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Annan and On and On

Should we really blame Kofi Annan for failure to make peace in Syria?

Kofi Annan has finally, belatedly, admitted that his peace mission to Syria has failed. And since the international community has been unable to agree on any other effort to stop the killing in Syria, there's no prospect of anything happening in Syria -- save more bloodshed, more ethnic fragmentation, and the blurring of all moral distinctions between the two sides, as the rebels, their ranks swelled by foreign and home-grown jihadists, carry out atrocities of their own, such as the recent executions in Aleppo. Civil wars can have just causes -- this one does -- but rarely just actors.

So whose failure is it? In his op-ed in the Financial Times, Annan blamed everyone save himself -- Syria's neighbors, the Security Council, and of course Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. What about the messenger himself? Should we blame Annan? It is just possible to devise an argument that he should have behaved differently, for example by rallying support for his mission with NATO before offering himself as an interlocutor in Damascus? It's hard to see how that would have mattered. The only meaningful criticism of Annan's mission is that he never should have undertaken it in the first place. But that claim, in turn, requires that one believe that the world could have and should have done something much more forceful instead -- i.e., bombing Syria. Those of us who believe no such thing are in no position to blame Annan for trying to fill a vacuum, as I wrote in an earlier column.

Perhaps this failure will constitute a permanent blemish on Annan's record. I would say, however, that it should remind us that peace-brokering diplomacy without the threat of meaningful consequences, whether in the Balkans or Sudan or Syria, is a futile act. FP's Colum Lynch quoted me on the subject for a piece on Annan in the Washington Post last week, and I will stand by that: "There is a kind of happy convergence between Kofi's willingness to try a thing that may make him look naive and the world's wish to have him try this because it doesn't have anything more effective and forceful that it is prepared to do."

So how much of this failure will, or should, cling to the administration of President Barack Obama? The White House has persistently refused to do any of the things that war hawks believe will tip the balance: mount a Libya-style air campaign, establish "safe havens" along the borders, or arm the rebels. But Obama has declined to act forcefully not out of pusillanimity in the face of Russian intransigence, as hawks like John McCain insist, or out of post-Libya intervention fatigue, but rather out of the recognition that military support for the rebels is likely to lead to more, not less, violence and chaos. The most passionate White House advocates of intervention in Libya, including Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, oppose any similar action in Syria on practical grounds -- not political and certainly not moral ones. On balance, we should be grateful that Obama is so profoundly prudential a figure.

The White House supported the Annan mission in the hopes that the combination of diplomacy and the growing strength of the opposition would persuade Russia to end its cynical support for the Assad regime. That was a long shot, but it wasn't absurd -- again, given the alternatives, which is to say, military action or nothing.

Libya, it turns out, was a very poor test case of the world's capacity to respond to the threat of mass atrocities. Libya was sui generis, since virtually the entire population was united in loathing the country's leader. That is rarely the case, and especially not in heterogeneous countries where a leader can count on support from members of his own ethnic group. This is why, for example, Sudan's Omar el-Bashir has proved impossible to dislodge despite having been indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court. This is why European forces remain in Bosnia seventeen years after the Dayton Accords forced Serbian forces to withdraw. But a Bosnia-type solution, rather than a Libyan one, for Syria would mean that the international community -- i.e., NATO and regional allies -- would have had to first use force to oust Assad and then send in a robust peacekeeping force to occupy the country as well as some sort of state-building apparatus. Of course, the Bosnians welcomed such a massive presence (at first) because they had no prior sovereignty to be violated; no Arab state would ever accept so gross an infringement on national self-determination.

The failure is thus in the nature of things, that is, in the tragic nature of statecraft, in the limits of outside powers to stop evil. But what then? The United States is a signatory, as are all other states, to the doctrine of "the responsibility to protect," which stipulates that states have an affirmative obligation to prevent and halt atrocities both within their borders and elsewhere. Obama has very publicly committed himself to R2P, as the doctrine is known. How can you accept the tragic limitations of statecraft when you have embraced so sweeping a doctrine? In repudiating the cynicism of indifference, has he chosen instead the hypocrisy of fine words and no action?

It's worth noting that neither the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (where I am a fellow) nor many other human rights groups have called for military action in Syria. There can be no moral obligation to act when action might magnify the evil one seeks to end. And yet to accept that states have moral obligations beyond their borders is to accept the need to act effectively, rather than, for example, to say that the responsibility lies with the neighbors. If something won't work, you try something else.

What is that something else? The answer shifts with the facts on the ground. The tide is turning against Assad as towns and whole regions slip from his grasp. He will fight on, and kill many more people, and then he will either leave or die. And he will leave behind him a heavily armed Alawite population which believes, perhaps rightly, that the Sunni majority won't live with them. This is the problem behind the problem -- a more dangerous one for the neighborhood and perhaps the world than the prospect of a nuclear-capable Iran, as Vali Nasr suggested last week in the New York Times.

In the Financial Times, Annan wrote that the United States and others must persuade the opposition, as they have not done so far, to "embrace a fully inclusive political process -- that will include communities and institutions currently associated with the government." What's more, as Nasr writes, Washington must help fashion an inclusive solution which both Russia and Iran feel they can live with. And then some kind of peacekeeping force will have to keep the parties from each others' throats. Such a force, operating under U.N. auspices but fortified with European troops, currently exists in Lebanon and has helped preserve a very fragile peace. Syrians might well accept Western forces so long as they served under a U.N. banner; in fact, they might greatly prefer them to soldiers from neighboring powers like Turkey. The United States would have to contribute some troops in order to persuade allies to do so. That is a very modest and calibrated response to a profound moral crisis; but it is much to be preferred to the realism of "we have no dog in that fight" or to a militarism which willfully neglects the consequences of American acts.

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Argument

You Say You Want a Revolution

Before there was Pussy Riot, there were the Plastic People of the Universe. An FP List of musicians who took on their governments -- and became historical icons.

"Why a punk rock band?" Christiane Amanpour, interviewing a former Russian government official, asked on CNN on Aug. 2. "What is President Putin so afraid of?" The band in question was Pussy Riot, whose members -- three Russian feminist artists -- are on trial in Moscow for "hooliganism" following a confrontational guerrilla performance in an Orthodox cathedral. As the trial has mushroomed into a broader debate over political and cultural freedom in Vladimir Putin's Russia, the president has cautioned leniency in the case. It's a characteristically canny move by the Russian leader: In the history of asymmetrical conflict between musical provocateurs and repressive regimes, the strongman rarely gets the last laugh.

TROPICÁLIA (BRAZIL)

On March 31, 1964, troops loyal to the rogue general Olímpio Mourão Filho marched on Brazil's seaside metropolis of Rio de Janeiro, the beginning of a coup that toppled the democratically elected government of leftist President João Goulart and plunged the country into two decades of military dictatorship. Four years later, a collective of musicians from the state of Bahia, led by the singers Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, released Tropicália: ou Panis et Circensis, a genre-defying manifesto of an album that launched an arts movement of the same name. The Tropicalistas criticized the military regime in the album's lyrics and sardonic subtitle -- "Bread and Circuses" -- but their riskiest political statement was musical.

Tropicália cut and pasted traditional Brazilian bossa nova and samba with the psychedelia of the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, the sonic experiments of musique concréte, and the aesthetic provocations of French New Wave film. The resulting collage was an act of defiance in a country where military rulers and leftist nationalists alike believed that keeping Brazil's celebrated musical tradition free of foreign influence was a patriotic necessity. Within a year, Veloso and Gil were imprisoned and then exiled to London, where they stayed until 1972.

But as the regime's cultural crackdown worsened, forcing even musical traditionalists like Chico Buarque to wait out the early 1970s in Europe, Brazilians came to see the Tropicalistas as political heroes -- and, in time, cultural icons every bit as Brazilian as their predecessors. Eighteen years after Brazil returned to democracy, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva made the rehabilitation official, naming Gil his minister of culture.

 

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THE PLASTIC PEOPLE OF THE UNIVERSE (CZECHOSLOVAKIA)

Like Brazil's Tropicália movement, Czechoslovakia's Plastic People of the Universe emerged from their country's longhaired bohemian underground in the singular cultural season of 1968, channeling foreign influences -- outré American musicians like Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground -- into a distinctly local brand of experimental rock. Unlike Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, however, the Plastics had no particular intention of tilting against the political status quo. The band formed amid the Prague Spring, when Alexander Dubcek, the Czechoslovakian Communist Party's reform-minded new leader, tried to institute a raft of liberalization measures. But the political and cultural opening was summarily crushed by the Soviet Union eight months later, and the Soviet-approved authoritarians who succeeded Dubcek were not amused by the Plastics' playfully transgressive music. The government revoked the band's musicians' license in 1970 and arrested and tried its members for "organized disturbance of the peace" six years later.

Although the Plastics were convicted and sent to prison, the trial became a flashpoint for the Eastern Bloc's nascent pro-democracy movement. In January 1977, more than 200 political activists and public intellectuals, inspired by the trial, signed a letter demanding greater protection of human rights and tried (unsuccessfully) to deliver it to the Czechoslovakian government. Charter 77, as it was called, marked the beginning of the country's movement toward democracy that culminated 12 years later in the Velvet Revolution, and the election of the poet Václav Havel -- one of the charter's authors -- as Czechoslovakia's president. By that point, the Plastics had broken up, but they reunited in 1997 at the urging of their old friend Havel, and still tour sporadically today.

 

 

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FELA KUTI (NIGERIA)

 

Few musicians have made their political rebellion quite as literal as Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Nigerian bandleader who pioneered the genre of hypnotic funk known as Afrobeat and spent his life railing against Western colonialism, corruption, and military rule in his country. Returning to Nigeria in 1970 after several years abroad -- including a stint in the United States, where he absorbed the uncompromising politics of the Black Power movement -- Kuti established a small compound around his three-story house and recording studio in Lagos, named it the Kalakuta Republic, and declared its independence from Nigeria. The Nigerian government was less than pleased, and years of military raids and confrontations ensued. Things came to a head in 1977, when Kuti released "Zombie," a song with acidic lyrics mocking the blind obedience of the soldiers in the Nigerian military, which had seized power in a coup two years earlier. A thousand soldiers raided the Kalakuta Republic, burning the building to the ground and throwing Kuti's elderly mother out a second-floor window (she later died of her injuries).

The incident solidified Kuti's iconic status in Nigeria as well as his defiance; he went on to call out the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo -- a childhood friend of Kuti's who at the time was serving at the behest of the Nigerian military -- by name in songs like "Coffin for Head of State" and "ITT -- International Thief Thief." A documentary filmmaker memorably interviewed Kuti in 1979 in a cramped house elsewhere in Lagos, surrounded by wives -- he had married his band's 27 backup singers in a single ceremony the previous year -- listlessly smoking enormous joints. "If you are in England, music can be an instrument of enjoyment," Kuti said. "You can sing about love, you can sing about who you're going to bed with next. But in my environment, my society ... there's no music of enjoyment, nothing like love. It is something like a struggle for people's existence."

By the time he died in 1997 of AIDS -- a disease which, even on his deathbed, he insisted didn't exist -- Kuti had formed his own political party, attempted to run for president (his candidacy was refused), and been imprisoned twice by two different governments he had antagonized on dubious charges of currency smuggling and murder. Two years later, Nigeria successfully transitioned from military dictatorship to democracy, under the resumed leadership of Kuti's old nemesis Obasanjo. The country still struggles with crippling corruption, however -- and Kuti's complicated legacy still looms large in the cultural consciousness, an omnipresent reminder that there is always something worth fighting against.

 

 

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HUGH MASEKELA (SOUTH AFRICA)

Hugh Masekela's three-decade voluntary exile from Apartheid-era South Africa began as a matter of necessity; in 1960, the 20-year-old trumpeter set out for the United States in order to study jazz in its native land. When he attempted to return to Johannesburg several years later, however, things had begun to go very wrong in his hometown. "It was a rough time, when the Apartheid government first started showing that if you don't behave, they'll shoot you -- women and children too," Masekela recalled in a 2009 interview. "You saw police with guns, with machine guns, and for the first time you saw tanks. We had a group called the Jazz Epistles and we were about to take off on a national tour. We were the first African group to play on an LP, but gatherings of more than 10 people were banned so we couldn't do our tour."

In the early 1980s, Masekela set up a recording studio and music school outside of Gaborone, Botswana, on the bank of the river separating Botswana from South Africa. He was forced to flee in 1985, however, after South African soldiers raided the area (they were officially looking for terrorists). By the end of the decade, Masekela had become one of Apartheid's most outspoken detractors on the cultural stage, performing protest songs like the Nelson Mandela anthem "Bring Him Back Home" when he toured the United States with Paul Simon. (Simon's involvement with South African music was then, and remains, controversial; he had recorded 1986's Graceland with South African musicians in violation of a cultural embargo of the Apartheid government, though the album's enormous success and Simon's subsequent tours with South African artists did bring attention to the anti-Apartheid struggle.) Masekela returned to Johannesburg in 1990, shortly after Mandela was released from prison; four years later, the country held its first multiracial elections.

 

 

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EL GÉNÉRAL (TUNISIA)

A little less than six weeks before fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a provincial government building in central Tunisia, a 21-year-old rapper named El Général (born Hamada Ben Amor) posted a music video to his Facebook page. It was Nov. 7, 2010, the 20th anniversary of Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's ascent to power; El Général's song, "Rais Lebled," (the title is a play off of "President of the Republic" in Arabic) was a brutally frank -- and, given the reputation of Ben Ali's security services, incredibly risky -- indictment of his rule. "Mr. President, your people are dying," he rapped over a spare, ominous beat. "People are eating rubbish/ Look at what is happening."

On Dec. 22, as Tunisia descended into chaos, El Général posted another song called "Tunisia Our Country," an anthem for the protests that had followed Bouazizi's self-immolation. Two days later, the police arrested him. "For 24 hours they insulted me," he later told Time magazine. "It was moral torture. They asked, ‘Who's behind you? Which party are you from?'"

By that point, however, El Général's music had become the soundtrack of the nascent Arab Spring -- and the rapper was enough of a celebrity that Ben Ali himself inquired about his condition in prison. A month later, Ben Ali had fled office and protesters in neighboring Egypt were chanting along with "Raes Lebled" in Tahrir Square. In the past year, however, El Général has returned to less world-historical concerns, recording a new album -- his first -- due out this year.

 

 

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