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In another move that cannot realistically be rescinded, Parliament released Yanukovych’s imprisoned rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, who immediately came to address crowds in Kiev’s Independence Square.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


It is a frightening to see pictures of the North Korean masses weeping in public displays of grief over the death of their dear dictator. Reports have noted that extreme expressions of grief are part of Confucian tradition in both North and South Korea, but only in the North is the leader of state considered to be every individual’s father and only in the North does state coercion lie behind everything that happens, even when individuals are sincere in their grief. In North Korea the political culture creates the individual’s psychology.

A South Korean academic, who was my then colleague at the National Endowment for Democracy, said to me there was nothing particularly supportive of democracy in Confucianism but that South Koreans were devoted to their right to vote anyway. That does not seem likely to happen any time soon in North Korea given the overwhelming culture of the cult of personality.

Looking at Iraq’s future Thomas Friedman in the NYT (12/21) wished for Iraq that it would hold together “as an imperfect corrupt democracy” until the real agent of change, the new generation, comes along in “nine months and 21 years”. Friedman is being the optimist here, forgetting that that new generation will have been raised by parents whose culture was shaped by dictatorship and war, with the individual Iraqi’s need to feel secure driving them into sectarian identities. Democracy may take much longer. A vicious military dictatorship in Greece collapsed in 1974. 37 years later Michael Lewis in “Boomerang” describes the “real Greek structure” as “everyman for himself”, with every member of Parliament demonstrably corrupt, making any kind of civic life impossible. Lewis says the Greeks want to recreate a civic life but with the total absence of faith in one another self-reinforcing he doubts they can.

One thing is sure. Taking democratic transitions step by step isn’t the answer. It isn’t a democratic transition if the military has carved out a position beyond the law and elected Parliaments to call the shots, as they are trying to do in Egypt. The only way to start embedding a democratic culture is to start with establishing democratic institutions and hoping that national pride and identity in these institutions will create a new way of seeing yourself and your community. What counts is not whether Egyptians are ready for democracy but whether they will have a shot at getting there. Alas, the military and radical Islam aren’t the only obstacles. Pride in your democratic institutions isn’t going to work to create a democratic culture if your democracy is corrupt. Would that Greece were the only example of corrupt democracies! A leading expert on democracy once said the Kingdom of Tonga was the only example of a benevolent dictatorship – and that was before they held fully democratic elections in 2010. So we have no choice but to stiffen our political will and try.

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

After eight and a half years of war in Iraq, President Obama has announced that our military will be out of Iraq by Dec 31, except for security forces guarding our diplomats, and the possibility of a yet-to-be-negotiated deployment of trainers for the Iraqi security forces. The US is leaving the field with zero clarity about why we were there, or what we accomplished, and for that reason the main message of Iraq may be lost. That message is that Iraq was a mistake.

In the State Department I once worked for a Republican appointee, Robert Kimmitt who was Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs in the George H.W. Bush Administration during the Gulf war. Behind his desk he had an artillery shell from the war in Vietnam, where he had served on active duty. I can’t quote him, but clearly he did not think Vietnam was a mistake. War was noble. Victory was possible.

We may never know what the real reasons for Iraq invasion were, certainly not the manufactured Weapons of Mass Destruction (to be fair, Saddam would have liked to have been manufacturing them) or setting Iraq as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. At least three months before the invasion the press virtually shut down talking about the war. The military had determined the US must invade by March before the weather got too hot. This tends to support the idea that the most likely reason for the war was a Cheney-led drive to prove that the US was the single power hegemon that could do as it wished and, quite explicitly in the case of Iraq, cheaply. Iraq was a test.

With this murky history, Republicans will hardly have to make an effort to blame Obama for anything that goes wrong, there will be such a large grab bag of unprovables. The Washington Post editorial October 23 started in on manufacturing the framework by highlighting “risks” of Obama’s decision. “Iran will be handed a crucial strategic advantage.” “A potentially invaluable U.S. alliance with an emerging Iraqi democracy will wither.” Almost anything that moves in the region could be used to “prove” those two points.

However, cheer up. For one, Iraq isn’t lost; it will be an oil rich country struggling with sectarian and regional splits within recognizably democratic institutions. It’s neighbor Iran will be the country that is weak and isolated from the international community. Second, the ignorance of the Republican base may save Obama from a “who lost Iraq” charge. Obama’s record in killing al Qaida leaders will block the charge that he is “weak”. And for the rest, the Republicans, and the country more generally have lost interest.

I have been many times to see La Boheme, sometimes railing against Puccini’s universal plot structure, where the women always die and the men walk away. The last time I went – at a music festival deep in the Virginia countryside – I saw another theme. In the opera’s last scene, Puccini aims straight and true for the heart, when as Mimi is dying she and Rodolfo reprise the first moments of their love in Rodolfo’s darkened apartment, where each is pretending to look for Mimi’s key in order to stay together longer. Puccini is brief, as Mimi’s life is brief, but his music opens up their feelings to us, feelings that become infinite because shared through empathy.

The scholar Lynn Hunt has written on the origins of human rights (Inventing Human Rights, Norton, 2007). She identifies the invention of the novel as an important trigger for a new sensibility, especially the extension of the feeling of empathy across class lines coming from identification with the interior lives of ordinary persons. She discusses in particular the widely popular episolatory novels, Clarissa and Pamela by Samuel Richardson and Julie by Rousseau. “Human rights could only flourish when people learned to think of others as their equals, as like them in some fundamental fashion. They learned this equality at least in part by experiencing identification with ordinary characters who seemed dramatically present and familiar even if ultimately fictional.” A century and a half later Puccini draws us into a poor young woman’s life as Richardson and Rousseau had with a different artistic form, but creating the same powerful empathy.

The real Mimis lived – and live – lives that seem no more than a gnats bite, quickly brushed away. Mimi didn’t have health care; research had not come up with a cure for TB; there were no minimum labor protections. A poor seamstress was virtually forced into prostitution in a world of people who mattered and people who didn’t matter. It seemed that we had moved to an understanding that we all matter as human beings and are bound together in a community. Government is one vehicle that creates actions and institutions to better lives, following up on that feeling of empathy. Instead of the evanescence of a gnat’s bite, Mimi’s spirit is a big as the universe the minute we say no one should die of destitution.

Many on the conservative right today appear to live in a world where human beings do not have a right to be recognized in some moral sense as equally valuable and that sense of equality is essential if we are to feel duties and obligations to others. Republican politicians have denounced using government to better lives as evil socialism. For many on the religious right, charity is the way to deal with need and is a matter of an individual choice the government should not interfere with. The fact that charity’s reach will be random and inadequate is not seen as a deficit.

Empathy builds in us an enlarged moral vision. Without it we are free to see government, for one thing, solely as it impinges on our defined-down selves. Who can forget Republican Senator Rand Paul’s rant that the government should get out of his decisions on what toilet to buy (water usage!). Defining ourselves down, as we have seen in the debate over deficit reduction and raising the debt ceiling, leads inevitably to a small minded vision of our country and what we, together, are capable of accomplishing. We become, as President Obama said, addressing the nation on the debt ceiling stalemate, “disjointed individuals, but not a society.”

Egypt and Democracy: the Muslim Brotherhood. Following the referendum in Egypt that passed constitutional amendments that will govern upcoming parliamentary and Presidential elections, the media is full of commentary that the only movement that will be able to get its act together in time for elections and field a party is the Muslim Brotherhood, and since the Parliament that will be elected will choose the commission that will write a new constitutional for Egypt the democratic revolution – so goes the conventional wisdom – is already in jeopardy.
Probably not, but it is worth looking at what the criteria for a political party participating in a truly democratic process should be. After all, Hitler won a democratic election in 1933. It is legitimate to ask a political party whether it supports democratic institutions (especially periodic free and fair elections) or whether it is participating in an election only to gain power with the goal of destroying democratic institutions. A party committed to creating an Islamic state is not committed to democracy, just ask clerical/military dictatorship of Iran, which explicitly defines itself as against “western” democracy and where unelected clerics have the final say on who can run for office. The Muslim Brotherhood sends mixed messages on its intentions. In Egypt, it is at present engaged in internal debates on issues that go to the core of its democratic credentials, including on the role of women in political institutions and whether non-Muslims can run for the Presidency, that could come down on the anti-democratic side. This internal debate – and the possible emergence of more than one political party out of the Brotherhood should be welcomed.
Adherents to one strain of Islamic thought, the Salafi movement, inside and outside the Brotherhood, seem clear on anti-democracy views. In a NYT Magazine feature, (3/20/11) on US Muslim cleric Yasir Qadhi, Qadhi discusses his Salafi faith (closely linked to the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia) including its rejection of democracy. He is quoted as saying, “Can you believe it – a group of people coming together and voting and the majority vote will then be the law of the land. What gives you the right to prohibit something or allow something?” While Salafis are not a unified sect scholars they are associated with extreme intolerance and believe in a strict interpretation of the Koranic law, rejecting any modern interpretations. (Salafis do not believe that women stand for elected office, clear rejection of a core democratic principle that individuals have the right to organize political parties and stand for office.)
At the very least parties participating in elections should commit themselves to the democratic process (i.e. periodic elections). There would be no guarantee they would stick to the commitment, but international reactions would be sanctioned if they did not.
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In the February-March issue of FOREIGN AFFAIRS review articles by four experts on Iran comment on an article, “The Dangers of a Nuclear Iran,” by three experts on Iran in the December-January issue. The authors of the “Dangers” article call for a greater military presence in the region, to back up a hard line diplomacy, and, if that fails, to launch a military strike on Iran.

Post Tahrir Square, this sounds like a textbook definition of a policy “overtaken by events”. All seven experts write in layers of conventional wisdom that will have to be excavated or they will crumble on their own as the ground underneath them shifts. No longer will analysts be able to say, as they do here, that Iran takes “the region’s economic marginalization, political alienation and social malaise”, blames it on the US and Israel and uses it to fuel religious radicalism and enhance the its appeal and the appeal of its clients Hezbollah and Hamas as models. Egyptians massed in Tahrir Square were blaming their own leaders, as does the brutally repressed opposition in Iran, not the U.S. and Israel. No revisionists are going to be able to revise the spectacle of a people that rose up and deposed its dictator – peacefully. That is a “new realism” for experts and leaders to get their minds around.

The author of one FOREIGN AFFAIRS article calls for a policy between Israel and Iran of Mutually Assured Destruction – the MAD of Cold War US-Soviet policy. Conceptually, this would continue an Israeli strategy of reliance on military strength for matters of its national security and of marginalizing diplomacy. In fact, one critic of the Netanyahu government, Oslo Peace Accord veteran Ron Pundak, warns that Israel is falling into a national policy of “spartheid” a combination of total militarization (Sparta), and controlling Palestinians through “Bantustans”, i.e. broken up areas of territory under their security control (apartheid South Africa).

Israel needs to turn on a dime. It doesn’t live in a world of chessboard politics anymore. Talk of a “two state” solution sounds vaguely old hat. People have a say, whether in Egypt or in Palestine. What the Palestinians are looking for is not a state, but freedom and dignity, like the people in Tahrir Square. The way to Israel-Palestinian peace may actually lie in serious diplomacy, a revival perhaps of the Arab Peace Initiative. Delegates to Arab regional meetings will now be appointed, some of them, by genuinely elected governments. Other governments will be fearfully looking over their shoulders. Israel could get its diplomatic feet wet by welcoming the serious steps that Tunisia and Egypt are taking to realize their democratic aspirations.
— Betsy Clark