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Syria: What to Do Now

26 Feb

 

            There is a new mood of moral desperation associated with the ongoing strife in Syria that has resulted in at least 135,000 deaths, 9.3 millions Syrians displaced, countless atrocities, Palestinian refugee communities attacked, blockaded, and dispersed, and urban sieges designed to starve civilians perceived to be hostile. As the second round of negotiations in Geneva-2 ended as fruitlessly as the earlier round, there is a sense that diplomacy is a performance ritual without any serious intent to engage in conflict-resolving negotiations. Expectations couldn’t be lower for the as yet unscheduled, but still planned, third round of this Geneva-2 process.

 

The Damascus regime wants an end to armed opposition, while the insurgency insists upon setting up a transition process that is independently administered and committed to the election of a new political leadership.The gap between the parties is too big, and getting bigger, especially as the Damascus government correctly perceives the combat tide as turning in its favor, leading the main opposition forces seemingly to seek to achieve politically and diplomatically what they appear unable to do militarily. Also, it is unclear whether the opposition presence in Geneva has the authority to speak on behalf of several opposition groups in the field in Syria.

 

In light of these frustrations it is not surprising to observe an acrimonious debate unfolding between American interventionists who believe that only force, or at least its threat, can thread the needle of hope. The interventionists, invoking the responsibility to protect norm that was used effectively to mobilize support in the Security Council to mandate a no fly zone in Libya back in 2011, suggest that such an approach should be used again in 2014 either to establish a no fly zone opening a corridor that will allow humanitarian aid to flow to besieged cities or to achieve regime change in Syria as the only way to end the ordeal by ridding the country of a governing process guilty of repeated mass atrocities against its own people.

 

The anti-interventionists point out that the Libyan precedent of 2011 is tainted by the deliberate expansion of the humanitarian scope of what was authorized by the UN Security Council to undertake a much wider campaign with the clear intent of regime change, which in fact ended with the capture and execution of Qaddafi, then the head of state in Libya. It is also somewhat tarnished by the post-Qaddafi realities of widespread militia violence and the failure to develop a coherent and legitimate governance structure. The anti-interventionist argue that introducing external military force almost always makes matters worse, more killing, more devastation, and no politically sustainable outcome, and there is no good reason to think this will not happen in Syria. Furthermore, without a Security Council mandate such a use of military force would once again be undertaken in violation of the UN Charter and international law as it could not be justified as self-defense.

 

Providing humanitarian relief in a situation mainly free of internal political struggle should be sharply distinguished from the realities amid serious civil strife. The response to the Somali breakdown of governability during the presidency of George H. W. Bush in 1992, is illustrative of a seemingly pure humanitarian response to famine and disease characterized by a posture of political non-interference and by the shipment of food and medical supplies to a people in desperate need. This contrasted with the supposedly more muscular response to a troubled Somalia during the early stages of the Clinton presidency in 1993 when the humanitarian mission was fused with anti-‘warlord’ and political reconstruction goals. Difficulties soon emerged as robust national armed resistance was encountered culminating in the Blackhawk Down incident that resulted in 18 deaths of American soldiers, prompting an almost immediate American pullout from Somalia under a cloud of intense criticism of the diplomacy of ‘humanitarian intervention’ within the United States. This had the disastrous spillover effect of leading the supposedly liberal Clinton White House to discourage even a minimal humanitarian response to the onset of genocide in Rwanda in 1994, which might have saved hundreds of thousand of lives.  In the Rwanda context the United States Government even discouraged a modest upgraded response by the United Nations that already had a peacekeeping presence in the country, and whose commander urged reinforcements and authority to protect the targets of genocidal massacres. This failure to act in Rwanda remains a terrible stain on America’s reputation as a humane and respected world leader, and is frequently interpreted as a racist disregard of threats confronting an African population when no major strategic interest of Western countries were present on the side of the victims.

 

The Syrian reality since its inception was dominated by a political uprising, later an insurgency, demanding regime change in Damascus.  It was also beset with a leadership deficit and by factionalism that only became worse with the passage of time. It was further complicated and confused by its proxy dimensions, both in relation to the supply of arms and with respect to diplomatic alignment.

 

The humanitarian relief argument to be credible, much less persuasive, needs to deal with the complexities of Somalia 2, and not act as if the humanitarian response can be addressed in detachment from the political struggle as was the case in Somalia 1. When political objectives become intertwined with a humanitarian rationale, forces of national resistance are activated on the reasonable assumption that the real goal of the mission is the political one, and the humanitarian relief is being used as a cover. As we can foresee, this complexity makes for a stiffer climb facing an advocate of humanitarian intervention in the current Syrian tragedy. There exists a more difficult burden of persuasion, although not an impossible one. Indeed, against the background of recent failed interventions, every proposed intervention confronts such a burden at some level. The Syrian case makes this burden more formidable, given the record of past interventions in the region and considering the mixture of forces that make up ‘the opposition,’ which is so far from unified even in carrying on the struggle against the Assad regime, on occasion diverting attention to take action against a rival faction.

 

In fact, the Syrian situation has an originality that makes the Somalia template clarifying, but hardly definitive. The Syrian political struggle is more acute and vicious than was the case in Somalia 2. Also the humanitarian crisis is deeper and the plight of many Syrians caught in the maelstrom of this horrifying war that is both internal and contains regional proxy elements in ways that make it more confusing as to the probable effects of threats and uses of force on behalf of genuine humanitarian goals.

 

My basic contention is that there are no easy answers at this stage as to what should be done about the Syrian situation, and dogmatic discourse for or against intervention misses the deeply tragic nature of the policy predicament for all political actors. I would feel more comfortable about the intervention debate if it were expressed in a discourse that accords prominence to the virtue of humility. Too much in Syria remains unknowable to have any confidence that a clear line of advocacy will be historically vindicated.

 

For me the fundamental question is what it is best to do or not do in such a desperate situation of radical uncertainty. It is not only that the interventionists, and perhaps the anti-interventionists are motivated by a convergence of humanitarian/moral considerations with geostrategic ambitions, but that the nature of these hidden calculations are discussed in governmental circles behind locked doors and transcribed in secret policy memoranda. Until we address these questions of consequences and secret goals in the context of uncertainty and unknowability, the public discourse on what to do about Syria offers limited insight into how best to evaluate policy options being endorsed by policymakers and leaders. I hope that such a discussion will ensue, and replace the rather pointless and dogmatic self-righteous indignation of both interventionists and anti-interventionists.

 

I remember hearing the senior State Department diplomat, George Ball, speak just weeks after he left the government in the closing years of the Vietnam War. His primary message was that he only began to understand the war when he stopped reading the cables, that is the secret highly classified messages being sent by the military commanders and their civilian counterparts in the war zone. In effect, rather than make policy more transparent its counter-intuitive reality was to shroud the reality of Vietnam in greater obscurity. It is easy to explain why. Those in the field were committed to achieving victory, and were determined to provide reassurance, however false, to the leaders back in Washington so that they could deal with growing anti-war pressures that were a combination of public fatigue after almost a decade of engagement  and skepticism based on what became known as ‘the credibility gap’ between the claims of continuing progress in the war and what was actually taking place in Vietnam.  

 

OMAR: Uncovering Occupied Palestine

4 Feb

 

            OMAR is the second film directed by Hany Abu-Assad to be a finalist among foreign language films nominated to receive an Oscar at the 2014 Academy Awards ceremony on March 2nd. The earlier film, PARADISE NOW (2005), brought to life the preoccupation at the time with suicide bombing as the principle tactic of Palestinian resistance by exposing the deep inner conflicts of those who partake, the tragic effects of such terror on its Israeli targets, and the hardened manipulative mentality of the leaders who prepare the perpetrators. Abu-Assad born in 1961 in Nazareth, emigrated to the Netherlands in 1980, writes the screen plays for his movies as well as directs. He has a profound gift for story telling that keeps an audience engaged with the human drama affecting the principal Palestinian characters while illuminating broader issues of profound moral and political concern without stooping to didactic means of conveying ‘the message.’ So understood, Abu-Assad’s achievement is artistic in the primary sense, yet attunes us to the dilemmas of oppression and servitude.

 

            In these respects OMAR is superior even to PARADISE NOW, telling the story of what life under Israeli occupation means for the way Palestinian lives are lived, the normalcy’s of romantic attraction contrasting with the abnormalities of humiliating lives lived behind prison walls. The film opens with Omar climbing the high domineering security wall to overcome the separation of Arab families living on either side, being detected by the Israeli guards who sound sirens and fire a shot. Omar manages to clamor back down and leap to safety. Israeli police on foot and in cars pursue Omar through the alleyways and streets of an impoverished Palestinian neighborhood. The underlying poignancy of Omar’s situation is to be at once ‘a freedom fighter’ and a sensitive young man deeply in love with Nadia, the younger sister of Tarek, his militia commander. In an unspoken realism, Omar is unconditionally bound to both causes, jeopardizing his chance to live a shadow life of acquiescence to the realities of occupation by his choice to dedicate himself at great risk and little hope to the liberation of the Palestinian people and their land.

 

            The wall reinforced by the Israeli security forces, portrayed as cunning and unscrupulous, with an occupiers’ fear and loathing for those who cower under the rigors of occupation, provides an unforgettable visual metaphor that captures the daily ordeal of the Palestinian people. In a subtle touch, the rope used by Omar throughout the film to avoid the checkpoints and overcome the separation of his home from that of Tarek and Nadia also conveys an understanding that the wall is much more about humiliation and land than it is about security. The rope remains untouched during the entirety of the film, although its presence and illegal use must have been obvious to the Israeli occupation forces that never bother to remove it.

 

            What emerges most vividly as the story unfolds is the dehumanizing effects of prolonged occupation. Omar and Nadia have charm and humor to give their love for another an unforgettable credibility that is brought to life by their awareness of what it means to live without the right to travel beyond the wall. They talk in the language of fantasy about where to go on their honeymoon: he proposes Mozambique, she counters with Bangla Desh, and then more truly, admits that Paris is her dream, while they both fully realize that they will never get the opportunity to get beyond the dingy confines of the West Bank. Nadia’s biggest trip outside of her immediate neighborhood was a visit to Hebron, the tensest, most humiliated city in occupied Palestine, notorious for daily settler violence against the large residentPalestinian community.

 

            The film conveys better than any book the interactive intimacies of occupier and occupied. The Israeli lead security agent, Rami, calls his mother to ask her to pick up his daughter from school, and when she asks why he can’t do it, he responds “I am stuck in the middle of the fucking West Bank.” Yet the most abiding realization is the horrible dehumanizing effects of this mixture of fear and hatred in contexts of unspeakable inequality, with total control seemingly on one side, and complete vulnerability on the other side. The torture scenes, like the wall, are both horrible in their own enactment, but also metaphors of what it means to live your entire life within master/slave structures of relationship.

 

            The reality of Palestinian violent resistance has two important consequences even though it seems currently futile from the perspective of challenging the occupation in any way that promises to liberation: it gives dignity to Palestinians who seem united in their will to live-unto-death despite their defenselessness and it makes Israelis vulnerable despite their seeming total control of the situation as a result of their weaponry, police, surveillance technology, and arrogant sense of racial superiority. In effect, the desperate slave when life is deprived of all personal meaning can sacrifice himself in a symbolic act of vengeance, and inflict pain and loss on the master. Seen from an Israeli perspective, there is no way to achieve total security (this side of total genocide) no matter how clever, sophisticated, and oppressive the systems of control put in place. Technology is incapable of doing the whole job, and for this reason, human fallibility always produces some sort of payback from the incompletely vanquished subjugated population.

 

            For this reason, from the Palestinian side, nothing is worse that becoming a collaborator, and yet only a hero among heroes, would have the super-human capacity to avoid such a fate given the brutality used by Israelis to acquire the information they need to enforce their will on a hostile population. For the occupier recruiting collaborators is a vital part of improving security; for the occupied, it is the final humiliation, making the fate of the traitor far worse than that of the slave. Omar is portrayed in a fascinating manner because he succumbs, and yet in the end he doesn’t succumb. Amjad, his friend collaborates with the Israelis to steal Omar away from Nadia, with the biopolitical insight that romantic longings may take lethal precedence over political loyalty and lifelong friendship. In this respect, the power of love is greater than the power of power. The film also is faithful to the traditional social norms that bind Palestinians to family relations in ways that also enslave, including the total disempowerment of women. Nadia is portrayed as strong in her dual attachments to love and resistance, and yet is deprived by Palestinian norms of freedom in relation to her body and choice of partner. In this sense, Nadia is doubly occupied.

 

            OMAR makes no effort to depict the larger issues of resistance tactics, to portray some vision of a realizable peace, or to bring into play the behavior of politicians, the UN, the international community. Such considerations are ignored, and seem irrelevant to the forces that impact daily on Palestinian lives. It takes the present as a seemingly permanent given, in effect, a society of prisoners sentenced for life with no hope for parole or escape. So understood, the actual Israeli prison that is depicted in the film is a prison within a prison, that is, a walled enclave that exists within a walled country.

 

            The great achievement of Hany Abu-Assad in this film is to make you feel and think, and maybe hopefully act. I left the theater with the overriding sense that the continuation of this occupation is intolerable for both sides, that it dehumanizes Israelis as much as it does Palestinians, two peoples caught in a vicious circle of subjugation and resistance. But not equally so caught as the masters live life in more satisfying ways than the slaves, at least for now, at least until the walls come tumbling down.

 

Imperiled Polities: Egypt and Turkey—Two Visions of Democracy

25 Jan

 

The Meaning of a 98.1% Vote

 

In mid-January there was a vote in Egypt as to whether to approve a constitution drafted by a 50-person committee appointed by the interim government put in place after the military coup carried out on July 3, 2013. The constitution was approved by 98.1% of those who voted, 38.6% of the eligible 53 million Egyptians. This compares with 63.8% support received by the constitution prepared during the presidency of Mohammed Morsi from the 32.9% of the Egyptian citizenry that participated in the vote. It should be observed that this new constitutional referendum was boycotted by both the Muslim Brotherhood and various of the youth groups that has been at the forefront of the anti-Mubarak upheaval in 2011. Also the validity of the vote was further discredited because of the atmosphere of intimidation in Egypt well conveyed by the pro-coup slogan: “You are either with me or with the terrorists.” Not only had the MB been criminalized, its assets seized, its leaders jailed, its media outlets shut down, but anyone of any persuasion who seemed opposed to the leadership and style of General el-Sisi was subject to arrest and abuse.

 

In the background here are questions about the nature of ‘democracy,’ and how to evaluate the views of people caught in the maelstrom of political conflict. On one level, it might seem that a vote of over 90% for absolutely anything is an expression of extraordinary consensus, and as a result el-Sisi’s constitution is far more popular than Morsi’s constitution, and hence more legitimate. Reflecting on this further makes it seem evident, especially when the oppressive context is to taken into account that the one-sided vote should be interpreted in the opposite manner, making Morsi’s vote more trustworthy because it reached plausible results. Any vote in a modern society that claims 98.1% support should be automatically disregarded because it must have been contrived and coerced. In effect, we cannot trust democratic procedures to reveal true sentiments in a political atmosphere that terrorizes its opponents, and purports to delegitimize its opposition by engaging in state crime. The consent of the governed can only be truly ascertained if the conditions exist for the free and honest expression of views for and against what present power-wielders favor.

 

Maybe, however, the connections made between democracy and legitimacy, seeking this populist signal of approval by the ritual of a vote, is itself a kind of blindfold. It would seem that a majority of Egyptians did, in fact, welcome the el-Sisi coup, believing that a military leadership would at least ensure food and fuel at affordable prices and restore order on the streets. In other words, most citizens in crisis situations posit order and economic stability as their highest political priorities, and are ready to give up ‘democracy’ if its leaders fail to meet these expectations. In my view, what has happened in Egypt is the abandonment of the substance of democracy by the majority of the Egyptian people, as reinforced by the suppression of a minority hostile to the takeover. This dynamic is hidden because the discourse and rituals of democracy are retained. It is this process that I believe we are witnessing as unfolding in Egypt. In effect, polarization of the first two-and-half years following the overthrow of Mubarak has been followed by the restoration of autocratic rule, but due to the intervening embrace of political freedom, however problematic, the new autocrat is even harsher than what was rejected at Tahrir Square three years ago.

 

The Politics of Polarization and Alienation  

 

Amid this political turmoil that has been spoiling the politics of the Middle East is a conceptual confusion that contributes to acute political alienation on the part of those societal elements that feel subject to a governmental leadership and policy agenda that is perceived as hostile to their interests and values. Such circumstances are aggravated by political cultures that have been accustomed to ‘one-man shows’ that accentuate tendencies toward adoration and demonization. Each national situation reflects the particularities of history, culture, values, national memories, personalities, and a host of other considerations, and at the same time there are certain shared tendencies that may reflect some commonalities of experience and inter-societal mimicry, as well as the deformed adoption of Western hegemonic ideas of modernity, development, constitutionalism, and governance, as well as of course the relationship between religion and politics.

 

The recent disturbing political turmoil in Turkey and Egypt, each in its own way, is illustrative. In both countries there are strong, although quite divergent, traditions of charismatic authoritarian leadership, reinforced by quasi-religious sanctification. Very recently, however, this authoritarian past is being challenged by counter-traditions of populist legitimacy putting forward impassioned demands for freedom, integrity, equity, and inclusive democracy, which if not met, justify putting aside governmental procedures, including even the results of national elections. Within this emergent counter-tradition is also a willingness to give up all democratic pretensions so as to restore a preferred ideological orientation toward governance, that is, resorting to whatever instruments are effecting in transferring control of the state back to the old order that had lost control of the governing process by elections, and had poor prospects of democratically winning power in the future.

 

In Egypt, this circumstance led to unconditional opposition to the elected leadership, especially to Mohammed Morsi, the president drawn from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood. The aim of this opposition, whether or not consciously espoused, seemed to have been to create a crisis of governability of sufficient depth to provoke a crisis of legitimacy, which could then produce a populist challenge from below that brought together ideological demands for a different orientation and material demands for a better life. It is true that Morse lent a certain credibility to this rising tide of opposition by a combination of incompetence and some clumsy repressive moves, but this was almost irrelevant as his secular and fulool opponents wanted him to fail and never allowed him even the possibility of success. For such opponents, the idea of living under a government run by the MB was by itself intolerable. In the end, many of those who had pleaded so bravely for freedom in Tahrir Square were two years later pleading with the armed forces to engage in the most brutal expressions of counter-revolutionary vengeance. Whether this will be the end of the Egyptian story for the near future is difficult to discern, the downward spiral suggests insurrection and strife for the foreseeable future.  

 

In Turkey, such a collision has recently produced turmoil and highlighting the dangers and passions that accompany lethal polarization, initially, in the encounters of the summer of 2013 at Gezi Park and some months later in a titanic struggle between Tayyip Recip Erdogan and Fetullah Gulan generating a rising tide of mutual recriminations and accusations that threatens the AKP dominance of the political process, a threat that will be soon tested in the March local elections, especially those in Istanbul and Ankara. Turkey is different than Egypt in at least two major respects. First of all, its economy has flourished in the past decade, producing a rising middle class, and a business community with lots to lose if investor confidence and currency exchange rates decline sharply. This reality is complicated by the fact that part of those that have gained economically have been aligned with the AKP, and by the degree to which the Turkish armed forces are also major stakeholders in the private sector. Secondly, a major achievement of the AKP leadership has been to depoliticize the role of the Turkish military, partly to protect itself against interference and partly to satisfy European Union accession criteria.

 

Alienation and emotional distress is more a symptom than an explanation of why there exist such strong political tensions. Better understood, these conflicts are about class, religion, status, political style, the benefits of governmental control, and availability of capital and credit. An additional source of public antagonism is the unresolved, and mostly unacknowledged, debate about the true nature of democracy as the legitimating ideal for good governance in the 21st century. One perplexing element is language, especially its use by politicians concerned with public opinion. There is this impulse on one side to base governmental legitimacy on pleasing the citizenry, and the impulse on the other side is to insist upon fidelity to law and constitutionalism. Both sides have powerful arguments that can be invoked to support their claims. There is no right and wrong, which is infuriating for polarized discourse that can only raise its voice to shout in higher decibels, but can never reach a conclusion of the sort that might resolve a scientific debate or solve a mathematical puzzle. Each side is motivated by unshakeable convictions, and has no disposition to listen, much less appreciate, what the others are saying. In effect, good governance is impossible in the absence of community, and what has become evident is that society unity is currently unattainable in the presence of the sort of alienation that has gripped the publics in Egypt and Turkey, and elsewhere. 

 

Part of the controversy, but only part, can be reduced to these differences over the very nature of democracy. Another part, as discussed in relation to the vote on the Egyptian constitution, involves the abandonment of democracy in substance while insisting on its retention in form.

 

Varieties of Democracy

 

The word democracy itself needs to be qualified in one of two ways: majoritarian or republican. And here is the central tension: the public myth in all countries that deem themselves ‘modern’ endorse the republican tradition of limited government and internal checks and balances, while the political culture is decidedly ambivalent. It can spontaneously legitimize the majoritarian prerogatives of a popular leader with strong backing on the street and among the armed forces, even at the cost of republican correctness. Because of this reality, there exists a tendency by those social forces being displaced through societal power shifts to view a newly ascendant leader through a glass darkly. They suddenly lament authoritarian tendencies that never troubled them in the past when their elites held the reins of governmental authority. Part of the recent confusion is that sometimes the authoritarian tendency gets so corrupted that it loses support even among those who share its class and ideological outlook, and a reformist enthusiasm emerges. This happened in Egypt, but its tenure was short lived as its adherents, drawn from the ranks of the urban educated elites, quickly realized that their interests and values were more jeopardized by the ‘new’ order than it had been by the excesses of the ‘old’ order. 

 

We find in Egypt this pattern played out through the wildly gyrations in the perception of the armed forces as a political player. In the Mubarak Era the armed forces were the central pillar of the state, and a major beneficiary of governmental corruption, neoliberal inequities, and a principal perpetrator, along with other security forces, of state crime. In the Morsi period of governance the armed forces seemed to stay in the background until either responding to or prompting the populist mandate of the opposition exhibited by mass demonstrations and media mobilization based on a paranoid image of Muslim Brotherhood rule and widespread genuine distress about economic stagnancy and political disarray.

 

After the July 3rd coup led by Morsi’s Minister of Defense, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the armed forces set aside the constitution, installed a transitional government, promised new elections, and set about drafting a constitution that embodied the hegemony of the armed forces. What has taken place, however, is an undisguised exercise of authoritarian closure based on declaring the former choice of the citizenry, the Muslim Brotherhood, to be a ‘terrorist’ organization whose leadership were victims of several atrocities, imprisoned, forced underground, and fled the country. Nevertheless, despite these repressive measures, the armed forces are proceeding on a basis as if their action has been mandated by ‘democracy,’ that is, by majoritarian demands for change enacted on the streets of Egyptian cities and through the subsequent endorsement of the repressive steps to be undertaken by the regime, eventually validated through demonstrations, voting, and electoral ratification. In the background of such a counter-revolutionary turn, of course, were weak institutions of government accustomed to operate for decades within a strict authoritarian political space, and a governmental bureaucracy whose judiciary and police continued to ideologically aligned with the old order. Such an entrenched bureaucracy seems to have regarded the reemergence of authoritarian and militarized politics as natural, linked in their imaginary with Egypt’s ancient heritage of greatness and more comfortable with such domineering figures as Nasser and Mubarak as compared to the density and seeming incapacities of Morsi.

 

Challenging Democracy in Turkey

 

The situation in Turkey is much more subtle and less menacing, yet exhibits several analogous features. Despite the outcome of elections that brought the AKP to power initially in 2002, a development subsequently reinforced by stronger electoral mandates in 2007 and 2012, most of the opposition never accepted these results as politically acceptable, and immediately sought to undermine the elected leadership in a variety of legal and extra-legal ways. In the background of this alienation was the implicit and feared belief that the AKP was mounting a challenge to the hallowed legacy of Kemal Ataturk, as well as to the rigid Turkish style of secularism that was periodically reinvigorated by the armed forces that staged coups, which in 1982 had imposed a highly centralized, security oriented constitution on the country. With political acumen, the AKP maneuvered pragmatically in an impressive manner, creating a rapidly growing economy, seeking to play a conflict resolving role throughout the Middle East, and repeatedly proclaiming a fidelity to the secular creed as the foundation of public order, and by stages subjecting the armed forces to civilian control. Despite the magnitude of these achievements the AKP and Erdogan never gained an iota of appreciation or respect from the anti-religious Kemalist opposition that claimed to be the only legitimate guardians of Turkish ‘secularism.’  Strangely, this alienated opposition was never able to present a responsible political platform that could give the Turkish people a positive alternative, and so the prospects of mounting an electoral challenge remained poor, especially given the accomplishments of the AKP.

 

In such a setting this intensely alienated opposition seemed increasingly dependent on manufacturing a crisis of legitimacy that would restore the old state/society balance that had prevailed since the founding of the republic in 1923. The Ataturk legacy included a somewhat reluctance acceptance of procedural democracy in the form of free and fair elections with the apparent implied assumption that the outcome would remain faithful to his modernist orientation, modeled on Europe, that accompanied the founding of the republic. The range of opposition was limited by a law allowing the closure of political parties that seemed to be straying from the prescribed Kemalist path. When the AKP defied these expectations in 2002, the opposition became quickly fed up with the workings of  ‘democracy,’ and seemed early on to count on being rescued, as in the past, by a military intervention that they hoped would be encouraged by the U.S., which was assumed to be unhappy about the Islamist leanings attributed to the AKP political base and leadership.  The disappointment among the old secular elites arising from the failure of these expectations to materialize deepened the alienation and frustrations of opposition forces, especially on the part of urban elites in the main cities of Turkey in the western part of the country, which exaggerated the faults of the government and ignored its achievements.

 

With such considerations in mind it was understandable that there would be exhilaration among the opposition generated by the Gezi Park demonstrations in the summer of 2013, especially in its initial phases that were as much a protest against the AKP’s embrace of an environmentally rapacious neoliberalism as it was against the authoritarian excesses of the Erdogan leadership. This enthusiasm weakened when the Gezi movement was substantially hijacked in its subsequent phases by the most extreme tendencies of the alienated opposition, which seemed to believe that Gezi presented an opportunity to fashion a full-fledged crisis of governability out of this narrowly focused protest that might force the resignation of Erdogan, if not the collapse of the AKP. There was an attempt to take advantage of escalating public outrage that resulted after excessive force was used by the police to maintain order in the Gezi context. Of course, Erdogan’s harsh style of discourse, including off the cuff opinions that reflected his Islamic devoutness, were part of the broader political atmosphere, and were particularly alarming to an already alienated opposition, reinforcing their their underlying beliefs that any alternative would be better for Turkey than what the AKP was bestowing upon the country. The situation was aggravated  after the AKP electoral success in 2011. It seemed to give Erdogan confidence that he need no longer adhere to his earlier cautiously pragmatic approach to leadership, and he adopted the sort of swagger that both frightened and disgusted an opposition that was not inclined to give him any leeway.

 

Similarly, the more recent, unexpected, and still obscure and bitter public falling out between the AKP and the hizmet movement has injected a new virus into the Turkish body politic posing unpredictable threats. It may turn out that this conflict represent nothing more fundamental than a struggle for relative influence and power that calmer minds will resolve before long. Perhaps also Turkey is experiencing some of the almost inevitable mishaps associated with keeping one political party with a strong leader in power for too long. Such prolonged control of government almost always produces scandal and corruption, especially in a political culture where the rule of law and the ethics of civic virtue do not have a very strong grip on behavioral patterns. In the more distant Turkish past are the memories of Ottoman times when the country was a regional power center, governed by highly authoritarian figures, a hallowed past that was secularized in the last century but not challenged in its essential role in Turkish political culture.

 

Majoritarian and Republican Democracy Assessed

 

With this mix of considerations in mind, the distinction between ‘Majoritarian Democracy’ and ‘Republican Democracy,’ although simplifying the actual political texture, seems important.  In Majoritarian Democracy the leadership is essentially responsible to the electorate, and if its policies reflect the will of the majority, the views and values of opposed minorities need not be respected. Critical views treat such forms of government as susceptible to the ‘tyranny of the majority,’ which has subjective and objective realities distinguishing between what is perceived and what is actually taking place. Arguably after Morsi’s election in 2012, and given the embittered opposition that seemed unwilling to accept the outcome of the vote, the Muslim Brotherhood used the prerogatives of office in a failed attempt to impose the majoritarian will, and may itself have been prepared to change the rules of the political game so as to retain control. Part of the majoritarian mentality is to locate a check on its excesses in the will of the citizenry, and thus when the people are mobilized to demand a new leadership for the country without waiting upon the niceties of the next elections, the path is cleared for the sort of military takeover that occurred last July. Of course, majoritarian dynamics are subject to manipulation by anti-democratic forces whose zeal is directed toward gaining control of the state.

 

‘Republican Democracy’ in contrast starts with a generally skeptical view of human nature, and seeks above all to find procedures and support the nurturing of a political culture that prizes moderate government over efficiency and transcendent leadership. The American self-conscious adoption of Republican Democracy at the end of the 18th century, as spelled out for the ages in The Federalist Papers, is a classic instance of molding a constitutional system that was wary of majorities and protective of minorities and of individual rights ( although totally blind to the human claims of slaves and native Americans). Unlike Egypt or Turkey, Americans were seeking to arrange a different future for themselves than was associated with British royalism, and its absolutist pretensions. In the background, were political thinkers such as John Locke with a stress on the link between good governance and rights and Montesquieu who argued along analogous lines about the cardinal relevance of separation of powers to the avoidance of the concentration and excesses of state power. Delinking government from religious claims of certainty was also consistent with republican sensitivity to human flaws and the general ethos of Lord Acton’s famous saying ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

 

Because over time every political system faces crises, the American founders realized that the envisioned arrangements would only survive the tests of time if two conditions were realized: first, reverence for the constitution by both lawmakers and citizens, and secondly, judicial supremacy to override legislative and executive swings toward either implementing the momentary passions of the mob or aggrandizing power and authority, and thereby upsetting the delicate balance of institutions. Despite this self-conscious commitment to the republican approach, in times of war and crisis, the democratic feature of accountable power-wielding tends to yield to claims of national security and public expediency. And once such departures from republicanism become entrenched, as a result of a long period of warfare or in relation to nuclear weaponry, and now transnational terrorism, the authoritarian genie is able to escape from the constitutional bottle. As the American motto of ‘eternal vigilance’ reminds us, there are no safe paths to moderate government, and its most influential advocates realized that their wishes might be so defeated that they recognized that the people enjoyed ‘a right of revolution’ if despite all precautions the governing process had become despotic.

 

It need hardly be argued that neither Egypt nor Turkey are remotely similar to the United States or Europe, but the superficial embrace of democracy by these and other countries might benefit from examining more closely the menace of Majoritarian Democracy in a fragmented polity and the difficulties of establishing Republican Democracy in political cultures that have been so long dominated by militarism and authoritarianism. Egypt is experiencing the essentially anti-democratic restoration of authoritarian militarism, while Turkey is trying to preserve sufficient stability and consensus to enable the self-restrained persistence of procedural democracy and a successful process of constitutional renewal that rids the country of the 1982 militarist vision of governance, and moves toward creating the institutional and procedural frame and safeguards associated with Republican Democracy. Beyond this, however, will be the immense educational challenge of shaping a supportive political culture that entrenches republican values in public consciousness, above all a respect for individual and group rights and an inclusive approach to policy formation that seeks participation by and approval from stakeholding constituencies opposed to the majority. Such a vision of a democratic future for Turkey implies a process, not an event, and will require an ongoing struggle inevitably distracted by both manufactured and authentic crises of legitimacy. The hope is that moderate minds will prevail, serving the long-term interests of a state and its peoples that retain great potential to be a beacon of light for the region and beyond.

 

  

Escaping The Abusive State: After Snowden

5 Dec

 

 

            The more contact one has with the modern state, even in those societies that have long constitutional traditions entrenching civil liberties, the more grounds there are for deep and growing concern. I suppose that the most dramatic exhibition of the dangers being posed as 2014 approaches, and we are reminded that this will be 30 years after 1984, are associated with Edward Snowden’s extraordinary disclosures of the global network of surveillance being operated by the National Security Agency in the United States (NSA).  Such a network presupposes that we are all, that is, every inhabitant on the planet to be regarded as worth investigating as potential terrorist threats, and along the way establishing a huge data bank of information that can be used for nefarious purposes at any point to disempower and subvert protest movements or even blackmail anyone seen to be obstructing projects dear to the government or any special interest group that has the government’s ear on matters it cares about.

 

            In important respects more disturbing than the Snowden revelations was the rabid response of the supposedly liberal government presided over by Barack Obama. No stone was left unturned, other than assassination or kidnapping, in the effort to gain physical custody over Snowden evidently with the intention of prosecuting him to the full extent of the law as an odious criminal offender. Foreign governments were badgered to cooperate in the pursuit, a plane carrying the Bolivian president was improperly denied access to the airspace of several European countries and forced to land in Vienna, because it was suspected of carrying Snowden. Such an enforcement dynamic completely overlooked the political nature of Snowden’s crimes, which have been uniformly regarded as placing an accused individual beyond the reach of extradition if outside of sovereign territory, which was definitely the case here, making Snowden legally unreachable even in the event that countries involved had extradition treaty arrangements for cooperative criminal law enforcement. Such treaties did not exist in relation to China and Russia, the countries where Snowden was physically present, and yet the United States persisted in its demands, and treated the Chinese and Russian governments as behaving in a hostile fashion of diplomatic relevance when they rejected the demands of the U.S. State Department to treat Snowden as a routine fugitive from criminal justice. Not so incidentally, the United States government has long shielded those accused of even violent crimes by foreign governments through reliance on this exception to extradition based on the political nature of the crime.

 

            Perhaps, the most troubling aspect of this still festering situation is the energy devoted to Snowden as the whistleblower, more derisively referred to as ‘a leaker,’ while ignoring implications for a humane and democratic future by treating everyone, everywhere as a potential enemy who would be spied upon to the extent technology allowed. There was some mild pushback by Congress, seeking clearer guidelines on the mandate of the NSA, and searching for the outer limits of the permissible encroachment on the privacy of individuals, governments, and economic entities. In the background is a well-grounded suspicion that part of the motivation for global surveillance is to assure a competitive edge for American property, trade, and investment interests, and to gain dirt on foreign diplomats and political leaders.

 

            Overlapping with the official fury directed at Snowden was the broader anger directed at whistleblowers whose disclosures sought to set off alarm bell. Those who had the temerity to disclose governmental criminal wrongdoing were themselves criminalized by a focus on their breach of  excessive classification restrictions. It should be clear, as highlighted by Daniel Ellsberg’s notable reflections on the release of the Pentagon Papers gathered in his book appropriately titled Secrets, that the excesses of governmental secrecy are joined at the hip to extravagant surveillance in what amounts to a perverse twinning relationship. The very government that refuses to accept restrictions on its invasions of the privacy of its citizens and people around the world, mounts unprecedented and simultaneous claims that it needs to operate without any accountability behind several high walls of secrecy.

 

            The experiences of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning are of a piece with that of Edward Snowden: vindictive backlash, exaggerated security claims, and an arrogant refusal to gaze in the mirror. The Wikileaks/Manning disclosures revealed serious war crimes and governmental cover ups,  the existence of which make a strong case for violating pledges of secrecy that are relied upon to hide the ugly dimensions of what is involved in foreign policy, especially in relation military interventions carried out in such distant countries as Afghanistan and Iraq. Should not the American people have a write to know about state crimes committed in their name? Should not the peoples living in foreign countries have the right to know about such crimes that produce suffering and victimization in their supposedly sovereign countries? And when such disclosures do occur, should not the government have the decency to acknowledge its own wrongdoing, and thank the whistleblower and apologize to those who were victimized?

 

            My motivation in writing this piece was prompted by seemingly different more personal outrages associated with the behavior of the liberal state. In the first instance, I have been deeply moved by the continuing tragic saga of Lynne Stewart, a courageous American lawyer who has a long record of defending unpopular political and indigent clients, who has been allowed to languish for months in a Texas jail despite suffering from an acute form of terminal cancer. Her apparent crime that landed her in prison was to pass on information and private messages to the family of ‘the blind Sheik’ (Omar Abdel-Rahman) whom she was representing (alongside Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. Attorney General) in the terrorist conspiracy trial arising out of the earlier 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. What has been most shocking is that despite numerous recommendations from medical and prison officials to the effect that Stewart easily qualifies for ‘compassionate release’ from prison, a position even endorsed by judicial officials, she remains to this day cruelly confined because Charles Samuels,  Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons,  has refused to sign off on her plea. This incarceration of Lynne Stewart is such an extreme instance of vicious and sadistic state behavior toward an honorable citizen that its full horror cannot be fully comprehended by a mere description of her experience. For Lynne Stewart’s story to be credibly portrayed will likely depend on some future artistic enactment as by film or fiction. As so often is true, such a descent into the domain of unspeakable evil can only be grasped if expressed through film or fiction.

 

            My immediate reason for writing in this manner has been an unfolding tale of apparently well-intentioned cruelty by the state that occurred recently in Great Britain. A 35 year old pregnant Italian woman, whose name cannot be disclosed under British criminal law, was visiting the UK a few months ago for the sake of job training course at Stansted Airport in Essex, not far from London. While there she apparently stopped taking medication for a preexisting bipolar condition, resulting in what has been described in the media as ‘a panic attack.’

 

Only then did a perfect storm engulf her life. Her disturbed condition was reported to British authorities under the Mental Health Act whose personnel stepped in and took over the case. In disputed testimony the woman was alleged to need to be constrained. Accordingly, she was transferred to a mental hospital where she was heavily sedated, during which time her baby was delivered by C-Section surgery without her consent, and even her knowledge as she was unconscious. Her lawyer contends that she at all times, including when suffering from mental distress, retained the capacity to give or withhold her consent from the procedure undertaken. If correct, a state-ordered invasive approach to her pregnancy was certainly improper, a violation of the most basic of reproductive rights. Even if she was not sufficiently stable to make an informed decision, it seemed at least necessary to refer such a question to a responsible process of assessment, which was not done as far as is known, or consult with a family member.

 

But the abusive behavior did not stop after the child was born. Quite incredibly, some reports contend that she was not even allowed to see her own baby, while others say she was allowed for two days to have her baby in the hospital room, but it was then summarily removed with the intent to sever her connection permanently. She returned to Italy where her health and mental stability were fully restored by resuming medication at which point she appealed to British courts to acquire custody of the child who had by this time been turned over to foster care. Her appeal was denied despite her Italian nationality, place of residence, and the evidence that she was a competent mother to children growing up under her parental supervision. She didn’t owe the slightest allegiance to Britain and yet her desire and capacity to handle the upbringing of her biological child was rejected by judicial fiat. In a secondary development, her former husband, the father of the child, who was living in America appealed to a British court to have the child brought up by his sister, the aunt of the child, who was certified to be a highly responsible person with excellent parental qualifications and a readiness to undertake the task. The request was denied by the British judge on the ground that there was no ‘blood’ link with the American relative, and that kinship was not sufficient. The result, to date, is the assignment of the baby to a foster home that has no familial connection whatsoever, denying the mother even visitation rights. I doubt that even the most absolutist monarchy would be as contemptuous of humane treatment as has been the behavior of this British welfare/judicial bureaucratic nightmare, an unfolding post-Kafka horror story.

 

            Even granting the well-intentioned innocence of government in relation to these problematic undertakings affecting this mother and child, it is one more distressing example of what happens to people when the government insists that it knows best what to do in situations of admitted social and ethical complexity.  In this instance, it is not acting beyond the law or above the law, but within the law. What took the place was decreed from start to finish by official institutions and administered by bureaucrats probably thinking that they were doing their job in a responsible fashion. As has been observed in some critical writing in the British print media, this story has come to light in part because the victim mother had the resources and composure to seek help from lawyers and friends, as well as the Italian government, and was perceived as a ‘European.’ If instead she was an unlawful immigrant or, worse, a Roma, it is likely that the public would never even have heard of these events, and the whole episode would have been kept within the black box of standard operating procedures when it came to handling the grievances of those among us who are unwanted and marginalized.

 

            In my view, these seemingly disparate occurrences are all expressions of the moral arrogance of the modern liberal state, and its failure to strike a decent balance between freedom and security.  There is no doubt that the recent challenges posed by extremist non-state actors do require adjustments in how government protects those resident within its borders, but the tendency to exaggerate the threat so as to instill sufficient fear in the population to justify the wide spectrum of responses that feature high defense spending, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib at one end and Snowden and Manning at the other end is what should be an occasion for an entirely rational collective panic attack in democratic societies, showing healthy signs of deep attachment to the values and practices of freedom, and when there is instead relative quiet, it adds to concerns about a general mood of passivity, resignation, and even acquiescence in ‘the new authoritarianism,’ encouraging more of the same. Such patterns in the domain of national security is  reinforced by such gratuitous abuses as when harmless prisoners are deprived of contact with their loved ones when at death’s doorstep and a newborn child is removed forever from the love and care of a desiring mother for the sake of some misguided ideas of petty bureaucrats engaged in  ‘social services’ and ‘welfare.’ 

 

            We can and must do better, above all as citizens engaged in the protection of the sort of society we wish to live in; without civic activism of a militant character we can wave goodbye to the promise of genuine democracy.  

Clashing Views of Political Reality: Chomsky versus Dershowitz

2 Dec

 

 

            My friend and former collaborator, Howard Friel, has written an intriguing book contrasting the worldviews and polemical styles of two Jewish American intellectuals with world class reputations, Noam Chomsky and Alan Dershowitz (Friel, Chomsky and Dershowitz: On Endless War and the End of Civil Liberties, Olive Branch Press, 2014). The book is much more than a comparison of two influential voices, one critical the other apologetic, with respect to the Israel/Palestine struggle and the subordination of private liberties to the purveyors of state-led security at home and abroad . Friel convincingly favors Chomsky’s approach both with respect to the substance of their fundamental disagreements and in relation to sharply contrasting styles of argument.

 

            Chomsky is depicted, accurately I believe, as someone consistently dedicated to evidenced based reasoning reinforced by an abiding respect for the relevance and authority of international law and morality. Chomsky has also been a tireless opponent of American imperialism and military intervention, and of oppressive regimes anywhere on the planet. He is also shown by Friel to be strongly supportive of endowing individuals whether citizens or not with maximal freedom from interference by the state. From such perspectives, the behavior of Israel and the United States are assessed by Chomsky to be betrayals of humane values and of the virtues of a constitutional democracy.

 

            In contrast, Dershowitz is presented, again accurately and on the basis of abundant documentation, as a dirty fighter with a readiness to twist the truth to serve his Zionist predilections, which include support for the post-9/11 drift toward authoritarian governance, and an outrageous willingness to play the anti-Semitic card even against someone of Chomsky’s extraordinary academic achievements in the field of linguistics and of global stature as the world’s leading public intellectual, who has an impeccable lifelong record of moral courage and fidelity to the truth. Dershowitz has devoted his destructive energies to derailing tenure appointments for critics of Israel and for using his leverage to badger publishers to refrain from taking on books, however meritorious, if they present either himself or Israel in what he views to be a negative light. 

 

            Friel illustrates the contrast between these talented and titanic antagonists by reference to the much publicized debate about Robert Faurisson, the French Holocaust denier. Chomsky signed a petition in 1979 that defended Faurisson’s freedom of expression, an act consistent with his overall long record of support for unrestricted academic freedom. Dershowitz abandons his own earlier allegiance to a similar approach, not only refusing to allow free speech to protect Faurisson, but lashing out to condemn Chomsky for his supposed show of support for Holocaust denial because he had the temerity to defend Faurisson’s right to say what he said. This is a typical tactic employed by Dershowitz, deliberately confusing a principled support for the right to hold and espouse ethically unacceptable views with an alleged identification and sympathy with the substance of the views being expressed. To contend that Chomsky is tacitly embracing Holocaust denial by supporting Faurisson was, as Friel conclusively shows, clearly defamatory, ignoring numerous occasions on which Chomsky has denounced the Nazi experience culminating in the Holocaust as a predominant historical instance of pure evil.  For Dershowitz to overlook such plain facts in relation to Chomsky on such an inflammatory matter is to show his true colors as a dirty fighter who has no inhibitions about smearing his opponents, however distinguished and honorable they happen to be, and no matter how clearly he must know better. Dershowitz must be assumed to realize that Chomsky’s entire life displays an abiding concern for the ethical treatment of ‘the other,’ and to allege that somehow Chomsky is himself flirting with Holocaust denial is the most irresponsible slander and ironically, an unforgiveable abuse by Dershowitz of the freedom of expression, which transgresses civility if not the law. Civil discourse and public reason in a democratic society depend on the overall willingness of individuals to show self-discipline, and avoid exploiting the opportunities for defamation that the law allows in commentary on so-called public figures.

 

            Dershowitz is primarily known, aside from his controversial notoriety as a trial lawyer in high profile criminal cases, as an unconditional defender of Israel against a wide range of responsible critics. He wrote a number of books and numerous articles with vicious attacks on such moral authority figures as Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, including his notorious tract The Case Against Israel’s Enemies: Exposing Jimmy Carter and Others Who Stand in the Way of Peace (2008). Even such mainstream and widely respected experts on world affairs as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer become targets of Dershowitz’s calumny because of their daring to write critically and persuasively about the destructive influence of the Israeli Lobby in relation to the prudent and rational pursuit of American national interests in the conduct of foreign policy in their book, The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007).

 

            At this point, I should acknowledge that I am far from being a neutral observer. I have been accused on several occasions of being an ‘anti-Semite’ and ‘bigot’ by Dershowitz, primarily in relation to my role as UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine, but even in response to my endorsing blurb of Gilad Atzmon’s seminal challenge directed at liberal Zionist and Jewish thought in The Wandering Who? (2011). Similar insults were directed by Dershowitz at my predecessor as Special Rapporteur, John Dugard, a distinguished jurist from South Africa and as unbiased and balanced a champion of human rights and international law as I have ever known. Attacking the critics of Israel, especially those possessing strong academic and ethical credentials, is a nasty illustration of what I have called ‘the politics of deflection,’ that is, avoiding the substance of criticisms by denouncing the critics and their auspices with the intention of shifting the conversation. Such attacks are clearly intended to shut down criticism of Israel by subjecting to withering abuse anyone who dares to violate the Zionist taboo.

 

            Perhaps, the most important part of Friel’s engaging book is his depiction of Dershowitz’s advocacy of the ‘preventive state’ as overcoming an earlier essential postulate of liberal democracy, the presumption of innocence. In the preventive state that Dershowitz posits as necessary and hence desirable, we all become for the government legitimate objects of suspicion, and the higher goals of counter-terrorism. Such a line of analysis mandates the state to act preventively rather than reactively, and hence to employ the full coercive apparatus of the state to identify potential enemies of the state before they have the opportunity to act. For a more challenging rendition of this argument than offered by Dershowitz I strongly recommend reading Philip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century (2008). This reinterpretation of the balance between security and freedom reverses the traditional emphasis of the rule of law upon reactive forms of security, its logic being used to rationalize torture, as well as preventive detention of individuals and preventive warfare against states, non-state actors, and even individuals, perceived to pose future threats. Such rationalizations undermine the unconditional criminalization of torture and completely upend the UN Charter effort to confine the role of force in international relations by limiting its legal invocation to situations of self-defense against a prior armed attack by a state. The launching of the disastrous war against Iraq in 2003 was a clear international example of the preventive state in action as are the kill lists compiled weekly for drone attacks on individuals resident in foreign countries. Another facet of such a posture is embodied in the indefinite detention of numerous individuals in Guantanamo for years without charges and absent credible incriminating evidence.

 

            Of course, rigid legalism is not the alternative to a rejection of the preventive state, but an exaggeration of the terrorist threat is tantamount to willing the end of political democracy as it has evolved over the centuries. We have seen that even a supposedly liberal president, Barack Obama, has endorsed an authoritarian approach in numerous areas of governance including reliance on drone warfare and support for virtually limitless global networks of surveillance. The treatment of such whistleblowers as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden is also emblematic of the preventive state, directing public attention to the unlawful release of information while declining to acknowledge or remedy the crimes of state being exposed. Needless to say, Chomsky is acutely alert to these dangers, and has long stood for the maintenance, even the enhancement, of traditional liberties of the individual despite alleged security claims to the contrary.

 

            Friel has given us a brilliantly analyzed comparison of two vivid engaged and intelligent activists who personify the alternative scenarios available to the United States, the choice of which is of great consequence for the rest of the world. Only a determined advocate of unfreedom and injustice could fail to side with Chomsky in this debate about the political future of the planet. In this larger view, the Dershowitz defense of Israel against the most responsible of critics, is but an illustration of his broader alignment with repressive tendencies at home and abroad despite his feeble pretensions to the contrary.  Clearly Chomsky is the winner in this contest if fairly umpired, both in terms of coherence and acceptability of worldview, as well as the ethics of public discourse. Dershowitz, apparently propelled by the awkwardness of his convictions, seems always ready to adopt the Darth Vader tactics that Dick Cheney unabashedly favored, coyly acknowledging that it meant going to ‘the dark side.’

 

            Let me observe finally, and with due allowance made for my own stake in this effort to assess the comparative merits of style and substance on the part of these antagonistic titans, that Howard Friel has once again contributed a necessary book for all those dedicated to the pursuit of justice in relation to Israel/Palestine and more generally in international life.* A cardinal virtue of Friel’s approach is to recognize and explain the role of international law with respect to sustaining world peace and attaining global justice.  

 

* In this spirit I highly recommend Friel’s earlier expose of the Danish climate skeptic, Bjorn Lomborg, in his book The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight about Global Warming (2010) and of the mighty New York Times in The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misrepresents U.S. Foreign Policy (2004), of which I was the proud co-author.

GAZA: The Unfolding Tragedy

30 Nov

GAZA: The Unfolding Humanitarian Catastrophe

This material below was distributed by John Whitbeck, distinguished American lawyer and author, living in Paris,and doing his best to keep a group concerned with world affairs informed about latest developments, especially inthe Middle East. I also add a slightly edited text of a message sent by Robert Stiver from Hawaii, who has exhibited consistent empathy for the suffering of the Palestinian people.My press release below, although far less emotional than the cri de coeur that Robert Stiver wrote, issues from the same place of urgent concern for the brave and resolute people of Gaza. I hope that Robert is wrong however when he ends with self-tormenting words of despair: “What to do, in the name of common justice?  I know not; it seems useless, all useless.” Such feelings of futility are quite understandable, but let us do all within our power to make sure that this unfolding catastrophe ENDS before its full tragic character is totally realized.

It hardly needs to be observed that the silence of the United Nations and the global media is a continuing disgrace, particularly given the pomp and circumstance of those mighty statesmen who self-righteously proclaim a new doctrine: ‘the responsibility to protect’ (R2P) those whose survival and dignity is at stake due to crimes of state or as a result of natural catastrophe.

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Cutting edge Middle East news analysis edited by Oliver Miles
 Web Arab News Digest
Gaza: a disgraceAccording to a BBC report military action in Gaza between Israel and Hamas has been limited since the serious fighting a year ago in which about 170 Palestinians and six Israelis died. But tension remains high, as also between Hamas and Egypt where northern Sinai has been the scene of much fighting. Meanwhile living conditions for 1.7 million Gazans remain atrocious.

Reuters reports that Turkey has pledged $850,000, $200,000 of which have already reached Gaza, to alleviate the fuel crisis which has closed Gaza’s only power station and a major sewage treatment plant, so that raw sewage is running in the streets. Fuel deliveries by the UN have started, and are reported to be promised by Qatar. The immediate cause of the fuel crisis is the destruction by Egypt of cross-border tunnels, and the longer term cause the Israeli blockade.

We thank John Whitbeck for an “Action Alert” from the Friends of Al-Aqsa (a UK NGO) drawing attention to the first item below, a UN report on action needed to avert a humanitarian crisis. He comments that the Action Alert refers to the “smuggling” of fuel and other basic necessities into Gaza through tunnels on the border between Egypt and Palestine. ‘This terminology is standard media usage in Israel and the West, intended to semantically criminalize the victims, but, as a matter of both law and common sense, I believe that the use of the word “smuggle” is totally inappropriate in these circumstances. “Smuggling” is an illegal activity, usually involving a violation of the laws of the importing state. Under whose applicable laws is importing basic necessities into Gaza illegal? Certainly not the laws of the importing state, Palestine, or the current de facto government of Gaza, as to which Israel insists that it has not been the occupying power (and, accordingly, has had no responsibilities or obligations) since it withdrew its illegal settlers, locked the gates and, effectively, threw away the keys. If there is an Egyptian law banning the export of basic necessities from Egypt, I am not aware of it. The provisioning of Gaza with the basic necessities of life should be characterized as humanitarian relief, those who prevent Gazans from receiving the basic necessities of life should be characterized as criminals and those who are aware of the situation and fail to speak out should be characterized as moral bankrupts.’

The second item below is a report published by Al Jazeera on the impact of Israeli drones over Gaza, particularly on children. The author is a British journalist resident in Nazareth, Israel.

Gaza fuel crisis: UN expert calls for urgent action to avert a humanitarian catastrophe

GENEVA (26 November 2013) – United Nations Special Rapporteur Richard Falk today called for urgent action to address the power shortage in occupied Palestine  that has left 1.7 million residents of the Gaza Strip in a dire situation. More than three weeks after the only power plant shut down due to a critical fuel shortage, power supply has been limited to six hours a day.

“The situation in Gaza is at a point of near catastrophe,” warned the independent expert charged by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor and report on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.

“The fuel shortage and power cuts have undermined an already precarious infrastructure, severely disrupting the provision of basic services, including health, water and sanitation,” he said. “The onset of winter is certain to make things even worse.”

Less than half of Gaza’s total power needs are being met and disruptions to specialized health services, such as kidney dialysis, operating theatres, blood banks, intensive care units and incubators are putting the lives of vulnerable patients in Gaza at risk.

Mr. Falk highlighted the plight of patients in Gaza unable to seek affordable specialized medical treatment in Egypt as a result of Egypt’s closure of the Rafah crossing in recent weeks. “The Israeli authorities have been more forthcoming in issuing permits to Gazans in need of urgent specialized treatment, but the high cost of medical treatment in Israel places it beyond the reach of most Gazans,” he noted.

For the past two weeks, approximately 3000 residents, including children, living in or near the Gazan neighbourhood of Az Zeitoun have been wading through raw sewage on the streets after the largest sewage treatment facility in area overflowed due to a power failure.

The Special Rapporteur stressed that other sewage treatment stations may soon also run out of petrol to fuel generators and result in more sewage overflowing onto the streets of Gaza. Medical experts have warned of the serious risk of disease, and even an epidemic

“Up to 40 per cent of Gaza’s population receives water only once every three days,” he noted. “In this situation of dire necessity those who can afford to do so, are shockingly buying unsafe water from unregulated water vendors and distributors.”

The human rights expert believes that the main trigger for the latest crisis is Egypt’s ongoing crackdown on the vast network of tunnels and fuel tanks near the southern border of Gaza, which allowed Gaza to avoid some of the hardships associated with the Israeli blockade maintained since 2007.

“We mustn’t forget that the underlying cause of a lack of adequate medical facilities and specialized care in Gaza is a consequence of Israel’s illegal blockade,” Mr. Falk said.

The Special Rapporteur explained that, under present conditions, Israel has a special responsibility under international humanitarian law to take whatever measures are necessary to protect the civilian population of Gaza against this mounting threat to their wellbeing. “The failure to do so would be an aggravated instance of collective punishment, which is unconditionally prohibited by the 4th Geneva Convention,” Mr. Falk cautioned.

He also urged the governing authorities in Gaza to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority in a joint effort to ensure that desperately needed fuel becomes available to the residents of Gaza at the earliest hour.

“Israel must end its illegal blockade and exercise its core responsibility as the occupying Power to protect the civilian population,” the expert said.

Last Tuesday, an aid convoy carrying medicine, medical equipment and canned food was reportedly permitted to enter Gaza via the Rafah crossing for first time since June this year.

“Under these conditions of humanitarian emergency, the international community also has a responsibility to take special measures to safeguard the acutely vulnerable people of Gaza from impending tragedy,” the Special Rapporteur underscored.

In 2008, the UN Human Rights Council designated Richard Falk (United States of America) as the fifth Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights on Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. The mandate was originally established in 1993 by the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Gaza: Life and death under Israel’s drones

Drones buzzing overhead are a source of daily trauma for Palestinians in the occupied Gaza Strip.

Jonathan Cook: 28 Nov 2013

Jerusalem – There are many things to fear in Gaza: Attacks from Israel’s Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets, the coastal enclave’s growing isolation, the regular blackouts from power shortages, increasingly polluted drinking water and rivers of sewage flooding the streets.

Meanwhile, for most Palestinians in Gaza the anxiety-inducing soundtrack to their lives is the constant buzz of the remotely piloted aircraft – better known as “drones” – that hover in the skies above.

Drones are increasingly being used for surveillance and extra-judicial execution in parts of the Middle East, especially by the US, but in nowhere more than Gaza has the drone become a permanent fixture of life. More than 1.7 million Palestinians, confined by Israel to a small territory in one of the most densely populated areas in the world, are subject to near continual surveillance and intermittent death raining down from the sky.

There is little hope of escaping the zenana – an Arabic word referring to a wife’s relentless nagging that Gazans have adopted to describe the drone’s oppressive noise and their feelings about it. According to statistics compiled by human rights groups in Gaza, civilians are the chief casualties of what Israel refers to as “surgical” strikes from drones.

“When you hear the drones, you feel naked and vulnerable,” said Hamdi Shaqura, deputy director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, based in Gaza City. “The buzz is the sound of death. There is no escape, nowhere is private. It is a reminder that, whatever Israel and the international community assert, the occupation has not ended. We are still living completely under Israeli control. They control the borders and the sea and they decide our fates from their position in the sky,” said Shaqura.

The Israeli military did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

Suffer the children

The sense of permanent exposure, coupled with the fear of being mistakenly targeted, has inflicted deep psychological scars on civilians, especially children, according to experts.

“There is a great sense of insecurity. Nowhere feels safe for the children, and they feel no one can offer them protection, not even their parents,” said Ahmed Tawahina, a psychologist running clinics in Gaza as part of the Community Mental Health Programme. “That traumatises both the children and parents, who feel they are failing in their most basic responsibility.”

Shaqura observed: “From a political perspective, there is a deep paradox. Israel says it needs security, but it demands it at the cost of our constant insecurity.”

There are no statistics that detail the effect of the drones on Palestinians in Gaza. Doctors admit it is impossible to separate the psychological toll inflicted by drones from other sources of damage to mental health, such as air strikes by F-16s, severe restrictions on movement and the economic insecurity caused by Israel’s blockade.

But field researchers working for Palestinian rights groups point out that the use of drones is intimately tied to these other sources of fear and anxiety. Drones fire missiles themselves, they guide attacks by F-16s or helicopters, and they patrol and oversee the borders.

A survey in medical journal The Lancet following Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s month-long attack on Gaza in winter 2008-09, found large percentages of children suffered from symptoms of psychological trauma: Fifty-eight percent permanently feared the dark; 43 percent reported regular nightmares; 37 percent wet the bed and 42 percent had crying attacks.

Tawahina described the sense of being constantly observed as a “form of psychological torture, which exhausts people’s mental and emotional resources. Among children at school, this can be seen in poor concentration and unruly behaviour.” The trauma for children is compounded by the fact that the drones also disrupt what should be their safest activity – watching TV at home. When a drone is operating nearby, it invariably interferes with satellite reception.

“”It doesn’t make headlines, but it is another example of how there is no escape from the drones. Parents want their children indoors, where it feels safer and where they’re less likely to hear the drones, but still the drone finds a way into their home. The children cannot even switch off from the traumas around them by watching TV because of the drones.”

Israel’s ‘major advantage’

Israel developed its first drones in the early 1980s, during its long occupation of south Lebanon, to gather aerial intelligence without exposing Israeli pilots to anti-aircraft missiles. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, said drones help in situations where good, on-the-ground intelligence is lacking. “What the UAV gives you is eyes on the other side of the hill or over the border,” he said. “That provides Israel with a major advantage over its enemies.”

Other Israeli analysts have claimed that the use of drones, with their detailed intelligence-collecting abilities, is justified because they reduce the chances of errors and the likelihood of “collateral damage” – civilian deaths – during attacks.

But, according to Inbar, the drone is no better equipped than other aircraft for gathering intelligence or carrying out an execution.

“The advantage from Israel’s point of view is that using a drone for these tasks reduces the risk of endangering a pilot’s life or losing an expensive plane. That is why we are moving towards much greater use of these kinds of robots on the battlefield,” he said.

‘Mistakes can happen’

According to Gaza human rights group al-Mezan, Israel started using drones over the territory from the start of the second intifada in 2000, but only for surveillance.

Israel’s first extra-judicial executions using drones occurred in 2004, when two Palestinians were killed. But these operations greatly expanded after 2006, in the wake of Israel’s withdrawal of settlers and soldiers from Gaza and the rise to power of the Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas.

Drones, the front-line weapon in Israel’s surveillance operations and efforts to foil rocket attacks, killed more than 90 Palestinians in each of the years 2006 and 2007, according to al-Mezan. The figures soared during Operation Cast Lead and in its aftermath, with 461 Palestinians killed by drones in 2009. The number peaked again with 199 deaths in 2012, the year when Israel launched the eight-day Operation Pillar of Defence against Gaza.

Despite Israeli claims that the intelligence provided by drones makes it easier to target those Palestinians it has defined as “terrorists”, research shows civilians are the main victims. In the 2012 Pillar of Defence operation, 36 of the 162 Palestinians killed were a result of drone strikes, and a further 100 were injured by drones. Of those 36 killed, two-thirds were civilians.

Also revealing was a finding that, although drones were used in only five percent of air strikes, they accounted for 23 percent of the total deaths during Pillar of Defence. According to the Economist magazine, the assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari, which triggered that operation, was carried out using a Hermes 450 drone.

Palestinian fighters report that they have responded to the constant surveillance by living in hiding, rarely going outdoors and avoiding using phones or cars. It is a way of life not possible for most people in Gaza.

Gaza’s armed groups are reported to be trying to find a way to jam the drones’ navigation systems. In the meantime, Hamas has claimed it has shot down three drones, the latest this month, though Israel says all three crashed due to malfunctions.

Last week, on the anniversary of the launch of Pillar of Defence, an Israeli commander whose soldiers control the drones over Gaza from a base south of Tel Aviv told the Haaretz newspaper that “many” air strikes during the operation had involved drones. “Lt Col Shay” was quoted saying: “Ultimately, we are at war. As much as the IDF strives to carry out the most precise surgical strikes, mistakes can happen in the air or on the ground.”

Random death by drone

It is for this reason that drones have become increasingly associated with random death from the sky, said Samir Zaqout, a senior field researcher for Al-Mezan.

“We know from the footage taken by drones that Israel can see what is happening below in the finest detail. And yet women and children keep being killed in drone attacks. Why the continual mistakes? The answer, I think, is that these aren’t mistakes. The message Israel wants to send us is that there is no protection whether you are a civilian or fighter. They want us afraid and to make us turn on the resistance [Palestinian fighters].”

Zaqout also points to a more recent use of drones – what has come to be known as “roof-knocking”. This is when a drone fires small missiles at the roof of a building to warn the inhabitants to evacuate – a practice Israel developed during Operation Cast Lead three years earlier, to allay international concerns about its repeated levellings of buildings with civilians inside.

In Pillar of Defence in 2012, 33 buildings were targeted by roof-knocking.

Israel says it provides 10 minutes’ warning from a roof-knock to an air strike, but, in practice, families find they often have much less time. This, said Zaqout, puts large families in great danger as they usually send their members out in small groups to be sure they will not be attacked as they move onto the streets.

One notorious case occurred during Cast Lead, when six members of the Salha family, all women and children, were killed when their home was shelled moments after a roof-knocking. The father, Fayez Salha, who survived, lost a case for damages in Israel’s Supreme Court last February and was ordered to pay costs after the judges ruled that the attack was legitimate because it occurred as part of a military operation.

A US citizen who has lived long-term in Gaza, who wished not be named for fear of reprisals from Israel, said she often heard the drones at night when the street noise dies down, or as they hover above her while out walking. “The sound is like the buzz of a mosquito, although there is one type of drone that sometimes comes into view that is silent,” she said.

She added that she knew of families that, before moving into a new apartment building, checked to see whether it housed a fighter or a relative of a fighter, for fear that the building may be attacked by Israel.

Shaqura said the drones inevitably affect one’s day-to-day behaviour. He said he was jogging early one morning while a drone hovered overhead.

“I got 100 metres from my front door when I started to feel overwhelmed with fear. I realised that my tracksuit was black, the same colour as many of the fighters’ uniforms. I read in my work too many reports of civilians being killed by drones not to see the danger. So I hurried back home.”

 

 

**************************
Robert Stiver’s message:

“I seethe with helpless indignation and rage at the despicable members of the “human” race, including me, who (i) perpetrate and (ii) allow this unspeakable tragedy to continue, always worsening, most often vindictive, all too often indifferent to the hapless-victims aspects of it.  And I must admit that I am as outraged at the God who, via the vaunted “free will” He is credited with giving us, has not yet found “His time” to intervene and put paid to this unending stain on humanity — a stain that, in my 20th-21st Century view, begins and ends with militant/political Zionism and its ever-present worldwide practitioners.

Sadly – how sadly – the Palestinian Authority and the quisling Fateh are in lockstep, fellow travelers with this miasma of shame and inhumanity.  Hamas and Fateh must overcome the USraeli “divide and rule” tactics and link arms as a solid force of resistance to the illegal occupation of their homeland.  Today, that must be the number one priority!

……..

And thanks to Turkey and Qatar for having the scruples to toss a few coins to the suffering masses, perhaps alleviating but by no means solving their torment…as I am mystified that they don’t join hands, trek to Geneva or NYCity and demand a white-hot emergency meeting of the UNSC in demand that international law and countless supportive UNSC resolutions be enforced.  Failing any action there, a certainty because of the US’ enabling of pure evil, the Turkish-Qatari reps should trek to the UNGA and orchestrate a (I’ve forgotten the term…”Uniting for Peace”) proper response and accompanying action.  The “response” would be overwhelming – on the order of 150 pro, 5 opposed.  Why cannot this scenario take place?

Let us pity – we have nothing else to offer – the brave, beleaguered residents of Gaza.  Our pity should be informed by mental images of the children there, slogging through a toxic mix of urine and feces, facing epidemics of pestilence ready to strike at any moment, lacking hope for any surcease of their everyday misery and for a future of human rights, normality and dignity — victims of a deliberately vicious, internationally illegal collective persecution (not “mere” punishment…persecution) of them and their families.

Today/29th is the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.  Where is the solidarity?

What to do, in the name of common justice?  I know not; it seems useless, all useless…”

Two Forms of Lethal Polarization

17 Nov

Two Forms of Lethal Polarization: Egypt and Turkey

 

            There is a temptation to suggest that political life in Turkey and Egypt are both being victimized by a similar deepening of polarization between Islamic and secular orientations, and to some extent this is true, but it is also misleading. Turkey continues to be victimized by such a polarization, especially during the eleven years that the Justice & Development Party (AKP) has governed the country, and arguably more so in the last period. In Egypt, so describing the polarization is far less descriptive of the far more lethal form of unfolding that its political cleavage has taken. It has become an overt struggle for the control of the political destiny of the country being waged between the Egyptian armed forces and the Muslim Brotherhood, the two organized political forces capable of projecting their influence throughout the entire country, including rural areas.  This bitter struggle in Egypt engages religious orientations on both sides, and even the military leadership and upper echelons of the armed forces are observant Muslims, and in some cases extremely devout adherents of Salafi belief and practice.  

 

            In effect, at this point, there is not a distinctly secular side that can be associated with post-coup Egyptian leadership under the caretaker aegis of the armed forces, although clearly most of the liberal secular urban elite and many of the left activists sided with the military moves, at least initially. Recent reports suggest more and more defections, although the price for making such a change of heart public can be high. For General el-Sisi the essence of the conflict seems to be between what is irresponsibly alleged to be a ‘terrorist’ opposition on the one side, which has been broadened somewhat to extend beyond the Muslim Brotherhood to whomever dares question the tactics or intentions of the new leadership, and political forces supposedly committed to a democratic future for the country on the other. If the core of the opposition can be effectively portrayed as terrorists in this post-9/11 world, then the criminalization of their activities and organization, and the neglect of their rights will seem prudent to many, and even a necessary ingredient of national security.

 

            The Egyptian state controlled media, along with the mainstream media in the West, has allowed the Egyptian post-coup leadership to so far get away, literally, with murder! This sort of distorted presentation of the conflict has been also indirectly endorsed by governments, and has somewhat surprisingly achieved strong backing throughout the Arab world with a few notable exception. Among the grossest distortions are the unchallenged depiction of the Muslim Brotherhood as purveyors of violence, given that the organization has renounced violence after 1978, and generally maintained such a posture despite decades of suppression and provocation by Mubarak government, and more recently by the forces arrayed against it. It should also be appreciated that Morsi’s clear counsel to his followers from the time of the coup was to insist on the legitimacy of the elected government and to resist the claims of the post-coup leadership, but to do so nonviolently.

 

            It is important to understand that neither the Egyptian or Turkish experiences of polarization are symmetrical processes. In each instance, the side that is fairly beaten by democratic procedures, especially elections, refuses to accept the implications of political defeat. Rather than form a responsible opposition, with an alternative political program, such an embittered opposition has recourse to extra-constitutional means to regain power, and strives to establish a justification for such extremist advocacy and initiatives by demonizing its adversary, especially the person of the leader.

In contrast, the side that enjoys democratic legitimacy relies on its right to govern, and sometimes on its performance, to justify the retention of governing authority. There is no doubt that Morsi was in a radically different position that Erdogan after his narrow electoral victory in 2012—having an economy on a downward slippery slope, a public with high post-Mubarak expectations of a change for the better, and a complete lack of governing experience.

 

            This phenomenon of polarization is becoming more widespread, an expression of growing alienation within societies as a response to disappointments with traditional political parties and their leaders at the national level. As dissatisfaction and frustrations with prevailing forms of governance grows in many countries, the opposition becomes ever more embittered, and tends to blame the elected leader with venomous rhetoric. Often such excessive attacks provoke a response from the government that further discredits the leader in the eyes of the opposition, widening the gap between those governing and those in the opposition. If the angered opposition senses that it is unable to win at the ballot box, it will be tempted to mobilize a populist politics in the street, and sometimes manages to enlist those parts of government bureaucracy (often the judiciary and security forces) that are aligned openly or secretly with efforts to create crises of legitimacy and governance.

 

            From such a combustible mix, explosive possibilities are possible on both sides, ranging from coups to various authoritarian abandonment of democratic procedures. Each side produces a self-serving narrative of national survival that shifts the blame entirely to its political enemy. There is no effort at dialogue, which is essential for the political health of a democratic society beset by serious challenges and policy disagreements. This does not mean that the two sides are equally persuasive, but it does suggest there are few informed and judicious voices that can be heard above the noise of the fray.

 

            Outsiders also complicate the scene, whether they favor the government or the opposition. The originality of each national situation needs to be taken into account. There are many variables, including history, culture, geography, stage of development, economic performance, levels of unemployment and poverty, quality of governance, role of violence, respect for human rights and the rule of law, degrees of corruption. And yet at the same time, there are patterns and transnational similarities that make certain regional generalizations illuminating.

 

            The comparison of Turkey and Egypt is suggestive of this broader regional, and indeed global, pattern of polarization that is undermining political discourse in more and more countries. The Turkish political scene is still very much shaped by the lingering socially constructed and politically maintained legacy of Kemal Ataturk, and his radical modernization project that sought a total eclipse of Turkey’s Ottoman past. This endeavor, although highly influential, never completely succeeded in creating a post-Islamic normative order in the country, although it did manage to produce a highly secularized and Europeanized upper middle class in the main cities in western Turkey that fiercely, with its own unacknowledged religious intensity, clings rather sadly to the outmoded Kemalist legacy as the only usable past.

 

            In Ataturk’s defense as a historical figure, it should be remembered that the challenges facing Turkey after World War I were primarily to create a strong unified state out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire while withstanding European imperial ambitions that were rampant elsewhere in the region. The Turkish defeat of colonial ambitions was spectacular, but it led to a dysfunctional form of hyper-nationalism that had three prominent features: the attempted erasure of minority identities, a discriminatory insistence on the privatization of religious values and beliefs that particularly victimized Turkish women, and a deferential mimicry of Europe, especially France, in its construction of a secular polity.

 

            Each of these undertakings over time generated strong forms resistance that could never be fully overcome: minority identities were not extinguished, especially for the large and diverse Kurdish minority, Islamic political orientations did not disappear and kept seeking limited acceptance in public space, and the European model never won the allegiance of the Turkish masses. What did occur in Turkey until the end of the twentieth century was political domination by secular elites relying on the mantle of Kemalist legitimacy, with power bases in the main cities, and total control of the bureaucratic structures of Turkish governance, including a crucial alliance between the civilian secular leadership and the armed forces, which included the increasing private sector interests and market activity of the military. As a left challenge of a Marxist character emerged after World War II, secular control was sustained by a series of military coups to make sure that capitalist ideology was not frontally challenged. The Cold War pushed Turkey to adopt an anti-Communist foreign policy of a distinctly Western direction. In the NATO context Turkey was made responsible for the vital Southern flank of NATO, and seemed to follow without dissent the geopolitical line taken in Washington.

 

            What happened next after the Cold War ended was a growing populist rejection of the societal structures of Kemalist Turkey without mounting any direct and explicit challenge to the legacy. It was merely circumvented and adapted to a new set of conditions and social priorities. The ascent of the AKP in the 2002 elections, a result that was reinforced by larger victories in 2007 and 2011, achieved a sea change in the tone and substance of state/society relations in Turkey. It came about in stages, and may yet be reversed when new elections are held in 2015. There was Kemalist resistance from the outset, fears that Turkey was supposedly on its way to becoming ‘a second Iran.’ When that fear failed to materialize or to erode pro-AKP support there occurred a variety of coup plots that never came to fruition, largely because the neoliberal economy was flourishing, the AKP was cautious and pragmatic in its early years of leadership, the secularist ‘deep state’ remaining a brake on governance by the elected leaders, and the West, especially the United States was eager at the time to show the Islamic world that it could have a positive relationship with a government that did not hide the devout Muslim convictions of its principal leaders.

 

            The dynamics of polarization are such that when electoral prospects of the opposition are perceived to diminish, the opposition, especially if it had earlier controlled the state for a long period, grows angry and impatient with the workings of constitutional democracy even if it had earlier based its own legitimacy to govern upon the outcome of elections. Now in an altered political climate such a displaced opposition explores other ways to regain control of the state, itself now opting for populist forms of protest and democratic accountability that it had earlier ruthlessly suppressed.

 

            In the Turkish case, the opposition tactics along these lines were surprisingly unsuccessful in the first decade of the 21st century, although the avoidance of a coup may have been based on a number of unstable contingencies.  Such frustration over a ten year period, even as accompanied by impressive economic growth statistics and diplomatic prominence, did not lead the old Kemalist forces to acquiesce in the new political order, but only made the opposition enraged. Instead, these intensified frustrations, bringing anti-AKP resentment to a fever pitch, directed especially at its charismatic, populist, impulsive, and provocative Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a man who evokes the strongest passions of love and hate. Erdogan serves as a cynosure of why democracy is at risk from above and below in Turkey. The government has ample grounds to feel threatened by the tactics, extremism, invective, and hostility of the opposition, which does not even bother to hide its contempt for democratic procedures in its quest for a return to the control of governance. In turn, the leadership, especially the sort of highly unpredictable emotional politics practiced by Erdogan, strays itself from democratic procedures partly as an understandable defensive reflex, has grounds to view the opposition as illegitimate, including its most vituperative media critics, which can easily slide into the embrace of a kind of defensive authoritarianism.

 

            The Egyptian descent into the vortex of hyper-polarization has certain resemblances to the Turkish experience, but also significant differences other than the relationship of contending forces to the poles of religion and secularism. In effect, secularism isn’t really a pole in Egypt, but at most one of the constituencies mobilized in the pre-coup period by anti-Morsi forces, many of whom might not have even realized that by opposing being governed by the Muslim Brotherhood, they were opting for the restoration of a brutal regime of the sort that had governed Egypt for three decades under Mubarak, which had seemed to have alienated virtually the whole of the country during the excitement of the January 25th movement in 2011. At that time, the armed forces were seen as standing aside while the people cast off a cruel and corrupt dictatorship that had reduced the Egyptian masses to a condition of subjugation and collective misery. In retrospect, this was an optical illusion created because the armed forces seemed willing to let Mubarak go to avoid having the next leader being his possibly reformist son, but was not at all ready to transform the governing process of the country despite the overwhelming mandate to do just that. It now seems clear that the Egyptian military would struggle against any political developments that threatened control of their budget, regulation of their business activities, and restriction of their discretion to manage the security policies of the Egyptian state (in collaboration with internal police and intelligence forces).

 

            Against this background, including the structural problems generated by Mubarak’s neoliberal approach to development, the Muslim Brotherhood would have been wise to abide by their initial public pledge to not field a candidate for the presidency and to limit their electoral ambitions in parliament and the constitution-forming process. Possibly, sensing their popularity as a transitory opportunity in a fluid situation, and maybe deceptively encouraged by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the MB leadership thought it was entitled to compete for leadership to the full extent of its popularity. Its years of community organizing and welfare services paid off in parliamentary results far in excess of what had been predicted. There seemed to be a mandate to lead the country, but there also seemed to a series of insurmountable challenges that were unlikely to be met whoever gained controlled of the government.

 

            When it became clear that the MB was stronger than expected, and that it would not limit its goals as earlier announced, much of the liberal anti-Mubarak opposition registered a reaction of panic. Reflections on the prospect of living under a MB government induced many Egyptians to swing back to the Mubarak side, leading Ahmed Shafik, a fulool mainstay, to win almost 50% of the vote in the presidential runoff election in June 2012. It was a defeat, but considering the near zero support for the old established order in the heady days of Tahrir Square, this result suggested a dramatic reversal of political mood at least in the main urban centers of Egypt. That near victory of Shafik should have been interpreted as a signal that counter-revolutionary tremors would soon begin to shake the foundations of political stability in Egypt.  Polarization took multiple forms in the ensuing months, with Morsi faltering as a leader partly for failures of his own making, and the opposition stridently insisting that things were out of control, allegedly worse than in the most unpopular Mubarak times. There was also evidence that to mobilize the populace well orchestrated efforts were made to create fuel shortages and price hikes in food prices, impacting negatively on the image of Morsi as someone who could lead post-Mubarak Egypt into better times. The outcome, perhaps exaggerated in the media, was a huge mobilization of anti-Morsi forces that produced the largest public demonstrations in Egyptian history, and set the stage for the July 3rd takeover, with its blank check given to the armed forces to do whatever it wanted to do, including if necessary the elimination of the MB (at least 30% of the populace) from the political scene. What followed was a series of massacres and abuses of state power on a scale that would have shocked the conscience of humanity if it had been reported to the world in an honest and responsible fashion. Instead, what appear to be a series of thinly disguised Crimes Against Humanity of a severe character were swept under the rug of world public opinion, and the new regime received financial and diplomatic support and many diverse wishes for success.

 

            This then is the final point. When a polarized opposition resorts to unlawful means to regain or seize power, the nature of the regional and global response can be critical to its success or failure. There were strong geopolitical incentives for welcoming the Egyptian coup, and thus not complain too much about its bloody aftermath. There are less clear reasons to favor the defeat of the AKP government in Turkey, especially given its role in NATO and the world economy, as well as the absence of a responsible and credible opposition, and yet there are regional and global actors that would greet the fall of the AKP with a smile of satisfaction.

 

            I am arguing that theses instances of polarization amount to a deadly virus that attacks the body politic in countries with weak constitutional traditions, especially if such societies are beset by economic disappointment and significant regional and global hostility due to ideological and political tensions. So far, Turkey has an immune system strong enough to neutralize the virus, while Egypt having virtually no protection against such a virus has succumbed. If there is hope for a brighter Egyptian future, then it will become evident in the months ahead as the Egyptian body politic seeks belatedly to destroy the virus that is threatening the quality of life in the society. For Turkey the future remains clouded in comparable uncertainty, and it may be, that the polarized alienation combined with the mistakes associated with too long a tenure in office will yet lead to the democratic downfall of Erdogan and the AKP.

 

The Violence of Psalm 21

23 Sep

Psalm 21 and the Human Predicament

 

            There is some difficulty in reconciling humanistic ethics with biblical scripture that has disturbed me recently. If a religious text nurtures morally unacceptable impulses that are acted upon either consciously or sub-consciously in political domains, how can these adverse influences be repudiated without purporting to claim a hegemonic status for a secular reader? Even a religiously oriented person such as myself, who rejects deference to whatever is contained in the most holy of books if it conflicts with conscience, is troubled by this tension between what we believe to be right and what can be found in the holiest of books. In the West, where the specific religious roots of political authority are rarely acknowledged directly, the problem persists, especially in claims by the state to deal with its enemies at home and abroad.

 

            Even if we leave to one side the problems that the modern mind has with the metaphysical and miraculous claims made on behalf of religious authority, and take refuge in how Paul Tillich handled these issues by way of identifying God with the human experience of ‘ultimate depth’ regardless of the form assumed, provided only that it did not serve to vindicate ethically unacceptable behavior. In effect, the post-theistic core of religious devotion in this reworking of tradition becomes almost synonymous with spirituality and awe as experiential realities, having more in common with the thought of Alfred North Whitehead than with the institutional religions.

 

            My concern here is far more modest and limited, and can be expressed in a very particular manner. Its main concern is how to read Psalm 21 in ways that are neither designed to avoid the awkwardness of its apparent endorsement of genocidal violence nor to repudiate the spirituality that is bound up with the sentiments that led the psalmist, reputedly King David, to intone sentiments that seem too extreme. After exalting the Lord for his support of the earthly ruler, the psalmist removes any doubt about an affirmation of unquestioning faith: “For the king trusts in the Lord, and through the mercy of the Most High he shall not be moved.”

 

            What particularly impresses the psalmist is the strength of God, and his power and will to subjugate all that is found to be evil, or in practical terms, posing a threat to an earthly ruler or society: “You shall make them as a fiery oven in the time of Your anger; the Lord shall swallow them up in His wrath, and the fire shall devour them.” Even beyond exterminating those who are enemies of the favored ruler and designated as evil, this wrath attributed to God shall know no bounds: “Their offspring You shall devour from the earth, and their descendants among the sons of men.” Continuing in this vein, “[f]or they intended evil against You; they devised a plot which they are able to perform.” With a military flourish such enemies will be made to “turn their back” while the arrows of the Lord are strung so as to carry out their lethal mission. The psalm ends glorifying this sacred violence: “Be exalted, O Lord, in your own strength! We will sing and praise Your power.”

 

            Psalm 21 is not an aberration in the Bible, but neither is it a summary of the biblical worldview. The Book of Esther is another tale of God’s wrath unleashed on behalf of Jews living in the vast kingdom of King Ahasueres. Saving these Jews of the kingdom from a plot to destroy them, the king heeding Queen Esther, is merciless and shows no respect for innocence: “Thus the Jews defeated all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, with slaughter and destruction, and did what they pleased with them.” (Esther 9:5) It is this absence of limits if the cause is righteous that prepares the way for the commission of what today are called ‘crimes against humanity.’

 

            There are many biblical expressions of God’s wrath mobilized against the enemies of the Israelites in ways that offend those strands of contemporary morality that rejects ideas about the absolute evil of the enemy or the unconditional goodness of the nation and its friends, and is sensitive to the innocence of those who are not themselves perpetrators of wrongful acts. The ethical and legal rejection of genocidal vengeance became supported by an almost universal secular consensus after the Holocaust, but unfortunately genocidal politics and sentiments remain embedded in human experience of ethnic and religious conflict, and everywhere lye dormant just below the surface in virtually every society.

 

            Religious websites do not condemn or contextualize such genocidal language, but insist that the intention of the psalmist is to underscore the degree to which evil will be punished and the degree of protection given to those who put their trust in God. In most institutionalized religious circles there is little willingness to consider such sentiments as problematic or exerting dangerous cultural influences. What seems required is a repudiation of the plain meaning of the language used as well as an explanation that such sentiments was never meant to be taken as guides to action and justifications for limitless violence against enemies. It might also be observed that the distinction between friends and enemies was somewhat more polarized in ancient times.

 

            Of course, I am far from the first to raise some doubts about literal deference biblical ethics, although it should be noted that the two later monotheistic religions incorporate without reservation the Old Testament, including Psalm 21, although in various ways they move beyond it, exhibiting a moral evolution. Thomas Jefferson, among many others, in the Deist tradition, prepared his own biblical text, removing passages that he found ethically offensive or contrary to reason. Such an undertaking would seem to be clearly heretical from most institutional perspectives, privileging individual human judgment over a sacred text endorsed by religious authority over the course of many centuries. Yet is this display of reverence for revealed truth really different than subtle moves in the opposite direction, suchas giving a sanitizing reading to the text so as to avoid the ethically offensive content of its clear meaning as interpreted on the basis of common sense?

 

            Have we in the modern world truly rejected these absolutist attitudes toward ‘the enemy’? The Nazi death camps and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki suggest that the hatred of the other and the uncritical celebration of the self continue to produce the most hideous crimes against humanity. These shameful undertakings are usually accompanied by rationalizations and erasures that result in widespread denial in the relevant national communities and manage to suppress critical reactions by ‘good Germans’ and ‘good Americans’ who insist that they know not often in apparent good faith. 

 

            The anti-terrorist rhetoric of recent years is rather exterminist in its expression, and political implications. George W. Bush, not someone who shuns self-serving moralism, openly endorsed the idea that the attackers of 9/11 were evil, and should be hunted down and exterminated, although at least he did not implicate the descendents. There is a biblical resonance in his words spoken during his commencement address to West Point graduates in June 2002: “Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree…We are in a conflict between good and evil. And America will call evil by its name.” Such a dualistic passage, at once presupposing that we are the side of the good and opposed by that which is evil is confusing if thought about. It, at once, claims a religiously sanctioned authority to destroy and violates the specifically Christian teaching that rejects such a sharp divide between good and evil since we are all born sinners. What Bush does somewhat contrary to a more refined religious understanding is to fuse his ultra-nationalist agenda with a moral imperative to destroy the enemy without worrying about limits, restraints, and compassion.

 

            A similar entitlement to kill was claimed by Barack Obama when Osama bin Laden was finally found hiding out in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2010, killed although unarmed, with few questions being raised as to whether such an almost ritualized execution was justified or necessary. Instead the American president, presented the event as a major victory for his presidency, and the process by which this outcome came about was celebrated in a rare bipartisan spirit by the public and given an attempted public vindication in the film “Zero Dark Thirty,” which included an indirect endorsement of torture as an essential element in the CIA search process yielded crucial information about the whereabouts of the al-Qaeda leader.

 

            This kind of partisan morality is more in keeping with the ethos of Psalm 21 than with the mainstream Christian understanding of good and evil, which condemns as heresy the idea of the absolute good of the self and the absolute evil of the enemy. In this regard human undertakings if claiming moral authority, should always include respect for the redemptive potential of the other, as well as the element of sinfulness of the self. To claim God’s partnership in warlike undertakings thus seems like a distortion of the truer understanding of the spiritual core of the biblical message, especially as understood and interpreted over the centuries in relation to the New Testament. Yet such protection against the hubris of the powerful stands on the shoulders of unrepudiated biblical texts such as Psalm 21 or the Book of Esther.

 

             The retaliatory threat embedded in the doctrine of nuclear deterrence

seems defensive in its posture, yet it proposes an absolute lethality of response that threatens to kill tens of millions, and even to risk endangering the future of the species; E.P. Thompson in his condemnation of any reliance on nuclear weapons, believed that even the mental and cultural preparation required to make a credible deterrent threat to bomb enemy cities embraces an exterminist form of national security, and as such, is morally decadent.   

           

            This radical separation of good and evil in the globalized world of politics, either with bold conviction, as during the Bush presidency, or more subtly, during the Obama administration, suggests that societies are still comfortable with the dangerously self-serving approach of Psalm 21. This commentary is not meant to single out for criticism either the Old Testament or the United States. These tendencies are embedded deeply within Western political culture, and unless challenged and repudiated, possess several ominous implications for the entire human future: The absolutist pretensions of nationalist and religious extremism, the globalization of conflict, scarcities of space and resources, the devastations and uncertainties of climate change, prospects for pandemics, the apocalyptic potential of military technology, pervasive insecurity and vulnerability, and the unavailability of actors and capabilities on a global stage to uphold human and global interests.

 

            There is a narrow question: should not those of us who affirm the spiritual significance of our life experience insist on a reading of religious texts that corresponds with our conscience, and not evade the challenge of rejecting some elements of religious tradition rather than attempting to explain it away?

 

            There is also a broader issue: unless we purge our individual and collective lives of these destructive patterns, the destiny of modern civilizations and even of the species is placed in severe jeopardy.  The idea of civilizational collapse has been extensively explored from the perspective of collective failures to heed warnings and adapt, but as a matter of delimited ethno-religious communities, not in relation to the species and entire world, which notoriously lack effective sensors for dangers directed at the whole as distinct from challenges to the part. Our modern world order, an evolving state-centric structure, absolutizes the parts, marginalizes the whole, and thus seems dangerously obsolescent as the challenges to the whole grow more and more relevant, while remaining unmanageable. To grasp onto what must be done is also perplexing. For instance, in my view the advocates of philosophical anarchism have more to teach us than the champions of world government.

 

Resolving the Syrian Chemical Weapons Crisis: Sunlight and Shadows

15 Sep

 

            The Putin Moment: Not only did Vladimir Putin exhibit a new constructive role for Russia in 21st statecraft, spare Syria and the Middle East from another cycleof escalating violence, but he articulated this Kremlin initiative in the form of a direct appeal to the American people. There were reasons to be particularly surprised by this display of Russian diplomacy: not since Nikita Khrushchev helped save the world from experiencing the catastrophe of nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 by backing down and agreeing to a face-saving formula for both superpowers, had Moscow distinguished itself in any positive way with respect to the conduct of international relations; for Putin to be so forthcoming, without being belligerent, was particularly impressive in view of Obama’s rather ill-considered cancellation only a few weeks ago of a bilateral meeting with the Russian leader because of Washington’s supposed anger at the refusal of the Russian government to turn the NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, over to the United States for criminal prosecution under American espionage laws; and finally, considering that Putin has much blood on his hands given past policies pursued in relation to Chechnya and in the autocratic treatment of domestic political opposition, it was hard to expect anything benevolent during his watch. And so Putin is emerging as a virtual ‘geopolitical black swan,’ making unanticipated moves of such a major character as to have the potential to transform the character of conflict management and resolution in the 21st century.  It should be understood that Putin could have stayed on the sidelines, and benefitted from seeing Obama sink deeper and deeper into the Syrian quagmire, and instead he stepped in with a momentous move that seems to have served the regional and global interest.

Putin has explained in a coherent manner in his opinion piece that was published in the NY Times on September 11th (without invoking the symbolism of  the twelfth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks) that his approach to Russian foreign policy relies on two instruments: soft power and economic diplomacy. He acknowledged American leadership, but only if exercised within a framework of respect for international law and the UN Charter. And he appropriately took issue with Obama’s sentiments expressed a night earlier to the effect that America in its leadership role had a unique entitlement to use force to overcome injustice in situations other than self-defense and even without authorization by the UN Security Council. It was Putin, perhaps disingenuously, who claimed (quite correctly) that such a prerogative was “extremely dangerous.” He rejected Obama’s pretension that a unilateral discretion with respect to the use of force could be inferred from American exceptionalism. Whether disingenuous or not, the requirement of a Security Council authorization for non-defensive uses of force, while sometimes preventing a peacekeeping response by the UN to certain tragic situations of civil strife and humanitarian crisis overall contributed to finding diplomatically agreed upon solutions for conflict and enabled the UN (unlike the League of Nations) to persist despite severe tensions among its dominant members. Let hope that this Putin vituoso exhibition of creative diplomacy prompts his counterpart in the White House to explore more diligently soft power opportunities that will better protect American national interests, while simultaneously serving the global interest in war prevention and the rejection of militarism, and might also have the added benefit of reversing the steady decline of American credibility as a benevolent global leader ever since the end of the Cold War.

Constitutional Balance: Perhaps what might be of even greater importance than averting an ill-considered punitive attack on Syria, is the grounding of recourse to war on the major republican premise of Congressional authorization. There is little doubt that here the efficient cause and anti-hero was David Cameron, who turned to Parliament to support his wish to join with Obama in the attack coalition despite the anti-war mood in British public opinion. Cameron was politically spared by the vote of the House of Commons to withhold authorization. It is hard to believe that Obama’s decision to seek authorization from the U.S. Congress was not a belated realization that if Britain deferred to its Parliament as an expression of constitutional democracy, it would be unseemly for the United States to go to war without the formal backing of Congress. Of course, the Putin initiative saved Obama from the near certain embarrassment of being turned down by Congress, which would mean that either he would follow in Cameron’s and face savage criticism from his hawkish boosters or insist upon his authority as Commander in Chief to act on his own, a prerogative that seems constitutional dubious to support a bill of impeachment. Beyond this, the War Powers Act that would seem to require some emergency justification for the presidential bypassing of Congress in the context of a proposed military action. Hopefully, we are witnessing, without an accompanying acknowledgement, the downfall of the ‘imperial presidency’ that got its start during the Vietnam War. The governmental pendulum in the United States may have started to swing back toward the separation of powers and checks and balances, and thus be more in keeping with the original republican hopes of limited executive authority, especially in relation to war making. This renewal of republican constitutionalism, combined with growing populist skepticism about military adventures abroad, might make this Syrian crisis of decision a welcome tipping point, reversing the unhealthy subordination of Congress in war/peace situations during the last half century and anti-democratic disregard of the views of the citizenry.

But it is also possible that the imprudence of the proposed punitive strike against Syria will turn out to be a one-off experience, and that when and if Iran clearly crosses the weapons threshold in its nuclear program, the presidency will retrieve its lost claims to be the unilateral guardian of national, regional, and global interests without feeling that it must await authorization from the Congress and the UN. Note that Congressional approval, even if in concert with the President, cannot sanitize a use of force that is illegal under international law. It is the state as a whole that is bound by the constraints of international law, and not just the head of state. There are two distinct issues present: the domestic constitutional requirement of collective authorization for recourse to war by the United States; and the complementary international requirement of acting in compliance with international law and the UN Charter (which is itself acknowledged in supremacy clause of the Constitution with respect to validly ratified treaties).

Coercive Diplomacy: Obama/Kerry contend that Syria’s chemical weapons would never have been put under international controls and in an atmosphere of unprecedented international cooperation, but for the credible threats mounted by the U.S. Government. In this regard, the poker style bluff can be said to have worked without any sure proof that the threat would have been carried out in the face of a refusal by Congress to authorize and the public failure to show support for an attack. As matters now seem to be unfolding, assuming that the plans for abolishing the chemical weapons of Syria proceed as agreed, threat diplomacy will be applauded by the Obama administration without any widespread sensitivity to the fact that the international law as embodied in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits ‘threats’ as well as ‘uses’ of force, although such a prohibition has not been taken seriously as part of the ‘living law’ despite its status as a prime instance of ‘positive law.’ The categorical language of Article 2(4) is unmistakeable: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity and political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

Syria and its People: In the background of the diplomatic controversy about what to do in response to the large-scale lethal use of sarin gas against the people of Syria on August 21st, was the awareness that such an attack did not even pretend to end the violence in Syria or to produce regime change in Damascus or to change the balance of force in the civil war. From this perspective, it seemed mainly a punitive strike that upheld Obama’s red line credibility, although there was an additional argument set forth that a military strike would have a deterrent impact on any contemplated future recourse to chemical weaponry by the Assad regime and other political actors, assuming that the allegations that the Syrian government order the attack are confirmed and reinforced by the reports of the UN inspection team and other respected sources.

What tends to be given only a secondary glance is the effects of an attack on the Syrian people who have been subject to a harrowing ordeal these past two years that has resulted in over 100,000 deaths, countless wounded, and an estimated 7,000,000, almost one-third of the population, as either internally displaced or forced into overcrowded and under-resourced refugee camps in neighboring countries. Beyond this, the always vulnerable Palestinians have endured Syrian attacks on their refugee camps forcing them to flee once more, to become, quite incredibly, refugees from their refugee arrangements, a largely untold Palestinian tragedy hidden within the larger Syrian tragedy. There is almost no political will on the outside to do anything to stop either the proxy war being waged by states external to Syria or the internal struggle being waged by a fragmented opposition against a discredited government that has been incredibly cruel to its own citizens and strangely indifferent to the great cultural and religious heritage of their own country. There are even grotesque murmurings in the background of strategic chatter in Western circles, suggesting that the best outcome is not an end to the violence, but its indefinite continuation with an effort to calibrate future arms supplies and humanitarian aid with the principal aim of making sure that neither side can achieve victory. If this is not an exposure of the raw immorality of strategic discourse at its immoral nadir, I am not sure what would be.

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Why Congress Should Say to ‘No’ on Syria

6 Sep

[I am not sure this attempt at clarifying the present stage of the Syria debate adds much to my prior posts, yet I hope that it provides a kind of summary that is helpful in following the unfolding debate; all along I have felt that the Syrian impasse presented the UN and the world with a tragic predicament: trapped between doing something to stop the Assad regime from committing atrocities against its own people so as to retain power and the non-viabiility and illegality of military intervention, a predicament further complicated by the proxy war within the region along sectarian lines, by the strategic involvement of the U.S. and Russia on opposite sides, the maneuverings behind the scenes by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel, and the avowed Turkish support for regime-changing intervention; also, the overall regional turmoil, and past bad feeling in relation to the UN role in the overthrow of Qadaffi posed additional obstacles; efforts to shape the political outcome by military means, because of the proxy war dimensions (including an increasingly evident, although still surprising, tacit alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia) have so far only escalated the violence on the ground in Syria; Turkey, Russia, and the United States have all along  oscillated between principled and pragmatic responses favoring one side or the other, and exhibiting an ambivalent commitment to equi-distant diplomacy.]

There are three positions that have considerable support in Washington circles, although rarely acknowledged and not popular with the public, partly because of recent foreign policy failures, and partly too removed from perceptions of genuine security interests:

–undertake an attack to uphold ‘red line’ credibility of the president and the United States Government;

–undertake an attack too avoid an insurgent defeat, but on a scale that will not produce an insurgent victory; goal: keep the civil war going;

–undertake an attack to convince Iran that Obama is ready to use force if diplomatic coercion doesn’t work.

There are several other considerations that need to be taken into account:

–the Assad regime is guilty of numerous crimes against humanity aside from and prior to its probable (although far from assured) responsibility for the August 21st attack with chemical weapons on Ghouta; Syria lacks a legitimate government from the perspective of international criminal law; with respect to the violation of the Geneva Accord with respect to chemical weapons, the responsibility of Assad personally and the Syrian government generally has not been established beyond a reasonable doubt at this point;

–nevertheless, the Assad regime retains considerable support from various segments of the Syrian population, possesses substantial military capabilities, and is unlikely to collapse without a major ground invasion; the Assad government retains a measure of legitimacy from the perspective of the politics of self-determination;

–insurgent forces are divided, without coherent leadership, and are also responsible for committing atrocities, and contain political extremists in their ranks; a victory by the insurgency does not seem likely to lead to legitimate governing process from the perspective of law and morality;

–the negative American experiences of relying on war in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan should create a presumption against the authorization of force and reliance on military option in conflict situations; there is mounting evidence from past cases that the costs and risks associated with military options tend to be grossly understated during pre-war debates in the United States due partly to the political mobilization role played by mainstream media;

–the diplomatic alternative to force has been handicapped by its past abuse in the UN Security Council with respect to Libya authorization of ‘responsibility to protect’ undermining the trust of Russia, China, and others, and by the refusal to bring Iran into the political conversation as a key actor.

Against this background there are four important independent reasons for Congress to withhold authorization in this instance:

–a use of force that can neither be justified as self-defense, nor is authorized by the UN, is contrary to the UN Charter, which is an obligatory treaty, as well as being the most serious type of violation of international law in a post-Nuremburg world; the Nuremberg precedent with regard to crimes against peace (as the ‘crime of crimes’) should be respected, especially by the United States, which continues to serve for better and worse, as  the main normative architect of world order;

–the Kosovo precedent of ‘illegal, but legitimate’ is not applicable as a military attack is not likely to achieve either its political goals of ending the civil war and of causing the collapse of the Assad regime, nor its moral goals of stopping the slaughter and displacement of the Syrian people, and the devastation of their cities and country;

–even if the political and moral goals could be achieved, Congress, as well as the president, lacks the authority to authorized foreign policy uses of force that are incompatible with the UN Charter and international law;

–Congress should defer to domestic and world public opinion that clearly is opposed to a proposed military attack in the absence of an exceptional demonstration can be made as to the positive political and moral benefits of such an attack; for reasons mentioned, no such demonstration can be made in this instance; even the European Union has withheld support for a military attack on Syria at the

September meeting of the G-20 in St. Petersburg; only France among America’s traditional allies supported Obama’s insistence on reliance on a punitive military strike, supposedly for the sake of enforcing international law, bizarre reasoning because the rationale reduces to the following proposition: in view of the political realities, it is necessary to violate international law so as to be able to enforce it.

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