Islam and the Political Aesthetic

An illuminated page from Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, written entirely in gold. (British Library)

NOTE Sept. 22: With today’s events in Pakistan (and attending, preventable deaths and violence), my predictions about the numbers involved in the protests worldwide appears to have been off, certainly in scale.  Nevertheless I still stand by my argument that those protesting are vastly outnumber by those standing to the side.

There was a brief moment, early in the crisis – immediately after the deaths of four American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya – when there was a strange and welcome alignment that we haven’t seen before.  The murderers aside, those protesting the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) in an anti-Islamic video found themselves in accord with the U.S. government and several other reasonable observers – not to mention the actors fraudulently recruited to the production.  All agreed, in effect, that the video was a tawdry scrap of agitprop.  The producer, an Egyptian Christian, seemed so embarrassed by his feat that he wouldn’t appear in public.  As the journalist Ashraf Khalil observed, the deaths in Benghazi and elsewhere excepted, these videos were best mocked and then ignored.

But the demonstrations, predictably, grew and spread, and the predictably righteous reaction grew and spread in the West, and the ghost of Samuel Huntington rattled his chains.  I personally believe that the demonstrations across the Islamic world are less a spontaneous show of the easily aggressed feelings of Muslims than a deliberate mobilization by conservatives who seized on this video to maneuver against the democracy movements swelled during the Arab Spring and threatening their power.  (But that is for another post.)

I was alarmed by how stupidly and easily Western observers fell into their cliched, pat observations about Islam, casting the thousands (perhaps only hundreds) of demonstrators for the plural billion Muslims around the world who no doubt wondered (as I did) what to make of this spectacle.  While several anti-American demonstrations did take place, it is important to note that hundreds of millions of Muslims did not participate.  They were probably angered and riled by this transparently deliberate attempt to insult them – you would be angry, too, if somebody told you to obscenity your mother – but they probably dismissed it out of hand. They have more important things to worry about.

This didn’t keep self-important and in many cases self-appointed Western observers from telling those quiescent masses of Muslims what to think and believe about the insults rained down on them from YouTube and Charlie HebdoThey should get over it, become accustomed to their religious beliefs being mocked and denigrated.  As if you went to see The Last Temptation of Christ to spite your grandmother, or told your LDS co-worker that you found The Book of Mormon a laugh riot, he should really go see it.

But at the heart of these condescending arguments are as much an assertion of the political aesthetic as those demonstrating in the streets: that art should have a political purpose.  So as long as those hurling rocks and those hurling polished epithets agree on that, let’s understand what we’re talking about.

It’s difficult to capture succinctly a thousand years of artistic philosophy, but it is certainly true that the tradition of Islamic art shies from the physical representation of the human form. This is not exclusive, of course, but toward one end of this spectrum, particularly in the Sunni tradition, depictions of the Prophet are virtually unknown. (This should not shock anyone familiar with the iconoclasts or, for that matter, the severe Western anti-clerical movement that simply defaced churches across the West — resulting in such austere secular monuments as the French Pantheon.)  Nonetheless, Shiites are known to depict their saints in icons, particularly during the ashura, that would be familiar to Christians and Buddhists.  But overall the Islamic tradition discourages human or natural forms, leaving the Creation to God.  This seems a constraint, of course, but perhaps no more so than any canvas. Limitations define greatness.

This tradition encourages, at the other end of the spectrum, an extraordinary devotion to geometry in design and architecture.  Seen in illuminated manuscripts of the Qur’an (see above) and the ornamentation from mosques to homes, complex patterns and designs adorn. In their beauty and order they mirror Creation, reminding me of the Qur’anic Surah Al Rahman (“the Gracious,” 55):

The sun and the moon follow courses computed;
And the herbs and the trees both bow in adoration.
And the sky has he raised high, and he has set up the balance,
In order that you may not transgress the balance.

Cairo lattice window,
from an 1882 lithograph

This is perhaps most often seen across the Islamic world in the well-known lattices that serve both as shades in a sun-soaked climate and barriers from the prying eyes of neighbors to protect the modesty of women within.

Alicatado tiles, Spain (Tennessee Tech)

The intricate patterns of the latticework have been replicated in ceramic tile work, particularly in mosques and madrassas. The Blue Mosque in Herat, Afghanistan, stuns the viewer with its lapis tile work, overpowering the mosque that shares its name in Istanbul.  Tilework migrated from the Mahgreb north into Spain after the Moorish conquest, and now is popularly known in the West as Spanish mosaic tiles.

La Mezquita de Cordoba (M.C. Escher)

While living in Europe I was delighted to learn about the influence of Islamic design on Western art.  One of my favorite artists, the Dutch graphic designer M.C. Escher, was most influenced after a visit to la Mezquita at Cordoba in Spain (now a cathedral and World Heritage site).  The fantastic perspective of the mosque’s interior and the intricate, tessellated tile mosaics forever influenced his most famous and familiar works.

Consider these two comparisons as just an example (the links above will provide many more).  The one the left is from la Mezquita. The right, Escher’s inspiration.  (With all due credit to Philosufi and Fatih Gelgi for elaborating on what I learned while visiting the Escher Museum in The Hague!)

Wikipedia article on Alhambra

Tecpatl ceramics, Mexico (Tennessee Tech)

I visited Gibraltar, Seville, Sintra (Portugal), and Toledo where the Islamic influence remains despite the worst efforts of the Inquisition.  Ceramic tiles with their repeating patterns are still made in Seville.  From there, the Spanish colonial influence, affected profoundly by the Islamic conquest, lives on 1,000 years later from my native California to South America.

Sagrada Familia (The Joy of Shards)

And back again.  You can see this most explicitly in the meticulous exploded-mosaic style of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, which hosts most of his design and architecture.  His masterpiece is the Sagrada Familia, still under construction a century after it began, whose details are covered with fragments of brightly colored Spanish tiles intricately reassembled.  Gaudi was fanatically dedicated to his work but also profoundly religious and dedicated all his talents and devotions to this modernist cathedral.

So let’s make this abundantly clear: the Moorish conquest of the Iberian peninsula in the 8th Century directly influenced the quintessential modernist expression of 21st Century Catholic Europe.  We can’t rewrite history, but it’s hard to imagine this happening in quite the same, sublime way if the Islamic artistic tradition followed Western conventions of human and natural representation.  The Western artistic tradition we know today wouldn’t exist without the deep religious restraints of the Islamic tradition.  And since we are People of the Book, this is something to celebrate.  But Samuel Huntington would have us throwing rocks with those demonstrating in the streets, insisting that the gulf between our cultures is too wide and ne’er the twain shall meet.

What relevance does this have beyond the debased little video and the assaults that killed four Americans and others?  Only that those events sparked an argument about art and politics — although those engaged in the argument are too dimly self-important to realize it — and in that argument nobody so far has talked much about the Islamic artistic tradition, which is profoundly devotional and influential. Those who critique the “Muslim” reaction are very willing to accept the insult without sharing any reverence.  We live in a believing world.  To ignore that demonstrates a profound disrespect and ignorance that is, at the very least, the tinder which the radicals are working desperately hard to spark.

I believe that we could all look at the examples of the art posted above — or by perusing the links — and agree, too, that these objects are very beautiful and that beauty forms the basis of human expression.  (Perhaps we might even confuse some of their provenance?)  That, for others, God is written on the walls, provides a deeper understanding.  But there is nothing political about either of those expressions or experiences.


Confining and Defining Terrorism in Syria

Syrian refugees in Turkey (

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently declared Syria a “terrorist state” while the country has hosted a crush of refugees fleeing regime persecution across the two countries’ shared 556-mile border.

Turkey is a powerful and influential country in a volatile region, and this sounds like tough rhetoric regarding an intransigent and repressive neighbor. For many observers, this was precisely the kind of language needed to pressure the regime of Bashar al-Assad to change course or relinquish control to the opposition and end the most violent uprising of the Arab Spring.

Indeed, there is a stream of thought that firmly believes that “terrorism is terrorism” whether committed by state or non-state actors. The notion of equivalence focuses on the victims — usually civilians — and the particular horror inflicted by armed violence.  The United States (and its allies) are regularly if frivilously accused of “terrorism” by those on the left. More sophisticated commentators, such as my fellow observer at Foreign Policy Remi Brulin, apply a post-modern argument to the application of “terrorism”. In essence, he argues that “terrorism” has been entirely stripped of any real or intrinsic meaning and therefore serves almost entirely as a political weapon: label your enemy as a “terrorist,” and you win.  (This is most easily seen by Assad’s regime, who regularly blames state massacres on “terrorists”.)

I am entirely unsympathetic to this argument because it does not reflect the real world, nor is this the world we want to live in. We want to live in a world where violence does not solve our political conflicts. Even when force is required or necessary, we want force to be controlled by the rule of law of states.  To throw up our hands under the belief that anyone or any thing can be a terrorist ignores reality, international law, and state law.

Terrorism, as defined by U.S. law, confines the crime to an individual committing acts of violence in order to change policy. It is important to note, of course, that terrorism is limited to the individual and its political component: terrorism is a political crime. But that is why terrorism is and should be seriously condemned. Particularly in a democracy, the means for political change are readily available to the individual. Violence for the purpose of political change is not acceptable.  (I admit I was annoyed that the “War on Terror” never was articulated in clear moral terms, as antithetical to democracy and the international state system.)

We may have an honest difference of opinion and ideals when it comes to the appropriate and legitimate use of force for political change at the state level.  But this is where I believe the equivalence of state and individual terrorism is both false and unhelpful.  Because both state and international law provide a cause of action for the inappropriate and illegitimate use of force.  War crimes, aggression, crimes against humanity, rape and genocide are each a cause of action in international law.  For the individual — mostly murder, assault, rape and other similar crimes — are all punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the criminal and military codes of states.  It is entirely appropriate to label these crimes as such when they arise: labeling a state a terrorist or an individual unaffiliated with a state a war criminal is not just confusing, it is simply bad law.

It is true that terrorism has not been specifically defined under international law (certain arguments notwithstanding) and that does have much to do with the political wranglings that Brulin discusses (the canard that one country’s “terrorist” is another man’s “freedom fighter,” etc.). But this illuminates the fuzziness of Erdogan’s statement about Syria.  A “terrorist state,” under current law — state and international — is no terrorist at all. Erdogan’s characterization, while sharp, invokes no cause of action under international or Turkish law and demands nothing of Erdogan, his neighbors or his allies. It changes nothing.

This is important for reasons I have outlined before: international law is entirely dependent on the political will of the international community for enforcement actions.  Had Erdogan accused the Assad regime of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, he would have invoked the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.  This would have put the UN Security Council on the hook to enforce the ICC founding statute. Turkey’s political capital is substantial, but not substantial enough under these circumstances in effect to bring the UN to the brink of war in Syria. (And Assad is not so stupid as to attack outright Turkey, a NATO ally that can invoke the collective defensive provisions that would bring down the might of the Western democracies that deposed Muammar Gaddafi.)

In short, this argument demonstrates the importance of a precise and legal definition of terrorism — and a precise and legal discussion of terrorism.  We could all agree and nod sagely and cynically with Remi Brulin and his postmodern compatriots that Erdogan called a spade a Kalashnikov, but it does absolutely nothing to change the situation for tens of thousands of refugees, the Free Syrian Army, or the millions of average Syrians caught between a brutal and repressive state and the opposition trying desperately to change the country.  Only the actions of states and individuals — by law, ideals or interest — will bring that about.


How to understand “Swiftboating”

The Raid, May 2, 2011 (White House Photo by Pete Souza)

A new thread coursing through the U.S. presidential campaign has been an attack on President Obama’s alleged disclosures regarding the raid last year that killed Osama bin Laden.  A 501(c)(4) political action committee called the Special Operations OPSEC [Operational Security] Education Fund has asserted that the Administration’s disclosures regarding the operations — particularly the revelation that SEAL Team Six carried out the May 2, 2011 mission — have seriously compromised the operational security, safety and effectiveness of covert military and paramilitary units like the Navy SEALs, Army Delta Force, and CIA.  They may have a point.  In August later that year, 15 SEALS from the same team were killed when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan.  Operational Security in the region, where infiltration and “green on blue” violence is a growing threat, is a vigilent concern.

The President’s supporters view this attack not as a benign public informational campaign on behalf of servicemen but as a hollow-point partisan attack benefiting the campaign of Republican Gov. Mitt Romney. After all, didn’t President George W. Bush land dramatically on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln to announce in front of a roaring crew that “major combat operations in Iraq are over”? Didn’t Coalition Provisional Authority administrator J. Paul Bremer crow “We got ’em!” after Saddam Hussein was apprehended? Surely there can’t be some sour grapes that after ten years the main target of Tora Bora was killed under a Democratic Administration?

But the President’s campaign immediately pushed back on the group’s 20-minute documentary by referring to it as “swift boat tactics,” a reference to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the organization that very effectively derailed the campaign of Democratic Sen. John Kerry in 2004.  Conceptually, Swiftboating is so commonplace now that the campaign spokesman didn’t even have to explain himself, but it’s important to really understand what he’s getting at.  Swiftboating is a modern political tactic but it is not particularly new, nor is it eminently Republican (or American).  When the campaign uses the term, it is shorthand for lying.  But the tactic is more sophisticated than that.

What we know as “swiftboating” is, in modern electoral politics, the tactic of attacking your opponent’s strong point.  This seems counterintuitive, especially since politics is often equated to war or sports, when the frontal assault is usually a quick way to die.  But Karl Rove, the contemporary master of this stroke, once said, “I don’t attack people on their weaknesses.  That usually doesn’t get the job done.  Voters already perceive weaknesses.  You’ve got to go after the other guy’s strengths.” (Emphasis added.)  And the reason is this: with their backbones broken, your opponents can no longer support the weight of their convictions.  In war, attacking a weak point is critical to a breakthrough.  But in politics, if you attack an enemy’s strong point and destroy it, you leave him with nothing at all.

That was Kerry’s critical mistake in 2004.  He held himself up as a war hero against his opponent’s more ambiguous service record.  But his own political history was more complicated than his Naval record in Vietnam — he was outspoken against that war, flip-flopped on Iraq war funding — and left himself vulnerable to an assault on his own, self-selected selling point: “My name is John Kerry, and I am reporting for duty.”  Once doubts were raised, it was hard to claim that he was much better than the alternative.

Again, this is not a uniquely Republican tactic. The “wimp factor” was maliciously applied to George H. W. Bush, a genuine war hero if there ever was one: a volunteer after Pearl Harbor at 19, the youngest naval aviator at 20, shot down over the Pacific and rescued by a submarine after losing his navigator.  And right now, the Obama camp has taken a golden opportunity to attack Romney’s business record.  As with Kerry, all’s fair in politics: Romney is publicly running on his experience as a venture capitalist, and that practically begs for a closer look at what that experience actually was.

If the “swift boat” analogy to the OPSEC challenge is true, the Obama Administration and campaign should simply treat it for what it is, an attack on a strength.  Barack Obama made, in the words of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, “one of the gutsiest calls I have ever seen a president make,” and ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.  The previous President and a Republican president would have had to made a similar judgment. A well-trained American serviceman pulled the trigger and the intelligence apparatus delivered the right information for him to act on.  But ultimately — and the OPSEC men should know this — given the mission’s fraught political context, only the President could make that call that brought hell’s torment to the world’s most wanted man.

And the President made the right one — unlike, I would add, so many made before him.


A More Political NATO

President Barack Obama speaking at a press conference concluding the NATO Summit in Chicago, May 22. (NATO)

I very recently finished a major public diplomacy project supporting the NATO Summit  which took place May 20-21 in Chicago. I interviewed 12 NATO member state ambassadors to the United States and U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, Chairman of the American delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly for a series of video capsules to explore the meaning and importance of this enduring international organization where I worked for  six years.

Working at NATO for as long as I did I became used to a familiar series of critical tropes attacking the organization.  Policy critics typically harped on burden-sharing, as if countries as disparate as Greece and Luxembourg could possibly be compared to France and Great Britain, never mind the United States — an absurd comparison.  Nobody claims the Mississippi National Guard isn’t pulling its weight compared to the Texas National Guard (which has deployed the most during the last 10 years), yet the National Guard system is the better analogy to the military organization of Europe than comparing individual European states to one another or to America.

The anti-war movement, when roused to turn its animus towards NATO, can be relied upon to call the organization a terrorist organization, an armed proxy for American foreign policy, or the jack-booted thugs of the industrialized West.  Needless to say having worked there and watched the consensus process at its best (and worst), I can vouch that none of these caricatures is remotely accurate.

Both factions, though, share a fascination with the utility of force (to borrow a phrase) —  which is easy to grasp in its simplistic contours (usually in troop numbers or bombing sorties) and makes for often compelling or grisly graphics and therefore the 24-hour news cycle.  A predictable dichotomy has fallen into place as a result, and neither side sees it much in their interest to deviate from its comforting narrative: policy critics think Allies are doing too little, in effect, and anti-war protestors think NATO is doing too much.  There’s no common ground, of course, but no rhetorical alternative.

Much less immediately obvious or compelling — boring, really, to watch but just as real in its effects — is NATO’s political function, which has transformed Europe and its surrounding neighborhood to a terrain unrecognizable to an earlier generation, never mind historians of an earlier epoch.  NATO now approaches the OSCE and the UN for its expansive and expanding network of peaceful, productive political relationships developed since the end of the Cold War.

This is the alternative ground lacking in the NATO-critical dialectic and I happily found it crossed over and over again during my interviews.  I was taken by the extraordinary language of reconciliation, openness, and inclusion used by several of the ambassadors who talked about their countries’ desire to expand NATO’s membership to their neighbors, with whom (mostly in the Balkans) they had fought in less than a generation.  Two ambassadors talked about how NATO member countries sought agreements among themselves, with the Soviet Union (at the time) and with Warsaw Pact countries to lower and limit nuclear and conventional arms in the waning days of the Cold War, well before the collapse of both NATO’s rivals.  NATO of course helped many former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact countries rejoin the West and integrate with the European Union.  But even the Latvian ambassador talked specifically how NATO helped his country become more friendly with Russia following the Soviet occupation.

Croatian President Ivo Josipovic (left) and former Serbian President Boris Tadic meet near Vukovar in Croatia, 2010. (Croatia Government via European Forum)

In other words, NATO is not purely a security organization to them.  It is a forum for political reconciliation in a region that has seen centuries of war, conflict, shifting borders, and collapsing demographics.  After the French and Germans and Poles and Balts had reconciled their histories, now the Croats and Slovenes are working hard to expand NATO to include the Macedonians, Bosnians, Montenegrins and (someday!) the Serbs.  The European Union will follow close on NATO, which despite current troubles grows only to the greater good of the larger neighborhood, an extraordinary counter-historical experiment in European political integration and reconciliation.

Vaclav Havel once talked about politics being the art of the impossible. As president of Czechoslovakia he presided over the break-up of his country into Czech and Slovak lands. He lamented (hoped) at the time that one day the two countries might once again be reunited.  It sounded crazy when he said it, but he wasn’t far wrong. Both countries eventually were rejoined, side by side, first in NATO and then the European Union. The same may soon be said for the states of the former warring Yugoslavia, and a more political NATO will be the forum for their pacific reunion.

I reiterate here my concern that the term “political” has evolved almost exclusively into a pejorative, so that in calling NATO political evokes notions of a sclerotic organization mired in and paralyzed by petty infighting. In reality a flexible, truly political organization — as I have argued here — has much more to offer than that.  NATO is far more than what its policy critics can grasp and embodies perhaps the greatest aspirations its anti-war opponents could wish upon the world.

UPDATE July 5: This post was adapted and updated for a op-ed with (with Brett Swaney) for the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University.


In Syria, Power vs. Force

Sen. John McCain speaks to France 24  April 12. (France 24)

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been a vociferous advocate for action against the Syrian regime’s brutality against its opposition, as his recent interview with French national television amply demonstrates. To his credit, McCain has been a consistent voice for measured, forceful intervention, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya and Syria. He has become an extraordinary voice for the obligation to protect (O2P), comparing the moral imperative facing the international community in Syria to the examples of Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda. While a cease-fire appears to be holding, opposition demonstrations are ongoing and the regime of Bashar al-Assad has demonstrated extraordinary willingness to wield violence in order to maintain control over the country.

McCain recently returned from Turkey where he visited camps filled with Syrian refugees fleeing the regime’s repression. This is perhaps an important reminder of the necessity for finer judgment in these matters, as similar camps filled up after the invasion of Iraq and refugees poured into Syria and Jordan fleeing the violence and chaos of sectarian anarchy in the wake of invasion. The Syrian regime’s collapse would no doubt benefit American interests in the region, depriving Iran of a proxy and Hezbollah and Hamas of a paymaster. But it’s much harder to anticipate the unforeseen outcomes of centrifugal forces cut loose  in the event of the regime’s demise.

Nonetheless, McCain’s intriguing and clearly genuine and heartfelt appeal not to allow al-Assad his waltz of death over a yearning opposition reveals the tensions inherent to an age-old theoretical question, particularly in the wake of a series of violent and non-violent, successful and unsuccessful revolutions in the Islamic world. I am writing about the relationship between power and force, which for too long have been roughly and lazily equated.

The point of departure is McCain’s insistence that a multinational intervention against the Syrian regime, likely led by NATO, could effectively level the tools of force between the opposition and the government.  This is quite a practical assessment. The regime retains the monopoly of force, McCain notes, with heavy weapons, including tanks and helicopter gunships. The Free Syrian Army is fighting mostly with firearms and video cameras. “Right now it’s artillery and tanks against Kalashnikovs,” McCain told France 24. “This is not a fair fight.”

Libya serves as the model in McCain’s thinking. There, NATO aircraft leveled the fight by eliminating the Libyan air force and “tank plinking” — a practice derided over Kosovo — destroying Libyan armor with precision strike.  I’m not an operator so I hesitate to assert that the NATO campaign was carried out easily and with few civilian casualties. But by eliminating the monopoly of force, the Libyan army was put on the same footing as the armed Libyan opposition forces, making it “a fair fight”.

Perhaps most importantly in Libya — and this more closely serves my point — once heavy armor and attack aircraft were swept away, the full power of the population was liberated.  Whole cities rose up against the regime and the regime found itself outmatched. Guns are little use against the masses, especially when fear is no longer a factor.

McCain didn’t allude to this, but it must have informed his thinking.  Armor and aircraft make repression and killing a distant, impersonal, impervious thing. Civilians and fighters alike flee in terror from the rumble of tanks and the roar of jet engines and rotor wash. It is much harder — although the Iranian regime did its level best — to instill that kind of fear over a mass of human beings from the end of a gun.

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians jam Tahrir Square to bring down the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, early 2011 (Getty Images via The Guardian)

The armed revolution aside, we saw precisely this triumph of power over force in Egypt and Tunisia. Masses of people cowed and then overthrew their dictatorships. In Tunisia, the revolution moved too quickly for the regime to react, but in Egypt the important factor was the neutrality of the Army. The people could face down the relatively lightly armed police and internal security forces. Confronted with a million people in Tahrir Square in Cairo (and hundreds of thousands gathered in other cities), the security forces — used to dealing with individuals or dozens of people at most — no longer could assert authority in any meaningful way.  It was only a matter of time before the regime would collapse.

This was in large strokes a replay of actions that took place in Central Europe during the Velvet Revolution.  Poland lived for 10 years under martial law — the rule of armor in the streets — but even this was no match for the growing power of the Polish people. Once the rest of the enslaved states of Central Europe were unable or unwilling to roll down their people as they began to march en masse — and the Center in Moscow importantly renounced the Brezhnev Doctrine of intervention as it had in Czechoslovakia and Hungary to put down popular rebellion — the state revealed itself to be made of matchwood. The power of the powerless was let loose on the world.

So power and force are not the same thing. I should emphasize that force can trump power, as we have seen in Iran and elsewhere. And power can dissipate, as we saw in Ukraine. But this does not alter the fundamental difference between them.  Power is a moral concept and that is why it is inherent to politics. As a moral concept, power resides exclusively in the mind of men and women. Power is infinitely scalable, as we saw mobilizing by the millions across middle Europe and the Mahgreb.

Hannah Arendt wrote very clearly in On Violence that violence and power were not one and the same but opposites.  She also wrote that war (that is, applied force) was not the result of some primal human urge toward self-destruction but, finally, the ultimate means to resolve dispute. To illuminate her insight more, I would argue that force and power are not opposites but opposing means to the same end: to change political behavior. Force is mobilized by a state (or quasi-state); power requires mobilization by something other than the state for legitimacy (although in many societies state structures are regularly put to work creating those non-state mobilizations). Force is legitimate when it is wielded by the accepted state (or quasi-state) authority; power is legitimate when it is given freely and without coercion.

The Syrian regime has learned well from the examples of both its neighbors and from history.  As seen in Homs and Hama, force can trump power. Murder dismembers the political opposition.  Guns and Tanks terrorize the ordinary and the innocent. But I also know that this is only a temporary terror. Whether the horror in Syria continues is a prediction someone better informed can make. Real power ultimately prevails because it is found in the minds and morals of millions of men and women.  The leaders in Damascus, Moscow, and Minsk, and in Pyongyang, Tehran, Beijing, and Havana must know this.


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.


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.