Sunday, October 26, 2008

Obama's foreign policy and "humanitarian intervention"

I'm no fan of Tom Edsall's political analysis. He seems for years to have fundamentally bought in to the conventional, Republican-friendly assumption among many in the media that the politics of racism were so powerful that unless the Democrats pandered hard to the "culture war" issues of the Republicans (of which the direct and indirect racial elements have always been the most significant), the Republicans would be a permanent majority.

But he is capable of doing some good reporting. And he seems to be sticking to journalism in reporting the Washington scuttlebutt about possible Obama administration appointments in The Obama Test: Personnel is Policy Huffington Post 10/24/08. The "test" aspect he explains as follows:

The appointments Obama makes are not only the blood and guts of Washington gossip, but, more importantly, they are clear signals of the direction the new administration will take, reflecting the accuracy of the observation that "personnel is policy." For the Washington lobbying and special interest group community, appointments are crucial, determining success, access, and business.
Now, the media and the Republicans will be posing many such "tests" for the Obama administration during the Presidential transition. (Yes, I know I'm talking about it likes its a done deal.) Some of them will be more meaningful than others. Obama will predictable "fail" the Republican "tests". And he'll likely fail the media "tests", too.

David Broder, The Dean Of All The Pundits, elaborate the currently favored pundit "test" in What Honeymoon? The Proposals That Could Bind Obama Washington Post 10/12/08. The Dean declares that "the new president will face an early test: Repair the battered financial system or move ahead on the Democrats' domestic agenda." To The Dean, it is apparently self-evident that the one is entirely incompatible with the other.

Similarly frivolous "tests" will be applied to Obama's foreign policy, as well.

But Edsall is right in that the staffing of major positions is a key test in the minds of many people, some using more substantial measures than others. It will also be a key test for those of us looking for a more restrained and realistic foreign policy. Edsall mentions Samantha Power as being on the short list for National Security Advisor, at least in the minds of whoever it is on whom he's relying for his article. And that's almost certainly true. Before she had a foot-in-mouth moment about Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, Power was Obama's leading foreign policy advisor. So this recent article of hers takes on extra interest in that light, Is Humanitarian Intervention Dead? History offers some sobering lessons by Samantha Power Slate 09/29/08:

"Humanitarian intervention" is a problematic phrase for the obvious reason that "intervention," which in Bosnia (1995) and Kosovo (1999) meant bombing, is a fundamentally un-humanitarian act. The word intervention is also unhelpful because it means a range of different things to different people. Some use the word to signal the deployment of military forces. Many others (including me) see intervention as lying on a continuum - with mediation, diplomatic denunciation, travel bans, asset freezes, arms embargoes, and the deployment of consensual peacekeepers (as in East Timor in 1999) understood as often being the wisest responses to atrocities. Given their risks, war and occupation seem advisable only in rare circumstances where the risks of using other tools are even greater. (In my view this consequentialist test was passed in Bosnia and flunked in the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq.) But one thing is certain: A decadelong mainstream debate over humanitarian intervention ground to an abrupt halt in the wake of the Bush administration's disastrous invasion of Iraq. In 2008 the governments of Burma, Sudan, and Zimbabwe can sleep easy knowing that, while they might be criticized for their brutality, they will not be stopped. [my emphasis in bold]
Power is generally seen as an "humanitarian hawk", a phrase which I think is almost as much an oxymoron as "humanitarian war". The latter a concept about which I have great reservations. Because war is an evil in itself. I'm not a pacifist - very few people actually are - but I take the Christian concept of the Just War and secular international law very seriously. So I think war really should be a last resort.

Having said that, I also supported the intervention in Bosnia and the Kosovo War in the 1990s. Still, while the humanitarian issues were real, my overriding concern there was the threat of widespread instability in the form of bloody ethnic civil wars spreading throughout the Balkans and eastern Europe as a result of the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

And I try to keep my eyes open even (I like to think especially) with wars I support. What set the stage politically and militarily for the NATO intervention in Bosnia in 1995 to be possible was not some great upsurge of humanitarian compassion. It was the fact that the Croatian army became strong enough to push the Serbian army out of the occupied areas of Croatia and fight them to a standstill. And in the process, they did so by carrying out "ethnic cleansing" against Serbs every bit as cruel as the Serbs practiced against Croats and Bosnians, though quantitatively on a smaller scale because they didn't have control of as many Serbs.

The NATO intervention did mitigate humanitarian consequences, as I understand it. And the special international tribunal for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia has proceeded against Croatian perpetrators as well as Serbians. But the NATO intervention in Bosnia wasn't an armed Peace Corps mission. It was war.

Likewise in Kosovo, I never understood the main practical purpose as humanitarian, though the security consequences for Europe of a massive ethnic cleansing of Kosovars there can scarcely be separated from the humanitarian ones. The intervention was legitimated by the United Nations, more or less. Though whether US participation actually complied with Constitutional requirement is another question, "quaint" though such a consideration may seem. The Senate did pass a nonbinding concurrent resolution authorizing air and missile operations against Serbia. But "The war against Yugoslavia began on March 24 [1999] without any statutory or constitutional support," writes legal scholar Louis Fisher.

Republican Congressman Ernest Istook of Oklahoma said at the time, "President Clinton asked many nations to agree to attack Yugoslavia, but he failed to get permission from one crucial country, America."

In retrospect, I still think the NATO intervention in Kosovo was justified at the time (leaving aside the question of US Constitutional processes for the moment). But there really is a lot to learn from it, and those lessons should make the US very cautious about a similar intervention any time in the foreseeable future. Andrew Bacevich and Eliot Cohen, two names not normally placed on the same side of military-strategic issues, edited a collection of essays called War Over Kosovo: Politics and Strategy in a Global Age (2001), that I hope to blog more about at some point. The book looks at the actual results and various implications of the Kosovo War as they were understood at the time of publication. In humanitarian terms, it's clear that the NATO (primarily US and British) air war in Kosovo allowed Serbia to accelerate the process of ethnic cleansing in the short term, though it was later reversed after the war was concluded.

NATO still maintains a substantial force in Kosovo even today, with no exit in sight. They were unable in practice to prevent retaliatory ethnic cleansing against Serbs in Kosovo. And the unilateral declaration of Kosovo's independence, cheerfully backed by the Cheney-Bush administration, was very much a factor in the power politics of Russia's current position toward Georgia and Ukraine.

And even though NATO was intervening to protect a primarily Muslim population (Kosovar Albanians) from a primarily Christian people (Serbia), it didn't seem to earn us a lot of goodwill on that score in the Muslim world. The low-level air war against Iraq, which became intense during the grotesquely named Operation Desert Fox in 1998, was one of several issues that outweighed Kosovo and Bosnia in the Muslim world. ("Low-level" is very much a relative term in this context.)

Power in her article recognizes that purity of motive in the matter of alleged humanitarian intervention is a rare commodity. "Governments are guided primarily by national security and economic concerns, and large-scale suffering tends to register only when powerful domestic political constituencies force it onto the agenda."

And she quotes an Ottoman minister from 1822 when Britain was threatening to intervene against the Ottoman Empire in its conflict with Greek rebels, "Why do not the Christian Sovereigns interfere to prevent the Emperor of Russia from sending his subjects into Siberia? Because they know very well what answer they would receive! Thus there is one law of humanity for Turkey and another for Russia!" The Christian sovereigns of Europe at that time were united with the Czar of Russia in international solidarity against further revolutions of the French type in Europe.

It's encouraging to see Power's expressed caution on "humanitarian" intervention in this piece. She states the dilemma of such situations in her closing paragraph:

History is laden with belligerent leaders using humanitarian rhetoric to mask geopolitical aims. History also shows how often ill-informed moralism has led to foreign entanglements that do more harm than good. But history shows the costs, too - in Rwanda and today in Darfur - of failing to prevent mass murder. The fate of future atrocity victims may turn on whether it is possible to find a path between blinding zeal and paralyzing perfectionism.
The reason I've had no enthusiasm for American intervention in Darfur is mainly for two reasons. One, we have an administration now that is not only cruel but criminal in its war and torture policies, cynical in the extreme in exploiting public policy for crony-capitalist purposes, and incompetent on top of it all.

Second, even the purist of intentions on the part of the intervening foreign power don't erase the very practical problems of occupying another country - which almost any such intervention would and should entail. Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and now Pakistan have provided us many recent examples of the problems of using air power to deal with civil-war type conflicts. But we also see from the "coalition's" experience in Iraq and NATO's experience in Afghanistan that successful occupation, counterinsurgency and nation-building require local allies, language skills, intensive familiarity with the local cultures, and long-term commitments of money and personnel.

And despite the enthusiasms and techno-dreams of our air power zealots especially, war always brings unpredictable consequences. It can't be contained in "full-spectrum dominance", to use the fashionable term that will probably now be fazed out because the realities of Iraq and Afghanistan have proven it to be a psychedelic dream. Excuse the painfully obvious metaphor, but war is the ultimate "loose cannon". The First World War started with a Serbian fanatic assassinating the Habsburg Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo with the connivance of the Serbian secret service. The Habsburgs wanted to retaliate by shooting up Serbia for a while. When the dust cleared, millions were dead, four great empires (the Habsburgs' Austro-Hungarian, the German, the Russian and the Ottoman) had shuffled off the stage of history, and even the victors Britain and France were devastated by the human and financial costs of the conflict, which was mostly a massive, senseless carnage.

Would the United States have fared better occupying Rwanda than we have occupying Iraq or Afghanistan? I doubt it very much.

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