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Nelson Mandela’s Inspiration (Revised)

9 Dec

Prefatory Note: Thanks to my friend Nader Hashemi, I have added this important comment on the role of violence in emancipatory struggles for freedom that Nelson Mandela articulated after his release from prison in 1993; it is highly relevant to the demands by Israel that Palestinians renounce violence while Israel sustains a structure of occupation and oppression that includes nakba as process, that is, continuous dynamics of dispossession and dispersal of the oppressed and encroachment on their remaining rights via unlawful settlement, ethnic cleansing, discriminatory policies. What follows is an excerpt from an appearance by Mandela on Charlie Rose’s interview program:

Rose:              You have, at this moment, no reservation or indecision – along with the counsel that you’ve taken with your colleagues – that the decisions made by you and them are right for South Africa – the sacrifices, the toll, the price you’ve paid, the blood that’s been spilled was necessary, painful, but necessary?

Mandela:      nods

Rose:              Yes.

Mandela:      Absolutely. We are an organization which, from its foundation, committed itself to building a nation through peaceful, nonviolent, and disciplined struggle. We were forced to resort to arms by the regime, and the lesson of history is that for the masses of the people, the methods of political action which they use are determined by the oppressor himself. If the oppressor uses peaceful means, the oppressed would never resort to violence. It is when the oppressor – in addition to his repressive policies – uses violence, that the oppressed have no alternative but to retaliate by similar forms of action. And, therefore, the pains, the blood that was spilled, and the responsibility for that lies squarely on the shoulders of the regime.

Source: Interview with Charlie Rose, September 30, 1993

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Fifteen years ago I had the extraordinary pleasure of meeting Nelson Mandela in Cape Town while he was serving as President of South Africa. It was an odd occasion. I was a member of the International Commission on the Future of the Oceans, which was holding a meeting in South Africa. It happened that one of the vice chairs of the Commission was Kader Asmal, a cherished friend and a member of the first Mandela cabinet who himself played a major role in the writing of the South African Constition. Kader had arranged for Mandela to welcome the Commission to his country, and asked me if I would prepare some remarks on his behalf, which was for me an awesome assignment, but one that I undertook with trepidation, not at all confident that I could find the words to be of some slight help to this great man. Compounding my personal challenge, the Brazilian Vice Chair of our oceans commission who was supposed to give a response on behalf of the Commission became ill, and I was asked by our chair to respond to Mandela on behalf of the commission. I did have the thrill of hearing 90% of my text delivered by Mandela, which years later I remember much better than my eminently forgettable words of response to the President.

What moved me most, and has led me to make this rather narcissistic introduction, is the conversation after the event. Mandela thanked me for my efforts and proceeded then to talk with each of our 40 commission members, making a specific reference to circumstances of relevance and concern in each of their particular countries. He went from person to person with such grace and composure as I had never encountered before on the part of a public figure of renown. It was above all Mandela’s spiritual presence that created such a strong impression of moral radiance on the part of all of us fortunate enough to be in the room. I was reinforced in my guiding belief that political greatness presupposes a spiritual orientation toward the meaning of life, not necessarily expressed by way of a formal religious commitment, yet always implies living with an unconditional dedication to values and faith that transcend the practical, the immediate, and the material.

The political imaginary that accompanies such a life also has an integrity that challenges the proprieties and associated boundaries of conventional liberal thought. It is easy for almost everyone now to celebrate Mandela for his long struggle against South African apartheid that included 27 years in jail. It is less common to recall that as late as the 1980s leaders in Britain and the United States were condemning Mandela as ‘terrorist’ and ‘revolutionary’ who deserved to be indefinitely jailed, if not worse. It is even less often remembered that Mandela rejected early offers to obtain his release from prison if he would ‘renounce violence’ and call for an end to ‘armed struggle.’ Although Mandela is justly honored for his role in achieving a non-violent transition to multi-racial constitutionalism in South Africa, he was never willing to say that those who were oppressed must renounce whatever means was available to them to gain their freedom. Indeed, Mandela as leader of the African National Congress, endorsed the creation of its military wing, and at one stage was supportive of armed resistance to obtain liberation and overcome the racist crimes being committed by the apartheid regime on a massive and systematic basis.

The Palestinian people, in the midst of their seemingly endless ordeal, have particular reason to esteem the exemplary life and solidarity exhibited by Nelson Mandela for their cause. Mandela’s words reflected a deep intuition that what the Palestinians were seeking had a deep affinity with his own struggle: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

In Israel’s apartheid there exist a network of separated roads for Israeli settlers and the Palestinians, as well as a discriminatory dual legal administrative structure.

Mandela regarded Yasser Arafat as a ‘comrade in arms,’ identifying him as “one of the outstanding freedom fighters of his generation,” adding that “it is with great sadness that his and his people’s dream of a Palestinian state has not been realized.” By affirmations of Arafat, Castro, and even Qaddafi, Mandela made plain to the West in reaction to criticism, “Our enemies are not your enemies.” Such a voice of peace and justice that never submitted to Western liberal notions of good behavior was fully appreciated by Indian followers of Gandhi who regarded Mandela as a natural political heir to their national hero despite his more contextual views on the role of political violence. Like Gandhi, Mandela stood so firmly for dignity, independence, human development, and the end of colonial domination in all its manifold forms wherever it was to be found in the world.

It is also notable that Marwan Barghouti confined to an Israeli jail for five consecutive life sentences looked to Mandela for inspiration, writing an open letter from his prison cell not long ago. He wrote, “And from within my prison, I tell you that our freedom seems possible because you reached yours.”  Beyond this he hailed Mandela whose torch of freedom burned so brightly as to cast universal light: “You carried a promise far beyond the limits of your country’s borders, a promise that oppression and injustice will be vanquished, paving the way to freedom and peace..All sacrifices become bearable by the sole prospect that one day the Palestinian people will also be able to enjoy freedom.” Barghouti is for Palestinians their strongest symbol of collective identity in resistance and struggle, and a comparison to Mandela’s lifelong journey is inevitable, including Barghouti’s clear turn toward the embrace of militant forms of nonviolent resistance.

I believe that when Israel is ready for a sustainable and just peace it will signal this to itself, to the Palestinians, and to the world by releasing Barghouti from prison and by treating Hamas as a political actor with genuine grievances and aspirations that needs to be included in any diplomacy of accommodation that deserves the label of ‘peace process.’ Until that most welcome moment arrives, the Palestinian march toward victory in the ongoing Legitimacy War must be continued with renewed vitality and dedication.

Mandela’s journey, like that of Gandhi, was not without its major disappointments. To gain the political end of apartheid, Mandela deferred challenges to social and economic apartheid. Part of his legacy to South Africa is to carry forward this mission to free the great majority of the country from the many disadvantages and burdens of their still segregated, subordinated, and humiliating reality.

Envisioning and Demanding a World Without Nuclear Weapons

26 Feb

Book Review

ZERO: THE CASE FOR NUCLEAR WEAPONS ABOLITION by David Krieger (published in 2013 by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation); $14.95

 

 

            I have known David Krieger for the past twenty-five years, and he has never wavered, even for a day, from his lifelong journey dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war. If I were given to categorization, I would label such an extraordinary engagement with a  cause as an instance of ‘benign fanaticism.’ Unfortunately, from the perspective of the human future, it is a condition rarely encountered, posing the puzzle as to why Krieger should be so intensely inclined, given his seemingly untraumatized background. He traces his own obsession back to his mother’s principled refusal to install a nuclear bomb shelter in the backyard of their Los Angeles home when he was 12 years old. He comments in the Preface to ZERO that even at the time he “hadn’t expected” her to take such a stand, which he experienced as “a powerful lesson in compassion,” being especially moved by her unwillingness “to buy into saving herself at the expense of humanity.” (xiv). Nine years later after Krieger graduated from college his mother was again an instrumental force, giving him as a graduation present a trip to Japan to witness first-hand “what two nuclear weapons had done to the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” (xiv) The rest is, as they say, ‘history.’ Or as Krieger puts it in characteristic understatement, “[t]hose visits changed my life.” (xiv)

 

            On a psychological level, I remain perplexed by two opposite observations: we still lack the key that unlocks the mystery of Krieger’s unwavering dedication and why so few others have been similarly touched over the years. What ZERO does better than any of Krieger’s earlier books on nuclear weapons, and indeed more comprehensively and lucidly than anyone else anywhere, is to provide the reader with the reasons for thinking, feeling, and acting with comparable passion until the goal of abolishing the totality of nuclear weaponry is finally reached. Krieger himself extensively explores and laments the absence of widespread anti-nuclear dedication and tries to explain it by calling attention to a series of factors: ignorance, complacency, deference to authority, sense of powerlessness, fear, economic advantage, conformity, marginalization, technological optimism, tyranny of experts. (90-92) The argument of the book, concisely developed in a series of short essays is reinforced by some canonical documents in the struggle over the decades to rid the world of nuclear weaponry, including Obama’s Prague Speech of 2009, the Einstein/Russell Manifesto of 1955, and Joseph Rotblat’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech of 1995.

 

            Krieger’s approach as an author is multi-layered, and includes analytic critiques of conventional strategic wisdom that finds a security role for nuclear weapons, a worked out conception of how a negotiated international treaty could safely by stages move the world toward the zero goal of abolition, poems that seek to recapture the various existential horrors of nuclear war, essays of appreciation for the courage, commitment, and insight of the hibakusha (Japanese survivors of the 1945 atomic attacks), and a concerted inquiry into what needs to happen to make nuclear disarmament a viable political project rather than nothing more than a fervent hope. For a short book of 166 pages this is a lot of ground to cover, but Krieger manages to do it with clarity, a calm demeanor, and an impressive understanding and knowledge of all aspects of this complex question of how best to deal with nuclear weapons given the realities of the early 21st century.

 

            Krieger is not afraid to take on critics, even those who tell him that his quest is ‘silly’ because the nuclear genie, a favorite metaphor of liberal apologists for the status quo, is out of the bottle, and cannot be put back. Krieger acknowledges that the knowledge is now in the public domain, and cannot be eliminated, but makes a measured and informed case for an assessment that the nuclear disarmament process poses far fewer risks than does retaining the weaponry, and that retaining the weaponry exposes humanity to what he believes to be the near certainty that nuclear weapons will be used in the future with likely apocalyptic results. For Krieger the stakes are ultimate: human survival and the rights of future generations. In other words, given his strongly held opinion that the weaponry will be used at some point in the future with disastrous results, there is for him no ethically, politically, and even biologically acceptable alternative to getting rid totally of nuclear weapons. Krieger argues both from a worldview that regards nuclear weapons as intrinsically wrong because of the kind of suffering and devastation that they cause and consequentially because of their threat to civilization and even species survival.

 

            Ever since I have known David Krieger he has been deeply influenced by Albert Einstein’s most forceful assertion: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Krieger even gifts his readers with an imagined dialogue between Einstein and the most celebrated interrogator of all time, Socrates. In their exchange, Socrates is convinced by Einstein that the necessary adjustments “won’t come from our leaders.”(85) Socrates gets the point in a manner that unsurprisingly resonates with Krieger: “Then the people must be awakened, and they must demand an end to war, and a world free of nuclear weapons.” (85) There is a certain ambiguity in this statement when placed in the larger context of Krieger’s thought and work: is it necessary to end war as a social institution in order to get rid of nuclear weapons? In one way, most of Krieger’s efforts seem to separate nuclear weapons from the wider context of war making, but from time to time, there is a fusion of these two agendas.

 

            Krieger realizes that changing our modes of thinking is a necessary step toward zero but it is not sufficient. He also believes that we can not achieve a world without nuclear weapons unless we act “collectively and globally” (97) to create a sustainable future. In the end, there is some ground for hope: “We have the potential to assert a constructive power for change that is greater than the destructive power of the weapons themselves.”  In effect, Krieger is telling us that what we can imagine we can achieve, but not without an unprecedented popular mobilization of peace minded people throughout the entire planet. Above all, Krieger wants to avoid a counsel of despair: “We must choose hope and find a way to fight for the dream of peace and the elimination of nuclear weapons. Achieving these goals is the great challenge of our time, on their success rests the realization of all other goals and for a more and decent world.” (105). Certainly Krieger has founded and brilliantly administered the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation over the course of more than 25 years maintaining faith of its growing band of followers with this uplifting vision. Such single mindedness is probably essential to motivate people of good will to support the endeavor, and to keep his own compass fixed over time, even in the face of many discouragements, on the destination he has identified as the one sanctuary capable of ensuring a desirable future for humanity. Although sharing all of Krieger’s assessments, values, and visions, I am both less hopeful and not as focused, being committed to other indispensable policy imperatives (addressing the global challenge of climate change) and to more proximate ends that involve current injustices (seeking realization of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people; seeking a UN Emergency Peace Force to intervene to protect vulnerable people facing humanitarian or natural catastrophes), but I would not for a minute encourage Krieger to dilute his anti-nuclear posture. This country and the world needs his message and dedication, and at some point, there may emerge a conjuncture of forces that is unexpectedly receptive to the vision of a world without nuclear weapons and even entertains the prospect of ending the war system as the foundation of national and global security. I can only pray that it will not emerge in the aftermath of some intended or accidental use of nuclear weapons, which seems sadly to be the only alarm bell that is loud enough to have an awakening effect for the sleeping mass of humanity.

 

            From my vantage point such an anti-nuclear moment is not yet visible on the horizon of possibilities. After all, the Kissinger, Shultz, Nunn, and Perry call a few years ago for abolition, emanating from these high priests of political realism, despite being widely noticed at the time, had no lasting impact on the pro-nuclear consensus that guides the policymaking elites of the nine nuclear weapons states, and most of all the American establishment. And then Barack Obama’s 2009 call in Prague for a world without nuclear weapons, although qualified and conditional, was essentially abandoned even in the recent articulation of the president’s goals for his second term. Presumably, Obama’s advisory entourage pushed him to concentrate his energy on attainable goals such as immigration and tax reform, protecting entitlements, and retreating from the several fiscal cliffs, and not waste his limited political capital on the unattainable such as nuclear disarmament and a just peace between Israel and Palestine. Short-term political calculations within the Beltway almost always trump long-term visionary goals, “and so it goes,” as Kurt Vonnegut taught us to say in our helplessness in the face of the unyielding cruelty of human experience.

 

            In the end, after this adventure of response to the life and work of a dear friend, admired collaborator, and inspirational worker for peace and justice, I can only commend David Krieger’s ZERO to everyone with the slightest interest in what kind of future we are bestowing upon our children and grandchildren. The book can be obtained via the following two links: it is preferred that ZERO is ordered through the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation at its online Peace Store: http://www.wagingpeace.org/menu/store/#books

It can also be obtained by Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Zero-Nuclear-Weapons-AbolitionVolume/dp/1478342846/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1361902143&sr=8-2&keywords=zero+krieger

   

 

 

On Syria: What to Do in 2013

19 Jan

 

            I took part last week in an illuminating conference on Syria sponsored by the new Center of Middle East Studies that is part of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. A video of the keynote panel featuring Michael Inatieff, Ken Roth, and Rafif Jouejeti can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95Ku-7SgzKg. This Center has been recently established, and operates under the excellent leadership of Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, who previously together edited the best collection of readings on the Green Revolution in Iran published under the title THE PEOPLE RELOADED: THE GREEN MOVEMENT AND THE STRUGGLE FOR IRAN’S FUTURE ( a valuable resource not only on the Green Movement itself, but in relation to movement politics in a setting of oppressive governance; obtain the book: http://www.mhpbooks.com/books/the-people-reloaded/).

 

            The conference brought together a mixture of Syrian specialists, Syrian activists, and several of us with a more general concern about conflict in the region, as well as with human rights and as participants in the heated debates of recent years about the virtues and vices of ‘humanitarian intervention’, what is now being called ‘Responsibility to Protect’ of ‘R2P’ in UN circles and among liberals. I came to the gathering with a rather strong disposition to present myself as a confirmed R2P skeptic, regarding it as a cynical geopolitical euphemism for what Noam Chomsky labeled as ‘military humanism’ in the context of the controversial NATO Kosovo War of 1999. Ever since the Vietnam War I have viewed all Western claims to use force in the post-colonial non-West with suspicion. I support presumptions in favor of non-intervention and self-determination, both fundamental norms of international law. But I left the conference dissatisfied with my position that nothing more could or should be done at the international level to help end the violence in Syria or to assist the struggle of the Syrian people. I became convinced that human solidarity with the ordeal of the Syrian people was being deeply compromised by the advocacy of passivity in the face of the criminality of the Damascus government, although what to do that is genuinely helpful remains extremely difficult to discern.

 

            In the immediate background of the debate on Syrian policy are the bad memories of stealth diplomacy used by the United States and several European partners in March 2011 to gain UN Security Council backing for the establishment of a No Fly Zone to protect the beleaguered and endangered population of the Libyan city of Benghazi. What ensued from the outset of the UN authorized mission in Libya was a blatant disregard of the limited mandate to protect the population of a city from a threatened massacre. In its place, the NATO undertaking embarked on a concerted regime-changing NATO mission that ended with the unseemly execution of the Libyan dictator. What NATO purported to do was not only oblivious to Libya’s sovereignty, it was unmistakably a deliberate and dramatic extension of the authorized mission that understandably infuriated the autocrats in Moscow. A case could certainly have been made that in order to protect the Libyan people it was necessary to rid the country of the Qaddafi regime, but such an argument was never developed in the Security Council debate, and would never have been accepted. Against such a background, the wide gap between what was approved by the UN Security Council vote and what was done in breach of the mandate was perceived as a betrayal of trust in the setting of the Security Council, particularly by those five governments opposed to issuing a broader writ for the intervention, governments that had been deceptively induced to abstain on the ground that the UN authorization of force was limited to a single one-off protective, emergency mission.

 

            Global diplomacy being what it is and was, there should be no surprise, and certainly no condescending self-righteous lectures delivered by Western diplomats, in reaction to the rejectionist postures adopted by Russia and China throughout the Syrian crisis. Of course, two wrongs hardly ever make a right, and do not here. NATO’s flagrant abuse of the UN mandate for Libya should certainly not be redressed at the expense of the Syrian people. In this respect, it is lamentable that those who shape policy in Moscow and Beijing are displaying indifference to the severity of massive crimes of humanity, principally perpetrated by the Assad government, as well as to the catastrophic national and regional effects of a continuing large-scale civil war in Syria. The unfolding Syrian tragedy, already resulting in more than 60,000 confirmed deaths, one million refugees, as many as 3 million internally displaced, a raging famine and daily hardships and hazards for most of the population, and widespread urban devastation, seems almost certain to continue in coming months. There exists even a distinct possibility of an intensification of violence as a deciding battle for control of Damascus gets underway in a major way.  Minimally responsible behavior by every leading governments at the UN would under such circumstances entail at the very least a shared and credible willingness to forego geopolitical posturing, and exert all possible pressure to bring the violence to an end.

 

            Some suggest that an effect of this geopolitical gridlock at the UN is causing many Syrians to sacrifice their lives and put the very existence of their country in jeopardy.  This kind of ‘compensation’ for NATO’s ultra virus behavior in Libya is morally unacceptable and politically imprudent. At the same time it is hardly reasonable to assume that the UN could have ended the Syrian strife in an appropriate way if the Security Council had been able to speak with one voice. It both overestimates the capabilities of the UN and under appreciates the complexity of the Syrian struggle. Under these circumstances it is also diversionary to offload the frustrations associated with not being able to do anything effective to help the rebel forces win quickly or to impose a ceasefire and political process on the stubborn insistence by Russia and China that a solution for Syria must not be based on throwing Assad under the bus.

 

            The Syrian conflict seems best interpreted as a matter of life or death not only for the ruling regime, but for the entire Alawite community (estimated to be 12% of the Syrian population of about 23 million), along with their support among Syria’s other large minorities (Christian 10%, Druze 3%), and a sizable chunk of the urban business world that fears more what is likely to follow Assad than Assad himself. Given these conditions there is little reason to assume that a unified posture among the permanent members of the Security Council would at any stage in the violent months have had any realistic prospect of bringing the Syrian parties to drop their weapons and agree to risk a compromise. The origins of the crossover from militant anti-regime demonstrations to armed insurgency is most convincingly traced back to the use of live ammunition by the governing authorities and the armed forces against demonstrators in the city of Daraa from March 15, 2012 onwards, resulting in several deaths. Many in the streets of Daraa were arrested, with confirmed reports of torture and summary execution, and from this point forward there has been no credible turning away from violence by either side. Kofi Annan, who resigned as Special Envoy for the UN/Arab League

In late January 2013 indicated his displeasure with both external actors, criticizing Washington for its insistence that any political transition in Syria must be preceded by the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power, a precondition that seems predicated on an insurgent victory rather than working for a negotiated solution.  

           

            Without greater diplomatic pressure from both geopolitical proxies, the war in Syria is likely to go on and one with disastrous results. There has never been a serious willingness to solve the problems of Syria by an American-led attack in the style of Iraq 2003. For one thing, an effective intervention and occupation in a country the size of Syria, especially if both sides have significant levels of support as they continue to have, would be costly in lives and resources, uncertain in its overall effects on the internal balance of forces, and involve an international commitment that might last more than a decade. Especially in light of Western experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither Washington nor Europe, has the political will to undertake such an open ended mission, especially when the perceived strategic interests are ambiguous and the political outcome is in doubt. Besides, 9/11 has receded in relevance, although still insufficiently, and the Obama foreign policy, while being far too militaristic, is much less so than during the presidency of George W. Bush.

           

            Another approach would be to press harder for an insurgent victory by tightening sanctions on Syria or combining a weapons embargo on the regime with the supply of weapons to the opposition. This also seems difficult to pull off, and highly unlikely to bring about a positive outcome even if feasible. It is difficult to manage such an orchestration of the conflict in a manner that is effective, especially when there are strong proxy supporters on each side. Furthermore, despite much external political encouragement, especially by Turkey, the anti-Assad forces have been unable to generate any kind of leadership that is widely acknowledged either internally or externally, nor has the opposition been able to project a shared vision of a post-Assad Syria. The opposition is clearly split between secular and Islamist orientations, and this heightens the sense of not knowing what to expect what is being called ‘the day after.’ We have no reliable way of knowing whether escalating assistance to the rebels would be effective, and if so, what sort of governing process would emerge in Syria, and to what extent it would be abusive toward those who directly and indirectly sided with the government during the struggle.

 

            Under such circumstances seeking a ceasefire and negotiations between the parties still seems like the most sensible alternative among an array of bad options. This kind of emphasis has guided the diplomatic efforts of the UN/Arab League Special Envoys, first Kofi Annan, and now Lakhdar Brahimi, but so far producing only disillusionment. Neither side seems ready to abandon the battlefield, partly because of enmity and distrust, and partly because it still is unwilling to settle for anything less than victory. For diplomacy to have any chance of success would appear require both sides to entertain seriously the belief that a further continuation of the struggle is more threatening than ending it. Such a point has not been reached, and is not in sight.

 

           Despite the logic behind these failed efforts, to continue to pin hopes on this passive diplomacy under UN auspices seems problematic.  It grants the governing Assad regime time and space to continue to use means at its disposal to destroy its internal enemy, relying on high technology weaponry and indiscriminate tactics on a vast scale that are killing and terrifying far more civilians than combatants. Bombarding residential neighborhoods in Syrian cities with modern aircraft and artillery makes the survival of the regime appear far more significant for the rulers than is any commitment to the security and wellbeing of the Syrian people and even the survival of the country as a viable whole. It is deeply delegitimizing, and is generating a growing chorus of demands for indicting the Assad leadership for international crimes even while the civil war rages on. This criminal behavior expresses such an acute collective alienation on the part of the Damascus leadership as to forfeit the normal rights enjoyed by a territorial sovereign. These normal rights include the option of using force in accord with international humanitarian law to suppress an internal uprising or insurgency, but such rights do not extend to the commission of genocidal crimes of the sort attributable to the Assad regime in recent months. Although it must be admitted that the picture is complicated by the realization that not all of the criminal wrongdoing is on the regime side, yet the great preponderance is. The rebel forces, to be sure, are guilty of several disturbing atrocities. This is sad and unfortunate, as well as politically confusing so far as taking sides is concerned.  Overall, it adds to the victimization of the people of Syria that is reaching catastrophic proportions because it makes more difficult the mobilization of international support for concerted action.

 

           

            Essentially, the world shamelessly watches the Syrian debacle in stunned silence, but it is fair to ask what could be done that is not being done? So far no credible pro-active international scenario has emerged. There are sensible suggestions for establishing local ceasefires in the considerable areas in the countryside under the control of rebel forces, for supplying food and medical supplies to the population by means of protected ‘humanitarian corridors,’ and for taking steps to improve the woeful lot of Syrian refugees currently facing inadequate accommodations and unacceptable hardships in Lebanon and Jordan. Such steps should be taken, but are unlikely to hasten or alter outcome of the conflict. Can more be done?

 

            I would further recommend a broad policy of support for civil society activists within Syria and outside who are dedicated to a democratic inclusive governing process that affirms human rights for all, and promises constitutional arrangements that will privilege no one ethnic or religious identity and will give priority to the protection of minorities. There are encouraging efforts underway by networks of Syrian activists, working mainly from Washington and Istanbul, to project such a vision as a program in the form of a Freedom Charter that aspires to establish a common platform for a future beneficial for all of Syria’s people. The odds of success for this endeavor of politics from below seem remote at present for these activist undertakings, but they deserve our support and confidence. As often is the case when normal politics are paralyzed, the only solution for a tragic encounter appears to be utopian until it somehow materializes and becomes history. This dynamic was illustrated by the benign unraveling of South African apartheid in the early 1990s against all odds, and in opposition to a consensus among experts that expected emancipation of the victims of apartheid to come, if at all, only through success in a long and bloody war.

 

            Another initiative that could be taken, with great positive potential, but against the grain of current of Western, especially American, geopolitics, would be to take the Iran war option off the table.  Such a step would almost certainly have major tension-reducing effects in relation to regional diplomacy, and would be a desirable initiative to take quite independent of the Syrian conflict. The best way to do this would be to join with other governments in the region, including Iran, to sponsor a comprehensive security framework for the Middle East that features a nuclear weapons free zone, with an insistence that Israel join in the process. Of course, for the United States to advocate such moves would be to shake the foundations of its unconditional endorsement of whatever Israel favors and does, and yet it would seem over time even to be of greater benefit to Israeli security than an engagement in a permanent struggle to maintain Israeli military dominance in the region while denying the right of self-determination to the Palestinian people. If American leaders could finally bring themselves to serve the national interest of the United States by acting as if the peace and security of Israel can only be achieved if the rights of the Palestinian people under international law are finally realized it would have many likely positive effects for the Middle East and beyond.  As matters now stand, the dismal situation in the region is underscored by the degree to which such prudent proposals remain in the domain of the unthinkable, and are kept outside the disciplined boundaries of ‘responsible debate.’

 

            If the imagination of the political is limited to the ‘art of the possible’ then constructive responses to the Syrian tragedy seem all but foreclosed.  Only what appears to be currently implausible has any prospect of providing the Syrian people and their nation with a hopeful future, and we need the moral fortitude to engage with what we believe is right even if we cannot demonstrate that it will prevail in the end.

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

9 Oct

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Kenneth Waltz is not Crazy, but he is Dangerous: Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East

6 Jul


  

            It seems surprising that the ultra-establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, would go to the extreme of publishing a lead article by the noted political scientist, Kenneth Waltz, with the title “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb” in its current issue. It is more the reasoning of the article than the eye-catching title that flies in the face of the anti-proliferation ethos that has been the consensus lynchpin of nuclear weapons states, and especially the United States. At the same time, Waltz takes pain to avoid disavowing his mainstream political identity. He echoes without pausing to reflect upon the evidence undergirding the rather wobbly escalating assumption that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons at this time. Waltz does acknowledge that Iran might be only trying to have a ‘breakout’ capability of the sort long possessed by Japan and several other countries, that is, the technological capacity if facing a national emergency to assemble a few bombs in a matter of months. Nowhere does Waltz allude to the recently publicized agreement among the 14 American intelligence agencies that there is no evidence that Iran has decided to resume its military program that had been reportedly abandoned in 2003. In other ways, as well, Waltz signals his general support for the American approach to Israeli security other than in relation to nuclear weapons, and so, it should be clear, Waltz is not a political dissenter, a policy radical, nor even a critic of Israel’s role in the region.

 

Waltz’s Three Options

 

            Waltz insists that aside from the breakout option, there are two other plausible scenarios worth considering: sanctions and coercive diplomacy to induce Iran “to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons,” which he deems unlikely to overcome a genuine appetite for the bomb, or Iran defies the pressures and acquires nuclear weapons, which he regards as the most desirable of the three options. It seems reasonable to wonder ‘why.’ In essence, Waltz is arguing that experience and logic demonstrate that the relations among states become more stable, less war-prone, when a balance is maintained, and that there is no reason to think that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons it would not behave in accordance with the deterrence regime that has discouraged all uses of nuclear weapons ever since 1945, and especially during the Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. In this regard, Waltz is expressing what I regard to be a wildly exaggerated faith in the rationality and prudence of leaders who make decisions on matters of war and peace.

 

            He does make a contextual argument that I mostly agree with, namely, that Israel alone possessing a regional nuclear monopoly is more dangerous and undesirable than Iran becoming a second nuclear weapons state in the region. In effect, a regional nuclear monopolist is worse than a regional system of balance that incorporates deterrence logic. For Israel to be deterred would contribute to peace and security in the region, and this seems likely to reduce somewhat, although at a level of risk far short of zero, the prospect of any use of nuclear weapons and other forms of aggression in the Middle East. But to say that A (Iran gets the bomb) is better than B (breakout capability but no bomb) and C (sanctions and coercive diplomacy induce Iran to forego bomb) is to forget about D, which is far better than A, B, and C in relation to sustainable stability, but also because it represents an implicit acknowledgement that the very idea of basing security upon the threat to annihilate hundreds of thousand, if not more, innocent persons is a moral abomination that has already implicated the nuclear weapons states in a security policy, which if ever tested by threat and use, would be genocidal, if not omnicidal, and certainly criminal. This anti-nuclear posture was substantially endorsed by a majority of judges in a groundbreaking Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on 8 July 1996, although these strong findings as to international law were, not surprisingly, cast aside and ignored by the nuclear weapons states, most defiantly by the United States.

 

The Case for Option D

 

            What then is Option D? Option D would involve the negotiation and implementation of a nuclear weapons free zone throughout the Middle East (MENFZ), reinforced by non-aggression commitments, normalization of economic and political relations, and ideally accompanied by genuine progress toward a just and sustainable Palestine/Israel peace accord. Significantly, Waltz does not even pause to consider it as in all likelihood he regards such an approach as completely inconsistent with the hard power realities of global diplomacy, making it foolish and irrelevant to take the possibility of a MENFZ seriously. Needless to say, D is also not in the Netanyahu playbook, and quite likely no future Israeli leader will be prepared to give up the nuclear weapons arsenal that Israel has been consistently acquiring and developing over the last four decades. And it seems fair to conjecture that anyone who proposes a MENFZ would be at odds with the realist camp in international relations, and such a piece would almost certainly be rejected by the editors of Foreign Affairs, among the most ardent guardians of the realist status quo.

 

            Waltz’s preference for A, favoring an Iranian bomb, is an extension of his long-standing belief that proliferation as actually desirable based on a view of global security that depends on sustaining power balances. In my judgment this carries confidence in the logic of deterrence (that is, the rationality of not using the bomb because of a fear of nuclear retaliation) to absurd degrees that go well beyond even the extreme rationality relied upon by the most influential war thinkers during the Cold War era. In this sense, Waltz is correct to equate the Middle East with the rest of the world, and not engage in the widespread practice of ethno-religious profiling: that is, Israel’s bomb is okay because it is a rational and ‘Western,’ while Iran’s bomb would be a world order disaster as it is irrational and governed by Islamic zealots that have declared their implacable hostility to Israel. If such distinctions are to be made, which is doubtful, it should be appreciated that Israel is the antagonist that has been threatening war and pushing for coercive diplomacy, while it is Iran that has so far peacefully tolerated a variety of severe provocations, acts of war, such as the assassination of several of its nuclear scientists, the infecting of its enrichment centrifuges with the Stuxnet virus, and verified violent covert acts designed to destabilize the Tehran regime. Had such incidents been reversed, it is more than 100% likely that Israel would have immediately gone to war against Iran, quite likely setting the entire region on fire.

 

Objections to Option A

 

            My basic objection to the Waltz position is a disagreement with two of his guiding assumptions: first, with respect to the region, that other countries would not follow Iran across the nuclear threshold, an assessment he bases largely on their failure to acquire nuclear weapons in response to Israel’s acquisition of the capability. Surely Saudi Arabia and Turkey would not, for reasons of international status and perceived security, want to be non-nuclear states in a neighborhood in which both Israel and Iran had the bomb. Such an expansion of the regional nuclear club would become more prone to accident, miscalculation, and the sort of social and political pathology that makes nuclear weaponry generally unfit for human use in a conflict, whatever the region or occasion. In this respect, the more governments possess the bomb, the more likely it becomes that one of those horrible scenarios about a nuclear war will become history.

 

            And secondly, Waltz does not single out nuclear weapons for condemnation on either ethical or prudential grounds. In fact, he seems to hold the view that we can be thankful for the bomb as otherwise the Cold War would likely have resulted in a catastrophic World War III. In my view to have sought the bomb and then used it against the helpless Japanese at the end of World War II was certainly one of the worst instances of Promethean excess in human history, angering not only the gods but exhibiting a scary species death wish. Leaders have acknowledged this moral truth from time to time, most recently by Barack Obama in his 2009 Prague speech calling for a world without nuclear weapons, but politicians, including Obama, seem unable and unwilling to take the heat that following through would certainly entail. In the end, anti-nuclearism for leaders seems mainly an exercise in rhetoric, apparently persuasive in Norway where the Nobel Prize committee annually ponders the credentials of candidates, but without any behavioral consequences relating to the weaponry itself.  To be sure nuclear policies are challenged from time to time by a surge of anti-nuclear populism. In this regard, to favor the acquisition of the bomb by any government or political organization is to embrace the nuclearist fallacy relating to security and the absurd hubris of presupposing an impeccable rationality over long stretches of time, which has never been the case in human affairs.

 

            The secrecy surrounding policy bearing on nuclear weapons, especially the occasions of their possible use, also injects an absolutist virus into the vital organs of a democratic body politic. There is no participation by the people or even their representatives in relation to this most ultimate of political decisions, vesting in a single person, and perhaps including his most intimate advisors, a demonic capability to unleash such a catastrophic capability. We now know that even beyond the devastation and radiation, the smoke released by the use of as few as 50 nuclear bombs would generate so much smoke as to block sunlight from the earth for as long as a decade, dooming much of the agriculture throughout the world, a dynamic that has been called ‘a nuclear famine.’ As disturbing as such a possibility should be to those responsible for the security of society, there is little evidence that such a realization of the secondary effects of nuclear explosions is even present in political consciousness. And certainly the citizenry is largely ignorant of such a dark eventuality bound up with the retention of nuclear weapons.

 

            It is for these reasons that I would call Kenneth Waltz dangerous, not crazy. Indeed, it is his extreme kind of instrumental rationality that is dominant in many influential venues, and helps explain the development, possession, and apparent readiness to use nuclear weapons under certain conditions despite the risks and the immorality of the undertaking. If human society is ever to be again relatively safe, secure, and morally coherent, a first step is to renounce nuclear weapons unconditionally and proceed with urgency by way of an agreed, phased, monitored, and verified international agreement to ensure their elimination from the face of the earth. It is not only that deterrence depends on perfect rationality over time and across space, it is also that the doctrine and practices of deterrence amounts to a continuing crime against humanity of unprecedented magnitude and clarity!    

 

  

Nuclear Weapons are not Instruments of Peace!

10 Apr


 

            A few days ago I was a participant in a well-attended academic panel on ‘the decline of violence and warfare’ at the International Studies Association’s Annual Meeting held this year in San Diego, California. The two-part panel featured appraisal of the common argument of two prominent recent publications: Steven Pinker’s best-selling The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined and Joshua Goldstein’s well-researched, informative, and provocative Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide. Both books are disposed to rely upon quantitative data to back up their optimistic assessments of international and domestic political behavior, which if persuasive, offer humanity important reasons to be hopeful about the future. Much of their argument depends on an acceptance of their interpretation of battlefield deaths worldwide, which according to their assessments have declined dramatically in recent decades. But do battlefield deaths tell the whole story, or even the real story, about the role and dangers of political violence and war in our collective lives?

 

            My role was to be a member of the Goldstein half of the panel. Although I had never previously met Joshua Goldstein I was familiar with his work and reputation as a well regarded scholar in the field of international relations.  To offer my response in the few minutes available to me I relied on a metaphor that drew a distinction between a ‘picture’ and its ‘frame.’ I found the picture of war and warfare presented by Goldstein as both persuasive and illuminating, conveying in authoritative detail information about the good work being doing by UN peacekeeping forces in a variety of conflict settings around the world, as well as a careful crediting of peace movements with a variety of contributions to conflict resolution and war avoidance. Perhaps, the most enduringly valuable part of the book is its critical debunking of prevalent myths about the supposedly rising proportion of civilian casualties in recent wars and inflated reports of casualties and sexual violence in the Congo Wars of 1998-2003. These distortions, corrected by Goldstein, have led to a false public perception that wars and warfare are growing more indiscriminate and brutal in recent years, while the most reliable evidence points in the opposite direction.

 

            Goldstein is convincing in correcting such common mistakes about political violence and war in the contemporary world, but less so when it comes to the frame and framing of this picture that is conveyed by his title ‘winning the war on war’ and the arguments to this effect that is the centerpiece of his book, and accounts for the interest that it is arousing. For one thing the quantitative measures relied upon do not come to terms with the heightened qualitative risks of catastrophic warfare or the continued willingness of leading societies to anchor their security on credible threats to annihilate tens of millions of innocent persons, which if taking the form of a moderate scale nuclear exchange (less than 1% of the world’s stockpile of weapons) is likely to cause, according to reliable scientific analysis, what has been called ‘a nuclear famine’ resulting in a sharp drop in agricultural output that could last as long as ten years and could be brought about by the release of dense clouds of smoke blocking incoming sunlight.  <http://www.nucleardarkness.org/index2.php&gt;

 

            Also on the panel were such influential international relations scholars as John Mearsheimer who shared with me the view that the evidence in Goldstein’s book did not establish that, as Mearsheimer put it, ‘war had been burned out of the system,’ or that even such a trend meaningfully could be inferred from recent experience. Mearsheimer widely known for his powerful realist critique of the Israeli Lobby (in collaboration with Stephen Walt) did make the important point that the United States suffers from ‘an addiction to war.’ Mearsheimer did not seem responsive to my insistence on the panel that part of this American addiction to war arose from role being played by entrenched domestic militarism a byproduct of the permanent war economy that disposed policy makers and politicians in Washington to treat most security issues as worthy of resolution only by considering the options offered by thinking within militarist box of violence and sanctions, a viewpoint utterly resistant to learning from past militarist failures (as in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Iran). In my view the war addiction is real, but can only be treated significantly if understood to be a consequence of this blinkering of policy choice by a militarized bureaucracy in nation’s capital that is daily reinforced by a compliant media and a misguided hard power realist worldview sustained by high paid private sector lobbyists and the lure of corporate profits, and continuously rationalized by well funded subsidized think tanks such as The Hoover Institution, The Heritage Foundation, and The American Enterprise Institute. Dwight Eisenhower in his presidential farewell speech famously drew attention to the problem that has grown far worse through the years when he warned the country about ‘the military-industrial complex’ back in 1961.

 

            What to me was most shocking about the panel was not its overstated claims that political violence was declining and war on the brink of disappearing, but the unqualified endorsement of nuclear weapons as deserving credit for keeping the peace during Cold War and beyond. Nuclear weapons were portrayed as if generally positive contributors to establishing a peaceful and just world, provided only that they do not fall into unwanted hands (which means ‘adversaries of the West,’ or more colorfully phrased by George W. Bush as ‘the axis of evil’) as a result of proliferation. In this sense, although not made explicit in the conversation, Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons set forth at Prague on April 5, 2009 seems irresponsible from the perspective of achieving a less war-prone world. I had been previously aware of Mearsheimer’s support for this position in his hyper-realist account of how World War III was avoided in the period between 1945-1989, but I was not prepared for Goldstein and the well regarded peace researcher, Andrew Mack, blandly to endorse such a conclusion without taking note of the drawbacks of such ‘a nuclear peace.’ Goldstein in his book writes on p.42, “[n]uclear deterrence may in fact help to explain why World War III did not occur during the Cold War—certainly an important accomplishment.” Goldstein does insist that this role of nuclear weapons has problematic aspects associated with some risk of unintended or accidental use and cannot by itself explain other dimensions of the decline of political violence, which rests on a broader set of developments that are usefully depicted elsewhere in the book. These qualifications are welcome but do not offset a seeming willingness to agree that nuclear weapons seemed partly responsible for the avoidance of World War III or the liberal internationalist view, perhaps most fully articulated by Joseph Nye, that an arms control approach is a sufficient indication that the threat posed by the possession and deployment of nuclear weaponry is being responsibly addressed. [Nye, Nuclear Ethics(New York: Free Press, 1986)]  

 

            Steven Pinker in his book takes a more nuanced position on nuclear weapons, arguing that if it were indeed correct to credit nuclear weapons with the avoidance of World War III, there would be grounds for serious concern. He correctly asserts that such a structure of peace would be “a fool’s paradise, because an accident, a miscommunication, or an air force general obsessed with precious bodily fluids could set off an apocalypse.”  Pinker goes on to conclude that “[t]hankfully, a closer look suggests that the threat of nuclear annihilation deserves little credit for the Long Peace.” (p.268) Instead, Pinker persuasively emphasizes the degree to which World War III was discouraged by memories of the devastation experienced in World War II combined with the realization that advances in conventional weaponry would make a major war among leading states far more deadly than any past war even if no nuclear weapons were used.

 

            Pinker also believes that a ‘nuclear taboo’ developed after World War II to inhibit recourse to nuclear weapons in all but the most extreme situations, and that this is the primary explanation of why the weapons were not used in a variety of combat settings during the 67 years that have passed since a single atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. But Pinker does not raise deeply disturbing questions about the continued possession and threat to use such weaponry that is retained by a few of the world’s states. Or if the taboo was so strong, why this weaponry remains on hair trigger alert more than 20 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and why on several occasions a threat to use nuclear weapons was used to discourage an adversary from taking certain actions. (see for instance, Steven Starr, “On the overwhelming urgency of de-alerting US & Russian missiles, http://ifyoulovethisplanet.org/?p=3358) And it the taboo was so valued, why did the United States fight so hard, it turns out unsuccessfully, to avoid having the International Court of Justice pronounce on the legality of nuclear weapons? (see ICJ Advisory Opinion, 8 July 1996; < http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/95/7495.pdf>) And why has the United States, along with some of the other nuclear weapons states, refused to declare ‘a no first use policy.’ The taboo exists, to be sure, but it is conditional and has been contested in times of international crisis, and its strength rests on the costs associated with any further use of nuclear weapons, including creating a precedent that might work against future interests.

 

            Most surprising than these comments on how the presence of nuclear weapons dissuaded the United States and the Soviet Union from going to war, was the failure of my co-panelists to surround their endorsement of the war-avoiding presence of nuclear weapons with moral and prudential qualifiers. At minimum, they might have acknowledged the costs and risks of tying strategic peace so closely to threatened mass devastation and civilizational, and perhaps species, catastrophe, a realization given sardonic recognition in the Cold War by the widely used acronym MAD (mutually assured destruction). The questions put by the audience also avoided this zone of acute moral and prudential insensitivity, revealing the limits of rational intelligence in addressing this most formidable challenge if social and political construction of a humane world order was recognized as a shared goal of decent people. It is unimaginable to reach any plateau of global justice without acting with resolve to rid the world of nuclear weaponry; the geopolitical ploy of shifting attention from disarmament to proliferation does not address the moral depravity of relying on genocidal capabilities and threats to uphold vital strategic interests of a West-centric world (Chinese nuclear weapons, and even those few possessed by North Korea, although dangerous and morally objectionable, at least seem acquired solely for defensive and deterrent purposes).

 

            I doubt very much that such a discussion of the decline of war and political violence could take place anywhere in the world other than North America, and possibly Western Europe and Japan. Of course, this does not by itself invalidate its central message, but it does raise questions about what is included and what is excluded in an Americans only debate (Mack is an Australian). Aside from the U.S. being addicted to war I heard no references in the course of the panel and discussion to the new hierarchies in the world being resurrected by indirect forms of violence and intervention after the collapse of colonialism, or of structural violence that shortens life by poverty, disease, and human insecurity. I cannot help but wonder whether some subtle corruption has seeped into the academy over the years, especially at elite universities whose faculty received invitations to work as prestigious consultants by the Washington security establishment, or in extreme cases, were hosts to lucrative arrangements that included giving weapons labs a university home and many faculty members a salary surge. Princeton, where I taught for 40 years, was in many respects during the Cold War an academic extension of the military-industrial complex, with humanists advising the CIA, a dean recruiting on behalf of the CIA, a branch of the Institute for Defense Analysis on campus doing secret contract work on counterinsurgency warfare, and a variety of activities grouped under the anodyne heading of ‘security studies’ being sponsored by outside financing. Perhaps, such connections did not spillover into the classroom or induce self-censorship in writing and lecturing, but this is difficult to assess.

 

            The significance of this professional discussion of nuclear weaponry in 2012, that is, long after the militarized atmosphere of the Cold War period has happily passed from the scene, can be summarized: To witness otherwise perceptive and morally motivated scholars succumbing to the demons of nuclearism is a bad omen; for me this nuclearist complacency is an unmistakable sign of cultural decadence that can only bring on disaster for the society, the species, and the world at some indeterminate future point. We cannot count on our geopolitical luck lasting forever! And we Americans, cannot possibly retain the dubious advantages of targeting the entire world with these weapons of mass destruction without experiencing the effects of a profound spiritual decline, which throughout human history, has always been the prelude to political decline, if not collapse. David Krieger, President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and I explore this range of issues in our recently published book, The Path to Zero: Dialogues on Nuclear Dangers (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2012).

Why not get the Law and Politics Right in Iran?

23 Mar

 

In his important article in the New York Times, March 17, 2012, James Risen summarized the consensus of the intelligence community as concluding that Iran abandoned its program to develop nuclear weapons in 2003, and that no persuasive evidence exists that it has departed from this decision. It might have been expected that such news based on the best evidence that billions spent to get the most reliable possible assessments of such sensitive security issues would produce a huge sigh of relief in Washington, but on the contrary it has been totally ignored, including by the highest officers in the government. The president has not even bothered to acknowledge this electrifying conclusion that should have put the brakes on what appears to be a slide toward a disastrous regional war. We must ask ‘why’ such a prudent and positive course of action has not been adopted, or at least explored,

 

Given that the American debate proceeds on the basis of the exact opposite assumption– as if Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons is a virtual certainty.  This contrary finding that it is a high probability that iran gave up its quest of nuclear weapons almost a decade ago is quite startling. Listening to the Republican presidential candidates or even to President Obama makes it still seem as if Iran is without doubt hell bent on having nuclear weapons at the earliest possible time. With such a misleading approach the only question that seems worth asking is whether to rely on diplomacy backed by harsh sanctions to achieve the desired goal or that only an early attack to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold.

 

It seems perverse that this public debate on policy toward Iran should be framed in such a belligerent and seemingly wrongheaded manner. After all the United States was stampeded into a disastrous war against Iraq nine years ago on the basis of deceptive reports about its supposed stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, trumped up exile allegations, and media hype. I would have assumed that these bad memories would make Washington very cautious about drifting toward war with Iran, a far more dangerous enemy than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It would seem that at present the politicians are distrustful of reassuring intelligence reports and completely willing to go along with the intelligence community when it counsels war as ‘a slam dunk.’

 

Reinforcing this skepticism about Iran’s nuclear intentions is a realistic assessment of the risk posed in the unlikely event that the intelligence community’s consensus is wrong, and Iran after all succeeds in acquiring nuclear weapons. As former heads of Mossad and others have pointed out the existential threat to Israel even then would still be extremely low. It would be obvious that Iran’s few bombs could never be used against Israel or elsewhere without producing an annihilating response. There is no evidence that Iran has any disposition to commit national suicide.

 

There is a further troubling aspect of how this issue is being addressed. Even in the Risen article it is presumed that if the evidence existed that Iran possesses a nuclear weapons program, a military attack would be a permissible option. Such a presumption is based on the irrelevance of international law to a national decision to attack a sovereign state, and a silent endorsement of ‘aggressive war’ that had been criminalized back in 1945 as the principal conclusion of the Nuremberg Judgment.

 

This dubious thinking has gone unchallenged in the media, in government pronouncements, and even in diplomatic posturing. We need to recall that at the end of World War II when the UN was established states agreed in the UN Charter to give up their military option except in clear instances of self-defense. To some extent over the years this prohibition has been eroded, but in the setting of Iran policy it has been all but abandoned without even the pressure of extenuating circumstances.

 

Of course, it would be unfortunate if Iran acquires nuclear weapons given the instability of the region, and the general dangers associated with their spread. But no international law argument or precedent is available to justify attacking a sovereign state because it goes nuclear. After all, Israel became a stealth nuclear weapons state decades ago without a whimper of opposition from the West, and the same goes for India, Pakistan, and even North Korea’s acquisition of weapons produced only a

muted response that soon dropped from sight.

 

There are better policy options that are worth exploring, which uphold international law and have a good chance of leading to regional stability. The most obvious option is containment that worked for decades against an expansionist Soviet Union with a gigantic arsenal of nuclear weapons. A second option would be to establish a nuclear weapons free zone for the Middle East, an idea that has been around for years, and enjoys the endorsement of most governments in the region, including Iran. Israel might seem to have the most to lose by a nuclear free zone in the Middle East because it alone currently possesses nuclear weapons, but Israel would benefit immensely by the reduction in regional tensions and probable economic and diplomatic side benefits, particularly if accompanied by a more constructive approach to resolving the conflict with the Palestinian people. The most ambitious option, given political credibility by President Obama in his Prague speech of 2009 expressing a commitment to a world without nuclear weapons, would be to table a proposal for complete nuclear disarmament on a step-by-step basis. Each of these approaches seem far preferable to what is now planned, are prudent, accord with common sense, show respect for international law, a passion for the peaceful resolution of conflict, and at minimum deserve to be widely discussed and appraised.

 

As it is there is no legal foundation in the Nonproliferation Treaty or elsewhere for the present reliance on threat diplomacy in dealing with Iran. These threats violate Article 2(4) of the UN Charter that wisely prohibits not only uses of force but also threats to use force. Iran diplomacy presents an odd case, as political real politik and international law clearly point away from the military option, and yet the winds of war are blowing ever harder. Perhaps even at this eleventh hour our political leaders can awake to realize anew that respect for international law provides the only practical foundation for a rational and sustainable foreign policy in the 21st century.

The Menace of Present & Future Drone Warfare

12 Feb


 

            After the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the colossal scale of devastation disclosed, there was a momentary embrace of sanity and rationality by world leaders and cultural commentators. There was a realization that living with such weaponry was at best a precarious journey into the future, and far more likely, an appointment with unprecedented human catastrophe if not apocalypse. This dark mood of foreboding did produce some gestures toward nuclear disarmament tabled initially by the U.S. Government, but in a form that reasonably struck others at the time, especially the Soviet Union, as a bad bargain—the U.S. was proposing getting rid of the weapons for the present, but retaining the materials, the technology, and the experience needed to win handily any nuclear rearmament race. In other words, the United States offered the world a Faustian Bargain that rested on bestowing trust upon the dominant geopolitical actor on the global stage, and depended crucially on Soviet willingness to go along on such a basis, an option that never seriously tempted the Stalinist approach to world order.

 

            It should not seem surprising then or now that given the political consciousness of those running the strongest and richest modern states, that this kind of one-sided deal was not an attractive response to nuclear weaponry. Even the governments most closely allied with the United States in World War II, the United Kingdom and France, were unwilling to forego the status and claimed security benefits of becoming second tier nuclear weapons state. And of course, America’s rivals, first, the Soviet Union and later China, never hesitated to develop their own nuclear weapons capability, interpreting security and global stature through the universal geopolitical optic of countervailing hard power, that is, maximizing military capabilities to defend and attack. Thus disarmament faded into the obscurity of wishful thinking, and in its place a costly and unstable nuclear arms race ensued during the whole of the Cold War, with an array of situations that came close to subjecting humanity to the specter of a nuclear war. That this worst of all nightmares never materialized provides little reassurance about the future, especially if public and elite complacency about the risk of nuclear warfare persists.

 

            What is less appreciated than this failure to eliminate the weaponry in the immediate aftermath of World War II was the adoption and implementation of a Plan B.  The United States pushed hard for the negotiations that led in 1968 to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which was successfully marketed to most states in the world. The NPT represented a one-sided bargain in which non-weapons states agreed to give up their weapons option in exchange for two commitments by nuclear weapons states: to share fully the non-military benefits of nuclear technology, especially relating to producing energy that was early on expected to be both clean and cheap; and to undertake in good faith efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament as the earliest possible time, and even to go further, and to work toward the negotiation of general and complete disarmament. This nonproliferation agreement over the years, although a success in Western realist circles, has experienced a number of discrediting setbacks: a few countries with nuclear weapons ambitions stayed outside the treaty and managed to acquire the weaponry without adverse consequences to themselves (India, Pakistan, Israel), while others (Iraq, Iran) have been attacked or threatened because they were suspected of seeking nuclear weapons; there has been a virtual failure of will to seek nuclear disarmament despite a unanimous World Court reaffirmation of the NPT obligations in its 1996 Advisory Opinion on The Legality of Nuclear Weapons; and there has been a discriminatory pattern of geopolitical management of the NPT, most notably ignoring Israel’s nuclear weapons program while treating Iran’s alleged pursuit of a breakout capability as justifying recourse to war.

 

            This nonproliferation approach has been accompanying by three massive forms of deception that continues to mislead public opinion and discourage serious debate about the benefits of nuclear disarmament even at this late stage: First, the fallacious implication that the states that do not possess nuclear weapons are currently more dangerous for world peace than the states that possess, develop, and deploy these weapons of mass destruction, and have used them in the past; secondly, that periodic managerial moves among nuclear weapons states, in the name of arms control, are steps in the direction of nuclear disarmament—nothing could be further from the truth as arms control aims to save money and stabilize reliance on nuclear weaponry by way of deterrence, and is generally averse to getting rid of the weaponry; thirdly, the phony claim, endorsed by Barack Obama in his Prague speech of 2009 on the theme, that obtaining a world without nuclear weapons is to be sure an ‘ultimate’ goal to be affirmed, but that it is not a political project that can be achieved in real time by way of a phased and verified nuclear disarmament treaty. In actuality, there is no genuine obstacle to prudently phasing out these weapons over the course of a decade or so. What blocks the elimination of nuclear weapons is only the dysfunctional refusal of the nine nuclear weapons states to give up the weaponry.

 

            It should be appreciated that this two-tier approach to nuclear weaponry is a departure from the approach taken to other weapons of mass destruction—that is, either prohibiting a weapon altogether or allowing its use in a manner consistent with the principles of customary international law bearing on the conduct of war (proportionality, discrimination, necessity, and humanity). Regimes of unconditional prohibition exist with respect to biological and chemical weapons, and are respected, at least outwardly, by the main global geopolitical actors. Why the difference? The atom bombs dropped on Japan were to a degree, despite the havoc, legitimized because used by the prevailing side in what was claimed to be military necessity and perceived as a just war. The contrast with the prohibition of chemical weapons widely used by the German losing side in World War I illustrates the lawmaking role of geopolitically dominant political actors that impose their will on the evolution of international law, especially in the security domain.

 

            The U.S. reliance on attack drones to engage in targeted killing, especially in third countries (Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Pakistan) has raised controversial international law issues of sovereign rights in interaction with lethal acts of war, especially those far removed from the zone of live combat. The increasing reliance on drones during the Obama presidency has produced unintended deaths, civilians in the vicinity of the target and attacks directed at the wrong personnel, as with the NATO helicopter attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers who had been deployed near the Afghan border on November 25, 2011, provoking a major international incident (although not a drone attack, it was linked by angered Palistani officials to similar mis-targeting by drones). There are also unconfirmed reports of drone follow up raids at sites of targeted killing that seem directed at those who mount rescue operations or arrange funerals for prior victims. As with the Bush torture debate the political leadership in Washington has turned for justifications to government lawyers who have responded by developing drone legal briefs that seem somewhat analogous to the notorious Yoo ‘torture memos.’ There are, however, some differences in the two contexts that work against equating the two controversies about post-9/11 war making.

 

            For one thing, torture has a long history, having been practiced by governments for centuries, and its relatively recent prohibition is embedded in a clear norm criminalizing torture that is contained in the International Torture Convention of 1984. Torture is also enumerated as one of the Crimes Against Humanity in the statute of the International Criminal Court. Drone technology adapted to serve as a battlefield weapon is, in contrast, of extremely recent origin. Nothing in international law exists that is comparably specific with respect to drone attacks to the legal repudiation of torture. There is some resemblance between efforts by Obama law officials to stretch the conception of self-defense beyond previously understood limits to justify targeted killing and the Bush lawyers who claimed that water boarding was not torture. Expanding the prior understanding of the legal right of self-defense represents a self-serving reinterpretation of this core international legal norm by the U.S. Government. It seems opportunistic and unpersuasive and seems unlikely to be generally accepted as a reframing of the right of self-defense under international law.

 

            Perhaps, the most important difference between the torture and drone debates has to do with future implications. Although there are some loopholes involving extraordinary rendition and secret CIA operated overseas black sites, torture has been credibly prohibited by President Obama. Beyond this, the repudiation of torture has been understood in a manner that conforms to the general international consensus rather than the narrowed conception insisted upon by the Bush-era legalists. In contrast, drones seem destined to be central to operational planning for future military undertakings of the United States, with sharply escalating appropriations to support both the purchase of increasing numbers and varieties of drone. The government is  engaging in a major research program designed to make drones available for an expanding range of military missions and to serve as the foundation of a revolutionary transformation of the way America will fight future wars. Some of these revolutionary features are already evident: casualty-free military missions; subversion of territorial sovereignty; absence of transparency and accountability; further weakening of political constraints on recourse to war.

 

            Future war scenarios involve attacks by drones swarms, interactive squadrons of drones re-targeting while in a combat zone without human participation, and covert attacks using mini-drones. A further serious concern is the almost certain access to drone technology by private sectors actors. These musings are not science fiction, but well financed undertakings at  or beyond the development stage. It is in these settings of fhere, especially, where the analogy to nuclear weapons seems most pertinent, and discouraging. Given the amount invested and the anticipated profitability and utility of drones, it may already be too late to interrupt their development, deployment, and expanding sphere of use. Unlike nuclear weaponry, already some 50 countries reportedly possess drones, mainly adapted to surveillance. As with nuclear weaponry, the United States, and other leading political actors, will not agree to comprehensive prohibitions on the use of drones for lethal purposes.

 

            If this line of reasoning is generally correct, there are two likely futures for attack drones: an unregulated dispersion of the weaponry to public and private actors with likely strategic roles undermining traditional international law limits on war making and public order; or a new non-proliferation regime for drones that permits all states to possess and use surveillance drones within sovereign space and allows some states to make discretionary use of drones globally and for attack purposes until a set on constraining regulations can be agreed upon by a list of designated states. That is, drone military technology will perpetuate the two-tier concept of world order that has taken shape in relation to nuclear weapons, and reflects the consensus that both nuclear disarmament and unrestricted proliferation of nuclear weaponry are unacceptable. In this regard, a counter-proliferation regime for drones is a lesser evil, but still an evil.

 

            The technological momentum that has built up in relation to drones is probably too strong to be challenged politically. The military applications are too attractive, the technology is of a cutting edge fantasy quality, the political appeal of war fighting that involves minimum human risk is too great. At the same time, for much of the world this kind of unfolding future delivers a somber message of a terrifying unfolding vulnerability. At present, there seems to be no way to insulate societies from either intrusive and perpetual surveillance or the prospect of targeted killing and devastation conducted from a remote location. It may be contended that such an indictment of drones exaggerates their novelty. Has not the world lived for decades with weapons of mass destruction possessed by a small number of non-accountable governments and deliverable anywhere on the planet in a matter of minutes? This is superficially true, and frightening enough, but the catastrophic quality of nuclear weaponry and its release of atmospheric radioactivity operates as an inhibitor of uncertain reliability, while with drone their comparative inexpensiveness and non-apocalyptic character makes it much easier to drift mindlessly until an unanticipated day of reckoning occurs by which time all possibilities of control will have been long lost.

 

            As with nuclear weaponry, climate change, and respect for the carrying capacity of the earth, we who are alive at present may be the last who have even the possibility of upholding the life prospects of future generations. It seems late, but still not too late to act responsibly, but we will not be able to make such claims very much longer. Part of the challenge is undoubtedly structural. For most purposes, global governance depends on cooperation among sovereign states, but in matters of war and peace the world order system remains resolutely vertical and under the control of geopolitical actors, perhaps as few as one, who are unwilling to restrict their military activities to the confines of territorial boundaries, but insist on their prerogative to manage coercively the planet as a whole. When it comes to drones the fate of humanity is squeezed between the impotence of state-centric logic and the grandiose schemes of the geopolitical mentality. 

Nuclear Free Middle East: Desirable, Necessary, and Impossible

28 Jan

            Finally, there is some argumentation in the West supportive of a nuclear free zone for the Middle East. Such thinking is still treated as politically marginal, and hardly audible above the beat of the war drums. It also tends to be defensively and pragmatically phrased as in the NY Times article by Shibley Telhami and Steven Kull (I.15..2012) with full disclosure title, “Preventing a Nuclear Iran.” The article makes a prudential argument against attacking Iran based on prospects of a damaging Iranian retaliation and the inability of an attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear program at an acceptable cost. The most that could be achieved for would be a short delay in Iran’s acquisition of weaponry, and maybe not even that. An attack seems likely to create irresistible pressure in Iran to everything possible to obtain a nuclear option with a renewed sense of urgency.

            This argument is sensibly reinforced by pointing to respected public opinion surveys that show Israeli attitudes to be less war-inclined than had been generally assumed. According to a Israeli recent poll, only 43% of Israelis favoring a military strike, while 64% favored establishing a nuclear free zone (NFZ) in the region that included Israel. In effect, then, establishing a NFZ that includes Israel would seem politically feasible, although not a course of action that would be entertained by the current Tel Aviv governmental political climate. We can conclude that the silence of Washington with respect to such an alternative approach to the dispute with Iran confirms what is widely believed, namely, that the U.S. Government adheres to the official Israeli line, and is not particularly sensitive to the wishes of the Israeli public even to the extent of serving America’s own strong national interest in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.

            A variant of NFZ thinking has recently been attributed to Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to the United States and once the head of Saudi intelligence. He too argues that NFZ is a better alternative than the military option, which he contends should be removed from the table. Prince Turki insists that sanctions have not altered Iran’s behavior. His proposal is more complex than simply advocating a NFZ. He would favor sanctions against Iran is there is convincing evidence that it is seeking nuclear weapons, but he also supports sanctions imposed on Israel if it does not disclose openly the full extent of its nuclear weapons arsenal.  His approach has several additional features: extending the scope of the undertaking to all weapons of mass destruction (WMD), that is, including biological and chemical weapons; establishing a nuclear security umbrella for the region by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council; and seeking a resolution of outstanding conflicts in the region in accordance with the Mecca Arab proposals of 2002 that calls for Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights occupied in 1967, as well as the political and commercial normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world.

            Prince Turki warns that if such an arrangement is not soon put in place, and Iran proceeds with its nuclear program, other countries in the region, including Turkey, are likely to be drawn into an expensive and destabilizing nuclear arms race. In effect, as with Telhami and Kull, Prince Turki’s approach is designed to avoid worst case scenarios, but is framed mainly in relation to the future of the region rather than confined to the Israel/Iran confrontation.  

It concretely urges establishing such a framework with or without Israeli support at a conference of parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty scheduled for later in the year in Finland. Israel, not a party to the NPT, has not indicated its willingness to attend the conference at this point. As long ago as the 1995 NPT Review Conference the Arab countries put forward a proposal to establish in the Middle East a WMD free zone, but it has never been acted upon at any subsequent session. Israel, which is not a member of the NPT, has consistently taken the position over the years that a complete peace involving the region must precede any prohibition directed at the possession of nuclear weapons.

            The NFZ or WMDFZ initiatives need to be seen in the setting established by the NPT regime. An initial observation involves Israel’s failure to become a party to the NPT coupled with its covert nuclear program that resulted in the acquisition of the weaponry with the complicity of the West as documented in Seymour Hersh’s 1991 The Samson Option.  Such a pattern of behavior needs to be contrasted with that of Iran, a party to the NPT that has reported to and accepted, with some friction, inspections on its territory by the Western oriented International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran has consistently denied any ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, but has insisted on its rights under Article IV of the treaty to exercise “..its inalienable right..to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination..” Iran has been under constant threat of an attack by Israel, the target for several years of Israel’s dirty low intensity war, the target of a Congressionally funded destabilization program of the United States reinforced by a diplomacy that constantly reaffirms the relevance of the military option, and operates in a political climate that excludes consideration of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. What is surprising under these circumstances is that Iran has not freed itself from NPT obligation by exercising its option to withdraw from the treaty as it entitled to do by Article X provided only that it gives notice to other treaty parties and an explanation of its reasons for withdrawing.

            Comparing these Israeli and Iran patterns of behavior with respect to nuclear weapons, it is difficult not to conclude that it is Israel, not Iran, that should be subjected to sanctions, and pressure to participate in denuclearizing negotiations. After all, Israel acquired the weaponry secretly, has not been willing to participate in the near universal discipline to the NPT, and has engaged in aggressive wars repeatedly against its neighbors resulting in long-term occupations. It can be argued that Israel was entitled to enhance its security by remaining outside the NPT, and thus is acting within its sovereign rights. This is a coherent legalistic position, but we should all realize by now that the NPT is more a geopolitical than a legal regime, and that Iran, for instance, would be immediately subject to a punitive response if it tried to withdraw from the treaty. In other words geopolitical priorities override legal rights in the NPT setting.

         The NPT is shaped by its geopolitical nature. This is best illustrated by the utter refusal of the nuclear weapons states, above all the United States, to fulfill its obligation under Article VI “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” The International Court of Justice in its 1996 Advisory Opinion on The Legality of Nuclear Weapons unanimously affirmed in its findings the legal imperative embodied in Article VI: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament in all its aspects under strict international control.” This finding that has been completely ignored by the nuclear weapons states (who had earlier made a furious failed effort to dissuade the UN General Assembly from seeking guidance from the ICJ with respect to the legal status of nuclear weapons and the obligations of the NPT). The refusal to uphold these obligations of Article VI would certainly appear to be a material breach of the treaty that authorizes any party to regard the treaty as void. Again the international discourse on nuclear weapons is so distorted that it is a rarity to encounter criticism of its discriminatory application, its double standards as between nuclear and non-nuclear states, and its geopolitical style of selective enforcement. In this regard it should be appreciated that the threat of military attack directed at Iran resembles reliance on the so-called Bush Doctrine of preventive war that had been used to justify aggression against Iraq in 2003.

            In summary, it is of utmost importance to avoid a war in the Middle East arising from the unresolved dispute about Iran’s nuclear program. One way to do this is to seek a NFZ or a WMDFZ for the entire region that includes the participation of Israel. What has given this approach a renewed credibility for the West is that it seems the only way to avoid a lose/lose war option, that it possesses some prudential appeal to change minds in Tehran and Tel Aviv, and also to engage Washington in a less destructive and self-destructive course of action. Whether this prudential appeal is sufficiently strong to overcome the iron cage of militarism that guides policy choices in Israel and the United States remains doubtful. Thinking outside the militarist box remains a forbidden activity, partly reflecting the domestic lock on the political and moral imagination of these countries by their respective military industrial media think tank complexes.

            I would conclude this commentary with three pessimistic assessments that casts a dark shadow over the regional future:

(1)  an NFZ or WMDFZ for the Middle East is necessary and desirable, but it almost certainly will not placed on the political agenda of American-led diplomacy relating to the conflict;

(2)  moves toward nuclear disarmament negotiations that have been legally mandated and would be beneficial for the world, and for the nuclear weapons states and their peoples, will not be made in the current atmosphere that blocks all serious initiatives to abolish nuclear weapons;

(3)   the drift toward a devastating attack on Iran will only be stopped by an urgent mobilization of anti-war forces in civil society, which seems unlikely given other preoccupations.  

 

 

Criminalizing Diplomacy: Fanning the Flames of the Iran War Option

11 Nov

 

            How many times have we heard in recent weeks either outright threats to attack Iran mainly emanating from Israel or the more muted posture adopted by the United States that leaves ‘all options’ on the table including ‘the military option’? What has Iran done to justify this frantic war-mongering in a strategic region that is sorting out the contradictory effects of the long Arab Spring and is the contested site of energy geopolitics that has replaced territory and minerals as the core issue of world politics?

 

            As a matter of historical context, it is worth observing that the Western military interventions of recent years, Iraq and Libya, were both in oil-producing countries, devastating the country to achieve regime change, which remains the central tenet of the neocon/Netanyahu vision for a reconfiguration of power in the Middle East. It follows that Iran remains the only oil producer in the region that refuses to play nicely with West, and has been sanctioned to some degree ever since it achieved an anti-Western regime change back in 1979. In this setting of pre-war hysteria—pouring the fuel of rumor and threat on the fire of belligerent diplomacy—I have no intention of discounting the grievances of those who bravely opposed the theocratic regime from within after the fraudulent elections of June 2009 in the shape of the repressed Green Movement, but it is beside the point in the present debate.

 

            Why talk of oil if the war momentum is explicitly preoccupied with the alleged effort by Iran to obtain nuclear weapons? Let the facts speak for themselves. Where there is oil and an anti-Western government in power, recourse to the military option follows, or at least an insistence on sanctions that aim to be crippling and regime-changing. Just as in Iraq, the smokescreen in 2003 were its stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, and when that war justifying scenario was discredited, democracy and human rights abruptly took over as the strategic rationale. Not to be overlooked, of course, was backroom Israeli pressures to destroy the Baghdad regime of Saddam Hussein,  as well as the oil, involving both favorable access to the oil fields and some leverage over pricing. We all need to be reminded over and over again that Western prosperity rested on cheap oil, and its future prospects crucially depend on reliable supplies of oil at moderate prices. We need to be reminded because as Donald Rumsfeld once reassured the world, ‘America doesn’t do empire.’ Really! Concerns about oil security in the future are the real unacknowlegeable threats to the security of the West!

 

            Such illicit interventionary diplomacy should be unmasked. For once we can look to Moscow for a benign clarification. The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Gennady Galitov, was quoted as follows: “The world community will see additional sanctions against Iran as an instrument of regime change in Tehran. We cannot accept this approach.” The plausibility of this interpretation is given further credibility by Iranian exile voices calling for targeting Iran’s central bank and currency with the avowed intention of bringing such hardship to the people of Iran as to mount destabilizing pressures from below on the Tehran government. The leader of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, has repeatedly spoken against international sanctions, insisting that they hurt the people of Iran and strengthen the hold of the government on the population. The struggle for Iranian self-determination must be waged by the Iranian people, not their self-interested patrons from without. Such patrons heeded in the Iraq case, and recently influential in the Libyan case as well, contribute to a war making process that leaves their country in shambles. True, the West is at first ready, but not able, to pick up the pieces. The result is continuous unresolved violent conflict, acute and widespread human insecurity, followed by eventual abandonment of the post-war reconstructive commitment. Iraq is tragically illustrative.

 

            As has been pointed out by some opponents of this war fever, Iran has not attacked another country in 200 years. As President Ahmadinejad recently informed Iranians in the city of Shahr-e Kord: “The Iranian nation is wise. It won’t build two bombs against the 20,000 you have.” The former heads of Israel’s Mossad, Meir Dagan and Efraim Halevy, confirm the view that Israel would not be seriously threatened even if it should turn out that Iran does come to possess a few nuclear weapons in the future. Their contention would be that such a nuclear capability would only pose a threat for Iran’s Sunni rivals, especially Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, as Israel would retain an overwhelming deterrent even without American backing. Of course, it is true that the Western alliance does not want any regional developments to destabilize its regional friends, no matter how autocratic and repressive. So much for the supposed Western embrace of the democratizing spirit of the Arab Spring! For hypocritical William Hague, the pro-Israeli Foreign Secretary of Great Britain to say that Iran’s nuclear program is threatening ‘to undermine’ the Arab Spring by ‘bringing about a nuclear arms race in the Middle East of the risk of conflict’ is obviously to point his finger in the wrong direction. There are also murmurs in the background, perhaps to shift attention away from Israeli war-mongering, to the effect that the real danger associated with Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons is that Turkey and Saudi Arabia would follow suit.

 

            If these were the serious concerns of this kind there are other far better ways to proceed. Why is there no mention of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal, of Western unlawful assistance in helping Israel to cross the nuclear threshold covertly, of Israel being one of three important states in the world that has refused to become a party to the Nonproliferation Treaty, and of Israel’s refusal to discuss even the idea of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East that Iran has announced its readiness to join? If oil is the foremost reality of which we must not speak, then Israeli nuclearism is a close second. We understand that the Obama presidency has been reduced to silence, but why are no regional and global voices speaking on behalf of nuclear sanity?  Is Israel’s status as a nuclear weapons state as untouchable a feature of a dysfunctional system of global governance as the retention of Britain and France as two of five permanent members of the UN Security Council? Such sacred cows of an entrenched world order are dooming the 99% as much as the demons of Wall Street!

 

            And then there is a third reality of this deepening crisis of which we are blinkered by a compliant media not to notice: the total disregard in the public policy debate of international law that prohibits all non-defensive uses of force, including threats to do so. This core norm of the UN Charter set forth in the language of Article 2(4), reinforced by the International Court of Justice in the Nicaragua case in 1986, was built into the idea of Crimes Against Peace that served as the basis for indicting and convicting surviving German and Japanese leaders at the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II. There is not even a lawyerlike attempt to argue that Bush’s discredited doctrine of preemptive war applies to Iran, there is instead a presumed total irrelevance of international law to the policy debate. To discuss the military option as if not circumscribed by solemn legal commitments, while building the case that Iran is subject to attack because it has violated its NPT obligations as a state pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons, is double think emblazoned on the sky of hard power geopolitics. Accountability for the weak and vulnerable, discretion for the strong and mighty. It is this woeful message of street geopolitics that is being transmitted to the peoples of the world in this crisis-building moment.

 

            There is one final point. If ever there was an argument for the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, the diplomacy of Israel and the West has fashioned it in a strong form. After all Iran is being constantly threatened with attack by states for more powerful than itself, and although it possesses retaliatory capacity, it is vulnerable to devastating attacks from sea, air, and land. Can we imagine a better set of conditions for acquiring nuclear weapons so as to deter an attack? If deterrence legitimates nuclear weapons for the West, why not for Iran? Would Iraq have been attacked in 2003 if it had a stockpile of nuclear weapons accompanied by delivery capacities? These questions point in two directions: the unacceptable two-tier structure of governance with respect to nuclear weaponry that the world has endured since the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and the imperative urgency of rejecting nuclear hegemony and oligarchy, and moving toward a negotiated nuclear disarmament treaty. There is no morally and legally acceptable or politically viable alternative to the abolition of all nuclear weapons as a global policy priority of utmost urgency.

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