Peace seems to be breaking out in the Middle East. An agreement has been reached with Iran to curb the development of its potential military nuclear program. The United States and the Islamic Republic are publicly talking. Over thirty years of diplomatic isolation appears to have ended. In addition, and not unrelated, a date has been set for a major conference in Geneva to stop the horrendous civil war in Syria. Diplomacy is working; sabers have been put back in their sheaths. Geneva is back in the news; the Hotel Intercontinental is doing land office business.
There are, however, two countries that are not jumping up with joy over the above.
In March 2009, Hillary Clinton presented Sergey Lavrov with a reset button in Geneva. The symbolic gesture was to usher in a new era of a cooperative relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation. No more missile crisis, no more pounding shoes on a desk at the United Nations. If the fall of the Berlin Wall had symbolized the end of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the gift of the reset button was supposed to symbolize the beginning of positive cooperation.
Things did not work out that way. President Medvedev was replaced by President Putin and the atmosphere surrounding his relationship with Barack Obama has been described as chilly at best. The high (or low) point of that relationship occurred when President Obama canceled a meeting with the Russian President in Moscow before the recent G20 summit in St. Petersburg. The ostensible reason for the cancellation was the Federation’s granting of asylum to Edward Snowden, considered a traitor by the United States for leaking secret information about the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping activities, an obvious poke in the eye to the United States.
How are we to understand the meeting in Geneva between Lavrov and John Kerry on September 12? How are we to understand the U.S./Russian cooperation on Syria? Is this the beginning of a true reset in the relationship?
President Obama has made two decisions that are fundamentally undemocratic. No, I do not mean the potential bombing of Syria nor the request for Congress’ approval. First, President Obama has decided that his intelligence service’s analysis that President Assad has used chemical weapons is correct. Second, he has decided that he, representing the United States, speaks for the entire world. “I didn’t draw the red line, “ he said. “The international community drew the red line.”
Democracy is not just a system of voting. It is based on the recognition that others have the right to decide what an entire population should do. In a democracy, those in the minority must accept the majority’s will. The minority accepts the majority’s decision hoping that sometime in the future the roles will be reversed.
Western countries are agonizing over what to do in Syria. As Assad’s government troops, with the aid of their allies, continue to pound cities like Homs and appear to be winning the civil war, Great Britain and its allies are hesitating in furnishing weapons to the rebels. Who are the rebels? How can we be sure that the weapons delivered will stay in the right hands? How can we be sure that the weapons will be enough to turn the tide? All these questions remain unanswered as the slaughter continues while hundreds of thousands of refugees - those who are lucky enough not to be trapped - flee the country.
But what about the United States?
The Cold War is supposed to be over. Unlike formal wars, the Cold War was not ended by a peace treaty, but there has been general agreement that with the end of the Soviet Union, the tensions between Russia and the United States are not what they were for over 40 years. No more Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), no more sirens in New York City with terrified school children trembling under their desks, no more pounding shoes on the table at the United Nations, no more massive buildup of troops in Central Europe. Welcome to détente, welcome to looking in Putin's eyes to see a man we can do business with, welcome to resetting the button between the two countries.
All of this comes to mind with three recent events. The death of Svetlana Stalina, the only daughter and last surviving child of Josef Stalin, brought back headlines about the cruel dictator still revered by certain people. Indeed, his statute remained in the town square of his birthplace Gori in Georgia until June 2010, over 50 years after his death in 1953. (There were confrontations about its removal. I am still waiting for the removal of Lenin's tomb from the Kremlin.)
The events marking the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11 will be filled with the horrors of the deaths of 3,000 people. We will be shown the playback of the tragic scenes of those jumping from windows, of the crumbling of the World Trade Center Towers, of the plane crashing into the Pentagon. Survivors will be asked how they are dealing with the past; relatives will share their enormous grief. Loved ones will have their virtues extolled. Heroic firefighters and policemen will be interviewed. We will all mourn. We will properly pay our respects to all those who died in the United States as well as around the world in terrorist attacks.
Could the commemorative services also serve another function? I recently walked the beaches of Normandy. Hectares after hectares of crosses and monuments and dedications to those who lost their lives in the landings of June 1944. With time, the heroism of those actions continues to impress and to humble. We are certain that we are all better off for the sacrifices of those buried there.
Where has the War on Terror led us?
As debates rage about what to do to stop the bombing of civilians in Libya - not just whether or not to intervene, but also what kind of intervention would be legally and politically acceptable - President Obama this week signed an order to resume military tribunals against suspected terrorists being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Two years after his order to halt new military charges against detainees, and after his early pledge to close the controversial facility, the President set out new procedures for the re-activated military commissions.
Without clearly admitting that he had failed on his pledge, the President said, "the United States has worked to bring terrorists to justice consistent with our commitment to protect the American people and uphold our values".
Civil liberties defenders were not impressed. "People in the Mideast are looking to establish new rules for their societies, and this sends a mixed message at best," said the President of Human Rights First.
While the world waits anxiously to see how the political situation in Egypt will play out, and at the same time hails the peaceful vote in Sudan concerning the creation of a new country, we are reminded that the most basic elements of the organization of international life are not at all obvious. Mubarak's succession by vote or coup or military takeover is not predetermined. One day we surmise that Mohammed ElBaradei will head a transition government; since the departure of Hosni Mubarak, it appears that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will manage state affairs, according to Mr. Mubarak's vice-president Omar Suleiman. There is no direct precedent for what is taking place in Egypt.
One of the most impressive facts about the United States is that there have been regular elections for over 200 years. There have been no coup d'etats or postponed elections. The rules set out in the Constitution and its amendments have been followed, something quite exceptional in practice around the globe. Although, as a friend reminds me, in December 1973, with Watergate and impeachment paralyzing his presidency, Richard Nixon met with the Joint Chiefs to "sound out," as Seymour Hersh reported, if they would "support him in some extra-constitutional action." Shortly thereafter the Joint Chiefs, with James Schlesinger concurring, responded, sending the following to all US military commanders: "Upon receipt of this message you will no longer carry out any orders from the White House. Acknowledge receipt."
The creation of a new state by popular vote in Sudan is also extraordinary. The birth and death of states, if not the definitions of their borders and citizens, are not determined by any international regulations but rather by custom. Language, history and organization are certainly important criteria, but most important is recognition by other countries, especially important ones. The situation in Kosovo is a complex one since certain countries have recognized its existence, while many others have not. The Western Sahara is recognized by the African Union, but not Morocco and many other countries. Cases before the International Court of Justice are supposed to arbitrate these disputes, but the recent decision of the Court in favor of Kosovo has not led to a rash of new recognitions.
Who is in charge in Egypt, and on what basis? Certainly there is a Constitution. But, that can be suspended in times of emergencies and the military has taken over before, as it took over in Algeria overturning a popular vote. Again, recognition is the key. While a country itself may be recognized, it might be possible for the government of that country to be excluded from certain aspects of international life, as has happened with the junta in Myanmar. The current situation in the Ivory Coast is a good example where two people both claim to be the legitimate ruler of a recognized state. In this sense, it is to Al Gore's credit that once the Supreme Court had declared George Bush victorious in the 2000 election he threw in the towel. The peaceful transition of power based on the rule of law overcame whatever ambitions or interpretations of the law he might have had. There was no higher place to go within U.S. law, no higher court of appeal than the Supreme Court and no place to turn internationally. The use of force was never considered.
The situation in Egypt is volatile not only because we are uncertain about the outcome, but also because we are not certain of the process. We know there is a scheduled election for September. Mubarak has said he will not run. We now don't know when there will be an election. Will it be free and fair? Will the Muslim Brotherhood be accepted as just another political party if there is an election? Will the West accept a vote if the Brotherhood has a majority in the new government? The Sudan election was orderly and the government of Sudan - whose leader is under indictment by the International Criminal Court - seems to be accepting the results of the vote, a fascinating example of someone who violates international law choosing to follow international law in a given situation.
We often use the binary distinction between order and chaos. In the cases of succession and secession, we can often observe chaos within order - the U.S. election of 2000 - and sometimes order within chaos - the Sudan election. In either case, international law certainly has a role to play, but that role is not always determined by law. International law's "unfolding purpose" is often relevant more for the purpose than the law.
There are numerous questions unanswered as turmoil continues to rock Egypt. What will the government look like post-Mubarak? Will the Muslim Brotherhood play an important role? And, if so, what role? How will the events in Egypt affect other countries such as Yemen, Jordan, Syria and Israel? How will the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt affect autocratic rulers in Russia and China? Calls for democracy in the Arab street may have global implications; they will certainly change the geopolitics in the Middle East.
The above questions will be answered over time. But what can be definitely said right now is that the United States is playing the role of the major outside power. Talk of American decline or the weakness of President Obama is nowhere on the radar as the world waits to see if and when he will definitively pull the plug on the former trusted U.S. ally. The United States position is what the world is waiting to see.
In the short section of his recent State of the Union address dealing with foreign policy, President Obama stated that "America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity. Always." It was an obvious reference to the turmoil in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries in the Muslim world and an obvious banality that belies past history.
Anyone looking through the actions of the United States at least since the end of the Cold War can easily see that the U.S. has continually supported authoritarian if not totalitarian governments that were friendly to the United States.