Thursday, September 26, 2013

National Interest or Disinterest?

Last week I surveyed the various ways that people seemed to be looking at recent events relating to Syria, but I left out one significant group.

That would be the pacifists. But frankly, I’m not sure the pacifist view really registers in all this. When I speak of pacifists, I am referring to people who, on principle, oppose any military action short of defending the United States’ own sovereign territory during an actual invasion—and even then a small number would oppose fighting even in that circumstance.

These people could conceivably also be referred to as non-interventionists, but that term is a bit too slippery for my taste. Many politicians’ opposition to intervention in other countries seems to be situational, i.e. their principles can shift, depending on whether there is a Republican or a Democrat in the White House. True pacifists are consistent, no matter which political leader is pushing for military involvement abroad. In other words, they are driven by principle rather than bald partisanship.

Logically, pacifists would belong on my list of people who are happy with the agreement reached by the U.S. and Russia aiming to relieve Syria’s Assad regime of its chemical weapons. That would be because military action by the U.S. was avoided—if it was ever a serious possibility in the first place. Of course, no one could be happy about the violence and death that continues unabated in Syria, but the pacifist’s view is that the answer to violence is not more violence. Therefore, even though it is terribly regrettable that people continue to die in the Syrian civil war, there is absolutely nothing to be done about it—at least from the pacifist’s point of view.

I am not a pacifist myself, but I am familiar with the pacifist mindset. My mother’s people were Mennonites. They spent centuries migrating from one country to another, in large part to avoid becoming forcibly entangled in other people’s wars. When she came of age, my mother did not stay in her church, and her parents had no trouble welcoming her non-Mennonite husband into the family. The fact that she was nearly the youngest in the family probably had a lot to do with that. Her oldest siblings had actually been excommunicated for marrying non-Mennonites. In hindsight, though, it is amazing that my father was so warmly welcomed by religiously pacifist in-laws when, almost immediately after the marriage, he went off to war in North Africa and Europe.

It is indisputable that, if everyone in the world were a pacifist, it would definitely be a very peaceful world. And it is hard to argue with the proposition that, even if the world is largely full of non-pacifists, it is still harder to have a fight between two people when one of them refuses to take part.

The problem with pacifism is that, if you take it to its logical extreme, you have to be willing to be conquered by whoever wants to take over your country by force. During the early days of the Cold War, some self-described pacifists in America adopted the slogan “better red than dead,” meaning they would rather live under a Communist regime than have to fight invading Soviets.

Some quasi-pacifists would make an exception for situations where a foreign army is actually marching across the border into one’s country. Unfortunately, in the age of nuclear weapons, intercontinental missiles and the 20th century phenomenon of Finland-ization, waiting until invading ground troops actually arrive could be leaving things a bit late if you want to maintain sovereignty.

The ultimate problem with pacifism is best illustrated by the Hitler problem. How does it serve the interest of peace to stand by and watch as six million people are put to death in the name of ethnic purity? That might be exactly the right thing to do according to some people’s religious faith, but if too many people share that philosophy then it’s only a matter of time until you get your own turn in the gas ovens. In that kind of world, evil people and their most loyal enablers are the only ones who survive.

But once you accept the idea that, yes, there are situations in which good people must go to war to fight people who are not attacking one’s own country directly, then it becomes difficult to know when it is right to intervene abroad and when not to. Some people favor intervention on humanitarian grounds, but that position is usually not very popular.

Others feel the need to have a citable “national interest” in the fight, which is the rationale President Obama used when arguing for the military strike against Syria that never materialized. But the U.S. national interest that the president cited only applied to chemical weapons—not to the use of other very lethal weapons and not to the continuance of Bashar al-Assad in power.

“National interest” can be a rather slippery idea when it comes to acting abroad. As we see, it can involve something that might happen sometime well down the road. The geo-strategists that I mentioned last time sometimes argue that the mere fact that non-intervention might put the country at a strategic disadvantage is reason enough to get involved. As was noted in Foreign Policy magazine’s blog The Cable, just three days after the U.S. and Russia announced the agreement to end Syria’s chemical weapons program, the Russian military effected a de facto annexation of Georgian territory for the benefit of the separatist region of pro-Moscow South Ossetia.

That Russia would do this did not really surprise anybody. Vladimir Putin has been obvious about his intentions to expand his country’s influence and control in any direction he can. What did surprise observers, though, was the fact that U.S.—unlike the European Union and NATO—made no protest or comment about this military intrusion into a country that is friendly to America and the West. A request from The Cable for comment on the incursion was ignored by the State Department.

The reason is clear. The Obama Administration now depends on the Russians for any diplomatic progress on the Syrian question and so does not want to anger them. From the Russians’ point of view, this may have been only the first of a number a moves they had been eying on the geopolitical chessboard in the wake of their successful Middle Eastern gambit.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Syrian Glass Half-full?

President Obama deserves credit for speaking forcefully and compassionately about the plight of innocent victims of chemical weapons in his remarks on television last week. He highlighted awareness of and gave urgency to a terrible situation, as only the leader of the Free World can.

And his administration deserves credit for the agreement it reached with Russia to have Syria relinquish its chemical weapons.

So, this is a good thing, right? The short answer to that question is, yes, it is a good thing. So why are so many reacting like it is a bad thing or a potentially bad thing?

A lot of that has to do with how things got to this point. Nobody seems very impressed with the administration’s handling of the Syrian situation—from drawing a red line to threatening military action to requesting congressional authorization to requesting congressional inaction. Fortune’s Nina Easton put it nicely on one of those TV pundit panels when she said that, when it comes to conducting foreign policy, President Obama seems to do his thinking out loud. An even more amusing quote came from Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz. When asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about former President Jimmy Carter’s opposition to Obama’s then-plan to attack Syria, she responded, “I think President Carter speaks from experience about diminished stature in an international crisis.”

But in the end, what does it matter how slick the process looked or who comes out of it up or down politically as long as the result is good? Right?

The answer depends on how you’re looking at things. Everybody is coming at this from different perspectives, and that colors whether they see the glass half empty, half full or less than half full. Here is my own personal shorthand for dividing up the various reactions. Note that I am dealing here only with people motivated by sincere beliefs, not pure partisans who take a position solely because it helps or hurts President Obama.

These are the people who are happy with the way things have worked out for Syria in the past couple of weeks:

  • Realpolitickers: This is my term for those who subscribe to Realpolitik, the German word that came into vogue during the Cold War. Its guiding tenets are realism and pragmatism. Realpolitickers prize stability over everything else. A dictator who keeps the peace is always preferable to a messy rebellion with hard-to-foresee consequences. These were the people who were horrified when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and thought he was silly for calling on Mr. Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. The current US/Russia agreement validates Bashar al-Assad and negates Obama’s earlier call for regime change and that means some sort of stability—or at least as much as you can have in the middle of a civil war.

  • Ideological Relativists: This is my own term for those who don’t see any particular virtue in one political system over another and who feel that the West has no right to impose its values on other cultures. There is actually a lot of overlap between these people and the Realpolitickers—maybe so much that they could even be considered virtually a single group.

  • Putin, Assad and Iran: Putin is happy because he has come off as a real player globally and he has gotten the U.S. to validate the legitimacy of his client, arms customer and host for his only Mediterranean military base. Heck, he might even win his own Nobel Peace Prize. Assad is happy because this means no support from the U.S. for the people trying to overthrow him. Iran is happy because Assad is one of the Persians’ few friends among Arab nations and this provides a template for avoiding U.S. military action against Iran.

    These are the people who would be unhappy about recent developments over Syria:

  • Idealists: This is my catch-all term for neoconservatives and Wilsonians (if there are any left in the Democratic Party) who have insisted for two and a half years that the rebels in Syria—or at least a significant portion of them—are amenable to friendly relations with the West and could provide more freedom for the Syrian people if they came to power. To believe this, of course, requires a leap of faith that hope can triumph over experience. The fact is, barring an astounding turn of events, we will probably never know in our lifetimes whether Syria could have successfully had a more liberal form of government.

  • Geo-strategists: These are the people who see the world as one big chess board. They are always looking two or three moves ahead and weighing whose national interests and enhanced or diminished by every event. Geo-strategists in the West would be unhappy generally for the same reasons that Putin is happy. They see an American foreign policy that has seen one pro-America dictator (Egypt’s Mubarak) tossed to the wolves while a pro-Russia dictator (Assad) has been cemented in place. They see the U.S.’s influence in the Middle East diminished and Russia’s enhanced. And they see America’s hand with Iran weakened.

  • Cynics: These are people who have long memories and who do not get very excited about any so-called diplomatic breakthrough. They look at the agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons and remember the various agreements over the years that dealt with Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons and the cat-and-mouse games that plagued the Clinton Administration so much that Clinton made regime change the official U.S. policy for Iraq. They remember the various agreements over North Korea’s nuclear development and how those always turned into the U.S. giving food or other aid to Pyongyang only to have the North Koreans commit further provocations—and then provide nuclear technology to Syria (which the Israelis then blew up). Cynics note with a jaundiced eye that the guarantor of Syria’s divestiture of chemical weapons is the same country that is its main arms supplier. They further note that there is no enforcement mechanism in the agreement other than the U.N. Security Council, where Russia has a veto.

  • The Syrian rebels: These are the big losers. A couple of years ago, it was a given that they would topple Assad, just like the other dictators who fell victim to the Arab Spring. Now nobody gives them a chance. Over the weekend Assad was back to relentlessly bombarding the Damascus suburbs—with absolutely no comment or rebuke from the West. That was because he was using conventional—not chemical—weapons.
  • Wednesday, September 11, 2013

    Four Decades On

    Forty years ago today the Chilean military forces violently and bloodily overthrew the duly elected government of Chile. The date September 11 became associated with conflict and tragedy in that country well before the atrocity of 2001 in the U.S.

    In Sunday’s New York Times the writer Ariel Dorfman, who was an adviser to the doomed president Salvador Allende, has provided a moving account of that day. Dorfman is probably best known for his play Death and the Maiden, which was made into a movie in 1994 by Roman Polanski.

    Particularly touching is Dorfman’s palpable sense of survivor guilt. On the night of September 10, he would have been sleeping in the presidential palace, La Moneda, if he had not traded shifts with his friend Claudio Jimeno so that Dorfman could bring his young son to visit La Moneda the previous day. The reason these men were taking turns sleeping in the palace was to provide an early warning in case the military moved against the government.

    So it was Jimeno, and not Dorfman, who was in La Moneda to receive the call that warned of the impending coup and to alert the president. For years it was not clear if Allende had been killed by the military or if he had committed suicide, but eventually his family conceded that he did indeed take his own life. Jimeno was taken prisoner and was presumed to have been killed. His body has never been found.

    When the coup happened, I was studying in France. One of my majors was in Spanish and so I may have known a bit more about Chile than the average North American because of my studies of Latin American literature. Still, it all seemed very far away, and military coups in South America did not seem that rare. What I did not yet appreciate is that they were indeed rare in Chile, which had a long history of democratic government. The last thing that entered my mind was the fact that, within four years, I would be living and studying there. But this indeed came to pass, as I have written before.

    For many people, the story of Chile’s golpe de estado is a simple tale of evil triumphing temporarily over good. As is usually the case in life, though, the story is a bit more complicated. In February, when the Oscar-nominated film No was released in Britain, I heard its star Gael García Bernal interviewed on BBC radio. The movie recounts the 1988 referendum which marked the end of General Augusto Pinochet’s regime, and it was interesting to hear the Mexican actor’s take on those events. García Bernal, who was born five years after the 1973 coup and who was not yet ten years old when the referendum was held, pretty much offered the standard narrative, i.e. that Pinochet had every intention of remaining in power forever but was driven from office when the people rose up and voted in a referendum that he inexplicably decided to hold.

    The fact is that Pinochet had laid out the timetable for a return to democracy very early in his regime. It is true that he tried to prolong his time as president by giving the country the option to retain him in office. And it is also apparently true that, when he saw how things were going, he explored ways to avoid being bound by the referendum. But in the end, he abided by the process he himself had instituted and respected the will of the people.

    The other thing that complicates the narrative of Allende’s admirers is the fact that Chile’s economy, which became a basket case under Allende, positively boomed after several years of strict monetarist management by Pinochet. Dorfman asserts that the economy under the junta “led to a scandalous disparity in income distribution.” This is the trope always hauled out by the left. When an economy is bad, the problem is poverty. When an economy is growing and the overall standard of living is rising, then the problem is income or wealth “inequality.” It may be true that, in a thriving economy, the wealthy do better by all measures than the poor. But apparently, the left would prefer to see the poor even poorer so that the wealthy will be somewhat less wealthy.

    The left-of-center parties that governed Chile from 2000 to 2010 have done their best to take credit for Chile’s continued economic success, and they do in fact deserve credit to the extent that they were smart enough not to tamper too much with what they inherited. It seems likely that the Socialist Party’s Michelle Bachelet will be returned to the presidency in the November election to succeed the conservative Sebastián Piñera. Countries are always better off when economic competence wins over stubborn ideology.

    Something that clearly bothers Dorfman is the idea, expressed in some news organs like Investor’s Business Daily, that Pinochet’s policies should be seen as a model for the military in Egypt. Given how many people were tortured and killed under Pinochet, it is not a happy comparison and certainly not a sensitive one. But IBD was focusing on how Chile’s junta eventually let democracy resume, not on its bloody beginning.

    It echoes a piece written around the same time by Spectator magazine editor Fraser Nelson in the London Telegraph arguing that the only way a country is going to have political freedom, especially when it has not had it before, is for that country to give its citizens economic freedom. As Nelson notes, the so-called Arab Spring was set off not by people demanding democracy but by the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor who could not make a living because a corrupt government kept taking everything he had.

    Nelson is absolutely right. It is no coincidence that the countries that are the most free politically are also the ones that have classically liberal economies. In Chile in 1988, it wasn’t a slick advertising campaign or the power of the mob or the determination of political organizers that sent the generals back to their barracks. It was a thriving and free economy.

    Tuesday, September 3, 2013

    Comedy and Tragedy

    When we were in County Kerry a few weeks ago, I noticed signs along the road touting the Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival.

    Inaugurated two years ago, this is an event I keep meaning to attend. It is held in the town of Waterville, a place where Chaplin and his family spent their holidays over many years. He eventually had to abandon it during the Troubles when, as a prominent Englishman, he no longer felt safe in Ireland. There is a statue of him in the town that prominently celebrates his connection to Waterville.

    Three years in a row now I have missed the Chaplin festival. Other plans, duties and commitments always seem to get in the way, and I think of myself as too adult and responsible to bail on prior commitments.

    So imagine how foolish I felt when I learned that the recently appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, managed to make it to the festival—even while the Security Council was having an emergency meeting on chemical gas attacks in Syria.

    Power, who was born in Dublin and lived in Ireland until the age of 9, has a connection to Waterville. She has been a regular visitor for years along with her husband, legal scholar and sometime Obama adviser Cass Sunstein. In fact, the couple were married there. Sunstein was an invited speaker at this year’s Chaplin festival, and their visit had been long planned.

    Those holiday plans made for some amusing comedy of another sort when Fox News decided to find out why a mere assistant was attending the emergency U.N. meeting in Power’s place. With the reflexive stonewalling that has become a trademark of Obama Administration spokespersons, nobody would give out any information—making the reporters even more determined to find out where she was. Eventually, it was learned that she was in, of all places, on the scenic Ring of Kerry.

    Of course, this was all a pretty minor tempest in a teacup. With modern technology, people like Power are never really away from their jobs and, presumably, her assistant is a competent person. Besides, it’s not as though a meeting at the United Nations was really going to make a lot of difference to what was happening on the ground in Syria anyway.

    But the kerfuffle provided an irresistible metaphor to those who feel that, when it comes to foreign policy in general and the Middle East in particular, the Obama Administration is just phoning it in.

    But the administration isn’t just phoning it in anymore. Syria is front and center in news headlines in the U.S. and around the world. After two and half years of a civil war that has seen atrocities committed by more than one side—but the most horrific by the Assad regime—the U.S. government is giving every indication that it is going to react militarily—one of these days.

    If the footage of victims of chemical weapons and other forms of violence were not so sickening, the ironies of the situation would actually be humorous. We have President Obama, who rose to power in large part on his consistent opposition to the U.S.’s involvement in Iraq, scrambling for backing of some kind military operation against Syria. Even more striking is Secretary of State John Kerry, who rose to prominence as a young soldier admonishing old men for sending young men off to an ill-advised war and is now an old man himself forcefully arguing that today’s young men should now get involved in a far-off land. This is the same John Kerry who voted against sending troops to liberate Kuwait back in 1991.

    Syria is different than Iraq, we are told. The difference is that, by all accounts, this military action will be so brief and risk-free that it will not actually make any difference. But reports from the BBC today suggest that Republicans, whom Obama will need if he is to have the congressional backing he now wants, are insisting that any action has to be substantial. Senators McCain and Graham want it to be strong enough to shift the war in the rebels’ favor.

    A lifelong Republican and a war veteran, my father always liked to point out that, in modern history, America’s involvement in foreign wars was almost always initiated by Democratic administrations: World War I (Woodrow Wilson), World War II (Franklin Roosevelt), Korea (Harry Truman), Vietnam (JFK/LBJ), Kosovo (Bill Clinton). The 20th century exceptions would be Grenada (Ronald Reagan) and the Gulf War (Bush 41)—both fairly brief affairs. In the 21st century, on the other hand, two rather long wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) were initiated by a Republican administration (Bush 43), which my father did not live to see.

    Dad had an explanation for why, during his lifetime, Democrats were invariably in charge when these foreign wars began—despite the fact that Republicans had the reputation of being the more hawkish party. His explanation was that the more an adversary believes an administration has no stomach for war, the more likely that adversary will miscalculate in its provocations. The paradox, in Dad’s view, was that the best way to avoid a war was to always be ready to go to war.

    If there was anything obvious about Obama as a candidate or as president, it was that he wanted to end the wars Bush had started and to avoid any other wars. And now here he is sort of trying to get the country in the mood for war.

    Maybe there is a method to President Obama’s apparent madness in dealing with Syria, i.e. the switching of gears, changes in plans, broadcasting of intentions and of self-limits, the delay in waiting for seeking symbolic congressional approval after legislators come back from recess. Maybe it will all end well. My personal guess is that the president simply hopes to delay military action so long that, assuming Assad avoids any obvious further use of chemical weapons, Obama can declare a moral victory without actually doing anything. But that almost certainly won’t work because, as Middle East dictators are wont to do, Assad will be loudly declaring that it was he who triumphed by staring down the Americans. And, as the pundits tell us, this will only embolden the nuclear weapon developers in Iran.

    There seems to be no way for a U.S. president to get it right. George W. Bush was eventually vilified for invading Iraq. The web site Iraq Body Count puts the civilian casualty toll since the beginning of that war ten years ago at a minimum of 114,396. (I can find no estimates of how many would have otherwise died under the repressive and sometimes bellicose Saddam Hussein regime or indirectly because of United Nations sanctions.) The lesson learned in the U.S. was to not intervene militarily in the Middle East. And so the U.S. has stayed out of the war in Syria.

    But consider this. The United Nations estimates that, in just two and a half years of the Syrian civil war, more than 100,000 have already died.