Thursday, December 27, 2012

Egypt's Wily Coyote moment

"#Egypt problem is not #Mubarak, #MB or secular opposition. It's the 'deep state'; intelligence, military, security, judiciary, and mafia." -- Carol Malouf @carolmalouf

Malouf identifies a classic problem in revolutionary times, from the French Revolution to the Weimar Republic and beyond.  The new leaders inherit the old bureaucracy, entrenched in its old ways.   There is arrogance, corruption, incompetence and, more often than not, deliberate obstructionism.   Yet the leaders can do nothing sudden, because they depend on these people.  This also happens, as you no doubt know, within companies and all sorts of other institutions.

I have no idea if Egypt is on the brink of some disaster, but it is certainly a world of necessary make-believe. It's on political thin air.  The legitimacy of the new order is constantly questioned, but on what basis?  on the pretence that there are not only established but valid laws, procedures, ways of doing things.   Trouble is, there aren't.  Like it or not, the hundreds of thousands who risked their lives and the hundreds who died to overthrow Mubarak delegitimized, in the most decisive fashion, the whole of the old régime:  its laws, its constitution, its judiciary, its procedures, its authorities.

In other words, if the impact of the revolution were clearly recognized, it would amount to acknowledging a state of anarchy.  But it is not clearly recognized - not because people don't know perfectly well what's happened, but because they do.  A society can't afford to be without laws, judges, police, army, bureaucracy.  That's what gives Malouf's deep state its still substantial prestige and real-world authority.

So we have something like a make-believe state and government.   It joins new elements to the old, but the new elements are fragile - a leader, assembly, and constitution, all thought to be born of illegality and fraud, all thought to rest on bogus expressions of popular will.  By contrast, the old laws and institutions may start to look pretty good!

The dangers of this situation are as obvious as they are deliberately and understandably under-recognized.  On the one hand, push come to shove, there is no government and there are no laws.  What's more, the new leadership only pretends to have power.   It suits the opposition, of course, to take this pretense as reality:  they speak of Morsi's 'power grab', not admitting that is almost all grab and no power.  At the same time, Morsi's own quite necessary and convenient pretense to run a government just as necessarily causes disappointment and frustration, especially among the less privileged classes.   If he's got a government, why doesn't he deliver?  What of his promises?  When will what's broken be fixed?  After all, people make revolutions because they want change, improvement. Yet Morsi cannot very well excuse himself on the grounds that his whole régime, except for the old régime elements, is pretty much an empty shell.

It could all work out.  The make-believe state could gradually morph into a real state with real power.  Morsi could forge a skillful, inclusive, effective administration.  Or not.  Perhaps, though, the prospects for a happy ending will be brighter if both his supporters and opponents are more ready to admit that, before anything good can happen, the deep state needs to be tamed.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Sophisticated' and 'ordinary' Egyptians: who needs lessons in Democracy?

So, the naïve, politically immature, ill-educated, provincial Egyptian people have had their say, and taken their first baby steps in the long road to understanding democracy.

I refer, of course, to the upper middle class opposition who never cease to repeat that Morsi has no mandate and the constitution no legitimacy.  These complaints appear to rest on misconceptions about what democracy is.  It's a system where everyone gets to vote, and a majority of votes determines the outcome.  A majority is 50% plus 1: for multiparty elections, a plurality will do.

The reason for this system of majority/plurality rule - so understood for at least four hundred years - is that it constitutes a clear and practical decision procedure for the determination of popular will.  Here are two notions which may seem to describe clear procedures, but don't: a 'substantial majority', and a majority with a 'good turnout'.  Such procedures suffer from indeterminacy - what majority is substantial enough?  what's a good turnout?  When these questions are left open, it is a recipe for special pleading and just what isn't wanted - indecision.

These other procedures are also, in some circumstances, arguably undemocratic.  Suppose a 2/3 majority is required on a vote for Yes or No, and, oh, say 63% of the voters favor Yes.  Then the minority of voters determines the decision against a majority of voters. That doesn't sound like an expression of popular will.

But what about abstentions?  In the first place, in a decision-making process, you can't count actions that don't select alternatives.  Suppose I abstain.  Did I do so because I thought the process was illegitimate?  Did I do so because I thought the process was legitimate, but I couldn't make up my mind?   Did I do so because I thought my abstention would do more damage to my political opponents than voting against them?  Did I do so because I couldn't get out of bed?  Did I do so because I misunderstood when or where or how I should vote?  Did I do so  because I just didn't care?  With all these open questions, anyone can attribute any significance they like to my abstention.   The idea that some particular interpretation should be privileged is just laughable.

This is not to say that low turnout is desirable.   The higher the turnout, the clearer the expression of popular will.  But everyone is free to vote or not to vote, and if they want things unclear, or don't care, so be it.  The alternative is to invalidate low-turnout elections, which is a non-starter.  A nation needs to make decisions, and if the decisions are to be made at all, they must be made on the basis of the deciders.  And of course many other features of democracy are desirable - among other things, informed discussions in which no one feels constrained from expressing his opinion, good will all around, responsible media, appropriate funding for all political parties, good weather on election day.   Democracies can be better or worse, but they are no less democracies for all that.

Elections do have to be free and fair according to real-world standards.  In Egypt's elections, as in countless other elections in many other nations at all stages of development, there were irregularities.  It is essential that irregularities invalidate elections only if they are exceptionally extensive.  Otherwise, once again, there is no decision procedure:  anyone could deliberately commit an irregularity and undermine the whole process.   Each person would be, in that very real sense, a dictator.  This is perhaps the most prominent outcome to be avoided in any democracy.

Perhaps this makes democracy undesirable.  If one doesn't like a democratic system, then perhaps it is better to fight for some other system - a monarchy, an patrician 'republic', a dictatorship, a one-party state - than to pretend one is a democrat.

I hope this little lesson in democracy will not fall on deaf ears - that is, I hope the secularist politicians, journalists, professors, bloggers and generally clever minds of Egypt's privileged classes will get it.  Morsi won.  The Brotherhood won.  If you don't like it, organize, don't bullshit.  The Brotherhood is far more vulnerable in power than out of it:  as many have pointed out, no government is going to cure anything like all Egypt's ills.  Ill-founded pontificating about democracy is just bad focus and a waste of opportunity.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Egyptian ideologies: for whom?

The following are two afterthoughts to "Freedom versus democracy in Egypt".   The first is a regretful reconsideration of whether Egyptian secularists want either democracy or freedom.  The second concerns the role of anti-Islamist sentiment.


The revolutionaries fought bravely for freedom and democracy.  Since they knew that Egypt had become a conservative Islamic society,  they must have been disappointed, not surprised, when the country - the people - voted in an Islamist.   Well, no matter, there's still freedom - maybe the revolutionaries were really fighting for civil liberties, fair judicial procedure, an end to torture and military rule.

It turns out that isn't true either.   The first priority of the revolutionaries appears to be the protection of their un-Islamic life-styles from the stifling sanctions and, frankly, lower-class displays of the Moslem Brotherhood.   And, in the face of a majority, the best way to secure that objective is to restore the old régime, in the form it has taken, more or less, since 1952 -  army rule, or a puppet civilian administration under the patronizing tutelage  of the military.   No wonder you hardly ever hear secularists worrying about military rule if the No vote wins the referendum.

The proof of this unappetising pudding is in the following news item. When the army stepped back into politics to call a 'reconciliation conference', who played along?   According to a Reuters report,  "Moussa also said he would attend the army's unity talks, along with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, leftist Hamdeen Sabahy and the liberal Wafd party leader Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour".   So  it is not just the right wing of the opposition that finds it cute to ally with the army against Morsi:  it is practically the whole opposition, the whole spectrum, left to right.  They will not sit down with the Brotherhood but they will gladly lend their stamp of legitimacy to the murderers and torturers of the old régime.  This after claiming - mysteriously - that the army and the Brotherhood are hand in glove!

Why?  Perhaps it has to do with an unwillingness to take on the Brotherhood at its base, which would mean trying to doing more for the the poor than the Brotherhood has done over all these years.  That would be a lot of work for a movement that seems to care more about its own graffiti than about the lower  classes.   There are many complaints that Morsi has done nothing for the disadvantaged, yet Morsi doesn't even have a government yet.  The 'revolutionaries' could be in the poor quarters right now, organising about something a little more immediate than the constitution.   Where are the marches when yet another house collapses in the slums?  Where are they when the poor cannot get urgent medical care at free hospitals, or afford the private ones?   Where are they when the Ministry of Housing, Utilities, and Urban Development ignores pleas to fix a burst sewer pipe?  Where are they when people go hungry?

This is not, in the final analysis, about altruism or sincerity; it is about self-interest.   There is no reason why better-off Egyptians should be any readier than the rest of us to dedicate our lives to others.  But if the revolutionaries don't want an Islamist state, shouldn't they expand their constituency?  Mightn't it be better to gain the support of the poor than to cozy up to the generals?


The concern among Egyptian liberals about what Egypt would become under the Brotherhood has puzzled me.   Isn't Egypt an Islamist society already?  Since Islamist norms put little constraint on men and great constraint on women, it's easiest to address the question in the context of women's situations.

In Egypt today, the overwhelming majority of women wear the veil.  Dressing as you like on the street invites nightmarish experiences; typically your life is one of submission in which you may or may not be complicit.   Liberal-minded but nominal Muslims have found the atmosphere stifling for decades now.   Why fear what seems to have happened already, not because of but in spite of politics?   Mubarak's secularist régime was powerless to stop the spread of an Islamist social movement.

But then I realised that class plays a role here.   It is the relatively wealthy women who have reason to dread  an Islamist state.   If you are well-off, you can travel, you can even move abroad for long periods of time, you can always escape.  You have a good education.  This induces strong expectations of a free and equal existence.   And in Egypt, your expectations are partly fulfilled.   You can live in wealthy quarters where there is a measure of personal freedom.  You may have, or can aspire to, a job in a workplace where you are respected.   You have something to lose.   Not so among the less privileged working and rural classes.  A Muslim woman from those classes has had no choice, for a long  long time.  She has no rational basis for expecting an improvement in her situation which, after all, was forged within a secular state.  The choice in Egypt is not whether or not to have an Islamist society.   It is whether or not to force the upper classes to conform to Islamist norms.

The oppressiveness of an Islamist state makes no difference to the poorer classes, who already feel the full force of an oppressive Islamist society.  A genuine belief in freedom - not just 'freedom for me' - involves a commitment to make a difference at all levels of society.  If that isn't going to be at the top of  the agenda, arguing about shari'a in the constitution is just selfishness.   Why then is so much attention devoted to likely futile constitutional battles, and so little to working for social change?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Freedom versus democracy in Egypt

In the revolution of January 25 - February 11, the demands seemed clear.  There was a cry for freedom and a cry for the fall of the old régime - Mubarak, his cronies, his party, and his allies in the security forces.    There was no cry for democracy.   Why spell it out?  doesn't democracy walk hand in hand with freedom?   If you want freedom and the fall of the old régime, isn't it obvious that democracy is your goal?

If these questions seem rhetorical, it's because the world has sucked up a key tenet of American ideology:  that democracy and political freedom are for all practical purposes the same thing.   Not only the media but virtually the whole of political science and philosophy have piled obfuscation upon obfuscation to make this identification work.   But for Egypt's secular liberals it doesn't work at all, and the aftermath of the revolution has made this brutally clear.

Democracy, obfuscation aside, is government  by the people.   Government by the people has, since at least the 17th Century, been understood as majority rule.   So democracy - given a broad enough electorate - is majority rule.   And everyone who speaks of democracy will tell you that real-world democracies 'aren't perfect'.   There will be some voting irregularities, redistricting issues, violation of media advertising rules, some dirty tricks.    This isn't considered enough to invalidate a popular mandate.   That would take something like imprisoning candidates, shutting down TV stations, massive voter fraud, widespread attacks on polls.   Otherwise, getting a majority confers democratic legitimacy.

What then of freedom?  It can be collective, or individual.   Collective freedom is indeed embodied in democracy:  it consists in a people running its own affairs.  Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood could claim to favor collective freedom.   But this is not at all the sort of freedom associated with secular liberalism.   Secular liberals believe in individual freedom.   That normally means civil liberties, which protect individual thought and expression.

Contrary to American ideology, individual freedom is not democratic.   It's anti-democratic as its clearest advocate, John Stuart Mill,  was well aware.   It bears no relationship to collective freedom:  a people running its own affairs may decide that individuals should have lots of freedom, or very little.   People almost never speak of collective freedom as anything but democracy, and I'll follow that practice.  I'll take 'freedom' to mean 'individual freedom',  a reference to  the rights enshrined in liberal values - freedom of speech and religion, for instance.

It turns out that in the January 25th revolution everyone was opposed to the old régime, but probably for different reasons.   It looks like some wanted individual freedom and some, collective freedom.   In the shorthand of contemporary politics: some wanted freedom, and others democracy.   The ones who wanted freedom included intellectuals, middle class urban youth, non-conformists of various stamps, progressively-minded members of the élite who deplored what one observer called 'the stalled society'.   The ones who wanted democracy included the poor, who thought their own parties and elected representatives would be a lot less likely to shaft them.   Of course the lines weren't sharply drawn, but they were discernible.

The division emerged when elections brought Islamists to power, first in Parliament, then to the Presidency.   The liberal secularists who wanted freedom rightly saw this as a threat.    But their response suggests that they were (and still are)  caught in the 'freedom is democracy'  mindset.   First they pretended the election was invalid because of minor irregularities.   Then they were upset that Parliament, as was its right, stuffed the Constitutional Assembly with Islamists.   There were other sources of liberal outrage, most notably Morsi's assault on the judiciary.    The liberals called this anti-democratic and then, dictatorial, an accusation which lost force when Morsi rescinded its most 'dictatorial' parts.

This accusation had little basis to start with.   It was based on the seemingly democratic but actually anti-democratic belief that any institutions other than those created by the elections have some sort of political legitimacy.   They didn't and don't.    Democratic legitimacy comes only from popular will and is conferred only on elected representatives or the institutions they create.   From a democratic standpoint, only the president and parliament had such legitimacy.   Invoking the judiciary as a check on presidential or parliamentary power only makes sense if the judiciary is the product of democratic procedures within a framework of democratic institutions.   Egypt's judiciary is nothing of the kind.   Morsi's decrees usurped nothing.   They simply made plain the political fact that the judiciary had no legitimate authority.    Perhaps the judges were decent and right,  perhaps Morsi is evil and wrong, but that didn't make his actions the least bit undemocratic.

There is also nothing undemocratic about the disinclination of Parliament to give liberals a substantial say in the Constitutional Assembly.   Elected representatives are supposed to follow what they judge to be in the best interests of the electorate, not to accommodate the views of all segments of the electorate.   Democracy, to repeat, is nothing more than  rule by the people.  It's 'narrowly majoritarian', to use the expression favored by those who want it to be something else.  It doesn't have to be good, just, inclusive, progressive or tolerant.   Maybe the people, the majority, don't want it to be.

The problem this raises for liberals doesn't reduce to Mubarak redux.   Perhaps they thought they were for freedom and democracy, but they have shown themselves to be against democracy because what they really want is freedom.   Nothing unreasonable or unjustified about that: democracy, properly understood, isn't all it's cracked up to be.    But not admitting it, not even recognizing it, doesn't seem to have served the liberals well.   Their polemics are full of bogus claims about dictatorship,  and, what is worse, pretenses that they are the innocent victims of violence rather than perpetrators as well.  It's not clear why this talk can be expected to expand their political base.  Their allies of convenience have become the partisans of the old régime, without whom the liberals have no chance of overcoming democracy.   They needn't be told, though, to be careful of what they wish for.

What's the alternative?   To convince enough of the majority that liberals will do better by them than the Islamists.   This probably doesn't mean promising more civil liberties!   It probably means demonstrating a real commitment to improving the lives of the poor.   In other words it means doing what brought the Islamists to power in the first place.   There don't seem to be any shortcuts to acquiring popular support, and allying with the felool has apparently made Morsi's supporters even more distrustful of the liberals.   Fighting for freedom in a democracy is no easier than doing so in a dictatorship -just different.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Warfare in Syria: Opposition mistakes or media ignorance?

Many in the press and among the commentators persistently misrepresent the military situation in Syria - always to the detriment of the opposition.   Why they do so is a mystery.    The misrepresentations don't seem malicious.  They seem to originate in mistakes that proceed from an oversimplified, almost impatient view of warfare, as if we have grown unfamiliar with its pace and strategic constraints.   Unfortunately the result is to under-rate the achievements and competence of the opposition forces, with the political consequence that these forces seem poor candidates for support.   What follows attempts to correct this quite false impression.


As in Libya, where the opposition stalemated its way from Benghazi all the way to Tripoli and back to Sirte, we hear a lot about stalemates.   Though the term can legitimately describe briefly static situations, these should not be mistaken for dead-end strategies grinding to a halt.   There are, as in any conflict or for that matter any wrestling match, brief, tactical stalemates in Syria.   There have never been strategic stalemates so that, of course, Free Syria Army tactics have never produced them.

The haste to call 'stalemate' bespeaks a failure to realize that wars and revolutions generally don't fit within contemporary attention spans.   World War I lasted four years.   The war in Vietnam, about twenty.  The Algerian revolution, about fifteen.   The Chinese revolution, about twenty.  World War I produced a genuine stalemate in which both sides committed themselves to tactics that literally went nowhere and - more important - were intended to go somewhere.   Compare this to Stalingrad, where Stalin's strategy of attrition did indeed produce a tactical stalemate that in turn produced perhaps the greatest victory of World War II.

In this context it is ludicrous to speak of stalemates in Syria, as it was in Libya, except in the mildest and least important sense of the term.  The FSA has persistently engaged in the general strategy of striking where it could, first against checkpoints, then against larger targets.   It has tried to take and keep ground when it thought it might succeed.   Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn't.   It has made steady progress and never over-reached in a big way - that is, in a way that resulted in important military losses.   Naturally at times no progress was made, but again - this is normal.   To harp on these phases as stalemates is simply to give the false impression of a bankrupt strategy, as in World War I.    That impression, applied to the FSA, is badly misleading.


Syria's 'rag-tag' opposition forces make many mistakes, but no more than nicely dressed generals in regular armies.   The constant in most warfare is lack of information:  you don't know what the other guy is up to, or how strong he is.   You therefore make attacks very much 'on spec' and the elaborateness of your planning should not be mistaken for confidence about the outcome.   This is not just a matter of probing attacks designed to test the enemy's strength.   Full-scale, grand-strategy attacks are also fully expected to run into severe trouble.  Not to advance, to fail to meet your objectives, even to be thrown back, is as much the rule as the exception.   It is distinct from a military disaster which more or less permanently diminishes your capacity to fight. This is the case even when your units do not behave as desired and expected.

Not one mistake of the FSA goes beyond the normal reversals of warfare.   Certainly, as many allege, there have been failures due to lack of coordination, but they have not been ignominious failures.   On the other hand, the impeccably organized forces of World War I were commanded with much idiocy by the least rag-tag generals conceivable, and the scope of the disaster was greatly augmented by the tight command structure of the armies.

Yes, often districts change hands, often at substantial cost, almost always at horrific cost to civilians.   This too is quite normal in warfare - and to say so in no way diminishes or dismisses the terrible suffering it produces.   Only Godlike knowledge of the exact strengths, weaknesses, morale and positions of the enemy could avoid it.    So to speak of mistakes here, while strictly speaking correct, is again misleading.   The FSA's setbacks are no reflection on its strategies and even, in most cases, its tactics.   Warfare is like that.

Why it matters

The distorted characterizations of the FSA's efforts are not just distortions; they have political implications.   They diminish the stature of the FSA.   They suggest that the opposition's military efforts are, more often than not, displays of blood-drenched incompetence, bringing misery on the civilian population for no reason.    They feed into all the claims that these are rank amateurs, hopelessly disorganized and as unfit to have a say in Syria's future as they are to conduct its revolution.   And of course all this militates against the idea that these Keystone-Cop rebels are worthy of support.   Yet the FSA, disunited, has done much better than many regular armies, united, and they have shown something like professionalism from the very start.   You only had to observe how they used their assault rifles in single-shot mode - unlike the real amateurs in Libya - to know this.  Perhaps what made the difference was the involvement of army deserters, from the very start, in the resistance.   As I understand it, army units defected from Gaddafi in Libya, but remained separate from the militias who did most of the fighting.

So ignorance of military basics, rife throughout the media, has had a bad political effect.  You might ask, who am I to know this?  I would reply, who are you not to know it?   How is it that these grade-school level basics about war  have dropped out of our culture?   We seem overprotected from war's realities, and it is serving us poorly.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Has Morsi overthrown the rule of law?

I am in no position to predict whether Morsi is actually set to become a dictator, or anything else about his plans.  I don't presume to say what is best for Egypt.   However some leftists and liberals appear to believe that Morsi's decrees are themselves some sort of constitutional disaster.   This is unreasonable.  It rests on notions of legality and legitimacy that are, in the current circumstances, inappropriate.   You cannot coherently apply  the political principles of a settled state to a state under construction.

One commentator asserts that “Egypt is facing a horrifying coup against legitimacy and the rule of law and a complete assassination of the democratic transition.”

One wonders what country this person is describing.  The rule of law does not exist in Egypt.  It is flouted at every turn by the police, the army, and indeed the judiciary which protect their abuses.  Human Rights Watch reports that "Egyptian police and military officers have arrested and detained over 300 children during protests in Cairo over the past year, in some cases beating or torturing them,"  courts regularly exonerate those guilty of such abuses.   What then is so sacred about the institutions that Morsi clearly intends to remake?   And how could he remake them while remaining within the protocols and laws which were created by the old régime and are deployed to protect its remnants?   Until these old institutions are swept away, there is no revolution,  yet many self-described revolutionaries seem shocked by the very idea of such a thing.  They call for the rule of law, and reproach Morsi for failing to end police and army abuses.   Yet they complain when he tries to build the power that would permit a cleanup, that would establish a rule of law.

But it is not just that laws are flouted:  there is no rule of law because, properly speaking, there is no law.   There are the old régime's statutes whose foundation, the old constitution, has been rejected.   No new constitution replaces it and there is no uncontestedly recognized legislature to give the old statutes even temporary validity.    The low-level, criminal-law components of these statutes are followed for good reason, to ward off anarchy: it wouldn't be a good idea for the authorities to act as if there were no laws against murder and robbery.    But the idea that there is existing  legal edifice that Morsi has demolished is ludicrous.  His decrees do not touch the low-level statutes that keep some sort of order in society.   At the same time they cannot violate the rule of some supposed higher-level law that would allocate the powers of the state to various institutions.  Any supposed 'law' of that sort has neither legal reality nor immediately practical necessity.

As for legitimacy, Morsi acts according to the closest thing to legitimacy available, an election win.   In a state, legitimacy would be conferred by the state's democratic institutions, normally a parliament, and normally established by a constitution recognized as valid.    But there is no parliament in session and accepted as legitimate - though if there were, it would certainly endorse Morsi!   As for the judiciary, a product of the old régime, it is hard to understand what legitimacy it could claim, since the old régime itself is seen as illegitimate.   In other words, this is not the judiciary whose operations span a transition from one democratically validated  administration to another.    It is a judiciary deeply implicated in assaults on democratic government.   Its bogus claims to legitimacy in the actual process should not be mistaken for valid claims within a democratic process.

What then of the claim that Morsi has seized absolute power?  This too is wrong-headed.   The decree doesn't give Morsi absolute power; because that's not something a decree can do.   It would give him absolute power if combined with firm control of the state, but he doesn't have anything of the sort.   He can't, because there isn't a state.  There is a presidency.  There are various institutions, often at odds with the presidency, without a parliament that can sort things out, or a constitution on the basis of which to do the sorting.  Morsi's decree is just a bid for the authority to bring the old institutions  to heel.   Yes, it may be part of some totalitarian plot, but there's no indication of that so far.   If he put off the formation of parliament or the drafting of the constitution, that would be another matter.

Can Morsi be trusted when, through his spokesman, he claims the power grab is temporary?   Of course not, and it has been many years since Egyptians could be accused of trusting their leaders.   Renouncing appeals to the rule of law doesn't mean abandoning a struggle to contain the Islamist trend in Egyptian politics and it does not mean endorsing Morsi, or softening demands for change.   But such demands should not invoke bogus legalisms, and those who do the demanding should realize that they are not necessarily the defenders of the Egyptian democracy.  The opposition tries to take on the mantle of January 25th, but in a very different context.   The thousands who protest would be more plausible guardians of the revolution did their numbers not include and get support from the partisans of the old régime.   As Soraya Morayef remarked on twitter, "Worrying that ppl who once said protesters deserve to be shot coz they're dirty vandals now very enthusiastic about them burning down MB HQs."

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that opposing Morsi at this point strengthens the worst elements of the old régime.   It's not for me to say whether this is a price worth paying, but surely it should give pause to progressive forces.  It's worth remembering that it was not the 25th that sealed the revolution but February 1st, when the streets were filled, not with tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands.   Among them were those who became the electoral majority that  brought Morsi to power.  To all appearances they still  support today him today, and it is the secularist minority that oppose him.

The opposition's ideological problem lies primarily in its invocation of law and democracy.  There is no law to invoke, and at this stage, democracy manifests itself not in formal institutions but in popular will.   Yet the opposition's demands may well run counter to popular will.   You can't have everything.  Perhaps the opposition is fighting for freedom, not democracy.   They're not the same thing.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Human Rights Watch should calm down about Libya

Human Rights Watch has gone completely off the rails in its criticism of the Libya integrity commission.

In the first place, suppose its criticisms are entirely justified, and - as HRW says - the criteria for who can hold high elective office are "far too broad and vague and should be limited to concrete and provable claims of wrongdoing, rather than poorly defined connections with the previous government”.   One may still say, so what?  how is this the business of HRW?.   If holding high elective office is going to be termed a human right,  humanity is done a grave disservice, because the whole notion of human rights will be trivialized.    We may well be concerned about human rights if we are speaking of rights against torture, starvation,  arbitrary imprisonment.   But holding high elective office?   This is to confuse privilege with necessity.   Indeed there may be unfairness here.   There may also be unfairness in the judging of American Idol.   Will Human Right Watch come to the rescue?

Second, some rights - 'human' or not - are essentially political rights.   The right to hold high elective office belongs to this category. These rights relate to the decision-processes of a state:  this immediately tells us they can't be as fundamental as survival rights.   (Indeed they take on the paramount importance associated with the phrase 'human rights' only when linked to decisions affecting survival.)   But this means that not only does HRW get their importance wrong; it misunderstands the very conditions of their existence.   You can have political rights only if there is a full-fledged state in operation.    But in Libya, there is no full-fledged state yet; it is a work in progress.  It trying - perhaps even too patiently, tentatively - to assert its sovereignty over the area is is charge with governing.   This puts the government in position much like that of a democratic government when invoking the emergency legislation that virtually all governments possess.

This is something HRW cannot understand - the difference between the responsibilities of a settled state and revolutionaries trying hard to establish a state.   Perhaps the organization has swallowed some insolent, patronizing claptrap about 'learning democracy' or  'learning to respect the rule of law'.   No, it is not about learning or respecting these things;  it is about establishing them.  That requires supreme power, not lectures from human rights schoolmarms.   Can the teachers be taught some painfully obvious facts?     The Libyan government wants to make sure that the forces of the old régime - still violently active, still armed to the teeth, still themselves beyond the reach of law - have no chance to infiltrate the halls of power.   Being rational, that government would rather err on the side of caution and allow itself the discretion to do so.   That is why its criteria of exclusion are broad and vague.    The price to pay, in terms of human rights, is roughly nil.   Unless the government is strong and free of the schemes of the old régime, protecting human rights will be impossible.    And the cost of this caution is the possible denial, to some, of at most a very minor human right.

Perhaps the contemplation of those who died under torture at Gaddafi's hands might teach HRW some sense of proportion.   Then it could help rather than hinder the cause of human rights.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Syrian unity?

It is not my place nor within my abilities to evaluate the new Syrian national council (call it the NC).    However a number of Syrian activists have expressed doubts about its role and prospects.   I hope it is acceptable for me to offer some general comments, not on the council, but on the leadership of other resistance movements, and to note the differences between those movements and what seems to be the case in Syria.

There have been incessant calls for a unified Syrian opposition.   Some of these calls come from activists who cite the obvious tactical and strategic advantages of a united military force.   Others come from great powers who seem to seize on this theme as an excuse for doing nothing:  "oh, we don't know who we're dealing with."   The issues involved here might be clearer if there's attention paid to the different sorts of unity that, in the past, have been found effective for different sorts of resistance movements.    There is the political unity of a government in exile, the unity of a military command, and the often loose organization of an underground movement.

For a clandestine movement, unity can be a distinct disadvantage.   Underground movements are vulnerable to régime repression:  otherwise they would not be underground!   That's why underground movements - for example in Algeria - frequently adopt a highly decentralized structure.   In fact the hardest underground movements to suppress often have no unity at all.   Al Qaeda is a prominent example.   There are many 'Al Qaedas' whose links seem to be tenuous, perhaps not much more than a  sharing of general outlook and goals.    Terrorism 'experts'  speak of a 'hydra' in testimony to the resilience of this model.

In Syria, resistance is not confined to an underground, but has a military component.   There are fighters more or less out in the open, in battle against the régime's armed forces.    There have been specific complaints about weaknesses due to logistical and coordination failures.   It is said, and it seems hard to deny, that unity would help overcome these problems.

Finally there is political opposition.   Within the country, it takes the form of demonstrations, which seem spontaneous or locally organized.   No one seems to complain about the decentralization of these efforts.    Then there are the exile groups who have come together to form a council in the recent Doha negotiations.   They at least resemble a provisional government in exile.   They unite various political opposition groups in a single decision-making body.   Some activists have asserted that the council is well-suited to count as the representative of the Syrian people.

Representation is a political function and the NC is a political body.  Perhaps, like a government, it can fulfil administrative functions, not simply act as a discussion forum in which its component organizations can agree on broad policy matters.  But even if this is the case, its connection with military unity would be atypical in historical terms.

Military unity, of course, implies a clear and more or less unquestioned chain  of command.    Successful armed resistance movements often achieve this - witness China (Mao's Red Army), Vietnam, Algeria (the FLN), Nicaragua (the FSLN) and Cuba.   These organizations take direction from either an individual or a small group:  there is no broad-based deliberation and no pretence at a representative process.   The NC doesn't resemble the leadership of a militarily united organization.

What then do recent developments hold for the prospect of military unity?    In the cases where this unity prevailed - as far as I know, and in all the cases cited above - it was there more or less from the start.   In the cases where there were a number of armed organizations - e.g. Rhodesia, Ireland, Mozambique - these movements stayed separate.    In any event it is difficult to see how a political body in exile can engage in the detailed administration and exercise of authority needed to unify the various military units.    The task would be much easier if all units had adequate weaponry and secure supplies of ammunition; that would reduce real conflicts of interest.    But the West apparently wants unity to be a precondition of adequate supplies, not a consequence!

In the final analysis I'd suppose that events on the ground, not abroad, will be decisive in determining Syria's future.   If so, history seems to caution against expecting too much of the new national council.    If it fails to effect military unity, that may be only because it isn't suited to the task, and shouldn't be charged with that responsibility.   And if military unity is made a condition of substantial military aid, the council's activities are unlikely to satisfy that requirement.

History also suggests that the unity demand, if it's more than a mere excuse for withholding military aid, bears re-evaluation.   Military disunity needn't spell post-war disaster.  Military unity - witness Cambodia - is no guarantee against it.   The post-war outcome seems to depend on post-war support for an enlightened provisional  government such as the national council seems likely to provide.   Libya disunited, for all its problems, is a lot better than Cambodia was, united.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Syria and the End of the Left

The Anglo-American left - at least that portion of the left concerned with foreign affairs - has consistently backed Assad. At one extreme, this is explicit and based on the acceptance of an alternate-universe sort of news flow. At the other end of the spectrum, there are pro-forma condemnations of Assad coupled with calls for 'patient negotiations,' or condemnations of ' Western meddling', or just a throwing up of hands, like Chomsky's "I don't know."(*)  It hardly matters which of these responses predominates. If heeded, they can only benefit the régime, and everyone knows it.

Does anyone who counts for anything listen to the left? It's possible. For one thing, however modest the left's more obvious victories, it's had extensive indirect and diffuse influence - witness the rise of 'political correctness', which originated in 1960s leftism. For another, the left may have influence on Western policy because - as was the case with 'political correctness'- it's pushing at a partly open door. The West is too frightened to act on Syria; it looks for reasons not to. The left's incessant calls for inaction and disengagement have gained audience by their inclusion in papers/websites such as The Guardian, which has attained virtual mainstream status. Perhaps this gets the attention of decision-makers, or those who have real influence with the decision-makers. So the left might modestly congratulate itself on helping Assad survive a bit longer.

It is hard to imagine a more clearly mistaken and less excusable stance. Mistaken, because the facts on Syria are cloudy only to those who want them to be. And even those who supported, say, the Stalin trials, had more excuse, because they had more reason to be mistaken and later, to plead ignorance. How did this happen? The causes lie in an ideology which fostered obliviousness to change.

The bad-person ideology

At the heart of Chomsky-style anti-imperialism is the judgement that America has a bad character. It is selfish, mean and - apparently worst of all, from the thousands of articles devoted to the topic - hypocritical. This claim is supported by surveying most or all of American history and finding a pattern of selfishness, covetousness, brutality, hypocrisy and other vices.

Philosophers can defend the idea of abstract entities such as America, and you could devise some coherent notion of what it is for those entities of have a character. Is America a specially immoral abstract entity, as opposed to all the other nations? Perhaps Chomsky cherry-picks a bit - America has done some good things, like abolishing slavery, instituting some civil liberties, fighting Hitler, and so on. But even if he's perfectly correct, theories about the character of abstract entities are not an adequate basis for politics. For one thing, you don't support or not support political agents just because they're of good or bad character. You have to look at the actual effects of supporting them. For another, politics depends crucially not only on what stays the same - on the enduring features of an abstract entity, for instance - but also on what changes.

Obama, for instance, is not Jack Kennedy, the son of a bitch who invaded Cuba and pushed the Vietnam War into the criminal slaughter it became. And other things have changed too. America does not, as in days of yore, want to plunder the world for resources. What would it do with them? It doesn't manufacture any more and - this is much too recent and fundamental a change for the left to process - it doesn't have to worry about oil supplies any more. It doesn't need an empire or 'hegemony', because there are now numerous independent and vile régimes with whom it maintains a mutually beneficial relationship. Even more important, America has lost too many wars. Some say this started with Korea. Certainly Vietnam was an ignominious defeat, and Afghanistan will be the same. In Iraq, the US never achieved effective control of the territory: if the situation in Germany circa 1946 or later had been anything like the situation in Iraq, ever, Truman or Ike would have sacked the entire general staff. So that, even in narrow military terms, counts as a defeat as well.

As a result of all this, America is weak, both in relative and in absolute terms. It has been pretty consistently unable to impose its will despite its best efforts. It's timid, too. It doesn't want to extend its global reach. Even to maintain its position, it puts it faith in others' armed forces, with almost comical results in Iraq and Afghanistan. It wants the UN and NATO to take over so America doesn't keep getting defeated in its farcical adventures. Since this isn't going to happen, it doesn't know what to do.

Bad-person ideologues have a hard time acknowledging this because, for them, it isn't enough for America to be bad. It has to be importantly bad, and therefore very powerful; only this can justify the good old routine of condemning America to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. The stubborn commitment to America as a juggernaut has an unpleasant yet typically American side effect: the rest of the world is virtually deprived of agency. That's why, for bad-person ideologues, 9/11 was a mere crime, a police matter, not a major assault on US power. And that's why, to the left, America's victims seem tiny, helpless, hardly human. How, after all, could these little people stand up to America? This stealth-chauvinism naturally distorts the analysis of events like the Syrian or Libyan uprisings which, because applauded by the US, are seen as mere pawns in an American game.

Evading realities

These distortions may divorce the bad-person ideology from political reality, but they don't raise doubts among its adherents. After all, their moral beliefs are unaffected, and are likely to remain so. America is and will continue to be bad. That's because states, generally speaking, are indeed of bad moral character. Countries generally pursue their own interests, often at the expense of the world's poor and oppressed, often as part of their national democratic mandate. Yet they pretend to do otherwise, so they're hypocritical. As long as this doesn't change - and it won't - bad-person ideologues can keep preaching with minimal regard for the course of history.

What would it take to expose the weakness of the bad-person ideology? recognition that being a morally bad country doesn't preclude being on the morally right side of things. Bad countries can pursue good policies, just as bad people can do good deeds. Until recently, this wasn't happening: the US was pretty consistently on the wrong side of any conflict. But what about Syria? The US, ineffectually as usual, sides with the Syrian revolution. Because the US is for it, and the US is bad, the left is against it. Rather than abandon its obsession with bad character, it sides with atrocity. Since, of course, it can't admit this, it does what all bankrupt ideologues do: it denies reality. It can persist in this denial because, once more oblivious to change, it doesn't realize it's lost one of its main assets: access to secret or suppressed information.

Once, the left had such access. It exposed atrocities in the American South, in Vietnam, in Chile, in Palestine and many other places. Indeed this was probably the chief immediate and concrete accomplishment of the left. Today - at most in the past couple of years - things have changed. The left no longer has special access, and has moved from sources no one else had, to sources no one else wants.

This has very little to do with social media; it has much to do with the brand-new ubiquity of smart phones and camera phones. We're flooded with data from everywhere. Yes, some of that is fake, but here too, the left doesn't get it. For one thing, most of the material is video. It can be faked or misrepresented, but it's a much tougher proposition than faking a single image - and by now there are well over 100,000 mutually reinforcing videos presenting the opposition case.(**) For another, online activity doesn't just repackage data as truth; it analyses it. Every day, even the videos favorable to the Syrian opposition are examined for forgery by the Syrian opposition. And because journalists now get most of their information from online sources, they too participate in the vetting process. It's not perfect, but when a conflict produces literally hundreds of thousands of videos, it's accurate enough: so far, no important falsehood is known to have survived online examination for more than a few hours.

The left protects itself from dealing with this change by ratcheting up selective scepticism. "It's all faked!" This level of suspicion, oddly enough, never extends to pro-Assad reports, just as it never extends to pro-Qaddafi reports. If the left applied to Israel the childishly distorted standards of evidence it applies to Syria, the Israelis could claim with impunity that they've never harmed a hair on any Palestinian's head.

Bereft of genuinely special information, the left has made a fool of itself. It has turned to beyond-the-fringe 'experts' like Michel Chossudovsky, whose Global Research site offers 'anti-imperialists' new levels of delusion. When, for example, the Syrian and Turkish governments agreed that Syria had fired shells across the Turkish border, Chossudovsky ran a piece citing "widespread speculation that the one Syrian mortar that killed five Turkish civilians well might have been fired by Turkish-backed opposition forces intent on giving Turkey a pretext to move militarily, in military intelligence jargon, a ‘false flag’ operation.[1]" The footnote is to a Reuters piece which, being sane, says nothing of the kind.


It is difficult to know how much of this fringe material is offered in good faith. No doubt some of the bad ideologues realize that the Syrian revolution is not a great-power plot allied with a fundamentalist rampage, but want to oppose the US for supposed geopolitical reasons. In other words, the less deluded part of the left apparently believes it is engaging in Realpolitik: let the Syrians bleed because, though Assad is a bad person, he is the enemy of a worse person, America, and therefore our friend.

This is an infantile sort of realism. When Bismark instituted a welfare system to co-opt the socialists, when Stalin allied with Hitler and when the West later allied with Stalin, that was Realpolitik. Supporting Assad is not. It lacks one essential ingredient of any 'Politik' - an objective.

For the left's 'Realpolitik' to have an objective, keeping Assad in power would have to be good for something. It can't be. Assad, win or lose, is a spent force. The most he can ever do is fight and repress an opposition which will never cease to struggle for its very survival. Even if they were all wiped out, there would be hundreds of thousands seething with anger and looking for any opportunity for revenge. Assad's atrocities are not the sort of thing forgiven or forgotten. That covert rage was essentially the reaction to Hafez Assad's repression of the 1982 Hama revolt; a much broader and deeper reaction is all that could be expected today. Nor will the régime be able to buy its way towards reconciliation: if Assad wins, his economy will be choked by sanctions and trade disruptions. No one can rationally expect him to be any good to anyone - not Iran, not Russia or China, not Hezbollah, not the Palestinians, not any great cause. So there is nothing to 'anti-imperialist' support for Assad, and opposition to toppling him, but spite and resentment, nothing but bitterness towards the Morally Bad Person, the West, or the US. That's not politics, that's sulking.


The Syrian revolution is a political watershed. Never have the facts - for those willing to look - been so clear. No amount of scare-mongering can offer reasons to favor the régime. If Assad wins, unending atrocities are certain. If the FSA wins, the future may turn out to be anything from as bad to much better: no one has offered scenarios that look worse, and it seems as if only the more optimistic possibilities are discounted. The certainty of Assad's horrors cannot be preferred to the uncertainties of his overthrow.

Of course contemporary leftists are far from the only ones to have chosen brutality over humanity. But they are perhaps the first to make that choice quite so pointlessly and in the face of such undeniable realities. Their decision is driven by hard-hearted petulance and the conviction that their aimless, obsolete moralizing somehow exempts them from common decency. These are reasons that do not even rise to the level of intelligent cynicism.

Syrians say they will never forgive this. Neither should anyone else. If there is to be a left that can be mentioned without disgust, it will emerge only when the existing 'anti-imperialist' left is thoroughly dismissed. It is in that sense that we witness the end of the left.

(*) Allegedly his response to a question on Syria at a talk in Cairo, October 2012. After a year and a half, he doesn't know? Hard to imagine clearer evidence of ideological paralysis.

(**) "Anyone can make a fake video and post it just as anyone can send a fake picture to the BBC, but over a hundred thousand videos of the struggle in Syria have been posted to YouTube in that last year and they make up a very convincing record that can not be faked." - Daily Kos: Fake Houla Massacre Photo: Was the BBC set up? See also Jess Hill on "Assad's Useful Idiots".

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Executions, Procedures and Justice

The same people who emphasize the disunity and lack of leadership among the FSA are eager to attribute summary executions to the FSA.     But summary executions pose problems beyond the mere attribution of responsibility.   There are issues about the laws and conventions invoked to condemn the executions - I've discussed these issues at excessive length in another post and will be very brief about them here.   Then there are questions about due process.   These require close examination because due process, 'procedural justice', has become an article of faith.   Maybe that's overdone.  Finally there are questions about justice in a viciously oppressive state.

Laws, conventions and their application

First, international laws and conventions are just good wishes.   Unlike the laws of a state, they're not backed by generally accepted tribunals or enforcement arms - if at all.  They're also not the product of anything like a democratic process.  So it doesn't do to go on about these laws and conventions as if they were the bedrock of civilization.

Second, the summary executions of the FSA, however similar, should not be equated with those of the régime.   The régime is supposedly a state,with an established criminal justice system and all its infrastructure.   The FSA has nothing of the sort.

Third,  the FSA is not a cohesive body.   It's a fragmented, undefined collection of wildly disparate groups.   Nothing can be attributed to that collection, including the excesses of FSA fighters.   Keep it simple and attribute responsibility to those who perform the acts.

The outrage at summary executions obscures a much more disturbing problem.   In settled societies where law and order generally prevails, the insistence on proper judicial procedure is extremely important:  we don't want vigilante justice because we have something we presume is much better.   And belief in the importance of procedural justice of course helps cement the supremacy of the government, which has a monopoly on these procedures.   But those who must live under tyrannical or nakedly unjust régimes - let alone rampantly murderous ones - might well take a different view.   They might ask some tough questions.

Due process in theory and practice

What does proper judicial procedure  have to do with being just?  In theory, nothing.   A fair procedure isn't sufficient to produce a just outcomes:  perhaps the innocent are mistakenly convicted, and the guilty mistakenly go free.   A fair procedure also isn't necessary:  an unfair procedure might, even consistently, produce just results.   Among these unfair procedures is summary justice.   Nowhere is it written that summary justice must fall on the innocent rather than the guilty.   One might even wonder if summary justice must always count as unfair:  what if there's overwhelming evidence the  person judged is guilty?

So much for the theory.  What then about the realities?  Take the US, with its nice constitutional rights and elaborate judicial apparatus.   Only now, when DNA testing has been employed by such movements as the Innocence Project, are we getting some idea of just how often the innocent are indeed found guilty, and in capital cases.  (Don't say, 'but in these cases the judicial process was defective'.  We're talking realities now, and these are the realities of procedural justice.)   But convicting the innocent is probably not even the greatest defect of procedural justice - there are also procedurally just convictions under unjust or stupid laws, like the drug laws which have done much to give the US the world's highest incarceration rate.   This is how procedural justice functions in a society most of the world can only envy.

Yet this is only half of what would concern those living under unjust governments enforcing their rule by brutal repression.   Anyone with any experience of such régimes will be struck by the utter impunity enjoyed by those on the right side of wealth and power.   They do what they like, and the authorities do far worse.   So what tends to concern those oppressed by the régime is not simply that the innocent are punished, but also that the guilty - so many of them, with such terrible crimes to their name - go free.

Someone who's lived this - and whose grandparents' grandparents have lived it - can have no rational expectation that procedural justice will produce just outcomes.  Now suppose that, at long last, the régime is challenged and its procedures are in tatters, while its erstwhile victims are fighting for their lives.   They capture some soldiers of the régime.  What now?

Justice in Syria

Is procedural justice a live option?  The Geneva Convention was formulated with national armies in mind.  National armies generally have the capacity to accommodate prisoners.   Fighters in desperate circumstances generally don't.   But suppose they can set something up.   What then?   They could establish tribunals but these, given the viciously partisan atmosphere, will inevitably and rightly  be termed 'kangaroo courts'.   Or they could wait until victory - assuming it will come, assuming the prisoners will remain prisoners until then, assuming the aftermath of victory will be - what a large assumption! - a just society in which high standards of procedural justice prevail.

And what then?   Even then, only the realities of procedural justice, not the ideal, can be expected.  There will likely be a new criminal code, and already that makes trial for offenses prior to the code procedurally dubious.    Then there will be the matter of evidence.   Will there be any?  collected by whom?  how long ago?  according to what approved procedures?   Under the circumstances, it's very unlikely that anything incriminating will stand up in court:  even international tribunals manage to prosecute only high officials about whom there will be a wealth of authenticated material.    The plain ordinary folks of the old régime - the torturers, the murderers and those complicit in their crimes - will likely have little to worry about, at least if proper procedures are in force.  On top of everything else, with tens of thousands deserving punishment, justice if it comes will take decades, or forever.  Once again, the fighters would have no rational grounds for expecting procedural justice to produce a just outcome.

This is where the hardest questions arise.   We cannot robotically insist on procedural justice, which so often is no justice at all.   Its very modest real-life virtues have to be weighed not only against its defects but against other imperatives:  that crimes are to be punished, and that the punishment must fit the crime.  These are not the principles of barbarians frothing at the mouth for revenge; they are respectable elements of academic jurisprudence.   What becomes of them when procedural justice, in so many ways, proves inadequate?    Does the record of our judicial systems suggest that a judicial apparatus is fairer or more accurate than the snap judgement of the executioners?

Yes, given the resources and security, the FSA could establish a nice-looking judicial system and put on an impressive display of juristic sophistication before it machine-gunned its captives.   Would that be better?   What if we had videos, not only of the summary executions, but of what is endured by the victims of judicial injustice?  When Khatib4FreeSyria (@machkhatib) writes, "Cluster-bombing, rape-and-butchering, child-throat-slitting, livestock-torching, city-leveling #Assad army deserves mercy?"  we need to admit that justice really is about what people deserve.   Perhaps better to criticize brutalities - and the opposition admits there is much to criticize - than to wax self-righteous over violations of judicial procedure.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Why the US should establish a no-fly zone over Syria

Forget humanitarian arguments.  US policy is almost entirely driven by an obsession with Man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADs) falling into the hands of 'terrorists' and 'jihadis'.   It would rather every single Syrian die than facilitate the spread of these weapons - after all, if a US or Israeli aircraft was blown up by one, the president might lose the next election!

At this point, there's little to worry about. The FSA has SAM-7s, a Soviet-era model which, in long experience, has proven just about useless against fixed-wing aircraft.   By now, even commercial airliners either have or can acquire countermeasures against these devices.  But without a no-fly zone,  the FSA will doubtless do its utmost to acquire more capable MANPADs.   It's unlikely they could get the US Stinger, but presumably there are more advanced Soviet/Russian systems available.   Serbia and Iraq have had one such system, the SA-16, for years.  The Tamil Tigers acquired one and it saw service in El Salvador and Angola.  It has a good record even against fairly advanced aircraft.  Commercial airliners would be sitting ducks.

The implications are clear, at least on the assumption that Turkey and Jordan could be persuaded to cooperate.   If the US does not establish a no-fly zone, that greatly increases the probability of what it fears most, the proliferation of effective MANPADs.   If the US does establish a no-fly zone, it greatly diminishes that probability.   Perhaps this is obvious to American intelligence organizations.   But since US policy shows no sign of intelligent direction, it seems worth pointing out.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Libya and Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch (henceforth HRW) has released a report on the killings of 66 men who were with Qaddafi's convoy when he himself was killed.   It's complete with video narrated by a man with an unctuous voice, terribly concerned.   These people were abused, he says, though neither video nor testimony shows anything more than you'd expect from an arrest of someone the cops disliked anywhere in the world.   But there is convincing evidence - convincing because meticulously documented - that many of these men were later executed, hands bound behind their back.

This thing is, important human rights are violated around the world, at least tens of thousands of times a day.  I don't refer to such important rights as having enough to eat, in which case the violations would be in the hundreds of millions.   Suppose there is good reason to focus on the more dramatic violations - like the prisoners who suffer brutal beatings, rape, and torture, or the women whose faces are splashed with acid, or the street kids shot by police as they sleep in doorways, anti-logging activists gunned down by hired thugs.   There are also those who may well indeed be guilty of something but who are 'summarily executed' by vigilante mobs, or police.

Then, of course, there are all those innocents mutilated, tortured to death or blown to bits by Qaddafi-like régimes such as Assad's, or by the cruel militias of the Congo.  Such an embarrassment of riches!  How to choose?  And when?

HRW has chosen to investigate human rights violations committed in what might be called the most extenuating of circumstances, and a time when it will benefit as bad a violator of human rights as exists on this earth today.   Misrata fighters, who had suffered months of the most brutal assault on their city by a half-crazed sadistic dictator, took bloody vengeance on those who seemed - and still seem, for all we've heard - complicit in this atrocity.   The investigation is a propaganda gift to Assad, whose defenders will hasten to make comparisons with Libya and who will point out that these same Libyan fighters are, in some cases, on the ground with the FSA in Syria.  The propaganda will be all the more effective because HRW has in effect given its stamp of approval to focus on similar killings in Syria, even though they cannot compare with Assad's atrocities.  Was this the right investigation at the right time?

It's not as if the bad effects are balanced by good ones.   No one seriously believes that the investigations will improve the human rights situation in Libya, or indeed anywhere else.   Those who suffered Qaddafi's oppression will not find that the report - which tells them nothing new - should count more than the horrors they've seen and experienced.   And the world has never shown itself more prone to respect human rights because of any HRW report, much less some exposé of victims' revenge.  Some of the reports may have the limited good effect of benefiting a good cause, but that's just what this report doesn't do.

I suppose it would be too much to ask that HRW investigators even consider alternatives that would do most to further the cause of human rights.   After all, such alternatives - like arming the FSA - would come outside the specialized self-mandated writ of the organization.   Let's suppose this writ is more important than actually reducing human rights violations.   So here's another idea:  chose violations whose exposure at least won't play into the hands of the worst violators.  That way, at least the investigations won't actually work in favor of an increase in horrific crimes.

But that runs up against another of HRW's high moral principles:  to investigate without fear or favor.   Pay no mind to politics.  Pay no mind to the effects of your activity.  Squeeze consequences out of  your field of vision and concentrate only on the details of individual cases,  even if this plays into the hands of the worst human rights violators.  Be impartial, not only in the investigations themselves, but in your choice of what to investigate.  In short, don't corrupt your choice of investigation by considering whether it is helpful or harmful.  We should, it seems, be indifferent to whether we make the world better or worse.

HRW will protest that they have also investigated, for years, human rights violations in Syria.   This is irrelevant to whether they should have investigated the killings in Libya.   The question is not whether all the choices HRW has made are bad.   It whether the choice to investigate the killings in Libya was bad.

HRW may also say that investigating the Libya killings ups its credibility generally, which is a good thing.   However there are many ways to improve one's credibility - is this one of the better ways to do so?   If the reports on Libya increase HRW's credibility, that will make HRW all the more useful for Assad's apologists.   And  it is not clear whether HRW actually needs more credibility.   It seems that, credible or not, people accept or ignore HRW reports according to their political agendas, not according to their standards of evidence.

HRW may remind us that circumstances and resources don't permit investigating all violations and Libya is one case where they could conduct a thorough investigation.   This too doesn't help.   Suppose, in some town, there are rapes of whites by blacks, and of blacks by whites.   Since the whites are well-protected and plan meticulously, HRW can issue reports only on the black-on-white rapes, resulting in a boost for violent anti-black racism.   Are we to accept that if HRW sighs, "we just do what we can"?

In the end, HRW bases its choices on on their effects on HRW itself.   Do the investigations show the organization to conform to its own guidelines and principles?    Do they show the organization to have integrity, impartiality, and other signs of good character?   Well, fine then.   Whether the investigations actually further the cause of human rights is neither here nor there.   Unsurprising, perhaps, from those who have not themselves experienced oppression.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Morsi and Egypt: A Plea for Cynicism

150 injuries in Tahrir.  Why?

Many of the thousands who gathered in Tahrir Square were angry at this week's court ruling that acquitted former officials charged with ordering a camel-and-horseback charge on protesters in the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak last year.
But even before that ruling, Mursi's opponents had called for protests against what they say is his failure to deliver on his promises for his first 100 days in office.

So Morsi had opponents who had a demonstration planned, and nothing was going to be more important - especially not an improper move against the old régime:
Even some political groups who wanted Mahmoud out questioned the way Mursi had done it. The liberal Free Egyptians Party said changing the prosecutor should be an independent judicial move.
And for some, Morsi could not be supported because he might as well be the old régime.  As one activist put it,

"Now I regret [having voted for Morsi to prevent former Mubarak loyalists from winning] because they are just two faces of the same coin," Waleed said. "Morsi has done nothing for the revolution. I want to say I am so sorry for bringing in another repressive regime."
These regrets rest on a dubious assumption.  No one has brought in another 'regime'.  Whatever Morsi's ultimate agenda may be, there is no régime yet.  There is a President attempting to establish executive authority and a judiciary attempting to prevent him from doing so.  There is no valid constitution, only a bunch of past documents.  These documents, the products of an undemocratic, unjust past, can't possibly be seen as legitimate in the eyes of anyone claiming to be a revolutionary.  There is no consensus on how to obtain a new constitution.  His control over the police and the military is problematic. Above all, there is no legislative branch.  Anyone fighting a Morse 'regime' has mistaken a work-in-progress - one that isn't going all that well - for a settled reality.

This isn't surprising, because there are aspects of the reality that many secular  liberals don't want to recognize.  Those who have fought for democracy need to concede that Morsi is the people's choice.  It doesn't matter if you add up various parties in the last election and get more votes than Morsi.  Morsi got a plurality; that's how it works.  His presidency has more legitimacy than any other institution in the state.
That doesn't in itself oblige anyone to support him. There are certainly moral and even political principles of justice and liberty that don't yield to an election.  But these principles themselves cannot be invoked to justify actions that militate against them.  That's what seems to be happening in recent days.
What a spectacle!  Liberals defend 'the independence of the judiciary'.  What independence? the judiciary is the tool of the old régime forces.  One might even ask, what judiciary?  These are not simply the appointments of some past régime.  They are the appointments of a dictatorship so unjust, so cruel, so hated that Egyptians in their hundreds of thousands braved snipers, beatings, prison and torture to destroy it.  Now would be a good time to remember the words of Sara Carr:

The real problem is that The Former Regime is spoken of like it is an inanimate object, some lurking monster growling in the corner when in fact - and this isn’t breaking news - the regime is the people themselves.

Apparently this applies even to some of most outspoken secular liberals.  Why else would they speak of 'the independence of the judiciary'?  It is as if Russian people, having overthrown the cruel Tsarist régime in 1917, were somehow obliged to respect the decisions of the judges who had, on a regular basis, done their utmost to legitimate torture, repression and murder.  The comparison is almost too exact.

Better some moderate cynicism than this grotesque idealism.  Morsi took a crucial step to destroy the most deeply entrenched elements of a régime still capable, as if from the grave, of torture and murder.  Who cares what it says in, I don't know, the constitution of 1923?  Who cares if you had some nice demonstration all planned to protest some maneuverings around the drafting of a new constitution?  How does that justify fighting - literally fighting - an attempt to remove perhaps the chief remaining obstacle to adopting a constitution of any sort?  Yes, for all I know, Morsi may be on the way to establishing an extreme fundamentalist theocracy.  But this is only a theory, only a possibility, only one spectre among many.  It cannot be addressed until the groundwork of the revolution is at least close to completion, and that requires destroying, not defending, the old judicial apparatus.  Less abstractly, it requires bringing to justice the bastards who killed many  innocent people, all to preserve the privileges of an élite who still manage to act with virtual impunity.

Morsi is not going to be stopped by a few thousand liberals fighting with a few thousand Islamists.  If the liberals turn out in force to oppose his attempts to get rid of the old régime, how is that supposed to make Islamist domination less rather than more likely?  How is it supposed to strengthen the liberal forces?  Rather than espouse this mystifying strategy, why not help rather than hinder his attempts?  Rather than leaping to the defense of the very people who tortured, murdered and imprisoned liberal activists, why not have a little less faith in baleful predictions about theocracy?  It's not a good sign if "but we had a nice demonstration all planned!" turns into a protest whose net effect is to support the remnants of the old order.  Maybe it would be better to pay less attention to constitutional maneuverings and more attention to present realities.  Bad timing can ruin even the most admirable political agendas.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

NuffSilence on US Policy in Syria: Let 'Em Bleed?

I'm a great admirer of NuffSilence (@NuffSilence), who blogs and tweets about Syria.   He is always principled and insightful, sometimes brilliant, often witty.   I would never question his judgement on Syria, but I am less confident about his judgement on the US.   He believes that the US has not helped the Syrian resistance because it prefers to let it bleed:
As long as the crisis in Syria can attract the funding and the willing Salafi fighters of the region, divert their effort from other crisis areas where they can disturb American interests, why not?

Why not allow this to go on, let the guys have their fight endlessly with ridiculously primitive weapons against the superior but gradually flailing power of the regime. Why not let the crisis go on until it exhausted both the Jihadis and the regime. Let the regime get weaken rather than fall with a knock-down.
I'm disputing this because it may be useful to have an accurate understanding of American non-policy on Syria.  I believe nuffsilence's analysis is doubtful for the following reasons.

First, one must distinguish between the pathetic idiots in the US Congress and the pathetic weaklings in the US executive branch, where foreign policy is conducted.   The policy-makers don't know much, but they do know a little.   They know not only the difference between Islamists and Salafis, but also between Salafis and 'Al Qaeda' in its many incarnations.   Unlike Congress, they know these 'jihadis' are not the Al Qaeda of 9-11, and therefore haven't a strong motive to base their Syria policy on any such assumption.

Second, if they were terribly frightened of the 'Jihadis' or Salafis in Syria, they certainly wouldn't want them armed and financed.   That wouldn't really be to repeat their mistake in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but it would be close enough.  The Obama administration would see a grave domestic disadvantage in countenancing the financing of 'Jihadi terror'.   That would add to their already substantial embarrassment at being allied with the Saudis (notorious for their backing of 'jihad').   And this embarrassment matters more than Syrian lives, more even than their position in the Middle East, because it would hurt their standing with the American electorate.   It can never be over-emphasized:   Americans don't really care about foreign policy and certainly not about foreign countries or their inhabitants.   Saudi financing of 'jihadis' would not be seen in foreign policy terms but as a domestic issue:  is the President tough on terror?   The President cares more about this domestic issue than he does about Syria.

Third, the Americans are highly unlikely to place bets on the 'jihadis' bleeding out.   Why would they?   On the contrary, for America, and perhaps even in reality, fundamentalist terrorism is extremely resilient.   Indeed Americans believe that the Arab or Muslim world harbors literally millions of discontented young men just dying to participate in 'Jihad', not to mention hundreds of billionaire Arabs only too happy to finance them from bottomless coffers.   All this militates against the idea that the US would adopt a bleed-them-out strategy.

Fourth, there is no evidence that the US does or ever has adopted such an approach.   It did not do so in Libya, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, nor anywhere else.   Sure, American policymakers might have a new idea.  But when they do,  at this level of generality, they have never been discrete about it.  Their changes in policy have been accompanied by endless 'analyses'  touting the flavor of the month, be it building democracy or war on terror or neoliberalism or neoconservatism.    Yet bleed-'em-dry is nowhere to be found.

Fifth, supposing the US did want to adopt such an approach, it wouldn't do so in a country that borders Lebanon, Israel and Iraq.  The Americans are far too worried about destabilisation, which in their fevered imagination would provide even more opportunities for 'jihadis', and even more occasion for arms to fall into extremist hands.

Finally, the reasons behind US policy are clear, and depressing.   For anything larger than a Grenada-scale military action, the US has always wanted one of two things - international approval or the invitation of a sovereign government, however illegitimate (e.g., Vietnam).   Until recently, the US has been able to obtain this diplomatic fig leaf virtually on demand.  Even in Kosovo they could claim to be implementing a UN resolution and reacting to events condemned by the UN Security Council.    In Syria, for the first time, the US encountered direct, explicit and decisive opposition to UN involvement.   This means that large-scale intervention, in the air as well as on the ground, is out of the question.   Only if Turkey or Israel invoke defense treaty violations can anything happen.

So all that remains is to supply, semi-covertly, arms.    The US may have some hand in backing GSA supplies of these arms, but this extends only to pretty useless, lightweight stuff, and inadequate supplies of ammunition.   What the US will not countenance, under any circumstances whatever, is giving the FSA what it needs, namely advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft shoulder-fired missiles (MANPADs).   And the reason is simple:  the US is utterly terrified that such weapons end up being used in attacks on Americans, on Israel, or on any sort of civilian aviation, anywhere.

This is what lies behind all the bogus talk about 'needing to know who we're dealing with' and, more recently, 'unity'.   A few days ago, a news story gave the game away.  It had to do with, allegedly, why the Qataris were not shippng arms to the Syrian opposition:
"They were very clear that we needed to get organised and present a proper plan," said one opposition leader present at the talks, who gave the nom-de-guerre, Abu Mohsin.
"The Qataris were concerned because they had not been able to get back a lot they gave to the Libyan [rebels] and they did not want the same situation to happen in Syria.
"The Qataris said that the Americans were very worried about this happening again."
What this says is that the Qataris are not big fans of unity because they care whether the Syrian opposition lives or dies.   They're fans of unity because they absolutely have to get all the good unused stuff back when it's all over.   The 'unity' ploy, so widely used, is an excuse for doing nothing: Qatar knows damn well that the FSA cannot and will not 'unify' into a conventional force, let alone one so 'trustworthy' that it can guarantee that what will become of its weapons in some indeterminate future.  Nor would this be as wonderful as claimed:  a united movement would have a command detached from all-important local, immediate realities, and its strategic decisions would not necessarily produce a better result than what's happening right now.

One has to conclude that the US is dead set against sending serious weaponry, either directly or indirectly.   Its intention isn't to bleed anyone dry; it is to keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists.   It knows the FSA isn't terrorist and it knows it can, by picking the recipients, have some imperfect assurance that the weapons won't fall into the hands of terrorists.  It doesn't care;. It wants an absolute certainty it knows it can't have.  It goes without saying that the Europeans are too timid to do anything without the US.

The implications of this may be useful.   There really is no point trying to assure the West that the FSA is moderate, scrupulous, or anything else.   There is  no point trying to please the West in any way, much less tailoring strategy to that end.   And perhaps there is some point in making this clear to the West.  Perhaps that will make the West understand to what extent they have alienated and infuriated tbe Syrian opposition.   Maybe, just maybe,  the fears that engenders will outweigh the fears of supporting the FSA.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Syria Getting You Down? Write Lady Gaga!

In a remote area not served by ambulances, a neighbor's child has fallen off a shed roof and suffered serious injury.    Some of us say, drive the child to the hospital.   Some say, it's none of our business.   Some say, how awful!   let's mail a letter to Lady Gaga and see if she'll help.   Others look for the kid's little brother to tell him not to climb trees.  Others say it is a very tricky issue and the alternatives should be carefully weighed.

There aren't four points of view here.  There are two.   There are those who favor saving the kid, and those who favor leaving him to his fate.   The second group is composed of brutes who are clear about their choice, and creeps who deliberately obfuscate because don't want to look too brutish.   I say deliberately because they seem to know what they're about.   They couldn't really be so dumb as to believe in their ploys, could they?

So here there are real and fake alternatives.   How about Syria?
One real alternative is arming the FSA with modern anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, and lots of ammunition.   This will almost assure their victory.  Since there is a war going on, we may also be sure that the FSA will commit war crimes and human rights violations - just like, for instance, the Allies in World War II.

 Another real alternative is not arming the FSA.    In this case, perhaps Assad would win, and certainly the struggle will go on much longer.   Régime forces will continue to operate for months or even years.   The certainties here are that the régime will commit war crimes and human rights violations many orders of magnitude more vicious and more extensive than anything perpetrated by the FSA.   If Assad wins, repression incorporating these crimes will go on indefinitely.

There are no other real alternatives.   The FSA will never conduct itself with Ikea-level innocuousness.   The Syrian régime will never, in the heat of war, attain a level of basic humanity that it never reached in peacetime.   Neither side will ever compromise because because both sides face an enemy absolutely determined to destroy them.   And because this is a world of adults, not children, 'we' will never find allies in Syria 'we' can trust,  nor will the orgy of violence become an orgy of nonviolence.   Finally, the hand-wringing West will not suddenly be overcome with lust for empire and conquer Syria with a crusading army.  These ideas, like negotiating with Assad, can arise only within a determined effort to deny reality.

Write Lady Gaga

To deny these are the alternatives is not to advocate doing nothing; it is to make that choice.  The deniers belong to the "write Lady Gaga" crowd.   To advocate negotiations, to 'work' on calling the FSA to account for its crimes, to bemoan 'militarization' of the conflict, to insist on the virtues of nonviolence, to pretend to be serious about the UN or the Arab  League or Morsi's good wishes - all these are little more than flights into fantasy.   At most they are cosmetic 'initiatives that will yield at most cosmetic results - for example, FSA 'leaders' in Turkey promising to abide by the Geneva Conventions.   These so-called results serve only to make inactivity more comfortable.

Find the kid's brother

As for those who focus on humanitarian aid - not the aid workers themselves, but the nations who make this the centrepiece of their policy - they are like the find-the-kid's-brother bunch.   Sending humanitarian aid is not a decision about the conflict in Syria; it is a decision to do something about one of its consequences.   It takes us away from the conflict itself, even from Syria itself.   It's the magician's trick, misdirection.  We are implored to spare a thought for the refugees - "the children", usually - so that we don't notice how many children don't even get to be refugees.   Instead they die, some under torture.  Our attention has been led away from the very cause of the refugee problem.   That cause, the desperate struggle itself, is left to go on and on.

It's very tricky

Of course you could, like the 'very tricky issue' people, always muddy the waters by attaching scary uncertainties to the real alternatives. What if the FSA goes all Al Qaeda on us?  What if their victory is followed by a sectarian bloodbath?  The bad faith of these speculations becomes apparent when you realize that the uncertainties are always attached to doing something, i.e., arming the FSA,   The scary uncertainties attached to doing nothing aren't mentioned.   Gee, how about those chemical weapons?   What if Assad survives and develops nukes?  deploys chemical weapons against Israel?   foments a return to civil war in Lebanon?  unleashes Kurdish separatists against Turkey?  enables Iran to funnel all sorts of deadly new technology to Hezbollah?  I dunno, steals our wimmen??

This scare-mongering is very popular among commentators and decision-makers who favor inaction.  All the 'experts' who urge caution, or write those conclusion-less 'analyses', adopt the same pernicious tactic.   First they cherry-pick possible bad outcomes whose actual probabilities are either completely unknown or studiously ignored.  Then they present their slanted collections of nightmares as weighty reasons to do nothing, that is, 'to proceed with caution'.  If they stuck with the certainties,  the real pros and cons of the real choices would be clear.   But that's exactly what the commentators want to avoid.   They want to let Assad continue wreaking sadistic catastrophe while covering their asses with 'analyses'.

The 'analyses' gain credibility from the completely unwarranted tacit assumption that, should some of these possible bad consequences occur, nothing can be done about them.

The Al Qaeda bogeyman is a good example of this.  Suppose Al Qaeda did become important after Assad's fall.   How exactly would that work?  Al Qaeda would  be operating in a country - unlike Afghanistan or Pakistan or Mali or Yemen - completely surrounded by governments and societies that hate it.   Most of these governments - Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Israel - are militarily strong and have strong relations with powerful states like the US.   In Syria, Al Qaeda would be detested by all the minorities and - given the decades-long resilience of organizations like the Muslim Brothers - most of the majority.    So how is this supposed to become some terror tsunami?   How would this be even remotely as bad as Assad's continuing rule?   It is again telling that these questions are never asked.  Telling too is the another sleazy imbalance:  no one professes helplessness should Assad precipitate some problem with his neighbors.

From callousness to cowardice

In short it's like the injured kid story.   Don't be fooled by the earnest pursuit of irrelevant or impossible alternatives.  Don't be impressed by the pretentious experts and 'policy wonks'.   There is no honor here, no rationality, no decency, only callousness and cowardice.   Dressing it up as something else just makes it even more contemptible.