Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Brown Moses' credibility - and a conversation about chemical weapons

Brown Moses is under attack for having failed to reveal a conversation with Matthew Van Dyke.  In this conversation, Van Dyke says the following (verbatim extracts):

don't rule out the possibility that the rebels do have a small quantity of chemical weapons.  I've had information for a few months on this

I have a source that has been reliable in the past, who gave me information about the rebels having acquired a small quantity a few months ago, and I know what building they came out of.   and I know some things about the building, having been to the site, that give the information some additional credibility.

I think it was a small quantity, judging by where they were stored but by small quantity, I mean possibly hundreds of shells of some type.  I do not know.   The source didn't have that level of detail.

It is said that the failure to report this conversation damages Brown Moses' credibility.  It does not.  Whether or not Brown Moses should have reported the conversation for some other reason, his credibility is not at issue.

What is Brown Moses credible about?  He is not a reporter.  He is not a witness.  He looks at thousands of reports, and analyses them.  His credibility stems from the caution with which he comes to conclusions and the meticulous care with which he evaluates the testimony - in a number of media - of others.

What is involved in the process of evaluation?  It involves discarding many hundreds of reports as unreliable or irrelevant.   In his analyses, of course, he does not repeat the vast majority of these unreliable reports:  only in rare cases, where a report is thought by others to have credibility, might he report them, to offer reasons why this is not the case.

Where chemical weapons are involved, most of the reports discarded by Brown Moses, and most of the reports he discredits, have attributed the use of chemical weapons to the Assad regime.  In some cases it now seems that these reports may have been correct: subsequent information has made them more plausible.  So it is hardly the case that his sorting of reports has exhibited anti-Assad bias.

The conversation with Matt Van Dyke fits into this pattern.  I myself have seen many reports - a tiny fraction of what Brown Moses has examined - where all sorts of things are called chemical weapons which are anything but.  There are, for example, kits which test for chemical weapons.  There are also cases where riot gas, phosphorous shells and other munitions have been called chemical weapons, but which are not considered chemical weapons by specialists, and which could not be implicated in the notorious Sarin attacks whose examination is associated with Brown Moses' work.  ('Chemical weapons' is typical of the broad, inaccurate descriptions ubiquitous in Syria reports.  Any fighter plane may be called a 'MIG'; armored personal carriers and self-propelled guns are called 'tanks'; any large surface-to-surface missile becomes a SCUD.)

Consider, in this context, the conversation with Matt Van Dyke.   First, he has not seen any chemical weapons, nor does he claim to have seen them.   He claims to have been 'given information' that the rebels have them.  The information is said to come from 'a source that has been reliable in the past'.  But about what?  Presumably this someone is not a chemical weapons specialist, but simply someone who has talked to Van Dyke in the past, about other events.  Considering that the mis-characterization of munitions as 'chemical weapons' has been more the rule than the exception, this matters.

But wait!  Van Dyke does not say that his source claims to have seen any weapons.  He has been 'given information'.  This could mean that his source has seen them, but also that he talked to someone who has seen them or, for all we know, talked to someone who talked to someone who has seen them.  All we know for sure is that someone is said to have seen them - possibly the reliable source, possibly not.

Now what of Van Dyke himself?  Is he a credible, authoritative source?  I personally might trust him, but the answer is that he can't be judged either credible nor not credible.   He has made short documentary films and also characterizes himself as a freelance journalist.  But his reporting experience is very limited and he has never been subject to the sort of professional scrutiny that career journalists normally undergo.   So despite my own tendency to believe him, he cannot be considered an established credible source in journalistic terms.  He's not, let's say, Ben Wedeman of CNN.   (I won't even consider the question of how Brown_Moses was supposed to know he really was speaking to Matt Van Dyke, not a malicious impostor.)

What's the upshot?  We have one of hundreds of reports of 'chemical weapons', an expression we know is habitually used to describe munitions that are not, in fact, chemical weapons.  The source of this report is an un-named party who quite possibly is recounting what he heard from another un-named party.  The person who reports this report is Matthew Van Dyke, a nice guy but whose credibility has not been established.  We might also wonder how the munitions were identified as munitions actually loaded with a chemical agent, as opposed to munitions capable of containing such an agent, or its precursors.  Did someone have a sniff?

That's not all.  In the conversation, Brown Moses undertakes not to reveal that this report comes from Matthew Van Dyke.  So Brown Moses would have to report that an un-named and not authoritative source claimed that an unnamed source, claimed to be credible, either claimed that he had seen chemical weapons, or claimed that someone else claimed to have seen them - in some undefined sense of 'chemical weapons' and even of 'seen'.

What sort of weight would Brown Moses' report itself carry?  Would this take its place among the eyewitness testimony, the on-the-ground reports of UN chemical weapons specialists, the videos minutely analysed by munitions and by many media specialists?  To answer yes would not, I think, be credible.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Authoritarian liberalism: an option for Egypt?

Some suggest that a preoccupation with democracy can raise unrealistic expectations concerning the Middle East.  Before you have democracy, it's claimed, you must have constitutionalism and the rule of law.  It's said that this was the pattern in 18th and 19th Century Europe, where this sort of 'liberalism' preceded democracy.  This thesis fails because it does not account for significantly different social and political conditions.

The defining document of liberal authoritarianism is Kant's short essay, "What is Enlightenment?"(1784). In it he says:

...a ruler who is himself enlightened and has no fear of phantoms, yet who
likewise has at hand a well-disciplined and numerous army to guarantee public
security, may say what no republic would dare to say: Argue as much as you like
and about whatever you like, but obey!

Arguably there have been such rulers.  Kant had King Frederick II of Prussia in mind.  Napoleon is another example.  But in most of the modern world such figures, or their oligarchical counterparts, are not a live option.  That's because the nature of dissent and the threats to public order have changed fundamentally.

To see this it is necessary to glance at European history, where there was some variation in the relation between dissent, public order, liberalism and democracy.

Of England, where political dissent was far more mature than on the continent, it is not correct to say that liberal authoritarianism preceded democracy.  The development of the two went hand in hand.  It is true that in the 18th Century, England may have seemed liberal because it allowed more dissent in matters of faith, and afforded the Philosophes some refuge when their philosophical writings prompted repression in France and elsewhere.  And England did develop something resembling the rule of law somewhat before most of continental Europe.  But it also moved towards democracy much earlier, starting at least with the Puritan Revolution of the 17th Century and proceeding with the definitive overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1688, followed by the First and Second Reform Bills of 1832 and 1834, followed by periodic expansions of the suffrage.

Though today we would not count English institutions as democratic until the institution of truly universal suffrage in 1928, from the 17th Century on a steadily less restrictive notion of popular sovereignty was strongly established in English political institutions, roughly concurrent with the rise of liberal ideas.  The increasingly democratic character of British popular sovereignty is, over the decades, tangible and unmistakable.  So the example of England cannot support any constitutionalism-before-democracy thesis.

France and Germany are a different matter, because in both countries constitutionalism and the rule of law did indeed precede democracy.  But these countries experienced a much slower and less threatening development of political dissent.  That turns out to have crucial implications for the idea that constitutionalism and the rule of law can be established before democratic institutions.

In France and Germany significant and effective political dissent was, for a long time, aristocratic or at least not populist.  Even the French Revolution began as an aristocratic revolt, and lower-class resistance quickly dissipated when the Revolution was appropriated by the upper middle classes.  After a few years the main popular unrest was among the peasantry who supported, and took guidance from, the remnants of the Church and nobility.  For Napoleon, dissent was virtually no concern at all.  By the 1820s in France, revolts were conspiratorial affairs involving students and other members of the more comfortable classes, producing very manageable political changes.  Never again did peacetime French politics threaten to produce anything like far-reaching social upheaval.  So France could afford liberalism quite early on, and developed democracy later.  In Germany, and before it in Prussia, dissent was never a serious problem, so liberal constitutionalism could precede democracy by quite a distance.

Does this historical record hold any lessons for a country like, say, Egypt?  Could there be an authoritarian but constitutional government that imposed the rule of law before developing democracy?  It's hard to see how the European example affords any support for this idea.

In the Middle East, the problem of what Kant calls 'public security' was solved a long time ago.  Because political violence was unknown in his Prussia, Kant is referring primarily to criminal activity, which in 18th Century Europe existed at levels inconceivable in the contemporary Middle East:  the portly philosopher David Hume thought it natural to take a sword when going out of his house.  So this aspect of the rule of law, once considered the most important, is well established in Middle Eastern countries.  Notably missing is anything like the rule of law when dealing with what 18th Century European governments didn't need to deal with - popular political dissent.  And that makes all the difference when considering whether liberal constitutionalism can be imposed before democratic institutions are established.

In Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, there is massive, resilient, well-organized popular discontent, posing a serious threat to the state.  Rulers do not fail to develop constitutionalism and the rule of law, or the liberal's coveted civil liberties, because they're stupid or myopic.  They need repression to keep that massive popular opposition in line.  This is where the lessons from Europe lose relevance.

The comparative docility of the masses in 18th Century France and Germany, followed by the dominance of relatively genteel middle class 'revolutionaries' later, gave governments breathing room in which liberalism and constitutionalism could grow.  And so it is today.  Europeans and North Americans can say more or less what they like because their dissent never poses a threat to the state:  indeed contemporary anti-terror measures show how quickly liberalism gives way when governments imagine such a threat.

The undemocratic rulers of 18th and 19th Century Europe allowed dissent and a measure of civil rights because they faced only manageable political dissent.  The undemocratic governments of the Middle East understandably fear that civil liberties could strengthen already powerful popular movements like the Muslim Brotherhood.  That's why the authority of even liberally-inclined elites can be maintained only through bloody repression, designed to ward off even bloodier catastrophe like the Algerian and Syrian conflicts.  In these circumstances, undemocratic regimes simply cannot afford to institute real civil liberties.  Constitutionalism and the rule of law will not and cannot precede democracy, because only democracy has a chance of tempering the truly explosive, deeply popular political dissent that the European authoritarians never encountered.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Syria and the myths of mission creep

Mission creep itself is not a myth.  Britain's 'accidental empire' - at least if standard accounts are correct - is an example.  Britain's original 'mission' was to establish trade outposts.  But the British got involved in Indian politics and, one thing leading to another, became a full-out colonizers.  So their mission gradually changed from establishing secure trade routes to founding an empire.

Here's another example:  the US entered World War II with no further aim than to defeat the Axis powers.  When victory was in sight, the mission expanded into remaking Germany and Japan.  The expansion of objectives is a case of mission creep.

You will never hear either of these cases *called* mission creep.  That's because they were successful.  The term isn't normally used to describe a real-world phenomenon.  It's used to explain away failure, and, unsurprisingly, this almost always involves some myth-making.

The example of Afghanistan has lessons which also apply to Iraq.  Despite all the fine talk of establishing democracy and such, 'the mission' in Afghanistan was straightforward:  to crush anti-American forces.  Not to nit-pick:  if you want to say there was a broader mission, fine, but it certainly was not the case that American policy crept towards it:  in fact it crept in the opposite direction when the prerequisite for any noble objective - control of the territory - proved elusive.  That the US attempted to do too much was not the problem.  'Mission creep' was the lame excuse for failure to accomplish the minimum.

That failure was due not to over-ambitious idealism but to politically induced deafness.  Military experts were quite clear what the mission - the minimal project of establishing control - required.  They said it would require about 650,000 troops, a commitment Washington could never sell to the country.  The decision-makers got around this mental roadblock partly by simply not listening, partly through the absurd fantasy that an indigenous Afghan army would do much of the work.  Apparently Vietnam was forgotten.  As a result and as the expert estimates implied, the US never established military control of the territory.  But the US could not acknowledge its mistake because that would highlight its very dangerous weakness, its political inability to mount the effort required to conduct a major military operation overseas.  So it engaged in all sorts of blather about hearts and minds, and, of course, mission creep.    But hearts, minds and missions required more men and more guns and a lot more casualties.  That, not made-up subtleties about The Nature of Counterinsurgency, was what most Americans never grasped.

The same, long story short, held for Iraq:  the US never committed anything remotely like the military resources required.  That was why, as in Afghanistan, it devoted astronomical sums to various (roughly speaking) 'reconstruction' projects.  This supported the Iraq-specific excuse that 'we won the war, but we could not win the peace', that we were unprepared for this additional task.  But it takes no deep thinking to realize you can't reconstruct - and indeed you haven't won the war - unless you can assert control over the territory.  This, again, required more troops and casualties, and was known to require them, than the US was politically able to afford.  The same weakness led to the same excuse:  mission creep.

No one, I think, anticipated the cost of an ever-deeper attachment to these excuses.  To raise a false spectre of mission creep doesn't just cover up ordinary failure;  it paralyses even very manageable undertakings.  In Syria, effective action requires no troops and very little expenditure; it is simply a matter of supplying some of the non-US fighters.  But the US cannot even do this because it has instilled in its population - indeed in its pundits - the fear that somehow, somehow, there is a mission and it will creep.  It didn't make sense before; it doesn't make sense now.  But people are used to the idea, and it stokes their anxieties.  As a result, the US is politically - and therefore militarily - even weaker than in the previous decade.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

US interest in Syria: how 'vital' it does have to be?

Stephen Walt, David Aaron Miller  and others have argued that intervention in Syria is not in US vital interests.  Absolutely.  Trouble is, the argument is a bit too easy to make.

You'd think a country's vital interests are what it needs, or its citizens need, to survive.  Energy and food, mainly.

These days very few countries have to worry about their vital interests.  If their citizens are starving, that's not because the country can't obtain what's needed.  This isn't the 18th Century and there's no energy crisis.  The world produces plenty of everything to go around, and if you don't have it, plenty of people who will sell it to you at less than prohibitive prices. This isn't complacency about the world; shortages of vital commodities could recur. It's a description of current conditions.   But

Foreign policy isn't about vital interests.

If you think about what's NOT in a country's vital interests, you'll probably surprise yourself.  Sea access?  Bolivia, not a rich country, lost it in the 19th Century and is doing just fine.  Territorial integrity?  Austria isn't worse off, much less dead, for its shrunken borders.  Not even military defeat need be a matter of vital interest; Germany and Japan are famous examples.  The US, then, has no vital interests anywhere in the world.  It would have to lose Canada, Venezuela and the Middle East as oil suppliers, all at once, for its vital interests to be called into question.  That won't happen.  To say that Syria isn't in US vital interests is to assert nothing much.  Instead it betrays a perhaps deliberate misunderstanding of how rational nations determine their policies.

Nations look ahead a bit.  They realize the unforeseen can happen; they try to provide against unpleasant surprises.  That makes them want, in a nutshell, power.  The US would get upset if Mexico bought advanced anti-aircraft missiles and the latest fighter-bombers from Russia.  Would that be because US vital interests were compromised?  Not at all.  The US has no reason to think that Mexico would make war on the US.  Mexico has no motive to do so and it knows that if it tried, no level of Russian armament would save it from catastrophe.  But US interests would indeed be compromised because, who knows?  Nut cases might get hold of the arms and do a lot of harm.  Russia might be on its way to encircle the US with a genuinely daunting ring of well-armed enemies.  What is China, Brazil and Venezuela piled in?  Again, no vital interests to worry about:  the US would survive perfectly well as a cowering third-rate power.  But people do worry all the same.

Syria and US policy

So the real question is not whether doing something in Syria is in US vital interests, but whether it's in US interests:  throwing the word 'vital' in there is just a way to abandon strategic thinking altogether.  If you stop doing that, the case against doing something in Syria gets much harder to make.  Yes indeed, the US will survive no matter what happens in Syria.  It will survive if Syria ends up a nuclear-armed client of some US enemy.  It will survive if Israel gets into a war with Syria and US commitments - not to mention Congressional pressure - draw the US into that war.  It will survive if the Mediterranean becomes dominated by Russian and Chinese naval forces.  It will survive if, fearing this, the US gets involved in ever more expensive and provocative arms races.  It will survive if Syria becomes a base for dozens of successful attacks on US citizens, resulting it thousands of deaths and really crippling security restrictions on US air travel.  What's more, none of these things are at all likely to happen.  But it's somewhat more likely that one of these unlikely possibilities occurs, which is why it would make sense for the US to care about Syrian outcomes.  Add to this one thing that has happened already and will mushroom - a contempt for American power that invites increasingly bold challenges to US interests - and maybe what-me-worry policy about Syria isn't such a great idea.

At what cost?

But HOW MUCH to worry?  It turns out that the whole 'vital interest' case against action on Syria rests on a hidden and false premise.  Even if 'vital' is just taken to mean 'substantial', the assumption is that doing something about Syria would be a big deal:  indeed this is at the core of virtually every anti-interventionist argument.  But doing something about Syria would be a very little deal.

What the Syrian opposition wants - and anti-interventionists go la-la-la-la not to hear it - is just two things:  arms and money.  Not troops, no training, and, given sufficiently advanced weapons, not air strikes.  Certainly not, as Miller so dishonestly suggests, a Bush-style 'build democracy in funny Arab countries' campaign.  What would satisfying these needs cost the US?

Usually when Syrians are asked this question, they say millions, or hundreds of millions.  Let's multiply what's asked - one figure is 300 million - by ten, to get 3 billion.  That's far less than 1/10th of 1% of what the US has spent on Iraq and Afghanistan - not to mention that it will cost 0 American lives.  And very likely it will cost far, far less, than that 1/10th of %1.

Why?  Because the arms Syrians want are, by current US standards, old, stuff that the US armed forces would regard as obsolete.  This means the arms exist already, and are sitting in depots, waiting for decommissioning or disposal.  To provide these arms will cost the US nothing but transportation.  However it needn't cost even that much, because Gulf State countries would very likely be happy to finance that transport.  So the best guess is that supplying arms would cost only a few million dollars, or less, possibly nothing.

Just how vital, how substantial, would US interests have to be to do that?  The question amounts to whether there is any chance of any bad consequences from the utter disgrace and contempt the US has drawn on itself, and will draw on itself more and more with the prolongation of slaughter in Syria.  Seen in this light, the case for doing something in Syria is not so easily dismissed.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Syria isn't hopeless

Many if not most Syrian activists have come to despair of their revolution.  They say the West's self-fulfilling prophecy has índeed been fulfilled:  the uprising, starved for Western arms by fear of 'jihadists', has been hijacked by jihadists.  Though my grasp of Syria's realities is inadequate, someone needs to paint a more optimistic picture, and the following is my attempt.

The threat of extreme Islamists certainly is dire and real.  While it is absurd to say they're "as bad as Assad" - even after the Latakia massacre, their atrocities are episodic, not a constant horror - they're bad enough.  What's exaggerated is their prospects.  They will never rule Syria and they will never establish enclaves in Syria.  Extreme or extremely conservative Islam may conceivably come to dominate Syria, but that's a very different sort of danger, and cause only for a very different sort of concern.

There is no chance at all that extremists could prevail over their opponents.  For this to happen, of course, Assad would have to fall.  Their opponents would then be not just the more moderate Syrian revolutionaries, but every power, great and small, with an interest in the region.  Russia and China would be on the same side as the secularist and moderate revolutionaries. So would all Kurdish factions.  Jordan, the Gulf States and Israel would be united in their determination to eradicate the radical Islamist spectre.  So would Turkey, now with a much freer hand, because the substantial pro-Assad opposition would now be on-side.  So would the West. So would Hezbollah and the Maronites, all but choking off any support from within Lebanon.  The extremists' only source of supply would be within Western Iraq.  Iran, having lost its Syrian ally and no longer capable of maintaining Hezbollah as a militarily robust proxy, would focus on strengthening the Iraqi government, its sole remaining foothold in the Arab world.  In short, the extremists would not only be isolated, but surrounded by forces determined to crush them, with the enthusiastic support of both the West and the East.  The idea that the extremists could, in these circumstances, hold territory, is a non-starter.

What goes for taking over the country also goes for establishing enclaves.  Bear in mind that all the great powers are incurably panicked about Al Qaeda, and that any very conservative or radical Islamic faction, whatever the realities, will be targeted as a result:  the great powers will put pressure on or encourage the regional powers to act.  And of course there will be no shortage of moderate or secularist forces in Syria for them to support.

This is not to say that small underground forces can't cause a lot of harm and disruption even against such odds.  But here the domestic situation makes such outcomes unlikely.  The most extreme of the extremists are to a large extent foreign fighters, some very foreign indeed.  These extremist groups don't have the deeper nationalist and anti-government roots of the Al Qaeda-linked forces in Iraq.  Moreover, in Iraq there is only one significant group of extremist Sunni radicals, Al-Qaeda in Iraq.  In Syria, the extremist forces are fragmented into dozens and dozens of groups whose alliances, even whose existence, constantly changes.  Odd how analysts never tire of pointing to the disunity of the FSA as a fatal weakness, but seem to think the proliferation of extremist groups is a sign of strength.

Even the long-term cohesion within these groups is very much open to question.  The experts and several on-the-scene journalists report that many of these factions' members joined up only because they were looking for the best way to fight Assad.  Many are very young, perhaps like this fighter:
Chava, like any sixteen-year-old, is habitually antagonizing, talking about how much he loves his gun, how much he loves fighting, how much he loves Islam, how he likes Bin Laden (but also George W. Bush).
Chava and more mature or maturely pious fighters may be reluctant, post-Assad, to kill fellow rebels, many of them Sunni Muslims.  There are no certainties here, but there is also no reason to expect strong resistance from a hard core of Syrian extremists, rather than a nucleus dominated by easily identified and isolated foreigners.

Does this mean that the threat of extreme Islamism can be discounted?  Not at all.  What seems all but certain, however, is that the stature of this threat will not depend on its military strength.  It will depend on its powers of persuasion, on its political and social strength.  The extreme Islamists will have this sort of strength for three reasons.  First, it appears that quite a few Syrians in fact adhere to a very conservative version of Islam, and might be receptive to the idea of a very strict Islamist régime, particularly given the shameful record of secularism in the region.  Second, like it or not, the extreme Islamist combattants are, for the most part, heroes.  They fight bravely and effectively and have saved far more innocent lives than they have taken.  Their martyrs often sacrificed their lives when no one else could or did stand up to Assad's onslaughts.  This won't be forgotten.  Third, extreme Islamist groups, despite their repressive bent, often do much good in the areas the control, restoring basic services and supplying both public order and the necessities of life.  In this respect they resemble the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who became powerful partly by helping those in need.

The hard-earned political prestige of the extremists might well bring them not only local but also national power, control over Syrians' lives - at least if these extremists renounce violence.  Such a future would of course be a nightmare for many Syrian activists and the negation of what they've been fighting for.  But the greatest long-term danger is that this peaceful, political threat be ignored, or worse, confounded with the exaggerated but much more dramatic military threat.  That might lead to the kind of repression that usually proves counterproductive, as when Egyptian secularists ran to the military instead of doing the hard ground-level organizing and service work that made their rivals strong.  I hope that doesn't happen in Syria.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Did the Muslim Brotherhood make mistakes in Egypt?

Well of course it did, and the idea is popular with those who reject SCAF but want at the same time to deny the Muslim Brotherhood - or Morsi - legitimacy.  What follows is a mere suggestion why this might not be the case - to be amplified later if good evidence for the suggestion emerges.

The two most substantial accusations against the Brotherhood are (a) that it was undemocratic, because it trampled on minority rights, and (b) that it essentially deserved what it got, because it was in cahoots with the military.

The accusation that the Muslim Brotherhood did not respect minority rights has been addressed, in part, in another post.  It is just false that the Brotherhood's failure to include minority parties or the 'liberal opposition' in government was undemocratic.  Most governments considered fully democratic would fail this bizarre test.  In the first place, majorities are no doubt unjustified in failing to honour minority rights, but this doesn't make them the tiniest bit less democratic.  In the second place, supposing the opposition has rights to be included in a government simply confuses the rights of minorities with the rights of minority parties to some piece of the pie.  That's important, because the former rights exist, and the latter don't.  The Muslim Brotherhood certainly didn't go nearly far enough to honour the rights of minorities such as Christians and - well, not really a minority - women.   That was unjustified, but it was also the will of their constituency and doesn't deprive the Morsi régime of democratic legitimacy.  If you don't like that, you need to take a stand against democracy, not just the Brotherhood.

What then of the claim that Morsi or the Brotherhood were 'in bed' with the military, or 'cozied up' to them?  Once we get away from metaphors, the substance of this accusation gets very thin.

Probably the reproach begins with bitterness about the Brotherhood's very late arrival in demonstrations against the régime.   Since the demonstrations themselves took on the aspect of an army-people love-in, this really has nothing to do with the 'cozying up' accusation, but it's also not very telling.  Unlike almost all the other demonstrators, the Brotherhood had spent decades paying with their freedom and their lives for opposing the régime, and that with almost no support from liberals or secularists. Indeed the opposition contained a significant number of Nasserists who could well be understood to have supported Nasser's murder and torture of Brotherhood militants.  In these circumstances it's hardly surprising that the Brotherhood wouldn't want to stick their necks out before seeing a good chance of being on the winning side.  So bitterness about Brotherhood is a bit overdone here.

It's said that the Brotherhood and the military made a 'tactical alliance', and that they 'supported' one another.  Well, if they made a tactical alliance, it's only in the some very tenuous sense of the expression, because the army and the Brotherhood did NOT support one another.   The Brotherhood really had no support to offer, even if they'd wanted to, and the army gave the Brotherhood no support.  To suppose otherwise is to give far too much significance to words and gestures, a fatal mistake in politics.

The Brotherhood's fine phrases in praise of the military have been examined elsewhere.  So have its cabinet appointments and the general claim that Morsi had real executive power that could have benefited the military.  These items aside, the most important alleged example of collusion seems to be the Brotherhood's backing of the March 2011 referendum, which approved constitutional amendments sponsored by the military.  In what sense was this a 'tactical alliance'?

The Brotherhood backed the referendum in part because it would help them to power:  the consensus was that, the sooner real elections occurred, the greater the chances of the Brotherhood emerging victorious.   But winning the election, as we've seen, didn't and, in my opinion, wasn't expected to bring the Brotherhood to power all on its own.  To do that, there had to be a strong civilian state, with the military reduced to its normal role in modern democracies, a meticulously apolitical fighting force concerned only to counter external threats.  Otherwise, as everyone knew (link to blog), the military would certainly rule Egypt, with no more than electoral window-dressing.

This strategy implies something many political analysts have a hard time accepting - that in revolutionary times, laws, agreements, even constitutions are mere words.  I believe this was the Brotherhood's view.  They were willing to concede, verbally or in writing, anything the military liked, until the time they were strong enough to unsay what had been said, until popular or democratic legitimacy enabled them to do so.  For them, whatever prestige and paper reinforcement the March referendum might give the military was of little consequence.  There was a choice:  to accept a referendum on the military's terms or to prolong a period of instability in which the position of the military, as the guardian of order, could only strengthen.  This was far more of a menace than that the opposition, which showed no sign of organizational competence, would use more time to form a serious political threat, rather than to fragment even further.

We have evidence that the army, from the very start, intended to crush the Brotherhood.  SCAF was simply biding its time.  To suppose that the Brotherhood wanted anything but to crush the army is to suppose them impossibly naïve. This was no Hitler-Stalin pact. The army did nothing for the Brotherhood; it stymied its attempts to govern at every turn.  The Brotherhood did nothing for the army; having no power, it had nothing to offer, and had the Brotherhood rejected the referendum, the army would have been at least as strong as before. Nor did the army at any time need the Brotherhood's support.   It had the gun; it had  the love of the people; it had no rival that could impose order on society, let alone its will on the army.  All the army wanted was some makeup, a light concealer for its dictatorial power, something to keep the Americans happy.  The idea that it reached out to the Brotherhood for succor rests on the false assumption that the army was ever in trouble.

So in what sense did the Brotherhood 'cozy up' to the army?  The two combatants didn't even agree on a time and place of combat - only that the time was not now.  The secular opposition certainly agreed on this as well; they didn't want to confront the army at that time either.  The only difference, as we've learned, is that most of the opposition didn't ever want to confront the army.  So by that token, the opposition cozied up to the army too.

The 'support' the Brotherhood gave to the army is not comparable to the liberals' support.   The Brotherhood gave the army nothing, not even time.  The liberals actively connived to legitimize the army's rule and to de-legitimize civilian rule.  The liberals actually wanted to army to overthrow the government, and said so; they went into the streets to affirm their stance.  It would be absurd to place this vigorous collusion in the same category as the Brotherhood's attempts to placate the army until they could destroy it.

The Brotherhood did make a mistake.  It thought it could gain broad popular legitimacy. It did not realize the depth of hatred - now all too plain - that most secularists held for Islamists:  so much for the complaint that the Brotherhood did not 'reach out' enough.  It did not imagine that the liberals would prefer military dictatorship to civilian Islamic rule.  But to make this mistake was to try to make a genuine revolution.  No one can now accuse the liberals of that.

Some of the preceding is, for now, more of a scenario than an account:  it's what may have happened.   But that's already enough to undermine the alleged evidence for Brotherhood-army collusion.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

'Realism' for fantasists: one state, two states, and Palestine

We keep hearing that a two-state solution for the Israel/Palestine conflict is 'dead' or 'an illusion'. The way forward, we're told, leads to a single state in Palestine. This line was featured in a New York Times op-ed by Ian S. Lustick.   It had already gained sanctity from the endorsement of Tony Judt and some expatriate Palestinian academics.  If only the Palestinians who must live in the occupied territories had the luxury of immersing themselves in such fantasies!

There is a tiny grain of truth in the 'one-state' blather.  Negotiations for an independent Palestinian state won't go anywhere in the foreseeable future.  This lends initial plausibility to the idea that 'the two-state solution' is dead.  But this appearance of plausibility rests on a non-sequitur.  Negotiations, successful or unsuccessful, are of course not a 'solution', nor does anyone think that.  The 'solution'  referred to is an independent Palestinian state.  But the emergence of such a state does not require negotiation; it only requires Israeli withdrawal.  So it does not follow that the failure of negotiations excludes the emergence of independent Palestinian state.  So it does not follow that the failure of negotiations means the failure of 'the two-state solution'.

The one-staters' sophistry finds company in the bogus 'alternatives' they offer.  These resurrect, in one form or another, the tired idea of a binational state.  Binationalism went nowhere in the 1930s and is far, far less plausible today.

Are Israelis meant to have some incentive to destroy their current state and embrace binationalism?  One 'reason' offered is that Israel is in some portentous, usually cultural sense, 'doomed'.  Why anyone other than a terminally idealistic Zionist or obsessive philo-semite should give a shit whether Israel is doomed in this sense is beyond me.  Israel is about as un-doomed as a country can be.  Far from being an American client, as Chomsky robotically insists, it is one of the most powerful countries in the world.

Israel is all but invulnerable militarily.  It has a large and sophisticated nuclear arsenal which, via missiles and submarines, it can deliver destruction anywhere in the world.  It has an extensive satellite network to direct its operations.  It is not only an exporter but an innovative developer of conventional weaponry, from the world's most advanced tank-protection systems to the very latest in fighter electronics.  Many advanced US defence systems use Israeli components.  The Palestinians, in recent years, have proven incapable of presenting the slightest challenge to Israeli security.  Hizbollah, its greatest enemy, is now preoccupied elsewhere, after which it will be in no shape to make Israel do anything at all.  Whatever the future of Syria, the idea that it will continue to be a source of sophisticated weaponry for Hizbollah ia a non-starter.   Israel has already shown in two air strikes on Damascus that it will not tolerate transfers of such equipment, and - now that the EU has declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization - it will have plenty of international support for that objective.  Besides, the Syrian conflict has driven a wedge between Hezbollah and Hamas, its closest ally in Palestine.

Israel's military strength comes with an ace in the hole against economic sanctions.  The world, including Middle Eastern countries, India and China, thirsts for Israeli defense exports, which hardly makes sanctions likely.  But that is not the whole picture.  For years, Israel has held back its most advanced and potentially lucrative products.  Any serious attempt to constrain Israel economically would result in the end of this restraint.  This wouldn't just be a gold mine; it would also constitute the most serious proliferation threat.  Any real economic assault on Israel would therefore be ineffective - and unthinkable.  The boycott movement has scored some successes and makes some sense, because it pressures Israel directly instead of trying to influence feckless Western governments.  But such grass-roots boycotts have never wrought change on their own, and there is no reason to suppose this one will be any different.

Israel is also, for similar reasons, strong politically.  True, it  has essentially lost the battle for world opinion.  Even the US executive branch is fed up with Israel, and Europe has seen Israel's true colours for some time now.  But this doesn't matter in the least because, for the reasons given above, none of these countries poses the slightest threat to Israel nor has any inclination of put serious pressure on Israel.  That is why Israel treats the world with contempt.  It can afford to.

So much for external pressure.  What then of the internal pressures that allegedly kill the two-state solution?

There is the 'demographic bomb';  Palestinians will eventually outnumber Jews in Israel.  It is a miracle of wishful thinking to suppose that this makes a 'one-state' solution anything but less likely.  Jews run Israel and they want to keep it that way.  If the bomb ever explodes, they can avoid its damage.  They can  institute a two-state solution in which the West Bank settlers come to Israel and large numbers of Palestinians are persuaded or 'persuaded' to move to Palestine.  Israel is entirely capable of this response.  One might add that many Israeli Palestinians seem pretty comfortable in the Jewish state and certainly prefer it to a miserable life in the West Bank or, heaven forbid, Gaza.  They don't pose a huge threat.

As for the Jews in Israel, of course there is no support whatever for a one-state solution:  this is  plain fact.  But the Jews control the state.  So there will be no one-state solution unless Jewish support grows exponentially.  But there is no reason for that to happen.  As we've seen, there's no appreciable external threat nor prospect of appreciable external pressure.  Internally, there are some economic problems, but this again is a case for a two-state rather than a one-state solution, because it is expensive and inefficient to maintain and defend hundreds of thousands of spoilt-brat settlers in the West Bank.  Certainly creating a new nation with millions of impoverished Palestinians demanding their rights will never be seen as some sort of economic incentive for a single-state.  As for the idea that such a state has become more likely because Israel is in cultural decline, or has lost its democratic or Zionist vision, that's just infantile.  It is precisely this decline or loss of vision that renders ridiculous the notion that Israelis will abolish their state in a quest for spiritual redemption.  Israeli's don;'t want to be redeemed; that's what the decline is all about.

What Israeli Jews do want, in a big way, is Israel.  Their idea of Israel is inseparable from the reality of Israel- that it is in its structure, purpose and foundations, a Jewish state.  For Israelis, to give up the Jewish state would be to give up Israel:  they have made this more than clear.  So one-staters must commit to the idea that although Israelis don't want to give up the occupied territories, half of what they have, they will give up Israel, all of what they have.  This is madness.

Some suppose that it is now 'impossible' for Israel to give up the occupied territories, because the West Bank settlers are too deeply entrenched.  Nothing supports this nonsense.  The same could have been said  of Gaza, where the settlers after some tough talk and a lot more breast-beating, left like sheep.  In Algeria, settlers were much more deeply entrenched, for far longer, than are the Jews in the West Bank:  they left.  In sub-Saharan Africa, settlers, vowing to fight to the death, have either left or submitted to the rule of the formerly colonized.  The day after Israel withdraws its forces from the occupied territories, the same scenario will play itself out.   This is so obvious one questions the good faith of those who peddle one-state solutions.  After all, the salient feature of these 'solutions' is that they leave the settlers in place,  threatened by at most the vague prospect that someone will eventually get specific about their fate.  How convenient.

In the face of all this, some contrive to dream that somehow, somehow, a single state of peace and love can prevail in Palestine.  They think of South Africa.  The apartheid régime in South Africa did not fall because Nelson Mandela filled the land with his spirit.  International pressure played a small part.  A much larger part was Boer fear, after some reverses to Cuban troops in Angola, that the military balance with its neighbours would eventually tilt against South Africa.  The largest part of all was Boer inability to control raging internal violence, both against whites and between Zulus and Xhosa.  Moreover South Africa is a much larger, richer country with plenty of land for all, and most of its non-white population - who vastly outnumber the whites - hasn't been there for thousands of years.  The comparisons with South Africa are valueless.  More appropriate would be a comparison with Lebanon, another small state with antagonistic populations of similar size and a history of armed conflict.  The comparison, drenched with Palestinian blood, is hardly encouraging.   Why would anyone believe that forcing deeply antagonistic populations to coexist within a single state is a recipe for removing the antagonism?

Behind the invocation of South Africa is a blind,  dogmatic sort of faith in non-violence, and a misunderstanding of its very modest achievements.  Neither Gandhi nor Martin Luther King offer useful tactical lessons to the Palestinians.  If Gandhi played a role in Indian independence, he played a role in ushering in one of the greatest slaughters of modern times, and indeed it was the first stirrings of this slaughter that did much to convince the British it was time to leave.  Martin Luther King achieved much, but only with the armed and active support of the federal government.  Nothing comparable applies to Palestine.

Incredibly, Lustick also offers up Algeria as some sort of lesson in resistance for the Palestinian - as if they had anything like the Algerians' resources.   Though the French did contain the Algerian revolt, the Algerian revolutionaries retained large forces supported by much of the Arab world on Algeria's borders.  Unlike Israel, France was exhausted by the conflict and  no one thought the fight was over.  Unlike Israel, France was torn apart by the most ferocious opposition to the war: in February 1962, Parisians in their hundreds of thousands turned out to bury nine anti-war demonstrators killed by police .  Moreover the French left Algeria in largely because the settlers mounted a military-supported terrorist campaign that had real prospects of toppling the French government in a coup such as nearly succeeded in 1958.   Finally, though Algeria was officially part of France, not one person considered it the French homeland.  Palestinians face far more commitment, unity, and indeed raw power, with far less.

Lustick suggests that eventually a Palestinian state could eventually emerge from a single state as did Ireland from the UK.  Why, you might ask, does he prefer that to having two states without a one-state interval?  apparently because the Irish process was 'organic' as opposed to negotiated by diplomats.(*)  'Organic' in this case seems to mean 'involving centuries of misery and bloody conflict'. Lustick has the long-distance courage to see a slaughter of Palestinians in the occupied territories as progress. He thinks that if negotiations stopped and the PLO collapsed, Israel would have trouble controlling the bloody chaos that ensued, and this would bring an end to US unconditional support for Israel.   But Israel doesn't need unconditional US support, and the idea that America will stand up to bloody repression is truly comical in the midst of the Syrian catastrophe.   However it's nice to see that   And why?  Because Israel will be 'stigmatized'!  Yeah, that'll teach 'em!

No doubt a two-state solution is very unlikely.  The best hope would be that resurgent Arab and Turkish power convinced Israel its occupied territories were more trouble than they were worth.   But if the two-state solution is unlikely, a one-state solution is unlikelier still.  If the Israelis are under little pressure to withdraw from the occupied territories, this will hardly encourage them to give up control of Israel itself.  That some seem to suppose otherwise is only a testimony to rampant self-delusion.


*  Israel's  un-negotiated withdrawals - total from Lebanon, partial from Gaza - don't seem to have made it into Lustick's consciousness.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A dozen bad reasons for staying out of Syria

We hear that the situation in Syria is 'complex'.   Perhaps complexity, not patriotism, is the last refuge of a scoundrel.  Health and education are complex; does that mean we shouldn't get involved with them?   Can't complex situations contain problems which have simple solutions?   No doubt the reasons a child is being tortured by his parents may be very complex:  that complexity does little to complicate or obscure the response.   The same may hold for a child being tortured by Assad.

This survey of bad reasons tries to make 'the problem', or at least the solution, seem a little less complex.  Here's hoping it succeeds.

"It's all for show.  It won't be effective."

This is unfounded.  Any strike at all proves US willingness to strike.  This gives Assad much more reason to expect future US actions than he had before.  So even a cosmetic strike has deterrent power.

"No US interests are at stake."

It's true that no direct interests are at stake.   The US has less and less need for Middle East oil, and in any case the Gulf States' oil is not in danger.   But the US has vital interests stemming from its pronouncements, alliances and commitments in the region.   Very simply, it frequently approves and disapproves of goings on there.  But even in the recent past, it attempts to enforce its wishes have basically failed.  Iraq was a humiliation and Afghanistan is another, in progress.  So already the US was perceived as ineffectual.   Now its long-standing 'outrage' against Assad and its utter inability to give that outrage some substance has made it a laughing-stock.   This has to be very dangerous.  It essentially says you can do what you like without regard to the US and get away with it, not only in the region but in the world.

You might conceivably argue that the US would have had no vital interests if it had shut up about Syria, but even that is implausible.

Whatever the real strategic importance of US influence in the Mediterranean, the US has always assigned that region great importance.  This means the US has to be interested in what's going on in Syria.   To have that interest and lack any ability to assert it is, again, dangerous, because, again, it shows weakness.

"Congress must approve going to war."

Yes, but there is no conceivable way to construe any of the proposed attacks as a war.   Against such a weak opponent, they can't even be considered likely to cause a war.   Even if they could, nothing says that the Executive can't pursue a course of action that might lead to war.   Maybe this should be illegal, but it isn't.

Any claim to illegality therefore has to rest on the War Powers Resolution of 1973.   This does require Congressional authorization for what Obama has in mind.  However no president has accepted the constitutionality of the Resolution, some have violated it, and none of the violators have been sanctioned.  So the legalities are moot.

Most important, this 'reason' in no way implies that the US should stay out of Syria.  It simply implies that, if the US should get involved, Congress should approve, and if it shouldn't, Congress shouldn't.   It doesn't even address which of these alternatives is desirable.

"The strike would be illegal under international law."

Sometimes international law deserves respect.  The adjudicating bodies that resolve trade and boundary dispute have proven their worth and, for practical reasons, gained something a bit like real authority.   Here international law rests on a 'concert of nations'.  When addressing these less than life-and-death issues,  it's practical to suppose that, if the parties agree - that is, if the governments of the countries agree - that's good enough.

Unfortunately the 'concert of nations' approach becomes a bitter joke when there's slaughter within a single nation's boundaries.  If the UN's involved in such situations,  'international' often becomes 'at the good pleasure of murderous dictatorships'.    The UN started life by giving both Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek permanent Security Council veto power over all important matters.   The concert-of-nations approach perpetuates this sort of absurdity and is illegitimate twice over.

For one thing, if  the assent of 'nations' is supposed to confer legitimacy, it should really be the nations that do the assenting, not, for instance, tyrants who claim to represent a nation.   So the assenting governments would themselves have to be politically legitimate.   Political legitimacy is normally thought to obtain when the government rests on the consent of the governed.

Well of course we have no international institutions of any sort that can claim political legitimacy in this sense.   All these institutions are either the work of a few legitimate governments, leaving much of the world's population unrepresented, or of the often illegitimate governments of 'all nations'.   So it would be absurd to suppose that we have anything like authoritative international institutions for matters that go beyond trade and boundary disputes.

That isn't all.  On matters of life and death, political legitimacy wouldn't really be enough.   Even if a concert of legitimate 'nations' agreed to outlaw mass slaughter, the details of adjudication and enforcement would depend on the consent of these nations.  And the peoples of these nations may ignore or consent to atrocities as they please.   The interests of populations themselves can clash dramatically, even on matters of life and death.  Western nations, for instance, might and do establish 'international' institutions that reflect their own interests, with possibly fatal consequences for others.  So the idea that conventions dependent on states accountable only to their own populations are somehow legitimate the world over is absurd.

But even if current international institutions had some form of popular legitimacy, and even if popular legitimacy was considered adequate authority, these institutions couldn't be considered authoritative in any practical sense.   International law has no settled method of enforcement or adjudication outside the more commercial side of things.   War crimes tribunals, for instance, pretty much make up rules of evidence and procedure as they go along.   Judges are unaccountable; no authority reviews their conduct.  Standards of evidence rest on sheer caprice.   The offences are identified in vague documents never subject to serious interpretation, much less refinement through case law.   How such institutions are supposed capable of conferring legitimacy on anything having to do with catastrophic horror is a complete mystery.

Some would object that international institutions, though imperfect, are the best we have, and must be respected if we are to get anything better.  But one could just as well say they must be disrespected - not accepted - if we are to get anything better.  It's not clear what wars or genocides 'the international community' has ever stopped or prevented.   They've been stopped due to the unilateral actions of single nations, like Vietnam in Cambodia, or France in Rwanda.   International institutions have done little more than count the bodies and conduct generally inconclusive trials of a comically tiny proportion of the offenders.   Fans of existing international institutions should explain why respect for them should prevail over preventing the murder of many tens of thousands of innocent people.

"We shouldn't attack a sovereign nation."

Sure we should, sometimes - the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia was 'naked aggression'.   Besides, this allegedly sacred principle doesn't apply in Syria, any more than it did in Libya.

When the government has lost territorial control - not episodically, but for over two years - it has become a mere party in a civil conflict, not a genuine government.   An attack on that party is not an attack on a nation, or even the government of a nation.  Of course this has to be considered when it's said than such an attack 'violates international law' or constitutes 'aggression'.

Legalities aside, even an attack on a sovereign government shouldn't be  considered an attack on the nation unless the government represents the nation.  Attacking me isn't an attack on my country just because I claim to represent my country; I must really be their representative.  Of course lots of governments don't, and Assad's, if considered sovereign, would be one of them.

"It will only make things worse."

This is insidious because the truth is no one knows the ultimate effects of any sort of intervention.  It gets plausibility from imagining all sorts of terrible but possible outcomes.   But if you imagine such outcomes, rationality also commands that you imagine no less probable good outcomes

Maybe Assad is on the verge of collapse, and his fall will be followed by the establishment of a democratic state, with minimal strife.   Maybe there will be strife, but neighboring and Western powers will easily find allies in Syria and contain it.  Maybe the 'Al Qaeda' Islamists will dissolve because much of their membership simply joined up to fight Assad, and the rest fritter away their strength in infighting.  Maybe a successful revolution in Syria will re-kindle the 'Arab Spring' and re-invigorate the whole region.   Or maybe not, but these are no less plausible outcomes than the doom-and-gloom scenarios, some of which will be examined below.

It's also worth asking just what is meant by 'making things worse'.   If the US delivers substantial support to the Free Syrian Army, OF COURSE things will get worse, because they will win, and before they win the fighting will intensify.  After that it will get much much better, because the fighting will end.  As for sectarian warfare, see below, on Islamists.

"Look at the US track record on intervention."

"The US" is an abstraction - the objection is an abstract way of saying that past administrations have done badly on intervention.  That's not very compelling:  there is no reason to expect an intervention conducted by a moderately intelligent coward to go the same way as one conducted by a dim-witted John Wayne wannabe.  Besides, if you're going to arm-wave in the general direction of 'history', you should pay some mind to changing circumstances.  It's not just that the US isn't very concerned about energy security any more.   It's also that Israel no longer needs US support; that the Red Menace has vanished; and that the US is no longer sees itself in a life-and-death struggle against 'terror'.  The country and its circumstances have changed. A track record doesn't mean much if both the runners and the track have changed.

"It's a quagmire"  or "we'll be sucked in to an open-ended conflict".

Again, how is this supposed to work?   The US has never been 'sucked in' to anything; it has freely decided to get more and more involved.  What exactly would prevent the US from packing up and going home when it pleased?   In the past, it's been presidential hubris.   However the current president has done nothing but (a) get out of quagmires, in Afghanistan and Iraq and (b) not get into them, as in Libya.   So this worry is the product of an evidence-free perspective.

Sometimes we're told how terrible it is that the US doesn't 'have a plan' for Syria.   Because Syria's future is so uncertain, you can't expect much of a plan - as is often the case in war, plans need to be revised in the light of changing circumstances.  But this is part of the reason that fears of a quagmire are exaggerated.   Part of the reason the US got stuck in Vietnam and later, Afghanistan, is because it did have plans with clear objectives - to prevent the domino effect, to build a democratic nation - and the plans were too rigid.   The 'no-plan' complaints suggest that this mistake isn't likely to be repeated.

"This will empower Islamists."

When Western anti-intervention types say this, it's much less persuasive than it looks. Syrian revolutionaries understandably fear this prospect, because they believe it to be terrible for Syrians.   But of course Western anti-interventionists don't give too much of a shit about Syrians, which is why they oppose intervention.   But for non-Syrians, empowering Islamists in Syria is not much of a problem at all.

Syrian Islamists may harm Syrians, but they are no danger to others.  Before the defeat of Assad, they couldn't possibly do much elsewhere.   But after the defeat of Assad, assuming that happens, pretty much every country in the world, from Turkey and Jordan and Israel and Iraq to Russia and China and Iran and the Western powers, will be dead set on eliminating or containing the Syrian Islamists.  The idea that the Islamists would overcome all this opposition is a non-starter.

"Assad will react."

Really?  Like he reacted to two powerful Israeli air strikes?

"We should seek a political solution."

This doesn't deserve refutation, but it carries dishonesty to the point of sadism.   Perhaps if you have a psychopath who's taken over a school and has already shot, singly and in groups, 200 of 1000 children, what's required is more negotiation.   But it's even worse than that, because Assad isn't just a mass murderer.   He has also shown himself completely immune to keeping promises or agreements of any sort.   In two and a half years, he and his allies have shown nothing but contempt for any 'solution'.   What's stunning here is not just the persistence of this patent nonsense in the face of extensive experience.   It's also the repulsive sense of leisure that informs its every utterance.   (After two and a half years, we still hear concerns about 'rushing in'.)  These negotiation-lovers might not be so laid back were the murder and torture closer to home.

"We should focus on the humanitarian crisis, not on making war."

There is indeed a terrible humanitarian crisis and yes, it is vitally important to help the refugees.  But this is the most cynical of maneuvers.  If your heart really bleeds for the refugees, get rid of Assad, so they can all can go home.   It's not as if you can't aid the refugees and also topple Assad.

Monday, August 12, 2013

No Third Way in Egypt

Suppose there's a car parked outside a house.  The owner has left the country for a week and is out of touch.  There is a dog inside the car.  It is ferociously hot; the car is locked.  Some favor breaking a window to get the dog out.  Some are opposed to this destruction of property.  You suggest writing the owner's uncle a letter; perhaps the uncle knows where the owner is staying.

You advocate a useless step whose consequences are all too clear.  You protest that you favor neither letting the dog die, nor destroying the owner's property.  But your middle way is no way at all.

When it comes to what can actually happen, your suggestion amounts to letting the dog die.  Your choice is not a real choice and your preference is not a real preference.  You are simply expressing your distaste for a hard choice that, in fact, you have already made.

So it is with those who insist they favor neither SCAF not the Muslim Brotherhood.  This expresses their tastes; it is not a political position.  It would be too generous even to call it a preference: you do not prefer to write the uncle any more than I prefer to get to work by soaring through the air.  There is no third way in Egypt.  It's SCAF or, at least initially, the Brotherhood.  To say this is not to 'tell Egyptians' anything.  The reasons are obvious and known to all.  To pretend otherwise is either a cynical pretense or the most vigorous self-delusion.

Here are some of the reasons.  They all point to the same thing:  that SCAF is much too powerful to be overcome by anything but an alliance in which the Brotherhood would, at least for a good while, dominate.

First, the Army (and through it the other 'security services') have an economic power hardly ever matched.  Its economic interests, described as 'vast' and 'sprawling', may perhaps be rivaled in Pakistan and China - but then no one expects the Chinese or Pakistani peoples to be able to overcome their militaries.  It is rare indeed that an army has such extensive roles in fundamental economic sectors such as manufacturing and construction.

This economic power translates into great political power backed, ultimately, by the gun.  Elsewhere even the most powerful militaries face considerable obstacles to the exercise of sovereignty.  In China, the army appears largely to be subordinate the the Communist Party, and in any case central authority is limited by the vastness and diversity of the country.  In Pakistan, the army has great difficulty dealing with numerous armed insurgencies, and must face a constant menace from India.  In Egypt, with the politically unimportant exception of the Sinai, the population is tightly packed into very small, very manageable areas.  The army enjoys excellent relations with Israel, so it faces no external threat.  No force, anywhere in the country except the Sinai, can prevent the army from doing exactly as it pleases.

The army is also immune from international pressure.  The US cannot afford to withdraw its extensive support, both because of the influence it would lose in the Middle East and because of the economic damage withdrawal would cause in the US economy.  But at least as important as all of this put together, the army is deeply loved by a very large segment of the population.

This love is not admiration for military prowess. It is faith in an institution that regularly intervenes in politics - when, that is, it is not openly running the country.  The military's 'justice' system, the murder and torture it practices, these are well known and accepted.  Since it is believed that the army acts in the best interests of the nation, there is no effective way to criticize this adulation.  After all, what the army does is in the army's interests, and what serves the army, serves Egypt.

I am not aware of any comparably strong military ousted by civilian opposition.  Even in Turkey, the army's episodic interventions and pervasive influence run up against civilian restraint:  the electorate has strongly rejected military-backed candidates.  Moreover, as the Kurdish insurgency demonstrates, the Turkish army has far less physical control.  On the international scene, it has no faithful patron like the US, eager to finance it and overlook its transgressions.  Most decisively, its enormous 15 billion dollar economic kingdom is dwarfed by the Egyptian army's 60 billion dollar economic empire, four times the size and as much as ten times the share of national GDP.  Since the 1980s Turkey's army has even lost support from big business.  Its fall from power followed an Islamist electoral win accepted as legal by the opposition, who allowed the Islamists to govern within a mutually accepted institutional framework.

All the evidence suggests that an army as strong and popular as Egypt's could never be overthrown by a secular opposition functioning within a largely Islamist population - unless those secularists allowed the Islamists to govern.  This conclusion is not just a matter of comparisons.  The secular opposition has never shown the tiniest ability to challenge the army; for the most part it hasn't even shown the inclination to do so.  The political factions that explicitly reject both the army and the Brotherhood appear as rounding errors in any political poll or electoral contest.  The coup has not grown their strength into anything perceptible and they have no powerful backers.  "No to the Brotherhood and military rule" expresses a desire, but you would have to be a fantasist to advance this in good faith as a genuine political agenda.

There is, then, no third way.  Given this reality, to oppose the Moslem Brotherhood is to support the army.  It does not matter how vociferously someone protests that they 'oppose' army rule as well, or that they also criticize SCAF.  That person is supporting the army, because weakening the Brotherhood inevitably, predictably, does exactly that - and accomplishes nothing else.

Genuine opposition to both the army and the Brotherhood would require 'allying' with the Brotherhood against the army.  With the army out of the way, secularists could work at out-organizing the Brotherhood, which is no stronger than its popular support.  With the Brotherhood out of the way, the army is more powerful than ever:  there can be no change.  If Egypt is to have a political future, the army has to go.

In this context the term 'alliance' can mislead.  An alliance does not mean buying into an Islamist agenda.  It means two things: supporting the Brotherhood whenever the Brotherhood moves against the army, and accepting the Brotherhood's attempts to replace the old 'deep state' with its own administration.  Otherwise, any push against the army is bound to fail.

Is such an alliance impossible, now that the entire secular opposition has in fact supported the armed forces?  Not quite.  It's possible if the entire secular leadership, which had discredited itself beyond redemption, is replaced.  That is unlikely, but it is the only way forward.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Morayef, Morsi, and alliances in Egypt

Sounding quite put-upon, Heba Morayef (Human Rights Watch's Egypt director, Middle East and North Africa division) announces on twitter that she is
Getting v tired of all this “return of the police state” narrative. Police state was alive and kicking with Morsy’s blessing throughout.
...not just with Morsi's blessing, it seems.  Morsi was an ally:
In conclusion: Morsy chose to ally himself with the police as opposed to "pro-rev" forces calling for accountability & police reform.
Between the announcement and the 'conclusion' comes what I take to be the evidence.  It's odd.  An ally is normally one who helps you do things.  But Morsi is accused almost entirely of verbal crimes, if that:  some incidents are reported where no connection between Morsi and the incident is even alleged.  This apart, there is a failure to publicize a report on abuses, which of course hardly facilitated the abuses - nor has any report by anyone even slowed them down.  Mostly it's about 'endorsement'.  Morsi said this nice thing about the police! he said that nice thing! Well, I endorse the FSA in Syria; that hardly makes me an ally.  Not once is it even alleged that Morsi, as an ally might, made any substantive contribution to police abuse.

Sure, when a president endorses something, that's supposed to be different.  It puts the might of the state behind the thing endorsed.  Oh wait.  It was the might of the state that Morsi was supposed to be endorsing.  What could this mean?

For one thing, it means that Morsi stood at some distance from the power of the state.  The army and police were doing - and not doing - what they pleased.  It's quite a feat of self-deception, in the face of this virtually uncontested fact, to suppose that Morsi could have had any substantial responsibility for the conduct of the security forces, merely through statements and reports.

For another, to hold up Morsi's verbal activities with great indignation is at best posturing, at worst childish.  Adults know that when people say nice things, they sometimes don't mean it.  They realize this applies to politics as well.  Morsi had no power.  He was hoping to acquire some.  Meanwhile, he paid a high price to avoid confrontation with the police and army.  Why?  Because, to repeat what his critics studiously ignore, he had no power.*  He would have lost.

Has anyone in the know confirmed this diagnosis? Yes, very much so - the army and the police.  Not being children, they did not actually believe that Morsi thought them heroes of the revolution.  They did not believe he was sincere in his professed desire to get along with them.  They did not think that he bottled up criticism of them because he was on their side.  In fact, that's why they overthrew him.  They knew him for what he was, a man just out of their prisons, who was unlikely to look on them with deepest love.  They knew he belonged to a movement long dedicated to destroying their privileges and their sovereignty.  Though it is the security forces who most obviously qualify for the epithet Orwellian, Orwellian too is the cynical corruption of mind that manages to blind itself to such glaring realities.

One wonders what political effect Morayef can possibly expect her diatribe to have.

The army and police, after all, are genuine allies.  No doubt diligent research could discover nice things they had said about one another, but here there are more than verbal ties.  The police benefit the army by murdering and torturing people the army dislikes.   The army does some of the same for the police, but also lends its immense domestic prestige to their activities - not to mention the ever-present menace of massive armed force should anyone seriously challenge the alliance.  The army and police now enjoy almost hysterical popular support.  Foreign powers are spineless in their reaction to the coup.  Yet human rights advocacy didn't give SCAF so much as a flea-bite even before they reached this pinnacle of power.  So Morayef would have to be an almost pathological fantasist if she expected her words to help SCAF's victims.  It would be almost as crazy to suppose Morsi's words could have made any difference.

But words do, of course, at times matter.  Morayef is almost venerated in the West. (In 2013 she was nominated for Time's 100 most influential people in the world.)  Her words may be pointlessly ineffectual, but if they're not, they can only discredit Morsi in Western eyes.  So if the West ever does contemplate acquiring a spine, Morayef may play some small part in weakening international support for Morsi.  Weakening Morsi strengthens SCAF.  So the likeliest political effect of Morayef's words is to support the very murderers and torturers she contrives to smear Morsi with.

Words which help SCAF do not, of course, make for an alliance.  But if Morayef wanted to wax indignant about SCAF's allies, she might have let loose against real allies of SCAF, Respected Sirs such as El Baradei and Egypt's coup-sanctioned prime minister, Hazem Al Beblawi.  He played a major role in bringing hundreds of thousands to the army and police sponsored love-in that - again predictably - resulted in the army coup and the murder of many innocent people.   But El Baradei and Beblawi, who bring with them substantial support for the regime, don't attract Morayef's ire as much as a jailed president and his bloodied movement.


*  This is why it's so wrong-headed to speak of police abuse persisting 'under' Morsi.   It's a bit like saying that British police continued to abuse suspects 'under' Queen Elizabeth.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

An image for the Egyptian opposition

I'm posting this image as a small reminder of just what sort of people the opposition has chosen to rule over Egypt.  Of course this is just a sample.  Many have, over the years, met similar fates.
    Khaled Saïd after beating

By 'the opposition' I mean every last person who had a hand in overthrowing Morsi.  This includes all those who trumpet their hatred of military rule; all those who say the struggle is against both the Moslem Brotherhood and SCAF; all those who say they simply want to defend freedom or, incredibly, democracy; all those who say all sorts of nice things.  In short, I mean all those who fail to acknowledge that, for whatever reason, they've chosen murderers and torturers as their rulers.

All these people, indeed every adult Egyptian, knew the army and police hadn't changed. I'm not predicting the future.  For all I know, the army and police will change tomorrow and, just as some claim, step back from power, ushering in an era of freedom and democracy.  Maybe all will turn out to be peace and love.

What I do know beyond any doubt is that no one has any rational grounds for believing in these rosy prospects.  The opposition, the whole opposition, has made the same old bullies stronger than ever. The generals who swept Morsi aside with hardly more than a gesture have nothing to fear from a far more fragmented opposition.  Its endorsement of SCAF almost certainly enhanced the military's already wide and deep popular support.  The army and police have no conceivable reason for relinquishing power or changing their ways.  And to believe otherwise is to be in the grip of a delusion so outlandish that it must be willfully self-induced, a device to conceal the enormity of a shameful choice.

Too bad this won't reduce the flow of 'revolutionaries', 'socialists', liberals and earnest bloggers making excuses for what they've done.

Friday, July 5, 2013

A 'legitimate' coup in Egypt?

H.A. Hellyer tells us that the Egyptian army's coup had popular legitimacy:
"The most honest and accurate way to describe this was a popularly called-for, and thus popularly legitimate, coup."
He seems to connect this claim to crowds:
"... no other option was going to be acceptable to the crowds that came out onto the streets except his removal."
The notion of popular legitimacy seems very popular these days.  Maybe it has popular legitimacy.  But the kindest thing one can say about Hellyer's use of it is that he is an expert on the Middle East, not on legitimacy.

Here's the claim as I understand it.  There was a really huge crowd, which according to rough unofficial estimates had to be so very large that, while it wasn't actually a majority of the adult population, had to represent that majority.  It called for something.  Therefore that something was 'popularly legitimate'.

Apparently 'popularly legitimate' means that the something called for was ok.  'Legitimacy' has to have some force like that.  It's not just descriptive, like "real popular at that moment".  So we get
If it's endorsed by a huge crowd representing a majority, it's in some sense legitimate, ok.
As they say, what could possibly go wrong?  If it's endorsed, it's legitimate.  Doesn't matter what 'it' is.  Endorsement confers legitimacy on whatever it is that's endorsed.

Really?  So if the huge crowd endorsed slavery, or the torture and execution of dissidents, or ethnic cleansing, these endorsed items would have 'popular legitimacy'.  Absolutely, according to Hellyer's rule, and he's got a right to define the term as he likes.  But we can still ask if that has the slightest, tiniest tendency to make these things ok.

The examples are hardly far-fetched.  At many times and places, from the Confederate States of America (which itself would very likely have had 'popular legitimacy') to 19th century Ukraine and its pogroms, to 21st century Burma, it wouldn't be too hard to get the requisite huge crowd to endorse these things.  But why go that far?  The trouble with huge crowd endorsements is, it's never too clear exactly what's being endorsed.  What was endorsed in Egypt, on June 30th?

Not just any sort of leadership change, says Hellyer, but a coup.  Suppose he's right.  That means at a minimum that Egypt's military, embodied in SCAF, would take power, abrogate the constitution and depose the president.  You'd also pretty well have to expect that there would be a lot of arrests of the Islamists who had held 'power' (they didn't really, since the military, police and 'deep state' did pretty much as they pleased).  That's what happens in a coup and, as is so often the case, we'd have to expect that the police would be extensively involved.

Now it's beyond the slightest controversy that the Egyptian army and police have a record of murder and torture stretching back decades.  It's beyond controversy that their independence from oversight, well-nigh absolute before the fall of Mubarak, has only increased.  That also means, of course, that they haven't been subjected to any reform.  We might add that no force in Egypt has shown the slightest ability to restrain them.  From all this any even vaguely rational person would have the strongest reason to suspect that this 'popularly legitimate' coup would come with a good dose of torture and murder.  Unless the crowd was borderline insane or mentally deficient - which might possibly bear on the legitimacy thing - it would have to expect that the coup to include this spate of torture and murder just as firmly as it would have to expect that there would be troops moving through Cairo.

Well if I endorse a cancer treatment that I have every reason to expect includes excising a tumor, I can be understood to endorse excising the tumor.  Indeed dictators often justify their torture and murder using exactly this comparison.  But in the case of the coup, Hellyer tells us, endorsement confers 'popular legitimacy'.  So someone could certainly argue that the torture and murder had popular legitimacy as well.

Well, maybe something did go wrong after all.  Maybe, if we want a notion of popular legitimacy that makes something ok, we need to consider not just the endorsing but what's endorsed.  The notion will always have problems because what a huge crowd endorses is never entirely clear. But when Mubarak was overthrown, it wasn't a matter of huge crowds who'd already been told by the Ministry of Interior that it was open season on the headquarters of the governing party.  Though some common soldiers broke ranks, it wasn't a police and army love-in with Egyptian flags dropped from military helicopters.  In fact it wasn't a matter of one huge crowd celebrating on one security-forces-approved night.

It was a drawn-out desperate struggle in which young and old died in the streets under the fire of police snipers and agonized in army torture sessions.  So despite the chants of 'the people and the army, one hand', it's reasonable to conclude that the huge crowd wasn't endorsing the replacement of Mubarak by a murdering, torturing military junta: "down, down, with military rule".  On the contrary it seems the crowds were demanding an end to such practices and a measure of freedom - whatever that meant to whoever demanded it - for everyone, secularists and Islamists alike.  They weren't endorsing the destruction at gunpoint of a democratically elected though largely impotent government.

The different objectives of the crowds can't just be ignored when evaluating the legitimacy of their demands.  If Hellyer wants to argue that Morsi himself lacked popular legitimacy, he is welcome to do so.  But his argument for the coup - no, it wasn't just an 'analysis' - relies on an idea of popular legitimacy that would be disgusting if it weren't so absurd.  Maybe he should reconsider his whitewash.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Egypt - An Outsider's View

It's understood that societies exert pressure on their members in various general ways - the state through laws and penalties, the economic order through the demands of employment and unemployment, the society through various forms of persuasion, condemnation and sometimes illegal intimidation.  Of course there are also rewards and inducements of various kinds.  Egypt is no exception.

Egyptians in impressive numbers and with great courage, rebelled against an oppressive government.  What's happened?

The military and 'security establishment', semi-independent organs of capricious and brutal repression, escaped scott-free.  The entire power of the state detached itself from the state and did what it pleased.  In return, the popularity of these institutions, known for torture and murder, soared.  The 'revolutionaries', or more accurately the people dissatisfied with the old order, divided into a more or less liberal, secular opposition, Islamists of various kinds, and a tiny remnant of true left-wingers opposed to the army and police. (The division was rough and the parts themselves diverse, but a rough picture will do.)  Virtually all society's anger was channelled into intergroup dissension, and away from the army and police.

Where was the government in all this?  There was no government, but only a few officials and representatives who came to power in a disputed election, under a constitution decreed by some generals without the slightest hint of democratic procedure, and interpreted by those same judges who so often presided with equanimity over the injustices and oppression of the old régime.  They and the army destroyed every attempt by the Islamists, particularly the Moslem Brotherhood, to establish something like a state.  There was no legislature; the army through its cabinet posts loomed over the executive branch, and the judiciary led the way in making sure these constraints could not be overcome.

The opposition, largely spectators in this demeaning circus, developed an ideology in line with the increasingly contemptuous approach of the army and police to the efforts of the elected officials to govern.  This ideology had two main components.

The first was to pretend that the non-government was a government, and therefore responsible for the failure to govern.  The army, police and judges responsible for this failure were entirely exempted from responsibility for its consequences.

The second was to offer, with great pretense of sagacity, an absurd theory of democracy according to which the non-government, contrary to the most obvious appearances, was authoritarian.  It was authoritarian because democracy, it seemed, was not about majority rule, but about giving the minority some unspecified but large share of power.  Any attempt by the government to assert its authority against the security establishment, or to  populate state institutions with its own choices, was welcomed with pretentious horror - even the epithet 'fascist' was shamelessly attached to these quite normal attempts to govern.  Meanwhile people went hungry.  The opposition made no attempt to help them, but very occasionally used them as a stick to beat the 'government' down some more.

Why did this happen?  Whatever the whole story, part of it had to do with class.

The revolution was, according to the slogans, for freedom.  To its instigators, largely middle-class, that meant civil liberties and exemption from repressive social constraints.  As might be expected, their ideals amounted to classic liberalism.  To much of the rest of the population, freedom meant above all democracy.  Now, they thought, we get to decide how things run.  And most of this group were Islamist.  Their ideology was anti-liberal, all about social regimentation and at best indifferent to individual liberties.  But this was no ordinary confrontation of liberal and anti-liberal forces.  It intensified and festered from refusal to acknowledge a great big elephant in the room.

This elephant was deep-seated inequality of opportunity.  The liberals were fighting an oppressive social order from which they had largely enjoyed independence.  The anti-liberals represented those for whom there was no such escape.

The liberals realized with increasing clarity that what they really feared was not dictatorship but the imposition of an Islamic lifestyle.  Any other sort of freedom didn't really matter.  They could hardly have be clearer about their priorities:  had they really cared about civil liberties, they would never have come to embrace as saviors the murdering, torturing army and police.  As for democracy, they had discovered what they could not admit:  it was their enemy, the very instrument that sought to on them impose an Islamist lifestyle.  It was this discovery that engendered their absurd, pretentious notions of a democracy that had to be 'so much more' than vulgar majority rule.

The liberals did have one thing right:  democracy is indeed a tyranny of the majority, limited only by self-imposed constraints.  And the liberals may have had excellent reason to fight democracy in Egypt.  But, incredibly, they did not or could not recognize that their fight was only for the privileged few.  For the majority, that fight was already lost, and no political arrangements could reverse their defeat.

The most convenient way to see this is in its most prominent aspect, the position of women.  Middle-class or upper-middle class women in Egypt had some freedom.  They had homes and hangouts in which they could almost dress and do as they please, yet be treated with respect.  Of course this was worth a great deal, almost everything to them, and middle-class men had similar life-style concerns.  This was well worth fighting for, even if it meant promoting an absurd ideology and hoping for a puppet government under the paternal eye of the criminally repressive police and military.  In short it was worth re-establishing the old order.

But this agenda could make sense only to the less deprived segments of society.  For the rest, there was no escape.  The old order had not protected them and a new old order would not be able to do so.  They had to accept Islamic constraints.  For them, the liberal agenda was a pipe dream.

Everyone knew this, but no one said it.  Everyone had seen what was essentially an Islamist social order arise after decades of failed though persistently repressive secularist governments.  For most women, liberty had already been lost.  Not for them the good job with the good salary and the trips abroad.  They could never hope to defy the communities in which they lived.  The liberty defended so passionately by the opposition was a privilege to which they could not aspire.

That is why the revolution degenerated into a poisonous stalemate.  The liberals had a certain constituency that they could not in short order expand, because they had nothing to offer the lower orders of society.  The lower orders, for whom freedom was out of reach, wanted at least democracy, the power of collective self-determination.  Since this was only a threat to the better-off strata of society, they too could not expand their support.  The result was increasing and increasingly dangerous polarization, all to the benefit of the very repressive institutions whose excesses prompted the revolution in the first place.  The liberals might gain temporary advantage if people believe they can offer competent government, but they would be just as crippled in power as the Islamists:T the police and military will ensure the continuance of an order over which they so profitably preside.

Could things have gone differently?  Could they still?  The liberals could accept democracy.  Failing that, they could and can prevail only if they accept what the Islamists accepted many years ago - that the road to power had to lead through society itself.  The Islamists achieved what they achieved, social transformation and an electoral majority, by working with and for the poor in the slums.  They cared about the poor or at least catered to them, when no one else did, not in any useful way.  The liberals can win only if they travel that same long hard road. They can get behind the efforts of the left and the trade unions to improve the lot of 'the people'. Otherwise, they can content themselves with counter-revolution.