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Give me that Old Time Nuclear Fatwa

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — when is a tweet not quite a fatwa? when it’s a tweet! ]


A day or two ago Tim Furnish pointed me to a recent MEMRI post titled:

Tehran Again Offers Khamenei’s Nonexistent Fatwa In Negotiations As A Guarantee That It Is Not Developing Nuclear Weapons

You can pretty much imagine the content by means of its title, but the piece also contains a lead to Khamenei‘s Twitter feed, and thus to the tweet with which I’ve opened this post.

What to make of it?


It seems to me that there are two obvious possibilities —

  • the Ayatollah is lying, there is no such fatwa
  • the Ayatlloah is telling the truth, there is such a fatwa
  • Those who are prone to hope may well take the Ayatollah’s word for it — whether or not that trust is justified — while those who are prone to doubt are liable to distrust the Ayatollah…

    And so we’re at that old “trust but verify” business again.

    It seems to me that neither proposition — that a fatwa exists as claimed, but has not been made public, or that no fatwa exists, and claims to the contrary are simply incredible — is verifiable, or falsifiable for that matter. Hunh.

    The one thing that is clear from my POV is that the Ayatollah Khamenei is playing this close to his chest. He could very easily write out a fatwa and publish it, and he doesn’t. He could very easily not have issued a fatwa, which would explain its non-publication. But his refusal to publish a fatwa, while claiming to have issued it, presumably by word of mouth, is a clear indication that he is toying with his interlocutors in the west. And the game is:

    I claim to have given a fatwa — will you take my word for it?

    He’s asking for trust, we’re asking for verification: trust, but verify, it’s not a new idea. And it seems to me that neither axiomatic doubt nor axiomatic trust is the point, although we are mostly prone to one or the other.

    The point is that this is poker. Perhaps this is an obvious truism that others move quickly past on their way to reading the Ayatollah’s “tells” one way or the other. Or perhaps we are so quick to take sides that the idea that we face a formidable opponent in what is essentially a very high stakes game eludes us.

    I’m not a player, I don’t speak or read Farsi, the Shah was still in power when I visited Tehran, I haven’t studied for years in Qom or Najaf, I’m not inclined to make political assertions more than one or two levels above my pay grade, I’m mostly unpaid, and I’m left with this:

    We’re in a game.

    And if that’s the case, intelligence — human intelligence — is the way to read Khamenei’s poker face. And FWIW, Amir Taheri wouldn’t be my go to source for intel.


    BTW, here’s Khamenei’s latest:

    Pavers of Roads with Good Intentions: R2P Debate Rising Part II.

    Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

    As I mentioned previously, I needed to make a more substantive reply to Victor Allen’s claims for R2P.  I am very tardy in doing so, for which I apologize to Mr. Allen but better late than not at all. While addressing some of Victor’s specific points, I want to be very clear that in my view:

    1. R2P’s status in international law, despite grandiose claims by advocates, is weakly grounded, highly controversial and conflicts with accepted norms of state sovereignty

    2.  The concept of R2P is a covert revival of the pre-WWI sovereign right to  wage aggressive war, albeit (usually) under some kind of collective imprimatur

    3,  If regarded as a serious legal moral principle entailing an obligation to act, R2P is inherently anti-strategic, injurious to national interest and anti-democratic in nature

    I will tackle point #1 today and points # 2 and #3 in successive posts.

    In Victor’s original piece he argued that R2P is part and parcel of a (theoretical) “new sovereignty”:

    That R2P does not violate sovereignty stems from the evolution of sovereignty from its Westphalian form in the mid 17th century to the “sovereignty as responsibility” concept advanced by Deng, et al. Modern sovereignty can no longer be held to give states carte blanche in their internal affairs regardless of the level of suffering going on within their borders. This does not diminish state agency for internal affairs, but rather holds them responsible and accountable for their action and inaction regarding the welfare of their populations. 

    “Sovereignty as responsibility”  is a theory put forth by a Sudanese diplomat and minor UN bureaucrat and an American academic that proclaimed:

    The authors assert that sovereignty can no longer be seen as a protection against interference, but as a charge of responsibility where the state is accountable to both domestic and external constituencies.

    The “…and external constituencies” clause is an Orwellian negation of the traditional meaning of sovereignty where the state has sole de jure authority over such matters as their internal affairs, including the political character of their regime,  with very narrow exceptions mandated by treaty or customary international law ( ex. diplomatic immunity of heads of state).  The latter, is based on consent and derives from the history of the diplomatic norms adhered to, interpreted and practiced by sovereigns and such rulings of IGO to whose authority sovereigns have voluntarily submitted themselves through a binding covenant ( ex. World Court via the UN charter).

    Of course, being sovereign, states differ on how such rulings are to be interpreted or even whether they will accept jurisdiction of bodies  like the World Court, the ICC or special international  tribunals of justice in specific cases. Furthermore, in signing covenants, states often, quite legally, make reservations or exceptions to specific treaty clauses as part of their agreement to adhere to the rest of the treaty and consider it legally binding.  The United States in fact, does this regularly as do most other states having major interests at stake in negotiating an international agreement. Unless you have a granular knowledge of what country “x” formally agreed to accept as a signatory, or are willing to do your homework in this regard, you do not actually know what the law really is in many diplomatic disputes – especially when the conflict is complex and multilateral.  Broad and bombastic assertions by activists in the media that novel restrictions or obligations on states that they support are “international law” or that some act they condemn is “illegal” are almost invariably factually incorrect, at least to some degree ( barring obvious and clear violations of jus cogens, such as mass atrocities).

    Beyond international law based on formal covenants, custom and legal precedents generally accepted by sovereigns, other sources of authority in international law would include resolutions of the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, regional bodies like the OAS or EU, some institutions like the ICRC and even the opinions of scholars learned in international law. Unlike positive law within a state, international law in its various manifestations lacks a legitimate, overarching, coercive authority that could function as a global sovereign and impartial enforcer of consistently interpreted law and justice. Sovereign states are thus not subject to international law in the same relationship that their citizens are subject to sovereign authority; sovereign states are, at least legally, a community of equals able to draw upon and interpret overlapping and at times competing sources of legal authority in making claims – including precedents they intentionally created themselves!  This makes a quick redress of violations of international law difficult when the UN Security Council is empowered to make use of military force only in cases of ” international peace and security” (i.e. aggression) and the UN Charter also assures sovereigns of their “right to self defense”.

    “New Sovereignty”, in the title of Victor’s first piece, is a concept propagated by the late Harvard theorist and State Department official Abram Chayes and his wife, scholar Antonia Handler Chayes, that repudiates much of traditional sovereignty in order to aggressively re-define it as “ the capacity to participate in international institutions of all types“.  In other words, sovereignty in their view would mean a state’s membership in good standing in  a mutually interdependent ” international community” and not control over national territory free from external interference by other sovereigns. Under “New Sovereignty”, such external interference is assumed as “normal” and is a point of constant, cooperative, negotiation toward consensus on emerging and evolving legal norms. As such, if accepted, “New Sovereignty” would be a massive transfer of political power and legal authority from legitimate national governments to a transnational and international class of legal technocrats and bureaucrats, who would assume by default a managerial role over the substance of international affairs. In many ways this erosion of traditional state sovereignty would be analogous to the transfer of real power from the hands of crowned sovereigns in the early modern period to their embryonic state bureaucracies that in time rendered most monarchs mere ceremonial figureheads.

    In my view, while  Chayes had many laudable goals in mind,  “New Sovereignty” would be unworkable in practice and inherently is extremely reactionary in its anti-democratic repudiation of popular sovereignty as the basis for a state’s legitimacy. Citizens of states are effectively reduced to the position of wards under the protection of the international community as national leaders become responsive primarily to “external constituencies” in control of the eternal process of negotiation of international norms. While the problem is somewhat moot for repressive regimes whose citizens enjoy few freedoms anyway, in liberal states the “democratic deficit” produced by such a scheme runs contrary to the very foundations of their political legitimacy and independence.

    In this context, we have the claim put forth for the legal basis of R2P by Victor:

     ….Indeed, the UN Security Council, having enshrined R2P in UNSCR 1674, did not subsequently authorize action under the R2P banner in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in Burma, with the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General stating in his report that

    [i]t would be a misapplication of responsibility to protect principles to apply them at this point to the unfolding tragedy in Myanmar…the Outcome Document of the 2005 [World] Summit limited their application to four crimes and violations: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

    and in his second post:

    Here Safranski and I agree on the proper role of theorists, but it wasn’t theorists that adopted R2P as a norm; it was the UN Security Council, as set forth in UNSCR 1674 in 2005, which was later utilized in the Libya intervention authorization (UNSCR 1973). Currently there are no higher authorities on interventions, peacemaking, and peacekeeping than the Security Council, which is surely not composed of academic theorists, but rather high-level diplomats that make moves, and yes, establish law, only on the explicit authorization of their countries. That the Security Council adopted the principles of R2P speaks more to the usefulness and applicability of the concepts than to any academic theorizing thereof.

    First, while we should acknowledge that the UNSC resolutions that R2P advocates crow about are not nothing, their importance should not be exaggerated either. They are a precedent, but a very limited one that does not abrogate everything that has come before.

    Since the inception of the UN the Security Council has passed over 2200 resolutions, which would put those devoted to R2P at a whopping .0009 %.  Moreover, of the UNSC resolutions passed, many merely take note of an event, express concern or urge restraint; other, more forcefully worded resolutions, dealing with conflict were dead letters from the moment of adoption, being ignored by warring parties exercising their sovereign rights of self-defense. The number of UNSC resolutions that led to effective action of any kind, much less decisive humanitarian military intervention envisioned by more muscular interpretations of R2P, have been few with a mixed track record of success.  Resolutions 1674 and 1973 by the Security Council exist within the much larger context of international law precedents going back centuries, most of which directly contradict the operative assumptions of “New Sovereignty”.

    Furthermore, much of the text of Resolution 1674 itself is devoted to caveats reiterating traditional sovereign prerogatives and that protection for civilians occur under established conventions for the law of armed conflict before gingerly endorsing R2P provisions from the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document  of the World Health Organization. The legality of these qualifications and reservations are taken seriously by the member states of the Security Council because without them, 1674 would have never passed, nor 1973 after it ( likely to be the last of its kind for a long while in light of Russian and Chinese vetoes on Syria resolutions, which after Libya are certain to continue).  At best, in international law R2P has managed to secure only a toehold and its definition and application lack agreement (and even acceptance) among the world’s great powers.

    R2P is not a secure legal scaffold on which to construct a foreign policy or decide on matters of peace and war.


    Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

    [approached by Lynn C. Rees]

    Scott’s comment gets me thinking:

    Truly two main paths present: passive (deter and encourage) and active (conquer, convert, capture, or contain) [via Jeremy and Hans Delbruck]…

    The strategist needs cognitive elasticity (Boyd would call “adaptability” and Eccles/Rosinski would call “strategic flexibility”), as the world/circumstances are ever-changing.

    By reflex, modernity sees mind as a tug of war. To software extremists, mind is fluid, its course shifted constantly by the unfolding environment. To hardware extremists, mind is solid, its granite face reinforced by inheritance at a glacial pace. Risking fallacy, it seems reality is found somewhere in the mud puddle between tugs: firmware. Confounding software extremists, mind is not fluid. It’s not even rubbery: much of mind is solidified by inheritance. Confounding hardware extremists, mind is not solid. It’s not even doomed by age to irrevocable rigidity: mind can be bent, given time and constancy. Mind is plastic: it knows when to hold ’em and knows when to fold’em.

    A connected view argues that mind’s right conjures ad hoc responses to new things while its left turns the ad hoc into routine responses. Predictably, this means that, as mind ages, its center of gravity leans left. To the infant, everything is new, to the elder, many things are eerily familiar. Focus follows time.

    Swun Dz thought describes strategy as shr shifted between jeng and chi. Ralph Sawyer translates shr as “strategic configuration of power”, jeng as “orthodox”, and chi as “unorthodox”. The shr path of PMI thought agrees:

    What is a project?

    In A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Third Edition, the Project Management Institute defines a project as a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service. As simple as this definition may seem, there are a few key points that define a project as distinct from ongoing operations. Again, from the PMBOK® Guide:

    Operations and projects differ primarily in that operations are ongoing and repetitive while projects are temporary and unique. A project can thus be defined in terms of its distinctive characteristics. Temporary means that every project has a definite beginning and a definite end. Unique means that the product or service is different in some distinguishing way from all similar products or services.

    Poor Swun Dz. Born too early for his PMP®.

    Fear not. The news is good. While the far future can look forward with gladness to finding bamboo fragments of the fabled PMBOK® Guide – Fourth Edition clutched tightly in skeletal fists when the tombs of the heroic project managers of old are opened, we get a few blessed scraps of future ancient PMI wisdom for today:

    • jeng == hardware ==  routine == left brain
    • chi == software == project == right brain

    America swoons for Swun Dz  and the Swun Dz America swoons for is chi to the bone. For today’s America, jeng is a great sin while chi is a great virtue. The root fear of the age is being overtaken by the dread trope of the age: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” In a jungle subject to the law of the instrument, the last thing you want to be accused of is jeng gray in nail and hammer. The sneer of “same old, same old” will not kill you, but it may serve as your hipness epitaph.

    Now, as with all tropes too far, chi has fought the good fight for so long that it’s become what it professes to abominate: a hammer gone abroad in search of routines to pound. America is mired in routine appeals to chi. Yet Master Swun taught differently:

    What enable[s] an army to withstand the enemy’s attack and not be defeated are uncommon [chi] and common [jeng] maneuvers.

    The army will be like throwing a stone against an egg;

    it is a matter of weakness and strength.

    Generally, in battle, use the common [jeng] to engage the enemy and the uncommon [chi] to gain victory.

    Those skilled at uncommon [chi] maneuvers are as endless as the heavens and earth, and as inexhaustible as the rivers and seas.

    Like the sun and the moon, they set and rise again.

    Like the four seasons, they pass and return again.

    There are no more than five musical notes, yet the variations in the five notes cannot all be heard.

    There are no more than five basic colors, yet the variations in the five colors cannot all be seen.

    There are no more than five basic flavors, yet the variations in the five flavors cannot all be tasted.

    In battle, there are no more than two types of attacks:

    Uncommon [chi] and common [jeng], yet the variations of the uncommon [chi] and common [jeng] cannot all be comprehended.

    The uncommon [chi] and the common [jeng] produce each other, like an endless circle.

    Who can comprehend them?

    I’d amend a few items in Scott’s excellent formulation. By my reckoning, strength is one unbroken spectrum. The more active and more passive, which it is not unreasonable to identify with chi and jeng, are not two distinct paths. They are two spectrum bookends. All flavors of strength, spoken, physical, wealth, and so forth, fall some place between them. Chi and jeng are swallowed up in the spectrum of strength, reduced to reference points scattered across its face.

    Intensity of strength varies, and is measured, by shr, its strategic configuration of strength. And what aspects of strength are configurable?

    • reach: certainty of means
    • drive: certainty of motive
    • grip: certainty of opportunity

    From where chi sits, this configurability looks like:

    • reach: flexibility of means
    • drive: flexibility of motive
    • grip: flexibility of opportunity

    From where jeng sits, configurability looks more like:

    • reach: solidity of means
    • drive: solidity of motive
    • grip: solidity of opportunity

    A more balanced approach looks like:

    • reach: plasticity of means
    • drive: plasticity of motive
    • grip: plasticity of opportunity

    These three will vary in their plasticity. Reach will be fluid and then rigid. Drive will be rigid now and later more fluid. Grip will be more solid before and more flexible after.

    Politics is the division (and dividing) of strength. Strategy is its continuation and instrument. Strategy is the configuration (and configuring) of strength, the balance (and balancing), the plasticity (and plasticizing) of strength’s reach, drive, and grip. It will solidify and liquidate its strategic configuration of strength as the wider political configuration of the division of power is anticipated and reacted to by those balanced within.

    Three variations, drive, reach, and grip, yet the variations of the three cannot all be comprehended.

    They produce each other, like an endless plastic circle.

    Who can comprehend them?

    An interesting pattern I’ll call Piggy in the Middle

    Thursday, December 12th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — on the travails of negotiators & peacemakers ]

    I’m thinking of the simple, three-player version of the children’s game called Piggy in the Middle. Two plays face each other and toss a ball back and forth, while a third player standing between them attempts to intercept the ball in passing. In the case below (upper panel), Phillip Smyth is “piggy in the middle”.

    I’m suggesting there’s a pattern here that’s worth watching for. Bill Keller, opining in the NYT under the title Iran’s Hardliners, and Ours (lower panel, above), thinks that if you’re piggy in the middle, “you’ve probably done something right.”

    That’s a thought that might have comforted my childhood, though I don’t think it’s true in an “always applicable” sense. I do think it suggests that both sides in a fierce argument may often have something to be said for them, and that a skillful negotiator will be one who can “hear the truth” in both sides and winnow them out of the turmoil as the basis for a rapprochement

    And BTW, it’s clearly a lot more work being “piggy in the middle” that either of the two other players — for one thing, you’re constantly forced to spin around to catch a ball you just missed, as it whistles by in the opposite direction to the one it was going in when you just missed it. Blessed are the peacemakers.


    Wikipedia’s entry on Piggy in the Middle is titled Keep Away. As of this writing, it contains what is undoubtedly my current favorite comment on any game in the entire literature of play up to this point in time:

    The game has a worldwide use of playing; mostly in many countries.

    That’s good to know, and or maybe not.

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