Tag Archives: White House

Malala and Eartha Kitt: Words that Matter

22 Oct

Unknown-4Malala and Eartha Kitt: Words that Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.        

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

14 Aug


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Welcoming the Tunisian Revolution: Hopes and Fears

22 Jan

Almost six years ago, President George W. Bush’s otherwise inconsequential Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, gave a speech at the American University in Cairo that grabbed headlines. While lauding the autocratic leadership of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Rice indicated a new approach to the Arab world by the United States in these much-quoted words: “For sixty years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.” Explaining further this new approach in Washington, she went on to say “[t]hroughout the Middle East, the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy.” Any close listener at the time should have wondered what was meant when at the same time she praised Mubarak for having “unlocked the door for change,” whatever that might mean. As it turned out, outlawing opposition parties and locking up their leaders seemed to remain the bottom line in Egypt without generating a whimper of complaint from the White House either in the Bush years, or since, in the supposedly milder presidency of President Obama.

And supporting “the democratic aspirations of all peoples” seems to have run aground for the White House after the Gaza elections of January 2006 in which Hamas triumphed, and the people of the Gaza Strip, regardless of how they voted, were immediately punished despite the internationally monitored elections being pronounced among the fairest in the region. It should be remembered that Hamas was enticed to participate in the political process as a way of shifting the conflict with Israel toward nonviolent political competition, and that when victorious in the elections Hamas immediately declared a unilateral ceasefire as well as indicated its openness to diplomacy and a long-term framework of peaceful co-existence. Maybe these Hamas initiatives were not sustainable, but they was neither welcomed, reciprocated, nor even explored. Instead, humanitarian assistance from Europe and the United States to Gaza was drastically cut and Israel engaged in a variety of provocations including targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders. In mid 2007 after Hamas seized control of the governing process from Fatah in Gaza, Israel imposed its notorious blockade that unlawfully restricted to subsistence levels, or below, the flow of food, medicine, and fuel. This blockade continues  to this day, leaving the entire Gazan population locked within the world’s largest open air prison, and victimized by one of the cruelest forms of belligerent occupation in the history of warfare.

There is another aspect to the Rice/Bush embrace of democracy that was disclosed by their avowedly disproportionate response to the indiscriminate bombing campaign unleashed in 2006 by Israel on population centers in Lebanon in retaliation for a border incident. In the midst of the carnage Rice observed at the United Nations that the Lebanon War exhibited “the birth pangs of a new Middle East,” while her boss in the White House described the one-sided assault on a helpless civilian population as “a moment of opportunity.” The point here being that when the people get in the way of imperial policies, it is the people who are sacrificed without even shedding a tear, really without even noticing. If their lives and wellbeing is so easily cast to one side in this callous geopolitical manner, surely the American posture of welcoming democracy in the region needs to be viewed with more than a skeptical smile. Supporting Israel’s aggressive wars initiated against Lebanon in 2006 and its massive assault for three weeks on Gaza at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009 are clear demonstrations of the priorities of American foreign policy.

Actually, this pattern has far deeper historical roots. During the Cold War there were strategic excuses constantly being given by Washington that overlooked oppression and corruption in Third World countries so along as they aligned themselves with the United States in the ideological struggle against the Soviet Union and put out a welcome mat to foreign investors. After the collapse of the Soviet Union this geopolitical argument evaporated, but the economic and strategic priorities remained unchanged. This supposed American dedication to democracy has all along seemed schizophrenic, lauding its virtues, but often dreading its genuine emergence, especially if strategic interests associated with economic and military priorities are at stake as they usually are; consult the record of ‘gunboat diplomacy’ in the Western Hemisphere carried out under the aegis of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) if any doubt exists. Turning back to North Africa, in 1991 when the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) in Algeria won hotly contested elections for legislative representation, the military intervened to impose its will, Washington was silent, and remained so during the ‘dark decade’ of strife followed in which at least 60,000 Algerians lost their lives. It is part of the reality in the region that American strategic and ideological goals point one way and the popular will of the people point in the opposite direction. It is thus either hypocritical or a sign of deep confusion for American leadership to advocate democracy in the Middle East without being willing to alter its grand strategy. As of now, there is every indication of continuity in the American approach to the region, signaled by its passivity in the face of Israeli extremism, its continuing military presence in Iraq, and the degree to which keeping Gulf oil reserves in friendly autocratic hands is an unquestioned goal of American foreign policy.

Given these considerations what are we to make of America’s cautiously affirmative response to the Tunisian Revolution, or as it often called, the Jasmine Revolution? It is certainly prudent to be wary of the words issued by our government in particular, and to keep an eye out for its contrary actions, although such a gaze may well be obstructed by reliance on covert activities, and only when the next Julian Assange steps bravely forward will the public get any real understanding of the realities that take refuge behind non-transparent walls.

There is no doubt that during the more than 23 years of cruel dictatorial rule of Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, the United States Government, despite the words of Rice, the ‘democracy promotion’ schemes of the Bush presidency, and the new approach to the Islamic world promised by Obama, found nothing to complain about, ignoring report from respected human rights organizations. As Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist and activist dedicated to the Palestinian struggle has written of the American response to the violence directed by the police during the Tunisian uprising: “Not one word of condemnation, not one word of criticism, not one word urging restraint came from Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton as live ammunition was fired into crowds of unarmed men, women, and children in recent weeks.” Compare the strong denunciations of Iranian authorities when they used similarly brutal tactics to suppress the Green Revolution in Iran. The point is that geopolitics calls the tune in Washington, and this means double standards and the repudiation of the rule of law.

Indeed, Tunisia under Ben Ali exemplified what the United States seems to believe serves its interests: a blend of neoliberalism that is open to foreign investment, cooperation with American anti-terrorism by way of extreme rendition of suspects, and strict secularism that translates into the repression of political, and even religious, expressions of Islam commitments and of leftist politics. The Arab regimes throughout the region that seem most worried by the regional reverberations of the unfolding story in Tunisia, while each different, all resemble the Ben Ali approach to governance, including dependence in various forms on the United States, which is usually accompanied, as in the Tunisian case, by aloofness from the Palestinian struggle for self-determination that is so symbolically significant for the peoples in these countries. There is no way for any government in the region to follow the Ben Ali path without becoming beleaguered and for the sake of its survival forced to rely on extreme repression, denial of rights, abuse of political prisoners, police violence designed to induce fear in the population and shield the privileged corrupt elites from accountability and public rage while exposing the mass of society to chronic joblessness, inflationary food and fuel price.

The spontaneous popular eruption in Tunisia that followed the tragic suicide of Mohammed Bouazizi in the central Tunisian  city of Sidi Bou Zid on December 17, 2010 was the spark that lit the revolutionary fire. This flame surge only could have occurred in an environment of acute grievance that was felt deeply and widely by ordinary Tunisians, so deeply and widely that in a few weeks time it shifted the locus of fear from the oppressed to the oppressed. This shift was signaled by the abdication of Ben Ali on January 14 to the sanctuary of Riyadh, a pattern repeating the departure of another bloody dictator, Idi Amin a few decades earlier. But the main lesson here is that oppressive regimes alienated from their populations are vulnerable to political bonfires that can be started by an insignificant spark in a faraway part of the country. Facing such a prospect can only make rulers dependent on force both more insecure and more inclined to extend the reach of political firefighting so as to achieve the impossible: spark prevention!

The martyrdom of Mohammed Bouazizi epitomized the plight of many young jobless and tormented Tunisians. This impoverished young vegetable street seller set himself on fire in a public place after the police confiscated his produce because he lacked a permit. Such an act of principled and spontaneous suicide is not common in Arab culture where suicide, if it occurs in a politically relevant mode, is usually a deliberate instrument of struggle, relied upon by Palestinians for a while and currently by parts of the opposition to developments in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Such forms of political suicide are usually, although not always, targeting civilians, and are inconsistent with basic ideas of morality and law. Bouazizi’s acts were expressive, not aggressive toward others, and recall practices more common in such Asian countries as Vietnam and Korea. When Buddhist monks set themselves on fire on the streets of Saigon in 1963 it was widely interpreted within the country as a turning point in the Vietnam War, a scream of the culture that was outraged by both oppressive Vietnamese rule and by the American military intervention. The intensity of Mohammed Bouazizi’s emotional funeral on Janurary 4 was intoned in these words exhibiting sadness and anger: “Farewell, Mohammed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today. We will make those who caused your death weep.” In the end one hopes that these almost inevitable sentiments of revenge, however understandable given the background of suffering and injustice, do not become the signature of the revolution.

Another more hopeful direction was captured by a slogan that was said to draw inspiration from the French Revolution: “bread, freedom, dignity.” To be worthy of the sacrifices of those who took to the streets, confronting the violence of the state without weapons during these past several weeks, any new governing process must attend to the material needs of the Tunisian masses, open up the society to democratic debate and competition, and assert the protection of human rights as an unconditional commitment of whatever new leadership emerges. Not many revolutions manage to carry out their idealistic promises that infused the period of struggle against the established order, and quickly succumb to the temptation to punish wrongdoers from the past and imaginary and real adversaries in the present instead of improving the life circumstances of the people. It is not a simple situation. Such a revolution as has taken place in Tunisia is likely to beset by determined efforts to reverse the outcome, although a favorable factor has been the refusal of the army to side with the government. Powerful and entrenched enemies do exist, and rivalries among those contending anew for power will produce imaginary enemies as well that can discredit the humanistic claims of the revolution by tempting the leadership to launch bloody campaigns to solidify its claims to run the country. It is often a tragic predicament: either exhibit a principled adherence to constitutionalism, and get swept from power or engage in a purge of supposed hostile elements and initiate a new discrediting cycle of repression. Will Tunisia be able to find a path that protects revolutionary gains without reverting to oppression? Much depends on how this question will be answered, and that will depend not only on the wisdom and maturity of Tunisians who take control at this time, but also on what the old order will do to regain power and the extent to which there is encouragement and substantive support from without. As Robert Fisk pointedly observes “Tunisia wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Undoubtedly, Tunisia faces formidable challenges in this period of transition. As yet, there has been no displacement of the Ben Ali bureaucratic forces in the government, including the police and security forces that for decades terrorized the population. There were an estimated 40,000 police (2/3 in disguise mingling with the population to monitor and intimidate). It was said that friends were afraid to talk in cafes or restaurants, and even in their homes, because of this police/mafia state atmosphere– omnipresent surveillance, thuggery, and not knowing who was on the payroll of the state. So far most prisoners of conscience have not been released from Tunisian jails, sites that daily exposed the brutality of the Ben Ali regime, although some releases have occurred and more are promised. Heading the interim government are longtime allies of Ben Ali, including Mohammed Ghannouchi, his main aide, regarded as being more aligned with the West than with the Tunisian people, although these days promising to step aside as soon as order is restored. But even if such an intention is carried out, is it enough? At present, protests continue throughout the country, especially in the capital city of Tunis, demanding that the remnants of the Ben Ali era leave the government, including especially the cabinet ministers and Mr. Ghannouchi.

We know that the revolution came about because of the courage of young Tunisians who took to the street in many parts of the country, faced gunfire and vicious state brutality, and yet persisted, seeming to feel that their life circumstances were so bad that they had little to lose, and everything to gain. We know that the flames of revolution spread rapidly throughout, and beyond the borders of Tunisia, by interactive reliance on the Internet, many throughout the Arab world replacing personal pictures on their Facebook page with admiring pictures of revolutionary turmoil on Tunisian streets or as a sign of solidarity, posting pictures of the Tunisian flag. There were even suicides of regime opponents in several Arab countries. What we don’t know is whether a leadership can emerge that will be faithful to the revolutionary ideals, and will be allowed to be. What we cannot know is how determined and effective will be internal and external counter-revolutionary tactics. We do know from other situation that elites rarely voluntarily relinquish class privileges of wealth, status, and influence, and that Tunisian elites have allies in the region and beyond who are silently opposed to the Jasmine Revolution, and extremely worried about its wider implications for other similar regimes in the region that stay in power only so long as their citizen is held in check by state terror.  We also know that policymakers in Washington and Tel Aviv will be particularly nervous if Islamic influence emerges in the months ahead, even if vindicated by electoral outcomes. Fisk reminds us that Ben Ali was praised in the past for keeping “a firm hand on all those Islamists,” which was itself code language for bloody repression and a terrorized populace. It may even be that if Islamic oriented political parties demonstrate their popularity with the Tunisian citizenry by winning the forthcoming promised election for a new democratic selected leadership, then the counter-revolutionary backlash will be particularly severe.  There is some reason to believe that Islamic political forces currently enjoy great popularity in Tunisia, and that the main voice of the most important political party with an Islamic identity, Ali Larayedh (imprisoned and tortured for 14 years; and harassed for the past six years by Ben Ali’s secret police), articulates a moderate line on the relation of Islam to the future of Tunisia that resembles the development of recent years in Turkey rather than the hard line and oppressive theocratic developments that have so deeply tainted the Iranian Revolution. The role of the long repressed labor movement, and its Communist leadership, is not known, but it was clearly a presence in the demonstrations, giving a secular edge to the revolutionary fervor.

The future of the Tunisian Revolution is filled with uncertainty. It remains at this moment a great victory for the people of the country, and those of us in sympathy with the struggle for ‘bread, freedom and dignity’ must do all in our power to honor these goals and preserve this victory. A Palestinian journalist living in Norway, Salim Nazzal, put the situation well:  “..Arab observers agree that even if it is difficult to know where things would go in the future what is sure is that the Arab region is not the same after the Tunisian Revolution.”

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