Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Criminal mentality in international affairs

Criminals rule by fear and intimidation.  In civilized societies, which function by the rule of law, individuals and organized groups don't get to make decisions unilaterally, regardless of their motives.  They have to abide by the protocols that have been set up and agreed upon when something happens that they don't agree with.  That is their only recourse.  People who can -usually called bullies, thugs, or mobsters - rely on brute physical force.

The U.S. is a lot like the neighborhood tough who rules through force and threat of force against smaller and weaker countries.  The world has a set of rules, treaties and covenants - together comprising international law - which was set up after World War II as the best way to preserve peace and prevent a repeat of what had just happened twice in the last 30 years.  The new system purposefully chose as its most important feature the concept of sovereignty, in which each nation had complete and total control over affairs within its borders.  This was primarily a demand of the many poor, impoverished nations who had suffered from colonialism for most of their history.  This way, under the new order, they would not have to worry about physical domination from outside forces again.

The main tenets of the UN Charter in Chapter I Article 2 state that "All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state."  In Chapter VII there are provisions for the Security Council to decide to use force upon a Member after exhuasting all other alternatives, and to allow that Member to participate in the deliberations on the use of force.  Obviously this is not an issue that was meant to be taken lightly, nor should it.  Use of force against another sovereign nation should be an absolute last resort in any circumstances.  Aggressive war, after all, was described in the Nuremberg Trial by the Tribunal as "not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."

Being the world's dominant military and economic power, the United States has never constrained itself to internationally accepted principals of war and peace, human rights or anything else.  The US has repeatedly launched aggressive wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, as well as forming and training armies and instigating numerous proxy terrorist wars all over Latin America (most brutally and criminally in Nicaragua).  The US always had its own justifications (rationalizations) for committing the Supreme Crime.  But like Japan and most nations before it, government reassurances amount to little less than thinly veiled propaganda to mask the truly horrific atrocities inherent in war.

It is in this context that we should view President Obama's imposition of a "red line" which would compel the U.S. to military action.  To be fair, Obama made this statement in response to a reporter's question; it was not part of his planned speech.  But regardless of this, the bottom line is that the world heard it and Obama and his national security team seem to have found themselves bound by it.  History should teach us that action taken with the sole purpose of "backing up your word" is a terrible reason to do something.  In fact, it almost led to nuclear annihilation once.  It is reminiscent of crime boss Mendy Menendez's reprimand of detective Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler's "The Long Goodbye": "You got told and you got told nice.  When I take the trouble to call around personally and tell a character to lay off-he lays off.  Or else he lays down and don't get up."  The issue is no longer about the action which drew the reprimand.  In the eyes of the criminal, what matters is that the action warrants a response or the whole system excercising power falls apart.

When you have the physical power to back up your threats, it is easy to do so.  But this urge, although it is almost instinctual and natural, should be suppressed at all costs in favor of the established recourse for threats, perceived or real.  Only this way can forcible action, for the purpose of carrying out vengeance or vigilante justice, be prevented.  In the same way that we demand the rule of law in domestic affairs, we absolutely need to demand the rule of law in international affairs. Many people agree that George Zimmerman was responsible for killing Trayvon Martin, but after he was found innocent by a jury no one was in favor of shooting him on the court room steps or dragging him from his home and lynching him.  Those type of actions belong to disgraceful days in our nation's past.

But that is not what happened in the debate over Syria's use of chemical weapons.  It is well documented that during the course of Syria's now two-and-a-half-year-old Civil War, deadly chemical weapons were used in late August 2013 attack on civilians, according to U.N. inspectors.  The death toll varies from as high as 1,400 (U.S. estimate) to other estimates of perhaps half that number.  These are undeniably horrific crimes, as anyone who has seen the pictures can agree.  They are also most definitely war crimes by the perpetrators.  

The natural instinct is to punish those responsible and ensure this doesn't happen again.  The easiest way to do this would be to intervene militarily, however this is not a valid option.  A military solution in which more damage is caused to the country and more people are killed, would not change what happened and would not make things better.  More war leads to more desperate conditions and more likely an increase in violence.

There is also the issue of assigning blame.  While the U.N. inspectors don't attribute responsibility as part of their mission, their is strong evidence that the attacks came from the government-backed military, though not from Assad himself.  The strongest course of action (and the only permitted by international law) is to use peaceful means to put an end to the violence represented by the chemical attacks.  

But the sad fact is this is just one instance of multiple horrific crimes, carried out by both sides throughout the long and brutal war.  Both sides are dying.  While the majority of casualties are rebel fighters, Assad backers are estimated to make up 43 percent of the dead.  And U.N. investigators have found that both sides in the civil war are guilty of war crimes.  

The conflict is now so prolonged and so severe that civilians not participating in the fighting or taking sides cannot be expected to live normal lives.  The humanitarian cost to civilians is staggering.  More than 6 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes, with the number climbing everyday.  Hundreds of thousands are rushing to flee the violence, with border countries overwhelmed by refugees streaming across the borders.  

More violence will not solve this.  It is clear that the fighting could go on forever if a political solution is not reached.  American bombs will not change this.  They did not help end the fighting in the former Yugoslavia.  They did not prevent Saddam Hussein's massacres of the Kurds after the first Gulf War.

A humanitarian intervention is one that brings a political solution to the crisis.  A solution that stops the violence.  The Syrian people alone are capable of determining their fate, and determining their method of self-determination.  The U.S. does not get to choose the regime or the system of government that ends up ruling in Syria, as no one else gets to chose a regime for the U.S. 

It is tempting to think that the brute force of the U.S. military can swiftly and easily cure the problems Syria faces.  It is easy to claim, as some have, that things can't get any worse. But they can. Any outcome that allows a country's fate to be determined by the U.S. or any other outside force, rather than by the citizens who make up that country, is a worse outcome. 

It is time to put an end to the myth that U.S. military force, at the discretion of the U.S. and its accomplices, foregoing the sanctity of state sovereignty and international consensus, should - or even could - be the best way to determine anyone else's fate.