How not to argue against war

children killed in ghouta
Two recent articles I’d like to bring to readers’ attention. The first is my debut article for Al Jazeera America in which I write about the misuse of the Iraq analogy:

Of the many lessons Iraq taught, only two are fundamental: one must not hype threats that don’t exist, and one must not introduce war where there is none. The former diminishes public trust; the latter creates human suffering it is supposed to prevent. Neither is applicable to Syria. The regime has shown both the capability and the willingness to deploy proscribed weapons, and Syria is already at war.

In yesterday’s frontpage article for The New Republic I write that in their justifiable concern over (the highly improbable) military intervention in Syria, some opponents of the policy (or Obama) have crossed the line into victim-blaming.

There are perfectly good arguments for opposing military intervention—and some have been made persuasively, on moral or national interest grounds. There are also good reasons to be skeptical of humanitarian conceits that might be used to justify intervention. But there is more than a fine line between skepticism and cynicism—and not even the otherwise noble concern with preventing war, or the less-noble determination to oppose a president regardless of policy, justifies excusing the Assad regime’s well-documented crimes. While war must always be an option of last resort, and it is right to be concerned about its unforeseen consequences (as long as one is mindful that inaction too has consequences), the national debate over whether to wage it in Syria is not helped by spreading ideologically driven lies.

My argument that the relevant analogy is not Iraq but Bosnia has also been echoed by Rory Stewart in what I consider the most sensible article written by a non-Syrian on the subject so far.

As regards the regime’s use of chemical weapons in last month’s massacre, those who think the jury’s still out might want to read Human Rights Watch’s detailed analysis of the regime’s culpability which was already well established by respected independent munitions experts like Eliot Higgins. As regards the regime’s motivations for using CW, check out Kim Sengupta’s stellar report on developments in Ghouta before and after the attack.

Afghanistan: The Great Game

This is part one of a two party documentary about the history of imperial intervention, military and diplomatic, in Afghanistan. It is hosted by Rory Stewart, one of the very few western commentators who are knowledgeable about the region and have empathy for its people. I would also encourage viewers to read Stewart’s superb book The Places In Between.

Rory Stewart on the Libyan intervention

Rory Stewart offers by far the most astute analysis of the dilemmas Libya presents. Written for the London Review of Books, its reproduced here in full:

Until yesterday, I thought we were at the end of the age of intervention. The complacency that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union had been shattered by the Balkan wars; despair was followed by the successful interventions in Bosnia and then Kosovo; then triumphal pride led us to disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan. Midway through the period, in 2000, it seemed we could intervene anywhere. By 2010, it felt as though we would not venture abroad again. What had begun with the irresistible victory of democracy, the free market and the United States, ended with occupation, financial crisis and American impotence.

It seemed doubly unlikely that we would ever intervene in a country like Libya. Even oil-less, Central Asian Afghanistan was perceived by many Muslims as the object of a crusading infidel occupation, driven by Israel and designed to establish bases or extract cheaper oil. Any move against Libya – an Arab, Muslim country, obsessed with its struggle against colonialism and dripping with oil – seemed bound to be perceived in the most hostile and sinister terms by its neighbours, by the developing world and by the Libyans themselves.

Nor did Libya appear to meet the criteria for intervention under international law. Gaddafi was the sovereign power, not the rebels, and he was not conducting genocide or ethnic cleansing. In Bosnia, by contrast, 100,000 people had died in a few weeks; and it was Bosnia itself – a sovereign, UN-recognised state – which formally requested the intervention. Kosovo was a less clear case, but the intervention targeted Milosevic, and followed the Balkan wars, which he had stoked, and the displacement of 200,000 people and clear evidence of ethnically-targeted atrocities. This interventionist worldview, which might have seemed in 1999 the quintessence of global governance and consensus, had, however, begun to seem a fading Western obsession. By 2011 Brazil, India and South Africa, as well as China, were on the Security Council. And none of them supported intervention.

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The Irresistible Illusion

You know that things for the Western occupation of Afghanistan have reached a pretty pass when the most devastating indictment of its failures comes from a former colonial manager. Here is Rory Stewart in the London Review of Books (the world’s best publication by far ) presenting what may be the most trenchant critique of the of the US-UK occupation of Afghanistan, but as can be expected from someone who had earlier played a key role in managing the UK occupation of Southern Iraq, he limits it to the handling of the occupation.

We are accustomed to seeing Afghans through bars, or smeared windows, or the sight of a rifle: turbaned men carrying rockets, praying in unison, or lying in pools of blood; boys squabbling in an empty swimming-pool; women in burn wards, or begging in burqas. Kabul is a South Asian city of millions. Bollywood music blares out in its crowded spice markets and flower gardens, but it seems that images conveying colour and humour are reserved for Rajasthan.

Barack Obama, in a recent speech, set out our fears. The Afghan government

is undermined by corruption and has difficulty delivering basic services to its people. The economy is undercut by a booming narcotics trade that encourages criminality and funds the insurgency . . . If the Afghan government falls to the Taliban – or allows al-Qaida to go unchallenged – that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can . . . For the Afghan people, a return to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralysed economy, and the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people – especially women and girls. The return in force of al-Qaida terrorists who would accompany the core Taliban leadership would cast Afghanistan under the shadow of perpetual violence.

When we are not presented with a dystopian vision, we are encouraged to be implausibly optimistic. ‘There can be only one winner: democracy and a strong Afghan state,’ Gordon Brown predicted in his most recent speech on the subject. Obama and Brown rely on a hypnotising policy language which can – and perhaps will – be applied as easily to Somalia or Yemen as Afghanistan. It misleads us in several respects simultaneously: minimising differences between cultures, exaggerating our fears, aggrandising our ambitions, inflating a sense of moral obligations and power, and confusing our goals. All these attitudes are aspects of a single worldview and create an almost irresistible illusion.

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