Tag Archives: World War II

On Political Preconditions

15 May

 

 

            To the extent that diplomacy solves international problems it depends on the satisfaction of the political preconditions that must be met for negotiations betweensovereign states to reach sustainable and benevolent results. To clarify the point, in situations where there is a clear winner and loser, political preconditions are irrelevant, as the winner can dictate the terms, either imposing them as was done after World War II in response to the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan, or offering proposals on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis. This is what Israel has attempted to do over the course of the twenty years that the Oslo Framework, the Roadmap, and the Quartet, have provided the ground rules for diplomacy with respect to Israel/Palestine negotiations. Israel has performed as if the winner, and expected Palestine to act as if the loser, but so far this scenario has not produced the desired outcome, a ‘peace’ essentially framed in accordance with Israel’s priorities (retaining settlements by critical land swaps, annexing the whole of Jerusalem, maintaining access to West Bank aquifers, ignoring refugees, de-linking Gaza). Palestine although occupied, without a sympathetic intermediary, and despite many of its people living as refugees or in exile, has not given up the struggle for a fair outcome as defined by international law and international morality.

 

            My point here is conceptual in large part. It applies to various forms of advocacy, including the abolition of nuclear weapons or the establishment of world government. In neither instance, are the political conditions present for the realization of such goals, assuming that in some form such outcomes would be desirable. In relation to nuclear weapons, leading state actors are not willing to part with such weaponry, especially as its retention is strongly supported by entrenched bureaucratic and private sector interests, as well as being ideologically grounded in political realism, which continues to shape the worldview of most national elites. With respect to world government, there is no climate of opinion that is strong enough to challenge the nationalist orientation of every government and citizenry that exists in the world. Besides, trying to consolidate governmental authority in the presence of the degree of radical inequality that presently exists is more likely to produce global totalitarianism than a benevolent form of centralized humane global governance.

 

            The reason for addressing this subject at this time is the feverish efforts by the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, to stimulate the resumption of direct peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine. On neither side are the political preconditions present. The Netanyahu led government is clearly committed to achieving the political embodiment of Greater Israel, and would not settle for anything less. It is seeking as much legitimation as possible for this expansionist objective, hopeful that adroit diplomacy with American help can yield such a result. For Ramallah, and the Palestinian Authority, there is a lack of representational coherence and political unity, as the elected governing authorities of Gaza are not represented, nor is the wider Palestinian community of refugee communities in neighboring countries. Even if Palestinian negotiators were to accept under pressure some version of Israel’s Plan A, it is almost certain that it would not be accepted by the Palestinian people. Given this setting, political preconditions for direct negotiations do not exist, and any resumption of direct negotiations appears to be worth less than nothing.

 

            Why worse than nothing? If past efforts are any indication, the side with the weaker standing in the international community and the media, is likely to receive most of the blame for the almost certain breakdown at the site of negotiations, and this has been Palestine’s previous experience. Beyond this, both sides will probably react to diplomatic failure by pursuing with renewed unilateral vigor their respective conception of Plan B: Israel will complain about the absence of a partner for peace and proceed with accelerated expansion of settlements and related road construction, as well as continuing with its promotion of the unification of the city of Jerusalem; Palestine, on its side, will seek to intensify resistance, possibly emphasizing more its confidence in the global solidarity movement building around the BDS campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions, highlighted recently by Stephen Hawking’s much heralded boycott of Israeli President Shimon Peres’ fifth annual conference of global notables on the theme of Facing Tomorrow.

 

            Time is not neutral in situations of gross disparity. The side with hard power control can encroach further on the prospects of the weaker side. If we look back at the developments of the past twenty years, we take note of the extraordinary growth in the number of Israeli settlers and the ethnographic and infrastructural changes in the city of Jerusalem, making it difficult to continue to lend credence to Palestinian self-determination being realized by a ‘two-state’ solution, which remains the American oft-repeated mantra. What might have seemed like a viable Palestinian state in 1967 when Security Council Resolution 242 was adopted, became less so, when the Oslo Framework was accepted on the White House lawn in 1993, and by 2013 it is a delusionary goal.

 

            Understanding the relevance of political preconditions is crucial to rational behavior in seeking solutions to long festering problems. Also where there are gross disparities of power and expectations a conflict is almost never ripe for resolution. Of course, the opposite is also true. When political conditions exist for a fair solution, then it is imperative to move forward, flexibly and with an eye on a win/win outcome. Given the perspectives of the two sides, if win/win does not seem realistic, then patience is preferable to a demoralizing charade of false consciousness.  

Rethinking ‘Red Lines’

11 May

The Wrong ‘Red Line’ (expanded and revised Al-Jazeera opinion piece)

 

            There are widespread reports circulating in the media that President Obama had not fully appreciated the political consequences of responding to a question at an August press conference that asked about the consequences of a possible future use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. Obama replied that such a use, should it occur, would be to cross ‘a red line.’ Such an assertion was widely understood to be a threat by Obama either to launch air strikes or to provide rebel forces with major direct military assistance, including weaponry. There have been sketchy reports that Syria did make some use chemical weapons, as well as allegations that the reported use was ‘a false flag’ operation, designed to call Obama’s bluff. As the New York Times notes in a frontpage story on May 7th, Obama “finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.” Such a policy dilemma raised tactical issues for the U.S. Government about how to intervene in the Syrian civil war without risking a costly and uncertain involvement in yet another Middle Eastern war. Not responding also raises delicate questions of presidential leadership in a highly polarized domestic political atmosphere, already shamelessly exploited by belligerent Republican lawmakers backed by a feverish media that always seem to be pushing Obama to pursue a more muscular foreign policy in support of alleged America’s global interests, as if hard power geopolitics still is the key to global security.

 

            What is missing from the debate on Syria, and generally from the challenge to American foreign policy, is a more fundamental red line that the United States at another time and place took the lead in formulating—namely, the unconditional prohibition of the use of international force by states other than in cases of self-defense against a prior armed attack. This prohibition was the core idea embodied in the United Nations Charter, embedded in contemporary international law, and it was also a natural sequel to the prosecution and punishment of surviving German and Japanese leaders after World War II for their commission of Crimes against Peace, which was the international crime associated with engaging in aggressive warfare.  The only lawful exception to this prohibition was a use of force consistent with the terms of a prior authorization given by the UN Security Council. The key hope for world peace was this consensus among the winners in World War II that in the future aggressive war and any acquisition of territory by force, even acquired in the exercise of self-defense, must be outlawed without exceptions. Such authorizations by the Security Council were obtained by the West in the Gulf War of 1991 and again in the NATO Libya War of 2011, but in each instance the actual undertaking became controversial as a result of the scope and intensity of the military operations far exceeding the UN mandate. As a consequence, there was a loss of trust on the part of China and Russia in endorsing limited uses of force under UN auspices, which became evident in the course of the gridlocked debate about what to do in response to the regionally dangerous violence in Syria that combined internal strife with external proxy involvements threatening the expansion of the war zone in a variety of menacing ways.

 

            Actually the Charter red line has been surprisingly well respected over the period since 1945, at least in clear instances of border-crossing sustained violence. The UN authorized the defense of South Korea in response to an armed attack by North Korea in 1950. The UN, with surprising U.S. support, even exerted effective pressure in 1956 on the United Kingdom, France, and Israel to withdraw from territory seized after their attack on Egypt, which was the sole prominent example of law prevailing over geopolitics. In 1991 the UN successfully authorized force that followed sanctions, and succeeded in restoring the sovereignty of Kuwait after Iraq’s aggressive occupation and annexation of the country in the previous year. The UN red line held up reasonably well until the end of the last century, although all along its interpretation was subject to geopolitical manipulations by reference to a variety of loopholes and evasions associated with claims of humanitarian intervention, as well as a variety of strategically motivated covert interventions (e.g. Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954). This pattern of evasion was a prominent feature of the Cold War as both sides intervened in foreign states or in their respective spheres of influence (e.g. South Vietnam, Eastern Europe, Afghanistan) to uphold by force of arms an ideological alignment with one or the other superpower. Such uses of international force by rival superpowers without engaging the UN framework definitely eroded the authority of the anti-aggression red line and its stature in international law, but it did not lead political actors to call for its abandonment in view of the behavior of leading states. It is true that some anti-legalist international law specialists who subscribed to a realist worldview felt that patterns of state practice overrode the claims of international law and the UN Charter, and that, in effect, the red line had been erased, at least for the top tier of sovereign states. Although not made explicit, the American position was increasingly exhibiting the psychological characteristics of geopolitical bipolarity: no red line for American foreign policy, while maintaining a bright red line for others, especially for adversary states.

 

            What weakened this red line even more decisively was undoubtedly the American led ‘coalition of the willing’ attack on Iraq in 2003 after an American plea for UN permission to use force had been rebuffed by the Security Council despite a concerted effort to convince its members that Iraq’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction was such a great menace to world peace as to justify what amounted to a ‘preventive war’. This undisguised defiance of this most fundamental red line of international law by the United States also defied world public opinion that had expressed itself in the most massive anti-war demonstrations in all of history held in some 80 countries on February 15, 2003, a little more than a month before the ‘shock and awe’ start of the Iraq War.  Richard Perle, often touted as the most astute of the neocon intellectuals who fashioned American strategic policy during the Bush years, was exultant about this seemingly definitive breach of the red line, celebrating American aggression against Iraq in a Guardian article aptly headlined, “Thank God for the Death of the UN.” [March 20, 2003] Although the authority of the UN was definitely flouted by the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the UN is far from dead as an Organization in its manifold efforts to address the concerns of the world, and even its red line, although covered with dust, has not yet been erased. Maybe we should really thank God that the collective global consciousness is so forgetful!

 

            What is baffling about the Obama approach is that it purports to be very mindful of the importance of exhibiting respect for international law. Just last September in a speech to the General Assembly Obama said, “We know from painful experience that the path to security prosperity does not lie outside the boundaries of international law..” In his Second Inaugural Obama repeated the sentiment: “We will defend our people and uphold values through strength of arms and rule of law.” And in arguing on behalf of taking collective action against states that violate international law told the Nobel Peace Prize audience in Stockholm, “[t]hose that claim respect for international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted.”

 

            And yet, when reflecting on intervening in Syria or resort to a military option in relation to Iran’s nuclear program, Obama is silent about the relevance of international law, although neither instance of contemplated uses of force can be remotely claimed to be justified as either individual or collective self-defense. And for obvious reasons, there is also no mention of circumventing the red line by failing to seek authorization for a contemplated used of force from the Security Council. Presumably since approval would not be forthcoming due to the anticipated opposition of Russia and China it was not even worth considering as a public tactic. It is true that the Clinton presidency in participating via NATO in the Kosovo War proceeded also to embark on a non-defensive war without seeking prior authorization for somewhat similar reasons as any resolution on Kosovo proposing use of force was sure to be vetoed by Russia and China. The Kosovo precedent generated worries about non-defensive military undertakings lacking a legal foundation. These were offset in the belief that a humanitarian catastrophe had been averted. The Kosovo undertaking was convincingly justified at the time on credible moral grounds of imminent genocide, on political grounds as enjoying support from almost all of Kosovo’s European neighbors, and on practical grounds as a military intervention that was feasible. In effect, the legitimacy of the intervention was allowed to offset its illegality. As it turned out the military undertaking and political follow up was more difficult than anticipated, but still achieved at a reasonable cost, within a relatively short period, and productive of zero casualties among the intervening forces.

            The question raised is whether from an overall perspective, the red line of international law at stake in Syria is more like Iraq or Kosovo/Libya. It is unlike Iraq in the sense that there is an ongoing unresolved civil war in Syria that is actively destabilizing the region and already spilling over national borders to cause unrest in neighboring countries.  Syria is also the scene of severe Crimes Against Humanity that are being mainly committed by the regime. Finally, at present, there is no end of the violence is in sight give the relative strength of the two sides. It is, however, unlike Kosovo/Libya as there are proxy states acting as participants on both sides, the Damascus regime despite its behavior maintains considerable internal support while the opposition is widely viewed with deep suspicion and fear as to its democratic credentials, its lack of inclusiveness, and its uncertain respect for non-Sunni minorities. In a sense it is essential that each conflict be assessed within its own distinctive context, which should raise for discussion whether the red lines of international law and UN authority should be crossed in this instance on behalf of the blue lines of legitimacy (saving a vulnerable people from a humanitarian catastrophe) and white lines of feasibility (likelihood of success with minimum loss of life and high probability of positive net effects).

 

            Finally, it has been argued that the changing nature of conflict has made the red line embedded in the UN Charter obsolete or at least in need of a drastically modified interpretation.  The rationale for rethinking the Charter approach to the use of force is associated with the global security situation that has resulted from terrorist attacks since 9/11 leading to the global war on terror being waged on a battlefield without national limits and increasingly doing the killing via reliance on robotic warfare on the one side and very primitive forms of disruptive violence by political extremists on the other side. Traditional ideas of deterrence, containment, and territorial defense seem almost irrelevant in relation to global security regimes when the perceived assailants are individuals who cannot be deterred, and are operating in non-territorial networks and exhibiting a readiness to die to complete their mission. As matters are proceeding the policy about force is being formulated without bothering with the red lines of international law and the UN, regressively producing once again a world of unregulated sovereign states and extremist non-states essentially deciding on their own when war is permissible. The recent Israeli air strikes on Syrian targets is illustrative: unprovoked and non-defensive, yet eliciting scant criticism in the media or even commentary about the dangers of unilateralism with respect to uses of international force. Such normative chaos in a world where already nine countries possess nuclear weapons seems like a prescription for eventual species suicide, an impression reinforced by the failure to take precautionary steps with respect to the menace of global warming. Never has the world more needed red lines that are drawn by major states, and upheld by them out of the realization that the national interest has also merged with the global interest. Arguably the red lines of the Charter need to be modified in light of the rise of non-state actors and the advent of non-territorial warfare, but such an undertaking is no where on the agenda of major states, and so the world drifts back to the pre-World War I era of unrestricted warfare, at least on the level of geopolitics.

 

            What is strange in all this is that Obama talks the talk, but seems unwilling to walk the walk. Such a disjunction invites cynicism about law and morality, and induces despair on the part of those of us who believe the world we inhabit badly needs red lines, but the right red lines. Redrawing the red lines that fit the realities of our world and keep alive hopes for peace and justice, should be the great diplomatic challenge of our time, the visionary projects of leading diplomats whose imaginative gaze extends beyond addressing immediate threats. The old red lines have been put aside in contemplating what to do in relation to Syria, but without trying to establish new red lines that can serve humanity well in what has been so far a  disorienting journey in the 21st century.

Reading Palestinian Prison Diaries

30 Mar

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The Prisoners’ Diaries: Palestinian Voices from the Israeli Gulag, edited by Norma Hashim, in close collaboration with the Centre for Political & Development Studies, Gaza, 2013

There are many moving passages that can be found in these excerpts from prison diaries and recollections of 22 Palestinians. What is most compelling is how much the material expresses the shared concerns of these prisoners despite great variations in writing style and background. A few keywords dominate the texts: pain, God or Allah, love, dream, homeland, steadfastness, tears, freedom, dream, prayer. My reading of these diaries exposed me to the distinct personal struggles of each prisoner to survive with as much dignity as possible in a dank and poorly lit circumstances of isolation, humiliation, acute hostility on the part of the prison staff, including abusive neglect by the medical personnel. The diaries also confirmed that even prolonged captivity had not diluted the spirit of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, but on the contrary had intensified it.  A strong impression of the overall illegitimacy of Israel’s encroachment on the most fundamental rights of the Palestinian people is also present on virtually every page.

Although not professional writers, the sentiments expressed have a special kind of eloquence arising from their authenticity and passion.  A female prisoner, Sana’a Shihada, on learning that her family had been spared the demolition of their family home, describes the ordeal of her interrogation in a poetic idiom: “..the anger of the interrogators was like snow and peace to me [an Arabic saying that conveys a sense of being ‘soothing’]. I felt the pride of the Palestinians, the glory of Muslims, and the brightness of honesty. I knelt to Allah, thankfully. My tears fell on the floor of the cell, and I am sure they dug a path which those later imprisoned will be able to see.” Or the words of Eyad Obayyat, a prisoner facing three lifetime sentences for his role in killing several Israeli soldiers, “Among us prisoners, the unity of love for our homeland was precious above all other things.” Another, Avina Sarahna, asks poignantly, “Is resisting occupation a crime?…Let me be a witness to the truth, and let me stay here.” Speaking of the pain of being separated from her four children, Kahera Als’adi writes, whom she discovered were living in an orphanage: “I couldn’t keep myself from bursting into tears. Was my loving family scattered like this? Was fate against us because of our love for our homeland?..After that visit, I felt like a slaughtered sheep.” These randomly selected quotations could be multiplied many times over, but hopefully the overall tone and coherent message are conveyed by these few examples.

What I found most valuable about this publication was its success in turning the abstraction of Palestinian prisoners into a series of human stories most of which exhibit agonized feelings of regret resulting from prolonged estrangement from those they most love in the world. Particularly moving were the sorrows expressed by men missing their mothers and daughters. These are the written words of prisoners who have been convicted of various major crimes by Israeli military courts, some of whom face cruel confinement for the remainder of their life on earth, and who have been further punished by being deprived of ever seeing those they love not at all, or on rare occasions, for brief tantalizing visits under dehumanizing conditions, through fogged up separation walls.

It is hard not to treat a prison population as an abstraction that if noticed at all by the outside world is usually reduced to statistics that appear in reports of human rights NGOs. These autobiographical texts, in contrast, force us to commune with these prisoners as fellow human beings, persons like ourselves with loves, lovers, needs, aspirations, hopes, pious dreams, and unrelenting hardships and suffering. There is also reference to the other side of the prison walls. These prisoners show concern for the suffering that imprisonment causes their families, especially young children and elderly parents.  Given the closeness of Palestinian  families it is certain that those who are being held in prison would be terribly missed, especially as their confinement arises because of their engagement in a struggle sacred to virtually every Palestinian. Such humanization of Palestinian prisoners is undoubtedly superfluous for Palestinians living under occupation or in refugee camps where arrests, which resemble state-sanctioned kidnappings are being made daily by Israeli security forces. It is a tragic aspect of the occupation that after 45 years of occupation there is not a Palestinian family that is left untouched by the Israeli criminalization of all forms of resistance, including those that are nonviolent and symbolic.

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We need a wider ethical, legal, and political perspective to grasp properly this phenomenon of Palestinian prisoners. The unlawful occupation policies of Israel are unpunished even when lethal and flagrantly in violation of international humanitarian law, and are rarely even officially criticized in international arenas. In contrast lawful forms of resistance by the Palestinian people are harshly punished, and the resulting victimization of those brave enough to resist is overlooked almost everywhere.  If we side with those who resist, as was done during World War II when those Europeans mounted militant forms of resistance against German occupation and criminal practices, we glorify their deeds and struggle. Yet if the occupier enjoys our primary solidarity we tend to criminalize resistance without any show of empathy. To some extent, this book cuts through this ideological myopia, and lets us experience the torment of these prisoners as human beings rather than as Palestinian ‘soldiers’ in the ongoing struggle against Israel.

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In the past year, heroic Palestinian hunger strikers, initially Khader Adnan and Hana Shalabi, did their best to call attention to the abusive character of Israel’s terrifying violent arrests in the middle of the night followed by imprisonment for lengthy periods without even making charges or holding trials. Israeli recourse to administrative detention takes place even in circumstances where the person being confined was engaged in no activities that could be remotely considered to pose a security threats.  It is notable that despite hunger strikers putting their own lives at severe risk to protest such inhumane behavior by Israel in its role as the occupying power, the world refuses to pay attention even to such hunger strikers, which is somewhat shocking despite decades of lectures to the Palestinians to renounce armed resistance, and engage instead in nonviolent forms of resistance, and if they do so, they will win political support for their grievances even from governments allied with Israel, including the United States. To date the evidence suggests a far uglier pattern: when Palestinians resist by way of armed struggle, their actions are denounced and their grievances are ignored, while when they resist nonviolently, their actions and their grievances are ignored. What is worse, while this shift in Palestinian tactics has taken place in recent years, the Israeli governing process moves steadily to the right until now in March 2013, the latest governing coalition in Tel Aviv is avowedly settler oriented. The international background music has not changed, and Washington loses no opportunity to sound the trumpets while declaring its unconditional and undying loyalty to Israel, pretending not to notice violations of international law and the deliberate efforts to make the two state solution yesterday’s dream, today’s nightmare.

The preoccupation of these prisoners with the fate of the singular Israeli prisoner at the time, Gilad Shalit, was something of a surprise for me, although it is understandable. Why, the Palestinians ask themselves, does the world make such a fuss about a single Israeli being held in Gaza after being captured during a military mission, and ignore the fate of the many thousands of Palestinians detained for year after year because they fought for the freedom of their country? Once considered, such a question is both natural, and once asked, the grotesque display of double standards seems self-evident. But there is also an opposite appreciation of the significance of Shalit expressed, which recognizes that the October 2011 deal struck to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners would not have happened had Shalit not been captured. In this sense, the Palestinians in recording their feelings realize that their freedom has been made possible because Hamas succeeded in capturing and holding Shalit. This was no small achievement. During the massive attacks by Israel on Gaza in 2008-09, Operation Cast Lead, IDF commanders told their troops that this violence had been unleashed so as to gain the release of Shalit. Had Hamas allowed Shalit to go free or had be been killed in the operation, then there would have been no negotiations for the release of Palestinian prisoners. It is as simple as that. Of course, it is not simple. Many of those released were soon rearrested by Israel, once more undermining even minimal trust between the two peoples, and again showing that Israel can defy legal and moral obligations without facing any adverse consequences, a metaphor for the overall stranglehold of the occupation.

Above all, these texts in almost every page confirm that particularly prized Palestinian collective public/private virtue of sumud or steadfastness. Such exhibitions of courage indirectly shames those of us who suffer far less or not at all, and yet find ourselves discouraged and dispirited by the ills of the world to an extent that we retreat from public engagement to the comfort zones of sanctuaries of escape. These prisoners have no such option, maintaining their commitment to the Palestinian struggle in the darkest of circumstances, consigned to spending their most energetic years behind bars or surrounded by dank prison walls. We can ask ourselves where does such courage come from? There is no definite common answer. Yet what comes across from these diary pages are deep commitments  rooted in love of family and homeland as strengthened by religious faith and practice and sustained by prison camaraderie or in embittered reaction to the dehumanizing atmosphere of enduring prison life year upon year.

We should not forget that there is a callous and manifest unlawfulness about this network of Israeli prisons, all but one of the 19 being located in Israel, in direct violation of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention governing belligerent occupation: “Protected persons accused of offenses shall be detained in the occupied country, and if convicted they shall serve therein.”  Underlying such a provision of law is a humane impulse: compelling an individual to be imprisoned in the occupying country imposes a geographic separation from family and homeland, which in the Israeli case is accentuated by a permit system that as a practical matter makes family visits from occupied Palestine a virtual impossibility. With respect to prisoners from Gaza, there are virtually no prison visits allowed even if sentences are for several decades or lifetime. As is widely known, the people of Gaza have been subject to a punitive blockade maintained ever since mid-2007 that involves a massive imposition of collective punishment on the civilian population, a crime of war so specified in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Israel’s cruelty toward Palestinian prisoners is underscored by its recent practice of releasing West Bank hunger strikers at death’s doorstep, then deporting them for a period of years to Gaza, that is, beyond access to their families and normal places of residence, at a moment when their physical condition is so deteriorated that they could not possibly become a security threat and when most in need of nurture and familiar surroundings. Hana Shalabi, who was particularly close to her family, was so deported to Gaza for three years and just days ago. Ayman Sharawneh was similarly deported for ten years as part of a plea bargain. Such shocking practice is worthy of global condemnation. It involves another form of collective punishment inflicted both on the person so confined to Gaza and to his or her family that is not allowed to travel from the West Bank to Gaza. There is a triple  perverseness about this practice of prisoner release: Gaza itself an open-aired prison also serves Israel as a site of punitive internal exile, and makes the distinction between ‘prison’ and ‘freedom’ almost disappear into surreal thin air.  One can only imagine the global protest movement if Hamas had conditioned Gilad Shalit’s release on his confinement in a Salafi controlled region of Egypt!

This pattern of unlawful imprisonment and unjust deportation also interferes with the preparation of adequate defense representation as Palestinian lawyers also experience routine difficulties in obtaining permits and visiting rights. Article 76 also requires that prison conditions for those living under occupation should under no condition be worse than those of Israeli prisoners in Israel, which makes the disallowance and obstruction of family visits for Palestinians unlawful, as well as cruel.

It is increasing evident that international humanitarian law falls short when it comes to offering suitable protection to the Palestinian people who have been living under occupation since 1967, with no end in sight. It is not only occupation, but a continuous process of encroachment that cumulatively has assumed the character of de facto annexation via the massive settlement phenomenon. Under these circumstances, and given the inalienable right of self-determination that belongs to the Palestinian people, there is posed some protection for rights of resistance. These rights need to be exercised in a manner respectful of civilian innocence, but difficult issues of identification are posed in relation to armed and violent Israeli settlers. True, those who act in resistance are not technically prisoners of war, who are protected the Third Geneva Convention, but they are acting to fulfill fundamental rights being violated by those who occupy their land and sit in judgment when they act defensively. What is needed, beyond all doubt, is a code of conduct, if not an additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions, that fills in this gap associated with resistance. Resisters should be treated with the same dignity under international humanitarian law as is associated with Prisoners of War. Their acts, even if violent, are in keeping with prevailing societal and civilizational values, and perpetrators, even when confined for reasonable security reasons, should be treated with appropriate dignity. Unlike sociopathic common murderers, rapists, and the like (and even they should also be treated in accord with international standards), the acts of Palestinian prisoners are viewed as heroic by their own society and political culture, as well as many people throughout the world. They deserve international recognition and protection. Their ‘crimes’ will eventually be vindicated by history as part of a final chapter in the struggle against European colonial rule.

I believe it to be a moral obligation of all of us who care about human rights and freedom to read this book, and share it with others. The Palestinians, whose rights and dignity have been long trampled upon, especially deserve our deepest empathy, as well as our solidarity in their struggle. Reading the words of these prisoners vividly discloses the nature of such a struggle in the form of witnessing by those Palestinians who have put their lives at risk for the sake of recovering their stolen homeland. We also owe a debt of gratitude to Norma Hashim who has edited this collection as a work of devotion and an expression of solidarity with and reflection on the Palestinian struggle. Its publication in book form is timed to coincide with Palestinian Prisoner’s Day, April 17th.

The pdf version of Prison Diaries can be downloaded now for USD1.99 at http://theprisonersdiaries.blogspot.com. The printed book will be available at palestinemall.net from 17 April 2013.

Beyond The Haunted Imagination

12 Feb

 

            Ever since atomic bombs were exploded over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing days of World War II end of the world forebodings have been present in Western cultural consciousness. In the background of such thinking is the religious anticipation of a day of judgment when life in earth will be replaced by the consignment of everyone then living to either the hell of damnation or the heaven of salvation. The first type of end time thinking is based on the fear that the Promethean gift of technological innovation when carried to its omega point will produce a big bang terminal moment in the human experience. The second kind of end time thinking imagines that the gift of planetary life was a testing time for the human species that would end with endless punishment for the many and eternal rewards for a few, and was divinely programmed in a fatalistic manner beyond human capacity to control or alter. We live now amid both types of end time thinking, a realization made more troublesome because such alarmist patterns of awareness while rather widespread have not generated any strong reactive movement based on prudence and preservation. Instead, all of us avert our eyes most of the time, and most manage to look away all the time often with the help of drugs and denial. Only a few are able to fix their full gaze on the impending cosmic wreck without turning away.

 

            One of those few is a poet named C.K. Williams who in an essay, “Nature and Panic,” which appeared in the October 2012 issue of Poetry magazine, acknowledged panic in response to what he observes in the world around him. In words that resonate with me Williams wrote: “Like many people I know, I often have a somewhat—no, a wholly—frightening vision of the future of humanity and of our earth. There are periods when I live in a state of acute anxiety, indeed, near panic, about what awaits our children and grandchildren. Last year, I realized one day that every poem I was writing or attempting to write, had global warming and its consequences either as its overt or implied theme. Sometime I’m depressed beyond writing or saying anything at all; I fall into a funk that threatens never to end.”

 

            Williams goes on to refer to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which paints the darkest possible picture of the desperate aftermath of a totalizing apocalyptic catastrophe that reduces human existence to the barest of survival struggles waged among roving gangs of desperate people ready to feast on one another. Such an extreme playing out of dark forebodings provokes an attitude of resentment in Williams, not because it is an exaggeration of what lies in store for humanity, but because it rings true! In Williams’ words: “I’m not the only person I know who’s expressed regret at having injested the book: I feel sometimes indignant that I have to have it in my consciousness. If there ever was a book that embodies the extremity of the emotion we call panic, this has to be it. I find it’s like having a piercing scream in my mind, one that, when the book comes to mind, which it does more often than I’d like, goes off like a siren.”

 

            From this low point of panic, Williams finds his solace in beauty as an authentic manner of not succumbing to the torments of reason and the all too realistic tremors of a beckoning end time. He takes note of the pervasiveness of beauty in all its forms—music, painting, architecture, poetry—“if not in every day then in every age” as something that lifts human experience to a higher realm of being that is no longer vulnerable to panic no matter how dire the warning signs. Williams writes “[o]ften our first experience of beauty will be the first hint of what each of us at some point will dare call our soul.’ This allows our exposure to great art of any kind to carry us beyond ourselves and whatever conditions we fear in the world. Williams notes that the first creators of painting retreated to caves so as to avoid being distracted by the lesser wonders of nature that he seems also to regard with awe, yet a lesser awe, because these wonders are there to be found rather than there to be discovered in the solitary mineshafts of the creative imagination. Williams ends his extraordinary pilgrimage beyond the realms of end time with these almost hopeful words: “Beauty saves us. Beauty will save us. The world, though, is still ours to cherish, and ours to protect.”

 

            This brave sentiment is less an act of will than a refocusing of the human spirit. While we are alive, let us be saved by beauty, and I would add by love, but let us not forget that the world is not yet alien, but contains flowers and birds and stars and moonlight and rainbows and many beautiful people of all shades and beliefs. It is worth protecting, and cherishing, and who really knows what the future will bestow? Despite sharing with Williams  “a pessimism of the intellect” I also know deep down that the struggle for the human future is far from over, that the world and all those who are being made to daily suffer close by and at great distances are both “ours to protect.”      

Toward a New Geopolitics?

15 Aug

 

             During the Cold War the main geopolitical optic relied upon by policymakers and diplomats was associated with a bipolar structure of hard power. There were supposedly two superpowers with overwhelming military capabilities compared to all other sovereign states, and each controlled an alliance of subordinate states that staked their survival on global crisis management and territorial containment skills of either the United States or the Soviet Union. This framework was an extreme version of the balance of power system that had sustained global order in the West with mixed results during prior centuries. The Cold War nuclear version of the balance of power was frighteningly vulnerable to accident or miscalculation creating a lingering illusion that the current possession of nuclear weaponry on the part of nine sovereign states is a tolerable and stable situation in global affairs.. This statist framework, evolving from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, was partly based on the juridical idea of the equality of sovereign states while being fully responsive to the geopolitical facts of life that placed stress on the gross inequality of states. This dimension of inequality produced an historical succession of hierarchies in the relations among sovereign states,  quite often taking the form of regional and globe-girdling empires.

 

            The UN from its outset was a constitutional reflection of the Old Geopolitics, with the General Assembly organized according to the logic of sovereign equality while the Security Council incorporated inequality via the veto power conferred upon its five permanent members, who incidentally achieved this status because they were regarded as the main winners in World War II. These state soon justified their status by passing the new litmus test of hard power—that is, becoming the first five countries to acquire and stockpile nuclear weapons. The Old Geopolitics was built around the institutions pratices of warfare: victory on the battlefield, superior weaponry and military capabilities relative to others, levels of industrialization as a prime indicator of war fighting potential.

 

            After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union a few years later, the bipolar construction of world order no longer provided a summary description of world order in hard power currency. Still, the idea and behavioral patterns of the Old Geopolitics persisted, but the new structure of power was redescribed by security specialists as ‘unipolar’ with the organizing authority in the world now concentrated in the government of ‘the sole surviving superpower,’ which Michael Mandelbaum, a respected international relations scholar, glorified as a virtual and benevolent ‘world government.’  It was a romanticized way of acknowledging that America’s hard power dominance of global scope and its projection of hard power to the far corners of the planet, on and under the oceans, and into space, was truly the first world state of global proportions, but it was not a Westphalian state as its boundaries were geopolitically delimited rather than fixed territorially.

 

            When Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait in 1990, a collective response successfully was organized by the United States at the UN, and its character reflected the operating procedures of this post-Cold War situation of unipolarity. At the time this undertaking was rendered feasible by what the American president at the time inappropriately called the ‘New World Order.’ What George H.W. Bush clearly meant by the phrase was the capacity of the UN to act collectively in peace and security situations in accordance with Washington’s wishes, and was no longer gridlocked by the Cold War standoff. But this was not a genuine shift in the direction of collective security, the global rule of law, and an empowered United Nations. It became very clear as the response to the Iraqi aggression unfolded that it was nothing more dramatic than an enactment of a new phase of the Old Geopolitics, that is, interpreting world order priorities and security policy almost exclusively as an expression of the current distribution of hard power capabilities among states. In the 1990s the Old Geopolitics was dominated by the United States, and operationally administered from Washington, continued despite the collapse of colonialism to be West-centric when it comes to the shaping of global security policy. In effect, the Old Geopolitics did not immediately register the momentous historical consequences for world order of the collapse of the colonial order that irreversibly weakened the relative position of the West.

 

 

 

 

THE EMERGENT NEW GEOPOLITICS

 

            A number of developments on the global stage are suggesting that a New Geopolitics is indeed struggling to be born, although unable at this stage to challenge seriously the reign of the Old Geopolitics. The New Geopolitics is premised on the primacy of soft power criteria of influence and status, and is more universalistic and less statist in the composition of actors providing global leadership and influencing policy. The prominence accorded to the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China is one expression of a shift in the understanding of a more multi-polar structure of world order. The claims of these states to such an acknowledgement of first tier influence is not based on their military capabilites or the potency of their alliance affiliations, but is primarily associated with their economic rise that consists of their astonishing recent record of growing achievements in GNP, trade, investment, and financial settings. Such a trend is also being institutionally recognized in relation to economic globalization and a network of the industrialized leading states, with notable shifts from a Cold War Group of Seven, to an enlarged Group of Eight to accommodate Russia, and finally to the present Group of Twenty to incorporate into the dynamics of global economic policy formation a more globally representative group of states.  

 

            Parallel to this evolution in relations among states has been efforts by private sector actors and civil society representatives to establish their own institutional arenas so as to put forward alternative policy agendas, promote interests and values, and indirectly erode the Westphalian notion that states, and only states, can be fully participating members of world order. The Davos World Economic Forum is one influential expression of a private sector initiative to shape global economic policy in a manner responsive to corporate and banking wish lists. In contrast the World Social Forum, held annually in a city somewhere in the global South, asserts people-oriented visions of a post-Westphalian world order and mounts sharp critiques of capital-oriented globalization.  

 

            A striking example of New Geopolitics was the ad hoc realignment that took center stage in the closing days of the 2009 Copenhagen UN Conference on Climate Change. It was there that the United States sought to circumvent unwieldy and uncongenial procedures involving 193 states by selecting the participants in a hegemonic coalition that consisted of itself, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. It mission was to put before the conference a proposed consensual agreement to deal with the challenge of global warming. There was widespread resistance to this approach at Copenhagen, especially from the states that felt excluded by this maneuver and resented the clumsy effort to circumvent the agreed procedures that had been relied upon to prepare the negotiating documents for the Copenhagen conference. This statist backlash was centered in that part of the Old Geopolitics associated with the idea of the equality of states as the basis of legitimate multilateral lawmaking in the 21st century.

 

            In effect, this wider community of states, essentially the membership of the UN General Assembly, were unwilling to give their assent to such a geopolitical coalition formed without their authorization and behind their back, despite the fact that for once it was not West-centric. Partly of the objection was to a perception of shifty backroom politics that demeaned the hard work of a UN inclusive statist effort to find global common ground on climate change, and partly it was an unwillingness to go along with the proposed shift in climate change policy from the mandatory emission reductions associated with the Kyoto Protocol to the proposed voluntary system of governmental pledges that was contained in the Copenhagen Accord presented to the Copenhagen Conference by the American president. At the same time, the hierarchical side of the Old Geopolitics was strong enough to avoid a direct repudiation of the Copenhagen Accord, which was presented to the assembled delegates at the last minute as a matter of ‘this or nothing.’ Clearly, these governmental representatives preferred to go home with the Accord, however annoyed they were by its process and content, than to return to their capitals empty handed.

 

            There is much graffiti on the walls of the Old Geopolitics, and it signals a gradual and partial loss of historical control. The successful challenge of the colonial order by various movements of liberation throughout Asia and Africa strongly established a trend in conflict resolution in which the West, although the militarily superior side, was being compelled in the end to accept political defeat. This amounted to a radical reversal of the experience of conflict during the colonial era in which hard power realities shaped, usually with minimal effort, the outcomes of political conflict to the advantage of Europe. This enhancement of soft power stature was reinforced up to the present moment by a series of failed wars undertaken by the United States in particular. From the outcome of the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s to the recent winless withdrawals of the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan it is evident that hard power superiority, even total military dominance, is no longer able to reach desired political outcomes in violent conflicts at acceptable costs. In other words, relying on the staple currency of the Old Geopolitics, military power, seems recently to bring frustration and defeat, not victory as of old. These outcomes discredit and infuriate the geopolitical leaders, but rather than adapt to changed circumstances, these governments struggle to find new battlefield tactics and weaponry to satisfy their traditions strategic ambitions and somehow demonstrate anew that military superiority (rather than law or justice) serves the world as the arbiter of international conflicts. The aged architects of the Old Geopolitics for a variety of reasons are unable to learn from failure, and so the cycle of war and frustration goes on and on with disastrous human results.

 

            Reinforcing these developments, and their interpretation, was the earlier impact of nuclear war on the conduct of international relations. Nuclear weaponry, the Omega point in the Old Geopolitics, actually had the paradoxical effect of excluding hard power solutions from political struggles between principal geopolitical rivals, radically modifying the emphasis of grand strategy in the direction of war prevention and deterrence so as to avoid the mutual disaster of nuclear warfare. Even in military conflicts waged in non-Western settings on the geographic periphery of the Old Geopolitics, which constituted the proxy wars between East and West during the Cold War, there was a restraining fear. There were worries that such conflicts as the Korean War and Vietnam War might unintentionally escalate if it was allowed to approach the nuclear threshold. Such concerns interfered with entrenched belligerent habits of the Old Geopolitics that had long been preoccupied with winning wars rather than settling for stalemates and ceasefires. 

 

            As a telling sign of the emergence of the New Geopolitcs as now defining contemporary strategic goals, Brazil is far more interested in acquiring a permanent seat in the Security Council than becoming a member of the nuclear weapons club. Such a shift in great power aspirations has long characterized the global ambitions of the main losers in World War II. Germany and Japan were enabled by their defeat and destruction to learn the lessons of a transformed world setting far better than did the winners. Perhaps it was enforced learning as their post-war policy options were restricted by coercive occupations that installed governments that would not revive their past militarist behavior. At present such rising political actors as Turkey and Indonesia, seem more concerned with gaining recognition by winning diplomatic battles to land prestigious posts in the United Nations System than they do in acquiring the latest weapons systems or embarking on expansionist military adventures. Turkey, in particular, has gained greatly enhanced stature by pioneering what might be called ‘compassionate geopolitics,’ by engaging with Somalia at a time when it was discarded as ‘a failed state’ by the United States. Turkey has stepped in to a chaotic internal situation, and embarking on a major joint state-building venture that seems to have made unexpected and significant gains to date. Turkey has also come in difficult circumstances to the economic and diplomatic rescue of the abused Muslim Arakan minority in distant Myanmar.

 

SOFT POWER AND THE NEW GEOPOLITICS

 

            Two crucial tendencies are evident: soft power achieves the most important gains for a society seeking to accelerate its development and raise its status on the global stage of diplomacy; hard power is increasingly frustrated when tested by determined nationalist forces, even those with seemingly modest military capabilities. These factors are given greater historical weight by several other considerations. The greater complexity associated with globalization has created new political spaces that are being filled in various ways by both civil society representatives and private sector actors.  Such patterns of participation exert strong pressure to move the New Geopolitics toward more peaceful and less war oriented standard operating procedures. The civil society vision of the New Geopolitics inclines strongly in the transformative direction of Global Democracy, making all institutions of governance subject to the imperatives of transparency, accountability, stakeholder participation, rule of law, and attention to the human interest/global justice/climate change diplomacy. A first institutional step toward Global Democracy could involve the establishment of a Global Parliament that would directly represent people, not governments.

 

            In effect, we have two models of the New Geopolitics:

 

                        –Minimal Model envisions the persistence of a state-centric world order that is deWesternized and more inclusive, determining status by  a greater reliance on soft power criteria of status and influence, trending toward nonviolent geopolitics, but at the same time continuing to be dominated by a few state actors and remains responsive to the prescriptions and values of neoliberal globalization;

                        –Maximal Model is dedicated to institutions and practices that rely upon nonviolent geopolitics, establishing by stages Global Democracy, while reorienting Economic Globalization in relation to sustainable development by putting people and earth first, and giving an equitable priority to those most vulnerable and deprived when it comes to the allocation of public resources.

 

            At this point, global politics is in a transitional phase. The Old Geopolitics has certainly not disappeared as is evident from the war dangers that remain in the world’s main conflict zones, but it is also rarely capable of translating its preferences into desired outcomes. At some point, hopefully short of global catastrophe, strategic failure in warfare will produce a turn, even in Washington, toward the New Geopolitics. In the interim the prospects are not encouraging, including perhaps the menacing last hurrah of global militarism, its practices and technological innovations that are rapidly turning the world into a borderless and terrorized war zone. The Old Geopolitics fashioned a dysfunctional set of responses to the 9/11 attacks on the United States. These devastating attacks posed a problem that could not be effectively addressed in the customary manner of the Old Geopolitics, that is, by a reliance on hard power–waging wars against distant countries as if the adversary was a series of territorial sovereign states rather than a non-territorial network of political extremists.  In this regard, the threats posed by such anti-system forces of resistance can only be successfully neutralized if a primary reliance is placed upon soft power methods of response. These methods must include the identification of legitimate grievances that induced recourse to such desperate violent political behavior in the first place. To harden territorial boundaries to protect the homeland against hostile encroachment while engaging in a series of failing and bankrupting wars around the world is an almost certain recipe for authoritarian rule at home and intensifying intensifying insecurity elsewhere.

 

 

THE OLD GEOPOLITICS PERSISTS

 

            In this regard, we live at a perilous historical moment. The Old Geopolitics is relying on hard power regardless of cost or risk, and unable and unwilling to heed experience, while the New Geopolitics is struggling with the torments of infancy and growing pains. The minimal model of the New Geopolitics is itself not yet sufficiently clear about how to reconcile national interests with human interests, and so does little to arrest the drift toward ecological catastrophe, systemic shock by systemic shock. The maximal model of the New Geopolitics has not established deep enough political roots to set forth, much less enact, its agenda of Global Democracy, and thus cannot challenge the Old Geopolitics or shape the New Geopolitics. At this point, we need to encourage the utopian imagination, and begin the hard work of initiating the hard political project of transition to the New Geopolitics.

 

            The aftermath of the Arab Spring illustrates this clash between the old and the new. The rise of the people in country after country in the region reflected an attachment to the ideals and practices of substantive democracy. The unexpected regionalization of this challenge gave a glimpse of a new transformative politics, including distrust of military and police methods of sustaining public order and opposition to Western manipulations to control from without and within. The bloodthirsty backlash of regimes, as in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and to some extent, Egypt, manifested the resilience and cruel harshness of hard power tactics of governance, and their purpose of ensuring the counter-revolutionary restoration of the Old Geopolitics.

 

            Whether the Libyan intervention should be seen primarily as a Western reversion to Old Geopolitics or some kind of amalgam of Old and New, with the Gulf countries and the UN enlisted as partners in liberating a people from cruel tyranny, will remain a matter of controversy and uncertainty for years to come. Similarly, with Syria, whether to consider the external moves for and against the Assad regime in Damascus as expressions of the New Geopolitics or some toxic blend of new and old is difficult to discern given the complexities and unknowns of this ongoing bloody struggle that is a blend of a cynical proxy war and bitter internal struggle for state power. Popular support for the idea of protecting a vulnerable people against the crimes against humanity of a vicious governmental regime can be understood from the perspective of human solidarity, an aspect of the maximal model of the New Geopolitics. In contrast, military intervention by external actors with a variety of suspect strategic motives and the use of interventionary weaponry that is likely to magnify the violence, is clearly in the spirit of the Old Geopolitics.

 

            There are no signs at present that the New Geopolitics in either of its main variants will soon replace the Old Geopolitics, but there is plenty of evidence of a sharpening tension between these two main modes of sustaining security and development in the early 21st century. We can expect a gradual discrediting from within of the main centers of Old Geopolitics, but as such a process gains leverage, it is almost certain to produce the opposite effect—a tightening of control at home, and an intensification of military operations abroad, exactly the pattern being enacted in the United States by successive presidents from both main political parties in response to the 9/11 attacks. And within the domain of the New Geopolitics it is likely that there will be a parallel intensification of tension as the minimalists seek realignment without attending to social and economic inequities, while the maximalists insist on the long march to Global Democracy but lack sufficient transnational mobilizing traction to move their endeavor very far.

 

            The Chinese proverb is correct in its chilling reminder that ‘it is a curse to live in interesting times,’ but given the changing historical experiences with warfare, the growing sense of great ecological hazard, and the strengthening attachment to global justice agendas, maybe just this once, the fascinations of our age will turn out to be ‘a blessing.’

Why Europe is not yet ‘A Culture of Peace’

5 Apr


             It is undoubtedly true that the greatest unacknowledged achievement of the European Union (EU) is to establish ‘a culture of peace’ within its regional enclosure for the 68 years since 1944. This has meant not only the absence of war in Europe, but also the absence of ‘war talk,’ threats, crises, and sanctions, with the single important exception of the NATO War of 1999 that was part of the fallout from the breakup of former Yugoslavia. This was undertaken by the American-led alliance both to accomplish the de facto independence of Kosovo from Serbian rule, to ensure the post-Cold War viability of NATO, to reinforce the lesson of the Gulf War (1991) that the West could win wars at low costs due to their military superiority, and to rescue Albanian Kosovars from a possible humanitarian catastrophe at the hands of their Serb oppressors.  The contrast with the first half of the 20th century is stark when Europe seemed definitely the global cockpit of the war system in the East-West struggle for global supremacy.  Millions of soldiers and civilian died in response to the two German attempts by force of arms to gain a bigger role within this European core of West-centric geopolitics. Germany challenged the established order not only by recourse to massive aggressive wars in the form of World War I and II, but also by establishing a diabolical political infrastructure that gave rise in the 1930s to the violently genocidal ideologies of Nazism and fascism.

 

Even during the Cold War decades, Europe was not really at peace, but always at the edge of yet another devastating. For the four decades of the Cold War there existed a constant threat of a war fought with nuclear weapons, a conflict that could have produced totally devastating warfare at any point resulting from provocative American-led deployments of nuclear weapons or inflammatory Soviet interventions in Eastern Europe, or from the periodically tense relations in the divided city of Berlin. Also, to some extent the Soviet Union, with its totalitarian variant of state socialism, was as much European as it was Asian, and thus to a degree the Cold War was being fought within Europe, although its violent dimensions were prudently limited to the global periphery. Despite the current plans to surround Russia with defensive missile systems, supposedly to construct a shield to stop Iranian missiles, there seems little threat of any war being fought within European space, and even a diplomatic confrontation seems improbable at this point. In many respects, the EU culture of peace, although partial and precarious, has been transformative for Europeans even if this most daring post-Westphalia experiment in regional integration and sovereignty has been wrongly assessed almost exclusively from an economistic perspective as measured by trade and investment statistics, and the strength of the Euro and the rate of economic growth. The deep financial crises afflicting its Mediterranean members captures the public imagination without any appreciation of this European contribution to peaceful regional governance.

 

Many foreign policy experts are tend to discount this claim of an internally peaceful Europe. First because it had the benefit of an external Soviet adversary that made a political consensus among European elites appear to be a condition of physical and ideological survival. Secondly, because it could count on the American military presence, hegemonically instrumentalized via NATO, to protect Europe and to soften the edges of any intra-European disagreements. This latter role helps us understand the deployment in Europe of American forces so long after the fighting stopped, even if gradually reduced from troop levels of over 300,000 to the present 50,000. Even this smaller military presence is maintained at high cost to the United States, but it is widely seen in Washington as both a guarantor of peace in Europe and as an expression of America’s global engagement and permanent repudiation of its earlier geopolitical stance toward Europe of what was called ‘isolationism.’ Such a stance was never truly descriptive of American foreign policy, which was almost from its time of independence was expansionist and disposed toward intervention in hemispheric affairs.

 

            While I would with some qualifications affirm the European experience with regionalism as a step forward from the perspective of global governance, there are some darker features of European behavior that need to be taken into account. The colonial powers did not give up their empires without a fight. While the EU was emerging from the wreckage of World War II, European powers fought some dirty wars in futile efforts to hold onto their overseas empires in such countries as Malaya, Indonesia, Indochina, and Algeria. In a sense, the European culture of violence toward non-Europeans was taken over by the United States in its almost continuous engagement in counterinsurgency warfare against the peoples and nations of the South, a mode of one-sided warfare that reached its climate during the Cold War in Vietnam and has risen to alarming levels of destructiveness in Afghanistan and Iraq.

 

            There are also some broader matters of global policy involved.  After the end of the Cold War, the Western security priorities shifted from the defense of Europe against a Soviet threat to an ongoing campaign led by the United States to control the geopolitics of energy. This refocusing shifted the fulcrum of world conflict from Europe to the Middle East, a process strongly reinforced by Washington’s willingness to follow Israel’s lead on most matter of regional security. In such settings external to the territorial domain of the EU, the approach adopted under American leadership has been premised on discretionary recourse to violence under NATO banners, as in Afghanistan and Libya, especially following the American resecuritization of world politics along liberal internationalist lines since the NATO War in Kosovo, and even more so after the 9/11 attacks. The recent buildup toward war against Iran, allegedly because it is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons, is a further demonstration of the contrast between the EU as a European regional arrangement based on the rejection of war as a foreign policy option and NATO as a Western hierarchal alliance that performs as a discretionary mechanism of military intervention in the non-Western world, especially in the energy-rich countries of the Muslim Middle East.

 

Iran is the poster child of such separation of Europe as a zone of peace and the Islamic world as a zone of war. It is notable that the threats to attack Iran in the coming months and the imposition of four stages of crippling sanctions are premised on the unacceptability of Iran’s nuclear program, which is allegedly moving close to the threshold of nuclear weaponry. It could certainly be doubted whether if Iran was intent on acquiring nuclear weapons, and thereby violating its pledge under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it would be grounds for recourse to force.  If the issue were to be more reasonably contextualized it would make us more aware of the relevance of Israel’s stealth acquisition and development of nuclear weapons, accumulating an arsenal estimated to exceed 300 warheads. The exclusions of geopolitical discourse, facilitated by a compliant media, allow Israel to lead the charge against Iran’s supposed quest for nuclear weapons without even an acknowledgement that in light of the overall realities the most prudent and equitable approach would be for all states in the region to unconditionally renounce their intention to acquire or possess this infernal weaponry of mass destruction.

 

But the situation is even more distressing than this shocking embrace of double standards. The available evidence makes it doubtful that Iran is even trying to become a nuclear weapons state. This conclusion is supported by an apparent agreement of all 16 American intelligence agencies that share the view that a high probability exists that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003, and has not resumed it. This intelligence consensus corresponds with the Iranian contention that it is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. The moves toward war against Iran have been amplified by repeated threats of attack in violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, as well as by deliberately imposing punitive sanctions of intensifying severity and by engaging in provocative destabilizing intrusions on Iranian sovereignty taking the form of targeted killings of nuclear scientists and the encouragement of anti-regime violence. Europe is a willing junior partner of the United States in this post-colonial reassertion of Western interests in the oil-rich Middle East, and thus complements its imperfect regional culture of peace with a dangerous global culture of war and hegemony.

 

            As might be expected, this kind of European role external to Europe has sparked a variety of anti-European acts of violent opposition. In turn, Europe has turned in an Islamophobic direction, giving rise to anti-immigrant reactionary politics that are mainly directed against Islamic minorities living within its midst, to a reluctance to move down the road leading to Turkish accession to EU membership, and to various restrictions of religious freedom associated with the practice of religious Islamic women such as wearing a headscarf or burka.

 

            What is striking here is the dedication by the West to sustain by relying on its military superiority the colonial hierarchy of North/South relations in the post-colonial world order. The state system has been universalized since 1945, but the countries of the North, under American leadership, have continuously intervened to promote Western interests at the cost of millions of lives, first as an aspect of worldwide anti-Soviet and anti-Chinese geopolitics, and more recently, to secure oil reserves and to counter Islamic political moves to control national governance structures, as in Afghanistan. The West no longer seeks to fly its flag over the governmental buildings of non-Western countries, but it as hungry as ever for their resources, as well as to ensure receptivity to Western foreign investment and trade interests. Whether to slay the dragons of Communism or Islam, or to satisfy the bloodthirsty appetites of liberal internationalists that champion ‘humanitarian interventions,’ the dogs of war are still howling in the West. The doctrinal masks of law and a UN mandate obscure the realities of aggressive war making, but should not be allowed to deceive those genuinely dedicated to a peaceful and just world.  For one thing, we should not be fooled by belligerent governments relying on legitimizing imprimatur of the Responsibility to Protect—R2P—norm, as in Libya or Syria, to mount their military operations, while at the same time adhering to a non-interventionary ethos when it comes to Gaza, Kashmir, Chechnya, Kurdistan, Tibet). Of course, consistency is not the whole story, but it does penetrate the thick haze of geopolitical hypocrisy. More basic is the renunciation of violent geopolitics and reliance for social and political change on the dynamics of self-determination. Let us appreciate the biggest successes in the Arab Spring took place where the uprising were essentially non-violent and there was minimal external interference, and the most dubious outcomes have occurred where the anti-regime movement was violent and received decisive military assistance from without.

 

            Unfortunately, despite the complexities involved we cannot count on the United Nations partly because the veto creates a possibility to preclude appropriate responses (as in relation to Israeli abuses of Palestinians) or its failure to be used due to geopolitical pressures authorizes essentially unlawful warfare (as in relation to the Libyan intervention where opponents abstained rather than block military action). True, the UN can sometimes withhold its certification for aggression, as it did in 2003 when it rejected the American appeal for a mandate to invade and occupy Iraq, but even then it stood aside when the aggression took place, and even entered Iraq to take part in consolidating the outcome of the unlawful attacks. The UN can be useful in certain peacemaking and peacekeeping settings, but when it comes to war prevention it has lost credibility because tied too closely to the lingering dominance of Western geopolitics.

            These critical assessments highlight the need of persons seeking peace and justice to work within and beyond the established channels of institutional governance. And more specifically, to take note of what Europe has achieved, and might yet achieve, without overlooking past and present colonial and colonialist wrongdoing. In this respect, we need both a UN that becomes as detached as possible from its geopolitical minders and a robust global Occupy Movement that works to provide the peoples of the world with a democratic public order that protects our lives and is respectful of nature’s limits.  

Why not get the Law and Politics Right in Iran?

23 Mar

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

muted response that soon dropped from sight.

 

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

 

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

Toward A Jurisprudence of Conscience

26 Nov

Ever since German and Japanese surviving leaders were prosecuted after World War II at Nuremberg and Tokyo, there has been a wide abyss separating the drive for criminal accountability on the part of those who commit crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, war crimes from the realities of world politics. The law is supposed to push toward consistency of application, with the greatest importance attached to holding accountable those with the greatest power and wealth. The realities of world politics move in the opposite direction, exempting from criminal accountability those political actors that play dominant roles. In a sense the pattern was encoded in the seminal undertakings at Nuremberg and Tokyo that assumed the partially discrediting form of ‘victors’ justice.’ Surely the indiscriminate bombings of German and Japanese cities by Allied bomber fleets and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were ‘crimes’ that should have been investigated and punished if the tribunals had been fully ‘legal’ in their operations. It was the case, especially in Tokyo, that the tribunal allowed defendants to be represented by competent lawyers and that the judges assessed fairly the evidence alleging criminality, producing dissenting opinions in the Japanese proceedings and there was an acquittal at Nuremberg. In effect, there was a measure of procedural fairness in these trials. Without doubt those who were accused of crimes did engage in activity that was legally permissible and important for the future of world order to criminalize through findings of guilt and impositions of punishment, but this outcome was flawed to the extent that victors were not subject to comparable standards of accountability.

There was a second message arising from these trials: that winning side by conducting trials of this kind takes advantage of the opportunity to reinforce claims as to the justice of historical verdicts by pronouncing on the criminality of losers while overlooking the criminality of victors.  There was also a third message that tries to overcome the flaw of double standards. It has been called ‘the Nuremberg promise,’ and involves a commitment by the victors in the future to abide by the norms and procedures used to punish the German and Japanese surviving military and political leaders. In effect, to correct this flaw associated with victors’ justice by making criminal accountability in the future a matter of law applicable to all rather than a consequence of the outcome of wars or a reflection of geopolitical hierarchy.

The Chief Prosecutor at Nuremberg, Justice Robert Jackson (excused temporarily from serving as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court), gave this promise an enduring relevance in his official statement to the court: “If certain acts and violations of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United  States does them or whether Germany does them. We are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.” These words are repeatedly quoted by peace activists, yet ignored by political leaders who took no notice of either the original flaw at Nuremberg or the obligation to remove it. Since 1945 crimes by the victors in conflict have continued to be overlooked by international criminal law, while prosecutions reflecting geopolitical leverage have kept happening without any concerted intergovernmental or UN effort to correct the imbalance. Since the end of the Cold War implementation of criminal responsibility has been increasingly imposed on losers in world politics, including such leaders as Slobadan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Qaddafi each of whom were deposed by Western military force, and either summarily executed or prosecuted.

This dual pattern of criminal accountability that cannot be fully reconciled with law or legitimacy has given rise to several reformist efforts. Civil society and some governments have favored a less imperfect legalization of criminal accountability, and raised liberal hopes by unexpectedly achieving the establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002 through the extraordinary efforts of a global coalition of NGOs and the commitment of a group of middle powers. Fearful of losing their impunity geopolitical heavyweights such as the United States, China, India, and Russia have refused to sign on to the ICC. Yet this and other formal initiatives have not yet seriously impinged on the hierarchal realities of world politics, which continue to exhibit an embrace of the Melian ethos when it comes to criminal accountability: “the strong do what they will, the weak do what they must.” Such an ethos marked, for Thucydides, unmistakeable evidence of Athenian decline, but for contemporary realists a different reading has been prevalent, underpinning political realism, contending that hard power calls the shots in history, and the losers have no choice but to cope as best they can. Double standards persist: the evildoers in Africa are targets of prosecutors, but those in the West that wage aggressive war or mandate torture as national policies continue to enjoy impunity as far as formal legal proceedings are concerned.

The existence of double standards is part of the deep structure of world politics. It was even given constitutional status by being written into the Charter of the United Nations that permits the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, that is the winners in 1945, to exercise a veto over any decision affecting the peace and security of the world, thereby exempting the world’s most dangerous states, being the most militarily powerful and expansionist, from any obligation to uphold international law. Such a veto power, while sounding the death knell for the UN in its core role of war prevention based on law rather than geopolitics, is probably responsible for keeping the Organization together through times of intense geopolitical conflict. Without the veto, undoubtedly the West would

have managed to push the Soviet Union and China out the door during the Cold War years, and the UN would have disintegrated in the manner of the League of Nations, which after the end of World War I converted Woodrow Wilson’s dream into a nightmare.  Beyond this, even seen through a geopolitical optic, the anachronistic character of the West-centric Security Council is a remnant of the colonial era. 2011 is not 1945, but the difficulty of achieving constitutional reform means that India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, and South Africa seem destined to remain permanent ladies in waiting as the UN goes about its serious male business. What this means for UN authority, including its sponsorship of the politics of individual criminal accountability, is that all that is ‘legal’ is not necessarily ‘legitimate.’

My argument seeks to make two main points: first, double standards pervade the application of international criminal law eroding its authority and legitimacy; and secondly, those geopolitical hierarchies that are embedded in the UN framework lose their authority and legitimacy by not adapting to changing times and conditions, especially the collapse of the colonial order and the rise of non-Western centers of soft and hard power.

There are different kinds of efforts to close this gap between the legal and the legitimate in relation to the criminality of political leaders and military commanders. One move is at the level of the sovereign state, which is to encourage the domestic criminal law to extend its reach to cover international crimes. Such authority is known as Universal Jurisdiction (UJ), a hallowed effort by states to overcome the enforcement weaknesses of international law, initially developed to deal with the crime of piracy, interpreted as a crime against the whole world. Many liberal democracies in particular have regarded themselves as agents of the international legal order, endowing their judicial system with the authority to apprehend and prosecute those viewed as criminally responsible for crimes of state. The legislating of UJ represented a strong tendency during the latter half of the twentieth century in the liberal democracies, especially in Western Europe. This development reached public awareness in relation to the dramatic 1998 detention in Britain of Augusto Pinochet, former ruler of Chile, in response to an extradition request from Spain where criminal charges had been judicially approved. The ambit of UJ is wider than its formal implementation as its mere threat is intimidating, leading those prominent individuals who might be detained and charged to avoid visits to countries where such claims might be plausibly made. As might be expected, UJ gave rise to a vigorous geopolitical campaign of pushback, especially by the governments of the United States and Israel reacted with most fear to this prospect of criminal apprehension by foreign national courts. As a result of intense pressures, several of the European UJ states have rolled back their legislation so as to calm the worries of travelers with tainted records of public service!

There is another approach to spreading the net of criminal accountability that has been taken, remains controversial, and yet seems responsive to the current global atmosphere of populist discontent. It involves claims by civil society, by the peoples of the world, to establish institutions and procedures designed to close the gap between law and legitimacy in relation to the application of international criminal law. Such initiatives are appropriately traced back to the 1966-67 establishment of the Bertrand Russell International Criminal Tribunal that examined charges of aggression and war crimes associated with the American role in the Vietnam War. The charges were weighed by a distinguished jury composed of moral and cultural authority figures chaired by Jean-Paul Sartre. The Russell Tribunal was derided at the time as a ‘kangeroo court’ or a ‘circus’ because its conclusions could be accurately anticipated in advance, its authority was self-proclaimed and without governmental approval, it had no control over those accused, and its capabilities fell far short of enforcement. What was overlooked in such criticism was the degree to which this dismissal of the Russell experiment reflected the monopolistic and self-serving claims of the state and state system to control the administration of law, ignoring the contrary claims of society to have law administered fairly in accord with justice, at least symbolically. Also ignored by critics was the fact that only such initiatives could overcome the blackout of truth achieved by the geopolitics of impunity. The Russell Tribunal may not have been ‘legal’ as understood from conventional governmental perspectives, but it was ‘legitimate’ in responding to double standards, by calling attention to massive crimes and dangerous criminals who otherwise enjoy a free pass, and by providing a reliable and comprehensive narrative account of criminal patterns of wrongdoing that destroy or disrupt the lives of entire societies and millions of people. As it happens, these societal initiatives require a great effort, and only occur where the criminality seems severe and extreme, and where a geopolitical mobilization precludes inquiry by established institutions of criminal law.

It is against this background that we understand a steady stream of initiatives that build upon the Russell experience. Starting in 1979, the Basso Foundation in Rome sponsored a series of such proceedings under the rubric of the Permanent Peoples Tribunal that explored a wide variety of unattended criminal wrongs, including dispossession of indigenous peoples, the Marcos dictatorship, Armenian massacres, self-determination claims of oppressed peoples.  In 2005 the Istanbul World Tribunal on Iraq inquired into the claims of aggression, crimes against humanity, and war crimes associated with the U.S./UK invasion and occupation of Iraq, commencing in 2003, causing as many as one million Iraqis to lose their lives, and several million to be permanently displaced from home and country. In the last several weeks the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, a direct institutional descendant of the original undertaking, held a session in South Africa to investigate charges of apartheid, as a crime against humanity, being made against Israel. In a few days, the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal will launch an inquiry into charges of criminality made against George W. Bush and Tony Blair for their roles in planning, initiating, and prosecuting the Iraq War, to be followed a year later by a subsequent inquiry into torture charges made against Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Alberto Gonzales. I intend to write subsequently about each of these proceedings.

Without doubt such societal efforts to bring at large war criminals to symbolic justice should become a feature of the growing demand around the world for real democracy sustained by a rule of law that does not exempt from responsibility the rich and powerful whether they are acting internally or internationally.

Global Revolution After Tahrir Square

9 Nov


            This history-making global Occupy Movement with a presence in over 900 cities would not have happened in form and substance without the revolutionary awakening of the world’s youth that resulted from the riveting events culminating in the triumphal achievement of driving Hosni Mubarak from the pinnacles of Egyptian state power. We need also to acknowledge that the courage exhibited by those gathered at Tahrir Square might not have been exhibited to the world if not for the earlier charismatic self-immolating martyrdom of an unlicenced street vendor of vegetables, Mohamed Bouazi, in the interior Tunisian city of  Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010. Perhaps, as well, the eruptions would have stopped at the Tunisian border were it not for the readiness of Egyptians to erupt after the Alexandria death of Khaled Said on June 6, 2010. This brutal police murder ignited the moral passion of Egyptians, best expressed and widely disseminated through a Facebook campaign, “We are all Khaled Said.” We also must not overlook the mobilizing talents and social networking of digitally minded younger urban Egyptians without whom the movement might never have taken off in the first place, or the later encouragement provided by TV portrayals of the encounters between gangs of Mubarak hooligans and the demonstrators.

 

            History is always over-determined when transformative events are analyzed in the aftermath of their occurrence and so it is, and will be, with Tahrir Square, which has quickly become a shorthand to signify the hopes, fears, and methodology of the 21st century’s first revolutionary moment, both narrowly conceived as an Egyptian happening or more broadly as the inspirational foundation of this revolutionary impulse that has expanded to be a phenomenon of genuine global scope.  What is beyond doubt is that the world Occupy Movement proudly and credibly claims an affinity with Tahrir Square, although not without celebrating their important particularities.  It is reasonable to believe that these numerous protest movements around the world would either not have occurred, or taken a different form without the overall inspiration provided by the several dramas encompassed beneath the banner of the Arab Spring, and not only by Tahrir Square understood in isolation from its regional setting.

 

            I want to stress the unique South-North character of this inspiration as the core of its originality, and relatedness to a broader realignment of the political firmament that is slowly taking account of the collapse of the Euro-centric imperial order that started happening more than half century ago with the collapse of the British rule in India. This decolonizing process still has a long way to go as recent military operations in Libya, threats to Iran, colonialist defiance of Israel to international law daily reminds us. The interventionary currents of transnational political violence continue to flow only in one direction North-South. After World War II the United States militarily replaced the European colonial powers as the principal global custodian of Western interests. This anachronistic West-centricism continues to dominate most international institutions, especially evident in the UN Security Council that constitutionally endows the Euro-American alliance with a veto power used to block many efforts to promote global justice and prevents such emergent political actors as India, Brazil, and Turkey from playing a role commensurate with their stature and influence.

 

            What is exciting, then, about this resonance of Tahrir Square is that the youth of the North looked Southward found inspiration when engaging in their incipient struggle for revolutionary renewal of the world economic and social order, as well as equity in their immediate circumstances. Not only because of its priority in time, but for its conception of how to practice democratic politics outside of governmental structures, this political learning process was evident in the various Occupy sites. The ethos of revolution in Tahrir Square, and elsewhere in the region, with the partial exception of Libya, was nonviolent, youth-dominated, populist, leaderless, without program, demanding drastic change of a democratizing character. On its surface such a revolutionary orientation seems extremely fragile, subject to fragmentation and dissolution once the negatively unifying hated ruler is induced to leave the stage of state power, and if the challenge from below turns out to be more durable, possibly vulnerable to a violent counter-revolutionary restoration of the old regime. The irony of ironies associated with the Arab Spring is that only in Libya does the old order seem gone forever, and there the uprising was tainted in its infancy by its dependence on thousands of NATO air strikes and its reliance on a leadership that seemed mainly contrived to please the West.  When in Egypt a few months ago, in the still exalted aftermath of what was achieved by the January 25th Movement, there was a self-aware and wide chasm between those optimists who spoke in the language of ‘revolution’ and those more cautious observers who claimed only to have been part of an ‘uprising.’ At this moment, these latter more pessimistic interpretations seem more in line with an Egyptian process that can be best described as ‘regime stabilization,’ at least for now.

 

            What happens with the Occupy Movement is of course radically uncertain at present. Is it a bubble that will burst as soon as the first cold wave hits the major cities of the North? Or will it endure long enough to worry the protectors of the established order so that state violence will be unleashed, as always, in the name of ‘law and order’? Are we witnessing the birth pangs of ‘global democracy’ or something else that has yet to be disclosed or lacks a name? We must wait and hope, and maybe pray, above all acting as best we can in solidarity, keeping our gaze fixed on horizons of desire. What is feasible will not do!

Warfare Without Limits: A Darkening Human Horizon

27 Jul images-4


There are several pressures that push war in the direction of the absolute, and imperil the human future. Perhaps, the foremost of these is emergence, use, retention, and proliferation of nuclear weapons, as well as the development of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki there have been several close calls involving heightened dangers of wars fought with nuclear weapons, especially associated with the Cold War rivalry, none more serious than the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. To entrust such weaponry to the vagaries of political leadership and the whims governmental institutions seems like a Mt. Everest of human folly, and yet the present challenges to nuclearism remain modest and marginal despite the collapse of the deterrence rationale that seemed plausible to many during the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States.

 

Underneath the tendency to develop for use whatever weapons and tactics that technology can provide is the fragmented political identities of a world divided into sovereign states. The inhabitants of these states of greatly varying size, capabilities, and vulnerabilities, have long been indoctrinated to view their own state through the idolatrous eyes of nationalism that view the extermination of the enemy as acceptable if necessary for national security or even desirable to satisfy national ambitions. The ideology of nationalism, nurturing the values of unquestioning patriotism, have led to an orientation that can be described as secular fundamentalism, vindicating militarist worldviews however dysfunctional given the risks and limits associated with gaining desired political ends by relying on military superiority. The crime of treason reinforces the absolutist claims of the secular state by disallowing defenses based on conscience, law, and belief.  

 

As I have pointed out in other contexts, the militarily superior side has rarely prevailed in an armed conflict since the end of World War II unless also able to command the moral and legal heights wherein are located the symbols of legitimacy. The political failures of the colonial powers despite their military dominance provides many bloody illustrations of this trend of miltarist frustration that did not exist until the middle of the last century. Because of entrenched bureaucratic and economic interests (‘the military-industrial-media complex’), the experience is denied, military solutions for conflicts continue to be preferred, and futile recourse to war goes on and on.

 

One further check on the excesses of warfare is supposedly provided by the inhibiting role of conscience, the ethical component of the human sensibility. This sentiment was powerfully and memorably expressed by some lines in the Bertolt Brecht poem, “A German War Primer”:

 

                        General, your bomber is powerful

                        It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men

                        But it has one defect:

                        It needs a driver.

 

This ‘defect,’ a driver is both a human cost, and maybe a brake on excess, as Brecht suggests a few lines later:

 

                        General, man is very useful

                        He can fly and he can kill

                        But he has one defect:

                        He can think.

 

Of course, military training and discipline are generally effective in overcoming this defect, especially as backed up by the nationalist ideology discussed above, while international humanitarian law vainly tries to give support to thinking and respecting limits. The Nuremberg Trials of Nazi surviving leaders even went so far as to decide that ‘superior orders’ were no excuse if war crimes were committed.

 

In the nuclear age this process went further as the stakes were so high. I recall visiting the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) at the height of the Cold War. SAC was responsible for the missile force that then targeted many cities in the Soviet Union. What struck me at the time was the seeming technocratic indifference of those entrusted with operating the computers that would fire the missiles in contrast to the ideological zeal of the commanding generals who would give the orders to annihilate millions of civilians at a distant locations. I was told at the time that the lower ranked technical personnel had been tested to ensure that moral scruples would not interfere with their readiness to follow orders. I found this mix of commanders politically convinced that the enemy was evil and apolitical and amoral subordinates a frightening mix at the time, and still do, although I have not been invited back to SAC to see whether similar conditions now prevail. I suspect that they do, considering the differing requirements of the two roles. This view seems confirms by the enthusiasm expressed for carrying on the ‘war on terror’ in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

 

In this period new technological innovations in war making accentuate my earlier concerns. The reliance on drone attacks in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) removes the human person altogether from the war experience, except as in the role of programmer, and even here reliance on algorithms for targeting, removes any shred of responsibility. When mistakes are made, and innocent civilians are killed, the event is neutralized by being labeled ‘collateral damage,’ and an apology is issued but the practice goes on and is even extended.  More important is the chilling effect of removing that human presence, both as a person of one’s own nation being at risk and as a source of potential questioning and even refusal. It should be recalled that the anti-war opposition of American soldiers in Vietnam exerted a powerful influence that helped over time finally to bring this failed war to an end.

 

What is at stake ultimately is the human spirit squeezed to near death by technological momentum, corporate greed, militarism, and secular fundamentalism. This web of historical forces continues to entrap major political actors in the world, and dims hopes for a sustainable future even without taking into account the dismal effects of the gathering clouds of climate change. Scenarios of future cyber warfare are also part of this overall process of destroying societies without risking lives directly. The cumulative effect of these developments is to make irrelevant the moral compass that alone provides acceptable guidance for a progressive human future.

    

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