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The Plight of Samantha Power Interventionalists

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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.

From the NYT review of her 2003 book:

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.

There’s No Easy Answer on Consistency in Foreign Policy

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Jumping off Eugene Robinson, Matt Yglesias sees that Arab dictators are using fighting Gaddafi as a means to deflect attention from their own crackdowns. He continues:

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.

A Limit to Israeli Blame Syndrome

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It’s become common place to refer to everything in the Middle East as having primarily to do with Israel. It’s good to see an emerging class of people who don’t think that way:

People are angry that they are not respected, that there are no jobs, education and health care are poor, that corruption is draining their money, that they do not have real freedom, that the media does not reflect our problems and that there is no system because everything happens by opaque presidential decrees,” said Abdel Ayman Nour, a Syrian dissident who runs the website All4Syriafrom abroad. “Syrians simply want to be respected as citizens and are angry they are treated as sheep.”

The Syrian regime, usually a savvy player, seems confused about how to respond to these signs of unrest. It has veered between offers of reform to denial, arrests, intimidation, and beatings. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published on Jan. 31, Assad claimed that “Syria is stable,” crediting his anti-U.S. and anti-Israel foreign policy for being in line with his people’s beliefs. The president also promised political reforms would take place this year — but simultaneously, media run by or with close ties to the state have accused infiltrators and Israel of being behind protests.

That’s not to say any results of any political change in Syria or elsewhere would favor Israel. To the contrary, they might not! But they’re not primarily about Israel. They’re about the actual interests of the people. That’s a step in the right direction.

 

Written by John Whitehouse

March 18, 2011 at 2:34 pm

Of Fake Twitters and Real Ambassadors

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Charles Brown at Undiplomatic speculates that some recent (within the past day or so) rallies in Iran may be government traps, since Mousavi reportedly did not call for them and the government was ready.

Is this true? I have no idea. But it underscores the fluid situation in the country and the importance of caution in being an amplifier. That said, it’s also important for sources like Sullivan, Pitney, etc. to convey what is going on there.

That said, if these are traps, there’s not much that can be done. As much as we may identify with protestors in America, this is still the Iranians’ fight.

And it is a fight for them. It seems the action now is on crackdowns in the street, and any move the Assembly of Experts may take against Khamanei.

Meanwhile, in America, people are still talking about what Obama said yesterday at the presser. That does not matter much in Iran. It’s biggest impact will be in forming international coalitions around Iran. In that sense, it’s very noteworthy today that the US reinstated ambassadors to both Syria and Venezuela. Regarding Syria:

With little sign of talks with Iran or of progress on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, Syria offers Obama a chance of making some diplomatic progress in the region. In recent years Israel and Syria, who never signed a peace deal after the 1967 war, have been exploring a settlement.

The US would like to have Syria deny access across its borders to foreign fighters seeking entry into Iraq. Closer ties with the US might also counter Damascus’s relationship with Iran; the two have a mutual defence treaty.

“It’s a reflection of Syria being a pivotal country in terms of achieving a comprehensive peace in the region,” one senior official told the New York Times. “There is a lot of work to do in the region for which Syria can play a role. For that it helps to have a fully staffed embassy.”

It certainly seems that the result of the uprising in Iran is that negotiations with Iran will go nowhere – at least anytime soon.

Matt Yglesias explains:

The hope behind an engagement strategy was that the Supreme Leader might be inclined to side with the more pragmatic actors inside the system—guys like former president Rafsanjani and former prime minister Mousavi. With those people, and most of the Iranian elites of their ilk, now in open opposition to the regime, any crackdown would almost by definition entail the sidelining of the people who might be interested in a deal. Iran would essentially be in the hands of the most hardline figures, people who just don’t seem interested in improving relations with other countries. Under the circumstances, the whole subject of American engagement may well wind up being moot.

Reihan Salaam wants Obama to embrace his “inner Neocon”:

Obama, like Reagan, is a master at linking American interests to the greater international good. Whether he likes it or not, his engagement strategy with Iran has been revealed as a hollow hope, one that rested on an overoptimistic interpretation of Iranian intentions. As former Bush foreign policy adviser Peter Feaver has explained, Iran is far more likely to negotiate from a position of weakness than of strength. Rather than reassure the Iranians with a wink and a nod that we’re ready to do business, President Obama should be building an international coalition to isolate a recalcitrant Iran as thoroughly as the the West once isolated apartheid-era South Africa. Bush, to the chagrin of the neocons, could never pull this off. But Obama can.

If building a coalition against a state threatening to build a nuke that almost no one wants to have a nuke is being a Neocon, we’re all Neocons now. The push against Neocons was against the push for diplomacy of any kind and using tools of war quicker. For instance, Hans Blix and the inspectors in Iraq were from, technically, an international coalition – the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission. And that coalition was putting pressure on Iraq, but Bush, Cheney and others thought that only regime change would be sufficient for the ends they desired.

Diplomacy is not limited to direct negotiations, with everything else being acts of a Neocon. Regarding Iran: If direct negotiations won’t work, getting states like Venezuela and Syria into closer positions with America to put pressure on Iran is less of being a Neocon – and more of Nixon going to China to put pressure on the USSR. If Kissinger – the ultimate realist – is now a Neocon … we all are.

Written by John Whitehouse

June 24, 2009 at 5:39 pm