Propping Up Autocracy Will Bring Neither Justice Nor Stability to the Middle East

In their campaigns for the presidency, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have held up stability as their preeminent goal for the Middle East and argued against efforts that would undermine autocracy in the region, even to the point of opposing the replacement of the Assad regime, which has committed mass slaughter and countless other crimes against humanity in Syria. Working to foster the spread of democracy and human rights is not seen as a vital national security interest by either populist nationalists or liberal nationalists. Some reject a belief in universal human rights, while others argue that the people of the region simply lack the capacity to live in free societies, respect human rights, and participate politically. Often, this line of thinking is paired with the argument that autocracy had been providing the region with stability and order. The historical record and sources of the present unrest point to the opposite conclusion.

In a recent speech, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power explained why autocracy is actually the source of much of the instability, violence, and injustice in the region:

It was not the United States or the coalition of which we were a part that shattered the tenuous stability of the Qaddafi’s tyrannical rule; it was the Libyan insurrection, which was a thoroughly Libyan-driven occurrence. Once the Libyan people had decided to contest Qaddafi’s rule, he would not have been able to restore order – whether by repression or even by brutal massacre. On the contrary, had Qaddafi gone forward and carried out his threats, it would almost certainly have galvanized more fighters to join the ranks fighting against him. So the increasingly common claim that our standing by would somehow have made for a more stable Libya just isn’t right….

So here’s the question: What is the U.S. role in promoting inclusive, accountable governments and robust civil societies that we know are so crucial to advancing our long-term interests in the region?

Now, this question rests on a premise that some in the region – and even in our own country, including a few prominent presidential candidates – might contest. That premise is that the way the countries of the Middle East will achieve greater stability and security over time is by moving toward governments that have to answer to their own people, and that respect human rights. People who challenge this premise tend to argue that strongmen are the only forces that can hold these societies together, and that it was the very collapse of the region’s strongmen that led to the rising violence and turmoil that harm U.S. interests today. One almost encounters a kind of nostalgia for the autocrats who are seen to have maintained order back in the day.

It is true that, for decades, undemocratic governments in the Middle East and North Africa – many of them in fact ruled by strongmen – offered a veneer of stability, particularly when compared to the current upheaval. But the leaders did not grow the political or economic institutions in their society, and, by refraining from pursuing political evolution, they set the stage for much more disruptive revolution. The wave of popular uprisings that spread across the region in 2011 represented a clear rejection of the corrupt, ineffective, and abusive machinery that had stifled people’s aspirations for so long.

Some have argued that the United States should have prevented the Arab Spring, or that different policy choices could have preserved the old order. But the truth is that once the citizens of the region lost their fear – and that was a big threshold they had to cross – once they lost their fear and took to the streets, the strongmen would have needed to use significant violence to try to put the genie back in the bottle – violence of a scale that the United States could not have aligned. Violence that would have never succeeded in the end in turning back the clock.

Let me be clear: the old system was not the source of stability – it was itself at the root of so much of the violence we see in the Middle East today. Autocratic rule is bad for the future of the region and it is bad for the interests of the United States.

Rather than invest in their people, strongmen use their nations to enrich themselves and to crush independent checks on their power. To give just one example, it is estimated that, at one point, approximately one in five people in Libya was on the payroll of Qaddafi’s Orwellian security apparatus. Just think about that: a fifth of a country paid to police itself. Imagine if those resources and that energy had been directed to Libyan schools or Libyan hospitals.

In addition, autocrats routinely stoke ethnic, tribal, and sectarian divisions that can quickly lead to explosive violence. They recognize that one of the most effective ways to entrench themselves in power is to persuade members of one group or another that their survival depends on patronage and protection. Similarly, they are also quick to repress the rights of minorities when they see such actions as a useful distraction, or as an opportunity to strengthen their own hand. In this way, the tension fueled by strongmen becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, igniting divisions between communities that have long lived together in relative stability. And the fiber that binds pluralistic societies together is much easier to tear apart than it is to sew back together.

Another reason we should be wary of supporting strongmen is that they foster a climate of fear and despair that can be exploited by terrorist groups to grab territory, as we have seen, and to attract new members. Extremist groups like ISIL and Al Qaeda have seized upon the frustration that builds up in places where people feel they have no agency to overcome the injustices they endure. These groups promise them a delusional but nominally righteous pathway in which to channel their resentment.

Now no suffering, no matter how profound, can justify terrorism. Nothing can justify a person violently attacking innocent human beings. ISIL is a monstrous, nihilistic movement that has inflicted immeasurable suffering that goes well beyond what its members themselves have experienced. My point is only that that the systematic repression and atrocities that despots rely upon to maintain their grip on power creates a climate of instability and despair that extremist groups have used to help recruit.

Consider Syria, again. No single factor has been a bigger boon for the recruitment of groups like ISIL than the horrors committed by the Assad regime. Each time the Syrian military has gassed a civilian neighborhood; or barrel-bombed a school, hospital, or bread line; or cut off another community from vital humanitarian aid, starving helpless men, women, and children to death – every time the Assad regime has not just succeeded in inflicting tremendous suffering on Syrian people, it has fueled the hatred that ISIL and extremist groups use to draw more fighters to their cause, including thousands of foreign fighters holding American and EU passports.

Thanks to the cessation of hostilities, some of these horrific practices have been reduced. But we still see persistent violations and indiscriminate regime attacks.

The Assad regime also provides an example of the fourth reason autocrats make for bad and unreliable partners: they often support terrorism when they see it as advancing their narrow self interests. During the war in Iraq, the Syrian government allowed its territory to become the main transit route for terrorists traveling to Iraq to fight the American-led coalition. The Syrian government also has sponsored the terrorist group Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon for decades. And while Assad presents himself as the only man standing in the way of ISIL overrunning Syria, he conveniently omits that it was his own government that released up to a thousand violent detainees, including many individuals who had been radicalized in his own appalling prisons, and he did that in order to justify his government’s crackdown on peaceful protesters. Just think about that for a moment: a dictator deliberately, cynically strengthens the hand of terrorists in order to try to gain Western support and create a pretext for crushing nonviolent dissent. Similarly, Qaddafi consistently sponsored terrorist groups and attacks during his reign, including the infamous Lockerbie bombing. Is it really credible to argue that partnering with leaders like these will help us fight terrorism over time?

What is an alternative to autocracy that can better promote long-term security, justice, prosperity, and peace in the region? Powers explains:

So if we have such profound concerns about autocratic behaviors, who or what are we for? I’ll just lay that out here. We are for pluralistic, inclusive governments that empower all their people, regardless of their sect, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, rather than pitting them against one another. Governments that give a share of power to all groups through transparent, democratic processes, and give their citizens the tools to hold those in office and those in civil and public service accountable. We are for governments that give their people a chance to provide for their families through honest means, rather than creating a system where corruption and patronage is the only way to get by or to get ahead. We are for governments that empower women and girls, both because it is right thing to do and because countries where women enjoy equal rights and equal opportunities are, on average, more prosperous, healthier, more democratic, and more peaceful. We are for leaders who give people a path to participating in their societies without having to take to the streets in protest. We are for institutions that are built to empower their people, rather than to exploit them; to serve their people, rather than to repress them. We are for using political processes, institutions, and negotiations to resolve conflicts, rather than using violence. We are for rule of law, rather than rule by law.

Disagreements will inevitably exist over the exceptionally complex question of how to promote this form of government in the region. But recognizing that this commitment to basic rights, good governance, and political participation aligns both with our most cherished values and the key overall goals of US foreign policy is critical. Propping up brutal dictatorships is not only unjust; it will never bring the stability that its proponents desire and promise.

 


Human Dignity 2016

The Institute for Church Life of the University of Notre Dame recently hosted a lecture and conference on human dignity: “The End of Human Dignity? Recovering the Intellectual Appeal of Human Dignity for the Theological and Philosophical Imagination.” The event featured Cardinal Onaiyekan, Cyril O’Regan, Leon Kass, Gustavo Gutiérrez, and David Walsh, and numerous other prominent philosophers and theologians. Here are some of the highlights from those live-tweeting:


What is the Whole Life Movement?

At its core, the whole life movement is dedicated to protecting the life and dignity of all people. It is rooted in a belief in the innate dignity and worth of every single human being. Each human being is a person with innate and equal value, and human life is sacred. From these premises comes the belief that it is never permissible to intentionally and directly take an innocent life. But the wanton disregard for life present in unjust social structures and the dehumanization of others in ways short of direct killing are also incompatible with the whole life commitment to human life and dignity. Indirect threats to life, such as the absence of access to healthcare or food, are also fundamentally incompatible with the vision of government and society the whole life movement aims to achieve: the common good. Protecting the life of all people is intimately connected to creating conditions that reflect the dignity of every single person, conditions that allow each person to reach their full potential.

The whole life movement is not a rival of the pro-life movement. Instead, it seeks to purify the pro-life movement of its inconsistencies. A pro-life movement that ignores infant mortality rates, starvation, or the degradation of the environment simply does not deserve the label ‘pro-life.’ It becomes a mere euphemism for supporting laws that restrict access to abortion. It becomes detached from the understanding of human dignity and worth that should animate the movement. Only a whole life approach can make the pro-life movement authentically pro-life. Read More


Twenty Years Later: Honoring the Victims and Survivors of Srebrenica

US Ambassador to United Nations Samantha Power spoke at the UN commemoration of the genocide in Srebrenica. You can watch the full video below. Her concluding remarks highlight the lessons that should be drawn from Srebrenica:

In closing, let me simply appeal to all gathered here that the resolve induced by the horror of Srebrenica be extended not only to commemorating the past, but to do far more to prevent genocide and mass atrocities in the present. When those indicted for genocide — today — are able to travel freely, when some would find greater fault with an international court than with those alleged to have perpetrated horrific mass atrocities, when Member States of the United Nations would provide money and weapons to regimes that would gas their own citizens, the sense of impunity that Ratko Mladić felt will reign elsewhere, and we will fail those who need us in the present.

We must never forget the genocide in Srebrenica. We must always honor its victims, its survivors.

But we must never forget also that our words will ring hollow if in the here and now we don’t believe the unbelievable, if we don’t end the culture of impunity that exists in so many places around the world, and if we don’t strengthen our resolve to protect those who count on us all.

Check out the full video:


Blessed are the Peacekeepers?

In a recent speech, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power described the vital interest and critical role the United States has in peacekeeping. Power described how intrastate conflicts can displace vulnerable populations, spill across borders, destabilize neighboring countries, undermine economic progress, reverse democratization and disrupt civil society, allow criminals and repressive regimes to thrive, and open up vacuums that are filled by extremists, including interstate terrorists.

But peacekeeping is not just about American or international security, but our values. Given American power and influence, there is a responsibility to do what we can to protect some of the most vulnerable people on the planet and build a more peaceful world. Power explained:

“We do not want to live in a world where more than 9000 kids are recruited in less than a year to become child soldiers, as has happened recently in South Sudan. We don’t want to live in a world where ethnic or religious communities who lived together for decades in harmony, such as the Muslims and Christians in the Central African Republic, learn to hate and fear and demonize one another.”

Of course, the risks and burdens associated with peacekeeping should be shared by the international community, as Power explained. And those who wish to foment conflict have trouble spreading accusations of imperialist designs when peacekeeping operations include representatives of many nations, including those from the global South. The need to revitalize peacekeeping and ensure that it meets the challenges of contemporary conflict is urgent and the shared responsibility of the international community.

Power explained some of the serious challenges that must be addressed: slow troop deployment, limited mobility, keeping units fed and hydrated in remote areas, and failure to confront aggressors and protect civilians. Two-thirds of UN peacekeepers are working in active conflict areas, the highest percentage ever. They are being asked to do more than they ever have been before in a world with suicide bombers and IEDs. And too often they are under-resourced.

Peacekeeping missions are often funded by developed countries, but the troops are typically from developing countries. Power called this unsustainable and unfair. The UN and US are asking Latin American, European, and East Asian countries to contribute more troops in response to this.

Power highlighted the successes and failures of various missions. In Democratic Republic of the Congo there has been some progress, but she noted that there is still a failure to protect local people from atrocities. In hundreds of attacks, peacekeepers almost never used force to protect civilians. Peacekeeping missions must embrace the responsibility to protect these vulnerable populations.

For more than 20 years peacekeeping has been evolving, and the realities of modern conflict support that evolution. As Power explained, consent and impartiality make sense when dealing with legitimate governments and even rebel groups, but less so with extremists and brutal organizations that perpetrate crimes against humanity. Restricting peacekeepers’ use of force to pure self-defense is something that cannot be justified when genocide or other mass atrocities are occurring. As Power stated, the gap between the mandates peacekeepers are given and their ability to carry these out must be closed.

Finally, past scandals involving peacekeepers, including sexual abuse and violence, highlight the importance of enforcing the UN’s zero tolerance policy on these crimes. A strict enforcement will deny peacekeepers any sense of impunity and show vulnerable populations that peacekeepers are working for their best interests. Such a policy, combined with the reforms outlined by Samantha Power, can strengthen the ability of peacekeeping missions to protect the vulnerable and serve the common good.


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Mercy, Part I by Michael Sean Winters: “Most of us Christians grew up with the idea that the God of the Hebrews was an angry God. Certainly, many Christians have conceived him as such. But, Kasper sets out to destroy this myth and largely succeeds.”

Part II and Part III

Finding Faith in The Simpsons: The Top Five Theological Episodes of The Simpsons by Katharine Mahon: “But hidden inside this deeply flawed family and this caricature of American culture is a honest and rich depiction of family life in 1990’s America. The show explores moral dilemmas, spiritual crises, the love of spouse, parent, child, and sibling, as well as the testing of that love.”

Saudi Arabia continues its outrageous repression of human rights activists by Washington Post: “Saudi Arabia remains determined to shut the windows, close the doors and throw dissidents into solitary confinement.”

U.N. says pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine murder, kidnap and torture by Louis Charbonneau: “Pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine are guilty of a wide array of human rights abuses, including murder, abductions and torture, and are receiving a “steady supply” of sophisticated weapons and ammunition, according to a U.N. report obtained by Reuters.”

The Mental Virtues by David Brooks: “In fact, the mind is embedded in human nature, and very often thinking well means pushing against the grain of our nature — against vanity, against laziness, against the desire for certainty, against the desire to avoid painful truths. Good thinking isn’t just adopting the right technique. It’s a moral enterprise and requires good character, the ability to go against our lesser impulses for the sake of our higher ones.”

The Saint Who Taught Me to Worship by Timothy O’Malley: “The vocation of humanity is this kind of praise, a perfect praise in which every form of worship finds its end not in better, more sophisticated (and novel) worship that generates more and more emotion. But in that gift of self, which Christians call love. Worship is not about us, it is not about our affections. Instead, it is about becoming who God intended us to be: members of a symphony of perfect praise of the voice and the will alike.”

ISIS selling Yazidi women in Syria by Raja Razek and Jason Hanna: “Hundreds of Yazidi women abducted by ISIS have either been sold or handed out to members of the Sunni extremist group, according to an organization that monitors the crisis.”

Getting to the Crux of why Catholicism matters by John Allen: “In places such as the Philippines, corruption is a signature Catholic concern, and with good reason. Global Financial Integrity, a research organization based in Washington, estimates that corruption cost poor nations almost $6 trillion over the last decade, draining badly needed resources for education, health care, and poverty relief.”

Russia Is Burying Soldiers in Unmarked Graves Just to Conceal Their Role in Ukraine by Josh Kovensky: “The Russian government couldn’t care less about its dead soldiers. Paratroopers who have been killed in Ukraine are not receiving military funerals, nor are they being recognized for having died for their country. Rather, their graves have been kept unmarked.”

More Workers Are Claiming ‘Wage Theft’ by NY Times: “The lawsuit is part of a flood of recent cases — brought in California and across the nation — that accuse employers of violating minimum wage and overtime laws, erasing work hours and wrongfully taking employees’ tips. Worker advocates call these practices ‘wage theft,’ insisting it has become far too prevalent.”

What’s missing in the Ebola fight in West Africa by Jim Yong Kim and Paul Farmer: “To halt this epidemic, we need an emergency response that is equal to the challenge. We need international organizations and wealthy countries that possess the required resources and knowledge to step forward and partner with West African governments to mount a serious, coordinated response as laid out in the World Health Organization’s Ebola response roadmap.”

Siege of Iraqi town broken by CNN: “Iraqi security and volunteer forces have broken the siege of Amerli and have entered the town, retired Gen. Khaled al-Amerli, an Amerli resident and member of its self-defense force, told CNN on Sunday….The breakthrough came after the United States said it carried out airstrikes and dropped humanitarian aid in Amerli to protect an ethnic minority that one official said faced the threat of an ‘imminent massacre.’ Amerli is home to many of Iraq’s Shiite Turkmen.”

Right to Die, or Duty to Die? The Slippery-Slope Argument Against Euthanasia Revisited by Charles Camosy: “When euthanasia is legalized in cultures where the values of autonomy and consumerism hold sway, we soon end up with the kinds of deaths that almost no one wants. We also end up with a culture that almost no one wants – one that pushes vulnerable older persons, not just to the margins of society, but even to the point of dying in order to make space for the young, vigorous and productive.”


Fears of Genocide Grow in Iraq

The Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) is once again gaining ground in Iraq. As it increases its control of Iraqi territory, it has engaged in mass atrocities and terrorism, while increasingly implementing its totalitarian vision. Kurdish forces have been resisting the Islamic State’s advance, but were forced to pull back in recent days, exposing more Iraqis, particularly members of minority populations, to the Islamist extremists’ violence. Christians have fled IS in large numbers, including 200,000 from the Nineveh plains. Thousands of Iraqi Yazidis meanwhile face grave danger:

Stranded on a barren mountaintop, thousands of minority Iraqis are faced with a bleak choice: descend and risk slaughter at the hands of the encircled Sunni extremists or sit tight and risk dying of thirst.

Humanitarian agencies said Tuesday that between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians remain trapped on Mount Sinjar since being driven out of surrounding villages and the town of Sinjar two days earlier. But the mountain that had looked like a refuge is becoming a graveyard for their children.

The situation has become extremely dire. The Obama administration is pondering (and is perhaps already engaging in) efforts to help those fleeing violence and repression by providing humanitarian support. This may also mean a direct bombing campaign against IS militants. The administration had been reluctant to conduct such a campaign thus far because of the President’s general desire to reduce American involvement and intervention in the region, combined with the legitimate fear of appearing to side with the Shi’a in what many Iraqis had initially viewed as a Shi’a-Sunni conflict.

There are a variety of factors behind the strength of the Islamic State and its success in Iraq. A key factor has been Sunni alienation from the Maliki regime, which has increasingly engaged in violent sectarianism since American forces left the country. Some Sunnis welcomed the advance of IS, though such sentiments seem to be fading now that IS has begun to implement its vision. The decision to pull all US troops out of Iraq in 2011 was a terrible blunder by the Obama administration, as the US presence was restraining Shi’a sectarianism by the Iraqi government. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is of course more directly responsible for this sectarianism and shares responsibility for the withdrawal of US forces, but the Obama administration backed Maliki and was not firmly committed to protecting the gains made by American troops. The surge and Sunni Awakening had opened up a window for Iraq to move toward a more stable, democratic future, but Maliki’s malfeasance and the American abandonment of Iraq closed the window.

Of course, the Bush administration should not escape criticism for the current state of Iraq. The 2003 war was launched with little effort to ensure international support and legitimacy. Once no weapons of mass destruction were found, these problems were compounded. But as bad as these mistakes were, the failure to plan for the occupation and the mistakes made by the Bush administration during the occupation, which led to increased radicalism and eventually civil war, were even worse. Bush and Rumsfeld clung to a failed strategy, while Iraq descended into a civil war that was far from inevitable. The absence of security prevented Iraq from working out the political solutions it would need to achieve greater stability as an extremely young, developing democracy. Finally Rumsfeld was replaced and a superior strategy was implemented, but the legacy of those lost years endures.

Would Saddam Hussein have survived until (and through) the Arab Spring if the US had not invaded? Would he have responded to the Arab Spring even more brutally than Bashar al-Assad, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, but perhaps making an IS invasion impossible? We will never know. But we do know that the Bush administration’s many errors in Iraq made Iraq more vulnerable to this invasion.

Finally, the Obama administration’s refusal to sufficiently arm the moderate rebels in Syria and help them to displace Assad led to the radicalization of the opposition and strengthening of ISIS. Assad meanwhile intentionally allowed ISIS to gain strength by releasing terrorists from prison, buying oil from them, and refusing to bomb key locations where they had control. The strategy was to try to present the entire opposition as terrorists and force the international community to choose between a continuation of his rule and a state governed by terrorists. While the moderate rebels fought both Assad and ISIS (without proper assistance), Assad allowed the threat of ISIS to grow.

Given the chaos that exists in Iraq, it seems unlikely that Maliki will survive as prime minister. Unfortunately the US has little leverage in pressing for a government that is representative of the entire Iraqi people and likely to reduce sectarian tension. To defeat the Islamic State, Sunni opposition is essential, but this is unlikely if the Iraqi government is run by Iran-backed Shi’a sectarians. Perhaps even Iran will see the foolishness of such a strategy at this moment.

Ultimately, however, the humanitarian situation seems to require more direct American intervention. Establishing emergency airdrops of essential goods seems like an obvious step as this point. Airstrikes may be necessary to prevent IS from gaining more ground. The US could also provide greater support to Kurdish forces. But the US should also use whatever small amount of leverage it has to push for a more representative government in Baghdad before fully aligning with the Iraqi government. Even now, it is essential to push for a reduction in sectarianism, rather than reinforcing it.