TED Conversations

Lindsay Newland Bowker


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What are the limits of sovereignty? Are we clear on international norms?

Present debate on what to do about Syrias use of chemical weapons on rebels/government opponents takes us back to the broader issue of the limits of sovereignty. It seems apparent that we don't have shared global values on a country's interior use of chemical weapons or what to do about it even though this ostensibly has been a matter of global consensus since the end of World War II. .What action is justified and is it ok for anyone nation to act alone without a global consensus on the basis of "protecting its national interests"?

(I will add links to several TED convesrations we have had in the past on global values and global governance)


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    Sep 8 2013: If the US is to intervene in Syria without the UN, it should be understood that the US doesn't have the moral or legal high ground, and that fact should raise eyebrows as to the US administration's ulterior motives.

    First we should observe that Syria has not signed onto the Chemical Weapons Convention. Thus the US administration uses the phrase "international norms". They haven't broken international laws, but at most a set of ethical standards that other countries have agreed to. The legal case isn't there. Onto the moral case.

    The US and NATO used white phosphorous and cluster munitions in Iraq and Libya. White phosphorous is not illegal under the CWC, but there has been much debate as to whether it should be. A treaty banning cluster bombs has been signed by 112 UN member states, excluding the US. The US administration recently signed a deal to sell 1,300 cluster bombs to the Saudis, their closest ally in the region. Aside from this illustrating the US administration's lack of concern for the proliferation of controversial weapons that violate "international norms", it highlights another interesting observation - the US has always backed Sunnis against Shi'ites.

    It's interesting to see the US administration stand untried for force-feeding POWs and giving them away to other countries (always under the condition that they're imprisoned or at least completely monitored for the rest of their lives), as they claim the role of a benign world protector and bomb civilians in countries they're not at war with. The US administration had their eyes set on aiding the Syrian rebels long before the sarin strike in Damascus. How can we not draw parallels between this conflict and the Soviet War in Afghanistan? The US administration will discard the Sunni rebels after they use them, and then point to their radicalism to advocate perpetual war.
    • Sep 8 2013: As I've said before, international law is completely irrelevant. There is no effective enforcement, which makes it nothing more than words on paper unless someone powerful decides to use it as an excuse to do something they'd do anyway (and its always an excuse, never a cause).

      There is a case to be made for the morality of it, even if it does seem hypocritical. Might makes right in this world, unfortunately. Cest la vie.
      By the way, all the talk of banning white phosphorous and cluster munitions is only signed by weak nations with little influence on the world stage. All the powerful countries don't sign it because they don't like hamstringing themselves (chemical weapons are seen as too unreliable to use even if they were legal). There is a similar attempt at banning automatic repeating firearms--I don't think as many as 50 countries signed it.

      I'll be a fair bit more cynical though, and advocate that its simply within the US' own interests to make the attack. I've already said all this bellow in one post or another, so I'll be brief:
      --It'll strengthen US influence in the region, which has been gradually diminishing ever since they got bogged down in Iraq. Influence is a zero sum game, which means influence from China, Iran and Russia is increasing the longer the US doesn't act.
      --It'll show Iran and all its proxies that the US not only barks, but bites as well (the hesitation isn't helping on that score, by the way).
      --Properly done, it can lead to stabilizing the region, at least in the long term (this would also involve backing a moderate militia once Assad falls).
      --It'll show the US' allies in the region, especially bordering Syria, that the US does more than talk. This is especially crucial so that Israel doesn't involve itself in an all out regional war with Iran over the nuclear program, which is bad for US interests.
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        Sep 8 2013: I see the web of political interests and shows of power. But look at every other Islamic civil war and regime change the US has been involved with. In Afghanistan, the CIA aided the mujahideen against the Soviet-backed regime, only to make way for the Taliban when that fell. The Taliban proved much easier to remove, but now the US risks unleashing a power vacuum if it withdraws its forces. Whether the US simply provides air support (Libya), or a full blown occupation (Iraq), the same problems emerge. It wastes lives and billions of dollars, and the rebels emerging victorious want Sharia law. Hold an election in the Middle East and the popular support goes to the Muslim Brotherhood. Maybe this plays well into the plans of the US administration (we see this going back to the US overthrow of the Iranian democracy), but it's not in the interest of the American people.

        The situation in Syria is horrible, but I don't see how sarin gas makes it that much worse. Rebel factions aren't leading the most noble resistence either - http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=2bf_1378143986. I have no love for Assad, but I don't believe helping to remove him would necessarily lead to a beautiful new future for Syria.
        • Sep 9 2013: I suppose that's another way of looking at it.
          Let the Jihadists bleed themselves dry in Syria while you pass the popcorn. The local countries bordering with Syria don't particularly like this approach, because its too close to safely watch, but it could work for the US, despite the huge humanitarian cost.
          If you're actually looking to end the war, Assad needs to go. The militias then fight it out, but like curing cancer with chemo therapy, its bound to get worse before it gets better.

          Now that Obama has foolishly committed himself though... He's already lost a lot of face in the region and world at large, and he'll loose even more if he backs out.
          A bombing campaign that wouldn't weaken Assad enough to allow the rebels to topple him is always on the table I suppose, which allows him to minimize loss of influence without overly committing.

          My primary concern as is that if Obama is having such a hard time mustering up a minimalistic bombing campaign in Syria, he'll just sit on this hands in front of Iran.
          Which means they either go nuclear, or Israel bombs their nuclear program and gets involved in an all out war with Iran and all its proxies, with minimal US support. Living in Israel, I'm not particularly fond of either scenario.
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        Sep 9 2013: Obama is arguing for a "limited strike". Which is foolish, because his Secretary of State has been arguing for a regime change. Either side of him is arguing for no action or a regime change. He probably thinks a slap on the wrist is a nice comprimise, or it's his way of getting his fleeing fan base on board.

        The US has been pretty vigilant in the Middle East over the Obama years. I'm sure the CIA knows exactly when and if Iran will get a nuclear weapon, and Obama will let them do whatever they want. Republican warhawks would step out of the woodwork for that invasion. That's not to say Obama will have anything to do with it. I doubt he had much to do with the killing of bin Laden.

        I'm not passing the popcorn for Syria, but I'm not rooting for the rebels either. I would support humanitarian aid for refugees, or a UN intervention. The US has shown that nation building isn't its forte.
        • Sep 10 2013: A UN intervention essentially means a team consisting of whichever country cares to help out. At the moment, that's US, France, Turkey, and maybe a few smaller powers. Not that different than the coalition we have right now, except for the UN's worthless stamp of approval.
          Not that it'll ever happen. The Russians and Chinese will see to it.

          Humanitarian aid for refugees would be welcome, but unfortunately costs money. Someone would have to foot the bill, and apparently no one wants to...

          By the way, with operations like the Bin Laden assassination, the political leadership almost never has anything to do with it. All they do is authorize (or not authorize) the military or intelligence service's existing plan; then, they watch on their big screen TVs (popcorn optional). You can't expect a president or prime minister to micro manage an intel officer, after all.
          A massive operation like bombing Iran's nuclear program on the other hand, that initiative does need to come from up to. The specifics are up to the military, but the order comes from the political side of things. And Obama has been disturbingly passive about the whole affair...
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        Sep 10 2013: I was more trying to make the point that action against Iran would happen regardless of who was president (i.e. a weak Obama) because Iran is a big point of concern for both parties in the US. Though I think Americans are becoming increasingly weary of the US's foreign policy incentives. The rhetoric that Bush used to fire up the Republicans ("They hate us for our freedom. They're harboring terrorists") likely wouldn't be taken seriously today for the invasion of a Middle Eastern country. Iran on the otherhand has been a big subject of debate in US elections, with both sides favoring action in response to a real threat. Considering intelligence agency operations such as Stuxnet, I doubt any real threat in Iran would be safe from a US response, even if Congress were for some reason against it.

        An official UN intervention would shift the responsibility to the UN. Sure it's practicly the same countries baring the financial burden, but it wouldn't be the US's problem like Iraq and Afghanistan. And it involves Russia, which has proven to be an incredible obstacle to intervention, but it would guarantee that the solution wouldn't play into the geopolitical interests of a single country. This might not float well with Americans or Israelis, but if the issue is chemical weapons, it makes sense. If not, let's just be real and say we're looking to shift the balance of power against Iran and Russia.

        Though it looks like Obama saw the writing on the wall, and is considering Putin's diplomatic solution. Is this the right thing to do, sieze the weapons and call it a day, or would this wrongly legitimize Assad's presidency?
        • Sep 10 2013: Putins proposed solution essentially allows Assad to hand over the chemical weapons with one hand, without even pausing the killing with the other.

          Its like the police tracking down a killer, explaining to him that the hollow point bullets he's been using are illegal, and take them away. The killer promptly thanks the police for showing him the error of his ways, loads up a clip of full metal jacket ammo into his gun, and keeps right on shooting.

          Chemical weapons aren't in the same class as biological and nuclear, even if the law says otherwise; they're frankly not a whole lot more damaging than conventional munitions. The method of the slaughter shouldn't be the focus it, it should be the fact that there was a slaughter to begin with.

          It would also make Obama loose serious face as opposed to an attack. Of course, if he's counted his votes in congress and realized he's short, this may be his way of loosing minimal face.
          Going to congress in of itself was idiotic. A declaration of war requires the element of surprise and a measure of swiftness and decisiveness to maximize success, and any form of parliament is inherently none of those things. This isn't about democracy or any form of checks and balances; from a purely pragmatic standpoint, use of force needs to be the domain of the executive body, and no one else.
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        Sep 10 2013: Many Americans would raise incredible issue with the president not seeking a declaration of war from Congress. Even Bush went to Congress for Iraq. After the numerous scandals that have plagued Obama's administration (Benghazi, Fast and Furious, the IRS scandal, the NSA revelations) an executive decision to invade against the will of the public would certainly have House Republicans beginning the impeachment process. That might be a laughing point for Eric Li, but many Americans see executive orders as being in the realm of dictators.

        Is it really about ending the killing, or the opportunity to ouste Assad? If it were a genocide, I would see it as more of a humanitarian crisis, but it's a civil war. Should the US step in where ever jihad points its finger? Is it really about ending the violence, or playing chess pieces against Iran and Hezbollah?

        I don't mind discussing the possible advantages of pushing back against Shia Islam, but if that's the elephant in the room then we should call it what it is.
        • Sep 11 2013: Its probably easier for me to understand the need for executive orders for matters involving application of force. My country is much more intimately familiar with that sort of thing--we just see it as a day to day necessity.
          I can understand how Americans who hadn't had a close brush with war (as in, on their own home territory) since the civil war 150 years ago might have forgotten that these sorts of measures need to be the domain of the executive branch, and the executive branch alone.

          I also don't have any issue with Shia Islam in general. My problem is with Iran's ruling body, its proxies, Assad and Hezbollah, and most importantly the nuclear program.
          Pushing back against them should be a priority for the US, and quite a number of other countries. In Israel, hardly anyone is in need of convincing; being on the same side of the Atlantic as potential Iranian nukes is enough.
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        Sep 11 2013: It really goes back to the founding of the country (which is almost legendary here)- the founding fathers believed the executive branch was most prone to war, and therefor felt the need to delegate the power to declare war soley to Congress. They were largely against engaging in foreign wars altogether. To quote George Washington:

        "The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities."

        Sure the United States is a global hegemon today, but the founding fathers haven't been forgotten. So there is a big distinction between the dream America that's faded into ideals and the world power the United States has become, and some strong desires among the people to reconcile the two. We see this with the rise of the anti-American hero, that loves his country but hates his government (Edward Snowden is an example). The AUMF that allows the President to use war powers to pursue Al Qaeda and associates has largely been seen as a sacreligious attack on American idealism (though neocons would bark at this), a perversion of the definition of war giving unholy powers to the executive branch. That's why you see so much repulsion in America towards Obama's belief that he has the power to attack Syria without a vote from Congress. While executive power to declare war makes more sense in Israel, for a global hegemon it's the path to another Rome.
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      Sep 8 2013: Hi Fred,

      Nice to meet you and thanks for joining this discussion. The points you make are not lost on me . The U,S. is playing fast and loose with facts on this I'd say and I hope all nations constrain my own from pursuing the line they are on.

      Syria like Afghanistan and other "nations" that aren't really nations in the sense of shred history and culture are essentially failed states. There is nothing emergent that offer any hope out of the chaos of often cruel rebel factions and a "nothing to lose" President Assad. We don't have the right international institutions in place to help countries like Syria achieve a more normal and workable future for themselves and nothing the U.S. is about now has anything to do with that..
    • Sep 12 2013: Fred, 3 days ago: Your wrote in part.
      "If the US is to intervene in Syria without the UN, it should be understood that
      the US doesn't have the moral or legal high ground, and that fact should raise
      eyebrows as to the US administration's ulterior motives."
      I agree -- Fred, would you mind if I changed the word "intervene" to the word
      "armed aggression"?

      Defending ourselves from attack is fine, but when we are not attacked, and we
      strike, then we become the "armed aggressor". I believe to "intervene" is a
      word better reserved for the diplomatic corps.
      Another item. There has been much gossip about the United States Government
      aiding and abetting Syrian rebels for the length of the Civil WAR, by providing
      Weapons, Ammo, and Training. If any of this is true, then isn't Obama just trying
      to win the Civil WAR for the rebels. And are not we America's the laughing stock
      of the World?
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        Sep 12 2013: That is absolutely true. We've aided radical Sunni rebels for decades. That's the most interesting part of the whole post-911 saga. Both Al Qaeda and the Taliban received persistent US aid during the Soviet War in Afghanistan. To this day, despite the supposed "War on Terror", Sunni rebels are our proxy army.


        When Saddam was gassing Iran, the US was giving him the targets.

        • Sep 12 2013: Fred,
          You've won the HITS THE NAIL ON THE HEAD AWARD.

          We live in a crazy world. Politicians think they can and do
          change sides at will. They do not bother to tell the people who
          voted for them, their reasons for doing so.

          We are supposed to forgive them, when we finally find out
          the truth. I would rather Tar and Feather them all.

          If you read between the lines of the movie, "Charlie Wilson's War",
          our government is transparent. ..Only not what you would want to see.

          It was a great movie. ..A Historical masterpiece of "almost" fiction.

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