Sunday, September 08, 2013

Syria: "History starts today." Again.

The episode that most stuck with me from James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet (2004) was a meeting just after the attacks of September 11, 2001 between Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Gen. Mahmoud Ahmad, the head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. By Mann's account, it appears to have been the day of the attacks or the following day:

As Ahmad sat in Armitage's office with Pakistani Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi at his side, the deputy secretary of state kept returning to a single theme. "Are you with us or against us?" he asked. Pakistan had been the prime supporter of the Taliban, the Afghan regime that had harbored and protected Osama bin Laden and his AI Qaeda supporters. Now, Armitage said, Pakistan faced a choice. Pakistan was either on America's side or not. You can report that back to General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, Armitage said. When Ahmad tried to explain the background to Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban, Armitage cut him short. "History starts today," he said. ...

Armitage's warning was one that the Vulcans and their president, George W Bush, delivered again and again over the following years: "You're either with us or against us." To the Vulcans these words were meant to demonstrate that it was a new era and that America had changed after September 11. "History starts today." There would be no more long-winded explanations, no more shades of gray. [my emphasis] (p. 298-299)
But history didn't start on 9/11/2001. And while the Cheney-Bush Administration went further than any in memory in taking that attitude of shunting off the constraints of the past, they were by no means unique in that. In foreign policy, public memory - the vague but important general level of historical knowledge and understanding of the voting public and the mainstream press - is spotty at best. And the history that is well known - Munich! 1938! Czechoslovakia! Appeasement! - is so mangled and has been misused for so long we'd actually be better off forgetting a lot of it.

There's a cynical European saying that nevertheless addresses something real: "Wars are God's way of teaching Americans geography."

The example Mann gives of Armitage with the Pakistani Ambassador and the head of the ISI is a good illustration. Presumably Armitage, who has a better reputation for professionalism than many other leading members of the Cheney-Bush Administration, actually knew a lot about the history of Pakistan's relationship to the Taliban. At that moment, he was making an important diplomatic point to a country that would be a key player in the US response to what actually was an armed attack on the United States.

But when it comes to Pakistan and Afghanistan, the history that started that day in Richard Armitage's office bears a striking resemblance to the history that took an important turn in 1947 when Hari Singh, then the leader of the Kashmir territory, agreed for Kashmir to become part of India. This was part of the unwinding of British colonialism in India, which was divided at the time into majority-Muslim Pakistan and majority-Hindu India. India and Pakistan fought a war over Kashmir, a majority-Muslim region, in 1947-49, with a UN-negotiated cease-fire in January 1949.

Since then, Kashmir has been the chief point of contention between Pakistan and India, with various military clashes and terrorist attacks, mostly by pro-Pakistan Islamic groups seeking to undermine Indian rule in the Kashmir province. Did I mention that both India and Pakistan are now nuclear powers? Afghanistan is seen by both Pakistan and India in the context of the Kashmir conflict, Pakistan wanting it as a "strategic reserve" both for training of fighters for Kashmir and to prevent India from gaining influence there that India could use to put military pressure on Pakistan from the west. Pakistan has always regarded the Karzai government in Afghanistan as pro-Indian. So they've never been completely on board with the American-backed war effort in support of what they see as a pro-Indian government in Kabul.

History may have started for Richard Armitage 12 years ago. But Pakistan was working on a different calendar, whether we reckon it by the Western or the Islamic calendar. Kashmir hasn't ceased to be a central concern for them that overrides whatever the Americans want to do in Afghanistan. And, in fact, Pakistan wound up being both "for us" and "against us" in our Afghanistan policy since the meeting with Armitage.

John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in his neglected but excellent book The Culture of Contentment (1992):

A change in official attitude toward some foreign country, although it may make headlines and the television evening news, does not impinge upon the life of the average citizen. If some peculiarly repressive or abhorrent government is being treated with inappropriate courtesy and grace, there may be objection, even indignation; nonetheless, few Americans are immediately affected in any concrete fashion. Such public response as is heard has the comforting virtue of being rhetorical rather than real, and the adverse opinion can be easily tolerated.

When thoughtful commentators and the press report a deterioration in relations between the United States and some other country, the change has occurred, in practice, only in the attitudes of a limited number of officials on each side. There is no larger involvement or consequence. A newspaper headline saying that the United States government views with grave concern some development in Guatemala, the Philippines or the Ivory Coast means only
that a handful of government functionaries have so reacted. Reporting their concern, they are the United States. The further consequences of the development are normally slight, as also when, at some later moment, it is said that relations have improved.

The politically and intellectually undemanding character of the routine conduct of foreign affairs is made strongly evident by the way the presumptively responsible personnel come into office. With each new administration high officials of the Department of State are installed, often with no apparent earlier preparation and frequently with no visible qualification. (pp. 110-111)
Galbraith's book was published in 1992, which would be 9 PHE (Pre-History Era) according to the Armitage calendar. But the situation in year 11 AHE (Armitage History Era) sure sounds a lot like the one Galbraith described back before human history began.

So when a Presidential Administration starts urging the urgent need for war against pretty much any country, it takes some convincing because most people aren't paying much attention to the particular target country. And without a strong informational pushback from credible sources, many people who are initially dubious about the war start to think that the "safe" position is to favor war.

In the real world, war is never safe.

The Obama Administration is in an all-out push to convince the public and Congress to support a US war on Syria.

But what is so striking about the case for this war is that it's a rehash of the case for the Iraq War. Which didn't turn out so well in the view of, well, pretty much anyone who was actually paying attention.

We have the Arab dictator who the Administration has declared to be the New Hitler, who pals around with terrorists and has weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and has "gassed his own people." Plus American Credibility is at stake. And somehow someway the New Hitler might give some WMD to some of his terrorist pals sometime to attack the United States for some reason.

Obama's case for war on Syria isn't identical to Cheney's and Bush's for war on Iraq. There's no real doubt that there are chemical weapons in Syria and that they've been used this summer on some Syrians. It's not entirely clear to us lowly citizens if it really was the Syrian government that used them, although it's not a great stretch to believe so.

The Pentagon and our political elite don't have a good record when it comes to mission creep. In fact, mission creep is pretty much built in to the case being made for war that we're dealing with the latest in a series of New Hitlers.

The Republican advocates of war are being pretty clear that they are cheering for this war because they are hoping for escalation, and eventually a war on Iran. (See, for instance, Kristol Cares Deeply About the Syrian People LobeLog 09/07/2013)

Various reporters and experts and bloggers are looking at the particular claims. But in some ways, the particular claims are beside the point. Back in the time before Richard Armitage's history began there was something known as the Peace of Westphalia in 1948. It is generally taken as a convenient date from which to date the beginning international order of nation-states that we still have today. In the centuries since then, a formal body of international law has grown up with which the international system works. Since the days of Abraham Lincoln's Presidency, the United States has played a leading role in constructing and formalizing international law.

After the carnage of the two world wars, the United Nations was created based to a great extent on the vision of Franklin Roosevelt, who was in turn greatly influenced by the internationalism of Woodrow Wilson. Like all human institutions, it has been less than perfect. It is not a world government. But it is a critical arbiter of international law, formally recognized as such by the United States.

A critical part of the international system and international law is the prohibition of one country attacking another that has not attacked it and does not present any imminent threat to it. That is the case with the United States and Syria. The fact that Syria violated international law by using chemical weapons - a legal standard that applies to Syria despite the fact that it is one of the few nations that hasn't ratified the anti-chemical weapons treaty - doesn't give the US the unilateral right to violate the international law against wars of aggression to punish Syria for it.

There are very good reasons for the law against wars of aggression. See, for instance, the Thirty Years War that was ended by the Peace of Westphalia. Also World Wars, One and Two.

The Obama Administration will attempt to make us ignore that fact, both the legalities and the realities. They are pitching the war as a straight up-or-down opposition to the use of chemical weapons. Analyzing the specifics of the claims are important, just as it was with the Iraq War. Initiating an international war with a country that has not attacked the United States is not like delivering a spanking to a naughty child, which is how the Obama Administration and its loyalists on the Syria War issue are presenting it. It's a lot deadlier, a lot more complicated, and has far greater risks.

Telford Taylor, a member of the US prosecution team at the Nurembrrg War Crimes trials, wrote about the realities of laws of war in Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy (1970). In this passage, he addresses laws for the conduct of war rather than specifically laws on the initiation of war. But his point is relevant to the latter, as well. He argues that the justification for international laws is "strictly pragmatic":

They work. Violated or ignored as they often are, enough of the rules are observed enough of the time so that mankind is very much better off with them than without them. The rules for the treatment of civilian populations in occupied countries are not as susceptible to technological change as rules regarding the use of weapons in combat. If it were not regarded as wrong to bomb military hospitals, they would be bombed all
of the time instead of some of the time.

It is only necessary to consider the rules on taking prisoners in the setting of the Second World War to realize the enormous saving of life for which they have been responsible. Millions of French, British, German and Italian soldiers captured in Western Europe and Africa were treated in general compliance with The Hague and Geneva requirements, and returned home at the end of the war. German and Russian prisoners taken on the eastern front did not fare nearly so well and died in captivity by the millions, but many survived. Today there is surely much to criticize about the handling of prisoners on both sides of 'the Vietnam war, but at least many of them are alive, and that is because the belligerents are reluctant to flout the laws of war too openly. (p. 40)
This is unlikely to play a major role in the Congressional debate or in mainstream media coverage.

But it matters. A lot.

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