30/10/2011

Post Gaddafi: “We Have a Problem”

At the end of the movie Charlie Wilson’s War, a US government official leans over and whispers in the ear of the Texas Congressman, “We have a problem”. Wilson had been a fanatical supporter of the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, a major force in having the US government supply the rebels with considerable weapons to help them throw out the invading Soviet army. The “problem”, as it were, was that the weapons were now in the hands of the rebel forces who, after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, were beginning to use them for their own ends, including working with the Taliban against the West.

The transitional forces in Libya were supplied with considerable weapons to help them overcome the regular Libyan army. Paragraphs 9 and 10 of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970 from February imposed a comprehensive arms embargo on Libya. But Resolution 1973, which was adopted in March and authorized military action against Libya, included language that some countries argue created a loophole in the embargo. “We decided to provide self-defensive weapons to the civilian populations because we consider that these populations were under threat," France’s Ambassador to the United Nations Gerard Araud told reporters in June. "In exceptional circumstances, we cannot implement paragraph 9 when it's for protecting civilians," Araud stated.

The ragtag group that started in Bengazi would not have been able to defeat the regular Libyan army without the necessary military hardware, if not training. Weapons flowed to the rebels with little control to whom or for what. “Defeat Gaddafi’s troops” was the marching order, and nothing more. Weapons flooded to the rebels as they had to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan.

Re: Arming rebels doesn't violate U.N. sanctions: France

But what would happen to the weapons once the war was over? In certain countries, Nepal for example, when a civil war ends the handing over of weapons by the rebels can be part of a peace agreement. There are even those who believe that weapons should have numbers like cars so that they can be registered and followed. In that way, there can be some form of control. The West – I refrain from specific names beside the French who publicly admitted their actions – generously gave weapons to the rebels. Defeating Gadaffi was so important that it appears that no consideration was given for collecting or controlling the weapons after the Colonel’s defeat, including those weapons that had been taken from government arsenals.

Why do I raise this issue? Rumors have it that many of the weapons used by the rebels have been stolen or shipped throughout the Maghreb and Northern Africa. Truckloads of material are making their way into the hands of the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb. This is what is often called unintended consequences; there seems to have been no check or control. But, the example of the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan should have been a warning of what not to do; a massive shipment of arms without control is an invitation to disaster.

Once again, “we have a problem”. Although the rejoicing at the overthrow of the ruthless dictator is certainly merited, the consequences of the arms shipments does not bode well for the future of the entire region and beyond.

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25/10/2011

Gaddafi: Chop Off Their Heads ?

Assassinating political opponents has a long historical background. So long, in fact, that one of the ways we separate the modern from the pre-modern is the notion of elections as a means of determining rulers or courts of law as a means to deal with violations of accepted norms. Although the beheading of King Charles I of England in 1649 is considered the beginning of modern politics, this was only so because it meant the privileging of the Parliament over the absolute monarchy and followed a legal trial for tyranny. Modern politics is supposed to be beyond beheadings; the International Commission Against the Death Penalty (ICDP), which is against all legal executions, last week opened its offices in Geneva.

How are we to understand the recent killings of Moammar Gaddafi, Anwar Awlaki and Osama Bin Laden in this context? You will certainly want separate explanations for each. Bin Laden, it is said, had attacked the United States and was plotting further attacks. Capture and trial were not possible, it was stated, given where he was and the immediacy of ending his potential terrorist capabilities. Awalaki also had attacked the United States in different ways and, although an American citizen, was thought to be a dangerous enemy in a country - Yemen - where it would have been impossible for him to be properly captured and brought to trial. Gaddafi was a tyrant whose death was cathartic for an entire population; no trial meant that the 42 years of dictatorial rule ended quickly. At his death, there were celebrations throughout Libya although the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has asked for greater clarification about the circumstances surrounding his demise. The videos are gruesome; the displaying of his body in a refrigerated meat container a rejection of any form of human dignity no matter what he had done. We should expect more from those who overthrew him.

The Arab Spring gave enormous hope throughout the region. Autocratic if not despotic rulers were replaced in Egypt, Tunisia and now Libya. Calls for empowerment have filled the streets. Elections are being held in Tunisia. Democracy is the rallying cry of the disenfranchised. But what does democracy mean if not the rule of law? When the young 13 colonies in the New World defeated the British, they offered their leader, George Washington, the possibility of being King. He refused, recognizing that the break with the monarchical past must be complete; the Revolutionary War for Washington meant a true revolution, a radical change from traditional practices.

If cries for democracy are ringing throughout the world, then there should also be cries for the rule of law; one includes the other. Political assassinations should be a thing of the past. Although we may rejoice at the end of a dictator's rule, we should not rejoice at seeing a bloody body being dragged through the street or put on display. If it is heroic to take up arms to fight for democracy, it is equally heroic to fight for the rule of law at times of emotional outbursts. Neither expediency nor vengeance is an excuse for the primitive "Chop off their heads". And that goes for so-called advanced democracies as well.

October 26, 2011

 

 

 

 

20/10/2011

I am wired. Is Modern Technology Anti-Social?

I now have a Kindle, iPhone, 3 computers, a television with 248 channels and can read off my wife's iPad. I am, I suppose, properly wired in terms of modern technology. Having all these devices certainly does not mean I can use them optimally; I am rather technologically challenged, but it does mean that I have left the pen and paper era, somewhat reluctantly I might add. Besides my personal, painful conversion to modern technology - I am not sure my writing and reading have improved with all these devices - I wonder about the implications for society of these changes.

Much of the success of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movements has been attributed to social networks. Instead of snail mail, Facebook, Twitter and other rapid communication systems can get information out instantly. Want to organize a sit-in? You can message thousands in seconds who will hopefully turn up the same day. Quite recently, political theorists were divided between individualists and communitarians; the first believed strongly in the strength of personal effort, the second more in group activity. The question we are posing is the role of social networks in the individual-communitarian debate.

Individualism we understand as the product of a single person's efforts. We lionize Steve Jobs as a genius for his personal efforts while giving less credit to his 10,000 hours of preparation during schooling as well as those who worked with him. Individualists believe that the role of government is to allow people to lead freely chosen lives. Communitarian believers look to groups for social interaction while emphasizing values that are commonly shared. Social capital, in this sense, has been defined as the collective value of all social networks.

Is there a difference between a group of friends meeting at a bridge club with thousands wired together in an ad hoc chat room? The face-to-face bridge club is social in the traditional sense; the wired group comes together around a given issue with no face-to-face intimacy or deeper commitment. In Michael Walzer's terms, the bridge club is a thick association while the chat room is rather thin.

I have an ongoing debate with a friend about this issue. He maintains that traditional associations are finished, that technological groups are replacing the face-to-face. While I may accept that argument, I wonder and worry that the nature of the wired groups is not the same as the face-to-face. Video conferencing has not been successful; I accept Skyping my daughter and granddaughter only as second best; I miss physically hugging them.

I sense that no one will win our debate. There is also a generational consideration to be taken into account. But there is no question that the individualists' argument is grounded in advanced Western liberal societies that has been rejected by many cultures around the world. The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements were certainly helped by technological advances, but, I believe, their successes will depend on deeper, thicker associations based on deeply held shared values. The medium is not the message, but only a tool for the situated self.

 

 

16/10/2011

Egypt and Liberalism's Discontents

The current violence in Egypt between Christians and Muslims is frightening from many perspectives. Obviously, the loss of lives during peaceful protests and the attacks on religious buildings are unacceptable. Freedom of religion and association are fundamental human rights. We accept that I am a member of the Commune of Carouge at the same time I am part of the Canton of Geneva and the country of Switzerland. In addition, I am a citizen of the United States born and raised in New York City. Numerous other affiliations are part of this diversity. Multiculturalism means multiple associations based on multiple identities.

But, freedom of association does have limits; we are witnessing more and more homogenous ethnic/religious associations demanding separation if not statehood. Abkhaz want their own country; Kosovars as well. Large, heterogeneous groups are breaking apart into smaller homogeneous units such as the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

The United States used to be called a melting pot, especially New York City where millions of immigrants first arrived. Formerly, there were homogeneous neighborhoods within the City of Irish-Americans, German-Americans, African-Americans and so on. They were all hyphenated Americans, just as many ethnic groups inhabited parts of the Canton of Geneva. Many became Swiss, but their children still attended special classes in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and English. Ethnic identity did not exclude assimilation. The hyphen remained important.

Liberalism has been called the art of separation. "Good fences make good neighbors" is a 17th century proverb, perhaps coming from the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 that separated Catholics and Protestants after the bloody Thirty Years War. The ICRC Museum had a wonderful exhibit on walls around the world, illustrating barriers between North and South Korea; the dividing line in Cyprus; the peace lines in Northern Ireland; the divide that crosses the Western Sahara; the border fence between the U.S. and Mexico; the wire fence in Morocco surrounding Spanish enclaves; an electric fence between Pakistan and India; and the wall separating the Israelis and Palestinians.

The Berlin Wall did come down, but other barriers are being constructed. Ethnic/religious conflicts seem to be on the rise, perhaps as an emotional reaction to fears of identity loss from globalization. As a combat veteran of ethnic conflicts in New York, I am alarmed by a return to monoculturalism. The Dayton Accords might have stopped the fighting in the Balkans, but they tried to recreate homogeneous nation-states that seem to reflect where we are moving.

The art of separation shows its limits in Egypt with primitive violence against Others. Liberalism's call for self-determination paradoxically can play into some very dangerous instincts that limit our ability to have multiple associations. The hyphen as a symbol of plural identities is important, and should remain so. The violence in Egypt is a reminder how tenuous multiculturalism has become within and between countries.

 

October 16, 2011

 

10/10/2011

Protests Begin in the United States, Enfin

The Arab Spring brought hope to the Middle East and North Africa. People took to the street to protest autocratic if not dictatorial rule, many using social networks with a prominent role for the young. In Athens, Madrid and London, people took to the street to protest chronic unemployment, many using social networks as well with a prominent role for the young. Where has the United States been in all of this given its similar situation of millions unemployed? The jobless rate for high school graduates now stands at over 20%.

While the protests of the late 1960's focused on the Vietnam War and civil rights, the recent populist Occupy Wall Street movement is focusing on the distribution of wealth. With official unemployment figures continuing to hover at 9%, people are protesting against the concentration of wealth associated with Wall Street's financial center. The Government bailed out large firms and banks too big to fail, but the tax money spent on them has not yet trickled down to the middle or lower classes. The TARP program has not led to increased lending or job creation while financers continue to receive huge salaries and bonuses.

What began as a small protest movement in New York three weeks ago has spread to Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston and looks to be catching in other major cities as well as outside the U.S. Little formal organization is involved, with social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google playing a major role. No political party is in the lead, although some labor leaders seem to be joining the movement.

It is fascinating to compare this movement with those of the 1960's. There is no clear leadership now, no Tom Hayden, Mark Rudd or Mario Savio. There is no clear organization like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) or ideological statements like the Port Huron document. There are no clear objectives either such as end the war in Vietnam or desegregation. There is anger at the radical inequality in the distribution of wealth; there is anger at the failure of the government to create jobs; and there is anger at the Wall Street firms for their inability to deal with the realities of Middle America.

For the moment, neither the Republicans nor Democrats have reacted. No candidate has come forward within the two established parties like Eugene McCarthy with the Democrats; no third party movement has started. With the election of 2012 on the horizon, it is not yet clear how this grass roots movement will play into traditional two party politics. The Tea Party has become a major player moving the Republican Party to the right. Barack Obama's Democratic Party is long past being inclusive of populism. It is fascinating to see how a populist movement is developing in the United States after the Arab Spring and European demonstrations. In 1968, it was the other way around.

 

October 10, 2011

 

03/10/2011

Putin and Medvedev: The Last Tango in Moscow

The dance between Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev has finally come to an end. It has been decided that Putin will be the primary, perhaps only, candidate to be the president of the Russian Federation in the upcoming election. Instead of discussions about who will run for president, speculation will now turn to how the decision was reached, when it was reached and what it will mean for the future of Russia and international politics. While all capitals buzz with the ins and outs of changes in power - Switzerland is going through this process now building up to elections for the national legislature and the selection of Federal Councilors by the Parliament - predictions about the future leader in Moscow have had all the characteristics of rumor mills during the time of the czars. Certainly there will be an election, but the electoral process is secondary to the behind-the scenes manipulations. We know who will win the election; there is no longer any suspense.

There are those who will analyze which type of leadership President Putin will exercise. There are those who will analyze whether or not Medvedev will serve as Prime Minister. But I am more interested in what the process means for the future of Russia and democracy in general. Most people have accepted that democracy is the best form of government. What they haven't decided is what democracy means and how a country goes from being non-democratic to being democratic.

In his famous essay of 1795, "Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch," the German philosopher Immanuel Kant suggested that elements of democracy were crucial to avoiding wars. President Woodrow Wilson also expressed this idea in his vision for the twentieth century. The American political scientist Michael Doyle developed this idea further in two articles that appeared fairly recently, arguing that democratic countries don't go to war with each other, a theory that has come to be known as the Democratic Peace Theory. The acceptance of this theory was part of Francis Fukuyama's understanding of the End of History. Boutros Boutros-Ghali as UN Secretary General published An Agenda for Democratization. The argument seems to have won the day and became a bedrock of American foreign policy. Promoting democracy is part of UN agencies like UNDP and the World Bank.

But, and I cannot say this strongly enough, we do not have sufficient knowledge about the nature of democracy. Free and fair elections are administrative realities that do not necessarily reflect a democratic culture. With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, Communism has been so discredited, and the "End of History" so trumpeted, that democracy, like motherhood and apple pie, seems beyond criticism. However, at the same time that democracy is touted as the best political system, fewer and fewer people are turning out for elections in traditional democratic countries. And we are far from understanding how countries develop democratic cultures. Peacebuilding, like all social science architectural phrases, looks better on paper than in reality. Writing constitutions is so much easier than developing a functioning civil society.

As I was brutally reminded by a powerful politician in a newly independent country: "Dr. Warner, You have two passports. The United States has over 250 years of history. Switzerland has over 700 years. Do you really expect us to become democratic over night?"

The period of indecision about the primary candidate for the presidency of Russia has ended. There were no debates such as those between Republican candidates for the presidency in the United States. And we assume that the winner of the presidential election has also been decided, although there will be an election. What has changed in Russia since the end of the Soviet system? Does the semblance of democracy really make any difference?

October 3, 2011