Pulitzers don’t make Snowden a hero

Monday’s Twitter blizzard of Pulitzer congratulations has given way to questions yesterday about the significance of Pulitzer prizes going to reporters who published the Edward Snowden revelations about the National Security Council.

I have no problem with the Pulitzers.  All professions celebrate themselves:  diplomats do it, the intelligence community does it, universities do it, business does it.  Why shouldn’t media give themselves awards?  Certainly the revelations made big headlines and generated much discussion, both within the US and abroad.  What is news about if not big headlines and lots of talk?

Here is where I dissent:  Barton Gellman, one of the Pulitzer recipients, said this on NPR yesterday morning:

Our publication of material that Snowden gave us was our judgment that Snowden did the right thing by telling us what he told.

The Washington Post is entitled to its view on whether Snowden did the right thing, but there is really no need for them to make that judgment in order to publish the material.  They only needed to find it newsworthy.  Nor is there any need for me to accept their judgment.

It is not the media or the Pulitzer committee that should judge what Snowden did.  The main judgment should come from the courts, which are now considering what the government was up to in its collection programs and should also consider what Snowden did.  You may think Snowden a whistle-blower, but the only way of knowing whether he is or not is for him to return to the US and face a jury of his peers.  He may continue to refuse to do that, and prefer to be sheltered by a government whose behavior he surely knows is at least as bad as that of the one he fled, but that doesn’t make him a hero.  It makes him a fugitive.

Let me be clear:  I am not suggesting that the journalists involved did anything wrong.  The government is responsible for protecting its own secrets.  The press in the US is entitled to publish them.  I might wish they had shown more discretion, but they have a right to decide what to publish and what to withhold, which need have nothing to do with whether they thought Snowden justified or not.

Even if he does not return to the US, Snowden will eventually be judged by history, when we know more about why he did what he did rather than pursue other channels available as well as what his relationship has been to the foreign governments that have hosted and protected him.  I obviously have suspicions on those scores–I don’t claim to be neutral in the matter.  I wish the journalists involved had pursued these questions more vigorously than they have.  But I am willing to wait for my answers.

The issue of Snowden’s justification, or not, has nothing whatsoever to do with the Pulitzers, Barton Gellman or other journalists.  They did their job well by the standards of their profession and should be left to enjoy the prizes that come their way.  But they should not tell me that Snowden did the right thing.  That’s for you and me, courts of law, and history to decide.

Passover wandering

Like 70% of American Jews, I spent last night at a Seder, celebrating the story of liberation from pharaoh. Here are some of the thoughts that were on my mind.

Three years ago I wrote with enthusiasm about the Passover of Arab liberation.  Two years ago Syria seemed already in the midst of ten plagues and ruled by a pharaoh who wouldn’t let his people go.  Last year I thought things in the Middle East better than expected.

This year I’ve got to confess things are a mess, not only in the Middle East but also in Ukraine.

The war in Syria rages on.  Israel/Palestine peace negotiations are stalled.  Both sides are pursuing unilateral options.  Egypt is restoring military autocracy.  Libya is chaotic.  Parts of Iraq are worse.  The only whisper of good news is from Morocco, Yemen and Tunisia, where something like more or less democratic transitions are progressing, and Iran, where the Islamic Republic is pressing anxiously for a nuclear deal, albeit one that still seems far off.

In Ukraine, Russia is using surrogates and forces that don’t bother wearing insignia to take over eastern and southern cities where Russian speakers predominate.  It looks as if military invasion won’t be necessary.  Kiev has been reduced to asking for UN peacekeeping troops.  NATO can do nothing.  Strategic patience, and refusal to recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea and any other parts of Ukraine it might absorb, seems the best of a rotten bunch of options.

This is discouraging, but no one ever promised continuous progress.  Even the Israelites wandered in the desert.  Everyone forgets the part about getting stuck in one lousy oasis for 38 of those years.  Freedom is not a one-time thing.  It requires constant effort.  There are setbacks.  And there are breakthroughs.

Americans face their own liberation challenges.  While the past year has seen giant strides in acceptance of gay marriage, there have been setbacks to the right to vote.  Money is now speech and corporations are people, according to the Supreme Court.  I’ll believe that when a corporation gets sent to prison and banks start accepting what I say as a deposit.  The right to bear arms continues to expand, but not my right to be safe from those who do, except by arming myself.  In Kansas City Sunday a white supremacist and anti-Semite allegedly shot and killed three people at Jewish facilities, all Christians.

The plain fact is that liberation, as Moses discovered, is hard.  It requires persistence.  There are no guarantees of success.  The only directions history takes are the ones that people compel it to take.  Some of those people are genuinely good.  Others are evil.  Sometimes they are both, as son Adam’s piece on LBJ this week suggests.  There may be a right side and a wrong side of history, but it seems difficult for many people to tell the difference.

Putin and Putinism are not foreover

There are things that are difficult to write, even when obvious.  People all too often mistake analytical statements for normative ones.  They fail to recognize that I can think something is likely to happen without wanting it to happen.  Let’s be clear:  what I am about to write is not what I want but what I think likely if the Russian takeover of eastern Ukraine continues.

Russian speakers, in an effort coordinated by Moscow, are seizing key government and police sites.  But most people in eastern and southern Ukraine before this crisis considered themselves Ukrainian, not Russian, even if they spoke Russian better than Ukrainian.  Anyone even remotely attached to Ukrainian identity will take offense at what Moscow is up to.  Maintaining that sense of Ukrainian identity has to be a primary objective for those who want the country to remain united.  If ever Kiev gets the upper hand, those who are today supporting the Russian takeover will find themselves unwelcome.

We’ve seen this happen in the Balkans, where Milosevic sponsored supposedly local Serb takeovers in parts of Croatia and Bosnia.  Both had ample backing from Belgrade, including from its army.  Once the Croatians got the upper hand several years later, 180,000 or so Croatian Serbs ended up leaving and entering Serbia.  In Bosnia, the 500-600,000 Serbs who lived during the war in Republika Srpska were saved from a similar fate only by the Dayton agreements.  In Kosovo, many Serbs left Albanian-controlled areas south of the Ibar once Serbian troops withdrew.

Someone more erudite than I am could extend the analogy to the Sudetenland, where Hitler’s takeover ended not so many years later with expulsion of German speakers.

I am trying in what I say above to avoid the fraught question of whether people were expelled, left of their own volition, or were summoned out.  More often than not, such mass movements of population have multiple origins.  Having mistreated others during their time in control, some people expect, justifiably or not, similar mistreatment when power is given to their enemies.  Others are expelled.  Still others respond to calls from their “homeland.”  The mix is different in different places, and exponents of opposing sides won’t readily agree on what happened.

But I can be pretty sure that if Kiev ever regains control of the sites Russia is now seizing that an outflux of Russian speakers will ensue.  Some will justifiably fear arrest or mistreatment.  Others will be expelled by hotheads on the Ukrainian side of the ethnic divide.  Still others may respond to an invitation by Moscow, which no doubt will be passing out passports to those who want them, as it did in Crimea.

The only real doubt I have is whether Kiev will ever regain control.  It seems unlikely.  Russia will always  be much stronger.  Even with a well-equipped and well-trained army that would take decades to create, Ukraine is not going to be able to defeat Russia in a slugging match.  So long as it is prepared to devote the resources required, Russia should be able to maintain control.

There’s the rub.  Moscow has a lot of problems other than maintaining dominance in Russian-speaking Ukraine.  Russia is not much different in this respect from the Soviet Union.  Its internal difficulties, both economic and political, are challenging.  While today Russians are enthusiastically backing the takeovers, they are likely to feel differently when the bills start coming in.  Putin and Putinism are not forever.

Peace Picks April 14 – 18

1. Terrorism, Party Politics, and the US: Expectations of the Upcoming Iraqi Elections

Monday, April 14 | 12:30 – 2pm

Room 517, SAIS (The Nitze Building), 1740 Massachusetts Ave NW

Ahmed Ali, Iraq research analyst and Iraq team lead at the Institute for the Study of War, and Judith Yaphe, adjunct professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, will discuss this topic.

For more information and to RSVP, send an email to: menaclub.sais@gmail.com

Read more…

Shooting yourself in the foot

I’ll be on Al Hurra this afternoon discussing the American failure to give an Iranian diplomat a visa to come to New York to represent his government at the UN.  Yesterday, Eli Lake and I exchanged barbs on the subject:

An Iranian diplomat participated in hostage taking in 1979, 35 years later he can’t get a visa. Typical neocon, guilt-by-asociation smears.


What if the Vietnamese had taken your approach to Pete Peterson as US ambassador there? Would you have supported Hanoi?

The roles and limits of international courts

Friday morning the US Institute of Peace hosted a discussion about the role of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Featured panelists were Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda (ICC), Judge Joan Donoghue (ICJ), Judge Xue Hanqin (ICJ), and Judge Julia Sebutinde (ICJ).  Abiodun Williams (President of the Hague Institute for Global Justice) moderated.

Judge Donoghue emphasized that it is important to distinguish the ICJ from the ICC. The ICJ, also known as “the World Court,” has been part of the UN apparatus since WWII. Its role is to decide contentious cases between two states.  The court also considers whether a state has met its obligations under international law. Neither function involves making a decision about whether an individual is accountable for a specific act. The ICJ is composed of 15 judges from the major legal systems around the world. Three of the 15 judges are women. The ICJ does not automatically have jurisdiction; states must first consent. Two recent cases brought to the ICJ were the whaling dispute between Australia and Japan as well as the maritime boundary dispute between Chile and Peru.

Prosecutor Bensouda agreed that it was important to distinguish between the two courts. While the ICJ deals with disputes submitted by states, the ICC deals with individual criminal responsibility. This includes war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. The ICC can only intervene in territories of state parties or over citizens of state parties that committed a crime.

Established in 2002, the ICC is not an organ of the UN. It is a treaty-based institution. Currently 122 states have signed and ratified the Rome Statue. The ICC can exercise jurisdiction when a state requests ICC intervention or the UN Security Council refers a situation to the ICC for investigation and prosecution. An ICC prosecutor can intervene if a state party is not already prosecuting and investigating. However, the primary responsibility falls on the state.

Judge Xue explained the jurisdictional issues both courts face. There are three ways for the ICJ to have jurisdiction. Article 36 of its statute makes it compulsory for states to accept ICJ jurisdiction.  International agreements may also provide for jurisdiction.  The third way is through agreement by two states. If states do not accept going to court, it weakens the role of the ICJ.

Bensouda added that the ICC has limitations. It operates in a political environment. There are many priorities for states.  A judicial mandate is not always a top priority. The effectiveness of the ICC depends on cooperation with states. It is only through this cooperation that the ICC can function as a judicial institution.

Another limitation is a double standard. For states that are party to the Rome Statute, the ICC can intervene on behalf of victims. Non-member states are not able to subject to this intervention unless the UN Security Council refers to or accepts the ICC’s jurisdiction. For full judicial effectiveness, all countries should be parties to the Rome Statute.

Judge Sebutinde noted how both courts depend on states and the international community to enforce judgments. When states are hesitant to implement a ruling of the courts, it is easy to turn on the institutions and accuse them of ineffectiveness. But the international community should turn on itself and wonder why the institutions they created are not fully functioning.

Bensouda said that the ICC can play a preventive role. Knowledge of the existence of the institution and its application of the law can act as a deterrent and stop would-be violators from committing crimes. This has been demonstrated in empirical academic work.

Williams brought up the issues of Syria and Crimea. Neither the ICC nor the ICJ is playing a role in either matter. Does this suggest that these courts have nothing to contribute when stakes are especially high and the international community divided?

Sebutinde replied that before looking to the courts it is necessary to look at the international community and the UN Security Council. The judges as individuals may be interested in these issues. But unless a case is presented, they can only be spectators. The ICJ can only settle disputes where states allow.

Judges Donoghue and Xue agreed that it can leave a feeling of frustration when one looks at disputes and wonders why they are not in an international court. Sometimes an affected state decides that the best way to make progress is not to come to court for resolution, but to pursue other avenues.

Bensouda concluded by saying that in her opinion the ICC should intervene in Syria. But it can only intervene on territories of state parties. Neither Syria nor Ukraine are state parties. Therefore, the ICC cannot intervene. It is a matter of jurisdictional limitations.

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