Posts Tagged ‘Obama Administration’
There’s a tendency to say there are three groups of foreign policy actors in American politics: cruise missile liberals, neoconservatives, and isolationists. But in the last decade, Samantha Power has tried to carve out a niche between the people reluctant to use any force and the cruise missile liberals like Michael O’Hanlon and some people at TNR who have dreams of intervening militarily literally everywhere.
McClatchy had a good summary of Power’s position on foreign policy:
Yet to dub Power an interventionist is to miss the nuance of the mission she began as a 22-year-old war correspondent in Yugoslavia, then nurtured through Harvard Law School and turns in think tanks, academia and as an author and columnist.
“The United States should not frame its policy options in terms of doing nothing or unilaterally sending in the Marines,” Power wrote in her book “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” for which she won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize. “America’s leadership will be indispensable in encouraging U.S. allies and regional and international institutions to step up their commitments and capacities.”
Power called Clinton administration officials to account for not doing more to save lives in Bosnia and Rwanda in the mid-1990s. She didn’t support the 2003 invasion of Iraq, criticizing the unilateral U.S. approach and questioning the Bush administration’s concern for Iraqis’ welfare.
In a 2006 commencement speech for Santa Clara University School of Law, Power said her life’s work was driven by a sense of obligation “to demand that our representatives are attentive to the human consequences of their decision making.” She advised the students to “let reason be your tool, but let justice be your cause.”
I was in college during the run up to the Iraq war and I’ve constantly regretted not being more informed (my own version of Iraq war guilt, I suppose, those I would characterize mine as a sin of omission rather than commission). The clearest and most persusaive theory I identified in since then was Samantha Power’s, adequately summarized here.
As a tentative supporter of actions in Libya, I’ve felt caught in the crossfire between those who would want to go in harder and those that are (in my opinion) overly reluctant to use military force. It’s clear the nation-building plan hasn’t worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. If this intervention leads to a stalemate, sending in the Army to do COIN will not be cost effective. But that doesn’t mean the world has to have let Gaddafi’s army have his way with Benghazi either. (Tom Ricks’ post today was good on along those lines).
I’d like to point out one other inconsistency in critics of any action in Libya: that we are simultaneously involved in a Libyan civil war (16.5 million results on google) and also that the Libyan rebels only have 1,000 trained soldiers and some of them are less than savory characters. My favorite such phrasing was during his press briefing today by US Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz saying ““But I don’t think we’re at a point where we can make a judgment that this is a 100 percent kosher, so to speak, group.”
Moreover, doesn’t that this is a civil war with one side drastically under armed and out manned make this worse? Tienanmen Square was a human tragedy, but I would add that the reign of the Khmer Rouge was worse. There are real humanitarian crises going on across the Arab world. It seems pretty clear none are as of yet rising to what Gaddafi credibly threatened against Benghazi. That does not take away the serious, humanitarian suffering of those in Bahrain, Iran, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, and elsewhere. But the constant arguing that the responses are uneven ignores that geopolitical circumstances really are different in those countries. Maybe the US could say or do more elsewhere; that’s certainly possible (even probable in the case of action in the Ivory Coast). But that’s not a compelling argument against US action in Libya (even if this particular version of action isn’t the wisest course – I’m no military specialist here).
I don’t find this persuasive – does anyone think the tragedy of the Rwandan genocide is implicated in any way by what ideology the Tutsis slaughtered had. It’s easy to highlight the pro-peace Tutsis, but I’m sure there were less than savory factions too. The people being murdered by the governments of Yemen and Syria to date are not all adherents to western liberal thought.
Benghazi has roughly 750,ooo to one million people, making it the size of roughly Portland Oregon. Gaddafi had pledged no mercy shortly before the no fly zone has been implemented; since then all he has done is do things like shell a hospital.
Is the US intervention perfect? No, and there are real ways it could go seriously awry. Will the west basically have to leave Libya before everything is settled? Sure. Will post-intervention aide to Libya be underfunded? Sadly, there’s no doubt. Should the US be making more efficient interventions overseas (the omnipresent example of anti-malaria tents)? Absolutely. It’s a mark against us that we don’t.
But are things at least somewhat better than they would have been? I think so. To use a domestic analogy, we are willing to have police intervene domestically to stop a murderer, but we’re less willing to spend as much to intervene against more pernicious but endemic harms such as high-fructose corn syrup, asthma in the inner city, or accidents while driving (not to directly compare any of them – just that they are somewhat endemic). And this is (in theory) the kind of intervention the US should be doing, as Power laid out.
The same Washington, of course, is a place of defeatism, inertia, selfishness and cowardice. Warnings pass up the chain and disappear. Intelligence is gathered and then ignored or denied. The will of the executive remains steadfastly opposed to intervention; its guiding assumption is that the cost of stopping genocide is great, while the political cost of ignoring it is next to nil. President Bush the elder comes off as a stone-hearted prisoner to business interests, President Clinton as an amoral narcissist. Perhaps nobody looks worse than former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, on whose watch both Bosnia and Rwanda self-destructed. ”When innocent life is being taken on such a scale and the United States has the power to stop the killing at reasonable risk,” Power writes, ”it has a duty to act.” She objects not only to the fact that the United States declines to intervene militarily in genocidal conflicts, but also that frequently it declines to do anything — even to rebuke perpetrators publicly.
This does not mean the United States should fix everything wrong with a country, or that being at the nexus of an access of evil justifies lies about the war. It means that protecting Benghazi through international institutions is a legitimate US interest.
In short, I wish that more critics would be aware Power was a critic of the Iraq invasion and is not some cruise missile liberal. I know a lot of those type of liberals are really annoying. And they’re predictably bandwagon-ing here. That doesn’t mean everyone involved thinks that way.
The U.N. Human Rights Council agreed on Thursday to a U.S.-backed proposal to establish a U.N. human rights investigator for Iran, the first in a decade.
The 47-member Geneva forum approved the resolution by 22 votes in favour, 7 against and 14 abstentions, its president, Thai Ambassador Sihasak Phuangketkeow, announced.
The resolution, the text of which is here, essentially will just allow a credible report on human rights abuses in Iran. It will not be enforced actively by the UN – effectively it is a ‘name and shame’ operation.
I. Internal Effects
In her recent book, Mobilizing for Human Rights, Beth Simmons framed the chances of political mobilization as a function of how much citizens value a right versus the chance they have of achieving their goal. In fact, for Simmons, human rights treaties are primarily about the relations between a state and its society, not between states (as in traditional reciprocal treaties – we won’t charge your companies tariffs if you won’t charge ours, etc. ).
Simmons argues that even if regimes choose not to enforce human rights treaties, the consequences of signing them locally can be profound as citizens are exposed to different concepts of rights; this is even more true in an even more connected world, given the omnipresence of social media. And while Simmons was referring to treaties, a special investigator (or Rapporteur) may have that same sort of effect – which is why the Iranian regime feared and fought this resolution.
What does this mean for Iran? Potentially a direct shot in the arm of the reform movement. But it’s worth noting these things only go so far as people take them. The United States tortured under George W. Bush and hasn’t prosecuted anyone for it because there’s no political will to do so. Sometimes exposure to rights treaties takes time to manifest (if it ever does at all). It’s entirely possible greater exposure of abuses in Iran won’t enlarge the size or resolve of the movement because the population of Iran already values these rights as much as they could possibly ever. But I doubt that – these rights are too basic and too many people are being repressed.
Indeed, (in an extraordinary statement) the Iranian delegation to the HRC itself did not all take itself seriously:
“The human rights team at the HRC session is an entirely political team and is not very familiar with human rights topics,” said a member of the Iranian delegation on condition of anonymity. “All efforts are focused on attacking the U.S. If they had asked the experts accompanying the delegation, they could have drafted better statements. But they don’t trust anyone other than themselves.”
We should be loathe of making grandiose predictions because of one lone Rapporteur, but today is certainly a better day than yesterday for the reform movement in Iran.
II. External Effects
There are uses for that though. One is that it cements Iran’s status as a semi-pariah state. (This is an ad-hoc category, so don’t look too much into that term. I would consider North Korea a full fledged pariah state in the analogy.) One such good sign is who voted for this resolution: Brazil did, after years of supporting extensively oppressive regimes, including being one of the first countries to recognize the fraudulent elections of Ahmadinejad. It’s unclear if this is in any way a result of Obama’s recent visit, but it is surely a welcome change in approach.
This also may be an instance where the Saudi-Iranian escalation in relations happened at an opportune moment – one group Iran looked to for support was the Organization of Islamic Countries, but with basically no allies left in the Islamic world (hard to see Arab countries, Turkey, or Indonesia riding to Iran’s defense right now) and countries being scared of seen supporting that repression, it’s not surprising the cavalry never came.
According to attending diplomats, the Iranian delegation’s lobby efforts have not been limited to Geneva. A diplomat who asked for anonymity said that Iranian authorities have dispatched several delegations to other countries prior to the session in order to ascertain their vote. One of the reasons Iran is seeing less cooperation this year despite its lobbying efforts is the Middle East developments from Libya to Bahrain. Some countries are afraid that as the human rights situation deteriorates and change appears inevitable in those countries, association with Iran may give any state siding with it a bad image.
As it turns out, Iran ignoring the supposedly toothless UN Human Rights High Commissioner may have antagonized countries.This underscores why the procedures can be helpful in the long run, even if incredibly frustrating on an ongoing basis:
Another point that has further caused Iran’s isolation is Iran’s lack of cooperation with UN human rights mechanisms. Out of more than 80 communications to Iran by the different UN special procedures, only 8 have been answered. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has also spoken up about Iran’s lack of attention to the different requests raised by different human rights resolutions. Since 2005, Iran has prevented the presence of UN special rapporteurs in Iran and the 14 March report of the UN Secretary General indicates that dozens of people have been executed secretly by the Iranian government. According to a diplomat from an African nation, the Iranian government has portrayed such an image of itself that supporting Iran appears as a liability for other countries.
Lastly, it’s yet to be seen what this will do, but this is an example of what happens when you have an administration that takes international diplomacy seriously instead of just whining that the council isn’t doing this on its own. Diplomacy takes work.
“The new human rights body started on a very weak footing without the U.S. leadership,” Dokhi Fassihian, the Director of Washington-based Democracy Coalition Project that oversees the implementation of multilateral human rights strategies through the United Nations, told IPS. But Obama administration’s initiative against Iran indicated that things would change, he added.
While initial Western airstrikes hit Libyan air defenses and an armored column in the east, Gaddafi’s tanks kept up their shelling of Misrata in the west, killing dozens there this week.
Residents said a “massacre” was taking place with tank and artillery fire destroying buildings and snipers picking off people indiscriminately. Doctors were operating in hospital corridors and having to turn some of the wounded away.
The U.S. military said it had successfully established a no-fly zone over Libya’s coastal areas and had moved on to attack Gaddafi’s tanks. Western planes launched a series of air strikes near Misrata and stopped the tank and artillery fire.
But as darkness cloaked the city, Libya’s third largest, Gaddafi’s tanks began to roll once again.
“Government tanks are closing in on Misrata hospital and shelling the area,” said the doctor who was briefly reached by phone before the line was cut off.
A rebel spokesman said 16 people had been killed in Misrata and another six in attacks on Zintan, a rebel-held town in west Libya. It was impossible to independently verify the reports.
During the day, while the tanks and artillery fell silent, the Western air strikes did not stop the snipers in Misrata.
“The snipers are … shooting at the hospital and its two entrances are under heavy attack. No one can get in or out,” Saadoun, a Misrata resident, told Reuters by telephone.
This is all a prima facia violation of essentially every single part of common article 3 of the Geneva Conventions (the part that applies to any conflict anywhere essentially – the Supreme Court held so in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld). It’s also a good example of what Gaddafi planned to do to Benghazi had the west not intervened. I don’t think the Administration calling what Gaddafi intended for Benghazi “Srebrenica on steroids” can be an exaggeration at this point.
This is not to make any arguments about intervention except the one I actually make: the gravity of this situation is extremely serious. The intervention may or may not be done the right way (or even for all the right reasons) but the situation was sufficiently serious (in this an d other ways I’ve previously documented in this space) that this sort of intervention should at least be on the table.
Greg Sargant quotes Obama en route to drawing a silly conclusion:
Rather, the more important part of Obama’s 2007 quote is this one:
“In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.”
Putting aside the legal questions here, Obama is acting in violation of the lessons he once took from history. Along these lines, Dem Rep. John Larson of Connecticut, who added his voice to the criticism of Obama’s decision, made an important point today. Larson noted that even if Obama technically is in compliance with the War Powers Resolution, he is violating its spirit: “To insure that the collective judgment of both the Congress and the President will apply to the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities.”
Obama very well may have had his reasons for not consulting Congress as extensively as he might have — time was of the essence; the president expects this to be wrapped up quickly; he doesn’t envision this as a full-scale war; etc. But it’s very obvious that Obama’s approach is at odds with his own instincts and his own reading of history, at least as it stood when he was the reader and other presidents were the lead actors.
I would certainly say that the current debate (outside of this post) proves that it’s better to have the informed consent of Congress too! Obama is getting pilloried for his actions, and he’s not receiving the bump Presidents normally do from using military action.
But saying that it makes Obama “in violation of the lessons he once took from history” is over the top and incorrect. It implies a Manichean view of history – either you follow the best possible procedure or you are in violation. That’s an incorrect method of appraising Presidential action. Using an extreme example, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War without prior Congressional authorization in a way that was almost certainly unconstitutional. But facts on the ground demanded it, Congress later ratified it, and in the end historians have almost universally hailed the move. Now, this is far less serious a situation than that. But there’s a lot of precedence to Presidents being forced to take actions that might be objectively bad, but are necessary given the circumstances. There’s even precedence for it going too far (the Steel Seizure case). In short, Obama didn’t violate a lesson of history. He took an action that he felt was the best course of action but was in an ideal world sub-optimal.
He simply felt the costs of getting authorization subsequently (while real) were more palatable to him than the costs of waiting – which Sargant makes an informed guess at.
This is just a continuation of people who want to make some sort of philosophical or legal point against the intervention in Libya because they don’t know enough of the facts on the ground to criticize it on the merits. And that is a result of a stunning lack of transparency coming from the White House. The easiest way to stop these sorts of silly arguments would be for reputed major proponents such as Amb. Rice, Sec. Clinton, and Samantha Power to do rounds on talk shows instead of the the military. I’ve seen them all on talk shows previously, they communicate well. Get them out there!
On a side note, Larson’s comment of the spirit of the War Powers Resolution is hogwash: It was passed over a veto in the wake of a President lying the Congress into war and every President since has felt it partially unconstitutional. And as a matter of practice since it was passed, Congress has not always had prior consent to actions. I don’t think what’s even legal in the law itself is clear, much less that there’s uncontested “spirit” which just so happens to contradict the plain text that gives a President 60 days.)
This is why it’s so nuts for intervention enthusiasts to dismiss out of hand the obvious concerns that have been raised about US-subsidized regimes in Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia attacking un-armed protestors even as we intervene militarily in Libya to halt repression. There’s an obvious question as to what, in reality, American policy in the Arab world is. Is this part of a policy of boosting democratic change in the region, or is it part of a policy of bolstering the position of the Persian Gulf dictators who are important clients of American arms manufacturers?
This is not a new or unforeseen problem either. The Second Additional Procotol to the Geneva Conventions foresaw this; it applies to non-international armed conflicts, but specifically does “not apply to situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature.” From the very drafting of the Geneva Conventions it was foreseen that countries would suppress riots, even democratically justified ones.
In fact, the Protocol only applies when “armed forces [of the country] and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups which, under responsible command, exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement this Protocol.”
Firing on protesters is morally repugnant. In their actions, the governments of Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and more almost certainly committed violations of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.
And yet, facing an entire region under the control (as Yglesias notes) of an armed dissident group is a legally different situation (provided the Benghazi rebels implemented the Protocol; I have no idea if this was the case). Without going too much into the geopolitical aspects (of which I am not an expert) there are justifications for treating the events in Libya more seriously, especially as Gaddafi went on the offensive. In any event, now that foreign countries are involved, it is now subject to Protocol I, not Protocol II
Quick point on geopolitics: as Juan Cole and others say, it’s clear that Gaddafi is more a threat regionally if unchecked, even if Benghazi itself may not be. By contrast, the biggest cash crop in Yemen is probably US aid to fight Al Qaeda. Someone else will get that when Saleh is gone.(And eventually he will be).
Yglesias is understating just how little influence the United States has on the Gulf States as a matter of policy: an addict can’t tell a drug dealer how to live his life, and neither can the United States really change much in Bahrain:
For the United States, the intervention is a slap in the face. On Saturday, March 12, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Bahrain, where he called for real reforms to the country’s political system and criticized “baby steps,” which he said would be insufficient to defuse the crisis. The Saudis were called in within a few hours of Gates’s departure, however, showing their disdain for his efforts to reach a negotiated solution. By acting so soon after Gates’s visit, Saudi Arabia has made the United States look at best irrelevant to events in Bahrain, and from the Shiite opposition’s point of view, even complicit in the Saudi military intervention.
. . .
The crown prince is well aware that the Saudi intervention only makes a negotiated solution to this crisis more challenging, so it is difficult to imagine that he invited the Saudis into Bahrain. The more liberal Khalifas, such as the crown prince, know very well that the only way out of the crisis is to obtain the resignation of the prime minister and some of the more extreme Sunni ministers.
However, the prime minister — with whom Gates did not meet with during his weekend visit — does not appear to have any intention of resigning and is the most likely figure behind the invitation to the Saudis to intervene. Although details are still sketchy, he is likely joining with the Saudi king to pass the message to the United States that he is in charge and no one can tell him what to do. Furthermore, it signals that the Saudis agree with Bahrain’s conservatives that the Shiite must be reined in rather than negotiated with, even at the cost of telling the United States to kiss off.
The Bahrain charge implicating Gates in the crackdown is prevalent on Twitter and elsewhere online. Despite the fact that there’s no evidence (Wikileaks anyone?) that Gates actually meant for this to happen – indeed, it just makes the US look worse to have him implicated. Sec. Clinton did condemn the Bahraini government, but the message was muddled because of the worrying influence of Iran. It seems clear in the Gulf the Saudis and Iran are competing regionally by having a race to the bottom in terms of autocracy. How can the US break that cycle? Condemning crackdowns isn’t going to do it, that’s for sure. No matter how strong the language is. By contrast, events in Africa are more malleable. Should the United States let Benghazi burn because there’s no clear path to reform in Bahrain? That seems excessive.
And seriously, does anyone anywhere think the United States can dictate anything to Saudi Arabia on how to treat any of it’s people? Seriously? If we haven’t done so by now I don’t think it’s happening.
Back to Yemen, does anyone think more active involvement on the ground from the United States would help? I agree wholly with Gregory Johnsen that the U.S. should be more noticeably condemning violence in Yemen, but that’s relatively minor compared to talk of intervention and what have you. The range of opinions on Yemen goes from “wait and see” to “call for him to leave, then wait and see”.
The US, the UK, and the EU are not the bad guys here, but their combined policy and public posturing could have been much wiser and much more proactive. As it was, the US has consistently been behind the curve in Yemen, making reactive statements that lead many to believe it will never part with Salih because of his support on AQAP. But make no mistake the responsibility for yesterday’s deaths falls on the shoulders of the Yemeni government.
Following yesterday’s attack President Obama strongly condemned the violence, but stopped short of calling for President Salih to step down. I hope that privately the US is pressuring him to leave, but most sources suggest that this is not the case. The US is too concerned about what will happen with AQAP if Salih leaves.
(I think this is a mistake and the longer Salih stays and the more the US is seen to be supporting him, the worse the AQAP problem will eventually be. My opinion, however, has been dismissed.)
Obama did make a mistake here. But even if he didn’t, there would still be a discrepancy in policy compared to Libya. That’s a result of different (though similar) geopolitical situations.
But this is why the categorical imperative is a bad guide to foreign policy, or even policy in general. In the face of a laundry list of bad policies, you can’t fix everything at once, but you ought to try to move in the right direction. It’s easier to do that in Libya because the United States has a giant military, Britain and France are embarrassed (for Libya and Tunisia respectively), Gaddafi is a regional pariah who if left uncheck with billions could very well threaten progress in Egypt and Tunisia, and the UN resolution sets clear limits at least on the type of force that will be employed.
It’d feel lovely to have the same policy every time an Arab revolt happens, but circumstances are so different in every country that it’s virtually impossible to do that.
Moreover, I’d argue that the United States should do more small-scale humanitarian interventions and less giant train wreck operations that are one in a million for turning out right. Bosnia and Kosovo weren’t perfect operations, but they were somewhat successful and actually led to tribunals. The NYT this weekend editorialized for more peacekeepers in the Ivory Coast. That’d be a great start. There’s a lot of work to do in the Sudan that requires constant U.S. engagement. Do that too.
In conclusion, I’d argue that instead of bemoaning the lack of consistency like Immanuel Kant when someone interrupted his daily routine, we should argue for what the United States ought do. On that, there’s plenty to be done. I don’t know that I’m right on anything (seriously, this could all backfire spectacularly.) But I’m not convinced by people basically concern trolling foreign policy because they have a deadline. That’s not a luxury or burden the State Department has.
Oh, and read Tom Ricks because he’s far smarter than I am.