This is a for-the-record book, one that will enter conversations and disturb status quo. It should.

The United Nations Security Council is a tin-pot dictator in bespoke
Features Book Review Friday, November 18, 2016 - 17:38

While driving through Italy’s mountains, you often see signs saying Pericoloso. It means dangerous, unsafe or risky. Other than the odd indication about a ravine’s gradient or the form of a bend there’s not much to go by. You do, however, see flowers tucked in vases on the mountainside reminding you of previous fatal accidents at those very spots. Like the bombed sites we now see across Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and to some extent Crimea.

That lump there was once a children’s hospital, that was one of the world’s best libraries for books on mathematics and science and that burnt silhouette was home to ancient knowledge about seafaring – all in rubble because dictators masquerading as democrats decided what is best for the world. Maimed and hungry children, raped women, dead and disappeared men and counting – it is not yet the third World War because it has not been declared as such by any 'legitimate' body. No western nation is bleeding and refugees from war and want are being turned back. 

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) – presumably it’s sanest podium – has gone from accident to misadventure in the last two decades costing the world billions if not trillions in costs and hundreds and thousands of lives. The nightmare is not about to end any time soon because the world lacks leaders and principles. That is the central argument of Hardeep Singh Puri’s book “Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos” which takes us to the vortex of UNSC decisions during moments of grave crisis only to throw us back without seat belts into a world where “whimsical and reflexive decision-making” rule the roost.

It asks a question that most diplomats and the media of which I am a part failed to ask and still don’t – does one country or a group of countries have the right to invade or attack another in the name of human rights? Is there only one form of democracy and within that construction, is there only one size that must fit all according to Washington, London and to a lesser extent Paris? 

Perilous Interventions is as much a reporter’s book as it is a diplomat’s tome. It documents in excruciatingly significant and important detail how western democracies act like tin-pot dictators when their interests are disturbed be it oil or territory, access to seas or just love for power and war machines. A seasoned diplomat who has served India from many capitals, Hardeep was India’s top diplomat at the UN in New York and this period coincided with the years 2011 – 2012 when India was a non-permanent member of the UNSC.

The book has the Arab Spring moments when the western capitals could not have enough of humiliating Libya, Egypt or creating the ISIS and patting themselves on the back for allowing ‘democracy’ to unfurl east of Turkey till the sunset. It documents how large sections of the media blindly played second fiddle to official positions without any checks and balances or independent research. There is a chapter on Crimea and one on Sri Lanka which is the only one where I do not agree with the author. I’ll come to that in a moment. 

I have known Hardeep for over three decades. We have had our differences and distances on issues ranging from trade to foreign policy to statecraft and even our assessment of leaders Indian and global. Hardeep’s worst critics will grant him this – like a good reporter whose nose is grounded and whose feet are tireless, Hardeep is always one step ahead of others when it comes to spotting issues and cutting to the bone swiftly. Call it a survivor’s instinct, a diplomat’s math or a reporter’s compass, Hardeep’s instincts and hard work have more often than not stood by him. Perilous Interventions is another example of that. 

This is a for-the-record book, one that will enter conversations and disturb status quo. It should. Sample this as a primer on the actions of the UNSC P5 (US, UK, France, China and Russia). The country is Libya and the context is the arms embargo. “(The) Arms embargo was used to impose a virtual blockade against the regime and applied across the board to deprive the regime of all goods, not only of military nature. In more than 99 per cent of cases, the ships inspected by NATO were found not to carry any prohibited goods.”  

Or this. “The no-fly zone was implemented only against the regime’s airplanes while those operated by the rebels were allowed.”

While Libya was ready to engage in a process that would move it towards a democracy backed by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), it didn’t fit into the western narrative. Muammar Gaddafi was a despot (indeed he was) so the humiliation had to be total as he was no longer useful to the West. The book bounces back and forth between Geneva which is the European headquarters of the UN and where the Human Rights Offices are based and New York, the UN’s headquarters where the UNSC works from. I have reported from both spaces. I have seen diplomats pretending they are flummoxed or ‘waiting for instructions from capitals’ when they very well know they have a pre-cooked text in front of them. The fight for the comma or adjective – most appreciated in English and among the Anglo-Saxons – is the stuff of fairy tales and Hardeep calls it that in so many words. 

Syria. Hafez Al Assad, father of the current leader in Syria Basher al Assad was widely regarded as a leader who had made no geopolitical mistakes in his long career. With him gone, western nations are attempting something similar to what happened in Libya as I write this. Washington wants to oust Basher Al-Assad and install a puppet while Moscow and Tehran are calling for the local people to pick their leader. Both Iran and Moscow have deep self-interest in this, but America is not propelled by altruism in the region, not after it has been established beyond doubt that the ISIS was a creation of the US government as the book and other literature have documented.

Western media is now reporting that international pressure is mounting against Russia for its air strikes in Syria, but most reports fail to mention that the target is ISIS, not hospitals and schools. Besides, the assumption that Putin, the former KGB strongman, will be swayed by media reports is laughable. 

Crimea. Perilous Interventions talks about Crimea and aptly raises the question as to how legitimate Russia’s recent annexation of its former territory is? Hardeep also asks how valid is the election that established a pro-Russian leader in the region that formally belonged to the Ukraine and before all of it, to the Soviet Union? It is no more legal than dictators in Argentina or Chile propped up by the Americans and their allies or for that matter even Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

What is the need to publicly humiliate erstwhile puppets and supporters just to play to the galleries and please policy pundits? While the world has seen the dead body of Saddam Hussain dragged out of his hiding hole and Mubarak in jail, has anyone seen any footage of George Bush Jr. sitting behind bars at the ICC? The former US President cannot set foot in some European countries and was even warned from coming to Davos in Switzerland as there is an arrest warrant against him for human rights violations.

The United States and its allies invaded Iraq because the latter invaded Kuwait. That was the official line fed to the media. I was a reporter in Geneva then and the ‘invasion’ was severely questioned as it is impossible for thousands of troops to move in one of the world's most surveyed spots without detection.

The real issue was that the Iraqi leader was within striking distance of Dahran. Access to those oil reserves in Saudi Arabia would have made Iraq supremely powerful. Speaking of human rights, what was the last word on Saudi Arabia, the western world’s best friend? Hardeep points out that since the UNSC only had Iraq as a blueprint to go by, it did more of the same following the 9/11 bombing of the twin towers. 

I read Hardeep’s book twice. First was a skim through and I was reminded of the famously reported situation where in the early 1990s, Croatian strongman Franjo Tudjman drew the Croatia he wanted, carved out of former Yugoslavia, on a napkin during a state dinner.

Backed by Germany, he went to war to get it and succeeded. At that time, diplomats and the western media said it was the unfinished business of World War II as if thousands dead and the massacre of Srebrenica was just history knocking on your door to collect a forgotten umbrella. The cruel joke doing the rounds in Geneva where the 'peace talks' were being held was if Yugoslavia had oil, the response would have been different.

The second time I read Perilous Interventions was in the final weeks of the US elections. This time it was truly worrying. If the UNSC has been irresponsible and unaccountable under US President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, think of the perils of power under President-designate Donald Trump? A megalomaniac prone to flattery with a limited understanding of geopolitics and obviously Twitter happy (I am not saying trigger happy), I am very curious to see what perils he brings to Merkel's and Putin's Europe. 

Perilous Interventions is also a slap on what passes for journalism. I live between India and Europe. Part of my family is European and has been for decades. Europeans have been at war between themselves for thousands of years. Europe's relations with Libya, Iraq, Syria, Egypt have nothing to do with Washington's view of these countries. My friends and acquaintances come from all around the world and they consume news in many different tongues and circumstances.

There's always an angle someone has not read or a point that is critical to the locals but did not make it to the international headlines. I see NATO politics as clearly as I see Russian President Vladimir Putin’s politics. It was not supposed to be this way. When the iron curtain fell and the world went from two blocs to several, there was a promise, not necessarily of a Marshall plan but of something similar to jumpstart economies in Eastern Europe. I was among one of two Indian journalists who saw US President Ronald Reagan and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev shake hands in Geneva in 1985. Four years later, the Berlin Wall had fallen check-point Charlie was to become a museum.

Watch that historic 1985 hand-shake in Geneva here.

Gorbachev could have called out the tanks instead of moving towards democracy. Instead he let the Berlin wall go. At that time, he asked the world to not let him down and turned to western democracies to lead the way as all of them had been calling for the destruction of the wall.

The US and their allies betrayed Gorbachev – today NATO has been extended to 13 more countries formerly in Eastern Europe but their economic condition is nowhere near the prosperous economies of western Europe. This inconvenient truth is lost in the din. Some of the economies were not doing too badly much like the economies of Syria and Libya. Europe's relations with Libya, Iraq, Syria, Egypt have nothing to do with Washington's view of these countries. 

Hardeep also raises the issue of India’s intervention in Sri Lanka as he was closely associated with it. He explains the Indian intervention in the island state and the military action which was called Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and rationalises that ‘outside intervention’ in this case follows the ‘mistreatment of the Tamil minority’ that country with whom sections of Indians have long links. That is what most interventionists say – that they were assisting an ancient minority. That is pretty much what Putin said apropos the recent developments in Crimea.

On this, I will go with A.P. Venkateswaran, former Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs. The book quotes him thus. "We have sown the seeds of bitterness for decades even among the people of Tamil ethnic stock in Sri Lanka. Sooner or later Indian forces will have to withdraw whether peace is restored or not. One can say, definitely, that when this happens, we (would) have left Sri Lanka in (a) worse mess that we (ever) have."

The desire to dominate, frighten, shrink, impose curbs on and decimate peoples is a question all of us have to grapple with. Arming rebels, destabilising neighbours and capitals and allied activities have all failed. So have aid and assistance which seek to keep countries perpetually begging.

When does concern end and interference begin? During a recent conversation, Hardeep told me this. “The only way the situation in Syria can be resolved is for the Russians and the US to resolve their many issues and lean on Iran, the Saudis and assorted Gulf states to stop funding the warring parties and have a genuine ceasefire and peace process."

But what is the point of reference for the UNSC? President Clinton regretted blocking the UN intervention in Rwanda – would that have made it easier for the US to invade elsewhere. And while we are talking about invasions, is there no other way to deal with countries and peoples in distress? Perilous Interventions is also a wake-up call for journalists, strategic thinkers and foreign policy doves and hawks. The UNSC has failed the world, but so have we. 

Perilous Interventions: The Security Council And The Politics Of Chaos

Harper Collins India

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