Tag Archives: Vietnam War

Malala and Eartha Kitt: Words that Matter

22 Oct

Unknown-4Malala and Eartha Kitt: Words that Matter

There are two ways of responding to an invitation from an American  president. I recall that when Amory Lovins, the guru of market-oriented environmentalism, was asked about what was his main goal when invited to the White House to meet the president he responded self-assuredly: ‘To be invited back.” That is, be sure to say nothing that might so disturb the high and mighty to an extent that might jeopardize future invitations. A positive reading of such an approach would point out that Lovins was just being realistic. If he hoped to have any influence at all in the future he needed to confine his present advice to an areas situated well within the president’s comfort zone. A less charitable interpretation would assume that what mattered to Lovins was the thrill of access to such an august portal of power.

Never receiving such an invitation, I had a lesser experience, but experienced similar temptations, being invited by a kind of institutional miscalculation to be the banquet speaker at West Point at the end of an international week at this elite military academy in which the cadets and representatives from a couple of hundred colleges had been fed the government line by top officials at the Pentagon and State Department. The officer tasked with arranging the program decided that

it might be more interesting to have for once a speaker who had a more critical outlook on the U.S. role in the world. I was invited, and accepted with mixed feelings of being both co-opted and challenged. It turns out that the seductive part of the occasion was to find myself housed in a suite normally reserved for the president or Secretary of Defense; it was luxurious and so spacious that it took me some time to locate the bedroom, although I did almost immediately find the fridge stocked with beer and food. First things first. Anyway, after a momentary crisis of confidence, I decided that I should not give in to the lure of this splendid treatment. Despite some pangs of self-doubt, I went ahead and presented my prepared talk on “The Menace of American Militarism.”

The time was just after the end of the Vietnam War, and my remarks that evening were greeted with enthusiasm by the invited delegates from other colleges around the country who had endured a week of high level government propaganda, with mixed responses from the several hundred cadets who seemed divided in their reactions to what I had said, and with stony silence by the West Point faculty who evidently felt that I abused the occasion, and even at the social reception afterwards refused to talk with me or look in my direction. I suppose the justification in their view was that rudeness begets rudeness. Actually, I would have welcomed discussion of my essential contention that a permanent war footing since 1945 was hurting American society in ways difficult to overcome, creating a militarized political culture, but it was not to be. Sullen silence was their only response on that evening long ago.

The most dramatic moment at the talk occurred during the question period when a young female cadet stood up, and said some words to this effect,”[a]s I am persuaded by what you have said, would you advise me to resign my commission?” This was a challenge for which my text had no answers, nor was the audience ready for such drama. There was total silence in the vast hall. It is one thing to encourage a critical view of the role of the military in American and global society, it is another to encroach upon the life decisions of a young person whose future is being rather fundamentally called into question. Without knowing how best to respond, and I still don’t after all these years, I more or less threw the question back at her, saying “[o]n such matters, only you can decide how best to live your life.” I never discovered what happened to her, but do not feel ashamed of my response. And overall, I felt that my overall performance had kept the faith. To prove it, I was never invited back, and since that was the test I had set for myself when I accepted the invitation, I felt that the evening, awkward as it became, was not a personal failure. Whether I made some among the audience of young people think a bit differently about the country, and war/peace and security issues, I will never know.

It is against this background that I was struck a few days ago by the marvelous display of courage and composure by Malala Yousafzai who went to the White House, and media venues of great influence (The Daily Show, Diane Sawyer), to continue with her advocacy of the right of girls everywhere, but especially in her native Pakistan and Afghanistan, to receive an education, but also to link human security with the abandonment of war and violence. Malala was a kind of child marvel, apparently speaking in her neighborhood throughout the Swat Valley of such issues from the age of nine with astonishing fluency and intelligence. The fact that she was shot in the face by a Taliban extremist on her way home in a school bus a year ago gave her life and cause an immediate visibility around the world. When she rather miraculously recovered (the bullet grazing her brain) and resumed her campaign, there was an understandable admiration for a girl so young who was not only courageous, but had this burning passion for knowledge and education, but also was urging whoever would listen that war and violence could not lead humanity to a better future. Her advice: “Instead of sending guns, send pens, instead of sending tanks, send books.” “You are powerful when you have a pen because through a pen you can save lives and that’s the change we want to bring to our society.” It was a message that needed to be heard in Washington, and Malala was the ideal messenger! In fact, Washington was receptive to the education part of the message, but to the anti-war part, which it did its best to ignore.

When emerging from her meeting with the Obama family at the White House her statement was brilliantly crafted to catch the light of the occasion as well as to dispel its darkness:  “I thanked President Obama for U.S. work in supporting education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for Syrian refugees. I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in those acts, they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus on education it will make a big impact.” The White House also made a statement praising Malala for her commitment to education and courage, but pointedly overlooking that part of her comment devoted to drones. Such silence in view of such a challenge has an eerie quality.  Such a reaction from the president tried to make Malala stand for only a message about education, when in reality her real message was to connect education with peace and real security. Not since the great seer of Brazil, Paolo Friere, told of the emancipatory potential of teaching illiterate peasants how to read and write had someone so powerfully linked learning and empowerment (see Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed for a transformative account of his work in the Brazilian countryside).

Of course, so long as Malala’s exploits validated an anti-Islamic and pro-American slant, it is a no brainer to celebrate her achievements, even lamenting the oversight by the Nobel Prize selection committee, and generally commend a campaign that wants to see girls everywhere empowered by education. The harder part is being able to listen to a critical comment that touches on a life and death issue such as the terror wrought by drones in Pakistan. In my view, for Obama to ignore that part of Malala’s message is to dishonor her visit, and exploit it for his own public relations purposes! It is somewhat odd that Obama failed to listen to Malala whole message. After all, only recently did the United States Government announce that it is ceasing drone attacks on Pakistan due to the adverse reactions among Pakistanis. Obama seemed able to listen to Medea Benjamin a few months  ago when she disrupted his drone talk at the National Defense University. Obama might have used this occasion to acknowledge that he was listening and heeding the cries of anguish coming from distant communities facing the terrorizing threats of drone warfare, but then again, I should know better. Our warrior presidents always seem afraid of appearing weak if they show the slightest compassion for the victims of our militarism, while proudly standing tall while weeping over the bodies of those victimized by the enemy as in relation to the recent.

Malala’s experience reminded me of another White House event 45 years earlier. Eartha Kitt, a beloved African American singer who whispered her sensual lyrics into the microphone, earning her the alluring label of ‘sex kitten,’ was invited to the White House as one of fifty prominent women to discuss the rise of urban crime among American youth with the President Lyndon Johnson’s wife, Ladybird. It was January 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, which was casting a dark shadow over the LBJ’s presidency, so much so that he would shock the country a few months later by decreeing a bombing pause in the war and announcing his completely unexpected decision not to seek a second presidential term in office. When Eartha Kitt was given the opportunity to speak a few words she seized the moment, saying what any reasonably sensitive person well understood, that there were connections between sending young Americans off to risk death in a senseless war and the alarming drug/crime scene in the country’s cities. But for the mostly white and august women at this White House luncheon it was a shocker. The rest of the  guests, apparently without exception, were reported to react in “embarrassed silence” to what the NY Times condescendingly described as “an emotional tirade against the war.”  Worse yet, Ladybird Johnson was “stunned” and “in tears,” presumably realizing that her ‘do good’ luncheon had collapsed before the desert had even been served.  This smart Texas First Lady was personally bold and liberal, inviting popular cultural figures such as Eartha Kitt along with her more reliably loyal cohort to discuss a national issue. But what does Eartha Kitt do, but spoil the occasion by refusing to play along, and treat urban crime as some sort of domestic disorder that could be delinked from the Vietnam War. Such delinking was absurd, considering that it was the poor and minorities who were doing most of the fighting and dying in Vietnam.

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Eartha Kitt’s comments at the White House luncheon are worth recalling: “You send the best of the country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the streets. They take pot…and they will get high. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.” Perhaps, not the most eloquent statement, but it was authentic, replete with genuine feelings.  She was made to pay dearly for these words of truth telling. In a chilling aftermath, Eartha Kitt’s career came virtually to an end. Many contracts to appear at clubs were cancelled, few new opportunities for performances or recordings emerged, her career was severely damaged, if not destroyed. Nothing was forthcoming from the White House in her defense. To her credit, despite these cruel pressures and harsh backlash, Eartha Kitt never backed down, never apologized.

I connect Malala and Eartha Kitt in my mind because both seized the moment to speak truth to power, probably sensing that it meant they would never be invited back, and for Eartha Kitt it was worse than that. It seems almost certain that neither of these fearless women would have been invited in the first place if their intentions to speak out had been known in advance. America is a democracy so long as its dirty laundry is kept from public view, but when such obvious moral failures as the Vietnam War or drone attacks are exposed, the response from on high is one of shocked hurt, anger, or at best, silence and deflection. Revealingly, for Earth Kitt the response was vindictive, but for Malala it is likely to be one of moving on, ignoring the drone comment, and refocusing on the liberal part of her mission as a crusading advocate of education for women as a matter of right (while suppressing the more radical part that condemns warmaking and military intervention). Happily for the White House, the media played along, emphasizing how Malala giggled like a young and innocent adolescent when she met the queen in Buckingham Palace a few days later.

Responses to Questions on avoidance of an American Attack on the Assad Regime

14 Sep

Prefatory Note: The following questions were put to me by Patricia Lombroso of the Italian publication, Il Manifesto.

1] How much you think the opposition of the entire world for another war influenced US to put on hold the go ahead to intervention with military attack in Syria.

IT IS DIFFICULT TO MEASURE, AS SUCH AN INFLUENCE IS NEVER ADMITTED. AT THE SAME TIME, I THINK THERE IS NO DOUBT THAT THE ADVERSE OUTLOOK OF THE WORLD’S PUBLIC, ESPECIALLY IN EUROPE, WAS A CLEAR FACTOR IN HALTING THE DRIFT INTO WAR. EVEN MORE IMPORTANT WAS THE REFUSAL OF THE BRITISH PARLIAMENT TO BACK DAVID CAMERON, THE BRITISH PRIME MINISTER. ALSO SIGNIFICANT, WAS WAR WEARINESS IN THE UNITED STATES, WHICH OBAMA MENTIONS FREQUENTLY, WHICH IS A CODED WAY OF ACKNOWLEDGING THE FAILURES OF AMERICAN WAR POLICIES IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN.

2] How much is the ideology favoring “military intervention” on behalf of supposed “humanitarian wars,” still operative in US and the Western world as suggested by finding Hilary Clinton and John McCain on the pro-interventionist side of the Syrian debate.

I THINK THE MILITARIST WING OF BOTH POLITICAL PARTIES TENDS TO CONVERGE ON POLICY OPTIONS THAT ARE DEBATED IN PRE-WAR CONTEXTS WITHIN THE UNITED STATES. SUCH ADVOCACY IS INCREASINGLY OUT OF TOUCH WITH THE POLITICAL CLIMATE IN THE USA, WHICH IS NO LONGER SUPPORTIVE OF WARS THAT SEEM TO LACK A STRATEGIC MAJOR JUSTIFICATION. THERE IS ALSO A  GROWING AWARENESS THAT AMERICAN MILITARY INTERVENTION HAS NOT LED TO SUCCESSFUL POLITICAL OUTCOMES, AND HAVE ENTAILED SERIOUS ECONOMIC DIVERSIONS OF RESOURCES AND HUMAN CASUALTIES THAT ARE NOT JUSTIFIED. THE AMERICAN PUBLIC HAS BEGUN TO UNDERSTAND IS POSSIBLE TO WIN ON THE BATTLEFIELD AND YET LOSE THE WAR. THIS SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE MAJOR LESSON OF THE VIETNAM WAR, BUT IT HAS NOT BEEN LEARNED BY THE POLITICAL LEADERSHIP WHO DERISIVELY REFERRED TO SUCH LEARNING AS ‘THE VIETNAM SYNDROME,’ SOMETHING TO BE OVERCOME. IT WAS GEORGE H.W. BUSH’S FIRST CLAIM AFTER THE GULF WAR IN 1991 THAT “WE HAVE FINALLY KICKED THE VIETNAM SYNDROME.” PROBABLY THINK TANKS ARE ALREADY PRODUCING POLICY PAPERS ON HOW TO GET OVER ‘THE IRAQ SYNDROME”!

3] Is your opinion that the explosion of a war in the Middle East as too

risky in relation to its probable consequences that might have persuaded Obama

to be cautious in planning his moves against the Assad regime in Syria?

IT WAS PARTLY THE SENSE THAT ONCE SUCH AN ATTACK OCCURRED THERE COULD BE SERIOUS UNANTICIPATED CONSEQUENCES AND COSTS THAT UNDERMINED ITS INITIAL RATIONAL. ALSO, THE PROPOSED SCOPE OF THE CONTEMPLATED INVOLVEMENT MADE NEITHER STRATEGIC NOR HUMANITARIAN SENSE. SUCH A CONTEMPLATED ATTACK WAS NOT CAPABLE OF WINNING SUPPORT IN THE UN, IN CONGRESS, AND AMONG PUBLIC OPINION AT HOME AND ABROAD. EVEN IF THE ATTACK WAS SUCCESSFULLY CARRIED OUT IT WOULD NOT LIKELY ALTER EITHER ASSAD’S CONTROL OF THE SYRIAN GOVERNMENT OR THE COURSE OF THE CIVIL OR PROXY WAR AFFLICTING SYRIA. THE IMPULSE TO LAUNCH AN ATTACK BECAUSE  ASSAD HAD CROSSED OBAMA’S RED LINE ABOUT CHEMICAL WEAPONS SEEMED LIKE AN OVERLY PERSONAL, ARBITRARY, AND UNTENABLE JUSTIFICATION FOR MILITARY ACTION WITH ITS VARIOUS RISKS AND HUMAN COSTS, INCLUDING THE ALMOST CERTAIN DEATH OF INNOCENT PERSONS. THE FACT THAT OBAMA WAS RESCUED BY PUTIN AND OPPOSED BY A REACTIONARY CONGRESS ADDED AN IRONIC DIMENSION TO THE TWISTS AND TURNS OF U.S. POLICY ON SYRIA. THE SITUATION IS STILL UNFOLDING WITH NO CLEAR WAY TO PREDICT THE OUTCOME, ALTHOUGH THE RENEWED TURN TOWARD DIPLOMACY ENGENDERED A GLIMMER OF HOPE. FOR THE SAKE OF THE SYRIAN PEOPLE, AND THE STABILITY OF THE REGION, THE PRIME GOAL SHOULD BE A DOMESTIC POLITICAL PROCESS THAT PROJECTS A FUTURE FOR SYRIA THAT COMBINES UNITY WITH THE DEVOLUTION OF AUTHORITY IN EFFECTIVE FORMS THAT BRING HUMAN SECURITY TO THE VARIOUS ETHNIC AND RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES THAT CONSTITUTE 21ST CENTURY SYRIA.

AFTERTHOUGHT: THE U.S. AND RUSSIA HAVE NOW REACHED AN AGREEMENT THAT HAS BEEN ACCEPTED IN DAMASCUS TO THE EFFECT THAT SYRIA WILL AGREE TO ACKNOWLEDGE ITS STOCKPILES OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS, AND HAVE THEM DESTROYED BY MID-2014 UNDER INTERNATIONAL SUPERVISION AND VERIFIED BY UN INSPECTORS. THE PROVISIONAL OUTCOME, ASSUMING IT HOLDS UP, REPRESENTS A MASTER TRIUMPH OF RUSSIAN DIPLOMACY, A GEOPOLITICAL SETBACK FOR AMERICAN GLOBAL LEADERSHIP, AND AN AMBIGUOUS VICTORY FOR THREAT DIPLOMACY. THE OVERALL RESULTS IN RELATION TO HOLDING LEADERSHIP DEMOCRATICALLY ACCOUNTABLE BEFORE LAUNCHING NON-DEFENSIVE WARS AND DETERRING THE USE OF WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION REMAINS TO BE SEEN.

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Questioning Obamacare for Syria

5 Sep

When it comes to war, Obama is okay just this once, especially for Republicans

 

            There is something particularly distressing about the ongoing debate on authorizing an internationally illegal and immoral military attack on Syria: a show of political support on the right. Such a ‘coming together’ of some of the center and much of the right in the American Congress has been sadly absent during Obama presidency until now, whether the issue was health, taxes, social services, keeping the government running, and immigration. And this support emerges on the rare occasion when a majority of American citizens, not known for their cosmopolitan sentiments or affection for the UN Charter, oppose attacking Syria, as was the British Parliament, and as is public opinion throughout Europe. In such a setting, it is not only international law and the UN are being repudiated in a war/peace situation, but the whole fabric of democratic accountability to law and the judgment of the people.

 

            At least we can conclude that the reactionary tendency in American political life over the course of the last decade or so is consistent in its adherence to irresponsible means in the pursuit irresponsible ends. It appears that the real selling point for the looming attack on Syria is not for the sake of the Syrians, but to warn the leadership of Iran that it is next on the White House hit list unless it soon surrenders to Washington’s demands, echoing those more stridently made by Israel. Is this what global leadership of the United States has come to mean? To let adversaries be reminded that the global bully means business.

 

            And what about damaging the Obama legacy? There is a loss/loss feeling about the eventual attack, if indeed it should happen. If the attack on Syria is truly limited and does not produce many civilian casualties, his Republican champions, including such hawkish stalwarts as Senators McCain and Graham, will quickly change sides, arguing that doing such a slap on the wrist is worse than doing nothing. The broadening of the Congressional resolution suggests that the hawk support depends on launching a major attack that has much wider ambitions than what Obama seemed to favor in his call to Congress for authorization. Does he heed his earlier concept of the attack or go along with his more militarist supporters?

 

            If, as seems probable, there are casualties, retaliations, escalation, diplomatic fallout, persisting civil strife, cross border spillover effects, then Obama is almost sure to face a grassroots protest movement expressing national and global disaffection, and including some of those Democrats who go along because a ‘red line’ once drawn by an American president needs to get respect, even if the cost of doing so is irresponsible, irrational, imprudent, illegal, and immoral. Carrying out Obama’s preferred course of action would mean reverting to the once derided ‘Nixon madman’ approach to foreign policy, that is, inhibiting the Kremlin during the height of the Cold War by making their leaders believe that the American president was trigger-happy and crazy. Do whatever it takes to make sure else that America is feared around the world, endowing even its ill-advised threats with maximum potency. This iron fist style of ‘keeping of the peace’ is totally divorced from adherence to international law and support for the UN. It excessively values keeping ‘the military option’ on the table at all times in the hope of either annihilating its enemies or make them suffer the consequences of opposition to Washington ideas about how to run the world.

 

            If Congress responds with an authorization for force in Syria, and even in a form that exceeds what the president requested, it will no doubt recall the last major Congressional dark folly: the infamous Gulf of Tonkin resolution, giving LBJ a blank check to widen the Vietnam War in ways of his devising. His first step was to escalate the American engagement by attacking North Vietnam from air and sea in 1965. It is never pleasant to revive bad memories except possibly to avoid another foreign policy fiasco, as well as to deepen the impression that America as a imperial superpower has lost its capacity to learn from past mistakes.

 

            Dear friends, if the only way America can seem strong is to cast itself in the role of global bully, supplanting the earlier somewhat more understandable imperial cover of pax Americana, then the wise and virtuous will conclude, if they have not already, that America is actually weak. In this century true strength will not be measured by degrees of military dominance and battlefield victories, but by helping to solve the growing agenda of national, regional, and global problems endangering the future of humanity.

Such a constructive path can only be taken if the major states show respect for international law and the UN Charter as the foundational premises of a sustainable world order. Thinking otherwise, that the history will be interpreted from the militarist perspectives of those who base human and societal security on a global war machine places global civilizations, and even the human species, on a slippery slope of extinction, nothing less! At this time, we need to fear more a clash of rationalities than a clash of civilizations, although both should be transcended.

 

            Could it not be offered in response that such thoughts are a hysterical over-reaction to what will be at worst a flash flood soon to be forgotten? Along these lines, it is contended that any attack on Syria is likely to be over in several days (although the current language of the resolution offers a wide open window to war making by extending authorization to 90 days), the reaction by Syria and its friends, if any is forthcoming, will probably be muted, and life in America, the Middle East, and the world will return to what passes for ‘normalcy.’ Even if we assume that such a moderate unfolding is more or less accurate foretelling, yet even so, the effect would be deeply destructive. It will enable most of us to remain ignorant of an underlying frightening reality: our body politic suffers from this crippling disease of ‘martialitus’ for which there is no known cure, and at present not even a widely agreed upon diagnosis. Indeed, the disgraceful edifice of global surveillance may have as its primary task suppressing knowledge that our political leaders suffer from severe versions of this disease. Snowden, Manning, and Assange were likely seen to pose such a great danger because they were attempting to remove the geopolitical cataracts clouding our vision of such a distressing political reality. After such knowledge, there would be no forgiveness, only urgent responsibilities. Under these conditions cultivating the false consciousness of normalcy is itself an ominous sign of a collective refusal to acknowledge the disease, much less to begin treating it by such moves as a Congressional resolution requiring the president to obtain authorization for non-defensive force from the United Nations and under all circumstances act in accordance with the requirements of international law as objectively determined. It would be also important to insist that the government move toward fulfilling its obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 by tabling a proposal for phased and verified nuclear disarmament. It may also be appropriate to introduce a resolution in Congress that would make mandatory a declaration of war in all instances where international force was to be used by the United States other than in circumstances of genuinely imminent foreign attack.

 

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Polarization Doomed Egyptian Democracy (Revised)

5 Aug

Prefatory Note: I realize that some of the readers of this blog are unhappy with long blogs, and so I offer an apology for this one in advance. My attempt is to deal with a difficult set of issues afflicting the Middle East, especially the seemingly disastrous Egyptian experiment with democracy that has resulted in a bloody coup followed by violent repression of those elected to lead the country in free elections. The essay that follows discusses the degree to which anti-Muslim Brotherhood polarization in Egypt doomed the transition to democracy that was the hope and dream of the January 25th revolutionary moment in Tahrir Square that had sent shock waves of admiration around the world! This has been revised and corrected since its original posting to take account of comments from readers, and my own further reflections. These themes in a rapidly unfolding series of political dramas require an openness to acknowledging failures of assessment. 

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When Polarization Becomes Worse than Authoritarianism Defer Democracy

Doubting  Democracy

We are living at a time when tensions within societies seem far more disruptive and inhumane than the rivalries of sovereign states that have in the past fueled international wars. More provocatively, we may be living at a historical moment when democracy as the government of choice gives rise to horrifying spectacles of violence and abuse. These difficulties with the practice of democracy are indirectly, and with a heavy dose of irony, legitimizing moderate forms of authoritarian government. After years of assuming that ‘democracy’ was ‘the least bad form of government’ for every national setting, there are ample reasons to raise doubts. I make such an observation with the greatest reluctance.

There is no doubt that authoritarian forms of rule generally constrain the freedom of everyone, and especially the politically inclined. Beyond this, there is a kind of stagnant cultural atmosphere that usually accompanies autocracy, but not always. Consider Elizabethan England, with Shakespeare and his cohort of contemporary literary giants. There have been critical moments of crisis in the past when society’s most respected thinkers blamed democracy for the political failings. In ancient Greece, the cradle of Western democracy, Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides came to prefer non-democratic forms of government, more fearful of the politics of the mob than that led Athens into imprudent and costly foreign adventures.

Of course, there are times when the established order is fearful of democracy even in countries that pride themselves on their democratic character. Influential voices in the United States were raised during the latter stages of the Vietnam War in opposition to what were perceived by conservatives to be the excesses of democracy. Infamously, Samuel Huntington in an essay published by the influential Trilateral Commission compared the anti-war movement in the United States to the canine disorder known as ‘distemper,’ clearly expressing the view that the people should leave the matter of war and peace in the hands of the government, and not expect to change policy by demonstrating in the streets.

It was only twenty years ago that the collapse of the Soviet Union was hailed throughout the West as an ideological triumph of liberal democracy over autocratic socialism. Prospects for world peace during this interval in the 1990s were directly linked to the spread of democracy, while such other reformist projects as the strengthening of the UN or respecting international law were put aside. European and American universities were then much taken with the theory and practice of ‘democratic peace,’ documenting and exploring its central claim that democracies never go to war against one another. If such a thesis is sustained, it has significant policy implications. It would follow, then, that if more and more countries become ‘democratic’ the zone of peaceful international relations becomes enlarged. This encouraging byproduct of democracy for sovereign states was reinforced by the internal experience of the European Union, which while nurturing democracy established a culture of peace in what had for centuries been the world’s worst war zone.

This positive assessment of democratization at the national level is offset by the extent to which Western liberal democracies have recourse to war to promote regime change in illiberal societies. The motivations for such wars is not purely political, but needs to be linked to the imperatives of neoliberal globalization, and to the class interests of the 1%.

In the post-9/11 period the Bush presidency embraced ‘democracy promotion’ as a major component of a neoconservative foreign policy for the United States in the Middle East. Skepticism about the nature such an endorsement of democracy was widespread, especially in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Harsh criticism was directed U.S. Government self-appointed role as the agent of democratization in the region, especially considering the unacknowledged motivations: oil, regional hegemony, and Israeli security. By basing democracy promotion on military intervention, as in relation to Iraq, the American approach was completely discredited even without the admitted failure resulting from prolonged occupation of the country. The supposed antii-authoritarian interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have not implanted a robust democracy in any of these places, but rather corruption, chaos, massive displacement, and persisting violent conflict. Beyond this disillusioning experience, foreign leaders and world public opinion refused to accept Washington’s arrogant claim that it provided the world with the only acceptable political model of legitimate government.

Despite this pushback, there remains an almost universal acceptance of the desirability of some variation democracy as the only desirable form of national governance. Of course, there were profound disagreements when it comes to specific cases. There were some partial exceptions to the embrace of democracy. For instance, there was support in the Middle East for monarchies as sources of stability and unity, but even these monarchs purported to be ‘democratic’ in their sympathies unless directly challenged by their subjects/citizens.  Democracies maintained their positive reputation by protecting citizens from abuse by the state, by empowering the people to confer authority on the national government, generally through periodic elections, and by developing a governing process that was respectful of the rule of law and human rights.

Issues during the last decade in the Middle East have brought these issues to the fore: the Green Revolution against theocratic democracy in Iran, the secular de facto rejection of majoritarian democracy in Turkey, and the various transitional scenarios that have unfolded in the Arab countries, especially Egypt, after the anti-authoritarian uprisings of 2011. The torments of the region, especially connected with the Anglo-French colonialist aftermath of the Ottoman Empire, followed by an American hegemonic regime tempered by the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, and aggravated since the middle of the last century by the emergence of Israel, along with the ensuing conflict with the dispossessed Palestinian people, have made the struggle for what might be called ‘good governance’ a losing battle, at least until 2011. Against such a background it was only natural that the democratizing moment labeled ‘the Arab Spring’ generated such excitement throughout the region, and indeed in the world. Two years later, in light of developments in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere it is an occasion that calls for sympathetic, yet critical, reflection.

In the last several years, there has emerged in the region the explosive idea that the citizenry enjoys an ultimate right to hold governments accountable, and if even a democratic government misplays its hand too badly, then it can be removed from power even without awaiting of elections, and without relying on formal impeachment procedures. What makes this populist veto so controversial in recent experience is its tendency to enter a coalition with the most regressive elements of the governmental bureaucracy, especially the armed forces, police, and intelligence bureaucracies. Such coalitions are on their surface odd, bringing together the spontaneous rising of the often downtrodden multitude with the most coercive and privileged elements of state and private sector power.

The self-legitimizing claim heard in Tahrir Square 2013 was that only a military coup could save the revolution of 2011, but critics would draw a sharp distinction between the earlier populist uprising against a hated dictator and this latter movement orchestrated from above to dislodge from power a democratically elected leadership identified as Islamic, accused of being non-inclusive, and hence illegitimate.

 

The Arab Upheavals

The great movements of revolt in the Arab world in 2011 were justly celebrated as exhibiting an unexpected surge of brave anti-authoritarian populist politics that achieved relatively bloodless triumphs in Tunisia and Egypt, and shook the foundations of authoritarian rule throughout the region. Democracy seemed to be on the march in a region that had been written off by most Western experts as incapable of any form of governance that was not authoritarian, which was not displeasing to the West so long as oil flowed to the world market, Israel was secure, and radical tendencies kept in check. Arab political culture was interpreted through an Orientalizing lens that affirmed passivity of the citizenry and elite corruption backed up, if necessary, by a militarized state. In the background was the fear that if the people were able to give voice to their preferences, the end result might be the theocratic spread of Iranian style Islamism.

It is a sad commentary on the state of the world that only two years later a gloomy political atmosphere is creating severe doubts about the workability of democracy, and not only in the Arab world, but more widely. What has emerged is the realization that deep cleavages exist in the political culture that give rise to crises of legitimacy and governability that can be managed, if at all, only by the application of repressive force. These conflicts are destroying the prospects of effective and humane government in a series of countries throughout the world.

The dramatic and bloody atrocities in Egypt since the military takeover on July 3rd have brought these realities to the forefront of global political consciousness. But Egypt is not alone in experiencing toxic fallout from severe polarization that pits antagonistic religious, ethnic, and political forces against one another in ‘winner take all’ struggles. Daily sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’ia in Iraq make it evident that after an anguishing decade of occupation the American crusade to liberate the country from dictatorship has failed miserably. Instead of a fledging democracy America has left behind a legacy of chaos, the threat of civil war, and a growing belief that only a return to authoritarianism can bring stability to the country. Turkey, too, is enduring the destabilizing impact of polarization, which has persisted in the face of eleven years of extraordinary AKP success and energetic and extremely capable leadership periodically endorsed by the voting public: strengthening and civilianizing political institutions, weakening the military, improving the economy, and greatly enhancing the regional and international standing of the country. Polarization should not be treated as just a Middle Eastern phenomenon. The United States, too, is increasingly afflicted by a polarizing struggle between its two main political parties that has made democratic government that humanely serves the citizenry and the national public good a thing of the past. Of course, this disturbing de-democratizing trend in America owes much to the monetizing machinations of Wall Street and the spinning of 9/11 as a continuing security challenge that requires the government to view everyone, everywhere, including its own citizens, as potential terrorist suspects.

The nature of polarization is diverse and complex, reflecting context. It can be socially constructed around the split between religion and secularism as in Egypt or Turkey or in relation to divisions internal to a religion as in Iraq or as between classes, ethnicities, political parties, geographic regions. In the concreteness of history each case of polarization has its own defining set of circumstances, often highlighting minority fears of discrimination and marginalization, class warfare, ethnic and religious rivalry (e.g. Kurdish self-determination), and conflicting claims about natural resources. Also, as in the Middle East, polarization is not merely the play domestic forces struggling for ascendancy. Polarization is also being manipulated by powerful external political actors, to what precise extent and to what ends is unknowable. It is revealing that in the demonstrations in Cairo during the past month both pro- and anti-Morsi protesters have been chanting anti-American slogans, while the government invites a series of Western dignitaries with the aim of persuading the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood to accept the outcome of the coup.

Egypt and Turkey

The circumstances of polarization in Egypt and Turkey, although vastly different, share the experience of Islamic oriented political forces emerging from the shadow land of society after years of marginalization, and in Egypt’s case brutal suppression. In both countries the armed forces had long played an important role in keeping the state under the rigid control of secular elites that served Western strategic and neoliberal economic interests. Up to now, despite periodic trials and tribulations, Turkey seems to have solved the riddle of modernity much more persuasively than Egypt.

In both countries electoral politics mandated radical power shifts unacceptable to displaced secular elites. Opposition forces in the two countries after enjoying decades of power and influence suddenly saw themselves displaced by democratic means with no credible prospect of regaining political dominance by success in future elections, having ceded power and influence to those who had previously been subjugated and exploited. Those displaced were unwilling to accept their diminished role, including this lowered status in relation to societal forces whose values were scorned as anti-modern and threatening to preferred life styles that were identified with ‘freedom.’ They complained bitterly, organized feverishly, and mobilized energetically to cancel the verdict of the political majority by whatever means possible.

Recourse to extra-democratic means to regain power, wealth, and influence seemed to many in the opposition, although not all, the only viable political option, but it had to be done in such a way that it seemed to be a ‘democratic’ outcry of the citizenry against the state. Of course, the state has its own share of responsibility for the traumas of polarization. The elected leadership often over-reacts, becomes intoxicated with its own majoritarian mandate, acts toward the opposition on the basis of worst case scenarios, adopts paranoid styles of response to legitimate grievances and criticisms, and contributes its part to a downward spiral of distrust and animosity. The media, either to accentuate the drama of conflict or because is itself often aligned with the secular opposition, tends to heighten tensions, creating a fatalist atmosphere of ‘no return’ for which the only possible solution is ‘us’ or ‘them.’ Such a mentality of war is an anathema for genuine democracy in which losers at any given moment still have a large stake in the viability and success of the governing process. When that faith in the justice and legitimacy of the prevailing political system is shattered democracy cannot generate good governance.

The Politics of Polarization

The opposition waits for some mistake by the governing leadership to launch its campaign of escalating demands. Polarization intensifies. The opposition is unwilling to treat the verdict of free elections as the final word as to an entitlement to govern. At first, such unwillingness is exhibited by extreme alienation and embittered fears. Later on, as opportunities for obstruction arise, this unwillingness is translated into political action, and if it gathers enough momentum, the desired crises of legitimacy and governability bring the country to the brink of collapse. Much depends on material conditions. If the economy is doing reasonably well, calmer heads usually prevail, which may help explain why the impact of severe polarization has been so much greater in Egypt than Turkey. Morsi has succumbed to the challenge, while Erdogan has survived. Reverse the economic conditions, and the political outcomes would also likely have been reversed, although such a possibility is purely conjectural.

The Egyptian experience also reflects the extraordinary sequence of recent happenings. The Tahrir Square upheavals of January 25th came after 30 years of Mubarak rule. A political vacuum was created by the removal of Mubarak that was quickly filled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAP), but accompanied by the promise that a transition to democracy was the consensus goal binding all Egyptians, and once reached the generals would retire from the political scene. The popular sentiment then favored an inclusive democracy, which in 2011, was a coded way of saying that the Muslim Brotherhood should henceforth participate in the political process, finally being allowed to compete for a place in the governing process after decades of exclusion. There were from the beginning anxieties about this prospect among many in the anti-Mubarak ranks, and the Brotherhood seemed at first sensitive to secular and Coptic concerns even pledging that it had no intention of competing for the presidency of Egypt. All seemed well and good, with popular expectations wrongly assuming that the next president of Egypt would be a familiar secular figure, almost certainly drawn from the renegade membership of the fuloul, that is, a former beneficiary of the regime who joined the anti-Mubarak forces during the uprising. In the spring of 2011 the expectations were that Amr Moussa (former Secretary General of the Arab League and Mubarak Foreign Minister) would become Egypt’s first democratically elected president and that the Muslim Brotherhood would function as a strong, but minority, force in the Egyptian parliament. As the parliament would draft a new constitution for the country, this was likely to be the first show of strength between the secular and religious poles of Egyptian political opinion.

Several unforeseen developments made this initial set of expectations about Egypt’s political future unrealizable. Above all, the Muslim Brotherhood was far more successful in the parliamentary elections than had been anticipated. These results stoked the fears of the secularists and Copts, especially when account was taken of the previously unappreciated political strength of several Salafi parties that had not previously shown any interest in participating in the government. Religiously oriented political parties won more than 70% of the contested seats, creating control over the constitution-making process. This situation was further stressed when the Brotherhood withdrew its pledge not to seek control of the government by fielding its own candidate for the presidency. This whole transition process after January 2011 was presided over by administrative entities answerable to SCAP. Several popular candidates were disqualified, and a two-stage presidential election was organized in 2012 in which Mohamed Morsi narrowly defeated Ahmed Shafik in the runoff election between the two top candidates in the initial vote. Shafik, an air force commander and the last Mubarak prime minister, epitomizing the persisting influence of the fuloul. In a sense, the electoral choice given to the Egyptian people involved none of the Egyptian revolutionary forces that were most responsible for the overthrow of Mubarak or representing the ideals that seemed to inspire most of those who filled Tahrir Square in the revolutionary days of January 2011.  The Brotherhood supported the anti-Mubarak movement only belatedly when its victory was in sight, and seemed ideologically inclined to doubt the benefits of inclusive democratization, while Shafik, epitomizing the fuloul resurgent remnant of Mubarakism, never supported the upheaval, and did not even pretend to be a democrat, premising his appeal on promises to restore law and order, which would then supposedly allow Egypt to experience a rapid much needed economic recovery.

It was during the single year of Morsi’s presidency that the politics of extreme polarization took center stage. It is widely agreed that Morsi was neither experienced nor adept as a political leader in what was a very challenging situation even if polarization had not been present to aggravate the situation. The Egyptian people anxiously expected the new leadership to restore economic normalcy after the recent period of prolonged disorder and decline. He was a disappointment, even to many of those who had voted for him, in all of these regards. Many Egyptians who said that they had voted for Morsi expressed their disenchantment by alleging the ‘nothing had changed for the better since the Mubarak period,’ and so they joined the opposition.

It was also expected that Morsi would immediately signal a strong commitment to social justice and to addressing the plight of Egyptian unemployed youth and subsistence masses, but no such promise was forthcoming. In fairness, it seemed doubtful that anyone could have succeeded in fulfilling the role of president of Egypt in a manner that would have satisfied the majority of Egyptians.  The challenges were too obdurate, the citizenry too impatient, and the old Mubarak bureaucracy remained strategically in place and determined to oppose any change that might enhance the reputation of the Morsi leadership. Mubarak and some close advisors had been eliminated from the government, but the judiciary, the armed forces, and the Ministry of Interior were fuloul activist strongholds. In effect, the old secularized elites were still powerful, unaccountable, and capable of undermining the elected government that officially reflected the political will of the Egyptian majority. Morsi, a candidate with admittedly mediocre credentials, was elected to the presidency by an ominously narrow margin, and to make matters worse he inherited a mission impossible. Yet to unseat him by a coup was to upend Egypt’s fledgling democracy, with currently no hopeful tomorrow in view.

The Authoritarian Temptation

What was surprising, and disturbing, was the degree to which the protest movement so quickly and submissively linked the future of Egypt to the good faith and prudent judgment of the armed forces. All protest forces have received in exchange was the forcible removal of Morsi, the renewal of a suppressive approach to the Brotherhood, and some rather worthless reassurances about the short-term nature of military rule. General Adel-Fattah el-Sisi from the start made it clear that he was in charge, although designating an interim president, Adly Mansour, a Mubarak careerist, who had only days before the coup been made chief judge of the Supreme Constitutional Court by Morsi’s own appointment. Mansour has picked a new prime minister who selected a cabinet, supposedly consisting of technocrats, who will serve until a new government is elected. Already, several members of this civilian gloss on a military takeover of the governing process in Egypt have registered meek complaints about the excessive force being used against pro-Morsi demonstrations, itself a euphemism for crimes against humanity and police atrocities.

Better Mubarakism than Morsiism was the underlying sentiment relied upon to fan the flames of discontent throughout the country, climaxing with the petition campaign organized by Tamarod, a newly formed youth-led opposition, that played a major role in organizing the June 30th demonstrations of millions that were underpinned in the final days by a Sisi ultamatum from the armed forces that led to the detention and arrest of Morsi,. This was followed by the rise to political dominance of a menacing figure, General Adel-Fattah el-Sisi, who has led a military coup that talks of compromise and inclusive democracy while acting to criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood, and its leadership, using an onslaught of violence against those who peacefully refuse to fall into line. This military leadership is already responsible for the deliberate slaughter of Morsi loyalists in coldblooded tactics designed to terrorize the Muslim Brotherhood, and warn the Egyptian people that further opposition will not be tolerated.

I am certainly not suggesting that such a return to authoritarianism in this form is better for Egypt than the democracy established by Morsi, or favored by such secular liberals as Mohamed ElBaradei, who is now serving as Deputy Prime Minister. Unfortunately, this challenge directed at a freely elected democracy by a massive popular mobilization to be effective required an alliance with the coercive elements drawn from the deep state and private sector entrepreneurs. Such a dependency relationship involved a Faustian Bargain, getting rid of the hated Morsi presidency, but doing so with an eyes closed acceptance of state terror: large-scale shooting of unarmed pro-Morsi demonstrators, double standards dramatized by General Sisi’s call to the anti-Morsi forces to give him a populist mandate to crush the Brotherhood by coming into the streets aggressively and massively. Egypt is well along a path that leads to demonic autocratic rule that will likely be needed to keep the Brotherhood from preventing the reestablishment of order. General Sisi’s coup will be written off as a failure if there continues to be substantial street challenges and bloody incidents, which would surely interfere with restoring the kind of economic stability that Egypt desperately needs in coming months if it is to escape the dire destiny of being ‘a failed state.’ The legitimating test for the Sisi coup is ‘order’ not ‘democracy,’ and so the authoritarian ethos prevails, yet if this means a continuing series of atrocities, it will surely lead to yet another crisis of legitimacy for the country that is likely to provoke a further crisis of governability.

The controversial side of my argument is that Egypt currently lacks the political preconditions for the establishment of democracy, and in such circumstances, the premature attempt to democratize the political life of the country leads not only to disappointment, but to political regression. At this stage, Egypt will be fortunate if it can return to the relatively stable authoritarianism of the Mubarak dictatorship. Because of changed expectations, and the unlawful displacement of the Morsi leadership, it has now become respectable for the Tamarod, self-appointed guardians of the Tahrir Square revolution to support the ‘cleansing’ the Muslim Brotherhood. It is sad to take note of these noxious odors of fascism and genocide now contaminating the political atmosphere in Egypt.

The very different experience in Iraq, too, suggests that ill-advised moves to install democracy can unleash polarization in a destructive form. Despite his crimes, polarization had been kept in check during the authoritarian rule of Saddam Hussein, The attempted transition to democracy was deeply compromised by coinciding with the American occupation and proconsular rule. It produced sectarian polarization in such drastic forms that it will likely either lead to a new authoritarianism that is even more oppressive than what Saddam Hussein had imposed or resolved by a civil war in which the victor rules with an iron hand and the loser is relegated to the silent margins of Iraqi political life.

In the post-colonial world it is up to the people of each country to shape their own destiny (realizing the ethos of self-determination), and outsiders should rarely interfere however terrible the civil strife. Hopefully, the peoples of the Middle East will learn from these polarization experiences to be wary of entrusting the future of their country to the vagaries of majoritarian democracy, but also resistant to moves by politically displaced minorities to plot their return to power by a reliance on anti-democratic tactics, coalitions with the military, and the complicity of the deep state. There is no single template. Turkey, although threatened by polarization, has been able so far to contain its most dire threats to political democracy. Egypt has not been so lucky. For simplistic comparison, Turkey has had the benefits of a largely evolutionary process that allows for a democratic political culture to take hold gradually at societal and governmental levels. Egypt has, in contrast, experienced abrupt changes in a setting of widespread economic distress, and a radical form of polarization that denied all legitimacy to the antagonist, transforming the armed forces from foe to friend of the opposition because it was the enemy of their enemy. If this is the predictable outcome of moves to establish democracy, then authoritarian leadership may not be the worst of all possible worlds in every circumstance. It depends on context. In the Middle East this may require a comparison of the risks of democratization with the costs of authoritarianism, and this may depend on the degree and nature of polarization.

The presence of the oil reserves in the Gulf, as well as Iran, Iraq, and Libya, along with Israel’s interest in avoiding the emergence of strong unified democratic states in the region makes the Middle East particularly vulnerable to the perils of polarization. In other regions similar structures of antagonism exist, but generally with less disastrous results. The dynamics of economic globalization cannot be divorced from the ways in which nominally independent sovereign states are subjected to the manipulative storms of geopolitics.

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The Iraq War: 10 Years Later

17 Mar

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Beyond Words: Poet’s Lament

5 Aug

Poetry at its finest stretches the expressiveness of language beyond its prior limits, not necessarily by its choice of words, but through the magical invocation of feelings embedded deeply within consciousness. Yes even poetry has its own frontiers that if crossed lead to a word-less terrain littered with corpses of atrocity, what Thomas Merton and James Douglass have soulfully identified for us as the realm of ‘the unspeakable,’ and then are brave enough to explore forbidden terrain. When we do not respect the unspeakable by our silence we domesticate the criminality of the horror that human beings are capable of inflicting on one another, and give way to the eventual emergence of normalcy as has happened with nuclear weapons detached from the happenings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I came across an utterance by one of my heroes, the Jesuit priest/poet, Daniel Berrigan, while on trial for pouring blood on draft cards during the Vietnam War: “I was in danger of verbalizing my moral impulses out of existence.” These words appear at the start of a haunting poem by another one of my heroes, the recently dead poet, Adrienne Rich; the poem’s title is “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” and I recommend it not only as a stunning poetic achievement but also as a text for meditation.

Such thoughts seem far from the recent controversies on this blog about

the competing justice and victimization claims of Israelis and Palestinians, and the sort of language that seems historically validated for some to discuss such matters of life and death, while being hateful to others. It made me appreciate anew that there are some rivers of divergence that are too wide to cross, and that the attempt, first generates anger and frustration, but eventually brings despair, even sadness. Of course, the blogosphere is a new kind of undefended public space that can be entered by anyone with good will or ill. To appoint myself as a kind of censor, given the capacity to exclude or include comments, was neither

congenial nor tenable as a role, and I have decided to give it up except in relation to hate speech or defamatory material, although even here I acknowledge that some degree of subjectivity will always be present, at least unconsciously.

I am of course aware that the Israel/Palestine conflict is almost impossible to approach in a spirit of moderation, and I realize that many of the hostile comments are directed at my particular understanding and way of presenting the issues. Indeed, my posts have been scrutinized by pro-Israeli zealots so as to find some turn of language or alleged opinion that can be used to discredit me in other settings, especially in relation to my role as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council. Unlike comments that can be excluded, the posts are in the public domain, source material for those who seek to mount a personal attack, and there are no rules of the game to ensure that allegations are at least fair and reasonable. I have tried my best not to be intimidated or hurt by such concerted efforts to harm my reputation and destroy my self-esteem, but have not always succeeded.

As the person who dares to continue to write a blog under such circumstances, I have tried to devise for myself a code of responsible behavior for my own benefit, and to establish an atmosphere of trust and respect. I have selected two main principles as guidelines: (1) sustain integrity, especially whenever the suffering of others is involved, especially if it is unpopular to complain about what is happening, or worse, to mount sharp criticism of the perpetrators; in effect, talk truth to power, acknowledging, as I do, in the process that for Gandhi a dedication to truthfulness should never be separated from a dedication to nonviolence. (2) Admit mistakes, and explain their occurrence as honestly and helpfully as possible. In addition, I would add a couple further principles to this informal code, which like the Japanese game of Go has never put its rules in the form of an authoritative written text: (3) use the blog space to challenge whenever possible the ‘politics of invisibility’ that shields from our awareness structures of suffering, abuse, and exploitation; I attempted to do this, for instance, by calling attention to the extraordinary Palestinian hunger strikes that were almost totally ignored by the mainstream media in North America while giving daily coverage to Chinese human rights activists who were enduring far less. (4) use the blog space from time to time to consider a complementary aspect of the way reality is so often obscured and twisted by media, government, special interests, a pattern I label ‘the politics of deflection,’ that is, diverting attention from the message to the messenger, or condemning the auspices under which allegations were made while ignoring their substance; this is happening all the time, perhaps most damagingly by convincing much of the public for decades that the menace of nuclear weaponry has to do mostly with its proliferation rather than with its possession, deployment, threat, and possible use; more controversially, to obscure the violence of energy geopolitics behind a protective screen of counter-terrorism as in fashioning a rationale for attacking Iraq in 2003.

The work of poetry is poetry, but there are times when poets do produce lines here and there that illuminate the human predicament in unforgettable ways. Of course, the recognition of such an illumination is highly personal, and should never be defended. For me the following lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Fragment of an Elegy had this kind of explosive impact upon my imagination:

Once poets resounded over the battlefield, what voice

can outshout the rattle of this metallic age

that is struggling on toward its careening future?

Although composed almost a hundred years ago, this image of triumphal militarism illuminates current conditions and obliquely addresses our worst fears. We need to be thankful for these poems that make the outer limits of the speakable more accessible, especially in dark times of torment, great risk, and confusion.

For What?

20 Jul

 

             Being disinclined to look in mirrors, not only to avoid evidences of aging, but also because of an autobiographical deficit, I have recently started to question the vectors of my motivation. Not to raise doubts but to seek some understanding of ‘for what?’ I am especially wondering the reasons behind my solidarity with the struggles of distant strangers, why such solidarity is not more widely shared with likeminded friends, and why the inevitable priorities as to what is emphasized and what is ignored have the shape they do. Most pointedly, why am I giving the Palestinians so much more attention and psychic energy than the Kurds, Tibetans, or Kashmiris, and a host of other worthy causes? And how do I explain to myself a preoccupation with the unlawful, immoral, and imprudent foreign policy of the U.S. Government, the sovereign state of my residence upon whose governmental resources I depend upon for security and a range of rights?

 

            There are rational answers that tell part of the story, but only a part, and probably the least illuminating part. I was drawn to the Palestinian struggle as a result of friendship with prominent Palestinian exiles while still a student. I formed a well-evidence belief that the U.S. Government and the organized Jewish community were responsible for the massive and enduring confiscation of Palestinian land and rights. And with this awareness came some added sense of responsibility. ‘Just don’t sit and stare, do something.’

And with this modest kind of engagement came pressures to do more by way of public identification and witnessing, which led to a somewhat deeper awareness, greater familiarity, and of course, a dumpster full of harsh criticism. After many years of speaking and writing, the opportunity and challenge to do more in relation to Palestine/Israel conflict came my way unexpectedly in the form of an unsolicited invitation in 2008 to become the next Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council.

 

            I never sought such a position, and realized that it would expose me to an escalating onslaught of vicious personal attacks and threats, an expectation that has been amply fulfilled. It is always uncomfortable to be the target of toxic language, and it is even more scary and disturbing to expose my closest partner in life and love to such calumny. Besides the hotly contested terrain that exists whenever Israeli policies are subject to objective scrutiny and criticism, a position within the UN hierarchy is both burdensome and often frustrating. True, being a Special Rapporteur is essentially a voluntary post, without salary or civil service affiliations, although ‘compensated’ to some degree by institutional independence within the UN, which I have discovered in my four years, can be a considerable blessing. There is little doubt in my mind that if I had been a paid employee I would long ago have been handed a pink slip. As it is I have merely endured a barrage of slanderous insults, including from the Secretary General and Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the UN in New York.

           

            Lest I protest and complain too much, I hasten to add that there are also deep and moving satisfactions. I find particularly satisfying the extent to which my two reports each year on the Israeli occupation of Palestine provides a truthful witnessing to the unspeakable ordeal of this prolonged and harsh occupation. Actually, it is less and less an occupation and more and more an apartheid style form of annexation, aggravated by continuous land grabs, various instruments of ethnic cleansing, and a range of gratuitous cruelties most recently dramatized by a series of heroic hunger strikes by Palestinians protesting those aspects of their plight resulting from violent arrest procedures, administrative detention, and deplorable prison conditions falling far below accepted international standards. Bearing witness, giving the Palestinians an authentic voice with which to formulate their grievances, and having the means to issue press releases calling attention to particular incidents of abuse, makes me feel as though my time is well spent even if the bodies keep piling up on the Palestinian side of the border. Part of the challenge in such a role is to realize the discouraging constraints on what can be achieved. Governments mainly don’t listen, and even when they do, their actions and policies are rarely informed by moral imperatives, and so nothing changes however much the evidence is present.

            The devastating impact of the Gaza blockade has been known and lamented for years by political leaders, and yet the costs of doing anything about it have seemed so great that even those who complain most loudly in the chambers of the UN are silent or worse when it comes to doing something. Someone at my level is shouting to be heard amid the clamor that prevails in the diplomatic discotheques of New York and Geneva, and even when heard, must learn to expect nothing to be done or else despair, even madness, will soon follow.

 

            Beyond this rational balance sheet of gains and losses, is a deeper less accessible convergence of feelings and impulses, which cannot be explained, but only acknowledged. I am not sure why direct exposure to victimization has such a powerful animating effect on my behavior, but it does. I do feel that a sense of responsibility emerges with such knowledge, especially that derived from direct contact with the suffering of victims caught in some historical trap not of their own making. Also, whether visiting North Vietnam as a peace activist during the Vietnam War or seeking to understand the Iranian Revolution by talking with its leaders as the extraordinary process was unfolding in Tehran, I felt a meta-professional obligation to share this privileged exposure by talking and writing about it, however inadequately, particularly, as seemed generally to be the case, that the mainstream media distorted and manipulated their presentations of such historic happenings as misleadingly seen through their Western optic of (mis)perception.

 

            Somewhere in this agonizingly slow formation of my character there was being constructed a self that took the shape of ‘engaged scholar’ and ‘citizen pilgrim.’ In retrospect, I think I was reacting somewhat dialectically to my academic colleagues who mostly felt it inappropriate to speak out on controversial issues although they viewed it as entirely professional to consult with the government and quite all right to avoid the public sphere altogether by packaging themselves as experts who should not be expected to take public stands on partisan issues that divided the polity. I felt, increasingly with age, the opposite. I came to believe that it was an organic part of my integrity as teacher/scholar to create a seamless interface between classroom and sites of political struggle. In truth, not entirely seamless as the classroom must always be treated as a sacred space by a faculty member. It should be maintained as a sanctuary for the uninhibited exchange of views however diverse and antagonistic in an atmosphere of disciplined civility. I have always felt that it is a primary duty of a teacher is to establish sufficient trust with students, that is, permission and encouragement of openness of expression with a clear understanding that performance will be objectively assessed, and not affected by agreement or disagreement with what the teacher happens to believe. This is a delicate balance yet far more conducive to learning than a sterile and journeyman insistence that what people beyond the campus are dying for can be usefully addressed with sanitary dispassion.

 

            In the end, this vital domain of conscious pedagogy and unconscious morality, is spiritually validated by an unmediated and uninterrogated sense that this or that is ‘the right thing to do.’ It certainly helps to remain as free as possible of vested interests and career ambitions that tend to crush an implicit pledge of truthfulness that authentic witnessing depends upon. And beyond witnessing there exists an iron wall of moral obligation: caring about the future, doing what I can to make the world a better place for human habitation and co-evolution with nature, which I have understood as a species obligation that has been made historically urgent ever since an atomic bomb was exploded over the Japanese city of Hiroshima and is now also deeply connected with protecting the planet from the multiple hazards of global warming hopelessly embedded in our carbon-dependent life styles as promiscuously promoted in disastrous directions by the greed of superrich fossil fuel billionaires and their far too powerful corporate allies.

 

            I have not rested these life commitments on the teachings of any particular religious tradition or institution, although I have long found the great world religions, East and West, despite their menacing contradictions and multiple readings, as providing me with the most profound sources of wisdom and guidance. It is the basis of my ecumenical longing for human solidarity, along with my feelings of awe produced by contact with cosmic and natural wonders, and deeply informs my sense of the spiritual ground of the human adventure. These sentiments are reinforced in my case by a commitment to an emergent form of cosmopolitan citizenship that owes allegiance to the ethics and praxis of human sustainability, the individual and collective dignity of all human beings, and a respectful kinship with and love of our non-human co-inhabitants of the planet. Such perspectives, I believe, respond to our historically precarious situation as a species, and here in America, this concern is accentuated. For this is a country with a surfeit of moral and political pretensions. It exhibits hubris to an alarming degree, and in extravagant ways, and is endangering itself along with the rest of the world by a refusal to heed what the geopolitical mirror of reflection warns about. 

The Tet Offensive in the Rear View Mirror of the Afghanistan War: Disengaging from Problematic Interventions

24 Aug

Prefatory Note: A few days ago I published an earlier version of this article in Al Jazeera English, but have revised it to take account of the developments in Libya of the last several days, as well as some comments about the criminality of prior Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The essential points remain that foreign military intervention, even with a UN mandate, is costly, unclear in its impact on human rights, and likely to interfere with political dynamics governed by the play of internal forces and the logic of national self-determination.

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

On January 31, 1968 the combined forces of North Vietnam (DRV or Democratic Force of Vietnam) and the NLF (National Liberation Front) launched a spectacular series of attacks throughout the contested territory of South Vietnam. As many as 100 Vietnamese cities and towns were simultaneously attacked, 36 of 44 provincial capitals were captured, and the once impregnable American Embassy complex in Saigon was penetrated and several guards killed. These attacks were all repelled in a few days, with the Vietnamese taking huge losses, 37,500 estimated deaths, which came on top of 90,000 lost soldiers in the preceding months. The American commander, General Westmoreland, had confidently predicted prior to the Tet Offensive that the NLF would never be able to replace such losses, and victory for the United States in the Vietnam War was near at hand.

 

            During the Tet Offensive the American losses were announced as 2,500. This ratio of comparative deaths, and the fact that the DRV/NLF could not maintain their presence in any of the urban areas that they briefly controlled, led Westmoreland and counterinsurgency experts to claim a military victory for the American side. Add to this the evidence that the Vietnamese objective of these coordinated attacks on the points of Saigon’s governmental control in Vietnam was not primarily to kill or even to seize control of the country but to inspire popular uprisings by the people of Vietnam, and these hopes of Hanoi never materialized anywhere in the country.  This ‘defeat’ was acknowledged by the DRV commander General Tran Do who confirmed that the purpose of the Tet Offensive had been to stimulate a spontaneous uprising among the Vietnamese population against the continuing American military occupation of their country. This convergent perception of the Tet Offensive by both sides seemed authoritative, and yet, and this is my point, yet it proved to be politically irrelevant. General Do’s words uttered after the fact emphasize the secondary objective of the Tet Offensive: “In all honesty, we didn’t achieve our main objective, which was to spur uprisings throughout the South. Still, we inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans, and their puppets, and this was a big gain for us.”

 

            But what made these American casualties so important was not the loss of life. What made these death so deeply disturbing was their unsettling impact on both backers and opponents of the war in Washington, the backers because their belief that victory was at hand was shattered and the critics because the lies emanating from Washington had been finally exposed. If General Westmoreland was not deceived or lying the American casualties sustained during the Tet Offensive could not have happened given the supposed decimation of the Vietnamese enemy. If these expectations of an imminent victory had not been discredited by the Tet Offensive, the dramatic event would have been coolly diagnosed as a desperate lost gamble by the Vietnamese, and rather than turning attention to an exit strategy would have led to an intensified effort to achieve total victory on behalf of the Vietnamese regime in Saigon that had welcomed the American intervention.

           It was the shock effect on the American mood about the war that transformed the Tet Offensive into a big victory for the Vietnamese regardless of what their intentions for the mission had been or the unacceptable level of losses sustained.  The scale, scope, and surprise of the Tet Offensive had an immediate traumatic impact on American public opinion and related Congressional support for continuing the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese military leadership was also slow to appreciate the real importance of Tet. As General Do put it,  “As for making an impact in the United States, it had not been our intention—but it turned out to be a fortunate result.” The Tet Offensive was interpreted by all sectors of opinion on the war as opening a ‘credibility gap’ between the government and the citizenry. This gap consisted of the space separating the excessively optimistic assessments relied upon by the White House to quiet opposition to a growingly unpopular war from the reassurances being given to the increasingly restive backers of the war. The Tet Offensive conclusively demonstrated to the vast majority of the American people that the prior claim by Washington that the Vietnamese adversary was abjectly knocking on the door of defeat, on the verge of surrender or collapse, was far removed from the truth. The Tet Offensive had such an unsettling effect on the American body politic that the incumbent president and assumed candidate for reelection in 1968, Lyndon Johnson, acknowledging his failure to achieve victory in the Vietnam War abruptly withdrew from the presidential race, declared a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam allegedly to give diplomacy a chance to end the war through negotiations, and firmly rejected a request from U.S. commanders in Vietnam for a troop surge.

 

          It is true the war dragged on for several more years with heavy casualties on both sides, but the Tet Offensive radically altered the American goal from ‘victory’ to ‘peace with honor,’ that is, ‘defeat in disguise.’ At the time Henry Kissinger, the foreign policy architect of the Nixon presidency, was only hoping for ‘a decent interval’ between the American withdrawal and the collapse of the client regime in Saigon. The subsequent Christmas bombing of Hanoi and the disastrous air attacks on the Cambodian countryside (that led directly to the Khmer Rouge genocidal takeover of the country) were part of the futile effort by the Nixon/Kissinger presidency to produce the token victory that they called ‘honor.’ Actually, when the war finally came to an end in 1975, the dominant image was of Vietnamese collaborators with the American intervention desperately seeking to escape from Vietnam by clamoring aboard a helicopter taking off from the roof of the U.S. embassy. Not honor but humiliation, chaos, and defeat became the end game for the United States in Vietnam, or put differently, the price paid with thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and American lives to avoid wounding American pride and geopolitical standing was all in vain.

 

                To this day, counterinsurgency professionals in Washington think tanks and the Pentagon contend that the United States snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. This distorted reading of history partly explains why American policymakers have failed (and refused) to learn the defining lesson of the Vietnam War: the virtual impossibility in the early 21st century of turning military superiority on the battlefield enjoyed by an intervening party into a favorable political outcome against an adversary that effectively occupies the commanding heights of national self-determination. That is in this century the symbols of legitimacy count in the end for more than drone technology and the weaponry of destruction. This American and NATO learning disability has led directly to embarking upon subsequent legally and strategically problematic interventions, especially in the period since the 9/11 attacks of a decade ago: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Military superiority succumbs over time to the strong historical tides of the last seven decades favoring the forces aligned with the politics of self-determination. Among other explanations for this conclusion that cuts against the grain of political realism is this:  the intervening side gets tired of an unresolved struggle long before fatigue sets in for the side defending national territory. An Afghan aphorism expresses this insight: “You’ve got the watches, we’ve got the time.” Since 1945 nationalist endurance consistently outlasts and outwits geopolitical endurance, and by so doing eventually offsets the asymmetries of military capabilities.

 

          But my reason for recalling the Tet Offensive is less about this primary feature of conflict in our time, especially in the setting of what Mary Kaldor has usefully called ‘new wars,’ than it is to comment upon contradictory perceptions of victory and defeat. These conflicts tend to be resolved on political battlefields far from sites of military violence, although each struggle has its own story to narrate. What seems to count most in the end is a decisive shift in political perceptions on the home front of the intervening side.  Neither the successful response to the attacks in terms of casualties or restored control of the cities in South Vietnam, nor the failure of the attacks to be followed by popular uprisings by the Vietnamese people mattered so far as the historical significance of the Tet Offensive is concerned. It was also not relevant that the military appraisal made by both sides was wrong, although the Vietnamese side was less wrong as the spike in American casualties added strongly influenced the political reassessments of the conflict by the White House and caused widespread consternation among the American people that increased pressures to withdraw from the war.

 

              This recall of the Tet Offensive is not meant to be an exercise in historical memory or even in the differences between how the military thinks and how the political process in a liberal democracy works.  It is rather a frustrated commentary on the increasingly absurd refusal of the Obama presidency to acknowledge the American failure to defeat the Taliban and put the governmental structure in Kabul under pro-Western secular custody, the role confidently assigned years ago to Hamid Karzai.  As with Vietnam, the American public is continually being told by the military commanders and political leaders about how well things are going, and even when unexpected setbacks do take place, these are quickly dismissed as ‘one-off’ incidents that should not become occasions for reappraisal. There was a recent disappointment in some liberal establishment circles within the United States that were growing skeptical about continuing the intervention in Afghanistan when the execution of Osama Bin Laden in May was not followed by a credible and liberating claim from Washington of ‘mission accomplished,’ which would have positively reclaimed the notorious miscalculation by George W. Bush in the early months of the Iraq War. Such a claim would have played well throughout the American heartland, and probably given Obama a clear path to an electoral victory in 2012. Public opinion according to recent polls would applaud an accelerated withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan: 59% of Americans would like to see all American troops taken out of Afghanistan immediately or within a year, while only 22% believe that the United States has sufficiently defined goals to make the war worthy of American military engagement.

                The American people have become generally opposed to foreign military intervention, although this attitude could quickly be reversed in the event that foreign extremists were able to inflict major damage on perceived American interests. According to Newsmax, August 11, 2011, only 24% of Americans support the U.S. military role in Libya, and 75% believe that the United States should not engage in overseas military action “unless the cause is vital to our national security.” It is obvious that for most Americans Libya was never seen as ‘vital,’ and the justification relied upon by the White House did not even pretend that ‘security’ was the rationale for military intervention, but invoked ‘humanitarism,’ which never qualifies in political arenas as a cause worth dying for. Of course, leaders will always argue that an intervention undertaken is vital, and could hardly do less, considering that lives of their citizens are put at risk. But what these poll results show is the common sense currently displayed by American public opinion: reject humanitarianism as an adequate basis for war making along with distrust of the post-facto security arguments put forth by elected leaders; healthy doubts about the self-serving claims of the military to be closing in on victory if only the public is patient and the leaders dispatch more troops. But such wars go on and on, however dysfunctional, the bodies pile up, and the political opposition is disregarded, and this despite what would have hoped was the cautionary influence exerted by the realization that the American empire teeters on the edge of financial disaster.

              True, after months of NATO bombing the anti-Qaddafi movement seems on the verge of victory. As with Kosovo in 1999, the Libyans seem overwhelmingly opposed to Qaddafi dictatorial rule and solicited the intervention. In these circumstances military intervention can succeed, but at a high price in terms of devastation and civilian collateral damage, especially in a casualty-safe war carried on from the air. Yet the outcome yet make clear, as the respected foreign policy expert on the UN and the Arab World Phyllis Bennis reminds us, whether it will be the Libyan people or the oil companies and NATO that benefit from the war and the destruction of the Qaddafi regime. We do already know, or at least should realize, that the whole NATO operation sets a bad precedent for the UN. Its authorization of the use of force back in March 2011 in Security Council Resolution 1973 was framed in terms of protecting civilians in imminent danger of massacre, but the NATO operation was carried out in such a manner as to achieve regime change by tipping the balance in what became an all out civil war. In this respect that guidelines in 1973 were so vague and loose as to be worthless or NATO exceeded the authority granted, despite the language of ‘all  necessary measures,’ and there was no effort to contain the military operations within the intended scope of 1973. In this latter regard, the five abstaining states (China, Russia, India, Brazil, and Germany ) are derelict in their failure to insist on adherence to the guidelines associated with civilian protection, which certainly did not extend to bombing the personal compound of Qaddafi or the state TV facilities.

              Several observations follow. During the Vietnam Era public opinion counted for more when the government was making its political calculations about continuing an unpopular war. Unquestionably, there has been a decline in democratic accountability in the United States with respect to war/peace issues. In part, this reflected the presence of a robust peace movement during the Vietnam War, which in turn arose as an angry response to the military draft that threatened the wellbeing of middle class America. Now there is no draft, the war is fought with professional soldiers, drones, and private contracting firms. Furthermore, the weaponry and tactics are designed to minimize American casualties relative to the destruction inflicted. Unfortunately, the lessons learned from a decade of warfare in Vietnam were not about whether to intervene in new wars but how. It may be that in place of international law and political prudence, both of which should rationally discourage interventions at odds with the logic of self-determination, the new source of restraint will derive from fiscal pressures to reduce defense spending. So far the militarist consensus in Washington has largely exempted the bloated U.S. defense budget from the knives of the cost cutters, who openly advocate socially regressive cost-cutting while calling for increases in defense spending. Even the more socially sensitive Obama democrats have largely continued to acquiesce in this willingness to treat the defense budget as non-discretionary, as well as proudly claiming to have increased military assistance to Israel. 

              When an American helicopter was shot down on August 6th, the 66th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, and all 30 persons aboard were killed, including 22 members of the Navy Seals Elite Unit, I hoped that this would administer a Tet-like shock. The Obama administration could have used the occasion to say that it was time to bring American troops home and end involvement in the struggle over the political future of Afghanistan. It is common knowledge by now that the Afghanistan War is being fought against the nationalist Taliban and on behalf of a corrupted and incompetent Kabul regime for the political control of the country. It should be understood that the prior period of Taliban rule exhibited fundamentalist rule in an unusually violent and harsh form that exposed the Afghan population to massacres and crimes against humanity. Whether today’s Taliban, a less centralized organization would repeat its crimes of the past unknown in advance, and does lead to reasonable disagreement about the best course of action, which seems to be the choice of what seems to be ‘the least worst option’ at the moment.

             The unresolved conflict in Afghanistan is a clear and complex instance of the sort of ‘new war’ that will not be decided once and for all on the battlefield by soldiers and weapons or through the anachronistic agency of foreign intervention. The strategic justifications advanced to justify the war—preventing a future sanctuary for a reconstituted Al Qaeda and avoiding the takeover of Pakistan by extremists– seem highly questionable. It is more plausible to promote such security goals by closing out a military intervention that fans the flames of anti-Americanism, gives extremism a good name in Pakistan, and exhibits once again the impotence of American imposed military solutions.

 

Such an analysis yields a single moral, legal, and prudential imperative: when foreign intervention is losing out to determined national resistance, leave the country quickly, stop the killing immediately, and declare victory with pomp and circumstance or leave in dignified silence acknowledging the uncertainties surrounding the future, especially as to whether the Afghans on their own can work out accommodations and whether the Taliban this time round is ready to compromise and is less dogmatic in its understanding of Islamic governance. At this stage of the conflict in Afghanistan these are the only outcomes within reach for the United States. Moving toward their embrace might also help avoid such misadventures in the future. This would require replacing the palace guard in Washington that has been calling the shots in American foreign policy for many years. I admit that a Beltway realist reading these musings would likely respond: “Dream on!” And that is the problem!

The Afghanistan War in the Mirror of the Tet Offensive: When ‘Defeat’ Became ‘Victory’

14 Aug


             On January 31, 1968 the combined forces of North Vietnam (DRV or Democratic Force of Vietnam) and the NLF (National Liberation Front) launched a spectacular series of attacks throughout the contested territory of all of South Vietnam. As many as 100 Vietnamese cities and towns were simultaneously attacked, 36 of 44 provincial capitals were captured, and the impregnable American Embassy complex in Saigon was penetrated. These attacks were all repelled in a few days, with the Vietnamese taking huge losses, 37,500 estimated deaths, which came on top of 90,000 lost soldiers in the preceding months. The American commander, General Westmoreland, had confidently predicted prior to the Tet Offensive that the NLF would never be able to replace such losses, and victory for the United States in the Vietnam War was near at hand.

 

            During the Tet Offensive the American losses were announced as 2,500. This ratio of comparative deaths, and the fact that the DRV/NLF could not maintain their presence in any of the urban areas that they briefly controlled, led Westmoreland and counterinsurgency experts to claim a military victory for their side. Add to this the evidence that the purpose of these coordinated attacks on the points of governmental control in Vietnan was not to kill or even to seize control of the country but to inspire popular uprisings, and these never materialized.  This was acknowledged by the DRV commander General Tran Do who affirmed that the purpose of the Tet Offensive was to stimulate a spontaneous uprising among the Vietnamese population against the American military occupation of the country. This perception of defeat by both sides seemed authoritative, and yet, and this is the point, irrelevant. In General Do’s words at the time: “In all honesty, we didn’t achieve our main objective, which was to spur uprisings throughout the South. Still, we inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans, and their puppets, and this was a big gain for us.”

 

            But far more consequential than the American casualties that was certainly upsetting to backers of the war in Washington, was the traumatic impact of the Tet Offensive on American public opinion and related Congressional support for continuing the Vietnam War. This impact was also foreign to the military imagination of the Vietnamese at the time. As General Do put it,  “As for making an impact in the United States, it had not been our intention—but it turned out to be a fortunate result.” Exposed by the Tet Offensive was what was called at the time ‘the credibility gap,’ the space between the optimistic assessments by the White House that the war was being won, and the realities of the conflict.  The Tet Offensive was understood at the time throughout the United States as a massive refutation of the claim that the Vietnamese adversary was knocking at the door of defeat, on the verge of surrender or collapse. As a result of the Tet Offensive, Lyndon Johnson decided to withdraw from the presidential race for his reelection in 1968, declared a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam to give diplomacy a chance, and rejected a request from Saigon for additional American troops.

 

It is true the war dragged on for several more years with heavy casualties on both sides, but the Tet Offensive changed the American goal from ‘victory’ to ‘peace with honor,’ that is, ‘defeat in disguise.’ The subsequent Christmas bombing of the North and the disastrous invasion of Cambodia in 1970 were part of the bloody effort during the Nixon/Kissinger period of American leadership to produce ‘honor.’ Actually, when the war finally came to an abrupt end in 1975, the dominant image at the time being that of Vietnamese collaborators with the American intervention desperately seeking to escape from Vietnam by clamoring aboard a helicopter taking off from the roof of the embassy. Not honor but humiliation, chaos, and defeat became the end game for the United States in Vietnam, or put differently, the price paid with lives and devastation to achieve what was called ‘a decent interval’ between the American departure and the collapse of the client regime in Saigon.

 

To this day, counterinsurgency insiders contend that the United States snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and this conviction has partly explained why American policymakers have failed (or refused) to learn the defining lesson of Vietnam: the virtual impossibility in the early 21st century  of turning military superiority on the battlefield enjoyed by the intervening side into a favorable political outcome against an adversary that occupies the commanding heights of national self-determination. This learning disability has led directly to subsequent failed efforts, especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Military superiority succumbs over time to the strong historical tides of the last seven decades favoring the logic of self-determination. Among other explanations for this conclusion that cuts against the grain of political realism if this:  the intervening side gets tired of a unresolved struggle if it last more than a few years. As the Afghan saying goes: “You’ve got the watches, we’ve got the time.” Nationalist endurance is far stronger than is geopolitical endurance, and this acts as an equalizer with respect to the asymmetries of military capabilities.

 

But my reason for recalling the Tet Offensive is less about this primary feature of conflict in our time, especially in the setting of what Mary Kaldor has usefully called ‘new wars,’ than it is to comment upon contradictory perceptions of victory. These conflicts tend to be resolved on political battlefield far from the sites of military struggle, although each in its own way. What seems to count most in the end is a decisive shift in political perceptions on the home front of the intervening side.  Neither the successful response to the attacks in terms of casualties or restored control of the cities in South Vietnam, nor the failure of the attacks to be followed by popular uprisings mattered in the end so far as the historical significance of the Tet Offensive is concerned. It hardly mattered that the military appraisal made by both sides was wrong, although the Vietnamese side was less wrong as the spike in American casualties added considerable weight to the political reassessments of the conflict by the White House and aroused much anger among the American people.

 

This recollection is not meant to be an exercise in historical memory or even in the differences between how the military thinks and how the political process in a liberal democracy works.  It is more an expression of frustration about the unwillingness of the Obama presidency to acknowledge the failure of the mission to achieve its goals in Afghanistan.  As with Vietnam, the public is continually told by the military commanders about how well things are going, and even when unexpected setbacks take place, these are discounted as ‘one-off’ incidents that should not be allowed to become occasions for reappraisal. There was recent disappointment in some circles within the United States that were skeptical about continuing the intervention in Afghanistan when the execution of Osama Bin Laden was not followed by a credible and liberating claim from Washington of ‘mission accomplished,’ an ironic recourse to the Bush miscalculation in the early months of the Iraq War. Such a claim would have played well throughout the American heartland, and probably given Obama a clear path to reelection in 2012. Public opinion according to recent polls reinforces such an interpretation: 59% of Americans would like to see all American troops taken out of Afghanistan immediately or within a year, while only 22% believe that the United States has sufficiently defined goals to make the war worthy of American military engagement.

 

This same skepticism among Americans about foreign military intervention now applies more generally, although it could shift quickly if a foreign source of terrorism was able to inflict major damage on perceived American interests. According to Newsmax, August 11, 2011, only 24% of Americans support the U.S. military role in Libya, and 75% believe that the United States should not engage in overseas military action “unless the cause is vital to our national security.” It is obvious that the Libya does not qualify as ‘vital,’ and the justification relied upon did not even pretend that ‘security’ was the rationale for military intervention, but invoked ‘humanitarism.’ Of course, leaders will always argue that an intervention undertaken is vital, and could hardly do less, considering that lives of citizens are put at risk. But what these poll results show is the relative wisdom of the unacknowledged force of public opinion: reject of humanitarianism as an adequate basis for warmaking and disbelief in the post-facto security arguments put forth by elected leaders; healthy doubts about the self-serving claims of the military to be on the verge of victory. But such wars go on, however dysfunctional, the bodies pile up, and the political opposition is disregarded, and this despite the American empire teetering on the edge of financial disaster.

 

Several observations follow. During the Vietnam Era public opinion counted for more when the government was making its political calculations about continuing an unpopular war. Unquestionably, there has been a decline in democratic accountability in the United States with respect to war/peace issues. In part, this reflected the presence of a robust peace movement during the Vietnam War, which in turn arose as a response to  the military draft that touched the lives of middle class America. Now there is no draft, the war is fought with drones and private contracting firms. Furthermore, the weaponry and tactics are designed to minimize American casualties relative to the destruction inflicted. Unfortunately, the lessons learned from a decade of warfare in Vietnam were not about whether to intervene in new wars but how. It may be that in place of international law and political prudence, both of which should rationally discourage intervention contra the political weight of self-determination, the new source of restraint will derive from fiscal pressures to reduce defense spending. So far the militarist consensus in Washington has largely exempted the bloated U.S. defense budget from the knives of the cost cutters, who while besides being social reactionaries are military hawks. Even the more socially sensitive Obama democrats have largely continued to acquiesce in this willingness to treat defense spending as non-discretionary, as well as sustaining Israeli militarism with enhanced annual subsidies.

 

I had hoped that the helicopter incident on August 6th, the 66th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, in which 30 persons died, including members of the Navy Seals Elite Unit, would provide the excuse the Obama administration should have been waiting for to say finally that it was time to bring American troops home and end involvement in the struggle over the future of Afghanistan. It is common knowledge by now that the Afghanistan War is being fought against the nationalism Taliban and on behalf of a corrupted and incompetent Kabul regime for the political control of the country. This is a clear instance of a new war that will not be decided once and for all on the battlefield by soldiers and weapons or through the anachronistic agency of foreign intervention. The strategic justifications for the war in relation to a future sanctuary for a reconstituted Al Qaeda or in relation to the destabilization of Pakistan are extremely speculative, and seem more intelligently addressed by withdrawal from a military engagement that fans the flames of anti-Americanism, gives extremism a good name, and manifests the impotence of American imposed military solutions.

 

It adds up to a single moral, legal, and prudential imperative: when in doubt, stop the killing and the dying!

 

A Few Notes on WHAT IS LEFT (or Toward a Manifesto for Revolutionary Emancipation)

19 Jun

 

WHAT IS LEFT in two senses:

 

            –what remains of the historic left, conceived more universally as emancipatory politics independent of place and cultural nexus; that is, not

just Marxism, and its progeny, but all forms of resistance to oppression, including by indigenous peoples or in response to religious convictions;

            –the definitional challenge associated with defining ‘the left’ under contemporary conditions; the position taken here is that the left is somewhat obsolete if conceived in Eurocentric terms as opposition to the right, and needs to be conceived in relation to visions and projects of emancipation and through the aperture of historic struggles.

 

Toward a Manifesto for Revolutionary Emancipation:

            –the need for a radical depiction of transformative politics that takes full account of the historical particularity of present world conditions;

            –the importance of repudiating and transcending the anti-utopian ethos of prevailing political perspectives on change and reform;

            –the potentiality of generalizing a politics that seeks a just and sustainable future for all living beings on the planet;

            –the engagement with a conversational approach to political advocacy, and a corresponding rejection of all forms of dogmatic thinking.

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The ‘left’ agenda of the early 21st century:

 

            –support for the Palestinian Solidarity Movement, including its BDS campaign as both a creative form of resistance to oppressive circumstances, not just territorial occupation, but also to the struggle to overcome the enforced refugee and displacement status that has afflicted millions of Palestinians for more than six decades and a vision of justice and reconciliation;

            –struggle against global capitalism, especially in its neoliberal globalizing phase of super-financialization, as fundamentally unjust and unsustainable;

            –support for movement from below to push for adjustments to the challenges of climate change; the emissions of greenhouse gasses must be drastically reduced as an urgent priority; waiting until the harm is sufficiently tangible to produce effective governmental responses will be waiting too long, and involves the neglect of justice to future generations and indifferent to the present sufferings of sub-Saharan  Africa, islands and coastal areas subject to flooding.

 

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The leading forces for and against emancipatory politics:

 

            –FOR: the declining effectiveness of hard power politics either in its governmental or resistance forms; militarism is failing, although the political elites of the world, led by the United States, seem oblivious to this decisive historical trend; confirmations include the revolutionary potential of the Arab Spring, as well as the outcome of the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, and the still persisting Afghanistan War; it is not that military power has become irrelevant, but that it rarely in this historical period determines the political outcome; the great series of struggles in the last 60 years against colonialism ended with victory by the militarily weaker side, or by the side, as in India, that did not contest the imperial presence by violent forms of resistance; in contrast, hard power warfare and rulership were effective in earlier historical eras, and throughout the world;

 

        –AGAINST: the spreading of materialist consumerism as the new opiate of the people that hides the destructive and alienating dimensions of late modernity, and shields capitalist behavior from transformative critique; economic globalization as exhibited through franchise capitalism is the most widely endorsed regressive ideology operative in the world today, and is characteristic in different formats of the two leading exponents of the capitalist path: the United States and China. The absence of a counter-ideology of wide applicability after the Soviet collapse combined with discrediting a socialist ethos as alternative foundation for economic and political activity and organization has contributed to a widespread mood of resignation (‘there are no alternatives’). Replacing despair with hope is indispensable if new

globally attractive forms of emancipatory politics are to emerge and evolve.

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Comments on Legitimacy Wars as the encompassing form of struggle:

 

–an overriding recognition of the historical ascendancy of soft power;

–tactical and strategic commitments to nonviolence, although not unconditionally;

–crucial emphasis on gaining the high moral ground to widen popular appeal,

and use of law as an instrument to mobilize support, especially international law (‘lawfare’ as an approved modality of struggle);

–use of international arenas, whether regional or global, local or national, to wage symbolic struggles on behalf of legitimate claims, with a special stress on the symbolic significance of gaining support in the United Nations;

–understanding that most struggles for legitimate goals are non-territorial in relation to the symbolic and soft power battlefields that give potency to public opinion, to exemplary leadership (e.g Gandhi, Nelson Mandela); to tactics such as boycott, divestment, and sanctions, and to the certification of the moral and legal authority of grievances and claims (e.g. the Goldstone Report);

–patience and perseverance  as cardinal political virtues, along with the realization that legitimacy wars can be lost as well as won, with outcomes contingent on many contextual factors (e.g. self-determination for Tibetans, Chechens; indigenous peoples);

–a vision of the goal that includes reconciliation, accountability, and forgiveness, with the realization that there will be tensions and contradictions present in clearing the path forward, away from conflict, toward sustainable and just peace.

 

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These notes are meant as tentative and conversational expressions of an emergent political point of view, and will be revised in response to commentary by others. Obviously, also, there is no pretension on my part of comprehensiveness, or else many other issues would have been addressed: struggles against various types of patriarchy; the need to renounce nuclear weaponry, and work toward a phased process of nuclear disarmament, as well as other aspects of demilitarization; extending rights of self-determination to indigenous peoples variously situated; and establishing institutional arrangements giving opportunities for popular and direct representation of the peoples of the world (e.g. a UN Parliament of Peoples); building in all social spaces substantive democracy based on the equality of persons, reverence for the natural environment, and celebration of diverse spiritual and religious traditions. A cosmopolitan ethos that affirms love of self and others, tradition and otherness, and the familiar and the exotic.

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