On August 18th, President Barack Obama rendered judgment and gave guidance. While affirming that “[t]he future of Syria must be determined by its own people”, he added these words: “Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way.” And so comes the conclusion: “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” This American leader’s advice was orchestrated to coincide with the release of a joint statement along similar lines by the leaders of Germany, France, and Britain, the three most important countries in Europe, which instructed President Assad to “leave power in the greater interests of Syria and the unity of its people.”
More than advice was being offered. Sanctions against Syria were imposed and tightened involving energy imports, business connections, and weapons. Other countries were urged to stop their support for the Syrian regime, and “get on the right side of history.” Such words seemed appropriate given the violent behavior of the regime toward its people, except that the source of this utterance was the American Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, who herself might well have been the recipient of the same message, refusing to heed this prudent admonition in the course of conducting American foreign policy during the Obama presidency.
The Republicans, always quick to seize any opportunity for a partisan snipe, attacked Obama for waiting so long before telling the Syrian leader to get out of his home town. With a perfect ear for geopolitical mentoring, the leading Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, was clear in his portrayal of the proper American role: “America must show leadership on the world stage and work to move these developing countries toward modernity.” Of course, decoding ‘modernity’ suggests the United States model of government and economy: be like us and you will be modern, and successful.
Not a message likely to get a favorable hearing in Pakistan or most anywhere in the South, but maybe such ‘modernity’ is what the people of Alabama and Arizona desire.
But it was not only Republicans that had this idea that the United States offers the world the best model of humane and legitimate governance. Hillary Clinton made clear that governments sharing American values should join together in opposing the Syrian regime through the use of what she called “‘smart power,’ where it is not just brute force, it is not just unilateralism,” but rather it is behavior shaped by shared commitments to “universal freedom, human rights, democracy, everything we have stood for and pioneered over 235 years.” Clinton seems to be proposing what was previously called ‘a coalition of the willing’ in relation to the wars fought over Kosovo in 1999 and Iraq since 2003.
But what makes these sentiments worthy of comment is their seeming unawareness of how starkly they contradict the America record throughout those 235 years. And, of course, it is not only a matter of bad history as the ongoing interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya are pretty much displays of brute force and, if not unilateralism, then at least West-centric interventions that sought to superimpose a West-oriented secular governing process onto the internal workings of the politics of self-determination.
President Obama’s guidance on Syria is equally suspect, although less blatantly so. What does it mean to tell the established leadership in Damascus to step aside while affirming the role of the Syrian people in shaping their own future? Such inescapable incoherence must be hiding something deeper!
This theatrical exhibition that I am describing as ‘geopolitical mentoring’ seems both regrettable and discrediting. To begin with, the words and ideas relied upon by Obama and Clinton seems to emanate directly from the good old days of undisguised colonialism. The language chosen suggests a kind of ideological regression that is forgetful of the very flow of history that Secretary Clinton was keen to invoke by way of discouraging such countries as Russia, China, India, and Iran from maintaining normal relations with the Damascus regime. What this self-righteous posturing discloses is the familiar imperial trait of talking endlessly about what others should do but never listening to what others tell us to do. A half century ago Adlai Stevenson made a similar observation when he quipped that “the item of technology that America most needs is a hearing aid.” Without genuine listening there is no learning. This is the price being paid by all of us for this self-entrapment of the imperial mind.
But there is also the unwillingness to address global problems in a more plausible and constructive manner. To be sure, Obama/Clinton wish to rely on collaborative diplomacy, a contrast with the greater unilateralism of the Bush II presidency, so as to shed the image and avoid the costs of acting alone. But is this really the best that smart power can do in the 21st century? If the NATO intervention in Libya is one instance of such multilateralism, then it hardly brings hope or engenders support. What is needed is an institutional capability detached from the priorities of the geopolitical mentors, what I have previously called for in the form of a UN Emergency Disaster Relief and Atrocity Prevention Force (this is along the lines proposed in “UN Emergency Peace Force”, ed. Robert C. Johansen, published in New York City, 2006, on behalf of Global Action to Prevent War, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and the World Federalist Movement; similar ideas also depicted by Citizens for Global Solutions in an instructive paper “UN Emergency Peace Service: One Step Towards Effective Genocide Convention”).
Getting back to geopolitical mentoring, it sounds condescending even if sincere in the context. It is relevant that none of the emerging geopolitical actors, including Brazil, China, and India have joined the American led choir, and told Assad to move on. Even Turkey, which has leaned strongly on Assad in recent weeks to stop state violence, provide reforms, and abide by human rights, has refrained from joining in the call for his removal from power. Instead of geopolitical mentoring, it is time for some kind of geopolitical rehab program that might allow the United States to grasp the character and full extent of its actual role in the world, which continues to be dominating by an addictive relationship to military solutions. Why else linger in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why kill babies in Libya? There are better ways of exhibiting empathy for the victims of state violence and brutality!
There is also the issue of double standards that constantly taints the moral core of American foreign policy. How can the silence about Israel’s oppressive occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem otherwise be explained, or the unlawful collective punishment of the people of Gaza who have endured a harsh blockade that has persisted for more than four years be allowed to go on unchallenged? Or why the indulgence of Saudi Arabia’s systemic suppression of women? The architects of grand strategy in Washington know that smart power in world politics has been and still is all about manipulating double standards. Given the words quoted above this means that our current political leaders are either not smart, or they are merely running moral interference for the smart policymakers who remain faithful to an ethos of raison d’etat, which entails that law and morality be damned.
I do not deny that state atrocities of the sort the world has been witnessing in Syria and Libya during recent months are unacceptable and should not be tolerated. Moral globalization is incompatible with viewing the boundaries of sovereign states as absolute or treating their leaders as situated beyond legal and moral standards of accountability. Yet, it is a sorry commentary on present global conditions if the best we can do is either mount an airborne military intervention that destroys much of what is to be saved or engage in self-satisfied exercises in geopolitical mentoring.
Of course, the future should not be entrusted to the political leaders representing sovereign states. It is up to the peoples of the world to propose and demand better solutions for the unfolding global tragedies that are sidestepped by the egocentric behavioral goals of national governments. Populist complacency is part of what gives this geopolitical posturing a semblance of credibility in our post-colonial era. A benign human future, whether in relation to state/society relations and human rights or the abatement of climate change, depends ultimately on a struggle for peace and justice mounted by energized and dedicated transnational movements. Only a global populism of as yet unimaginable intensity and vision can provide us with the possibility of a hopeful future that we earthlings need and desire. It is too soon to say whether the Arab Spring is this first glimmering of a Global Spring, or just another thwarted challenge to an exploitative and oppressive established order.