American Power

Violence and chaos may not be going out of fashion in the world we live in, but unilateral military action from the old super powers almost certainly is. As of this writing the situation in Ukraine is confusing but events over the weekend are likely to mark out lines that will hold.

The first big line is that president President Viktor Yanukovych has left town and is somewhere in eastern Ukraine, having been relieved of office through a vote in Parliament, not violent overthrow. Parliament has set May 25 for elections – Yanukovych had accepted the call for new elections, but not before the end of the year. Putin’s description of events as a “coup” sound very old fashioned.

The Ukrainian people are drawing their own lines. Guards from the State Protection Service at Yanukovych’s private residence handed over key to leaders of the opposition, who are not allowing looting. The people who are opening up the gates are exposing Yanukovych’s extraordinarily plutocratic life style. Even the plutocratic class is deserting the regime, suggesting that Ukraine’s excessive corruption has become politically unsupportable.

In another move that cannot realistically be rescinded, Parliament released Yanukovych’s imprisoned rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, who immediately came to address crowds in Kiev’s Independence Square. Popular outrage over the killing of some 70 protestors, is another line that will hold against any Yanukovych restoration.

Cold war spheres of influence no longer can be summoned from history. One outcome for Ukraine is the likelihood it will be in both the Russian and western orbits. Ukraine can sign the trade agreement with the EU that Yanukovych rejected in November, adding financial support from the EU and IMF, and at the same time structure ties with Russia. What seems frankly inconceivable is that Putin would restore Yanukovych by force, with “boots on the ground.” One should remember that the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late eighties started with President Gorbachev’s refusal to use military intervention to keep embattled communist regimes in Eastern Europe in power. No “boots on the ground” this time.

The US may be a super power in terms of global weight on many scales, but post Iraq it also is being forced to turn away decisively from unilateral military action. Forging multilateral coalitions is a different matter. The UN has passed a “responsibility to protect” policy and there will be many terrible human rights crisis that will make a claim for multilateral action on those grounds. President Obama understands this new world we are moving into very well. We can hope Putin will come to understand it too.

Elizabeth Spiro Clark


The likelihood of US military actions against the Syrian regime over the use of chemical weapons in an early morning attack last Wednesday on towns in the vicinity of Damascas is high. Secretary of State John Kerry called regime responsibility “undeniable.” After a five day delay UN observers were finally allowed in the area. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will almost certainly remain alone in denying responsibility for chemical weapons attack which according to Doctors without Borders have already claimed 355 lives lost in the clinics it supports. The US administration will not be alone if military action is taken. The French foreign minister minister has said that the “only option I do not envisage is to do nothing.” As reported in the NY Times (8/27) the Obama administration is looking at cruise missile strikes from destroyers stationed in the Mediterranean aimed at military bases in Syria.

There are ample precedents for international military action taken to protect civilians from internationally recognized crimes against humanity. Use of chemical weapons is prohibited by numerous international treaties: the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Geneva Gas Protocol, and the Hague Declaration concerning Asphyxiating Gases. Use of chemical weapons is a war crime over which the International Criminal Court (ICC) has jurisdiction.

Military strikes against al-Assad in the wake of chemical attacks need not imply anything further than the protection of civilian populations from violations of international law. It would not make a statement of intention to overthrow al-Assad. The 1991 invasion of Kuwait was specifically to respond to Saddam Hussein’s violation of international law in invading Kuwait. After restoring Kuwait’s sovereignty we did not go on to overthrow Saddam. The 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade was part of NATO’s action taken under the Anti Genocide Conventions to protect Albanian residents of Kosovo from Serbian killings. Kosovo independence was the ultimate result. The international community did not, however, follow up its military campaign with military action to overthrow then Serbian President Slobodan Milosovic.

Military actions of the kind contemplated in this case and in the past have assumed imminent further threats and a population to be protected. There need not be a continuing threat to a civilian population, however, to justify military action. The use of chemical weapons should be punished. Meting out punishment in the International Criminal Court is punishment. So are military strikes against al-Assad’s military bases. When Bosnian Serb Xdravko Tolimar was found guilty by the ICC in 2012 for war crimes committed in the Bosnian war,and jailed for life, he was no longer a threat to anyone. He was punished, as Assad should be.
Elizabeth Clark

It is hard to open a newspaper with out seeing the phrase “America’s Waning Influence” or “America’s Diminished Power”, both used in a November 2 NYT “White House Memo.” These stories all beg the question “diminished power to do what?” We should rather ask whether the power and influence were used successfully? In the presumable heyday of American superpowerdom, post collapse of the Soviet Union, we invaded Iraq. Is that an action we are somehow supposed to be regretful we can’t keep on doing? At a major US Institute of Peace conference on Israel-Palestinian peace, speaker after speaker noted that US influence in the region had plummeted. The two main reasons given were the war in Iraq and US responsibility for the financial collapse of 2008. Those were events that happened under the Administration of Bush 43.

The decisions made by the men around Bush 43 flowed from their own background in the US military and defense establishments. This was the world they knew. “Diplomacy was not their strong suit” as the chronicler of the Bush war cabinet, James Mann, details in his 2004 “Rise of the Vulcans.” Their only strategy post 9/11 was to doubledown on American military power; taking actions with the explicit purpose of making US purposes unchallengeable. But they were challenged. The Europeans didn’t go along with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. There was no NATO, let alone UN support. There was active French opposition to the invasion. Remember patriotic Americans renaming French fries “Freedom Fries”?

Why, when Iraq wasn’t successful and we didn’t get our way, is it Obama’s presidency that is considered weak and diminished? Why isn’t it “Bush’s war” and “Bush’s financial collapse” that is blamed for the diminution of American power? The answer is that Cheney and the militarists made America weaker, but we have so absorbed the principle that American strength equals being able to coerce through military means that we have to define even a failed Administration operating under that principle as strong. The idea that a strong America means one that can force others to do what we want, paradoxically means such an Administration cannot be criticized as weak, as responsible for loss of American power and influence, even if in fact it was responsible for that loss of power. Success doesn’t matter. It’s whether you get success through coercion.

On the flip side of the coin, also paradoxically, the great foreign policy successes of the Obama Administration can’t be defined as strength. America’s Secretary of State in Libya used brilliant diplomacy, usually behind the scenes, coupled with multilateral and limited military action, but don’t call it success, even if the outcome benefited America, because we shared responsibility with others, using a minimum of coercive power. It would have been a success only if we proclaimed we did it under a strategic “vision” of demonstrating American dominance, bringing us back to another plummet of US influence for the next US Institute of Peace conference.
— Elizabeth Spiro Clark
November 7, 2011