Sunday, December 18, 2016

"Problems from Hell" and Real Options Under Democracy

The unending crisis in Syria has underlined the lack of processes in the US system for pursuing options other than military intervention . . . .

Petitions bearing over 1 million signatures being delivered to Congress.
I was struck by this photo when I saw it hanging in the cafeteria of the Hart
Senate Office Building. It underlines for me that representatives take direction
from the citizenry. This specific image relates to the demand for bonuses for
former service members c. 1922. (You can read more about it on Washington
Area Spark Flickr page from which I accessed the image.)

As we consider how we can move towards a world beyond war, it is obvious that one key is to change the way we make decisions about communal action:

The inflection point will come when our systems of group decision-making begin to include norms of "more wisdom, less violence" in proportion to the scope and size of the decision-making forum.

Our thinking about what to do about education and about infrastructure can be helpful in focusing our thinking about the process question. We're trying to imagine a world beyond war, and to work backwardsf rom there, and to imagine what exertions (spending, training) might be rendered moot by the arrival of such a new state of affairs, and what might advantageously be put in the place of those exertions.

It is somewhat more difficult to consider political process (and the exertions involved) because we often don't think of process in terms of the preparation required. We tend to think of it as something that merely happens in the moment.

I think this is what my sister, Elaine Scarry, was challenging in her book Thinking In An Emergency.  The practical lesson for me from the book is: making and carrying out the best decisions for communal action -- particularly in a pinch -- can and does happen . . . and/but . . .  intentional design and rehearsal are necessary prerequisites.  (You can see Elaine, herself, briefly introduce the book in a video greeting to incoming students at Evergreen College.)

Best decisions for communal action -- design and rehearsal -- how might this be applied to transitioning to a world beyond war?

One possibility is to consider articulating a broader set of options for communal action within the US Constitution itself.

Right now, there are two main provisions for process related to military action abroad. (Congress also has power over military action in the "homeland" setting: "[Clause 15] To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.")

Under Article I, Section 8, of the US Constitution, the Congress shall have Power...:

* [Clause 10] To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;

* [Clause 11] To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

I would assert that today the public understands the "to declare war" part - if that. The rest is obscure to almost everyone, and murky at best.

And so, in the murk, we plod along. The president conducts foreign policy; the Senate ratifies treaties; the US conforms (or not) with international law and collaborates (or not) within international bodies of which it is a member; the media vets the nuances of the US approach within selected arenas; and the citizenry (principally) twists in the wind.

If we seriously intend to hasten our arrival at a world beyond war . . . we need something better.

Shouldn't the US Constitution affirmatively (and clearly) articulate processes for entering into a range of possible actions in the international arena? For instance:

* participate in negotiations

* enter into / support multilateral conventions that provide for conflict resolution

* withdraw aid/funding

* contribute peacekeepers (personnel, funding, other support)

* impose economic sanctions ("economic war")

* declare war

As we process through the options, greater and greater levels of participation would be required. Participating in negotiations is currently within the authority of the executive branch. Perhaps the opposite extreme -- a declaration of war, in absence of a direct attack on the homeland -- should require a plebiscite? The intermediate options could require ascending amounts of formal vetting and deliberation.

This is not necessarily the best list; the process by which large numbers of people participate in coming up with the best list will be, itself, a valuable first step.

Of equal importance is what is omitted from the list. On the one hand, I would suggest, our governments should de-emphasize expressions of support or censure. Of much greater importance will be the ability of civil society to mobilize itself around such expressions from the people. On the other hand, we recognize that supplying weapons is just a subset of declaring war. Finally, once we have taken the step to support multilateral conventions that provide for conflict resolution (the NPT and the IAEA, for instance), the emphasis should be on honoring our promises and recognizing the authority granted thereunder, rather than actively trying to influence the direction of the related activities.

(And in the course of doing so, let us focus on moving toward processes that can be seen to be equally legitimate no matter what country carries them out -- i.e. learn to comprehend and then transition away from American exceptionalism. What we're talking about is a worldwide transition.)

A simple way to test what I am proposing: consider it in light of the widely-read book by Samantha Power, "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide. To the best of my understanding, this book has come to stand for the proposition that it is unacceptable to stand idly by when armed conflict creates a humanitarian crisis, and that military force is a legitimate response to such situations.

In my view, "A Problem from Hell" succeeded in unsettling people, but failed to interest people in truly participating in choosing from among possible solutions when the next crisis arose.

So the question is: accepting that there are "problems from hell," does process like the one above, or one like it -- involving a ladder of options -- create a better framework for deciding about communal action?

Related posts

US Army Capt. Nathan Michael Smith has sued the commander-in-chief, President Obama, for ordering war in violation of the US Constitution. Therein lie 5 lessons . . . .

(See Confronting Permawar: 5 Lessons from Captain Smith)

"Humanitarian intervention" -- the great pretext for US intervention in Africa. Glenn Greenwald gave an outstanding talk in Chicago in May, 2012, in which he warned against humanitarian interventions: "The US -- no, everybody -- always says the reason for military intervention is 'humanitarian.'  . . . "

(See Greenwald Was Right: "Humanitarian" War in Syria? It's Just More War)

It's way too easy to launch U.S. missiles. (Maybe if it were a little more costly, challenging, or painful to carry out these attacks, they would at least require someone to give an explanation that makes sense first.)

(See AMERICANS: Happy As Long As They're Blowing Something Up )