Justice or Politics?

Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, indicted Serbian war criminals, in the early 1990s. (Reuters)

The Canadian academic and politician Michael Ignatieff has written extensively and profoundly on law, politics and policy during an extraordinary career that has taken him from Toronto and British Columbia to Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard to the leadership of Liberal Party. His corpus includes more than a dozen books and scores of articles.

He remains one of the most active and engaged North American public intellectuals of our time and possibly that most rare and courageous one who crosses over from thinking about politics to engaging in politics. Rarer still for a political man, he continues to think while he acts. Famously, he wrote about second thoughts supporting the Iraq War, a nuanced mea culpa exploring the nature of political judgment. And more recently, he reviewed All the Missing Souls by David Scheffer, a diplomatic memoir of sorts about the development of the war crimes tribunals during the 1990s.

I want to take measured exception to Ignatieff’s and Scheffer’s approach to the war crimes tribunals, which I see as representing the consensus view of international law as embodied by these international courts.  Scheffer, who served as special envoy for war crimes in the Clinton Administration, was pivotal in creating the tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the International Criminal Court to investigate and punish perpetrators of heinous war crimes. Ignatieff was an early advocate for intervention in both those countries to end those crimes. Both condemn opponents in the Clinton and Bush administrations who want to exempt Americans — politicians and service personnel both — from the jurisdiction of the international courts. In Ignatieff’s words, this is true American “exceptionalism” — Americans are exceptionally exempt from the oversight of international law and  can act unilaterally and with impunity anywhere and against anyone as a result.

This is a seriously problematic argument from two perspectives.  First, the International Criminal Court was created expressly with a quasi-federal purpose in mind: in the event that a state is too weak or politically unwilling to find or punish war criminals, the ICC had the mandate (if not the means) to carry out justice on behalf of the victims. The special tribunal for Rwanda was similarly created for this end.  An analogy is the U.S. civil rights statutes enacted during the Civil Rights era to bring down federal investigators on recalcitrant local jurisdictions in the case of gross abuses of human rights. But these would only be invoked in the event that the local authorities abdicated their responsibility. No serious observer has alleged that during the wars of the last decade that the American judicial system has shirked its duty policing American servicemembers, and our political system has demonstrated extraordinary resilience at the same time.

But the more important argument to be made about these courts is political.  As my friend Pierre Hazan argued in his book Justice in a Time of War, the war crimes tribunals were wielded by Western leaders as a hammer during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. That is, the courts were a political tool — a weapon just as useful if not as destructive as a cruise missile — applied to resolve a political problem: the war.

The essentially political nature of these courts becomes more salient the more we realize that political conflicts become bound up with them.  The desire to place American servicemen under the ICC’s jurisdiction surely is proof enough of that, particularly as a result of the visceral hatred of President Bush’s policies in Iraq.  But another, less polarizing example is the war in Liberia and the peaceful transition to democratic rule becoming contingent on the surrender of the former president Charles Taylor to the Special Court in The Hague, or the European Union’s insistence that Serbia capture and surrender indicted war criminals on their territory in exchange for a favorable position in accession negotiations.

Moreover, the entire concept of transitional justice — with deep respect to my friend Pierre and the work of thousands on this issue in very difficult places — is inherently political. This is the notion that a court — a judicial body — should help achieve peace and stability by administering justice. These are not bad things, surely, but we must admit they are political and social goals rather than strictly legal objectives.  Only in the international arena are we willing to to allow a judicial body to execute a transparently political function.

To further this point: there is really no reason why Charles Taylor, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, Leon Mugesera and the other cast of horribles could not be tried by modern courts in Western countries. This is perhaps the real scandal Ignatieff and Scheffer should be writing about.  But in many cases — Taylor and Karadzic come to mind — this would open up a series of unpleasant questions for the prosecution. Such as, if they were war criminals, why did the U.S. and Canadian governments have open political relations with them? Avoiding war crimes prosecutions at home becomes a political issue best resolved by “clean” international tribunals.

If we play through the implications of this question we recognize the uncomfortably political nature of the international courts. If we impose upon domestic courts the responsibility for prosecuting war crimes committed by foreign actors against populations abroad, we stretch our judicial systems into the exclusive domain of the executive and legislative. We already saw during the wars in the former Yugoslavia how awkward it was to negotiate the end of a war with a political leader under threat of international indictment.  More important is the recognition that extending domestic powers of indictment or investigation also requires policing powers, which abroad are exclusively military. That invokes executive powers, which are resolutely political for exceptionally good reasons.

An inverse approach to this problem involves the two men pictured at the top of this post. They were very recently arrested by Serbia and extradicted to The Hague and are now on trial for war crimes. Knowing their case as well as I do, I would like nothing better than to see them die in prison after conviction. If this is the preordained outcome — no one seriously doubts it, not even the Serb chauvinists who still support them — what real difference is there between that judicial outcome and the political equivalent of their death on the battlefield? After all, that’s effectively what Milosevic’s interminable trial achieved in The Hague.

It is important to remember we are not strictly limited to political or judicial means to achieve justice for these high crimes.  And it is important to know that justice means different things to different political cultures.  We forget that forgiveness, even amnesty, is important to justice.  (Hannah Arendt once wrote that forgiveness is a political act.) South Africa and Morocco have created truth and reconciliation commissions.  Or take the example of the Brasil: Nunca Mais, a South American samizdat commission that simply and suddenly exposed the former military regime’s human rights crimes.

I am not inclined to criticize Scheffer for his idealism and struggle against bureaucracy to create a rule of law to end war crimes. But I am suspicious of the peculiarly political aspect of these courts, and particularly of the unwillingness of international legal experts and scholars to admit and confront the paradox of their mission. Warfare is inherently political, so it will be difficult to separate the commission of crimes during war from their political context. In order for justice to be achieved in wartime, we have to be willing to admit that much.


What is perception?

Lt.Gen. Charles Bouchard of the Canadian Forces, NATO Commander of the Libyan operation, briefs reporters in 2011. (Retuers)

For six years I worked on the NATO International Staff’s Public Diplomacy Division where I managed a variety of portfolios and campaigns relating to the Alliance’s audiences across North America and Europe.  Public diplomats are officially obsessed with the public’s “perception” of government and organizational policy and we track opinion polls, favorable and unfavorable op-eds, news article “slant” and public protests to gauge what people think of us.

I choose the word “perception” deliberately. How we are “perceived,” how the public “perceives” us, how we are “seen,” are variations on a theme. We don’t usually talk about what they think about us, whether they like us or not, or do or do not support us or a policy or course of action.  We do occasionally see those questions in public survey data, but those are more concrete answers relating to policy, and they don’t come that often.  How the public perceives an event in the flow of time is much more important, and volatile, and much more dependent on the details.  For example, the public may support a UN-mandated NATO coalition going after Muammar Gaddafi, but once U.S., French and British aircraft start pounding targets they may perceive a neo-colonial agenda at play. That’s the difference between supporting a prospective course of action and the perception of that action once it is under way.

My question has long been, Why does perception exist?  This becomes much more a matter of ontology, a matter of human knowledge, than that of political theory and philosophy. But it affects politics because it determines how people make political judgments and political decisions.

Public perception is a reality of almost any contentious political issue. Every political issue — health care, terrorism, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, the economy — is a three-dimensional object placed in public view. Everyone who then views it or contemplates it sees it not just from their perspective but placed against a very specific context and backdrop.  The way you view it is not just different from the way I see it but entirely separate from our separate contexts.

From where I sit, then, to really understand a political issue, I want to stand up and walk around the issue and see it not just from all angles but against all contexts.  I especially want to talk to the other people looking at the thing itself, to understand what they are seeing and why.  (The cliche “things look very different depending on where you sit” suddenly sounds much more profound.)

Perception has much in common with political judgment as I argued in my previous post. Judgment, again, is the human art of getting things right in the absence of complete information. In prospect this is exceptionally hard, but it is difficult enough in real time, the here and now.  We are not blessed with the historian’s leisure and insight. So we apply judgment based on our experience. And our experience, taken together, is the whole vast plurality of the human collective.

Much of perception can be a put-up job, to be a sure — exploited perceptions, as it were. While there may be reasonable differences over the health care reform act, for example —  mandated access to drive down costs versus concerns over government interference in the economy — demagogues are especially good at distorting motivations on both sides. So proponents want to dictate what Americans spend their money on and opponents want to leave the uninsured to get sick and die.

But this gives you a better idea of how and why good politicians operate and thrive. They can run the calculus in three dimensions quicker (perhaps four dimensions, evolving perceptions over time) and exploit them to their benefit. We’ll see who wins in November.

Unfortunately in public diplomacy and public affairs “perception” — a real subjective difference of view — would often be shaved down to “image,” a pale flat version of a more complex and evolving issue of public opinion.  (“Image,” I am convinced, is the result of headline exigencies. But now we must worry about it to fit into newspapers and answer reporter questions.)  If we become worried about image then we are obsessing over a shadow, not something real.  Perceptions may be “incorrect” and out of line with the sincere intentions behind policy or actions that create those intentions, but they’re usually focused on something hard and real.  Obama’s birther and Islamic-detractors come to mind. It’s not that they believe he’s foreign-born or a Muslim and we know it. But changing that “perception” is a much more difficult problem. And we know that, too.


“Stupid” and Political Judgment

Supporters of Sarah Palin cheer her appearance on the Sean Hannity Show, Iowa State Fair, August 2011. (Getty Images via NYRB)

Two recent articles, one by David Weigel in Slate, and the other a blog post by the august poet Charles Simic in The New York Review of Books, converge in a new way on an old problem famously articulated by Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Simic, particularly, should have re-read this aphorism before ranting about the ignorance of conservative voters after the Mississippi and Alabama Republican primaries. Unfortunately, Weigel’s account is hardly better. In an attempt to demonstrate his equitable bona fides, he displays an aloof parachute punditry by bragging that he “trekked to Mississippi and Alabama last weekend for a few stories about the primaries.”  This off-hand characterization of two American states as if they were part of the Transkei said plenty about his political and cultural distance from Southern voters.

Both Weigel and Simic (and Alexandra Pelosi, the documentary filmmaker and daughter of the former Democratic House Speaker) were appalled by the ignorance displayed by the voters they interviewed.  Some still believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim, or a foreigner, or worse. Some believe global warming is a hoax. Some believe the President and Congress are out to get their guns. And so on. Simic crankily includes a list of the ridiculous things these stupid people believe.

The inverse of these misapprehensions, of course, is that they are the opposite of beliefs closely held by Democrats or liberals. In other words, these people stupidly disbelieve things Democrats care deeply about. President Obama is not a Muslim, but his middle name is Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and an exalted Shia martyr; we take pride in his heritage and not a little pleasure demonstrating to the Arab and Muslim world that we elected a man by his name so soon after George W. Bush.  We believe global warming is not only a reality but a dire planetary threat derived from our current way of life. And we believe that sensible control of firearms will lead to dramatically fewer deaths in this country.

So would it perhaps be more fair to include a list of the stupid things that Democrats and liberals have believed over the years?  Of course.  But that would defeat the notion that conservatives are stupid and liberals and Democrats are smart. This was the point of a recent scientific study linking low intelligence and prejudice in conservatives and neatly debunked by Doonesbury.

But “stupid” misses the point.  What this focus on informed intelligence ignores is a factor far more important to democracy.  That is the complex concept of political judgment, and when we talk about that then we are on much more difficult ground. Because then we can take all those issues Simic lists as lies and reframe them as judgments.  And the discussion becomes far more fraught and ambiguous as a result.

Of course you would never say something so stupid as these people. Unless it was about the surge in Iraq.  Or Libya, in which case you can send Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy a note explaining why you were so stupid.  He has compiled a list of 10 major writers who  got Libya wrong from the start.

This is the perilous nature of political judgment, the spooky art of getting it right without knowing everything. This is the defining attribute of applied politics. Judgment can be informed by facts and more facts, but in the end there is something about predicting and shaping the future that cannot be formed by mere fact.  The seemingly ignorant, therefore, can exercise extraordinary judgment — Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman were among these — and the extremely intelligent informed often render impossibly improvident judgment (Bill Clinton and Woodrow Wilson come to mind).

It’s interesting to note that  Obama has radically (if, perhaps, subtly) refocused the debate on qualifications for the Presidency to include judgment.  He began this in 2008, when it clearly served him in two ways — he could sidestep the accusation that he didn’t have as much “experience” as the other candidates, while focusing on the “record” of the others. Traditionally “experience” and “record” are the means by which we measure our candidates for office.  But for the first time in my political life, a candidate was insisting that he be evaluated based on his judgment — in effect, his ability to predict the future.  And in that case, his judgment was on the case for war in Iraq. His main rivals had voted for the war, he had opposed it, and he hung that vote around their necks.

Obama’s reelection campaign video, released this month, focuses on his accomplishments during his first term, but they are similarly if subtly couched as examples of his judgment.  With the GM bailout, the bin Laden targeting, and health care reform, Obama exercised keen judgment — and particularly in the case with the bailout and health care, he will hang his rival’s opposition to them around his neck. Instead of fighting a protracted fight over the state of the economy, he will ask the question: Does my opponent have the judgment required to be President? (After selling out GM, doubtful.)

To return to the benighted voters of the American south, the scribes have simply asked them the wrong questions. Democracy is not just a series of applied facts.  It is a matter of applied judgment.  And the experience of these communities is unique in America. Ask someone in the rural south what war means to them, because their towns and villages disproportionately send young men and women into the armed services to fight. Ask them what faith means to them, because they are disproportionately religious. Ask residents of the Gulf Coast what energy and environmentalism means to them after the BP oil spill.  Ask them what the economy means to them, because they are disproportionately unemployed.  Ask them what education means to their children, because they are disproportionately undereducated. All of that experience informs their judgment.

So coming after guns is one thing, but modeling policy for effective gun control is quite another. Global warming is one concern, but the complex application of new and very likely costly technologies is a legitimate political debate that we simply haven’t had.  Talking about the nature of faith in the public square continues to be important and has been since the drafting of our constitution.

But to imply as these three writers have that certain citizens are too dim for our republic harkens to a dark age when literacy tests, property requirements and poll taxes were legal necessities for admission to suffrage. Democracy hasn’t always been understood as the extraordinary judgment applied by ordinary citizens.  But only through the American experiment have we proved this to be true.


Art and the Pander

Gov. Mitt Romney after winning the Nevada caucuses in January. (Getty Images via USA Today)

National Public Radio’s All Things Considered ran a story last week on “How to Pander: A Guide for the Candidates”. Considering how few Republican candidates are left, and that the general campaign hasn’t really begun, I found this an odd time to run such a story.

For NPR, it was also a strangely cynical, not to say presumptuous, story to run. It suggested that in order to ingratiate the mostly northern candidates with Southern voters in Mississippi and Alabama, they were dropping “g’s,” throwing in “y’all’s” and (in Gov. Romney’s case) botching references to “cheese grits”. NPR phoned up a New York-based comedian of Puerto Rican descent (couldn’t they find a Puerto Rican comic?) to explain local cultural nuance in the upcoming primaries that Romney walked away with.

Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) (center-right) at Brown A.M.E. Church in Selma, Ala., March 2007.

To balance out this litany of embarrassment for Republicans — they are the ones actively campaigning for the most part — the segment started off alleging President Obama’s pander to a southern African American audience just a month after he announced his candidacy back in 2007. Surely they could have found a more recent allegation? NPR dredged up Obama’s southern stylings before an audience at Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama, in March 2007, an unfortunate choice. This event has become foundation myth in the narrative arc of Obama’s life, because it was there that he forged the connection between his generation and the Civil Rights generation who made the way for him and other political leaders like him.

The political context of his visit to Selma was much more fraught than a tried-on southern-fried accent could hope to manage and the candidate knew it. Obama had to convince the Civil Rights establishment that a new face of mixed heritage from Chicago, who had not shared their struggles, was worthy of their inheritance. This was hardly pandering: it was a critical moment in American politics and absolutely vital to electing America’s first black president.  Obama’s address was audacious, deferential, profound and masterful. And it worked.

I had always understood the term “pander” in political rather than cultural terms. Pandering had been the candidate talking about ethanol subsidies to farmers to win the Iowa caucuses, or talking about reproductive rights with women’s groups, or preaching pro-life to anti-abortion groups, or collective bargaining with unions, or deregulation with business organizations.  It was singing to the choir. I see no particular shame in this. In politics, individuals of like mind band together, pool resources, and avail themselves to their government. People are stronger together than alone. And political figures in return avail themselves of that strength by going to groups and appealing to them in language that they understand.

The word pander is commonly defined as helping to fulfill someone’s baser instincts. It is perhaps interesting it has an archaic definition as pimp and comes from Panderus, a pimp character from the 18th century Italian play Troilus and Cressida. At least in the older dictionaries that I consult (Oxford American English, Webster’s New Universal Unabridged) it has not taken on a political definition.

But definitions aside, NPR has revealed something inadvertent in its How To Guide: that at the base of the political experience is something aesthetic, artful, pleasureful, even playful.  The cheese grits and cheese steaks, crab feeds and lobster bakes and spaghetti nights are all rooted in local communities. When we talk about a pluralistic political community, this is really what we are talking about. The American politician’s ability to maneuver in, articulate and speak to that plurality demonstrates the breadth and quality of his entire life and character, how much he has assimilated our vast and profound political culture. That lack of “connection” every commentator bemoans about Romney and Al Gore is witnessed and deeply enjoyed in Bill Clinton and (very often) in Obama. When it occurs, it is a politically aesthetic experience bordering on the sublime that too often goes overlooked.

To that end, Obama’s occasional wonky stiffness belies a suppleness of language and voice that Zadie Smith dissected as an essential aspect of his political brilliance: he hears in registers that others don’t, and is able to return those tones in ways that only others hear. The delight in his audiences, when it works, is obvious, and it is an unacknowledged pleasure of our political life.

This is also a political aesthetic experience important to understanding how politics works. We are just as likely to make political — that is to say morally normative — decisions based on aesthetic judgments as on reason, if not more so, and the keenest politicians understand that and are able to harness those judgments in ways political philosophers seem purely incapable of comprehending.


Who Really Loses if Iran Gets the Bomb

Iran’s nuclear reactor complex at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf. (Wikimedia Commons)

Unequivocal statements by President Barack Obama and visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron today about Iranian nuclear ambitions leave small doubt about the perilous path facing the West. The President was right to chide more hawkish supporters of military action against Iran and for choosing a variety of diplomatic and economic tools to isolate Tehran, but that may leave the country to embark on a crash course for the ultimate weapon.

I have little doubt Iran is pursuing that weapon (although that is a political judgment, not based on intelligence analysis or IAEA reporting) but it is not for the purposes that the doom-sayers — usually those who think this can be resolved with a well-placed BLU-109 — claim. While Iran’s rulers may be fanatical, they are not insane. The same rules of deterrence and mutual assured destruction that governed the Cold War and govern the balance of power among nuclear-armed nations would still apply to Tehran in a showdown with Israel. Moreover, attacking an Israeli city with nuclear weapons would isolate the already pariah state and would invite a terrible response the regime could never survive.

And regime survival is the dirty little secret motivating development of the weapon.  There is an important theoretical argument to make here which comes from Hannah Arendt’s On Violence.  She notes that weak or repressive regimes feel threatened by only two sources: war and revolution. It is no surprise, then, that these regimes invest so much in their armed forces and security services. And it should be no surprise that the countries that feel most threatened and can afford it — usually at the expense of the people’s needs — seek the ultimate weapon to stay the hand of intervention while they cudgel their people with another. We’ve seen this in Libya, Iraq, China, the Soviet Union, and to some extent other countries.

Decommissioned casings from South Africa’s nuclear weapons program. (Wikimedia Commons)

Iran’s situation today is similar to South Africa’s position in the late 1970s when Pretoria secretly built six nuclear weapons. Isolated by the international community for the crimes of Apartheid, surrounded by enemies (Soviet-backed post-colonial regimes in Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, all of which were harboring or sponsoring anti-Apartheid partisans) and suppressing a population in revolt, South Africa  wanted the ultimate weapon to hold the outside world at bay and therefore contain turmoil at home.  (Fortunately, the country emerged under remarkable political leadership from the African National Congress and Pretoria, and the nuclear program was abandoned.)

Another analogy is the slow-motion tragedy of North Korea. Having held control for three generations and repressed all dissent, the Kim dynasty now brandishes its nuclear deterrent at its enemies: South Korea (reinforced by the United States), China, and Japan. The result has been isolation, poverty, and starvation since the end of the Korean War, an abject humanitarian horror we are now unwilling to risk nuclear war to avert.

But in both cases — I would argue in the case of the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent, Israel, India and Pakistan as well — the bomb’s domestic political consequences have been ignored or simply missed for the far more exciting security ramifications.  Given concerns about escalation, rivals simply backed away. As a result, the bomb froze these countries in place and left unresolved fundamental political questions.  The Soviet Union and North Korea took complete advantage of that state of affairs to consolidate control.

Iran’s leaders are not irrational. They no doubt see similar outcomes if they develop the same wonder weapon. Beset at home by a restive population, isolated abroad, losing proxies against their enemies and surrounded by suspicious powers, it seems all but inevitable that the regime would pursue the bomb.

And because of the history of the Soviet Union and North Korea, we already know who will really lose if that happens: the Iranians themselves. Trapped in isolation, unable to call on friends abroad who fear provoking incidents and escalation, they will be left alone to face the cruel caprice of their rulers.


The Forgotten Afghans

The Afghan Parliament, Kabul (AP via The Guardian)

This week’s attack on civilians in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, allegedly carried out by a lone U.S. Army staff sergeant, has revealed an appalling lack of understanding of the political context in which our military effort takes place.

This context are the Afghan people themselves, the locus and lodestone of the campaign led by the United States with fifty Allies and partners and the United Nations. Everything we are doing is focused on supporting the Afghans’ effort to develop their economy, political, legal and civic institutions, and civil organizations.

And they are succeeding, which means we are succeeding.

This puts into context the recent spate of violence between US/NATO forces, Afghan security forces and the Taliban. As important as these incidents are (and they have been declining since the beginning of the surge of U.S. forces in 2009), they are not indicative of the overall state of affairs in the country. These include an expanding economy, an independent and representative parliament, an active news media, and a growing civil society. Include within this the established jirgas, tribal structures, the mosques, provincial governors (dependent on Kabul, to be sure), and other local organizations. All of these are developing in addition to the security apparatus that seems to be the only context we pay attention to, with good reason given the 90,000 U.S. troops we have deployed there at considerable risk.

But the nascent and growing political order is what our forces are there to protect.  The Afghans are vesting themselves in the organizations and institutions that constitute that order. And that is what the Taliban and other enemies of the current order are confronting to their peril. While the current problems between foreign and Afghan forces will undoubtedly make our military mission more difficult (indeed, the Taliban have already initiated reprisals), it is important to note our enemies are not attacking the institutions and organizations that have established legitimacy with the Afghan people.

As with all insurgencies, this fight is political — a battle for brains and souls — and the Taliban are at least clever enough not to attack the institutions and individuals that are gradually providing for a better life for the people they would like to rule and dominate again. But therein lies their downfall. As long as we, the foreigners, can help provide security, before they know it our enemies will have lost the political war as the people vest themselves totally in the new political order. The Taliban is in a tighter spot that the headlines suggest, which explains why despite the recent Qur’an confusion and alleged massacre they still appear willing to negotiate with the central government and the coalition. (Correction/Update March 15: According to The New York Times, the Taliban in talks only with American representatives broke off discussions unilaterally, significantly, not in connection with recent incidents but over prisoner transfers.)

It is not courant in counterinsurgency to speak of winning and losing, but I am willing to say we are succeeding despite appearances to the contrary. That is because the news media focus — and even, unfortunately, expert opinion — is not shining the light where it is most important to look right now.  The most important battlefield in this war is not the space between our soldiers and the elusive guerrilla but elsewhere: in the Afghan parliament, in Afghan homes clustered around radios, in the bazaars, in schools and universities and clinics. That is, in every way that we have affected the daily lives of every Afghan for which they will remember us.

As in Iraq, if we have done our job properly — and I argue here that we have — whether and when our forces leave is now irrelevant. And those who will rue our leaving the most will be the Taliban because they will no longer have an enemy to fight and will lose in the end the souls of the people.


In Russia, “We Have No Politics”

Prolific Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen has released her latest book, The Man without a Facea biography of Vladimir Putin.  She is in the United States on a promotion tour and spoke recently to Charlie Rose and Fresh Air on WHYY.

Her more lengthy interviews have turned away from how Putin rose to what Putin has wrought in Russia and some of her most interesting and perceptive comments have been what Putin — and “putinism,” if such a term can be coined — has done to Russian politics.

“What we are seeing is the consequence of 12 years of the destruction of public space, political institutions, and the media,” she says bluntly talking to Rose. “So we have no politics.” She talks about the nascent opposition movement (of which she is a part) taking to the streets to protest for “public debate” and “institutions” and even for, she implies, real “politicians” (unthinkable in a Western country!).

What’s interesting to watch in this interview — at around the nine minute mark — is how even someone as thoughtful and well-informed as Charlie Rose fails to understand how successful Vladimir Putin has been at dismantling the public space inside Russia. What Gessen is talking about is civil society institutions — press, media, non-governmental organizations, public watchdog groups, churches — all the manifestations of public conscience that the Putin regime has systematically destroyed, undermined and driven to ground.

Rose responds to her line of discussion by talking about “civic institutions, rule of law” — that is, government bodies and the judiciary.  She assents, but it’s not entirely clear she understands he has misunderstood her. He is talking about official (or quasi-official) bodies, completely coopted by the Kremlin, that possess the monopoly of force, but not necessarily the monopoly of democratic legitimacy as the recent presidential election suggests.

But the distinction is enormous.  Gessen is right that the Putin regime has destroyed the public political space in Russia, modeling the country’s politics after the Communist era he seems particularly nostalgic for.  The growing opposition movement is creating that space sui generis — erecting a pole of moral and political legitimacy opposite the government and drawing open the political space that had been closed.

To understand more practically and prosaically what it means to live in an apolitical or unpolitical society, you can listen to her interview on WHYY. Aside from books, Gessen rarely writes about Russian politics per se because as a journalist she sees very little to write about in the common Western sense.  This may be what she means when she says there is no politics, but more deeply it gives you a sense of how much control the Kremlin maintains over the political space in the country. Not only is debate squelched and political candidates pre-screened, but journalists are threatened and murdered, media outlets are shut down or coopted and independent organizations are harassed.

This offends our Western sensibilities but it may also blind us to the real consequences for political life in Russia. Fortunately the courageous acts of average Russians are changing that.  As one protester’s sign read on the street: “Putin: I am not paid to be here. I dislike you for free!”


Syria and the Obligation to Protect

Protestors in Damascus, Syria, February 2011. (AP)

Syria’s efficient slaughter of its own people seeking political change is another grim reminder of the impotence the global community brandishes when it must. I am less cynical than others, but I see international legal norms for what they are: a fundamentally political mechanism wrapped in the legitimizing rhetoric of high law. Stronger action could have been taken against Syria but for the veto of Russia and (surprisingly) China in the U.N. Security Council. The Security Council is not a court; it is a political body. Nonetheless, this is the legal imprimatur required for collective action in the community of nations, so now we stand aside as al-Assad butchers his opposition.

These same legal norms were brandished to label the invasion of Iraq “illegal” just as a convenient historic forgetting took place about the “illegality” of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo.  In our laudable attempts to find a comprehensive legal means to limit warfare, we have only created institutions to debate and (de)legitimize conflict.  As a result, these institutions have “legalized” political decision-making in the U.N. and “politicized” international courts.  How else to describe the request imposed by the European Union on Serbia and Croatia deliver indicted war criminals to The Hague in exchange for further talks on EU membership?  Why else is NATO allowed to defend Libyan citizens but Syrians are abandoned like prey to their own army?  Law is like standards applied to like examples; neither has been applied in the cases of the UN or the EU.

As a graduate student I wrote about humanitarian intervention, as it was then called, in the wake of Rwanda. I read Michael Walzer’s inestimable Just and Unjust Wars and took exception with one chapter about the the justice of military interventions in the case of genocide and other extreme cases of crimes against humanity. He had ignored the Genocide Convention, which allows intervention in these cases. My argument expanded the right to intervene to oblige states to intervene. (I was pleased to see my argument was essentially assumed by the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) Project sponsored by the Canadian Government in 2001, although I can’t find any evidence that my essay influenced the drafters.) My argument was essentially a moral one: it is impossible to argue on the face of things that something as arbitrary as state sovereignty protects a government against intervention when it commits extraordinary crimes against the population. A domestic legal analogy is the murder undertaken on private property or behind closed doors — the right to privacy or private property becomes a legal fiction under the weight of the crime.

If intervention is an essentially moral issue then it is also political, and we can and should ignore the legal trappings that ensnare these issues at the international level.  By discussing intervention as a purely political issue we can be more honest about the outcomes but also more creative in our approach. We can address the real complexities and challenges that face us in the reality of a country like Syria — neighbors Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, proxy Iran; the myriad ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities in Syria and throughout the region. But we can above all help the Syrians who are demanding at great risk release from the tyranny of a sclerotic regime so desperate for control they will destroy the country to retain it.

The Problem with Political Boycotts

Iranian women protest during the presidential election, 2009. (AP)

Iran’s opposition movement has called for a boycott of today’s parliamentary elections. Boycotts have a long pedigree as an effective tool to achieve political change. The most famous in American history was of course the Montgomery boycott that desegregated the municipal bus system. Visiting Robben Island in 2003 I was personally thanked (as if I had anything to do with it) by former inmates for the Western economic sanctions of South Africa that put pressure on the white regime to abandon Apartheid. Israel is currently the target of a nascent but growing international economic boycott to end its generational occupation in Palestine.

But these are separated from the Iranian experience because they are specifically economic countermeasures (Iran is also under increasing pressure from the United States and the European Union over its nuclear program). Economic boycotts and sanctions work because they decouple the relationship that makes economies work — the exchange of goods and services for money or other goods and services. Without this connection, economic relationships shrivel and die. Pain sets in and political leaders begin to pay attention.

Unfortunately political boycotts uncouple relationships but to precisely the opposite end. Political relationships depend utterly on power dynamics to perpetuate social change.  A boycott ends the political relationship with the public in the arena.  It closes the flow of power between a political group (for example, the opposition) and those it is trying to harness for its ends.

A boycott effectively cedes the political arena to your adversary, or in the case of Iran, your adversaries. With this election, not just the opposition will lose.  Others have a stake. Supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are locked in a fight. By refusing to contest these elections in some creative way, the opposition allows these two juggernauts to claim the mantel in the end — not against the opposition but from each other. By participating, the opposition could remain part of this process.

An alternative path to delegitimizing the parliamentary elections is to organize, participate, and flood the polls with opposition supporters. Pick the least worst candidate, organize a write-in campaign, protest at the polls in large numbers.  Even if they couldn’t name real candidates for fear of their safety, even by failing to win, the opposition could demonstrate, once again, that the election is rotten and corrupt. It would be another nail in the coffin of the regime.

Politics requires labor and it demands engagement — as boxers engage their opponents, at close quarters — to fight to win. Indeed, sports metaphors are apt here. A boycott abandons the field to your opponent; a forfeit may not be a loss per se but it counts as a win nonetheless. To stretch the metaphor, even a close loss or loss on a technicality (the referee makes a bad call or, in this case, was bought off), the spectators in the stand have a chance to judge how hard you fought. A moral win counts more with the viewing public and helps with home field advantage at the next fight. The power dynamic is played between the team and those watching the game.

Of course I hesitate to double-guess the organizers of the Iranian parliamentary boycott, who understand their own country and are taking extraordinary risks against a murderous regime. They believe that a mass boycott of an obviously rigged election will delegitimize the last vestige of democratic rule in Iran. There is obvious popular support for this path after the violent suppression of the 2009 Green Revolution.  And it is equally clear that the Supreme Leader fears low turnout could undermine his rule. But unlike in sports, the Supreme Leader controls virtually everything else that matters in Iran: the security services, the media, and perhaps most important, the metanarrative. If turnout collapses, he will simply claim it was due to intimidation by imperialist powers (Israel, the United States, Great Britain). It is difficult to underestimate how important this control is and how devastating it may be to the opposition.

But I believe my point still stands, in Iran and elsewhere. Political boycotts decouple the transmission cable necessary to power real social change. Opposition leaders should think hard about channeling their energies into negative organizing. Positive engagement, as risky as it may be, will lead to positive results in the end.