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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. 

UN Alliance of Civilizations, Istanbul Partners Forum, May 31-June 1, 2012

5 Jun


           

               

 

 

 

 

                   The UN Alliance of Civilization (AOC) was initiated by Kofi Annan in 2005 while he was Secretary General of the UN with the joint sponsorship of Turkey and Spain, with its principal center of operations in Istanbul. It was formed under the dark skies that existed after the 9/11 attacks, and seeks to provide an alternative narrative to that of inter-civilizational war, that starkly negative scenario of Islam versus the West associated with the inflammatory views of Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington that continues to provide fuel for Islamophobia that burns ever more brightly in Europe and North America. It was several years since I had heard as many references to Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis as I did during the discussions and presentations at the Istanbul Forum, which was opened by speeches made by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey, and Ban Ki Moon, the current UN Secretary General.

 

            The primary rationale for the AOC is to provide a ‘platform’ for inter-civilizational dialogue that explores differences among civilizations, but seeks to promote mutual undertstanding and respect, even affection and celebration. The label platform has become recently popular in international circles to convey the sense of a venue that has minimal restrictions as to participation, agenda, and ideological presuppositions. It is open to all perspectives that accept some presumed core values, and tempers disagreements by insisting upon an atmosphere of civility, and by generally avoiding controversial topics of current events. In this regard both Erdogan and Ban Ki Moon affirmed the broad idealistic goals of the AOC, but also made explicit in strong language their condemnation of the Syrian government for its role in recent atrocities committed against civilian communities, with especial reference to the shocking impact of the Houla Massacre that had occurred several days prior to these meetings.

 

            In Turkey the AOC is taken seriously as a new dimension of continuing thought and reflection as is evident both by the establishment of a dedicated academic program at Bahçeshir University and a separate degree granting graduate institute within a new field of academic specialization identified as ‘alliance of civilizations.’ Its first cohort of students played an active part in the discussion periods during the Forum. The AOC is under the administrative leadership of Jorge Sampaio, former President of Portugal, whose title is UN High Representative for Alliance of Civilizations. It holds periodic meetings on various themes in different parts of the world. I took part in the opening session of the Forum on a panel that included the philosophical founding father of the AOC, Professor Mehmet Aydin, former Minister of State, Rashi Gannushi, the head of the an-Nahda Movement that has emerged victorious in Tunishian elections, and Princess Rym Ali of Jordan, the founder of the Jordan Media Institute. The panel was supposed to address the relevance of global politics, and relied on a Q & A format presided over by the widely admired TV moderator for Al Jazeera, Riz Khan. The session was lively, avoiding the often tedious presentation of a sequence of papers, and led to thoughtful questions posed by members of a disparate audience that included the various constituencies that are brought together by the AOC: governments, international institutions, NGOs, students, and representatives of civil society. Due to the format that I had not known in advance, I had prepared some remarks that were never presented at the session, but I did have the opportunity to make some of these points in responding to questions put to me either by Riz Khan or members of the audience.

 

            It is a fair question to wonder whether sponsoring such events is worth the expense and effort. Skeptics say there is already too much ‘empty talk.’ My tentative response is affirmative. I find that the quality of such global conversations and associated secondary influences to be an essential dimension of a significant 21st century learning experience, not only or even primarily as a result of what speakers from such varied backgrounds have to say, but for the wider audience in attendance and those reached and influenced through media coverage. It is a step in the direction of creating what I described during the discussion period as an emergent ‘cosmopolitan pedagogy’ that is sensitive to divergent cultural styles and understandings. At its best such pedagogy supplements knowledge with wisdom, rationality with ethics and spirituality, and couples concerns about economic development with attentiveness to injustices and environmental hazards. It is through sustaining a creative tension between the particular and the general, the diverse and the universal, as well as between the controversial and the agreed upon that a cosmopolitan pedagogy responsive to the complexities, fragilities, and interactive dynamics of the early 21st century will come gradually into being. I found the discussions at the Istanbul Forum to be valuable contributions to a process of reconstituting cultural cognition for this moment in history.

 

My prepared remarks are published here online for the first time, and were formulated before I had the benefit of the discussions at the Forum, and I hope are of some slight interest:

 

            “I am grateful for this opportunity to participate in this Istanbul Forum of the Alliance of Civilizations.

 

            “As several others have undoubtedly already had occasion to mention the mission of the Alliance as one of promoting understanding among civilizations by way of an open dialogue that stresses differences, I wish to emphasize the commonalities associated with this undertaking. More than ever before in human history there is the need for peoples throughout the world to find leaders who will facilitate cooperation supportive of the shared needs of the planet. The world is faced with a series of problems of global scope that cannot be successfully addressed by governments acting alone or even by coming to agreements about cooperative arrangements based on their mutual national interests. As the failure to act responsibly from a global perspective in relation to nuclear weaponry or climate change illustrates, the peoples of the world remain beholden to the severe limitations of state-centric world order in seeking to shape a global policy that serves the human interest, which is long-term survival and an equitable distributions of burdens.  The risks associated with the possession and deployment of nuclear weaponry and those caused by the inability to fashion a timely response to climate change depend on global policy formed to benefit the whole of humanity, now and in the future, and not just the parts as represented by the governments of sovereign states. Even a global state such as the United States acts selfishly whenever confronted by challenges that threaten its military dominance, diplomatic prestige, and its economic growth

 

            What is particularly appealing about the AOC orientation is the replacement of states by civilizations as the primary units of analysis when thinking about world politics. Such a perspective frees us from the narrowness, egoism, and shortsightedness of nationalist thinking and tribal identities. It also underscores the crucial potential roles of religion and culture in developing an approach to global challenges on the basis of shared and universally endorsed values that draw their inspiration from the East as well as the West. Central to this endeavor is the focus so well expressed by Jacques Derrida on what it might mean for humanity “to live together well” on this planet, a deceptively simple observation that makes a double assertion with profound implications: however we choose as a species to behave, we are destined to live together, which is the inescapable message of globalization, but the more demanding second part of the assertion is the implied encouragement to live together benevolently, that is, in peace, justice, and contentment as attainable ideals. Unfortunately, except as abstractions, we remain mostly in the dark as to how, as a practical matter it could become possible to live, if not well, at least better together: working to achieve real peace, real justice, and real harmony, which presupposes, above all sympathy for and hospitality toward ‘the other’ in all the shapes and forms that human experience presents, and especially, with respect to those others that suffer and are being victimized in various ways by existing societal arrangements. Actually, we have some sense of what such a better world would look like, but we do not have much understanding of how to make the transition from where we are to where we would like to be, and maybe the unstated purpose of the AOC is to bring discussions of such a transition into the domain of public reason, and thus less subject to dismissal as ‘utopian’ wishful thinking. In passing I would note that utopian thought in this period of planetary emergency deserves also to be taken seriously and may provide the world with an emancipatory potential.

 

            The task set for this panel is to emphasize the relevance of global politics to the work of AOC. This is a difficult and speculative task although it is probably better undertaken here in Istanbul than anywhere else in the world. The Turkish political leadership over the course of the last decade has been impressively sensitive to the originality of this young century, and its relevance for the conduct of diplomacy and foreign policy. The essence of this sensitivity has been to give substantive implementation to an awareness that the state is a part of more inclusive configurations of influence and belief—region, civilization, religion—and not on its own.  That without a world government the state remains the most influential representative of the whole—species, world. In effect, the pursuit of national interests, detached from an appreciation of such wider interests as global interests, civilizational identity, and the human interest is not only a betrayal of core values but increasingly dysfunctional for the ends served by the state itself. In the end, this is a fundamental adjustment that calls for vision, ethics, and a practical understanding of how problems can be best solved in a manner that is also mindful of future generations. Fitting together the parts with the whole has always been a challenge to the political and moral imagination of statesmen, but the bearing of problems of global scope and the need for longer time horizons puts a premium on developing responsive modes of thought, policy, and action. It is in this respect that Turkey’s foreign policy based on principled pragmatism has seemed to be a breakthrough in an era where hard power diplomacy has so often failed and the urgencies generated by interdependence tend to be downplayed even as they are acknowledged.

 

            Against this background I think we need as soon as possible to make a conceptual leap of faith. For several centuries world order has been shaped by a preoccupation with borders and walls, along with the related idea of territorial sovereignty. Political community has been established within defended borders, and what is not bounded effectively is open for occupation or shared use. Of course, the colonial period gave a Eurocentric twist to this more general idea, but since the collapse of colonialism this state-centric manner of distributing authority and establishing order has been accepted throughout the world. It is expressed in international law by the ideas of equality among sovereign states, by sovereign authority within the state and freedom beyond its borders as exercised in such global commons as the oceans and space. It is from this perspective that we speak of ‘the freedom of the high seas.’ The United Nations was organized on the basis of the legitimacy of this state-centric imagery, and its Charter reflects this orientation toward world order, although privileging some states in the procedures of the Security Council.

 

            Identity for persons and peoples followed from this basic spatially conceived mapping of the world, giving rise to nationalism and patriotism.  Nationalist ideology and citizenship became in the modern world the exclusive means for individuals and groups to be accorded protection and membership in a state, making statelessness an acute form of vulnerability, an existence without rights. Of course, this conceptual mapping was a crude approximation of reality that overlooked many features of the manner in which this system operated: citizens were frequently helplessly vulnerable to the violence and abuse by their own state; minorities were targets of discrimination; hegemonic and imperial geopolitics encroached upon the territorial sovereignty of weaker states.

 

            Two fundamental developments altered the descriptive accuracy and ethical acceptability of this image of world order. First, the destructiveness of World War II highlighted by the use of atomic bombs against Japanese cities undermined the idea that war could be rationally reconciled with sovereign control over the technologies of warmaking. Secondly, the rise of human rights in the aftermath of the disclosure of the Holocaust challenged the normative idea that states were unrestricted( that is, sovereign) in their internal behavior except as restrained by the rule of law and institutions of constitutional governance. Expressed more vividly we can say that Hiroshima and Auschwitz gave rise to a new concern with limits to complement the earlier focus on borders. This shift has now acquired an ecological dimension through the fears associated with climate change, and the failures to regulate sufficiently the discharge of greenhouse gasses. What has become evident in each of these domains is that problem-solving capabilities of a world of borders cannot address adequately the issues posed by a world of limits, whether these limits refer to political violence, sovereign authority, and the regulation of the global commons, including the world economy.

 

            In other words, the degree to which states, and their perspectives, continue to dominate the formation of global policy has become increasingly anachronistic. It is epitomized by the construction of walls and barriers to keep unwanted people in or out, even sea walls are being proposed and some actually constructed to overcome rising sea levels associated with global warming and the prospect of maritime migrants fleeing from places that are uninhabitable due to heat or flooding. Some states are indulging the illusion that they can escape the downsides of interdependence by establishing for their citizenry the kind of security established by affluent ‘gated communities.’ Similarly, the response of the United States to the 9/11 attacks was to territorialize its quest for restored global primacy by attacking Afghanistan, and then Iraq, in what should have been understood to be an essentially non-territorial conflict of global scope that gave rise to transnational policing and information gathering, but also to self-scrutiny as to whether such extremism, while adopting criminal tactics, might not have been prompted by legitimate grievances.  Such war making after 9/11 was the source of major confusions as a result of the deliberate intertwining of a worldwide counterterrorism campaign with the pursuit of global state-building, the global domination project of the American foreign policy establishment.

 

            In these contexts, and others, we are living in a world of limits but continue to act as if we can address its challenges by acting as if the world of borders remains sufficient. Of course, in many respects our lives and destinies continue to be controlled by these spatial allocations of authority, but the state is stymied when it comes to solving the most basic challenges of the day, whether it be grasping the impacts of drone technology and cyberwar or handling the transnational ramifications of excessive sovereign debt. Issues of scarcity relative to food, water, and energy are also emerging to pose questions about the future viability of our collective lives on the planet, and the need to think now and urgently about how to address limits in a manner that respects the dignity of persons and peoples, and also adopts a precautionary approach to sustainability and survival risks. The preoccupation with borders in what is becoming daily a more borderless world will give rise to waves of despair as problems that could be solved if limits were agreed upon and institutionalized continue to be ignored, or at best, marginalized in the search for the right solutions for global problems.

 

            In conclusion, we can discern the relevance of the AOC theme of civilizational discourse. Only by enlisting the wisdom, core values, and visions of civilizations, including with special appreciation those associated with indigenous peoples, have we any hope of making the necessary transition from borders to limits in our consciousness and governmental logic. It is within the world’s cultures and religions that the sense of limits is inscribed in the deepest recesses of memory and pedagogy, establishing the imperative that human endeavor is doomed unless respectful of limits, either as generated by divine authority or through the enveloping power of nature. Human tragedy, as ancient peoples well understood, is to ignore or live beyond such limits. The Greeks had a word for it: hubris, which conveyed a deep awareness that tragedy befell those who exceeded limits, however powerful and autonomous they might seem.

 

            To learn from others is particularly crucial for the West, which has not heeded these cultural warnings, and especially the United States, that continues to project its military power and neoliberal dogma on a global scale. It means heeding this message of limits whether articulated by native peoples or by the sages of the East. I close with some words uttered long ago by Rabindranath Tagore in his 1913 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech: “It is the East in me which gave to the West. For is not the East the mother of spiritual Humanity and does not the West, do not the children of the West amidst their games and plays when they get hurt, when they get finished and tired, turn their face to the serene mother, the East? Do they not expect their food to come from her, and their rest for the night when they are tired? And are they to be disappointed?” This early utterance of such inspirational sentiments was far too generous to the colonizing East and too hopeful about prospects for inter-civilizational harmony, but at the same time prophetic in reminding the children of the Enlightenment in the West that the spiritual accomplishments of the East should not be overlooked. Of course, spirituality is embedded in all civilizations, and it is more a matter of recovering those suppressed spiritualities of the West that succumbed to a spell of secular absolutism while crafting the modern world by means of its technological prowess that proved so useful in war and economic development.

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