim oriented activists in the region to look to Turkey, not Iran or Al Qaeda, for inspiration. Turkey offers the region an encouraging model of achieving democratic gains and protecting human rights while promoting more equitable, yet successful, forms of economic development that have also seemingly managed to avoid major corruption. What enraged the Arab publics was a lethal mixture of authoritarian rule and gross corruption resting on a pure embrace of neoliberal policies that combined repression with material hardship. Such a pattern of economic growth confers almost all of its benefits on the ruler’s family and entourage, making positive GNP growth a cruel joke for the public as a whole.

2.   After the fall of Mubarak and Ben Ali in Egypt and Tunisia, respectively, the rest of the Arab dictators and monarchs seem to have concluded that using force to remain in power is their preferred option. Is this a viable strategy without suppport from the US and Europe?

It is difficult at this stage to tell whether reliance on force will work or not, and if so where, and to what extent it has been encouraged or at least tolerated by Washington and Europe. Of course, Libya is a special case in at least two senses: (1) the U.S. would not mind seeing the Qadaffi regime collapse, and take its chances with whatever comes next; (2) the Qaddafi response seems to rely on a more vicious and widespread use of force than has been used elsewhere in this period, and includes deploying high technology weaponry against initially unarmed demonstrators that seems to be leading toward widespread and bloody civil strife in the country. Elsewhere in the region, and especially, Bahrain because of oil, it is more likely that the U.S. would like to see the regime survive, using force if necessary to quell protests. Iran, although not an Arab country, is the extreme instance in the opposite direction. The U.S. seeks to mobilize opposition and stiffen sanctions in response to uses of force by the Tehran regime, and encourages oppositional activity by covert means, openly favoring a regime change. Iran’s experience is in many respects different that that in the Arab countries, but the internal confrontations in Iran have much in common with the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, given the goals of the Green Revolution and the resistance of the regime.

One generalization that has not yet been fully tested as yet is whether, as now seems to be the case, the monarchies in the region have more political space available to reach accommodations with opposition movements than do the secular regimes of the sort that existed in Egypt and Tunisia. The monarchies are perceived as less corrupt, more legitimate in terms of the political culture, and their leaders regarded as less usurpers than royal autocrats who have abused their role as rulers, but who can recover considerable popular respect if genuine reforms take place, granting more freedom and seeking greater economic justice.

3.   Should the UN or even NATO use force to get Gaddafi out of the picture, or best to reach an agreement with him and have him disappear in some remore corner of the globe?

I am opposed to military intervention for several reasons. It will tend to support Qaddafi’s claim that he is the victim of foreign subversion, either in the form of colonialism or Muslim fundamentalism. It would also fuel suspicions that the West will intervene where oil is at stake as in Kuwait, Iraq, or Libya, and invokes humanitarian issues as a cover for imperial goals. Intervention would likely generate more violence and suffering for the Libyan people by intensifying the military dimensions of the conflict. A humanitarian intervention could not likely be carried out in an effective manner in the short run, especially as American capabilities are stretched thin, and the Tripoli regime has the means to offer stiff resistance. If the UN had a protective force in being under its authority, then maybe a protective emergency mission could be undertaken, but even this would be risky. NATO acting beyond Europe, as in Afghanistan, creates the impression of post-colonial imperial ambitions, and should not be seriously considered. Overall in the post-colonial era, especially lacking a clear UN mandate, it is best to show respect for the dynamics of self-determination even in situations where vulnerable elements of the population is at risk, at least to the extent of refraining from military intervention.

Whether Qadaffi can be enticed to leave for comfortable exile in the manner of Ben Ali is an open question. So far, he has seemed to resist such a suggestion, preferring to die together with his family in Libya, casting himself and sons in the role of martyrs. All in all, none of the available options seem promising at this time. Some of the deficiencies of the current structure of world order are exposed: intervention is unacceptable, but so is being a helpless spectator as a humanitarian catastrophe of these proportions unfolds. Imaginative diplomacy that emphasizes soft power tactics and brings to bear civil society influences may turn out to be most effective and least costly.

4. You’ve been involved with developments in the region for many decades. What explains the sudden explosion of public anger throughout the Arab world?

It is too early to offer much commentary about the future of the Middle East. The coming months will tell us whether these uprisings are reformist or revolutionary in content. So far, the trajectory seems decidedly reformist, taking the form of either forcing the leaders out as in Tunisia and Egypt, or by inducing the existing regime to seek to regain stability by meeting some core demands of the populace as in Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Oman, and Bahrain. To be revolutionary, the political changes would have to be complemented by a partial rejection of neoliberal economic orientation, and that doesn’t seem likely without further radicalization of the uprisings. At this point the question is whether the political reforms will be deeper than cosmetic, establishing a genuinely democratic governance structure including independent political parties, a constitutionally functioning judiciary, an accountable bureaucracy, human rights, and a media free to criticize without risk. How these reformist governing structures will deal with jobs, food security, and general conditions of poverty and inequality remains to be seen, and will have a big bearing on whether the post-autocratic leaders gain political legitimacy and public acceptance.

It is always difficult to assess after the fact what looked extremely unlikely until it happened. Tolstoy in the Second Epilogue of War and Peace asks why historians always get things wrong when they look toward the future. Tolstoy’s answer is that historians look at the surfaces of social action, whereas the dynamics of history are shaped by unanticipated explosions from below. In effect, the changes that we are witnessing in the Middle East were long brewing, both as anger and as resistance. The uprisings seemed spontaneous, but on further reflection, it is clear that both the rage and the resistance were preexisting conditions that had evolved during prior years. Rage and resistance came together in an extraordinary kind of political chemistry that was sparked by the suicide of a young street vendor in an interior Tunisian town, an event igniting a wildfire that spread quickly as the winds of protest carried the sparks of outrage throughout Tunisia, and then to neighboring countries where additional political suicides also fanned the flames of discontent. As with an earthquake, the risks can be noted beforehand, but the event is not predictable in time or exact place.

In the Arab world, few anticipated this kind of mass visible resistance ever occurring in any of the countries, much less in the region as a whole. There was a widespread realization of acute discontent among the peoples of these countries, but little expectation that these feeling would morph into a series of revolutionary challenges to the status quo. Even the Western intelligence agencies, despite their extensive activities throughout the region and their tendency to posit alternative scenarios, were caught by surprise. In the aftermath, we find lots of ‘learned’ explanations being suddenly forthcoming as pundits scrambled to regain their reputations as ‘experts’ on the region or country.

5.   You serve as a UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories. What impact, if any, will the Arab revolutions have on the Palestinian issue?

Without wanting to evasive, my answer here too is that it is hard to say at this stage. A realistic Israel, which is itself a kind of utopian expectation, would urgently be seeking a quick peace with the Palestinians by rushing to accept the Arab League Mecca Proposals of 2002. The Palestinian Authority has already clearly indicated its willingness to accept such a settlement as full satisfaction of their search for a Palestinian state. Despite the realist logic behind such positive developments, the situation is almost certain to remain dangerous frozen for the foreseeable future.

What we are likely to witness is more stalling by Israel, vigorously claiming an interest in direct peace negotiations, while feverishly acting to undermine any prospects of a successful and just outcome by continuing with its program of unlawful settlement expansion in the West Bank and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. In the background is the daunting question of Palestinian representation. Gazans are not currently represented at all in international venues due to the Hamas/Fatah split. This is also true of Palestinians living as a discriminated minority in Israel nor of the several million Palestinians living in refugee camps of neighboring countries or in exile.

There are some unconfirmed reports that Netanyahu is about to offer the Palestinian Authority a Palestinian state on 40-50% of the West Bank (that is, less than 11% of the historic Palestine) as an interim solution, with permanent borders to be established at a later date. There are media reports that Netanyahu is considering this diplomatic move as a direct reaction to the regional development of the last two months. In some respects this possible Israeli offer corresponds to the Fayyad approach adopted by the PA Prime Minister. Whether such a step moves toward a just outcome of the Palestinian struggle is doubtful as it leaves many contested issues out in the cold, perhaps permanently: refugees, separation wall, Jerusalem, Gaza, water, permanent borders, status of Palestinian minority in Israel.

If these Arab revolutions do manage to achieve real governmental transformations in a democratizing direction, then regional pressures on Israel are likely to mount, including pressure to renegotiate the 1979 Peace Treaty with Egypt. At minimum, one would expect an end to the blockade of Gaza that has gone on for more than three years, a cruel and criminal form of collective punishment of the 1.5 million civilians living at near subsistence levels.

My main hope for the Palestinian struggle rests on the soft power initiatives embedded in the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign that has been growing in strength around the world. With the greatly reduced reliance on hard power resistance, the Palestinian movement has increasingly the shape of what I call a Legitimacy War. Such a strategy resembles the anti-apartheid campaign that was so effectively globally waged against the South African racist regime In the late 1980s and early 1990s. While noting the similarities, there are also significant dissimilarities, and the analogy should be noted, but not pushed too far.

There is no doubt that the Palestinian quest for self-determination is the major symbolic global justice issue of our time, and it will not be easily resolved. Israel will have to drastically downgrade its ambitions, and accept either a genuinely viable and independent Palestinian state within 1967 borders (requiring dismantling most of the settlements, the separation wall, reconstituting the Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem, and compromise on the refugee issue) or give up on the existence of a Zionist Israel and agree to a bi-national secular single state for both peoples. Neither option seems remotely acceptable to the current Israeli leadership, meaning that in all probability the conflict will in go on for many more years with continuing tragic results, especially for the Palestinians.