Remote Control: On Interventionism, Part Deux

Yesterday, the Obama administration confirmed that they would support the Syrian rebels by providing weapons. This is not interventionism, they said. This morning, the New York Times publishes an article supposed to decipher and critically analyze the decision. It miserably fails at both; what is crucial in the decision – passing interventionism, even by proxy, as legit under the Kouchner doctrine – is passed over because the New York Times does not understand the difference, however clearly stated. Three points in the article are object to contention.

Here’s pictorial evidence of my reaction reading Mark Landler’s article

1. Samantha Power does not seem to understand the purpose of her job.

Samantha Power recently made headlines in the small world of foreign policy analysts by severing diplomatic ties with Venezuela with a giant pair of scissors handed to her by the State Department. She claimed that Venezuela was dismantling civil society (as defined by Hilary Clinton in a 2010 speech in Poland). It was already bad enough that Power suddenly removed an entire country from a list for allegedly doing what the Obama administration has been pro-actively doing at home; but the world of diplomatic emissaries works in semi-mysterious ways. As the administration envoy to the United Nations, Samantha Power will bear the responsibility of sitting at the Security Council and make decisions that will impact billions of people in situation of imminent or already existing threat of political violence. There was no question more important than the one asked by Bob Corker (R-TN). Yet, as an envoy to the United Nations, she replied that the doctrine was not a legally superior authority than the one of US foreign policy.

That’s not a good start, Samantha.

While no one is questioning the national sovereignty of the United States, any member of the UNSC, or any member state for that matter, principles of the United Nations imply that it behooves the member state to apply them when requested by a majority vote. By claiming that foreign policy dominates over international law – or doctrine – Samantha Power expressed, in one sentence, the very pervasive flip side of the intervention coin: that there is hardly any intervention made solely on the basis of humanitarian, selfless higher duty incumbent to the state to save civilians in the line of fire. The matters of interest and national prevalence over intervention are precisely why R2P (“responsibility to protect”) was decided, declared, and implemented in a 2001 commission on state sovereignty and intervention (ICISS).

Corker is not stupid. There are many conflicts in which the US could have easily intervened and manifested its own interest: Egypt and Syria are two of them. But instead, the US has decided that it will, in the name of preemptive self-defense (sic) bomb children in Yemen and face the “thorny issue” in Northern Ireland. What is incumbent to Samantha Power is to justify what is only perceived by the international community as far overreach in military power and a tendency to police what is outside and clearly beyond the limits of international law. What’s fascinating, however, is precisely using international law to justify military intervention – by proxy. Which brings us to the next point.

Here, Samantha. You can borrow my copy.

Here, Samantha. You can borrow my copy.

2. “The responsibility to protect” doctrine is not obscure.

In fact, not only is it pretty clear, but it is also pretty easily available everywhere. It is, as a matter of fact, idealistic, as Mark Landler pointed out; much of the principles guarding international law are, because principles are, by definition, moral codes of conduct. It’s not obscure (it’s the dictionary). The complexity resides not in the doctrine itself, but in the way it applies to the foreign policy of the member state nominating Samantha Power in a position of diplomatic dominance. There are precisely six criteria of military intervention under the Responsibility To Protect: right authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means and reasonable prospects. Those criteria are clearly listed in section 4.16. In the context of the United States intervening in Syria, two of those criteria can be raised as an issue and could potentially be a hindrance to the Obama Administration using R2P to cover the fact that they are arming one side of a conflict and taking pro-active part into what is currently a civil war. The first one, the “lesser” issue of the two, if you will, is right intention. There is no discussion regarding just cause in Syria; the body count in itself, as well as Bachar Al-Assad’s track record of constantly violating human rights, could be just cause. But with all intervention, timing is everything. Per the rules of responsibility to protect (4.33):

(…) Any use of military force that aims from the outset, for example, for the alteration of borders or the advancement of a particular combatant group’s claim to self-determination, cannot be justified. Overthrow of regimes is not, as such, a legitimate objective, although disabling that regime’s capacity to harm its own people may be essential to discharging the mandate of protection – and what is necessary to achieve that disabling will vary from case to case. (…) There should be a clear commitment from the outset to returning the territory to its sovereign owner at the conclusion of hostilities, or if that is not possible, administering it on an interim basis under UN auspices.

Clearly right intention has never been considered if only for a split second when discussing foreign policy at all in the last twelve years. This considered, the definition itself raises the complex issue of aiding a group to achieve self-determination. That is the goal of the Syrian rebels: to overthrow Al-Assad and create a new regime under which torture and constant policing will no longer be an everyday occurrance. There is perhaps no greater nor noble aim than to achieve the principle laid in Article 1 (2) of the UN Charter; same article that justified revolutions under Soviet rule, and that is still screamed out from rooftops in occupied palestinian territories today. Self-determination meant the end of all colonisation; but as sovereignty is attacked by intervention, who or what is qualified and legally authorized to decide which combatant party is holding the flame of self-determination? If, politically, the question of Syria is relatively simple, international law does not authorize “the advancement of a particular combatant group”. In short, if one state believes the Syrian rebels should be given advantage of firepower over the regime, they can choose not to invoke international law to justify their interventionism. They can call it interventionism, not responsibility to protect. You know. Which is what it is. Interventionism.

The second criteria that is perhaps the real “thorny issue” on the United Nations’ side is the question of authority. Who has the authority to decide what a sovereign state can and cannot do within its own borders? Article 2(4) of the UN Charter answers plain and simple that no other state can be legally involved in another state’s handling of its own affairs. Creating a supranational power as wide-range and far-reaching as the United Nations forced a whole article worth of reassurance. The writers of the R2P report are aware that the criteria on which military intervention is legally justified are tough “because the action proposed is itself extreme: military intervention means not only an intrusion into a sovereign state, but an intrusion involving the use of deadly force, on a potentially massive scale.” There is no precision on what constitutes strict domestic jurisdiction in the UN Charter; the fundamental text was meant to be the bedrock of the international institution the legislation was to lay on, not the law itself. The Security Council (UNSC) reserves itself in Articles 41 & 42 the right to take action on “any threat to the peace, breach of peace, or act of aggression”. There is no further mention of a possible authority being invested in one specific state. No state can individually intervene in one given conflict unless specifically authorized by the UNSC, being supervised and controlled by the UNSC, and forming an international armed force created by the UNSC. If anything, the UNSC is a substitution to individual nation-state intervention.

The UNSC fails. A lot. Sometimes it acts, but fails in its results. It would be completely unrealistic, especially in the current climate, to expect the UNSC to solve each and every problem the world encounters in its attempt to not only reach global security, but achieve total independence from former Cold War powers. As we see, the way it cyclically does, the rise of nationalism fire the spark of conflict, the authority of the UNSC is sometimes dispensed to what it calls “regional powers” – which more often than not refers to NATO. If major concerns were raised over NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, their justification of the conflict spilling over onto NATO member states’ borders was later legitimized. This is interventionism justified by containment. There is an open door, however, of jurisprudence of the UNSC on not only authorizing regional organisations to act against non-member states, but even to justify their intervention post facto. This strange addendum to criminal law – which has a non-retroactive principle – is explained in section 6.35:

The UN Charter recognizes legitimate roles for regional organisations and regional arrangements in Chapter VIII. In strict terms (…) the letter of the Charter requires action by regional organisations always to be subject to prior authorization from the Security Council. (…) There are recent cases when approval has been sought ex post facto (Liberia and Sierra Leone), and there may be certain leeway for future action in this regard.

Again, this is no way authorizes military action by individual member states. There is talk of the grave consequences of inaction, and the Syrian population has been suffering them every single day for the past two years and a half. It is time to consider action in Syria and stop being afraid of any possible intervention in the region. It is already spilling over and drowning neighbor states into its own blood. Syrian refugees are flooding over into Iraq. Lebanon’s Hezbollah has taken upon itself to intervene, and is now penalized by the European Union. Israel is upset at Hezbollah intervening. This conflict, both in its duration and its long term implication for the region, has to be stopped. Whether it is incumbent, as Power said, to the United States to effectively improvise on their means of intervention and skirt around international law by not sending troops but arming local rebels is up for debate. Syrian rebels have made previous requests for military back-up in the form of weapons to the European Union, to no avail. This is, however, definitely a form of military intervention, however avoiding the risks named in the report, meaning, occupation of territory, and foreign overthrowing of the regime. If Al-Assad is leaving is throne of bared naked human bones, it will be by and through the hand of his own people. That is self-determination in effect, in all the powerful force of the UN Charter’s “all necessary means“.

But this is not, and can not constitute a responsibility to protect. This is a responsibility to intervene, and the conditions of intervention are laid bare. It is now up to the Security Council to decide if they will give it a go. Yet I have to disagree with Dr. Albright, no matter how much this pains me: it is not up to you to decide how to interpret R2P. It is up to the United Nations, as an international force, as a collective, to decide how to possibly expand or restrict, define or lessen the clarification, update or not, what R2P meant at the time of the ICISS. The United States may have a seat at the Security Council; it has to be reminded, over and over again, that it is not the Security Council.

3. This is not a funny time in US politics. It’s a time of dissent.

But Mr. Williamson, who served under President George W. Bush, said there were deeper reasons for the American aversion to foreign entanglements, having to with fatigue after a decade of war. “It’s a funny time in American politics when you have Rand Paul allying with the left about not getting involved overseas,” he said.

This quote from the New York Times article this blog post is based on is infuriating. This is not about Rand Paul or his father allying with anyone; this is about a non-partisan, clear-cut divide between believers in interventionism, worldwide, borderless, boundless, and limitless – and those who have a distinct belief that not only is war not financially viable for the United States, it is not a viable foreign policy either, as it increases the danger against domestic security and further fuels the terrorism risk that has already impacted the country even in recent months. The nation is being drawn and quartered over interventionism. One side wants to revert to the Cold War era when Latin America was the playground for intelligence agencies and their carte blanche over regime guidance led to the torture and deaths of millions of Chileans and Nicaraguans. It was a time when the world was divided between blue america and red soviet, and the map was just a bipolar splash of color that made no sense and forgot about the human lives that tried to fit in those straight lines that were never genuine or natural borders. Another side of the country is not necessarily isolationist, but tries to believe in bigger and firmer values, such as the power of diplomatic relations, a strong and authoritative State Department led by a presidential nominee they can trust. For many, the place of America in the world has to be restored not through Washington bullets, but through trust and righteous conduct. There is nothing strange, weird, or inadequate about this vision. It may seem completely unrealistic and eerie for someone who served under W. Bush, I will concede. For many old timers of the State Department, war was the only way to assert authority, and the European Union was a weakling for no longer addressing internal or international conflicts with the tip of their bayonet. The EU was licking its wounds and waiting on East Germany to get up from its knees.
But Williamson – and Mark Landler – have to understand one thing: as idealistic international law can be, it is driven by a natural sense that security and comfort, through peace, will only be achieved through justice and unity. Those are empty words in this day and age. Believers in concepts such as the rule of law or supraconstitutionalism are seen as hippies or radicals. We see overpowered law enforcement blare through our streets and defile fundamental freedoms that we had taken for granted for centuries, simply because the T-word can no longer be uttered without sending a shiver through the collective spines. Everyone wants to be safe. No one likes to see suffering, pain, strife, blood, lives lost to meaningless power struggles and financial hunger. But there is a just war. There is a just cause. And what cause is more just than that of the people striving to be free? And what cause can be better supported but by standing by international law? I understand the quick satisfaction of winning over the system, of walking around the institution, of being the funnier and clever guy in the corner with great wit that defeated the grey hairs of the Security Council. I understand wanting to break free from those reigns, but they exist for a reason. Maybe Rand Paul and his father are not necessarily strange or funny. Maybe their allies aren’t simply sheep trying to join Molly Ringwald and the rest of the cool kids in Congress. Maybe there is this sinking feeling that unless we stop trying to be the bigger guy, we will have an army of smaller guy knocking on our door and throwing international law to the dogs just like we did. It’s not submission. It’s not feeble to decide to abide by international law, to sign the Convention Against Torture, or to send a dignified emissary at the General Assembly. It actually takes a strong nation to stand at the Security Council and waive its national interest in order to protect, worldwide, and assume its responsibility.
So, America, are you ready to be strong?
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About K
bastard banshee. devious lawyer. Lucille Bluth. probably jetlagged.

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