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Looking Back on World War I One Hundred Years Later: Four Mixed Messages

10 Nov

[Prefatory Note: A few days ago I gave a lecture in that was the second annual occasion honoring the memory of a beloved New Zealand peace activist, Dorothy Brown. My host for the occasion was the National Centre of Peace and International Studies, University of Otago, Dunedin, NZ, where two days later I gave another lecture, “Obstacles to Peace in the Middle East.”]

 

 

Looking Back on World War I One Hundred Years Later: Four Mixed Messages

(Dorothy Brown Memorial Lecture, Auckland, New Zealand, November 8, 2014)

 

Identity Politics a Century Later

 

I admit to surprise that a place as distant from Europe as New Zealand would have had such a strong interest in World War I until I looked a bit deeper into its relationship to that war and to the country’s place sense of imperial duty or citizenship at that time. Discovering that more that 100,000 New Zealanders participated in the Great War as either soldiers or nurses in a population of just over a million exhibited the extraordinary bonds prevailing between the people and government of NZ and Great Britain, a monarchy acenter of a global empire that still was widely accepted as the mother country, exercising control over its foreign dominions that were neither fully colonies nor yet completely independent states. Such an appreciation of the bond is further strengthened by the realization that of those New Zealanders who went to war 16,697 died and another 41,317 were wounded resulting in an astounding casualty rate of 58%, which was considerably higher than either Canada or Australia. In view of such losses it is hardly surprising that Auckland built an imposing war memorial museum honoring the memory of those who fought in World War I.

 

New Zealand also participated in World War II in a similar spirit of Commonwealth solidarity despite the formal loosening of the imperial ties as a result of the 1931 Statute of Westminster. It may have been relevant that the Pacific dimension of the war made the prospect of a Japanese victory appear dangerous for the security of New Zealand, and hence posed the kind of direct threat to both New Zealand and Australia that was not present in 1914. This security dimension validated New Zealand’s involvement in World War II from a realist perspective of state interests, reinforcing the psychological identification of the interests of the two countries. I wonder what New Zealand would do if Britain become engaged in a future major war. It raises questions of whether national values, sentimental memories, and current identity has moved away from what might call ‘the settler colonial stage’ to an outlook weighing national interests, which is the more typical approach of sovereign states confronting the momentous choice of assessing its security interests in wartime situations. It is a deep challenge for democratic societies, especially when account that any such an engagement in non-defensive wars is a call upon citizens to risk their life and limb on behalf of the nation, sometimes for might seem to many a remote, and even dubious, political cause. I cannot help but wonder whether New Zealand continues to possess this mentality of unquestioning solidarity and deference that in the past has so automatically linked its national destiny with that of Britain considering differences in national consciousness and threat perceptions, as well as the changed status of war in international law? Or is there a divided consciousness present in the country between conservatives who continue to give great weight to the empire rechristened as ‘the Commonwealth’ years ago and more liberal or progressively minded New Zealanders who think either more nationally or even may be beginning to view themselves as global citizens.

 

It occurs to me as an outsider that a comparison of national identity in 1914 and 2014 must be quite illuminating in relation to such issues of shifts in prevailing national identity as would such a comparison be for my country where the shift from isolationism to globalism has been so dramatic, and in many respects, disastrous. It seems also that the enduring impact of the Cold War has been to move both Australia and New Zealand a bit further from Britain and closer to America, illustrating a sense of increased dependence on American military prowess should New Zealand’s security ever become directly threatened.

 

I think also of the orientation of American foreign policy that continues to give some weight to Anglo-American traditions of solidarity that developed over the course of the last century, but mainly conditions its involvements in war on the basis of self-interested realist calculations of national interest combined with strategic concerns associated with geopolitical ambition. It should be remembered that unlike New Zealand, in the world of 1914, the United States had to overcome its break with Britain in its war of independence as well as its strong traditional stance of noninvolvement in European wars. The U.S. did not enter the war until towards the end of 1917 and then when provoked, in part, by unrestricted German submarine warfare, as well as being disturbed by the ideological consequences of a German victory. Of course, in this cross-Atlantic relationship, it has for decades become Britain that subordinated its normalcy as a state to what became in Britain an unpopular willingness to follow wherever the United States leads, as in the disastrous Iraq War during which the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was often derided as ‘Bush’s poodle.’ It is also relevant to recall that back in 2013, the House of Commons refused to back Prime Minister Cameron’s call for air strikes in Syria in response to an alleged major use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, and just recently has again annoyed Washington by calling on the British Government to recognize Palestinian statehood.

 

I raise these preliminary questions mainly in the spirit of curiosity as to how those living in this country now view their past history in relation to the imperatives national and human security in the present global context. In my visit to the country more 30 years ago, I became involved in the then controversial policy of disallowing American naval vessels suspected of carrying nuclear weapons to make use of NZ ports, and recall that the debate centered on an interplay of benefits and detriments to NZ as a member of ANZUS, the Pacific alliance that was part of an American-led network of alliances, as well as the status under international law and morality of this weaponry of mass destruction. It is worth contemplating whether in this century alliance geopolitics and regional trade and investment relations has gradually come to overwhelm the more ethnically and historically valued multi-state frameworks of the Commonwealth. Now that New Zealand has been recently elected to the UN Security Council, which is itself a notable achievement for a small state in a hotly contested competition, might not the stage be set for a move toward a more cosmopolitan worldview to take hold here in the country? Such a posture would be widely appreciated in other parts of the world, especially if New Zealand began to act as a global voice of conscience that was as concerned with promoting the human interest as it is with protecting its national interest.

 

Learning from the First World War

 

Let me make a confession of sorts. When I was first told that the subject of this talk should be a set of reflections on memories of the First World War I had a mild panic attack, realizing that my historical knowledge of the period was grossly inadequate to fulfill such an assignment. I conveyed my anxiety to the conveners who thankfully took pity, allowing me to consider the legacies of the First World War rather than to reflect on how we now remember these momentous events of a century ago. I found this altered challenge more to my likely. I came to realize that the enduring reverberations of World War I tell us far more about present trials and tribulations in world politics than most of us appreciate. I was struck in this regard by a passage in Hannah Arendt’s great book The Origins of Totalitarianism: “The days before and the days after the first World War are separated not like the end of an old and beginning of a new period, but like the day before and the day after an explosion. Yet this figure of speech is as inaccurate as are all others, because the quiet which settles down after a catastrophe has never come to pass. The first explosion set off a chain reaction in which we have been caught ever since and which nobody seems able to stop. The first World War exploded the European comity of nations beyond repair, something which no other war had ever done.” [267] This is an extraordinary statement that seems an exaggeration when we first take account of its grandiose claims, but as I will try to show, this assessment remains essentially accurate more than fifty years after Arendt’s book was published. For most of us the impacts of World War I are still grossly under-appreciated. So much has changed in the world that such a a distant war is mainly regarded as one more historical occasion buried in the realities of its time. In my view such a perception should be corrected. As I will argue, for instance, the terrifying turmoil now going on in the Middle East can be traced back to some fundamentally wrong decisions made in the peace diplomacy that followed the war, and cannot be properly understood or addressed without appreciating its World War I roots.

 

There is one misleading dimension of Arendt’s words, the implied Euro-centric character of world order as an enduring reality. In important respects, Europe since losing her colonies after World War II has become marginalized as a major participant in shaping world history. This assertion is not meant to deny that Europe was clearly responsible for setting in motion the events that shook the foundations that existed a hundred years ago, and then and now pose obstacles in the search for peace, justice, and even stability. Such global developments as the world hegemonic role of the United States, the rise of China, neoliberal globalization, the emergence of the BRICS makes any projection of a Euro-centric world as simplistic and not very relevant in 2014. Despite this it remains crucially relevant to grasp even if belatedly, the 1914 reverberations that persist. Achieving a better understanding of these reverberations may help to make our world a bit more secure, more just, and less prone to violence.

 

In this spirit, I have chosen four sets of developments that owe their origins and unfolding to the disruptive impacts of World War I. In part, these developments arose because of various efforts to vindicate the immense suffering and sense of loss resulting from the war. Both idealists and realists strained to make the peoples of Europe and their allies feel that the sacrifices made in the war would be justified by the gains associated with the peace. For some this involved enjoying the spoils of victory as measured mainly be extending the colonial reach. For others, a pattern also present following the Second World War, but revealingly not after the Cold War, to build a future world order that would discourage, if not prevent, the recurrence of major wars in the future.

 

Political Extremism. First of all, was the recognition that World War I and its aftermath had profoundly dislocating effects on societal coherence and political authority throughout Europe. The war is widely believe to be responsible for unleashing polarizing social forces dedicated to overturning the established order, pointing in the opposite political directions of revolutionary change from below and totalitarian rule from above. These strong political demands exhibited the extreme and complex alienation of contending social classes in several of the countries experiencing the traumas of war. What eventuated were a lethal mixture of domestic and international ideological orientations associated with a variety of fascist and communist political movements, most dramatically producing both the Russian Revolution and the rise in Germany of National Socialism. The messianic militarism of fascism (and Japanese imperialism) produced confrontations with the liberal democracies and with Soviet communism that reached a climax with the outbreak of World War II. This rise of extremisms created as its dialectical legacy a political resolve by the victors, aside from the Soviet Union, to do their best to avoid embittering the defeated nations. The Western allies went further by making a strong effort to restore these devastated countries to economic and political normalcy as soon as possible. In this regard the occupations of Germany and Japan, absorbing the lessons associated with some of the mistakes made in the aftermath of World War I exerted their influence in such a way as to nurture political moderation and hostility toward extremism in the defeated countries. With sensitivity to the culture of these defeated countries, making such moves as retaining the emperor system in Japan, the enemies of yesterday quickly and willingly became friends and allies in the conflict patterns taking shape after 1945. Such a reversal was prompted by the second phase of the struggle of moderate governments against political extremism, this time taking the form of the long Cold War, whose conduct managed to avoid the curse of a third world war that would likely have been fought with nuclear weapons. With the collapse of Communism and the disintegration of the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe, and the accompanying triumph of Liberalism, there occurred in the West a brief exultant mood of triumphalism captured best by Francis Fukuyama’s striking image of ‘the end of history.’ Such a West-centric Hegelian interpretation of the outcome of the Cold War enjoyed a bit of added plausibility when China’s drive toward modernization under Deng Chau Ping bought this gigantic country into the neoliberal world order, which the Brizilian leader Fernando Henrique Cardozo acknowledged to be ‘the only game in town.” That is, the victory over Communism was understood as facilitating a globalized world economy that was guided by a market-driven ideology that is most commonly identified as ‘neo-liberal.’

 

Leaving aside the anti-Western extremisms that came to the surface in the Islamic Revolution in Iran, a cost of this complacent celebration of Western liberalism was to foster an intolerant attitude toward visionary politics, whether of a radical or utopian variety. The politically influential classes endorsed the belief that only incremental change is constructive and feasible, and that any greater political ambition necessarily plunges society, if not the world, into a descending spiral that inevitably produces terrorism and extremism. This reading of history goes back to the French Revolution as well as forward to an account of the Soviet experience, referencing Nazism along the way. Over-learning this initial lesson of the First World War is very disempowering in the present global setting where it is only ‘a necessary utopianism’ that might meet the challenges of nuclear weapons and climate change.

 

Unlike the rise of extremisms in the aftermath of World War I there was no comparable experience after World II. This undoubtedly partly a reflection of the reality that a large proportion of public in the occupied countries felt that their extremist leaders had brought destruction upon the country by the embrace of morally unacceptable and politically imprudent policies. It is also partly resulted from success of the United States as the prime victor quickly recasting itself in the role of principal protector against the unfinished agenda of defeating expansionist extremism. On the basis of such a feeling the Soviet Union after World War II was quickly seen to be a surviving extremism with values and goals that were antithetical to Western liberal individualism, a reality supposedly confirmed by the Soviet moves to exert permanent control over Eastern Europe. Left European intellectuals themselves later turned against the excesses Stalinism, a collection of essays by prominent personalities, and published under the intriguing title, The God that Failed.

In an important respect, the Cold War can be viewed as the final stage of an ongoing global war of being waged by moderates and capitalists against socialists and extremists, or liberals against totalitarians, that began with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo and ended with the breaking of the Berlin Wall.

 

 

Flawed Accountability. A second somewhat ambiguous reverberation from First World War were ideas about imposing some kind of accountability for violations of international law by those acting in the name of the state. The seemingly progressive idea was that there needed to be a law that overrode sovereign claims of being only accountable internally, especially in the context of aggressive war.

 

The impulse was confused and controversial from the outset as the insistence on accountability became intertwined with the eagerness of the winner to demonstrate that it deserve to win. In its initial expression, which seemed dubious given the origins and character of the First World War, was the idea that losers in a major war should be held collectively responsible for causing the damage and suffering and that, correspondingly, the behavior winners should not be scrutinized. The victorious governments should be at liberty to determine the punishment to be imposed. In the Versailles arrangements this took the form of requiring Germany to pay significant reparations to offset the damage its war machine had caused and to accept strict limitations on the form of military capabilities that it would be allowed to develop and possess in the future. Such a punitive peace as embodied in the Versailles Peace Treaty definitely accelerated the German descent into a struggle between extremisms, and created a national mentality of defiance and wounded pride. Such a German reaction seemed understandable as it was difficult to draw a sharp moral line between the military behavior of victors and vanquished other than by reference to the way the conflict was resolved on the battlefield, which seemed quite detached from questions of moral and legal responsibility for the war and its conduct. As a result, Germans felt bitterly betrayed by emergent political order that seemed to reject that principle of comity among sovereign states that Arendt referred, which had in the European setting treated losing states in war as no more morally reprehensible or politically dangerous than the winner.

 

Yet this idea that there was a moral and legal dimension to warfare that must be factored into post-war arrangements survived to live another day. It surfaced in the war crimes trials held in Germany and Japan after the Second World War, most spectacularly in the prosecution of the surviving leaders of the two countries in the much studied Nuremberg and Tokyo trials. The Nuremberg approach was generally vindicated by the consensus view that the Nazi experience was such an unprecedented assault on European values, first by so overtly launching a major aggressive warf and then by the commission of numerous atrocities in its course, especially genocide against Jews and other minorities. The Tokyo trials were far more controversial as the onset of the Pacific theater of warfare was as prompted by the deliberate encirclement and squeezing of the Japanese economy as it was by the surprise attack in 1941 on Pearl Harbor. This moral and political ambiguity is heightened as soon as one takes into consideration the failure to impose any accountability on the victors for the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or for the fire-bombing of Tokyo. The cry of ‘victors’ justice,’ the title of a book by the historian Richard Minear, seemed understandable, if not justifiable. In the German case the American prosecutor, Robert Jackson, tried to soften the one-sided approach toward individual criminal responsibility taken after World War II by declaring a Nuremberg Promise, namely that in all future wars those governments sitting in judgment in relation to the Germans would submit themselves to the same discipline of international criminal law. This Nuremberg Promise was broken by each of the victors, none of whom have ever accepted the application of a procedure of criminal accountability being applied to themselves, and have opted out to the extent possible from the activities of the International Criminal Court. The United States and Europe continue to make a political use of international criminal law by staging prosecutions of their recent enemies, including Slobadan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and Muamar Qadaffi, and finance the ICC in its focus upon the criminal wrongdoing of sub-Saharan African leaders while granting de facto impunity to the West.

 

In effect, the idea of criminality associated with war could have taken either of two forms, as an emergent branch of the rule of law that would apply the same standard of accountability and judgment to the victors as to the vanquished or it could accept the double standards of imposing accountability on the defeated and granting impunity to the victor. Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” expresses such a choice in more personal and universalistic language:

 

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

 

 

Unlike the poet, the statesmen of the world have chosen the more traveled road of political realism and geopolitics, which had long been accustomed to the amoral dualism of one law for the strong, another for the weak. This realist was concisely set forth long ago by Thucydides in the Melian Dialogue in his History of the Peloponesian Wars: “The strong do what they will, the weak what they must.” What World War I initiated was a moral/legal translation of this political tendency that liberals viewed as a step forward, conservatives generally regarded as a risky departure from realism, and progressives viewed as an hypocritical and misleading effort to seize the high moral and legal ground. The impulse was renewed after World War II, but individualized by way of war crimes trials thus abandoning the war-provoking practice of World War I that consisted of imposing onerous burdens on a defeated country at the very time when its population was struggling with the urgencies of survival in the ravaged conditions of post-war realities. It is regrettable that this idea of a punitive peace was revived in dealing with Iraq after the Gulf War of 1991 as if the lesson of World War I’s misbegotten breach of comity was irrelevant when dealing with the global South that never had enjoyed the benefits of comity.

Global Institutions. Thirdly, the horrors of warfare that caused millions of casualties and destroyed economies in the period 1914-1918, gave rise to a vibrant peace movement, and to the willingness of the peoples of Europe to look with favor toward a fundamental revision of world order based on the institutionalization of peace and security at a global level. The establishment of the League of Nations was the result, but hampered from the outset by the sovereignty oriented statesmen who dominated diplomacy, as well as by an American leadership that was ambivalent about giving up America’s traditional non-involvement in European conflicts and its related posture of isolationism based on the insulating presence of oceans on either coast. Of course, there was more to the American position as it combined this non-interference in Europe with a determination to resist European interference anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. The enunciation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 gave tangible expression to this two-sided American diplomacy.

 

After every major war in Europe there have been attempts to learn from the experience and avoid the recurrence of such a traumatizing and dislocating experience that had given rise to such massive suffering. This tendency was evident in every major post-war instance of diplomacy since the birth of the modern European state system in 1648. In part this was a reaction to the tendency of political leaders to fail to anticipate the true costs and harmful societal impacts of war, whatever its outcome, inducing to a concerted effort to insulate Europe from future mistakes of the same kind.

 

The Thirty Years War led to the Westphalian framework based on territorial sovereignty in 1648, later reinforced by legally acknowledging the right of the sovereign to determine the religion of the state. The Napoleonic Wars led to the Concert of Europe in 1815, which attempted to create collective mechanisms for resolving disputes by diplomatic negotiation rather than war and through a consensus as to the nature of legitimate government that would act collectively against the sort of revolutionary challenges posed by Napoleon. World War I produced the League of Nations and World II the UN, the Bretton Woods institutions, and encouraged the establishment of collective mechanism for mutual cooperation that evolved into the European Union.

 

In contrast, the Cold War produced nothing at all, perhaps demonstrating that since it was never really a war, there were no mistakes to be overcome. In retrospect this seems like a tragic failure to use the atmosphere of relief and liberation to achieve nuclear disarmament and a stronger UN. What was revealed, instead, was a geopolitical complacency and a preoccupation with taking advantage of the globalization of the world economy in line with neoliberal capitalism. The political leadership in the United States lacked imagination and the public lacked motivation. There may be a species destiny contained in this regressive learning curve. At present, the world system seems incapable of meeting any formidable global challenges to human wellbeing except during that brief window of opportunity that is opened in the immediate aftermath of a major hot war. We notice that despite widespread scientific and public agreement on the dangers posed by nuclear weaponry and climate change, the problem-solving mechanisms available in the world have not been responsive, and show no signs of being able to surmount the peaceful obstacles posed by vested bureaucratic and private sector interests. We must ask ourselves whether it would require yet another war of global proportions to shake off this disabling lethargy that is literally endangering the very survival of the human species. And given the weaponry with which such a war would likely be fought, and its dire environmental impact, whether the human race confronts the unprecedented dilemma of being unable to act effectively without a war and likely being too devastated if such a war should occur to act reconstructively.

 

Returning to our focus on the legacies of World War I it is certainly appropriate to note that for the first time in history the impetus to form a global institutional mechanism with the overriding mission of preventing future wars entered the mainstream, at least rhetorically. The extraordinary suffering, devastation, and societal dislocation of a long war that accomplished very little that could be called positive led to social demands to ensure that less destructive means of achieving international peace and security could be developed. As well, the missionary vision of Woodrow Wilson that called for organizing the peace in durable ways captured the imagination of the European public in ways that helped make the establishment of the League of Nations a realistic project. The concrete implementation of such a vision was obstructed by the thinly disguised colonial ambitions of Britain and France, abetted by the secret machinations of diplomats and also by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia that threatened the European established order to such an extent that a counter-revolutionary intervention was organized to reverse the outcome. Globalist impulses were also captive to American ambivalence that could not decide whether to abandon the tradition of avoiding entangling alliances, especially centered in Europe, and assert itself internationally as a global leader in peacetime as well as during large wars. The U.S. failure to join the League was certainly a blow to the hopes of those who believed that peace and security could only be preserved in the future by establishing alternatives to balance of power geopolitics, and was a deficiency corrected after World War II, but with the debilitating concession of a veto to the victorious powers who were self-anointed as the peace enforcers, except against each other, which meant that the step forward from the view of participation was nullified by the step backward in relation to political effectiveness.

 

Mark Mazower in his perceptive book Governing the World confirms the view that the birth of the League was “abrupt” and that war served as its “midwife.” [v] For Mazower who does not discuss the prior contributions of post-war statecraft to global reform, poses as the central question for those planning the peace after World War I, how to explain the birth of a new political idea. He considers the critical question to be why the dominance of statist views of world order seemed to give way with so little opposition to the sort of internationalism embodied in the League concept. He wants to know “why, in other words, some of the most powerful states in the world threw their weight behind the construction of a permanent peacetime world security organization and built the League of Nations.” [117] Perhaps, as Mazower doesn’t consider, the embrace of the League project was facilitated by the realization that such a feeble form of institutionalization was nothing more than window dressing that would neither inhibit colonialist diplomacy or confuse realist political leaders.

 

In the background were ideological issues that pointed in both directions. The League as established was at once perceived as a threat to sovereignty oriented nationalists and as too weak to carry out its mission of preserving the peace if a strong state emerged with a serious set of grievances about the status quo together with the means and will to mount a challenge by force of arms. As we all know both Germany and Italy in Europe and Japan in Asia did emerge with a revisionist agenda that could only be met by countervailing power, which underscored what was already known, that the League was useless when it came to containing aggressor states. The real test was posed by Fascism, especially as it manifested itself in the Nazi rise to power in Germany.

 

 

 

Destabilizing the Middle East. Fourthly, and least commonly acknowledged, was the degree to which the ‘peace’ concluded after the First World War contributed over the decades to ‘war’ in the Middle East region. This outcome resulted from the unwillingness of the European colonial powers to abide by their promise made during the war of independence for Arab peoples in exchange for their support of the Allied war effort by rising up and fighting against the Ottoman Empire. Instead, Britain and France through secret diplomacy, highlighted by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, plotted behind the scenes to achieve a distribution of Ottoman lands between themselves without regard either to their earlier commitment or to the dynamics of self-determination. This diplomatic process was responsible for the emergence of a series of particularly artificial states with borders drawn to reflect colonial ambitions relating to the location of oil and other strategic interests such as protecting navigational security in the Suez Canal. This approach to the Middle East has been responsible for successive waves of instability and suppression of minorities, as well as perceptions of illegitimacy by those affected and intense conflict.

Among the most anguishing legacies of the First World War is the current acute turmoil that afflicts almost the entire Middle East. Of course there are many intervening developments during the past hundred years that are relevant to explain the specific patterns of conflict that are present in the region. Nevertheless, as the perceptive regional expert, Mohammed Ayoob argues, it is the colonialist aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire that constitutes “the primary factor” in accounting for “the mayhem and anarchy” in the region. [158] Ayoob is critical of those who are content to attribute these regional torments to Islamic radicalism and sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shi’ia believers. He believes that this substitution of proximate for the more illuminating root causes leads to a faulty understanding of the underlying situation and what must be done about it. An earlier line of explanation associated with Bernard Lewis attributed the problems of the region to Islamic cultural resistance to a transition to Western style modernity. Of course, the importance of Middle Eastern oil to keep the world stable is a central part of the regional drama, and linked closely to such other concerns as American interventions in the region, preoccupation with the spread of radical Islam, the avoidance of the spread of nuclear weapons, and the destabilizing Israeli claims to uphold its security by periodic aggression and disproportionate reliance on force. In one way or another each of these issues can be traced back to the difficulties associated with the collapse of Ottoman rule as the occasion for the arrangements put in place after World War I.

 

The diplomacy of World War I was rather confusing and contradictory when it came to the Middle East. As mentioned, particularly Britain encouraged Arab leaders to revolt against Ottoman rule, promising postwar independence in the form of a regional Arab state. At the same time Woodrow Wilson was advocating a quite different approach, proposing the establishment of a series of successor states to the Ottoman control of the region based on the principle of nationality as the means to realize his overriding goal, the self-determination of peoples. In opposition to this the British and French were secretly plotting to divide up the region without regard to such considerations, but rather to satisfy their overriding interest in gaining control over territories that contained oil and satisfied certain strategic interests. The British were preoccupied with safeguarding the Suez Canal, staking claims for countries nearby including Jordan, Palestine, while the French wanted to be near the old Silk road to facilitate trade with Asia by overland routes, and were eager to create a distinct Christian state that would satisfy Maronite aspirations. However, there were also some relevant anti-colonial influences at work in the Versailles peace negotiations associated with American influence, yielding a compromise taking the form of the mandates system. This upheld the British/French ideas about post-Ottoman territorial delimitations, but instead of giving colonial title, these two governments were given unrestricted administrative control over these territories as ‘a sacred trust of civilization’ that included a vague commitment to grant independence at a future time. Without the impact of World War II on the colonial system it is doubtful that political independence would have been achieved without greater struggles against British and French tutelary administrative regimes throughout the region.

 

As Ayoob persuasively points out, the legacy of these arrangements was the creation of a series of artificial states that experienced great difficulty in governing effectively. Ayoob identifies what followed as ‘state failures’ that have generated the extremism and sectarianism that continues to afflict the region, not the reverse. It seems correct that when sovereign states are not natural political communities severe inner tension and instability inevitably results. The denial to the Kurds of a state of their own has created very disruptive issues of minority and self-determination challenges to state legitimacy that constitute one dimension of persisting problems in Iraq, Syria, with spillovers to Turkey and Iran. What has recently become evident is the capacity of non-state actors to ‘outgovern’ the formal governance institutions of the state. This extraordinary development has been recently acknowledged in relation to the extensive areas under the undeniably harsh and brutal control of the IS, and also in Afghanistan where from the perspective of human security of the people, the Taliban is doing a better job of meeting the daily health and security needs in Afghanistan than is the heavily subsidized government in Kabul. [See “Pakistan’s parallel justice system proves Taliban are ‘out-governing’ the state,”] This radical form of state failure has given well-organized and dedicated Islamic civil society actors a political base that includes a reputation for getting things done without corruption, and contrasts with governmental practice that is perceived as being both corrupt and incompetent.

The other source of fundamental difficulty in the region is associated with the Israel-Palestine conflict that also emanated from a colonial gesture during the final stages of World War I. In 1917 Lord Balfour made an initially secret commitment to the Zionist Movement that Britain would look with favor at the establishment of a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine. The population of Palestine was never consulted, and much conflict has resulted with no present end in sight. Understandably many Arab scholars are outraged by this colonialist intrusion on the political development of the Middle East. Walid Khalidi, the noted Arabist, recently called the Balfour Declaration “..the single most destructive document in the twentieth century.” This may be hyperbole, but there is no doubt that the unresolved Palestinian quest for self-determination has caused frequent wars, as well as inflicted on the Palestinian people both the catastrophic dispossession of 1948, the nakba, and a brutal occupation that has continued since 1967, increasingly assuming an apartheid structure of military administration. The United States has assumed the role earlier played by Britain in protecting Israel’s interests in what has been a hostile environment regardless of Israel’s frequent violation of international law and elemental morality, above all, its unwillingness to cooperate in reaching agreement with Palestinians based on equality of rights as the foundation for a sustainable and just peace.

 

Conclusion

 For several reasons it seems correct to view World War I as the biggest rupture in global history since the French Revolution, and more revolutionary in its impact than subsequent major wars. Perhaps, most notable is the degree to which World War I exhibited interconnections between mobilizing the resources and enthusiasm of national societies for engaging in war and the decline of the capacity to rely on diplomatic compromises to bring wars to an end in a manner that minimizes the suffering experienced and the dislocation caused. As Raymond Aron expresses this idea, “..it was peculiarly difficult to end by negotiation in the traditional way a war that had become a war of peoples and of ideas.” [The Century of Total War, 27] The public had to believe in the war, which fed the claims that the issues in contention were of fundamental importance and that the enemy was pursuing evil ends, and this is what Arendt meant by the end of European comity.

 In line with this observation are the elaborate commentary of Gabriel Kolko set forth in his important study, Century of War. Kolko insisted that the World War I initiated a process of war making in which the leaders and citizens anticipate and plan for a short war, and instead experience a long and far more destructive, alienating, and costly war that brings vast human suffering, creating serious societal dislocations. Kolko writes of both the specific deforming impacts of the conflict and its patterning of the successive major wars that have subsequently taken. He writes, “..it is so desperately imperative that we escape from the present uneven yet steady descent along the path of war on which the mankind has been locked since 1914.” [453] He indicts political leaders for their “ignorance that has cost humanity a price in suffering beyond

 

Any measure.” [454] In effect, World War I initiated a modern tendency for what Kolko calls “the consummate irresponsibility” of leaders who are “playing with the lives of anonymous people..who are sent off to die” without any appreciation of or concern about the societal costs that will be incurred.

We in America remember the anger aroused caused by the Bush presidency promising that the Iraq War would be a cakewalk in which the American occupiers would be welcomed as liberators. It was an arduous decade long campaign that ended in failure and there was no welcome in Iraq despite widespread opposition in the country to the autocratic regime of Saddam Hussein.

 

In effect, the kind of war making that occurred in World War I and took new technological forms in World War II is a virus that continues to lie dormant in the body politic. It is exhibited by the refusal to seek the abolition of nuclear weaponry or the globalizing of the rule of law, and by the insistence that our side in every war is essentially innocent and good and our adversary is evil, even barbaric.

 

The current global war on terror is inscribed in public consciousness in accordance with the kind of moralizing self-assurance that guided the peacemakers at Versailles almost a century ago. Unfortunately, the imperative lesson involving the dysfunctionality of war has not yet been learned by either the leaders of the most important sovereign states or their publics. The only useful thing that has been learned about war is the importance of exercising caution in the nuclear age whenever a crisis in international relations occurs. We must pause and ask ourselves what seems to be a decisive moral and political question, which may also be an ultimate survival question: ‘is caution enough?’ And if not, ‘What must be done?’ We certainly do not want people coming together one hundred years hence to lament the persistence of war as the defining feature of world history.

 

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.

 

 

Doing Business with Israel: Increasingly Problematic

20 Jun

[Note: Published below is a letter prepared by the European Coordination of Committee and Associations for Palestine (ECCP) and endorsed by John Dugard, Michael Mansfield, Eric David, and myself; it urges adherence to guidelines relating to corporate and financial activity with unlawful economic activities in Israel and occupied Palestine, and is guided by principles similar to the BDS campaign; it is notable that on June 20th the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church by a close vote (310-303) voted to divest itself of $21 million dollars worth of shares in three corporations (Motorola Solutions, Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar) engaged in legally and morally objectionable activities supportive of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. There is a growing momentum associated with this new nonviolent militancy associated with the global solidarity movement supportive of the Palestinian struggle to gain a just peace, including realization of rights under international law. This nonviolent turn is being directly challenged by the rise of ISIS in the region that relies on unrestrained violence and promises the liberation of Palestine.]

European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine (ECCP)

On 24-26 June, 37 European companies from 11 EU Member States will travel to Israel as a part of an EU led “Mission for growth” project that aims to “promote partnerships between Israeli and European companies 
active in sectors identified as leading and developing industries in Israel.” Among Israeli companies participating in the “Mission for growth” are those deeply complicit in Israel’s occupation and apartheid policy. The previous delegation of “Mission for growth” took place on 22-23 October last year in Israel, where 97 european companies from 23 EU Member States meet with 215 Israeli companies from the different industrial sectors. In this open letter supported by Richard FalkJohn DugardMichael Mansfield and Eric David, ECCP member organisations call on the European companies to abandon their plans to be involved in the project. Letter to the participants of EU led “Mission for growth”: We, the undersigned members of ECCP – the European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine (ECCP) – a leading network of 47 organisations, NGO’s, unions and human rights organisations from 21 European countries are writing to you about your company’s participation in the recent EU-led mission to Israel named “Mission for growth” with the stated purpose of forging business ties with Israeli companies.

We are writing to make you aware about the legal, economic and reputational consequences to your business if these deals go ahead. According to the Israeli research center, WhoProfits, Israeli participants in “Mission for growth” programme directly contribute to and are complicit in acts that are illegal under international law. For example Elbit Systems, an Israeli military company is involved in the ongoing construction of Israel’s Wall, ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004.(see Annex) Recognizing these grave violations in 2009, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund divested from Elbit Systems.1 We would like to remind you that business involvement in Israel contains legal implications. According to international law as applied in the 2004 International Court of Justice advisory opinion on Israel’s wall and settlements, third party states are violating their own obligations to not recognize nor render aid or assistance to these serious Israeli violations by allowing financial and economic activity with complicit entities. Since last year, the government of the Netherlands have taken the proactive step to warn companies domiciled in its territory of the legal implications of ties with Israeli companies with activities in the occupied territories. As a result, Vitens, the Netherlands’ largest water supplier, broke an agreement with Mekorot, Israel’s public water company, due to its role in plundering water from Palestinian aquifers in the West Bank.2

PGGM, the largest Dutch pension fund followed suit and divested from all Israeli banks due to “their involvement in financing Israeli settlements.”3 The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, supported by the EU and adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, explain that businesses must respect human rights and international humanitarian law. The Principles also urge states to withdraw support and not procure services from companies that persistently violate human rights.4 In September 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a report on corporate complicity related to the illegal Israeli settlements by Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. The report urges states to take steps to hold businesses accountable for their participation in Israeli violations of international law and to take steps to end business involvement in illegal Israeli settlements5 In March 2013, UN Human Rights Council adopted the report of the Independent Fact Finding Mission on the Israeli settlements. The Fact Finding Mission affirmed that involvement in settlement activities falls under the jurisdiction of the ICC and may result in criminal responsibility. Almost all Israeli companies are deeply complicit, directly or indirectly, in the oppression of Palestinians including its IT sector by drawing expertise from Israel’s military complex and Israel’s manufacturing companies, some based in settlements, with distribution outlets in settlements, helping to sustain them. By participating in the project and cooperating with Israeli companies involved in illegal Israeli settlements and military industry your company would be making a political decision to become deeply complicit with Israel’s violations of international law and Israel’s oppression of Palestinian rights. As such, your company would become a legitimate target for popular boycotts, divestments, protests and sustained campaigns to penalize your involvement and causing you economic losses similar to the loses already inflicted on French-company Veolia for its involvement in the settlement enterprise and British security company G4S6. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, from which we draw our strength, has been growing at the global level since its launch in 2005 of which the Economist magazine says it “is turning mainstream.”7 The BDS movement has consistently targeted complicit Israeli and international corporations — involved in Israel’s occupation, settlements and other international law infringements — such as SodaStream, G4S, Ahava, Mekorot, Elbit, Veolia, Caterpillar, Africa Israel, all Israeli banks, among others, with significant success and enormous reputational risks8. We will therefore monitor your company for business ties with Israel and urge you to abandon potential plans to cooperate with Israeli companies violating international law and human rights. Sincerely , European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine (ECCP)

Endorsed by: Richard Falk -UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur for Palestine, 2008-2014 and Milbank Professor of International Law, Emeritus, Princeton University John Dugard – Professor Emeritus, University of Leiden, Former UN Special rapporteur on the situation of Human rights in the occupied palestinian Territory Michael Mansfield – Professor of Law, President of the Haldane Society and Amicus; practising Human Rights lawyer for 45 years Eric David – Law Professor, Free University of Brussels

*****************

Annex: Israeli participants in “Mission for growth” project violating human rights and international law -

Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories – a private Israeli cosmetics corporation which operates from the occupied West Bank. Ahava is the only company which sells Dead Sea cosmetics and islocated in the occupied area of the Dead Sea. The Ahava factory and visitors’ center is located in the Mitzpe Shalem settlement, on the shore of the Dead Sea in the occupied part of the Jordan Valley and a large percentage of Ahava shares are held by two Israeli West Bank settlements.

9 – Afcon Holdings- The group engages in the design, manufacture, integration and marketing of electro-mechanical and control systems. A subsidiary of the group – Afcon Control and Automation has supplied CEIA metal detectors to Israeli military checkpoints in the occupied Palestinian territories; such as the Hebron Machpela Cave Checkpoint, the Beit Iba checkpoint and the Erez Terminal in Gaza, as well as checkpoints in the occupied Jordan Valley. Additionally, in 2009 the Afcon has supplied services to the Jerusalem light train project, which connects the settlement neighbourhoods in occupied East Jerusalem with the city center. The company also supplies services to the Israeli Army, Israeli prison service and the Israeli police.

10 – El-Go Team – Provider of security gates. Vehicle gates and turnstiles of the company are installed at Qalandia, Huwwara and Beit Iba checkpoints restricting the occupied Palestinian population movement in the occupied territory.

11 - Elbit Vision Systems - the company manufactured electronic surveillance systems (LORROS cameras) to the separation wall project in the Ariel section. The company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Elbit Systems.

12 – Gila satellite network- Provider of satellite communication services. Antennas of the company are installed in checkpoints across the West Bank: Azzun Atma, Beit Iba and Anata – Shu’afat refugee camp. The company has also provided the Israeli Army with the VAST (very small aperture terminal) satellite communications system. Several satellite dishes were installed on armoured personnel carriers.

13 – Netafim – A global private company of irrigation technology, which also provides services and training to farmers and agriculture companies around the world. The company provides irrigation technologies and services to the settlements’ regional council of Mount Hebron and the settlement of Maskiut. The company’s employees volunteered in the Israeli army’s combat unit Oketz. The company employs 4000 employees, owns 16 manufacturing factories in 11 states and over 27 subsidiaries and representatives in over 110 countries. - LDD Tech - provides services to gas stations in settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.

1 http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB125197496278482849

2 http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/.premium-1.562769

3 https://www.pggm.nl/english/what-we-do/Documents/Statement%20PGGM%20exclusion%20Israeli%20banks.pdf

4 http://www.business-humanrights.org/UNGuidingPrinciplesPortal/TextUNGuidingPrinciples

5 http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=43376#.UZH-eSvWyqw

6 http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-06-06/gates-foundation-sells-stake-in-u-k-security-company-g4s.html

7 http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21595948-israels-politicians-sound-rattled-campaign-isolate-their-country

8 http://mondoweiss.net/2014/05/barclays-downgrades-sodastream.html

9 http://www.whoprofits.org/company/ahava-dead-sea-laboratories

10 http://www.whoprofits.org/company/afcon-holdings

11 http://www.whoprofits.org/company/el-go-team

12 http://www.whoprofits.org/company/elbit-systems

13 http://www.whoprofits.org/company/gilat-satellite-networks

Why Congress Should Say to ‘No’ on Syria

6 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

##

Political Infernos: United States, Turkey, Egypt

28 Jun

A New Political Inferno: Polarization of Immature Democracies

 

Prelude

 

To begin with, I know of no truly mature political democracy on this, although to be sure some rest on a more stable political base than others. Most importantly, some forces of opposition despair of ever succeeding by democratic procedures, while others pin their hopes on the next election, or the one after that. Some democracies have greater economic stability or can boast of high growth rates, possess a larger private sector and bigger middle class with more to lose, than others. Some states are more vulnerable to foreign interference than others, and some have formidable foreign enemies that seek regime change or something worse.

 

Perhaps, more victimized than any most modern societies, Germany devastated after World War I was caught in the midst of recovering from a humiliating military defeat accentuated by vindictive victors, a resulting economic depression featuring high unemployment and runaway inflation. Its pathetic enactment of liberal democracy could neither find credible solutions nor adopt principled positions. It should not be surprising that an extreme form of political polarization emerged in response, producing disastrous results not only for Germany but for Europe and the world: Communism versus Fascism. Battles raged between these antagonists in the streets of German cities, and the Nazis emerged triumphant even at the ballot box, helped by the complicity of cartelized big business and the ethos of the Bavarian elites hostile to any hint of democratic politics. The rest is history.

 

Today, there exist an assortment of deeply worrisome encounters between political extremes brought on by a range of conditioning circumstances. As a first approximation I would mention three disturbing instances, each distinctive, yet each afflicted by destructive polarized politics: Egypt, Turkey, and the United States.

 

Infernal Polarization and the Creative Dialectic

 

Before offering some comments on the three cases, it seems helpful to clarify what is meant by ‘polarization.’ There are several features, varying with context,  grievances, goals, outlook, and unity of the opposition, as well as the response of those in control of the government, the economy, and sometimes the military, but there are also certain shared characteristics that encourage generalizations: On discourse: in a polarized polity the opposition seldom reasons and never listens, while those governing rarely hear what critics say and almost never engage in serious self-scrutiny; reasonableness is seen by both sides more often as a lack of conviction and principle rather than as an expression of respect and inclusiveness: moderation is out, polemics are in. On governance: both sides are generally inhibited from offering compromises and accommodations for fear of seeming weak, and thereby alienating their base of support. On tactics: the opposition seeks instability and dissatisfaction, and if possible a climate of opinion that demands change either by constitutional means or by a populist uprising that makes the country ungovernable; the government, in contrast, obtains law and order by whatever means are at its disposal, often provoking worse opposition by employing excessive force.

 

There is also an emergent form of polarization that may be more productive of positive results, and seems often to be hiding behind the curtain of its infernal other. It is a youth oriented rejection of all traditional forms of political rivalry: parties, programs, politicians. Pox on both your houses! This kind of creative dialectic takes many forms depending on heritage, context, and cultural sensibilities.

 

In its most radical forms a creative dialectic is a bottom up momentum, sometimes substituting humor, sensuality, and satire for polemics, valuing all forms of inclusiveness, welcoming the participation of LGBT activists, celebrating the joy of living, and committed to governing from below. A rather restrained form of such a creative dialectic can easily confused with ‘infernal polarization.’ It was such a creative dialectic that flourished in Tahrir Square during those remarkable 18 days in January 2011, reflected in the spirit of the 99% that brightened the skies above Wall Street, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and many other cities for some hopeful months later in the same year, and just recently again became manifest during the early days of the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul and the Brazilian risings. A benevolent future for democratic societies depends on nourishing these forces of mainly youth and malcontents that have ‘invented’ their version of a creative dialectic while not partaking of the largely negative energies of infernal polarization that are pushing many societies to the risky precipices of implosion.

 

Why infernal? The legitimating premise of a democratic society is some form of consent by the governed, normally by the political verdicts delivered at periodic, fair and free elections. In the extreme instances of infernal polarization, the opposition seeks to change the rules of the political game by forcing the elected leaders to surrender their power or face chaos or a military takeover. It may be democracy to end autocracy (as with Mubarak) or it make take aim at democracy (as with Morsi), ultimately, the politics of the Reichstag fire (1933), the military takeover in Algeria after the 1991 electoral triumph of Islamists, and the unfulfilled phantasies of extreme Kemalists in Turkey.

 

An abusive or highly incompetent and corrupt majority invites radical forms of dissent, and so it is not fair to put all the blame on the side of the opposition. It all depends. An autocratic option for the governing majority is to cancel elections, invite a military to take over, and throw in the towel of democratic legitimacy. In effect, polarization becomes infernal because it inclines both government and opposition to adopt extreme positions usually for contradictory reasons, either the majority becomes oppressive and greedy or the minority becomes desperate, despairing of gaining control over the levers of governance by fair play. Of course, in racist Rhodesia or apartheid South Africa it was the abusive minority that held the majority in chains, and yet had the temerity to claim lawful and legitimate governance. At minimum, infernal polarization jeopardizes and impairs the quality of democracy, and its persistence, is likely to impose a death sentence on what be called ‘the realm of decent politics.’

 

Comparisons

 

            The mildest instance of infernal polarization is currently evident in the United States, although it may be the most consequential, given America’s global projection of hard power and its world leadership role. Increasingly, the domestic political atmosphere is beset by a polarizing opposition that rejects reasonableness in its preoccupation with inducing the elected leadership to fail and thus disappoint the electorate even if the result is overall decline for the society, especially its poorest 40-60%. The Tea Party mentality of opposition to the Obama presidency is mainly expressed by way of polarizing rhetoric and irresponsible Congressional behavior, but its worldview is extremist, and regards with a scary sympathy right-wing advocates of anti-democratic and even violent tactics. In the background is the post-9/11 mainstream moves to monitor the behavior of the entire citizenry, regarding each person, whether citizen or not, as a potential terrorist, and possibly a target for assassination. On the one side of the divide is a rejection of compassionate governance and an unconditional libertarian distrust of government, while on the other side is the expectation that citizens will forfeit their freedoms to the Orwellian security claims of a government engaged in a perpetual war against its enemies who could be hiding in the bushes situated anywhere in the world including within its borders, or even deep in the bowels of its most secretive bureaucratic domains.

 

How else to interpret the vindictive fury, cries of ‘treason!’ even by supposedly liberal politicians and media stalwarts against such public spirited whistle-blowers as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden? To tell the secrets of government is not a matter of breaching security, but it is a massive, acknowledgement of cruelty and criminality. The messenger must be mercilessly destroyed so as to frighten potential future messenger, and the message shredded and forgotten. Whether such a pattern governance and opposition is to remain relatively ‘mild’ is a matter for debate, but so far the framework of constitutional government has been superficially maintained, and neither an appeal nor threat of a military coup seems imminent.

 

Less containable within the boundaries of constitutional government is the virus of infernal polarization that has been afflicting Turkey for the past eleven years, ever since the AK Party gained a plurality in the 2002 elections. Particularly the traditional Kemalist opposition, long the governing majority, has seen its grip on power slip away in this young century as the AKP has won successively more impressive electoral victories. At base there is a polarization that is sometimes confusingly phrased as an opposition between traditional and modern values, although there is an important dimension of the rivalry and distrust that pits the religiously observant against the secularly permissive, but really the tension is between different visions of modernity expressed as secularism versus religion. The AKP is all for modern business and science, has turned many keys of power over to the private sector, although its main leaders are privately devout, avoid alcohol and gambling, pray daily, and marry women who cover their heads.  Also, there are class and regional tensions, with the AKP being seen as a slightly disguised movement of political Islam, while the secular opposition, and its political parties, represent the social and nationalist elites that were associated with the life and leadership of Kemal Ataturk that above all saw a modern future for the country depending on mimicking European life styles and church/state relations.

 

These Europeanized elites were never really willing to cede power to their AKP rivals, and counted on a military intervention to end the political nightmare, and validated by judicial activism from the high court dominated by Kemalist holdovers that shared the sense that the AKP posed a dire threat to the Turkish republic as established by Ataturk. When these anti-democratic plans of the opposition failed to materialize, the opposition grew increasingly frustrated and bitter, and began to see itself as a permanently beleaguered opposition with little hope of regaining control. On the other side, as the AKP and its charismatic leader, Recip Teyyip Erdogan, rode the ever higher waves of success, became contemptuous of their opposition, and seemed to pose an autocratic threat given concrete form via Erdogan’s ‘presidential project.’

 

Simultaneously, many urban youth in Turkey yearned for a permissive social milieu, a redeeming purpose for their lives, and deeply resented the tendency of Erdogan to express his constraining personal life style preferences as if they should become the law of the land. It was this combination of factors that suddenly erupted in reaction to the plans to transform Gezi Park into a shopping center. What was evident, along with the anti-Erdogan animus, was the clash between the old style of party politics as the negation of the AKP, and this new style that refrained from articulating its vision, but appeared to seek substantive and participatory democracy that was not only inclusive of and responsive to all elements in society, even the most marginal, but also seemed intent on reinventing the modalities of opposition and governance. There is confusion in Turkey, partly because this new youth politics of revolution is intertwined with the old party politics that wants to enjoy the fruits of power, prestige, and influence. It is encouraging and appropriate for this innovative current of Turkish politics to be holding nightly forums to discover what it is they believe and desire, and how to go about attaining it.

 

This political and cultural thrust of the Turkish protests needs to be understood against a background of economic stability and fantastic progress as assessed by standard economic indicators. Somehow, despite the inequality of benefits associated with this spurt of growth, and the presence of a large impoverished underclass, the AKP has so far maintained the support of the poor and disenfranchised. The agenda of social and economic rights was not entirely absent from the Turkish demonstrations, but it was certainly not salient. In contrast, the Brazilian protests, also coming after a decade of progress and left of center political leaders, found their unity in these social justice issues, especially rallying against the perception of corruption at the top and distorted priorities as embodied in expensive sports stadiums for international events while the Brazilian poor languished. Unlike Turkey, the Brazilian political scene is not polarized, and there is no comparable antipathy toward (or enthusiasm for) Dilma Rousseff as exists in relation to Erdogan. For these reasons, at least for now, Brazil with all its problems, and its opposition because more motivated by material demands may be more sustained, is still not to be categorized as infernally polarized.

 

Egypt is by far the most precarious of these three instances of infernal polarization, especially at the moment. For months it has become evident that an incompetent and beleaguered elected government headed by Mohamed Morsi was opposed by an irreconcilable opposition that would only be satisfied by the resignation of the elected leader, and new presidential elections far earlier than their scheduled 2016 date. As this process slides toward its awful and dreaded moment of truth on June 30th (a year to the day after Morsi was sworn in as president) when both sides have promised a show of populist force in the streets of Cairo and elsewhere in the country. Morsi has become for the opposition the new Mubarak, the latter provided the unifying element in those remarkable days of January 2011. Unlike Mubarak, however, Morsi has legions of Muslim supporters rallying to his side beneath the banner of ‘No to violence, Yes to legitimacy.’ But unlike Mubarak in 2011, even in 2012 when Ahmed Shafik, a Mubarak surrogate came within 2 percentage points of an electoral victory in a runoff election against Morsi), the once anti-Mubarak secular/Copt oppisition is now allied with the Mubarak remnant, as well as those who once hope for change, but now just want normalcy, especially with respect to the economy.

 

As brilliantly analyzed by Esam al-Amin (“Egypt’s Fateful Day,” Counterpunch, June 26, 2013), the outcome for Egypt is uncertain, but extremely dangerous as the country is in the midst of staggering unemployment, especially among the young, near 50%, living in poverty, stagnant development, a failing tourist sector, and dwindling currency reserves, while also being engaged in a potentially dangerous conflict with Ethiopia over the damming of the upper Nile whose waters are indispensable to Egypt’s subsistence as a nation. In other words, the political confrontation on June 30th takes place against a backdrop of economic and foreign policy crisis, and will not be resolved in the street because both sides seem to have formidable backing. The only way to avoid such a dismal and demoralizing unraveling would seem to be either a sudden moderating of opposition demands or a reentry of the military into the governing process, thereby canceling the extraordinary achievement of Tahrir Square, a regression of unimaginably demoralizing proportions.

 

I recall my visit to Cairo weeks after the overthrow of Mubarak when great excitement about and support for an inclusive democratic process existed in most circles, although some suspicions were also voiced. At that time, the secular forces seemed confident that they could control Egypt’s political future. The sentiment expressed in Cairo was that the Muslim Brotherhood should by all means be encouraged to participate in elections, and was likely to win support at the 30% level. It was further conjectured that this would be fine, but that if it was at a level of 40% the country would be in trouble. When the initial elections for the parliament disclosed far stronger Muslim support than anticipated, including over 20% for Salafi parties that were far more socially conservative and politically constraining than the MB, it was clear that the future was not what the anti-Mubarak secular liberals expected or wanted, and with the passage of time, especially since Morsi managed to win the presidency in a close vote, this implacable opposition hardened to the point of outright defiance. No matter what kind of peace offerings were made

by Morsi, the opposition was not interested. The composition of this opposition is also a restored blend of Mubarak fulools, disenchanted secular liberals and , and a reenergized revolutionary youth, which is quite a political brew that would seems an expedient coalition that is likely to survive only so long as the Brotherhood runs the country. If the Egyptian situation is not bad enough, there are a variety of foreign governments that would like to push the political process in one direction or another, including the Gulf giants of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and of course, the United States and Israel. For different reasons, it would seem that all these foreign meddlers would if the situation further deteriorates, will side with the opposition, which certainly had feeble democratic credentials, and is suspected, as with the Kemalist opposition in Turkey, of looking with favor at a takeover of the reins of government by the repoliticized Egyptian military.

 

A Concluding Observation

 

            Infernal polarization is unlikely to give rise to efficient and humane forms of democratization, unless transformed from within by a creative dialectic that seeks to transcend traditional political encounters. As the future unfolds it will become clearer as to whether this positive scenario has sufficient traction to both end polarization and offer something new by way of democratic governance. At present, there are few reasons to be hopeful about these prospects for the United States, Turkey, and Egypt. In some respects, Turkey offers the most hope of the three cases as its governing leadership has achieved much that is beneficial for the society, and the polarized opposition seems capable of exerting strong reformist pressures that yet fall short of threatening to capsize the ship of state.

 

 

 

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

9 Oct

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Toward a Gandhian Geopolitics: A Feasible Utopia?

25 Jul

 

            There has been serious confusion associated with the widespread embrace of ‘soft power’ as a preferred form of diplomacy for the 21st century. Joseph Nye introduced and popularized the concept, and later it was adopted and applied in a myriad of settings that are often contradictory from the perspective of international law and morality. I write in the belief that soft power as a force multiplier for imperial geopolitics is to be viewed with the greatest suspicion, but as an alternative to militarism and violence is to be valued and adopted as a potential political project that could turn out to be the first feasible utopia of the 21st century.

 

            Significantly, Nye first introduced the concept of soft power in Bound to Lead, published in 1990, reaffirming confidence in the United States as the self-anointed leader of the world for the foreseeable future based on its military and economic prowess, as well as due to its claimed status as an exemplary democracy and the global outreach of its popular culture from jeans to Michael Jackson . Nye has been a consistent advocate of what Michael Ignatieff christened as ‘empire lite’ a decade or so ago, and Nye’s invocation of soft power is essentially calling our attention to a cluster of instruments useful in projecting American influence throughout the world, and in his view under utilized. Although less so, perhaps, since the advent of drones. It should be appreciated that Nye’s influential career as a prominent Harvard specialist in international relations was climaxed in the 1990s by serving the government in Washington both as Chair of the National Intelligence Council, making policy recommendations on foreign policy issues to the American president, and as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs during the Clinton presidency. He is an unabashed charter member of and valuable apologist for the American foreign policy establishment in its current embodiment, although the policies of the Bush presidency often displeased him.

 

            The idea of soft power was unveiled for the benefit of the American establishment in Nye’s 1996 Foreign Affairs article, “America’s Information Edge,” appropriately written in collaboration with Admiral William Owens, a leading navy planner who rose to be Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The main argument of the article was the need to realize the revolutionary relevance of mastering the technologies of information if the American global domination project was to be successful in the years ahead. This emphasis on the role of information and networking was also certain to lead to a  ‘revolution in military technology.’ Soft power was not, as the words seem to suggest, a turn away from imperial geopolitics in the aftermath of the Cold War, but rather the opposite. It was more in the spirit of a geopolitical cookbook on how to remain in control globally despite a rapidly changing political and technological environment. The recommended soft power breakthrough can be summarized as the recognition of the role to be played by non-military forms of global influence and capabilities in reinforcing and complementing the mandate of hard power.

 

            The final section of the Nye/Owens article is aptly title “The Coming American Century,” insisting that the famous claim made a generation earlier by Time publisher, Henry Luce, that the 20th century was ‘the American century,’ would turn out to be a gross understatement when it came to describing the 21st century. Their expectation is that America will be more dominant internationally in the emerging future, thanks mainly to this superiority in information technology, anticipating that if their views are adopted by robust military applications of soft power it will have a huge foreign policy payoff for the country: “The beauty of information as a power resource is that, while it can enhance the effectiveness of raw military power, it ineluctably democratizes societies.” This unabashed avowal of imperial goals is actually the main thesis of the article, perhaps most graphically expressed in the following words—“The United States can increase the effectiveness of its military forces and make the world safe for soft power, America’s inherent comparative advantage.” As the glove fits the hand, soft power complements hard power within the wider enterprise of transforming the world in America’s image, as well as embodying the ideal version of America’s sense of self.

 

            Nye/Owens acknowledge a major caveat rather parenthetically by admitting that their strategy will not work if America continues much longer to be perceived unfavorably abroad as a national abode of drugs, crime, violence, fiscal irresponsibility, family breakdown, political gridlock.  They make a rather empty and apolitical plea to restore “a healthy democracy” at home as a prelude to the heavy lifting of democratizing the world, but they do not pretend medical knowledge of how national health might be restored,  offering no prescriptions. And now sixteen years after their article appeared, it would seem that the Burmese adage applies: “disease unknown, cure unknown.”

 

            There is much that I would object to about this line of advocacy that waves the banner of soft power so triumphantly. First of all, the idea of using power of any kind to democratize other sovereign states is an imperial undertaking at its core, and completely disregards the post-colonial ethos of self-determination widely affirmed as the inalienable right of all peoples.  This right of self-determination is given pride of place in common Article 1 of the two major international human rights covenants. The Nye/Owens assumption that ‘democracy’ means ‘made in the USA’ is an ideological claim that seems increasingly questionable given the reality of political life in America.  This is the case even if the country somehow miraculously heeds the Nye/Owens call to restore national health to its democracy. Is it open to doubt as to whether an elective plutocracy, which America has surely become, can qualify as the sort of democracy that merits being exported abroad. And since the 9/11 attacks the corporatizing of democratic space has been complemented by a series of governmental encroachments on traditional liberties in the name of ‘homeland security.’ While it might have seemed unproblematic in 1996 for Nye/Owens to write about planting the seeds of American democracy throughout the world, by 2012 such a project has become nothing less than diabolical. The best the world can hope for at this point is not a somewhat less aggressive version of soft power geopolitics but an American turn toward passivity, what used to be called ‘isolationism,’ and was perhaps briefly abortively reborn by the Obama posture during the 2011 Libyan intervention of ‘leading from behind,’ as if that is leading at all. Of course, such a realistic retreat begets the fury of the Republicans who seem to have not lost any of their appetite for the red meat of military adventures despite a string of defeats and their constant wailing about the fiscal deficit. When it comes to militarism their firepower is directed at the alleged defeatism and softness of American foreign policy in the hands of a Democratic president.

 

            There is a second sense of soft power that I advocate, which is in its most maximal form, represents the extension of Gandhian principles to the practice of diplomacy. A weaker form of Gandhian geopolitics may seem more consistent with the world as it is, restricting the role of hard power to self-defense as strictly limited in the UN Charter and to UN humanitarian interventions in exceptional circumstances of genocidal behavior or the repeated commission of crimes against humanity. In such instances uses of hard power would remain under the operational control of the UN Security Council, and enacted by a UN Peace Force especially trained in conflict resolution to minimize recourse to violence.

 

            If we decide to respect the politics of self-determination (as the preferred alternative to military intervention) then we need to be prepared to accept the prospect of some tragic struggles for control of national space. Geopolitical passivity, as validated by international law, needs to be recognized as an essential political virtue in this century. Such an imperative also mandates reliance on the greater wisdom of collective procedures subject to constitutional constraints as a necessary adjustment to the realities of a globalizing world, and offers an alternative to unilateralist and oligarchic claims (‘coalitions of the willing’) to act in defiance of law and world public opinion.  Such an empowerment of ‘the global community’ may go awry on some occasions but it seems a far preferable risk than continuing to entrust world peace and security to the untender mercies of global and regional hegemonic sovereign states even should their domestic democratic credentials are in good order, which happens not to be the case.

 

            There is no doubt that I would like to live in a borderless soft power world that was consistently attentive to human suffering, protective of the global commons, and subject to the discipline of global constitutional democracy. As global conditions now confirm, such a benign fantasy lacks political traction at present, and is thus an irresponsible worldview from the perspective of humane problem solving. The most we can currently hope for is a more moderate regime of global governance presided over by sovereign states that exhibits a greater sense of responsibility toward the wellbeing of the peoples of the world, identifies and works to correct dysfunction and corruption, and is thus less swayed by the reigning plutocracy that now sets global policy. Such moderate global governance, while far from the desired Gandhian model would at least become more respectful of international law and responsive to transnational movements dedicated to human rights and the preservation of the global commons. Nye’s soft power geopolitics provides a roadmap for those comfortable with currents hierarchies of dominance and privilege, while even the minimal version of a nonviolent and non-imperial alternative could help humanity greatly in the deepening struggle to find a world order path that leads to peace, justice, and development. 

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