Hard Choices

Speech to Voice of Women for Peace awards dinner, November 6, 2015

You’re going to hate this talk because I’m going to admit that I’m stuck and can’t propose any good options. In fact, I myself am not even sure what the least bad options are. Possibly you share my ambivalence. I’ll assume so.

Much of our stuckness comes from bad decisions our previous governments made. In any case, as we address the current conflicts involving Russia in Ukraine or Syria, we dislike all of the choices that are available to us. But we need to face facts—even depressing ones—so I will identify some of the dilemmas that I cannot solve, which I suppose may sometimes trouble you too.

Stymied by Paradox

We feel paralyzed by having to choose between a moral course of action and a strategically advantageous one. For example, since we clearly want to save lives, one answer seems morally obvious: Just stop the fighting. Go talk to the bad guys and get them to stop too. Unfortunately, there are practical problems: It is not clear which of the belligerents are the good guys; indeed, evidently almost all them (including our allies) are very bad. Moreover, it seems unlikely that either of the worst ones, ISIS or Assad (take your pick), would stop the killing if we could persuade their enemies to do so. We peace people prefer to believe that nonviolent solutions always work, but they don’t. Nor does negotiation always work. Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi tried and failed to negotiate peace with Assad, and I doubt that diplomats have even tried to reason with ISIS. Unless someone does so, we cannot estimate which action would save more Syrian lives—to fight or to withdraw. And what a choice!

Suppose I decide to support fighting. I am then faced with another new choice: whether to fight against ISIS or Assad or both. It seems to be impossible to fight both—and of the two, probably ISIS is worse. Then should we join forces with Assad temporarily? During World War II everyone knew that Stalin was bad, but the allies chose to partner with him because Hitler was even worse. Shall we do likewise today? What a choice!

Also there is another good rationale for us, the non-Islamic West, not to take sides in any Middle Eastern wars, even if the Muslim states continue fighting. Our support is largely counterproductive. Whenever we fight against Islamists, we just attract new recruits to their army. But do these recruits outnumber the jihadis who are being killed? I don’t know, but evidently ISIS is replenishing its troops without difficulty. If I were commanding an army (and thank God, I am not) I might decide to stop this counterproductive war. Hawks never think that way, but maybe we should. What a choice!

Another dilemma worth bearing in mind is that the short-term effects of an action are sometimes contrary to its long-term effects. In the Middle East this fact should inform our decisions when picking our allies and enemies. For example, throughout the Cold War, the Western democracies picked a mob of Arab dictators as allies against the Soviet Union. That made a little bit of sense—if you didn’t mind keeping company with thugs. But over time, these military alliances gave democracy a bad reputation among the Muslims who wanted better governance. Today we are still selling the Saudi dictators high-tech weapons, when everyone knows that they behead more people than ISIS—an extremist Sunni army that is supported partly by Saudis themselves. What hypocrisy! On the other hand, if there are to be any boots on the ground fighting against ISIS, maybe they should be only those of other Muslims, since whenever Canada or the US intervenes against an Islamic regime, we just worsen our own reputation among all Muslims everywhere. I don’t know the answer. What a choice!

Another conundrum has been haunting me all year: Instead of cooperating with dictators, I feel morally obliged to support nonviolent civil resistance movements that demand democracy and human rights. I want my government to do likewise. Suppose, however, that such a nonviolent movement has little chance of success. Should we encourage it? Although such civil resistance movements succeed twice as often as violent ones, they still have barely more than a 50:50 chance of winning. Most of us welcomed the Arab Spring, but it has ushered in chaos and violence instead of democracy. Should we support a nonviolent movement against tyrants even if the outcome is likely to be catastrophic? I am uncertain. What a choice!

Yet another major quandary is my uncertainty about how far to go in respecting national sovereignty. Whenever we interfere in the internal politics of another country—whether violently or nonviolently—we are violating its sovereignty. Even if doing so is morally justifiable, as I think it often is, it violates old international laws that were established by the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. As a principle, sovereignty is declining in legitimacy, but there is no consensus about any alternative.The Westphalian treaties established the rule that each sovereign state must refrain from interfering in another state’s domestic affairs. The Westphalian system was useful in its time but, unfortunately, did not establish any legal mechanisms for ousting a bad ruler. There is still no prescribed way to do so in states that are not democratic.

Sovereignty remained sacred as long as people living inside a country were uniquely affected by its political decisions. Today, however, the economy, environmental factors, and culture are globalizing, so our well-being is determined as much beyond as within our own borders. We don’t even know in what country many of our Facebook friends live, though we may discuss public affairs online with them every day. International laws need to change accordingly, and indeed nations do willingly surrender part of their sovereignty by joining the United Nations. Moreover, the new principle of “Responsibility to Protect” was another big step beyond sovereignty, but there are many problems involved in applying it. Both Russia and China oppose it and uphold the old Westphalian rules—at least officially.

But Russia tends to invoke the old international law of sovereignty only when it suits them—notably when inveighing against “color revolutions,” which Putin claims are all manufactured by the United States as plots against the rulers of sovereign states. And to be sure, Canada and other Western democracies do sometimes support dissident political groups against authoritarian rulers but we don’t instigate their complaints. We could not possibly persuade or pay a million protesters to camp in the Maidan or Tahrir Square.

Putin himself does not uphold the principle of sovereignty consistently. For example, he defends Assad by arguing correctly that he is president of a sovereign state: Syria. Yet Putin violated Ukraine’s sovereignty by annexing Crimea and supporting the secession of a region that he calls “Novorossia.” He has also helped two regions to secede from sovereign Georgia, justifying this by claiming that NATO had set the precedent by invading Kosovo and allowing it to secede from sovereign Serbia. This is a logical justification, whether or not the independence of Kosovo can be justified on other grounds. Some writers call this “whataboutism”: You don’t like what we do in Crimea? Well, what about Kosovo?

With “whatabourism,” even we Westerners can be hoist by our own petards. Until the rules of sovereignty are legally superseded by something better, should we refrain from supporting nonviolent civil resistance struggles even against regimes that abuse their own citizens? I don’t think so—but what a choice!

Should Obama Thank Putin?

During the past few years Obama and Putin have been waging a grudge match. Recently the fight took a surprising new turn when Putin entered the war in Syria. Many people view his action as a brilliant move that makes him look stronger and Obama look weaker. In fact, he acted out of desperation, since Russia is now vastly the weaker state. Fortunately for him, however, his promising options were all compatible, so he had to make no hard choices, whereas Obama faces strong contradictory pressures. Let me recount the sequence of events that led to the current impasse in both Ukraine and Syria.

Putin’s aggression against Ukraine was motivated by Russians’ realistic worry about being attacked by the West. Indeed, NATO’s steady encroachments partly validate their demand for a protective “buffer zone” or “sphere of influence.” However, their control over a “sphere of influence” that includes Ukraine obviously would violate Ukrainian sovereignty. That was not a concern. however, until Ukraine began to choose economic ties with the European Union instead of Russia’s counter-project, the Eurasian Economic Union.

Putin then increased his pressure on Ukraine’s President Yanukovych. Protesters responded by massing in the Maidan. The repression of that protest movement led to bloodshed and the regime’s collapse. Putin called this an illegal coup by a mob, and reacted by annexing Crimea and supporting pro-Russian insurgents in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions. The US supplied non-lethal aid, as requested, to President Poroshenko’s new government. Poroshenko’s request made military aid legal under the rules of sovereignty, though Russia’s military intervention against Ukraine was illegal.

Then, in February of this year the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany met in Minsk, Belarus and agreed upon terms for ending that war. Nevertheless, sporadic fighting continued until about seven weeks ago, when the ceasefire finally seemed to take hold.

Yet Putin lost heavily from the conflict. The US-led sanctions against Russia are still in effect and, combined with the low price of oil, are hurting the Russian economy. Putin needed to regain respect as a world leader. His opportunity came recently, as many thousands of Syrian refugees fled to Europe. Now Putin could divert the world’s attention from Ukraine by joining the war against terrorists, who in fact are more dangerous to Russia than to Europe or North America. Almost its entire southern border divides Russia from a Muslim country where jihadis are numerous. On October 1, therefore, Putin began helping Assad bomb the rebels and ISIS, who had been winning.

Russia cannot easily afford this costly project, but it is politically popular. Russians are proudly resilient, and their approval of Putin immediately rose to an astonishing level: 90 percent. In comparison, Obama appears hapless, though he had already been between a rock and a hard place. Many Americans had urged him to assist the so-called “moderate rebels” to rid their country of Assad. Although Obama had declared that Assad must leave, he had refused to send troops to help the approximately 7000 rebel groups to oust him. Obama had, however, acquiesced to the hawks by training some of those fighters, especially after ISIS split off as a separate force from Al Qaeda in 2013.

And what stunning changed ISIS has wrought! Sweeping across Syria and Iraq, they hang people from bridges only an hour’s drive from Baghdad. Meanwhile in Syria, 90 percent of the 7000 rebel groups are Islamist extremists, not “moderates,” and an estimated one-third of them are ISIS. Putin denies that there are significant differences between ISIS and various other terrorist militias—and he has a point.

Lately, anyway, Obama, Assad, and the Russians agree to this extent: They must certainly defeat ISIS. An obvious next conceivable area of agreement might be to leave Assad in power temporarily and form a coalition against ISIS. Iran would join that coalition, having long funded Hezbollah, which fights for Assad.

But such an about-face would be intolerably embarrassing to Obama. Not only would hawks like John McCain exert their considerable political clout to oppose it, but so would America’s other Middle Eastern allies—notably Saudi Arabia and Turkey. These Sunni states are implacably opposed to Assad, whose Alawite religious community is related to their enemies, the Shia.

Nevertheless, the urgency of defeating ISIS is so evident that there is a new discussion underway, with Russia as a major participant. Putin claims vaguely to be bombing “terrorists,” though most of his bombs are falling, not on ISIS, but on the very insurgents that the US and its allies, including Canada, have been supporting. How, then, could our countries team up with Putin, even if we decide it’s necessary to destroy ISIS? What a choice!

Nevertheless, Turkey has joined in the bombing campaign, though its bombs too are not falling on ISIS but on the Kurds in Syria who are the most effective fighters against ISIS. Turkey obviously feels torn between conflicting motives. Because Kurds inside Turkey are their long-time opponents, they cannot treat the Kurds across the border as their allies.

Thus at this moment, Putin can look resolute because he does not have to reconcile mutually contradictory options. The whole world sees that Obama owes him thanks for fighting ISIS by aiding Assad’s fight against all Islamist groups, but no American politician can afford to say so.

In this new leadership role, Putin has issued some hopeful hints. Jimmy Carter reports a conversation in which Putin proposed a meeting of diplomats from Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey. Those five countries, he says, can reach an agreement that will end the fighting in Syria if they overlook their multiple contradictory interests and work together.

And indeed, several foreign ministers—including Russia and even Iran — are discussing a political solution. Presumably it would be a deal whereby Russia and Iran would force Assad’s troops and Hezbollah to stop fighting. (Maybe they would relocate Assad to a lovely, secluded mansion in, say, Crimea.) Saudi Arabia, the US, and Turkey would disarm the other rebels and move Syrian refugees back home.

Would such a deal work? I began by declaring my pessimism and even my uncertainty about which policies to endorse. However, decency requires me to find at least one constructive possibility that peace activists can accept.

So let me suggest a helpful move that could be launched quickly — even before the diplomats reach any agreement. The war is still creating thousands of refugees who are suffering and dying. Yet there is abundant unoccupied territory in the north and south of Syria where safe havens could be created. With humanitarian aid and some means of defence, Syrians can iive there. Those areas would have to be protected, but the soldiers defending them need not be aggressive. They can simply guard these spaces from incursion. The White House could define such areas as “no-fly zones,” which would safeguard the returning refugees from barrel bombs and Russian air attacks. Such a safe zone preserved the Iraqi Kurds in 1991. Now in 2015, it’s time to save some Syrians.

Most choices in wartime are hard. This one is easy.

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