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The Political Animal

Ukraine and Legitimacy

UkraineIt is fascinating to witness with events in Ukraine an enduring controversy of history in the making. Controversies arise all the time, of course, but some are drawn in more dramatic relief than others, and one of those is Ukraine, 2013-14. Most Western exponents of liberal democracy, of both right and left – by no means all – are adamant that Ukraine represents one more natural social outburst of the desire for freedom and democracy, and a rejection of the democratically-styled authoritarianism that is just one form of corrupt oligarchism. One needn’t dissent from this view to find many of the forces for good in these events, as they zealously and uncritically perceive themselves, to have been inept and, in part, opportunistic and blind causes of their own effect.

The opportunism lay in grasping at the chance to wrest Ukraine free from Russia’s domination, and to do so with so little apparent forethought or preparation or principled consistency. Join that incoherent rationale for Western behavior, both before and after the overthrow of Yanukovych, to what should have been the predictable motivation for Putin to react as he has and you have the grounds for the Russian president’s own opportunistic case and action – and for the predictable defense of it on the Western far right and left.

In that last instance, Patrick L. Smith, at Salon, in “Propaganda, lies and the New York Times: Everything you really need to know about Ukraine” makes just the pro-Russian, anti-Western case the title promises. Like other Western-critic, Russia-rationalizers Smith goes heavy on rightist influence over the Ukrainian uprising.

The decisive influence of ultra-right extremists, some openly committed to an ideology of violence, some whose political ancestors sided with the Nazis to oppose the Soviets, is a matter of record. Svoboda and Right Sector, the two most organized of these groups, now propose to rise into national politics. Right Sector’s leader, Dmytro Yarosh, intends to run for president. The New York Times just described him as “an expert with firebombs” during the street protest period.

These people are thugs by any other name.

This is just one reason, says Smith, that “[t]he more I scrutinize it, the more the American case on Ukraine is held together with spit and baling wire.” Of course, it is not just the “American” case, but that is another topic. So is Smith anymore consistent that the American government he criticizes?

Next Sunday Crimeans will vote in a referendum as to whether they wish to break with the rest of Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. The semi-autonomous region’s parliament has already voted to do so, and good enough that they put the thought to a popular vote.

But no. Self-determination was the guiding principle when demonstrators and pols with records as election losers pushed Yanukovych out and got done via a coup (I insist on the word) what they could not manage in polling booths. But it cannot apply in Crimea’s case. The Crimeans are illegitimate and have no right to such a vote.

“[G]ood enough that they put the thought to a popular vote”? So is Smith accepting events in Kiev as expressive, however extra-legal, of legitimate self-determination or not? Is he criticizing them or resorting to their example to justify the Crimean referendum? Both, we see, in a prime, if covert, example of the argumentative reversal. And somehow, in Smith’s own coup against reason, and his exposition of “everything you really need to know about Ukraine,” he does not tell us this:

The reaction to all this in Crimea does not appear to have been done democratically or by the book.

Armed men assumed to be Russian troops or pro-Russian militia stormed the Crimea Parliament building and locked it down. Anatoly Mogiliov, the president of Crimea, who is a member of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, was ordered out.

In a session not open to the public, the Crimea parliament allegedly appointed Sergei Askyonov as prime minister of Crimea. Askyonov is a member of a small, obscure political group called from the Russian Unity Party, which won too few votes in parliamentary elections in 2012 to win even one seat in Kiev.

Nor, to balance his reporting on “ultra-right extremists” in Ukraine, does Smith include this, about the new Crimean prime minister, in “everything”:

“He wasn’t a criminal big shot,” said Andriy Senchenko, now a member of Ukraine’s Batkivshchyna party, which was at the forefront of the Kiev protests that led last month to the downfall of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych. Senchenko described Aksyonov as a “brigade leader” in a gang that was often involved in extortion rackets.

While Senchenko is not unbiased — his party opposes Aksyonov’s push for Crimea to become part of Russia — the editor of the region’s main pro-Russian newspaper, Crimean Truth, also accused Aksyonov of being in a criminal gang. Mikhail Bakharev made the allegations five years ago, when Aksyonov first emerged on Crimea’s political scene.

Well, so everybody in the pristine realm of national and international power politics will have dirty targets at which to aim a crooked figure. But at least everyone is consistent in principle in how they shape and against whom they direct their arguments, yes? Clearly, no. Among the many consequences of Western carelessness in Ukraine is the opportunity for the Putins and the Smiths to so muddy the waters over the issue of legitimacy.

Was the just completed Crimean referendum legitimate? Was the Ukrainian parliamentary vote to remove Yanukovych from office – compelled by the threat of the streets – legitimate? What constitutes governmental legitimacy? What warrants action to remove by extra-legal action a presiding government, previously recognized as legal? In whom rests the authority to carry out this extra-legal removal, to then assume the authority, on what basis, to govern? When is almost everyone’s liberating revolution a less romantic “mob-action” instead, in which the legitimacy of the complaint in uprising and of the forces rising up in substitution of those governing may be called into question? These are just a few of the questions in political philosophy that may apply, and generally speaking, in practical terms, the determinant of the answer is the existent ideological perspective of those making the judgment.

The ideological perspective on this issue of those adhering to liberal democracy, right and left, is likely best expressed by John Rawls, in Justice As Fairness, that

political power is legitimate only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution (written or unwritten) the essentials of which all citizens, as reasonable and rational, can endorse in the light of their common human reason. This is the liberal principle of legitimacy.

Add to this some representation of Max Weber’s concept of legal-rational authority, “a set of rules and rule-bound institutions” where “creating and changing the rules are outside of the control of those who administer them,” and we probably have the nut shell of legal administrative procedure leading to democratic justice that most in the West would endorse.

One difficulty, however, is that such would describe what is legitimate, or a standard against which some government might fall short. But how far short may it fall before most of us would agree that legitimacy has been lost, so that some usurpation of authority may be attempted? And whence the legitimacy of the usurping forces?

We pretend when we argue about such crises as Ukraine and Crimea that there is some clear and settled standard by which to make these latter judgments, but there is not. Usurpations of power, by glorious and other revolutions, with the reactions against them, are always ad hoc affairs with makeshift and evolving ethical rationales. In 1969, 71 nations granted diplomatic recognition to the Republic of China on Taiwan, with only 48 recognizing the Peoples Republic of China on the mainland. By 2013, only 22 nations recognized the ROC, while recognition of the PRC had grown to 172. This evolution in the perception of the legitimacy of these two governments did not arise out of any objective improvement in the argument for the PRC over that of the ROC – unless, of course, material facts are considered to influence, along with morality, a political determination, which, of course, they are. The PRC holds, indeed, the mainland, is far larger, more populous, more militarily, and – most important of all – more economically powerful. “Legitimacy” bends beneath the wheel of material reality.

The 2008 declaration of independence of Kosovo is not recognized by Serbia or the Serbian administered North Kosovo. Because of Russian objection, Kosovo will not likely soon be granted a UN seat, yet it has received 110 recognitions as an independent state, and the International Court of Justice advisory opinion on Kosovo stated that Kosovo’s declaration did not violate international law. Kosovo’s government is and will be recognized as legitimate because, right or wrong, international bodies will have reached consensus on it legitimacy and no power strong enough will be acting to prevent the exercise of that government’s authority.

These are the realties that will develop over time in Ukraine and Crimea. It is important to note for the future, however, that the current uncertainty is not just the product of Russia’s role as bad actor, but also the strategic ineptitude of the West. Without attempting any objectively considered defense of the overthrow of Yanukovych within a coherent philosophic framework, the EU and US assert the legitimacy of the usurpation, truly, in the faith that their side and agents represent the substance of democratic justice, even if the procedure has to be made up as events proceed. Further discoveries of Yanukovych’s corruption, subsequent to his flight, are post hoc justifications, and Russia is Russia, and so illegitimate in its power plays on the face of them. Not surprisingly, as I argued before, Putin genuinely believes otherwise. Events, tactics, and countless opportunities to weaken in resolve will determine the real end.

The EU and US acted as if this would be a second go at the 2004-05 Orange Revolution, with another chance to get it right and get Russia and its Ukrainian stand-ins gone. But the course of the Orange Revolution was ultimately decided by a Ukrainian Supreme Court decision and new elections. There was no overthrow of a democratically-elected leader and Putin was not fully the power then that he is now. None of this seems to have been taken into account in anticipating the magnitude of what was occurring. The Western nations, so blinded by their sense of moral superiority, could not see that their advice and guidance of Ukrainian government opponents – rather disingenuously self-styled as just the innocent advocacy of democracy, even as it excused the threat of the streets – would be perceived by Putin as interference and aggression.

Because the West played geopolitics without a playbook – they are, don’t you know, so nineteenth century – numbered among the West’s failures thus far is the opening, from more than one direction, to challenge the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government, which has become the rationale of all consequent Russian actions.

AJA

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The Revolution with No Name

delalibWhen it seemed to some at the end of the Cold War that we had also reached the end of history, more than ever, every act of rebellion and revolution seemed cause to celebrate an elevated human spirit. After a long winter of merely staving off an enemy’s further success, now freedom was rising with people uprising, and cheer was in the air. We got, relatively peaceful and colored (orange and rose), revolutions and “springs” that sprang of the hope – so richly did the sap of it rise in great municipal squares around the world – that all that is necessary to topple tyranny is for good people to yearn in multitudes together in city centers, suffer only small losses against brutish police while their uplifting cause is broadcast to the world via iPhone and tweeted the encouragement of the well-fed and meaning.

Hold, now, candles up to the night, under music, for the next inspiring Apple or Nike commercial.

Nothing could stop universal liberation now.

Except as it turned out, lots of the colors faded, and the springs were either false or soon broken, which many people, it seemed, failed to notice. More begin to now.

The course of revolutions was never swift and sure, glorious or quickly final. There were counter revolutions, restorations, and failed republics, great dictators along the way before decades might cast a shadow of the original dream. The promise of the French Revolution was not soon borne out: eighty one years passed between the storming of the Bastille and the final establishment of republican government never again to depart.  Three quarters of a century after the Russian Revolution waited the collapse of Soviet barbarity and then Yeltsin on a tank  just to deliver, so far, ninety-three years later, Vladimir Putin on horseback.

The American Revolution stands more and more exceptional, especially for those who make Exceptionalism the currency of their daily political barter and harangue, though not so exceptional that many of the same won’t pretend that all it requires is a freedom agenda and a perpetual footing for war to spring the world’s restive and aspiring masses, properly watered, into the same colorful bloom.

For many, after Iraq and Afghanistan and those departed springs, it could be Syria that has taken so much the bloom off that rose, though there was Iran in 2009 before it. The right’s interventionists predictably made the failure of that revolution Barack Obama’s failure, though never a credible case was made by never a soul that a president’s greater public encouragement of the “Green” revolution would have led to anything other than the same dismal end with many more dead in the street.

Somewhere now in the consciences of some, not in those of others, arises amidst the inspired freedom calls also the moderating memory – the recollection, in the moral vision of King, that while, he hopefully told us, the arc of history bends toward justice, it is in the first place long. What is it that we provoke with our policies and acts, our encouraging words and cheers, and how, most importantly of all, have we prepared not others, but only ourselves to face what it is that we invoke in the world?

What do we invoke in the world? American troops still in Iraq and not to leave Afghanistan even after thirteen years if some would have their way. The same people would have led the U.S. to enter – oh, let us not argue for the moment over just how – the Syrian civil war. They wanted us, too, to be “all Georgians now” in 2008, when Russia sent troops into South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And now there is Ukraine, hotter by the day, with Venezuela just a little on the back burner. North Korea, too, there is always the threat of North Korea, and if, likely, no negotiated settlement is reached with Iran over its nuclear program – just how many air campaigns, missile strikes, policing actions, proxy wars, full-fledged attacks, and all out wars do the impassioned eminences of American imperial militarism believe the United States can conduct at once or in just a decade or two, after a decade or two, without inflaming the world and putting the torch to America’s own democracy?

What is neither reasonably nor honorably, which is not to say  uncontested about Ukraine:

  • that Victor Yanukovych was the most corrupt of oligarchs and a malleable instrument of Russian imperial policy
  • that Russia’s invasion of Crimea is both illegal and unjustifiable.

Still, it is so that not many conclusions necessarily follow from these truths.

From the start there have been divisions over the identity and nature of those behind the anti- Yanukovych protests, with Timothy Snyder in The New York Review of Books and Steven Cohen in The Nation prominent opponents pitting freedom-loving liberals against the right wing nationalists the Russians want to cast as fascists. Snyder does not have to be wrong for Cohen to be partly right. Not all American revolutionaries were Tom Paine and Alexander Hamilton. Some retained their monarchical tastes. And do we not receive our very terminology of political right and left from the French Revolution? And did not the Bolsheviks out maneuver a host of competing and more moderate parties during the Russian Revolution? A revolution is never one thing.

Going back to the 2004 Orange Revolution, the evidence of Ukrainian liberal leaning toward the West is clear enough, particularly in the western Ukraine. The problem of Ukraine 2014, whatever the Russians say, is not who is behind the uprising, but what the West thought it was doing in Ukraine and what thought it gave to what the Russians would do when the West did it. The evidence is that what the Europeans and the U.S. thought they were doing was far too simple minded, and that barely a competent thought was given to what the Russians would do.

One does not have to be Henry Kissinger, characteristically unmindful of moral considerations, not to be James Kirchik, treating geopolitical fault lines as cause for a modern crusade on a high horse to the New Jerusalem. One need not be Kirchik to know which side acts more, in King’s words, to uplift human personality, or Kissinger to know when acts are better guided by the possible. The world is not remediated by zealotry.

The most telling words of anyone, by far, in these events were uttered by Vladimir Putin himself when he finally spoke to the public.

I think they sit there across the pond in the U.S., sometimes it seems … they feel like they’re in a lab and they’re running all sorts of experiments on the rats without understanding consequences of what they’re doing.

This striking observation reveals much. First, for the man who in the past year has emerged as the American right’s latest master strategist, the personal resentment – what should not guide the policy of master strategists – is palpable. Second, the words nonetheless confirm what many on the right have already charged – that Putin holds Obama in contempt. Third, Putin is right. The conclusion of amateurish fooling around in Ukraine, without “understanding consequences of what they’re doing,” is escaped only through partisan rationalization.

But a greater understanding of the mistakes here escapes both Putin and Obama’s home front critics. When all those EU diplo-  and technocrats were luring Ukraine toward membership, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, declaring the EU could get fucked, was picking and choosing who should govern Ukraine after a successful rebellion, it was not, clearly, just the Americans who were wearing lab coats. And it was not the Obama administration, but many of its current critics, before this administration, who have publicly desired all these years to bring the “defensive” lines of NATO right to the borders of Russia, about which the Russians were expected to think what – “Oh, we know, you’re the good guys, we shouldn’t worry”?

Steven Cohen has been infuriated by his own critics calling him a Putin apologist – and why should anyone so intimately connected to The Nation ever be considered tainted by anti-American apologetics – yet it is true that one can, without Cohen’s soft sell of Putin’s autocracy, understand matters from a Russian perspective. It is what fundamentally competent strategists do, and what is required to be done if one wants actually to accomplish a strategic goal and not simply posture about it before the alter of world-historical righteousness.

What stretch of imagination is required to recognize that Putin would not perceive Nuland’s and all the others’ lab set ups benignly? Nuland et al. may envision themselves as no more than traveling preachers tending to their flock’s greater yearning for nearness to democracy, but how much empathetic projection is needed to intuit that Putin, or any Russian leader, would likely see them as outside agitators firing up the flock, stirring up trouble in his own neighboring parish, about which, it just so happens, he cares a little and has an interest? How much geography and history must one know to recognize the significance of Ukraine to Russia? Or that Crimea, once, in 1954, in very different times, literally given to Ukraine for Soviet administrative and political purposes, would not now, seemingly pick-pocketed from Russia’s geopolitical hip, be simply given up with a shrug and a smile? “Oh, well, you win this time. Come back at ya with Mexico when I get a chance.”

Unsurprisingly, entreaties to true believers that they try reversing roles have been facilely dismissed. The U.S., they insist would hardly, in contrary circumstances, invade and annex part of Canada. The easy reply to that easy claim is that, no, obviously, the United States is not Russia. To whom other than rankest of crank extremists on either end of the political spectrum does that case need to be made? Less facile is to wonder just how obvious it is that the United States would not act similarly. American interventions in behalf of national interests are a twentieth century historical marker. Had the Canadian or Mexican governments been toppled during the Cold War by Marxist leaning street protests, how hard is it to conjure the frenzied calls, particularly from the right, for American action? In fact, the United States has maintained possession of Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, occupied by treaty signed under the duress of colonial domination, even as the internationally recognized government of Cuba has for more than fifty years protested that continued foreign occupation. Once the American Civil War was over, the U.S. began covertly to supply arms to Juarez in Mexico, in opposition to the French-installed Emperor Maximilian. The 1823 Monroe Doctrine declared that European interference, not in a neighboring country, but anywhere in the Western Hemisphere would be considered “manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.”

None of this is to argue an equivalence between the United States and Russia. These commonalities alone create none such. Rather it is to hold out Russian interest in Ukraine as obvious and its response to events easy to have anticipated. That Putin would seek to regain Crimea, which had long been part of Russia. That he might opportunistically lie in wait for eastern Ukraine. That no election in May will invalidate the license Putin feels now even more strongly, as has the West all along as well, to work clandestinely to shape the future of whatever Ukraine will remain. Still, unprepared for the response so far, Western voices rail against it as a behavioral outlier.

When freedom agenda crusaders, particularly, rail so obviously about how good we are, and how bad is the autocrat of the day, they despoil statecraft with a simplistic Manichaeism. In this mode of thinking, Putin knows he is bad – chooses to be bad, like Satan in rebellion against God. He mentally spurns and is rejected by the goodness he recognizes and that in a better world would have been his. His opposition to “us” is thus a kind of private wound, a closely nurtured insufficiency that justifies itself in devilishness, while all the while he actually knows just how bad he is.

This is a misunderstanding of personality at its core.

While it is standard operating procedure to identify all of Putin’s lies, which, of course, are many, identifying Putin particularly with lying exhibits just that core misunderstanding. The autocrat is not fundamentally a liar, but a bullshitter.

Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires.

Regarding Ukraine, we see that Putin does more than simply lie, in the claim, for instance, that uniformed troops in Crimea without insignia are not Russian, which no one believes: greater, he fakes the context of Ukraine entirely. The authentic individual lie is meant to deceive, to be mistaken in the greater context for the truth. Bullshit, however, is intended to confuse, so that the truth disappears. This is what all autocrats intend, the vanishing of the truth beneath the panorama that is their vision of the world – the extension of their own egos. The truth that is manifest in history is that autocrats believe in what they are doing.

To strategize against the likes of Putin, then, one must work with that understanding, along with historical and geopolitical fundamentals. From that perspective, there is no question of the autocrat’s commitment to negotiations as a matter of preferred principle, some shared belief that talking together,  regardless of conflicting interests, is always preferable to conflict. The autocrat will employ – as Assad has done – Mao’s policy of fight, fight, talk, talk until one way or the other he gains as much as possible of what he wants. (And, yes, the date on that linked article about Iran is 2005, under the Bush administration, not 2014.)

Effective negotiations against the autocrat will have two characteristics. They will offer the autocrat a less costly, limited win more easily achieved than through other means, and they will deliver to democrats their own limited win that blocks any near-term further success by the autocrat through continued conflict or subterfuge. Absent that second characteristic, democrats will have been outmaneuvered, as the U.S. thus far has been outmaneuvered on Syria, where a failure even to come close to meeting the February 6 deadline for the removal of all chemical weapons has been allowed to pass with barely comment from the Obama administration, let alone action of any kind. At the same time, the administration had a vision of Syrian peace talks, but, astonishingly, apparently believing that Assad actually wanted to talk, rather than use the talks to delay, had no strategy for the talks whatever beyond the idea of them. And now there is the distraction of Ukraine.

Contrary to the belligerent harangues of American militarists, however, the West and the Obama administration have not been outmaneuvered because they – really, the U.S. – are not prepared to shake a militant fist at every trouble spot and throw punches often. They are adrift because they had no coherent strategy either to accomplish the kind of end they sought in Ukraine. Obama has a proper global vision for the twenty-first century – a U.S. that resorts to military action only rarely, in vital or self-defense, and no longer multiple times a decade in vestigial Cold War defense of imperial interests, no longer in bearing the burden of ill-conceived humanitarian interventions on behalf of everyone else,. There is, too, the belief that in time, centers of power and concern will shift to Asia. All this is good, but it is a partial geo-strategic position, not a plan for getting there. Not a plan, most of all, for how to act in long term consonance with a part of the nation’s vital self-definition: a great democracy standing unselfishly, yet with a mature understanding of historical development, in support of democracy for all nations.

One senses that Obama embraces such a national self-definition with very great, truly conservative reserve. Thus he has no regional and global strategy for playing this role, and was as unprepared as were the Europeans for the entirely foreseeable response of Putin, who quite reasonably, by his lights, took developments in Ukraine as aggressive meddling in his interests. The militarists will assert that they are advocating the aggressive resolve that won the Cold War. But for all the necessary military preparedness, Western success in the Cold War was ultimately a holding action in which one side outlasted the inner contradictions of the other. On a contrasting track, with the exception of Korea, nearly every coup, proxy war, or semi-proxy war the U.S. fought during the Cold War was just as ultimately a disaster, for the U.S., the third nation involved, or both.

It is probable that a long end game in Ukraine would have been no different with planning than it may be now: re-absorption of Crimea into Russia, with some or all of the remainder of Ukraine, amid continuing contention with Russia, aligned now toward the West. Adequately prepared, with continuing contention thus perhaps moderated, and with all the pro forma legal and diplomatic objections to the Russian annexation of Crimea, Ukraine might have been successfully framed as a win for democracy – because it would have been, as it still may be – rather than as a crisis.

To avoid careening from one crisis to another, however, a clearer vision of future roles is required. The militarist American right will prefer a long continuation of the United States’ Cold War imperial leadership. That self-destructive vision needs to be dimmed. However, inadequately, Obama’s presidency came at the right time finally to begin to turn those lights out. More, though, is needed. Some clearer articulation of a more sharply defined strategy is required by a center-left neither committed to defining the American role via military action nor allergic to the legitimacy of it. A coherent expression of the international role of democracies in the twenty-first century must be formulated. An evangelizing freedom agenda is simply cold warriorism without the defensive rationale. It is a formula for endemic and destructive global conflict, which is an occurrence in nature sufficient to need no assist from the laboratory coats. Still, democratic nations cannot be expected in their intercourse with other nations not, by their very nature as democracies, to give expression to the character and promise of political freedom. They cannot be expected not to share their knowledge of this freedom and its rewards with those who seek it. But we must always understand what we are doing when we do so in any given context, with what chances of producing good rather than harm to those we hope to help, and to even more around them. We must consider how it advances a larger project, or retards it. We must consider the conflicting interests of others, and we must do it without the kind of righteous arrogance that produced during the Cold War, in Graham Greene’s words, a self-delusive American innocence of good intentions, in Vietnam, that was “like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

Essential to any new strategy will be a significantly elevated role for Europe and other democracies. Europe particularly has enjoyed a nearly free ride on the American people and their economy for over six decades. One strong expression of American leadership can be leadership to end that state of affairs and to bring mature democracies more fully into actively funding and engaging the defense of freedom. Another will be a recognition that the United Nations has run its course. It is exhausted as an instrument of assertive and effective action in support of the many supreme paper principles it has enunciated over its life. It is used by the worst tyrants in the world, through cynical manipulation of ideal expressions and exercise of institutional powers, to thwart actual amelioration and change in the world, such as what might have been possible in Syria without the veto power of Russia and China. It is time to start on the long course of superseding the United Nations with a new Global Union, in which the extent of a member nation’s institutional role is determined by a measure of its actual adherence to organizationally expressed principles of democratic practice and human and civil rights.

That would be a freedom agenda too, and the beginnings of a plan to help the many future Ukraines the world and history still has to offer.

AJA

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Drones and the Human Agency of War

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This commentary previously appeared in the Algemeiner on May 17, 2013.

Joshua Foust has written at Foreign Policy a misleadingly essay titled  “A Liberal Case for Drones.” I think there is such a case, but this it not it and a case for drones is not even truly the subject of the piece. The actual subject is raised very early by Foust’s question, “Could autonomous drones actually better safeguard human rights?” Not drones, but autonomous drones and their relation to human rights protections in war is the the actual subject of Foust’s considerations.  Why the title misleads you will have to ask Foust and Foreign Policy. That is not my interest here. Neither is the debate in the comments to Foust’s essay about whether there truly are or are likely to be any time soon autonomous drones. My interest is in Foust’s arguments and how they mistake the human problem of war.

Foust tells us that Human Rights Watch

argues that autonomous weapons take humanity out of conflict, creating a future of immoral killing and increased hardship to civilians. HRW calls for a categorical ban on all development of lethal autonomy in robotics. HRW is also spearheading a new global campaign to forbid the development of lethal autonomy.

To narrow the focus still more, then, the issue is lethally autonomous drones. (Or weapons of any kind; the focus on drones here is purely topical.)

“Offensive systems, which actively seek out targets to kill,” Foust quotes Armin Krishnan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at El Paso, “are a different moral category.”

Foust then makes the major both practical and moral focus of his essay the relative accuracy and reliability of human versus automated agency in offensive military strikes and killing. He acknowledges moral concerns – not with drones, per se, but with lethal autonomy – but he mistakes them.

Noel Sharkey, a high-profile critic of drones and a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, argued forcefully that machines cannot “distinguish between civilians and combatants,” apply the Geneva Conventions, or determine proportionate use of force.

It is a curious complaint: A human being did not distinguish between civilians and combatants, apply the Geneva Convention, or determine an appropriate use of force during the infamous 2007 “Collateral Murder” incident in Iraq, when American helicopter pilots mistook a Reuters camera crew for insurgents and fired on them and a civilian van that came to offer medical assistance.

Humans get tired, they miss important information, or they just have a bad day. Without machines making any decisions to fire weapons, humans are shooting missiles into crowds of people they cannot identify in so-called signature strikes.

Thus, for Foust, the morality of lethal autonomy in weapons systems is tied essentially to accuracy and reliability.

“If a drones system is sophisticated enough, it could be less emotional, more selective, and able to provide force in a way that achieves a tactical objective with the least harm,” Liles says. “A lethal autonomous robot can aim better, target better, select better, and in general be a better asset with the linked ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] packages it can run.”

In other words, a lethal autonomous drone could actually result in fewer casualties and less harm to civilians.

Implied by all Foust argues is that human moral advancement in the conduct of war – a problematic, though nonetheless genuine notion acknowledged by just war, among other, theories – is exemplified by diminished numbers of casualties, especially civilian and what would amount to more effective winning. This is a seductively appealing argument on the face of it. If we must sometimes fight wars (well, really, we must admit, it is far more often than sometimes) let us at least do it by killing as few people as possible, certainly as few women and children, in the classic formulation, and as few innocent civilians.

These are certainly goals to pursue, and the militarizes of liberal democracies do most of the time pursue them. But I do not think this goal is the essence of human moral advancement in war. First, effectiveness in winning war has never been a problem. Since wars began, whenever exactly that was – two clans fighting over a cave and a fire? – most of the time one side has managed some kind of victory. Warring groups have always been effective at winning.

On the score of diminished civilian casualties, whatever increased human concern with laws of war, through the mid twentieth century it can hardly be argued that humanity had achieved any form of advancement. More effectively lethal weapons produced, in fact, more killing, and more civilian death, on a scale previously unimaginable. Since the the second half of the twentieth century a pronounced characteristic of war, in the lethality of weaponry, has been that of profound technological disparity between warring parties. This has been so in all of the conflicts of the United States, of Israel over the past more than thirty years, of the Soviet Union and of Russia in Chechnya, for example. This has produced markedly lower comparative casualties on one side (not always a clear winner, as in the U.S. in Vietnam or Israel in Lebanon in 2006), though sometimes still comparatively massive casualties, even mostly civilian, as in Vietnam and the Iraq War, on the other. This disparity may be a happy development for the side with low numbers – not necessarily a winner, and not by any inherent necessity deserving of the benefit – but it cannot easily be argued that such a development is an advancement in the protection of human rights in war.

Foust touches on the heart of the matter only at the very end.

The issue of blame is the trickiest one in the autonomy debate. Rather than throwing one’s hands in the air and demanding a ban, as rights groups have done, why not simply point blame at those who employ them? If an autonomous Reaper fires at a group of civilians, then the blame should start with the policymaker who ordered it deployed and end with the programmer who encoded the rules of engagement.

This is far too facile in its moral acknowledgement and in its practical recognitions. In the latter regard, the very first product of technological autonomy will be a flight from responsibility-blame. A coder programming an autonomous offensive weapon according to approved selection criteria, under guidance of established military procedure and national law would be and should be no easy target for the assignment of moral responsibility. Such a chain of abstracted and decontextualized decisions is the very scenario of plausible deniability of responsible agency all around.

Responsible agency, the assumption of moral agency – not mere assignment of blame – is the heart of the matter. While earlier approaching the point, Foust misses it.

[T]he concern seems rooted in a moral objection to the use of machines per se: that when a machine uses force, it is somehow more horrible, less legitimate, and less ethical than when a human uses force. It isn’t a complaint fully grounded in how machines, computers, and robots actually function.

This is, indeed, essential to the more general debate over the use of drones; in the current consideration, though, the matter is not machines using force (really being used for), but machines using force autonomously. Autonomous weaponry removes the human moral agency of killing in war, could remove it, ultimately, from war altogether. Yet if anything can redeem the essential human crime of war, enact justice in the waging of it, it is precisely the complementary human moral agency of it.

Yes, if we must wage war, kill as few people as possible; yes, if we must, kill as few innocents as possible (on both sides). But it is, as Human Rights Watch and others assert, human beings who must take on the burden of that responsibility even if they might exercise it less perfectly than machines. War is the greatest crime against life we commit. It destroys the humanity of the dead and diminishes it of the living who wage and survive it. To reduce the numbers killed by passing off the complete task of killing to machines will not redeem a greater store of our humanity in a just cause, but instead sacrifice the remainder of the humanity we sought to save. To wage war and remain fully, tragically human, we must keep our own fingers poised, we must sight, however remotely, the people we have accepted as our enemies, and we must, with full recognition of what we do, accepting ourselves the burden of what we do, choose to pull the trigger ourselves. Automating war to greater perfection will not protect our human rights; it would diminish our human being. The crime of war is human. The morality in it can only be human too.

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The Political Animal

Official Corruption and Death in Russia

Back in December I posted about the death in Moscow police custody of Sergei Magnitsky. Yesterday – I presume because of my post – I was one of an undisclosed number of bloggers to receive from Magnitsky’s employer, Jamison Firestone, of the Moscow-based law firm of Firestone Duncan, the following video detailing the events of a $230 million tax theft and Magnitsky’s subsequent, fraudulent arrest, leading to his torture and death.

Firestone, a native New Yorker who has spent the past two decades in Russia helping foreign companies navigate the Russian business environment, himself chose to flee Russia in February, fearing that Russian Interior Ministry official were attempting to set him up for arrest in another tax theft and fraud scheme. Working from London, with his firm still operating in Moscow, Firestone is apparently attempting to provide for Magnitsky what most victims of official murder in largely lawless nations rarely receive, a professionally produced and orchestrated campaign to hold the perpetrators accountable.

Last month, Firestone gave a detailed interview to OpenDemocracy on the history of the case and his fight on Magnitsky’s behalf. Now there is an extensive website devoted to the case, Russian Untouchables. The website offers a trove of information, including links and copies of case evidence discussed in the video. The case appears to be heating up, as The Moscow Times reports: Pressure Mounts on Interior Ministry in Magnitsky’s Death.

The video itself is a high quality professional production – Sixty Minutes for the Internet. It is compelling viewing. As you watch, keep in mind what Bloomberg reports:

Perceived lack of law is one reason Russia has attracted less than one-fifth the investment in China and Brazil and half of what’s invested in India, its fellow members of the so-called BRIC group of emerging nations, according to three years of data compiled by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based fund- tracker EPFR Global. The nation’s economy shrank the most on record in 2009….

Russia ranked 146th in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perception Index, tied with Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone. The Berlin-based group’s Global Corruption Barometer suggests “endemic” corruption among public officials and civil servants in the country, with one-third of Russian respondents reporting paying a bribe in the past 12 months.

AJA

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