The US Must Do Less To Resolve the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Former American diplomat Aaron David Miller is a frequent and worthwhile contributor to US foreign policy discussions in both Washington 8641515729_3c054d927a_zand the news media. His long career in Middle East diplomacy and strong focus on Israel have enabled him to clarify for the general public the many difficulties that exist under the surface of these issues. Unfortunately, as shown by his recent piece in Foreign Policy magazine, he sometimes obscures them as well.

Miller correctly points out that the Israel-Palestine conflict is not the major source of regional instability and that Secretary of State John Kerry was foolish to imply that the lack of progress on this issue had in some way become a contributing factor to the rise of the group that calls itself the Islamic State. But he also elides the enormous amount of responsibility the United States has and continues to hold not only for the Israel-Palestine conflict itself, but also for the difficulty in making any progress on the issue, let alone resolving it. Read more at LobeLog

Transferring The Arabs As If They Were A Herd Of Sheep

Tal Schneider is an Israeli journalist and blogger. At her blog, she recently published this excellent piece by Afif Abu-Much, who lives in the community of Baqa Baqa al-Gharbiyye in Israel. Afif’s village is one of those that would be handed over to the Palestinian Authority in the sorts of land swaps that Avigdor Lieberman champions and all too many other Israelis support. The legitimacy and morality of such an action is often debated, but actually hearing from an Israeli citizen who would be directly affected by such a move is sadly rare. I am very grateful that Tal has permitted me to reprint this piece here, in full, as she and Sol Salbe translated it from Hebrew.  Continue reading

Obama Punts Syria Question To Congress

US President Barack Obama’s decision to use force in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons but to seek Congressional approval before doing so was very surprising. It is a major reversal of the behavior of every president since the 1973 War Powers Resolution was enacted. That Resolution, which set limits on the President’s ability to embroil the United States in a lengthy military action in the wake of two extended but undeclared wars in Korea and Vietnam, has been a point of contention for presidents ever since, with all of them without exception calling the resolution unconstitutional.

The constitutionality of the resolution has never been tested in court, like whenever it has been violated (as Ronald Reagan did in Lebanon and Bill Clinton did in the Balkans). Congress has merely voiced its disapproval, but taken no further action. Neither side can be sure of how the Supreme Court would decide the question. But every Chief Executive from Nixon to Obama have claimed that it violates the separation of powers by impinging on the president’s purview as Commander in Chief. Others claim, with some justification, that it actually codifies presidential impingement on Congress’ exclusive authority to declare war.

Obama surely knows that the War Powers Resolution would not have even come into play in his proposed action. The resolution does not stop the president from taking a limited action that would last, at most a few days, although the constitutional question is considerably more complicated. But the tug of war between the legislative and executive branches that it represents is an ongoing one, with Congress always pushing for more involvement in foreign policy and the president jealously guarding his prerogatives. It is absolutely unprecedented for a president to give any ground on this without a fight.

That, however, is what Obama has done. He knows well that the US public does not want to see us involved in another Middle East war; that, as despised as Bashar al-Assad is, the Syrian rebel forces are no longer identified with the Syrian people Assad is hurting in the minds of many Americans, and that some of the most radical elements among them scare Americans more than Assad does; that Russia will veto any action against its Syrian ally at the UN Security Council; and that, especially after the vote in Britain’s House of Commons against action, the president has few allies abroad to offer international legitimacy to American actions.

Given that he surely knows Congress has no legal right to vote on this question, Obama’s decision is a purely political one. He is quite likely unhappy that his foolish declaration of a red line at chemical weapons has put him in this position, and he is being attacked from all sides, either for not acting right away or for bringing the US closer to a new intervention in Middle Eastern conflicts. He knows that his credibility in the region is now at stake and that allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as adversaries like Iran, will lose even more faith in him if he fails to act. So he is sharing that burden with Congress.

I suspect that, given that the red line has been drawn and most members of Congress will not want the US to look weak and indecisive — however much the Republicans might enjoy Obama looking that way — Congress will vote to support a strike. There will also very likely be a lobbying push in support of Congressional support for Obama. Saudi Arabia opposes Assad, so it would certainly want to see an attack. Israel is much less interested in seeing Assad ousted because a new Syrian government is unlikely to keep the Syrian-Israeli border as quiet as the Assad dynasty has for four decades now. But, despite his being the devil Israelis know, the Israelis don’t have any stake in seeing Assad emerge triumphant at this point, since that would represent a major victory for Iran and, especially, Hezbollah, and there is no way of knowing how Assad would deal with Israel after a victory. Still, while Israel has no great stake in the victor of this conflict, it very much wants to see the chemical and biological weapons Assad has destroyed. Israel does not want those weapons in Syria at all, whoever might have them. So, AIPAC will spur into action, although they may do so quietly, not wanting to be perceived as pushing the US into a war for Israel.

If Obama is wise, he will use the time he now has to try to, at best, find some common ground with Russia where they can come together on a diplomatic plan or, at least, shore up more international support for his “limited attack” on Syria. What seems unlikely, unless Congress does vote against the attack, is any other way to avoid a strike on Syria. Obama has committed the US with his red line declaration, and now, if he doesn’t act, not only does it damage his credibility; it will also tempt the Assad regime to do it again.

No doubt, Iran will be a major part of the debate. A major argument for striking Syria — and it is likely to be very persuasive on the Hill — will be that if we don’t, it will destroy our credibility with respect to “all options” being on the table in preventing Iran from a nuclear weapon. The more productive place for Iran to occupy in this discussion is much more of a long shot. That is, that Iran, if brought into the diplomatic process as a partner, can help find an actual resolution that stops, or at least curtails the massive violence in Syria. Such an engagement with Iran could also help solve the ongoing nuclear conflict and give Washington time to test the intentions of the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani. That course seems to have been hinted at by Obama in recent statements, and some excellent analysts, including Jim Lobe and Barbara Slavin believe he may be trying to open the door to including Iran in the process. I would applaud loudly if this turns out to be the case, but it still seems far too risky a political move to me.

In the end, I think Congress will approve the resolution. Having gotten an unprecedented gift from Obama in the form of a president asking for congressional authorization when he doesn’t have to, lawmakers will want to encourage such behavior in the future. Combined with the credibility question and Saudi and Israeli lobbying, that should bring a sufficient number of votes into his column. I suspect Obama must have done some informal gauging of Congressional opinion on this question in the days before he made this announcement.

It is unclear what Obama will do if the vote goes against him. It would seem unlikely that he would defy such a vote, but he might if the House and Senate split on it. That’s a possibility, as the House GOP is more virulently anti-Obama and isolationist in orientation.

But if Obama gets his stamp of approval, then the lasting legacy of this episode will be his decision to ask Congress at all. There’s a real double-edged sword here. On the one hand, it is obviously a more democratic way of operating. On the other hand, a major reason for keeping foreign policy in the hands of the executive is that Congress is much more subject to political pressure and lobbying. Increasing Congress’ role in foreign policy means increasing that role for lobbying groups, and not only AIPAC. It lessens the role of strategic thinking in the process, a role which is already far too small. As with many other aspects of life in the United States, it will only work well if people get involved on a much larger scale than they are now.

Syria Spotlights Problematic International Law

Russia is not staying silent as the US appears to be positioning itself for an attack on the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Defending its last key ally in the region, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the West against intervention. Western nations should avoid repeating “past mistakes,” said Lavrov.

More importantly, Lavrov illustrates just how broken and vaporous the system of “international law” is when it comes to conflict and protecting civilians. “The use of force without the approval of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is a very grave violation of international law,” he said. And there is no question that he is correct.

An intervention in Syria requires the approval of the Security Council in order to be comply with international law. Such authorizations are, quite naturally, exceedingly rare. Not only does it require a majority vote in the Council, but, more importantly, all five permanent members of the Council (the US, Russia, China, Great Britain and France) must also agree. Any one of those countries can exercise its right to veto any resolution before the Council.

The idea, in 1945, made some sense. In the post-World War II era, there was still some question as to whether the US and USSR would perhaps build on their wartime alliance and find a way to work together, but it seemed unlikely. An incentive to maintain some sense of order in the world by working together on such matters and being able to block one-sided moves might have seemed sensible. It’s even worked out that way from time to time. But for the most part, it’s been a recipe for paralysis and a means to prevent action on matters of global concern, rather than to promote it.

The most obvious example of this is the matter on which there has been, by far, more Security Council vetoes than any other: Israel’s occupation of territories captured in the 1967 war. From 1946-1971, the USSR was the overwhelming leader in Security Council vetoes; no other country was even close. These were, of course, mostly Cold War-related resolutions that directly or indirectly took aim at Soviet actions and policies in various parts of the world. Since then, the overwhelming leader has been the United States, with the clear majority of those vetoes being made on behalf of Israel, protecting its occupation and concomitant violence and settlement expansion.

Indeed, in recent years, the problem has gotten so bad that most resolutions regarding Israel-Palestine have been withdrawn in advance, knowing the US will veto as a matter of course. The matter reached its ultimate absurdity in 2011, when the Obama administration vetoed a UNSC resolution that stated nothing at all that was not already official US policy. But the veto was expected and required. The fact that it was such a moderate resolution raised fears among AIPAC and its various fellow travellers in the Israel lobby, and there was a lot of public pressure on Obama to veto. But there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t have done so anyway.

Politics and power, not international law, govern international matters. The fact is that legality will have no bearing on the US decision to attack Syria or refrain from taking action. The decision will be based on strategy and politics.

The system of international law is irreparably broken. Ultimately, any system of law depends entirely on the ability of the judicial body to enact penalties and sanctions on lawbreakers. Such penalties don’t exist for the United States, nor for Russia or China or the other members of the Security Council. Britain and France are more compliant with international law than the others, but this is due not to fear of censure but because their own situations (including widespread European support for abiding by international law, as well as the experience of the two World Wars and the end of colonialism, the latter having removed a lot of European disincentives toward international law) push them in that direction.

Indeed, it is worth asking this question: if one believes that intervention in Syria is needed to stop what is already a humanitarian disaster from getting much worse, should international law be ignored in doing so? It seems inescapable that the answer to that question is yes, and one is then left with only the question of whether military intervention will help or hurt the millions of Syrians in the crossfire.

But at what point can we claim with reasonable certainty that the moral imperative trumps the law? Particularly in a hypothetical world where the law actually matters, where should that line be drawn? In point of fact, few people are so naïve as to believe that military intervention ever occurs for purely humanitarian reasons. It is generally done in order to pursue the invading country’s interests, and if some humanitarian good is done on the way, well that is just fine. And most of the time, the humanitarian interests are only a cover for other goals; the situation is often oversimplified so the public will support the intervention, which is sometimes vastly distorted.

In this instance, it is Russia warning the United States against violating international law, but the US has played the same game on many occasions — the 2003 push for a UN imprimatur for the invasion of Iraq being perhaps the most prominent and revolting instance.

The alternative to a world governed by international law is a world where might makes right. That is, indeed, the world in which we live. The point here is not that international law should be done away with. On the contrary, it must be strengthened exponentially. A legal system that can enjoy at least some insulation from the whims of politics, both domestic and international, is crucial, and the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice have at least some of that. But more importantly, there must be a mechanism where even the most powerful country can be held accountable for violating the law.

Such a system will never be perfect, of course. Even in the realm of domestic law, we regularly see differences in how it is applied and defied by the rich and the poor. But even the wealthiest individuals have to at least consider their actions when breaking the law. Some system where powerful actors are treated the same as everyone else must be put into place. The answer to how that can be achieved is for better minds than mine, but asking the question is the first step.

Other aspects need revision or at least revisiting as well. Sovereignty is a crucial principle, without a doubt, but it is also used by tyrants to shield themselves from, for example, reprisals under international human rights law. The debate over intervening in Syria following alleged chemical weapons use by the Syrian government is inherently related to the current system of international law, which is broken far beyond the point of having any effectiveness. In many ways, it is an obstacle. It needs to be rebuilt, before more Syrias confront us.