Mahbubani on western hypocrisy, etc.

Longtime JWN readers will know that I’m quite a fan of Kishore Mahbubani, an extremely smart strategic thinker who was Singapore’s ambassador to the UN until a couple of years ago. Yesterday, he had a great piece of commentary in the Financial Times on “the meaning of the Georgian war.” (HT to Bernhard of MoA.)
Mahbubani writes:

    Sometimes small events can portend great changes. The Georgian fiasco may be one such event. It heralds the end of the post cold-war era. But it does not mark the return of any new cold war. It marks an even bigger return: the return of history.
    The post cold-war era began on a note of western triumphalism, symbolised by Francis Fukuyama’s book, The End of History. The title was audacious but it captured the western zeitgeist. History had ended with the triumph of western civilisation. The rest of the world had no choice but to capitulate to the advance of the west.
    In Georgia, Russia has loudly declared that it will no longer capitulate to the west. After two decades of humiliation Russia has decided to snap back. Before long, other forces will do the same. As a result of its overwhelming power, the west has intruded into the geopolitical spaces of other dormant countries. They are no longer dormant, especially in Asia.
    Indeed, most of the world is bemused by western moralising on Georgia. America would not tolerate Russia intruding into its geopolitical sphere in Latin America. Hence Latin Americans see American double standards clearly. So do all the Muslim commentaries that note that the US invaded Iraq illegally, too. Neither India nor China is moved to protest against Russia. It shows how isolated is the western view on Georgia: that the world should support the underdog, Georgia, against Russia. In reality, most support Russia against the bullying west. The gap between the western narrative and the rest of the world could not be greater.
    It is therefore critical for the west to learn the right lessons from Georgia. It needs to think strategically about the limited options it has…

The fourth paragraph there describes something that “westerners” crucially need to be able to understand. Westerners do not monopolize either humankind’s smarts, or its sensibilities, or its way(s) of looking at the world. Indeed they (we) are in a distinct minority, and badly need to understand that.
Especially given that one of our bedrock values in the world is that of the equality of all human persons…. Well, it still is, isn’t it?
Mahbubani has a lot more there, too. Including this:

    In the US, leading neo-conservative thinkers see China as their primary contradiction. Yet they also support Israel with a passion, without realising this stance is a geopolitical gift to China. It guarantees the US faces a hostile Islamic universe, distracting it from focusing on China. There is no doubt China was the bigger winner of 9/11. It has stabilised its neighbourhood, while the US has been distracted.
    Western thinkers must decide where the real long-term challenge is.* If it is the Islamic world, the US should stop intruding into Russia’s geopolitical space and work out a long-term engagement with China. If it is China, the US must win over Russia and the Islamic world and resolve the Israel-Palestine issue. This will enable Islamic governments to work more closely with the west in the battle against al-Qaeda.
    The biggest paradox facing the west is that it is at last possible to create a safer world order. The number of countries wanting to become “responsible stakeholders” has never been higher. Most, including China and India, want to work with the US and the west. But the absence of a long-term coherent western strategy towards the world and the inability to make geopolitical compromises are the biggest obstacles to a stable world order. Western leaders say the world is becoming a more dangerous place, yet few admit that their flawed thinking is bringing this about. Georgia illustrates the results of a lack of strategic thinking.

* I guess my only criticism of this analysis is over Mahbubani’s argument that “Western thinkers must decide where the real long-term challenge is,” with the choice presented being a strictly dyadic one between it being “the Islamic world” and it being China. Actually, I don’t think the choice is anywhere near as dyadic as this implies (and anyway, the policies that he prescribes for either choice are broadly similar.)
But here’s the deeper problem: he is still in the mindset at that point of arguing that the “west” needs to identify a main enemy– or as he says, a “real long-term challenge”– that is another state or bloc of states. But then, in the last paragraph he goes against that thinking– certainly, with respect to China– when he underlines that China, like India, wants to work with the US and west. And here’s an addendum to that: so do most governments in “the Islamic world”, and so, indeed do most Muslims… provided this cooperation with the US and the west is on a basis of mutual respect and fair cooperation.
Neither China nor the vast majority of members of “the Islamic world” want to overthrow any western governments and dominate their countries, which is what, for a period of time, the Soviet Union aspired to do.
So where is the real “long-term challenge” that the west faces? I believe it is the challenge, for Americans, of starting to see themselves (ourselves) as co-equal members of the world community rather than standard-bearers in some kind of existential, life-or-death contest with enemy states that requires us to bear the huge costs of maintaining our bloated military and using it to “keep order” right around the world: 360 degrees, 24/7.
And then, oh yes, there are plenty of other, very serious long-term challenges that we and the rest of the world community all face together. Challenges like dealing with:

  • climate change;
  • global inequality and the suffering of our brothers and sisters in the low-income world;
  • weapons proliferation;
  • the occurrence of conflict-driven atrocities;
  • the anti-humane violence perpetrated by Islamist extremists and others…

So please, while we’re facing serious challenges like those ones, let’s not, as “westerners,” go round the world looking for whole blocs of people and governments to make war on, as well.
Kishore Mahbubani was quite right there, in his last paragraph, when he wrote that few western leaders were prepared to admit that their own flawed thinking has been making the world a more dangerous place. But I think the greatest flaw in the thinking of most westerners has been this need to organize the world, and mobilize one’s own resources and activities, around the definition of a state or bloc of states as our enemies, to be faced down or toppled with our military power. It is that tendency that has made the world more dangerous for everyone– ourselves, along with many, many others. Now, we need to adopt the much more realistic stance of aligning ourselves at the side of the world’s other six billion people, facing the challenges that confront all of us, together.

And another thing about Finland

In this blog post last Thursday I wrote a bit about the prospects of a “Finland-like” outcome for Georgia– and several of us then had a pretty good quick discussion of the question on the comments board there.
I just want to expand on a reference I made there to the neutral-but-engaged status of Finland having positioned it to be the host of “important east-west gatherings like the 1974 Helsinki Conference.”
The Helsinki Conference gave rise to the very important Helsinki Treaty, which enshrined human rights as a topic of completely legitimate concern in east-west diplomacy in Europe and the whole of the then-Soviet Union. (Which thereby set the stage for the rise of the numerous nonviolent social movements that played such a transformative role in the politics of heartland Europe.)
The Helsinki Treaty also mandated the establishment of a continuing body for oversight and coordination, known as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE.)
Since its founding OSCE has frequently played a crucial role– midwifing the emergence of new democracies and mediating many of the conflicts that emerged during that process. Sadly it was not able to prevent the eruption of large-scale fighting in former Yugoslavia, but in many of the other, mainly ethnic, conflicts that emerged during the Soviet implosion, OSCE was there with technical help and principles-based mediation services, able to play a role in reducing tensions across the whole of the landmass covered by NATO, the Warsaw Pact, and the former Soviet Union.
Including during the Russia-Georgia tensions that arose in the early 1990s– after which OSCE ceasefire monitors continued to be deployed right up to and through the outbreak of the present crisis.. Which is why OSCE is poised right now to play a major role in implementing, and probably also helping to negotiate, the longer term settlement that’s required between Russia and Georgia, once the existing ceasefire is being adequately observed.
That longer term settlement may (or may not) include provisions for demilitarization and foreign-affairs neutrality in Georgia that put it into something very like the situation vis-a-vis Russia that in the post-WW2 decades Finland was in with regard to the old Soviet Union. We’re already hearing dire warnings among warmongers in the west against the dangers of “Finlandization.”
But as I tried to argue Thursday, Finlandization really is not the worst option, at all, for Georgia’s people. It ended up working out fairly well for most Finns, in a world that is certainly far short of an ideal one.
And it worked out pretty well for the rest of the world, too.
Watch for the role that OSCE will be playing in the weeks ahead.

Where in the world is… Ban Ki-Moon?

The Georgian-Russian war is the most significant watershed in world politics since George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003. As I noted last Sunday, it signals clearly for all the world to see that (1) The global power-projection capabilities of the highly over-militarized ‘west’ are currently stretched ways beyond what can be sustained, and (2) Russia, which was largely absent as a significant actor on the world stage since 1991 (or before), is now most certainly ‘back’ in the role of a substantial big power.
At such a watershed point, we should be more relieved than ever that over the past 63 years the world’s governments have created and sustained an entire network of globe-circling institutions, led by the United Nations, that are primed and ready to help ease all the tensions that a shift like the present one represents– and to do so in a sustainable, rights-strengthening way that radically decreases the possibility of further, possibly much more serious, war.
So where the heck has UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon been over the past eight days?
He should have been at the forefront of all the international diplomatic efforts aimed at ending the Russia-Georgia conflict and crafting a longterm settlement in that region that can also strengthen the UN’s essential norms of nonviolence, human equality, and the support of human flourishing and human security.
Where has he been?
Ireland’s RTE News tells us this morning– eight days into the crisis– that Ban “will interrupt his holiday to hold private talks with the ambassadors of the US, Russia and Georgia on how to formalise the ceasefire deal.”
So until now, he’s just been continuing his holiday?
On Thursday, the UN issued a press release assuring us that Ban (presumably speaking from his vacation hideaway) “has expressed deep concern at the humanitarian impact of recent fighting on the civilian population in Georgia.”
Not good enough. Anyone and everyone has issued a bland, humanitariany statement like that. But the UN is about a whole lot more than “humanitarian aid” and “humanitarian concern.”
Yesterday (Friday), Reuters reported that Ban,

    has so far been unable to contact Russian President Dmitry Medvedev by telephone [presumably from same vacation hideaway] to discuss the crisis in Georgia, a U.N. spokesman said on Friday.
    Ban has spoken to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who called him on Thursday.

But Ban’s spokesperson assured Reuters that “Ban is expected to meet Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, possibly on Saturday.”
Or possibly not, huh? Can’t cut that holiday too short, after all…
Here’s why this is important. For the past 15 years, the US has come increasingly to act like the “power of last resort” and the delegated enforcer for all portions of the earth’s surface except for some those limited portions of the global landmass that lie inside the national borders of Russia and China. No international body ever delegated these powers to the United States, whose citizens comprise under five percent of the world’s people. It just came to assume them, helped in many instances by a never-stable, ever-evolving cast of “allies,” like those roped in for occupation duty in Iraq (a group that dwindled significantly over time), or in Afghanistan (mainly, a subset of members of a strictly-military alliance that was formed for very different purposes 60 years ago.)
Now, the US-led “west” is hopelessly over-extended, with grave consequences for the peoples of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The military-based, “US leadership” model of global governance that it represents cannot be sustained. We all need to take a few very deep breaths, reflect deeply on the consequences of war-waging and militarism wherever they have been practiced, and start a new worldwide conversation on how to do things a whole lot better going forward.
That’s where the United Nations comes in.
Yes, it’s imperfect. But we really don’t have time to start a wholly new organization from the ground up. And meanwhile, the UN has a number of very important attributes:

    1. Its inclusivity,
    2. Its founding principles of anti-militarism and human equality,
    3. The many instruments it has developed to help bring about the nonviolent resolution of even thorny conflicts among nations, and
    4. The wide expertise its network of specialized agencies has acquired in all aspects of building the human foundations of security in today’s highly interdependent, irreversibly globalized era.

That is why all the world’s citizens– but most especially, the people living inside the self-referential bubble of the US system— now need to see some robust and sure-footed UN leadership in the diplomacy of resolving the Ossetian crisis. It will demonstrate to us all that there is a better way than reliance on US unilateralism and militarism as a way of ordering the world– and it will help strengthen the UN’s own capabilities and credibility, as well.
But all this past week, Ban Ki-Moon has been Missing in Action.
Ban, we need you! Come home!
Instead of seeing him leading the immediate diplomacy, what have we seen? More of the same, of “western” leaders just stepping in as if it is entirely their right to dominate all international diplomacy, on every issue, in every part of the world.
Excuse me? Who gave them that right?
Why should it be Condoleezza Rice who positions herself as “final arbiter” in the dispute between Georgia and Russia? Why would she or anyone imagine that– after all the considerable aid the Bush administration has given to Georgia in recent years– Washington has the neutrality that would be required for anyone credibly and effectively to play that role?
(Oh, maybe the whole sorry history of US domination of the Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking over the past 20 years got Americans into the idea that being deeply partisan is not incompatible with being a neutral peacemaker? Well, it hasn’t worked too well there, either, has it?)
In the present crisis, the two US allies Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel played a significant role as Condi’s scouts and wingmen in the diplomacy…
And between them, they have secured something of a ceasefire on paper at this date, which is a valuable first step.
But a more durable, longer term settlement between the Russians and Georgians is certainly still required. Personally, I hope it would be based on a wide and credibly monitored demilitarization of the two ‘contested territories’ within Georgia, and also of wide swathes of ‘inner Georgia’ itself, as well as of areas of Russian territory that border Georgia.
But whatever the content of the longer term settlement, to arrive at it will require strong and clear UN leadership of the diplomacy. Hard to see how Bush or either of his successors would have either the international credibility or the means to do that.
It will take tough talking– with the leaders of both Georgia and Russia. And it will take promulgation of a paradigm of what “peacemaking” is about that is very different from the US paradigm of “arm this side, then arm that side, then if they fight each other get in there with our own armies to rack up the violence level even higher…”
The west can’t sustain that approach any more. We are in desperate need of a new, much more cooperative and human-based approach to peacemaking, too. Help us out here, Ban Ki-Moon. Please?
But where the heck are you today?

Georgia crisis and the shifting global balance

Another great post from Bernhard of Moon of Alabama on the Georgian crisis, today.
What Bernhard really “gets” about this crisis is the degree to which it reveals the extreme constraints on Washington’s ability to exercise freedom of action– including military action– in parts of the world where, until recently, it felt quite confident of acting freely. The constraints being, as I’ve noted previously, both logistical and political (in terms of the balance of power in world politics, not– at this point– the balance within the US.)
From this perspective, the serried ranks of rightwing commentators who are published so widely in the US MSM suddenly look like (possibly quaint) dinosaurs as they bark out their calls for more “robust” US action against the Russian bear… Max Boot, Richard Holbrooke, and of course– Charles Krauthammer.
I was going to write a quick post here about Krauthammer’s NYT column today. But Bernhard’s commentary on it is even better than what I was going to write. Krauthammer had suggested some “stern”, but still only diplomatic, actions that Washington should take in an attempt to “punish” Moscow. Bernhard pointed out that Moscow has many more potent means of “punishing” the west, should it choose to use them. (Which I highly doubt it does.)
Then, Krauthammer’s “zinger” is a suggestion that Bush send Putin a copy of the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War”– “to remind Vlad of our capacity to make Russia bleed.”
But as Bernhard writes:

    Putin while watching “Charlie Wilson’s War” might indeed get the idea that an occupation force in Afghanistan can be beaten and dislodged by supplying the Taliban with money and anti-air missiles. He may even thank Krauthammer for that fabulous idea.

The fact that Krauthammer had presumably not even thought of this possible consequence of his “suggestion” being put into operation is very revelatory. It reveals, to me, the depth of the guy’s extreme, US-centric self-referentiality and his inability even to imagine that someone else might interpret the world in ways different from him. (So what else is new?)
… But the main aim in all this should certainly not be to urge consideration or use of further risky and escalatory measures. Heck, Saakashvili’s performace last week should stand as a powerful object-lesson against anyone doing that! The aim should be to point once again– since it does still seem needed– to the interdependence of all the world’s peoples, including of all the world’s “big powers,” in the current era.
That’s a lesson that many citizens of the US need to understand a lot more clearly.
Actually, probably most of them do have a fairly strong understanding of it. But they are certainly not helped in their understanding by the wide dissemination given to the views of all those US-uber-alles dinosaurs who still dominate most of the country’s public discourse.
I think we need to underline a few distinctive lessons and principles:

    1. The US currently has little credibility when its leaders present themselves as guardians of “international legitimacy.”
    2. Thorny international political differences cannot be resolved through force— whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Georgia, or elsewhere. And the world’s governments should certainly refrain from attempting to do this, since any use of force anywhere simply perpetuates the idea that using it is an acceptable way to behave while it also, importantly, diverts attention and resources away from the much-needed means of political engagement to the massively expensive means of military combat..
    3. We do, luckily, have many international institutions and mechanisms that can help resolve such problems using nonviolent means and reference to neutral, long-agreed standards of behavior. Those mechanisms should be used and further strengthened, rather than derided or overlooked completely.
    4. The US should be, along with the world’s other governments according to their capacities, part of that effort to restore the UN and the world’s other institutions of multi-lateral problem-solving. But unlike in 1945, the US is currently not in a position to dominate it. (Thanks, George W. Bush!)

“Nation-building”– some quick thoughts

I’ve just been invited to a talk next week at the New America Foundation titled “Does Nation-Building Have a Future? Lessons from Afghanistan.” The presenter is James Dobbins, who seems to have a pretty “realist” and well-informed view of such matters.
But it got me to thinking about this whole concept of “nation-building”, as it is used by so many earnest western policy people with regard to disordered countries in the Third World.
Can a nation, as such, actually be built? Even more important: Can it ever be “built” by outsiders?
I’m dubious in the extreme.
A “nation”, as such, can surely only ever come into being through the actions– more or less voluntary– of its citizens.
Does South Africa constitute a single discernible “nation”? Does Spain? Does Catalunya? Does Belgium?
All fascinating questions. Equally fascinating, the whole history of what the old Arab nationalists would have called “qita’iya” (sectionalism) within the Arab world… That is, the emergence over time of a distinctively “Jordanian”, or “Lebanese”, or “Qatari” view of national self-identification.
It strikes me that what outsiders can and do have an effect on in many of these cases is the establishment of state structures, with identified geographic boundaries between them… and then, if these states succeed at delivering basic services to their people, they acquire or increase their level of endogenous legitimacy, and thereby, something like a “national sensitivity” starts to take root.
Among the citizens concerned… which is the important point here.
In other words, contrary to the way many westerners talk about these matters, the state in many important ways predates and incubates the “nation”. Benedict Anderson argued much this same point in his work on “Imagined Communities.”
And actually the state’s capabilities, including its efficiency in delivering basic services (including crucially, public security) and its ability to provide predictable regulation for economic life, are often much more important to the wellbeing– and even survival– of its citizens than any sense of “nationalism”, which operates at a much more abstract level of human experience. But states never are and never can be, culturally neutral. They always have a cultural content, as manifested in the languages accepted as “official”, the calendar of work- and rest-days, and so on. This cultural content can be either “ethno-national” in content (as with language policies), or religious (as with most work-day calendars), or, more usually, both.
So religion can often be as important a determinant of the cultural content of a country as ethnicity. States are not necessarily defined in ethnic (or “national”) terms… Though as we have seen in the cases of Israel and Pakistan, where a state is formed on explicitly religious lines, that religion acquires within that state much of the character of a “nationality.” Here again, we see that the state predates the “nation.”
So back to the question posed by Dobbins. Shouldn’t outsiders be looking at the question of our countries’ support for effective state-building in Afghanistan or other disordered countries, rather than “nation”-building?
I guess another reason I feel uneasy with the concept of nation-building is that it seems such an extremely socially and psychologically intrusive thing to do. Outsiders would essentially be messing with the way people self-identify and feel. That’s no business of outsiders! But for the people(s) of Afghanistan– okay, definitely more than one “people” there– establishing a basically effective system of country-wide governance is certainly a strong and common interest. I’d call that state-building rather than nation-building.
And if the help of outsiders is indeed needed (as it seems probably to be), there is no reason to think the US of A– whose “national culture” contains a strong strain of disdain for the idea of government as such– is particularly well qualified to lead this effort…

How powers emerge today

Time was, major shifts in the balance of international power were cataclysmic, violence-wracked events. Not today. (And maybe, paradoxically, we have the existence of nuclear weapons and the broad knowledge of their fearsome potentialities to thank in some part for that.)
Today, what propels a rising power upward is something quite different from raw military power. It is intelligence (especially in the realm of alliance-building); patience; and focus.
Two cases in point: China and Iran. One rising at the global level, the other at the Middle East regional level. Both have “risen” to the point they are– and look set to rise even further over the years ahead– through pursuit of a policy that in my childhood we would have called something like “softly, softly, catchee monkey” (SSCM).
China, as I have noted numerous times here and elsewhere– and building in good part on Kishore Mahbubani’s excellent analysis– has risen in the modern world precisely by acquiring an excellent reputation as a rules-player within the set of international rules established by the US in 1945. It has not sought to do so through military expansion and confrontation with the “old”, US-dominated order, but by challenging (and otherwise interacting with) the US from quite within the US-established order.
By international standards, its military buildup has been measured and restrained. The nuclear arsenal it has built up has been designed to the requirements of a slightly-over-minimal deterrence capability. Beijing wisely chose not to take the route the Soviet Union pursued, of trying to “match” America’s weapons build-up and challenge the US and its allies militarily in various places around the world.
Now, China has regained Hong Kong and is on a good track for building stronger relations with Taiwan. It is certainly (and quietly) emerging as the dominant power around the Pacific Rim. Even if the US still has many bases and alliances there, China has considerable soft power assets in that whole region, as elsewhere.
As for Iran, many people might not think of Ahmadinejad’s Iran as marked by any display of diplomatic intelligence, patience, and focus. But AN with all his rantings is really the epiphenomenon there in Tehran. The big-picture decisions on regional and foreign affairs are made by the Supreme Guide and by others in the clerical and Revolutionary Guard hierarchies. I have to conclude that they’ve been playing a careful and extremely intelligent SSCM game in recent years– and now, it is showing some very tangible results.
One of the hallmarks of Iran’s allies throughout the Middle East has been their ability to deal very effectively with the soft, pliant men who were chosen by the Americans to be their chief henchmen in various theaters. Mainly, I’m talking about Lebanon’s Fouad Siniora (which is where I actually started this whole train of thought this morning), and Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki.
Both men were chosen, by their US paymasters back in 2005 and early 2006, in large part precisely because of their political pliancy (rather than, say, any strongly demonstrated commitment to any particular set of political principles.) You can go back to what I was blogging here about Iraq in early 2006 if you want to be reminded of exactly how it was that Nouri al-Maliki became annointed as PM– as a last-ditch, compromise candidate who was acceptable to the Americans– back in those tumultuous days. Siniora’s emergence to the head of the anti-Syrian bloc was a little different.
Back then, I repeat, both men were chosen in good part because they were acceptable to the Americans.
Now, both men stay in power in good part because they are acceptable to the large bodies of anti-Americans (and pro-Iranians) within their national constituencies. Amazing, really, to see, how effortlessly the pro-Iranian constituencies seem to have “captured” these two men.
Amazing that is, until you realize that (1) Both men were chosen in the first place because of their political pliancy. That hasn’t changed. (Vide the unbelievably pliant Amin Gemayyel’s amazing political turn-on-a-dime in February 1984.) And (2), actually, a lot of systematic, patient, and well-informed political work was pursued by the pro-Iranian forces behind the scenes in order to arrive at their present positions of strengthening power in both countries.
So those are two intriguing examples of the SSCM capabilities of Iran’s allies in Lebanon and Iraq. (Including, the fact that they were smart and well-informed enough to be able to “capture” the previous US henchmen to become figureheads for their own cause without the American viceroys even particularly realizing what was happening.) Iran itself has also pursued a generally very effective SSCM policy in its relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries…
I want to make a broader point here, though– one that links the two cases of Iran and China that I have mentioned. This is a point completely consonant with my own existing analysis of the rapidly decreasing value of raw military strength in today’s global environment. (As I talked about, for example, in my recent USIP appearance.) In our current era, powers seem to be most successful in increasing their regional and global influence when they rely not primarily on military strength and the projection of military power in foreign theaters. They are most successful when they (a) have a keen understanding of the diplomatic and political realities in the region(s) in which they operate, and (b) use that knowledge to pursue very smart and quite frequently deliberately non-confrontational policies that gradually, over time, bring to them increasing amounts of the other kinds of power– especially “soft” power– that matter a lot more in today’s world than military power does.

Pictures and reflections from China

Thanks to McClatchy’s Tim Johnson for signaling two extremely moving collections of photos from China’s earthquake zone.
This one is on the WaPo’s website and has images from a number of brilliant photogs working for different international agencies.
This one is from the EastSouthWestNorth blog, picked up from China’s Guangyuan Daily News. Less technically brilliant but more immediate and in some cases intimate.
I am sure that there have been glitches, mistakes– perhaps even big mistakes– grandstanding and incompetence in the response of some Chinese officials to this terrible natural disaster. As in all disasters. But overall, the response looks magnificent. What I see in both slideshows are citizens and well-organized cadres of military and civilian officials acting under conditions of great trauma and continuing threat but with huge compassion, focus, good organization, and dignity.
I am embarrassed to recall the images the whole world saw of our government’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2007. I was in Geneva shortly after. and had a meeting with Cornelio Sommaruga, the former head of the International Committee for the Red Cross. He could scarcely believe the incompetence and basic inhumanity of the US response. That was some 19 days or so after the hurricanes struck. Bodies were still bumping around in the receding waters or left on median strips, completely uncollected, stripped of all dignity, and posing a continuing public health hazard. All that because the groups and private companies that had gotten the contracts for “rescue operations” had been told not to touch them because the profit-bearing contract for “mortuary operations” would be going to someone else…
Anyway, my very best wishes to the people and government of China.
I’m thinking maybe next year, once China has dealt with the worst of this disaster and we have a new administration here in the US, perhaps some Chinese emergency response specialists could come over to the US and do some good trainings for our own Red Cross, military, and other first responders?

Condolences to friends in China, Myanmar/Burma

I know I’m late saying this, but I want to send heartfelt condolences to everyone in China and Myanmar/Burma whose universe has been shattered by the loss of loved ones, homes, or livelihoods due to Cyclone Nargis and China’s earthquake. The pictures, whenever I see them, are all searing, and I wish comfort and strength to all the traumatized surviving people of the two devastated areas.
I continue to be extremely concerned about the endlessly mean-spirited, politicized, and accusatory way in which most of the western MSM has covered the Myanmar losses. Today, even the WaPo’s usually wise Al Kamen got into the act, writing, “Human rights advocates were wincing at a photo on the wires of Agency for International Development chief Henrietta Fore shaking hands and beaming with a Burmese military thug at the Rangoon airport a few days ago.” Come on! Fore was delivering aid, and the Burmese officer was receiving it. In the circumstances, it was quite appropriate that both were smiling. Why refer to him in this context as “a Burmese military thug”?
I think that one thing that most western human rights activists and their many friends in the MSM, like Al Kamen, fail to understand is that humanitarian action– action that is designed purely at reducing the immediate suffering of our fellow-humans– should have its own space, quite insulated from the concerns of politicians and of the west’s self-styled (and often quite heavily politicized) “human rights advocates.”
Would Kamen and his “human rights advocate” friends have preferred that Fore had not delivered the aid? Or that she had delivered it while wagging a harsh accusatory finger at the general (thereby most likely dooming her ability to ever deliver any more aid?)
All quite bizarre: childishly accusatory and revealing these people’s deep ignorance of the meaning of humanitarian solidarity.
The western MSM’s coverage of China has generally been a lot better. But even there, I have seen unsubstantiated and quite inappropriate accusations of governmental ineptitude. On ABC News last night, a correspondent in one of the horrendously affected cities urgently told the camera something like, “Here, too, there has been a large degree of chaos. People have even had to stand in line for drinking water!”
Now the second of those statements quite obviously negates the first. When people stand in line for a scarce and desperately needed commodity, that denotes not “chaos”, but its opposite. And indeed, in the frame behind him we saw people standing in an orderly line awaiting their bottled water handouts.
Has that reporter ever seen “chaos”, I wonder?
Anyway, my media criticism is for now quite secondary to my desire to express my human solidarity with all those affected and with all those in those two countries who working so hard to help them.
For anyone seeking a range of (generally) non-politicized reports of the aid efforts that Burmese and non-Burmese bodies are undertaking inside the country, Reliefweb can give you lots of solid, up-to-date news. For example, this from Malteser International about the work of some of the 200 staff members they now have working in the country.
The report states: “As Malteser International has been able to start the relief activities in the disaster area right after the Cyclone, they are now also bundling the assistance of other organisations and partners and implementing it.”
They’re appealing urgently for funds and provide details of a bank account based in Koln, Germany, to donate to:

    Donation Account 120 120 120
    Bank für Sozialwirtschaft, Wörthstr. 15 – 17, D-50668 Köln
    Sort Code : 370 205 00
    IBAN : DE49 3702 0500 0001 0258 01
    Reference : “Cyclone Nargis”

Humanitarian access, R2P, Burma/Myanmar, and Sadr City

Much of the US media continues to parrot the accusatory, highly politicized “Laura Bush version” of what’s been happening in Myanmar/Burma. Namely that (a) the country’s military junta is largely responsible for the devastation that Cyclone Nargis has visited on the country, (b) the junta has responded very poorly to the disaster and is also wilfully standing in the way of international efforts to deliver relief to cyclone survivors, (c) the US military is uniquely qualified and positioned to deliver the needed in the very best way possible; and that therefore (d) the junta should simply stand aside and let the US and its western allies roam around the country fixing it all up.
(Like the Bushites “fixed up” New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Katrina? Do these people have so little awareness of how arrogant the US looks to the rest of the world?)
Well, there is little point right now in delving too deeply into proposition “a” there, though as I wrote Tuesday, Mrs. Bush’s accusations on that score were extremely mean-spirited and over-stated.
On proposition ‘b’, it is simply not true at this point that the junta responded to the cyclone with zero effectiveness. See, for example, this UN-OCHA report from Sunday May, 4. It says,

    6. The Government has established an Emergency Committee headed by the Prime Minister. Five central and southern regions – Yangon, Ayeyarwady, Bago, Mon and Kayin states – have all been declared disaster areas. The authorities … have deployed military and police units for rescue, rehabilitation and cleanup operations in Yangon.
    7. No formal request has yet been issued for international assistance, though there are indications that such assistance may be welcomed…

On Tuesday came this news release from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which says,

    he International Federation is supporting the Myanmar Red Cross in their efforts to address the needs of the affected people. The Myanmar Red Cross is already handing out relief supplies, such as clean drinking water, plastic sheeting, clothing, insecticide-treated bed nets to help prevent malaria, and kitchen items. Additionally, the International Federation has sent a first deployment of shelter kits from Kuala Lumpur and has released an initial 200,000 Swiss francs (USD 189,000/€ 122,000) to support the Red Cross relief effort.

That is exactly what the IFRCS is supposed to do: to build on the strengths of the Red Cross societies that already exist in all countries, and to coordinate the provision of help from other countries’ RC societies when it’s needed. No need for Mrs. Bush to get all exercised about things.
Over the weekend, ASEAN and the UN had already started assembling damage assessment teams, and most members of those teams have now been deployed.
On Monday, the Government of Myanmar “invited World Vision, a US-based aid organization that’s been working in the country for some years now, to provide assistance in the form of zinc sheets, tents, tarpaulins and medicine.” That report from Monday also noted that,

    World Vision assessment teams have been deployed to the hardest-hit areas to determine the most urgent needs. The agency is already providing clothing (sarongs and t-shirts) as well as tarpaulins and blankets to 100 households in the capital, along with 10,000 kg of rice and 7,000 liters of water.

Given that the Red Cross societies and some private groups like World Vision already (a) have a lot of experience in post-catastrophe relief and reconstruction, (b) already have networks of relationships with official and unofficial bodies inside Myanmar, and (c) have an often detailed familiarity with the country, and its social and physical infrastructure, it is hard to see why anyone should imagine the US military is “uniquely qualified” to deliver aid there? Some people speak of helicopter capabilities. But China, Thailand, and several other Myanmar neighbors have that– and probably, have been using it already.
Unlike what many US pundits think, the US has no “special responsibility” to undertake even well-intentioned life-saving actions around the world… Is it hard for some US commentators to entertain the thought that bodies and governments other than the US and its western allies are equally well intentioned, and might sometimes actually far better positioned to undertake such actions?
So now, let us travel to the worsening, and woefully under-reported humanitarian disaster in the Sadr City area of Baghdad— a place where under international humanitarian law the US, as occupying power, does have direct responsibility for the welfare of the country’s residents.
These past few days, the US military and its allies from the increasingly isolated Iraqi “government” side have stepped up their assault on a large section of Sadr, trapping many of the area’s 2.5 million residents in their homes and neighborhoods, which are being harshly fought over by, on one side, the US forces and their allies, and on the other, local militiamen loyal to Imam Moqtada al-Sadr.
The fighting has been hell for the residents of Sadr City, particularly those in the areas near the “front line” newly established by the US forces.
This Reuters report from Baghdad tells us that,

    Civilians caught up in fighting between security forces and Shi’ite militiamen in a Baghdad slum are running out of food, water and medicine and relief agencies are unable to bring in supplies, officials said on Thursday.

That report also quotes some Sadr City residents as saying that the Iraqi government has taken a leaf out of the playbook that Israel followed many times in Lebanon (and also, some 60 years ago in Palestine), and tried to send loudspeaker trucks around some neighborhoods to tell residents that they should leave their homes… presaging a possible big new military offensive there.
But here is something else notable, from the Reuters report: a quote from Dana Graber Ladek, a displacement specialist on Iraq at the U.N. International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Amman, who seemed to be saying that the US and Iraqi-government forces in Sadr City were among those forces preventing the opening of safe corridors by which humanitarian aid could be delivered, and civilians find a safe way to exit if they so chose. Ladek said

    “We need that corridor open to allow aid in, by U.S. and Iraqi forces … by everyone involved in the conflict.”

The German press agerncy DPA reports that the fighting that has occurred since the US started its push into Sadr City at the end of March has killed around 1,000 people, and wounded over 2,500, many of them children and other civilians.
Well-meaning people in the US who are concerned about the harms being suffered by our fellow-humans around the world would do well to pay a lot more attention to stopping the harms that have arisen directly out of our own government’s actions around the world, rather than continuing to point fingers at other governments?
… I note also that some people have said that the situation in Myanmar could be a good example where the UN’s recently adopted doctrine of “Responsibility To Protect” (R2P) could be valid. The well-informed and always thoughtful Ramesh Thakur had a good response on that point in today’s Toronto Globe & Mail.
Thakur, we should note, was one of the members of the UN’s R2P Commission, so he certainly knows whereof he speaks.
That link given there goes to a pay-gated version of Thakur’s op-ed. His argument there is this:

    humanitarian aid does not justify going to war as called for by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in urging the UN Security Council to pass a resolution under the “responsibility to protect” norm to force the delivery of aid over any objections from the country’s ruling military.
    Mr. Kouchner is one of the unrepentant “humanitarian warriors” who gave “humanitarian intervention” such a bad name that we had to rescue the deeply divisive idea and repackage it into the more unifying and politically marketable “responsibility to protect” (R2P) which was endorsed by world leaders at the UN in 2005. There would be no better way to damage R2P beyond repair in Asia and the developing world than to have humanitarian assistance delivered into Myanmar backed by Western soldiers fighting in the jungles of Southeast Asia again. If France has soldiers to spare for serious combat, they could relieve embattled Canadians in southern Afghanistan.
    John Holmes, the former British ambassador to France, has rightly rejected Mr. Kouchner’s call as unnecessarily confrontational. He said co-operation from Myanmar authorities was “reasonable and heading in the right direction.”

Thakur warns that trying to invoke an R2P-based, “right” of foreigners to intervene in Myanmar by force and against the wishes of the national government would have this effect: “Instead of securing timely action, it would complicate humanitarian relief efforts in this particular case and more generally afterward.”
He made clear he was not defending the rights record of the Myanmar government. But he also laid out a sensible plan for how the “international community”: (whatever that is, these days) might most effectively respond to the situation there. Not surprisingly, his program depends a lot more on Myanmar’s neighbors than on any very expensive, complicated, and imperialistic intervention from the distant European or US governments.