Archive | October, 2012

Comparing Presidential Elections: 2008 versus 2012

20 Oct

 

            In 2008, Barack Obama rekindled faith in the America electoral process for many, and revived the deeper promise of American democracy, bringing to the foreground of the national political experience a brilliant and compassionate African American candidate. When Obama actually won the presidency, it was one of the exciting political moments in my lifetime, and rather reassuring as a sequel to the dark years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Of course, many Americans didn’t share such positive feelings, and an important embittered minority believed that the election of a liberal-minded black man was the lowest point ever reached in national politics, challenging this segment of society that now was deeply alienated from the prevailing political current to mobilize their forces so as to win back control of the country on behalf of white Christian Americans, and also a time to indulge such absurd scenarios as an imminent Muslim takeover of the society. Such polarization, gave rise to an Islamophobic surge that revived the mood of fear and paranoia that followed upon the 9/11 attacks and was reinforced by evangelical enthusiasm for Israel. In this regard, the Obama phenomenon was a mixed blessing as it contributed to a rising tide of rightest politics in the United States that poses unprecedented dangers for the country and the world.

 

            Nevertheless, as mentioned, Obama’s campaign and election was at the time a most welcome development, although not entirely free from doubts. From the outset my hopes were tinged with concerns, although I did my best to suspend disbelief. All along I found little evidence that Obama’s leadership would liberate the governing process from its threefold bondage to Wall Street, the Pentagon, and Israel.  Such a political will to mount such a challenge was never in evidence, and never materialized. Even in lucid moments, however, I reasoned it was important to elect Obama, despite his endorsement of a woefully deficient set of foreign policy assumptions, because more would be done to give assistance to those impoverished and hit by unemployment and home foreclosures, better judges and diplomats would be appointed, and more attention would be given to climate change. After four years, I continue to believe that these differences matter sufficiently to make it irresponsible not to support Obama and the Democratic Party, especially in so-called swing states.

 

And if there was excitement in much of America during the 2008 electoral campaigned, it was mild compared with pro-Obama sentiments in the rest of the world four years ago, which reached dizzying heights after his victory. This enthusiasm was a compound of several elements: Obama’s success lifted confidence throughout the world that the United States could again play a benevolent role on the global stage and also because it validated that mythic image of America as a country where it was truly possible for anyone in the society, including members of minorities long discriminated against, to reach the pinnacles of wealth and power provided only that they were sufficiently talented and determined, and some would add, lucky. There remains little doubt that if the peoples of the world were allowed to vote in American elections, as might be appropriate in a globalized world, it would have produced a landslide of unprecedented magnitude in Obama’s favor.

 

All at once in 2008 it became evident that an American presidential election was no longer just a national  ritual that bemused outsiders watched as a kind of spectacle but a global event that affected the entire world. In fact the selection of a leader for the United States might be in some respects more important for other societies than for America, and further that the outcome of an American election could have a greater impact on a country in Asia, Africa, and Latin America than the effects of their own national elections, a significance reinforced by intense global media coverage of the American election in real time. In this respect, the 2008 election of Barack Obama made many of us aware that ‘political globalization’ was now as much a part of our experiences as ‘economic globalization.’ We were no longer living in a world where the standard map based on the borders of territorial sovereign states depicted the essential organization of political life on the planet. Our globalizing world had made the geopolitical cartography of influence much more spatially elusive, almost impossible to depict visually, but no less real.

 

Overall, the initial candidacy and election of Obama was, despite my qualms, more about hope than fear. There were concerns to be sure that the McCain/Palin Republican opposition would be dangerous for the world, but such anxieties were relatively subdued, and did not extinguish the strong positive expectations generated by Obama. And these hopes seemed somewhat justified in the first months of his presidency. In April Obama delivered a visionary speech in Prague that articulated a strong commitment to work toward a world without nuclear weapons. The newly elected president also seemed determined to carry out his campaign pledge to end the Iraq War in a responsible fashion, although this welcome move was offset by a disquieting hint that such a demilitarizing move in Iraq would be balanced by an increased commitment to prevailing in the ongoing war for the control of Afghanistan.

 

 

In June Obama made a relatively forthcoming speech in Cairo promising a new more positive relationship with the Islamic world as a whole and to the Middle East in particular. The president referred to the long ordeal of the Palestinian people and proclaimed his dedication to achieving a peaceful and just resolution of the Israel/Pa;lestine conflict, including a most reasonable call upon Israel to freeze all settlement expansion while peace negotiations were taking place. That this call on Israel to stop unlawful activity during negotiations was treated by the media as such a bold step tells us just how biased the mainstream attitude toward the conflict had become, and when Israel rejected at Obama ‘s moderate plea it experienced no adverse consequences, although the White House was put on the defensive because it had dared to push Israel to take a step that was against its wishes. This initiative, followed by its withdrawal, demonstrated to the world the extent to which the United States Government was in Israel’s corner, was revealed to all who cared to notice that the only superpower in global politics was a paper tiger when it came to the pursuit of a just outcome of the conflict.

 

            As already indicated, I half expected disappointments in 2008. I worried about Obama’s typical liberal effort to demonstrate his tough approach to national security including support for a bloated defense budget in the face of a fiscal and employment crisis, about his lame effort to distinguish between Iraq as a bad war and Afghanistan as a war necessary for American security, and hence a good war. Also, I was disturbed by the way Obama dumped Rev. Jeremiah Wright when he became a liability to his electoral campaign, seemed embarrassed by his friendship with the distinguished Palestinian political historian, Rashid Khalidi, and made Rahm Emanuel chief of staff, as his first major appointment. Obama surrounded himself with economic advisors who were the same folks that had collaborated with the banks, hedge funds, and big brokerage houses in the 1990s to facilitate the huge regressive redistribution of wealth in the spirit of ‘casino capitalism.’ Unfortunately, these telltale signs of weakness of principle and ideology were an accurate foretaste of what was in store for the country during the next four years, although it apparently never dawned on the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to withhold its coveted award until Obama demonstrated that he was a deserving recipient, which sadly he never did.

 

            What happened during the first term of the Obama presidency is definitely disappointing, although it is only fair to acknowledge that extenuating circumstances existed. Obama was dealt ‘a bad hand’ in the form of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. American society was sliding to the right as exhibited by the rise of the Tea Party, and the election of increasingly reactionary politicians as senators and congressmen, creating the most rightwing Congress in memory.  It was difficult to govern in such a setting, and Obama compounded the difficulties by moving more than half way to meet the unreasonable demands of the opposition, and continued to do so even in the face of their clear unwillingness to reciprocate in a corresponding manner. Also, the pressures mounted by Israel and its formidable AIPAC lobby led the White House to back pedal awkwardly with respect to its efforts to create an atmosphere conducive to a balanced peace process for Israel and Palestine. On other issues, as well, Obama followed the pollsters and the party insiders more than principle, and failed to do what was best for the country and the world. After promising to take climate change seriously, Obama led an international effort to avoid imposing legal constraints on carbon emissions, and throughout his reelection campaign in 2012 has done his best to avoid the looming challenge of global warming aside from blandly promoting energy independence and green technology. As a result, the near unanimous scientific consensus on the urgent need for mandatory strict limits on carbon emissions has been disastrously pushed further and further into the background of public consciousness.

 

            For me the 2012 elections have a different tone and relevance,  that is not less consequential than in 2008, although absent the uplift. I believe this time around the stakes in the presidential election have been reversed. The upcoming election is more about fear than hope. The outcome is as fateful, or possibly more so, for the American people and the world, especially those living in the Middle East, but fateful also in the sense of avoiding the worst, not hoping for the best, or at least something better. Romney’s election, even if he means only 50% of what he is saying, could lead to military confrontation with Iran, a completely free hand for Israel, an effort to undermine and control democratic forces in the main Arab countries, a trade war with China, a deepening of the world financial and employment crises, reduced respect for human rights, especially the reproductive rights of women, and a return to the overt lawlessness of the Bush presidency. Obama if reelected would likely be a more prudent leader, although continuing to throw the weight of American influence mostly on ‘the wrong side of history.’ In this sense, although prudence is to be preferred to recklessness, there are no major principled differences between the candidates when it comes to foreign policy (on domestic policy there is). Romney proposes that the U.S. stay longer in Afghanistan, move closer to an attack mode with Iran, and challenge China more vigorously on economic policy, and Obama agrees with all these positions but pursues them in a more nuanced way, with a greater seeming sensitivity to the risks and pitfalls, but nevertheless adhering to the same misguided and regressive policy options.

 

            When fear rather than hope shapes our political consciousness, the effect on the citizenry is likely to be despair. Such an effect induces collective depression and encourages extremisms. What is also scary is the degree to which those who are making us fearful are being aided and abetted by the deep pockets of extremist billionaires who seem clearly to sense their ability in this period to buy enough votes to distort the will of the citizenry, and if they should be successful will step up to the policy window to cash in their chips, which could produce some disastrous results at home and abroad. In the background, of course, is the disappointment with the political consciousness of the citizenry that seems so receptive to such a dysfunctional and menacing political agenda as is being presented to them by the Republican Party; it does inspire confidence that the democratic way can lead toward sustainability, security, and justice in the years ahead.

 

            With such an understanding why not support the Green Party candidacy of Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala? Their positions seem principled and admirable, and their alignments are with the poor and with the environment. Their platform is inspirational and congenial compared to what the Republicans and Democrats offer the American people. But their capacity to govern is untested, and their level of support is minimal.

 

            I ask myself whether a vote for the Green Party in light of these circumstances would be a wasted vote? It evades the question to observe that in some states, say California or Nebraska, the outcome is so clear that takingsides as between the candidates put forward by the Democrats and Republicans is meaningless. The real test is whether it is worth voting for the Green Party candidates as a matter of principle because they are decent enough not to stoop to the dirty games of money and the accommodation of special interests that are poisoning the political process in the United States. At this point, I am not able to resolve my doubts. Is it irresponsible, given what is at stake, not to vote for the lesser of evils? Is it a misunderstanding of modern democracies to expect clear choices based on principled positions, respect for international law and human rights, dedication to environmental protection, sustainable economic policies, and a commitment to social justice for the entire population? Should we not insist on this misunderstanding to avoid ourselves being entrapped in a demeaning morality that overlooks crimes of state? (for instance, drone terror)

 

            I must admit if living in a swing state I would vote for Obama, not having sufficient courage of my convictions to risk symbolic responsibility for a Romney victory!

 

Beyond Language: Reflections on the Arakan Tragedy

15 Oct

 

 

            Yesterday I listened to the wife of the Prime Minister, Emine Erdogan, speak about her recent harrowing visit to the Rohingya people in the the federal state of Arakan ( mainly known in the West as Rakhine) who are located in northwestern Myanmar (aka Burma). The Rohingya are a Muslim minority numbering over one million, long victimized locally and nationally in Burma and on several occasions over the years their people have been brutally massacred and their villages burned. She spoke in a deeply moving way about this witnessing of acute human suffering shortly after the most recent bloody episode of communal violence in June of this year. She lamented that such an orgy of violence directed at an ethnic and religious minority by the Buddhist majority is almost totally ignored by most of the world, and is quietly consigned by media outlets to their outermost zones of indifference and irrelevance. She especially appealed to the women present to respond with activist compassion, stressing that women are always the most victimized category in these extreme situations of minority persecution and ethnic cleansing.

 

            The situation of the Rohingya is an archetypal example of acute vulnerability in a state-centric world. In 1982 the territorial government of Burma stripped away the citizen rights of the impoverished Rohingya Muslims who have lived in Arakan for many generations, but are cynically claimed by Rangoon to be unlawful new migrants from bordering Bangladesh who do not belong in Burma and have no right to remain or to burden the state or cause tension by their presence. Bangladesh in turn, itself among the world’s poorest countries, already has 500,000 Rohingya who fled across the Burmese border after earlier attacks on their communities, and has closed its borders to any further crossings by those escaping persecution, displacement, destruction of their homes and villages, and threats to their lives. To deepen this aspect of the tragedy, only 10% of these migrants who fled from Burma have been accepted as ‘refugees’ by the UN High Commission of Refugees, and the great majority of the Rohingya living in Bangladesh for years survive miserably as stateless persons without rights and living generally at or even below subsistence levels.  The Rohingya who continue to exist precariously within Arakan are stateless and unwanted, many are reported to wish openly for their own death. As a group they endure hardships and deprivations in many forms, including denial of health services, educational opportunity, and normal civil rights, while those who have left for the sake of survival, are considered to be comparatively fortunate if they manage to be accepted as ‘refugees’ even if their status as undocumented refugees means the absence of minimal protection, the denial of any realistic opportunity for a life of dignity, and the terrifying uncertainties of being at the continuing mercy of a hostile community and an inhospitable state.

 

            The principal purpose of this educational conference sponsored by Mazlumder, a Turkish NGO with strong Muslim affinities, was to gather experts to report on the situation and urge the audience to take action and thereby mobilize public opinion in support of the Rohingya people. It served to reinforce the high profile diplomatic and aid initiatives undertaken in recent months by the Turkish government to relieve the Rohingya plight. It also called attention to the strange and unacceptable silence of Aung Anh San Suu Kyi, the widely admired democratic political leader in Myanmar, herself long placed under punitive house arrest by the ruling military junta and recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize honoring her heroic resistance to dictatorship in her country. Her voice on behalf of justice for Burmese ethnic and religious minorities, and especially for the Rohingya, would carry great weight among Buddhists in the country and with world public opinion, and might shame the government into taking appropriate action. As it is, the present Burmese leadership and the prevailing tendency in domestic public opinion is to view the conflict as intractable, with preferred solutions being one or another version of ethnic cleansing, a crime against humanity– either forced deportation or the distribution of the Rohingya throughout the country so as to destroy their identity as a coherent people with deep historical roots in  northern Arakan. Outside pressures from Saudi Arabia and the United States might help to rally wider international concern, especially if tied to Burma’s economic goals. Aside from Turkey, governments have been reluctant to put pressure on Rangoon in this period because the Rangoon leadership has softened their dictatorial style of governance and seem to be moving toward the establishment of constitutional democracy in the country.

 

            What struck me while listening to the presentations at the conference was how powerful language can become when its role is to think with the heart. I have always found that women are far less afraid to do this in public spaces than men. We fully secular children of the European Enlightenment are brainwashed from infancy, taught in myriad ways that instrumental reason and logical analysis are the only acceptable ways to think and express serious interpretations of societal reality. Mrs. Erdogan, not only thinks with her heart, but she infuses such thought with an obvious religious consciousness that conveys a spiritual commitment to empathy that neither needs nor relies upon some sort of rational justification.

 

            Such a powerful rendering of suffering reminded me of James Douglass’ use of the realm of the ‘unspeakable’ (in turn inspired by the Catholic mystic author and poet, Thomas Merton) to address those crimes that shock our conscience but can only be diminished in their magnitude by speech. Their essential horror cannot be comprehended by expository language even if it is emotively heightened by an inspirational appeal. Only that blend of thinking with the heart combined the existential validation of direct witnessing can begin to communicate what we know, in the organic sense of knowing, to be the reality. I have discovered in my attempt to address the Palestinian ordeal as honestly as possible that direct contact with the actualities of occupation and the experience of listening closely to those who have been most directly victimized is my only way to approximate the existential reality. For this reason, my exclusion by Israel from visiting Occupied Palestine in my UN role does not affect the rational legal analysis of the violation of Palestinian rights under international law, but it does diminish my capacity as a witness to touch the live tissue of these violations, and erodes my capacity to convey to others a fuller sense of what this means for the lives and wellbeing of those so victimized. Of course, UN reports are edited to drain their emotive content in any event.

 

            I recall also my experience with the world media after a 1968 visit to Hanoi in the midst of the Vietnam War. I had been invited by a European lawyers’ organization to view the bomb damage in North Vietnam at a time when American officials, especially the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, were claiming ‘the most surgical strikes in the history of air warfare.’  I accepted this ‘controversial’ invitation to visit ‘the enemy’ during an ongoing war, although the fighting was somewhat paused at the time, as ‘a realist’ opponent of the war, basically accepting the position of Bernard Fall, George Kennan, and Hans Morgenthau that it was a losing proposition to suppose that the U.S. could achieve what the French colonial occupying power was unable to do and that it was a costly diversion of resources and attention from more important security concerns. My experience in Hanoi transformed my understanding and outlook on the war. It was a result of meeting many of the leaders, including the Prime Minister on several occasions, visiting bombed villages, talking with peasants and ordinary Vietnamese, and most of all, realizing the total vulnerability of the country to the military superiority of the United States with no prospect of retaliation—the concrete and cumulative terror of being on the receiving end of one-sided war that continues for years.  I came away from North Vietnam convinced that ‘the enemy,’ and especially its people, was on the right side of history, and the United States, and the badly corrupted Saigon regime that it propped up, was on the wrong side; above all, I felt the pain of the Vietnamese and was moved by their courage, humanity, and under the dire circumstances, their uncanny faith in humanity and their own collective destiny as a free nation. It produced a sea change in my mindset concerning the Vietnam War, and ever since.

 

            When I left Vietnam, and returned to Paris, I received lots of attention from mainstream media, but total disinterest from these prominent journalists in what was for me the most important outcome of the trip—the realization of what it meant humanly for a peasant society to be on the receiving end of a high tech war machine of a distant superpower whose homeland was completely outside what is now being called ‘the hot battlefield.’ The journalists had no interest in my (re)interpretation of the war, but they were keenly  eager to report on proposals for ending the conflict that had been entrusted to me by Vietnamese leaders to convey to the United States Government upon my return. It turned out that the contour of these proposals was more favorable from Washington’s point of view than what was negotiated four years and many deaths later by Henry Kissinger, who ironically received a Nobel Peace Prize for his questionable efforts. My main reflection relates back to the Arakan meeting. The media is completely deaf to the concerns of the heart, and is only capable of thinking, if at all, with the head. It limits thought to what can be set forth analytically, as if emotion, law, and morality are irrelevant to forming an understanding of public events. What at he time interested the NY Times and CBS correspondents, who were sympathetic and intelligent individuals, was the shaping of a diplomatic bargain that might end the war, whether it was a serious proposal, and whether Washington might be interested. It turned out that Washington was not ready for even such  a favorable compromise, and plodded on for several years, culminating in the unseemly withdrawal in 1975 in the setting of a thinly disguised surrende.  

 

            Poets in the West, caught between a cultural insistence on heeding the voice of reason and their inability to transfer feelings and perceptions into words, vent their frustration with language as the only available vehicle for truth-telling. As T.S. Eliot memorably expressed it in the final section of his great poem East Coker:

 

Trying to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

 

Imagine if the master poet of the English language in the prior century gives voice to such feelings of defeat (paradoxically in one of the great modern poems), how must the rest of us feel! We who are mere journeymen of the written word fault ourselves for inadequacies of depictions and usually lack the temerity to blame the imperfect medium of language for the shortcomings of efforts to communicate that which eludes precise expression.

 

            Earlier in the same poem Eliot writes some lines that makes me wonder if I have not crossed a line in the sands of time, and should long ago have taken refuge in silent vigil:

 

…..Do not let me hear

Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly    

Hope, Wisdom, Law, Ethics, and Spirituality in relation to Killing and Dying: Persisting Syrian Dilemmas

12 Oct

 

            In appraising political developments most of us rely on trusted sources, our overall political orientation, what we have learned from past experience, and our personal hierarchy of hopes and fears. No matter how careful, and judicious, we are still reaching conclusions in settings of radical uncertainty, which incline our judgments to reflect a priori and interpretative biases. As militarists tends to favor reliance on force to resolve disputes among and within sovereign states, so war weary and pacifist citizens will seek to resolve even the most extreme dire conflict situations by insisting on the potentialities of non-violent diplomacy.

 

In the end, even in liberal democracies most of us are far too dependent on rather untrustworthy and manipulated media assessments to form our judgments about unfolding world events. How then should we understand the terrible ongoing ordeal of violence in Syria? The mainly polarized perceptions of the conflict are almost certain to convey one-sided false impressions that either the atrocities and violence are the work of a bloody regime that has a history of brutal oppression or that this hapless country has become the scene of a proxy war between irresponsible outsiders, with strong religious sectarian overtones of the Sunni/Shi’ia regional divide, and further complicated by various geopolitical alignments and the undisclosed ambitions of the United States, Russia, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others. Undoubtedly, the truth lies at some point between the two poles, with many ambiguities, undisclosed interferences, and assorted unknowns undermining our capacity to reach any ‘objective’ understanding, and leading many to discount the extremely dirty hands of all the major participants, seen and unseen, so as to permit a clear partisan position of being for or against.

 

The difficulties are even greater. If, in contrast, we seek to interpret the conflict from all angles with as much detachment as possible, the result is likely to be paralyzing so far as action is concerned. There is too much uncertainty, secrecy, and complexity to give rise to the clarity needed to shape policy with any confidence, and without confidence killing or allowing the killing to continue, no responsible conclusion can be reached. In effect, only over-simplification, that is, polarized interpretations, are capable of overcoming passivity, but at a high cost. Arguably, in relation to the Syrian maelstrom, passivity functions as a political virtue, or put differently, as the lesser of evils.  

 

In such a situation, assuming we repudiate proxy and geopolitical agendas as the desired bases for determining the future for Syria, what should we hope for? A rapid end of the violence, some sort of now unimaginable accommodation between the two (or many) sides in the struggle, a recognition by the various ‘interested’ third parties that their goals cannot be attained at acceptable costs, an abdication by Bashar al-Assad, an arms embargo uniformly enforced, the completely implausible emergence of constitutional democracy, including respect for minority rights. Merely composing such a wish list underscores the seeming hopelessness of resolving the situation in as acceptable manner, and yet we know that it will somehow be eventually resolved.

 

From the perspective of the Syrian factions and participants, so much of their own blood has been spilled, that it probably seems unacceptable and unreliable to be receptive at this point to any offer of reconciliation, and when the only hope is for either an unconditional victory for the self or the extermination of the other. And with such extremist attitudes, it is not surprising that the bodies keep piling up! What are we to do when every realistic trajectory adds to an outcome that is already tragic?

 

My approach in these situations of internal conflict has been to oppose and distrust the humanitarian and democratizing pretensions of those who counsel intervention under the alluring banner of ‘the responsibility to protect.’ (R2P) and other liberal rationales supportive of military intervention, what Noam Chomsky tellingly calls ‘military humanism.’ Yet in concrete situations such as existed in Kosovo in 1999, Libya in 2011, and Syria today, to counsel a passive international response to the most severe crimes against humanity and genocidal atrocities would seems to deny the most elemental ethical bonds of human solidarity in a networked, globalized world, bonds that may turn out in the near future to be indispensable if we are to achieve environmental sustainability before the planet burns us to a crisp.

 

            There are structural issues arising from the statist character of world order in the post-colonial era that make political choices in such situations of bitter internal conflict a tragic predicament. On the one side, is the statist logic that endows territorial governments with unconditional authority to sustain their unity in the face of insurgent challenges, a political principle given constitutional backing in Article 2(7) of the UN Charter, prohibiting UN intervention in internal conflicts. This statist logic is deeply confused and contradicted by legitimizing the inalienable and emancipatory right of self-determination conferred on every ‘people,’ and not on governments. In the background, as well, are the various non-Western collective memories, uniformly bad, of colonial rule, and wellfounded contemporary suspicions that humanitarian interventions, however described and unwittingly, represent attempted colonialist revivals, both ideologically and behaviorally.  

 

On the other side of the policy fence, there is an odd coalition of liberal internationalists who sincerely regard intervention as an essential tool for the promotion of a more humane world along with more cynical geopolitical strategists who regard conflict zones, especially where large oil reserves exist, as targets of opportunity for extending Western interests. Further, normative confusion arises from the drift of practice on the part of the UN that has been understood to vest in the Security Council unlimited competence to interpret the Charter as it wishes. (See World Court decision in the Lockerbie case, which coincidentally involved Libya) In this regard, the rhetoric of human rights has been used to circumvent the Charter limits restricting UN competence to address conflicts internal to states: for instance, the Security Council in 2011 authorized a ‘No Fly Zone’ for Libya that was immediately converted by the NATO intervenors into a de facto mandate for ‘regime change’; the whole undertaking was validated for most advocates of the broadened undertaking because it freed Libya from a murderous dictatorship; others approved, believing that the operation involved a proper invocation of the R2P norm, and still others endorsed the intervention on the basis of its supposed post-conflict state-building successes, avoiding chaos, and especially the rather impressive efforts to base the governance of Libya on democratic procedures. As the situation continues to evolve, there exists controversy as to how to assess the positive and negative aspects of post-Qaddafi Libya.

 

In evaluating our positions for or against a given intervention, should our sense of strategic motivations matter? For instance, the Kosovo intervention was at least partially motivated by the desire in Washington and among many European elites to show that NATO was still useful despite the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet threat that generated the alliance in the first place. Do such strategic considerations matter if indeed the people of Kosovo were spared the kind of ethnic cleansing endured not long before by the people of Bosnia, culminating in the genocide at Srebrenica in 1995? Might it not be claimed that only when strategic incentives exist, will an intervention be of sufficient magnitude to be effective? In effect, altruism alone will not produce effective forms of humanitarian intervention. Does the existence of double standards matter? Certain crimes against humanity generate an interventionary response while others are overlooked, for instance, the persisting collective punishment of the people of Gaza. Should we drink from a glass that is only half full? The same question applies to the recent surge of criminal prosecutions under the authority of the International Criminal Court.

 

There are other ways of evaluating what has taken place. For example, should the consequences of intervention or non-intervention color our assessments of the policy choice? Let’s say that Kosovo evolves in a constructive direction of respect for human rights, including those of the Serbian minority, or in contrast, becomes repressive towards of its minority population. Do we, should we, retrospectively reexamine our earlier view on what it was preferable to do back in 1999? And finally, should we give priority to the postulates of human solidarity, what might be called ‘moral globalization,’ or to the primacy of self-determination as the best hope that peoples of the world have of achieving emancipatory goals, recognizing that the grand strategies of the geopolitical actors are indifferent, at best, and often hostile to such claims?

 

My argument reduces to this: in such a global setting we cannot avoid making disastrous mistakes, but to renounce the effort to find the preferred course of action, we should not withdraw from politics and throw up our hands in frustration. We can expose false claims, contradictions, double standards, and we can side with those who act on behalf of emancipatory goals, while not being insensitive to the complexity, and even contradictions, of ‘emancipation’ in many political settings. There are often ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ sides from the perspective of international morality, international law, and global justice, but not always. When all sides seem deeply ‘wrong’ as in Syria, the dilemmas for the engaged global citizen is heightened to the point where the only responsible posture may be one of humility and an acknowledgement of radical uncertainty. In such circumstances, the most salient moral imperative is to refrain from acts that are likely to intensify the violence, intensify suffering, and increase dying and klling. This may not be a heroic political posture, but it may offer the most constructive response to a particular mix of circumstances, minimizing prospects of further escalation.

 

            Finally, it is not very helpful to observe, ‘time will tell whether this was the best response.’ Perhaps, we can learn for the future about factors overlooked that might have altered our assessment, but our past decision was based on what we knew and perceived at that time, and should not be revised by taking account of subsequent developments. In some situations, such as the many struggles of oppressed and occupied peoples, it seems desirable to be hopeful even in the face of the realization that the eventual outcome could bring deep disappointment. We should, I feel, as often as possible be guided by our hopes and beliefs even when, as nearly always, we are confronted by the dilemmas of radical uncertainty. We should also do our best not to be manipulated by those media savvy ‘realists’ who stress fears, claim a convergence of benevolence and interests, exaggerate the benefits of military superiority, and especially in America serve as the self-appointed chief designers of exploitative patterns of geopolitically shaped security.

 

            With hope we can often overcome uncertainty with desire, and engage in struggles for a just and sustainable future that celebrates human potential for moral growth, political enhancement, and spiritual wisdom.

            Without hope we fall victim to despair and will be carried along with the historical current that is leading nation, society, civilization, species, and world toward catastrophe.

 We live in what can be described both as the Information Age and cope daily with information overload. We are supposed to shape policy on the basis of knowledge, yet when it comes to crucial issues such war/peace or climate change, we act and advocate without sufficient knowledge, or even ignore an informed consensus, and what is worse, we put aside law, ethics, and our spiritual sensitivities.

Finally, to think, act, and feel as a citizen pilgrim provides the necessary foundation for hope, and its two sisters, wisdom and spirituality.

Was it Wrong to Support the Iranian Revolution in 1978 (because it turned out badly)

9 Oct

 

 

            I have often reflected upon my own experience of the Iranian Revolution. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War I believed that the United States would face its next major geopolitical challenge in Iran: partly because of its role via CIA in overthrowing the Mohammad Mosaddegh elected constitutional government so as to restore the repressive Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) to power in 1953, partly because there were 45,000 American troops deployed in Iran along with a network of strategic assets associated with Cold War anti-Soviet priorities, partly because there was a generation of young Iranians, many of whom studied abroad, who had experienced torture and abuse at the hands of the SAVAK, Tehran’s feared intelligence service, partly by the intense anti-regime opposition of an alienated middle class in Iran that was angered by the Shah’s reliance on international capital in implementing the ‘White Revolution,’ and partly because the Shah pursued a regionally unpopular pro-Israel and pro-South Africa (during apartheid) policy.  Against this background, and on the basis of my decade long involvement in opposing the American role in Vietnam, I helped form and chaired a small, unfunded committee devoted to promoting human rights and opposing non-intervention in Iran. I was greatly encouraged to do this my several students who were either Iranian or political activists focused on Iran.

 

In this period, while on the Princeton faculty, the committee organized several events on the internal situation in Iran, including criticism of the American role that was dramatized by Jimmy Carter’s 1978 New Year’s Eve toast to the Shah while a guest at the palace, ‘an island of stability surrounded by the love of his people.’  Such absurdly inappropriate sentiments by the most decent of recent American presidents were undoubtedly sincere but bore witness to what is seen and unseen by the best of American leaders when the world is understood according to the protocols of geopolitics. It was Henry Kissinger who more realistically praised the Shah in his memoirs, calling him “the rarest of leaders, an unconditional ally.’ It was this sense of iran’s subordination to the United States that increased the hostility toward the Pahlavi regime across the broad spectrum of Iranian opinion, and explained what was not then understood, why even those sectors of the Iranian establishment who had benefitted most from the Shah’s regime, did not fight for its survival, but rather ran away and hide as quickly as they could.

 

Despite being critical of the established order in Iran, the timing and nature of the Iranian upheaval in 1978 came as a complete surprise.  It also surprised the American ambassador in Iran, William Sullivan, who told me during a meeting in Tehran at the height of the domestic turmoil, that the embassy had worked out 26 scenarios of possible destabilization in Iran and not one had accorded any role to Islamic resistance. As late as August 1978 a CIA analysis concluded that Iran “is not revolutionary or even in a pre-revolutionary situation.” In fact, seeing the world through a blinkered Cold War optic led the U.S. Government to continue funding Islamic groups because of their presumed anti-Communist identity, which was the first major experience of ‘blowback’ to be disastrously repeated in Afghanistan. The unrest in Iran started with a relatively minor incident in early 1978, although some observers point to demonstrations a year earlier, which gradually deepened until it became a revolutionary process engulfing the entire country.  My small committee in the United States tried to interpret these unexpected developments in Iran, inviting informed speakers, sponsoring meetings, and beginning to appreciate the unlikely role being played by Ayatollah Khomeini as an inspirational figure living for many years in exile, first in Iraq, then Paris. It was in this setting that I was invited to visit Iran to witness the unfolding revolutionary process by Mehdi Bazargan who was a moderate and respected early leader in the anti-Shah movement, and was appointed Prime Minister by Khomeini on February 4, 1979 of an interim government of post-Shah Iran. In explaining the appointment, Khomeini foreshadowed an authoritarian turn in the revolutionary process. His chilling words were not sufficiently noticed as the time: “[T]hrough the guardianship [velayat] that I have from the holy lawgiver [the Prophet], I hereby pronounce Bazargan as the Ruler, and since I have appointed him he must be obeyed. The nation must obey him. This is not an ordinary government. It is a government based on the sharia. Opposing the government means opposing the sharia of Islam…Revolt against God’s government is a revolt against God. Revolt against God is blasphemy.”

 

In January 1979 I went to Iran for two weeks in a small delegation of three persons. My companions on the trip were Ramsey Clark, former American Attorney General who had turned strongly against American foreign policy during the last stages of the Vietnam War and Philip Luce, long-term anti-war activist associated with religious NGOs who had gained worldwide attention a decade earlier when he showed a visiting U.S. Congressional delegation the infamous ‘tiger cages’ used by the Saigon government to imprison inhumanly its enemies in South Vietnam. The three of us embarked on this mission generally sympathetic with the anti-Shah movement, but were uncertain about its real character and likely political trajectory. I had met previously with some of those who would emerge prominently, including Abdulhassan Banisadr Ban who was living as a private citizen in Paris and dreamed of becoming the first president of a post-Shah Iran, an idealistic man who combined a devotion to Islam with a liberal democratic agenda and an Islamic approach to economic policy. His dream was fulfilled but not at all in the manner that he hoped.  He did become the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but his eminence was short lived as the radicalization of the political climate under the guidance of Khomeini led to his impeachment after less than two years, and made it necessary for him to flee the country, returning Paris, now a fugitive of the revolution he had so recently championed. Of course, such a pattern was not novel. Past revolutions had frequently devoured their most dedicated adherents.

Also, I had become a close friend of Mansour Farhang who was a progressive American professor of international relations teaching at a California college and a highly intelligent advocate of the revolutionary developments in Iran as they unfolded in 1978. Farhang was appointed as ambassador to the UN by the new government, but soon resigned his post, and denounced the regime he had worked to install as a new species of ‘religious fascism.’ There were others, also, who inclined me in this period of struggle against the Pahlavi Dynasty to view favorably the revolutionary developments in Iran, but later became bitter opponents.

 

My visit itself took place at a climactic moment in the Iranian Revolution. The Shah left the country on January 17, 1979 while we were in Iran to the disbelief of ordinary Iranians who thought the initial reports were at best a false rumor and at worst a trick to entrap the opposition. When the public began to believe that the unbelievable had actually happened there were spontaneous celebratory outpourings everywhere we were. On that very evening we had a somewhat surrealistic meeting with the recently designated Prime Minister, Shapour Bakhtiar. Bakhtiar was a longtime liberal critic of the monarchy living outside the country who had been appointed a few weeks earlier by the Shah as a desperate democratizing concession aimed at calming the rising revolutionary tide. It was a futile gesture, and one that Khomeini dismissed with the greatest contempt, showing his refusal to consider what at the time struck many as a prudent compromise. Bakhtiar lasted less than two months, left the country, and was assassinated in his home in the outskirts of Paris a decade or so later.

 

While in Iran we had the opportunity to have long meetings with a range of religious figures including Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani and Ayatollah Shariat Maderi, both extraordinary religious figures who impressed us deeply with their combination of principled politics and empathy with the suffering endured by the Iranian people during the prior 25 years. After leaving Iran we stopped in Paris and spent several hours with Ayatollah Khomeini on his last day in France before his triumphal return to Iran. At that point, Khomeini was viewed as ‘the icon’ of the revolution, but was not thought of as its future political leader. Indeed, Khomeini had told us that he looked forward to ‘resuming his religious life’ in Qom when he returned to Iran, and that he had entered the political arena most reluctantly, and only because the Shah’s rule had caused ‘a river of blood’ to flow between the people and the state. There were many intriguing facets of our meeting with this ‘dark genius’ of the Iranian Revolution, which I will leave for another post. My impression of Khomeini was of a highly intelligent, uncompromising, strong willed, and severe individual, himself somewhat unnerved by the unexpected happenings in a country he had not entered for almost 20 years. Khomeini insisted on portraying what had happened in Iran as an ‘Islamic Revolution’; he corrected us if we made any reference to an ‘Iranian Revolution.’ In this respect, this religious leader was obviously disenchanted with nationalism, as well as royalism (he spoke of the Saudi dynasty as deserving the same fate as the Pahlavis), and presumably envisioning the revival of the Islamic caliphate, and its accompanying borderless umma.

 

            I returned from Iran with a sense of excitement about what I had witnessed and experienced, feeling that the country might be giving the world a needed new progressive political model that combined compassion for the people as a whole with a shared spiritual identity. There was no doubt that at the time Khomeini and Islamic identity had mobilized the Iranian masses in a manner that was far more intense and effective than had ever been achieved by various forms of leftist agitation and ideology. Some of those we met in Iran were cautious about what to expect, saying the revolution has unfolded ‘too fast’ for a smooth transition to constitutional governance. Others spoke about counter-revolutionary tendencies, and there were conspiratorial views voiced to the effect that the overthrow of the Shah was engineered by British intelligence, and even that Ayatollah Khomeini was a British agent, or that it was an American response to the Shah’s successful push for higher oil prices within the OPEC framework that was threatening to the West. We were guests in the home of an anti-Shah mathematician in Tehran, a dedicated democrat who told us that his recent reading of Khomeini’s published lectures on Islamic Government had made him extremely fearful about what would happen in post-Shah Iran. Also, some Iranian women we met were worried about threats to the freedoms that enjoyed under the Shah, and were unhappy about the new dress code of the revolution that was already making the wearing of the chador virtually mandatory. Some of those we spoke who had supported the revolution insisted that once a new political order is established, there would be a feminist outcry to the effect ‘we’re next!’ Other secular women told us that they enjoyed wearing the chador because it gave them a welcome relief from spending time on cosmetics and the various ways that modern Western fashion treated women as ‘objects’ designed to awaken erotic desires among men.

 

            Despite encountering these reservations about the Iranian future, I returned from Iran deeply impressed by having touched ‘the live tissue of revolution.’ There was an extraordinary feeling of societal unity and solidarity that seemed to embrace the whole population, at that moment surmounting divisions of class and ethnicity, and even leading those with religious identifications to bond with liberal secular elements. It was a moment of historic mobilization, and although the future was unknowable, the release of positive energy that we experienced was remarkable. It included walking in a peaceful and joyous demonstration of several million in Tehran to celebrate the departure of the Shah and the victory of the revolution. Such an outpouring of love and happiness lent credibility to our hopes that Iran as a liberated society would go forward to produce a humane and distinctive form of governance.

 

            It was not long afterwards, that what had seemed so promising degenerated into a process that was deeply disturbing, a new disposition toward severly abusing opponents and the emergence of a new religiously grounded autocracy that seemed as unscrupulous as its predecessor. Khomeini surfaced as the supreme leader of this kind of harsh regime, acknowledged as such without ever being elected. To be sure, there were violent counter-revolutionary forces at work in Iran, and there were suspicions that the United States was maneuvering behind the scenes to repeat its coup of 1953. There is no doubt that the United States encouraged Saddam Hussein to attack Iran in 1980, hoping at least to detach the oil province of Kuzistan from the country, and possibly even toppling the Khomeini government. However, these developments are interpreted, there seemed little likelihood that the values that underlay the courageous campaign against the Shah would ever again achieve the spirit of unity and liberation that we found in Iran during our visit in early 1979.

 

            I had written and spoke publically about my impressions of the revolution that we experienced before it encountered these reactionary troubles. Ever since I have been sharply criticized for my early show of support for Ayatollah Khomeini, and my subsequent misgivings, even active opposition, were ignored. Such a pattern is not unusual, and I might try to give my side of the story at some later point, but now I wish to concentrate on another part of the experience, and talk about the relation between my positive perceptions in phase one and my disillusionment in phase two. I want to raise the question as to whether my enthusiasm in phase one was itself a misguided indulgence in utopian longing that necessarily ends in a reign of terror. Such is the essential thesis of Crane Brinton’s influential Anatomy of Revolution. This view is partially also endorsed by Hannah Arendt’s Revolution with its admiration for the American Revolution because it did not attempt to achieve a social transformation beneficial to the poor and its demonization of the French Revolution because it did insist upon the achievement of a just society, which led in her view to a bloody struggle with the threatened privileged classes and to revolutionary terror.

 

            Such a question was posed for me with stark vividness when I read recently the brilliantly provocative essay of Slavoj Zizek entitled “Radical Intellectuals, or, Why Heidegger Took the Right Step (Albeit in the Wrong Direction),” and especially the short section, ‘Michel Foucault and the Iranian Event,’ published in his breathtaking book, In Defense of Lost Causes. Zizek’s basic support for greeting such historically charismatic events with approval is based on the idea that the faith in liberating the moral potential of human society is the only alternative to being complicit in the exploitation and demeaning of the multitudes and passive in the face of pervasive structural injustice.  Zizek makes an important distinction between Heidegger’s temporary embrace of Nazism and Foucault’s of the Iranian Revolution, although he takes note of the similarities, especially the attractive quality of the transcendent moment of collective unity and its associated visionary embrace of a just future for the entire people. He seeks to distinguish the appropriateness of the enthusiasm and longing, and the actual deformity of the events.

 

In this assessment, Zizek sides with the outlook of the French philosopher Alain Badiou and the Irish playwright Samuel Becket: “Better a disaster of fidelity to the Event than a non-being of indifference toward the Event..one can go on and fail better, while indifference drowns us deeper and deeper in the morass of imbelcilic Being.”  Of course, it is a radical claim to insist that the deformed societal structures faces us with such a stark choice between revolution and complicity via indifference. Such a view rejects reformism and liberal perspectives because of their acceptance of the structures in place, and rejection of more radical challenges on behalf of justice.

 

Rethinking after more than 30 years my own sequence of enthusiasm, disillusionment, and opposition I am assisted by Zizek’s disquisition although I would not pose the issues of choice so starkly. What seems to me important is to side with the revolutionary impulse, although I am not sure that our historical experience gives us any confidence that revolutionaries are learning to ‘fail better’ although they are definitely learning to ‘fail differently’ (for instance, compare the Arab Spring with the Iranian Revolution) (or Mao’s cultural revolution with the Soviet experience with Stalinism).

 

Was it a mistake of perception, a radical form of wishful thinking, to underestimate or fail earlier to apprehend the negative potentialities of the Iranian Revolution when I visited the country in late 1978, and again in early 1980 in the aftermath of the hostage crisis? Or was it correct to give voice to the positive potentialities that seemed to surface so compellingly during those moments of collective excitement and unity, as well as were expressed by most of those with whom I spoke during the 1979 visit to various Iranian cities? Is Zizek and Badiou correct to separate so sharply the revolutionary vision from its actual dismal human results, or is this an incriminating instance of the irresponsibility of radical thought that has an infantile appreciation of revolutionary ideals while ignoring the conservative wisdom of serious conservative thought that warns us about the demonic outcomes every effort to ditch abruptly existing institutions and class relations? Are we as a species destined to see our dreams of a just and sustainable future always shattered by the deforming effects of struggles for and against new arrangements of governing authority and class relations? Are we condemned, in other words, to banish our dreams from the domain of responsible politics and confine our efforts to marginal reformist initiatives?

 

            Posing such questions is easier than resolving them. I am inclined to think that my response to what took place in Iran was authentic at its various phases, reflecting my best understanding of the unfolding circumstances, adjusting my evaluations phase by phase. I prefer such a view, even in retrospect, to indifference to the Shah’s oppressive regime, while realizing that drastic change, especially in a country endowed with abundant oil reserves, is almost certain to be a rocky road. Should I have been immediately more suspicious of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic dimensions of the revolution? Probably, but it was not clear at the time, because the leading religious figures in Iran were articulating a vision of a just future for Iran even if  the future made it clear that their preference was for some kind of theocracy. It should also be pointed out that some religious leaders did seem to envision a humane sequel to the Shah’s Iran that would be inclusive, humane, and sensitive to the human rights of all Iranians, but their voices did not prevail.

 

            I continue to believe that despite the dangers of visionary politics, it is the only hope we have as a species of creating a sustainable and just future for humanity.  In ending I should be clear that I have consistently supported reformist efforts in Iran over the years since the ouster of Banisadr and others, including the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and the more recent Green Revolution. As with the days of the Shah, Iran urgently requires an emancipatory politics that liberates from within, and regenerates the hopes of the Iranian people. What Iran does not need is an Israeli-American military strike or destabilization moves funded and promoted from without. Intervention by way of military attack, or even in the form of strong economic sanctions (as present), stabilize the regime in Tehran and impose added hardships on the Iranian people. As I have argued in the past the best and only acceptable way to address the questions of nuclear weapons in the Middle East is through establishing a nuclear weapons free zone that includes Israel. To avoid even the discussion of such an option illuminates the strategic submission of American foreign policy to Israeli governmental priorities even in cases such as this where the Israeli public is split and the response to an attack, if it happens, is likely to inflict severe harm on Israel, as well as to risk transforming the entire region into a war zone.

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