Obama’s UN speech directed feisty words towards both Putin and Assad, but did not reverse recent concessions on the part of the US. Though it reflected a re-entrenchment, and though it reiterated weary and baseless allegations about the pair, it did not retract Kerry’s opening to Assad’s remaining in power in Syria for the time being. Nor did it reverse a certain implicit allowance for Russian military activity to continue in Syria. That the US has retained its right to grumble and complain is evident in remarks made on Thursday by Senator John McCain and Defense Sect’y Ash Carter, but no cogent criticism of Russia’s airstrikes could be made. The US has been backed into a corner, though its left flank, Turkey, and right flank, Saudi Arabia, still growl. Like Israel, they also threaten action if Assad stays, but Assad will remain until Syria is stabilized. The next step is up to Syrians.
In some ways, Putin too has been harsher in his criticisms of the US in the weeks leading up to the military buildup in Syria, and this has continued as the airstrikes have gotten underway (Wednesday). Putin’s UN speech did not disappoint in this regard, but its thrust was different. The speech’s tenor was measured and its content was specific. Referencing international law and precedent, Putin appealed to the gathered representatives of the world’s nations to renew the august role of the UN and to become the principle backer of the kind of international effort now needed in the world’s troubled hotspots. Presently, these are systematically neglected by a unilaterally active US and its allies which increasingly act alone to “solve the world’s problems”, inevitably making a mess of it.
For context — and the feistier side of Putin’s message to the US — the Russian leader’s most damning public condemnations were unleashed during the Charlie Rose interview just days before the UN talk. Though CBS transcript excised the “offending passages” in an episode of patent censorship, these can be found at the Kremlin website and elsewhere. In an earlier post, I covered Putin’s rebuttal to Charlie Rose’s repetition of baseless US accusations about Assad’s war crimes. I also quoted Putin on his version of the Ukraine story, where he related what Russia knows of the plan and operation of a US-engineered overthrow of the Yanukovich government in Kiev, and its replacement with the puppet-oligarch Poroshenko nursed to power by US Asst. Sect’y of State Victoria (“F*ck the EU”) Nuland.
In his UN speech, Putin laid out the legal and institutional grounds for going to war alongside Assad against a terrorist threat that in fact is universal. Unlike others who treated the topic, he also addressed the causes in a realistic manner, speaking out against the American destruction of Middle Eastern societies by exporting the chaos it likes to call “democracy”.
Putin’s primary critique was directed against the US unilateralism that now dominates world politics, and has weakened the UN as an effective institution of international communication and cooperation. Restoring the UN to its proper and intended forum of a multi-polar and diverse world occupied Putin’s opening and closing remarks.
The emphasis on the institution served also to frame the legal and terminological rationale for the bombing campaigns that began two days later. Because we are all different, he said, “every term in international law and international affairs should be clear, transparent, and have uniformly understood criteria.” In this context, the crucial concept of state sovereignty, much abused by the West, especially regarding the Ukraine and Syria, was key to his address. In the 21st century, US-led war alliances have increasingly neglected this concept or abused it, much as they have other precepts of international law and common civilization, and the very institution in which these remarks were delivered.
Besides laying out the legal and institutional platform of the UN upon which Russian policy intends to found its broad policies in the Ukraine and Syria, Putin was also preparing the ground for his own military action in support of his Syrian ally. He also was covering another flank, as it were.
Putin was addressing complaints, reflected in several other talks, that the UN has become inefficient and unable to perform its original stated functions. Thinking like a CEO, recent rumors have been floated concerning a ‘streamlining’ procedure at the UN, to remove veto powers from the five permanent members of the Security Council. Since the permanent members are presently composed of the US, Great Britain, France, China, and Russia, it would easily turn a 3-2 NATO – Eastern Alliance stand-off into a US rubber stamp council.
As we saw in the last post, Obama’s UN talk put little stock in the institution itself; it was principally a forum in which the US gets together with allies to save the world. References to international law or the sanctity of international institutions only arose in Obama’s case with the Ukraine, with Obama accusing Russia of failing to respect these norms. Of course Obama failed to mention that the US overthrew a democratically-elected government in Ukraine, and was hoping to do the same in Syria.
It was precisely this sort of unilateralism and hypocritical pretensions to moral authority and the export of “democracy” that Putin referred to at the start of his talk, without ever naming the elephantine hyper-power in the room. It is, of course, this Power-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named that is behind the push to eliminate the Security Council veto.
After his initial remarks, Putin addressed this critical issue. I think they are worth quoting at length. You won’t get this on CBS, NYTimes, or FoxNews.
“The United Nations is unique in its legitimacy, representation and universality. It is true that lately the U.N. has been widely criticized for supposedly not being efficient enough …. I’d like to point out there have always been differences in the U.N. throughout all these 70 years of existence. The veto right has always been exercised. It is absolutely natural for so diverse and representative an organization. Whatever actions any state might take bypassing this procedure are illegitimate. They run counter to the charter and defy international law. We all know that after the end of the Cold War — everyone is aware of that — a single center of domination emerged in the world, and then those who found themselves at the top of the pyramid were tempted to think that if they were strong and exceptional, they knew better and they did not have to reckon with the U.N., which, instead of [acting to] automatically authorize and legitimize the necessary decisions, often creates obstacles or, in other words, stands in the way….. But we consider the attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the United Nations as extremely dangerous. They could lead to a collapse of the entire architecture of international organizations, and then indeed there would be no other rules left but the rule of force …. true independent states would be replaced by an ever-growing number of de facto protectorates and externally controlled territories.”
Putin then turned to international law’s central legal principle at stake in Syria and the Ukraine: national sovereignty.
“What is … state sovereignty, after all, that has been mentioned by our colleagues here? It is basically about freedom and the right to choose freely one’s own future for every person, nation and state. By the way, dear colleagues, the same holds true of the question of the so-called legitimacy of state authority. One should not play with or manipulate words.”
In fact, Obama derides Syrian sovereignty because he derides Assad’s legitimacy; of course this is done on a basis of lies and “active measures“, and if the standards were legitimately applied, it would be Western nations that would see their leaders delegitimized.
It should be pointed out once again, that US unilateralist and neo-imperial expansion has followed two strategies, it has utilized two sticks, however, it has but scrawny carrots to offer. Its two sticks are the neo-liberal one of debt-enslavement and corporate takeover, to which Russia was subjected in the period of the oligarchs; the second is that preferred by neo-conservatives of the “military-industrial complex”, this is being used in Syria. The latter may employ either proxies or US military/intel personnel. But whether its bombs or debt that the US is “exporting”, they like to call it “freedom” and “democracy”. Putin knows it for what it is, rank imperialism. It is his country after all that has been surrounded by US military bases after he tossed out the oligarchs. But he allows the West to pretend a little. His tactic at the UN was to humor them, coach them along a few logical steps, show them, or the public forum at large, that the inevitable outcome is quite a bit different than their stated objectives. In fact, it little resembles at all what most people think when they hear the words “freedom” and “democracy.”
How, in fact, can democracy, which implies “choice” be “imposed” by one country on another? Especially when they have already voted, as in the Ukraine and in Syria.
In his speech, Putin plays along and tries to bring some sense to the conversation. Rather than question the motives, he points to the repeated results, the horrifying social tragedies that inevitably ensue upon American liberation. (Greece is lucky it got it the neo-liberal stick.)
” We are all different, and we should respect that. No one has to conform to a single development model that someone has once and for all recognized as the only right one.” In fact, if national sovereignty means anything at all, it is that the citizens have a right to choose their direction.”
To add to his little lesson on the meaning of sovereignty, Putin recalled the Soviet past of “exporting revolution”, and its sad legacy, leading often to “tragic consequences” and “degradation rather than progress.”
But did the West learn anything from that? Putin goes on:
“Far from learning from others’ mistakes, everyone just keeps repeating them, and so the export of revolutions, this time of so-called democratic ones, continues. …. But how did it actually turn out? … (A)ggressive foreign interference has resulted in a brazen destruction of national institutions and lifestyle. Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster. Nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life.”
“I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation, do you realize (even) now what you’ve done?”
They oughta know, but Putin takes time to explain.
“Tens of thousands of militants are fighting under the banners of the so-called Islamic State. Its ranks include former Iraqi servicemen who were thrown out into the street after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many recruits also come from Libya, a country whose statehood was destroyed as a result of a gross violation of the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973. And now, the ranks of radicals are being joined by the members of the so-called moderate Syrian opposition supported by the Western countries.”
By simply presenting the facts — and this is an accurate, even gentle, analysis — Putin pulls the rug out from under the pretensions of the Western position, which vaunts its own moral and political superiority in the face of tremendous evidence to the contrary. On such utterly questionable foundations, it has taken independence from countries around the world that it considers deficient in some regard, and cost millions of lives in their liberation.
“Do you realize even now what you’ve done?” This is perhaps the take-away line, because it can be answered in one of two ways. Either yes, we know, in which case the US is intentionally pursuing a policy of devastation and destruction, or no, we didn’t, which means the US military and intelligence services, with Special Forces operatives in 100 countries, and military bases in 150, has their head up their wazoo. Dumb or evil. Take your pick.
Putin does not say all he knows, indeed, he does not say all that which is public knowledge (though but few stateside seem cognizant). He does not say what has become increasingly evident in the last few days, that 10,000 of those terrorists are CIA-trained terrorists. He does not name names. But two days later he began bombing them.
Putin’s most damning remarks are about the systematic destruction that our “train-and-equip” programs have wrought in Syria.
“First, they are armed and trained and then they defect to the so-called Islamic State. Besides, the Islamic State itself did not just come from nowhere. It was also initially forged as a tool against undesirable secular regimes….. it is hypocritical and irresponsible to make loud declarations about the threat of international terrorism while turning a blind eye to the channels of financing and supporting terrorists, including the process of trafficking and illicit trade in oil and arms.”
On two occasions in the UN address, he took issue with the US refusal to undertake a serious investigation into the funding of ISIS and other opposition terror groups in Syria as well as into the open secret about ISIS oil sales across the Turkish border. Talk about terror: it petrifies US and alliance powers that Russia may use its Security Council chair to begin serious investigations into the funding of these takfiri (holier than thou) terrorist groups. But Putin has another warning for those who think they control their proxies in Syria and Iraq. This is for you, General Petraeus:
“It would be equally irresponsible to try to manipulate extremist groups and place them at one’s service in order to achieve one’s own political goals in the hope of later dealing with them or, in other words, liquidating them. To those who do so, I would like to say — dear sirs, no doubt you are dealing with rough and cruel people, but they’re in no way primitive or silly. They are just as clever as you are, and you never know who is manipulating whom. And the recent data on arms transferred to this most moderate opposition is the best proof of it. We believe that any attempts to play games with terrorists, let alone to arm them, are not just short-sighted, but … may result in the global terrorist threat increasing dramatically and engulfing new regions, especially given that Islamic State camps train militants from many countries, including the European countries.”
Could anything be clearer? Stupid or evil, again we must ask.
Assume the best. Assume stupid. Maybe Putin should have explained further, by saying that when the terrorist problem is universal, this mean it will eventually hit all countries, that means yours too General Petraeus. Putin in fact does gives an example by way of illustration, his own national example. See how the logic goes:
The terrorist issue is universal and it is also quite particularly a Russian problem. Thousands of Russians, especially Chechens, like other Europeans and Americans have gone off to wage jihad, probably without reading the Qur’an (or they would know they are going to hell for killing innocents.) “We cannot allow these criminals who already tasted blood to return back home and continue their evil doings.” Perhaps you too, General Petraeus, ought to consider eliminating them, “liquidating them”, as Putin said, sooner rather than later, instead of funding them and arming them and trying to co-opt them.
The active participation of Chechen, Turkmen, and Central Asian jihadis in the Syrian wars, who may all return to Russia when Syria is properly destroyed, is Russia’s main and very serious domestic concern in Syria. Even Charlie Rose seemed to acknowledge that. This too is a point the US officialdom has not been able to argue down. Russia’s involvement in Syria is not simply about the fate of its ally, but very much a domestic issue. Though the neo-cons may frame it as an expansion of the neo-Soviet-Orthodox-Shi’ite-Alawite axis towards the West, these are quite obviously defensive maneuvers for all the referenced participants.
If terrorism is a universal problem then, Putin goes on, why not a universal effort in response? Putin doesn’t believe there should be a coalition that doesn’t include the legitimate government and legitimate army of the nation in which the war parties are being carried out.
” We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face. We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and Kurd militias are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.”
Again, a clear and accurate assessment that the US would be foolish to disagree with.
It is not national ambition, Putin argued, but self-preservation, that pushes it to engage the terrorist threat in Syria. At the same time, since the actions it must take up are to be operative in the international sphere, it calls to the UN to take up the banner of its original intent.
“What we actually propose is to be guided by common values and common interests, rather than ambitions. On the basis of international law, we must join efforts to address the problems that all of us are facing and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism.”
The speech itself ended with a carrot to America’s ambivalent allies in Europe, now reeling from the refugee crisis they helped to create as part of the extra-judicial US alliance.
“Russia will shortly convene, as the current president of the Security Council, a ministerial meeting to carry out a comprehensive analysis of threats in the Middle East. First of all, we propose discussing whether it is possible to agree on a resolution aimed at coordinating the actions of all the forces that confront the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations. Once again, this coordination should be based on the principles of the U.N. Charter. We hope that the international community will be able to develop a comprehensive strategy of political stabilization, as well as social and economic recovery, of the Middle East.”
“Then, dear friends, there would be no need for new refugee camps.”
Russia will now take up the rotating presidency of the Security Council, a fortuitous occasion that Putin will not fail to utilize fully if he is allowed. From Russia’s temporary position at the head of the Security Council, Putin thus hopes to address the refugee question at its roots. Obama obscured these roots by blaming it all on Assad, and the Pope ignored them altogether, floating his own solution right on by with little angel wings and his head in fluffy clouds. Putin continued:
“I would like to stress (that) refugees undoubtedly need our compassion and support. However, the only way to solve this problem at a fundamental level is to restore their statehood where it has been destroyed, to strengthen the government institutions where they still exist or are being reestablished, to provide comprehensive assistance of military, economic and material nature…. “
But whereas Obama wants to get back to the legal-schmegal thing after military force has put the situation right in his mind, Putin insists it all must be done within the norms of international law, and preferably, as part of a joint UN venture. Therefore, Putin argues that it is not just the legal institutions of sovereign states that must be reinforced, it is the legal institution of the UN itself that needs to be exhumed as it were and brought back to its original intent. In the following, without naming names, Putin lands a salvo of justified accusations at the US.
“(A)ny assistance to sovereign states can and must be offered rather than imposed exclusively and solely in accordance with the U.N. Charter. In other words, everything in this field that has been done or will be done pursuant to the norms of international law must be supported by our organization. Everything that contravenes the U.N. Charter must be rejected. Above all, I believe it is of the utmost importance to help restore government’s institutions in Libya, support the new government of Iraq and provide comprehensive assistance to the legitimate government of Syria.”
Putin has long made clear his intents and rationales in Syria, even though the US State Dept. and Defense are still befuddled about his “real” intentions. He has methodically constructed an alliance under sovereign Syria’s direction, an alliance that includes Iran, Hezbollah, and now China, whose warship has just passed the Suez and docked at Tartus. With his UN speech he offered for international consumption, a rationale, a legal justification for this action, and his wish that other members of the UN will take up a common initiative against terrorism. As the airstrikes get underaway in Syria, Putin intends to use Russia’s presidency of the Security Council to provide this institutional framework for an honest-to-god war on ISIS and terrorists of all stripes in Syria, but he will need defectors from the West to push anything through.