I was pointed to Paul Collier’s latest Guardian column on the violent political standoff in Ivory Coast by the always entertaining Wronging Rights blog. In the piece, Collier advocates for a military coup openly supported by regional and international powers. Indeed, he supports the option to:
…generate a credible threat of force from the government’s own army. In much of Africa, the national army is the force most feared by presidents. Leaders go to considerable lengths to keep the army happy, but coups are still common. Because neither African governments nor the international community want to encourage coups, they have taken the line that the military should simply stay out of politics at all costs. This is understandable, but misguided: it’s better to set guidelines as to the very limited circumstances under which the ousting of an incumbent ruler would be legitimate.
The legitimacy of the incumbent remaining in power is not at question here, and the international community has spoken quite plainly on the matter. The precedent that such an approach to transferring power could set, however, seems gratuitously risky in a political climate where legitimate rule and accountable militaries are already tenuous propositions. Perhaps it is too cliché to make ‘Pandora’s Box’ -type arguments, but what Collier fails to elaborate upon is how exactly the terms of such “very limited circumstances” for legitimate military coups should come about, or what they would look like once agreed to by some yet-to-be determined process.
I’m reminded that Collier’s position is generally the one of the realist, having little time for political ideals when the management of economic forces is at stake. Consequently, it is not a drastic step to advocate for legitimizing political coups as tools of regional and international order as circumstances require; such methods would be but means toward economic growth from which, in turn, democracy and human rights could eventually follow. The order that these process are bound to take is clear. It would be naïve to pretend that the incitement or encouragement of coups and insurrections have not found their place in the muddy waters of foreign relations. Still, embracing such an approach in order to avoid the difficulties of external intervention — and at the likely cost of massive further internal destabilization — is highly problematic when placed in juxtaposition to notions of the rule of law…regardless of the legal standing of the existing order.
Oh dear, I’m afraid I might have just made a Kantian argument.
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A tenet that will surely continue to be heard as the new administration establishes its image on the world stage is that compromises between ideals and security will no longer be tolerated. The notion featured prominently in the President’s inaugural, and was most recently repeated by the Vice President in his speech to the Munich Security Conference. Indeed, the public narrative of the administration would hold that security without ideals is as hollow as ideals without security. Honest voices will argue for the primacy of one over the other, will passionately disagree over the means to achieve both, and will level charges of ill intent against their fellow citizen, yet for the sake of the nation’s just cause there must remain a fine shield around robust and passionate debate if it is to be protected from the baggage of faction.
Charges have recently been leveled at the new administration that are critical in the highest order, and must be considered in that light. Central figures in the policy apparatus of the previous administration have gone so far as to say that actions taken in the first days of the Obama presidency to roll back interrogation and detainment policies threaten the security of the United States, and that the decisions represent adherence to rhetoric without regard to reality. Yoo and Cheney hold firmly to the position that not only were their policies successful but also fundamentally necessary for national security. No other alternatives, by their reasoning, are conscionable. In pursuit of the comprehensive authority they deemed necessary to prosecute their campaign on their own terms, however, these strict constructionist types have failed to explain why Article VI of the Constitution does not actually apply, and why U.S. international commitments are binding only when convenient. The quasi-legal opinions offered in defense of administration policies in those regards do not address these issues, instead falling back on claims to unbounded executive power.
The temptation to base assertions of power on the notion of just sovereignty is a dangerous one, for, as I regularly like to point out, that approach is morally insufficient (in fact, regardless of the legal justification). On what grounds can we assert the rightness of our purpose if not on the principles that have informed our Constitution, the international institutions and frameworks that we ourselves enabled, and the treaties to which we are a part? How is a foreign policy sustainable if it is wrapped in the cloak of war and conflict, defined by the otherness of the world? To be absolutely clear, there is a difference between “Speak softly and carry a big stick” and flailing madly about with that stick. The ability to tell the American story has been considerably challenged, I should say, by an over-reliance on absolute instruments of power, and all those with a stake in the American historical narrative in the world would do well to see new policies through to success. The non-cooperative world stage should not be left to uncooperative self-fulfilling prophecies.
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Following up on last week’s justice theme, it seems appropriate to get down some ideas about the rule of law. Particularly, I’m intrigued by the twisting and contorting of principles in order to fit morally and (I would hope) legally unambiguous events into palatable frameworks of understanding. Perhaps absolutism and relativism will constantly be at odds in the world of circumstance and contingency, but it doesn’t seem necessary to jump to moral (or amoral?) extremes in order to confront the degenerative habit of shrouding the wrongs of power in the garb of the law. The just war tradition accounts for wrongs in the pursuit of justice (I’m thinking of Walzer, in particular), providing a normative framework for means as well as ends. Consequently, just war considerations often get dismissed in policy discourses as either too permissive or as ex post analytical models; tragically, this habit too regularly leads to the absence of normative conditions altogether.
While it must be the role of policy to pursue the requirements of justice, our highest laws must be allowed to stand entirely for those absolutes that cannot be sacrificed in the name of a free society. Thus, foundational laws (constitutions, etc.) often represent principles that may rise above political expediency, interest, or competition. National sovereignty is but the means of instituting law, independent of the body of principles of which the law is the face. The point that I’m trying to drive towards is, thus, that when even the fundamental values upon which our conceptions of justice and right are based become subject to question, as has recently occurred in certain legalistic opinionating, wriggling, and obfuscation, then the corruption of the rule of law becomes a very real threat.
The outgoing administration’s efforts to somehow charm the law into submission to political motives appeared on Sunday in a simulacrum of reason that capstones the unwitting and incessant self-parody of Messrs. Bolton and Yoo. Warning against future overreaches of executive power (by those liberals, of course), they offer the tired excuse that American sovereignty (and, to their credit, statutory accountability) will be sacrificied to indefinite international whims in matters of economic, resource, and physical security (Kyoto, climate policy, and nuclear testing). What seems to always get missed in the bloveating about compromising American strength is the impact that American leadership on these issues could have in furthering a liberal democratic agenda (that’s small L, small D, and has nothing to do with political parties), advancing diplomatic (and strategic) interests, and encouraging economic dynamism in fields mired in past technologies and resources. By not only participating but actually leading like only America can (for better or worse!), accountability under just laws becomes a means of foreign policy and an end in itself.
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The Gaza cease-fire ended this week and, predictably, hell has been unleashed on that wretched sliver of earth yet again. I’ve been trying to think of what I could add to the ongoing commentary on the Palestinian-Israeli situation, a topic that is already debated and spun ad nauseam. The truth is, not very much. Instead, my purpose in writing this is for my own sake, to have my thoughts on record. I trust that any bearing on the present escalation will be apparent.
I should first dismiss any claims to legitimacy that come from those corners that would seek to equate rockets, bombings, and suicides with Israeli self-defense. There can be no sympathy or accomodation made for the means that Hamas has chosen. In this regard, only the most firm policy can succeed in keeping the violence of unjust terror distinct from the violence of the just state. For indeed, it is the saddest of realities that political violence will not pass away overnight, yet it is more worrying still that the justice of the means of just causes has been ignored so readily, faded so quickly, and been replaced so willingly. It is the tragedy of unjust means that is most terrifying in these times, and any defense of force that must, in order to keep from unraveling, rely upon the moral absolutism of sovereignty, rather than of justice in purpose and method, should be vehemently opposed. In moral terms, sovereignty (whether over territory, people, or resources) is an insufficient basis for action.
The moralizing that has accompanied the Global War on Terror (that falacious phrase that seems intent on staying with us) has, to speak generally, taken quite a different path than what would be otherwise expected of a doctrine of jus in bello. The ravaging of civilian populations has become all too common, basic due process has been ignored (leading to absurd legal dilemmas at Guantanamo), and torture has somehow come back up for debate. At the same time, the official rallying cry had something to do with the promotion of liberty and democracy. So I ask: By what means? By the means of justice? Or by the means of expediency, might, and the sword?
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