Just Because Putin’s a Hypocrite Doesn’t Mean He’s Wrong

I finally got around to reading Vladimir Putin’s opinion piece in the New York Times.  It caused quite a commotion in the United States and around the world, with many resonating with Putin’s words.  Within the United States it’s obvious the Russian president struck a nerve.  Putin spoke truth and both the American people and our leaders would be smart to listen to his message, no matter how dubious the messenger.

Putin brought up an excellent point about the League of Nations, and how it fell apart because it had no real power.  The same can happen to the United Nations if we are not careful.  What Putin doesn’t acknowledge is that the UN was created to prevent interstate conflict.  However since 1945, the majority of the world’s conflicts are intrastate.  The difference between the two types is what drives a lot of the discord in the United Nations today.

President Putin is right on many points, including the history of American military action in intrastate conflicts.  The Russian president is correct that an American strike on Syria would further destabilize the Middle East and negatively impact international law.  Because the bottom line is that without UN Security Council approval, any use of force in Syria would be against international law.  However Putin’s motive must be examined thoroughly also.  This is the perfect opportunity for him to step back onto the world stage and he has milked for all it’s worth.  Putin’s relationship with Assad brings over $5 billion to Russia so it makes sense he does not want Assad to go, despite his insistence that he is not trying to protect Assad and that international law must be upheld.

But Putin is also correct that the battle for Syria is not a battle for democracy.  Some people want democracy in Syria but many in the opposition are linked with al-Qaida and other groups seeking to harm the US as well as other western countries.  The US looks arrogant for insisting we can pinpoint the ‘moderate’ factions and help them overpower those who would do the US and the West harm.

None of this is to say Putin is an angel and the US is the devil.  I thought the last paragraph of his piece was paradoxical because it was hypocritical and correct at the same time.  However controversial, I agree with him that American exceptionalism, exceptionalism from any nationality is dangerous.  History has proven that.  From the British empire controlling 25% of the world’s population at its peak, to Nazi Germany seizing German-speaking lands prior to the start of World War II and Japan seeking to control all of Asia.  However Putin looks hypocritical talking about God creating everyone equal after he passed laws clearly saying he does not think gays and lesbians were created equal.

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Obama’s Case for Military Action in Syria

Obama’s made his case last night for military action in Syria but given the recent developments with Putin and Assad, I’m sure it changed what Obama originally planned to say.  I don’t know if Putin’s efforts will be successful but the Russian leader is right that the world cannot sustain a war right now. Obama is smart to give diplomacy a chance. He had no choice really.  The president was facing an uphill battle trying to convince Congress and the American people that using force is the only option in Syria, or that we should even involve ourselves in yet another foreign conflict.  Putin’s given him an out.  If these efforts are successful, Obama won’t have to convince anyone to go to war.  If diplomacy fails, no one can say the president didn’t try to avoid using violence.

Where Obama went wrong was how he distorted what we think we know about the conflict.  In some parts he didn’t even make sense, which is dangerous in a high-stakes situation such as this.  Although the report from the United Nations has yet to come back few dispute that chemical weapons were used in Syria.  The burning question is by whom?  The US insists circumstantial evidence implicates Assad since he has chemical weapons and there’s no indication the opposition has them.  It’s widely known the US wants Assad out.  I’m not saying I like Assad or that he’s innocent but this conflict is more complicated than we know.  Assad is no angel, but those who oppose him aren’t innocent either.  The reality is we don’t know if Assad used chemical weapons.  He denies it, and even German intelligence is saying there’s no evidence he did.  I’m not saying whether he did or didn’t use them, but the fact that we cannot prove he did undermines any argument that he should be punished militarily.  We’ve been wrong before and it was catastrophic.

Last week pictures and video footage surfaced of the rebels lining up soldiers fighting for Assad and executing them with a machete.  In response the US said saying the same as it always says, that although there are extremist elements of the opposition, the US is confident that our government can make sure we are only helping those who want a moderate democracy that respects all its citizens.  The reality is that many Syrians like Assad.  The people are very much divided.  The thought that we can go into a country, facilitate in removing its leader and bolster the faction we like to control the country is a narcissistic conjecture, and very dangerous for international security.  We did this in Africa, Latin America and Asia during the Cold War, and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It’s hasn’t worked.  It never works.  This is why America has a bad reputation in many parts of the world.

If Assad is to be removed, it has to come from the Syrians own hand.  They have to work this out for themselves and whether Obama wants to admit this or not, this is just like Iraq in the sense that if we strike militarily and things get worse we will not be able to just leave.  As Fareed Zakaria said on GPS last Sunday, “you break it, you bought it.”

The United Nations is to blame for the international impasse on Syria

I’ve never been a huge fan of the United Nations.  I think it’s an ineffective organization and cannot fulfill its purpose. No question it needs to be restructured.  Some of its problems are inherent in an entity which is the closest thing to a world government in an anarchic international system when it in fact it is not, but others can be fixed with some restructuring.

It’s main weakness is how the Security Council is run, which happens to be the most powerful body of the UN.  It consists of permanent members and non-permanent members, which rotate.  Presently, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia.  When World War II ended, these were the five most powerful countries.  These states, also known as the P5 have veto power, meaning they can destroy resolution put before the Council if they do not support it.  This proves critical in situations like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The world largely does not approve of Israel’s illegal settlements and many of its actions toward the Palestinians.  However the US vetoes any resolution that has a hint of criticism at Israel no matter if it’s justified or not.  This undermines any influence the UN might have there.

In Syria, Russia supports Assad and China does not want to get involved.  As such, any resolution authorizing military action in Syria or even condemning Assad for massacring his own people will not pass.  This is unfortunate because a situation like Syria is the perfect opportunity for the world to come together to decide how to handle it.  In the case of Britain, it’s one of the reasons many MPs voted against military action.  Indeed violating a nation’s sovereignty would be easier to justify if the world was in agreement.  Even better if it accompanied diplomatic/political efforts.  If a resolution were passed condemning Assad’s actions, it might give him a reason to negotiate and stop the violence.  But as the world cannot agree, Assad is emboldened to continue killing innocent people because he knows there will be no retribution.  It makes diplomatic action seem a futile effort because it will turn into a never ending quarrel while innocent people are dying everyday by the thousands.

In recent years, with the rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and other countries (Mexico) many have called for the Security Council to be restructured.  Either with more countries having veto power or it being eliminated entirely and resolutions put before it decided by a majority.

In 1945, power being in the P5’s hands made perfect sense.  Decolonization had not happened yet, Britain and France controlled much of the world and WWII had ironically awakened the American economy.  But is not 1945 anymore and the world order is not what it was then. If the UN is to fulfill it’s purpose–to maintain international peace and security and remain relevant in international politics, it has to reflect the dynamics of the present.

Assad cannot be allowed to continue to murder his own people–by chemical weapons or otherwise.  If there is a military intervention without UN approval, whether it’s a coalition or not spells disaster for Syria and the entire region.  It would be better for everyone if this conflict was resolved diplomatically and politically.  But the way the UN operates creates an impasse to such a resolution–one that innocent people are paying for with their lives.