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Restoring Civil Discourse Relating to Palestine-Israel

22 Aug

To Blog visitors:

 

During the grim events of the past few weeks taking place in Gaza, and more generally in Israel/Palestine, I have not blocked comments even if they crossed the lines of personal insult and group vitriol that I feel justified in excluding from the discourse.

 

I have been particularly disturbed by the frequent long comments written by strong proponents of Israel’s behavior who constantly refer to me and otherswith such inflammatory and defamatory language as ‘Jew haters’ and the like.

Also expressions of ethnic hatred, or personal challenges that are written as it to demand me to denounce the behavior of Hamas are not acceptable, and will be blocked, although during travels I may not be a very efficient monitor. To point only to the alleged crimes of a political leadership that is bearing the brunt of a sustained attacks killing, and wounding thousands of innocent Gazans and terrorizing the rest is also not acceptable on this blog site. Go elsewhere if you wish to spew such incitement and hatred.

 

I hope most readers of the blog comments section are aware that I take these steps reluctantly as I think the subject-matter that elicits these comments deserves sensitive and diverse expressions of viewpoints, and I have strong bias toward free expression. I also appreciate that feelings and emotional commentary are an indispensable dimension of communication, and should not be excluded even from political discourse. At the same time, minimum standards of civility are needed to frame comments in a constructive spirit of dialogue, and thereby  avoid tendencies to hurl hurtful insults back and forth.

 

Perhaps, this recurring difficulty of maintaining civility is a symptom of an  irreconcilable conflict. I do not encounter anything comparable when addressing other issues.

 

The Hidden Costs of War Crimes to the Criminal

20 Aug

[Prefatory Note: I am republishing on this blog site a letter and some documentation written by Fred Branfman, a friend and political comrade of more than 40 years. We met first in our shared opposition to the Vietnam War, and engaged in acts of civil disobedience in Washington to express our solidarity with younger Americans who were facing prison for their opposition or death and injury as conscripted soldiers, and our sense of identification with the millions of Vietnamese who were enduring the ravages of high technology war, many without ever having left their villages, much less their country. As he writes, Fred was moved and shocked by the so-called secret war being carried on in Laos by the United States through extensive covert operations, without even the slightest effort to show respect for the US Constitution's requirements relating to war, and in cruel defiance of international law.  Fred is also very conscious and sensitive about the complexities of his middle class Jewish background, and how it bears on his outlook on Israel-Palestine relations. Throughout his life he has exhibited a primary identity that is preoccupied with what it means to be 'human,' taking his cues from religion, ethics, and empathetic experiences. As such, his reflections on the meaning of the events in Gaza in relation to our assessments of Israel's behavior, whether as Jews or as human beings is relevant for all of us. Fred's central point about the moral victimization of the perpetrator of crimes as well as the abuse of those being targeted is crucial.]

 

 

 

Dear Friends,

I hope you will consider sending this just-published piece (original version below) to supporters of Israel’s actions in Gaza you know. Most U.S. supporters of Israel that I know are decent people who reflexively support Israel without confronting the actual facts of the atrocities it is committing. But in so doing they must understand that what is at stake is not only Israel’s humanity but their own.

The most painful memories of my life have been triggered by the recent Israeli bombing and shelling of civilian targets in Gaza: the many months I spent interviewing Lao ricefarmers about their 5 years under U.S. bombing – the most significant unknown event of the 20th century. The World Can’t Wait website has just published “Laos: Birthplace of Modern U.S. Executive War and a New ‘Ahuman’ Age” – its lessons apply not only to Laos but to Israel, Gaza, Syria and the many other cases where civilians become the main victims of automated murder.

It is critical to human civilization itself that we make the issue of civilian murder in Gaza personal, by (1) having the personal integrity to look at the facts of, not rationalizations for, Israel-caused civilian destruction in Gaza (please see “The Civilian Impact of Israel’s 2014 Attack on Gaza” below); and (2) to acknowledge that what is at stake here is not only Israel’s humanity but our own. Those who are indifferent to the murder of civilians in Gaza today are also indifferent to the destruction of our own children and grandchildren through climate change tomorrow.

In retrospect it seems like an accident of fate that I so directly encountered the U.S. mass murder of the gentlest, kindest people on earth in Laos. But I regard it now as both the most agonizing and precious experience of my life. For imagining what it means to be on the ground “looking up” at the bombers, rather than “looking down” as we inevitably do in the West, adds a crucial dimension to human existence – and one which may well determine the fate of our species as we confront the growing horrors of the 21st century. ­ Fred

TO ISRAEL’S U.S. SUPPORTERS: PORTABLE GAS CHAMBERS, CHEMICAL WARFARE, BLINDINGS, MASS BOMBING AND SHELLING OF CIVILIANS – WHERE DO YOU DRAW THE LINE?

Note: This message is addressed to U.S. supporters of Israel both because only U.S. pressure can bring about the political settlement which alone can save Israel and Palestine, and because it appears that most Israelis – consumed by fear, hatred and the dehumanization of even Palestinian children – are presently impervious to either reason or human decency.

Dear U.S. Supporters of Israel in Gaza,

If you believed that the IDF could destroy Hamas by employing portable gas chambers or chemical weapons to publicly gas over 1,400 Gazan civilians, including 400 children, chosen at random – or deliberately blinding them – would you favor doing so? I guess not, perhaps you even feel insulted at the suggestion that you might.

But this raises a basic question: if you would not favor gassing Palestinan civilians, how do you justify your support for blowing them to bits? The controversial issue is not Israel trying to destroy Hamas tunnels. Nor is it the attempt to destroy rockets, as if the Israelis can claim that they reasonably suspected the 46-48,000 U.N.-estimated buildings they either partially or totally destroyed of containing rockets. Nor is it rightfully condemning Hamas for rocketing civilian targets as well. As even long-term apologists for Israeli violence like the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier acknowledge, the issue is massive Israeli bombing and shelling of he civilian infrastructure in Gaza, which is wholly disproportionate to combatting tunnels and/or rockets.

It is the actual massive bombing and shelling of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure that raises the basic question: as a human being, where do you draw the line? How do you justify to yourself your support for mass misery inflicted on hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians through a bombing and shelling campaign that – whatever its stated intent – not only murdered 1400 civilians and maimed thousands more, but destroyed hospitals, schools, businesses, and Gaza’s only power station plunging all 1.8 million Gazans into darkness and depriving them even of drinking water, created over 400,000 refugees, and traumatized a U.N.-estimated 373,000 children? (Please see “The Civilian Impact of Israel’s 2014 Attack on Gaza” below. You own integrity requires that you at least acknowledge the facts rather than, as do so many of Israel’s supporters, accept at face-value Israeli claims that it sought to avoid civilian destruction.)

I answered such questions for myself 45 years ago, when I discovered that civilians were well over 90% of the victims of U.S. leaders’ mass bombing of northern Laos. I concluded then that there is never any moral or legal justification for mass bombing or shelling of civilians. Period. Full Stop.

The “World Can’t Wait” website has just posted a PowerPoint presentation on the years-long bombing of northern Laos, perhaps the worst unknown crime of the 20th century. It combines an analysis of automated war, the writings of the rice-farmers who suffered most and were heard from least, and my personal story in discovering and trying to expose it to the world. A Lao mother summed up the nature of mass bombing of civilians for all time: “There was danger as the sound of airplanes led me to be terribly, terribly afraid of dying. When looking at the faces of my children who were losing the so very precious happiness of childhood I would grow in­creasingly miserable. In reality, whatever happens, it is the innocent who suffer.”

The question of protecting civilians in wartime far transcends the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: it is a basic measurement of the progress of human civilization itself. What is at stake in your support for Israel’s recent attacks on Gaza is not only Israel’s humanity but your own.

There are two basic questions regarding warfare: (1) whether a given war is considered legitimate, e.g. whether it is “aggressive war”; and (2) how civilians are treated once a war is launched. These are two distinct questions – even if you consider a given war legitimate there is no moral or legal justification for waging it in a way that mainly murders and maims civilians.

The evolution of international law on this question, beginning with the 1907 Hague Convention, has been slow and painful. But it is today unequivocal: waging war in a way that results primarily in civilian deaths and damage is a punishable war crime. Article 85 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions states categorically that “the following acts shall be regarded as grave breaches of this Protocol … launching an indiscriminate attack affecting the civilian population or civilian objects in the knowledge that such attack will cause excessive loss of life, injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects” – a precise description of Israeli bombing and shelling in Gaza.

Israel claims that it is justified in maiming and murdering civilians because Hamas is using them as “human shields”. But it must be understood: there is always a military and political rationale for bombing civilians. In Laos, Deputy CIA Director James Lilley explained that though North Vietnamese soldiers were not in the villages they would hide there if the U.S. didn’t bomb civilians. Prime Minister Nethanyahu today offers a similar rationale for mass civilian murder.

Other rationales include hoping that mass murder of civilians will turn the population against their leaders, as when former Israeli General Amos Yadlin stated in the N.Y. Times that Israel must bomb partly so that “Gaza’s people (are) given the chance to elect new leaders”. And, as the U.S. Senate Refugee Subcommittee concluded after visiting Laos, the bombing’s purpose was to hurt the enemy by destroying its “social and economic infrastructure.” This was also General Curtis Lemay’s basic rationale for burning alive over 100,000 Japanese civilians in the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9, 1945, an act for which Lemay acknowledged at the time, and his assistant Robert McNamara later
also admitted, was a war crime – for which they should have been executed. (PIease see Note 1 below.)

And it is precisely because there is always a rationale for bombing civilians that the progress of human civilization is largely measured by the extent to which civilians are protected in times of war from indiscriminate bombing and shelling, and that those who violate these rules are prosecuted for crimes of war. Protecting civilians against indiscriminate murder, in short, is not only a question of war. It is a measure of your own humanity.

The Civilian Impact of Israel’s 2014 Attack on Gaza

n CIVILIAN DEAD AND WOUNDED: A U.N.-estimated 1396 Palestinian civilians killed including 222 women and 418 children, thousands more wounded. (Source: Information Management Unit in the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, from “Month-long War in Gaza Has Left a Humanitarian and Environmental Crisis”, Washington Post. August 6, 2014)

n CHILDREN: “Pernille Ironside, who runs the UNICEF field office in Gaza, said the agency estimates that roughly 373,000 Palestinian children have had some kind of direct traumatic experience as a result of the attack and will require immediate psycho-social support … (She) added that she’s seen ‘children coming out of these shelters with scabies, lice, all kinds of communicable diseases.’” (Source: “Amid Gaza’s Ruins, Impact on Children Most ‘Severe': UN Official”, Common Dreams, August 6, 2014)

n ECONOMIC INFRASTRUCTURE: “175 of Gaza’s most successful industrial plants had also taken devastating hits, plunging an already despairing economy into a deeper abyss” (Source: “Conflict Leaves Industry in Ashes and Gaza Reeling From Economic Toll”, NY Times, August 6, 2014)

n MOSQUES, FARMING, INDUSTRY: “As many as 80 mosques have been damaged or destroyed. Many farming areas and industrial zones, filled with the small manufacturing plants and factories that anchored Gaza’s economy, are now wastelands.” (Source: “Month-long War in Gaza Has Left a Humanitarian and Environmental Crisis”, Washington Post. August 6, 2014)

n THE WATER INFRASTRUCTURE: Oxfam said: “We’re working in an environment with a completely destroyed water infrastructure that prevents people in Gaza from cooking, flushing toilets or washing [their] hands.”(Source: “Gaza’s Survivors Now Face A Battle For Water, Shelter And Power”, The Independent, August 5, 2014)

n 400,000 REFUGEES, 46-48,000 HOMES: “Frode Mauring, the UN Development Programme’s special representative said that with 16-18,000 homes totally destroyed and another 30,000 partially damaged, and 400,000 internally displaced people, ‘the current situation for Gaza is devastating’.” (Source: “Gaza’s Survivors Now Face A Battle For Water, Shelter And Power”, The Independent, August 5, 2014)

n ELECTRICITY: “Mr Mauring said that the bombing of Gaza’s only power station and the collapse at least six of the 10 power lines from Israel, had ‘huge development and humanitarian consequences’ (Source: “Gaza’s Survivors Now Face A Battle For Water, Shelter And Power”, The Independent, August 5, 2014)

n SCHOOLS, REFUGEE CENTERS: “United Nations officials accused Israel of violating international law after artillery shells slammed into a school overflowing with evacuees Wednesday … The building was the sixth U.N. school in the Gaza Strip to be rocked by explosions during the conflict. (Source: “U.N. Says Israel Violated International Law, After Shells Hit School In Gaza”, Washington Post, July 30, 2014)

n HOSPITALS: “Israeli forces fired a tank shell at a hospital in Gaza on Monday … It was the third hospital Israel’s military has struck since launching a ground offensive in Gaza last week.” (Source: “Another Gaza Hospital Hit by Israeli Strike”, NBC News, July 21, 2014)

n HOSPITALS, HEALTH WORKERS: “There has been mounting evidence that the Israel Defense Forces launched apparently deliberate attacks against hospitals and health professionals in Gaza … Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International (said) ‘the Israeli army has targeted health facilities or professionals. Such attacks are absolutely prohibited by international law and would amount to war crimes.’” (Source: “Mounting Evidence Of Deliberate Attacks On Gaza Health Workers By Israeli Army”, Amnesty International, August 7, 2014)

NOTES

1- Robert McNamara, from the Errol Morris film Fog of War:
“LeMay said, ‘If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.’ And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”

Gaza Interview

20 Aug

(Prefatory Note: I have had several requests to post an interview published in CounterPunch on the Gaza crisis; it covers a wide range of issues, but is not up to date in relation to a rapidly changing situation in which adversaries are engaged in a misleading blame game while the bodies and rubble continue to pile up on the Gaza side of the border)

 

An Interview with Richard Falk on the Crisis in Gaza

by KEN KLIPPENSTEIN

 

Richard Falk is an American professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University. He just completed a six-year term as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. He was appointed to this role by the UN Human Rights Council, in 2008.

Ken Klippenstein: Could you describe Sisi’s [Egypt’s new leader] relationship with Hamas?

Richard Falk: The [Sisi] government is determined to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood and they view Hamas as an extension of the Brotherhood. So they’re, in a certain way, on the same side as Israel on this particular confrontation.

KK: Has the aerial bombardment campaign adopted by Israel done anything to decrease the rocket fire coming from Gaza?

RF: There’s no evidence that it has. It certainly has caused some damage and some deaths to those involved in either making or deploying and firing the rockets. But there’s no discernable effect in stopping Hamas’ and other militias’—it’s not only Hamas, there are other militias, some of which Hamas doesn’t control—that have engaged in this kind of rocket fire. The only alternative to using these rockets for defenseless people like those living in Gaza is to absolutely do nothing—to be completely passive. They have no military capability to resist Israel on the ground or in the air or from the sea. So it’s a very one-sided war; and one-sided wars are, in my view, by their very nature unlawful and constitute crimes against humanity.

KK: Since Palestine lacks statehood, does that deny them recourse to the protections afforded by international law?

RF: The UN General Assembly on Nov. 29, 2012 passed a resolution recognizing the statehood of Palestine as a non-member observer state of the UN. That has been interpreted as giving Palestine the status of being a state in international society for most purposes. They have joined UNESCO, for instance, as a member state, and they’ve adhered to more than 15 international treaties open only to states. They’re recognized by, I think, 130 governments as a state. They could at this point seek redress at the International Criminal Court, a step that Israel and the United States have declared would be very provocative from their point of view and would lead to adverse consequences.

In effect, the United States and Israel are saying it’s not acceptable to use international criminal law to uphold your legal rights.

KK: What is the US role in the aerial bombardment campaign?

RF: The US is definitely complicit and legally accountable, at least in theory, in that this weaponry is not supposed to be used except in accordance with international law; and if the whole undertaking is a violation of international law, then the United States is responsible, and should diplomatically have been seeking to restrain and censure Israel, rather than to lend its support.

Beyond that, there is the sense that Congress itself—again at least theoretically—restricts military assistance to foreign countries in a way that is supposed to be compatible with international law and the UN Charter. So by the guidelines that are embedded in American law itself, this is an unlawful and unacceptable policy that the US government has been pursuing.

KK: Could you talk about the legality of the siege of Gaza?

RF: The siege of Gaza is clearly a form of collective punishment that is prohibited by Article 33 of the 4th Geneva Convention, which unconditionally prohibits any recourse to collective punishment. A blockade that has been maintained since the middle of 2007 is directed at the entire civilian population of Gaza. It includes many items that are needed for health, subsistence, and minimum requirements of a decent life. So in my view, Israel—as the occupying power (under international law) of Gaza—is supposed to protect the civilian population, rather than subject it to a punitive blockade of the sort that’s been in existence these past 7 years.

KK: Israel sometimes phones warnings ahead of time before bombing buildings. Do you believe that this constitutes a serious effort to minimize civilian deaths?

RF: One would have to look carefully at each context. My impression is that Gaza is a place where there’s no real opportunity to escape from impending attacks. There may have been some lives saved as a result of these warnings. My impression is they’re not given consistently and comprehensively; and furthermore, that in the wider context of Gaza, there’s no opportunity for people to become refugees or to even move from points of danger to points of relative safety. It’s unusual in a wartime situation where almost always there is an option of crossing borders during a period of combat and finding some sort of sanctuary. Israel again, as the occupying power, has an obligation to see to it that the civilian population [of Gaza] is protected. They deny any kind of exit right to Palestinians living in Gaza, except those holding foreign passports (there are about 800 Palestinians with dual passports who have been allowed to cross the border into Israel). 150 of those have American citizenship and the US consulate has been facilitating their departure if those people want to.

But in general, for the 1,700,000 Gazans, they are denied the option of becoming refugees or even of becoming internally displaced persons. And therefore they cannot escape from the fire zone that Israel has created. And even if they’re not direct casualties being killed or injured, they are living under the cloud of state terrorism maintained day and night over this period, in a way that psychiatrists and psychologists and mental health experts say is inducing mass trauma on the part of the Palestinian people, particularly among the children.

Even before this attack there exists a highly anxious atmosphere because there are Israeli planes flying over all the time; and it’s never clear when they will do something that is hostile. People of Gaza, as I’ve been saying, are completely vulnerable. They have no way of fighting back. They are at the mercy of the Israelis. And the Israelis show very little mercy.

KK: What is Israel’s legal rationale for denying Gazans the displaced persons status that you mentioned before?

RF: As far as I know, they haven’t articulated any justification for this policy. They just close the borders and the international community has by and large been scandalously silent; and has remained so up to this time.

KK: What is the US role in blocking a UN resolution condemning Israeli violence in Gaza?

RF: As I understand it, the US did indicate its readiness to veto any resolution that blamed Israel, and there was support for such a resolution on the part of the majority of the members of the Security Council. What the UN ended up doing was issuing a statement that called for a ceasefire but it is a statement that has no binding legal effect and did not in any way censure Israel for its role.

KK: Do you believe the Security Council should be reformed in any way, given the US’ propensity for vetoing otherwise unanimous Security Council resolutions?

RF: I think it would be a helpful move from the perspective of global justice and the implementation of international law; but as matters now stand, it’s a very impractical step because no amendment to the UN charter can be made without the consensus of the 5 permanent members of the Security Council, each of whom has a veto. The United States and probably Russia and maybe China would veto any effort to deprive them of their veto rights. So it’s more or less gridlocked with respect to reform.

KK: Would you support a call for an arms embargo on Israel?

RF: Yes I would. I think it would be an appropriate move at this point. Israel has consistently defied international law in many different ways. It shows no sign of respecting the wishes of the international community, at this time, for an immediate ceasefire. So I think that the only way the world can show that it’s at all serious about protecting vulnerable peoples—in this case the Palestinians—would be to impose an arms embargo.

Of course Israel has a very robust arms industry itself. It’s one of the ten leading exporters of arms. And it’s of course inconceivable that, at this stage, the US and several of the West European countries would respect such an embargo. Nevertheless, it would be an important symbolic step in the direction of delegitimizing the kind of behavior that Israel has been engaged in.

KK: In the case of Israeli kidnappings and murder of Palestinians in Palestinian territory, can the perpetrators be brought before a Palestinian court or must Palestinians simply accept an Israeli court? 

RF: At this point they would have to accept the formal authority of the Israeli courts because the crime was committed in an area under Israeli legal administration. And the accused are in the possession of the Israelis and therefore they have the authority under international law to prosecute.

If there’s not a serious assessment of the crime, it could be questioned as an evasion of the obligation to prosecute; and if found guilty, punish those that engage in this kind of behavior. Remembering that, as far as we know, this was purely private criminal activity. It was not something that the government can be shown to have authorized—although the background of incitement after the kidnapping of the 3 Israeli teenagers on Jun 12th is part of the broader context in which this crime occurred.

KK: Are allegations of Hamas using human shields credible?

RF: There hasn’t been, as far as I know, serious evidence that this has taken place. In fact there is evidence that the Israelis used Palestinians as human shields when they mounted the ground offensive back in 2008-2009. And even if the Palestinians did do this, it would still not vindicate Israelis shooting directly at civilians, unless there was some kind of argument of absolute military necessity, which is pretty remote from this situation.

KK: Do you believe that Israel has been committing war crimes in Gaza?

RF: Yeah. I think certainly there’s the basis for alleging war crimes. It requires a formal legal judgment to reach the conclusion that there have been war crimes committed. There is a presumption of innocence until proven guilty—that’s important to maintain. But certainly the evidence that I’m aware of suggests the commission of serious crimes against humanity and war crimes in the course of this operation.

KK: Could you discuss the background of the crisis? Western media’s accounts usually begin with the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli boys, omitting important contexts: the siege of Gaza, for instance.

RF: The timeline for these justifications that are made by Israel is very self-serving and not very convincing. Of course, you have a complex pattern of interaction. On the other hand, Israel is the occupying power, and has the international responsibility to protect the civilian population [of Gaza]. And in the case of the kidnapping on Jun 12, they had the opportunity to limit the response to an enforcement action that was done in a reasonable way. Instead they used it as a pretext for seeking to destroy Hamas as a political actor present in the West Bank; and then extending that anti-Hamas policy to the attack on Gaza. So it was clearly a way of using this initial criminal act as a means to pursue a much wider political agenda that focuses on Israel’s national ambition to control the West Bank—at least most of the West Bank, where the settlements are—and to eliminate from that reality the only viable Palestinian opposition force (because the Palestinian Authority that is nominally in control on behalf of the Palestinians of the West Bank, is in a semi-collaborationist relationship with Israel). So the attempt to get rid of Hamas as a political influence on the West Bank particularly, and to punish it severely in Gaza where it’s in control of the governing process, is a crime.

KK: Why did Netanyahu not take Abbas up on his offer to cooperate with the investigation into the kidnapping and killing of the three Israeli boys?

RF: I think it’s part of Netanyahu’s political escalation of the Israeli approach at this point. They repudiated the direct negotiations—which didn’t make much sense in the first place—but they repudiated them as a way of stating that they would no longer seriously engage in diplomacy but would impose their own solution on the conflict. And that solution involves consolidating control over the whole of Jerusalem and taking all or the most valuable parts of the West Bank and in effect annexing them to Israel.

KK: Under the Arms Control Act of 1976, governments that receive weapons from the US are required to use them for legitimate self-defense. Does the US’ arms aid to Israel violate that law?

RF: Yes, definitely. From everything I’ve been saying, there’s no legal, political or moral argument that would uphold the claim that Israel is acting in legitimate self-defense. There’s been no armed attack by Hamas or Gaza; in any event, Gaza from an international law point of view, is not a foreign state but an occupied territory. It’s not clear that you can exercise self-defense in relation to a territory that you are responsible for administering in accordance with international humanitarian law.

Ken Klippenstein is a journalist based in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. He can be reached via twitter @kenklippenstein or email: kenneth.klippenstein@gmail.com

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2 Aug

Poetry and War

 

During these days of continuing massacre in Gaza I have found it difficult to focus the mind elsewhere. I came across a short statement of about 200 words by the great, enigmatic 20th century poet, Wallace Stevens, stuck between poems in his Selected Poems, p.270, with a characteristically unemotional title—‘A Prose Statement on the Poetry of War.’

 

Stevens seems to be telling us that true poetry is a peacetime activity generated by the imagination while poetic responses to war are products of our consciousness derived from the domain of fact. In his words, “consciousness takes the place of imagination.” It is, to be sure, a special kind of consciousness, imbued with what Stevens refers to as the ‘heroic,’ and I would add, the ‘tragic’ and ‘unimaginable.’ We witness horror visually and viscerally, and yet we still too often rely on statistics about killing and dying to shape our sense of the gravity of all that is happening.

 

Stevens also reminds us that the imagination is not without its own ambitions, seeking to impart a sense of reality that supersedes the facticity of what Stevens is calling consciousness. Ambitions of this sort, situated in the hidden recesses of mental activity, also reflects the strong pull of desire, which if it challenges the prevailing images of what we might call ‘heroic fact’ generates severe feelings of hostility. It is a war zone of its own. Stevens alludes to “the endless struggle with fact” whether in peacetime or during a war, and adds, almost as a cautionary warning, “[b]ut in war, the desire to move in the direction of fact as we want it to be and to move quickly is overwhelming.”

 

There is of course a haunting ambiguity in Stevens’ use of the word ‘we’ in this sense. Who are we? Does not our answer, usually not articulated, tell us how we join imagination to fact under the stress of war. The intensities of the ongoing violence in Gaza stifles the imaginative voice because the domain of fact becomes truly, even appropriately, overwhelming. Yet fact can be as victimized by subjectivity as the realms of the imagination, especially when it collides with desire. I think these days of those who would rationalize ‘massacre’ as ‘self-defense’ or dehumanize and demonize victims by branding ‘the other’ as ‘terrorist.’

 

While attentive to the terrible reality confronting us by the ongoing happenings in Gaza, we should strive for root causes. What is it about our world that allows the Guernicas, Auschwitzs, Hiroshimas, Srebrenicas to keep happening? How do we best identify this genocidal virus that keeps attacking the body politic, and yields tears, but no antidote? Is it the reification of ‘the other’ and of ‘the self’ that allows us to see mostly ‘villains’ and ‘heroes,’ and not children, women, and men? Up to now, we allow these lines of division to be drawn and to dominate the public sphere, and affirm partisanship as ‘realistic’ because the tensions of our world means that either I die or you die, and our leaders find good reasons for us to live and you to die. And so atrocity

begets atrocity, a ceaseless cycle with periods of calm and shifts of place, culprit, and victim.

 

In reflecting along these lines I am reminded of Theodor Adorno’s extraordinary comment—“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Adorno’s meaning is not immediately evident, nor will it ever be. The cultural critic, Brian Oard, insists that the assertion must be read in its broader context, and in light of Adorno’s own later clarification that softens the specific injunction. If so approached, the statement is meant less literally than if read or invoked as an isolated indictment of what could be described as the indecency of any return to ‘cultural normalcy’ after the enormity of the crimes of the Holocaust.

 

What Adorno wants us to grasp is that Western culture that allowed Auschwitz to happen included its cultural artifacts, incorporating even the work and worldviews of poets in an overall totality that facilitates the grotesque. It encourages the coldness of indifference and helplessness in the face of the severe abuses of all those who fall outside the protective umbrella of our conscience.

 

Can we capable of learning anything at all from the corpses being drawn from the rubble of devastation in Gaza day by day? Is not the beginnings of a response, whether in the domains of imagination or consciousness, a refusal to embrace the moral and political delusions of sub-species identities, whether of nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, and civilization? Until the self merges with the other on a planetary scale, we will feel the pressure to avert our gaze from those crimes against humanity committed on our behalf or against those with whom we have no tribal or national identification. Is such an affirmation of species unity a dangerous utopian dream? We cannot know, but we should realize by now that the its rejection helps explain the recurrence of genocidal nightmares.     

Cruelties of Ceasefire Diplomacy

27 Jul

[Prefatory Note: the post below is a revised text of an article published in AlJazeera America on July 26, 2014. Devastation and violence has continued in Gaza, with Palestinians deaths now numbering over 1000 (overwhelmingly civilians) and Israeli deaths latest reported at being 43 (almost all military personnel). Such casualty figures and disparities raise questions of state terrorism in a stark manner. Also, it should be appreciated that if Israel were to do what it is required by international law to do there would be no rockets directed at its population centers--lift the blockade, negotiate peace on the basis of the 2002 Arab proposals and Security Council 242. Yet this would require Israel to give up once and for all its expansionist vision embedded in the settlement phenomenon and the version of Zionism embraced by its leaders and reigning political parties. The best that the UN has been able to do is to call for an "immediate and unconditional ceasefire" to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council; such an unseemly balancing act is not what the UN Charter had in mind by aligning the international community in opposition to states that break the peace and act aggressively in disregard of international law; a victimized people deserves protection, not some sort of display of deforming geopolitical symmetry.]

 

So far, the diplomatic effort to end the violence in Gaza has failed miserably, most recently with Israel’s cabinet rejecting a ceasefire proposal from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. This attempt by Washington is representative of the overall failure of American policy toward the Israel-Palestine conflict, only on this occasion the consequences can be measured in the growing pile of dead bodies and the widespread devastation that includes numerous homes, public buildings and even artillery damage to several United Nations schools sheltering Palestinian civilians.

 

The U.S. approach fails because it exhibits extreme partisanship in a setting where trust, credibility and reciprocity are crucial if the proclaimed aim of ending the violence is the true objective of this exhibition of statecraft. Kerry is undoubtedly dedicated to achieving a cease-fire, just as he demonstrated for most of the past year a sincerity of commitment in pushing so hard for a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Yet throughout the failed peace process the United States exhibited all along this discrediting extreme partisanship, never more blatantly than when it designated Martin Indyk, a former staff member of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and former ambassador to Israel, to serve as the U.S. special envoy throughout the peace talks.

 

The U.S. approach up to this point to achieving a ceasefire in Gaza has been undertaken in a manner that is either woefully ignorant of the real constraints or callously cynical about their relevance. This is especially clear from the initial attempt to bring about a cease-fire by consulting only one side, Israel — the party bearing the major responsibility for causing massive casualties and damage — and leaving Hamas out in the cold. Even if this is a unavoidable consequence of Hamas being treated as “a terrorist entity,” it still makes no sense in the midst of such carnage to handle diplomacy in such a reckless manner when lives were daily at stake. When Israel itself has wanted to deal with Hamas in the past, it had no trouble doing so — for instance, when it arranged the prisoner exchange that led to the release of the single captured Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit back in 2011.

 

The basic facts seem so calculated to end in diplomatic failure that it is difficult to explain how they could have happened: The U.S. relied on Egypt as the broker of a proposal it vetted, supposedly with the approved text delivered personally by Tony Blair to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo, secreted endorsed by the Netanyahu government, and then publicly announced on July 15 via the media as a ceasefire proposal accepted by Israel, without Hamas having been consulted, or even previously informed. It’s a diplomatic analogue to the theater of the absurd. Last July, then-General Sisi was the Egyptian mastermind of a coup that brutally cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood and criminalized the entire organization. The Sisi government has made no secret of its unrelenting hostility to Hamas, which it views as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and alleged responsibility for insurgent violence in the Sinai. Egypt destroyed the extensive tunnel network connecting Gaza with the outside world created to circumvent the punitive Israeli blockade that has been maintained since 2007. Was there ever any reason for Hamas to accept such a humiliating ceasefire arrangement? As some respected Israeli commentators have suggested, most prominently Amira Hass, the “normalization” of the occupation is what the Israeli military operation Protective Edge is all about. What Hass suggests is that Israel is seeking a compliant Palestinian response to an occupation that has for all intents and purposes become permanent, and seems to believe that such periodic shows of force will finally break once and for all the will to resist, symbolized by Hamas and its rockets, and now its tunnels. In this respect, the recent move to establish a unity government reconciling the Palestinian Authority with Hamas was a setback for the normalization policy, especially suggesting that even the PA could no longer be taken for granted as an acceptably compliant ‘partner,’ not for peace, but for occupation.

 

Whatever ambiguity might surround the Kerry diplomacy, the fact that the cease-fire’s terms were communicated to Hamas via the media, made the proposal a “take it or leave it” clearly designed to show the world that Hamas would never be treated as a political actor with grievances of its own. Such a way of proceeding also ignored the reasonable conditions Hamas had posited as the basis of a cease-fire it could accept. These conditions included an unwavering insistence on ending the unlawful seven-year siege of Gaza, releasing prisoners arrested in the anti-Hamas campaign in the West Bank prior to launching the military operation on July 8, and stopping interference with the unity government that brought Hamas and the Palestinian Authority together on June 3. Kerry, by contrast, was urging both sides to restore the cease-fire text that had been accepted in November 2012 after the previous major Israeli military attack upon Gaza, but relevantly, had never been fully implemented producing continuous tensions.

 

Hamas’ chief leader, Khaled Meshaal, has been called “defiant” by Kerry because he would not go along with this tilted diplomacy. “Everyone wanted us to accept a ceasefire and then negotiate for our rights,” Meshaal said. This was tried by Hamas in 2012 and didn’t work. As soon as the violence ceased, Israel refused to follow through on the cease-fire agreement that had promised negotiations seeking an end of the blockade and an immediate expansion of Gazan fishing rights.

 

In the aftermath of Protective Edge is it not reasonable, even mandatory, for Hamas to demand a firm commitment to end the siege of Gaza, which has been flagrantly unlawful since it was first imposed in mid-2007? Israel as the occupying power has an obligation under the Geneva Conventions to protect the civilian population of an occupied people. Israel claims that its “disengagement” in 2005, involving the withdrawal of security forces and the dismantling of settlements, ended such obligations. Such a position is legally (and morally) unacceptable, a view almost universally shared in the international community, since the persistence of effective Israeli control of entry and exit, as well as air and sea, and violent incursions amounts to a shift in the form of occupation — not its end. Israel is certainly justified in complaining about the rockets, but the maintenance of an oppressive regime of collective punishment on the civilians of Gaza is an ongoing crime. And it should be appreciated that more often than not, Israel provokes the rockets by recourse to aggressive policies of one sort or another or that most primitive rockets are fired by breakaway militia groups that Hamas struggles to control. A full and unbiased account of the interaction of violence across the Gaza border would not find that Israel was innocent and only Hamas was at fault. The story is far more complicated, and not an occasion for judging which side is entitled to be seen as acting in self-defense.

 

In “Turkey Can Teach Israel How to End Terror,” an insightful July 23 article in The New York Times, the influential Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol drew from the experience of his country in ending decades of violent struggle between the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish state. Akyol “congratulated” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (while taking critical note of his “growing authoritarianism”) for ending the violence in Turkey two years ago by agreeing with the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, to initiate conflict-resolving negotiations in good faith and abandon the “terrorist” label. Some years ago I heard former British Prime Minister John Major say that he made progress toward peace in Northern Ireland only when he stopped treating the Irish Republican Army as a terrorist organization and began dealing with it as a political actor with genuine grievances. If a secure peace were ever to become Israel’s true objective, this is a lesson to be learned and imitated.

 

Just as with the peace process itself, the time has surely come for a credible ceasefire to take account of the views and interests of both sides, and bring this sustained surge of barbaric violence to an end. International law and balanced diplomacy are available to do this if the political will were to emerge on the Israeli side, which seems all but impossible without the combination of continuing Palestinian resistance and mounting pressure from outside by way of the BDS campaign and the tactics of a militant, nonviolent global solidarity movement.

 

 

When BBC Calls, Don’t Expect Love

25 Jul

[Prefatory Note: A slight rethinking of an earlier post, with a different assessment of what to do. Spurning BBC, however much we deplore their bias and malignant spins, is not sensible; we live in this media framed global space, for better and mainly worse, and to spurn it as I earlier proposed is immature posturing. The alternative of being possibly a dissident whisper in the wind is only slightly to be preferred, but as long as we are breathing such noxious media fumes, do we really have a choice?]

 

 

When BBC Calls, Should you Answer?

 

That is, don’t expect love, if you are a certified critic of Israeli policies and practices,  and prepare yourself for rejection.

 

The siren lure of big time media is partly a romancing of the ego, partly a rare moment to intrude a moment or two of truthfulness into the endless spinning of the Israel’s narrative that stresses its extravagantly humane response to Hamas flurries of rockets and alleged human shield tactics.

 

Four times in the past week I have received invitations to be a guest on BBC programs dealing with Israel’s military operations in Gaza. Each time the female producer, with charming British intonation, expressed her strong interest in arranging my participation at such and such a time. And each time I agreed, although my presence in a Turkish village with limited Internet access made it logistically awkward to do so, yet far from impossible to make the necessary arrangements, usually with the kind cooperation of a neighbor with superior digital facilities.

 

Each time I was ready at the appointed hour, and each time I was given a last minute explanation for why my appearance was cancelled—a couple of times I was told that I was a casualty of ‘breaking news,’ and the other two times, there was no embellishment, merely “we apologize, but we have to cancel today’s appearance.” And on each occasion, as if part of how producers are trained, I was told that those in charge of planning the program were eager to have me appear as soon as possible, and that I would hear in a day or so. On the basis of my past experience on the few occasions when such last minute news altered programming, I was shifted to later in the program or rescheduled for the next day. My BBC experience in this respect was ‘terminal’ as in disease.

 

Needless to say, the phone lines have been quiet since each of these ‘dumping’ incidents. I wonder about this pattern of invitation and cancellation. I am quite sure that these was quite separate programming for each of the invitations with no coordination among them. Was there some master censor at the BBC that reviewed the guest list just prior to the scheduled broadcast, somewhat in the manner that an ethical submarine commander might review the manifest of an enemy passenger ship wartime? Perhaps, BBC was rightly concerned that there might be a faint and ugly stain of balance that would tarnish their unsullied reputation of pro-Israeli partisanship. I will probably be forever reliant on such conjectures unless a BBC Snowden steps out of the shadows of deception and into the sunlight of disclosure.

 

I feel self-conscious relating this little saga at a time when so many in Gaza are dying and bleeding, and all of us should be grieving. As I write I feel humble, not arrogant. It seems that somewhere buried in these trivial rejections there is occasion for concern that the media claim of objectivity in liberal societies is above all else a sham. That even powerful players such as BBC are secretly captive, and its reportage and commentary qualifies less as news than as Hasbara, at least when it comes to Israel-Palestine.

 

In any event, my advice to the media savvy, is that if you have caller ID, and you can tell that it is BBC calling, don’t bother answering. I hope I have the good sense to follow my own advice should the phone ever ring again!

But I am not even sure I should prolong such childish pique! How can we turn our backs on the opportunity, however slim, to weigh in for a minute or two on the side of those being so cruelly victimized? So more soberly considered, I hope that I will have the maturity to answer the BBC call, and even keep showing up however many times I am brushed off at the last minute. By the way, I have yet to be put to the test.  Maybe in the interval BBC staffers have been handed a blacklist to avoid the slight tremors of embarrassment associated with last minute cancellations. I am not vain enough to suppose that my earlier post was passed around as a negative guideline on how to avoid inviting the wrong people to appear on news programs dealing with the Middle East.

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.

   

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