Archive for category ISIS
In my last post I talked about Henry Kissinger’s world view, using the example of detente as indicating the strengths and weaknesses of his approach. His focus on power politics to the neglect of emergent issues across the globe helped put us on a path to the myriad of challenges we face. Russian and American policies helped breed corruption, militarism and dictatorship in newly independent states, thwarting accountability and rule of law.
Countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa were the biggest losers of the Cold War – and suddenly they are relevant. So how does Kissinger describe what needs to be done?
First he notes the nature of the changes taking place. The fundamental unit of the international system, the state, is under pressure. He very correctly notes a major weakness in our international institutions. The world economy has become global, but the institutions that govern international affairs remain rooted in the state system. This means we have an institutional structure not suited for 21st Century conditions. Prosperity can only be achieved with globalization, he notes, but globalization feeds into the forces challenging international stability.
And, true to his realist principles, he argues that diplomacy is harder now because great powers cannot consult so easily. In the new multi-polarity there is no equivalent of a Nixon-Brezhnev summit. Meetings that do happen are less frank and more subject to media scrutiny. Realists would prefer the public let the experts handle foreign policy, leaders working in back rooms with media blackouts can achieve much more, Kissinger would claim, than a in a public spectacle.
Kissinger is absolutely right that the state is under immense pressure, yet he can’t let go of a vision that is based on the activities of sovereign states. For a realist the state is the central foundation of the international system. He sees the EU not as an alternative to the state, but a kind of confederation that has not yet achieved the status of statehood.
I think he misses the way in which the information revolution has rendered the European style sovereign state – created by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 – obsolete. Only institutions that cross borders and ultimately erode or perhaps “pool” sovereignty can handle the challenges ahead. After all, it’s hard to argue that the European style state functions well in most of the world. It was a colonial creation based on fake and sometimes absurd borders and has not been able to establish rule of law and accountability in most of the world. The only reason the realist state-fetish hangs on is that no one has figured out what could possibly replace it.
Accordingly, he turns to the US role as he discusses the possibility of establishing a new world order. Kissinger’s words:
To play a responsible role in the evolution of a 21st-century world order, the U.S. must be prepared to answer a number of questions for itself: What do we seek to prevent, no matter how it happens, and if necessary alone? What do we seek to achieve, even if not supported by any multilateral effort? What do we seek to achieve, or prevent, only if supported by an alliance? What should we not engage in, even if urged on by a multilateral group or an alliance? What is the nature of the values that we seek to advance? And how much does the application of these values depend on circumstance?
For the U.S., this will require thinking on two seemingly contradictory levels. The celebration of universal principles needs to be paired with recognition of the reality of other regions’ histories, cultures and views of their security. Even as the lessons of challenging decades are examined, the affirmation of America’s exceptional nature must be sustained. History offers no respite to countries that set aside their sense of identity in favor of a seemingly less arduous course. But nor does it assure success for the most elevated convictions in the absence of a comprehensive geopolitical strategy. – Kissinger
This conclusion seems vague. It also is rooted in the notion of states and alliances, and doesn’t creatively think about new ways of political organization. Moreover, the emphasis remains on putting out fires and trying to create stability via power politics. One gets the sense that his genius allows him to see the situation pretty accurately, but his world view pushes him to a solution that is vague, and cannot work. The US trying to create a world order, of working with allies to impose values and stability is bound to fail. The Metternich system discussed in my last post collapsed into 30 years of war and depression. This order could suffer a similar fate.
My current work is based on trying to figure out what kind of new political structures and organization can handle the vast area of technological change and the power of new media. We live in an odd time when the old structures still have life – governments can put down rebels, silence critics, and impose their will. But cracks are evident – no one thought Mubarak or Qaddafi could be brought down, the Arab spring was a shock. The world is in motion.
The EU is a fascinating example of a system that has morphed into a new kind of political organization. The states have given up (or some say pooled) their sovereignty in favor of supranational organization. Yet they are doing so under the concept of subsidiarity – power should be exercised at the lowest level possible – local, regional, state or supranational. Theoretically the state could lose both to the EU institutions and to local and regional governance. Given the power of the new information and technology, local governments can handle problems that used to require national action.
What is needed is new thinking – moving away from ideology, nationalism, parochialism and “them vs us” to a recognition that globalization requires pragmatism, openness to other cultures and ideas, and “us with them,” solving problems. The forces that oppose such new thinking range from nationalists to groups like ISIS, who want to create an Islamic caliphate that contradicts the forces of globalization and change. Defeating them may require military action, but also requires a new vision that can speak to young Arabs and address the problems of poverty, disease, and oppression. These are the problems Kissinger’s world view simply dismisses as secondary to the need for great leaders to craft and maintain an order.
Unfortunately, it’s hard for people in government to give up the idea of state dominance and power. Cooperation is seen as dangerous, and xenophobes are ready to fight against anything that seems to open a state up to new cultures or people. Kissinger’s piece thus stands as an example of the old thinking – something insufficient in dealing with a changing world. Unfortunately the new thinking is still a work in progress – and if it doesn’t emerge and get embraced soon enough the future could get bleaker before it gets better.
We talk about human rights as being extremely important. People like me who dislike war and militarism often support military action in defense of human rights. Everyone is appalled by ISIS atrocties. We look at the lack of intervention in the Rwandan genocide as failure of the world to adhere to the “never again” promise on preventing genocide.
But what are human rights? How are they determined? Can we enforce them? In the West there has been a focus on political rights – free speech, liberty, freedom of association, etc. In the third world the counter argument is that political rights are meaningless if people are starving and have no place to live. They focus on economic rights, such as a right to food and shelter. Others say that there are rights associated with identity and community.
Enlightenment rationalism led to the hope that if only we could find a first principle and build from there, it would be clear how to understand the world and human ethics. Many in the West thus follow John Locke’s argument that there are natural rights to life, liberty and private property which we get by dint of being human. To be human, one must be alive. To be human one must be able to feed and shelter oneself. That requires both property and liberty to go out and get the material needed to live. This way of thinking, called liberalism, generally stops with those rights – those rights are seen as foundational, no other true rights exist.
That approach has a glaring weakness – namely, humans can live as human without private property. Indeed through most of human history there was no such thing as private property. As hunter gatherers we just took what we could get. Property rights arose with the creation of agriculture, but most often these were collective/community rights governed by custom and tradition. So clearly there is no objective need for private property.
More fundamental to the problem is that the notion of “rights” doesn’t exist in nature. In nature you can do whatever you choose to do, limited only by your capabilities and the consequences of your actions. Nothing more. Locke’s argument assumes that there is some right to exist as a human which leads to those other rights. But no such right exists in nature, it only exists as a human construct, a belief that life is valuable and therefore should be protected. We have that belief for our species, but put a hungry tiger in your house and I guarantee he won’t care about your “rights.”
Similarly, when we down a burger and fries, we haven’t thought about the right of the cattle to live – let alone live naturally without genetic manipulation and inhumane factory farm conditions. Our hunter gatherer instincts show as much regard for animal rights as the hungry tiger has for our rights. The notion of rights is a human creation, reflecting what we think ought to be followed based on our experience, empathy, and context. This concept has practical use (hence most societies have traditional rules against theft and murder, even if they don’t talk in terms of rights) and abstract (how should humans treat each other, what is the best social order?)
If the concept of rights is a human creation, then so is every notion of rights, whether Lockean liberal, social democratic or communitarian. This means we have the freedom to create the idea of human rights and to determine which rights we want to create, defend and hold dear. We don’t find rights in the ether, there is no “first principle” to give us objective rights; rather, we create both the notion of rights, and what rights we choose to recognize.
So we are free to come up with whatever notion of human rights we want, including things like a right to a paid vacation or a right to bear arms. However, no notion of rights will be viable if it isn’t held by a vast majority of society. And if different “isms,” philosophies and religions have different notions of rights, it will be (and has been) hard to construct a viable, effective form of human rights.
So maybe the key is to look into our hearts. What makes us cringe? What is something that almost everyone finds repulsive? What acts illicit disgust and anger across cultures, and among people of diverse philosophical perspectives? Those acts certainly include beheading, torture, rape, murder, theft and array of actions. This doesn’t come from a rational argument, but a sense of common empathetic sentiment. Hollywood films work world wide because the emotions of certain core circumstances transcend boundaries.
The United Nations has several human rights documents and treaties, though they remain aspirational rather than legally enforceable. That’s a start. As we see ISIS butcher innocents, children being used as pawns in war, women being kidnapped and used as slaves in the sex trade industry, and governments torturing enemies, it’s time to work harder to create and enforce a core standard of human rights.
The first step is to recognize we don’t have to ground our rights in nature, religion, or some external factor. We work together, look inside our hearts and minds, and determine what we humans want to recognize as basic rights. From there we can decide that we will work together to defend those rights, whether deep in Iraq or in a small town in Missouri.
The rise of the genocidal Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a major military force in Iraq has a silver lining. To be sure, that doesn’t help the people already slaughtered by the Jihadists, or who are in the path of the group wanting to establish a reactionary Sunni Caliphate across the Mideast. However, the brutality and danger of ISIS is internationalizing the conflict – and that makes it very possible to defeat ISIS. Moreover, there is virtually no widespread sympathy for the group in the Muslim world – their acts violate the spirit and letter of the Koran.
When the US went to war with Iraq in 2003, it was against the wishes of most of the world. President Bush’s advisors were shocked to see France and Germany work with Russia to undercut US policy. So when Iraq proved beyond the capacity of the US to “fix” – especially when Sunni-Shi’ite civil war broke out in 2006 – the world was content to let the US deal with the mess created by an ill fated decision to go to war.
Realizing that the conflict was weakening the US and undermining the entire region, Presidents Bush and Obama followed a different path. President Bush co-opted the Sunnis, and set up a “peace with honor” situation where the US could extricate itself by 2012. President Obama continued that path, and the US managed to leave Iraq – humbled, but not completely humiliated.
When that happened, I thought a tripartite division of Iraq was likely. It was clear that the Shi’ites and especially Prime Minister al-Malaki believed that Iraqi unity meant Shi’ite control. The Sunnis and Kurds each exercised local autonomy despite the existence of a nominally national government. Iraq seemed to heading down that path when ISIS emerged, almost without warning. Yes, ISIS has been around for a decade, but only recently with the decline of al qaeda and the on going civil war in Syria have they managed to form a coherent leadership and a strong fighting force. Without intervention, they could not only reignite a civil war with the Iraqi Shi’ites, but continue genocidal acts against minorities and anyone not following their interpretation of Islam.
Readers of this blog know that I am very skeptical of, and usually oppose, US military intervention abroad. But this is a clear case in which the US can play a role in an international effort to stop genocide and save a region from complete collapse.
The US cannot defeat ISIS alone. The cost would be so high the American people would rebel, and it would further hasten the decline of American power. But the horrors of ISIS have shocked the world, and now Iraq is no longer an American problem. The Pottery Barn rule (you break it, you own it) no longer applies.
The world must undertake a multilateral intervention that includes NATO bombing and referral of ISIS leaders to the International Criminal Court. The world must also find a way to cut ISIS off from its source of funding – and only multilateral collaboration of intelligence agencies and other relevant actors can root out the ISIS money flow.
NATO bombing and logistical assistance along with rearming the already effective Kurdish Peshmerga fighters would turn the military conflict around. Politically US-Iranian pressure on Iraq could force the Shi’ite government there to work to build a unity government that would again coopt Iraqi Sunnis, who have been helping ISIS out of anger at the inept government of al-Malaki. Iran could play a major role – the Shi’ite Islamic Republic has a strong desire to see ISIS defeated.
The rest of the world needs to step up too. Money and humanitarian aid is essential to save the minorities such as the Yazidis who are currently being hunted down by ISIS. This requires creating safe zones for minorities, and then having learned the lessons from Bosnia, being in a position to assure that these havens remain safe. Even after ISIS is defeated, the refugee crisis will be immense. This will require a global effort, and should include contributions from China, other parts of ASIA, Latin America and any state that can afford to contribute at least a bit.
With such an effort, not only can ISIS be defeated, but good will can be built with the Arab world – good will that can help that part of the planet continue with the slow, painful but real transition of modernization and democratization. Defeating ISIS could mean defeating the Islamic extremism. ISIS is no more true to the values of Islam than the Westboro Baptist church reflects Christian principles.
So this crisis represents an opportunity – a chance for the world to come together, say “never again” to genocide, work cooperatively, make institutions like the ICC prove their value, and ultimately end the decades of crisis between the Arab world and the West. That may sound overly optimistic as ISIS continues to advance and minorities are butchered. But we have it within our power to turn this around – and if President Obama can build an international coalition to do so, that could be the crowning achievement of his administration.