How swift or certain justice in Syria?

In criminal justice it is well understood that swiftness and certainty of punishment is more important than severity. Our strategy in Syria is giving us the worst of all worlds: swift but unpredictable and severe but counterproductive we are making the world and Syria more dangerous.

While lots of people are scared of another Iraq, the prospect seems to be receding. Cameron is taking a resolution to the UN with wording similar to that in UNSC 1973, authorising all necessary means to protect civilians, but the will to war doesn’t seem so strong as in 2003. Famous last words, as they say.

Instead Cameron, Hollande and Obama are all emphasising that it is necessary, perhaps sufficient, to strike hard and decisively to punish Assad to prevent future chemical weapons attacks. Even if this has little effect on the Syrian civil war itself it will underline the red line around chemical weapons use in this, and other conflicts. The argument is weak and sounds as though it’s been cobbled together in a hope it sounds coherent to justify a policy their gut feels is right.

Hundreds of people were killed last week in Ghouta by chemical weapons. It is too hard to say whether they were deployed with Assad’s direct say so but it looks very likely they were deployed by the government. It could have been a rogue commander or something more cynical ordered by Assad himself. The public still don’t know for certain, the UN have not officially reported, but Obama, Hollande and Cameron seem convinced. They may be party to incontrovertible evidence, but we have not seen it. In fact, from what we’ve seen the case for extraordinary action doesn’t seem strong enough, given the potential downsides.

Ghouta is the most deadly gas attack of the Syrian civil war, but it’s probably not the only one. There have allegedly been ghastly gas attacks going back to at least 2012, some of which may have been perpetrated by rebel forces. If we have seen “just” another gas attack, the red line crossed  must be very wide. Beyond Syria and looking back a few years, we see other, presumably lesser, chemical weapons being deployed without warranting death from above. The argument that Assad requires punishment, hard, certain and now is not very strong as a deterrent. I want him punished too, but not at all costs. White Phosphorus has been deployed by Israel in Gaza and by the US in Iraq. It may be that White Phosphorus is a lesser chemical weapon.

But that just leads us to the question: what’s so special about chemical weapons? They are horrific, but so is war. If we’re drawing arbitrary red lines around weapons of mass destruction, one that surrounds Ghouta, Halabja and Hiroshima isn’t logically more coherent than one which includes Gaza, Faluja and Nagasaki. It’s killing that’s terrible, a red line that includes Tahrir Square and the Pearl Roundabout would be better than one targeting some states targeting some citizens with some classes of weapons.

This is a roundabout way of saying that a limited and punitive intervention won’t work on it’s own terms.

If it punishes Assad enough to tip the balance of power definitely away from him he will become more desperate and may become more brutal in his campaign. He may eschew chemical weapons, but it doesn’t mean civilian casualties won’t escalate.  If it punishes Assad enough other states may look at their chemical weapons stockpiles and think: “what are my chances?” A rational actor would certainly revise their strategy, but they wouldn’t necessarily presume they can never use chemical weapons. Simply that they need to keep the UN further away; or ensure a higher kill rate to minimise witnesses; or keep its usage to small doses to maintain deniability; or to use one class of chemicals but dispose of the sarin; or… and so on.

A rules based international realm is a safer one, predictability and boredom are excellent things for humanity to aspire to. The reaction to the Ghouta massacre shows that our leaders aren’t heartless, but it also shows they aren’t governed by rules. In criminal justice the certainty of punishment matters more than its severity, if the international community want to set a precedent it’s too late. Firing cruise missiles at the bad guy feels like a just, rules based strategy, but it is not.

In criminal justice ensuring that punishment follows swiftly and predictably after a crime is more effective than sporadic but severe punishments. Swift doesn’t necessarily have to mean immediate, just without unnecessary delay. We are getting all of this wrong. The middle of a civil war is not the best time to mete out “precision” justice or “surgical” slaps on the risk. The logic behind the imperative to punish war crimes is a sound one, but the execution has been abysmal and won’t have the desired consequences.

Finally: Chris makes the good point that there are people in a better position to make this call than me, I’ve references this above. I don’t have enough information on what’s happening in Syria, what happened in Ghouta, what might happen if we bomb this or that to come to a truly an informed opinion. Three things make me disbelieve our leaders. One, my anti-authoritarian streak. Two, the paucity and inconsistency of the arguments that have been made, as I’ve described above. Three, I just don’t trust them anymore. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, I, uh, won’t get fooled again.

And another thing: I’m aware the Russians and Iranians and Hezbollah et al are intervening there even if the west is not. I see that as evidence we should not enter a quagmire as much as I see it as evidence we should.

One more thing: I haven’t spoken about mission creep or the temptation of committing ground troops or the potential civilian casualties of any western punishment of Assad, or my favoured alternative; supporting refugees, because this isn’t the place. I suppose I will get to each of those if and when necessary.

 

The arsehole theory of politics

Obama, if there is a hell (which there is isn’t, luckily for him), is headed there. His drone war in Pakistan is truly dystopian, and his other infringements of civil liberties would make even Blair blush, as Conor Friedersdorf describes:

1. Obama terrorizes innocent Pakistanis on an almost daily basis. The drone war he is waging in North Waziristan isn’t “precise” or “surgical” as he would have Americans believe. It kills hundreds of innocents, including children. And for thousands of more innocents who live in the targeted communities, the drone war makes their lives into a nightmare worthy of dystopian novels. People are always afraid. Women cower in their homes. Children are kept out of school. The stress they endure gives them psychiatric disorders. Men are driven crazy by an inability to sleep as drones buzz overhead 24 hours a day, a deadly strike possible at any moment. At worst, this policy creates more terrorists than it kills; at best, America is ruining the lives of thousands of innocent people and killing hundreds of innocents for a small increase in safety from terrorists. It is a cowardly, immoral, and illegal policy, deliberately cloaked in opportunistic secrecy. And Democrats who believe that it is the most moral of all responsible policy alternatives are as misinformed and blinded by partisanship as any conservative ideologue.

2. Obama established one of the most reckless precedents imaginable: that any president can secretly order and oversee the extrajudicial killing of American citizens. Obama’s kill list transgresses against the Constitution as egregiously as anything George W. Bush ever did. It is as radical an invocation of executive power as anything Dick Cheney championed. The fact that the Democrats rebelled against those men before enthusiastically supporting Obama is hackery every bit as blatant and shameful as anything any talk radio host has done.

3. Contrary to his own previously stated understanding of what the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution demand, President Obama committed U.S. forces to war in Libya without Congressional approval, despite the lack of anything like an imminent threat to national security.

Aside immediately from stripping him of his Nobel Peace Prize – boy must the Norwegians be feeling silly now – we should ask “why Obama is doing this?” I wouldn’t argue that he is an arsehole. He doesn’t seem like an arsehole, he has done nice things for lots of poor Americans. I’ve also seen the point made innumerable times that Romney would be the same, or worse, but why?

Will Wilkinson seems to imply that the system of democracy in America is broken. You can vote for Obama and passively approve these attacks. You can vote for Romney and very likely end up with the same, or worse. Romney’s aides have suggested that if Romney were elected, one of his first acts would be to give back ‘mericans their right to torture people. Alternatively, you can offer a protest vote to a third party candidate like Gary Johnson, who actually opposes these attacks (imagine a third party more ineffectual and irrelevant than the Lib Dems and you begin to see how silly this last option is).

I disagree that democracy is broken. People are broken. How can you fix the fact that a lot of people are arseholes? Similarly to my analysis of Ian Cowie, as somebody who simply hates poor people, this analysis lacks a certain subtlety. But that is its strength. It is unsubtle because arseholes are unsubtle. Democrats are painted as weak on warmaking defence, and so Obama must appease the arseholes or face potential political annihilation.

This isn’t a feature of a failed democracy or of a failed republic or a failed anything. It is a feature of a democratic empire. One of the advantages of democracy is that people get what they vote for, good and hard.

Domestically this normally stays the hand of those with the most ludicrous ideas because people actually have to deal with the consequences of the actions. However, intrigue and murder are the rule internationally not because these policies are good, but because people don’t have to deal with the consequences of their own arseholeness. The same people who will refuse to starve their poor because they’ll riot will happily watch the poor starve abroad because they can deny them a visa.

Acting as a democratic empire the US has no choice but to sporadically accede to the demands of its arsehole faction. Sometimes, it will just be their turn to be appeased. Arseholes have no natural restraint on their actions because their victims are abroad. The US has the capacity for total destruction anywhere it likes. Eventually, inevitably, somebody is going to start bombing children in Pakistan.

The only way to prevent people dying in war is to throw hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, pilots, mechanics, engineers, consultants, etc. out of work. Give me an off switch and I’ll flick it in a heartbeat. However, while the technological ability remains to kill people, people will be killed. Arseholes don’t kill people, but armies do, so get rid of the army.

This is the week he won: two faces that won Obama re-election

On Tuesday, in the wake of the tragic death of US embassy staff in Libya, Mitt Romney slurred president Obama as a terrorist sympathising anti-colonial Kenyan Muslim (I paraphrase). Afterwards, showing all the political nous and weight of a daddy long legs, he smirked to himself as he thought “those dead Americans really helped my election chances.”

On Thursday, Ben Bernanke announced a round of open ended QE which sent markets up and which might just feed through to improved labour market conditions through September and October. Some would call this political interference. I call it beginning to take their job seriously, they don’t choose the political cycle.

Today, Obama is the incumbent, presiding  over an accelerating economic recovery and is faced with an opponent disliked by the press and who smiles at dead Americans. Smells like victory to me.