Trump Goes to Westphalia

There is nothing entirely new under the sun when it comes to US presidents and US military power, at least since the end of World War II.  All American presidents, whatever their political inclinations, preside over a quasi-imperial system of military power that spends spends more than twice as much on the military as the rest of the world put together.   They take it for granted that America has the ability to destroy any country in the world many times over; that America, and only America, can maintain military bases pretty much wherever in the world it chooses; that it can use its military power whenever and wherever it chooses; that it can ‘intervene’ in the internal affairs of any state it chooses, and can act whenever it sees it necessary to eliminate potential threats or regional ‘challengers’ to its global dominance.

Some presidents, such as Reagan and George W. Bush,  depict this military power as an instrument of divine will, that is always used for benign ends in moral confrontations between good and evil – a rhetorical tradition that reaches all the way back to the ‘evil empire’ to the ‘axis of evil’ and ‘moral clarity’ espoused by Bush’s two administrations.

Most presidents have tried to align with the wider interests of the ‘free world’, the ‘West’, civilization, the international liberal order etc, and many US allies share this assumption, at least most of the time.  Even when pursuing American economic or strategic interests, the more intelligent US administrations have always prefer to project military power within a multilateral format, building coalitions and working within international organisations like NATO or the United Nations where possible.

When this is not possible, or when these organisations don’t behave the way the United States wants them to behave, then it will act alone, perhaps dragging in a few partners as a multilateral fig leaf.  Given these precedents, we shouldn’t be entirely surprised by Donald Trump’s performance at the UN yesterday.  As in George Bush’s big international speeches there was a lot of theology and God, accompanied by Old Testament divisions of a world divided between  the ‘righteous many’ and the ‘wicked few.’

Taking a cue from Flannery O’Connor, Trump even warned that some nations were already ‘going to hell’.  There were some spectacularly crude explanations for this hellishness, from Trump’s suggestion that ‘international criminal gangs…  force dislocation and mass migration; threaten our borders’ to his  crude analysis of Venezuelan ‘socialism.

There was also a lot of emphasis on about ‘sovereignty’, and ‘sovereign nations’, such as the assertion that ‘Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny, and strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God.’

Such observations have been interpreted by some commentators as a reaffirmation of the old ‘Westphalian’ international order after the R2P interventionism of the last few decades.  This is giving Trump far more coherence and credibility than he will ever deserve.  One minute he was suggesting that the best way to ensure international order was to allow ‘sovereign’ states to act selfishly.  At the same time he persistently singled out members of the ‘wicked few’ such as Syria, Iran and Venezuela, because of the way their governments treated their ‘own people.

At one point, Trump told his audience that military action might be necessary against Iran, not only because of its supposed role in exporting ‘  violence, bloodshed and chaos’ – something the US itself knows a great deal about – but also because ‘The longest suffering victims of Iran’s leaders are in fact its own people.’

So are we ‘Westphalian’ or still ‘post-Westphalian’?   No point in asking Trump because he probably doesn’t know.   Still it’s worth remembering that R2P was never the altruistic ‘post-Westphalian’ phenomenon it was supposed to be.  After all, the US had been intervening in the affairs of other states for decades before such ‘humanitarian’ interventions were justified as an international ‘responsibility’ that  supposedly overrode the notion of the sovereign Westphalian state.

From Clinton to Obama, the US flirted with R2P when it suited its national interests or geopolitical agendas, ignoring some dictatorships and autocracies and only targeting the ones that were seen as potential ‘challengers’.  Yesterday Trump was more or less arguing exactly the same thing.   Nevertheless his speech left a lot of jaws dropping, and there was an unmistakable sense when it was over that the world had become a more dangerous, unstable and unpredictable place than it was when he took the podium.

Such anxieties aren’t entirely unfounded. American politicians have often reveled in their ability to ‘destroy’ countries that opposed them.  A drunken Nixon once talked about nuking North Vietnam and flooding dykes.   Hilary Clinton warned that the US could ‘obliterate’ Iran.  John McCain composed a little ditty about doing the same thing. Even Obama once politely reminded Iranians that the US could destroy their country if it chose to.

Few presidents have issued such threats with the same bullying arrogance that Trump displayed yesterday.  There was no talk of ‘regime change’ or ‘surgical strikes’ to ‘take out’ missile sites.  Just a little joke about ‘Rocket Man’ and the casual, almost bored suggestion that the US might have ‘no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.’

Thus, with a little flourish of a speechwriter’s pen, 25 million lives were rendered worthless, invisible and disposable – to say nothing of the devastation and carnage that will spread through South Korea and beyond if anyone attempts to resolve this crisis militarily.

No doubt Trump would just munch on a piece of chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago through all that, but the rest of us should be genuinely alarmed to hear such bloodthirsty Al Capone-like language delivered at an institution that,  for all its failings, still embodies the possibility collective security and multilateral, non-military solutions to international crises that was first mooted after World War I with the failed League of Nations. .

The US cannot be held uniquely responsible for the disastrous game of chicken that is now unfolding with Korea, but the Trump administration has made a bad situation worse and yesterday’s speech does not suggest that it has any intention of changing course. Trump declared yesterday that ‘No nation on Earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles.’  True, but the experience of the last two decades suggests that when it comes to the axis of evil, only countries that have them can guarantee their survival.

To say that this is not a desirable outcome does not even begin to describe it, but Trump’s frat-boy belligerence will do nothing to prevent it.  And North Korea isn’t the only looming conflict on the horizon. Trump’s attack on the Iran nuclear deal made it clear that sections of the US military and political establishment are still intent on ripping up that agreement –  regardless of whether there is any evidence to prove that Iran has breached it.

Trump is not interested in evidence.  He is listening to Saudi Arabia, to  the likes of John Bolton and Benjamin Netanyahu, whose applause blew like tumbleweed through the stunned auditorium yesterday, and that is very bad news indeed.

Because whether or not Trump has gone Westphalian, this is a president who combines the emotional empathy of a toddler with the instincts of Lucky Luciano and the military hardware of a superpower, and unless some serious diplomatic and popular pressure can be brought to bear on this administration soon, he and his fellow plotters stand a very good chance of unleashing precisely the kind of catastrophic confrontation he has been boasting about.




Egypt’s descent into Hell and the death of R2P

The savage purges of the Muslim Brotherhood unleashed by the Egyptian military have exposed – perhaps definitively – the dishonesty, hypocrisy and opportunism with which human rights discourse has been co-opted by Western states in order to lubricate the neo-imperialist ‘interventions’ of the last decade or so.

From the Kosovo war to Libya, Western governments have routinely invoked the rhetoric of human rights as a justification for bombing campaigns and invasions.   In Kosovo, the bombing of Serbia was presented as an attempt to prevent ‘genocide.’   In Libya, the imposition of a no fly zone in order to ‘prevent a massacre’ by the Gaddafi dictatorship quickly morphed into a broader regime change agenda in support of a civil war that may have killed 50,000 people.

In Syria in 2011, Western governments were calling for the overthrow of the Assad regime within months of a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests, and have, at least until recently, continued to insist that no diplomatic or political solution is possible and that the world ‘cannot sit idly by’ in the face of the crimes carried out by the regime (the crimes carried out by the opposition rarely feature in this kind of emotional blackmail).

The slaughter being perpetrated in Egypt has provoked a very different response.   There have been no calls for bombs to ‘prevent a massacre’ that has already started, no Syria-like demands that the military must go or for the regime to be quarantined.       The Obama administration has not even tried to use the lever of military or economic aid in order to get the military to moderate its behavior, and has done nothing but cancel a joint military exercise.

Though Obama has expressed his ‘concern’ at civilian deaths, he has also argued, in his Martha’s Vineyard statement last week that

We want a peaceful, democratic, prosperous Egypt. That’s our interest. But to achieve that, the Egyptians are going to have to do the work.

We recognize that change takes time and that a process like this is never guaranteed. There are examples in recent history of countries that are transitioned out of a military government towards a democratic government. And it did not always go in a straight line and the process was not always smooth.

This sounds a lot like an invitation for the military to stay in power and ‘manage’ this transition – regardless of how long it takes.       Britain, taking its cue from the Imperium as always, is also ‘deeply concerned’ about the violence and is calling for a ‘political dialogue’ that seems increasingly remote, unless serious pressure is put on the military to bring it about.

There are various reasons for the meek response of the West, which are mostly to do with its determination to support any regime that will ensure the continuation of a pro-Western ‘stability’ in Egypt.

But the specific nature of its interests in Egypt is itself an indication of the weak and essentially fraudulent use of human rights in the wars and interventions of the last two decades.         This was a relatively recent innovation in international relations that roughly followed the end of the Cold War and received its first outing in the wars in the ex-Yugoslavia, particularly in Kosovo.

Until then Western governments had spent the best part of the Cold War supporting coups, overthrowing governments and backing fascistic military governments in Africa, Latin America, South East Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean without blinking an eye.

Whether giving active or passive support to the Guatemalan army, the Shah, the Indonesian military in 1965, Mobutu in Zaire, Lon Nol fascism in Cambodia, the Latin American ‘national security states’ of the 1970s, or Pakistan’s murderous rampage in Bangla Desh, the least that can be said is that human rights were not exactly an overriding concern in Western foreign policy in this period.

On the contrary there was, or so it often seemed, no regime too brutal for Western governments to work with, no dirty war that these governments were willing to abstain from on moral grounds,   no amount of violence that could not be tolerated – or facilitated – if ‘communism’ was on the receiving end of it.

The slaughter of 700,000 Indonesian communists?     Pass the ammunition. Contras carving up peasants and health workers with knives in Nicaragua?     Not a problem.       Mujahideen blowing up girls’ schools in Afghanistan to resist the godless Soviet occupation?     The moral equivalent of the founding fathers, says Ronald Reagan.

Massive violence inflicted on South Africa’s frontline states by the apartheid regime’s ‘total strategy’? Nothing that couldn’t be solved with a little ‘constructive engagement.’ Death squads in El Salvador?     A tragic but unavoidable necessity if civilization is to be saved.

And so it went on, even as the governments that engaged in such behavior worked themselves up into a paroxysm of indignation at the evils of ‘terrorism.’   Some attributed this willingness to ‘Kissingerian’ realpolitik or the imprint of Machiavelli; others argued that democracies were sometimes obliged to work with ‘unsavoury’ regimes in order to save the free world from the Soviet hydra or from ‘terrorism’.

Call it what you will, this is how business was routinely done between states, and few governments questioned it.     All this began to change in the 1990s and the terror-ravaged noughties.     Within a decade of the fall of the Berlin Wall,   Western democracies not only began to rediscover human rights, but some governments began to   argue that they were worth fighting for – on some occasions.

No longer was it acceptable for dictators to ‘kill their own people’ or carry out egregious violations of human rights with impunity.   Now the world – or those sections of it that called themselves the ‘international community’ were obliged to do something about it.

Indifference was no longer acceptable, and democracies were beholden to the principle of ‘Responsibility to protect’ (R2P).     ‘We’ could no longer sit idly by, but had to ‘do something’ – which usually meant bombing someone.

These arguments appeared to reject the ‘realist’ school of international relations, which argued that states were primarily driven by amoral considerations of national interest, and which upheld – pretended to uphold the principle of national sovereignty as the essential foundation of international stability, in favour of the forgotten ‘idealist’ tradition which attempted (ineffectually) to bind states to a common community with certain internationally recognized political values at its core.

According to R2P, (some) governments could override the sovereignty principle, not in pursuit of national interests, but in order to uphold universal   human rights obligations.         Some proponents of this idea, most notably Tony Blair in his 1999 ‘doctrine of the international community’ speech in Chicago, attempted to merge the realist and idealist schools by suggesting that it could be in the national and international interest to intervene,   in countries where violence and instability threatened to spill beyond their borders.

In practice however, the supposed universalism of R2P has provided a moralistic fig leaf for the projection of military power by Western states in areas of geostrategic interest.     This means that when our governments deem it necessary to whack regimes that they don’t like, then we hear a great deal about the human rights abuses carried out by the target du jour,  till the public is virtually crying out for the bombs to fall, somewhere.

In other cases, such as Bahrain, Uzbekistan or Saudi Arabia, our governments fall mysteriously silent and come over all nuanced,   suddenly rediscovering concepts like ‘diplomatic solution’, complexity or ‘democratic transition’, or respect for the internal affairs of the states responsible.

Now Egypt has been added to the list,   and the clear but undeclared expectation behind the West’s muted response is that the military can kill who it has to kill and get back to normal, especially since most of those of who are being killed are ‘Islamists.’

Sisi and his generals have clearly taken the hint, and have gone on the offensive with a viciousness that has no precedent in modern Egyptian history.

It remains to be seen how many people they will have to kill in order to ensure the required stability, or whether these massacres will evolve into a full-fledged civil war, but whatever the outcome, do not expect the ‘international community’ to exert itself too much to stop them.

Peter Beaumont on the folly of good intentions

With the new post-Gaddafi order in Libya disintegrating into violent chaos,  Peter Beaumont examines the pitfalls of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in today’s Observer.   He quotes from an article by former State Department official Stewart Patrick in Foreign Affairs last September, which described the fall of Tripoli as    ‘the first unambiguous military enforcement of the Responsibility to Protect norm, Gaddafi’s utter defeat seemingly putting new wind in the sails of humanitarian intervention.’

Beaumont appears to agree with this assessment and insists that ‘the mission to overthrow Gaddafi was a noble one.’   But he then goes on to include Libya in a list of countries where western military interventions have left a  ‘  series of weak and corrupt fragile states, where violence is often commonplace and anything resembling real democracy utterly absent‘ – a list that includes Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo.

In his analysis of why interventions with such good intentions failed, Beaumont argues that

 while few would deny that states using violence against their own populations delegitimise themselves, when that abuse is then deployed to argue for the use of force to remove regimes, it creates a complex dynamic that risks normalising conflict in the new political space, as has occurred in Iraq and Libya. Perhaps even more worrying has been the starkly visible trend towards ever-more hands-off engagement in the post-conflict reconstruction that has mirrored an apparent desire for intervention to be ever cheaper in terms of blood and treasure.

This leads him to conclude that

if the notion of humanitarian intervention is not to be utterly discredited, there has to be a rigorous, realistic and practical understanding of what is required not simply to remove abusive regimes, but to guarantee genuine freedoms, democracy and transparency in the post-conflict period.

Throughout this analysis, Beaumont’s insistence on  the ‘ core moral principle of humanitarian intervention’ is matched by an unquestioning assumption that the interventions he describes were motivated by the same elevated concerns.

Absent from this analysis is any sense of the way that R2p rhetoric has been used as a propaganda front for the new post-Cold War militarism.  Beaumont does not  mention the strategic and geopolitical objectives that have underpinned the interventions he describes, or the ways in which these objectives have directly contributed to the failures he describes.

It is not for nothing that all the interventions mentioned by Beaumont have relied on local allies, puppets and stooges with a very dubious commitment to democracy or human rights, whether it was the gangsters of the Kosovo Liberation Army,  sleazy and unrepresentative politicians like Ahmed Chalabi and the corrupt former UNOCAL representative Hamid Karzai, the warlords of the Northern Alliance or former Gaddafi loyalists who jumped ship when it suited them.

Such allies are unlikely to become the basis for stable or democratic post-conflict societies, and they are generally chosen by the ‘interventionists’ in order to realise their own specific agendas.

In his insistence that atrocities and human rights abuses carried out by states against their own population ‘delegitimise’ the regimes concerned, Beaumont does not address the legitimacy of atrocities and crimes carried between states – including those that have taken place in the course of the interventions he describes.

He cites a Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities presented to Barack Obama in August last year as a triumph for ‘intervention hawk’ Samantha Power, the author of A Problem from Hell, who he credits with prompting Obama to back the anti-Gaddafi rebels.  The directive argues that

Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.    Our security is affected when masses of civilians are slaughtered, refugees flow across borders, and murderers wreak havoc on regional stability and livelihoods.

Many of these things have happened as a consequence of the interventions Beaumont describes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.   Because war is not a humanitarian activity, and aggressive ‘pre-emptive’ or ‘preventive’ wars are never likely to produce positive outcomes.

Beaumont is right that the principle of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ is a good one,  and a worthy aspiration for a civilised international order in which moral principle takes the place of narrow self-interest in the relationships between states.  But the disastrous interventions that he describes have not been carried out in pursuit of such an order.

On the contrary, they have been launched by a handful of powerful states in pursuit of the same old geopolitical and economic objectives, which use humanitarian rhetoric as a smokescreen for permanent war, and which invoke moral principles when it suits them and ignore them when they don’t.

And contrary to Beaumont’s assertions, there really is nothing very noble about that.






Libya – another intervention unravels?

There’s an interesting analysis by Tony Karon on Time‘s Global Spin blog of the emerging chaos in post-Gaddafi Libya.   Karon writes of Tuesday’s gunbattle in Tripoli between rival militia factions, of armed gunmen terrorising towns and neighbourhoods, of tribal and factional competition that may yet lead to civil war in a country where the ruling Transitional National Council (TNC) is still struggling to establish its authority and legitimacy.

Comparing this situation to Donald Rumsfeld’s observation that ‘freedom is messy’ in the immediate aftermath of post-Saddam Iraq,  Karon notes that

The difference, of course, is that in Iraq, the U.S. military had established a monopoly of force —Rumsfeld was simply clinging to the hope that it wouldn”t have to be used to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq, and could be brought home pronto. But Libya, as we know, was a different kind of operation— an aproach hailed by U.S. and NATO officials as a new model of “intervention-lite” in which Western powers and Arab allies could help indigenous populations oust odious dictators with minimal commitment of blood and treasure.

Leaving aside Karon’s assumption that Western states and Arab allies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia are really moved by such selfless motives,   his analysis touches on a question that is crucial to other liberal/humanitarian interventions elsewhere, when he observes  that

“…the recognition extended by foreign powers to the NTC was far in advance of the extent to which Libyans, even many of those in the forefront of the battle to oust Gaddafi, were willing to accept its lead. The fact that the rebel leadership had not established an alternative power center meant that the collapse of Gaddafi also meant an effective collapse of state authority. The challenge now facing the rebels is to build a new state on the ruins of the old, and the first order of state-building business is establishing a monopoly on military force within its borders. The NTC is struggling to meet that challenge.”

This tendency to produce governments and rulers that lack real legitimacy has been a recurring feature of the Western military ‘interventions’ of the last decade.   In Afghanistan the toppling of the Taliban was achieved through alliances with local warlords and the imposition of the utterly corrupt Karzai administration – a government that is only in power through rigged elections.

In Iraq,  the US set out to establish a government that would be pro-American and pro-Israeli, friendly to foreign capital and willing to transform the Iraqi economy in accordance with the priorities laid out in the Bremer laws.  The only politician they found who was willing to play this role was the sinister Ahmed Chalabi, who despite his connections in US political and intelligence circles,  was barely known in Iraq itself and clearly had his own agenda.

Unable to impose Chalabi as an Iraqi Karzai and with no knowledge or understanding of the country they occupied, the Anglo-American invaders dismantled the core institutions of the Iraqi state and created a power vacuum – and a crisis of political legitimacy – that laid the basis for the firestorm of violence that followed.

Presented by some of its supporters at least,  as a disinterested attempt to implant a Western-style democracy in the heart of the Arab world,  the invasion and occupation ushered in a  corrupt and parasitic parliamentary system that was seen by many Sunni Muslims as a vehicle for Sh’ia ascendancy, and whose government increasingly relies on violence, force and intimidation to remain in power.

In Libya the US/European coalition similarly put its faith in a TNC that was stacked with former Gaddafi loyalists and opportunists, and which appears to have been largely tacked onto the popular movement that began in Benghazi last February.   If external intervention was crucial to the collapse of Gaddafi, as in Iraq it has nevertheless created a political order that  is inherently unstable and prone to further conflict.

Such outcomes are to some extent an inevitable consequence of ‘interventions’ that are always driven primarily by broader geostrategic considerations rather than any real concern for the countries that are bombed or invaded.   Some of the more ‘leftist’ proponents of Western military interventions in recent years have tried to reconcile the ‘realist’ school of international relations, which places national interests and security and geopolitical objectives over moral and humanitarian considerations,  with the more recent ‘idealistic’ objectives of building democracy/humanitarian intervention and R2P (Responsibility to Protect).

Even when interventions are driven by self-interested geopolitical considerations, such supporters argue, they can still serve progressive or humanitarian ends, however inadvertently.   These arguments were often made in the run up to the Afghan and Iraq war, where it was argued that the Taliban and Saddam were so bad that anything that toppled them would inevitably be better and that democracy was  always better than dictatorship – however it came about.

In presenting war/bombing/invasion as a moral and humanitarian obligation and the  least-bad option, such arguments ignore the fact that unilateral wars of choice not only kill people, often in greater numbers than were dying already –  they inevitably produce unforeseen political consequences that contradict or undermine their supposed intentions.

Personally, I’m always happy to see dictators fall anywhere and I certainly prefer democracy – even in its limited and easily manipulated parliamentary form – to dictatorship.   For all its limitations, this is what millions of Arabs have taken to the streets to fight for over the last twelve months.

But democracy is an organic process that must emerge from the bottom up and from within the society in which it takes place if it is to have legitimacy and consensus.It can’t simply be conjured up by neo-imperialist interventions,  air strikes and military invasions.

Such interventions invariably seek allies that reflect their own interests and priorities rather than those of the population they supposedly intend to liberate or protect.  In doing so they will not only fail to make things better – they will often make a bad situation worse in the short-term and lay the basis for further violence and civil conflict in which democratic politics is marginalised and ultimately undermined.

Libya is beginning to look like one more example of this pattern, and Western interference in Syria may well produce a similar outcome.  That is why the best thing that Western states could do for the ‘Arab Spring’ would be to keep their guns and planes out of it.