Obama’s ‘Power-ful’ advisor on the qualities of leaders

Yesterday I went to a talk that key Barack Obama foreign-affairs advisor Samantha Power gave at the New America Foundation on her new book, Chasing the Flame, a biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello. De Mello was the charismatic Brazilian UN official who was the first head of the UN mission in post-invasion Iraq (UNAMI), and was one of the 18 or so UN staff members killed in the August 2003 bombing of their headquarters there.
But given Power’s high-level role with the Obama campaign, many of the people at yesterday’s event had doubtless gone with an eye to learning something about that, too. (Though I should note that Sam Power is also an intriguing, very smart and charismatic person in her own right.)
The Obama angle suffused much of the event. In the Q&A period, some of the questions were explicitly about him, his foreign policy, and her own foreign-policy views. Even when she was talking about De Mello, it was sometimes hard to say whether she was talking only about De Mello but also about that other charismatic guy, the one she works for now. (She also worked for him as an advisor when he first entered the U.S. Senate.)
So here is how she described five key learnings that she judged De Mello had acquired during the course of his 34-year career as a UN diplomat:

    1. At the beginning, he had entered with some very firm judgments and prohibitions. But then he evolved, and thought you had to find a way to deal with people. But he evolved too much. He became too obsequious to people like Milosevic and Karadzic…. He spent considerable time looking for special gifts to take them… He became too accommodating to state power in general. So then, between 1994 in Bosnia and 1999 in Kosovo, he learned he had gone too far in being friendly with them. And after that, he sought a balance between being in the room with such people, but also being very careful about being clear about his own positions while he was with them.
    2. He learned the great importance of human dignity as an organizing principle for what makes people tick. He described it as the axle at the center of the wheel of all other human rights. In East Timor, when he was the UN Viceroy there, he was quite clear that what the Timorese people really wanted was to govern themselves, not have him there.
    3. He had great a real humility, especially about how much he really did not know. But then, how do you deal with that and still engage? So what he had was a real commitment to empiricism, to constantly checking to see if what he was doing was actually working.
    4. He would stress the importance of living a life that is not paralyzed or distorted by fear… He would often say, ‘Fear makes a bad advisor.’
    5. He had a really strong commitment to the idea of service. He didn’t want to go to Iraq. but he saw the commitment to serving the institution of the UN as an instinctive one.

Later, she was asked how she would describe the essential qualities of a good political leader, in general. She replied with this list:

    1. This should be someone committed to checking the effects of his or her own actions, someone committed to empiricism.
    2. It should be someone unafraid of thinking outside the box.
    3. It should be someone who is well centered and has a strong sense of his or her own self. (She drew a distinct contrast there with Bill Clinton in 1992 who, she said, had certainly seemed like someone who craved and needed an lot of attention from others.)

At one point, asked about the current nomination contest, she said, “Well, the good thing about going up against the Clintons is that you do get some good practice!”
She made some intriguing comments about the situation in Darfur and the debate that raged in much of the human-rights community in recent years over how important it was to get President Bush and other political leaders to publicly define the Sudanese government’s actions there as a genocide. (Power’s most famous earlier book– for which she got a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize– was a study of US policies toward all the well-known genocides of the 20th century.)
She noted that back in 2003-04, when that debate was at its height, she had argued that getting Bush to actually name it as a genocide was not really worth very much, and might even be counter-productive. She characterized her argument at that time in these terms: “If Bush says that Darfur is a genocide, then everyone else in the world would oppose that and spend a lot of time parsing what he said. And then, what happened after Bush did say it,was that the UN set up a commission that worked for six months on investigating whether it was or wasn’t a genocide. So the whole step of naming it became not a catalyst for action but a substitute for the kinds of action that were needed, which were to pay a lot more attention to intervening, providing airlift and training for the AU forces, and so on. Also, it is kind of hard to be for waterboarding on a Monday and then against genocide on the Tuesday…
That was a great line.
Anyway, I bought the book on De Mello, and have been reading it with interest.
(Gotta get back to my own book. We have page-proofs. The publication date is May 15. Did I tell you that already?)

Open thread on Castro’s resignation

I’m terrifically busy with page-proofs of my book and many other things. But surely we should all discuss the news from Havana.
Ther NYT seems to have good coverage, here. That news page has links to a number of related items including the text of Fidel’s announcement, here.
Some of the best material on the US reaction to Fidel’s resignation can be found on Steve Clemon’s blog, The Washington Note. Look in particular at this comment he put up this afternoon:

    There is always a sense of leverage that the US thinks it has — but that leverage is now mostly fictional — as Cuba has found other thoroughfares for growth.
    We need to stop thinking that we have “leverage.” The whole point of Anya Landau French’s article is that US policy failed and that the embargo has failed — so let’s drop the fiction about the US having leverage in the embargo.
    The only leverage America has on lifting or maintaining the embargo is with an aging, Castro-obsessed, reactionary population in Miami that thankfully is being taken over by a more rational contingent of Cuban-Americans who have either rethought their views or who just don’t carry the same views as their elders in their younger portfolios of experience.

We could note the many similarities between the US’s decades-long campaign to starve the Cubans into submission and Israel’s younger campaign against the people of Gaza. One big difference being that Cuba has at least been able to maintain normal economic relations with all the other states of the world, while Israel has until now steadfastly sought to maintain its own occupation-derived chokehold on all of Gaza’s external links.

Mughniyeh, assassinations, and their “normalization”

We should be clear about the moral quality of the blood-drenched career of Imad Mughniyeh, the high-level Hizbullah security operative who was assassinated in Damascus on February 12, apparently by Israel. Mughniyeh has been credibly accused of having master-minded a number of acts that have to count as significant atrocities: the bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut, and then of its annex, in 1983; the bombings of a Jewish community center and an Israeli consular center in Buenes Aires in 1992-94; the kidnappings of western civilians in Beirut, and perhaps the killing of Malcolm Kerr, the president of AUB. (I am not counting here actions taken against military personnel who have after all placed themselves in a position where they have a “right” to kill under certain circumstances and also knowingly accept the risk that they might be killed.)
What should one seek to do with or about a person like Imad Mughniyeh?
My main answer when considering the question of what to do with the perpetrators of atrocities– and let’s face it, gratuitously launching a war of invasion against a foreign country is also an atrocity; and was certainly recognized as such in the operations of the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals– is that we, human society in general, clearly need to be protected against the future depredations of such people. We need to be able to credibly and verifiably incapacitate their ability to re-offend.
But, and this is a large “but”, there are many different ways of achieving this. Containing such people, cutting off their access to the networks on which they depend for their depradations, and possibly even reintegrating them into society are all ways that the incapacitation goal can be reached. I have written a lot in this regard about, for example, the case of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Ugandan movement the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), who is credibly accused of masterminding and committing atrocities that were of an (anti-)esthetic order of repugnance far beyond anything Mughniyeh has been accused of doing, and that probably also ended and blighted the lives of many more noncombatants than Mughniyeh ever did.
Mughniyeh was far from the “worst” perpetrator of atrocities in the world, but he gained particular notoriety and attention in the west because so many of his victims were westerners.
Anyway, with regard to Kony, the majority of the Acholi people who provided the greatest number of his victims, though by no means all of them, have argued strongly for an approach to his incapacitation that is centered on his his reintegration into settled society. (That has put them at odds with the Hague-based International Criminal Court, which seeks to arrest and try Kony. But the Acholi and many or most other Ugandans don’t want to do that, since it might drive Kony’s supporters into further acts of retaliatory violence. Thus, the ICC’s indictment has been stuck– and because of it, so has the process of making peace and normalizing people’s livelihoods in broad swathes of Northern Uganda… )
My main point: If you want to incapacitate a perpetrator of heinous acts, there is certainly more than one way to do it. At this point, we can identify three:

    (1) assassination;
    (2) arrest him and put him on trial; and
    (3) reintegration, which can be thought of in a broadly political as well as personal way.

Successive governments of Israel and the US have both, for many years now, been very permissive toward the idea of assassination. Assassination is frequently also called “extra-judicial execution” (EJE); it is good to focus on that adjective “extra-judicial.” Yes, it does mean that such killings are undertaken outside of any process that has any standing at all in international law. International law makes some provision for “hot pursuit” of opponents in a war-time setting. But the EJE’s that Israel and the US have pursued for some years now fall far short of the criteria for those kinds of killings.
Despite the clearly extra-judicial character of assassinations, President Bush and officials in his administration have gone further than any other western leader in using the discourse of “justice” to refer to them. Right after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush (in)famously said, “Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.” That second alternative there is particularly sneaky and bullying/aggressive, and is a direct abuse of the whole concept of justice.
In the aftermath of the Mughniyeh assassination, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, “One way or the other, he was brought to justice.”
The Israelis have used a policy of assassinations, in a relatively limited way, since as far back as the 1970s, when they killed a number of civilian, intellectual leaders in the PLO in retaliation for Black September’s killings of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Even at that time, they went through one renowned episode, in Norway in 1974, when they killed a Moroccan waiter after having mistakenly “identified” him as my one-time neighbor in Beirut, Ali Abu Hassan Salameh. They did kill Abu Hassan himself, along with some passersby, when they targeted him with a car-bomb in the street leading to my home, in 1979.
Later, within the Palestinian community they assassinated Yahya Ayyash and Fathi Shikaki in the mid-1990s. And prior to that, in Lebanon, they had killed Hizbullah leaders Ragheb Harb and Abbas Musawi. (See Uri Avnery’s devastating critique of the counter-productive nature of all those killings, here.)
In 1997, the Mossad tried to kill Khaled Meshaal with a chemical agent, in Jordan. But that was a devastating fiasco for the Netanyahu government, which ended up having to supply the antidote to the Jordanians and also to free Hamas’s spiritual mentor Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and tens of Hamas and other prisoners in order to win the safe return of the two Mossad (= Keystone Cops) operatives involved.
The US took up the policy of assassinations in a big way after 9/11. (Much earlier, of course, there had been numerous CIA and CIA-assisted assassination operations during the Cold War, including against Lumumba, Fidel Castro, and others.)
But the new policy that the Bush administration pursued after 9/11– “we’ll ‘bring justice to’ our enemies”– gave the Israelis very broad new permission to step up their use of ssassinations. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights records that between the start of the Second Intifada on 29 September, 2000 and 23 January, 2008 Israeli assassination operations had succeeded in “liquidating” a staggering total of 475 “targeted persons” along with 227 non-targeted civilians.
Among those snuffed out in this way were Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Abdul-Aziz Rantisi, Saleh Shehadeh, and many others from Hamas’s leadership in Gaza. When Shehadeh was killed– with a heavy bomb dropped from the air– nearly two dozen members of his family, including many children, were also killed. On one occasion when they tried to kill Mahmoud Zahhar, he escaped but one of his sons was killed.
After the most recent killing of Mughniyeh, many westerners rejoiced. They seemed oblivious to two key aspects of the situation:

    (1) If past experience is anything to go by, this killing will only further stoke, rather than dampen, the determination of Hizbullah and its allies to confront western plans in the Middle East; and
    (2) To cheer at any act of extra-judicial execution is to undermine the whole idea of the rule of law.

The figures on the ease with which today’s Israel has recourse to EJE’s should give everyone pause. There is absolutely no way they can claim that the “process” through which these targets are chosen is defensible. Extra-judicial executions are just that: extra-judicial; outside the purview of law and of civilization. An incident like the Mughniyeh killing does not change that.
Such incidents also, by the way, help ensure that the cycle of violence keeps on turning…

Recklessness over Kosovo

Didn’t the “western” nations learn anything from the years of bloody slaughter that followed Germany’s reckless decision to recognize the independence from Federal Yugoslavia that Slovenia and Croatia declared in June 1991? Now, 16 years later, the US and many — but notably not all— the EU countries look set to recognize the unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) that Kosovo made, from Serbia today.
The boundaries between the world’s 200 or so independent states that emerged after the end of World War II were, certainly, highly imperfect in terms of following clear lines of demarcation between one national group and another. (This was particularly the case in Africa, where these boundaries were drawn up much more for the convenience of the various colonial powers than because of any rationality in terms of the social and identity groupings of the various potential citizens involved.) These boundaries were also highly unfair, allotting independent states to several tiny “nations” and none at all to many nations that were much, much bigger.
There were several different kinds of evolution in the nation-state system in the decades that followed 1945– usually, in the context of the withering of the European-based colonial empires. But basically, the post-1945 world order has remained the foundation of the world’s international order until today.
The Western-supported breakup of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia that occurred in 1991-92 was a serious, new kind of change in the system. And look what ensued from that. And now, we have the western-supported breakup of the Republic of Serbia itself. No wonder numerous states around the world that have substantial and relatively compact groups of ethnic minorities among their citizenries are concerned about this precedent. These states include western states like Spain as well as Russia and several of its allies.
Back in 1999, I was one of the few voices in the western human rights movement who argued clearly against the US-UK plan to bomb Serbia, supposedly as a way to “prevent” Serbia’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. Remember: Prior to the beginning of the March bombing, Belgrade was doing only low levels of ethnic cleansing. But once the western nations had decided to bomb, they pulled out the OSCE monitoring mechanism that had been reducing the level of the Serb (and Kosovar) violence over preceding months. At that point all bets were off. That was when Serbia’s ethnic cleansing campaign got underway on a massive scale.
OSCE’s (unarmed) monitoring mission had been working. The bombing was gratuitous and extremely damaging. The suffering that occurred during the mass uprooting of Kosovars was horrendous. All that violence then then set in train further waves of violence and counter-violence within Kosovo. The Kosovars, who had previously had a very broad nonviolent national movement turned overwhelmingly to violence, with NATO’s support. NATO marched into Kosovo to run it as a western protectorate, but without solving the deep problems of its internal politics, inter-group relations, or governance. NATO did win a veneer of support from the Security Council for its role there– sort of like the ex-post-facto political cover the SC gave the US presence in Iraq in late 2003.
I think the Security Council is discussing Kosovo as I write this. Not surprisingly. The Russians are understandably upset about the abruptness with which the western countries terminated the negotiations and threw their weight behind the Kosovars’ UDI instead.
This Reuters piece gives some essential background about the EU’s new role in Kosovo. But it starts off with this piece of completely unwarranted optimism:

    Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on Sunday, ending a long chapter in the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia.

Well, maybe one bloody chapter has ended. But the chapters that follow it certainly don’t look set to be peaceful– either in Kosovo/Serbia or in the many other places around the world where over-eager national minorities may now judge that their turn for violent uprising is next. (Kurdistan, anyone?)
It’s important to remember that there are many ways in which the cultural, economic, and political claims of ethnic minorities can be assured within the boundaries of a multi-ethnic state, and that these assurances can be won, and given strong political backing, within the context of serious inter-group negotiations that are backed where necessary by the international community. So many different countries around the world can provide examples of this! Think of India, or South Africa, or many, many others… A mono-ethnic state is a very Germanic ideal.
If Kosovo had emerged as an identifiable political/cultural entity in the same peaceful and successful way that, for example, Catalunya has within democratic Spain, then I’d feel far happier about sharing the joy that so many Kosovars seem to be feeling today. But for that to happen, the west Europeans would have needed to make a commitment to bringing a democratizing Serbia into the EU of the same order as the commitment they made to the still-democratizing Spain in the early 1980s. It is tragic for everyone concerned that this has not happened.

Transcript of Jan. 16th interview with Khaled Meshaal

I have now uploaded the full transcript of the one-hour interview I conducted with the head of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, in Damascus last month.
I shan’t add any additional commentary here. I have already provided some commentary and context to the interview in various posts here on JWN, and in this recent CSM column. And now, I’m going to be writing a much more comprehensive essay about Hamas’s still-evolving role for Boston Review, where it will run in the May issue.
I’ll just note– though of course our readers here are all so smart that you’ll have figured this out already– that the interview was conducted exactly one week before the bustout from Gaza.
Meanwhile, there is no word from either Gaza or Egypt on the results of the most recent negotiations in El-Arish over an arrangement for the Gaza-Egypt border.

Military occupations, sewage, and governance

So now, after just under five years of rule by US military occupation, the historic city of Baghdad is drowning in lakes of human excreta. (Hat-tip Juan.) That item from AFP a couple of weeks ago reports that,

    One of three sewage treatment plants is out of commission, one is working at stuttering capacity while a pipe blockage in the third means sewage is forming a foul lake so large it can be seen “as a big black spot on Google Earth,” said Tahseen Sheikhly, civilian spokesman for the Baghdad security plan.

Welcome to Gaza.
Gaza has been under Israeli military occupation for just over 40 years, and has been slowly drowning in its own gathering lakes of sewage for several years now.
Maintaining working safe water systems, and therefore also functioning sewage-disposal systems, is a fundamental function of government. It is especially important in areas that, like Gaza or Baghdad, are both heavily populated and flat, and that therefore have no natural run-off system. (And even where areas are mountainous and do have good run-off systems, the people “below” need to be protected from the run-off from the people “above”, as the residents of numerous Palestinian villages in the West Bank that lie beneath Israel’s hill-top settlements can amply testify.)
Different things are going on in Iraq and in Gaza. In Iraq the Bushists are guided– as in all their actions, domestic and overseas– by a profound antagonism toward the role of government as such in providing good governance. Hence all their quite irresponsible outsourcing of so many central functions of government to politically well-connected private contractors operating for profit. Now I’m sure that in Baghdad, the US administration and its local allies/proxies have signed numerous contracts over the past five years, under which contractors were charged with fixing the city’s water and sewage systems. But with the Bushists’ broad and wilfull disregard of governance issues, those contractors’ performance was never adequately monitored, and no-one ever stepped in to say, “Okay, you contractors haven’t performed, so we’ll send in the Army Corps of Engineers to get this vital job done.”
As a corollary, we should note that people who run military occupation regimes have wide leeway to exercise a wilfull disregard for the wellbeing of the residents of the occupied territories since they are in no way politically accountable to them. Hence the need for the provisions of international humanitarian law that specifically codify the responsibility that occupying powers have for the wellbeing of these residents.
In Iraq, the question of “responsibility” for water treatment and other basic functions of governance was certainly considerably muddied by the whole elaborate political play by which a supposed “sovereignty” was handed over to Iraqi political figures, though in many significant regards their ability to exercise true sovereignty remains highly circumscribed.
In Gaza, what has been happening on the sewage issue has been a certain amount of wilfull disregard of the Gazans’ strong interest in this aspect of their basic physical wellbeing by the Israeli occupation authorities. But in addition, Israel’s government has also been intentionally starving Gaza of the electric power and other inputs required even to mitigate the most threatening aspects of the sewage crisis.
Read, for example, this horrendous first-person account, published by Reuters Alertnet, of how the sewage crisis has been affecting the wellbeing of Gazans since at least last summer.
The writer, Manal, says this:

    It’s hard to imagine that someone could be excited about a water pumping station. But if you knew that this pumping station, if functioning, would serve as a barrier between your community and raw sewage then perhaps you would change your mind.
    Six months ago this water pumping station opened right next to my home. It’s part of a system that serves 60 percent of the population in Gaza. We were pleased to hear this news as we had no other option before but to dump our untreated sewage in wells. As you can imagine, this posed an immense health hazard to all members of the community.
    So when the news came that our sewage would be treated and we would no longer have to dump our own waste near to our homes, we breathed a sigh of relief.
    The new station receives 30,000-40,000 cubic metres of waste water every day, and it should pump 120 cubic meters an hour through each of six water pumps. But this is Gaza. From the beginning, the station had only three pumps installed instead of the six planned. The closure of Gaza borders since June 2007 by the Israeli government has meant that the essential parts needed to build the remaining three could not come through.
    Electricity cuts have been affecting the efficiency of the station.
    The emergency generator is not functioning well either as it needs maintenance but spare parts are lacking. The limited amount of fuel that is let into Gaza is not enough to run the generator for long hours.
    … This station was supposed to be a blessing for the neighborhood. It turned out to be a curse, a health hazard for us all. And we are now facing a public health crisis.
    Sewage water is filling the streets of the neighborhood surrounding the station, and flooding the nearby houses – the stench is unbearable.
    Tenants in ground floor flats were forced to leave and move to live with neighbors in the higher floors. People have been reduced to using sand to absorb the sewage water in their houses.
    The number of children who have been taken ill has increased considerably. Cases of diarrhea are mounting by the day. Even now children continue to play outside amongst the raw sewage – where else can they go?
    What disgusts me is that this could all be prevented if the Israelis had just allowed the opening of one checkpoint to let the spare parts and fuel through.
    Children started their new term this week even though there is sewage water in the neighborhood schools. As with all the problems brought about by the blockade, we have to continue our daily lives, otherwise we will have nothing left.
    … I ask myself and I ask the international community – how can children get a good education in this environment? How can they look to a better future?

Read, too, the comments that the UN’s new Under-SG for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, made yesterday after he completed his first visit to Gaza:

    “I have been shocked by the grim and miserable things that I have seen and heard today, which are the result of current restrictions and the limitations on the number of goods that are being allowed into Gaza,’ said Mr. Holmes during a day-long visit to the Gaza Strip. ‘Around 80 percent of the population is dependant on food aid from international organizations. Poverty and unemployment are increasing and the private sector has more or less collapsed. Only ten percent of the amount of goods that entered Gaza a year ago are being permitted to enter now,” he said.

The complete chokehold that Israel has exercised over every physical interaction between Gaza and the outside world needs to be ended– NOW.
And in Iraq, the six million residents of Baghdad also need to be saved from the stinking, health-threatening effects of military occupation. Governance in Iraq needs to be handed back to a genuinely sovereign Iraqi government that is accountable to its own people, not to any outside power.
Military occupation rule: it is always, potentially, a threat to the wellbeing and even survival of people and the communities they live in. It was never envisaged in international law as being a longlasting means of governance, but only a short-term stop-gap arrangement pending conclusion of a final peace agreement. These two occupations need to end.

Video of Froman and Amayreh discussing Accord

Haaretz today carries a short video showing Rabbi Menachem Froman and close-to-Hamas Palestinian journalist Khaled Amayreh meeting in the garden of the Cave of the Patriarchs /Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron to sign the ceasefire-plus Accord that, as I had noted here, they recently finished negotiating.
It is a delightful short clip and shows the two men dealing in friendly and cooperative fashion with each other. It was shot, according to the voiceover “last Tuesday”. On the clip, they sit at a picnic table near the Mosque/Cave with the Koran and the Torah on the table in front of them, and sign their Accord.
Amayreh says he spoke with the Hamas caretaker government in Gaza Monday night “and they gave me their total agreement for this document.” He says that Hamas head Khaled Meshaal himself “accepts the document completely.” He adds that the obstacle is the Israeli government, and in particular Defense Minister Ehud Barak. “I am ready to meet with Barak to discuss this with him,” says Amayreh.
Froman says that the documents promises the end to all Palestinian violence including rockets and kidnappings. Amayreh says he cares about the people of Sderot, and he feels the pain of the Israeli boy there who lost his leg to a Palestinian rocket attack earlier this week. “All kids are kids, whether Israeli or Palestinian,” he says.
Watch the video. Spread the word about this important initiative. This is some great news out of the Holy Land; and the ceasefire-plus Accord negotiated by these two very serious men deserves the world’s strongest support.

Why Kosovo’s independence bid is (Not) unique

CS Monitor today includes an interesting story about pending recognition of Kosovo’s independence. The article is built around the theme that Kosovo’s bid is somehow unique, that Kosovo has emerged without the imprimatur of the United Nations Security Council.
News flash to the Monitor: the UN Security Council is hardly the sole arbiter of international legitimacy in the world today. International “law” is not equivalent to Security Council “votes.”
Kosovo’s appearance as a new state owes to a long struggle for recognition from as much of the world as it could obtain. Yet Kosovo lies at a fault-line of great power tensions. Russia, not surprisingly, vehemently opposes the further partition of the former Yugoslavia, along with other (but not all) Slavic populated states. With Russia holding a veto at the UN Security Council, it’s of course not surprising that the Security Council could not bestow its institutional approbation on Kosovo.
To legalists who narrowly view the UNSC as the sole “guarantor of legality among nations,” Kosovo’s emergence will be “illegal.” Russia condemnation of Kosovo’s “independence” as “illegal” is something other than “candid,” when it alone is the reason for the technical basis of that claim.
To be sure, the UN Security Council, when it can agree, remains an important indicator of international norms and rules. But when consensus fails, the battle for international legitimacy goes on at other levels.
Kosovo’s case for international recognition outside the UNSC was won in the broader battles for international opinion, what Thomas Jefferson, when reflecting in 1825 upon America’s own revolutionary struggle, referred to as “the tribunal of the world.” Serbia’s claims to retain “sovereignty” over Kosovo were weakened by its own flagrant lack of a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” It now reaps the fruits of that disregard for the opinions of a “candid world.” Huffing about “international law” won’t change that.

Discussing Hamas on Capitol Hill

At yesterday’s Capitol Hill panel discussion on “Re-calculating Annapolis” I tried to present the best arguments I could for the US to end its profoundly anti-democratic current practice of working with Israel and others to exclude and crush the organization that won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, Hamas.
The US, I concluded, should do whatever it can to promote these short- and medium-term goals:

    1. A prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas;
    2. A working ceasefire between Israel and Hamas;
    3. Gaza’s economic disengagement from Israel and its connection to the world economy either through Egypt or directly; and
    4. A reconciliation between Fateh and Hamas.

Attentive readers of JWN will be familiar with most of the arguments I made along the way, which I have made here on the blog and in this November 2007 article in The Nation. I also noted that the dedication with which the Bushists have pursued their anti-Hamas agenda since the 2006 elections has very seriously undermined the claims the administration has made that it is somehow (counter to the evidence on the ground) committed to spreading the ideals and practice of democracy around the world, and has made the administration look very hypocritical and opportunistic indeed.
I may or may not have noted in my presentation that the campaign to exclude and crush Hamas– which has included giving full support to all of Israel’s policies of besieging Gaza and undertaking large numbers of extra-judicial executions there and in the West Bank– has actually had the opposite of the desired effect. Hamas has thus far emerged stronger politically than it was back in January 2006. (And meanwhile, the cost that these policies have imposed on the Palestinian people, and also to the Israelis who reside in the south of their country, has been high. In the case of the 1.4 million Gazans, quite horrendous.)
I should have quoted Uri Avnery’s great recent quote that the Olmert government’s actions against Gaza have been “worse than a war crime, they have been a blunder.” But I didn’t have time to. At the very last minute my position on the event’s roster was changed from #5 to #2, so I had to do some very rapid last-minute editing/revising of my comments.
We spoke in this order:

    1. Andrew Whitley, who runs UNRWA’s representative office in New York;
    2. me;
    3. Ghaith al-Omari, Advocacy Director for the American Task Force on Palestine, and a former foreign policy advisor to PA President Mahmoud Abbas;
    4. Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group;
    5. Daniel Levy of the Century Fund and the New America Foundation.

Two of the other panelists, Malley and Levy, presented broadly the same arguments I was making. Whitley is precluded by the nature of his job as a UN employee from expressing political judgments; but the picture he painted of a besieged Gaza facing “a social explosion and an economic implosion”, and being poised “on the verge of a health pandemic”, was grim indeed.
As for our fifth fellow-panelist, Ghaith al-Omari, he was advocating a path very different from that urged by the rest of us. He spoke right after me, and almost his first words were that, “Elections are highly over-rated.” He argued that trying to deal with Hamas, “is neither doable nor desirable.” He acknowledged that Hamas, “represents a real force in Palestinian society and needs to be taken into account.” But, he said, the question was “On what terms should Mahmoud Abbas be expected to reconcile with it?” His answer was that Hamas needed to be further weakened before Abbas could deal with it.
That seemed to me like a clear invitation to the forces currently seeking to punish and crush Hamas to step up their efforts. And this from someone who, though he is not a Palestinian, works for an organization that claims to speak in some way for the Palestinians…
In Rob Malley’s presentation, which came next, he directly challenged the assumption underlying that last argument of Omari’s. “Hamas is getting stronger and Abbas is getting weaker,” Malley warned. “We should not assume that time is our friend.” He also warned that the very difficult situation in Gaza could well be “the crucible of the next Arab-Israeli war.”
He noted that the attempt to isolate Hamas had been aimed at pushing forward the “peace process.” But he noted that had not happened. (A little later, Levy argued that the Annapolis formula “was the best that Condi Rice could win support for from the White House; but it wasn’t actually a recipe for success.”)
The major point at which Malley seemed to diverge from my views is he said he thought Mahmoud Abbas should mediate both the ceasefire asnd the prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas. Personally I think that’s a recipe for disaster because (a) Abbas is not even on speaking terms with Hamas at this point; (b) There is anyway an existing mediator between Israel and Hamas on these two issues, and that is Egypt; so neither side “needs” Abbas to mediate for them (they could also communicate directly with each other if they wanted; this has happened in some limited ways in the past); (c) from a national-interest point of view, it actually seems very inappropriate for Abbas to “mediate” between Israel and Hamas; and finally (d), the biggest point of all: Abbas is actually increasingly weak and irrelevant.
Levy made a couple of excellent observations. Firstly, that “We now have no fewer than three U.S. generals in the region working on this issue– and none of them is doing anything that would count as de-escalation of the tensions.” Secondly, that what he had been learning from his Israeli compatriots was that Hamas had discernibly been trying to target military installations with its rockets, while it was Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees who had been sending rockets simply into the (populated) general vicinity of the city of Sderot. “Though Hamas,” he added, “has not intervened to stop them from doing that.”
I was encouraged to hear that Levy’s Israeli sources saw clear evidence of an attempt by the Hamas rocketeers to restrict their targeting to military installations. But that guidance certainly needs to be extended to their people undertaking other kinds of violent operations, too. (Hamas credibly claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing that on February 3 killed an elderly woman in Dimona; the two operatives involved reached Israel from the Hebron area, not from Gaza or Egypt.)
It was significant that though the title of our discussion was “Re-calculating Annapolis”, no-one spent much time looking at the actual (and very sad) record of what has been going on in the post-Annapolic negotiations. I made a point, in my presentation, of noting the political impact of the fact that the Syrians— after having taken the bold step of attending Annapolis– had received nothing but a very cold shoulder from the Bushites in return.
But really, none of us spent any time discussing the minutiae of the current formal “peace process.” Partly because so very, very little has been, in fact, going on. And partly because the whole confrontation over– and the recent bustout from– Gaza has completely eclipsed in importance whatever teeny baby steps forward (or backward) the “peace process” negotiations might have taken.
Talking of which, I found it intriguing to note that Salam Fayyad, the man whom Abbas picked as his Prime Minister after the Israelis had conveniently imprisoned a large number of the Hamas parliamentarians, has not been completely acting the role of compliant US/Israeli puppet. Fayyad’s been here in the US, partly doing family things. But he also gave a couple of policy addresses here in Washington, DC. And in one of them he complained openly that the checkpoints that the IOF maintains inside the West Bank– which were supposed to have decreased in number after Annapolis– “have increased, not decreased.”
Oh, and in further related news, on Tuesday Israel’s housing minister, Zeev Boim, announced plans to build more than 1,100 more new apartments in occupied East Jerusalem.
Under these circumstances, is it really any surprise that Abbas is so rapidly becoming weaker?

Bush trying to entangle NATO allies in Lebanese strife?

I was trying to think through why the Bush White House and its Lebanese allies have been acting in such a provocative, escalatory way in Lebanon in recent weeks. There is no way the pro-US forces in Lebanon could ever hope to “win” a civil war if the country should indeed be tipped over the brink into one.
Actually, the history of the past 33 years in the country should prove that no-one wins if there is a civil war there.
So why do the US and its Lebanese allies currently seem so risk-happy?
Then it struck me. There are 15,000 UN troops, most of them from NATO countries, currently deployed in the south of the country; and most of them aren’t doing very much there. (The peace is kept between Israel and Hizbullah much more by the deterrent power that they exert towards each other than by UNIFIL’s lightly armed peacekeepers, as I wrote here, a long time ago.) But if a civil war should suddenly threaten to engulf the whole of Lebanon, maybe the Bushists would seek to get UNIFIL’s mandate suddenly enlarged, so that its troops could intervene at short notice, and in support of the Lebanese side that the Bushists judge to be “legitimate”?
Obviously, I have no way of knowing if this is their plan. If it is, it would be a plan fraught with large numbers of dangers and uncertainties. For one thing, it’s by no means certain the UN Security Council– or indeed, most of the troop-contributing countries– would ever agree to such an enlargement of the UNIFIL mandate. But if entangling UNIFIL in a Lebanese civil war is not part of the Bushists’ plan, then what are they doing acting in such an escalatory and self-defeating way there?