About Nitin Pai

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Good ideas, not just honest people

The politics of populism or misplaced notions of polity?

An interview with Sunday Guardian‘s Atul Dev on the Aam Aadmi Party’s government’s actions in Delhi.

The AAP’s dharna against the Delhi Police officers was termed unconstitutional by many. What is your view regarding this?

(Nitin Pai). Anyone going on a dharna is adopting non-constitutional methods. As Ambedkar says, there is no place for non-constitutional methods when constitutional methods are available. For a chief minister to go on a dharna is doubly disturbing because an official sworn to uphold the constitution is resorting to non-constitutional methods. It sets a bad example — if everyone who feels dissatisfied with the “system” decides to adopt non-constitutional methods, what is the yardstick by which society decides what to do? We will end up with the law of the jungle, and the strong will prevail over the weak.

Q. How do you react to Arvind Kejriwal being labelled an anarchist, and if you agree, how will it affect the political atmosphere of Delhi?

A. Mr Kejriwal might or might not be an anarchist, but the methods he adopted legitimise people breaking rules and due processes, based on their own assessment of right and wrong. This is a formula for anarchy, as in a diverse country like India, almost everyone has a grievance, almost everyone believes that his cause is right and almost everyone believes that they’ve waited too long for justice.

Q. Many wrote off Arvind Kejriwal as the Lokpal movement came to close. What do you think were the major factors responsible for him coming to power?

A. There is clearly a wide-open governance gap because the UPA government almost entirely lost the plot, and was unable to even persuade people that there is a coherent government in charge. There are also underlying factors: urbanisation, sizeable middle class, instruments like RTI and social media created the conditions for urban India to begin to find its political footing. These factors, plus some clever old-style populist political promises helped Mr Kejriwal win. Continue Reading →

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What causes corruption and erosion of moral values?

Ans: The abridgement of economic freedom

Click to enlarge


An illustration showing how government interference in economic activity increases corruption, crime and leads to the moral degradation of society. Although the chart only refers to bans, it also applies to lesser interventions like price caps, price floors, excessive tariffs, quotas, reservations and so on. The difference is one of degree.

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Three thoughts for the Republic

The importance of thinking clearly

For quiet contemplation on Republic Day:

Why our problem is not spiritual, but social; why the rights-based development model is immoral; and why redistribution is theft.

On a related note: Republic, democracy and the difference between the two.

The Three Thoughts Archive:
It is a tradition on this blog to use Independence and Republic Days as opportunities for contemplation, reflection and introspection.

Three thoughts on Republic Day 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;

and on Independence Day 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

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This needs diplomacy

Going overboard on local law enforcement is not the way to go

There have been two broad sets of reactions in India and among Indians to the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, on underpaying the domestic helper.

First, there has been a fierce nationalistic response, supporting retaliatory measures against US diplomats in India. This has not only staunchly backed the Indian government’s surprisingly swift actions in suspending import clearances for the US embassy’s liquor supplies and removing traffic barriers that the embassy installed outside its premises. There is a clamour among such quarters for even more.

Now, while it is important that New Delhi send strong signals to the Washington that India will not tolerate its diplomats—albeit one accused of an offence—being treated as dangerous criminals, the reactionary perspective ignores the risks to the painstakingly built bilateral relationship between the two countries.

Second, there are those who argue that Ms Khobragade is in the wrong and her absconding domestic helper is the one who is truly wronged. Some have argued that the Indian bureaucracy is too used to privilege at home and should not expect such perquisites as domestic helpers abroad, that they should “do their own dishes, like everyone else.” Furthermore, they contend, would the foreign service act with such alacrity if an ordinary citizen had been arrested?

Going by media reports there are grounds to accept that the authorities have a case against Ms Khobragade. Whether or not she enjoys diplomatic immunity, if it is established she has committed an offence, it is right that consequences should follow. NRIs and Indians might reasonably resent what they see as privilege and less reasonably use stereotypes to pronounce judgement on Ms Khobragade, but these are peripheral to the issue. The Indian government is obliged to take care of its employees abroad—not least a consular officer charged with the responsibility of taking care of citizens’ interests abroad!—just like any other employer.

Between liberal democratic rule-of-law countries like India and the United States, such matters are best handled in courts of law (see an earlier post on the case of the Italian marines). This is complicated in Ms Khobragade’s case, as both Indian and US courts are involved. Even so, letting the legal process determine a solution would have been and is still probably the best course of action. What complicated matters is the manner in which Ms Khobragade was arrested and treated by US authorities. She is a diplomat, the nature of her alleged offence is more in the nature of a breach of contract than a violent crime, and despite what is popularly claimed, the US authorities do treat different people differently (ask Prince Bandar for details).

The bigger problem with the “US enforces its laws seriously” argument is that Indian authorities can do it too. That would make things ugly indeed because there are quite a few statutes in our books whose strict interpretation could place more than a few foreign diplomats in prison, and ordinary treatment in Indian prisons is not, to put it mildly, pleasant. For instance, a senior BJP leader has demanded that the government invoke Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code—that renders illegal many quotidian sexual acts between consenting adults—against US diplomats. Even if it sounds over the top, it demonstrates that riding the legalistic high-horse won’t help. [We strongly disagree with Section 377, just as many Americans disagree with minimum wage laws.]

Therefore, diplomacy needs to kick in to make the situation conducive to a legal solution. Unless this happens, legalistic processes can escalate the matter into a situation where it becomes difficult for either side to give in or back off. Foreign relations are too important to be left to district attorneys, traffic policemen and customs officers. We can say with some confidence that no serious person in Washington or New Delhi wants Ms Khobragade’s case to undermine bilateral relations. Now that both sides have made their points, it is time for the political leaders to intervene and arrest the process.

My colleague V Anantha Nageswaran noted that the speed and force with which New Delhi acted against the United States on a minor issue like this stands out against the reluctance the Indian government demonstrates while handling Chinese or Pakistani transgressions. Of course, grandstanding against the West comes naturally to New Delhi but could it also be that the bilateral relationship is on such a footing today that our foreign policy establishment presumes that this won’t affect the big picture?

Even so, the UPA government and the Obama administration will be jointly responsible if this incident is any more than a temporary irritant in the bilateral relationship.

Related Link: An ugly diplomatic exchange — My storified comments on Twitter.

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The Saudi bomb

Made in Pakistan, Supported by China, but still Saudi Arabia’s nuclear weapon

This week, a major Western media house discovered that the Saudi Arabia has already paid Pakistan for the bomb and can have it home-delivered pretty quickly. This is perhaps the first time that news of the Saudi-Pakistan nuclear arrangement is getting media coverage. This topic was something that Western mediapersons and analysts would determinedly avoid discussing in public. Even the most committed advocates of the nuclear non-proliferation regime still do not write or talk about the relationship, which makes their advocacy and intent a lot less credible than it otherwise might have been.

Regular readers of this blog will recall analysis suggesting that Pakistan’s rapid stockpiling of fissile material is linked to Saudi Arabia’s needs in correlation with Iran’s nuclear advancements. China’s grandfatherly nuclear largesse makes Beijing an accomplice in this nuclear weapons manufacturing and transfer business. This is plain and simple nuclear proliferation, no matter if the self-appointed guardians of that term choose to ignore it.

Given this background, the fact that BBC’s Newsnight is now revealing that the Pakistanis might transfer the bomb to Saudi Arabia on demand suggests that the Saudi Arabian government wants it to be revealed. This is understandable: with chances of a Iran’s rapprochement with the West increasing this year, the likelihood that the world will eventually accept a nuclear Iran is also rising. Letting it be known that Saudi Arabia also has nuclear capacity—albeit in an outsourced model—serves to reinforce Riyadh’s prestige, proto-deterrence and adds pressure on its Western allies to not cut deals with the Iranians. It also helps prepare the ground for an eventual coming out of the nuclear closet.

What Western analysts of nuclear proliferation have to answer for is when exactly did the Saudi-Pakistan-China nuclear arrangement start? If it predates Tehran’s own decision to develop nuclear weapons capacity, then shouldn’t part of the responsibility for Iran’s move accrue to Riyadh, Islamabad and Beijing? Recriminations of the intellectual kind are futile in geopolitics, but to the extent that the United States recognises Iran’s security challenges, it might be able to negotiate for better outcomes with Iran, for the international community.

The emerging problem in the Middle East is one of shaping a stable nuclear deterrence relationship primarily involving Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the United States, Pakistan and China as actors in a supporting role. Getting facts out into the open is the good way to begin addressing it.

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Rackets, threats and good sense

Handling the Nigerian kerfuffle in Goa

Only the credulous will be surprised that there are a number of organised criminal groups involved in the drug trafficking business in Goa. Russian, Israeli, Nigerian, Chinese and presumably local syndicates have carved out the market geographically, in terms of the drugs peddled and so on. Again, only the credulous will believe that this state of affairs can exist without connivance of the local politicians and law enforcement authorities. As Mayabhushan Nagvenkar reported in FirstPost last month, a report tabled in the state legislative assembly says as much.

It is in this context that we must see the murder of a Nigerian and the subsequent events it triggered. To be sure, not all Nigerians in Goa are involved in drug smuggling, just as not all Goans are anti-Nigerian racists. Yet the existence of Nigerian criminals, crooked cops, corrupt politicians and racist Goans is undeniable in this case.

On Thursday, a mob of over 200 irate Nigerians, who police allege are part of a narcotics gang, blocked a national highway for several hours and attacked locals and policemen, protesting the murder of their compatriot, allegedly by a local rival gang operating from Chapora, a coastal village and “hub” for the drug trade.

What followed the blockade was a bloody and sordid episode where one Nigerian was nearly beaten to death in police presence and a sustained outpouring of racist tripe against the ebony-skinned Africans on the social media network, the mainstream media as well as the public at-large.[Nagvenkar/DNA]

Policing in India is not known for its sensitivity or, well, discrimination. After the state government ordered a ‘crackdown’, police have been out and about the place looking for foreigners and verifying their papers. Now, because there are a number of foreigners — of several nationalities — in Goa without proper documentation, the business of police verification has caused, as of now, something bigger than a kerfuffle and smaller than an upheaval.

It is a diplomat’s job to be concerned about the well-being of a country’s citizens in foreign lands. Given the consular problems concerning Nigerians in India — from undertrials to deportees –, accusations of maltreatment by Indian authorities and further accusations of racist attitudes, it is fair for the Nigerian consular officials to take a proactive role in managing the tensions in Goa.

What Jacob Nwadidia, reportedly a Nigerian consular attache in India, said transgresses all norms of civilised diplomacy. If the Goa state government’s crackdown does not stop in 24 hours, he threatened, “that hundreds of thousands of Indians will be thrown out on the streets in Nigeria.”

If you have heard of the order of the authorities, especially Michael Lobo who is the MLA of Calangute, I am giving him 24 hours from tonight to cancel his ‘order’ that Nigerians should be thrown out on to the streets. If he does not cancel (it), I am telling you that hundreds of thousands of Indians will be thrown out on the streets in Nigeria. And I’m serious about it. India is five hours ahead of Nigeria. There is still enough time to reach my headquarters and tell the Nigerian government that Nigerians in Goa have been thrown out on the street,” he said.

“If Michael Lobo does not cancel that ‘order’ I am telling you that news will come that Indians in Nigeria have been thrown out on the street. That’s what I’m telling you and I mean what I’ve said,” he told Herald. Referring to the ongoing police verification drive in Parra and surrounding areas, he added: “Police should stop from going house to house to eject and evict Nigerians. If that does not stop in 24 hours then Indians should bear responsibility for what happens in Nigeria,” he said.

“There are only 50,000 Nigerians in India but over one million Indians live in Nigeria. Several thousand Indians will be on the streets if forcible eviction of Nigerians in Goa does not stop,” Jacob Nwadidia is reported to have said.[Herald]

If Mr Nwadidia indeed made the threats as several media reports indicate, New Delhi should declare him persona non grata and expel him. Diplomats don’t threaten mass violence against innocent people. Thugs do. The Nigerian High Commission in New Delhi would do well to repudiate the comments made by one of its officials.

Mr Nwadidia was not only wrong in form but also wrong on facts. According to the Indian High Commission in Abuja, the size of the Indian community in Nigeria is around 35,000 persons, of which 25,000 are Indian citizens and the remaining persons of Indian origin. India has demonstrated that it can evacuate such numbers of its nationals if the need arises.

The threat is especially dangerous because of Nigeria’s deteriorating security situation. In January this year, the Indian mission issued a security advisory noting that “Indians living in Nigeria came under unprecedented level of insecurity and were, occasionally, unfortunate victims” and calling upon nationals to take precautions.

In a subsequent advisory issued in May it said

“(in the recent past), security situation in some parts of Nigeria has deteriorated. There have been violent incidents in the north, north-centre and north-east of the country. A sharp increase in cases of kidnappings in coastal belt, particularly by pirates in the Gulf of Guinea, has also been noted. These instances of insecurity have occasionally involved Indian nationals as unfortunate victims. While in most cases they were passive victims of a situation or a criminal conspiracy, there are cases when they were specifically targeted for kidnapping or physical harm.”[IHC Abuja]

India is among Nigeria’s top trading partners, not least due to oil and gas imports. Indian companies are increasing their investments in West Africa and Nigeria is a big recipient of Indian investment. Last year, 40,000 Nigerians received visas to visit India. The nature of bilateral relations indicates that there is a lot that the two countries have to lose if irresponsible talk leads to violence on the ground. If memories of Idi Amin’s actions against ethnic Indians are brought up to scare the Indian government, the Nigerian government can’t be unaware of the more proximate example of Robert Mugabe’s ruinous policies in Zimbabwe.

It is unclear if the Goa government is committed to a clean-up of the criminal activity in the state. If so, expect more such kerfuffles involving other foreigners. Given the international effects, the government ought to employ a lot more sophistication in its law enforcement activities. Beyond that, it would be out of place for one of India’s most open-minded and cosmopolitan states to allow racist sentiments to dominate the public discourse over this issue.

For New Delhi’s part, action against the errant Mr Nwadidia ought to signal its rejection of the suggestion that Nigeria is holding Indian nationals hostage. That should get saner heads into the equation.

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Aiming for nuclear war prevention

Non-proliferation is not the only way to prevent nuclear war. (It may not even be a way at all.)

Craig Campbell and Jan Ruzicka have a refreshing blog post at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage on how what they call the “non-proliferation complex” has locked down fresh thinking on the nuclear problem.

It is refreshing to see Western commentators accept that the current nuclear order is based on “massive hypocrisy” (for the nuclear powers reneged on their commitment to disarm) and that the “complex’s domination of nuclear politics is its stifling of thinking about serious alternatives to the current nuclear order.”

Campbell & Ruzicka suggest that a solution may lie in the direction of forming a—admittedly unrealistic and unfashionable—world government.

It might not be necessary to form a world government for this purpose. Creating an international regime that performs certain nuclear risk management functions (okay, that guarantees a retaliation against any nuclear attack) is likely to be good enough for the limited purpose of preventing nuclear war. This modest proposal from 2009 lists out a three step process that can get us there:

Step 1: Adopt a Global No First Use Treaty (GNFUT)—all countries of the world, regardless of whether they already have, almost have, can soon produce and do not have nuclear weapons commit that they will not be the first to use nuclear weapons against another country.

Step 2: Convert the world’s arsenal into a ‘force-in-being’—states that have nuclear weapons will reconfigure their arsenals and deployment postures such that the risk of a surprise first strike, or indeed an accidental nuclear exchange, are minimised. Complete verification will be impossible but advances in technology will aid the process. But better a cat-and-mouse in verification and obfuscation than arms races and hair-trigger alerts. This step can accompany a global reduction in the number of weapons and delivery systems to a negotiated minimum (so-called “minimum deterrence”).

Step 3: Globalise nuclear deterrence—an international treaty that allows the international community to punish any violation of the GNFUT with a punitive nuclear strike will globalise deterrence. [A modest proposal]

It is unclear if the combination of a mindless worship of nuclear disarmament and the dubious theology of the non-proliferation complex will permit such proposals to be even discussed in wonkdom, forget their consideration by official multilateral forums. It isn’t in the interests of the beneficiaries of the current order to do so.

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The internet is freest in US hands

Internationalising internet governance will abridge liberty and restrict free speech

Edward Snowden’s revelations have strengthened demands for “extricating the internet from US control.” This is not a new phenomenon. Ever since Jon Postel died in 1998, governments and non-government organisations have been engaged in a long, complex and meandering process of somehow taking control over the internet. However, while outfits like ICANN and assorted United Nations forums have gotten into the act of “internet governance”, much of the internet remains in US hands. China might well be the country that has more internet users, but it has locked its citizens behind the Great Firewall and effectively created its own national intranet.

Mr Snowden’s revelations are grave, but shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with national security issues or the communications infrastructure business. So while a lot of international reaction is properly in the Captain Renault (“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”) category, there are some attempts by governments to secure greater control over internet. China, Russia and Brazil are expected to raise the pitch in the coming months.

It would be terrible thing if they succeed. Whatever the imperfections, whatever the US government’s transgressions, we are better off with as much of the internet coming under the US Constitution than the UN Charter.

Why so? Because there is no better political system—the constitution, separation of powers, civil society and citizens—than the United States today that can protect liberty and free speech. Start with Mr Snowden. Where is Russia’s Snowden? Where is China’s Snowden? Where is Brazil’s Snowden? The United States has strong and vocal free speech and privacy advocates who can hold their government accountable without fear of harm. It has a judicial system that is sufficiently independent as to overrule the executive if found violating the US constitution. Despite what cynics in the United States and detractors around the world say, the US system works. To the extent that it does, it protects everyone’s liberties (albeit to a lesser degree than it protects the liberties of US citizens).

For those who contend that this isn’t good enough, consider the alternative. The vast United Nations system that is accountable to exactly no one. The General Assembly has almost two hundred nation-states as members with varying degrees of commitment to upholding liberty. The Security Council reflects the balance of interests its permanent members, where such paragons of free speech as Russia and China have a veto. Let’s say that the UN creates a brand new UN Internet Governance Council to sit at the helm of internet governance. What is to prevent it from going the way of the UN Human Rights Council, where you don’t need any commitment to human rights to be a member, and where you can rule that free speech shouldn’t defame religion.

Now, those who argue that national governments must control the internet because they must exercise their sovereignty over their ‘territory’ of cyberspace have a logical argument when they call for the internationalisation of internet governance. However, it is unfathomable why proponents of free speech and liberty would want the world’s authoritarian regimes to have a say on how the internet is governed.

Calls for “extricating the internet from US control” are effectively facades for authoritarian states to further abridge the liberties of the world’s citizens. That is why they must be resisted. Indians are much better off putting their faith in their freedom-loving American counterparts than participating in grandiose international internet governance schemes.

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Thoughts from the doorstep of the second decade

This blog turns ten today

It all started with a post in September 2003 calling for India to send troops to the Iraq, to enable the United States to send more troops to Afghanistan and take on what I came to since call the military-jihadi complex. The blog initially used Blogger (remember “Push button publishing for busy people”?) before moving onto Movable Type (remember MT?). The Wayback Machine has a snapshot of what this blog looked like in December 2013 2003.

My first tagline was “Expressions of an Opinionated Mind.” Over time as I came to appreciate how much I didn’t know, the tagline changed to “The Education of an Opinionated Mind.” I received more education from writing this blog and discussing issues with regular commenters than at the universities I went to. In fact, the blog attracted very intelligent and well-read readers and commenters, and the discussions were almost always civil and of high quality. Comments dwindled with the rise of Twitter. That’s unfortunate, because blogs and comments elevated the public discourse as much as Twitter has lowered it.

From the outset, this blog has focussed on narrow set of themes: foreign affairs, national security and public policy, with some eclectic asides. The actual posts perhaps reflect the concerns of the times: from navigating the geopolitical tumult following 9/11 and the transformation of the India-US relationship in 2003-06, to first warning and then despairing over the destructive and self-defeating domestic policies of the UPA government.

Mighty oaks it is too early to tell, but the acorn did sprout several saplings. The Indian National Interest (INI) platform of blogs came into being in May 2005 and brought together some brilliant minds. To this day, each of the several INI blogs is independent, with no editorial control or ‘party line’ (and here’s one place to read them all). In April 2007, we started Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review, a monthly magazine on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. It published its 77th issue last month and is now updated on a weekly basis.

Then in October 2010, we formed the Takshashila Institution, and moved the blogs—including this one—and Pragati to a public charitable trust. Takshashila envisions becoming a lighthouse of ideas for an India with global interests and one of the best schools of public policy and statecraft. We took the first step in that direction with the launch of our Graduate Certificate in Public Policy (GCPP) programme in 2011. All this happened because of the collective talent, energies and resources of my fellow bloggers, co-founders and supporters of Takshashila.

Until the opinion editor of Mint invited me in 2007 to write occasional articles for the then new newspaper, I had not thought much of writing in the mainstream media. Since then I started writing for mainstream media (MSM). In September 2010, the editor of Business Standard asked me to write a monthly column on East Asian geopolitics, which I called the Asian Balance and which I continue to enjoy writing.

The journey this blog started eventually brought me back to India—after almost two decades abroad—last year. My colleagues and I decided to work out of a physical base in Bangalore even as we continue to operate as a networked organisation—with fellows, members and scholars in several countries around the world. The Bangalore office now houses some dangerously smart people and attracts a wide variety of seriously talented people (and last week one intrepid mouse, who was eventually non-violently repatriated).

I know that my wife has been reading this blog from the very first day, so it’s important that I acknowledge her patience and superior wisdom. It still scares me to know that my mother reads it too. In a few years, the kids are likely to do so. The internet never forgets, so I am mildly worried about the prospect of them debating my old blog posts with me.

While I can’t say I have robust empirical evidence, I do think that the frequency and quality of posts are linked to the quantity of caffeine in the bloodstream of this blogger. The quality of beans matters too, I think, although some of the best posts have been written after consuming the humble three-in-ones from the office pantry.

To longtime readers, thank you for sticking on (I suspect you have enjoyed the ride so far). To all readers, thank you and I hope the reading has been worth your while. Don’t believe anything that’s written on this blog (or elsewhere)—think about it before making up your mind.

One of my discoveries as a father was that babies never stop to celebrate their achievements: they just go on to the next one. That’s a good rule to follow—I just made a little exception today.

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Looking for morality in chemical composition of death devices

The debate in Washington is about guilt management, not Syrian lives.

The very public handwringing and teeth-gnashing that is Barack Obama’s decision-making on intervention in Syria is on the surface and according to the protagonists about upholding international humanitarian norms, punishing regimes that transgress them and maintaining US credibility. To do some or all of the above, they argue, the Washington must punishing Syria’s president Bashar Assad and his government for having used chemical weapons against its own civilian population.

Much of this is strange (and strangely doesn’t appear to be strange for many people) because the ‘international community’ seems to be less concerned about dead Syrian civilians as long as they died from chemicals like gunpowder, TNT, RDX or PETN. However if the same dead Syrian civilians had died from other chemicals like Sarin, it is concerned that ‘norms’ have been violated.

No, this is not an argument to give the use of chemical weapons a pass—rather, it is to make the point that such distinctions neither address the humanitarian cause nor lead to clear thinking about what the international community ought to do when civilians are being subjected to mass atrocities.

Making the use of chemical weapons the “red line” is in effect a license to odious regimes to do just what they want with conventional weapons (note the loaded term ‘conventional’ weapons). If the proposed Russian-brokered compromise—where Syria will place its chemical weapons under international supervision—comes to fruition, the international community will be forced to be a wilful bystander as the Assad government and its opponents go about committing atrocities against civilians. The death toll is both a function of the type of weapons used and how long the conflict endures. As we found out in Rwanda, it is possible to kill millions of people in months using such simple mechanical weapons as machetes.

Yet the international community seems not to be interested in finding ways to end the conflict. How can we explain its preparation to use military force without even first making a serious attempt to engage Iran?

Washington’s old dogmas on Iran, war weariness from Iraq and Afghanistan, and new fashions on protecting international norms has clouded the Obama administration’s fundamental reading of the situation. In an shocking display of serpentoleum salesmanship or dangerous naïveté the US secretary of state claimed that military intervention in Syria does not mean going to war. What Washington had in mind was an “unbelievably small, limited” strike that would rap Mr Assad’s knuckles. He didn’t say—and no one bothered to ask—what after that? [See the previous post on why such claims are dubious.]

Mr Kerry’s boss had already passed the buck to the people’s representatives. His reluctance to use force is understandable, but he has to wrap his position in a label that would mean different things to different domestic constituencies. One thing he can’t say though is that what Western governments are concerned about is not upholding moral norms—for if it were so, then the chemical composition of Syrian ordinance wouldn’t have mattered. What they are really concerned about is upholding arbitrary norms of international guilt mitigation.

There’s a certain dishonesty to liberal internationalist claims of international humanitarian norms. The need to cover that dishonesty causes the rather shameful performances that we’re seeing in Washington.

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