Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Decline of the American Mugging.

Muggers took my Wall Street Journal

A read of the paper would suggest easier and less risky ways to steal, reflects Ian Williams

It had been years since any armed mugging in my part of Manhattan. That must be why local mugging skills are as attenuated as I discovered. After all, people lose their job habits and aptitudes if kept from practicing them for too long.

Such were my thoughts, albeit a little fuzzily focused, when I regained consciousness flat on my back in the wet, squinting up into the muzzle of a pistol that a young chap was pointing waveringly between my eyes while demanding: ‘Yo man! Gimme the money!’

Moments before I had been striding briskly down 155th Street, next to the old Trinity graveyard, whose signs claim it to be a ‘working cemetery’, a description that has always seemed quasi-oxymoronic to me. (No longer toiling there was Ed Koch, the mayor under whom New York reached its zenith of muggings, and who was recently entombed at Trinity.) Then these two knaves had jumped me from behind and conked me on the head with the pistol they were now waving in my face.

My primary emotion was indignation. ‘Yo!’? Whatever happened to ‘Excuse me’? Not to mention ‘Stand and deliver’ and similar formulations. You do not knock someone out from behind and then seek their co-operation in handing over valuables. Even when non-concussed I can never find which pocket I put my wallet in.

And so, wallowing on the ground thrashing like an upended turtle as I tried to get up, I started yelling, ‘Help! Police! Help!’ I was pleased to discover that even without proper use of my arms and legs, my diaphragm was in full working order. Instead of frisking me, the perp was too scared to get within grabbing distance, so he snatched my attaché case and ran off with his accomplice.

I did a quick inventory of my possessions. Mont Blanc fountain pen: check. New BlackBerry: check. Raymond Weil wristwatch: check. Wallet, with cash for once as well as the plastic credit cards on which I usually rely: check. Key fob, including the transponder for the car parked, ironically, 20 yards from where the incompetents pounced: check.

Missing was the case which held the Wall Street Journal and a copy of the New Scientist. The police later retrieved the discarded New Scientist, but the perps had walked with the WSJ. I could not help thinking there was some sort of parable here. The miscreants had discarded real science for the WSJ’s dismal version of it.

My agent was quite taken with the idea of Harlem muggers making off with the WSJ, and pitched the story to an editor there – but maybe they suspected I had not taken the appropriate blood oath to Murdoch and Mammon. The word came that it would indeed be publishable, but only if I rewrote it as a hymn of praise for the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, which a week later a judge ruled unconstitutional.

I was unconvinced by the rhetoric from the police chief. If his policy was so successful, where had the pistol I felt and saw come from? In reality, crime tends to follow economic cycles more closely than police policy posturing.

On the bright side, if they had read the paper, my muggers might have realized that risking a life sentence for armed robbery is a mug’s game. The stories of SEC ‘agreed’ settlements might have persuaded them that there were easier – and much less risky – ways to loot the citizenry.

Having said that, if they had read on to the op-ed pages they might well have felt philosophically justified in mugging people on sound Randian principles, and in resisting any government attempts to interfere in the free market by regulating the practice.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

US's Diplomatic Disarmament

United Nations Report

Decades of Knee-Jerk Vetos for Israel Limit U.S. Options on Syria at the U.N.

By Ian Williams

Members of the United Nations Commission on Inquiry on Syria (l-r) Carla del Ponte of Switzerland, American Karen Konig Abuzayd, chairman Paulo Sergio Pinheiro of Brazil, and Thailand’s Vitit Muntarbhorn arrive at a Sept. 16, 2013 press conference following the presentation of the commission’s report to Human Rights Council members in Geneva. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians are the victims of a smorgasbord of global double dealing and hypocrisy that exceeds the sad standards we have become used to in this century. The arguments have seen some unlikely alliances in the West. In support of intervention are people who are genuinely concerned at the plight of Syria’s suffering people, along with those who are happy to cheer Israeli bombings of Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese people. The presence of these latter ghouls in the pro-intervention camp should give anyone pause, along with their like-minded neocon friends who want the Pentagon to use all that smart and lethal military technology.
On the other hand, we have conservative isolationists who really do not see it is as our business if foreigners are killing each other in faraway places of which they know little, and they are arm in arm with radical leftists. Once upon a time, the left preached proletarian internationalism, workers in unity across national boundaries, sending volunteers to Spain, calling for the opening of a Second Front in Europe and applauding foreign aid to the Viet Cong. In this new era of what we should puckishly call socialist nationalism, a country’s sovereignty is sacred and unimpeachable—at least if threatened by any Western power. So they come to the same conclusion as the right: let them rot.
The United Nations is used as a tool by both sides. It has been honorable but ineffective. Ban Ki-moon has actually repeatedly emphasized the horror of what has happened while eschewing Washington’s unilateralism.
Indeed, some of those who oppose intervention will piously point to the need for Security Council authorization before any action is taken against Syria, or Serbia, or Sudan. But if the U.N. does authorize action, those people will oppose it just as fervently! For the dying Syrians, the U.N. must seem thoroughly irrelevant, but it is the cockpit in which their case is being fought. Russia, a weaker power with a Security Council veto, cites the organization continuously as the necessary legitimation for action against Syria, clinging to the literal legality of U.N. obligations while being insouciant of the spirit.
President Barack Obama has been puzzlingly imprecise about U.S. attitudes to the world body, perhaps reflecting a battle inside his team with the neocons who see the U.N. as an instrument to be used when it suits them but cast aside when inconvenient. Obama’s reputation will take considerable time to recover from his initial gaffe of suggesting that the U.S. would not wait for the U.N. inspectors’ report on chemical weapons use in Damascus. After the brief post-Bush honeymoon, it is obvious that Washington’s lucid moment about the U.N. and international law has come to an end.
One would like to think that the British House of Commons vote against intervention—from the parliament that declared war on Hitler because he had invaded Poland—was not simply an expression of isolationism, but also a comment on legality. Both Cameron and Obama had signaled their willingness to attack without the U.N. report, let alone a U.N. mandate.
The members of parliament also voted in a context in which it is universally admitted that Tony Blair and Bush lied to secure support for their disastrous attack on Iraq, and in which maladroit and insincere leadership turned a bad dream into a nightmare, and turned the intervention in Afghanistan—which was legal—into a total disaster.
The framers of the concept of Responsibility to Protect—R2P, as it became known in diplomatic shorthand in the age of text and Twitter—were well aware of the pitfalls, and their document anticipated most of the perils that face its honest application. Few countries are unalloyed emulators of the Good Samaritan: they do not like risking their own citizens’ lives and taxpayers’ finances in a good cause. One might remember that the U.S. sent the bill for Desert Storm to the Gulf states, who sent on their claims to be paid with Iraqi reparations.
But the palpable disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan raise the question of who can be entrusted to run such operations? Under R2P, the time to intervene in Syria was two years ago, when the Assad regime began to massacre demonstrators. The U.S. dithered, militarily and diplomatically, emulating former Secretary of State James Baker when he said of the Balkans that the U.S. “has no dog in this fight.” Some decision makers were weighing on varying scales whether it was good for Israel or bad for Iran, and the really cynical concluded that an endless civil war eviscerating an Arab neighbor to Israel just had to be good thing.
In the end, of course, the precipitating event was the chemical weapons attack which crossed the red line that Obama probably now wishes he had not drawn in the sand. This horrific attack diverted attention from R2P to the chemical weapons issue, and allowed unusually adroit Russian diplomacy to switch the issue from the regime’s killing with mere physical impact weaponry to the chemical weapons. Before, the issue was whether to use military force under R2P to protect civilians, with or without a U.N. mandate. Now it has become simply chemical disarmament.
To the dead, it might count as irrelevant whether they were charred with napalm, burnt alive with white phosphorus, shelled in a marketplace or disintegrated by drones dropping bombs from on high.
Syria had not hitherto signed the conventions banning chemical and biological weapons, one reason being that it had neighbors—notably Iraq and Israel—who also had not. Interestingly, the Israeli government is happy that Syria might be disarmed, but less ecstatic about Damascus ratifying the convention, since that raises the question of why poor little Israel has not—not to mention the nuclear issue! Indeed, the U.S. itself was a relatively late signatory to the convention.
Even then, there was something very Israeli in tone about the idea of massive air-strikes to “punish” the regime. Its sole purpose was to insulate Obama from the charges that he was doing nothing. Bombing the chemical and biological weapons stocks carries fairly obvious risks. The chances of massive casualties for the civilians who are being “protected” are very high, while the denial of any intention of regime change misses the point. How else does one stop the regime massacring its citizenry without changing it? Apart from warming the cold hearts of those who always applaud bombings of Arabs and Muslims, it is difficult to see any point in the threatened exercise.
In an ideal world, a surgical military strike to take out the regime might have stopped the killing, but that is far too late, and the only country with the wherewithal to do it, the U.S., is manifestly unsuited for the role after recent experiences, even in the unlikely event that it could persuade its fellow U.N. members to entrust it with a mandate.

Past Humiliations

Moscow’s cooperation over the chemical issue might raise other possibilities. Rus­sian attitudes need to be put into historical and diplomatic context. Yes, there is the basic immorality of support for Assad (as for Qaddafi and Milosevic before). But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was Russia’s man at the U.N. after the first Iraq war, in which Moscow cooperated in the spirit of the New World Order. It was regularly humiliated by seeing its views set aside and resolutions with which it had originally colluded being stretched to justify actions, bombings, embargos and the economic destruction of a nation and people, well beyond any reasonable reading of the resolutions. Lying Western leaders bypassed Russia for the second Iraq war, and again in Libya, when reluctantly conceding a principle on R2P Moscow once again was ignored in the operation’s execution. Western behavior has indeed been such as to justify some degree of paranoia! Bush and Blair’s precedents of taking such phrases beyond the limits certainly explains Moscow’s reluctance to see any mention of forcible intervention, even in a chemical disarmament resolution.
The fact remains, however, that Lavrov has effectively thwarted the U.S. push—which entailed, one suspects, some heavy pressure by Moscow on its ally in Damascus, including a threat of withdrawal of support. Sadly this shows what President Vladimir Putin could have achieved earlier but chose not to, so there are no haloes on offer.
And then we come to continuing hypocrisy. U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power in September was defending the possibility of intervening without the approval of the U.N. Security Council. However, Washington can try to get a resolution at an Emergency Special General Assembly, under the “Uniting for Peace” resolution designed precisely to bypass a vetoed Council. The two reasons for not doing so illustrate the lamentable cumulative effects of American undiplomacy over the decades. Ironically, to assemble the alleged “Coalition of the Willing” in Iraq, the isolationists of the Bush administration carefully courted, albeit via a somewhat rough wooing, many small nations, as did then-U.N. Ambassador John Bolton in his quasi-theological crusade to thwart the International Criminal Court.
Since the Obama administration is much less single-minded on Syria, it has not devoted similar resources. A Coalition of the Dithering somehow lacks focus. Most perniciously of all, however, the canker of reflexive support for Israel has led the U.S., under both Republican and Democrat administrations, to deny the legal validity of the very process it had pioneered to fight the Korean War despite the Soviet veto. The reason for that denial, of course, is that the Palestinians had rediscovered the technique to combat the automatic U.S. veto on behalf of Israel. Washington has therefore sacrificed a valuable legal and diplomatic lever—which, by contagion, tempts it to illegal action.
A General Assembly resolution calling for an arms embargo might not have “legal” effect, but it certainly would have a profound diplomatic and moral effect on Moscow. It could also signal exasperation with Washington’s Gulf allies and their support for the Salafist wing of the opposition, whose sanguinary and shameless efforts have given Damascus such a propaganda coup. But Washington shows no signs of sacrificing its other interests for a bunch of dying and dispossessed Syrians by threatening sanctions against Russia or the Gulf.
Sadly, however, while the U.N. can now offer hospice care to Syria and help it to survive, there is no miracle cure in sight. Through its agencies it can help the refugees and the internally displaced, and it can provide inspectors and mechanisms to implement a cease-fire if Kerry and Lavrov can pull one off. It will certainly be part of any solution—but there are no unmitigatedly happy endings in view.

Good Wars and Bad Anti-War?

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 2013, Pages 29, 34Special ReportDueling Principles: National Sovereignty Vs. Responsibility to ProtectBy Ian Williams

Accurate history is messy, because reality is messy—and that is no more apparent than over Syria. The lines between good and bad are never as clear and bold as we would like. Take the example of the Second World War, which most of us accept as about as clear-cut a battle between good and evil as one could conjure up—and so it was, in very broad brush strokes.
But that war was won with the aid of a brutal Soviet Union, which from 1939 was an effective ally of its later enemy, Nazi Germany, and which had, by 1941, far more blood on its hands than did Hitler’s regime. After the war, both sides overlooked collaborators and propped up regimes that left little to choice. In East Germany, first the KGB and then the Stasis took over Gestapo establishments and persecuted opponents with equal fervor—and on occasion the same opponents!
However, as Orwell said, in most wars one side stands more or less for progress, and in the case of the Second World War, that was the Allied side. While the United Nations that emerged from the war has many resemblances to the former League of Nations, there were fundamental differences in its approach. Following the First World War Europe’s former nation states were dissolving, so under the influence of Woodrow Wilson, the League oversaw plebiscites and referenda that dismembered sovereign nation states, with some respect for self-determination of the peoples. One could argue that the multinational Ottoman and Hapsburg realms had more to offer the future of humanity than their squabbling sanguinary successor states, but that is for another time.
There were major exclusions to the application of the principle of self-determination: Wilson was, after all, a racist Southern Dixiecrat, albeit more cerebral than most. In Europe, German speakers discovered that the rules did not apply to them, and in the rest of the world Arabs, Kurds and others soon discovered that the Great Powers were “only kidding.”
It was this period that saw the invention of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Jewish nationality as opposed to confessionality. When dealing with concepts so subjective and fuzzy it is hardly surprising that logic was lacking, however. Greek-speaking Muslims became Turks, Turkish-speaking Orthodox became Greeks, and Catholic Lebanese/Syrians tried to become French, while other Christian Arabs helped invent Arab nationalism.
The Second World War showed little respect for national self-determination, as peoples from the Baltics southward discovered, and of course the Germans paid all over again. But once the mayhem was done and the boundaries adjusted, the foundational principle of the United Nations was the sanctity of state sovereignty and boundaries—no matter how illogical.
This amounted to restoration of an old principle, enshrined in the messy pragmatic details of the Treaty of Wesphalia that ended Europe’s Thirty-Year War—that of national sovereignty. In the context of the time, it meant that if a monarch was Catholic and persecuting his Protestant subjects, or vice versa, it was nobody else’s business.
Generalized and refined, that principle is now enshrined in the U.N. Charter as “all Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,” and of course emphasized in Security Council Resolution 242 as  “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force.”
That is why, since the arbitrary redrawings of boundaries at the end of World War II, aggressors like Indonesia in East Timor, Morocco in Western Sahara, Iraq in Kuwait, and of course Israel in  Palestine have never been able to gain legal recognition of their conquests. It is why, only recently, a federal court ruled that the State Department could refuse to put “Jerusalem, Israel,” as the place of birth on U.S. passports for Americans who want to have their Aliyah and eat it, too.
Ironically, however, while under old style international law Palestinians living in Gaza can claim protection under the Geneva Conventions—even if it does not help them much—Syrians being shelled and strafed by their own regime cannot.
However, since then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan steered the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) concept through the 2005 General Assembly, international law has changed, building on the International Criminal Court and its jurisdiction. The international community can now hold governments responsible for their failure to protect their own populations and indeed hold them to account for persecuting their “own” citizens.
The big problem with humanitarian intervention, even when called “Responsibility to Protect,” is that it is susceptible to expedient abuse. Hitler justified intervention in Czechoslovakia on the grounds of mistreatment of the Sudeten Germans, who had indeed been denied their right to self-determination in the Versailles settlement. Tony Blair invoked the plight of Iraqi civilians to justify his and George Bush’s crusade against Iraq.
Russia, while it voted with the rest of the world on the general principle of R2P, invokes national sovereignty to ensure that it cannot be effectively implemented, at least against its allies. As in Libya, Moscow can draw support from the ineptitude of American diplomacy, which stands self-evidently guilty of egregious hypocrisy in its dealings with, above all, the Middle East.
Syria, but not Palestine
So, while Washington has been instrumental in preventing effective action to stop Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, American politicians are wringing their hands and saying “something must be done” about Syria. Perhaps the sole concession to rationality is that, apart from the lunatic neocons who gave us Iraq,  there seems to be a general concession that U.S. forces cannot play a prominent role in intervention. On the other hand, U.S. diplomacy for decades seems to have specialized in rubbing the wrong way all the other major players, like Iran and Russia.
Washington’s inaction is made easier because of public confusion about who the good guys are, and Russian media in particular highlight the barbarisms committed by the fundamentalists in the Syrian opposition. There is, sadly, much to highlight. However, that does not negate the reality that the Assad regime began by attacking unarmed protesters and since then has sought to win hearts and minds by bombing and shelling its own cities. Certainly some of the opposition have carried out atrocities, but the regime as a whole has pursued a policy of violent wholesale repression.
The reason so many oppose Assad’s regime is because it is ruthless and murderous—so there is absolutely no excuse not to denounce such behavior when committed by some of “our” side. Indeed, there is even more reason to do so, since to be silent implies complicity.
One other, almost unrecognized act of non-partisan balance has come from the U.N., in its reports on Syria, which suggest that people on both sides have used chemical weapons and violated human rights. It has resisted attempts to provide the smoking chemical canisters that neocon hawks pine for, even though it has indeed made plain that the balance of crimes weighs heavily down on the regime side. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay has called for an investigation into credible allegations of murders by fundamentalist elements of the opposition.
The human rights bodies of the U.N. have often made for strange bedmates. Iran, Syria, Libya and Iraq, when they were each embroiled in bitter conflicts between them, always seemed to unite to ensure that human rights pariahs were represented on the Human Rights Committee and its successor Council. However, their active conspiracy could not survive without the tacit connivance of other members. This year only seven countries—China, Iran, Jordan, Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Vietnam—were candidates for the four Asian seats on the Human Rights Council.
Pro-Israel activists harp on about Iran and Syria, because they are more actively anti-Israel than the others. But none of them really pass muster. The Maldives is the only one that has any serious pretensions to democracy, and even there a semi-coup recently took place.
If countries with pretensions to human rights and democracy cannot bring themselves to stand for such positions, one can see the difficulties in corralling together an effective bloc that could intervene in Syria. Sadly, short of spillover into neighboring countries, it is difficult to see what motivation could inspire such a coalition, diplomatic or military.
And the one “indispensable country” that could at least inspire, if not lead, such a move is hopelessly compromised by its record of partisanship in the region. But at the very least, armed with Pillay’s demonstrable non-partisan commitment to human rights, the Security Council should mandate International Criminal Court investigations into crimes by both sides in Syria.

Ian Williams is a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations who blogs at <>.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Roads to Damascus


Intervention intentions and a credible Syrian course
by Ian Williams
Tribyne Friday, September 6th, 2013
Defenders of dictators throughout the world have made non-intervention a point of alleged principle. It camouflages their record of callous disregard of the suffering of people at the hands of thugs who invoke “anti-imperialist” rhetoric to cover their murders. On the other hand, some proponents of intervention are clearly not motivated by the suffering of Syrian civilians. That should not detract from the overwhelming moral and legal justification for international action to stop the murderous activities of the Syrian regime. However, while is there plenty of scope for uneasy consciences as the world has stood by and watched the regime’s depredations, we must beware of would-be brain surgeons carrying sledgehammers, whose motives and methods are equally dubious.
Even the better-intentioned often seem to be in the “something must be done” school of politics, sending a message to domestic constituencies. Barack Obama has put himself in that camp, committing himself to “punish” Bashar al-Assad, with no clear outcome to the action except defiance of the United Nations and the rule of the international law invoked against Damascus, as well as risking the sort of devastation caused by the Iraq war and its aftermath.
Obama has implicitly joined the neo-conservative ideologues who want “action” and punitive bombing because they want to send a “signal” to Iran and a message of support to Israel.
There have been comparisons with Kosovo, but the key intervention there was not the bombing campaign, which was conducted from high altitude to allow Bill Clinton to show that he was “doing something” while not risking the domestic fallout of shot-down American pilots. It was the threat of ground forces moving in caused Slobodan Milosevic to run up the white flag.
There are, of course, international conventions against chemical weapons, but killing so many innocent people, whether with cluster munitions, as still issued to the United States military, phosphorus (as used in Gaza), or napalm, is equally reprehensible and such actions are surely covered by the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. And, as Tony Blair and George W Bush graphically demonstrated, the principle of humanitarian intervention is susceptible to partisan interpretation, which is why it has to be applied so cautiously.
The Syrian people are victims, not only of Assad’s ruthless reluctance to cede power, but also of disastrous diplomatic decisions by the West. Russia’s stance is not excusable but understandable in the context of constant American snubs. But Russian support for Assad is as indefensible as unqualified American support for Israel, which poisons every diplomatic initiative in the region. The US now disdains the UN’s Uniting For Peace procedure under which the Korean War was fought, because the Palestinians have used it to bypass the automatic American veto in support of Israel.
The Israel connection also stops Washington dealing rationally with Teheran. As victims of (Western-backed) chemical attacks, even the Iranians might be open to discussion. The Israeli connection should give pause to any American involvement in military intervention. The US might have the military resources, but its record shows that it is not ideologically or politically equipped to meddle directly in Arab and Muslim affairs.
It is not enough to shout “No to intervention”. Nor is it enough to bleat about diplomacy – only a credible military threat might bring Assad to reasonable negotiations. A regime implicated in chemical warfare might amount to a diplomatic weapon for use by any UN members genuinely concerned. Members of the Security Council should and tell both Moscow and Washington that, Israeli concerns notwithstanding, they will take the issue to the General Assembly under the Uniting for Peace procedure if Russia uses its veto.
Since Vladimir Putin’s stance is as much about face as love for Assad, the prospect of defeat in the court of world opinion might make him more amenable to joint action.
The British Parliament’s declaration of independence, backed by other countries, could give Obama the cover he needs to face off the neo-cons and the Israel lobby over ill-considered intervention and yet win some agreement from traditionally isolationist Americans that some considered investment in Syria is necessary.