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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.

On Yemen

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On Friday, this happened in Yemen:

Immediately after the noon Friday Prayer, snipers from nearby buildings opened fire on the demonstrators. According to volunteers who staff a makeshift clinic inside a nearby mosque, the more than 200 people wounded had been hurt by gunfire and rocks. The deaths from Friday’s attack more than doubled the number of demonstrators killed nationwide in the last month.

Gregory Johnsen on the western role in Yemen after somewhere near 50 (at least check) have been killed:

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.)

Others in Yemen have made much more sense.  Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a person who is on the “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” list, called for Salih to transfer his power to Vice President Hadi. (Ar.)

Johnsen on where this seems to be heading:

Oil production is also down as foreign companies are evacuating their staffs and tribes are preventing repairs on pipelines, foreign currency is at dangerously low levels and what seems to be happening is that Salih and his immediate family are showing their teeth, and demonstrating that they are not going to go without a fight.

The lesson from watching Tunisia and Egypt fall and then Bahrain and Libya remain, is that the tougher you are the longer you stay.  And Salih wants to stay.

Most Yemeni officials I know are bracing themselves for a massacre.

Final Note:  An officer from the 1st Armored Division, Muhammad al-Shamiri, was killed yesterday in the square in Sanaa, reportedly by a sniper.  His death comes after the 1st Armored Division, which is headed by Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar refused to attack the protesters. (Ar.)  I’m not sure what to make of all this maneuvering and much of it is still rumors and unattributed quotes – but it seems as though there is consensus building on removing Salih his sons and his nephews and leaving most others in place.

I have no relevant particular insight into Yemen, nor the United States that Johnsen does not have. But I would add that the electoral incentives may help explain the decision making here: there is much more risk of being hurt by being perceived as soft on terror if the successor is not as useful against Al Qaeda as Salih than there is harm from the ties America currently has to Yemen. I don’t know how to fix that – I don’t think Obama is very good at shucking public opinion concerns, but on the other hand I don’t see anyone down the line being more willing.

On the lighter side, I’m sure Glenn Beck will take notice that socialists and Islamists in Yemen are both on the opposition. Defending the massacre would be a new low, even for him.

 

Written by John Whitehouse

March 19, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Civilian Courts and Terrorists: They (Still) Work

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Many Republicans, up to and including Dick Cheney and George W. Bush AG Michael Mukasey have argued against civilian trials for terrorists. Cheney’s logic is particularly convoluted, saying that we convicted terrorists before 9/11 and that didn’t stop terrorism. As if convicting one murderer is supposed to stop all murder. Mukasey’s logic was more grounded in things that actually are worth thinking about happen, but equally as specious: he worries of jurors or judges becoming targets, and of terrorists converting people in prison. Others have responded to these concerns, and today, another data point, this one in England:

A disciple of an extremist Islamist cleric, who got a job at British Airwaysto plot terrorist attacks, has been jailed for 30 years.

Rajib Karim, 31, a follower of the Yemen-based Anwar al-Awlaki, used his position as an IT expert with the airline to try to help stage attacks on the west. Karim was convicted earlier this month at Woolwich crown court of terrorist offences including plotting to blow up an aircraft.

Awlaki is believed by western intelligence agencies of being behind several terrorist plots against the US and Britain and is leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Mr Justice Calvert-Smith told Karim that he “worked incessantly to further terrorist purposes” while leading a quiet and unobtrusive lifestyle.

The judge said: “The offences were of the utmost gravity. You are and were a committed jihadist who understood his duty to his religion involves fighting and dying and then being rewarded in the afterlife.”

He added: “None of those who worked with you at British Airways had even the slightest notion of what was going on.

It’s worth remembering that the system works – terrorists are guilty of crimes and are convicted. We can protect judges and juries. Countries around the world do this on a regular basis.

Even today, White House Counter-terrorism czar John Brennan defended civilian Article III courts, saying that when people are arrested in the country, civilian courts try them, adding the military has no jurisdiction within the country. This is the absolute right approach.

Written by John Whitehouse

March 18, 2011 at 3:58 pm