Justice Here and There

The good news this week is that George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, has been arrested and charged with second degree murder. In case you have somehow missed this story (vacationing on Mars, perhaps?), here’s the Christian Science Monitor’s story summing it up.

So we now have justice for Trayvon – not in any cosmic sense, since it’s hardly just that he is dead – but in the narrow sense that his killer is facing the legal consequences of his act.

Across the world, though, much injustice remains. In Bahrain – a close ally of the United States, and the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet – a leading human rights activist, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, has been in prison for over a year for his part in leading the pro-democracy movement that began February 11, 2011, in that country as part of the Arab Spring. The Daily Beast has the full story here.

Al-Khawaja has been on a hunger strike since early February, protesting his imprisonment, his mistreatment, and the continuing brutal oppression of the government of Bahrain – a supposedly “constitutional” monarchy, but in reality an absolute dictatorship of the self-styled “royal” family.

Activists, human rights advocates, and governments around the world have demanded al-Khawaja’s release. He is a Danish citizen, and Denmark has asked that he be repatriated, but Bahrain has refused. (The law says they should agree, but they have simply stated that the law does not apply in this case.)

Last week al-Khawaja seemed to be near death. He has now been moved to a military hospital and is being fed by an IV tube. Perhaps that will keep him alive – I hope so – but his condition continues to be critical. And the injustice remains. He should be released unconditionally.

Public outcry brought justice for Trayvon. Let’s hope it brings freedom for Abdulhadi al-Khawaja.

How Not To Negotiate with Iran

Yesterday, the US and its European allies issued this ultimatum to Iran: the latter must stop enriching uranium to 20% U235 (note: everyone agrees that they are not enriching it to weapons grade, which is 90%) and dismantle its underground enrichment plant, with strong hints that the alternative is war.

The problem: neither the US nor, more to the point, Israel is offering to do the same. Since Israel actually has nuclear weapons, and announces over and over again that it wants to bomb Iran, it’s hard to see why it would make sense for Iran to abandon a bomb-resistant facility – unless the quid pro quo is that Israel gets rid of its nuclear weapons.

More broadly, the US cannot reasonably expect any other country to get rid of nuclear weapons, or to refrain from trying to obtain them, unless we adopt a sincere plan to get rid of our own. Without that, these negotiations are not negotiation at all, but attempted dictation. This attempt is bound to fail.

Human Rights and the New Cold War

I saw a comment on Twitter this morning from some Syrian revolutionaries. They said that they consider themselves Syria’s link to the West, and that they reject any contact with Russia and Iran.

I don’t know how widespread that attitutde is among the Syrian revolutionaries; but if it is widespread, I think it will make it harder for them to improve the human rights situation in Syria. Human rights is a just cause, and gets a lot of support from people everywhere; but if the issue is seen as taking one side or another in international politics, that support will drop.

For example, the US opposes human rights movement in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia because the foreign policy establishment sees those movements – incorrectly – as linked to Iran. Russia and Iran do oppose the human rights movement in Syria, because they see it linked to the US. If it really is linked to the US, they will oppose it even more.

The difference between the US on the one hand, and Russia and Iran on the other, is that the latter restrict the human rights of their own citizens, while the US, aside from the occasional assassination, focuses its attack on human rights on the rest of the world, from Bahrain to Nicaragua to Honduras to …. well, you get the idea.

During the old Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union not only allied themselves with dictators, but encouraged those allies to be more repressive (e.g., in Chile for the US, Hungary for the Soviets). If a new Cold War escalates, that will happen again. The best way to get human rights is to be non-aligned.

Iran: Not Only Is War not the Answer, but It’s the Wrong Question

Sadly, Barack Obama seems to be just as crazy as his predecessor when it comes to the Middle East; witness all his tough talk about war with Iran. So let’s be clear:

  1. All intelligence agencies agree that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program, and does not plan to have one.
  2. The US, on the other hand, has thousands of nuclear weapons.
  3. Israel, which has a much more aggressive history of making war on its neighbors than Iran, has nuclear weapons but Obama won’t even talk about them,
  4. Eight years ago, the US went to war with Iraq based on a lot of lies; the result was disastrous. Now they’re telling the same lies and trying to go to war again.

From all this, I’d say that the question is not how to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons – it is why the national security establishment is so eager to destroy Iran.

Nuclear Weapons: Iran, North Korea, USA

Yesterday (February 25, 2012) the New York Times reported that US still agencies continue to believe that Iran is NOT trying to develop nuclear weapons. That was a shocker, given the current war fever being whipped up in the US and Israel.

However, there is a bigger question. Is the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty sustainable? This treaty basically says that there is a privileged group of nations that has nuclear weapons and will keep them, and the rest of the world which is prohibited from having them. Or, to put it more bluntly, there are a few countries which get to tell all the others what do do and when to do it.

For those of us who are Americans, it’s easy to miss the point here. Americans tend to think that we are benevolent and friendly, so we don’t see why anyone would mind if we dominate them. With a little effort, though, you can see it the way others do–which can be summed up as “The US is great until they want our resources.”

As a result, many countries have proceeded to develop their own nuclear weapons, ignoring the treaty (or refusing to sign it). These include, at a minimum, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. The list is likely to grow, whatever Iran might do.

Having fewer countries with nukes is better than having more; but it doesn’t work. The only real path to a safe future is the abolition of all nuclear weapons. The US, as the biggest nuclear power, has to take the lead on this. There is little sign that it will do so any time soon, but until it does nonproliferation will continue to fail.

Assassination as a Foreign Policy

The Boston Globe today (September 16, 2011) has this story about a debate within the Obama administration. The debate topic is when it’s OK for the US to assassinate people in other countries, primarily through attacks by remote-controlled aircraft, the so-called “drones.”

The claim that any such strikes are justified by international law is nonsense. Remember all those old Western movies where the Native Americans, fleeing a bunch of soldiers bent on killing them, fled over the border to Canada – and the soldiers halted in their tracks? That’s because military incursion into another country is illegal – unless you have that country’s permission. The US has such permission from Afghanistan. In Pakistan, the government ordered us to stop all drone attacks, and we announced that we would ignore them. And we have no permission in Yemen (although there is tacit cooperation from the government there), and least of all in Somalia.

That doesn’t mean that the US has to sit idle while terrorists prepare to attack us; but there are established legal ways to respond. We can demand that the government of the state where the terrorists are located take action. We can offer aid to that government. And, if we don’t get results, we can declare war on them and, if we win, occupy the country and act on our own. (That’s what we did in Afghanistan, except that the declaration of war was missing.) But there is no legal right to simply kill people in another country because they are “likely” members of al-Qaeda.

Why is this important? Because international law provides a way for disputes to be settled peaceably most of the time, and to limit the conflict when they can’t be settled peaceably. Right now, the rulers of the US – not only Obama, but Bush and Clinton before him – believe that the US is so powerful that we can simply ignore the law. Unfortunately, that path leads to a chaotic world, one more dangerous than one where the norms of law prevail.

One side maintains that the US has the legal right to try to kill known leaders of al-Qaeda in other countries (specifically, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, though the claim is more general). Those guys are the liberal side of the argument – the ‘doves,’ I guess.

The other side says that it’s OK to kill a bunch of people even if their identity is unknown, as long as they are in some place that suggests they may be associated with al-Qaeda. As the Globe phrases it, this involves attacks “aimed at killing clusters of people whose identities are not known but who are deemed likely members of a militant group based on patterns like training in terrorist camps.” Note the word “likely.” And note that the example used here, terrorist training, is chosen to make the killing look good. Other examples have included attacks on weddings, attacks on houses inhabited by large extended families, and even attacks on people standing around in the street. Large numbers of civilians with no connection to al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations have been killed by these strikes.

Ten Years After

I just heard that members of the Fire Department of New York are spending the day (probably more than that) in Binghamton, helping rescue people from the Susquehanna River flood. It’s hard to think of any more fitting memorial to their lost comrades. And it shows one of the two very contradictory things that came out of the 9/11 tragedy: the great spirit that we are all in this together, that we need to help each other out, and that one way we help each other out is by supporting dedicated public servants prepared to deal with emergencies.

The other thing to come out of those events is very different – a legacy of stupid wars justified by government lying, torture, and willingness to kill hundreds of civilians for each terrorist leader through fairly indiscriminate drone strikes.

Today is not the day for political argument. But as we remember, we need to remember both sides.

As is often true, “Candorville” says it much better than I.

Libya – Let’s Not Get Carried Away!

I’m back in town for a week, so will try to blog every day until I leave next week for the APSA meeting in Seattle. Where to start! A lot has happened – but I guess I have to say something about Libya.

As I write this (the morning of August 23d), it is looking like the triumph proclaimes over the weekend was overdone. Gaddafi is still holding on, he has troops loyal to him, and some other parts of the country are sticking to him as well. (The press is dismissing these as the areas of his tribe, but so what? They are people, too.) Maybe by the end of the day he will be gone, but maybe not. So let me just make a few points:

  • There used to be something in England called “Whig history.” Basically, this was the idea that England (and I do mean England, not the UK) was the bearer of political liberty, and destined to triumph and enlighten the rest of the world. Everything that happened was for that purpose, and therefore fated to happen. This attitutde is alive and well in the US. Specifically, there is a feeling that Gaddafi is destined to fall – so whenever there are some signs that he is weakening, victory is proclaimed prematurely. Teleology takes the place of analysis – always a mistake. (Orthodox Marxists used to make the same error; it’s one of the things Nicos Poulantzas was trying to correct.)
  • Even if this turns out to be a victory, that does not mean the war was illegal. Nicholas Burns, a former diplomat and now a professor, makes the following argument (among others) in today’s Boston Globe: “. . . the president was subjected to an unusual, highly partisan, and unreasonable assault by Congress on his constitutional right to commit US forces in the first place. Yet Obama persisted, and it has paid off.” That’s just silly. The War Powers Act says that the President must get approval from Congress for foreign military inteverntion. There is no exception that says “unless the US wins.” If intervention was illegal (as I think), then it still is.
  • Now for the basic point. This should be about democracy and the will of the Libyan people, not about whether Libya will be dominated by the US. That’s going to be difficult. Unlike Egypt or Tunis, Libya has a substantial part of the population that seemed to prefer Gaddafi to the rebels. (I remember vividly hearing a radio interview with people in Surt saying how they would fight to the end to keep the rebels out of their city.) This seemed to be more a civil war between two groups, rather than a popular uprising against a tyrant. (Sure, he was a tyrant, my point is that many people still preferred him. It was not just ethnic loyalty, either – see James Petras’s recent book for an argument that Libyans got substantial social benefits under Gaddafi’s rule.). As in any civil war, you have the problem of how the losing side fits in. They are still Libyans, and entitled to be part of any democratic government.

If Gaddafi is replaced by an independent democratic government, I will be delighted. I just think that the triumphalist crowing is both premature and out of place.

Is the US Returning to Cold War Standards?

I had just graduated from college when I saw my government invade the Dominican Republic to support a military dictator who had just overturned the democratically elected President, Juan Bosch. As my awareness grew, I realized that we were supporting brutal dictators in Vietnam, much of Latin America, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and in many other countries. We had overthrown democratic governments in Guatemala and Iran, as well as the Dominican Republic, and a few years later were to collaborate in the overthrow and murder of the democratically elected President of Chile, Salvador Allende, and his replacement by the brutal military dictator Pinochet.

At the same time, we supported the continuation of colonial rule, often very brutally, in Angola, Mozambique, what was then Rhodesia, and many smaller countries; and, most shamefully at all, we supported the atrocious system of apartheid in South Africa.

All of this was “justified” in the name of stopping Communism, which supposedly would take over all those countries if we let them become democratic.

Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and the outbreak of the “third wave” of democratization – in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia, and to some extent in Africa. With no more fear of Communism, there seemed to be no more need for the US to support dictatorships in other countries.

But what is happening today? The US government is turning a blind eye to brutal depression by the absolute monarch of Bahrain. It supported the coup against President Zelaya in Honduras, even while claiming to oppose it. It is maneuvering to keep the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt from becoming “too” democratic. More broadly, it seems like the Cold War all over again!

This trend is appalling. Many people had hoped that President Obama would turn us in a different direction, but instead he seems to be opting for more of the same. The explanation given, when any is given at all, tends to be that terrorism is just like Communism – if we allow too much democracy, it is said, the terrorists will take over. This isn’t very credible, though – it’s just hard to envision massive electoral support for terrorists! (I mean, if they had that kind of support they wouldn’t need to resort to terrorism!)

Far more likely, in my opinion, is that support for dictatorship abroad is linked to the attack on democracy at home. The increase in economic inequality basically means that a relatively small number of people control more and more of the world’s resources. They benefit immensely from doing so, but they can only keep it up if they keep people from voting on it. Here in the US, they do so by a variety of disenfranchising devices (massive imprisonment, intimidation campaigns, cumbersome registration processes, gerrymandering, etc.) In countries like Bahrain, they don’t have to be so subtle. They just work through the monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the like to arrest, torture, and shoot those who demand democracy.

It’s time we got more democracy at home, and used it to support democracy in other countries.

What’s Behind the Bin Laden Assassination?

The  big question about Bin Laden – and I’m surprised more people are not asking it – is, why kill him? It’s pretty clear by now that those were the orders (I heard it from a guy being interviewed on NPR with CIA ties, and there’s further documentation in The Atlantic. But why?

Let’s leave aside the morality and look at the practical issues. Wouldn’t you think that Osama Bin Laden was what they call a “high-value target” – i.e., someone with valuable information? Isn’t it possible that he actually knew something about what’s left of al-Qa’eda? If this was really about fighting terrorism, wouldn’t they want to question him?

Someone else on that NPR show (I was listening in the car, and didn’t get further specifics to cite the broadcast) said that one of Osama’s bodyguards who’d been captured had orders to kill Osama rather than let him be taken alive. So why have the Seals do the work for him? It doesn’t make sense to me.

Second, why wouldn’t we want to put him on trial? Surely there would be no better way to destroy any last trace of sympathy for the man and his network than be exposing their repugnant deeds in open court. The Israelis knew that when they captured Eichmann, and brought him back to be tried, at considerable difficulty to themselves. All we would have had to do would have been to bring him along in the helicopter, which we did with his body anyway.

Moreover, a trial would have shown the world that we are a country of laws and individual rights, rather than a country that kills without trial. Here I’m verging back to the moral argument, but this one does have a practical side: it would make people respect the US more.

Legally, bringing Bin Laden out alive would have been kidnapping, and Pakistan didn’t like it. But they liked the assassination even less.

So I’m just asking, why were the orders to kill him no matter what? Anybody have an explanation?