Politics – Foreign

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


Whether in Eastern Europe on the collapse of the Soviet Union, or South Africa on the collapse of apartheid, it was clear people wanted their voice to be heard. They wanted the respect and dignity they had been denied for so long. If they thought elections were fair and their vote counted as the equal of others, they lined up for hours to exercise their democratic rights.

Not all first elections in democratic transitions are good elections. Most are not. Voters can be voting for a parliament where a bloc of seats is reserved for the military (Indonesia) or where the eventual winner of elections wields an independent militia (Hamas in West Bank 2006 elections). Categorizing countries politically is almost to guarantee oversimplification. Is the United States a liberal democracy, given the role money plays in our elections? Certainly Egypt’s 2011 elections had many deeply controversial – and undemocratic – features.

It is simplistic to call what is happening in Egypt a coup against a democratically elected leader, if for no other reason than that democratically elected leaders can turn authoritarian once in office. Not that setting elections are not of prime importance as the first task of the post-Morsy government.

One lesson that can be drawn, both from the turmoil in Egypt and the recent elections in Iran, is that political participation is now what people are going to do. There was talk – and action- to boycott Egyptian 2011 elections. In Iran, boycotting elections has been a way to prove your political integrity. No more. Opposition Iranians did not boycott but participated in June’s elections, although they certainly weren’t democratic, with clerics picking who could and who could not run for office. As a result, Iranians elected as President the most liberal candidate available. Whether in Iran or Egypt democracy is coming to mean keeping at it. There is no rest for the weary.

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.

In a world historical event today Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak left office along with his cabinet. Power has passed to a military council charged with taking concrete steps towards fully democratic elections, preceded by the resignation of the Parliament and the redrafting of a new constitution and electoral law. One important outcome of events in Egypt: Never again will governments, experts and the media be able to say of a country that it is authoritarian, yes, but stable, and basically supported by its people. You don’t know what is going on in a dictatorship UNTIL IT IS OVER. This moment cannot pass without a comment on some, at least, of the Republican reactions. Dick Cheney, in particular, said the US should have stuck by its ally Mubarak. This is not just because of concern for the impact on Israel. At heart, Republicans like Dick Cheney are not democrats. They used democracy as cover for the war in Iraq, fought for other reasons. Even their basic ideas about democracy aren’t what most people mean by the word. For them it is most importantly, free market fundamentalism, not free and fair elections. We hope their ideas will see as “old think” as Hosni Mubarak.

As the pundits slam into full gear on the democracy movement in Egypt, beware of the stakes they have in justifying their ideas. For example, in the February 7 Washington Post, Fareed Zacharia, warns of the danger that Egypt will become not Turkey, but Pakistan, a sham democracy run by generals in the back room. If Egypt becomes an “illiberal democracy” the ire of the Egyptian democracy movement will then turn to blaming the US, as the military dictatorship’s enabler. For Zacharia, the “illiberal democracy” can actually arrive via “free and fair elections”, which would seem to be a head scratcher, unless you know that Zacharia invented the concept of “illiberal” democracy to argue, basically, that the rest of the world was going to have to hit all the benchmarks the West hit in achieving “liberal” democracy.

And as for elections: Zacharia said in a 2002 Harvard International Review article on US foreign policy, that while the US should push for human rights, it should be understood as political and economic rights rather than elections, which he called “proceduralism”.

Elections – fully democratic elections – are not mere “proceduralism”. They are at the heart of the Egyptian democracy movement. Universally, publics hate the corruption into which dictators always fall, and the lack of freedom they always entail. They want their voice. In Egypt, as in Iran, the individual’s vote, honestly counted, is an important sense of their dignity, their voice. They will not stop until they get that dignity.

Elections shouldn’t come at the end of some process – either a transition or Zacharia’s slow march to “liberal democracy.” Elections should come soon. Egyptian human rights activists Hossan Bahgat and Soha Abdelaty outlined exactly how that can happen in the Washington Post “What Mubarak must do Before Stepping Down,” WP 2/5. Zacharia may want to set up hatred of the US as the driving force behind the Egyptian democracy movement. The movement, however, seems undistracted and focuses not on hate but on reaching the goal they have set of establishing democratic institutions in Egypt.

Egypt: As of this writing (1/31/11) it is unclear what the outcome of the massive demonstrations in Egypt will be.  Secretary Clinton has taken the right position focusing attention on the already scheduled September Presidential elections, insisting that they be free and fair and that an interim Egyptian government be “representative”. Clinton took the same position on Tunisia (see my earlier post).

An encouraging sign on the course of events is that opposition groups met on Sunday and chose Nobel Prize winner and former head of the IAEA, Mohammed El-Baradei, who had joined the demonstrations, to be their leader. US commentators routinely downplay El Baradei as lacking a political base. He just seems to have just got one, a good sign, among others, that the opposition has a serious eye on international reactions and Egypt’s international position (does the macho US media want to find another “strong man” like Mubarak to run Egypt?). Another good sign is that – so far – the army is not putting down the demonstrations or enforcing the curfews. If the forces at play can coalesce behind an interim government leading to free and fair elections in the fall (or sooner), bringing this repressive regime to account can work for the good in the region. It is not a given, for example, that the government that emerges will cancel Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. International monitoring of the elections will be a key factor. If invited, internationals can help with the organization of free and fair elections, such as advising on setting up an independent election commission.

In terms of falling dominoes among Egypt’s neighbors, I was just in Jordan as an official monitor of their November parliamentary elections. Jordanian officials made serious efforts to follow international standards, even if elections took place under a monarchy with governing powers and a unpopular unelected Prime Minister. Immediately after unrest broke out in Tunisia, Jordanians took to the streets to protest their unelected government. My odds are on King Abdullah II managing the protest and delivering on (more) reform. Leaders in Yemen and Algeria should perhaps be more anxious.

The Obama Administration has come a long way in its human rights and democracy policy, having initially backed off commenting on elections  in a number of repressive countries, most strikingly the fraudulent Iranian elections in 2009, when US criticism focused on lack of freedom of expression and assembly. In her statements on the Tunisian crisis Secretary of State Clinton early called for free and fair elections (though, to be sure,  only after Ben Ali had fled the country). Support for elections in countries living under repression has been put down by a large pool of experts and government officials alike as unrealistic, as an open door for extremists or chaos, as insensitive western imperialism, as  against US interests and as premature, unless variously defined benchmarks (usually per capita income) are met. However it is Clinton, with her call for free and fair elections, who is adopting a realist school of thought.  Autocrats are usefully “stable partners” for the US until suddenly the mask drops and they aren’t.  It is no longer good strategy to think supporting dictatorships is, at the very least, better than the alternatives. People want democracy – and uncorrupt legitimate government. There are good strategies available to deal with risks of Islamist extremist participants in elections, and with chaos. For one thing, the international community can support a  norm that political parties participating in elections commit to the democratic process,  the principle of periodic fee and fair elections, and can be sanctioned if  they renege on these commitments.  International observation of elections should be accepted universally as another norm (the European Union, among others, sends observers to American elections).   Clinton has adapted just the right tone. We need to forge ahead positively and support the Tunisians and their aspirations.

Note: The Washington Post erred in its January 23 editorial on Tunisia in denying that the Administration had called for free and fair elections. Secretary Clinton called for free and fair elections in a Statement January 14 which can be found on the State Department’s web site.

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