Tag: Democracy and Rule of Law


In response to protests in Iran, President Trump is calling for regime change:

The entire world understands that the good people of Iran want change, and, other than the vast military power of the United States, that Iran’s people are what their leaders fear the most….

Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever, and the day will come when the Iranian people will face a choice. The world is watching!

He is also suggesting that the United States might do something about oppression:

Big protests in Iran. The people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism. Looks like they will not take it any longer. The USA is watching very closely for human rights violations!

Iran is failing at every level despite the terrible deal made with them by the Obama Administration. The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!

Is this wise?

As regular readers will know, I am an enthusiast for civil resistance. Not only because people have the right to express their views, but also because nonviolent protests are the safest and best way to promote democratic reform. While Iran experts are still debating the character and significance of the last week of protests in Iranian cities, it is clear that at least some of them, while triggered by economic disappointment, are also seeking political change, targeting in particular the Islamic Republic and its Supreme Leader.

Supreme Leader Khamenei has so far been silent. President Rouhani has defended the right to protest but also warned against violence and disorder. The internet has been either blocked or slowed. At least a dozen people have been killed, apparently by the security forces. They could still react more forcefully. The last time widespread protests erupted in Iran, in 2009, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps rolled out the pro-regime paramilitary forces known as the basij, who beat and shot protesters into submission.

Former Obama Administration official Phil Gordon thinks Trump speaking out in favor of the protesters will do more harm than good. I agree. It tars them with an American brush that many Iranians despise: a president whom they perceive as unreliable and reprehensible, because of his opposition to the nuclear deal and his concerted efforts to deny Tehran the benefits of it. In order to be effective, the protests need to have an entirely indigenous flavor. The regime will rejoice if they come to be seen as instruments of American foreign policy, especially if the source for that impression is Trump.

No doubt the President figures he is a winner either way. If the protests succeed and lead to real change in Iran, he’ll claim credit and point to the contrast with President Obama’s restrained reaction in 2009. I can hear the chest thumping already. If they fail, he can complain bitterly about repression and heighten his rhetoric against the Islamic Republic.

But the truth is the President is undermining pillars of democracy at home and abroad by harsh attacks on the US press and independence of the US judiciary as well as his affection for would-be autocrats in Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Russia, and elsewhere. He has no standing at home or abroad for a pro-democracy Twitter campaign that lacks any serious follow-through. Rested from five or six days of golf at one of his own resorts, Trump is starting the New Year with the same lack of wisdom that has characterized his presidency since last January 20.

PS: Vice President Pence has now chimed in:

As long as is POTUS and I am VP, the United States of America will not repeat the shameful mistake of our past when others stood by and ignored the heroic resistance of the Iranian people as they fought against their brutal regime.

The bold and growing resistance of the Iranian people today gives hope and faith to all who struggle for freedom and against tyranny. We must not and we will not let them down.

This certainly implies that Washington will do something more than tweet. What is that? Where is the game plan? How will we not let them down?

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Violence won’t stop in Syria when war ends

I haven’t had a moment to write today, but I did this video a few days ago for the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, on whose board I serve. Enab Baladi Newspaper published it:

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Enjoy the family, bemoan the country

I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. Family members are responsible for this extraordinary new museum, this incredible piece for The Atlanticthis wonderful dining hall, helping keeping poor kids in college, and serving he US Army in Korea. Not to mention two grandchildren getting ready to outperform and a host of brothers, in-laws, and nieces and nephews doing great things. What could be better?

Alas, my country could be in better shape. It is over-committed abroad and seems unable to figure out how to withdraw without creating vacuums that get filled with people who generate more commitments. At home it is polarized between protectionist nationalists led by white supremacists and a multi-ethnic coalition led by internationalist liberal democrats. Racism remains the country’s original sin, one it cannot acknowledge without contradicting its ideals.

Sexism is racism’s twin and perhaps even more original, as it came over before the first slaves. Its contemporary prevalence is becoming all too obvious. No one should assume that it is only the great and famous who abuse privilege to intimidate, harass, and abuse women. The headlines are the tip of the iceberg, one that extends deep into the working world in all its many sectors, professions, and occupations. Whoever finds herself below someone else in the pecking order runs risks.

Our current national leadership is both racist and sexist. It is also radical and stupid. The combination is causing serious damage internationally, which my colleague Mike Haltzel outlines skillfully at the HuffPost. I nevertheless found something comforting in Dana Milbank’s thanks to those who have blocked so much of the evil the Trump Administration has tried to do, especially on the domestic front. The so-called tax reform, which would dramatically increase the government deficit while transferring wealth from the less affluent to the very rich, is just the latest, sad example. The repeated and so far failed attacks on a conservative, market-oriented system for providing healthcare to most of the heretofore uninsured is another.

President Trump is using executive action in favor of deregulation in many sectors to make up for his total failure so far in the legislative arena. His efforts on environmental issues have been particularly successful and harmful. His minions will soon end the rules that require internet service providers to treat all content equally, allowing the bigger ones to rule the roost in a way that would have prevented the internet from becoming the indispensable tool for virtually everyone that it is today. No doubt there are other areas in which the Administration can give to private companies the public benefits that belong to the country’s citizens. Trump’s conservative judicial appointments will no doubt help that effort.

What everyone whom I know wants to know is when this will end, and how. The stock market, which is performing well (but no better than it did under President Obama), is betting on business as usual, including the proposed corporate tax cut. I’m not. The implications of the tax cut will, I hope, sink it into oblivion before the New Year. Some combination of Congressional and Special Counsel investigations, election losses, Republican retirements or defections, and journalistic revelations will pull down not just Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner but also the President himself. That will be a serious test of our institutions. If they survive, we’ll be saying an even bigger thanks for them the next time Thanksgiving rolls around.

In the meanwhile, I’m going to enjoy this Thanksgiving with my terrific family, even if the country is in big trouble.


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The best available, unsatisfying outcome

Ratko Mladic was convicted today in The Hague. The sentence is life imprisonment for genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws and customs of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s. He will presumably appeal.

Re-reading the Mladic indictment is a terrifying reminder. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) originally accused him in 1995, but the trial that ended yesterday was based on an indictment in 2011 of participating in a joint criminal enterprise responsible for the removal of Bosnian Croats and Muslims, the years-long siege of Sarajevo, the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims after his military seizure of Srbrenica, and the taking of UN personnel as hostages. It has taken 22 years for this first conviction.

International justice today is agonizingly slow, meticulously detailed, procedurally complex, and ultimately decisive. I attended an afternoon of Mladic’s trial a few years ago. It was dull. The prosecutor would read volumes of detailed eye-witness testimony of atrocities to a Mladic underling who would deny that anything like that happened. Mladic sat silent. His defense lawyer would occasionally intervene, but to little avail. I could well imagine that this orderly process, involving years of hearings in which to air his denials, would not satisfy his victims.

In fact, the Tribunal is not looked on favorably in the region. Each ethnic group resents the indictments of its own military heroes. No group thinks its tormentors have been adequately punished. The procedural niceties are largely lost in a flood of self-justifying nationalistic fervor. There has been little reflection, at least in popular culture, on the villainy of one’s own, only of the others. Leading politicians exploit the popular sentiment. Few acknowledge their own group’s culpability or laud accountability.

I would nevertheless judge the Tribunal a success, less for its jurisprudence and more for its political impact. Even when it did not capture war criminals right away, indictments sooner or later forced wartime leaders out of the political arena. Had that not been the case, politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia would have been far more fraught. Mladic and his political counterpart Radovan Karadzic were forced into hiding. Slobodan Milosevic was defeated at the polls and extradited. Had they remained politically active, or even just present in their respective political environments, Sarajevo and Belgrade would have been far more fraught.

That is less true for the Croatian, Bosniak, and Kosovar indictees, not least because their top political leaderships were never indicted. Croatian President Tudjman and Bosnian President (Alija) Izetbegovic are dead. Kosovo Prime Minister Haradinaj was indicted but acquitted. He is again prime minister now. He, Kosovo President Thaci, or other KLA fighters could still be indicted, by a Kosovo “special court” staffed with internationals convened in The Hague to deal with post-war crimes.

Some will say the failure to hold more Croat, Bosniak and Kosovo political leaderships accountable, and the acquittal of some of their military leaders, proves that ICTY is biased against Serbs, or implemented only victor’s justice. I find some of the acquittals difficult to understand, but it is important to remember that a court like ICTY that follows best practices in contemporary criminal procedure is more likely to acquit the guilty than convict the innocent, which is as it should be.

There is however no question of innocence in Mladic’s case. The evidence presented at trial was overwhelming and compelling. Someone else unjustly getting off is no reason to doubt Mladic’s guilt. He will now have ample opportunity to appeal, but odds are he’ll spend the rest of his life incarcerated in a fairly comfortable place, telling himself he was right to protect Serbs by murdering and expelling Muslims and Croats, firing at civilians in Sarajevo, and taking UN peacekeepers hostage. It’s an unsatisfying outcome, but the best available.

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Questions about unraveling

A few questions have come up about my report for the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on preventing The Unraveling of the Balkans Peace AgreementsI’ll try to answer some of them here.

Q: Was the report requested by the Congress or the Administration?

A: No, though it has been briefed to both.

The report originated in a call to me last spring from CFR prevention director Paul Stares, a former colleague at the United States Institute of Peace. I had done two previous reports for Paul, both on Libya, but he was of course aware of my interest in the Balkans and had noticed the increasing alarm about the Balkans in the US and European media.

Q: Why did you write about changing borders in the Balkans? Doesn’t doing so give that idea legitimacy/credibility?

A: CFR rightly requires that its authors treat a full range of options to deal with the potential contingency in question. Changing borders has been widely discussed in the Balkans, Europe, and the US. I felt I had to deal with the idea.

I did so by looking at it from the perspective of US interests and values. It failed on both counts. It would require both heavy diplomatic and military commitments from the US, EU and Russia that are not available. It would also boost President Putin’s misbehavior in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, not to mention undermine the US position on Kurdistan’s independence referendum. It would also vitiate liberal democratic values, which are based on equal rights regardless of ethnicity, not trying to herd people on to the “right” side of a border.

Q: The report suggests a special envoy for the Balkans in order to reassert US leadership on some key issues. Secretary of State Tillerson is not keen on special envoys. Isn’t there another way?

A: Yes. I mention in the report that the current institutional setup could be used, a deputy assistant secretary, provided she or he has good connectivity with upper levels of the US government. Another option, one I wish I had included, would be delegation of authority for the Balkans to Vice President Pence, who has already begun to take the lead there. A formal delegation with key objectives outlined would likely be a better solution than a special envoy, but I’m told it is also unlikely.

Q: What has been the reaction to the report?

A: Positive from those who agree with me. Others don’t communicate as much, but instead use my mention of border changes to suggest falsely that is my preferred option. Let me say again: I see no way to change borders that is feasible with the resources available and oppose the idea in principle as well as in practice. Democracy and rule of law are the answer, not ethnic tribalism.

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My Council on Foreign Relations report on preventing the unraveling of the Balkan peace agreements was published yesterday. It speaks for itself, except in one respect. The report recommends that the US appoint a special envoy to do some heavy diplomatic lifting in the Balkans, including normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, enabling Macedonia to enter NATO, and Bosnian constitutional and electoral reform, as well as blocking Russian trouble-making.

On reflection, there might be a better solution, but I thought of it too late to get it into the report: delegation of responsibility for all these things to the Vice President, who has already informally taken the lead on Balkans policy with a trip to Montenegro. Vice President Biden had such a formal delegation, but so far as I know not the explicit responsibility for the particular issues I cite. Empowering Vice President Pence to seek these goals would ensure high-level political attention, which is what they all need. None of the current problems in the Balkans are insoluble, provided the US and EU are prepared to use their leverage in a coordinated and forceful way.

What if there is no special envoy appointed and the vice president is not formally delegated responsibility? Should we give up hope? No. the things I have suggested can be handled, as they have been in recent years, by a Deputy Assistant Secretary and his staff, but he will need access to higher levels of the US government. That has been lacking, especially during the transition from President Obama to President Trump. It is high time that connection was strengthened. People in the Balkans need to know that the top levels of the US government are backing the person–no matter what her or his title–who seeks to complete the regional peace processes, which were all negotiated with strong backing at high levels.

Visits are one way to demonstrate that high-level backing, but they require real progress on real issues. People in Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Macedonia are all asking for visits from the President, Vice President, as well as the Secretaries of Defense and State. What they have not always done is to make the kind of progress that got Montenegro a visit from the vice president after its accession to NATO. Political and economic reform are their own reward, but they will also attract positive attention from others and prevent the unraveling of peace agreements that have brought enormous benefits to a region once in turmoil.


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