“What’s Aleppo?” Is Still Smarter than Cavalier Interventionism

Call it a gaffe, call it a flub, call it what you will – it’s inarguable that Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson’s most memorable moment in his bid for the presidency occurred on “Morning Joe” last month. Mike Barnicle asks the former New Mexico governor what he would do about Aleppo if elected, and Johnson responds with “What’s Aleppo?”

At least Gov. Johnson didn’t say “Who’s Aleppo?”, as if Barnicle were asking him what he’d do on behalf of some long-forgotten Marx brother instead of a major city in Syria currently in the midst of a grave humanitarian crisis.

But seriously, haters can make fun of Gary Johnson all they want. Edit out “What’s Aleppo?” from the transcript of the interview and you’re left with a cogent and coherent justification for a non-interventionist foreign policy that’s far more sensible than anything either major party candidate offers. Johnson is afraid that further US involvement in Syria would make the situation worse than it already is. His fears are justified, and would likely be realized under either Clinton or Trump.

The 2016 Democratic Party Platform reiterates President Obama’s 2011 call that “Assad must go,” but Russia’s commitment to keeping the Syrian president in power makes it highly unlikely that the proposed “negotiated political transition” can ever be achieved. Any US escalation in Syria (such as implementing a no-fly zone) will hasten the deterioration of US-Russia relations, further entrenching both countries in their ongoing proxy war. Incremental moves toward regime change are thus far more likely to draw out the conflict and resultant suffering of the Syrian people.

Even leaving aside her 2002 vote for the Iraq war, Hillary Clinton has displayed a cavalier attitude toward regime change. When informed on camera of the death of Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi during the 2011 US-supported uprising, a jubilant Secretary Clinton joked, “We came, we saw, he died.” But of course Qaddafi’s death was hardly the end of the story. Five years later, Libya lacks an effective national government, which has allowed ISIS to establish footholds in the country. The US achieved regime change in Libya, but it is hard to see who has benefited apart from terrorists.

The 2016 Republican Party Platform criticizes the Obama administration’s handling of Syria, in particular singling out Secretary Clinton for blame, but it then absurdly advocates the exact same path forward as the Democrats. For his part, Donald Trump sees combating ISIS as a higher priority than removing Assad, but the means he suggests for doing so – “bomb[ing] the shit out of ’em” – threatens only to create more of the ungoverned spaces in which ISIS thrives. Both Trump and Clinton are cavalier interventionists, the difference between them being merely prioritization of targets.

Gary Johnson’s foreign policy positions, on the other hand, are neither feckless nor reckless. Unlike Green Party nominee Jill Stein, Johnson does not advocate shutting down all overseas US military bases, but rather trimming excess. Most importantly, Johnson calls for restoring Congressional checks on the presidential authority to wage war, which makes him the only candidate to explicitly call for the reduction of executive power. This, I contend, is the great unspoken issue of the current election, in which one party has nominated a despot and the other a dynast.

The expansion of executive authority – brought on largely by George W. Bush after 9/11, but readily taken up by his successor – will only continue under a President Trump or a President Clinton. Even if there isn’t a large scale deployment of US “boots on the ground” to Syria, we will still see more drone strikes, more collateral damage, more blowback, more unintended consequences, less due process, fewer checks and balances, all shored up by more twisted legal reasoning.

The office of President of the United States, as shaped by both of its 21st-century incumbents, possesses “all the infrastructure a tyrant would need.” In this respect, the only advantage that Hillary Clinton holds over Donald Trump is that she would be more predictable in her abuse of that infrastructure and more intellectually adept at justifying said abuses. But neither major party candidate wants to see an end to the imperial presidency. If we insist on limiting our choices to Republicans and Democrats, I fear that elections to come will only see the further triumph of despots and dynasts.

Were I a peer at the court of our future princeps, I would counsel her or him to pursue sustainable peace as a long-term goal over the short-term lure of regime change. A negotiated end to Syria’s civil war might see Assad (or at best a hand-picked, likely Alawite, successor) remain in the presidency, but governing a substantially restructured Syrian state. Ali Khedery has proposed a confederacy of ethno-sectarian entities as one possible future for Syria, and such an outcome appears amenable to Russia. Assad himself has rejected the idea, but if regional powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey could be brought on board, it has a chance. As I’ve written before, a sustainable peace will require the US, the EU, and Russia to strengthen the institutions best able to stabilize the region.

This of course will not solve our domestic quandary of how to handle the imperial presidency, but a more stable Middle East might mean that future presidents will be less tempted to use our undeclared wars in the region as justification for eroding civil liberties and overriding constitutional strictures. I’ve heard many arguments against voting for a third-party candidate, but I’ve yet to hear one that addresses that particular quandary. Whichever party controls Congress, it will be difficult for them to constrain the executive, so I prefer the candidate who campaigns for executive restraint. To those who argue against voting for a third-party candidate, this might sound naïve, even quixotic. It is not Cervantes to whom I would refer the matter, though, but rather Solzhenitsyn: “Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph; but not through me.”

How to Resolve Sectarian Conflict? The Westphalian Model Today

A recent article in Foreign Affairs suggested that the Peace of Westphalia – the 1648 agreement ending the Thirty Years War, fought primarily between Europe’s Protestant powers on one side and Catholic powers on the other – could serve as a model for ending the Shia-Sunni rivalry currently fueling instability in the Middle East. If this model is to bear fruit, it will require careful diplomacy to ensure commitments from the main regional powers (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey) as well as support from outside powers (the EU, the US, and Russia). It will also require acknowledgment that the means that largely brought an end to sectarian strife in Christendom will have to be substantially modified in order to be effective in an Islamic context.

The Peace of Westphalia suggests itself as a model today not simply because it resolved a sectarian conflict, but also because it established norms for future relations between the powers involved in that conflict. Those norms have been expanded and revised over the centuries, but their core has stood for so long in the West that they have essentially become unspoken assumptions, fading into the background of our everyday expectations about how the international system works.

Religious differences presented an impediment to official communication between states in the pre-Westphalian world. An ambassador sent from Catholic Spain to the Protestant Dutch Republic, for example, would find no place in his host country to hear mass or take communion. The Dutch ambassador, on the other hand, could not legally bring a Protestant book of prayer or a vernacular Bible with him to Spain. The Peace of Westphalia solved this problem by vesting embassies with extraterritorial rights: the Dutch embassy in Madrid was on Spanish soil, but Dutch law took precedence within the embassy itself. The embassy chapel could thus hold Protestant services without breaking Spanish law; the Dutch would reciprocate by providing the same privileges to the Spanish embassy in the Hague. The particular legal status of diplomatic missions remains enshrined in international law today.

This legal device invented to facilitate diplomacy illustrates the most revolutionary feature of the Westphalian blueprint: it recognized religion as separate from, and ultimately subordinate to, political order. Ideally, pre-Westphalian rulers were expected to enforce religious uniformity not just among their own population, but universally. After all, how could a just ruler withhold the Word of God from his own people? What earthly jurisdiction was not under the sovereignty of the King of Kings? Such was the standard line of thought among European powers before 1648. But after 1648, any Christian ruler who wished to confer with his peers had to acknowledge boundaries on religious zeal.

The Peace of Westphalia was one of many gradual steps leading to the secularization of modern Western society, in which the right of conscience makes each individual a virtual embassy unto themselves. The modern liberal state aims to provide citizens with security and prosperity, assuming their spiritual life to be a private affair. It would be wrong, though, to see the Westphalian blueprint as having arisen from some sort of innate human tendency toward liberty; rather, it arose in a specific context to address a specific problem: finding it unsustainable to engage in the subjugation or slaughter of so-called “heretics” decade after decade, European rulers simply took religion off the diplomatic table.

As the authors of the above-mentioned article recognize, Westphalia is an imperfect fit for the current Shia-Sunni conflict. The Protestant and Catholic nobles of the Holy Roman Empire, where most of the fighting of the Thirty Years War took place, all agreed to accept the jurisdiction of the Holy Roman emperor and his courts of law as the venue in which to resolve their disputes. In what I consider the weakest part of the article, Axworthy and Milton suggest the United Nations as the superior jurisdiction to which the Shia and Sunni states of the Middle East would defer. I believe that a better possible venue for the management of sectarian conflict exists in the form of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

To return to the issue of European precedents: the office of Holy Roman emperor had an explicitly Christian origin, having been bestowed on the Frankish king Charles the Great by Pope Leo III in the year 800. By the sixteenth century, it had detached itself from the papacy, instead drawing its legitimacy from a College of Electors drawn from the clergy and nobility of the Empire. Historically, the closest equivalent to the office of Holy Roman emperor in the Islamic world was the Caliphate, but that office was abolished when the Ottoman Empire dissolved in the aftermath of World War I (the claim of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to have revived it notwithstanding).

Given the absence of a personal office that can wield jurisdiction over rival powers, the OIC represents the best alternative. Every Muslim-majority country, whether Shia or Sunni, is an OIC member, and the organization has already drafted action plans for protecting religious minorities in the member states. Moreover, the OIC has established an Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission that, if so empowered by the member states, could theoretically acquire the judicial means to resolve disputes that Axworthy and Milton suggest handing to UN courts. It would require recognition (and likely some form of monitoring) by the EU, the US, and Russia as external guarantors, but it could ultimately serve as an ecumenical forum for resolving sectarian disputes in the Islamic world.

Thus internationally recognized and legally empowered, the OIC could serve as a sort of “Concert of the Middle East,” formally assuming the kind of role that the nineteenth-century Concert of Europe played in maintaining stability on the continent following the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. Would that then somehow deliver modern Western secularism to the Islamic world? The answer to that has to be an emphatic “no.” The history of secularization in the West is fraught with contingencies and contradictions to the degree that, as scholars like Charles Taylor and Michael Allen Gillespie have pointed out, it might make more sense to regard secularism as an offshoot of Christianity rather than as an independent belief system opposing Christianity. The near-term goal here is simply to end the current conflict; the longer-term goal is to sustain the peace. To do that in a meaningful and enduring way, existing regional institutions will need to foster a sense of Islamic ecumenism presently in short supply.

2016: A Time out of Joint

Anyone who’s been paying attention to the news realizes that 2016 has been a year of portentous change. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the United Kingdom’s referendum on leaving the EU, Europe’s struggles to cope with a massive influx of refugees, the continuing threat of ISIS – these intertwined events give the impression of an unprecedented disruption to the status quo on a global scale.

The crumbling of the border between Syria and Iraq, set up by the Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Great Britain at the end of World War I, has caused a resurgence of borders elsewhere in the world. The border between Austria and Hungary, the 1989 opening of which marked the beginning of the end for Communism in Europe, is once again tightly controlled, despite the fact that the Schengen Agreement should have rendered it effectively nonexistent. At first glance it might seem counter-intuitive that events at two points more than 1500 miles apart could be so closely connected, but history has tied these lands together in curious ways before.

Throughout the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire, ruled by a Sunni Muslim dynasty, struggled with Shia Iran for control over Iraq. At the other end of their empire, the Ottomans recruited the Protestant king of Hungary as an ally against Austria’s Catholic ruling family, the Habsburgs. From the point of view of a vizier in sixteenth-century Constantinople, calculations over the fate of Baghdad had to take into account the situation in Budapest, and do so without smartphones, when information could only travel as fast as a swift horse. Religious differences played a role in these calculations as well, with Europe’s Protestant rulers viewing Catholicism as a far more serious threat than Islam.

Over the past decade-and-a-half, we in the West have often expressed surprise at the rapid resurgence of religion as a major factor in world affairs, and that events in some distant corner of a little-known land should send forth repercussions affecting people in New York, San Bernardino, or Orlando. Such shock is a result of forgetting, a forgetting that is a curious symptom of Western modernity: we who have the greatest means to survey both the world around us and the past before us also seem the most certain that we are insulated from that world, that we have broken from that past. Shouldn’t our access to such knowledge teach us the opposite lesson? Does the overabundance of data at our fingertips impede our ability to see the relationships between those data? Or does our confidence about our place in the world merely mask our ignorance thereof?

Here is where the study of history can offer insight. Historians can’t study the past per se (as none of us have yet gotten our hands on a flux capacitor), nor do we have access to “facts”; instead we have access to evidence in the form of documents, and it is from that evidence that we construct theories about the past. To study the world of the Ottoman Turks or the Austrian Habsburgs or the Iranian Safavids, the historian must also be an anthropologist and an interpreter. Even when we understand the language a document was written in, we often struggle to grasp the concepts it expresses. The people who wrote the documents that provide us with our evidence about the past made very different assumptions about human nature and about the world around them than we make today.

We came to our own such assumptions fairly recently, though. When George Washington was on his deathbed, his physician ordered that he be bled, relying on an understanding of the elemental makeup of the universe that had guided medicine for thousands of years. Only over the course of the nineteenth century did knowledge of cells and germs and genetics displace the belief that the human body, like the cosmos itself, was ultimately composed of earth, air, fire, and water. So the framers of the Constitution would have seen themselves when they looked in the mirror. These men, whom Americans are taught almost from birth to identify with, conceived of the very basis of their physical being in a way that appears alien to us today.

Modern institutions and the ideas that underpin them – state sovereignty, representative democracy, secularism, capitalism – were developed by men who held similar world-views. The historical documents that shaped so much of the modern world – whether the Peace of Westphalia, the US Constitution, or the Sykes-Picot Agreement – are now relics that we often have to strain to interpret, and yet we live in a world of their making. Perhaps that is why so many of us now feel that we are living, like Prince Hamlet after his father’s death, in a “time … out of joint.” Our sovereign is dead, we cannot agree on a legitimate successor, and yet still the old king’s ghost haunts us. Like young Hamlet, our uncertainty drives us from paralysis at one extreme to rashness at the other. And all the while Denmark rots….

I don’t pretend to know how to stop the rot. This is an essay, not a manifesto. I’m inviting others to join a conversation, not a movement. In the study of history, the farther back one goes, the more alien the world seems. And yet I suspect I’m not alone when I say that there is much about our present world that seems increasingly alien. If the study of the pre-modern is the study of the alien, then it stands to reason that insight into pre-modern history can aid in our understanding of the world today. This is what I believe I can contribute, but I do not wish to seal off the intellectual boundaries of this site. Postwestphalian is a project that I hope others will want to join, whether they be historians, social scientists, or just the interested and informed.