Tag Archives: New York Times

Resolving the Syrian Chemical Weapons Crisis: Sunlight and Shadows

15 Sep

 

            The Putin Moment: Not only did Vladimir Putin exhibit a new constructive role for Russia in 21st statecraft, spare Syria and the Middle East from another cycleof escalating violence, but he articulated this Kremlin initiative in the form of a direct appeal to the American people. There were reasons to be particularly surprised by this display of Russian diplomacy: not since Nikita Khrushchev helped save the world from experiencing the catastrophe of nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 by backing down and agreeing to a face-saving formula for both superpowers, had Moscow distinguished itself in any positive way with respect to the conduct of international relations; for Putin to be so forthcoming, without being belligerent, was particularly impressive in view of Obama’s rather ill-considered cancellation only a few weeks ago of a bilateral meeting with the Russian leader because of Washington’s supposed anger at the refusal of the Russian government to turn the NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, over to the United States for criminal prosecution under American espionage laws; and finally, considering that Putin has much blood on his hands given past policies pursued in relation to Chechnya and in the autocratic treatment of domestic political opposition, it was hard to expect anything benevolent during his watch. And so Putin is emerging as a virtual ‘geopolitical black swan,’ making unanticipated moves of such a major character as to have the potential to transform the character of conflict management and resolution in the 21st century.  It should be understood that Putin could have stayed on the sidelines, and benefitted from seeing Obama sink deeper and deeper into the Syrian quagmire, and instead he stepped in with a momentous move that seems to have served the regional and global interest.

Putin has explained in a coherent manner in his opinion piece that was published in the NY Times on September 11th (without invoking the symbolism of  the twelfth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks) that his approach to Russian foreign policy relies on two instruments: soft power and economic diplomacy. He acknowledged American leadership, but only if exercised within a framework of respect for international law and the UN Charter. And he appropriately took issue with Obama’s sentiments expressed a night earlier to the effect that America in its leadership role had a unique entitlement to use force to overcome injustice in situations other than self-defense and even without authorization by the UN Security Council. It was Putin, perhaps disingenuously, who claimed (quite correctly) that such a prerogative was “extremely dangerous.” He rejected Obama’s pretension that a unilateral discretion with respect to the use of force could be inferred from American exceptionalism. Whether disingenuous or not, the requirement of a Security Council authorization for non-defensive uses of force, while sometimes preventing a peacekeeping response by the UN to certain tragic situations of civil strife and humanitarian crisis overall contributed to finding diplomatically agreed upon solutions for conflict and enabled the UN (unlike the League of Nations) to persist despite severe tensions among its dominant members. Let hope that this Putin vituoso exhibition of creative diplomacy prompts his counterpart in the White House to explore more diligently soft power opportunities that will better protect American national interests, while simultaneously serving the global interest in war prevention and the rejection of militarism, and might also have the added benefit of reversing the steady decline of American credibility as a benevolent global leader ever since the end of the Cold War.

Constitutional Balance: Perhaps what might be of even greater importance than averting an ill-considered punitive attack on Syria, is the grounding of recourse to war on the major republican premise of Congressional authorization. There is little doubt that here the efficient cause and anti-hero was David Cameron, who turned to Parliament to support his wish to join with Obama in the attack coalition despite the anti-war mood in British public opinion. Cameron was politically spared by the vote of the House of Commons to withhold authorization. It is hard to believe that Obama’s decision to seek authorization from the U.S. Congress was not a belated realization that if Britain deferred to its Parliament as an expression of constitutional democracy, it would be unseemly for the United States to go to war without the formal backing of Congress. Of course, the Putin initiative saved Obama from the near certain embarrassment of being turned down by Congress, which would mean that either he would follow in Cameron’s and face savage criticism from his hawkish boosters or insist upon his authority as Commander in Chief to act on his own, a prerogative that seems constitutional dubious to support a bill of impeachment. Beyond this, the War Powers Act that would seem to require some emergency justification for the presidential bypassing of Congress in the context of a proposed military action. Hopefully, we are witnessing, without an accompanying acknowledgement, the downfall of the ‘imperial presidency’ that got its start during the Vietnam War. The governmental pendulum in the United States may have started to swing back toward the separation of powers and checks and balances, and thus be more in keeping with the original republican hopes of limited executive authority, especially in relation to war making. This renewal of republican constitutionalism, combined with growing populist skepticism about military adventures abroad, might make this Syrian crisis of decision a welcome tipping point, reversing the unhealthy subordination of Congress in war/peace situations during the last half century and anti-democratic disregard of the views of the citizenry.

But it is also possible that the imprudence of the proposed punitive strike against Syria will turn out to be a one-off experience, and that when and if Iran clearly crosses the weapons threshold in its nuclear program, the presidency will retrieve its lost claims to be the unilateral guardian of national, regional, and global interests without feeling that it must await authorization from the Congress and the UN. Note that Congressional approval, even if in concert with the President, cannot sanitize a use of force that is illegal under international law. It is the state as a whole that is bound by the constraints of international law, and not just the head of state. There are two distinct issues present: the domestic constitutional requirement of collective authorization for recourse to war by the United States; and the complementary international requirement of acting in compliance with international law and the UN Charter (which is itself acknowledged in supremacy clause of the Constitution with respect to validly ratified treaties).

Coercive Diplomacy: Obama/Kerry contend that Syria’s chemical weapons would never have been put under international controls and in an atmosphere of unprecedented international cooperation, but for the credible threats mounted by the U.S. Government. In this regard, the poker style bluff can be said to have worked without any sure proof that the threat would have been carried out in the face of a refusal by Congress to authorize and the public failure to show support for an attack. As matters now seem to be unfolding, assuming that the plans for abolishing the chemical weapons of Syria proceed as agreed, threat diplomacy will be applauded by the Obama administration without any widespread sensitivity to the fact that the international law as embodied in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits ‘threats’ as well as ‘uses’ of force, although such a prohibition has not been taken seriously as part of the ‘living law’ despite its status as a prime instance of ‘positive law.’ The categorical language of Article 2(4) is unmistakeable: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity and political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

Syria and its People: In the background of the diplomatic controversy about what to do in response to the large-scale lethal use of sarin gas against the people of Syria on August 21st, was the awareness that such an attack did not even pretend to end the violence in Syria or to produce regime change in Damascus or to change the balance of force in the civil war. From this perspective, it seemed mainly a punitive strike that upheld Obama’s red line credibility, although there was an additional argument set forth that a military strike would have a deterrent impact on any contemplated future recourse to chemical weaponry by the Assad regime and other political actors, assuming that the allegations that the Syrian government order the attack are confirmed and reinforced by the reports of the UN inspection team and other respected sources.

What tends to be given only a secondary glance is the effects of an attack on the Syrian people who have been subject to a harrowing ordeal these past two years that has resulted in over 100,000 deaths, countless wounded, and an estimated 7,000,000, almost one-third of the population, as either internally displaced or forced into overcrowded and under-resourced refugee camps in neighboring countries. Beyond this, the always vulnerable Palestinians have endured Syrian attacks on their refugee camps forcing them to flee once more, to become, quite incredibly, refugees from their refugee arrangements, a largely untold Palestinian tragedy hidden within the larger Syrian tragedy. There is almost no political will on the outside to do anything to stop either the proxy war being waged by states external to Syria or the internal struggle being waged by a fragmented opposition against a discredited government that has been incredibly cruel to its own citizens and strangely indifferent to the great cultural and religious heritage of their own country. There are even grotesque murmurings in the background of strategic chatter in Western circles, suggesting that the best outcome is not an end to the violence, but its indefinite continuation with an effort to calibrate future arms supplies and humanitarian aid with the principal aim of making sure that neither side can achieve victory. If this is not an exposure of the raw immorality of strategic discourse at its immoral nadir, I am not sure what would be.

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Snowden’s Post-Asylum Relevance

15 Aug

 

            Now that Snowden has been given temporary asylum in Russia for a year, attention in the drama has shifted in two directions, although overshadowed at the present by the horrific happenings in Egypt and Syria. The Snowden issues remain important, and it is too soon to turn aside as if the only question was whether the U.S. Government would in the end, through guile and muscle, gain control of Snowden. Among the issues that should continue to occupy us are as follows:

 

            –interpreting the negative impact on U.S.-Russia relations;

            –the claim that if Edward Snowden is a sincere whistle-blower he will now, despite asylum, voluntarily return to the United States to tell his story in open court so as to answer charges that he is guilty of criminal espionage and conversion of government property.

 

            As before, to grasp this post-asylum phase of the Snowden drama a few aspects of the background need to be appreciated:

            –it continues to bias the public to describe Snowden as ‘a leaker,’ which is the usual way he is identified in the mainstream media, including such authoritative newspapers as the New York Times and Washington Post; on the right, he is simply called ‘a traitor,’ and for the liberal elite the jury is out on whether to conclude that Snowden is ‘a whistle-blower’ deserving some belated sympathy á la Ellsberg or ‘a traitor’ for his supposed gifts to the enemies of the United States that undermine ‘security,’ and deserve harsh punishment. As always, language matters, and its careful analysis is revealing as to where to locate ‘the vital center’ of American and international opinion;

              Snowden’s own statement of his rationale for acting ‘unlawfully’ seems credible and idealistic, and given the wrongful nature of what was revealed and its bearing on the constitutional rights of Americans and the norms of international law, should have been sufficient to induce a humane government to drop all charges, and even acknowledge Snowden’s service as a dutiful citizen, inviting his return to the United States. Here are Snowden’s words befitting someone who deserves exoneration not criminal confinement: “America is a fundamentally good country; we have good people with good values who want to do the right thing, but the structure of power that exist are working to their own ends to extend their capability at the expense of the freedom of all publics.”  

            –Russia (and China) never had an obligation: legal, moral, and political, to transfer Snowden in response to the extradition request of the United States Government. Even if there had been an extradition treaty, ‘political crimes’ are not subject to extradition for good reasons. In a plural international order, it is highly desirable to provide foreign sanctuary to those who act peacefully in opposition to an established national political order. The United States itself has engaged repeatedly in such practice, shielding even political fugitives who have engaged in terrorist acts, provided only that the target government was viewed as hostile by Washington at the time of the alleged crimes, e.g. Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela;

            –the rationale for refusing to extradite Snowden is particularly strong given the nature of his disclosures, the substance of which have evoked strong denunciations from a range of foreign governments, including such friends of the U.S. as Brazil and the United Kingdom; although espionage has long been routine in international relations, the deliberate and comprehensive spying on foreign citizens and confidential governmental undertakings is treated as unacceptable when exposed, and would be viewed as such if Russia (or any country) was detected as having established such a comparably broad surveillance program in the United States; there is an admitted schizophrenia present, making their spies criminals, ours heroes, and vice versa; such are the games played by states, whether friends or enemies;

            –the United States angered a number of countries by its tactics designed to gain custody over Snowden, especially in Latin America. Its hegemonic style was most crudely displayed when it succeeded in persuadingseveral European governments to deny airspace to the presidential plane carrying the Bolivian president , Evo Morales. It is almost certain that the United States would treat such behavior as an act of war if the situation were reversed; more privately, it evidently cajoled and threatened foreign leaders via diplomatic hard ball to withhold asylum from Snowden. Such an effort, in effect, attempted to subvert sovereign discretion in relation to asylum as a respected human rights practice entirely appropriate in the context of Snowden’s plight, which included, it should be remembered, the voiding of his U.S. passport;

            –Obama has finally admitted at a press conference of August 11th that negative reactions even in Washington to what was widely perceived as surveillance far in excess of what could be reasonably justified by invoking post 9/11 security, was prompting the government to take steps to protect privacy and roll back the program.  Whether these planned reforms will amount to more than gestures to quiet the present public uproar remains to be seen. Obama did acknowledge, what everyone knew in any event, that it was the Snowden disclosures that prompted such official action at this time, but even with this show of recognition, the president still called on Snowden to return to the United States to tell his story to a criminal court if he seeks vindication. In his words, if Snowden thought he had done the right thing, “then, like every American citizen, he can come here, appear before the court with a lawyer and make his case.” Really!

 

            In the aftermath of the Bradley Manning saga, the treatment of Guantanamo detainees, the acquittal of Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case, and the denial of ‘compassionate release’ to Lynne Stewart a brave and admired lawyer with a reputation for defending unpopular clients, who lies shackled in a Texas jail while dying of terminal cancer. It could only be a naïve fool who would risk their future on a scale of justice offered to Snowden by the American criminal law system in light of these judicial and governmental outrages. It seems rather perverse for Snowden’s father, Lou Snowden, to be reported as planning to visit his son in Moscow with the intention of urging his return to face charges, although only if the government provides appropriate reassurances. It should by now be obvious that such reassurances to Snowden would be meaningless even if made in good faith by the Attorney General. Normally, the judge and jury in any criminal trial involving alleged breaches of national security defers to the government’s view of the situation and would be unlikely to allow Snowden the option of introducing evidence as to his motivation, which is normally excluded, especially if classified material is at stake. In a trial of this sort the government only needs to show criminal intent, that is, the deliberate flouting by Snowden of relevant American law. Since this is uncontested, it would mean that Snowden would have to claim ‘necessity,’ a defense rarely entertained by American courts, and here would also require that Snowden be able to depict the surveillance system and why it was a threat to American democracy and the rights of American citizens, which could not be done without declassifying the very documents that Snowden is accused of wrongfully disclosing.

 

 

A Tale of Two Texts

 

            Without dwelling on their detailed character, it is worth noting two texts that illustrate the range of reaction to the Snowden controversy. The first is by Thomas Friedman, the NY Times columnist, with a flair for pithy supercilious commentary on the passing scene, and an arrogance rarely exceeded even in Washington. The second is by Antonio Patriota, the foreign minister of Brazil, a country that has rarely seldom its voice to question even the most questionable behavior of its hegemonic neighbor to the North.

 

            Friedman’s column, published on August 13, is entitled “Obama, Snowden and Putin,” and its theme is that Snowden and Putin have an opportunity to overcome their bad behavior by seizing the opportunity for a second chance. Snowden is supposed to come home, face trial, and show the country by so doing allow American courts to make the judgment as to whether to view him as ‘whistle-blower’ or ‘traitor.’

 

            As for Putin, even before angering the United States by giving asylum to Snowden, he gave up the ‘reset’ opportunity given by Obama for good relations with the United States. According to Friedman, Putin’s failure was not repression at home, but his failure to follow the American lead in foreign policy, whether on Syria, Iran, cyber security. And from this outlook, Putin is seen as staking his domestic political future in Russia through an alleged adoption of an anti-American set of policies. Friedman never pauses to wonder whether American policies in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world are worthy of support. He never asks whether Putin was right or wrong in defying Obama in the Snowden context. He never notes that Moscow was very forthcoming in cooperative law enforcement in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing last April, or that Putin expressed his hope that the Snowden incident would not harm relations between Russia and the United States. Friedman did not even pause to wonder about the provocative nature of American joint military exercise with Georgia a hostile presence on the border of the Russian heartland or the way in which NATO has been given a second life after the Cold War that includes the deployment of defensive missile systems threatening to Russia.

 

            What is most astonishing is that Friedman exempts Obama from any blame, presumably because he doesn’t need a second chance. It seems Friedman conveniently forgets the heavy handed abuse of Manning, the refusal to look into the substance of the war crimes disclosed by the WikiLeaks documents, and the belated admission that the surveillance network had overreached legitimate security requirements. It would seem that with Guantanamo still open, and engaged in the force-feeding of hunger-striking detainees, most of whom are deemed innocent by their captors, would be a gaping wound in the body politic that might call for presidential remedial intervention! And nowhere does Friedman note that Obama’s handling of the Snowden case needlessly damaged America’s relations in the Western Hemisphere. But do not hold your breath until Friedman makes such comments that would surely be unwelcome in the White House.

 

            In contrast, hampered in rhetoric by traditions of diplomatic courtesy, Foreign Minister Patriota, made the following statement on the Snowden disclosures at the UN Security Council on August 6th: “..the interception of telecommunications and acts of espionage, practices that are in defiance of the sovereignty and in detriment to the relations among nation. They constitute a violation of our citizen’ human rights and the right to privacy.” The minister then goes to say that several leading states in Latin America, including Brazil, intend to pursue their grievance in other venues of the UN, including the Security Council. He explains that this “is a serious issue, with a profound impact on the international order. Brazil has been coordinating with countries that share similar concerns to uphold an international order that is respectful of sovereignty of States and of human rights.” Also, Mr. Patriota welcomed the statement of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who called attention to the Snowden disclosures as revealing forms of surveillance that violate Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

 

            These two texts illuminate the inside/outside nature of international relations brought to the attention of scholars a decade ago in the work of R.B.J Walker. Inside of America, the problems are seen as relating to Snowden,and his culpability combined with a superpower’s frustrations resulting from an inability to swallow him whole. Outside America, especially in Latin America, the domain of gunboat diplomacy and the Monroe Doctrine, the focus is on the fundamental logic of reciprocity upon which peaceful and friendly relations among sovereign states depends. Nothing better shows the hegemonic nature of the United States presence in the world than its unyielding refusal to grasp, let alone accept, this logic of reciprocity even in dealing with friends and neighbors.

 

           

 

            

Geopolitical Winds Blow in China’s Direction

25 Jul

 

 

            Among those who comment influentially from the sidelines of power, there are new trends visible in thinking about American foreign policy. The most salient of these concerns is a shift away from the post-9/11 counterterrorist agenda to a new phase of mainstream policy advocacy that emphasizes the renewed strategic importance of geopolitical rivalry among leading sovereign states. There is also a shift away from the temptations of military intervention and regime change as a favored Western tactic for sustaining influence in the post-colonial world. There is a realization, at least temporarily, that adventures in military intervention, whether Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya, are just that—‘adventures,’ if not fiascos. And costly too, rarely a success even when overwhelming military superiority is brought to bear.

 

After the Vietnam War there emerged a similar reluctance to intervene overseas that was derisively labeled ‘the Vietnam Syndrome.’ It endured for more than a decade being finally overcome by the low-casualty victory in the Gulf War. I think it is safe to assume that for the rest of the Obama presidency, barring a major unforeseen development, that both counterterrorism and military intervention will be occupy a much lower place on the foreign policy agenda. This observation does not mean that such issues will disappear from view, as the recurrent debate on Syria shows. It does argue that they will be treated by political leaders as Gordian Knots, and addressed only warily and tangentially.

 

But power centers abhor a geopolitical vacuum. Policymakers must find something to take the place of the al-Qaeda sequel to the Cold War and the liberal embrace of aggressive forms of ‘democratic peace’ that for a time built support for periodic interventions in the non-Western world. It seems that vacuum is likely to be filled by a return to ‘the great game’ of great power politics.

 

It is not surprising that we should look first to Wall Street for clues, and we will not be disappointed. The gold standard of finance capital in the age of globalization, Goldman Sachs, already in 2001 alerted the attentive public to the relevance of the changing geopolitical landscape with its clever acronym of BRICs, that is, Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Jim O’Neill, an economist at Goldman Sachs, had initially proposed the acronym in an analytical paper on global trends. It did not catch on in the wider literature until 2008 or 2009.

 

In effect, Goldman Sachs was telling the investing world to take account of challenges to and opportunities for American and Western interests in global economic policy associated with these rising powers. Of course, putting Russia on the list seemed strange to some because their military prowess, size, and resource endowments meant that they were never really off the list, and from an opposite viewpoint, its economic achievements were not so impressive as to put it in the same class as the most rapid growth economies. Others suggested that the BRIC enclosure excluded such other states as South Africa, Turkey, and Indonesia that deserved a similar recognition in light of their economic success, political stability, and increasing regional and global assertiveness.

 

Yet, broadly speaking, the BRIC hypothesis possessed geopolitical plausibility, and caught on, not least among the BRIC countries themselves, which welcomed this certification of status and relevance. It was given intellectual validation by that neocon heavyweight, Robert Kagan, in his book, The Return of History and the End of Dreams (New York: Knopf, 2008), who in effect suggested that the interval after the Cold War in the 1990s that seemed free from geopolitics was a deceptive hiatus. The geopolitical backbone of world politics had recovered.

 

For India and Brazil old dreams of Security Council membership and regional influence became new political projects. The move from the G-8 to the G-20 for global economic policymaking was an indirect acknowledgement that the global context was changing in ways that required more representation of the South to have any hope of effectiveness and legitimacy.

 

At present, there seems to be a further reassessment of geopolitical concern: Brazil and India have for the time being lost their claims to be regarded as candidates for front row seats, while China and Russia have maintained, if not enhanced their claims. China, especially, despite the slowing of its extraordinary growth economy to a rate that would still make Western political drool with joy and pride, is increasingly perceived as a threat to American global dominance. The Obama presidency seemingly admitted this reality by its much proclaimed ‘pivot’ to Asia that was a thinly disguised message to Beijing: the United States intended to pursue a diplomacy of ‘soft containment’ of China as the highest priority in its future foreign policy. This adjustment was a notable sequel to the 1990s pivot from Europe to the Middle East.

 

These latest expressions of concern about U.S. adaptation to a changing security setting is giving rise to two kinds of reaction. The first is illustrated by a thoughtful comment of Colin Dueck, a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, on the overall importance of geopolitics for constructing foreign policy. Dueck faults American foreign policy not for the pivot to Asia, but for what he calls its ‘under-resourced’ implementation, which he insists is evidenced by recent cuts in the budget of the U.S. Navy. He concludes that “..the U.S. response to a rising China has simply not been adequate.” [Colin Dueck, “Geopolitics Reborn,” E-Notes, Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia, PA, July 2013] Such a view of geopolitics is explicitly tied to hard power calculations based on the historical agency of military superiority, and takes no account of globalization, networking, soft power diplomatic creativity, and the rise of non-state actors and transnational social movements that in aggregate constitute the alternate promise of a ‘new geopolitics.’

 

Then there is the view of Leslie Gelb and Dimitri Simes, two titans of the American foreign policy intellectual establishment, who writing in the New York Times [“A New Anti-American Axis,” July 6, 2013; Gelb is former president of the Council on Foreign Relations and Pentagon official; Simes is president of The Center for the National Interest and publisher of The National Interest], want us to consider not separate states as challenges, but an emergent cooperative anti-American relationship that joins China and Russia together in thwarting the American global design. Oddly, they use as their telling example of a menacing development, the cooperation between China and Russia in enabling Edward Snowden to elude American efforts to gain custody over him by facilitating his flight from Hong Kong to Moscow.  What might have been proclaimed as the protection of someone charged with ‘political crimes’ (and hence, exempt from extradition), is presented in crude foreign policy terms by Gelb and Simes.

 

They point to the incident as evidence of China and Russia’s  “growing assertiveness and their willingness to take action at America’s expense.” Among the additional examples cited are the refusal to back the West at the UN with respect to Syria, Chinese hacking of American corporate websites, and Russian cyber attacks on their enemies. Aside from Syria, these other complaints refer to national policies that are not cooperatively undertaken by the two countries. Also, with characteristic American myopia, there is no recognition that the United States might be doing things that are deeply threatening to Beijing and Moscow, and that their cooperation may be actually, on balance, prudent and beneficial for the global public good. Such nationalistic approaches to geopolitics consider ‘balance’ only desirable to contain the ‘other,’ never the ‘self.’ From an objective historical standpoint, considering the global role of the United States in the last two decades, it would seem that Washington’s diplomacy of force that has produced long and destructive wars, unbalanced support for Israel, cyber attacks against Iran, global surveillance regime, and notorious places of detention associated with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are greater threats to a benevolent world order than giving sanctuary to Snowden.

 

The larger argument being put forward by Gelb and Simes is more nuanced. It suggests that it would be important to avoid either passivity or aggressiveness in response once it is understood that such global cooperation between China and Russia, if not properly addressed, “could pose grave risks for America and the world.” It recognizes that despite this obstructionism by these adversary states there are also strong common interests in trade and global economic stability, as well as in some aspects of security concerns, including North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs. Gelb and Simes are clear about not wanting to revive the Cold War, and certainly are not counseling policies that risk military confrontations, but rather favor a policy of selective firmness and pragmatic cooperation. There is a recognition of a certain level of multipolarity with respect to the management of conflict, suggesting that such security challenges as currently posed by Iran, Syria, and North Korea could only be handled in an effective and practical way if China and Russia agree to cooperate with the United States. They might have added climate change, food security, and refugee policy as areas where cooperation seems vital. To fail to produce this mix of resistant and cooperative diplomacy would be, in their words, “folly of historic proportions.”

 

What is worth noticing is this return to the abandonment of any pretension of the sort that surfaced after the Cold War in various guises such as ‘the unipolar moment’ or ‘the end of history.’ There also seems to be a tacit realization that the 20th century struggle over the future of Europe is no longer of geopolitical interest, nor is Europe an independent political force on the global stage in the way that China and Russia are. It also represents a step back from the BRIC worldview as Brazil and India can once again be safely ignored from a global perspective. Perhaps, but only as an outside possibility, Gelb and Simes are the intellectual precursors of ‘a new trilateralism’ that is built around the idea that the new circle of ‘indispensable nation’ has been enlarged beyond the United States to include China and Russia.

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Protecting Snowden

4 Jul

Such self-designated ‘wise men’ of our time as David Brooks and Tom Friedman, highly influential opinion and opinionated writers of the NY Times, have been telling their readers that Edward Snowden was decent and intelligent, but overstepped the law by arrogating to himself the disclosure of the ‘total data’ surveillance programs of the National Security Agency of the U.S. Government. By deliberately releasing abundant evidence of the astonishing breadth and depth of surveillance, Snowden was clearly motivated by the concern that rights of privacy, the quality of democratic life, and respect for the sovereignty of foreign countries and the confidentiality of diplomatic events were being placed in jeopardy. For some, this bold decision to expose American intelligence gathering made Snowden a villain, called ‘a traitor’ by a variety of public officials including John Kerry, the Secretary of State. There is no doubt that Snowden is guilty of violating espionage laws, which automatically almost constitutes treason for those who possess an ultra-nationalist mentality. Those who think this way believe Snowden deserves to be punished to the limits of the law, and that foreign governments friendly to this country should accede to Washington’s request for his detention and expulsion to the United States to face charges.

Of course for many others Snowden is a hero for our times, actions that should be honored by a Nobel Prize. Snowden put democratic accountability ahead of his own career and security, knowingly placing himself at great risk by daring to challenge the security policies of the government of his own mighty country for the sake of avoiding a gathering Orwellian political storm. What President Obama speaking after the Snowden leaks described in Germany somewhat disingenuously as “a circumscribed, narrow system directed at us being able to protect our own people.” What protection of the American people have to do with listening in on the diplomatic communications of European Union members seems more than far fetched!

There are many sober voices declaring themselves worried about the dangerous implications of such a massive breach of national security, especially following the major discrediting disclosures of those recent master whistle blowers—Bradley Manning and Julian Assange. In effect, given the kind of security threats that exist in the post-9/11 world the public must trust the government to strike the right balance between protecting the country against threats to national security and upholding the liberty of its citizens and respecting the sovereignty of other countries. As Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and later the NSA, put it after these events: “We are now going to target the U.S. as if it were a foreign country.” Should Snowden’s violation of his oath and of espionage laws be welcomed as ‘a safety valve,’ a check upon abusive government, or as a gaping hole in governmental operations that needs to be closed as tightly as possible? The Belt Way insiders’ argument is that unless this latter approach is taken governmental policymaking will suffer because the needed institutional confidence that secrets are kept will be lost.

I find the Big Brother fears more credible than these anxieties about leaks in the secrecy enclosures relied upon by supposedly constitutional governments in defiance of the democratic ethos of accountability, transparency, and participation. What one finds consistently in government practice is an excess of secrecy via promiscuous classification tendencies that seem frequently used often to avoid embarrassing politicians from exposing dubious behavior or protecting bureaucrats from second-guessing and hostile commentary by journalists and the public. What is evident is that the government, even in a country that prides itself on freedom and privacy, tends to view information gathering in a spirit similar to weaponry—do whatever the technology allows so long as the costs are reasonable and the risks can be contained at moderate levels. And with the advent of digitized information technology, the sky is the limit: the PRISM program that was what Snowden was working on in his role as private contractor in the employ of the consulting firm of Booz, Allen, and Hamilton, and —-, was an indiscriminate data collection process that didn’t confine its intrusions to those for whom there existed grounds of suspicion. Indeed, every person everywhere was now living under a cloud of suspicion, there were no roster of ‘usual suspects’ to be rounded up in the aftermath of serious criminal incidents. The distinction crucial for the political wellbeing of people living in a liberal society between suspect and citizen now seems superseded and irrelevant, and this is an ominous development that should be challenged.

Two major developments brought this unsavory reality into being, and given ‘libertarian politics’ a new credibility. First, the most feared existential security threat became associated with potential political extremists who could be anywhere, within or beyond national borders, with or without affiliations to a political network. Consider such instances as the Norwegian Islamophobic right wing sociopath, Anders Breivik, guilty of a massacre on July 22, 2011 or the Tsarnaev brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombers on April 15, 2013. It is truly the case that the presence of isolated individuals, as well as transnational terrorist networks, pose severe threats to the viability of constitutional democracies. Many have voiced fears that a repetition of 9/11 in the United States would produce a slide into a kind of reactive fascism, and thus some sacrificing of freedoms, placing our trust in elected leaders and representative institutions, and hoping for the best is a kind of situational necessity. Politicians contend that such information trolling in the private domains of peoples’ lives has already contributed to the avoidance of terrorist attacks and horrifying incidents in as many as 90% of the cases of successful prevention. That is, the kind of threat that dominates our current fears can only be addressed in a responsible manner by giving up any expectations of autonomous citizenship or the promises of accountable government. Such a democratic slippage may simply have become a fact of 21st century life about which most of society has accepted, even if with scant awareness of what is happening.

The second important factor is the ‘can do’ quality of digital technology as applied to the temptations of mass surveillance whether for purposes of governmental control or private profit. Information can be gathered, enlisting the social networking infrastructures of modern society, stored, analyzed, coded, and made available for a wide range of licit and illicit uses. There is a sinister continuity between the technological capabilities of the massive data collection program of the NSA known as PRISM and the lethal drone missions controlled by civilian operators acting far from any combat zone, carrying out battle plans based on the selection of targets from a kill list presented daily to the president, and approving in secret the execution of American citizens and those living in foreign countries who owe no allegiance to American laws. Such is the nature of the ‘global war’ unleashed by George W. Bush after 9/11 and continued by Barack Obama. There are reassurances that care is taken, efforts are made to minimize mistakes, and only the most imminent of threats are targets. The objective assessment of the killing fields tell a different story—of innocent persons killed, of ‘signature’ strikes targeting for death those against whom there is only vague circumstantial evidence, of a reign of terror in areas where suspects are supposed to be based.

In actuality, what Snowden did was surprisingly responsive to national security concerns, including the protection of secrecy surrounding controversial overseas undertakings. Snowden has indicated that he never had an intention to release any documents that implicate particular agents engaged in covert operations or that reveal the location of CIA bases in foreign countries. In effect, Snowden was acknowledging that the government has ‘secrets’ that deserve keeping, and that he was distinguishing these from the those that were not justified by security considerations and posed a severe threat to the future quality of constitutional democracy. It is undoubtedly the case, as Snowden has hinted, that he had good reason to believe without such an unauthorized disclosure, the public would have no way of finding out what was going on and no say in shaping the privacy/security balance, and the government would undoubtedly continue to rely on excessive claims of secrecy to insulate itself from procedures of accountability, including the rather unconvincing forms of oversight that are entrusted with avoiding wrongdoing in its surveillance gulag. I think there is good reason to conclude that it is only the obtrusiveness of whistleblowers that produces these occasional glimmers of sunlight that illumine to some degree the dark corridors of governmental power.

The three major whistleblowing incidents of the last half century bearing on national security, (Ellsberg (Pentagon Papers), Bradley Manning (Iraq and Afghanistan document trove), and Snowden (the NSA Prism Program of Surveillance) had one thing in come, disclosures of state crimes that had been long covered up, and were integral to structures of impunity that seem vital to the performance of the dirty work of empire. Daniel Ellsberg in a Salon interview with Brad Friedman on June 14, 2013 [Salon.com] insisted that a more permissive political atmosphere existed in 1972 when he released the Pentagon Papers. There was then at least the possibility of getting the story out without being thrown into prison under conditions of solitary confinement (Manning) or hounded as if a common criminal (Assange, and now Snowden). Under current conditions it seems as if the only way for Snowden to have some opportunity to give his reasons for doing what he did was to go abroad, and then seek asylum.

What seems most dismaying about the Snowden affair is the prosecutorial zeal of the Obama presidency, supposedly liberal in its outlook on matters of personal freedom and the values of constitutional government. What Snowden has done is so clearly ‘a political crime,’ if it is a crime at all, and in recognition of this there has existed since the French Revolution been seen as inconsistent with the generally desirable policy of inter-governmental cooperation in the apprehension of suspected criminals. In such circumstances it is unseemly to instruct the Vice President to call around the world exerting leverage to discourage grants of asylum or sanctuary to Snowden, or worse yet, to use American influence to interfere with international flights thought to be associated with Snowden’s attempt to seek asylum, itself a right conferred in Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Maybe it is a legal stretch to insist on Snowden’s right of asylum considering that the ‘persecution’ he might face if returned to the United States would be nothing more (or less) than prosecution under applicable American criminal law, which presumably would be carried out in a judicially supervised manner as constitutionally prescribed by due process standards. But given the vindictive response to the Manning release of a cache of documents to WikiLeaks, and the refusal of the government to acknowledge the implications of policies that are criminal in nature, asylum should be granted to Snowden, and the failure to do so exhibits two features of present world order: American exceptionalism (would the US Government really turn over to China or Cuba a person who had risked everything to disclose state secrets to the world? The following statutory language is certainly suggestive of an answer: “No return or surrender shall be made of any person charged with the commission of any offense of a political nature.”); and the logic of major states that share an interest in collaborating with each other so as to keep the lid of secrecy covering their most nefarious practices.

##

The Latest Gaza Catastrophe: Will They Ever Learn?

18 Nov

 

            [This post is an updated version of an article published in the online English edition of Al Jazeera, 17 Nov 2012, taking account of some further developments in the new horrifying unfolding of violence in Gaza.

 

            President Obama, upon his arrival today in Bangkok at the start of a state visit to several Asian countries, reminded the world of just how unconditional U.S. support for Israel remains. Obama was quoted as saying, “There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside of its borders. We are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself.” Much is missing from such a sentiment, most glaringly, the absence of any balancing statement along the following line: “and no country would tolerate the periodic assassination of its leaders by missiles fired by a neighboring country, especially during a lull achieved by a mutually agreed truce. It is time for both sides to end the violence, and establish an immediate ceasefire.”

 

            But instead of such statesmanship from this newly elected leader what we hear from Ben Rhodes, his Deputy National Security Advisor, who is traveling with the president in Asia is the following: that the rockets from Gaza are “the precipitating factor for the conflict. We believe Israel has a right to defend itself, and they’ll make their own decisions about the tactics they use in that regard.” Of course, these tactics up to this point have involved attacking a densely urbanized population with advanced weaponry from air and sea, targeting media outlets, striking residential structures, and killing and wounding many civilians, including numerous children. Since when does ‘the right to defend oneself’ amount to a license to kill and wound without limit, without some clear demonstration that the means of violence are connected with the goals being sought, without a requirement that force be exclusively directed against military targets, without at least an expression of concern about the proportionality of the military response? To overlooks such caveats in the present context in which Gaza has no means whatsoever defend itself indicates just how unconditional is the moral/legal blindfold that impairs the political wisdom and the elemental human empathy of the American political establishment.

 

            The statement by Rhodes signals a bright green light to the Netanyahu government to do whatever it wishes as far as Washington is concerned, and omits even a perfunctory mention of the relevance of international law. It presumes American exceptionalism, now generously shared with Israel, that doesn’t even have to bother justifying its behavior, conveying to the world an imperial directive that what would be treated as unspeakable crimes if committed by others are matters of discretion for the United States and its closest governmental associates.

 

            And what Netanyahu proposes is as chilling as it is criminal: to “significantly expand” what he calls Israel’s “Gaza operation” and what I call “the killing fields of Gaza.” This idea that a state defends itself by such an all out attack on an undefended society is humanly unacceptable, as well as being a mandate for future retaliation and festering hatred. Operation Cast Lead was launched in December 2008 to contribute to Israeli security, but instead led Hamas to acquire the kind of longer range rockets that are now posing genuine threats to Israel’s major cities. The unfolding logic of the conflict is that in a few years, Israel will be confronted by more sophisticated rockets capable of eluding the Iron Dome and accurately pinpointing their intended targets. This deadly logic of the war system continues to guide strategists and military planners in Washington and Tel Aviv, and ignores the string of political failures that marks recent American history from Vietnam to Afghanistan. The world has changed since the good old colonial days of gunboat diplomacy, and the history-making reality of military superiority. Will they ever learn?

 

            What should have been clear long ago is that Israeli security is not achieved by guns and missiles, nor incidentally are Hamas’ goals reached by rockets. The only clear path to security is to follow a ceasefire with some mutual assurances of nonviolent coexistence, a lifting of the blockade of Gaza, an acceptance by Israel (and the United States) of both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority as political actors, freezing all settlement construction, and a revival of negotiations on the basis of a commitment to produce a sustainable and just peace in accordance with Palestinian and Israeli rights under international law, above all the Palestinian right of self-determination. Depicting such a moderate approach to security for these two peoples highlights just how pathological present patterns of ‘acceptable’ behavior have become.

 

            Israel’s policies seemed almost calculated to increase future ‘insecurity’ for its people and the region. There is a slow ongoing mobilization of the region in support of Palestinian claims well expressed by the diplomatic re-positioning of Egypt and Turkey.  It will be become much more difficult for the United States to insulate Israel from the consequences of its future aggressions against the Palestinians. This is partly because it is likely that the next time, militants hostile to Israel will be better armed, as was true for Hezbollah after the 2006 Lebanon War and for Hamas since the 2008-09 Gaza attacks, and partly because the balance of regional forces is tilting quickly against Israel.

 

            These speculations make such obvious points that most Israeli strategists must be assumed to have appreciated them. It makes one wonder whether it is wrong to think of this latest surge of Israeli violence as primarily motivated by security considerations. Perhaps other motivations have greater weight: diverting attention from annexationist moves in the West Bank; reinforcing the Netanyahu claims to be the gallant protector of the nation; removing any pressure on Israel to uphold Palestinian rights; reminding Iran yet again of the militarized fury of an antagonized Israel assured of U.S. support.]

 

**************the text of the AJ article is reproduced below—————————

 

            The media double standards in the West on the new and tragic Israeli escalation of violence directed at Gaza were epitomized by an absurdly partisan New York Times front page headline: “Rockets Target Jerusalem; Israel girds for Gaza Invasion.” (NYT,  16 Nov 2012) Decoded somewhat, the message is this: Hamas is the aggressor, and Israel when and if it launches a ground attack on Gaza must expect itself to be further attacked by rockets. This is a stunningly Orwellian re-phrasing of reality. The true situation is, of course, quite the opposite: namely, that the defenseless population of Gaza can be assumed now to be acutely fearful of an all out imminent Israeli assault, while it is also true, without minimizing the reality of a threat, that some rockets fired from Gaza fell harmlessly (although with admittedly menacing implications) on the outskirts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. There is such a gross disproportion in the capacity of the two sides to inflict damage and suffering due to Israeli total military dominance as to make perverse this reversal of  concerns to what might befall Israeli society if the attack on Gaza further intensifies.

 

            The reliance by Hamas and the various Gaza militias on indiscriminate, even if wildly inaccurate and generally harmless, rockets is a criminal violation of international humanitarian law, but the low number of casualties caused and the minor damage caused, needs to be assessed in the overall context of massive violence inflicted on the Palestinians. The widespread non-Western perception of the new cycle of violence involving Gaza is that it looks like a repetition of Israeli aggression against Gaza in late 2008, early 2009, that similarly fell between the end of American presidential elections and scheduled Israeli parliamentary elections.

 

            There is the usual discussion over where to locate responsibility for the initial act in this renewed upsurge violence. Is it some shots fired from Gaza across the border and aimed at an armored Israeli jeep or was it the targeted killing by an Israeli missile of Ahmed al-Jabani, leader of the military wing of Hamas, a few days later? Or some other act by one side or the other? Or is it the continuous violence against the people of Gaza arising from the blockade that has been imposed since mid-2007? The assassination of al-Jabani came a few days after an informal truce that had been negotiated through the good offices of Egypt, and quite ironically agreed to by none other than al-Jabani acting on behalf of Hamas. Killing him was clearly intended as a major provocation, disrupting a carefully negotiated effort to avoid another tit-for-tat sequence of violence of the sort that has periodically taken place during the last several years. An assassination of such a high profile Palestinian political figure as al-Jahani is not a spontaneous act. It is based on elaborate surveillance over a long period, and is obviously planned well in advance partly with the hope of avoiding collateral damage, and thus limiting unfavorable publicity. Such an extra-judicial killing, although also part and parcel of the new American ethos of drone warfare, remains an unlawful tactic of conflict, denying adversary political leaders separated from combat any opportunity to defend themselves against accusations, and implies a rejection of any disposition to seek a peaceful resolution of a political conflict. It amounts to the imposition of capital punishment without due process, a denial of elementary rights to confront an accuser.

 

            Putting aside the niceties of law, the Israeli leadership knew exactly what it was doing when it broke the truce and assassinated such a prominent Hamas leader, someone generally thought to be second only to the Gaza prime minister, Ismail Haniya. There have been rumors, and veiled threats, for months that the Netanyahu government plans a major assault of Gaza, and the timing of the ongoing attacks seems to coincide with the dynamics of Israeli internal politics, especially the traditional Israeli practice of shoring up the image of toughness of the existing leadership in Tel Aviv as a way of inducing Israeli citizens to feel fearful, yet protected, before casting their ballots.

 

            Beneath the horrific violence, which exposes the utter vulnerability, of all those living as captives in Gaza, which is one of the most crowded and impoverished communities on the planet, is a frightful structure of human abuse that the international community continues to turn its back upon, while preaching elsewhere adherence to the norm of ‘responsibility to protect’ whenever it suits NATO. More than half of the 1.6 million Gazans are refugees living in a total area of just over twice the size of the city of Washington, D.C.. The population has endured a punitive blockade since mid-2007 that makes daily life intolerable, and Gaza has been harshly occupied ever since 1967.

 

            Israel has tried to fool the world by setting forth its narrative of a good faith withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which was exploited by Palestinian militants as the time as an opportunity to launch deadly rocket attacks. The counter-narrative, accepted by most independent observers, is that the Israeli removal of troops and settlements was little more than a mere redeployment to the borders of Gaza, with absolute control over what goes in and what leaves, maintaining an open season of a license to kill at will, with no accountability and no adverse consequences, backed without question by the U.S. Government. From an international law point of view, Israel’s purported ‘disengagement’ from Gaza didn’t end its responsibility as an Occupying Power under the Geneva Conventions, and thus its master plan of subjecting the entire population of Gaza to severe forms of collective punishment amounts to a continuing crime against humanity, as well as a flagrant violation of Article 33 of Geneva IV. It is not surprising that so many who have observed the plight of Gaza at close range have described it as ‘the largest open air prison in the world.’

 

            The Netanyahu government pursues a policy that is best understood from the perspective of settler colonialism. What distinguishes settler colonialism from other forms of colonialism is the resolve of the colonialists not only to exploit and dominate, but to make the land their own and superimpose their own culture on that of indigenous population. In this respect, Israel is well served by the Hamas/Fatah split, and seeks to induce the oppressed Palestinian to give up their identity along with their resistance struggle even to the extent of asking Palestinians in Israel to take an oath of loyalty to Israel as ‘a Jewish state.’ Actually, unlike the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel has no long-term territorial ambitions in Gaza. Israel’s short-term solution to its so-called ‘demographic problem’ (that is, worries about the increase in the population of Palestinians relative to Jews) could be greatly eased if Egypt would absorb Gaza, or if Gaza would become a permanently separate entity, provided it could be reliably demilitarized. What makes Gaza presently useful to the Israelis is their capacity to manage the level of violence, both as a distraction from other concerns (e.g. backing down in relation to Iran; accelerated expansion of the settlements) and as a way of convincing their own people that dangerous enemies remain and must be dealt with by the iron fist of Israeli militarism.

 

            In the background, but not very far removed from the understanding of observers, are two closely related developments. The first is the degree to which the continuing expansion of Israeli settlements has made it unrealistic to suppose that a viable Palestinian state will ever emerge from direct negotiations. The second, underscored by the recent merger of Netanyahu and Lieberman forces, is the extent to which the Israeli governing process has indirectly itself irreversibly embraced the vision of Greater Israel encompassing all of Jerusalem and most of the West Bank. The fact that world leaders in the West keep repeating the mantra of peace through direct negotiations is either an expression of the grossest incompetence or totally bad faith. At minimum, Washington and the others calling for the resumption of direct negotiations owe it to all of us to explain how it will be possible to establish a Palestinian state within 1967 borders when it means the displacement of most of the 600,000 armed settlers now defended by the Israeli Defense Forces, and spread throughout occupied Palestine. Such an explanation would also have to show why Israel is being allowed to quietly legalize the 100 or so ‘outposts,’ settlements spread around the West Bank that had been previously unlawful even under Israeli law. Such moves toward legalization deserve the urgent attention of all those who continue to proclaim their faith in a two-state solution, but instead are ignored.

 

            This brings us back to Gaza and Hamas. The top Hamas leaders have made it abundantly clear over and over again that they are open to permanent peace with Israel if there is a total withdrawal to the 1967 borders (22% of historic Palestine) and the arrangement is supported by a referendum of all Palestinians living under occupation. Israel, with the backing of Washington, takes the position that Hamas as ‘a terrorist organization’ that must be permanently excluded from the procedures of diplomacy, except of course when it is serves Israel’s purposes to negotiate with Hamas. It did this in 2011 when it negotiated the prisoner exchange in which several hundred Palestinians were released from Israeli prisons in exchange for the release of the Israel soldier captive, Gilad Shalit, or when it seems convenient to take advantage of Egyptian mediation to establish temporary ceasefires. As the celebrated Israeli peace activist and former Knesset member, Uri Avnery, reminds us a cease-fire in Arab culture, hudna in Arabic, is considered to be sanctified by Allah, has tended to be in use and faithfully observed ever since the time of the Crusades. Avnery also reports that up to the time be was assassinated al-Jabari was in contact with Gershon Baskin of Israel, seeking to explore prospects for a long-term ceasefire that was reported to Israeli leaders, who unsurprisingly showed no interest.

 

            There is a further feature of this renewal of conflict involving attacks on Gaza. Israel sometimes insists that since it is no longer, according to its claims, an occupying power, it is in a state of war with a Hamas governed Gaza. But if this were to be taken as the proper legal description of the relationship between the two sides, then Gaza would have the rights of a combatant, including the option to use proportionate force against Israeli military targets. As earlier argued, such a legal description of the relationship between Israel and Gaza is unacceptable. Gaza remains occupied and essentially helpless, and Israel as occupier has no legal or ethical right to engage in war against the people and government of Gaza, which incidentally was elected in internationally monitored free elections in early 2006. On the contrary, its overriding obligation as Occupier is to protect the civilian population of Gaza. Even if casualty figures in the present violence are so far low as compared with Operation Cast Lead, the intensity of air and sea strikes against the helpless people of Gaza strikes terror in the hearts and minds of every person living in the strip, a form of indiscriminate violence against the spirit and mental health of an entire people that cannot be measured in blood and flesh, but by reference to the traumatizing fear that has been generated.

 

            We hear many claims in the West as to a supposed decline in international warfare since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. Such claims are This is to some extent a welcome development, but the people of the Middle East have yet to benefit from this trend, least of all the people of Occupied Palestine, and of these, the people of Gaza are suffering the most acutely. This spectacle of one-sided war in which Israel decides how much violence to unleash, and Gaza waits to be struck, firing off militarily meaningless salvos of rockets as a gesture of resistance, represents a shameful breakdown of civilization values. These rockets do spread fear and cause trauma among Israeli civilians even when no targets are struck, and represent an unacceptable tactic. Yet such unacceptability must be weighed against the unacceptable tactics of Israel that holds all the cards in the conflict. It is truly alarming that now even the holiest of cities, Jerusalem, is threatened with attacks, but the continuation of oppressive conditions for the people of Gaza, inevitably leads to increasing levels of frustration, in effect, cries of help that world has ignored at its peril for decades. These are survival screams! To realize this is not to exaggerate! To gain perspective, it is only necessary to read a recent UN Report that concludes that the deterioration of services and conditions will make Gaza uninhabitable by 2020. 

 

           That is, completely aside from the merits of the grievances on the two sides, for one side to be militarily omnipotent and the other side to be crouching helplessly in fear. Such a grotesque reality passes under the radar screens of world conscience because of the geopolitical shield behind which Israel is given a free pass to do whatever it wishes. Such a circumstance is morally unendurable, and should be politically unacceptable. It needs to be actively opposed globally by every person, government, and institution of good will.     

 

Soul Searching and Common Sense After Oak Creek

7 Aug

 

 

           President Obama has responded to the killing of six members of the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin this last Sunday with these words: “All of us recognize that these kinds of terrible, tragic events are happening with too much regularity. It is time for soul searching and we need to think of ways to reduce violence.” What is most noticeable here, as it was in Obama’s tepid message of consolation to the families of the victims of the Aurora movie theater shooting of two week ago, is this reality: party politics trumps moral principle and even common sense in the aftermath of these extreme challenges to civic peace in America. To fail to mention the grotesque absurdity of legally allowing almost everyone in the United States to buy assault weapons and large quantities of ammunition online or at neighborhood shops can only be explained by the intimidating influence of the gun lobby, and its accompanying gun culture, in this country as currently heightened by an ongoing, nasty presidential election campaign. But should we, even if of liberal or progressive persuasion, suspend moral accountability to this degree in deference to the cynical pragmatics of electoral politics? And if we continue to do so will we not keep paying the price of what Mr. Obama called “tragic events..happening with too much regularity” and soon out of denial stop even wondering ‘why’? Can we give national leaders this kind of a free pass without renouncing our duties as citizens?

 

            We can be thankful that independent commentators such as Mark Juergensmeyer had the moral forthrightness and political integrity to view Wade Michael Page as a ‘Christian terrorist,’ and not to allow references to ‘Islamic terrorists’ to serve as a stand alone mobilizing resource for the Islamphobic forces that have been so dangerously active and aggressive in the years since 9/11, seemingly with ever growing intensity and ferocity.  Even the police commander in Wisconsin described Page, although hesitantly, as a ‘domestic terrorist.’ ‘Christian terrorist’ seems more accurate as it calls our attention to Page’s obvious intent to kill at random innocent members of a non-Christian religious faith for the sake of restoring the purity of a white Christian nation. It is probable that Page wrongly regarded this Sikh community as Muslim, and in his twisted mind thought he was avenging 9/11 in keeping with a tattoo on his body. Juergensmeyer also reminds us of the similar crusader mentality that the Norwegian killer, Anders Breivik, also an adherent of a white and Christian supremacist credo. So we can ask why has our president not yet used the word ‘terrorism’ when addressing such horrifying incidents of homegrown violence? “The answer my friend..” In this instance, it seems to be a political wind of hurricane force!

 

            Although the time has certainly arrived when genuine soul-searching would involve a questioning as to whether the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution should not now be cast aside as a relic of history, such a deep interrogation of our national wellbeing is far too much to expect from any elected political leader. But what about the famed marketplace of ideas? Didn’t George W. Bush tell the American people after the 9/11 attacks that they hate us for our freedoms? Is it not time we acted as if we had a few? After all conferring “the right to bear arms” in early 21st century America seems to have become an unbearable and anachronistic threat to the future of democratic public order, and should at least be high on the agenda of late night talk shows even if at first limited to HBO contrarians such as Bill Mayer and alternative media iconoclasts.  Can we not as citizens raise such questions without fear of a dreadful, maybe dangerous, backlash? Probably not is the sad answer. It is odd to realize that those that create this climate of hate are themselves sitting pretty thanks to Fox News and the Romney entourage of reactionary billionaires.

 

            Two helpful initiatives do not require any soul searching, just common sense. But neither is likely to be ever implemented without the emergence of a militant grass roots movement that achieves a radical recasting of the relationship between government and citizens in light of present day realities:

 

                        –comprehensive gun control, and the unconditional outlawing of the sale or possession of assault weapons, as well as all automatic and semi-automatic rifles and pistols;

 

                        –the monitoring, regulation, and criminalization of white supremacy and neo-Nazi groups in a manner equivalent to the treatment of Islamic and other groups suspected of violent intentions. In all these instances of prudential surveillance, the civil rights of those targeted for scrutiny need to be respected.

 

            As American citizens we should no longer accept presidential excuses for accommodating pressure groups and lobbyists who are foisting these violent and outrageous forms of legalized anarchy on our society. We certainly do continue also to need protection from the tyrannies of state power, which was the original historical justification for keeping popular militias from being disarmed, but free access to guns are clearly no longer the way to ensure the preservation of our liberties as a people, if indeed they ever were. On the contrary, these recent incidents of mass killing provide the government with cover to hide an unmistakable drift toward authoritarian rule in the name of providing security.

 

            The monitoring by the FBI and Homeland Security of the extreme right should no longer be derailed by their conservative allies in Congress. Contrary to the national mood, it is not Moslems that are the main subversive threat active in American society, but it is the rise of the militant right wing that poses a mortal threat to the future of the republic. These forces are being emboldened by private sector militarization that is still treated even by mainstream America as a sacred right. The New York Times reports in a front page story on August 7, 2012 that conservatives in Congress objected to a 2009 FBI/Homeland Security report, “Rightwing Extremism” that sensibly warned of rising dangers of racially motivated violence due to the election a black president and the continuing recession. In response to this criticism, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, not only withdrew the report and apologized for its flaws, but also apparently greatly reduced the number of analysts monitoring the activities of these racist and neo-Nazi skinhead groups. It is not too late to demand her resignation as a sign of good intentions to lessen the prospect of the regularity of such tragic events.

 

            In essence, the Oak Creek atrocity warns us anew of the promiscuity of violent libertarianism and the associated dangers posed by right-wing extremism. If we wait patiently for our government and its leaders to do the right thing we are almost sure to be disappointed. Hopefully, our better angels will offer more activist counsel!

 

Why not get the Law and Politics Right in Iran?

23 Mar

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

muted response that soon dropped from sight.

 

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

 

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

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