Even if toppling Qaddafi made sense on its own terms, the Western campaign will make it far harder to do any good for Syria.
Hillary Clinton speaks to reporters at the United Nations during a Security Council meeting in Syria / AP
The intervention in Libya -- often touted by advocates as a sterling example of how to intervene responsibly in a civil conflict to prevent atrocity -- has largely fallen off the world's radar. Libya is often cited as a case supporting a possible intervention to prevent further atrocity in Syria, but the two are very different, and the comparison ignores what's happened in Libya since Qaddafi's fall.
The intervention in Libya is far from an assured success. Last week fighting broke out in Tripoli between rival militias bickering over a stretch of beach. Some of the many guns Qaddafi mustered to defend his regime have now found their way to Tuareg rebels in Mali, who are busy fomenting another insurgency there. And last month Medicins Sans Frontieres withdrew some of its staff after witnessing act of torture by some of the revolutionaries that the West had supported in ousting the old regime.
Intervention, in other words, has lots of consequences, and often they're quite bad. While it's relatively easy to talk about the problems the intervention has unleashed on Libya itself, even less remarked upon are the broader political consequences of the Libyan campaign. Russia and China, in particular, have openly said they're angry over how the intervention played out, and it should be no surprise to see them block future moves for intervention.
A big reason for Russia and China's intransigence is the NATO coalition that led the intervention, which badly overstepped the range of permissible actions stipulated in the UN Security Council Resolution that authorized intervention. Russia was an early critic of such actions as France's weapons shipments to the rebels -- criticism that could have been accounted for (Moscow never made any secret of its concerns) but which seemed to be ignored in the rush to intervene. President Obama made a rapid transition from saying "regime change is not on the table" last March (part of the bargain to get Russian abstention from the UNSC vote) to publicly calling for his ouster. France and the UK used similar language, ignoring the politics of getting UN approval for intervention.
Now, when there is another escalating crisis in Syria -- Bashar al-Assad's unjustifiable mass-murder of protesters -- Russia and China have stepped in to veto further UNSC action. This was an entirely predictable response, as both Russia and China were openly scornful of the misleading statements made by interventionists in NATO and the Arab League to get support for Libya.
The veto has led some analysts to say the UNSC is losing relevance, but it seems to me that the opposite might actually be true: the politics of the UNSC should matter as much for launching an intervention as the merits of actually attacking the target country. There is no doubt that what is unfolding in Syria is an atrocity that must end. Sadly, the Libya intervention itself, while a precedent for the idea of global action against a humanitarian threat, is also a very real reason that the world will have a tougher time doing anything for Syria.
Walter Russell Mead wrote an excellent exegesis of the entirety of Russia's calculations on the veto, taking special note of Russian domestic politics and their obsession with their own diminishment in international bodies like the UN. Put simply: Russia expected some consideration in the Libyan campaign, but instead the relevant players are actively working against Russian interests there, even post-Gaddafi. Moscow could not risk the same thing happening to its many interests in Syria.
Even if it were not an election year in Russia, where Putin has just been reminded that he does not enjoy uncritical love from his people, it's likely Russia would have vetoed Syria because of Libya. But there are additional, bigger politics to consider as well.
Many states, none of whom are free, worry that the West's renewed love of intervention might one day be focused upon them. This is a critical consequence of rejecting sovereignty and declaring governments unfit to rule through a mixture of expediency and opportunity. Powerful states with poor human rights records -- Russia and China included -- look at what happened in Libya and see disaster, not freedom. And they are taking steps to avoid it.
In a broader sense, too, the renewed focus on intervention, especially considering what happened in Libya, could have pernicious consequences. Qaddafi famously gave up his nuclear weapons program in 2003. That he was later overthrown right after the U.S. re-established diplomatic ties with Triploi isn't broadly seen as a victory for diplomacy and denuclearization, but rather a textbook case of why nuclear weapons are fantastic invasion insurance. That may be one reason (among many others) why Iran seems so unwilling to contemplate abandoning its own nuclear weapons program -- it believes that nuclear weapons will prevent a capricious and unpredictable West from invading or intervening in its internal affairs.
In a vacuum, intervening to prevent mass killings in Libya made sense. Libya, however, did not (and does not) exist in a vacuum. It has both internal and regional politics. So does Syria. The failure to gain international buy-in to do something -- not necessarily militarily but some response -- to the atrocities there is a direct consequence of interventionists ignoring politics in their rush to do good. Unfortunately, the people of Syria are now paying the price, and will continue to do so.
The First Lady took to the stage at the Democratic National Convention, and united a divided hall.
Most convention speeches are forgotten almost before they’re finished. But tonight in Philadelphia, Michelle Obama delivered a speech that will be replayed, quoted, and anthologized for years. It was as pure a piece of political oratory as this campaign has offered, and instantly entered the pantheon of great convention speeches.
Obama stepped out onto a stage in front of a divided party, including delegates who had booed almost every mention of the presumptive nominee. And she delivered a speech that united the hall, bringing it to its feet.
She did it, moreover, her own way—forming a striking contrast with the night’s other speakers. She did it without shouting at the crowd. Without overtly slamming Republicans. Without turning explicitly negative. Her speech was laden with sharp barbs, but she delivered them calmly, sometimes wryly, biting her lower lip, hitting her cadence. It was a masterful performance.
When something goes wrong, I start with blunder, confusion, and miscalculation as the likely explanations. Planned-out wrongdoing is harder to pull off, more likely to backfire, and thus less probable.
But it is getting more difficult to dismiss the apparent Russian role in the DNC hack as blunder and confusion rather than plan.
“Real-world” authorities, from the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia to FBI sources to international security experts, say that the forensic evidence indicates the Russians. No independent authority strongly suggests otherwise. (Update the veteran reporters Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef cite evidence that the original hacker was “an agent of the Russian government.”)
The timing and precision of the leaks, on the day before the Democratic convention and on a topic intended to maximize divisions at that convention, is unlikely to be pure coincidence. If it were coincidence, why exactly now, with evidence drawn from hacks over previous months? Why mail only from the DNC, among all the organizations that have doubtless been hacked?
The foreign country most enthusiastic about Trump’s rise appears to be Russia, which would also be the foreign country most benefited by his policy changes, from his sowing doubts about NATO and the EU to his weakening of the RNC platform language about Ukraine.
For the party elders, day one of the convention was about scolding the left back together.
Against a restive backdrop, the party’s top lieutenants were forced into the role of prime time peacemakers, tasked with encouraging Democratic unity in a party that has only lately acquiesced to tenuous detente. They did so through a combination of alarmist truth telling—borne from the reality of a Trump-Clinton matchup that has lately gotten tighter—and cold-water scolding about party division—driven equally by frustration and exhaustion.
The pressures of national academic standards have pushed character education out of the classroom.
A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?
The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.
This discussion was part of an introduction to an essay assignment about whether Americans should pay more for ethically produced food. We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters—by their caloric choices.
The Democratic chairwoman had few supporters—but clung to her post for years, abetted by the indifference of the White House.
PHILADELPHIA—As Debbie Wasserman Schultz made her unceremonious exit as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, what was most remarkable was what you didn’t hear: practically anybody coming to her defense.
The Florida congresswoman did not go quietly. She reportedly resisted stepping down, and blamed subordinates for the content of the leaked emails that were released Friday, which clearly showed the committee’s posture of neutrality in the Democratic primary to have been a hollow pretense, just as Bernie Sanders and his supporters long contended. She finally relinquished the convention gavel only after receiving three days of strong-arming, a ceremonial position in the Clinton campaign, and a raucous round of boos at a convention breakfast.
Psychologists have long debated how flexible someone’s “true” self is.
Almost everyone has something they want to change about their personality. In 2014, a study that traced people’s goals for personality change found that the vast majority of its subjects wanted to be more extraverted, agreeable, emotionally stable, and open to new experiences. A whopping 97 percent said they wished they were more conscientious.
These desires appeared to be rooted in dissatisfaction. People wanted to become more extraverted if they weren’t happy with their sex lives, hobbies, or friendships. They wanted to become more conscientious if they were displeased with their finances or schoolwork. The findings reflect the social psychologist Roy Baumeister’s notion of “crystallization of discontent”: Once people begin to recognize larger patterns of shortcomings in their lives, he contends, they may reshuffle their core values and priorities to justify improving things.
Two new novels ponder the still-urgent question of what could have compelled young women to do such terrible things.
The most fascinating part of the Manson story has always been the girls.
Not the man who cobbled together bits of hippie philosophy, Scientology and How to Win Friends and Influence People to gather followers who’d do his bidding and help make him a star (and when that didn’t work out, kill people to try to start a race war). The ones willing and vulnerable enough to be gathered. Who wanted a community to belong to.
Even now, no one knows whether Charles Manson believed his own insane manifesto, or was just using it as a tool to get what he wanted. But the girls believed. Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins—they believed. They belonged. And then, on two infamous evenings in 1969, they helped kill seven people.
Stock-market crashes, terrorist attacks, and the dark side of “newsworthy” stories
Man bites dog. It is one of the oldest cliches in journalism, an acknowledgement of the idea that ordinary events are not newsworthy, whereas oddities, like a puppy-nibbling adult, deserve disproportionate coverage.
The rule is straightforward, but its implications are subtle. If journalists are encouraged to report extreme events, they guide both elite and public attitudes, leading many people, including experts, to feel like extreme events are more common than they actually are. By reporting on only the radically novel, the press can feed a popular illusion that the world is more terrible than it actually is.
Take finance, for example. Professional investors are fretting about the possibility of a massive stock-market crash, on par with 1987’s Black Monday. The statistical odds that such an event will occur within the next six months are about 1-in-60, according to historical data from 1929 to 1988. But when surveys between 1989 and 2015 asked investors to estimate the odds of such a crash in the coming months, the typical response was 1-in-10.
Physicists can’t agree on whether the flow of future to past is real or a mental construct.
Einstein once described his friend Michele Besso as “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. They attended university together in Zurich; later they were colleagues at the patent office in Bern. When Besso died in the spring of 1955, Einstein—knowing that his own time was also running out—wrote a now-famous letter to Besso’s family. “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote of his friend’s passing. “That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Einstein’s statement was not merely an attempt at consolation. Many physicists argue that Einstein’s position is implied by the two pillars of modern physics: Einstein’s masterpiece, the general theory of relativity, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The laws that underlie these theories are time-symmetric—that is, the physics they describe is the same, regardless of whether the variable called “time” increases or decreases. Moreover, they say nothing at all about the point we call “now”—a special moment (or so it appears) for us, but seemingly undefined when we talk about the universe at large. The resulting timeless cosmos is sometimes called a “block universe”—a static block of space-time in which any flow of time, or passage through it, must presumably be a mental construct or other illusion.