Category Archives: published

urination distraction

i wrote a piece for the sunday guardian on the controversy about us marines urinating on the taliban. see the piece here. here is a post on duckofminerva that continues in a similar vein.

In fact, urinating on corpses, torturing prisoners, and cheering deaths is predictable in any war.  Indeed, it shows that the military training necessary for most people to kill another human being is working.  No doubt it also shows a failure in training on the laws of war – but there is little doubt which of these two courses of instruction is more fundamental to our military.  Of course we should have laws of war and use them to prosecute violators.  But we should not be surprised if ordinary people placed in contexts of peril and power act brutally.
Low-level prosecutions also divert attention from the higher-ups who are most responsible.  Of course, some at the bottom may truly be sadistic.  But for the most part, they are ordinary men and women caught up in the fury of warfare.  Much of that fervor is in fact drummed up by superiors – through public statements or tortured legal opinions.  Prosecuting a few small fry for understandable if condemnable behavior makes it less likely that those at the top, who made it all possible, will face prosecution.

Most fundamentally, condemnations and prosecutions preserve and legitimate the war itself. They portray it – or at least our side’s engagement in it – as rule-bound, controlled, rational.  By making a show of censuring young men and women caught up in the awfulness of war, those in power deflect attention from the far greater awfulness and futility of the war itself – for which they are responsible.


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the syrian game

Syria is  perhaps the best, and most worrying example, of hard-nosed realism cloaked in the rhetoric of human rights.  Western powers, the UN,  the Arab League, and Turkey have all condemned the Assad regime’s violent suppression of civilian protests.

Only the Russians have withheld criticism arguing that measures taken by the international community could de-stabilize the region.  As a result, Russia has been charged with  privileging stability and the status-quo over the welfare of the Syrian people.


Western nor regional interests in Syria have anything to do with the Syrian people and their rights;  in fact, Syria is where the liberal threads of the Arab spring begin to unravel.

Assad belongs to a minority Alawite sect, which has dominated the Syrian government since 1970.  Alawites are a sect related to Shia Muslims, and make up about 7 percent of the country’s population.  The  Alawite government has traditionally been a secular, socialist government,built around the military.

The US, and the regional Middle-Eastern governments have a vested interest in the future of the Assad regime.  Syria  has been a strong ally of Iran. The US would like to see the Assad regime overthrown in the hope that it will  cause a tear in the Iranian sphere of influence. Moreover, since efforts to reign in Iran’s nuclear, and other, ambitions have been mostly consistently ineffective, Syria provides an alternative avenue to hit the Iranian regime. The special friendship between Iran an Syria is especially significant in light of expected US withdrawal from Iraq next year.  As US forces withdraw, Iranian influence is expected to grow and combined with Iran’s stronghold in Syria, the Iranian sphere of influence could now extend all the way from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean.  If Assad survives, Iran will thus be the big winer. Aside from help check US power in the region, increased Iranian influence in Syria would also serve a reminder to the Saudi’s that accommodating Iran is much more beneficial than resisting or opposing Iranian power. The threat of a wider Iranian sphere of influence has not been lost on Saudi Arabia or the Arab league more generally, who have calculated that Syria is the critical battlefield on which Iranian power can be checked. Turkey, not to be left out, has also shifted from being a Syrian ally to calling upon strong measures against the Assad regime, motivated chiefly by the desire to curb Iranian influence in the region. Israel has found itself in  bit of a pickle, as while it would like to curb Iranian influence in Middle East, Assad is the ‘devil we know’ and fear Islamists assuming power in Iran.

So, what we see in Syria has little to do with the grievances of the Syrian people, but the strategic interests of the regional powers, plus the United States. And yet, it continues to be publicly justified in terms of the rights and grievances of the Syrian people, and the responsibility of the international community to protect civilians,  to save strangers.  This rhetoric has once again prevented us from asking the critical questions about the current situations, questions and points that must be noted if there is to be an informed and nuanced international response that is is the best interests of the Syrian people.

First, comparisons with Libya are not informative. Power in  Syria is much more opaque than in Libya and Assad’s stepping down may not result in the end of Assadism. Moreover, it is unclear the extent to which the rejection of the Assad regime is spread across the wider public, with some sources noting that large parts of Syria are calm and people seek a return to business as usual under Assad. Despite the nature of the Assad regime, it is secular and many fear that the Islamists will seize power after the fall of Assad.  It is also not completely beyond the realm of imagination that at least some of the protests and violence in Syria is provoked or funded by external actors; the interlocking web of regional interest discussed above provide enough motive.  And finally, even if we are to compare with Libya, the jury is still out on the success of the intervention. True, Gaddafi is dead,but reports note that more civilians died after, or even as a result of, NATO’s intervention than under Gaddafi; more over, western nations were quick to support the rebel leaders with little to no – knowledge of who these rebels were, their future intentions for Libya, and consequences of which we are seeing today as the future of Libya hands in disarray.

Second, the success and credibility of any intervention can not be judged by good intention alone – and I hope I have de-bunked the notion of the game in Syria being motivated by good intentions – but  also the likelihood of success and the possible consequences along the route to success. First, the possibility of a successful military intervention is almost definitely zero.  Russia more than likely to veto and NATO is unlikely to be prepared. More critically, Iran is unlikely to take intervention in Syria lying down and Iranian response to any military intervention will most certainly have catastrophic de-stabilizing effects for the region.  Sanctions have a strong track record of failure, be it in Iran or Saddam’s Iraq; moreover, as sanctions normally punish the common man rather than the regime, they have the paradoxical effect of strengthening the regime’s domestic base in opposition to foreign meddlers.  Finally, the problem with such measures is  that the more pressure that is placed on the regime, the more quickly the regime’s exit option disappear.  As a recent editorial notes, ‘Assad’s problem now is that he’s lost any chance of genuine compromise and must therefore fight on in the hope that he can cow the opposition and restore order. Once an authoritarian ruler rejects compromise and liberalization and launches a bloody crackdown instead, they  have to do whatever it takes to win.’

The situation then leaves with us with a possibly peculiar paradox.  On the one hand, the moral rhetoric accompanying international and regional condemnation of the Assad regime compels western powers and the Arab League to keep the pressure on Assad and make a string of (empty?) threats.  Yet, given the complex web of interests in the regime,  any genuine action is likely to result in de-stabilizing the region with consequences too worrying to imagine. An Iranian backlash is something one hopes that none of the regional powers are willing to risk. And yet, the continued pressure on the regime exaggerates and sharpens the dividing line between the various camps, accelerating and accentuating the security dilemma and a hostile Middle  Eastern system.

Some times good intentions, are not good enough. And in the Syrian case, the pretense of good intentions has hopefully been revealed. The itch to act does not itself provide a justification to act. Especially, without a consideration of the broader and more longer-term consequences.

The Russians have been criticized by government and commentators alike for their objection to sanctions and intervention in Syria. But, the Russian position is worth re-considering in light of the above discussion.  First, they are correct to note that the toppling of the Assad could de-stabilize the region, a concern that should not be quickly forgotten in the name of human rights. Second, the Russian concern is in fact not so far off from that of the US or the Arab League  – it is concerned with securing its strategic interests in the Middle East; the difference however is that it does not need to cloak these interests in terms of human rights and instead is transparent of its preference over a stable status-quo that preserves the order of states rather than the security of people.

 Finally,  it is worth noting that arguments by western governments, against the Assad regime and critical of the Russian veto, often refer to the measures taken by the Arab League as legitimating the western criticism of the west. The Arab League’s emphasis on human rights and democracy, its suspension of  Syria from the Arab League and the the imposition of sanctions, are indeed critical points in the history of the Arab League. Some would thus argue that the Arab League is now being socialized into  liberal norms, and gradually abiding by the international rules of the game. It is worth asking however,  whether the Arab League has in fact been socialized  – or learnt the rules of the game – into using liberal norms based on the security of people as a justification for pursuing hard-nosed realist state interests?

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egypt: mistaking the storm for the spring?

When protestors marched on Tahrir Square in February this year many rejoiced that the Arab Spring had reached Egypt. On November 28, after another round of protests at Tahrir, Egyptians took the first step in charting a new future as the first round of voting commenced. However, it is beginning to look less and less like spring in Egypt.

Since February, the miltary has tried approximately 7000 people, including journalists, bloggers and protestors in closed military trials.  In May military leaders announced that they should be protected from parliamentary scrutiny under Egypt’s new constitution; in July, it argued that the military should be permitted to intervene in Egyptian domestic politics; and, in September, the generals renewed Egypt’s emergency law. Arguably, the military’s expressed commitment to elections was not based on a commitment to democracy but a means to preserve its own power and standing. Under Mubarak, the military was a pivotal actor in the ruling regime and was consulted on key issues; the military’s holdings within the national economy also provide as an important source of patronage and influence. The military also has the authority to appoint 80 members of the  new constitutional assembly, leaving only 20 seats for democratically elected parliamentarians. Events since February have in fact left the Old Guard in the best position to assert itself; some even argue there has been a military coup in Egypt.

Skepticism is evident in Egypt as some civil society activists boycotted the elections before they even began. A recent article in The New York Times notes public sentiment: “Where is Egypt heading? Were we mocked?” “The revolution is stolen; the revolution is dead; the revolution is lost. We were deceived. History is repeating itself.” Viewed as such, one can’t help but wonder – did civil society, the media, western governments, and the new generation of social media activists read the Egyptian situation all wrong? Was it really an Arab Spring in Egypt?

Egypt has been a long term ally of the US in the Middle East. It has been seen as a force for stability in the region and Mubarak, a special friend. Obama’s first response to the events in February was to call for a return to peace and stability under Mubarak;  the concern was Egyptian stability. A week later Obama changed his position, arguing that the ‘universal right of the Egyptian people must be respected, and their aspirations met.’ The post-Mubarak transition, Obama argued, ‘must immediately demonstrate irreversible political change’. Some argued that this marked a turn in American policy to an idealist foreign policy, motivated by beliefs rather than strategic interests.

However, as is becoming increasingly apparent, a transition led by the military allowed the Obama administration to kill two birds with one stone. The US could appear to be siding with the protestors while still securing its strategic interests in the region through a stable Egypt led by generals who, appearances aside, were no different from the Mubarak regime.   American support for the protests were driven by American strategic interests and the rhetoric of human rights and duty to assist civilians provided an essential justificatory tool.

Obama spoke like an idealist but acted like a realist; the idealist rhetoric provided a moral justification for a realist foreign. What was seen as a new era in Middle Eastern politics driven by the people themselves was arguably a continuation of an older era in Middle Eastern politics, with the US as the regional hegemon, this time however legitimated in terms of the grieving voices of the people. The Tahrir square protests allowed the US to frame and justify its concern with a stable and loyal Egypt in terms of human rights rather than strategic interests. It provided the moral cover and justification to continue playing the game of Middle Eastern Politics while diverting criticism that  it supports autocratic and repressive regimes in the Middle East.

EH Carr noted that for rulers to maintain authority they have to legitimate their power to the ruled; un-legitimated power is short-lived and attracts social backlash. The framing of a continued realist geopolitik game in the rhetoric of human rights allows just such an opportunity: a chance for the US and its western allies to legitimate their continued dominance over the Middle East to the people, while still backing the Old Guard, albeit wearing different clothing.

The American concern is a stable and loyal Egypt. This could become problematic if the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power, even if it does so without the support of the Salafi conservatives. The Muslim Brotherhood is currently leading the elections, followed by the Nour Party that seeks to impose Islamic law. It thus seems likely that this time around, the US, Britain and other western nations will not forcefully pressure the military, and wait for the Spring to loose steam on its own accord. As Simon Tisdall noted in a recent piece in The Guardian, ‘ Their bottom line priority is an Egypt that works for them, not a democracy that works for Egypt.’

A final point. Enabling the construction of the Arab Spring narrative were the the arm chair social media revolutionaries, the Facebookers and Tweeters. While not challenging the merits of the democratization of information and news, the mass hysteria that swamped youth social media websites during the Arab Spring prevented commentators from asking critical questions about the future of Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood or the military, whether the protestors are representative of the broader population, and the role and interests of external powers. To even hint that Egypt might be better off under Mubarak amounted to becoming a social pariah – a liberal, ‘you’re either with us or against us’.

It is worth noting that subsequent sit-ins at Tahrir Square, as in July,  saw dwindling public participation, and most protesters were full time activists rather than the general public. Also, alongside last month’s protests at Tahrir, there was another set of protestors in Abbassiyah, just a few kilometers from Tahrir square, supporting the military. A recent survey posted on Foreign Policy noted that Egyptian support for the protests is dwindling and were it not for last months violent crackdowns, the common Egyptian is more concerned with economic stability, even if under military rule. American strategic interests and social media enthusiasts have formed unlikely bed-fellows that have enabled the construction of a one-side Arab Spring narrative, obscuring the much more complicated and fragmented situation on the ground.

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December 7, 2011 · 4:29 pm