Sending the Wrong Message

March 23, 2011

I’ll drop this whole military angle very soon, I promise. There are plenty of other boring topics to consider:)

The parallels between the current “humanitarian intervention” in Libya and the 1999 air war in Kosovo continue to pile up – unbenknownst to the media so far as I can tell (seriously, its like the Clinton administration is a distant memory to most analysts). I remember way back then the popular criticism of Washington and its European allies that is being rehashed today: “Why intervene in Serbia/Libya and not country x, y and z when they are facing massacres on a similar scale?” A valid criticism on the surface, though I don’t feel it holds up under even the most superficial examination.

Here’s that superficial examination.

Forgive me if this sounds insensitive, but I see the case for selective humanitarian intervention as being analogous to speeding (though obviously the crimes that would welcome intervention are on a much larger scale). We do not expect that the laws regarding speeding will be implemented with absolute equality – the cops can’t be everywhere, so some offenders will escape.  That some are not prosecuted for their violations of the law does not make the law any less valid or the application of it in certain cases inherently less equal. In the case of humanitarian intervention, that it is not undertaken in certain countries where human rights violations take place on a massive scale does not on its own reflect poorly on the sincerity of those states willing to act to establish human security in a country that has essentially surrendered its sovereignty by its inability or unwillingness to govern in a manner that respects the dignity of its populace (there are plenty of otherwise to test the sincerity of an intervention, for one see my earlier post “There is no humanity at 30,000 feet”).

Selective application of humanitarian intervention does, however, send several mixed messages.

Message #1 – “We’ll only use force against our enemies.”

Bahrain and Yemen are perfect examples of this message. While the scale of violence in both countries has not yet reached the level that’s been reported in Libya, both governments have been detaining, beating and even shooting their citizens.

In Bahrain at least 13 have been killed while hundreds have been wounded, with many being denied medical assistance.  While in Yemen, 52 people were murdered by the military this weekend alone as President Saleh clings more desperately to his 32 year old rule.

Why doesn’t the West intervene in either of these countries who, like Gaddafi, are using state violence against peaceful protesters?

Bahrain is host to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet and serves as a key installation for American military reach in the region, while the Sunni-dominated monarchy has been able to check the possible expansion of Iranian influence by cowing its Shiite majority population. Bahrain has called for its own intervention, inviting 1,000 Saudi troops to assist in quashing the protesters.

Yemen has essentially been a failed state for some time, a condition that al Qaeda has been able to exploit by establishing a somewhat highly effective wing there (this might be overstated by the media). President Saleh has been quite helpful to the Americans in the quasi-war they have been fighting in Yemen, a relationship they couldn’t bank on continuing with some unknown successor should Saleh fall. Saleh’s heavihandedness has received only mute criticism so far from Washington. The true test will come if the country dissolves into (another) civil war, as is becoming increasingly likely this week.

Message #2 “We would help but you don’t have anything of value.”

Libya doesn’t have much of value (maybe 2 percent of the world’s oil at most) but there is an appreciable threat of Libya being in disarray to the two nascent democracies on its borders, Egypt and Tunisia. Plus, as some have argued, the Europeans aren’t too keen on absorbing hundreds of thousands of refugees that follow in the wake of Gaddafi’s indiscriminate assault.

Sorry Ivory Coast, Darfur, and Kyrgyzstan. If you wanted help you should have established your country closer to xenophobes or put oil under your surface.

Message #3 “We only intervene where there will be a minimal cost in our blood.”

Since the June 2009 presidential “elections”, Iran has been beating, shooting, hanging and disappearing peaceful demonstrators and reformist politicians. They also have a large military that has been able to project itself into Iraq, Lebanon and the occupied territories almost at will. Even a limited action against Tehran would result in massive repercussions. So the West will continue to pick its fights with the Third World.

Message #4 “WMDs aren’t such a bad idea if you’re a tyrant.”

This is related to Message #3. In 2003, Moammar Gaddafi had voluntarily given up his nuclear weapons program, perhaps for reasons that are more complicated than the fear of becoming the next Iraq, as Bush supporters often gloat. Given the events since Friday, that might have been a mistake. As Steven Taylor at “Outside the Beltway” observes: “if he had actually acquired just one nuclear weapon, the current actions would likely not be taking place”. If you were Iran or North Korea, how quickly would you be willing to trade in that ace up your sleeve now?

The implications for the “humanitarian intervention” in Libya are obviously difficult to weigh, despite my best efforts above. A true measure of the impact of the decision to punish Gaddafi while ignoring other criminals of comparable viciousness will take some time.

What does seem clear is that the decision to avoid intervening militarily in the countries represented in the four “Messages” above does seem to me to be rational even if it is not just. It is democracies who are fighting these battles and doing so for an abstract ideal (again, if that ideal is in fact sincere). When human life is on the line this justification will be unpopular to a domestic electorate. Call that view cynical if you want, but it is true. The decision to intervene in Libya, and the method for doing so, was made not cause its easy, but because it is the easiest to sell.

What I mainly hoped to convey was the sense that any application of the use of force, regardless of the ideals behind it (the sincerity of those being a separate issue), is fraught with complexities. I do believe in the idea behind humanitarian intervention, however we’ve never seen its application in an ideal case.  The incredible complexities inherent with each new crisis that may warrant such intervention suggest that we never will.


Wrestling a Straw Man can be Fun for a While

March 22, 2011

Yesterday’s “Belief Blog” on the CNN website attempted to gain perspective on the earthquake/tsunami in Japan from representatives of various world religions. Obviously, it being a popular blog, the respondents were only permitted to provide cursory answers to what is a tricky theological question: “how could God let this happen?” I decided to post portions of their responses and interpret/respond to the contributors’ answers.

Note: quotes from each contributor will be in italics while my comments will be plain text.

Respondent #1: Rabbi Harold Kushner

Whenever a disaster like this occurs, I go back to the Bible, to the First Book of Kings. Elijah, in despair over the situation in Israel, runs to the desert, back to Mt. Sinai to find the God of the Revelation to Moses.

“And lo, the Lord God passed by. There was a mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind. There was an earthquake but the Lord was not in the earthquake.”

To me, that is the key: the Lord was not in the earthquake.

Natural disasters are acts of nature, not acts of God. God cares about the well-being of good people; Nature is blind, an equal-opportunity destroyer.

An interesting start. Even if we take the premise that God and nature operate separately there is still the question of design. The Rabbi quotes from Elijah but maybe he should go back a little further to Genesis where it describes God as being the ultimate creator of the universe and everything in it. It would follow that if Genesis is to be believed, God designed this imperfect world we live in, including its shifting tectonic plates – the natural phenomena that blindly killed thousands of innocent Japanese. Seeing that this is the case, it wouldn’t seem that God could escape responsibility. If you hire a carpenter to build your house would you not blame him if your roof collapsed on you?

Respondent #2: Dr. Sayyid Syeed

This disaster is not the result of any sins of these people; we need to be clear that there is no belief that these victims “deserved” it for any of their actions. Rather, Muslims see these kinds of tragedies as a test from God. Muslims believe that God tests those he loves, and these tragedies also serve as a reminder to the rest of us to remain grateful to God for all our blessings and cognizant that we must support those in need.

This quote certainly differentiates the respondent from the traditional Judeo-Christian response which assumes disasters are divine punishments for the wicked (for examples please see: Robertson, Pat;Falwell, Jerry; Testament, Old). Still, there is something unsettling about Dr. Syeed’s argument. If snuffing out the lives of more than 18,000 people is a reflection of God’s love, I’m not sure I, or anyone else, would want it. If there is a God, I would hope man’s bond with Her/Him would not be analogous to an abusive relationship.

These kinds of calamities should push us in positive ways. They should strengthen our faith in God and in his goodness. We attribute the things we don’t understand to his limitless wisdom and comfort ourselves that he is with us and he loves us, so there must be some meaning in what has happened, even if it is beyond our comprehension here at this time.

Here Dr. Syeed seems to be addressing the immediate question that would follow his answer that the tsunami can be explained by God’s “tough love” approach to humanity – namely, why does God’s love have to be projected through punishment? Unfortunately the answer to the follow-up question is equally unconvincing as Dr. Syeed goes to the favorite failsafe of all monotheistic religions: God’s will is inscrutable. Taking this track opens up the question that if God really did seek to show some “meaning” through the tsunami, couldn’t She/He have found some other way of doing so without killing scores of innocents? As Dr. Syeed states, God’s power defies logic so Her/His options to communicate whatever opaque message humanity is meant to learn from this event would be limitless.

It is the collective duty of all humankind to put resources in this and advance our understanding of how to respond to these disasters in a scientific way.

Dr. Sayeed loudly proclaims “don’t question God’s inscrutable will”  and accept the good and bad in the world as a reflection of God’s love in one paragraph, then whispers “let’s try to mitigate the impact of his ‘love’ wherever possible” in another.

Respondent #3: Sam Harris

Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely.

As the lone atheist respondent, we know which of the three options above Harris would pick – though we might not be limited to the three presented. What if the Vikings/Greeks/Romans/Egyptians/etc. were right and we live in a polytheistic universe? Not likely but at least as worth of examination as two of the three alternatives presented by Harris.

Religious faith, on the other hand, erodes compassion. Thoughts like, “this might be all part of God’s plan,” or “there are no accidents in life,” or “everyone on some level gets what he or she deserves” – these ideas are not only stupid, they are extraordinarily callous. They are nothing more than a childish refusal to connect with the suffering of other human beings. It is time to grow up and let our hearts break at moments like this.

Here is where Sam Harris and the other “New Atheists” (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett) tend to lose me. It is one thing to argue that the compassionate  response to crises like the tsunami often undertaken by religious organizations could just have easily been delivered by secular institutions (both from a material and moral standpoint, with the moral aspect underlined). However, it is only biblical literalists and their orthodox brethren that “erode compassion” in times like these. I’m certain that such people as Pat Robertson aren’t as rare as we’d like, but they are much more the exception than the rule among the self-described faithful.

Those identifying themselves as “religious” are not monochromatic. There are many shades of religious conviction from the orthodox to the heterodox. Assuming the faithful are of one mind leads to pedantic statements like Harris’ (even worse is Dennett’s insistence on referring to atheists as “brights”!). Even worse, it leads to a failure to contemplate the complexities of theological argument. It wouldn’t be far off to say that the New Atheists are often fighting a straw man with their condescending literature.

This brings me to my ultimate point, and sort of the point of this entire post – I understand that the arguments put forth by the selected respondents are cursory and unconvincing. However, unlike the New Atheists I do not assume that this is the extent of the world’s collective theological wisdom. Despite my snark above, I know that wisdom cannot be dismissed quite so easily.  Too many brilliant minds have pored over this issue and produced too many works to provide such a simple and easily refutable summary as CNN’s selection of commentators have made. As a fence-sitting agnostic myself, I admit that these thinkers’ faith may have acted as a hindrance with regard to the validity of some of their arguments, but we cannot dismiss their philosophy outright.

I may come off as a vehement, sarcastic and patronizing atheist, but unlike Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and Harris, I’m at least willing to take their primary criticism of religion – that it fails to be self-reflective in a meaningful way – a step further and question their often shallow and dismissive assaults on religion. There is an ocean of knowledge out there and, as worthwhile as the New Atheists have been, they still have penetrated only a few leagues below the surface of that knowledge. Between theism and atheism I believe that atheism will one day prevail, but the fight has a long way to go. Harris et al. shouldn’t proclaim victory quite yet.

There is no humanity at 30,000 feet

March 20, 2011

Yesterday British, French and American forces began their bombardment of Libya enforcing the provisions of UNSC Resolution 1973, which calls for “all necessary measures” to “protect civilians and civilian populated areas” under the brutal and indiscriminate attack from Moammar Gaddafi’s loyalist forces. This broad mandate is conversely limited by the equally  broad instruction that foreign forces are not permitted to occupy “in any form on any part of Libyan territory” – on the surface a very sensible limitation given the justifiable suspicions about yet another Western military action in an ostensibly Muslim country.

However, ignoring any question about the motives behind the decision to bomb Libya, and taking Western leaders at their word that this intervention is truly “humanitarian” in intent, a second question can be raised: will it be humanitarian in its implementation? This begs a much larger question as to whether the use of force can ever be beneficent when by their very nature they are violent, but we’ll ignore that as it is a much larger topic. Instead, it is worth addressing whether or not this air assault (and given the wording of the resolution, the pledges of the participants, and the lack of public support the campaign will almost certainly be limited to the air) can be carried out in such a way as to stall if not completely stop Gaddafi’s massacre of innocent Libyans.  My answer is no. The reason? One word: Kosovo.

As an occasional historian I am somewhat loath to compare two cases that may appear to have a handful of similarities on the surface but dozens of variances that are not quite so apparent. However, the political scientist in me says that their are certain universal principles related to the application of the military instrument of policy that create undeniable parallels between the bombing of Serbia 12 years ago and the campaign against Libya today – parallels that should at the very least caution those that are championing today’s bombing.

Like the current operation against Gaddafi, the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia was prosecuted with little popular support. With polls indicating that two-thirds of Americans feel that Washington should not be involved in the current campaign (British polls  indicate a split) there isn’t a strong base to begin with in the current intervention.  Lack of popular support necessitates a quick and near bloodless (read: Western blood) war, meaning that like the 1999 Kosovo war, the air campaign will have to be conducted from a safe distance of about 20 to 30,000 feet. This simply does not work.

In Kosovo the air war began, at least ostensibly, to protect Kosovar-Albanians and halt their forced expulsion from Serbia’s southern province. However, the ill-conceived air campaign inevitably failed in its most basic task as it was unable to effectively engage Serb military and police units on the ground, allowing them to step-up their atrocities against civilians and “cleanse” 800,000 Kosovar-Albanians (approximately 75% of the ENTIRE population of Kosovo) within the first month.

Admittedly NATO was ultimately successful in securing the return of these refugees under the protection of a multinational peacekeeping force, however, it is debatable whether this came about as a result of the successful use of coercive air power (even Britain’s leading commander in the operation disputes the success of the air bombardment) or a multi-pronged diplomatic approach. What is most evident is that NATO failed to prevent an exponentially worse humanitarian crisis through air power alone.  Unwilling to risk even the remote danger presented by the third-rate Serb air defence systems by flying below 20,000 feet, NATO forces had minute impact on forward Serbian forces and in fact inflicted in excess of 1,000 civilian casualties, both Serbian and Albanian, through the unnecessarily thick fog of war generated by that decision. In the end, for all their lofty ideals Western leaders had decided that a persecuted minority was worth fighting for, but not worth dying for.

In Libya we are likely to see a similar situation. As stated above, popular support for intervention is weak, particularly in America. President Obama is aware of this and as a result has been content to allow British PM David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to take the lead, while also hinting that American involvement will be short-lived (another parallel: NATO leaders believed Slobodan Milosovic would cave within days of the start of the air campaign in 1999 – it ended up taking nearly three months!) though it is highly doubtful that regional actors will be able to sustain an air campaign without American support should the ground war persist. If Western military men start returning in body bags expect support to drop to near nil.

While Libyan air defences may be even more antiquated than those protecting Serb forces in 1999 they still pose a definite danger to Western pilots, made greater by the difficulties posed for extracting downed pilots due to the lack of proximate regional bases. This may convince the coalition to take even greater caution in prosecuting the war than in Serbia a decade ago. If this is the case, what help can they provide in preventing a greater humanitarian catastrophe? If coalition planes do engage Libyan ground forces from 30,000 feet mistakes are bound to be made. With Gaddafi’s men penetrating the last rebel stronghold, the densely populated city of Benghazi these mistakes will inevitably result in the deaths of innocent civilians.

Can an already unpopular intervention withstand the criticism that will follow? More importantly, can a campaign based on a systemic reckless aversion to personal risk still be considered humanitarian – even in the loosest sense of the word? If in the coming days it becomes evident that the coalition is lacking in selfless concern for the welfare of those it was tasked by the UN to protect, the Libyan campaign will serve as yet another example that war and virtue are antonyms, regardless of how a conflict is packaged. “Humanitarian Intervention” will cement itself as a PR term completely lacking in substance, used to aid in the machinations of misguided, if not, evil men. Put simply, altruism doesn’t exist at 30,000 feet.

Save Your Prayers!!!

March 12, 2011

In the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan some 36 hours ago and the countless lives lost, there have been the inevitable offers of prayers for lives lost. This kind of thing is a knee-jerk reaction to any natural or man-made calamity becoming so commonplace that it has ingrained itself in the collective Western consciousness as a necessary stage in dealing with such disasters. To me, the offer of prayers is misplaced if not something worse.


I say people’s prayers are misplaced as the sender is making an enormous assumption about the religious makeup of Japan. Coming from the at least nominally Christian West, these prayers are undoubtedly meant to be answered by a Judeo-Christian deity. However, Christianity is an incredibly small sect in Japan, representing at best 3 million of Japan’s 127,000,000 citizens. By birth record approximately 90 percent of Japanese are Shinto-Buddhist. In reality more than 70 percent of Japanese do not identify any religious membership, while two-thirds don’t believe in any god. Given these numbers requesting assistance from Jesus’ father would at best be at best an empty gesture.


At worst these prayers can be viewed as a tremendous insult. Those that are aware of the religious makeup of Japan could, by appealing to the god of the Abrahamic religions, be rightly viewed as patronizing. In a sense they’d be saying “since your gods/irreligiousness failed you, MY God will step in and save you”. It takes a certain amount of pompousness and irrational certitude to make such a claim – even if implicitly – during a tragedy of this scale – or at any time for that matter.


Believe me, I do understand the impetus behind people’s prayers for the safety of the innocent victims of our imperfect earth are well intentioned even if they are misplaced. I also understand that the origin of the feeling, the need to create some sort of cosmic solidarity in an irrational world, stems from an impulse not far removed from the genesis of religion itself. However, given yesterday’s events is it not time we take a step away from the visceral notions that led us down the same road seeking to deal with random events with irrational explanations?


Of course, it doesn’t end there. People’s supplications aren’t merely irrational, they are also inconsistent. In the most narrow sense their appeal to God is a tad late. The immediate damage has been devastating enough and no amount of supernatural intervention can restore the lives already lost. If their’s was a just god, she/he would have intervened before this disaster happened and prevented the deaths of what appear to be thousands of innocents.


Taken even further, their god, creator of this imperfect planet with its cooling surface, molten core and shifting tectonic plates would, if given the credit that three Abrahamic religions primary texts attribute to him, bear responsibility for his faulty design. But their lord and creator is supposed to be all-knowing and all-powerful, so inevitably many will be forced to admit that the events of yesterday were all part of some sort of opaque divine plan.


People should understand that if they are in fact true believers their supplications aren’t nudging a benign entity to protect the survivors of yesterday’s horror. They are in fact begging a cruel and despotic overlord (a supernatural Moammar Gaddafi if you like) to cease his self-amused torment of a multitude of innocents. Understanding that this is the inevitable conclusion of the myth they believe in is the key to coming to terms with the true nature of their faith.


In the end I’d hope that those offering their prayers to the victims of yesterday’s tragedy would have the capacity and willingness to consider in some depth what they are asking and understand the unavoidable conclusions they should be making about their faith soon after the word “prayer” slips from their mouth. Of course I wouldn’t bet on it. And I certainly won’t pray for it.