Friday, November 24, 2017

On the Legitimacy of the US Invasion of Iraq

George H.W. Bush had not sent the US military all of the way into Iraq; he decided to go along with the consensus in the coalition of the time that the invasion would go just far enough to remove Iraqi forces from Kwait.  Undoing an invasion is a laudatory military venture.

George W. Bush went all the way in, occupying Iraq ostensively because of WMD and a link between Saddam Hussein and 9-11.  Karl Rove states in his memoirs that the fact that no WMD was found under Bush’s watch critically damaged the Bush Presidency.  In addition, the presumed link between Hussein’s government and 9-11 turned out to be spurious.  Rove claims that the invasion was justified nonetheless as a response to 9-11.  ”Having seen how much carnage four airplanes could cause, Bush was determined to do all he could to prevent the most powerful weapons from falling into the hands of the world’s most dangerous dictators,” Rove notes.  From this criterion, however, at least two problems are evident.

First, presumably other dangerous dictators, like those of Iran and North Korea, would have been subject to American forces.  That is to say, the criterion does not justify singling out one dictator.  It does not, for example, say “…dictators who are thought to have a WMD.”  The criterion is broader, yet George W. Bush applied it dogmatically (i.e., too narrowly, meaning to just one of several cases that would apply).

Second, the criterion does not justify removing a government from power; the goal is to keep WMD from falling into a government’s hands.  It could be argued that because the Bush administration thought that Saddem had a WMD, the only way to reach the goal was to remove him from power, but then the justification of the invasion would be invalid because there is no evidence that he had WMD at the time of the US invasion.  He had had chemical weapons, but then I’m sure Iraq is not the only “dangerous” country that has them.  Again, the criterion would have to be applied to all such cases.  To apply it to one and ignore the rest is dogmatic, or arbitrary, and thus points to an ulterior motive other than acting on the basis of the criterion.

In short, whereas his father restrained himself in keeping with the coalition at the early 1990s, George W. Bush went all the way, and without sufficient justification even by the criterion that his advisor, Karl Rove, provides.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.  When there is a rubber-stamp Congress and a President willing to declare war (a Congressional power on account of the structural conflict of interest in having the commander in chief declaring war—meaning declaring that he would be using his power), it is difficult for him to hold back, even when his own father provides an illustration of self-restraint.   Perhaps Congress is too close to the US President’s Office to be vested with declaring war; maybe 2/3 of the governors should be required in lieu of the Congress.  In any case, the imperial presidency is a dangerous thing to have in a republic built on republics (i.e., an empire).  Rome went from being a republic to having an emperor…and then on to ruin.  The US may be following a similar course.  The lessons from the invasion of Iraq can go well beyond foreign and military policy as we search for reforms that pertain to our system of government.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Selling Coal at a Conference on Climate Change

Peabody Energy, an American coal company and unlikely participant at a global conference on climate change in November, 2017, nevertheless previewed its presentation by trumpeting coal as part of the solution with: “As the world seeks to reduce emissions while promoting economic prosperity, fossil fuels will continue to play a central role in the energy mix.”[1] Besides interlarding economic growth at the conference that was on the climate, the company’s management felt the need—nay, even the obligation—to remind the world that coal would still play a prominent part in how the world obtains energy for its billions and billions of human beings. “The reality of it is the world is going to continue to use fossil fuels, and if I can throw myself on the hand grenade to help people realize that, I’m willing to do it,” said Barry Worthington of the U.S. Energy Association before the conference in the E.U. city of Bonn. Were people really unaware that reliance on coal was an intractable problem from the standpoint of reducing carbon emissions, or was the American company simply wanting to sell more coal?
Most experts at the time were insisting that we must shift from fossil fuels to meet the targets on emissions; not even short-term economic prosperity from coal should thus get in the way from the perspective of minimizing the worst expected from increasingly likely climate change. Accordingly, Worthington’s obligation could be viewed contrariwise as a crime against humanity. “Any country or company continuing to champion further exploration for and mining of coal and even other fossil fuels from now on would be willfully carrying out a crime against humanity, and they would be held accountable,” said Saleemul Huq of the International Center for Climate Change and Development.
A useful distinction can be made between helping developing countries to use cleaner and more efficient fossil fuels, as the U.S. had done at the last G20 meeting before the conference, and insisting that coal production be increased or even held at current levels so not to interfere with other social goods (e.g., economic growth). Even the insistence that coal would continue to supply 40% of the world’s energy takes away from the alternative narrative that coal use should be reduced as much and as soon as possible, realistically of course.
Humanity may unwittingly have already been on borrowed time from the standpoint of the Earth’s changing climate—unwittingly because the oceans were still absorbing carbon dioxide such that we could not perceive the full extent of the change already extant on land. So the public alarm from the self-aggrandizing selling of coal at a conference on climate change could be expected to be muted. Even if the oceans had been saturated such that the carbon in the atmosphere was spiking, the public alarm would likely have fallen short of taking into account that the species itself could face extinction—for a future equilibrium of the world’s climate will not necessarily be consistent with continued human survival. Indeed, as a result to natural selection, our species is not “hard-wired” to take the long-range future into sufficient account; we are much more oriented to instant gratification. I suspect that this innate proclivity will be the seed of our species’ destruction unless we can circumvent a changing atmosphere with the advent of technology fitting the scale and severity of the problem. Such technology would have to dwarf that of making coal more efficient.

1. Lisa Friedman, “For Climate Conference, a Sales Pitch on Fossil Fuels,” The Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2017.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Absolute Sovereignty: The Case of Syria

By the end of 2012, over 60,000 Syrians had been killed and over half a million had fled as a result of the civil war in Syria. Shortages of food and shelter were worsening inside Syria for civilians. In early January of 2013, a spokesperson for the U.N. said that the international organization was unable to feed a million residents in combat zones. Acute fuel shortages in Syria were contributing to the rising price of bread—at least six times greater than the pre-conflict price. Additionally, an outbreak of violence in a large Syrian refugee camp of 54,000 refugees in Jordan amid a winter storm was reported. “The incident followed a night of heavy storms, during which torrential rains and high winds swept away tents and left parts of the camp flooded,” an official in Save the Children said in a statement. One might ask what was really behind the deteriorating conditions.
At first glance, the culprit is merely that of two centers of power fighting for dominance within Syria. World history had been littered with such conflicts. However, this explanation does not explain why other countries permitted the harm in Syria to worsen. Lest one be content to ascribe the impotence to a web of international alliances and politics, it can be asked whether principles could have been holding back otherwise willing interventionists.

In a rare public address, President Assad of Syria claimed early in 2013 that the sovereignty of Syria, which is for him the top principle, is “based on the principles and goals of the UN Charter and the international law which all stress on the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of countries.” National sovereignty is absolute. In making this well-established principle explicit, Assad could have drawn on western political theory—namely, the thought of Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes.
In the war-weary context of the seventeenth century, Hobbes wrote that the king needed absolute sovereignty, even as the definitive interpreter of divine law. Any constraint in the latter on a king would pertain to his afterlife, and therefore not bear on a king’s actual conduct. Jean Bodin too had viewed divine law as a constraint on otherwise absolute sovereignty, though for that theorist the king is not the definitive decider on divine law. Accordingly, such law could in principle act as a constraint on a king even in this world. Even so, other powers could not intervene at the expense of national sovereignty.
 Unlike Bodin and Hobbes, Assad defended absolute sovereignty out of fear that Syria would be brought into submission by foreign powers. “A country that is thousands of years old cannot be dictated to,” Assad said, by foreign powers.  “Syria has always been, and will remain, a free and sovereign country that won’t accept submission and tutelage.” Anything less than absolute sovereignty means becoming the vessel of an imperial power. In making this point, Assad could have drawn on dependency theory in international political economy. The sovereignty of developing countries is compromised or surrendered by their subservient economies. In being “allowed” to export only commodities, for example, a developing country could be at the mercy of one or a few countries that are the principal buyers. Those countries could keep the developing country from industrializing so as to retain economic and even political leverage.
In other words, Assad’s position combines the Bodin-Hobbes notion of absolute sovereignty with a theory of economic development that stresses the structural subservience of developing countries. In fact, dependency may lie at the root of Assad’s notion of national sovereignty. The problem with Assad’s rendering is that sovereignty can be viewed as limited without necessarily entailing submission to a foreign power.
Beyond the geopolitical and related mercantilist interests of particular countries, the international community could come to a consensus on how far a government can justifiably go in inflicting harm domestically under the principle of national sovereignty before outside powers would be justified in intervening. In terms of such harm, wounding or killing unarmed residents would trigger relatively close limits on national sovereignty, while the harm unleashed in a civil war would have a higher threshold. Rather than involving submission to the foreign powers, the limitations on national sovereignty would be geared to stopping the harm by removing the extant government from power. Once the government whose legitimacy had been lost internationally is expunged, the emphasis of the international community would turn to assisting the people in the construction of their own new government. To be sure, Assad would view such an approach as a cloak used by imperial Western powers to dominate Syria. The international community would thus be well-advised to stress its own restraint in placing limits on national sovereignty.
Given the sheer extent of harm inflicted on the Syrian population by the end of 2012, however, the international community would be justified in intervening in Syria to immobilize Assad’s government even without concern for the “submission” argument on behalf of absolute sovereignty. That the world stayed on the sidelines, essentially allowing the situation “on the ground” to worse so much, suggests that the dominance of the Bodin-Hobbes notion of absolute sovereignty was still too great, and thus should be subjected to critique. In other words, the powers around the world in favor of intervening should not have felt like they would be imposing in stepping in to stop the violence. The notion of a country being under temporary international occupation because a government had lost its legitimacy due to the harm inflicted or permitted was well overdue even before Assad’s government had gone after unarmed protesters.
The matter of default itself, particularly its staying power (as though a house guest who will not leave), is the true culprit that kept the world at bay as Syria degenerated in a cycle of increasing violence and suffering. Why it is that the default can continue to enjoy hegemony even when it should be subject to critique—this is the underlying question before us here.
Assad can claim that Syria’s sovereignty is absolute. This does not necessarily make it so, even ideationally. He can claim that absolute sovereignty is a necessary bulwark against becoming the agent of another country, but this does not mean that is assumption is valid. In making his claim, he could rely on the default and thus count on the related trepidation of the international community in intervening even to stop horrendous suffering.
If the U.N. is necessarily bound to the notion of absolute sovereignty (even if kept so by one member’s veto), then the international community would be well within its prerogative to form a new international organization (even without necessarily having to leave the U.N.)  that is oriented to placing and enforcing limits on national sovereignty. Such an organization would say, in effect, “No, we will not stand by as great harm takes place within a country.” Would not bystanders be justified in saying something similar as a boyfriend beats his girlfriend in public and restraining the man? Were he to claim that being restrained in that instance would imply or result in him becoming a slave would hardly be taken seriously, and yet Assad’s claim of Syria’s absolute sovereignty had its defenders abroad and even held other powers at bay when they would have been justified in intervening to stop the harm. Were the dogmatic basis of Assad’s claim made transparent (i.e., obvious), the notion that sovereignty is somehow absolute would finally be viewed as artificial in nature rather than as part of the basis of Western civilization; the demise of the reigning default would not have to wait generations needlessly before being realized.


Rick Gladstone and Nick Cumming-Bruce, “Aid Groups Report New Level of Misery Among Displaced Syrians,” The New York Times, January 8, 2012.