Tag Archives: Washington

Invisible Horizons of a Just Palestine/Israel Future

4 Nov

I spent last week at the United Nations, meeting with ambassadors of countries in the Middle East and presenting my final report to the Third Committee of the General Assembly as my term as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine comes to an end. My report emphasized issues relating to corporate responsibility of those companies and banks that are engaged in business relationships with the settlements. Such an emphasis seemed to strike a responsive note with many delegations as a tangible way of expressing displeasure with Israel’s continuing defiance of its international law obligations, especially in relation to the unlawful settlements being provocatively expanded in the West Bank and East Jerusalem at the very moment that the resumption of direct negotiations between the Palestine Authority and the Government of Israel is being heralded as a promising development.

There are two reasons why the corporate responsibility issue seems to be an important tactic of consciousness raising and norm implementation at this stage: (1) it is a start down the slippery slope of enforcement after decades of UN initiatives confined to seemingly futile rhetorical affirmations of Israeli obligations under international law, accompanied by the hope that an enforcement momentum with UN backing is underway; (2) it is an expression of tacit support for the growing global movement of solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people for a just and sustainable peace agreement, and specifically, it reinforces the claims of the robust BDS Campaign that has itself scored several notable victories in recent months.

My intention in this post is to put aside these issues and report upon my sense of the diplomatic mood at the UN in relation to the future of Israel/Palestine relations. There is a sharp disconnect between the public profession of support for the resumed peace negotiations as a positive development with a privately acknowledged skepticism as to what to expect. In this regard, there is a widespread realization that conditions are not ripe for productive diplomacy for the following reasons: the apparent refusal of Israel’s political leadership to endorse a political outcome that is capable of satisfying even minimal Palestinian aspirations; the settlement phenomenon as dooming any viable form of a ‘two-state’ solution; the lack of Palestinian unity as between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas undermining its representational and legitimacy status.

The most serious concern on the Palestinian side is whether protecting the interests and rights of the totality of the Palestinian people in a peace process can be achieved within the present diplomatic framework. We need to be constantly reminded that ‘the Palestinian people’ cannot be confined to those Palestinian living under Israeli occupation: refugees in neighboring countries; refugees confined within occupied Palestine, but demanding a right of return to their residence at the time of dispossession; the Palestinian minority living in Israel; and 4-5 million Palestinians who constitute the Palestinian diaspora and its underlying reality of enforced exile.

It was also clear that the Palestinian Authority is confronted by a severe dilemma: either to accept the inadequate proposals put forward by Israel and the United States or reject these proposals and be blamed once again by Tel Aviv and Washington for rejecting a peace offer. Only some Israeli anxiety that the Palestinians might actually accept the U.S. proposals might induce Israel to refuse, on its side, to accept what Washington proposes, and spare the Palestinians the embarrassment posed by the dilemma of swallowing or spitting. That is, Israel when forced to show its hand may actually be unwilling to allow any solution to the conflict based on Palestinian self-determination, even if heavily weighted in Israel’s facvor. In effect, within the diplomatic setting there strong doubts exist as to whether the present Israeli leadership would accept even a Palestinian statelet even if it were endowed with only nominal sovereignty. In effect, from a Palestinian perspective it seems inconceivable that anything positive could emerge from the present direct negotiations, and it is widely appreciated that the PA agreed take part only after being subjected to severe pressure from the White House and Secretary Kerry. In this sense, the best that Ramallah can hope for is damage control.

There were three attitudes present among the more thoughtful diplomats at the UN who have been dealing with the Palestinian situation for years, if not decades: the first attitude was to believe somehow that ‘miracles’ happen in politics, and that a two state solution was still possible; usually this outlook avoided the home of the devil, that is the place where details reside, and if pressed could not offer a scenario that explained how the settlements could be shrunk sufficiently to enable a genuine two-state solution to emerge from the current round of talks; the second attitude again opted to support the resumption of the direct talks because it was ‘doing something,’ which seemed preferable to ‘doing nothing,’ bolstering this rather vapid view with the sentiment ‘at least they are doing something’; the third attitude, more privately and confidentially conveyed, fancies itself to be the voice of realism in world politics, which is contemptuous of the advocacy of rights and justice in relation to Palestine; this view has concluded that Israel has prevailed, it has won, and all that the Palestinians can do is to accommodate an adverse outcome, acknowledging defeat, and hope that the Israelis will not push their advantage toward a third cycle of dispossession (the first two being 1948, 1967) in the form of ‘population transfer’ so as to address their one remaining serious anxiety—the fertility gap leading to a feared tension between professing democracy and retaining the primary Zionist claim of being a Jewish state, the so-called ‘demographic bomb.’

As I reject all three of these postures, I will not leave my position as Special Rapporteur with a sense that inter-governmental diplomacy and its imaginative horizons have much to offer the Palestinian people even by way of understanding evolving trends in the conflict, much less realizing their rights, above all, the right of self-determination. At the same time, despite this, I have increased my belief that the UN has a crucial role to play in relation to a positive future for the Palestinian people—reinforcing the legitimacy of seeking a rights based solution rather than settling for a power based outcome that is called peace in an elaborate international ceremony of deception, in all likelihood on the lawn of the White House. In this period the UN has been playing an important part in legitimating Palestinian grievances by continuously referencing international law, human rights, and international morality.

The Israelis (and officialdom in the United States) indicate their awareness of this UN role by repeatedly stressing their unconditional opposition to what is labeled to be ‘the delegitimation project,’ which is a subtle propagandistic shift from the actual demand to uphold Palestinian rights to the misleading and diversionary claim that Israel’s critics are trying to challenge Israel’s right to exist as a state sovereign state. To be sure, the Palestinians are waging, with success a Legitimacy War against Israel for control of the legal and moral high ground, but they are not at this stage questioning Israeli statehood, but only its refusal to respect international law as it relates to the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people.

Let us acknowledge a double reality. The UN is a geopolitical actor that is behaviorally manipulated by money and hard power on many fundamental issues, including Palestine/Israel; this stark acknowledgement severely restricts the effectiveness of the UN with regard to questions of justice. Fortunately, this is not the whole story. The UN is also a normative actor that articulates the grievances of peoples and governments, influences public discourse with respect to the global policy agenda, and has great and distinctive symbolic leverage in establishing the legitimacy of claims. In other words, the UN can say what is right, without being necessarily able to do what is right. This distinction summarizes the narratives of articulating the Palestinian claims and the justice of the Palestinian struggle without being able to overcome behavioral obstacles in the geopolitical domain that block their fulfillment.

What such a gap also emphasizes is that the political climate is not yet right for constructive inter-governmental negotiations, which would require both Israel and the United States to recalculate their priorities and to contemplate alternative future scenarios in a manner that is far more congruent with upholding the panoply of Palestinian rights. Such shifts in the political climate are underway, and are not just a matter of changing public opinion, but also mobilizing popular regional and global support for nonviolent tactics of opposition and resistance to the evolving status quo. The Arab Spring of 2011 initially raised expectations that such a mobilization would surge, but counter-revolutionary developments, political unrest, and economic panic have temporarily, at least, dampened such prospects, and have lowered the profile of the Palestinian struggle.

Despite such adverse developments in the Middle East from a Palestinian perspective, it remains possible to launch within the UN a broad campaign to promote corporate responsibility in relation to the settlements, which could gradually be extended to other unlawful Israeli activities (e.g. separation wall, blockade of Gaza, prison and arrest abuses, house demolitions). Such a course of action links efforts within the UN to implement international law with activism that is already well established within global civil society, being guided by Palestinian architects of 21st century nonviolent resistance. In effect, two disillusionments (armed struggle and international diplomacy) are coupled with a revised post-Oslo strategy giving the Palestinian struggle a new identity (nonviolent resistance, global solidarity campaign, and legitimacy warfare) with an increasing emancipatory potential.

Such an affirmation is the inverse of the ultra realist view mentioned above that the struggle is essentially over, and all that is left is for the Palestinians to admit defeat and for the Israelis to dictate the terms of ‘the peace treaty.’ While admitting that such a visionary worldview may be based on wishful thinking, it is also appropriate to point out that most political conflicts since the end of World War II have reflected the outcome of legitimacy wars more than the balance of hard power. Military superiority and geopolitical leverage were consistently frustrated during the era of colonial wars in the 1960s and 1970s. In this regard, it should be understood that the settler colonial enterprise being pursued by Israel is on the wrong side of history, and so contrary to appearances, there is reason to be hopeful about the Palestinian future and historical grounds not succumb to the dreary imaginings of those who claim the mantle of realism.

Snowden’s Post-Asylum Relevance

15 Aug

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

A Tale of Two Texts

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

           

 

            

What If a Russian Snowden?

9 Aug

Political Crimes’ are Non-Extraditable and Snowden’s Transfer to the United States for Prosecution would have been a Setback for Human Rights and International Law

 

What is most troubling about how the Snowden case has played out diplomatically and via the media is the almost total refusal to focus attention on the central legal, moral, and political issues. The United States Government from the outset has acted as if it is entitled to have Snowden transferred to its custody because he is a fugitive from American criminal justice. Pursuing this line of reasoning, Washington has exerted pressure on Latin American governments not to grant Snowden asylum and expressed disappointment with Hong Kong, China, and Russia for their refusal to comply with the U.S. request. The assumption has been that this is a simple instance of cooperative law enforcement, and it is thus unfriendly and unreasonable for another government to shelter Snowden by a grant of asylum.

Barack Obama has underscored the importance he gives to this issue by canceling a scheduled a high profile summit meeting in September with Vladimir Putin. He even contends that Russian non-cooperation in relation to Snowden exhibits a ‘Cold War mentality’ that backslides from recent instances of Russian-American cooperation such as after the Boston Marathon bombing. Fairly construed, it would seem that it was Obama, not Putin, who was guilty of Cold War posturing. Recall that even during the Cold War Nixon agreed to meet with Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow at the height of international tensions. It is Obama who frequently tells us of his readiness to negotiate even with the most obdurate of Republican hardliners, but apparently this willingness does not extend to foreign leaders who fail to do what Washington’s wants! Further, it should be appreciated that it is Putin who has affirmed from the outset that he didn’t want the Snowden incident to harm Russia’s relations with the United States. Even after the cancellation of the diplomatic meeting of heads of state, Putin has expressed regret rather than righteous indignation, or even disappointment. As so often, the misuse of political language, 1984 style, inverts reality, and misses what could have been used as ‘a teaching moment’ on the protection of human rights and the promotion of political pluralism in a world of sovereign states.

The misleading character of this Snowden discourse also goes largely unnoticed because it has been not substantively contested, especially by China and Russia. The Latin American triumvirate of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua base their offers of asylum on a principled human rights rationale, but even they do not explain their reasoning, especially its legal roots and political justification. All of this leaves a false impression that both sides of the debate about Snowden are acting within a domain of pure discretion, and even leading human rights organizations have reinforced such a misunderstanding by remaining largely silent spectators. As a result, Obama’s petulant cancellation of the summit, and with it an important opportunity on which to explore ways to end the Syrian internal war and to avert a military confrontation with Iran is irresponsibly lost, and for what?

The overall situation could have been far better understood if all parties involved had put forward arguments that articulated their claims in a coherent manner. The United States could have then insisted that despite Snowden’s claims of a political motivation, his acts of espionage and conversion of government property, should not be viewed as ‘political crimes.’ Such a position could have included the assertion that the revelation of American surveillance efforts endangered national and global security, putting the American people and foreign countries at risk, and that there existed a world interest in preventing terrorism creating a shared interest in the enforcement of criminal law. Such a rationale would doubtless include an insistence that present levels of secrecy and scrutiny were reasonable, restricted, and necessary. Further, it would be claimed that the collection of data was done in a non-invasive manner protective of privacy to the extent possible, and designed only to identify suspicious behavior. In effect, the U.S. Government could have argued that what Snowden did was tantamount to complicity with ‘terrorism’ and should be dealt with as a matter of transnational criminal law enforcement and diplomatic cooperation so as to serve the global public good and promote human security.

The Russian position would rest on a contrary line of reasoning based on the belief that Snowden’s acts clearly constituted a ‘political crime’ because of the political nature of what was revealed, the absence of any commercial motivation, the absence of any violent acts, and the evident intention of Snowden to warn the peoples and governments of the world about legally dubious secret and excessive encroachments on privacy and confidentiality of communications. This means that even if an extradition treaty between the countries had existed to oblige Russia to cooperate with the United States in relation to the enforcement of criminal law, a request to extradite Snowden would be rejected because of the nature of his alleged crimes. It is standard practice, long upheld in doctrine and practice by the United States as well, to include a political crimes exception to the mutual obligation to extradite.

In fact, if Russia had transferred Snowden to the United States for prosecution, there would have been a widespread public outcry, no doubt intensified by the perception that other whistleblowers in the security area, especially Bradley Manning and Julian Assange have been recently subject to vindictive and abusive treatment for comparable breaches of American secrecy in the name of national security. The Russian decision that Snowden’s acts should be treated as political crimes seems convincing and reasonable, although regrettably  not articulated along these lines.

As should be obvious, my sympathies lie with the governments that seek to provide Snowden with sanctuary, treating him in effect as ‘a prisoner of conscience’ and someone whose acts will be remembered not for their alleged criminality, but because they raised vital concerns about the nature and proper limits of democratic governance in the 21st century. What Snowden did was not easy. It has established him for many of us as a brave individual who had the courage to step outside the edifices of government and corporate bureaucracy to scream ‘enough!’ Perhaps, the scream has come too late, past the tipping point in this ominous revelation of a digital panopticon. Let us hope not.

In each of these instances where government secrets of the United States were disclosed, the leadership of the country has refused to discuss the substantive issues raised beyond a monolithic denunciation of ‘the leaker’ and a less than credible plea, ‘trust us!’ Trust us, the national security government as we have the experience, knowledge, and sensitivity to strike the right balance between the requirements of security and the protection of freedom. ‘Fooling most of the people most of the time’ is not a prescription for sustainable democracy even acknowledging the vulnerability of the country to the difficulties of addressing the security threats posed by extremist violence in the post-9/11 world.

Unfortunately, also, the most influential media in the United States has not helped clarify the terms of debate by reference to the legal, moral, and political issues. Instead it has largely exhibited its lack of independence and pro-government bias in the Snowden Affair in three major ways:

–consistently referring to Snowden by the demeaning designation of ‘leaker’ rather than as ‘whistleblower’ or ‘surveillance dissident,’ both more respectful and accurate;

–totally ignoring the degree to which Russia’s grant of temporary refugee status to Snowden for one year is in full accord with the normal level of protection to be given to anyone accused of nonviolent political crimes in a foreign country, and pursued diplomatically and legally by the government that is seeking to indict and prosecute; in effect, for Russia to have turned Snowden over to the United States under these conditions would have set a morally and politically scandalous precedent considering the nature of his alleged crimes; such a decision would have been especially objectionable as there was no extradition treaty that established any legal obligation to hand over individuals accused of crimes by a foreign government, and thus to transfer Snowden would have meant doing  gratuitously what even a treaty had it existed would not have required;

–failing to point out that espionage, the main accusation against Snowden, is the quintessential ‘political offense’ in international law, and as such is routinely excluded from any list of extraditable offenses; there are good reasons why the safety valve provided by whistleblowers and dissidents is especially valuable for the citizenry of democratic societies at the present time. When the nature of security threats is so widely dispersed, and can extend to citizens and the far corners of the earth, the possibility of anti-democractic abuse is great. What Snowden has revealed, shows that this danger is more than a possibility, and calls for remedial action in the United States that establishes more restrictive guidelines on what the government may do in relation to privacy and confidentiality than previously existed. In effect, Snowden performed a public service that is being indirectly acknowledged by new attention given in Congress and by the media to a rebalancing of security and freedom more responsive to the values of privacy.

If these elements had been clearly articulated, the United States Government would have seemed ridiculous to complain about the willingness of some foreign governments to give Snowden asylum, and worse than complain, to use its diplomatic leverage in relation to small and vulnerable government to induce them to do the wrong thing. The Obama administration, and Senate hot heads could call Snowden a traitor and bemoan his unavailability for prosecution to their heart’s content, but such behavior would be then seen for what it was: a petulant empire exhibiting its rage and frustration because its hard power global presence was of no use, and its policy options were effectively constrained because other countries abided by the rule of law. Under these conditions to be threatening foreign governments with adverse diplomatic consequences if they refuse to play ball is not only exhibiting a child’s frustration, but it is self-defeating. If properly presented, those countries that offered asylum or refused Washington’s demand for the transfer of Snowden to American custody were behaving in accord with the best teachings of human rights. What should be surprising is that more governments were not forthcoming, leaving it to such small countries as Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua to withstand the strong arm tactics of the United States, perhaps signaling a welcome new resolve throughout Latin America to no longer accept their former regional identity of providing a backyard for the benefit of the colossus of the North.

If anything, President Vladimir Putin, considering the nature of the Snowden disclosures about the global reach of American surveillance systems, acted with an exceptional respect for the sensitivities of the United States. Instead of merely pointing out that Snowden could not be transferred to the United States against his will, Putin went out of his way to say that he did not want the incident to harm relations with the United States, and beyond this, to condition a grant of temporary asylum on Snowden’s unusual pledge to refrain from any further release of documents damaging to American interests.

Such a tactful approach to a delicate situation hardly merits the hyperbolic aggressive words of the supposedly liberal Democratic senator from New York, Charles Schumer: “Russia has stabbed us in the back..Each day that Mr. Snowden is allowed to roam free is another turn of the knife.” We should ask these deeply aggrieved senators for honest answers, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who added their own fiery denunciations of both Snowden and Russia, what they would have done if the situation had been reversed—if a comparable Russian whistleblower had revealed a Russian surveillance system that was listening in on secret government deliberations in Washington as well as invading the privacy of ordinary Americans. I suspect they would have demanded that Obama cancel the meeting because of what such disclosures revealed about Russia’s wrongdoing.

I would expect that the righteous indignation surrounding such revelations and the gratitude in the United States that would be bestowed on a Russian Snowden would know few bounds. The American media too in that situation would have been quick to produce experts on a nightly basis explaining why extraditing such a person would be wrong, and that there existed a contrary duty to provide sanctuary from the harsh workings of the Russian criminal justice system. Pious suggestions would be made that this Russian Snowden is deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize.

In a not so subtle way, the Snowden diplomacy is yet another illustration of American exceptionalism: that is, there is an obligation for others to do what our government would never think of doing. What might be called ‘the iron law of hegemony.’ International law and morality operate on a contrary logic: equal situations should be treated equally. Revealingly, American domestic law is clear about its commitment to protect a Russian Snowden: “No return or surrender shall be made of any person charged with the commission of any offense of a political nature.” 18 United States Code §3185. The United States has repeatedly shielded even individuals associated with violent political acts if the target involves a hostile government or its citizens and property, most notoriously Cuba.

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Reviving the Israel-Palestine Negotiations: The Indyk Appointment

30 Jul

Indyk KerryAppointing Martin Indyk as Special Envoy to the upcoming peace talks was to be expected. It was signaled in advance. And yet it is revealing and distressing.

The only other candidates considered for the job were equally known as Israeli partisans: Daniel Kurtzer, former ambassador to Israel before becoming Commissioner of Israel’s Baseball League and Dennis Ross, co-founder in the 1980s (with Indyk) of the AIPAC backed Washington Institute for Near East Policy; handled the 2000 Camp David negotiations on behalf of Clinton.

The winner among these three was Martin Indyk, former ambassador to Israel (1995-97; 2000-01), onetime AIPAC employee, British born, Australian educated American diplomat, with a long list of pro-Israeli credentials.

Does it not seem strange for the United States, the convening party and the unconditional supporter of Israel, to rely exclusively for diplomatic guidance in this concerted effort to revive the peace talks on persons with such strong and unmistakable pro-Israeli credentials?

Kerry NetanWhat is stranger, still, is that the media never bothers to observe this peculiarity of a negotiating framework in which the side with massive advantages in hard and soft power, as well as great diplomatic and media leverage, needs to be further strengthened by having the mediating third-party so clearly in its corner. Is this numbness or bias? Are we so accustomed to a biased framework that it is taken for granted, or is it overlooked because it might spoil the PR effect of reviving the moribund peace process?

John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, whose show this is, dutifully indicated when announcing the Indyk appointment, that success in the negotiations will depend on the willingness of the two sides to make ‘reasonable compromises.’ But who will decide on what is reasonable? It would be criminally negligent for the Palestinians to risk their future by trusting Mr. Indyk’s understanding of what is reasonable for the parties. But the Palestinians are now potentially entrapped. If they are put in a position where Israel accepts, and the Palestinian Authority rejects, “(un)reasonable compromises,” the Israelis will insist they have no “partner” for peace, and once more hasbara will rule the air waves.

It is important to take note of the language of reasonable compromises, which as in earlier attempts at direct negotiations, excludes any reference to international law or the rights of the parties. Such an exclusion confirms that the essential feature of this diplomacy of negotiations is a bargaining process in which relative power and influence weighs heavily on what is proposed by and acceptable to the two sides. If I were advising the Palestinians, I would never recommend accepting a diplomatic framework that does not explicitly acknowledge the relevance of international law and the rights of the parties. In the relation of Israel and Palestine, international law could be the great equalizer, soft power neutralizing hard power. And this is precisely why Israel has worked so hard to keep international law out of the process, which is what I would certainly recommend if in Tel Aviv’s diplomatic corner.

Can one even begin to contemplate, except in despair, what Benjamin Netanyahu and his pro-settler cabinet consider reasonable compromises?  On what issues can we expect Israel to give ground: borders, Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security?

It would have been easy for Kerry to create a more positive format if he had done either of two things: appointed a Palestinian or at least someone of Middle Eastern background as co-envoy to the talks. Rashid Khalidi, President Obama’s onetime Chicago friend and neighbor, would have been a reassuring choice for the Palestinian side. Admittedly, having published a book a few months ago with the title Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Undermined Peace in the Middle East, the appointment of Khalidi, despite his stellar credentials, would have produced a firestorm in Washington. Agreed, Khalidi is beyond serious contemplation, but what about John Esposito, Chas Freeman, Ray Close? None of these alternatives, even Khalidi, is as close to the Palestinians as Indyk is to the Israelis, and yet such a selection would have been seen as a step taken to close the huge credibility deficit. Yet such credibility remains outside the boundaries of the Beltway’s political imagination, and is thus inhabits the realm of the unthinkable.

It may be that Kerry is sincere in seeking to broker a solution to the conflict, yet this way of proceeding does not. Perhaps, there was no viable alternative. Israel would not come even to negotiate negotiations without being reassured in advance by an Indyk-like appointment. And if Israel had signaled its disapproval, Washington would be paralyzed.

The only remaining question is why the Palestinian Authority goes along so meekly. What is there to gain in such a setting? Having accepted the Washington auspices, why could they not have demanded, at least, a more neutral or balanced negotiating envoy? I fear the answer to such questions is ‘blowin’ in the wind.’

And so we can expect to witness yet another charade falsely advertized as ‘the peace process.’ Such a diversion is costly for the Palestinians, beneficial for the Israelis. Settlement expansion and associated projects will continue, the occupation with all its rigors and humiliations will continue, and the prospects for a unified Palestinian leadership will be put on indefinite hold. Not a pretty picture.

This picture is made more macabre when account is taken of the wider regional scene, especially the horrifying civil war in Syria and the bloody military coup in Egypt. Not to be forgotten, as well, are Israeli threats directed at Iran, backed to the hilt by the U.S. Congress, and the terrible legacy of violent sectarian struggle that is ripping Iraq apart. Naturally, there is speculation that some kind of faux solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict would release political energy in Washington that could be diverted to an anti-Assad intervention in Syria and even an attack on Iran. We cannot rule out such infatuations with morbid geopolitical projects, but neither should we assume that conspiratorial scenarios foretell the future.

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Misreading the Snowden Affair

11 Jul

This post is a revised and modified version of an essay published as an Op/Ed two days ago by Al Jazeera English; it attempt to reflect on the significance of the Snowden disclosures, and why governments did not rebuff the American efforts to take Snowden into custody as an accused criminal by the simple assertion that ‘political crimes‘ should never be the subject of cooperative inter-governmental efforts to achieve the enforcement of criminal law in a foreign country. The world benefits from the safety valve of such sanctuary, as does the country that is seeking to arrest and punish the whistleblower even if most of its leaders and opinion makers do not realize this. So far even the U.S. Government has not insisted that Snowden’s crime is somehow not to be considered ‘a political crime,’ nor could it plausibly make such an argument. For this reason to capture Snowden the United States has relied on its diplomatic clout and geopolitical capacity to impose costs on those who do not comply with its wishes. So far in the Snowden Affair it is small Latin American countries, including Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, that have risked the ire of the United States by pursuing independent policies with respect to Snowden, and acting correctly from the perspective of law and morality.

 

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            I had thought that there was a clear set of principles that make the frantic American diplomatic pursuit of Edward Snowden as a fugitive from justice a rather empty and futile gesture. As far as I can tell, there is not even a need for asylum, which is normally reserved for someone with reasonable fears that persecution will occur is forced to return to his country of nationality. Every foreign governments should have been prepared to grant Snowden residence status because his alleged criminal acts in the United States were without doubt political crimes.

 

            I had thought it was as straightforward as law can be that any person who has committed a political crime should be exempted from mandatory extradition even if a treaty existed imposed a duty on its parties to hand over individuals accused of serious criminal activity. To be sure, from the perspective of the United States Government, Snowden’s exposure of the PRISM surveillance program was a flagrant violation of the Espionage Act and breach of classification constraints was unlawful. But it was also as self-evidently a political crime as almost any undertaking can be. There was no violence involved or threatened, and no person is harmed by the disclosures.

Quite the contrary, information in the public interest, related to the defense of individual liberties and national sovereign rights was made available, enhancing the prospects for protecting democracy against its many enemies.

 

            What puzzles me is why the refusal to hand Snowden over by expelling him to the United States, which is what Washington has asked Russia to do, raises any kind of serious question beyond wondering how and why the U.S. government officials posed such a request almost in the form of a demand in the first place. The U.S. Government approached Moscow as if they were harboring a common criminal: “We expect the Russian Government to look at all options available to expel Mr. Snowden to the United States to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged.” Putin spurned the request, but he might have made his correct stand stronger either by indicating that Snowden was welcome to remain in Russia or by rebuffing such a strongly worded request as inappropriate.

 

            It is also puzzling why governments in Europe did not politely respond to Washington by simply saying that it has long been their firm policy and consistent practice not to collaborate with foreign governments in the pursuit of individuals accused of committing nonviolent political crimes. There are excellent public policy and humanitarian reasons why such ‘criminals’ should not be treated internationally as fugitives from justice. Whistleblowing serves the overall public interest relating to maintain a balance of state and society in democratic polities, and providing sanctuary for those who commit political crimes benefits the public good of a state-centric world order.  

 

            It seems clearly within the domain of reason to believe that the extent of secret surveillance, both conducted by the United States within its own borders and globally, is posing a dangerous threat to the future of democracy, to the freedom, privacy, and the security of individuals, and to the national sovereignty of all states. In these respects, Snowden’s crimes are from a global perspective not crimes at all, but should be viewed as timely and brave contributions to human security.

 

            His disclosures can also be interpreted from within the United States as acts of civil disobedience, that is, deliberate violations of law to call attention to greater wrongs.   It was Snowden’s conscience as a citizen that appears to have led him to act against his normal interests, giving up a successful career and high income as a skilled government contract employee working in the private sector and accepting the pressures and insults that he must have anticipated would follow upon such a frontal challenge to counter-terrorist security policies relied upon by the most powerful country in the world. There is every indication that Snowden knew exactly what he was doing, and why. He deliberately violated the applicable criminal law of the United States in a sensitive area of national security, and not surprisingly has been labeled ‘a traitor’ by politicians and some media opinion writers, and some zealots have even accused him of ‘treason.’ Beyond this, more moderate critics have insisted that unlike Daniel Ellsberg who remained in the country after he released the Pentagon Papers, Snowden does not deserve to be respected as a whistleblower because he did not stay around to face the legal music, subservience to the criminal law system being regarded as the essential expression of good faith by those who claim to be acting for the public good when they defy the law for a supposedly higher good. It should be appreciated that in the post-9/11 world, especially within the United States, there is an almost unlimited willingness of American courts to treat government procedures of surveillance and policies of confidentiality as ‘reasonable’ provided only that a justification is made that such measures are needed to keep American safe and prevent future terrorist incidents. It is true that Snowden is insisting that his balancing of security and freedom is to be preferred over that of the government, including its elected representatives and leaders.

 

            The U.S. Government international pursuit of Snowden seems to  contradict its own long standing practice of refusing to give up to foreign governments those wanted for political crimes, including in some instances even shielding persons charged with terrorist activity if the target country is viewed as an enemy state. The most notorious example of such a pattern involves Luis Posada Carrilles, an exile from Cuba with a long record of involvement in anti-Castro terrorist activity and state terrorism. Carrilles, among other violent acts, is alleged to have been centrally involved with a plot to blow up a Cuban passenger plane in 1976 that killed all 73 persons on board. He has been living for decades without legal difficulties in Florida. This is not meant to show the extremes to which the political crimes doctrine is carried. Rather it illustrates carrying this exemption from criminal accountability much too far, and raises the opposite problem from that associated with the affair of Snowden.

 

            The shameful behavior of several European governments, succumbing to American pressure, cannot be overlooked, and suggests the extent to which law and morality can be bent by the exertion of geopolitical leverage. It is notable that such well established governments of France, Portugal, Spain, and Italy caved in, denying overflight rights to the plane carrying Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, apparently hoping to persuade a friendly government to seize Snowden wherever the plane eventually landed, and then turn him over to American authorities if he were on board who would have him transported back to the United States to face charges. It should hardly be surprising that such diplomatic hard ball at Bolivia’s expense angered several Latin American countries, justifiably sensitive to such a display of U.S. willingness to throw its weight around in a manner humiliating to a head of state in a Latin American country. It is unimaginable that the United States would tolerate such behavior if its president were to be denied normal overflight rights because there was believed to be on board an Iranian who had just revealed some state secrets about Iran’s nuclear program because he was fearful that the development of nuclear weapons by Iran would lead to war. Undoubtedly this effort to divert the Bolivian presidential plane was an anguishing reminder to Latin America that the imperial mentality responsible for the Monroe Doctrine and ‘gunboat diplomacy’ in the Western Hemisphere was not entirely a thing of the past.

 

            It is not known why Snowden himself shifted the context from the exemption of political crimes to a request for asylum, which presupposes a justifiable fear of persecution of returned to the country of nationality. It may be that he was not advised about the availability of political crimes exception to extradition or that he was informed by Russia and other governments that he would not welcome to remain in their country, perhaps because of seeking to avoid diplomatic difficulties with the United States. As it was, the U.S. officials and influential media commentators treated the refusal of Russia, China, and Hong Kong to hand Snowden over as an unfriendly, if not hostile, act. Secretary of State Kerry somewhat bizarrely reminded Russia of their recent cooperation in relation to the Boston Marathon terrorist case, as if this somehow created an obligation on Russia’s part to behave in a similar way with respect to Snowden. What make this bizarre is the seeming equivalence struck between the Boston murderers and Snowden.

 

            It is against such a background that Nicolás Maduro, President of Venezuela, offered Snowden asylum on July 5th, the national holiday celebrating independence in his country. The offer of asylum to Snowden on such an occasion was resonant with symbolism relating to a reminder to Washington that time have indeed changed, and even small Latin American countries will define their own national interests and shape public policy on the basis of Venezuelan values. Snowden has reportedly accepted the offer, but there is no indication how he will make sure that his trip from Shermetyevo International Airport in Moscow to Caracas is not interrupted on route in a way that allows the United States to take him into custody.

 

            There is another question lurking in the background. Will Venezuela be now made to pay for doing the right thing? And what of Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador that each indicated sympathy with Snowden’s request for asylum? There has been speculation that in the post-Chavez era Maduro has been seeking to normalize relations with the United States, and that this goal might now be put on indefinite hold. And what about Hong Kong, China, and Russia that spurned American efforts to have Snowden expelled to the United States after his passport was cancelled? How far will the U.S. Government push this anti-leak diplomacy?

 

            I suppose that this attack of ‘surveillance panic’ is a symptom of the larger importance being attached by Washington to cyber security, and worries about disabling attacks directed at information networks by way of hacking and debilitating viruses. Even granting this, to go after Snowden in this way is more than panic, it suggests one more example of American exceptionalism that causes anger and resentment throughout the world—in effect, the United States is insisting that we expect from others far more than we are prepared to give. It is especially striking that among Snowden’s disclosures are confirmations of the earlier rumors that the United States and Israel had collaborate to develop the computer worm or virus, Stuxnet, that had been used in 2010 to disrupt operations in Iran’s nuclear facilities. As with the use of drones around the world, the blowback risks seem once more ignored as America flexes its geopolitical muscles without regard for the constraints of international law, the logic of reciprocity, and the values of a free society.

 

            Reciprocity is the indispensable foundation of effective international law, and it is here that the Snowden Affair seems particularly disturbing. If a Chinese Snowden was to make comparable revelations that violated Chinese criminal law there would not be a chance in a million that the United States would return such an individual to China, and wouldn’t Washington be outraged if China used its leverage to persuade governments to divert a plane suspected of carrying the person they were seeking to prosecute, especially if it were a plane known to be carrying the president of a sovereign state?

 

           

            Why should it be deemed ‘unfriendly’ to offer sanctuary to Snowden as European countries, and even China and Russia, seemed to believe? Why were even the Latin American countries seemingly only led to act when the Bolivian president was denied normal international comity in international airspace as head of a sovereign state, and this seemed like an affront that called for a response? Giving sanctuary to political crimes helps makes the world safe for political dissent and pluralism, and offers a shield against the autocratic security state. It should be expected as a dimension of a commitment to human rights and democracy. It is admirable that Venezuela, whatever its reasons, stepped forward to offer Snowden asylum, which was certainly deserved from the perspective of refugee law, considering the vindictive and punitive approach taken toward such other recent ‘leakers’ as Bradley Manning and Julian Assange.

 

            What may be most regrettable in this yet unfinished drama is the American refusal to engage in self-scrutiny, to wonder whether surveillance and secrecy are not being abused, a gross over-reaction to 9/11 and extremist threats, that alters the balance between state and society in an anti-democratic manner, as well as treats the entire world as if falls within the ‘territorial’ domain of U.S. national security. Such a worldview is decidedly imperial as it has no intention of honoring reciprocal claims made by others, and implicitly places the United States above the law by allowing it to seize such a fugitive from justice wherever in the world he might be found, thereby manipulating cooperative international criminal law enforcement to suit its own particular priorities.

 

            Instead of seeking to prosecute and punish Snowden, the healthy national response would be to consider placing stronger limits on governmental surveillance and extraterritorial security claims, and certainly to open such a debate. It is crucial that American citizens not be fooled by the politics of deflection by which the government and a pliant media avoid the message of disclosure and obsess about the messenger who discloses. It has never been more important for Americans and others to discuss the substantive concerns that prompted Snowden to take such a hazardous course. And yet the energy of the country has been almost exclusively devoted up to now to the purported need to punish this individual of conscience who chose courageously to endure the predictable fury of a state when some of its most unseemly secrets were shared with the public. Snowden gave us as planetary citizens this incredible opportunity and responsibility to evaluate the acceptability of these state secrets, which if not taken, might fasten forever the tentacles of the security state upon an increasingly nominal and pliant body politic. 

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An Open Letter on my 82nd Birthday

13 Nov

 

            Exactly two years ago I wrote my first blog. Throughout this period it has been a bittersweet experience consisting of work, play, challenge, and occasional consternation. Many warm and generous responses have given me an appreciation of the distinctive satisfactions of cyber connectivity. Such pleasures have been somewhat offset by hostile commentary and related monitoring, not mainly for disagreements as to substance, but to find discrediting material, usually torn from context, that might induce me to resign or be dismissed from my unpaid UN position as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the Human Rights Council. What is most distressing is not the attacks that are well known to come with this territory, but the degree to which important government officials in the United States and at the UN so easily become willing accomplices in such malicious campaigns of defamation, and do so without ‘due diligence.’

 

            Of course, someone more prudent than I, would have long ago abandoned the blogosphere, and more fully enjoyed the many serene satisfactions of southern California and the stimulating challenges of summers in Turkey. The magnetic appeal of this risky, still uncertain, medium of communication that was born in this century is both to reach others everywhere on the planet and to engage in a form of self-exploration and self-discovery that demonstrates almost daily that one is never too old to learn anew. These posts of mine have been mostly reflections of my experience around the world, interpretations of current global issues, and suggestions for a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world.

 

            I have deeply appreciated the support and most of the reactions I have received from known and unknown persons throughout the planet. At the deepest level, it makes me realize that there exists a large invisible and informal community of shared faith in the healing power of love, and less grandly, of the gratifications of dialogue. It is as a charter member of this community that makes me feel that it is valuable to remain an active participant so long as my muse permits, perhaps at a reduced rate.

 

            At the start of this experience I felt that it was best to allow all comments to appear, including the most unsavory. Yet as the months went by I realized that there is a cyber analogue to Gresham’s Law: ‘bad comments drive out good!’ I received many personal messages outside the blogosphere decrying the toxic atmosphere. This prompted me to try my best to monitor comments, excluding those that were uncivil in tone, as well as those that consisted of personal. It was not easy. It is a fine line. I was criticized for straying across it, or using my discretion in a biased manner. I listened, and have tried to be sensitive to diverse viewpoints without denying my own passions.

 

            I realize that many online media outlets allow comments to appear with only minimal filtering, but I have come to feel that this diminishes the quality and benefits of the dialogic potential of a blog, especially one devoted often to issues being debated in public space. It has taught me that while freedom of expression is a vital human right, and integral to democracy, it must be limited by context. The world is now a crowded theater. Koran burning and bible burning are the 21st century equivalent of shouting ‘fire!’ and inducing panic and causing mayhem in distant places. The problem of a blog is, of course, different. The justification for limiting expression to establish the kind of decorum that facilitates dialogue and conversation.

 

            Among the side effects of my blog has been an opportunity to publish more widely. It was encouraging to be invited to become a regular contributor to Al Jazeera’s English online opinion section. I find this brilliantly edited source of news and commentary to be far more cosmopolitan in its orientation toward events of the day than the most authoritative mainstream Western media outlets. This post-colonial de-Westernization of information and interpretative assessment is integral to building a multi-civilizational world community dedicated to the principles of humane and sustainable governance at all levels of social interaction.

 

            As time passes, the political circumstances of the peoples of the world are undergoing a variety of severe stresses, some local, others global, some presently experienced, others threatened in the near and medium future. There are extremely dangerous underlying patterns of behavior emerging: Among the most disturbing is the deterritorialization of conflict epitomized by kill lists and drone technology that ignores the sovereignty of others and defies the moral and legal limits embodied in international humanitarian law.

 

            There are also some latent opportunities that will come as surprises if acted upon. Perhaps, the reelected Barack Obama might surprise us by being willing to take steps to convince the world that he deserved the Nobel Peace Price that had been prematurely, and somewhat perversely, awarded to him in 2009. One sure way to do this would be to revive his Prague vision of a world without nuclear weapons. There will never be a better time in world politics to convene the nine governments whose states possess nuclear weapons. There is no raging geopolitical conflict, a mounting risk of a dangerous surge in the proliferation, and the many countries beset by financial crisis would welcome uplifting moves toward denuclearization. Nothing would more quickly restore America’s tarnished reputation as a benevolent force in the world than tabling a detailed proposal for phased and verified nuclear disarmament to be implemented within a decade. It is commonplace to applaud the vision but then immediately defer its realization to the distant future, which is to take back with one hand what was given with the other, raising expectations of those who are dedicated to abolishing the weaponry, and then reassuring nuclearists that they have nothing to worry about as nothing will actually happen. Now is the time for a genuine presidential initiative that is launched in Washington but negotiated under UN auspices to rid the world of the menace of nuclear weaponry, and to belatedly clear the conscience of humanity for its reliance on ‘security’ ever since1945 that rests on a genocidal doctrine of deterrence. Of course, the main responsibility for this reliance is not that of humanity, but of the governments that possess the weaponry and their supportive bureaucratic and economicmilitarized infrastructures. Even if the initiative should not succeed in achieving agreement, the effort would assure the Obama presidency of a memorable legacy.

 

            The other global challenge that presents the White House with an extraordinary opportunity for action is climate change. The world, including the United States, has ignored a multitude of wakeup calls, most recently super storm Sandy. It has also refused to take seriously the scientific consensus warning the world of the dire consequences of failing to curtail carbon emissions. Further delay is not neutral, causing a variety of effects that cumulatively disrupt the ecological balances that moderate weather, rainfall, and ocean levels to accommodate humans, plants, and animals. Inaction and denial is lavishly funded by the fossil fuel industries that have made climate skepticism so influential in the United States, and elsewhere. Nothing could do more to build the legacy of Obama’s second term than to tear down the high wall of silence that has been built to keep the dangers of global warming out of sight.

 

            It is in this spirit of concern, struggle, hope, and love that I commit myself to carry on with this journey of a still aspiring citizen pilgrim journeying ever so slowly toward that unseen yet real promised land.        

Afghanistan: The War Turns Pathological—Withdraw!

14 Mar


            The latest occupation crime in Afghanistan is a shooting spree on March 11 by a lone American soldier in the village of Balandi in the Panjwai District of Kandahar Province of Afghanistan. 16 Afghan civilians, including women and children, were shot in their homes in the middle of the night without any pretense of combat activity in the area. Such an atrocity is one more expression of a pathological reaction by one soldier to an incomprehensible military reality that seems to be driving crazy American military personnel on the ground in Afghanistan. The main criminal here is not the shooter, but the political leader who insists on continuing a mission in face of the evidence that it is turning its own citizens into pathological killers.

 

            American soldiers urinating on dead Taliban fighters, Koran burning, and countryside patrols whose members were convicted by an American military tribunal of killing Afghan civilians for sport or routinely invading the privacy of Afghan homes in the middle of the night: whatever the U.S. military commanders in Kabul might sincerely say in regret and Washington might repeat by way of formal apology has become essentially irrelevant.

 

            These so-called ‘incidents’ or ‘aberrations’ are nothing of the sort. These happenings are pathological reactions of men and women caught up in a death trap not of their making, an alien environment that collides lethally with their sense of normalcy and decency. Besides the desecration of foreign lands and their cultural identities, American political leaders have unforgivably for more than a decade placed young American’s in intolerable situations of risk, uncertainty, and enmity to wage essentially meaningless wars. Also signaling a kind of cultural implosion are recent studies documenting historically high suicide rates among the lower ranks of the American military.

 

            Senseless and morbid wars produce senseless and morbid behavior. Afghanistan, as Vietnam 40 years earlier, has become an atrocity-generating killing field where the ‘enemy’ is frequently indistinguishable from the ‘friend,’ and the battlefield is everywhere and nowhere. In Vietnam the White House finally speeded up the American exit when it became evident that soldiers were murdering their own officers, a pattern exhibiting ultimate alienation that became so widespread it give birth to a new word ‘fragging.’

 

            Whatever the defensive pretext in the immediacy of the post-9/11 attacks, the Afghanistan War was misconceived from its inception, although deceptively so. (to my lasting regret I supported the war initially as an instance of self-defense validated by the credible fear of future attacks emanating from Afghanistan) Air warfare was relied upon in 2002 to decimate the leadership ranks of Al Qaeda, but instead its top political and military commanders slipped across the border. Regime change in Kabul, with a leader flown in from Washington to help coordinate the foreign occupation of his country, reverted to an old counterinsurgency formula that had failed over and over again, but with the militarist mindset prevailing in the U.S. Government, failure was once again reinterpreted as an opportunity to do it right the next time! Despite the efficiency of the radical innovative tactic of target killing by drones, the latest form of state terror in Afghanistan yields an outcome that is no different from earlier defeats.

 

            What more needs to be said? It is long past time for the United States and its NATO allies to withdraw with all deliberate speed from Afghanistan rather than proceed on its present course: negotiating a long-term ‘memorandum of understanding’ that transfers the formalities of the occupation to the Afghans while leaving private American military contractors—mercenaries of the 21st century—as the outlaw governance structure of this war torn country after most combat forces withdraw by the end of 2014, although incredibly Washington and Kabul, despite the devastation and futility, are presently negotiating a ten-year arrangement to maintain an American military presence in the country, a dynamic that might be labeled ‘re-colonization by consent,’ a geopolitical malady of the early 21st century.

 

            As in Iraq, what has been ‘achieved’ in Afghanistan is the very opposite of the goals set by Pentagon planners and State Department diplomacy: the country is decimated rather than reconstructed, the regional balance shifts in favor of Iran, of Islamic extremism, and the United States is ever more widely feared and resented, solidifying its geopolitical role as the great malefactor of our era.

 

            America seems incapable of grasping the pathologies it has inflicted on its own citizenry, let alone the physical and psychological wreckage it leaves behind in the countries it attacks and occupies. The disgusting 2004 pictures of American soldiers getting their kicks from torturing and humiliating naked Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib should have made clear once and for all to the leaders and the public that it was time to bring American troops home, and keep them there if we cared for their welfare.  Instead punishments were inflicted on these hapless young citizens who were both perpetrators and victims, and their commanders resumed their militarist misadventures as if nothing had happened except an unwelcome ‘leak’ (Donald Rumsfeld said as much) What this pattern of descretation exhibits is not only a criminal indifference to the wellbeing of ‘others’ but a shameful disregard of the welfare of our collective selves. The current bellicose Republican presidential candidates calling for attacks on Iran amounts to taking another giant step along the road that is taking American over the cliff. And the Obama presidency is only a half step behind, counseling patience, but itself indulging war-mongering, whether for its own sake or on behalf of Israel is unclear.

 

            President Obama recently was quoted as saying of Afghanistan “now is the time for us to transition.”  No, it isn’t. “Now is the time to leave.”  And not only for the sake of the Afghan people, and surely for that, but also for the benefit of the American people Obama was elected to serve. 

When is an ‘NGO’ not an NGO? Twists and Turns Beneath the Cairo Skies

14 Feb


             A confusing controversy between the United States and Egypt is unfolding. It has already raised tensions in the relationship between the two countries to a level that has not existed for decades. It results from moves by the military government in Cairo to go forward with the criminal prosecution of 43 foreigners, including 19 Americans, for unlawfully carrying on the work of unlicensed public interest organizations that improperly, according to Egyptian law, depend for their budget on foreign funding. Much has been made in American press coverage that one of the Americans charged happens to be Sam LaHood, son of the present American Secretary of Transportation, adopting a tone that seems to imply that at least one connected by blood to an important government official deserves immunity from prosecution.

           

            Washington has responded with high minded and high profile expressions of consternation, including a warning from Hilary Clinton that the annual aid package for Egypt of $1.5 billion (of which $1.3 billion goes to the military) is in jeopardy unless the case against these NGO workers is dropped and their challenged organizations are allowed to carry on with their work of promoting democracy in Egypt. And indeed the U.S. Congress may yet refuse to authorize the release of these funds unless the State Department is willing to certify that Egypt is progressing toward greater democratization. President Obama has indicated his intention to continue with the aid at past levels, given the importance of Egypt in relation to American Middle Eastern interests, but as in so many other instances, he may give way if the pressure mounts. The outcome is not yet clear as an ultra-nationalistic Congress may yet thwart Obama’s seemingly more sensible response to what should have been treated as a tempest in a teapot, but for reasons to be discussed, has instead become a cause celebre.

 

            The Americans charged are on the payroll of three organizations: International Republican Institute (IRI), Democratic National Institute (DNI), and Freedom House. The first two organizations get all of their funding from the U.S. Government, and were originally founded in 1983 after Ronald Reagan’s speech to the British Parliament in which he urged that help be given to build the democratic infrastructure of newly independent countries in the non-Western world put forward as a Cold War counter-measure to the continuing appeal of Marxist ideologies. From the moment of their founding IRI and DNI were abundantly funded by annual multi-million grants from Congress, either directly or by way of such governmental entities as the U.S. Assistance for International Development  (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy. IRI and DNI claim to be non-partisan yet both are explicitly affiliated with each of the two political parties dominant in the United States, with boards, staffs, and consultants drawn overwhelmingly from former government workers and officials who are associated with these two American political parties. The ideological and governmental character of the two organizations is epitomized by the nature of their leadership. Madeline Albright, Secretary of State during the Clinton presidency, is chair of the DNI Board, while former Republican presidential candidate and currently a prominent senator, John McCain, holds the same position in the IRI. Freedom House, the third main organization that is the target of the Egyptian crackdown also depends for more than 80% of its funding from the National Endowment for Democracy and is similarly rooted in American party politics. It was founded in 1941 as a bipartisan initiative during the Cold War by two stalwarts of their respective political parties, Wendell Wilkie and Eleanor Roosevelt.

 

            Against this background the protests from Washington and the media assessments of the controversy seem willfully misleading. Since when does Washington become so agitated on behalf of NGOs under attack in a foreign country? Even mainstream eyebrows should have been raised sky high when Martin Demsey, currently the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, while visiting Cairo was reported to have interceded with his military counterparts on behalf of these Americans made subject to a travel ban and faced with the threat of prosecution. When was the last time you can recall an American military commander interceding on behalf of a genuine NGO? To paraphrase Bob Dylan, ‘the answer my friends, is never.’ So even the most naïve among us should be asking ‘what is really going on here?’

 

            The spokespersons for the organizations treat the allegations as a simple case of interference with the activities of apolitical and benevolent NGOs innocently engaged in helping Egyptians receive needed training and guidance with respect to democratic practices, especially those relating to elections and the rule of law. Substantively such claims seem more or less true at present, at least here in Egypt. Sometimes these entities are even referred to by the media as ‘civil society institutions,’ which reflects, at best, a woeful state of unknowing, or worse, deliberate deception. Whatever one thinks of the activities of these actors, it is simply false to conceive of them as ‘nongovernmental’ or as emanations of civil society. It would be more responsive to their nature if such entities were described as ‘informal governmental organizations.’ (IGOs)

 

            It is hardly surprising that a more honest label is avoided as its use would call attention to the problematic character of the undertakings: namely, disguised intrusions by a foreign government in the internal politics of a foreign country with fragile domestic institutions of government by way of behavior that poses at the very least a potential threat to its political independence. With such an altered interpretation of the controversy assumes a different character. It becomes quite understandable for the Egyptian government seeking to move beyond its authoritarian past to feel the need to tame these Trojan Horses outfitted by Washington. It would seem sensible and prudent for Egypt to insist that such organizations, and especially those associated with the U.S. Government, be registered and properly licensed in Egypt as a minimum precondition for receiving permission to carry on their activities in the country, especially on matters as sensitive as are elections, political parties, and the shaping of the legal system. Surely the United States, despite its long uninterrupted stable record of constitutional governance, would not even consider allowing such ‘assistance’ from abroad.  If it had been proposed by, say, Sweden, an offer of help with democracy would have been immediately rebuffed, and rudely dismissed as an insult to the sovereignty of the United States  despite Sweden being a geopolitical midget and U.S. being the gorilla on the global stage.

 

            And these Washington shrieks of wounded innocence, as if Cairo had no grounds whatsoever for concern, are either the memory lapses of a senile bureaucracy or totally disingenuous. In the past it has been well documented that IRI and DNI were active in promoting the destabilization of foreign governments that were deemed to be hostile to the then American foreign policy agenda. The Reagan presidency made no secret of its commitment to lend all means of support to political movements dedicated to the overthrow of left-leaning governments in Latin America and Asia. The most notorious instances involving the use of IRI to destabilize a foreign government is well known among students of American interventionist diplomacy. For instance IRI funds were extensively distributes to anti-regime forces to get rid of the Aristide government in Haiti, part of a dynamic that did lead to a coup in 2004 that brought to power reactionary political forces that were welcomed and seemed far more congenial to Washington’s ideas of ‘good governance’ at the time. IRI was openly self-congratulatory about its role in engineering a successful effort to strengthen ‘center and center/right’ political parties in Poland several years ago, which amounts to a virtual confession of interference with the dynamics of Polish self-determination.

 

            Although spokespersons for these organizations piously claim in their responses to these recent Egyptian moves against them to respect the sovereignty of the countries within which they operate, and especially so in Egypt. Even if these claims are generally true, ample grounds remain for suspicion and regulation, if not exclusion, on the part of a territorial government. An insistence upon proper regulation seems entirely reasonable if due account is taken of the numerous instances of covert and overt intervention by the United States in the political life of non-Western countries.

 

            Against such a background, several conclusions follow: first, the individuals being charged by Egypt are not working for genuine NGOs or civil society institutions, but are acting on behalf of informal government organizations or IGOs; secondly, the specific organizations being targeted, especially the DNI and IRI are overtly ideological in their makeup, funding base, and orientation; and thirdly, there exist compelling grounds for a non-Western government to regulate or exclude such political actors when due account is taken of a long American record of interventionary diplomacy. Thus the Washington posture of outrage seems entirely inappropriate once the actions of the Egyptian government are contextually interpreted.

 

            Yet the full story is not so simple or one-sided. It needs to be remembered that the Egyptian governing process in the year since the uprising that led to the collapse of the Mubarak regime has been controlled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAP), which is widely believed by the Egyptian public to be responsible for a wave of repressive violence associated with its fears that some democratic demands are threatening their position and interests in the country. A variety of severe abuses of civilian society have been convincingly attributed to the military.  As well the military is responsible for a series of harsh moves against dissenters who blog or otherwise act in a manner deemed critical of military rule. In effect, the Egyptian government, although admittedly long concerned about these spurious NGOs operating within its territory even during the period of Mubarak rule, is itself seemingly disingenuous, using the licensing and funding technicalities as a pretext for a wholesale crackdown on dissent and human rights so as to discipline and intimidate a resurgent civil society and a radical opposition movement that remains committed to realizing the democratic promise of the Arab Spring.

 

            There is another seemingly strange part of the puzzle. Would we not expect the United States to side the Egyptian military with which it worked in close harmony during the Mubarak period. Why would Washington not welcome this apparent slide toward Mubarakism without Mubarak? Was this not America’s preferred outcome in Egypt all along, being the only outcome that would allow Washington to be confident that the new Egypt would not rock the Israeli boat or otherwise disturb American interests in the region. There is no disclosure of U.S. motives at this time for its present seemingly pro-democracy approach, but there are grounds for thinking Washington may be reacting to the success of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Nour (Salafi) Party in the Egyptian parliamentary elections and even more so to the apparent collaboration between these parties and the SCAF in planning Egypt’s immediate political future. In such a setting it seems plausible that sharpening state/society tensions in Egypt by siding with the democratic opposition would keep alive the possibility of a secular governing process less threatening to U.S./Israeli interests, as well as inducing Egypt itself to adopt a cautious approach to democratic reform. Maybe there are different explanations more hidden from view, but what seems clear is that both governmental in this kafuffle have dirty hands and are fencing in the dark at this point, that is, mounting arguments and counter-arguments that obscure rather than reveal their true motivations.

 

            In the end, Egypt, along with other countries, is likely to be far better off if it prohibits American IGOs from operating freely within its national territorial space, especially if their supposed mandate is to promote democracy as defined and funded by Washington. This is not to say that Egyptians would not be far better off if the SCAF allowed civilian rule to emerge in the country and acted in a manner respectful of human rights and democratic values. In other words what is at stake in this seemingly trivial controversy lies hidden by the smokescreens relied upon by both sides in the dispute: weighty matters of governance and democracy that could determine whether the remarkable glories of the Arab Spring mutate in the direction of a dreary Egyptian Autumn, or even Winter. 

Stop Warmongering in the Middle East

20 Jan

 

            The public discussion in the West addressing Iran’s nuclear program has mainly relied on threat diplomacy, articulated most clearly by Israeli officials, but enjoying the strong direct and indirect backing of Washington and leading Gulf states.  Israel has also engaged in covert warfare against Iran in recent years, somewhat supported by the United States, that has inflicted violent deaths on civilians in Iran. Many members of the UN Security Council support escalating sanctions against Iran, and have not blinked when Tel Aviv and Washington talk menacingly about leaving all options on the table, which is ‘diplospeak’ for their readiness to launch a military attack. At last, some signs of sanity are beginning to emerge to slow the march over the cliff. For instance, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, commented harshly on this militarist approach: “I have no doubt that it would pour fuel on a fire which is already smoldering, the hidden smoldering fire of Sunni-Shia confrontation, and beyond that [it would cause] a chain reaction. I don’t know where it would stop.” And a few days ago even the normally hawkish Israeli Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, evidently fearful of international panic and a preemptive response by Tehran, declared that any decision to launch a military attack by Israel is ‘very far off,’ words that can be read in a variety of ways, mostly not genuinely reassuring.

 

            It is not only an American insistence, despite pretending from time to time an interest in a diplomatic solution, that only threats and force are relevant to resolve this long incubating political dispute with Iran, but more tellingly, it is the stubborn refusal by Washington to normalize relations with Iran, openly repudiate the Israeli war drums, and finally accept the verdict of history in Iran adverse to its strategic ambitions. The United States has shown no willingness despite the passage of more than 30 years to accept the outcome of Iran’s popular revolution of 1978-79 that nonviolently overthrew the oppressive regime of the Shah. We need also to remember that the Shah had been returned to power in 1953 thanks to the CIA in a coup against the constitutional and democratically elected government of Mohamed Mossadegh, whose main crime was to nationalize the Iranian oil industry. This prolonged unwillingness of Washington to have normal diplomatic contact with Iran has been a sure recipe for international tension and misunderstanding, especially taking into account this historical background of American intervention in Iran, as well as the thinly disguised interest in recovering access to Iran’s high quality oil fields confirmed by its willingness to go along with Israel’s militarist tactics and diplomacy.

 

            This conflict-oriented mentality is so strong in relation to Iran than when others try their best to smooth diplomatic waters, as Brazil and Turkey did in the May 2010, the United States angrily responds that such countries should mind their own business, which is an arrogant reprimand, considering that Turkey is Iran’s next door neighbor, and has the most to lose if a war results from the unresolved dispute involving Iran’s contested nuclear program. It should be recalled that in 2010 Iran formally agreed with leaders from Brazil and Turkey to store half or more of its then stockpile of low enriched uranium in Turkey, materials that would be needed for further enrichment if Iran was truly determined to possess a nuclear bomb as soon as possible. Instead of welcoming this constructive step back from the precipice Washington castigated the agreement as diversionary, contending that it interfered with the mobilization of support in the Security Council for ratcheting up sanctions intended to coerce Iran into giving up its right to a complete nuclear fuel cycle. Such criticism of Turkey and Brazil for its engagement with peace diplomacy contrasts with its tacit endorsement of Israeli recourse to terrorist tactics in its efforts to destabilize Iran, or possibly to provoke Iran to the point that it retaliates, giving Tel Aviv the pretext it seems to seek to begin open warfare.

 

Iran is being accused of moving toward a ‘breakout’ capability in relation to nuclear weapons, that is, possessing a combination of knowhow and enough properly enriched uranium to produce nuclear bombs within a matter of weeks, or at most months. Tehran has repeatedly denied any intention to become a nuclear weapons state, but has insisted all along that it has the same legal rights under the Nonproliferation Treaty as such other non-nuclear states as Germany and Japan, and this includes the right to have a complete nuclear fuel cycle, which entails enrichment capabilities and does imply a breakout capability. In the background, it should be realized that even the 1968 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons contains a provision that allows a party to withdraw from the obligations under the treaty if it gives three months notice and ‘decides that extraordinary events..have jeopardized its supreme national interests.’(Article X) Such a provision, in effect, acknowledges the legal right of a country to determine its own security requirements in relation to nuclear weapons, a right that both the United States and Israel in different ways have implicitly exercised for decades with stunning irresponsibility that includes secrecy, a failure to pursue nuclear disarmament that is an obligation of the treaty, and a denial of all forms of international accountability. The real ‘threat’ posed by a hypothetical Iran bomb is to Israel’s regional monopoly over nuclear weapons. As three former Mossad chiefs have stated, even if Iran were to acquire a few nuclear bombs, Israel would still face no significant additional threat to its security or existence, as any attack would be manifestly suicidal, and Iran has shown no such disposition toward recklessness in its foreign policy.

 

            To be objective commentators we must ask ourselves whether Iran’s posture toward its nuclear program is unreasonable under these circumstances. Is not Iran a sovereign state with the same right as other states to uphold its security and political independence when facing threats from its enemies armed with nuclear weapons? When was the last time resorted to force against a hostile neighbor? The surprising answer is over 200 years ago! Can either of Iran’s antagonists claim a comparable record of living within its borders? Why does Iran not have the same right as other states to take full advantage of nuclear technology? And given Israeli hostility, terrorist assaults, and military capabilities that includes sophisticated nuclear warheads, delivery style, and a record of preemptive war making, would it not be reasonable for Iran to seek, and even obtain, a nuclear deterrent? True, the regime in Iran has been oppressive toward its domestic opposition and its president has expressed anti-Israeli views in inflammatory language (although exaggerated in the West), however unlike Israel, without ever threatening or resorting to military action. It should also be appreciated that Iran has consistently denied an intention to develop nuclear weaponry, and claims only an interest in using enriched uranium for medical research and nuclear energy. Even if there are grounds to be somewhat skeptical about such reassurances, given the grounds for suspicion that have been ambiguously and controversially validated by reports from International Atomic Energy Agency, this still does not justify sanctions, much less threats backed up by deployments, war games, projected attack scenarios, and a campaign of terrorist violence.

 

            So far no prominent advocates of confrontation with Iran have been willing to acknowledge the obvious relevance of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Is not the actuality of nuclear weaponry, not only an Iranian breakout potential but a substantial arsenal of Israeli weaponry secretly acquired (200-300 warheads), continuously upgraded, and coupled with the latest long distance delivery capabilities, the most troublesome threat to regional stability and peace? At minimum, are not Israel’s nuclear weapons stockpile highly relevant both to bring stability and for an appraisal of Iran’s behavior? The United States and Israel behave in the Middle East as if the golden rule of international politics is totally inapplicable, that you can do unto others, what you are unwilling to have them do unto you!

 

            We need, as well, to remember the lessons of recent history bearing on the counter-proliferation tactics relied upon in recent years by the United States. Iraq was attacked in 2003 partly because it did not have any nuclear weapons, while North Korea has been spared such a comparably horrific fate because it possesses a retaliatory capability that would likely be used if attacked, and has the capability to inflict severe harm on neighboring countries. If this experience relating to nuclear weapons is reasonably interpreted it could incline governments that have hostile relations to the West to opt for a nuclear weapons option as necessary step to discourage attacks and interventions. Surely putting such reasoning into practice would not be good for the region, possibly igniting a devastating war, and almost certainly leading to the spread of nuclear weapons to other Middle Eastern countries. Instead of moving to coerce, punish, and frighten Iran in ways that are almost certain to increase the incentives of Iran and others to possess nuclear weaponry, it would seem prudent and in the mutual interest of all to foster a diplomacy of de-escalation, a path that Iran has always signaled its willingness to pursue. And diplomatic alternatives to confrontation and war exist, but require the sort of political imagination that seems totally absent in the capitals of hard power geopolitics.  

 

            It should be obvious to all but the most dogmatic warmongers that the path to peace and greater stability in the region depends on taking two steps long overdue, and if not taken, at least widely debated in public: first, establishing a nuclear free Middle East by a negotiated and monitored agreement that includes all states in the region, including Israel and Iran; secondly, an initiative promoted by the United Nations and backed by a consensus of its leading members to outline a just solution for the Israel/Palestine conflict that is consistent with Palestinian rights under international law, including the Palestinian right of self-determination, which if not accepted by Israel (and endorsed by the Palestinian people) within twelve months would result in the imposition of severe sanctions. Not only would such initiatives promote peace and prosperity for the Middle East, but this turn to diplomacy and law would serve the cause of justice both by putting an end to the warmongering of recent years and to the intolerable denial of rights to the Palestinian people that goes back to at least 1947, and was later intensified by the oppressive occupation of East Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza that resulted from the outcome of the 1967 War.

 

            These manifestly beneficial alternatives to sanctions and war is neither selected, nor even considered in the most influential corridors of opinion-making. It is simple to explain why: world order continues to be largely shaped by the rule of power rather than the rule of law, or by recourse to the realm of rights, and no where more so than in the Middle East where the majority of the world’s oil reserves are located, and where an expansionist Israel refuses to make real peace with its neighbors while subjugating the Palestinian people to an unendurable ordeal. Unfortunately, a geopolitical logic prevails in world politics, which means that inequality, hierarchy, and hard power control the thought and action of powerful governments whenever toward strategic interests are at stake. Perhaps, a glance at recent history offers the most convincing demonstration of the validity of this assessment: Western military interventions in Iraq and Libya, as well as the intimidating threats of attacks on Iran, three states in the region with oil and regimes unfriendly to the West. Egypt and Tunisia, the first-born children of the Arab Spring, were undoubtedly politically advantaged by not being major oil producing states, although Egypt is not as lucky as Tunisia because Israel and the United States worry that a more democratic Egyptian government might abandon the 1978 Peace Treaty and show greater solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and are doing what they can to prevent Cairo from moving in such directions.

 

            Fortunately, there is a growing, although still marginal, recognition that despite all the macho diplomacy of recent years, a military option is not really viable. It would not achieve its objective of destroying Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and it would in all likelihood confirm the opinions among Iranian hawkish factions that only the possession of nuclear weapons will keep their country from facing the catastrophe brought on by a military attack. Beyond this, attacking Iran would almost certainly unleash retaliatory responses, possibly blocking the Straits of Hormuz, which carry 20% of the world’s traded oil, and possibly leading to direct missile strikes directed at Israel and some of the Gulf countries. Given this prospect, there is beginning to be some indication that the West is at last beginning to consider alternatives to hot war in responding to Iran.

 

            But so far this realization is leading not to the peaceful initiatives mentioned earlier, but to a reliance on ‘war’ by other means. The long confrontation with Iran has developed its own momentum that makes any fundamental adjustment seem politically unacceptable to the United States and Israel, a sign of weakness and geopolitical defeat. And so as the prospect of a military attacked is temporarily deferred for reasons of prudence, as Barak confirmed, but in its place is put this intensified and escalating campaign of violent disruption, economic coercion, and outright terrorism. Such an ongoing effort to challenge Iran has produced a series of ugly and dangerous incidents that might at some point in the near future provoke a hostile Iranian reaction, generating a sequence of action and reaction that could plunge the region into a disastrous war and bring on a worldwide economic collapse.

 

            The main features of this disturbing pattern of covert warfare are becoming clear, and are even being endorsed in liberal circles because such a course of action is seen as less harmful to Western interests than an overt military attack, proceeding on the assumptions that are no better alternatives than confrontation in some form.  Israel, with apparent American collaboration, assassinates Iranian nuclear scientists, infects Iranian nuclear centrifuges used to enrich uranium with a disabling Stuxnet virus, and recruits Iranians to join Jundallah, an anti-regime terrorist organization in Iran, to commit acts of violence against civilian targets, such as the 2009 attack on the mosque in Zahedan that killed 25 worshippers and wounded many others. The New York Times in an editorial  (January 13, 2012) describes these tactics dispassionately without ever taking note of their objectionable moral or legal character: “An accelerating covert campaign of assassinations, bombings, cyber attacks and defections—carried out mainly by Israel, according to The Times—is slowing..[Iran’s nuclear] program, but whether that is enough is unclear.” The editorial observes that “a military strike would be a disaster,” yet this respected, supposedly moderate, editorial voice only questions whether such a pattern of covert warfare will get the necessary job done of preventing Iran from possessing a nuclear option sometime in the future.

 

            It should be obvious that if it was Iran that was engaging in similar tactics to disrupt Israeli military planning or to sabotage Israel’s nuclear establishment liberal opinion makers in the West would be screaming their denunciations of Iran’s barbaric lawlessness. Such violations of Israel sovereignty and international law would be certainly regarded by the West as unacceptable forms of provocation that would fully justify a major Israeli military response, and make the outbreak of war seem inevitable and unavoidable.

 

            And when Iran did recently react to the prospect of new international sanctions making its sale of oil far more difficult by threatening to block passage through the Straights of Hormuz, the United States reacted by sending additional naval vessels to the area and warning Tehran that any interference with international shipping would be ‘a red line’ leading to U.S. military action. It should be incredible to appreciate that assassinating nuclear scientists in Iran is okay with the arbiters of international behavior while interfering with the global oil market crosses a war-provoking red line. These self-serving distinctions illustrate the dirty work of geopolitics in the early 21st century.

 

            There are some lonely voices calling for a nuclear free Middle East and a just settlement of the Israeli/Palestine conflict, but even with credentials like long service in the CIA or U.S. State Department, these calls are almost totally absent in the mainstream discourse that controls debate in the United States and Israel. When some peaceful alternatives are entertained at all it is always within the framework of preventing Iran doing what it seems entitled to do from the perspectives of law and prudence. I am afraid that only when and if a yet non-existent Global Occupy Movement turns its attention to geopolitics will the peoples of the Middle East have some reason to hope for a peaceful and promising future for their region.    

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