Category Archives: Civil War Violence, Politicide, and Genocide

This important category should be self-explanatory; it isn’t.

Who Is Responsible for Retaliatory Violence?

As protests roiled Benghazi, an eastern Libyan city that had served as the power base of the uprising that deposed Libyan dictator Colonel Moammar al-Gaddafi last year, gunmen launched an acute assault on the United States consulate there Tuesday night.  Successfully exploiting the protests as cover, they attacked the consulate with guns, hand-thrown bombs and rockets.  The United States Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, was killed, along with 2 American security contractors who were formerly Navy SEALs and 1 other member of the Foreign Service.  The BBC reported that Ambassador Stevens apparently was only on the grounds of the consulate at the time because he was assisting with the evacuation.  The Libyan doctor who tried to revive the Ambassador after the attack said he died of smoke inhalation.

The 4 Americans who were killed in the line of duty were brought back stateside yesterday, and buried in a ceremony led by President Obama.

The principle reason I’m writing this is to wade into a controversy that developed almost immediately.  It is a political controversy, but because it involves a serious question of the priority with which government regards our rights I will try to deal with it in as minimally-political (but not apolitical) a fashion as possible.

The controversy started when Governor Romney predictably criticized President Obama’s response to the attacks.  I want to be very clear about this: I will spend most of this entry on the title question, not on the “apology” for the American value of freedom of speech which Romney accused the President of giving (and which anyone paying attention to the actual course of events knows he did not give).  Since I’ve cleared that up, Governor Romney’s charge was directed towards a tweet issued by a member of the Foreign Service at the US Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, without knowledge or authorization of the President:

“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

This statement was tweeted by a Foreign Service member before the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi or the US Embassy in Cairo even occurred.  Governor Romney seized on it because they fit with his campaign’s foreign policy narrative of “no apology” for American values and the empowered role of the United States in the World.  He immediately caught a round of flak, including from some prominent Republicans, for seeking to politicize an unfolding crisis; the President responded with unusual harshness, saying Governor Romney has a “shoot first, aim later” approach to foreign policy problems.  But I want to look past Governor Romney’s objection to this comment from its political context, with the attendant charge against the President.  I even want to look past the focus of the statement itself, which “condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”  So: When you remove the question of the appropriateness of Governor Romney’s comments, of President Obama’s moral tone in responding to the crisis, and of the notorious tweet’s call for respect for religion, what’s left of the controversy?  Well, none other than the most-fundamental political question of all is left.

Who is responsible when offensive provocation leads to retaliatory violence?  The perpetrators of violence are responsible.  The perpetrators of violence are always responsible, and they are entirely responsible.

This is not to say that the creation of an artwork (however badly-made and contrived in its meaning) that one can reasonably expect to engender a violent response isn’t a morally-fraught question.  Moral considerations that don’t at least countenance the likely response of others to the act are really moral abdications.  But the difference between the provocateur and he who rises to the bait with a violent response is the difference between a person who may (or in some cases, does not) have bad motives but performs a nonviolent act versus a person who chooses to initiate violent force because of their subjective feelings.  The makers of the bad movie insulting Islam’s chief religious and historical figure may warrant our contempt for issuing an insult that was designed expressly to provoke a response…but that is the most sanction they deserve.  Their act of provocation does not warrant physical retaliation against anyone whatsoever–in any way.

When President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin horrified many with its account of man’s inhumanity to man under American slavery, he is said to have greeted her with immortal irony: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”  Hyperbole, of course, but is it plausible through some stylized narrative to hold Stowe accountable for the bloodiest war in American history?  No, no, a thousand times no.  Neither Stowe’s obvious innocence in the course of the war nor the rightness of the Abolitionist cause have anything to do with it; the simple fact is a match of this sort is happenstance compared with the tinder it lights.

And the tinder itself is much smaller than people think for how brightly it burns.  CNN yesterday was in particularly-shameful form, playing a few minutes of violent Friday protests over and over and over again.  The Cairo area has about 20 million people; a few thousand participated in Friday’s protests.  Worldwide, most of the protests were not riotous.  The narrow subset of people who perpetrated acts of violence deserves more attention; the attack on the US consulate in Libya appears to have been planned by a Libyan radical Islamist group, Ansar al-Sharia, which blocked Libyan security forces from moving in to protect the consulate while it was being overrun.  While this comes up in an online CNN article explaining the riots, the news channel’s coverage yesterday nonetheless was full of headlines like “RAGE IN THE MUSLIM WORLD.”

But again, the small number (and telling geographic confinement) of Muslims actually involved in violent riots is not the issue in assigning blame between provocateur and rioter.  The principle at stake here is as basic as they come.  Our refusal to take punitive action against the makers of a message–however-offensive–isn’t simply about our fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression in this case.  It is even more-basic than that.  When we rebuff the demands of those who answer an insult with violence, we repudiate the uncivilized notion that the one whom is willing to use violence can dictate the actions of others.  Anyone has the right to take offense; expressed indignation can be quite virtuous and even have beneficial effects on individuals or on a culture.  Anyone has the right to put these provocateurs on the couch, so to speak, or to seek to ridicule or disqualify them in the public sphere.  But as the use of violence expands the public sphere contracts; it is never in its essence anything more than it is between 2 individuals–namely, an attempt by one to subordinate the other mechanically to his will.  Violence is simply about unadorned power.  The most-basic principle justifying government is that it may monopolize violence to prevent its subjective use by individuals against one another.  Thomas Hobbes goes so far as to say that there can be no talk of morality without what we call law and order; suffice to say that casting blame on a provocateur in a way that implies that violent men can blame others for their violent actions is nonsense.

While Neoconservatives and the emphatically religion-averse “New Atheists” have preached confrontation, in the face of this latest rash of violent riots much as they did with the 2006 “Cartoon Riots” following the publication of offensive drawings of Muhammad in a European newspaper, they have done so on freedom of speech grounds.  Offensive images, including those that bring the sacred down to the level of the profane, can always be sufficiently defended on the grounds of freedom of speech.  But I’ve noticed that those who congregate to defend these gestures on these grounds have an odd tendency in practice to share the sentiments expressed.  There is a right even more-basic than our freedom of speech that violent rioters calling for punishment for those who made the offending video are violating.  That right is the expectation that our government will protect us from violence.

On account of our First Amendment, Americans have the right to express themselves as they wish–provided that such expression will not create an immanent danger.  On this grounds one does not have a “right” to yell “Fire!” in a theater because it could cause a stampede; however, one does have a right to offensive gestures; others have the opportunity to consider and decide how to respond.  Those who have rioted, burned several American chain restaurant franchises in the Middle East, launched attacks on our and German embassies and even killed 4 staff members at our consulate in Benghazi, Libya were not automatons responding reflexively to a present stimulus; they were human beings who decided to riot, destroy property, threaten people and in some cases kill because of an idea.  This idea, in case this characterization invites confusion, had nothing to do with changing their own lives or other people’s lives for the better; given that, one might have said the same about the Arab Spring of late 2010 to the present, which has brought striking political change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and may do the same in Syria once the Assad Regime finally succumbs to the rebellion it cannot contain.  The only idea the present rioters are fighting for is their capacity to use violence to dictate terms to others.  They say it is to defend the integrity of their religion, or the dignity of their religion’s founder; a Liberal Ironist maintains as always that these ideas and their need for defense are human in origin, as are both the standards by which the rioters judge them “defended” and the crude and hamfisted tactics they would use to achieve that aim.  This is and only ever has been about them, about the violent radicals themselves, and about their efforts to use force to control other people’s behavior.  To say that expressive provocateurs are responsible for the violence their work incites–even if they might have thought that their actions could provoke a reaction–is in its very nature to follow the script written by the violent extremists.  (It hardly seems to make sense to speak of them “writing” something, but there it is.)  The Liberal Ironist sees religion as a series of theoretically-inviolate symbols people use either to congregate and communicate difficult truths (at best) or simply to dominate each other (at worst); these symbols are always anthropomorphic, and never transcend human experience.  1 idea may prove more practically useful than another in one’s experience, but no idea is more “real” than any of the others, and no idea is going to “win the Contest.”  Ideas compete, but they are not involved in zero-sum games.  Animals–humans very-much included–play zero-sum games.  This is a zero-sum game: To blame anyone other than the actual initiator of violent force for actions consciously taken, is to submit to domination by anyone immoral-enough to assert it.  They may portray themselves as victims, but the ironist at his most-illiberal would say that this is an old trick of those who want power they cannot earn.  The impersonal use–or even the credible threat–of deadly violence to counter an insult isn’t like the problem of terrorism, it is the problem of terrorism.

I want to close with an attempt to address Governor Romney’s attack on the President’s leadership through this episode.  Aside from on the most-basic level (regarding government’s role in protecting the peace and our interest in conducting a sure-footed foreign policy), I want to do this without recourse to politics.  Governor Romney responded to an unofficial tweet issued by someone in the US Embassy in Cairo; Andrew Sullivan marvelously noted that this tweet was tweeted before the film riots and the assault on the US consulate in Libya–but that Governor Romney’s response blamed the President for issuing an apology in the face of violent attacks that had not yet occurred, by way of a statement that he hadn’t seen or authorized.  Romney admonished him thusly:

“I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

This crosses the line, as does Romney’s equally shrill later “clarifications”–and not principally because the Governor is blaming the President for something he didn’t do, or because he saw fit to wade into the issue without actually knowing what was happening.  Governor Romney tried to make the President look weak while a security crisis unfolded that involved multiple United States diplomatic missions in the Middle East, as well as possible risks to American citizens and American property abroad.

I do not level this criticism lightly or opportunistically.  In 2007, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Syria to confer with President-for-Life Bashar al-Assad, who had not yet come fully into his own as a brazenly mass-murdering tyrant (merely a quiet, garden-variety tyrant).  Speaker Pelosi sought to show-up President George W. Bush for his strict policy of diplomatic silence towards the Assad Family Regime.  This was wrong–and not because “we shouldn’t have been talking to Syria.”  5 1/2 years ago, I agreed that our government should have been trying to establish better relations with the Assad Regime.  I cannot say for certain whether this would have benefited the pro-democracy movement in Syria in 2011 or would simply have made the United States look worse and the Assad Regime even more-confident; In any case, I was all for better communication with the Assad Regime at the time.  But I was not in favor of legislative leaders holding out the promise of alternate US foreign policies.  That is simply inappropriate behavior for an elected official of the same government.  In a CNN interview last night, former Utah Governor, US Ambassador to China and Republican Presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman said “politics stops at the water’s edge;” that’s a sentiment I like very much–whoever happens to be President.  In-house disagreements are fine, as are serious disagreements about foreign policy.  But you do not undermine the President while he is conducting US foreign policy.  This is not a game.  This kind of opportunistic effort at backseat driving leaves us all worse-off; in any case, a Presidential candidate shouldn’t be making comments that could be taken for more than they are while a foreign security situation is unfolding, or in ways that could be construed as an attempt to force the President to change his policy tack.

I didn’t want to link these 2 judgments together, but tactical concerns and concerns of tact must be allowed to take precedence over statements of principle where foreign policy are concerned.  Lives are at stake; if a government’s foremost responsibility of protecting the lives of its citizens dictates that we not comply with the demands of violent malefactors, it also requires that the President be permitted to formulate a response to an emerging situation when our foreign service personnel or other Americans abroad may be in danger.  The initial provocateur’s political right to get us into this mess may still be a moral wrong, and in any case a doubling-down by a political candidate looking for an angle cannot help.  Those who want a position of power in government have to think responsibly, even if the proper functioning of our political system sometimes defends citizens when they don’t.

The Liberal Ironist hopes that you think without fear, speak your mind–eloquently, I must ask–and ask yourself when considering political action, “Am I helping to make the World a more- or a less-threatening place?”

Looking Back to Hiroshima: A Brief Thought, and an Invitation

On this date 67 years ago, The United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. This (plus the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki that followed 3 days later) precipitated the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan and the close of World War II. Over the course of those 4 days 2 bombs killed over 200,000 Japanese noncombatants; thousands more died later of radiation sickness and other causes owing to dispossession and exposure.

Many will breathlessly say that these attacks were necessary to end the war. It may have been necessary to attain Japan’s unconditional surrender, which was established Anglo-American policy for Axis powers at that late stage of the conflict. It’s true that a staged invasion of the Japanese main island of Honshu would have killed more people–American combatants, Japanese combatants, and Japanese noncombatants in the long run. But whether that unconditional surrender justified indiscriminate mass killing is another matter. We know that President Truman was eager to demonstrate (not just to Japan’s fascist government, but to Stalin) what an atomic bomb could do–and that once he actually saw the destruction caused by the 2 bombs, he swore off using them again regardless of the Japanese response.

A limited Japanese surrender, including Japanese withdrawal from all its colonies and occupied territories, may have been a worthy alternative. I see the reasoning that “Japan should have been punished” for starting the Pacific War and the brutality of its occupation and treatment of prisoners of war, but mass killing is not “punishment,” it is just mass killing. Japan in the context of the Cold War would probably have had to align itself with the United States, or become isolationist. Leaving it in a state of dictatorship might seem deeply-dissatisfying, but Spain and South Korea among other nations emerged from their own dictatorships during the Cold War–without anyone having to take the measures our own government took at the end of World War II.

Lots of prejudiced assumptions about an alleged Japanese “hive-mind” factor-in to explanations of why this had to happen. These are bunk; when we invaded Okinawa more civilians killed themselves than took-up partisan activities; civilians were never given as much of an opportunity to support fascism as the Germans in the Wiemar period were, yet we hear strangely-few references to German popular fanaticism in the context of widespread support for the obviously-monstrous Hitler. This August 6, I ask people consider whether we could not have attained our strategic goals in defeating Japan without destroying 2 cities. I don’t ask this as a pacifist or an advocate of nuclear disarmament–I am neither–but out of a belief that for a government to seek to defend its people’s safety and its strategic interests with the least bloodshed possible is the cause of justice.  Those who insist there was no way to end the war without killing over 200,000 civilian bystanders are not guilty of planning or perpetrating such an act themselves, but they have obviated themselves of the call to think of how our conduct, even in times of war, can be made more-virtuous.  War–even a long war–is not a legitimate excuse to abandon ethics, it is the time when the most is at stake in ethical judgment.  When we ask ourselves, Can we achieve our ends in this war through means that shed less blood? we are asking if we have the means to contribute less waste and suffering to the World.

This is the most-fundamental way to ask: How can we be more-just?

The Assad Regime’s Failing Counterattack in Aleppo

The Assad Family Regime’s brutal counterattack against rebel positions in Aleppo, Syria’s 2nd-largest city, was taken by many spectators to portend a significant setback to rebel progress in the country’s growing civil war.  A grim indicator of the Assad Family Regime’s use of helicopter gunships, tanks and even fighter jets to hammer rebel positions, both the Red Cross and the Red Crescent of Syria agree that over 200,000 residents of the city fled over the past weekend alone.

Though the rebel Free Syrian Army has shown many signs of growing strength in July, from a stunning assassination of high-level military officials in the capital Damascus to concurrent territorial gains in that city, the lack of material means to fight the Regime’s gunships and armor columns (let-alone the fast and crudely-destructive fighter jets the regime is now prepared to deploy in its own cities) has clearly hampered has for days been taken to imply a massive regime counterattack and inevitable rebel retreat.  The former has clearly happened; the latter has been more-measured than anticipated.

Even as they fall back in the face of the Regime counterattack, the Free Syrian Army continues to make progress on other fronts where the government has become vulnerable.  Following an overnight battle, the rebels captured a Regime military base manned by about 200 troops of the Syrian Army on Monday morning.  Somehow, casualties were light on both sides, and the rebels captured 4 tanks in fighting condition.

A dozen Syrian military and police officers, including the Deputy Police Chief of Latakia, defected to Turkey last night.  At the same time Khaled al-Ayoubi, the Syrian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, resigned his post, saying he would no longer “represent a regime that has committed such violent and oppressive acts against its own people.”  It is unclear whether Mr. Ayoubi now intends to represent the rebels in some capacity, but his resignation from the Assad Family Regime was favorably-received by the UK Foreign Office.

Even if rebel claims that they are repulsing the government’s counterattack in Aleppo prove to be exaggerated, the very fact that the rebellion has reached this point is devastating news for the Regime.  With a 2004 census count of just over 2.1 million people, Aleppo is home to about 10% of all Syrians; through most of the conflict the city has at least outwardly supported the Assad Regime.  The use of gunships, tanks, and artillery in the city’s streets–along with what amounts in effect to a military blockade of many neighborhoods that has cut off both food staples and electricity–will alienate many supporters of the regime, as will the Regime’s somewhat-lighter hand in Damascus.  The Liberal Ironist previously reasoned that Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s initial unprovoked heavy-handedness in dealing with protesters followed by abrupt offers of concessions, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s less-sincere offering of the same under similar conditions, presaged the collapse of those regimes under growing rebel confidence.  But in Libya Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi”s contrasting zero-tolerance policy towards any and all dissent simply inflamed existing popular mistrust and anger towards the stationary banditry that passed for a government there, converting protests into armed insurrection.  The same is coming to pass in Syria, where the Free Syrian Army can claim to have received no foreign direct assistance aside from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  At no time has the Assad Family Regime made an offer of concessions, or even really of peace.  The very fact of the massive reprisals the Regime is now taking on a city that had in relative terms sat-out this civil war is a sign that differences between the government and most of its people are now unbridgeable, and that the government is losing its grip on the material means it needs to support itself.  The Liberal Ironist no more has a crystal ball than anyone else, and so cannot predict when the Assad Family Regime will fall, but I am confident that fall will come more-suddenly and dramatically than many observers now expect–as it did in Libya.

Assad Regime Claims Chemical Weapons for Use Against Foreign Aggression Only…But Hasn’t He Labeled the Uprising the Work of Foreigners?

Earlier today Syria’s listing Assad Regime made an unprecedented public acknowledgement of its chemical weapons stockpiles, assuring its already-brutalized public that it would never use them against its own people but warning foreign powers that it was prepared to use them against any foreign aggressor.

That is a nice assurance for the son and nephew of those responsible for 1982’s Hama Massacre to make.  Surely it is an especially comforting guarantee, coming as it does after Syrian President-for-Life Bashar al-Assad missed an opportunity by responding to the peaceful protests of early 2011 with naked violence matched only by the avowedly-monstrous Colonel Moammar Gaddafi of Libya.  In 17 months 18,000 Syrians–including a growing proportion of the Assad Regime’s contracting force of loyal troops–have died in a civil war that only had to happen because Assad refused to allow any peaceful protests.  He seemed to have drawn the lesson from the collapse of the seemingly-safe Ben Ali Regime in Tunisia in just 4 weeks and the seemingly-safe Mubarak Regime in Egypt in about 3 weeks that a zero-tolerance policy toward protest, including peaceful protest, was the only way to cow the Assad Family’s opponents.  Actually, a reasonably-informed outside observer could see that in both of those contexts it was the combination of unabashed corruption of the regime in the face of high unemployment and inflation, coupled with violent repression of initial protests followed by the abrupt prospect of concessions, and finally capped off by the unwillingness of both country’s militaries to crush the protesters, that brought both of those previously-quiet single-party states down so quickly.

Assad’s obtuse grasp of politics is a fitting complement to his brutality.  His “zero tolerance” approach to dissent was intended to demonstrate his resolve, but instead it has simultaneously militarized his opposition and greatly increased the plausibility of their appeal, leading to its rapid expansion.  At first the Assad Family Regime seemed to think it would have a simple time of it, simply besieging the southern town of Daraa where the protests began and fighting the protesters into acquiescence.  But in keeping with a classic blind spot of dictators, the full extent of economic discontent, the speed with which news of the Assad Family Regime’s cruelty spread and even the light in which it was seen all seems to have eluded Assad.  He has started a civil war he cannot finish.  And in the middle of last week, 3 (later, as it turned out, 4) members of Bashar’s inner circle were killed in an astonishing bombing in Damascus.

In response a friend found a level-headed entry on a blog specializing in political violence, calling on onlookers not to uncork the champaigne just yet.  Well, if the point is that the rebels will have trouble consolidating their gains in the face of the Regime counterattack, and that Bashar will now feel he has to double-down to save himself, yes, that all seems logical and borne-out.  But the Liberal Ironist is leaning heavily on the “For Now.”  About 1/2 of Assad’s inner circle was killed in 1 bombing.  This could only happen because the capabilities, resolve, and connections of the rebels to disaffected members of the Regime have grown.  They may have made bids for territory they cannot hold, but early last year the protesters in Syria were peaceful and were not armed; the Assad Regime is clearly on a long-term trajectory towards failure.  Between its isolation, defections, rebel expansion, Turkey’s hostility and growing Russian embarrassment, I really don’t think the Assad Regime has the resources it would need to successfully gamble for resurrection.  Just because it isn’t dead doesn’t mean it isn’t dying.  Barring far more assistance from Russia than just diplomatic cover–which Russia’s current prevarications suggest is unlikely–I don’t think the Regime can survive this.  There’s really no good explanation for how it can considering the rebellion has reached this extent already.

But now, the Assad Family Regime has the Obama Administration to deal with.  “We’re looking at the controlled demolition of the Assad regime,” said a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in response to Administration officials’ weekend announcement that the United States will now accelerate its efforts to provide aid to Syria’s rebel groups–though it will not directly arm them or advise Israeli tactical action at this time.  Since, as the New York Times article linked above indicates, Turkey, Qat

In the face of such a prospect, all the Liberal Ironist can say is that it is reason-enough to intervene on the side of the rebels in the 1st place, and that part of the assistance the United States should offer the rebels is clear: They need whatever training and equiptment we could hope to provide them to minimize the losses that would attend such indiscriminate killing by this dying Leviathan.

Enough Dithering–Syrians Need to be Saved from Their Own Government

On Friday, the New York Times reported, Russian President and sometimes Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin expressed fears of a civil war in Syria, claimed to be neutral between its ally the habitually-murderous Assad Family Regime and Syria’s minimally-armed and disarrayed opposition, and deputized his Foreign Ministry to allege that unnamed foreign powers slipped through a Syrian military cordon in order to massacre 108 civilians in the Houla area.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is nothing if not a political coward, averred that her and government and President Putin’s “have the same interests regarding stability in the whole region, even if there is the one or the other odd difference in the path to get there,” such as whether or not shipping weapons to the Assad Family Regime is deleterious to peace or whether taking any kind of action whatever might be more effective in ending the bloodshed than taking no action at all.  In other news, the Earth continued to revolve around the Sun, maintaining a trend of about 4.54 billion years.

The Liberal Ironist understands that there are reasons why action hasn’t been taken in Syria to halt the bloodshed of what is clearly a nihilistic government; it’s just that none of these reasons for hesitation were very good ones, and they have become poorer, irrelevant or untrue with time.  In the 1st place, Syria’s opposition, unlike Libya’s, didn’t coalesce and see the writing on the wall sufficiently to request foreign institution of a no-fly zone quickly.  This, plus the lack of an obvious threatened rebel stronghold such as Libya’s Benghazi (which is larger than Washington, DC) may have led to an unfortunate ambiguity about the situation.  Syria’s population is more than 3 times Libya’s and in stark contrast to Libya Syria has a serious air force, meaning that the imposition of a no-fly zone over the country would be a war in itself; relatedly, with Syria’s rebels arguably weaker and less liable to receive defections from the government and military, and with that military being more-formidable, the prospects for as easy of a success as we had in Libya with such a cursory military engagement are dimmer.  Furthermore, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev early-on expressed relative sympathy for the rebellion against Libya’s brutal Colonel Moammar Gaddafi, and consented to a mid-March UN Security Council resolution intended to prevent war crimes, which was ultimately loosely-interpreted to justify 1-sided intervention to help the rebel Reds beat the loyalist Greens in that rapidly-emerging civil war.  Being “once-bitten, twice shy” as the expression of the specious goes, then-Prime Minister Putin apparently felt confirmed in his long-standing suspicion that if you give the United States any slack, it will use it to stop your allies from ruthlessly slaughtering hundreds of thousands.  Now, the prospects for a similar resolution getting through the Security Council to intervene in any way to stop the killing hover just above nonexistent.  As in the Security Council resolution that authorized the Korean War, it may require the Russian ambassador to the UN getting locked-out of discussion during a bathroom break for any resolution to pass.

Then there’s former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s mission to Syria to institute a peace plan designed to be accepted by both sides.  The Liberal Ironist gives Annan credit for trying the legal route (which, like eating chicken soup when you have a cold, at least can’t hurt).  Annan’s mission to Syria has also been beneficial in that he has wisely used the very lack of compliance from the Assad Regime with the terms of the agreement as a means to refrain on that government’s atrocities and basic illegitimacy.  In short, the essential failure of his mission–which yours truly considered inevitable–has still had a positive effect in that it helps keep the Assad Family Regime’s crimes in the news.

That said, consider the manner in which the Assad Family Regime ran-out the clock on Annan’s peace plan: Having called for a full, 2-way cease-fire by government and opposition forces on Monday, April 9th, to go into effect on Thursday, April 12th, the Assad Family Regime soon after demanded that the rather ill-equipped rebels disarm 1st, completely.  (The agreement was specifically supposed to provide for the Regime to withdraw its military forces from contested cities, so that international aid groups and observers could enter those cities and provide relief services.)  Then it let the deadline for the cease-fire run out and, having not observed compliance on the part of the understandably-skeptical rebels, simple kept up its campaign of suppression, entirely unabated.  The Assad Regime has made no effort to observe such a cease-fire since that time.  The government had indicated its support for Annan’s proposal early-on, thereafter leveling its special conditions on the rebels only as the deadline approached.  This indicates the Assad Regime only intended to benefit from an unconditional surrender of rebels who had become a real threat, or to stall-out any kind of foreign intervention for as long as possible.

Rami G. Khouri, writing for the Daily Star, a Lebanese newspaper, had an interesting intricate analysis of the moving parts Kofi Annan likely sees in trying to engineer a peace in Syria that has both internal and external institutional supports.  It is eye-opening to hear-out an explanation of how many political interests and benefactors would have to commit to a solution for it to be sustainable.  For example, agreement on certain political principles between the mutually-mistrusting United States and Russia is necessary for them to act as guarantors for a Syrian peace agreement, but other parties such as the People’s Republic of China, the European Union, Turkey and Qatar must probably be involved–but Saudi Arabia and Iran may be too politically-provocative to achieve much there.

The analysis leads me to the confirmation (aided, no doubt, by the fact that time is clearly running out for any agreement between the Regime and the rebels before a shooting war for territory really begins) of my doubts that anythin positive in Syria will happen without foreign intervention there.  As both the misgivings and the plausible-alternative policies begin to recede from view, we are left with a civilian death toll of over 9,000 and rapidly climbing since last-March.  Indeed, almost 2 weeks ago now, mercenary thugs hired by the Assad Family Regime apparently murdered 108 civilians in Houla, a town northwest of the northern city of Homs, most of them women and children, mostly execution-style.  As is characteristic of civil wars, exactly who performed the killings and why remains ambiguous.  But exactly what happens in these episodes is ambiguous for the same reason it can happen in the 1st place: The government either no longer retains the capacity to police the population, or else it lacks the legitimacy to police the population.  As we learned (or at least were reminded) in 2011, political illegitimacy can be as profound of a problem for government as material incapacity.  The Liberal Ironist can hardly think of a better idiomatic statement of the Assad Family Regime’s incapacity to govern Syria than its excreble investigation into the massacre in Houla.  The Syrian government “found” that rebel militia fighters inexplicably slipped past a Syrian military cordon around the area, shelled Houla with heavy weapons they haven’t ever used in a battle with the Syrian Army, and executed scores of women and children along with the men in order to  drum-up a pretext for the United Nations to invade Syria and violate its sovereignty!  In fairness, this is no worse an insult to our intelligence than Assad’s–or Gaddafi’s–grim prognostications of a civil war which they could end within hours simply by relinquishing a despotic grip on their countries.

Maybe no new UN Security Council resolution at all shall be forthcoming.  So be it, I say; the UN is good for a lot of things, just not supporting an urgently-needed humanitarian intervention at the moment.  But if the last lesson Russia’s past-and-present President learned is that giving in on a humanitarian intervention earns you accolades but loses you a minor ally, why not give him an object-lesson that holding-out on a brokered cease-fire between government and opposition earns you contempt and loses you a major ally?  There are ways to do this; a toolkit approach could work.  The Turkish government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proposed a ground invasion into northern Syria to create a safe zone for the rebels; a no-fly zone could be established over this area, at least, with US, European, and some Arab air support as during the Libyan intervention.  We could arm the rebels; what point is there in declining to do this when Assad and Russia’s Foreign Ministry accuse us of doing this already?  Paranoid and isolationist states invite indifference into interventions if they issue charges that they’re already happening at all times.

President Obama was able to wait for the pieces to fall into place–just barely–in Libya.  With Syria the legitimate investigative and peacekeeping functions of the UN have failed because some of the veto-players in that organization are nakedly ill-intentioned.  It’s simple; let’s ignore them.  As Russia demonstrated the last time Vladimir Putin was its President–during the South Ossetian War in Georgia in 2008–a world power can frustrate the objectives of a weak state rather easily, particularly if the latter rules over people who want nothing to do with it.  If due process at the UN episodically serves the interests of the defenders of politicide, then we should learn to do end-runs around it until it removes the incentive to use the organization that way.  Let Turkey invade the north; let us give food, medicine, and more-dangerous things to the rebels.  If it comes to that, I’m pretty confident our current-generation fighters can handle dogfights with the Cold War relics Syria flies.  Our cognitive biases, not our judgment, lead us to focus on the (admittedly considerable) costs associated with such an intervention; if the good fight didn’t require an investment, no one would have to call it that.  We recognize the moral urgency of the situation in Syria; the only question the Liberal Ironist has is if any of the principal heads of state can recognize, as David Cameron, Nicholas Sarkozy, Barack Obama did in Libya last year, that we can create a strategic opportunity there as well.

What’s That? Political Mass Murderers Don’t Really Care About Sovereignty?!

You’ve got to hand it to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad: He’s a lot dumber than he looks.  He was given an undeserved reprieve a week ago when former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, at the behest of the United Nations, brokered a cease-fire agreement between the Assad Family Regime and Syria’s rebel movement, which has been active for a year and seems to be living through a slower-motion version of the way a massacre could have unfolded in Libya last year.  In short order, President Assad topped what was clearly intended to be his great diplomatic salvation with a further, unreasonable demand: Syrian government troops wouldn’t withdraw from the country’s multiple besieged cities until after rebels agreed to lay down their arms.

He must be joking–rather, he must be bluffing.  It’s worth mentioning that Syrian government forces had stepped-up their campaign of violence against the rebels while making this demand.  In fairness (though I’ll not invoke the maxim here) it’s hardly historically-anomic for 1 side in a shooting war to press its attack in the days or even the hours leading up to an armistice; if peace negotiations will occur with territory held or relative capabilities of the military factions counting towards one’s bargaining position, trying to gain a strategic advantage over enemy forces in the last moments before a cease-fire may seem outrageous in terms of surplus loss of life–but it’s certainly a rational strategy.  But this being understood, to claim that the UN-brokered cease-fire agreement is off unless Syria’s rebels put themselves at Assad’s mercy–when this is neither generally-accepted terms for a cease-fire nor in keeping with the UN-brokered cease-fire plan actually struck–is an insult to the intelligence of the mediators of this cease-fire at a minimum.  To Syria’s incredulous rebels, it is a sign they should be fighting harder.

If you can actually believe it, this wasn’t Bashar’s biggest diplomatic provocation this week.  That would have to be Monday’s cross-border incursion into Turkey–in order to kill fleeing refugees.  Yes, you heard that correctly: Syria’s military forces will not respect the sovereign territory of its neighbors if they have a chance to shoot those civilians fleeing the violence of its restive cities in the back.  As REUTERS reported yesterday, the Syrian Army responded to the rebel Free Syrian Army’s escort of a party of refugees into the Kilis Refugee Camp in Kilis Province, Turkey by firing directly into the refugee camp on Turkey’s side of the border.  This led to the Turkish government’s closing of the border later in the day for security purposes, which in the short term probably plays into the Assad regime’s plans to…well, kill a lot of people.

This escalation of hostilities seems to have been met with shock; maybe we have become desensitized to the irony of governments that murder thousands of their own civilians out of convenience making a plea for the inviolability of their own sovereign territory as a matter of principle.  If the concept of a government’s sovereign territory isn’t an extension of the concept of the personal integrity of its citizens or subjects, what is the point of having such a concept?  Rather than being a sacred trust, such sovereignty would be little-better (and in some cases, just as contingent) as gang territory.  If a government is so operationally-unconstrained that it will murder the people it is responsible for wholesale, what cause other than fear of the immediate consequences could possibly restrain it from violating its neighbors’ territory out of the same brute calculation?

Russia and China, both seemingly congenital human rights violators among nations but also  by history and strategic necessity among the 5 Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, have previously used their veto power to prevent any UN Resolutions of substance being issued on the Syria question.  Both Russia and China pressed for mediated talks between Assad and the rebels, but have interpreted such mediation in ways that were at least plausibly aimed at rapproachment between both sides.  Russia hasn’t publicly taken a position on Assad’s last-minute demands towards the rebels, and China so far has done little more than issue a plea yesterday for both the Assad Regime and the rebel uprising to honor the cease-fire which was set to start then.

Since the Assad Regime has continued its attacks on the rebels in northern cities today, and Annan’s cease-fire was intended to go into effect yesterday, the cease-fire appears to be off.

Where do we go from here?  It would be folly to think the governments of Russia and China will suddenly want to make penance for their support for Assad when this has never prevented them from pursuing their interests with murder-prone governments such as Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia or Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s Sudan.  What we’ve seen in recent weeks is just how little the President’s “reset” of relations with Russia and China has profited us.  The current Assad patriarch has revealed himself to be no less-abashed a mass murderer than his father, and Russia and China choose to define the festering civil war in Syria entirely as a zero-sum game between them and us for influence in the Middle East.  That is an interpretation, not an insight.

Turkey’s Erdogan government, through its diplomatic corps, has chosen to darkly imply that it is once again considering military action against Syria to push its armed forces back from its border.  We’ve allowed Syria’s rebels to hang by a thread for months without issuing anything so much as the term “unacceptable” that foreshadowed last year’s intervention in Libya.  Turkey is a longtime ally in good standing; it has accepted tens of thousands of refugees from collective punishment in Syria and for its humanitarianism it now finds itself vulnerable to cross-border incursions like those Sudanese militia made into Chad to hunt-down refugees fleeing the violence in Darfur.  Why let perpetrators of genocides and politicides hide behind the pretenses of sovereignty when they regularly create–and pursue–streams of humanity issuing from their own killing fields?  I say we should shore-up our commitments to our allies (such as Turkey) and to our values (such as the protection of civilians) rather than repeat a deference to nonplussed and unscrupulous world powers.

The Erdogan government has also previously entertained the idea of occupying a small area of northern Syria as a rebel safe zone.  I think that would be a good start.  If Syria regards that as an offensive action now, it should have accepted the cease-fire proposal after it became clear its violence was driving tens of thousands of refugees over its borders.  If Russia and China find a resultant hastening collapse of the Assad Regime objectionable, they should have put this morally-vacant dictatorial protege on a shorter diplomatic leash. A strong intervention now on the side of the rebels would send a message that we can play their Realpolitik game, too.

George W. Bush’s Legacy in Iraq

Happy Hanukkah, Happy Winter Solstice.  Now that that’s out of the way, I’m in a bad mood–on account of a reflection.  If any confusion remains about this, George W. Bush wasn’t just a poor manager of our nation’s resources, good will and foreign relationships, he was uselessly so to boot.  While the Arab Spring uprising has trivialized the purported democratization mission of the Iraq War at so far a comparably minimal cost of blood and treasure, Iraq’s current political leadership has found it in its interest to make a mockery of the enterprise itself.  The political news coming out of Iraq right now is decidedly bad: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of the ruling Shi’a-Arab Islamic Dawa Party waited until the withdrawal of the last US forces from Iraq–withdrawn because we could not work-out an agreement with his government on terms of basing and training of Iraqi troops that wouldn’t leave our soldiers open to Iraqi arrest and prosecution–to charge Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi with running a death squad.  He has fled to Iraqi Kurdistan–the autonomous northern mountain region populated by Iraq’s large ethnic-minority Kurds; their Peshmerga militia is comparable in size to the Iraqi Army itself, so they may not feel compelled to obey the Prime Minister’s demand that al-Hashemi be extradited–er, remanded to Baghdad to stand trial on these charges.

The Iraqi Prime Minister said in 2009 that he didn't want to run for another term as Prime Minister. He won that new term he didn't want in the controversial spring 2010 national elections. Now, in response to the Arab Spring protests, al-Maliki says he won't run for a 3rd term in 2014 in the interest of the movement for Arab democracy. Maybe he means it, and maybe we should bear in mind that President Hosni Mubarak kept Egypt in a "state of emergency" for 30 years, and that Ali Abdullah Saleh promised several times to relinquish power in Yemen this year, and yet he is still contending to regain control after a wounding attempt on his life this summer. Just sayin'. Photo courtesy of REUTERS.

Prime Minister al-Maliki seems to be able to run the modern Iraq; the question is whether the question is whether this is actually a fact that commends him.  David Ignatius made this point precisely in a column 1 week ago in which he rightly identified Maliki’s ethical failures as his tactical merits: Nouri al-Maliki is “a man of the shadows,” the sort of man who rises to the top of a consensual government in Iraq following years of extreme authoritarianism.  He is also a perfect specimen of the sort of public figure it must be able to overcome in the future: Iraq labors for want of good intellectuals, reformers, and public servants; of those tolerated or able to endure Saddam’s regime, many were demoralized and fled the new Iraq while others were killed in its apparent chaos of contending factions.  The survivors, Ignatius reasons, were the schemers.  1 of  them was good-enough (and lucky-enough) to become Prime Minister.  Now he is casting stones, seeking to do away with political opponents whom the country’s constitutional structure and democratic procedures have granted a share of power.

The Iraqi Prime Minister may face sufficient institutional constraints and insufficient resources to become a dictator on the Cold War Arab state model, but a combination of national paranoia, a combination of ethnic clientelism and ethnic triumphalism, politically-convenient security charges against the Sunni political opposition and patronage fed through oil money could render the new Iraq about as corrupt and unaccountable as any Gulf state. Given its geo-strategic situation, demographics, resource endowments and peculiar ethnic divisions and history of oligarchic institutions, Iraq if anything appears to have been a poor choice for President W. Bush’s presumptuous social experiment.

The new Iraq will probably welcome alliance with the United States even if the government was hostile to US basing (as it appears it will be eager for the material assistance to balance against Iranian influence). Iraqi oil will be open to international markets, which will be good for us and a positive improvement, whatever the details, over Iraqi isolation and starvation. But this is a shamefully-meager result considering the money we spent, the bridges we burned, and the blood we both lost and spilt in the 8 1/2-years of war in Iraq. The most-remarkable thing about the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria and even the Palestinian Territories is how trivial and peripheral our invasion and reconstruction of Iraq was to all of that.

Thanks to this ill-conceived attempt to seize control of History or whatever, there is now a fair prospect of a succession of ethnic and sectarian disputes roiling every country from Lebanon to Iran, including Turkey. I know counterfactuals always presume too much, and previous repression and clientelism by Saddam’s regime might have made some level of violent social dysfunction during a democratic transition unavoidable. But I don’t see how the arrival of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia or the ethnic cleansing work of the Shi’a militias enters into the picture on that account.

All we’ve got for our trouble is no Army bases, another felonious oil ministry to deal with, larger budget deficits, a raised Iranian profile in the region, and a religiously- and ethnically-segregated Iraq enjoying the kind of nominal republican government currently being overthrown in other Arab countries by young people organized principally by telecommunications. George W. Bush deserves our contempt now that we’ve seen such an absurd end come to such a needless war.

I GUESS WE HAVE YOU TO THANK FOR THIS: Outgoing President George W. Bush shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who it seems brooks no opposition, just over 3 years ago. Photo by Thaier al-Sudani-Pool/Getty Images