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Blog Ethics and Politics

16 Jun

 

 

            During this apprentice period as a blogger I have learned and relearned how difficult it is to reconcile my interest in constructive dialogue on highly contested subject-matters with sustaining a tone of civility. Especially with respect to the Palestine/Israel struggle I have periodically failed, angering especially those who feel that their support of Israel is either inappropriately rejected or ignored. This anger is turned in the direction of personal insults directed either at me or at writers of comments, which induces those at the receiving end to reply in kind, and the result is a loss of civility, which alienates many other readers who tire of such futile and mean-spirited arguments.

 

            By way of clarification, let me acknowledge that I regards two types of interaction as satisfying my goal of ‘constructive dialogue’: conversations between likeminded on matters of shared interest; exchange of views between those who adopt antagonistic positions on an array of concerns ranging from cultural assessment to political analysis. To favor conversations with likeminded means favoring those who share my convictions with respect to the themes addressed in posts, and is viewed as ‘bias’ by those who do not share these convictions. I feel unapologetic about this encouragement of conversation among the likeminded.

 

            Some of my harshest critics complain that I am one-sided or stifle the freedom of expression of those whose comments I exclude on grounds of civility, the avoidance of hate speech, and the rejection of serial submissions of views. It is true that I have decided against an open comments section in which anything goes, and seek to avoid having the debate on attitudes toward Israel dominate the blog, although it is admittedly my own recurring preoccupation and commitment. It is also the case that I feel a need to be protective toward the Palestinians who are massively victimized by their prolonged conditions of displacement, occupation, statelessness, and acute insecurity, a historical circumstance that combines tragedy and injustice. And I will not hide my solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinians to realize their rights under international law, which has been my overriding commitment during the past five years while having serving in the position of Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council. My attempt to be an honest witness has from the outset prompted accusations of bias by defenders of Israel. Such accusations have been substantiated by my detractors through distorted presentations of my views on an array of unrelated issues including 9/11, American foreign policy, the Iranian Revolution. I mention this personal embattlement only becausthese personal attacks use as evidence statements from my posts that are taken out of context and given inflammatory interpretations, especially by the NGO, UN Watch. What has been most disturbing for me is the extent to which such

a defamatory campaign, broadly centered on allegations that I am an anti-Semitic and a self-hating Jew, has led to calls for my resignation or dismissal by highly placed individuals at the UN or in leading governments. In my view, a toxic political environment has been deliberately generated, which pepper sprays anyone, especially if in a formal position of some influence, who dares to offer strong criticisms of Israel’s behavior or shows clear support for the Palestinian struggle.

 

            Perhaps, in the end, there is no way around monitoring the flow of comments, seeking to make difficult choices as to which seem to inform or

usefully challenge and those that are merely arguing from fixed positions or submitting a comment that demeans others. Often comments contain a mixture of what is usefully substantive and what I find destructively mean-spirited, and it necessitates a choice.

 

            One of the difficulties I have found is that there is a genuine disagreement as to the scope of ‘anti-Semitism.’ The maximalist Zionist position, that has proved very influential in North America and Western Europe, is that harsh criticism of Israel, given that Israel is a self-proclaimed Jewish state and a reality shaped by the experience of the Holocaust, is properly classified as a hateful form of ‘anti-Semitism.’ In effect, such a broad view of anti-Semitism, provides an all-purpose shield of impunity, which has allowed Israel to defy international law in the most flagrant ways (2004 World Court Advisory Opinion on the Separation Wall; 2006 attacks on Lebanon; Gaza military operations of 2008-09, 2012—Goldstone Report; Mavi Marmara incident of 2010; settlement expansion) without enduring any serious adverse diplomatic consequences.

 

            I reject this broad conception of anti-Semitism, and limit this term of extreme opprobrium to hatred of Jews as an ethnicity and religiona, expressed by opinions and hostile behavior. I recommend reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s excellent essay “Portrait of an Anti-Semite” to obtain a deep psycho-philosophical understanding of the mentality that has led to the persecution of the Jewish people over the centuries. To obscure this core sense of ethnic and religious hatred by merging it with political attitudes that are critical of the behavior of a sovereign state or of some aspects of cultural and religious tradition embodied in the Jewish experience (‘chosen people’; biblical treatment of enemies) is, in my view, intellectually, politically, and morally regressive. In addition, it is harmful to the Palestinian people, unlawfully victimized for more than six decades by Israel’s state policies.

 

            Does such an outlook imply that moral purity is exclusively on the Palestinian side and all wrongdoing attributable to Israel? Of course, not. Yet what is true is that Israel has been the aggressor throughout the struggle, and Palestine the outgunned defender that has constantly lost ground. I believe it is misleading to create a false symmetry between the two sides based on the claim of pursuing ‘a balanced approach,’ which seems to be the general position of most moderates and liberals. When the reality is so unbalanced, apportioning blame to both sides equally for the persistence of the struggle is profoundly misleading, and unwittingly supportive of the unjust and exploitative status quo.

 

            I have dwelled on the Palestine/Israel agenda because it is what has provoked most of these blog concerns about tone and substance, the constituents of dialogue. I suppose it is the test of my approach, generating objections associated from some about ‘freedom of expression’ and from others about ‘an unhealthy polemical atmosphere.’ In my view, the domain of a blog is a quasi-private space that can set its desired limits on permissible expression that may be far narrower than what should be allowed in public spaces. The blog space may legitimately choose to be one-sided. Also, the objective is often different. I am not seeking to establish a marketplace of ideas, but a setting designed to encourage an exchange of views, opinions, and proposals in the spirit of civil conversation and dialogue, embedding a commitment of respect for ‘the other.’ And yet I have come to realize that the abstraction is difficult to apply concretely, especially if objectionable views are dogmatically stated and repeated. I will do my best to promote constructive dialogue, but I know that some will be disappointed along the way, especially those who disagree with me on substance, and therefore are put off by conversations among the likeminded.    

Responding to The Syrian Challenge

27 May

 

 

            The issue facing the U.S. Government at this stage is not one of whether or not to intervene, but to what extent, with what objectives, and with what likely effects. More precisely, it is a matter of deciding whether to increase the level and overtness of the intervention, as well as taking account of what others are doing and not doing on the Assad regime side of the conflict. Roughly speaking, there have been interventions by the Turkey, the United States, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the EU on the insurgent side, and by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah on the regime side, with a variety of non-Syrian ‘volunteers’ from all over being part of the lethal mix.

 

            From an international law perspective the issues are blurred and controversial, both factually and jurisprudentially. The Assad government remains the government of Syria from most international perspectives, despite having repeatedly perpetrated the most despicable crimes against humanity. Such behavior has eroded Syria’s status as a sovereign state whose territorial integrity, political independence, and governmental authority should be respected by outside actors including the UN. Under most circumstances the UN Charter obligates the Organization to refrain from intervening in matters internal to states, including civil wars, unless there is a clear impact on international peace and security.  Such an impact certainly seems to exist here, given the large-scale regional proxy involvement in the conflict. Given the pull and push of the current situation in Syria, the UN Security Council could, if a political consensus existed among its permanent member, authorize a limited or even a regime changing intervention under a UN banner. For better or worse such a consensus does not exist, and never has, since the outbreak of violence usually dated as commencing on March 15, 2011 with the violent suppression of previously peaceful anti-government demonstrations in the cities of Aleppo, Damascus, and especially Daraa, often known as ‘the cradle of the revolution.’ The situation is further clouded by bad geopolitical memories, especially the Security Council authorization to use force in Libya to protect the civilian population of Benghazi in March 2011. On that occasion, Russia and China, as well as Germany, Brazil, and India, put aside their anti-interventionist convictions, and allowed an intervention under NATO auspices to go forward by abstaining rather than voting against the authorization of force.  But what happened in Libya thereafter was deeply disturbing to the abstainers—instead of a limited authorization to establish a no-fly zone around Benghazi, a full-fledged air campaign with regime-changing objective in mind went forward without any effort by the intervenors to expand their mission or even to explain why the limits accepted in the Security Council debate and resolution were so blatantly put to one side. After such a deception trust was broken, and the difficulties of obtaining UN approval to act under the norm of ‘responsibility to protect’ were greatly magnified.

 

            Should it not be argued that the people of Syria should not be sacrificed because of this betrayal of trust in relation to Libya, and besides, Western leaders contend is not Libya and the world better off with Qaddafi gone. If this outlook is persuasive, and China and Russia continue to thwart a rescue of the Syrian people by threatening to veto any call for action, would it not be justifiable for a group of states to act without UN authorization, claiming Kosovo-like legitimacy. Yet there are major costs involved when the restraining ropes of law are loosening for the sake of moral and political expediency.  To cast aside the Charter regime is a move toward restoring the discretion of states when it comes to waging war, which was the main rationale for establishing the UN in the first place.

 

            This prohibition on non-defensive force holds legally even if a strong humanitarian justification for intervention can be made. The Kosovo precedent suggests that in the face of an imminent humanitarian catastrophe, an intervention will be widely endorsed as legitimate by the organized international community even if it is clearly unlawful. If such an undertaking is reasonably successful in ending the violence and saving lives, there is likely to be an ex post facto endorsement of what was done, especially if seems to most respected observer that humanitarian objectives were not invoked by the interveners to obscure the pursuit of strategic goals. This is what happened after the NATO War to remove the Serbian presence from Kosovo. The UN watched from the sidelines without condemning the unlawful use of force, and has played a central role in the post-conflict reconstruction of Kosovo. More surprisingly, the UN, to its regret, even attempted to play such a role after the flagrantly unlawful and illegitimate attack upon and occupation of Iraq, despite having earlier rebuffed the concerted American effort to win the approval of the Security Council prior to the war. It should not have come as a great surprise that the Iraqi resistance forces targeted the UN Headquarters in Baghdad, apparently regarding the UN as having becoming an arm of the occupying and invading foreign forces. Unlike Kosovo where the Serbs were driven out, in Iraq despite a massive displacement of civilians, resistance forces stayed in the country to fight against the occupiers and on behalf of their vision of a post-occupation Iraq.

 

            There are important world order issues present aside from the questions of legality and legitimacy. There are also pragmatic and prudential dimensions of any decision about what to do in response to Syria’s descent into chaos and horrific violence, with no early end in sight. Although the sovereign state is not an absolute ground of political community, it is the basic unit comprising world order, and the logic of self-determination should be allowed to prevail in most situations even when the results are disappointing. The practical alternative to the logic of self-determination is the hegemonic logic of hard power, and its record is not a happy one if viewed from the standpoint of people and justice. Sovereign equality has been the weave of the juridical order ever since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, although the existential inequality of states has offered a counterpoint that as given rise to a variety of geopolitical regimes, e.g. the European colonial period, the bipolarity of the Cold War, the unipolarity of the 1990s, and perhaps, the emerging multipolarity of the early 21st century.

 

            When crimes against humanity cross a certain threshold of severity,  which is itself necessarily a subjective judgment, or where genocide is credibly threatened or actually taking place or credibly threatened, the normally desirable and applicable norm of non-intervention and its internal complement of self-determination, gives way to claims of ‘humanitarian intervention,’ a practice somewhat sanitized recently by being accorded normative authority in the form of a ‘responsibility to protect.’ National primacy gives ground to the primacy of the human in such exceptional circumstances, and the human interest can justify a full-scale intervention provided prudential and pragmatic factors seem likely to allow intervention to succeed at acceptable costs, and to be procedurally endorsed in some secondary way.  Of course, there is also the question of disentangling strategic motives for intervention from the humanitarian justification. There is no easy formula for distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable blends of the strategic and the moral, but as Noam Chomsky warned during the Kosove intervention, ‘military humanism’ is not believable because double standards are so rampant. Why are the Kosovars protected but not the besieged population of Gaza? Why the Libyans but not the Syrians? The presence of double standards is not the end of the story. Without some strategic incentive it is unlikely that the political will is strong enough to succeed with a military undertaking that is purely a rescue operation. Recall how quickly the United States backed away from its involvement in Somalia after Black Hawk Down incident in 1993. In that sense, the presence of oil, maritime shipping lanes, pipeline routes is a strategic interest that will offset the costs of war for a considerable number of years as the Iraq invasion of more than ten years ago illustrated, but even in Iraq an eventual acknowledgement of the inability to achieve the strategic objectives led to a conclusion to give in and get out, time ran out. A democratic public does not accept the human and economic costs of a non-defensive war indefinitely, no matter how much the media plays along with the official line. That is the lesson that is imperfectly learned by politicians in a long list of encounters, most prominently, Vietnam, Iraq, and now Afghanistan.

 

            Arguably, in 1999 what happened in Kosovo was a positive scenario for interventionary diplomacy. NATO intervened without a green light from the UN, and yet managed, although without achieving complete success, to provide the great majority of the Kosovar population not only with security but with support for their claim of self-determination. Before the intervention, most of the Kosovo population was living under oppressive conditions, and faced a severe threat of worse to come. As many as a million people, almost half of the population, sought temporary refuge in nearby Macedonia, but ratified the intervention by returning to their homeland as soon as NATO had forced their Serbian oppressors to leave. There are complexities beyond the debate about the use of force. Who would settle the question of competing sovereign claims mounted by Belgrade and Pristina? It appears that the resolution of this dispute will be resolved for the foreseeable future by the de facto realities, which is to say in favor of Kosovar claims of political independence and in opposition to Serbian claims of historic sovereign title.

 

            Such a positive outcome didn’t occur in Iraq, which was attacked in 2003 without UN authorization, and in the absence of a humanitarian emergency, and the effects of the undertaking were horrendous in terms of level of devastation and loss of life, agitating sectarian conflict, with no stability or decent government put in place or in sight. A ruthless dictator who brought stability to Iraq was replaced by an authoritarian regime beset by enemies from within, including even the loss of control of the northern regions run by the Kurdish majority as a virtually of a state within the state. Such an intervention was neither legitimate nor lawful. The Libyan intervention of 2011 seems an intermediate case, if evaluated either from the perspective of just cause or overall consequences. The dust has certainly not settled in Libya, and at this point it is difficult to tell whether the future will resemble more the strife of Iraq or the relative calm of, say, Bosnia.

 

            How does Syria fit into this picture based on recent experience with large-scale interventions? The situation in Syria qualifies for intervention on behalf of a beleaguered population that have endured great suffering already, and in this respect, even absent UN authorization, the legitimacy rationale of Kosovo would seem sufficient. According to a variety of reports there have been at least 80,000 killed in the Syrian conflict, with an incredible 4 million Syrians internally displaced, with an additional 1.5 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, especially, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.  This massive spillover is giving rise to severe destabilizing tensions in these countries, and creating a rising risk that the internationalized civil war in Syria will further engage other countries directly in combat operations. Israel has already three times struck at targets in Syria that were allegedly connected with weapons shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and there are reports that Beirut has been hit by a rocket sent from Syrian rebel forces. Also relevant is the line in the sand drawn by Obama in relation to the use of chemical weapons by Damascus, or the depots used to store these weapons falling into hostile hands, and the Assad threats of retaliation, and some signs of violence on the border separating Syria from the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. And finally, the allegations by Israel and some right wing member of the U.S. Congress urging more aggressive moves in relation to Iran, with Netanyahu contending that Iran is seeking to become a ‘nuclear superpower’ with a program larger than that of either North Korea and Pakistan, both already members of the nuclear weapons club.

 

            The dangers of widening the war zone in a disastrous manner and of acting in behalf of the questionable agendas of states other than Syria greatly complicates the response to the Syrian internal crisis. It also gives a heavy weight to the question: how to take account of prudential considerations that relate to probable costs and effects of various alternative courses of action? Here there is much less prospect that sufficient force could and would be used to tip the conflict in favor of the disunited rebel groups in the direction of an acceptable outcome, or even that a sustainable ceasefire could be achieved. The more likely result of any further escalation of external intervention is to magnify the conflict still further, and this would likely include encouraging counter-moves by the powerful foreign friends of the Assad government. It needs to be realized that outsiders are engaged heavily on both sides, and each can credibly blame the other, although it does seem to be widely agreed that by far the greatest share of responsibility for the commission of atrocities belongs to the governing authorities operating out of Damascus. There is something strange about the alignments, with the conservative Arab governments in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States and Western Europe, backing the revolutionary insurgency, despite it being increasingly dominated by radical Islamic participation, especially Jilhat al-Nusra. On the other side, Iran’s religiously oriented government finds itself aligned to the secular Ba’athist leadership in Damascus. 

 

            Against this background only a diplomacy of compromise seems both justifiable as the best among an array of bad option and prudent in having the best hope of ending the violence and putting Syria on a trail that could lead to political normalcy. But a diplomacy of compromise accepts the stalemate on the battlefield as its necessary starting point, and does not set preconditions, such as the removal of Bashar al-Assad from his position as head of state and the demand for a post-Assad transitional government in Damascus. Nor in like measure can a diplomacy of compromise expect the opposition to trust the government or to lay down their arms if the Assad regime is left in control of the governance structures in the country. Such a process can only hope to be effective if the two sides, at least subjectively, realize that they are trapped in an endless and irreversible downward spiral, and act accordingly, although not needing to admit such an unsatisfactory outcome in their public utterances. There are pitfalls. A ceasefire, even if bolstered by a major peacekeeping presence and some devolution of political authority that takes account of which side controls which city and region.

 

            The Syrian situation is further bedeviled by the absence of a unified insurgent leadership, making it unclear who can speak authoritatively on behalf of insurgent forces. Just a week ago some of the opposition forces met in Istanbul under the auspices of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, issuing a 16 point proposal that called for the departure of Assad from the country, the establishment of a coalition government to manage the transition, with the inclusion of some members of the Assad leadership, and impunity for all allegations of criminality associated with the strife. Such a proposal seemed to arouse controversy even at the coalition meeting, and seems without great support in Syria if the views of the various opposition groupings are all taken into consideration. In the meantime, the United States is acting strenuously to convene a second conference in Geneva during the month of June to exert pressure on the Assad government to negotiate an end to the war on the basis of the removal of Assad as president and the establishment of a pluralist transitional government tasked with organizing elections. The American Secretary of State, John Kerry, is energetically pushing this plan, which is linked to a threat—either negotiate along the lines we propose, or the arms embargo will be lifted, and the rebel militias will receive arms. Although the language being used by the United States and others in UN Action Group for Syria and the Friends of Syria is respectful of the role of the Syrian people in shaping the future of the country, there is a coercive aura surrounding this surge of diplomatic initiative that is dysfunctional to the extent that it seems based on the insurgency having the upper hand rather than there being a stalemate. Under the conditions prevailing in Syria, by far the role for external actors is to assume a facilitative mode that is fully supportive of a framework for negotiations based on a diplomacy of compromise. The litmus test for a diplomacy of compromise is the mutual realization that a battlefield stalemate cannot be broken by acceptable means. When and if this realization takes hold negotiations can proceed in a serious manner and a ceasefire is more likely to hold. What this would mean concretely is difficult to discern, and would undoubtedly be difficult for the parties to agree upon. An urgent preliminary step would be to invite trusted international envoys from non-geopolitically activist governments to talk with the entire spectrum of political actors to ascertain whether such a diplomacy of compromise has any traction at the present time, and if not, why not.

 

            Suppose such an initiative fails, and cannot it be said that this approach has already been tried under UN and Arab League auspices, designating such respected global figures as Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi to undertake a similar mission? Perhaps, such initiatives preceded the recognition by the Syrian antagonists that the military path is blocked and bloody, and that now the timing is better, although maybe not good enough. It could be that such an appreciation led Moscow and Washington to agree on convening a conference of interested governments in Geneva next month that is expected to include the government of Syria.  Such an international effort suggests that outsiders might be able to find enough common interests to put their geopolitical weight behind a diplomacy of compromise, but they should not attempt to do anything more by way of imposing conditions. An effective and legitimate diplomacy of compromise must be seen as coming from within, and not a maneuver that is executed from without. Of course, such restraint is not inconsistent with upgrading efforts to soften the hardships of Syrian refugees and those internally displaced, nor upgrading efforts to meet uregent relief needs in Syria, which probably calls for allowing reliable NGOs to take over the bulk of the humanitarian challenge, but again in a manner faithful to the ethos of compromise, which includes suspending disbelief as to who is right and who wrong.

 

            But what of the Jalhat al-Nusra extremists in the insurgent ranks, credited with doing the most arduous recent fighting on the insurgent side? And what about the war criminals running the government in Damascus? Or their Hezbollah allies also given major combat roles in the last several weeks? Can these realities be wished away, and if not how to respond? Radical uncertainty prompts caution with respect to every alternative course of action, including throwing up one’s hands in despair. Obviously a diplomacy of compromise is not a panacea, and likely is a non-starter, but in such a desperate situation it seems worth trying, provided it does not become a different kind of battlefield in which the goals sought by violence are being pursued by statecraft, doing nothing more than instituting an intermission between periods of unrestrained violence for the weary combatants. My essential argument is that until the parties engaged in hostilities on both sides recognize their inability to achieve a political victory by way of the battlefield, and external actors acquiesce in this recognition, there can only take place an unproductive and wrongheaded coercive diplomacy of partisanship, supporting the claims of the anti-Assad side. It should have become clear after more than two years of bloodshed and atrocities that no amount of geopolitical arm-twisting will lead Damascus and their own constituencies to place the destiny of Syria on this kind of diplomatic chopping block. 

The Iraq War: 10 Years Later

17 Mar

 

 

            After a decade of combat, casualties, massive displacement, persisting violence, enhanced sectarian tension and violence between Shi’ias and Sunnis, periodic suicide bombings, and autocratic governance, a negative assessment of the Iraq War as a strategic move by the United States, United Kingdom, and a few of their secondary allies, including Japan, seems near universal. Not only the regionally destabilizing outcome, including the blowback effect of perversely adding weight to Iran’s overall diplomatic influence, but the reputational costs in the Middle East associated with an imprudent, destructive, and failed military intervention make the Iraq War the worst American foreign policy disaster since its defeat in Vietnam in the 1970s, and undertaken with an even less persuasive legal, moral, and political rationale. The ongoing blowback from the ‘shock and awe’ launch scenario represents a huge, and hopefully irreversible, setback for the American global domination project in the era of hypertechno geopolitics.

 

            Most geopolitical accounting assessments do not bother to consider the damage to the United Nations and international law arising from an aggressive use of force in flagrant violation of the UN Charter, embarked upon in the face of a refusal by the Security Council to provide a legitimating authorization for the use of force despite great pressure mounted by the United States. The UN further harmed its own image when it failed to reinforce its refusal to grant authorization to the United States and its coalition, by offering some kind of support to Iraq as the target of this contemplated aggression. This failure was compounded by the post-attack role played by the UN in lending full support to the unlawful American-led occupation, including its state-building mission. In other words, not only was the Iraq War a disaster from the perspective of American and British foreign policy and the peace and stability of the Middle East region, but it was also a severe setback for the authority of international law, the independence of the UN, and the quality of world order.

 

            In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the United States was supposedly burdened by what policymakers derisively called ‘the Vietnam Syndrome.’ This was a Washington shorthand for the psychological inhibitions to engage in military interventions in the non-Western world due to the negative attitudes towards such imperial undertakings that were supposed to exist among the American public and in the government, especially among the military who were widely blamed for the Vietnam disaster. Many American militarists at the time complained that the Vietnam Syndrome was a combined result of an anti-war plot engineered by the liberal media and a response to an unpopular conscription or ‘draft’ that required many middle class Americans to fight in a distant war that lacked both popular support, a convincing strategic or legal rationale, and seemed to be on the wrong side of history, which as the French found out in their own Indochina War favored anti-colonial wars of liberation. The flag-draped coffins of dead young Americans were shown on TV, leading defense hawks to contend somewhat ridiculously that ‘the war was lost in American living rooms.’ The government made adjustments that took these rationalizations serious: the draft was abolished, and reliance  henceforth was placed on an all-volunteer professional military complemented by large-scale private security firms; also, intensified efforts were made to assure media support for subsequent military operations by ‘embedding’ journalists in combat units and more carefully monitoring news reporting.

 

            President, George H.W. Bush told the world in 1991 immediately after the Gulf War that had been successfully undertaken to reverse the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait that “we have finally kicked the Vietnam Syndrome.” In effect, the senior President Bush was saying to the grand strategists in the White House and Pentagon that the role of American military power was again available for use to do the work of empire around the world. What the Gulf War showed was that on a conventional battlefield, in this setting of a desert war, American military superiority would be decisive, could produce a quick victory with minimal costs in American lives, and bring about a surge of political popularity at home. This new militarist enthusiasm created the political base for recourse to the NATO War in 1999 to wrest Kosovo from Serb control. To ensure the avoidance of casualties, reliance was placed on air attacks conducted from high altitudes. The war took more time than expected, but was interpreted as validating the claim of war planners that the United States could now fight and win ‘zero casualty wars.’ There were no NATO combat deaths in the Kosovo War, and the war produced a ‘victory’ by ending Serbian control over Kosovo as well as demonstrating that NATO could still be used and useful even after the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet threat that had explained the formation of the alliance in the first place.

 

            More sophisticated American war planners understood that not all challenges to United States interests around the world could be met with air power in the absence of ground combat. Increasingly, political violence involving geopolitical priorities took the form of transnational violence (as in the 9/11 attacks) or was situated within the boundaries of territorial states, and involved Western military intervention designed to crush societal forces of national resistance. The Bush presidency badly confused its new self-assurance about the conduct of battlefield international warfare where military superiority dictates the political outcome and its old nemesis from Vietnam War days of counter-insurgency warfare, also known as low-intensity or asymmetric warfare, where military superiority controls the battlefield but not the endgame of conflict which depends on winning the allegiance of the territorial population.

 

            David Petraeus rose through the ranks of the American military by repackaging counterinsurgency warfare in a post-Vietnam format relying upon an approach developed by noted guerrilla war expert David Galula, who contended that in the Vietnam War the fatal mistake was made of supposing that such a war would be determined 80% by combat battles in the jungles and paddy fields with the remaining 20% devoted to the capture of the ‘hearts and minds’ of the indigenous population. Galula argued that counterinsurgency wars could only be won if this formula was inverted.  This meant that 80% of future U.S. military interventions should be devoted to non-military aspects of societal wellbeing: restoring electricity, providing police protection for normal activity, building and staffing schools, improving sanitation and garbage removal, and providing health car and jobs.

 

            Afghanistan, and then Iraq, became the testing grounds for applying these nation-building lessons of Vietnam, only to reveal in the course of their lengthy, destructive and expensive failures that the wrong lessons had been learned by the militarists and their civilian counterparts. These conflicts were wars of national resistance, a continuation of the anti-colonial struggles against West-centric  domination, and regardless of whether the killing was complemented by sophisticated social and economic programs, it still involved a pronounced and deadly challenge by foreign interests to the national independence and rights of self-determination that entailed killing Iraqi women and children, and violating their most basic rights through the unavoidably harsh mechanics of foreign occupation. It also proved impossible to disentangle the planned 80% from the 20% as the hostility of the Iraqi people to their supposed American liberators demonstrated over and over again, especially as many Iraqis on the side of the occupiers proved to be corrupt and brutal, sparking popular suspicion and intensifying internal polarization. The truly ‘fatal mistake’ made by Petraeus, Galula, and all the counterinsurgency advocates that have followed this path, is the failure to recognize that when the American military and its allies attack and occupy a non-Western country, especially in the Islamic world, when they start dividing, killing and policing its inhabitants, popular resistance will be mobilized and hatred toward the foreign ‘liberators’ will spread. This is precisely what happened in Iraq, and the suicide bombings to this day suggest that the ugly patterns of violence have not stopped even with the ending of America’s direct combat role.

 

            The United States was guilty of a fundamental misunderstanding of the Iraq War displayed to the world when George W. Bush theatrically declared on May 1, 2003 a wildly premature victory from the deck of an American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, with the notorious banner proclaiming ‘mission accomplished’ plainly visible behind the podium as the sun sank over the Pacific Ocean. Bush reveled in this misunderstanding by assuming that the attack phase of the war was the whole war, forgetting about the more difficult and protracted occupation phase. The real Iraq War, rather than ending, was about to begin, that is, the violent internal struggle for the political future of the country, one made more difficult and protracted by the military presence of the US and its allies. This counterinsurgency sequel to occupation would not be decided on the kind of battlefield where arrayed military capabilities confront one another, but rather through a war of attrition waged by hit and run domestic Iraqi forces, abetted by foreign volunteers, opposed to the tactics of Washington and to the overall aura of illegitimacy attached to American military operations in a Third World setting. Such a war has a shadowy beginning and a still uncertain ending, and is often, as in Iraq, as it proved to be earlier in Vietnam and Afghanistan, a quagmire for intervening powers. There are increasing reasons to believe that the current Iraqi leader, Nouri al-Maliki, resembles the authoritarian style of Saddam Hussein more than the supposed constitutional liberal regime that the United States pretends to leave behind, and that the country is headed for continuing struggle, possibly even a disastrous civil war fought along sectarian line. In many respects, including the deepening of the Sunni/Shi’a divide the country and its people are worse off that before the Iraq War without in any way questioning allegations about the cruelty and criminality of the regime headed by Saddam Hussein.

 

            The Iraq War was a war of aggression from its inception, being an unprovoked use of armed force against a sovereign state in a situation other than self-defense. The Nuremberg and Tokyo War Crimes Tribunals convened after World War II had declared such aggressive warfare to be a ‘crime against peace’ and prosecuted and punished surviving political and military leaders of Germany and Japan as war criminals. We can ask why have George W. Bush and Tony Blair not been investigated, indicted, and prosecuted for their roles in planning and prosecuting the Iraq War. As folk singer Bob Dylan instructed us long ago, the answer is ‘blowin’ in the wind,’ or in more straightforward language, the reasons for such impunity conferred upon the American and British leaders is one more crude display of geopolitics—their countries were not defeated and occupied, their governments never surrendered and discredited, and such strategic failures (or successes) are exempted from legal scrutiny. These are the double standards that make international criminal justice a reflection of power politics more than of evenhanded global justice.

Global civil society with its own limited resources had challenged both the onset of the Iraq War, and later its actual unfolding. On and around February 15, 2003, what the Guinness Book of Records called “the largest anti-war rally in history” took the form of about 3,000 demonstrations in 800 cities located in more than 60 countries and according to the BBC involved an estimated 6-10 million persons. Although such a global show of opposition to recourse to war was unprecedented, it failed to halt the war. It did, however, have the lasting effect of undermining the American claims of justification for the attack and occupation of Iraq. It also led to an unprecedented effort by groups around the world to pass judgment on the war by holding sessions in which peace activists and international law experts alleged the criminality of the Iraq War, and called for war crimes prosecutions of Bush and Blair. As many as twenty such events were held in various parts of the world, with a culminating Iraq War Tribunal convened in June of 2005, which included testimony from more than 50 experts, including several from Iraq and a jury of conscience headed by Arundhati Roy.

 

            There is also the question of complicity of countries that supported the war with troop deployments, such as Japan, which dispatched 1000 members of its self-defense units to Iraq in July 2003 to help with non-combat dimensions of the occupation. Such a role is a clear breach of international law and morality. It is also inconsistent with Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. It was coupled with Tokyo’s diplomatic support for the U.S./UK-led Iraq War from start to finish. Should such a record of involvement have any adverse consequences? It would seem that Japan might at least review the appropriateness of its complicit participation in a war of aggression, and how that diminishes the credibility of any Japanese claim to uphold the responsibilities of membership in the United Nations. At least, it provides the people of Japan with a moment for national soul-searching to think about what kind of world order will in the future best achieve peace, stability, and human dignity.

 

            Are there lessons to be drawn from the Iraq War? I believe there are. The overwhelming lesson is that in this historical period interventions by the West in the non-West, especially when not authorized by the UN Security Council, can rarely succeed in attaining their stated goals. More broadly, counterinsurgency warfare involving a core encounter between Western invading and occupying forces and a national resistance movement will not be decided on the basis of hard power military superiority, but rather by the dynamics of self-determination associated with the party that has the more credible nationalist credentials, which include the will to persist in the struggle for as long as it takes, and the capacity to capture the high moral ground in the ongoing legitimacy struggle for domestic and international public support. It is only when we witness the dismantling of many of America’s 700+ acknowledged foreign military bases spread around the world, and see the end of repeated US military intervention globally, that we can have some hope that the correct lessons of the Iraq War are finally being learned. Until then there will be further attempts by the U.S. Government to correct the tactical mistakes that it claims caused past failures in Iraq (and Afghanistan), and new interventions will undoubtedly be proposed in coming years, most probably leading to costly new failures, and further controversies as to ‘why?’ we fought and why we lost. American leaders will remain unlikely to acknowledge that the most basic mistake is itself militarism and the accompanying arrogance of occupation, at least until this establishment consensus is challenged by a robust anti-militarist grassroots political movement not currently visible.      

Obama’s Victory, Romney’s Defeat

8 Nov

 

            Around the world even more than in the United States there is an audible sigh of relief the day after Obama won a clear mandate for a second term as president. Deconstructed it mainly meant that many more were relieved that Romney lost, rather than excited that Obama won. Yet there were some, with whom I partly agree, whose gaze carries beyond the narrow victory in popular vote (as distinct from the decisive victory in the electoral college vote), to appreciate a positive fundamental change in American demographics. The white majority coalition that Reagan fashioned so skillfully in the 1980s, achieving incredibly regressive societal results, seems to be losing out to the rising proportion of the electorate that is African-American and Latino, reinforced by the political outlook of youth and the liberal outlook of many women when it comes to reproductive rights. Perhaps, as indicative of a changing social climate were the successful referenda on state ballots in Maine, Maryland, and Washington to legalize same sex marriage and separate initiatives calling for legalizing the medical use of marijuana. Only a decade ago putting such measures on the ballot in several battleground states was understood as a brilliant tactical move by Karl Rove to mobilize the Republican base that was passionately dedicated to defeating such liberalizing initiatives, widely regarded by conservatives as signs of societal degeneracy.

 

            What makes the Obama victory surprising is that his four years in the White House had definitely demobilized his base that had been so ardent in 2008, and seemed only lukewarm in 2012. Toward the end of the recent campaign, antagonism to Romney and fears about a Republican victory, partially remobilized this base, which the Obama people effectively used to carry on their so-called ‘ground game’ that brought out the minority vote in the key states that were expected to decide the election.

 

            In this sense, the 2012 electoral result is bound to provoke some long looks in the mirror by the Republican faithful. Unless some kind of economic collapse occurs in the years ahead, it is hard to imagine that a similar kind of campaign and candidate that was offered to the American people will be any more successful in 2016, and is quite likely to be less so. After all, Romney turned out to be a great fundraiser, especially after he chose arch-conservative Paul Ryan to stand by his side, and an energetic performer on the campaign trail and a surprisingly good debater. Of course, Romney was unexpectedly assisted by a shift of momentum in his favor after the first presidential debate, a result greatly facilitated by the uncharacteristic gross under-performance by Barack Obama.

 

            What makes the Obama victory more impressive is the degree to which his first term was so disappointing to many of us who had hoped for something more. The escalation in Afghanistan was a costly failure, and the refusal to acknowledge this outcome means that the policy community will remain unencumbered by its past experience of counter-insurgency defeat. The Pentagon will be ready to go forward with yet another military intervention in a non-Western country when so instructed by civilian enthusiasts for hard power diplomacy. Worse than this persisting disposition toward military solutions for international conflicts is the expansion of drone warfare under Obama’s watch. Drone attacks are a chilling reminder that state terrorism remains an officially endorsed feature of American foreign policy, including the claim to kill American citizens wherever they may be on the planet without even the pretense of an indictment and due process. Drones let loose a new menacing technology that kills without accountability, and has been the ability to disregard the territorial sovereignty of states as well as to ignore the innocence of those who are made to live under the threat of such weaponry.

 

            On the home front, there is little to applaud in the Obama presidency to day, and quite a bit to lament. There was no attempt to explore whether crimes had been committed during the Bush presidency despite the promise to govern with a scrupulous respect for the rule of law. The treatment of the Wikileaks disclosures, and especially the abuse of the young soldier, Bradley Manning, who is accused of leaking the documents, sends a chilling signal in relation to conscience and criminality. The U.S. Government crimes disclosed in the documents, pertaining to actions during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were totally overlooked while the entire focus of governmental concern was placed on the breach of secrecy. When state secrets are guarded so zealously and crimes against humanity are granted impunity, it is a sure sign that the republic is not morally flourishing. It reinforces the impression that America is still reeling from the combination of trauma and belligerency brought about by the 9/11 attacks. There is no reason to suppose that Obama will take steps to vindicate retroactively in his second term the premature award in 2009 of a Nobel Peace Prize. In fact, among the more disturbing sentiments expressed in his victory speech was to twice boast about the United States having the most dominant military force ever possessed throughout the whole of human history. In Obama’s extravagant words, “We want to pass on a country that’s safe and respected and admired around the world, a nation defended by the strongest military on earth and the best troops this world has ever known.” It is seems almost unnecessary to point out that the wishes expressed in the first part of the sentence are perceived to be directly contradicted by the militarist claim in the second part.

 

 

            Perhaps, we can hope for something slightly better when it comes to the economy. Obama could have been far worse, and he not only inherited a mess from the Bush era, but was faced with a Republican controlled House of Representatives that was consistently obstructionist, and did little to conceal its priority of making the Obama leadership fail. His programs of stimulus and bailouts did probably prevent a slide into a deep national depression. It remains disturbing, however, that he relied exclusively on economists friendly to Wall Street throughout the process, avoiding any reliance even on such moderate critics as Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, and Joseph Stiglitz. Nevertheless, there were some moves by the Obama administration to put a lid on the most irresponsible practices of the financial world that had generated the mortgage/foreclosure fiasco in the real estate market and its related crises affecting the leading brokerage and banking outfits.

 

            Romney was reported to have told a private fundraising gathering that the Israel/Palestine problem was not going to be resolved in the near future, and that this was okay. Obama seems to have avoided any commentary, although it became well known that Israel was the only country in the world, including it turned out, the United States, in which Romney would have been the electoral choice of the citizenry. In the United States, Jewish support for Obama declined somewhat, but was still maintained a robust 70% level.  We can expect two kinds of tests in the months ahead as to whether Obama’s approach to the conflict will change:

            –diplomacy toward Iran’s nuclear program, especially with respect to the threat of an attack launched by Israel;

            –degree of Washington’s opposition to the effort by the Palestinian Authority to obtain an upgraded non-member observer status at the United Nations.

 

            Another inexcusable failure of the Obama presidency and the presidential campaign was the widely noticed silence on the challenge of climate change. It might as time passes be noted as the clearest signal that democratic politics, deformed by special interests dispersing bundles of cash, could succeed in keeping issues vital to the wellbeing of the citizenry completely off the agenda. Such a result was aided and abetted by the media that never called attention to the concern despite record-setting heat in the summer of 2012. Fortunately, for Obama, Hurricane Sandy managed what none of the media pundits dared, forcing the recognition that extreme

events could no longer be explained away by reference to natural weather cycles. And it was notable that finally in his victory speech Obama made a fleeting reference to doing something about halting the warming trends that so dangerously imperils human health, food security, and overall wellbeing. [“We want our children to live in an America..that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”] We must watch carefully to see whether this revived concern about climate change translates into high profile national policy, including global leadership, which has been entirely absent during Obama’s time as president, despite his original recognition as a candidate in 2008 of what an important challenge climate change posed for the future welfare of the country.

 

            There are two basic interpretations of the Obama victory among those who were hostile to Romney’s candidacy:

            –the dominant view is that Obama offers the American people and the world a set of expectations that were decidedly preferable to what Romney and the Republicans were offering: more people-oriented; fairer taxation, government regulation of business, and stronger commitments to a government safety net for health, housing, poverty, and education; better appointments to the courts and to government, with greater representation for women and minorities; a more positive approach to the United Nations and foreign policy; and somewhat more forthcoming on environmental issues, including climate change.

            –the minority view that when it comes to plutocracy, militarism, and the general structures of global capitalism there is no significant difference between the two parties, and that the election is in this deeper sense, irrelevant. Those adhering to such an outlook were inclined to support the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, who articulated a genuinely progressive agenda that refused to be swayed by liberal appeals to the differences between Republicans and Democrats. The mainstream media completely ignored the existence of the Green Party perspective, which revealingly contrasted with the great attention accorded the Tea Party from its first irreverent stirrings.

 

            I felt drawn to both of these somewhat inconsistent interpretations, and because I was living in California, which was deemed super-safe for Obama, I felt that I could vote structurally, that is, for the Green Party, rather than tactically, that is, for Obama. When it came to secondary candidates and state and local issues, I cast my votes in a pattern that was the same as that of my liberal democratic friends. Of course, the question that I find more difficult to answer is whether if I had lived in Florida or Ohio, I would have risked the structural choice. There is the memory that George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in the 2000 election because 90,000 votes were cast on behalf of a Third Party candidate, Ralph Nader. The question comes down to this: is it more important to show symbolic support for a party and candidate that diagnoses the issues in a sufficiently radical manner to offer some promise of a transformative agenda, or is it better to go with the lesser of evils?

 

             I admit that in the excitement occasioned by the Obama victory last night I was prepared to admit to myself that somehow Obama and the constituencies that supported him could be harbingers of a better future for the country. This sentiment was shared, in reverse, by the pro-business community, which registered their displeasure with the electoral outcome by a major stock market selloff that drove the Dow Jones index down by more than 312 points.

 

            There was something I found inspiring and hopeful about the ethnic and racial diversity of the Obama inner core waiting in Chicago for his victory speech as compared to the stiff and formal whiteness of the Romney crowd despondently gathered in Boston for their leader’s concession speech.  At this point, my hopeful side is ready for Obama’s new mandate to outdo my modest expectations, just as in 2008 he disappointed me beyond my apprehensions. Among Obama supporters there is the belief that in this second term he will take risks in an effort to elevate his presidency to the ranks of greatness.

 

            Regardless of whether Obama pleases more than he disappoints, sending the Republicans to the sidelines is something to cheer about! And beyond this, the Green Party effort did remind me and a few others that a progressive alternative to predatory capitalism can be put forward in a coherent and compelling manner by a candidate with talent and impeccable credentials. Perhaps, we can look forward to a period when Jill Stein does for the Obama presidency what Norman Thomas, and the Socialist Party, did for the New Deal presidency of FDR, that is, be both a thorn in the side, and an inducement to stop the bleeding of disaffected party members by adopting important parts of the Socialist agenda.

   

Istanbul: A Modest Proposal

2 Nov

 

            An earlier version of this short essay was published a few days ago in Al Jazeera English online as an opinion piece. My most trusted Turkish friends felt that it grossly exaggerated Istanbul’s credentials as a possible future world capital, and in deference, I will tone down some of the language, and call attention to some problematic features of the Turkish political landscape that should not be ignored in proposing such a status for Istanbul. At the same time in the Swiftian nature of ‘modest proposals’ to be immodest! I think it was an American comedian who said “if you haven’t gone too far, you haven’t gone far enough.” Or when Jean-Paul Sartre at the end of his life was asked about what he regretted most about his overall public role, he responded, to the effect that he had sometimes been too cautious, not sufficiently extreme. Norman O. Brown, who did much in the 1960s to inspire the study of human consciousness, once said in the course of a lecture that in psychoanalysis “only the exaggerations are valuable.” It is in this spirit that I continue to believe that Istanbul has the most to offer the peoples of the world as a global capital, but I would welcome a debate on whether the idea of a global capital is a sensible idea given the nature of globalization and if it is, whether there are preferable alternatives to Istanbul. Of course, one idea would be to neuter the idea of a global capital by choosing an uninhabited island mid-ocean, but I would imagine that almost no one would feel connected to such a place, any more than they do to such existing sterile national capital startups as Brasilia and Canberra.            

 

            The idea of a global city has a long lineage with deep roots in the pre-modern world. Indeed it seems correct to observe that global cities existed before national cities, preceding the formation of the modern state. A global city is most often associated with being a center of world trade and finance, but usually such a city also possesses strong cultural and touristic resources that attract visitors. Thinking in this manner explains the persisting tendencies is to view the hierarchy of global cities from a West-centric perspective: London, New York, and Paris placed in the first rank, with cities such as Tokyo, Geneva, Sao Paulo, New Delhi, Hong Kong, Singapore, Berlin, Rome, Shanghai, Istanbul, and Los Angeles treated as forming a second tier. Of course, such rankings are quite arbitrary, shift over time, reflecting new patterns of economic and political relationships that exhibit the ebb and flow of world history. Such urban centers as Rome, London, Alexandria, Baghdad, Vienna, Venice, and Athens were definitely primary global cities during their respective heydays.

 

            But there is a new phenomenon that is especially associated with economic globalization and the main technological innovations of the past century that has given rise to such designations as ‘the digital age’ or ‘the networked society.’ This radical compression of space and time in the world creates a natural inclination to find, designate, and establish someplace as ‘the center of the world,’ as the ‘world capital.’ Of course, the claim and perception of being ‘the world capital’ is both a social and political construction that is connected with the realities of global leadership, sometimes reinforced by cultural preeminence, and normally narrated in an inherently subjective and self-centered interpretation of the flow of history, however the self is defined. In the end such a designation is bound to be controversial, and likely contested.

 

            Of course, from a mainstream realist international relations perspective we can think geopolitically of the world capital as a reflection of the prevailing distribution of hard power at a give time. Thus in the bipolar world of the Cold War it was Washington and Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union it became Washington alone. Some are now insisting that a new bipolarity is or will shortly be upon us, and even anticipate a new cold war, designating Beijing to be a world capital more or less equivalent in status to Washington. And for those who believe, and hope, that a more polycentric world is emerging, and would be desirable, then perhaps, in addition to Washington and Beijing, one might add Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, and even Jakarta, if the European Union moves forward, maybe Brussels, and possibly Cairo as well but only if Egypt is able to find stability and regain its former regional stature.

 

            Of course, all existing cities in the 21st century are contained within a particular state, and are subject to its authority, and share its destiny. In the past there have been some ‘international cities’ without any national affiliation, and there are today in our world several successful city-states, and many states smaller in population and area than the largest cities. Proposals have been made in recent decades to establish Jerusalem as an international city, not only because such a step would contribute to a sustainable and just peace between Israel and Palestine, but because of its sacred and historical belonging to all three of the Abrahamic religions.

 

Most globally ambitious cities in the modern world, then, have this dual identity, as situated within a territorial state and yet striving for a measure of internal autonomy. As a result, cities often develop a split national personality that combines loyalty and antagonism, the latter often fueled by the deep-seated tensions between cosmopolitan urban space and the more provincial hinterland, as well as by national politicians who shift resources from the city to the countryside in their quest for votes, or sometimes, to reduce gaps in standards of living. These tensions on occasion give rise to frivolous suggestions of secession for cities that seem at odds with the ethos of the country as seems to many to be the case for New York City. It is called by its fiercest critics ‘Sodom-and-Gomorrah-on-Hudson’ and by its most loving devotees as simply ‘The Big Apple.’ Some New Yorkers have daydreams of being a city-state, and many Midwesterners would be happy if the dream came true. It is much more common for secessionist movements to become serious political projects for territorial communities comprising a minority ethnicity or religion that claims a political and legal right of self-determination. Restive urban minorities may riot on occasion and vent their dissatisfaction, but their imaginary rarely includes a scenario of formal disaffiliation. Singapore is a rare exception to this pattern, split off from the British colony of Malaya at the moment of independence. More common is the experience of Hong Kong, being reabsorbed by its powerful Chinese neighbor.

 

            A focus on cities is one way of circumventing the tendency to view sovereign states as the only political actors worth theorizing about in international life. It is true that states have an identity based on governance over a defined space that is recognized in diplomatic circles, as well as enjoying the prerogative of granting or withholding citizenship. The primacy of states as international actors is reinforced by membership rules and procedures for international institutions, especially the United Nations, that confer special and often exclusive status on a political community that qualifies as a sovereign state. In contrast, the terminology of ‘global cities’ is assigned without any agreed criteria or conferred status, lacks diplomatic relevance from the perspective of international law, and the idea that there exists one or more ‘global capital’ is no where referenced on standard world maps and remains a completely constructed category of status, identity, and desire. No government would be foolish enough to proclaim its main city as the capital of the world, although the United States came close to doing so during the springtime grandiosity of George W. Bush’s presidency. Proponents of a certain leadership role for a given state may for a variety of reasons be tempted to put forward the claim of providing the world with a capital city. It would follow from the very real geopolitical ambition to be at the ‘center’ of global policy formation and implementation, to have control over a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, and to boast of offering visitors the most exciting cultural and touristic experiences.

 

            Part of the appeal of the global capital is precisely this separation of status from statehood, and more specifically from the calculus of hard power. Cities, unlike states, have police forces but no armies, although some cities have local guard or militia units, none in modern times possess or aspire to possess force capabilities to project hard power beyond city limits. Cities generally lack an arsenal of heavy weapons, do not have foreign policies, and enjoy only secondary diplomatic representation. Embassies are in capital cities however remote and small, while consulates are in cities no matter how large and influential. In Brazil, for instance, foreign ambassadors resent being posted to Brasilia, the planned and somewhat isolated and artificial capital city, and greatly prefer living in such stimulating urban environments as Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. Cities are simply places where lots of people live, work, enjoy nightlife, have access to extensive financial services, and engage in a range of cultural and economic activities. What, then, motivates a city to be treated, even symbolically, as a political actor, and more grandly, to put forward the claim to be the potential or actual global capital?

 

Some assertions along these lines are deliberately extravagant or are merely intended to call attention to past glories, without any serious political intention to project power. The interior Chinese secondary city of Dengfeng, for instance, claims not only to be the center of the world but the center of heaven, as well, and indeed in past times it has served as the national capital for nine Chinese dynasties. Dengfeng’s self-assertion as a city whose provenance extends beyond China and beyond any given time period, is part of its charm, and lends traditional and spiritual significance to the very metaphorical idea of there being such a reality as the center of the world, much less heaven. Such an idea resembles in certain respects the geographical seats of the great world religions that do indeed possess a centrality for the more devout among the faithful as illustrated by the great pilgrimages to Rome to visit the Vatican or the haj as the obligatory journey taken by devout Muslims to their most holy site of worship.

 

            In my view, such a claim on behalf of cities should be understood as partly a site of struggle between two types of adherents. On one side, those who adhere to the old geopolitics that continues to believe, always somewhat misleadingly, but recently more grotesquely so, that history is principally made by those who prevail in warfare, and little else. Such a belief is usually coupled with the Weberian insistence that it is the sovereign state that establishes its identity by its possession over a monopoly of legitimate force. On the other side, are those who view history through a soft power rainbow optic in which culture, political vitality, religious identity, and ethics shapes and forms what unfolds, and eventually yields a cosmopolitan urban outcome despite being out gunned on the battlefield, or succumbs and endures the tragedy of alien domination. Cities, more than countries, can be analogized to magnets or force fields where people go to strike deals, to be entertained and well fed, to add pleasure, cultural enjoyment, and to enjoy greater privacy in their lives, to discuss their problems and receive guidance, chase dreams, and entertain hopes about the future, to be educated, to be inspired by art and artists, and of course, to be protected by municipal government against violent crime and natural disasters.

 

            There was a period not many years ago where there was a notable interest in cities as independent political actors on the global stage. There were many conferences organized around the theme ‘x city and the world.’ I attended a series of annual gatherings bearing the title ‘Yokohama and the World’ that brought together thinkers and civil society actors from many foreign countries and regions. These meetings were a pet project of the governor of the Japanese prefecture, and the discussions were vibrant and suggestive, blending wishful thinking, advocacy, and an assessment of trends. The underlying perspective was one in which it was presupposed that what was good for Japan was not necessarily good for Yokohama, that cities might have separate interests and different priorities from those of national political leaders, and that especially the national capital was subject to many distorting pressures divorced from service to the human interest or the wellbeing of Yokohama’s citizenry. The global city as distinct actor, complicated by its formal subjugation to the territorial order of sovereign states, suggests that people living in a particular city might not share the postulates of territorial nationalism, and were not nearly as inclined to include hard power in their political imaginary. The idea of a world order that was basically constituted by the principal cities of the world depicts an alternate pathway to peace, sustainability, justice, and world order that is at fundamental variance from the preoccupation of sovereign states with national security. In the Yokohama setting, for instance, there was a much greater willingness to engage positively with China than was then the case for the Japanese government located in Tokyo, reflecting a web of national and international considerations. Should we not favor a network of global cities as creating a non-territorial approach to global policy that might be much more attuned to global needs and desires, especially if cities could gain wealth and prestige while contributing to the further intermingling of civilizations and thereby laying the foundations for a more peaceful and sustainable human future.

 

            In the pre-modern world cities were much more prominent than in modern times when sovereignty, nationalism, citizenship, bounded territoriality, and statehood organized political life. Socrates felt that death was preferable to being exiled from Athens the city that he loved, and exile was often seen as the worst punishment that could be inflicted. Even Machiavelli centuries later, rarely celebrated for his tenderness, expressed a romantic attachment to his native Florence: “I love my city more than myself.” In the course of the transition to modernity there were many instances of resistance on the part of cities that did not want to get swallowed by these larger political communities established in every instance by conquest. Most of us remain unaware of the deep connections in the past between political violence and the constituting of larger ‘legitimate’ political communities. The relationship between state-building and war that is so fundamental to the securitization of world politics is, in other words, neither new nor without deep roots in the histories of every sovereign state and all major cities.

 

            But with the revival of city-states such as Singapore and Hong Kong, and the success of several micro states, we can observe a far weaker linkage between security and hard power, as well as the rebirth of the medieval idea of community viability. These political entities become secure by being useful to others, viable and vibrant for themselves, and generally enjoying ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ but not by being able to extend territory and control of resources by conquest. Although this portrayal must be expanded to admit that most modern states did originate with cities that did expand for the sake of food security and wealth or to provide their city with security against marauding neighbors or the vagaries of weather. Nevertheless, this experience of the past is suggestive of how it might be possible to transform the political imaginary of states with respect to their most fundamental reason for existence, inducing more dedication to the security of people (‘human security’) less to the security of governments (‘national security’).

 

 

            I believe that the idea of proposing a global capital is a defensible endeavor, even if seen only as laying the groundwork for the future, if we take into account the degree of integration that has been achieved by markets, by globally constituted battlefields, by changing geopolitical patterns, by struggles to generate global policy that is commensurate with such collective goods problems as climate change and nuclear weaponry, by global travel and globalization of political identity and the dispersion of families throughout the planet by migration and forced displacement.  Of course the choice of this city rather than that one is political, economic, ethical, and even aesthetic and hedonistic.

 

 

            My initial sense of which candidate cities offer the most plausible site of the global capital is rather pluralist. For instance, if our outlook is  geopolitically oriented according to the logic of hard power realists, then the argument for choosing Washington to play that role seems rather obvious despite its recent experiences of relative decline. Yet if the speculation is more normative, connected with human values, then we would probably pick New York, especially because aside from the being the headquarters of the United Nations, it is a most notable global city from the perspective of ethnic diversity, finance, and cosmopolitan culture, although its short lifespan, vulnerability to extreme weather events, and Westcentric orientation limits the quality of its candidacy given 21st century post-colonial realities. New York and Washington also suffer from the role of the United States as the gatekeeper for access, which in the post-9/11 world has made entry problematic for many of those invited to perform culturally or participatein political or academic conferences.

 

            London also could be considered, having the advantage of a long lineage, rich tradition, as well as finance and culture, and the birthplace of the English language. Until very recently a case could be made for Brussels as the hub city for the European Union, as well as NATO, and giving expression to the idea that the world we live in is mainly responsive to economic and military power (an inversion of the 9/11 attacks that targeted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as the two pillars of the American world role). Brussels could also be championed as a precursor of a post-statist world order that is constituted by regional groupings, but its Western identity and association with the extensive European overseas empires and colonial crimes are fatal handicaps in our post-colonial world that bases notions of legitimacy more and more on de-Westernizing claims of civilizational identity.

 

            I find none of these candidate cities as sufficiently endowed with the combination of features that might justify christening its as the capital of the world. But I do have a promising candidate provided it can overcome some present obstacles: Istanbul. This may seem surprising, because although achieving a much higher profile in the last decade, Turkey as a state is not viewed as belonging to the top tier of countries in the world, including among emerging states, its currency is not much valued beyond its borders, and its language spoken only in its own country, among a few nearby Turcoman minorities, and some central Asian countries that gained independence a couple of decades ago when the Soviet Union fell apart. As well, Turkey has some severely troublesome domestic problems for which no near-term solution seems forthcoming, especially its inability to accommodate the grievances of 12-15 million Kurdish minority, important international unresolved issues such as its relationship to the Armenian diaspora, its various tensions with Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Syria, and Iran, and its dysfunctional, yet abiding and severe, internal polarization between those who governed during the Republican Era, and those who have run the country since 2002.

 

            There are more serious issues as well that make Istanbul’s candidacy problematic in many quarters precisely because it is such an integral part of the Turkish state. The central question is raised: ‘Should the sins of the state be visited upon the city?’ It is not an easy question. And what of the sins of the city? Istanbul has had a spectacular building boom in recent years, with shopping malls and upper income restaurants and hotels, and an overall atmosphere that may not be conducive to a fulfilled life for the majority of inhabitants that must struggle with the ordeals of living and working in a city of rising living costs, unhealthy air, and limited resources for human satisfaction unless one is the recipient of a large salary.

 

            How then can Istanbul be seriously considered in our search for a global capital? I would point to several factors. Increasingly, Istanbul is a city of choice for those international travelers in search of touristic fulfillment, and it rarely disappoints visitors despite its awesome traffic that clogs streets well past midnight and its polluted air. It has also become a secure and acceptable place to hold the most delicate diplomatic discussions, whether involving such regional issues as Syria and Iran, or wider concerns about Afghanistan and Africa. Istanbul has without fanfare also taken steps to emphasize its rising importance: with Spain it jointly administers the UN project on ‘Alliance of Civilizations’; it held recently a very high profile inaugural session of the World Economic Forum; and it also has become a favorite non-European meeting ground for a variety of UN sponsored events.

            Istanbul is convenient to reach for global gatherings, Turkey is a permissive gatekeeper with respect to visitor access automatically issuing visas for a small charge, and Turkish Airlines was recently selected as the best in Europe. Important, also, is the fact that Turkey is not Europe psychologically, even if a small part of its territory is treated as being in Europe. Turkey’s Asian identity is not just a geographic description, but is far more a cultural and religious imprimatur. It has been given greater recent authority by the European Union’s rejectionist response to the Turkish application for membership. Many comment that Turkey has been fortunate to remain outside the EU during the current Euro-crisis, but more than this, if Turkey had become a member it would no long be perceived as favorably by many non-Western constituencies. Turkey also has gained economic and political credibility at a time when so many important states have either been treading water so as to remain afloat. It has also pioneered in achieving a stable interface between secular principles and religious freedom, moving away from the ‘over-secularization’, to borrow the designation from Ibrahim Kalin. This rigid version of being secular dominated the Turkish political scene during the long period of Kemalist ascendancy that ended in 2002 with the control of the Turkish government shifting to the AKP as a result of electoral victories. It is necessary to account of such factors as Istanbul can not be separated from its embeddedness in the Turkish reality.

 

            But is not such acclaim for Turkey irrelevant to the advancement of Istanbul as global capital? One of the distinguishing features of the Erdogan leadership has been to shift the attention of the country and the world to Istanbul, just as Ataturk had strongly believed that a truly modern Turkey would need to repudiate its Ottoman past and so deliberately moved the capital city to Ankara as part of a fresh break with history for the young republic. For the AKP the re-glorification of Istanbul is a way of reviving pride and the traditions associated with the pre-republican era. This is not a crude form of neo-Ottomanism, but a realization that Istanbul was a treasure trove of cultural and religious eminence unmatched elsewhere, and a subtle reminder, through its extraordinary mosque architecture, of its former stature as the home of the Islamic Caliphate. As well, Turkey geopolitically and geographically provides a unique set of linkages between Europe and Asia, Europe and the Middle East, Europe and Africa, and offers the world a more cosmopolitan understanding of the Mediterranean world. I would also mention the degree to which Turkey’s most celebrated author, the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, has been inspired by the imaginative excesses of Istanbul as a city. Pamuk is sometimes referred to as ‘the biographer of Istanbul’ because his great The Black Book and his memoir of growing up in the city so brilliantly capture the magic and mysteries of Istanbul, which has attracted millions of hearts and minds around the world, endowing the city with an almost mystical identity for many of us. Tell me a city other than Istanbul that has exerted such an influence on our collective imaginations? Some might answer feebly ‘Venice,’ recalling Thomas Mann’s great story ‘Death in Venice’ as well as the haunting novel, The Comfort of Strangers, set in Venice by Ian McEwan, but the charisma of Venice is as a place of menace and degeneracy, although its exotic beauty is unquestionably one of the urban wonders of the world.

 

            What enhances Istanbul’s candidacy, in my judgment, is the degree to which this Turkish worldview has been recently articulated in a clear manner. More than any other current political leaders, those who have spoken for Turkey during the last several years have understood and expressed the need to bring a change about the way in which security and power have been achieved in modern international relations, while at the same time not losing an appreciation of the resilience of the old ways, however anachronistic, during this agonizing period of global transition. This innovative renewal of Turkish influence has been rooted, to an unparalleled extent, in soft power geopolitics stressing the mutual benefits of peace, trade, cultural achievement, ciilizational pride, and dialogue.

 

            True, Turkey’s preferred orientation has recently been significantly readjusted to take account of a series of unexpected developments arising from the aftermath of the Arab upheavals, especially in neighboring Syria.  Despite Turkish foreign policy being confronted by hard power challenges within its borders and region, Ankara’s underlying commitment to a new paradigm of world order has not been abandoned. The Kurdish challenge, the Syrian internal struggle, tensions with Iran have led to a dramatic modification of the earlier flagship promise of ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ but even this seemingly unrealistic goal, if sensitively and contextually considered, retains its essential wisdom, which combines principle associated with maximizing peaceful relations with states and their peoples and promoting mutually beneficial interests. As Foreign Minister Davutoglu has repeatedly stressed, when a neighboring government commits atrocities against its own people, then Turkey sides with the people, not the government that has discredited itself. When the zero problems approach was first proclaimed, it might have prevented future confusion, if this qualification had been made explicit.

 

AKP detractors, whether Kemalists within or Israelis without, have done their best to discredit the Turkish approach to foreign policy. Undoubtedly the new challenge is complex and difficult: How to strike a new balance amid the turmoil of the region that has so far made fools of us all! Yet I am convinced that Turkey continues to do its best to increase the prospects for soft power geopolitics while undertaking the necessary prudent steps to avoid dangerous vulnerability to those political forces that continue to rely on hard power solutions for conflict, including the perpetration of mass violence against their own people.

 

            Considering Istanbul as a possible future capital of the world can be interpreted as a side-effect of the advocacy of soft power geopolitics. It also responds to the receptivity of Turkey as a state willing to provide the peoples of the world with a safe haven for dialogue, negotiation, empathy, and the satisfactions of a post-Western world civilization. We are also recognizing the geographical and geopolitical location of Istanbul as a crossroads connecting several civilizations and religious traditions. Such a proposal can be dismissed as a wild exaggeration of the Turkish role in the world or as a perverse instance of wishful thinking, but it is put forward partly in response to an interpretation of integrative trends in our globalizing world, and also as an expression of the kind of flourishing future that will most likely be of most benefit the peoples of the world.

 

   

Beyond Language: Reflections on the Arakan Tragedy

15 Oct

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Trying to use words, and every attempt

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

 

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

 

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

 

…..Do not let me hear

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

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

12 Oct

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

9 Oct

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Apollo’s Curse and Climate Change

29 Sep

 

            The fertile mythic mind of ancient Greece gave us a tragically relevant tale, told in different versions, of how the Greek god Apollo laid a curse of the beautiful and humanly captivating Cassandra. According to the myth Apollo was so moved by Cassandra’s beauty and presence that he conferred the gift of prophesy enabling her to apprehend accurately the future. Yet the gift came with a rather large macho string attached: he expected in return that Cassandra would agree to become his love partner, but she by tradition was sufficiently attached to her virginity and pride as to refuse Apollo’s crude entreaty. Angered by such defiance, Apollo laid upon this innocent young woman a lethal curse: she would continue to foretell the future but she would never be believed. Such a twin destiny drove Cassandra insane, surely a punishment of virtue that was perversely exacted. Or are we as mortals expected always to cast aside our morals and virtue whenever the gods so demand?

 

            The sad story of Cassandra is suggestive of the dilemma confronting the climate change scientific community. In modern civilization, interpreting scientific evidence and projecting trends, is as close to trustworthy prophesy as this civilization is likely to get. Modernity has proceeded on this basis, applying knowledge to bring greater material benefits to humanity, including longer and healthier lives. The culture is supposed to place its highest trust in the scientific community as the voice of reason,  and modernity is largely understood as allowing scientific truth and instrumental reason to supersede superstition and religious revelation. Galileo’s capitulation to the authority of the Catholic Church is the insignia of the pre-modern worldview that made religion the incontestable source of truth.

 

            The world scientific community has spoken with as much authority as it can muster in relation to climate change. The UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), drawing on the work of thousands of climate specialists around the world, has concluded that the continuation of greenhouse gas emissions at current rates, as a result of human activities, is almost certain to cause a disastrous level of global warming, that is, above 2 degrees centigrade, that will produce, and is already producing, a series of disastrous effects on planet earth that cannot be adequately explained by natural weather cycles: extreme weather; polar melting; droughts and flooding; ocean warming  and acidification; desertification; destruction of coral reefs and fisheries . Among the societal effects, already felt in various places, would be food insecurity, ethnic conflict, environmental migrants and refugees, and coercive to patterns of governance. Depending on how much global warming takes place over what period of time, there are more dire predictions being made by reputable observers (James Hanson, Bill McKibben, James Lovelock) civilizational collapse and even threats to species survival.

 

            Why is the strong consensus of the scientific community so ineffectual on this issue? Why are its dire warnings substantially ignored? The full story is complicate and controversial. There are several underlying explanations: states primarily look after national interests, and are reluctant to cooperate when expected burdens on economic prosperity are likely to be heavy; this is particularly true when the complexities of an issue make it almost impossible to agree upon an allocation of economic responsibility for the buildup of greenhouse gasses over the course of several centuries; ordinary people are reluctant to give up present gains to offset future risks, especially when the sky that they daily see looks no different and massive poverty exists; politicians are far less moved to action by risks that will not materialize for some decades, given their short cycles of present accountability almost totally based on present performance; the worst current effects of global warming are taking place in countries, sub-Saharan Africa, which makes only minimal contributions to emissions, and so there is a mismatch between the sites of emission and sites of current harm; those with entrenched interests in refusing to curtail present uses of fossil fuels, have the incentive and resources to fund a counter-narrative that denies the asserted threat of global warming; as the threat is primarily in the future, despite some conjectured present harm, there is always an element of uncertainty as to the reliability of predicted effects, and there are likely to be some scientists who sincerely dissent from the prevailing views, especially if their research is funded by those with an interest in promoting climate skepticism. There is also a corporate mentality, generally sincere, that is convinced that a technological fix will emerge in time to address what truths are embedded in predictions of harm from global warming, and some geo-engineering ‘fixes’ are already at the blueprint stage.

 

            What then is the relevance of the curse of Apollo? By making the political process in a world of sovereign states primarily responsive to the siren call of money, the guidance of science is marginalized. More explicitly, when money in large quantities does not want something to happen, and there is absent countervailing monetary resources to offset the pressures being exerted, knowledge will be subordinated. We have become, maybe long have been, a materialistic civilization more than a scientific civilization.

 

            This overall picture is complicated by the fact that the scientific consensus is endorsed by most governments at the level of rhetoric, but without the political will, to change the relevant pattern of behavior.  If we look at the declarations being endorsed by governments at the annual UN climate change gatherings, we might be surprised by the degree to which political leaders are willing to affirm their sense of the urgency in relation to the climate change challenge, while at the same time in their diplomatic role using the geopolitical leverage at their disposal to make sure that no obligations are imposed that require an agreed level of reductions in emissions at levels that are responsive to the recommendations of the scientists.

 

            The case of the United States is exemplary. It remains the largest per capita emitting country, although surpassed for the last couple of years by China in relation to aggregate total emissions. It remains the world leader in relation to the formation of global policy on problems of planetary dimension. It has been led in the past decade by one president who was distinctly anti-environmental and another who once talked the talk of environmentalism, and yet the approach has been basically the same—avoid

all commitments that might encroach upon present or future economic growth. In effect, it has been the United States, more than any country, even during the Obama presidency, that has poured ice cold water on international climate change negotiations. There are some explanations for this disappointing de facto accommodation to the position of the climate skeptics, thereby wasting valuable adjustment time: an economic crisis at home and abroad that makes it politically difficult to weaken in any way economic prospects by invoking environmental concerns, a reactionary Congress that would block appropriations and national commitments associated with climate change protection, a presidential leadership that tends to shun controversial issues, and a public that cares about its immediate material wellbeing beyond asserted worries about the future.

 

            The long struggle to discourage smoking due to its health risks illustrates both the frustrations of the scientific community, the ambivalence of politicians, and the powerful obfuscating tactics of the tobacco industry. But smoking was easier: the health impacts could be addressed by individual action in response to what the scientific community was advising; there were no societal effects produced by a refusal to heed the warnings; time was not a factor except on a personal level; and adverse results were often concrete and afflicted the rich almost as much as the poor. In this sense, unlike climate change, there was a correlation between the harmful activity and the adverse effects on health, and less need for governmental action.

 

            Apollo’s curse, then, can be understood either in terms of the undue and destructive influence of money or as the cool aid of unconditional economic growth under present conditions of global warming and some additional issues of ecological sustainability. The warnings of the scientific community, while not quite voices in the wilderness, do increasingly seem shrill shouts of frustration that are only likely to intensify in the years to come as the evidence mounts and the heedlessness persists. Whether this induces madness remains to be seen? Perhaps, it is more likely, that most scientists will begin to feel as if members of a classic Greek theater chorus that bemoans the onset of a tragedy while recognizing their helplessness to prevent its unfolding before their eyes. Perhaps, it is easier to remain sane if part of a chorus than fated to make the life journey alone, an experience that undoubtedly added to the inevitability of Cassandra’s sad demise.    

 

Reviving My Blog After China

27 Sep

 

 

            After three weeks in China I have returned to the United States  yesterday before departing for Turkey and Rhodes later today. I mention this to explain my failure to post during this period or to comment or monitor comments on the blog. This failure was not due to a lack of access to the Internet or even finding time during a busy travel schedule. It was due to my lack of skill in circumventing what is known as ‘The Great Firewall of China’ that blocks entry to most blogs, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, as well as assorted other sites. Sophisticated Chinese know how to circumvent, and the authorities do not seem to mind, as the blockade is apparently intended to limit access on the part of ordinary Chinese. This is true of the Chinese media generally, which is highly regulated, especially TV, giving only officialviews, although the English language dailies, which are quite informative aremore objective, and do not read as propaganda.

 

            While in China the media was dominated by the intense Chinese reaction to the Japanese government decision to purchase the Daioyu Islands (called Senkaku Islands by Japan) from private Japanese owners, which was interpreted as a provocative step toward implementing Japanese disputed sovereignty claims. There were sustained, sometimes violent, demonstrations against the Japanese move in all major Chinese cities, interpreted by residents as events largely orchestrated by the Chinese Communist Party. At the same time there is an undercurrent of anti-Japanese resentment that is genuine, activating memories from the era of Japanese imperialism, which inflicted many harsh abuses on China. There seemed to occur anti-Japanese spontaneous acts throughout China in recent days that probably exceeded what the authorities in Beijing wanted, including attacks of Japanesecars, restaurants, and boycotts of products. Some Japanese business establishments flew Chinese flags or posted notices to show that they supported the Chinese position with respect to the islands. It is generally in believed that neither government wants the dispute to escalate further as it could severely harm, if it has not already done so, the extensive trade and investment relations between the two countries. It was a widely shared opinion that while the government took the lead in promoting the popular demonstrations, it might experience difficulty in containing this genie of anti-Japanese sentiment once in gained its freedom. Similarly, in Japan, nationalist sentiments in internal politics will complicate any diplomatic retreat by Tokyo.

 

            This was my third visit to China. The first in 1972 involved a delicate mission to escort three American pilots, shot down in the Vietnam War, from their prison cells in Hanoi to the United States. The pilots had been prisoners of war for varying lengths of time, and were released into my custody along with other ‘representatives of the American peace movement,’ William Sloan Coffin, Cora Weiss, and David Dellinger, on condition that they return to territorial United States in our custody. There was an express understanding that nay future prisoner release would be influenced by whether we could uphold this condition, which we took seriously. After their release, we spent another week in what was then North Vietnam, especially visiting various cities and villages that had experienced serious bomb damage. I was struck by the astonishing lack of bitterness on the Vietnamese side considering their extreme vulnerability to these high tech attacks. There was political sensitivity on all sides: the pilots were concerned that they might be denounced, or even prosecuted, as collaborators, the U.S. Government was worried at a time close to the presidential elections that these pilots could influentially criticize the war policies, China was concerned at a time shortly before the Nixon-Kissinger visit that Washington might cancel or defer this historic diplomatic breakthrough, and we were worried that we might be in trouble for engaging in ‘private diplomacy’ prohibited by an old and unused law. Actually none of these concerns materialized, but our ten days or so in China were very circumscribed partly because the authorities did not want to publicize their facilitative role, and it was the last throes of the Cultural Revolution, which was evident in the city of Wuhan where we were confined for a week while the remainder of the logistics of the trip were worked out. After a long journey via Beijing, Moscow, and Copenhagen we did manage to get these pilots back to Kennedy Airport in NYC where before deplaning they were, in effect, rearrested, this time by the U.S. Government, to avoid media contact under the pretext of the need for a ‘medical debriefing.’ Among those who boarded the plane was a Pentagon official who had studied at Princeton, and made a point of apologizing to me for this harsh welcome being given to these young Americans who had endured being shot down, Vietnamese imprisonment, and the uncertainties that awaited them at home. 

 

            My second visit in 1987 was comparatively low profile so far as media attention was concerned . I gave a few lectures in Beijing and Shanghai as part of an exchange program with Princeton, and my Chinese hosts arranged three weeks of travel throughout the country, which included a trip along the Yangtze River including the Three Gorges segment prior to the construction of major dams, Chunking, and Tibet; I did meet with the Deputy Foreign Minister of China who told me that if United States wanted positive relations with China it should show support for the remnants of the Khmer Rouge (in Cambodia) and stop encouraging resistance to the sovereign Chinese presence in Tibet. As a strong critic of the genocidal behavior of the Khmer Rouge and a supporter of Tibetan self-determination, I was somewhat surprised that a high Chinese official was naïve enough to suppose that I was a suitable conduit for such an unwelcome diplomatic communication. More satisfactory, by far, was a meeting of China’s Vietnam experts in Beijing that had been organized at my request. I had heard the Vietnamese side of the story as to why relations between the two supposed allies had so badly deteriorated after the American departure in 1975, and wanted to get a sense of how the Chinese portrayed the relationship. In essence, the Vietnamese claimed that China wanted the war to go on until ‘the last Vietnamese’ while the Chinese generally faulted Vietnam for being ‘ungrateful’ for extensive assistance at a time of economic hardship in China. While in China I was accompanied at all times by a Chinese ‘interpreter’ who monitored my agenda and became a friend; during our river travels he asked that I give him a daily lecture on international relations, which I gladly did; he later took a bold step and allowed us to meet some young fiction writers in Shanghai, departing from the approved agenda, which at that time, took a measure of personal courage. In China there was a sense of relief that the Cultural Revolution was over, and repudiated. There were few signs of the historic move to modernization, or receptivity to foreign capital, which were destined to revolutionize China in the following decades. Traffic in the big cities was almost exclusively by bicycle, with a few government cars and occasional taxis. I remember being in a taxi in Shanghai that had stopped at an intersection when it was struck by a cyclist who had fallen asleep. The taxi was immediately surrounded by an angry crowd, which dissipated only when it became clear that the accident was entirely the fault of the man on the bicycle.

 

            On this third trip China had become a different country!  The ‘New China’ had many extraordinary features, including the darks sides of rapid modernization—terrible pollution and traffic gridlock. On Nanjing Road in Shanghai, a shopping thoroughfare closed to cars, there were huge Western stores, including an Apple mega-store and many world class luxury shops. It was notable that many of these stores were rather empty, although the street outside was jammed with pedestrians. Modern China is an enigma in many ways. It still almost impossible for a foreigner to get along unless fluent in the language, and even difficult to do such routine things as go to a well known hotel or train station without a native speaker and guide. We had great difficulties going from the Shanghai train station where the fast train arrived and a large Marriot hotel in the city center. Many taxis refuse to take foreigners, and it takes great perseverance to find someone, usually a person under 25, who speaks some English. The fast train, traveling at speeds in excess of 185 mph, was comfortable, on time, an excellent way to get from Beijing to Stanghai, and a grim reminder that the U.S. enslaved to the auto industry, is a backward country when it comes to public transportation.

 

            There is much that could be said about this visit to China. I will write a separate post about a workshop and public meeting at Peking University and a quite extraordinary conference on religious traditions in China that took place in Dengfeng, China’s ancient capital and a UNESCO cultural heritage site since 2010.  At this point I will limit myself to a few reflections: there is taking place a serious effort to blend traditional Chinese culture and thought with the new China; few expect any change for the better politically within China over the course of the next ten years; there is great appreciation of American higher education and no hostility toward the United States (the Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, visited a few days ago and was greeted as a valued friend by Chinese leaders, who spoke of greater cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries), not much interest in the world outside of East Asia (although American popular culture is a definite exception, divided attitudes on the part of Chinese intellectuals toward Mao who remains the face of modern China (e.g. a massive portrait at the entry to the Forbidden City), blamed for the mistakes of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s but appreciated as the dominant revolutionary leader; a sense that there is a widening sphere of freedom of thought so long as the red lines of anti-state activism are not crossed, particularly in organized fashion; some realization that the rapid growth of recent years is unlikely to continue due to a mixture of internal and global reasons, especially rising labor costs and insufficient consumer demand; and a seeming rising dissatisfaction with the one-child policy.

 

            Despite all the qualifications and criticisms, what China has achieved for its people, and in a sense for the world, is remarkable, unsurpassed in human history. I remember attending an off-the-record briefing by the lead journalists (I recall Dan Rather, Eric Severeid, but there were others)who had accompanied Nixon to China in 1972 that was held for invited guests at the Plaza Hotel in NYC. I was seated at a table with several presidents of American airline companies who seemed as astonished as I was by what we were told.  The journalists formed a panel and took questions, and I remember, especially, the words of Severeid, which I paraphrase from memory: “We were scared to tell the American people how impressed we were by what we saw and experienced in China. We came away with the belief that China possessed a superior civilization.” Of course, China had been off limits to Westerners since the Communists took over in 1949, and American Cold War propaganda had been intense during the period of the Vietnam War. It is odd in light of later developments, including the war between China and Vietnam in the 1970s, that the U.S. Government believed that North Vietnam was essentially an extension of China, referring to the Vietnamese in official documents at the time as ‘ChiComs.’ So much for the great political understanding of the Washington cable-reading intelligence community!    

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