Saturday, August 30, 2008

Casus belli or modus vivendi?

Since early August, when Russian tanks pierced the mountain passes of South Ossetia and rumbled into the Georgian heartland, we have found ourselves in an oddly familiar place. It is like one of those moments when you return to your old neighborhood after decades away. As you walk the streets, there is a warm feeling of familiarity. A sense of comfort, of a time when life was simpler and the rules were clear.

Oh, for the Cold War and the remembrances of things past. It was a time moral clarity, when partisanship ended at the water's edge, of the Marlboro Man and enemies in black hats.

If the Cold War ended one evening in December 1991—when then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his compatriots conspired to topple the Soviet state—perhaps the uni-polar world of American power that ensued ended this month. This is not to say that Russia has reemerged as a counterweight to American power, but rather that Russia’s willingness to push back against the West’s determined policy of encirclement has illuminated the limits of American power, and perhaps of American judgment.

The emergence of our new conflict with Russia has come with breathtaking swiftness and the verbal invective has been startling. Condi Rice publicly mocked Vladimir Putin and labeled Russian behavior bizarre. Zbigniew Brzezinski likened the Russian aggression to Hitler’s Germany. Across the political and media class we are assured that we are witnessing unwarranted and irrational aggression. Russian conduct has undermined US-Russian relations and threatens to plunge the world into a new Cold War.

But if there is a surprise here, it is that there is such surprise here. After all, Putin has decried NATO expansion for several years and his concerns have been largely ignored. When Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, Putin's objective was not territorial aggression, but rather to waken the West—and America in particular—to Russia's anger at the continuing policies of encirclement. Ironically, Putin's objective was not to get into a debate about the future of Georgia and South Ossetia, but rather—no doubt clumsily—to elevate bi-lateral discussions to the strategic level.

But as the crisis deepens, as American politicians of all stripes pile on, and as Russia deepens her diplomatic isolation, one has to ask if this is the direction that we want go. Is it really in our interest to play a game of chicken with a nuclear-armed and paranoid adversary?

It did not have to come to this. In the wake of 9/11, the event that was supposed to change everything, Putin made his case for a grand alliance with America. After the planes hit, Putin was the first international leader to call George Bush and pledge his nation’s solidarity and support. Russia provided critical support to US efforts in Afghanistan—where the US had few intelligence assets on the ground—including helping the CIA build critical alliances in Afghanistan and supporting the development of US bases in the former Soviet states in Central Asia. Beyond Afghanistan, Putin proposed to be a partner in dealing with Iran, whose radical Islamism was a vital threat to Russia, within and without.

For Russia’s part, Putin asked that we recognize Russian strategic concerns along with our own. First, he asked that we temper our response to Russia’s internal struggles with Chechen terrorists. Second, he asked that we curtail the expansion of NATO into Georgia, and particularly into Ukraine. Finally, he asked that we not locate missile defense systems in Eastern Europe.

Russia’s fears of America were not irrational, despite our political and media consensus to the contrary. After all, in the wake of the dismantling of the Soviet Union, American policy remained overtly hostile to Russia. Despite assurances to the contrary from Presidents Reagan and Bush, the US supported NATO expansion to Russia's borders; Neoconservatives targeted Russia and Putin for regime change; and mainstream policy advisors argued that US policy must now promote the dismemberment of the Russia.

Putin, it should be noted, was and remains immensely popular in Russia. He has brought stability and pride to the Russian people, after the pain that ensued with the dismemberment of the Soviet empire as Russian people lived through debasement at the hands of their archrival; the destruction of their currency, personal saving and standard of living; environmental degradation through chemical and nuclear contamination; a dramatic decline in mortality; years of internal bombings and terrorism in the nation’s capital at the hands of national separatists; and the plundering of national wealth at the hands of their elected leadership.

Intelligence analyst George Friedman argues that the defining provocation by the West was the Kosovo conflict in 1999. That action—heralded as a success in the West—was implemented under the auspices of NATO after Russia blocked UN action. That event marked the ascendency of NATO—an organization in which Russia has no voice—as an international body empowered to act in support of separatist movements without preexisting legal authority to do so. That authority was vested in the United Nations, which embodied two principles. First, that borders were defined and frozen. Second, that action to change borders could not be undertaken without UN sanction.

For Russia, a country with literally hundreds of ethnic groups, regions and languages, the Kosovo issue and the negation of UN authority threatened to undermine its control of its own borders and state. The West’s support of Kosovo’s declaration of independence earlier this year marked the final step in the undermining of international institutions and rules governing international relations, borders and sovereignty. From the Russian perspective, with Kosovo, the West had laid the legal groundwork for actions not simply to contain Russia, but to begin to break it apart.

When Georgia launched its assault on South Ossetia, Putin seized the moment to raise the question: What rules are going to govern international law and sovereignty in the years ahead? Will the UN rules and the notion of fixed borders apply, as his neighbor to the Georgia claimed in justifying its invasion, or were we going to live under the new Kosovo rules, that the Americans and the West had now embraced, when might would replace right? If NATO could usurp UN authority and christen Kosovo a state, Russia could do the same.

When American Secretary of Defense Robert Gates promptly announced that under no circumstances would America come to Georgia’s aid militarily, he was simply affirming what Putin knew to be the case: In the wake of two long wars and a debased currency, the US has become long on hubris and short on stick, and would not come to Georgia's defense. The era of American uni-polar authority was pronounced to be a dead letter.

Seven years ago, when we were stronger and Russia was weaker, Putin proposed a partnership with America, but we demurred. Yet today, as we face a hostile and expansionist Iran, and a resurgent Taliban, Russia continues to share our interests in controlling Iran and Jihadism. Today, as before, Russia’s cooperation is critical to our efforts in Afghanistan. And today, Russia has become a critical source of energy to Europe and a true partner in the world economy. Today, the logic of US policy that seeks to further destabilize Russia is not apparent. Perhaps, given the challenges we face in the world, and the real threats to our national and economic security, we should consider setting aside our animus toward Russia, just for a little while.

The irony is that Putin does not want the Kosovo rules or a war with the West. The Russian leader knows well that a new arms race will undermine Russia’s future and ability to build a real economy. Sending Russian tanks into Georgia was not a provocation. Quite the contrary. Vladimir Putin was just trying to get our attention.

Perhaps it is time that someone listens.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Ivan's ghost

I call on all governments to join with the United States and the community of law-abiding nations in prohibiting, investigating, and prosecuting all acts of torture and in undertaking to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment… Nowhere should the midnight knock foreshadow a nightmare of state-commissioned crime. The suffering of torture victims must end, and the United States calls on all governments to assume this great mission.
President George W. Bush. June 26, 2003

When Dan Levin was appointed to head the Office of Legal Counsel—the Deputy Attorney General whose legal judgments determine what is legal and what is not—in 2005, it fell to him to address the question that loomed as a brewing crisis deep inside the Bush Administration: What constituted torture, and were the interrogation practices that had come to be accepted as permissible at the CIA Black Sites and Guantanamo Bay—but which were rejected as torture by the FBI and many in the military—illegal under US and international law?

Levin, a meticulous lawyer, ultimately determined that he could only parse the meanings of suffering and pain, and offer guidance on the outer limits of suffering that agents of the United States government could legally inflict on prisoners, if he subjected himself to the interrogation practices that his opinion sought to judge. And so he did.

Levin’s actions defined the seriousness of purpose that characterized those who put their professional integrity and careers on the line to oppose the power of the Vice Presidency in the Bush Administration, and oppose the policies and practices that characterized the Dark Side of the Global War on Terror.

All Americans should read The Dark Side, Jane Mayer’s new book on the GWOT, and the battle that it depicts for the hearts, minds and soul of America that was fought between and among senior members of the Bush administration. Try as one might to view this as partisan treatise, one comes to the inescapable realization that it is about the seductive quality of retribution.

This is not a partisan issue for the simple reason—as Mayer has noted about her own post-9/11 sympathies—that in the early days following 9/11, New Yorkers—and Americans—of all political stripes, were little concerned by thoughts that our nation might overstep the bounds of legality, propriety and moral conduct in the GWOT that would unfold.

The apparent fact is that the interrogation practices at issue yielded little if any actionable intelligence. Now, we are left to look into the mirror as Americans and ponder the excesses that were done in our name, and that we condoned in the wake of the fear and moral outrage brought on by the 9/11 attacks. Excesses that were condoned and embraced as the price of fighting this new type of war that demanded extraordinary measures, even as those within the Administration with experience in these matters argued—almost to a man—the methods employed would not be effective.

This book forces the reader to consider questions far beyond the simple question of the effectiveness of torture as an intelligence tool—justified under the ticking bomb rationale and the popularity of the TV show 24. What about kidnapping and torturing an innocent bystander? Would intent or lack thereof suffice to provide protection against criminal charges or war crimes prosecution? What if the information gleaned from torture was not critical, or proved unreliable? What if years passed and the ticking bomb argument had long faded? What if at every step of the way, dissenters at senior levels argued that the actions were illegal? What if the FBI as an institution dissented and declined to participate, and the military leadership and legal counsel argued that the entire infrastructure put in place following 9/11 was a legal and moral violation of the nation’s history and purpose?

Now, as we recognize the passing of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, we have to consider where we go from here. Where do we go as a nation that willfully embraced inhumane and illegal actions not in pursuit of information, but for the satisfactions of retribution. As we recall the Life of Ivan Denisovich—the iconic symbolic of a government’s abuse of power—we must now consider our complicity in the life of Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen who was kidnapped, flown to a secret prison and tortured—his life destroyed—all while his American overseers believed him to be innocent. Not Masri because he was one person caught up in Kafka’s nightmare, but because he was but one person caught up in a system of our creation that to this day the public believes was justified.

He who does battle with monsters needs to watch out lest he in the process becomes a monster himself. And if you stare too long into the abyss, the abyss will stare right back at you.
Frederich Neitzsche. Beyond Good and Evil

Read Mayer’s book. Consider the comment of a CIA official involved in the Masri affair when George Tenet, Condi Rice and Colin Powell debated the need to tell the German government what they had done to one of their citizens, “For guys who are basically running ‘Kidnap Inc.’ they sure were pretty squeamish.”

How squeamish will we be when forced to come to grips with the events that transpired? What happens when on a trip to Europe, Dick Cheney or Alberto Gonzales or one of many others is arrested and presented with an indictment on war crimes or criminal conspiracy charges by Germany, on behalf of Khaled el-Masri, or some other nation whose citizens were caught in our web? How will the American President lead the nation through the outrage that will ensue?

For all of the talk of post-partisanship, the demands on America’s new president to lead us through the recriminations that will ensue will be trying. The true test of leadership will be how the president we select is able to temper the emotions of their own partisans, and lead us as a nation through an acceptance of the facts and a resolution of the direction forward. John McCain or Barack Obama may face challenges on the economy and the wars, but the greatest challenge may well be leading us through the miasma of emotions and politics that will ensue as we finally come to grips with what has become of us.