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.


In Response to the Crimes of Assad and ISIS, the House Passes Genocide and War Crimes Resolutions

After nearly five years of civil war, precipitated by Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters, and perhaps 470,000 deaths, the US House of Representatives passed a war crimes resolution aimed at holding Assad and his allies accountable for their war crimes, as well as a genocide resolution that identifies Christians as victims of ISIS’s genocidal campaign of terror, along with Yazidis and others.

The latter passed by a vote of 393-0, putting pressure on the Obama administration to include Christians as designated victims of genocide in Syria.

The war crimes resolution passed 392-3. This resolution, sponsored by Republican Chris Smith, a leading defender of human rights in the House, directs the Obama administration to promote, through the UN, an international war crimes tribunal. Smith explained, “Accountability that is aggressive, predictable, transparent and applicable to perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity on all sides of the divide must be pursued now.”

Voting against the resolution were three of the worst members of a historically lackluster Congress: Justin Amash and Thomas Massie, two extreme anti-government Republicans, and Democrat Tulsi Gabbard, who has argued that the continued rule of dictatorships that have engaged in crimes against humanity serves American interests. Brooklyn Middleton put it best: shame on them. This should haunt their political careers.

Update via CNN:

Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that the United States has determined that ISIS’ action against the Yazidis and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria constitutes genocide.

“My purpose here today is to assert in my judgment, (ISIS) is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control including Yazidis, Christians and Shiite Muslims,” he said, during a news conference at the State Department.

Assad’s Victims Include Syrian Christians

201141722223122790_20While a number of prominent Christian leaders have backed Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad as he engages in the mass murder of Syrian men, women, and children, it is important to remember that many Syrian Christians have been brutalized and murdered by the regime because of their courageous commitment to freedom, democracy, and human rights. And, of course, many others have been killed simply because of Assad’s indiscriminate use of force to terrorize the population. The persecution of Christians, Yazidis, and others by ISIS should not obscure this fact. Hind Kabawat has a new article that reminds everyone that the war in Syria is not a holy war, many Christians have stood by their values instead of embracing sectarianism, and that Assad’s millions of victims—who have their lives uprooted or ended by the dictator’s lust for power—include Syrian Christians:

Before the uprising, Daraya was a sleepy middle-class suburb for Damascus residents. By 2011, it had become an epicenter of peaceful protests, as thousands marched in the streets calling for Assad to step down from power. As a member of the Syrian Christian community, I was overwhelmed with excitement to join this grassroots people’s movement that called for democracy, freedom and rights for all Syrians, no matter our differences.

Syrians were united then. The church bells rang in Daraya in solidarity with the protesters. From their balconies in the narrow streets, Syrian Christians showered protesters below with rice and flowers. They marched hand in hand.

A holy war, this was not.

By 2012, the Assad regime intensified its armed crackdown against the unarmed protesters in Daraya. A terrible massacre occurred there on Aug. 24, 2012, as Assad’s regime sent troops, secret police, and members of the elite 4th Division to prevent residents from fleeing the city by any means necessary. Families were executed in their homes, whole buildings of women and children were machine-gunned in the streets, and residents were even decapitated — long before the so-called Islamic State even existed.

The state-run media launched an aggressive propaganda campaign claiming Muslims were massacring Christians, aiming to stoke fear of the opposition in the Christian community. As regime soldiers went door to door, searching for people to murder, it was the Christian community of Daraya that opened theirs to protect those fleeing the atrocities. One Catholic church treated the injured and prepared food for them….

If anything, Putin and Assad’s bombing and starvation campaign has made Syria more dangerous for Christians. The barrel bombs dropped by their military machine on Daraya and towns across the country cannot offer our Christian community protection. The thousands of Syrian children unable to attend schools, and the thousands facing starvation due to Assad’s kneel or die policy, cannot offer Syrian Christians peace of mind.

UN: Assad Regime Guilty of Extermination, Crimes against Humanity

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NBC News describes a new report from the United Nations on crimes against humanity in Syria:

Thousands of civilians are being secretly imprisoned, raped, tortured and exterminated by Syria’s government as it wages a bloody civil war, a United Nations commission found Monday.

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria lifted the lid on what it called a systematic, country-wide pattern of prisoner abuse by President Bashar Assad’s regime — which it said amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The government’s crimes against prisoners included “extermination, murder … torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts,” according to a report from the commission published Monday.

Tens of thousands of detainees have been arrested in what the commission described as a “countrywide pattern” of arbitrary detention over allegations such as supporting the opposition or being “insufficiently loyal” to the government.

While most prisoners are men, some women and children as young as seven years old have died in regime custody, the report added.

None of this is really news to anyone who has been following the Syrian civil war. But it does shine a spotlight on the costs of the Obama administration’s feckless response to these mass atrocities. And now Assad’s ally Russia has joined the regime in committing war crimes, killing thousands of civilians through the use of indiscriminate weapons and by directly targeting the innocent, mirroring Assad’s tactics. It is all part of a coordinated strategy to leave the two sets of mass murderers—the Assad regime and ISIS—as the only two groups left standing.

The Vatican continues to repeat its persistent calls for a negotiated settlement, while Assad, Iran, and Russia seek a military solution to the war. Unlike the threat of American strikes (in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons), Russia’s indiscriminate bombing has not prompted a special day of prayer or any other direct response from Pope Francis. Nor has the Vatican shown any signs of remorse for siding with the Assad-Putin-Iran-Hezbollah alliance in negotiations, a disgraceful decision, which is magnified with each new report of the alliance’s crimes against humanity. Even with the brutality of the Assad regime and its malignant intentions on full display, we still are not seeing real moral leadership from Pope Francis (or many other Catholic leaders, for that matter), such as denouncing those by name who are committing these crimes against humanity and demanding in the name of God that they stop slaughtering innocent people.

Does the Catholic Church believe that mass murderers, who murder, rape, torture, and disappear innocent civilians, are legitimate authorities? If the Church and its leaders sincerely believes in its teachings—that governments exist to serve the human person and that their legitimacy is intimately linked to this responsibility—then the answer should be clear: mass murderers belong behind bars, not in palaces or presidential suites. But we are hearing silence on the matter. And silence is complicity.


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:

Rwanda’s Central Lesson: Never Again

It’s now been twenty years since Rwanda was engulfed in a sea of unimaginable horrors. Perhaps 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in just 100 days in 1994, as the world stood by idly.

This modern genocide relied not on the latest technology, but on simple instruments of death—most often machetes and nail-studded sticks (known as masu). It was evil in its most naked and pure form—hatred and brutality were translated into sheer butchery. The depersonalization of the victims was personal, as the killings were carried out directly with people’s own hands, sometimes brutalizing their own neighbors. For those who had somehow forgotten the horrors of the Holocaust or the depths of that depravity, it was a reminder of the human being’s capacity for cruelty and evil.

Twenty years later, Rwanda has provided us with stories that show the opposite—the human person’s capacity for good, for spiritual freedom, for the ability to rise above evil. Many Rwandans have courageously pressed on in life after losing their entire immediate family. Like many Holocaust survivors, they have persevered and found meaning in life despite losing dozens of relatives and friends.

Beyond this, there are countless stories of forgiveness. Those who have lost their dearest loved ones have forgiven the perpetrators of these heinous crimes. Where we might naturally cling to hatred and the desire for revenge, they have chosen love. For all of us who turn away from loving others over petty disputes, their Christian witness demonstrates how far we must go to truly follow in the footsteps of Christ and embrace His radical commitment to love and forgiveness.

These stories should inspire us. And they should show us that reconciliation can be achieved in situations that seem more likely to result in endless cycles of violence and revenge. The pain does not disappear, the consequences of evil actions reverberate, and the genocidaires must still face the punishment that must be meted out, but freedom from hatred is possible when free will is exercised to choose love over revenge, mercy over vindictiveness. It is not easy, but these stories show us that it is possible.

Yet it’s still critical to remember the single most important lesson of the Rwandan genocide: ‘never again’ must not be an empty slogan but a concrete reality. The moral imperative to halt genocide or mass atrocities trumps the state’s claims of sovereignty. The international community has a responsibility to protect the innocent.

It is not a call for endless meetings or strong verbal condemnations or additional UN reports or pseudointellectual discussions of “age old animosities,” but action that stops the killing. Romeo Dallaire, the Force Commander of the UN mission in Rwanda during the genocide, believes that just a few thousand troops with a mandate to protect the innocent was all that was needed to save hundreds of thousands of lives. The international community failed, and President Bill Clinton has rightfully identified his inaction as his worst mistake in office.

The Church is not guiltless. It worked closely with a colonial regime that imported the eugenic pseudoscience of Tutsi biological superiority and divided a society along ethnic lines, creating decades of resentment, animosity, and fear. And the Church’s record during the genocide is also stained by far too many shameful acts and sins of omission.

Just as there were prophetic acts of Christian courage and love in the Holocaust, like St. Maximilian Kolbe’s willingness to sacrifice his own life, some Rwandan priests, religious, and lay Catholics put life and limb on the line to protect threatened Tutsis and moderate Hutus. But far too many were complicit in the genocide, with some facilitating the death of hundreds and even thousands of men, women, and children. Some priests and nuns embraced the Hutu Power ideology of the genocidaires. Others were just trying to save their own skin.

The Church’s inadequate response heightens its responsibility to embrace ‘never again.’ The Church, in any way it can be defined, did not do enough to resist the Rwandan genocide. Its response to the Shoah was also inadequate. Some critics of the Church may ignore the good that was done by some Christians and Church leaders, but this does not negate the responsibility to acknowledge the Church’s failures. The Church must atone for its failure to do more to protect the innocent. It must be a leading voice that demands action to prevent and halt genocide and mass atrocities.

There are some encouraging signs that the Church may be moving in this direction. Pope Benedict XVI has said that “recognition of the unity of the human family, and attention to the innate dignity of every man and woman, today find renewed emphasis in the principle of the responsibility to protect.” The responsibility to protect flows from the core commitments of Catholic social teaching: to human dignity, the sanctity of life, universal human rights, and the equality of all human persons as children of God.

The international community’s response to ethnic cleansing in Central African Republic has thus far been too slow and inadequate, despite the excellent response of religious leaders, including Archbishop Dieudonnè Nzapalainga. The response to mass atrocities in Syria can only be described as pathetic, with over 150,000 killed and crimes against humanity being committed on a daily basis.

Both the international community and the Church have yet to fully embrace the Responsibility to Protect. Let us pray that the preeminent lesson of the Holocaust will be learned and fully embraced by both so that ‘never again’ will no longer be a slogan, but a description of reality.