Monday, September 30, 2013

We Didn't Start the Fire, No We Didn't Light it But We Tried to Fight It

Justifying US Intervention in Syria at the UN

Michael Walzer's 1977 book "Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations" highlights five central issues discussing the justification of war/foreign intervention. President Obama's speech at the UN General Assembly this past week addressed all five central issues that Walzer contends must be examined when it comes to foreign intervention.

1)  What is the value of sovereignty and territorial integrity to the men and women who live within a particular state's territory? 

Walzer suggests that the greater the value on sovereignty, the higher the moral barrier to intervention is for people who live within each state. And the lower the value on sovereignty the lower the moral barrier to intervention. In his speech, President Obama highlights that allies of the Syrian Assad regime cited "principles of sovereignty to shield his regime."  In essence the President recognizes that the allies of Syria: Iran, Russia, China, place great value  in preserving sovereignty/territorial integrity and this is what serves as their barrier to intervening in Syria. On the other hand, the President redefines how states should not let sovereignty "be a shield for tyrants to commit wanton murder, or an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye to slaughter."  The President stressed the message that states should all wish to place a high value on sovereignty as it is "the center of our international order". President Obama upholds sovereignty while stressing that it is not unconditional when it comes to "slaughter". Which leads to the second central issue Walzer discusses:

2) How much "systematic killing" justifies war?

In his speech, President Obama begs the following question: "should we really accept the notion that the world is powerless in the face of a Rwanda or Srebrenica? If that’s the world that people want to live in, then they should say so, and reckon with the cold logic of mass graves." One could argue that this question is asked rhetorically with an underlying tone of anger and disappointment. The UN Charter article 1 stresses that the Organization is to be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of universal peace. The President strikes at the purpose for the General Assembly meeting to harmonize for peace and not to justify "mass graves", at least according to the UN Charter. For President Obama "mass graves" justify intervention when it comes to "systematic killing". President Obama stresses that all "places where horrendous violence can put innocent men, women and children at risk, with no hope of protection from national institutions" intervention is justified and he foreshadows increasing interventions with fragile or failing states. And his speech leads into the third issue that 

3) If a war is justified, who should fight it?

According to President Obama: "We (USA) cannot and should not bear that burden alone." The President stressed that when it comes to interventions, the US feels that more countries around the world need to step up and participate in playing a role to prevent failing and fragile states such as Syria from committing atrocities against it's own people. The President cited coalition building and initiatives to support countries that combat terrorism. He cited how "in Mali, we supported both the French intervention that successfully pushed back al Qaeda, and the African forces who are keeping the peace." But once these coalitions are formed and other states step up to the plate in the international arena with fighting extremist, terrorist networks and tyrants:

4) How should intervention be conducted? 

The President explores several options that go beyond unilateral military intervention stressing that the objectives "to achieve peace and prosperity [...] can rarely be achieved through unilateral (military) action". In this address the President stresses Diplomatic endeavors and calls world leaders to intervene with humanitarian and economic development aide. Urging "all nations here to step up to meet humanitarian needs in Syria and surrounding countries. America has committed over a billion dollars to this effort, and today, I can announce that we will be providing an additional $340 million" was one of the ways that the American Head of State felt intervention should be conducted. When it comes to diplomatic interventions, in the particular case of Syria, the President "welcomed the influence of all nations that can help bring about a peaceful resolution of Syria’s civil war."  And when the nations intervene with these diplomatic, multilateral military, and economic actions they ca then bring peace to regions of civil unrest, failing states with humanitarian aide. 

5) What kind of peace should the intervening forces seek?

The President was on a defense, defending US foreign policy and the forms of peace it seeks:
"the United States is chastised for meddling in the region, and accused of having a hand in all manner of conspiracy; at the same time, the United States is blamed for failing to do enough to solve the region’s problems, and for showing indifference toward suffering Muslim populations."   He stressed that the most important thing about a long standing peace is to create one where disengaging does not "create a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill." Walzer agrees as he cites that intervening forces should show how they do not have pursuit for their own imperial ambitions, have readiness to leave, are a part and parcel of the post-development of the state they intervened in. President Obama with his words attempts to dispel the notion of American Imperial ambition: "The notion of American empire may be useful propaganda, but it isn’t borne out by America’s current policy or public opinion." He dispels the notion that US intervention is to pursue strategic interests such as obtaining natural resources: "Ultimately, this is the international community that America seeks – one where nations do not covet the land or resources of other nations".

It seems that Walzer's central issues for justifying intervention still apply in the 21st century. And it seems that President Obama addressed each of these central issues with clear US foreign policy endeavors. Endeavors that stress partnership and low-tolerance for violation of international charters and laws when it comes to violence against people resulting in mass graves. Endeavors for long-term development and resolutions and short-term humanitarian aide. The President intelligently spoke of the assumptions and critiques that states hold against the US for its intervention and defending US intervention. Will his ideas put out the fire in Syria? Only time will tell. Until then, Walzer's central issues will continue to be contemplated by leaders everywhere in justifying their interest and actions in intervening or refraining from engaging in military action.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Five Questions about Rouhani, Answered

Who is Hassan Rouhani?

Rouhani is a Muslim cleric, former diplomat, head of Iranian think tank Center for Strategic Research, and most recently, seventh President of Iran.  His election in June 2013 came as a surprise to many; the Washington Post Editorial Board mentioned him as an afterthought and declared he would “not be allowed to win.”   His clear departure from the rhetoric of former president Ahmadinejad was evidently welcome in a time of economic hardship and runaway inflation.

Is he a radical?  Reformer?  Liberal?

Not really, no.  While Rouhani ran on what was ostensibly a “reformist” platform, he does not appear to have drastic reform objectives, at least not the kind of reform that the American media has drooled over these past few weeks.  Within the Iranian sphere he is a moderate, and his centrism has served him well in a deeply divided political climate.   Rouhani’s foreign policy stance is one of conditional pragmatism; he plans to do what he can to negotiate a lifting of the sanctions without creating a break in the continuity of Iranian grand strategy.

How credible is Rouhani in Iran?

Thus far he has walked Khamenei’s line and appears to have the Supreme Leader’s full backing; that their friendship dates back to the 1979 revolution helps.  Rouhani also ran with the support of former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami-two endorsements symbolic of his coalition from various points on the political spectrum.   His election hope-and-change platform won him 51% of the vote, and a large portion Iranian public continues to project optimism about his ability to bring Iran out of isolation- although many are still skeptical as to the propriety of rekindling US-Iran ties.

Where does he stand on nukes?

 While it looks like Rouhani hopes to get to the table and repair US-Iran relations to some extent, he won’t be willing to shut down the nuclear program.   The President invested 16 years in Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and served two as the country’s top nuclear negotiator; he may be willing to adopt transparency measures, but not to give up the centrifuges.  He is more likely to try and build enough diplomatic trust through good-faith gestures (or ‘heroic flexibility’ as Khamenei has said) to make the nuclear program more palatable.  This trust-building can only happen incrementally.

Where does he stand on Syria?

There is little reason to think that Rouhani’s election represents a major break in Iranian policy towards Syria.  In all likelihood, the Islamic Republic will continue to provide unconditional support to the al Assad regime.  Rouhani has, however, offered to facilitate a dialogue in the Syrian civil conflict, a gesture that was roundly rejected by the Syrian National Coalition.  In late August, the President lamented the use of chemical weapons in Syria on Twitter, but later expressed a firm belief that intervention in Syria would constitute a violation of international law.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Mall of Horrors: Is the Kenyan attack a threat to US National Security?

Millions of shoppers are probably wondering if their weekend plans should be altered after the horrific events at Westgate Mall in Nairobi. Although it is certainly not the first violence that we have seen at a public mall, it is arguably the worst in recent years, and also the most disturbing. Masked gunmen held shoppers hostage for over four days, assassinating civilians and shocking the world. Over 60 people have been confirmed dead at this time, with 60 more unaccounted for. The bodies of some victims were found mutilated, dismembered, with gouged eyes and missing limbs. Most of the targets were wealthier Westerners, while Muslims in the mall were released without harm. Rumors are flying about who these terrorists were, their nationalities, and whether they will strike again.

It has been confirmed that al-Shabab, an al Qaeda affiliated terrorist organization from Somalia, was responsible for the attacks. They have warned Kenya that another attack will occur unless Kenyan troops are removed from Somalia. Kenyan has supplied troops for the African Union's intervention in Somalia since October 2011. Other attacks against Kenyans have occurred in recent months, but never to this scale.

The question for Americans is, does al Shabab pose a threat to United States national security? Should we be worried about possible attacks on our own malls and public spaces (more so than before?)? And if so, what is the extent of the threat?

Based upon the evidence, the shooting at Westgate can certainly be considered a threat to our national security. The targets of the attack were Westerners. Despite al Shabab's rhetoric concerning the rationale behind the attack, it is clear that they, like their affiliates in al Qaeda, deeply hate Western culture and values. Not only should we be concerned about the targeting of Westerners, but also the relative organization of the attack. Although it may be argued that Kenyan law enforcement simply was not prepared for such an attack, the very fact that the terrorists were able to hold hostages for over four days is alarming. This indicates that the attack was well planned and well executed. Whether this level of execution could be implemented further away in Europe or America is questionable, but something to be examined.

Not only is the attack clearly anti-West, but it also represents yet another indicator of the level of instability in the region. Somalia is clearly a failed state. The security vacuum within the country's borders has led to the resurgence of many militant groups, including al Shabab. This is a threat especially to the surrounding African countries, but also to the world. US involvement in Somalia in 1993 went so horribly wrong that it is highly unlikely that we will be intervening again. If the situation continues to spiral out of control, the African Union will be even more over their heads in terms of attempting to contain the threats.

Yet another reason why the Westgate attacks are a threat to our national security is that reports indicate several of the shooters were Westerners themselves. There are investigations of the possible involvement of the "White Widow," British-born Samantha Lewthwaite, as well as a few Canadians and Americans. In the United States, we need to continue to focus on these home grown threats. As we have seen in the Boston Marathon bombings and other recent shootings within the United States, lone wolf attacks are becoming more frequent. While the Westgate shooting was certainly not lone wolf, it brings up many concerns about the security in American malls and public spaces. Perhaps this event, thought tragic, will influence other nations to step up security in these spheres and hopefully prevent future attacks.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Beating a Dead Horse: Are drones good or bad?

Are drones good or bad?


Drones are used to kill people. Civilian casualties can, and often do, result from their use. They chip away at our reputation on the international scene. The physical and emotional distance they allow between a target and the person responsible for eliminating that target, and the resulting lack of relative danger to the person operating the drone, can prove morally and/or ethically problematic. If, however, the question of whether or not drones are ethical is examined purely according to the logic of just war theory, they may be among the most ethical weapons in our arsenal.

Just war theory demands that an ethically conducted war must exact the absolute minimum number of casualties, especially civilian casualties, required to achieve victory over a given opponent. While drones are not yet sufficiently precise to eliminate civilian casualties, they minimize them while eliminating direct threats to the person operating the UAV. This results in both fewer civilian casualties for our opponents and fewer casualties from within our fighting forces. Drones for the win, right? Well, not if you believe that killing someone shouldn't be as easy as pushing a button from the comfort of an easy chair in an air-conditioned room hundreds or thousands of miles away from the action. Since this is not an easily navigable ethical issue, it may come as no surprise that public opinion on the matter is a bit scattered.  

In response to the question "Is it ethical for an advanced military to use drones or robots to attack enemy soldiers?" the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies (IEET) produced the graphic below. According to the responses to this January 2012 poll, a third of IEET readers supported banning military drones, a fourth saw no problem with them, and nearly 40% felt that drones should remain under human control (as opposed to being fully autonomous) or be used by both sides engaging in a military conflict.

Image by Clyde DeSouza

Yet another poll, this one conducted on a global scale by the Pew Research Center, indicates that opinions on the matter vary significantly by gender. According to the chart below, more or less half of the men in the listed countries approve of drone use, and 61% of Americans are in favor. It noting that none of the countries most frequently subject to drone attacks were included in this poll. 
While racking up casualties at so little personal risk is easy to perceive as reprehensible, the fact remains that fewer casualties result from UAV attacks. This, in spite of the various unsavory aspects of drone usage, may be the only relevant point. The fact of the matter is that drones kill fewer people than other military options available to us.

The chart below was put together by a blogger named Daniel Kuehn and posted to his blog site "Facts and Other Stubborn Things." The figures represented in this chart were ostensibly produced by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), a non-profit in London. Kuehn indicates that this chart compares TBIJ's civilian casualty figures from all drone strikes, to the Iraq Body Count project's civilian casualty figures for the Iraq War from 2003-2012. While this data is certainly contestable, it provides one plausible representation of the number of civilian casualties that may be avoided due to the increased precision made possible by drones. 

So, are drones good or bad? They're bad of course. They're used for the purpose of eliminating human lives. Are they better or worse than other tools available to us for that same purpose? They're probably better, for now.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Democratic values or human lives? (or the case for letting Assad win)

There’s been a lot of talk these past weeks about the law and logic behind the international response to alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria.  As interesting as that is, I’m more intrigued by the rationale behind the last 2 ½ years of balking and half-measures, and whether we, as an international community, have really done the right thing. 

The pertinent question here is, what is more important, defending the underdog and our shared values, or saving lives?  Instinct tells us that the sparing of innocent lives should be our first objective, but do we really take the attitude of General van Molke, who said, "The greatest kindness in war is to bring it to a speedy conclusion,”?  If the international community really believed this, and viewed the conflict in the most utilitarian sense, the war could have been ended years ago with a considerably lower human cost.  It would have simply meant backing away, and leaving Syria to self-determine- essentially, letting the opposition lose. 

Photo credit: Freedom House
We should be careful not to give American assistance to the rebels too much credit- the first CIA funded weapons only reached the opposition a week ago, so clearly it isn’t U.S. lethal aid that has prolonged the conflict.   But without non-lethal aid from the United States and weapons from Turkey and the Gulf states, rebellion would have likely been untenable for the opposition, and thousands of lives may have been spared in what would have been a swiftly-quelled rebellion.

Instead it appears that the international community has been unable to stomach appeasement, or to encourage those whom we have deemed allies within the opposition to agree to “terms less favorable than those which [they] can claim in justice.”  Our short-sighted strategy of nudging the opposition just enough to make them competitive while bickering about who among them is worthy of backing has prolonged the war and undoubtedly cost lives.

We also cannot neglect to consider which post-war power structure would be (or would have been) more stable, and ultimately safer for Syrian civilians.  At this point, regardless of who comes out on top we can expect to see retribution against the losers; atrocities on both sides have shown us both a capacity for violence and a growing normlessness.  It’s difficult to argue, however, that the unseating of Assad would pave the way for a stable Syria and fewer lost lives, at least in the short to medium-term.  The established hierarchy within the Ba’athist regime maintained order for 40 years, and is more equipped to do so than any messy coalition of rebel factions, among which fighting has intensified in past months.  The most rudimentary of lessons from Iraq should be that regime change is not a panacea, and that sometimes order and consistency are preferable to freedom of expression.  

While international opinion on the issue remains murky, recent developments have made the American answer abundantly clear.  America considers its principles to be its only true allies.  The U.S. is inclined to put ideas before people, and democracy and freedom before human security.