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.

The Syrian question

Obama’s appetite for a fight

David Ignatius has a good article in the Washington Post arguing that US credibility is at stake in Syria, and the consequences of a tattered credibility will hurt US interests in the region and beyond. In articulating what the Obama administration should do, he reflects what many commentators in Washington are saying: carry out a military strike to punish the Bashar Assad regime and deter it from carrying out further atrocities.

The main rationale for military action by the United States and its allies should be restoring deterrence against the use of chemical weapons. The strike should be limited and focused, rather than a roundhouse swing aimed at ending the Syrian civil war. But it should be potent enough to degrade Assad’s command-and-control structure so he can’t conduct similar actions in the future. Officials hope the strike will make a diplomatic settlement more possible; they don’t want a decapitation of the regime that would leave no counter-party for negotiation.[WP]

This prescription should sound reasonable to Barack Obama, a man too liberal to ignore the atrocities in Syria but too prudent to launch into a muscular military interventions abroad. The problem, though, is that while Mr Obama’s stakes are limited to shoring up US credibility, Mr Assad is battling for survival. So there is a good chance that Mr Assad will not be deterred or punished at any level short of being overthrown. Should this happen, Mr Obama will have a choice between a dented credibility (should Mr Assad brazen it out) or a much bigger military operation, that could trigger other conflicts.

Also, if the international intervention is ‘limited and focused’, the risk to civilian lives does not disappear. If the Assad regime continues, we can expect more bloodbath. If the Assad regime collapses, we can expect more bloodbath. It is not as if Mr Assad’s adversaries are liberal democrats who will spare the lives of members of the Assad regime or the sectarian/ethnic communities that are aligned to it.

There is enough happening in Syria for the United Nations to invoke the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm. It is quite unlikely that the dynamics of the UN Security Council will allow it. Even if there is an international intervention now, the expectation that it will be limited, focused, inexpensive or quick is likely to be unfounded. Protecting lives in Syria requires the United States to have the appetite for a big fight, and the tenacity to embroil itself into a longish peace-enforcing mission. If this is not forthcoming, it may perhaps be better to let events take their course and deal with the consequences.

From India’s perspective, any steps that heighten the risk of a conflict that raises oil prices and might cause supply disruptions will be undesirable. The domestic economic situation—and the current account deficit—looms larger on the minds of India’s political leaders than events in Syria. Expect Indian diplomacy to reflect this concern.

Book chapter: On humanitarian intervention & democracy promotion

India’s middle path

shapingtheemergingworld2x3_2x3I have contributed one chapter in “Shaping the Emerging World – India and the Multilateral Order“, a book edited by WPS Sidhu, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Bruce Jones, and published by Brookings. According to the promotional material, it is, for “…anyone interested in the future of India’s burgeoning economy, twenty-two scholars have developed one of the most comprehensive volumes to date on India…” The list of authors has such stars as Shyam Saran, C Raja Mohan, Sanjaya Baru, Devesh Kapur, David Malone, Christophe Jaffrelot, Srinath Raghavan and Kanti Bajpai.

I’m sure the editors must have had something in mind when they tapped me to write a chapter on India and international norms: Responsibility to Protect (R2P), genocide prevention, human rights and democracy, as they must surely have been aware of my scepticism towards such norms and value promotion agendas. I wrote the chapter at an interesting time, when India had been on the UN Security Council and a number of countries in North Africa and the Middle East went into a wave of political transformation. Given that I was a critic of some of India’s positions at the UNSC during that period, the result is a chapter that is almost entirely devoid of romance. (That’s a good thing, in case you were thinking otherwise).

Here are a couple of excerpts from my chapter:

INTRODUCTION
The doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations declared in speech in October 2012, “is the most important challenge that the international community, anchored in the United Nations, is going to face.”1 Arguing that the initial suspicion of many developing countries towards the newest norm in international relations was misplaced, he supported the need for a “collective response by the international community to ensure that mass atrocities like genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity do not take place.” Explaining why India had abstained in a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution authorising military intervention in the Libyan civil war of 2011, he judged the implementation of the doctrine “gives R2P a bad name.”

The Indian diplomat’s arguments are a good example of India’s attitude towards international norms infringing on state sovereignty in furtherance of human security, human rights or liberal democratic goals. This chapter argues that India takes a middle path, supporting the evolution of human rights and democratic norms, but exercising caution in the manner of their implementation. It delves into the foundations of India’s policy approach towards two sets of norms: those concerning human security and those pertaining to liberal democracy. It interrogates these norms as they have evolved and examines them from an Indian perspective. It concludes by exploring how Indian foreign policy in the context of these norms might change as it emerges into a more powerful player in international politics.

THE MIDDLE PATH
Constitutional values, a democratic political culture and a diverse, plural society make India generally supportive of defending the world’s people from oppression, promoting human rights and democracy. New Delhi’s foreign policy orientation is at the very least consistent with a rules-based international order and is underpinned by liberal democratic values. The Indian republic’s subscription of liberal international norms, however, has been tempered both by competing norms and by reservations on the nature of international interventions. The result is a foreign policy that treads a middle path.

CONCLUSION
Even as Indian foreign policy made the transition from Nehru’s utopianism to the pragmatic realism of the post-Cold War governments, it never abandoned commitment to values. Normatively, New Delhi strikes a middle path. India is committed to genocide prevention, R2P, human rights and liberal democracy in principle, but has serious reservations regarding their practical implementation. The commitment is born out of its own national values. The reservations are borne out by its experience too.

India has been supporting multilateral efforts – or has acted unilaterally, on occasion – in response to international emergencies. It has been less enthusiastic in enterprises promoting liberal democratic norms, for it is a state primarily concerned with maintaining its own national unity, social transformation and economic development.

To what extent will India deviate from the middle path if it comes a bigger power in the international system? This chapter contends that the answer depends on whether the UN reforms itself to better reflect contemporary global balance of power, on the nature of India’s geopolitical footprint and on the extent of internationalism in Indian civil society. Broad trends indicate that it is likely that the Indian nation will become increasingly global-minded and internationalist, even if at a pace that is sometimes frustrating and other other times exhilarating. So the chances of the Indian republic becoming a rule-taker in the international system will improve to the extent that it is better accommodating into the rule-making circles of a reformed UN. A richer, more powerful India may yet be a stronger defender of human security around the world, if not simultaneously a champion of liberal democracy. [Shaping the Emerging World]