Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital

15 Dec

 

[Prefatory Note: The following post is a modified version of an article published on December 8th in Middle East Eye. It considers the normative and geopolitical sides of Trump’s unilateralism. Apologists claiming Trump finally acknowledged the operational reality that Jerusalem has been serving as the capital of Israel for the last 50 years, and the disruptive effects have been exaggerated as Saudi Arabia has not reacted in a strongly negative manner. Critics, including myself, regard the initiative as a gratuitous slap at the Palestinians and a further confirmation of Trump’s disregard of international law, international morality, and the authority of the United Nations. The status of Jerusalem serves as a focal point for the tension between the old geopolitics of hard power realism and the normative geopolitics of soft power new realism that is struggling through a birthing process in many settings. In my view the resolution of this tension will shape the trajectory of 21st century humanity. In other words, the stakes are high.]

 

Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital

 

With the deftness of a bull in a china shop, Donald Trump has ignored the advice of several close advisors, disregarded the fervent pleas of several of Israel’s closest Arab neighbors, ignored warnings of America’s traditional allies in the Middle East and Europe, and ruptured a key element of an international consensus that had long prevailed at the UN, by going ahead to proclaim formally Washington’s view that Jerusalem is and will be the capital of Israel. Such a declaration serves also to rationalize the prior pledge to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv, the city where every other country in the world insists on maintaining its government to government relationship with Israel, to the city of Jerusalem, sacred to all three of the monotheistic religions.

 

The most obvious question to pose is one of motivations: Why? Strange as it may seem to those living in the Middle East, the most persuasive explanation is that Trump saw this act of recognition as an opportunity to show his most fervent supporters at home that he was being true to his campaign promises. Trump has been frustrated during the first year of his presidency by his embarrassing inability to carry out the program that helped get him elected in 2016. It is true that by taking this further step toward relocating the American embassy Trump’s popularity in Israel spiked and as he has pointed out he is actually doing what his predecessors and Congress has long proposed.

 

In essence, Trump seems to have taken this internationally controversial step because he cares about pleasing the Christian Zionists and the Israeli Lobby in America more than he does about ruffling the feathers of UN diplomats, possibly inflaming the Arab masses, removing the last shred of doubt among Palestinians that the U.S. could ever be trusted to play the role of ‘honest broker,’ or even partisan intermediary, in the pursuit of a two-state solution, and perhaps most of all, connecting American foreign policy in the turbulent Middle East is some durable and coherent way with strategic national interests in regional stability.

 

From this perspective, Trump has once again demonstrated his extraordinary talent for choosing the worst possible alternative in delicate international situations where dire consequences could follow from the wrong policy turn, and the rewards of going it alone seem minimal and transient, at best.

This vivid instance of Jerusalem unilateralism parallels the geopolitical stupidity of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2015 a few months ago. There also the Trump approach to foreign policy seemed perversely designed to burnish its already secure reputation as the first rogue superpower of the nuclear age. This global spoiler role is also dangerously evident in the apocalyptic threat diplomacy adopted by Trump in the Korean Peninsula as a response to Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons program, which include provocative bluster, weapons developments, and grave risks of mutual miscalculation.  

 

Liberal opinion in the U.S. and abroad lamented the Trump initiative on Jerusalem for the wrong reasons. Especially prominent was the assertion in various forms that Trump had damaged, if not destroyed, the ‘peace process,’ and its special role as convening party. Such a concern presupposes that a peace process sufficiently existed to be susceptible to being destroyed. While promising ‘the deal of the century,’ Trump turned over his supposed peace offensive, to pro-Zionist extremists and settler fundamentalists (David M. Friedman, Jared Kushner, and Jason Greenblatt) whose obvious goal was not peace, but putting the finishing touches on what they regarded as an Israeli victory that only needed a face-saving exit arrangement for the Palestinian Authority to complete the job. Working in tandem with the Netanyahu leadership, the Trump effort has been so far focused on killing ‘the two-state solution,’ at least in its claim to satisfy reasonable Palestinian expectations of self-determination in the form of a viable and truly independent sovereign state with its capital in East Jerusalem. In its place, one supposes that the Trump ‘dream team’ will come up with a non-viable polity in what remains under Palestinian control in the West Bank, either tied to Gaza or separated in some enduring way, affronting reality by calling the plan a fulfillment of two-state expectations, and dismissing Palestinian objections as ‘rejectionism,’ a stubborn insistence on having it all, and in the end, a take it or leave it version of Hobson’s Choice.

 

As matters now stand, the status quo is also very unfavorable from the point of view of the Palestinian national struggle and the implementation of the international community’s version of a reasonable compromise. This status quo of occupation and dispossession facilitates the continuing conversion of the 1967 ‘occupation’ of Palestinian territory into a permanent reality that unlawfully blends the annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem with the maintenance of control over the Palestinian people by means of apartheid structures of subjugation. If this assessment is correct, then moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem can be seen as supportive of Netanyahu’s apparent conception of the end-game of this hundred year struggle between the national aspirations of these two embattled peoples. In this regard, the bluntness of the Trump approach exposes to the world an ugly reality that should have been obvious all along to anyone looking at Israeli behavior with a critical eye, or grasping the policy fallout from the ‘America First’ mantra.

What gives this regressive turn its plausibility, posing yet another challenge to the Palestinian movement, is the blind eye that the new look in Riyadh has turned toward even the Judaization of Jerusalem, which would seem to confirm the Saudi priority of geopolitical collaboration with the United States and Israel, even at the expense of fundamental Islamic concerns and the maintenance of solidarity in the Muslim world. In this sense, it is well to take some note of the declaration of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), endorsed by all 57 of its member states (including Saudi Arabia), that Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine, denying Israel any right to a formal governing process in the city.

 

While this substantive analysis helps us grasp the geopolitical context that makes recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital a kick in the groin of Palestinian delusions about a viable peace diplomacy while at the same time leading most Israelis to dance in the streets. It also underscores the hypocrisy of the international community’s call for reviving the peace process when it should long have been evident that Israeli settlement expansion as well as Tel Aviv’s approach to Jerusalem had passed the point of no return, and thus the occasion for abandoning an unworkable diplomacy, and facing with honesty the daunting question—‘What next?.’ Israel’s recent behavior makes it clear for all except hasbarists that the Israeli government has no current willingness whatsoever to end the conflict if this means creating an independent Palestinian state delimited by 1967 borders, thereby encompassing West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. For Israel the alternatives are perpetuating the apartheid status quo or allowing for the emergence of ‘Bantustan Palestine’ as the diplomatic price that the Netanyahu leadership is willing to pay for a certification of ‘peaceful solution.’

 

From the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 to this historic moment acknowledging Israel’s claims to Jerusalem, Zionism and since 1948, the state of Israel, have disseminated a double-coded message to the world. In its public utterances, Israel’s public posture is one of a readiness for compromise and peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians, while its practices and actual objectives, can only be understood as the step by step consistent pursuit of the visionary ideal of Greater Israel or Our Promised Land. The present Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, in the course of thanking Trump for standing so strongly with Israel, told an American TV audience that Jerusalem has been truly the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years. No where has Israel’s double-coding been more evident than in relation to Jerusalem. It uses the grandiose claims of Jewish religion tradition when it can and the somewhat more constraining diplomacy of statecraft when it offers opportunities, and does its best to avoid altogether the precepts of international humanitarian law or the UN consensus.

 

On the public discourse side stands Israel’s public acceptance of the partition arrangements embodied in General Assembly Resolution 181, which included the internationalization of Jerusalem under UN administration. More critically viewed from a behavioral discourse perspective, Israel’s actual conduct flagrantly consistently defied international law by formally enlarging and annexing Jerusalem as ‘the eternal capital’ of the Jewish people and manipulating the demographics and cultural heritage of the city in ways that made it seem more credible to regard the whole of Jerusalem as a Jewish city.

 

It is difficult for even notorious Israeli apologists, such as Elliot Abrams or former American ambassadors to Israel to defend the actual Trump decision. Such apologists prefer to adopt a default position. Yes, the timing of the White House initiative was tactically questionable, but its international condemnation greatly exaggerates its importance and inappropriateness. They view criticisms and concerns as overblown, amounting to a display of ‘heavy breathing.’ In effect these apologists agree with Trump’s core contention that the acceptance of Israel’s claim to have its capital in Jerusalem, is an overdue recognition of reality, nothing more, nothing less, and that the rest of the world will have to learn to live with this recognition. Time will tell whether this downplaying of fears of renewed violence of resistance and anti-Americanism are anything other than a feeble attempt by apologists to reaffirm Israel’s legitimacy in the face of what should turn out to be a geopolitical fiasco.

 

What should dismay the region and the world the most about Trump’s Jerusalem policy is its peculiar mixture of ignoring law, morality, and the international consensus while so blatantly harming America’s more constructively conceived national interests and tradition of global leadership. This mixture becomes toxic with respect to Jerusalem because by humiliating the Palestinian national movement and ignoring the symbolic status of Jerusalem for Muslims and the Arab peoples, it makes violent extremism more likely while lending support to existing postures of anti-Americanism. How incoherent and self-defeating to proclaim the defeat of ISIS and political extremism as the top American priority and then making this Jerusalem move that is virtually certain to produce populist rage and an extremist backlash. No ISIS recruiter could have wished for more!

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Explaining my Blog Inconsistencies of Late

11 Dec

Explaining my Blog Inconsistencies of Late

 

In the last two weeks I have received many messages asking me why I have been so long silent about the Jerusalem decision and doing so little to maintain my blog, inducing questions about my health and other possible explanations.

 

I am writing now briefly in the spirit of treating the regular readership of this blog as a virtual community, 21st century style, and as a practical way of responding to more inquiries, mostly off-line, than I can address to in a proper bilateral way. I embrace this impersonal style of communication with the greatest reluctance.

 

Aside from the diversions of an exhausting, although exhilarating two week visit to

Vietnam in mid-November, I have been slowly recovering from knee replacement surgery that was scheduled (unwisely) immediately after my return from Vietnam at the beginning of December.

 

This recovery process has been greatly complicated by the historically unprecedently fierce Thomas wildfire that is now threatening Santa Barbara, including our home, after ravaging a series of nearby communities. We are currently evacuated, to avoid the hazardous air quality and the fire threat (our house being located in what is called the ‘mandatory evacuation zone’), to a hotel 100 miles north of the danger area.

 

It is this combination of my personal post-surgery pain and the stressful communal and family circumstances that accounts for my inconsistent performance of late as a blogger. Among hostile readers, I am quite sure that this inconsistency provides welcome relief! I am not disposed to providing such satisfaction long-term.

 

Jerusalem Is (Is Not) the Capital of Israel

10 Dec

[Prefatory Note: This post is a slightly modified version of an article published in the global edition of the Italian newspaper, Il Manifesto, on December 8, 2017.]

 Jerusalem Is (Is Not) the Capital of Israel

 Those who speak on behalf of Israel like to defend Donald Trump’s provocative decision of December 6th to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel with this contention: “Israel is the only state in the world that is not allowed to locate its capital in a national city of its choice.” It seems like an innocent enough proclamation, and even accurate pushback against global double standards, until one considers the political, moral, and legal dimensions of the actual situation.

 

With the benefit of just a moment’s reflection, a more thoughtful formulation of the issue would be: “Israel is the only state in the world whose government dares to locate its capital in a city located beyond its sovereign borders and subject to superior competing claims.” Granted, Israel has declined to date to define its borders for purposes of international law, presumably to leave room for its own further territorial expansion until the whole of the promised land as understood to comprise biblical Israel is effectively made subject to Israeli sovereign control. At stake, in particular, is the West Bank, which is known within Israel by its biblical names of Judea and Samaria, signifying Israel’s outlier belief that the ethnic and religious heritage of the Jewish people takes precedence over modern international law.

 

Further reflection casts additional doubt on this Trump/Netanyahu approach to the status of Jerusalem. It is helpful to go back at least 70 years to the controversial UN partition proposals set forth in General Assembly Resolution 181. Israel over the years has often congratulated itself on its acceptance of 181, which it contrasts with the Palestinian rejection. Palestinians suffered massive dispossession and expulsion in the war that ensued in 1947, known as the Nakba among Palestinians. Israel has argued over the years that its acceptance of 181 overrides the grievances attributable to the Nakba, including the denial to Palestinians of any right to return to their homes or place of habitation however deep and authentic their connections with the land and regardless of how persuasive their claims of Palestinian identity happen to be. What Israelis want the world to forget in the present setting is the UN treatment of Jerusalem that was integral to the 181 approach. Instead, Israel has sold the false story to the world that 181 was exclusively about the division of territory, and thus the bits about Jerusalem contained in the resolution can be ignored without comment, and deserve to be long forgotten.

 

What the UN actually proposed in GA Res. 181, and what Israel ‘accepted’ in 1947 was that the city of Jerusalem, in deference to its connections with Palestinians and Jewish national identity, should not be under the sovereign control of either people, but internationalized and subject to UN administration. Beyond the difficulty of reconciling Jewish and Palestinian claims to the city, the symbolic and religious significance of Jerusalem to the three monotheistic religions provided a parallel strong rationale for internationalization that has, if anything, further vindicated with the passage of time.

 

It can be argued by proponents of Trump’s recognition that even the Palestinians and the Arab World (by virtue of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative) have silently replaced the internationalization of Jerusalem with the so-called ‘two-state solution’ in which the common assumption of both sides is that Jerusalem would be shared in ways that allowed both Israel and Palestine to establish their respective capital within the city limits. Most two-state plans called for the Palestinian capital to be located in East Jerusalem, which Israel has occupied for the past 50 years, that is, ever since the 1967 War. The clarity of this conviction is what explains the view that the thorny question of the relationship of both Israel and Palestine to the disposition of Jerusalem should be addressed at the last stage of peace negotiations. But suppose that the prospect of genuine peace negotiations is postponed indefinitely, then what? The geopolitical effort to fill this vacuum is undertaken at the expense of UN authority, as well as international law and international morality.

 

Here again we encounter an awkward split between what Israel claims (as reinforced by U.S. foreign policy) and what international law allows. Israel after the war ended in 1967 immediately asserted that the whole of Jerusalem was ‘the eternal capital’ of the Jewish people. Tel Aviv went even further. It expanded by Israeli legal decree the area encompassed by the city of Jerusalem, almost doubling its size and incorporating a series of Palestinian communities in the process. Israel acted unilaterally and unlawfully, against unified opposition within the UN, in defiance of world public opinion, and even in the face of rebuke by such a widely respected moral authority figure as Pope Francis.

 

East Jerusalem, at least, is ‘Occupied Territory’ according to international humanitarian law, and as such is subject to the Geneva Conventions. The Fourth Geneva Convention governs ‘belligerent occupation,’ and rests on the basic legal norm that an Occupying Power should take no steps, other than those justified by imperative security considerations, to diminish the rights and prospects of a civilian population living under occupation. In this regard, it is hardly surprising that Israel’s actions designed to obliterate East Jerusalem as a distinct ‘occupied’ territory have met with universal legal and political condemnation within the UN. For Trump to depart from this international consensus is not only striking heavy blows against the U.S. role as intermediary in any future peace process, but also mindlessly scrapping the two-state approach as the agreed basis of peace without offering an alternative, leaving the impression that whatever reality Israel imposes the United States will accept, giving scant attention to international concerns or Palestinian rights.

 

Returning to the burning question as to why Israel should be denied the right to locate its capital wherever it wishes, as other states do, it is clarifying to reformulate the Israeli claim: “Does any state have the right to establish its capital in a city that is ‘occupied’ rather than under the exclusive sovereign authority of the territorial government?” This is especially relevant in this instance, given the general agreement within the international community that the Palestinian right of self-determination includes the right to have its national capital both within its territory and in Jerusalem.

 

Trump’s initiative tries to ease the pain by the confusing accompanying assertion that the final disposition of Jerusalem’s borders is something for the parties to decide as part of final status negotiations, that is, at the end of the diplomatic endgame. Aside from Israel’s belief that it need not make further concessions for the sake of peace, a geopolitical assertion of support for Israel’s approach to Jerusalem, especially without the backing of the Arab League, the UN, and the European Union is worse than an empty gesture. It uses an iron fist on behalf of the stronger party, where a minimal respect for law, morality, and justice would counsel giving support for the well-grounded claims of the weaker side, or at least staying neutral.

 

The harm done by the Trump initiative on recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and declared intention to start the process of moving the embassy is impossible to assess fully at this time. Whether there will be an upsurge in resistance violence, political extremism, anti-American terrorism, and wider warfare is now essentially unknowable, although the stage has been recklessly arranged so that these developments seem more likely to occur than earlier, and if they do, will be treated as outcomes of Trump’s faulty diplomacy.

 

What is already evident on the basis of the decision itself is the severe damage done to the global and regional leadership reputation of the United States. As well, the authority of the United Nations has been shown to be no match for geopolitical resolve, and international law and world public opinion have been pushed aside. For the Trump presidency the special relationship with Israel has been enlarged beyond previous outer limits and the part of the Trump base that wanted these policies has been appeased for the moment. Prospects for a diplomacy based on the equality of rights of Palestinians and Israelis have been reduced to zero, and thus no just end of the Palestinian ordeal can be foreseen. Overall, it is not a pleasant balance sheet of gains and losses if evaluated from the perspective of American grand strategy in the Middle East, and if the wider regional setting of Iran’s spreading influence is taken into account, the situation looks even worse.

Parallel Universes: Vietnam and Palestine

26 Nov

 

 

Not surprisingly, my sixth visit to Vietnam stirred many memories, among them, a recognition of the parallels between the Vietnamese and Palestinian experiences, two peoples who have meant so much to me over the course of my adult lifetime. I visited Hanoi in 1968 in the midst of the American war that was devastating the country and its population, causing more than three million deaths and deliberately injuring the environment and its human surrounding by using vast quantities of Agent Orange, containing the highly toxic chemical Dioxin. Agent Orange was being used to defoliate large areas of the countryside in the South as a tactic against revolutionary Vietnamese forces who were taking advantage of the wooded countryside to mount their attacks. The legacy of Agent Orange continues grimly to remind people of the war, giving rise to anguished societal suspicions of current contamination that seems confirmed by the continuing occurrence of birth deformities in certain provinces that far exceed normal statistical expectations. The Vietnamese mention this ongoing tragedy in muted tones as the government worries that it might hurt Vietnamese plans to increase their exports of agricultural products. It is part of the present atmosphere in which the war/peace preoccupations that I encountered when I visited Vietnam during the war have now been replaced by according the highest policy priority to economic growth and poverty reduction.

 

The Vietnam/Palestine parallel should not be understood as a claim of similarity. The two experiences are each highly distinctive, reflecting many particular features of the cultural, historical economic, and political experience of each country, as well as the specificities of relations to their regional neighborhood and global setting. At the same time these two peoples do share defining experiences of prolonged victimization intertwined with bitter resistance struggles because their desired national narrative collided with the geopolitical ambitions and commitments of the United States. In Vietnam the United States assumed responsibility for a colonial war already lost once by France in 1954, and pursued it with almost unrestrained fury for more than a decade before renouncing the quest in 1975, and slinking home in thinly disguised defeat. The supposed stakes of the conflict for the United States in Vietnam were mainly measured and justified in the ideological currency of the Cold War, holding the line in Asia against Communism after ‘the loss of China.’ According to the principal justification for the war, Vietnam was an Asian domino, which if it fell to national liberation forces, would lead to a rapid spread of Communism to Vietnam’s neighbors, which was then interpreted in Washington to mean the expansion of the Chinese sphere of influence.

 

Of course, the ideological and geopolitical motivations were packaged, as usual, with sleazy propaganda about the defense of freedom and the protection of South Vietnam against aggression from the North. This imposed division of Vietnam was itself a figment of the last stage of the Western colonial imaginary that tried to make the world believe that borders of geopolitical convenience took precedence over the the fundamental right of self-determination, which reflected the organic unities of history, tradition, and national identity. Eventually, as in most other anti-colonial struggles the national movement eventually prevailed during the period after 1945, enjoying in Vietnam the benefits of inspired political, military, and ideological leadership in the persons of Ho Chi Minh, General Vo Nguyen Giap, and Le Duan, and a historical tradition of many centuries of success in defending national territory against foreign invaders, especially the Chinese. What is more, not only were the Vietnamese strengthened by this historical tale of victory. They were equally proud and sustained by an extraordinary record of post-conflict reconciliation with prior enemies that many other governments and societies could do well to heed. Political leaders in Hanoi enjoyed telling foreign visitors during the war how the Vietnamese prepared a farewell banquet for their Chinese intruders once they opted for peace, and decided to return home with the obvious implication that if the Americans stopped the war, friendship could follow, not recrimination and bitterness.

 

Never did I understand better the Communist slogan that our enemy is the government not the people than when I came to Vietnam in 1968 as an American peace activist. What I felt with a depth that could not be staged was the genuineness of these sentiments, then strongly associated with the teachings and beliefs of Ho Chi Minh. This attitude, so different than what I had experience as a child growing up during World War II, was epitomized by Ho’s appreciation of the American Declaration of Independence that Vietnamese school children were made to read and think about about throughout a war in which American planes were daily dumping tons of explosives on the villages and towns of an almost defenseless people. I remember driving in the beautiful Vietnamese countryside during the visit and being told by a government official that the driver’s entire family had been recently killed by a bombing strike, but that if an American plane were to attack us now he would risk his life, if necessary, to save yours. I felt moved at the time because it seemed so sincere, and consistent with all that I felt during my two weeks in the country at a time of its great national hardship, including shortages of food and medicine. The Vietnamese even in these dire circumstances were ready to give so much more than I was capable of giving!

 

My experience with the people of Palestine, whether living under occupation, as a minority in Israel, or in refugee camps, or in a global diaspora has many equivalent moving moments, maybe even more that were accompanied by tears either of grief or laughter. Both peoples exhibit resilience of will, virtue, love, and a lively comedic sense of reality that exceeds what seems imaginable. Beyond this, in the case of the Palestinian people their struggle continues to be maintained against seemingly overwhelming odds if the calculus of ‘political realism’ is to be trusted, which never seems to lose credibility no matter how often it errs. There are crucial differences between the principal adversary facing the Vietnamese and the Palestinians. It is this subjectivity of the oppressive forces that is not widely enough appreciated. Both the French and Americans, although investing heavily in their respective wars, always had a Plan B, a metropole to which they could retreat from Vietnam if the cost of the overseas campaign became too high.

 

For the Israelis, although many Jews as individuals do hold a second passport, there is no Plan B, no homeland other than that established by the Zionist settler colonial undertaking from its inception toward the end of the 19th century. These Zionist high stakes help explain the sense of justification with regard to the dispossession and suffering of the Palestinian people. What the Israelis may, however, be forced to consider in the future, if adverse pressures from the combination of Palestinian national resistance and global solidarity initiatives becomes threatening enough to make attractive to Israelis the choice of Plan C, that is, ‘a just peace’ based on the equality of the two peoples.

 

Such a drastic shift of Israeli objectives would necessitate both rolling back the idea and mechanisms of an exclusionary Jewish state, that is, abandoning the biblical vision of Israeli Jews occupying the whole of ‘the promised land’ of Palestine and then dismantling the apartheid structures to sustain control over the Palestinian people as a whole. At this point a just peace seems such an unlikely scenario as to invite responses of ‘utopian’ or ‘impossible’ to any suggested course along these lines. Yet history has its ways of undermining oppressors, making the impossible happen. Israelis would do well to ponder their future before supposing that they can subjugate the Palestinian people indefinitely. These reflections should include the awareness that the Palestinians, like Israeli Jews as a collectivity also have no Plan B (and few second passports!). The Israeli self-serving contention that since Palestinians are ‘Arabs’ they could and should give up their quest for a sovereign Palestine, and be content with lives in the Arab world. Palestinians, as might be expected, connect their aspirations with their connections to Palestine, and would be no more content or secure if moving to Arab countries than Israeli Jews would be to live in a Western country, in fact, less so.

 

Most Palestinian leaders have long seemed ready to negotiate their versions of a Plan C, which contains the proviso that it must give concrete meaning to the affirmation of an ‘equality of rights.’ True, Hamas might seem reluctant to endorse a full fledged Plan C, at least at the outset, but their leaders too during the past decade have been seeking an escape from the treadmill of perpetual violence, and if Israeli leaders showed comparable good faith, a long term accommodation would seem attainable, beneficial to both peoples, and allowing both sides to feel comfortable with distinct interpretations of what was agreed upon, a zone of ambiguity that lawyers are very good about delineating so that differences are neutralized rather than resolved. More specifically, Hamas would not be made to legitimize Israel in the process of normalizing relations, and accepting the fact of its existence as a country.

 

During the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson once referred to Vietnam as a tenth-rate Asian power, making it seem as if a miracle would be required for the Vietnamese to achieve victory. Many military historians are still at a loss in their attempt to offer an understanding of the outcome of the conflict, given the economic and military disparities between the adversaries. The Vietnam War, especially after the illusions of an American victory were destroyed by the Tet Offensive in 1968, became too politically costly in blood and treasure to sustain, although think tank hawks never let go of their insistence that ‘defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory’ or alternatively, the insidious suggestion that ‘the war was lost in American living rooms’ (that is, by TV coverage, especially of dead Americans returning home in body bags and coffins). Such explanations amount to Orientalist denials of Vietnamese agency, implying the impossibility that such backward military technology could prevail when matched against the unlimited quantities of hyper-modern equipment available to United States armed forces.

 

For several years, extreme supporters of Israel have been urging the world to move on by accepting the reality that Israel has won, the Palestinians have lost, and regardless of feeling about the merits of the Palestinian struggle it has become one more lost cause. Daniel Pipes, long a Zionist zealot, has formalized this ‘game over’ diplomacy by using an NGO under his influence, the Middle East Forum to promote ‘a victory caucus’ in both the United States and Israel with the participation of members of the U.S. Congress and Israeli Knesset. There is something discordant about such triumphalist posturing. It doesn’t fit comfortably with the furious efforts of Israeli lobbies around the world to discredit the BDS campaign as ‘the new anti-Semitism’ or with the increasing momentum of the Palestinian global solidarity movement that has increasingly troubled Israeli think tanks, and given rise to heavily financed campaigns to punish anti-Israeli activists throughout the world. Given these realities, it seems to me that the relevant comparison seems South Africa’s about face, and not Vietnam’s victory. Apartheid South Africa also appeared to the world securely entrenched until its shocking moment of self-engineered collapse in the early 1990s at a time when even dreamers did not envision a peaceful transition to a post-apartheid reality.

 

Without counting on dreams and dreaming, we who care about a just future for both peoples need to realize it will depend on work, sacrifice, and above all, struggle. Dreams don’t become the new reality without the dedication of a people brave and creative, and helped by the inspirational effects on friends and supporters. This blessing of empowering and charismatic resilience is the core identity of the Vietnamese and the Palestinian people, their point of most profound convergence.

 

Taking Stock: One Year After Trump

20 Nov

[Prefatory Note: This post addresses the need for dialogue with the political, economic, and cultural ‘other,’ that is, those multitudes acutely alienated from and angry with secular globalism and the Enlightenment legacy often equated with ‘modernity’ and ‘modernization.’ At the core is a search for closure on the nature of reality as well as feelings about equity (given many dimensions of inequality) and ethical innovation (revisionist approaches to gender, sexuality, marriage). Does reason or faith or tradition provide greater closure? Can the Thomistic grand synthesis of the 13th Century be repeated under 21st Century condition in the rough waters of controversy generated by Trump and Trumpism? Is this too Western a way of putting the problem? I write as an American, but there are many parallels in other countries. The first step is to admit being out of touch with the ferment below the surface. A second step is a matter of identifying what is to be included, what excluded.]

 

 

 

What is going on? Commentary on the Rise of Populism

 

 

Confessions of Political Myopia

 

To avoid any impression of condescension, I will begin with a humbling root question, “Why have I been so out of touch?” After all, I have become deeply aware in recent years that intellectual elites generally have little understanding of wider public sentiments that animate upheavals and distress in America and several foreign societies. I had big trouble back in the 1970s grasping the grassroots strength of Nixon’s ‘moral majority,’ which I haughtily dismissed as the ‘immoral minority’ (perhaps, my dismissive precursor of Hilary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’). The inspiration for this essay comes not only from personal experience but from a recent reading of Thomas Frank’s non-prophetic, yet deeply illuminating, much discussed, and influential 2005 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.

 

Frank is non-prophetic because he presupposes that cultural values (family, tradition, flag) rather than material concerns would remain at ‘the heart of America.’ Trump rode to power on a demagogic appeal (foolishly discounted by the media and Beltway wizards as a campaign ploy never meant seriously) mobilizing his base with inflammatory language about jobs, jobs, jobs buttressed by fear-mongering about terrorism, blaming Goldman Sachs capitalism for unfavorable international trade deals (above all with China), illegal and unwanted immigrants (that is, Mexicans and Muslims) who tarnish the American dream, and above all Islam as a menacing threat. By and large, he put the right-wing cultural agenda to one side, while embracing its patriotic tropes, which is hardly surprising given his own freewheeling Manhattan celebrity life style that included powwows with the notorious and lewd sexist Howard Stern, not to mention the tape of his Hollywood conversation. The deeper observation here is a scary confirmation of America’s susceptibility to demagogic appeals, ethnic and religious scapegoating, and strong intimations of racism.

 

There are two distinct concerns regarding this tendency toward misperceptions of political reality in America, and elsewhere in the world, that overlap: one is being out of touch with the swift currents of right wing opinion that have abruptly risen to the political surface in recent years to sway the multitudes in populist directions; the other is the failure to understand what is at the root of this unexpected particular political swing, which sometimes may turn out in some cases to be nothing more revealing than skillful, imaginative, unscrupulous, persevering marketing and access to major funding sources, but in more serious situation there are disclosed rips in the societal fabric that seem beyond repair, providing a deliriously ready audience for a demagogue intuitively attuned to the harsh rhythms of discontent unnoticed or dismissed by the established political elites. Trump confounded, and continues to confound, conventional wisdom over and over again, by reading the tea leaves of discontent with alarming accuracy.

 

It is undoubtedly the case, at least in the U.S., that part of the failure of perception is a combination of self-segregation and the widespread tendency of intellectuals to underestimate the political skills of those whose focus is on emotions, religion, and traditional values rather than reason, science, and evidence. To illustrate, not a single person in my social milieu will own up to being a supporter of Donald Trump. In effect, the insularity of my social networks puts me out of touch with what the Trump constituency feels, thinks, fears, and hopes for. The Trump/Bannon formula for electoral victory a year ago, surely abetted by a dismal Clinton campaign, abandoned several familiar Republican positions—especially mounting a critique of neoliberal globalization, and its core reliance on international trade and unhampered capital flows, as well as taking nasty jabs at the Washington establishment, including the standard Republican Party handlers.

 

 

An Egyptian Detour

 

I was in Cairo meeting friends shortly after the dramatic events in Tahrir Square in February 2011 awaiting UN permission (that never came) to visit Gaza on behalf of the Human Rights Council. Amid the tumult and excitement I was struck by the unanimity of opinion believing that Amr Moussa was sure to be elected Egypt’s next president in the country’s first ever free election scheduled for the following year. Moussa was a non-charismatic high profile civil servant in the Mubarak government and former Secretary General of the Arab League who opportunely welcomed the democratizing movement in Egypt, and quickly became the preferred candidate of the Cairo urban cognoscenti. As it turned out Moussa never made it to the second and deciding round of the presidential elections, receiving less than 12% of the vote in the opening round. The point here is not whether Moussa was good or bad, or whether he might have been the best candidate to serve as leader of Egypt in this fragile period of uncertain transition from dictatorship to constitutional democracy. The point is to underscore how out of touch were these most knowledgeable of urban secular Egyptians about the convictions and outlook of the rest of Egyptian. It also became clear that they greatly underrated the organizational strength of the MB and other Islamic oriented political groups that dominated the countryside and much of Egypt other than the middle class and elites of Cairo and Alexandria.

 

In the Egyptian case this detachment was in large part a reflection of the secular/Islamic split that plagued the region ever since the success of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. My other recollection from 2011-12 visits to Cairo related to the feelings of the seculars about the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the post-Tahrir electoral process. Most Egyptians I had contact with expected and accepted MB full participation in the public life of post-Mubarak Egypt, including the political process, regarding the organization as a religiously oriented and secretive but respectful of law and nonviolent, and this entitled to be dream of an inclusive Egyptian democracy that was the widely shared dream of most Egyptians in the weeks following the successful uprising. These knowledgeable urbanites anticipated at the time that the MB would at most win 25-30% representation in the legislative assembly, and did acknowledge that if they ended up doing much better there would be trouble, all the while strongly doubting that this would not happen. Well, it did, causing an immediate reassessment by Egypt’s urban elites, which expressed itself by way of an instantaneous retreat from the democratizing hopes and expectations that had dominated the Tahrir Square moo, and a switch of allegiance to the Mubarak era presidential alternative. In this spirit, the realigned secularists voted for Ahmad Shafik in the runoff election in June 2012 between the two top vote getters in round one. Round two produced a narrow 52%-48% victory for Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood candidate, a result eventually, although reluctantly certified by the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces that was supposed to be the neutral supervisor of the post-Mubarak transition, but more and more leaned toward questioning the legitimacy of a governing process under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood.

 

The earlier Cairo outlook was not wrong about the other part of its assessment of the political scene, which had insisted that MB leadership of the country, as distinct from its minority participation as part of a democratic opposition, was neither acceptable nor viable. It is notable that even the Brotherhood originally accepted a limited political role for itself in the first months after Mubarak was overthrown, seeming acknowledging that it should not seek control as distinct from participation. On this basis, the MD even made a rather unusual pledge for any political party, committing itself not to compete in certain electoral districts in the country and not to put forward its own candidate for the presidency. It later quietly renounced the pledge, likely sensing its strength and historic opportunity, and did go on to win the presidency, but at a high cost to itself. Before realizing that its victory would set off a chain of events that would turn out to be a crushing defeat, the MB experienced an intense backlash in Egyptian society confirming that it too was dangerously out of touch with the red lines of the urban elites and the balance of forces in the country. The Brotherhood obviously greatly underestimated the leverage and convergence of interests that joined the Egyptian Armed Forces, the Gulf monarchies (excepting Qatar), the governments of the United States and Israel, as well as the segments of the working classes and of course the Coptic minority. This formidable array of opposed forces produced in 2013 a counter-revolution in the form of a seemingly popular military coup, a new leader—Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—bloodier and more autocratic and repressive than Mubarak. The new leadership immediately criminalized the elected MB leadership of the country, and labeled the Brotherhood a terrorist organization with the tacit approval of its allies in the region and beyond, and autocratically denied political space even to secular activists who were unwilling to accept this renunciation of democratic hopes for Egypt.

 

This extended look at Egypt is descriptive of broader global trends, confirming that being dangerously out of touch is not only an affliction of Western elites stunned by the unexpected and shocking successes of Brexit and Trump. In the Middle East where politics are highly polarized, both sides are out of touch, miscalculating at great cost to society and to themselves, and totally unprepared for the intensity of backlash politics that have so far reflected an anti-democratic balance of forces in the region and beyond.

 

 

Trending Toward Illiberal Democracies

 

In the United States and Europe where polarization is deepening, there remains some respect for the rules of the game set by procedural democracy, that is, political choices determined by generally fair elections and a constitutional framework that institutionalizes checks and balances. In the United States, Trump shook even these structures late in the presidential campaign of 2016 when he apparently thought he was going to lose by contending that the electoral process was ‘rigged’ against him, even equivocating in public about whether he would accept an adverse outcome, a tactical move evidently supported by the Russians. And then later, after he was officially installed in the White House, Trump irresponsibly contested the Clinton margin of victory in the popular vote by contending wildly that several million unlawful immigrants had been fraudulently registered to stack the vote against him in such states as California and New York.

 

The fact that Trump offered not a scintilla of evidence for either challenge seemed not to bother even slightly his political base. His close advisors were darkly creative, inventing a large arsenal of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘Breitbart news.’ These counter-narratives were invoked brashly to contest such visually clear conclusions as the size of the crowd attending Trump’s presidential inaugural ceremony as compared to the size of the crowd that showed up eight years earlier for Obama. For anti-Trump critics these developments raised foundational issues about whether the constitutional order would be resilient enough to prevail if Trump had lost the election and then were to unleash his followers assigning them the almost unimaginably subversive mission of reversing the outcome. The success of this kind of fact-free discourse also raised the ultimate epistemological question about whether or not an overall respect for truth in the public realm was still expected of politicians, suggesting the possibility that reality was becoming a function of ideology or faith, not fact or evidence.

 

The Trump victory in 2016 mooted these particular challenges to some extent, shifting the tactical locus of opponents to the wrongdoing of Trump and his entourage, especially such potential impeachment and discrediting issues as ‘collusion with the Russians,’ ‘obstruction of justice,’ and ‘improper financial dealings.’ Implicit in these charges was the concession that blatant and consistent lying if not quite okay, was still not so disqualifying as to challenge Trump’s right to remain president even it placed his victory under a dark cloud due to the evidence that Russian meddling swayed enough votes in a close election. This apparent acceptance of this retreat from an ethos of truthfulness seems misguided in a number of respects. Manifest lying breaks the trust between state and society without which a democracy cannot function properly. As such is far more corrosive for a democratic republic than the several wrongful acts being regarded as grounds for impeachment. In part, the media and the people, and the advertising mentality of a consumer society, are all complicit in this de facto acceptance of a leader who lies consistently and willfully. In other words, it is not just the Brietbart alt-righ, the bevy of outrageous late night talk show hosts, and Trump’s use of a Twitter account that cleared the populist pathways leading to Trumpism, but we the people and our materialist indulgences and indifference to or ignorance of the torments of stagnant wages and growing challenges directed at even middle class living standards due to sharply rising costs of health, education, and housing.

 

The constitutional order remains under unprecedented pressure not only because of the way Clinton lost or Trump won, but also because the dominant faction in the American deep national security state lost, and lost badly and for the first time since 1945, although it has in 2017 staged a strong comeback spearheaded by the appointment of generals McMaster, Kelley, and Mattes to key posts. It is crucial to distinguish between business/financial establishment interests that were mostly content with a Trump/Republican victory from the national security oriented think tanks and government elites that were earlier deeply worried by Trump’s campaign language questioning the global alliance network and attacks on foreign regime-changing interventions, especially as played out in the Middle East. But on the security agenda Trump has seemed to give way—he upped the military budget, backed off from his earlier promised confrontation with China and expected soft policy toward Russia, escalated tensions with North Korea and Iran, and maintained continuity in the Middle East, throwing even greater support in the direction of Israel and Saudi Arabia than his predecessor.

 

What remains to be determined is whether the Rule of Law can hold minimally accountable the dual domains of militarism and neoliberal capitalism. Perhaps, the Rule of Law lost out years ago, and we are just now awakening to this somber reality thanks to Trump’s disruptive worldview and modes of governance. Scenarios in this vein are likely to dominate most upcoming episodes of the unfolding Trump tragicomedy. Maybe the center stage contest is not this at all but will be determined by whether the internationalist faction of the deep state remains successful in avoiding the apparent grand strategy revisionism of Trump without necessitating his removal from power. Trump’s real views, especially on global issues, are opaque, and his surface mercurial qualities of contradicting himself make the adaptation scenario more probable than the removal alternative. Either taming or removal both appear to be suitably responsive to the imperatives of the current phase of global capitalism and its dependency ties to the American led global security system. This system consists of a vast costly network of foreign bases, navies in every ocean, the military domination of space, including cyberspace, and assignment of combat units of special forces to carry out armed missions in over 130 countries. Trump was not feared or opposed by the national security establishment because of his pledges to repeal Obamacare or overhaul the tax structure for the benefit of the very wealthy. He was feared and opposed by many Republican hawks because his campaign rhetoric were perceived to raise unacceptable challenges to the stability of the world economy and were interpreted by most deep state aficionados as gesturing toward a possible dismantling of the American global state that had ‘governed’ the world since 1945.

 

 

Out of Touch, Out of Contact

 

Liberals and intellectuals in the United States are generally middle class in life style and outlook, rarely in meaningful existential touch with either the very poor or the very rich, and as a result are not privy to their fears, pain, anger, and agenda, or their affirmations and affiliations. This circumstance of being out of contact contributes to toxic polarization, mirrored in the inability of political parties to cooperate any longer for the sake of the national public good. Among other negative effects, such polarization leads to legislative gridlock and perceptions by the majority of citizens that the institutions of government have become weighted down by lobbyists, special interests, and intense partisanship, and have lost much of their legitimacy. In such a race to the bottom, the winners are business and the military, which is why a pre-fascist depiction of current political life in America, and by indirection, the world, is sadly, not out of touch.

 

Is the Enlightenment to Blame?

 

At the root of these developments are deep tensions between the rational and scientific legacies of the European Enlightenment and religious orientations that rely on faith and revealed truth. On the Enlightenment side are secular values and ideals associated with the human equality and respect for scientific evidence. On the religious side are attachments to traditional values of family, flag, and church. Both orientations are rooted in their own dogmas that exclude the belief systems of their opponents, undoubtedly providing the ideational infrastructure of what has now surfacing in many national variations as polarization, and with it disillusionment with the worth and promise of political democracy.

 

In one respect this is a crude rendition of Hegelianism versus Marxism, with the Hegelians giving priority to the dialectics of the idea whose time has come, while Marxists, in their various schools, in general lend priority to material conditions, class relations, and self-interest. Oddly the right-wing populists are mainly taking a ideational or faith-based posture that emphasizes the purity of the nation, puritan family traditions, an ethos of hard work, good jobs, and religious values, and thus supposedly hostile toward casino capitalists and foreign intruders, advocates of gay rights and legalized drugs, free traders, and secularists. Their liberal antagonists are generally comfortable with global capitalism according to the precepts of Goldman Sachs, free trade, outsourcing, and minimally regulated capital as advocated by the Bretton Woods Institutions (World Bank and IMF) and World Trade Organization, and, of course, sparing no expense to maintain full spectrum military dominance. The two sides converge with respect to militarism, with the Trump right invoking patriotism, arms sales, and national security while the liberal establishment emphasizes the indispensable role of American military superiority in keeping the country and its friends safe and the world more peaceful and global markets more stable than they would otherwise be.

 

Does making these acknowledgements amount to a nihilistic and solipsistic admission that there is no way to justify prevailing patterns of political alignment beyond their caprice? Not at all. Yet, as Gilad Atzmon persuasively argues in Being in Time, a politics of reason has been thrown disastrously off course by the impact of a liberal discourse infected by the taints of ‘political correctness’ and ‘identity politics,’ which substitutes conformity and allegiance for truth-seeking and acknowledgements of the impurities of social reality. Without a suitable discourse respectful of the contingencies and unevenness of reality we cannot find the pathways to humane political behavior. To be sure, the Mammonite discourse of the Trump brand of right-wing politics is certainly no better, offering a greed-saturated form of materialism that feeds the limitless appetite of the very richest among us while manipulating and repressing the rest of us. As Atzmon provocatively insists, this absence of a trustworthy discourse by which to express grievances and aspirations is why it clears the air to admit that our epoch has become ‘post-political,’ at least for now.

 

Yet there is even more than ‘discourse,’ a synonym for clear thought, at stake. There is self-esteem, ethical values, and the meaning of life that is jeopardized by the tradition-breaching dogmas of secular elites. Thus controversies surrounding abortion, gay marriage, legalized marijuana, and even gun control are too often being given precedence over considerations bearing on material wellbeing by this American version of populism preaching economic nationalism at Trump rallies. What makes the Trump phenomenon truly populist is its anti-establishment outrage and the high level of susceptibility to demagogic appeals on the part of his followers. This demagoguery blinds adherents to their true material self-interests and misidentified their real social enemies. By rejecting reasoned discourse, including commitments to truth and evidence, the capacity to manipulate mass opinion and play on such repressed emotion as racism and class envy is without limits. Trump is a master of such demagogic politics who has yet to commit definitively to whether in the end he will strike a deal with the anti-populist elites that have been running the system or proceed to wage open revolutionary warfare against the entire edifice of constitutional governance at home and abroad. Of course, a third way is also possible, a condition of no-peace, no-war, in which there ensue a multitude of skirmishes but no open warfare, which may be the most accurate way of portraying Trump’s first year as president.

 

 

Concluding Remarks

 

A wide variety of populisms, other than the American version, have gained control of the governing process of several important countries, and in each case despite widely different national circumstances, bringing to power an autocratic leader adored by the masses more for his style than his substance, and feared and hated by displaced elites who seem unable to generate a mobilizing program of their own or a charismatic alternative leader. Whether it be Putin in Russia, Modi in India, Erdoğan in Turkey, Sisi in Egypt, or Duterte in The Philippines, the leader claims to have a special capacity to interpret the will of the people, entitling the circumvention of the Rule of Law and conventional truth telling, professing an ardent and exclusivist nationalist ideology that pretends, at least, to abhor the cosmopolitanism of elite tastes and the globalization of economic life. Except for Duterte and Trump these popular autocrats have been rather prudently inclined with respect to political risk taking. Putin and Erdoğan have tried to enlarge their regional spheres of influence with mixed results, and have encountered some costly adverse reactions domestically and internationally.

 

These autocratic leaders in what have become ‘illiberal democracies’ seem more at home when dealing with authoritarian figures in other societies than with counterparts in countries that still qualify as functioning constitutional democracies. Trump seems quite at ease with Xi Jingpin or even Duterte than he does with Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron. What this portends for the future is unknowable at present. Will there emerge a tacit alliance of autocrats that represents the global ideological sequel to the shattered edifice of democratic expectations that had given rise to the Warsaw based, U.S. funded brainchild christened as the ‘Community of Democracies’ with 110 governments signing on at its founding fifteen years ago? As of 2017 neither Poland nor the United States would any longer be welcomed in venues catering to real life democracies!

 

Instead of the anticipated ‘twilight of the nation state’ we are experiencing its worldwide resurgence, energized by a counter-globalization movement that emphasizes borders and walls rather than fluid boundaries facilitating flows of capital and workers. ISIS (or DAESH) has been a partial outlier, as are the more radical versions of political Islam more generally. Instead of territorial enclaves these movements affirm exclusivist Islamic communities whose extension is not geographically identifiable by boundaries on a map, but rather by allegiances and networks however far flung. By proclaiming its caliphate in 2014 in Iraqi and Syrian territory that it then controlled, ISIS seemed to territorialize its sense of political community, which fortunately turned out to be a huge strategic mistake. By insisting that its rise was ‘the end of Sykes-Picot’ ISIS was also announcing to the world that it was not altogether anti-territorial, but was not beholden to the European state concept crudely imposed on the Middle East by a colonial driven statecraft after World War I.

 

It is this deterritorializing of community combined with the embrace of militarist and terrorist versions of jihadism, as well as of the equally deterritorialized technologies of the digital age that makes such movements so disruptive of traditional territorially based forms of security. Territorial states win renewed support from their national populations by celebrating patriotic virtues associated with flag and country, identifications that correspond with their primordial sense of community (providing ideas and causes worth dying for) spatially defined by internationally legitimated geographic boundaries.

 

Finally, it is this collision between antagonistic conceptions of communities in space that define the modern geopolitical landscape. This sense of political engagement is being increasingly itself challenged by communities in time that spring to life in the ecological landscape where the principal preoccupations are with the multiple challenges of global warming toward species sustainability. The ultimate evasion of reality by Trumpism is its willful blindness when it comes to showing respect for the ecological integrity of contemporary human existence. The decision of the Trump White House to refuse participation in the Paris Climate Change Agreement is probably the most destructive blow against sustainable global governance than was the imposition of a punitive peace on Germany after World War I.

 

Trump also intrudes his bluster in ways that subvert nuclear restraint. His words threatening annihilation of North Korea and confrontation with Iran cast the darkest shadows over the present and future.

 

At issue is more than Trump. I want to live and die in a world of inclusive political communities. I also regard as imperative forms of ecological inclusiveness that extend to all of nature, animals, plants, soil, air, water, glaciers, mountains, ravines, and valleys.

 

Finding Truth in Syria

16 Nov

I have been perplexed by the intense divergences of perception when it comes to the Syrian reality, and the allocation of blame and responsibility for the havoc that has been experienced by the Syrian people.

In ‘the fog of war’ there are many ambiguities that allow ideological predisposition to color what we believe is happening. There is very little basis for trust, and the extraordinary complexity and shifting priorities of the many participants precludes a simple diagnosis.

This makes it all the more crucial not to succumb to explanations that confirm our political outlook, especially by doubting the conclusions that have been confirmed by multiple generally reliable sources of information. George Monbiat, a prominent and respected Guardian columnist supports the view that the main element of the anti-Assad narrative are true, and truer than the contrary interpretations offered by a variety of anti-imperialist commentators and dissident journalists:

<https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/15/lesson-from-syria-chemical-weapons-conspiracy-theories-alt-right&gt;

Failing the people of Syria during Seven Years of Devastation and Dispossession

13 Nov

 

Failing the people of Syria during Seven Years of Devastation and Dispossession

 

[Prefatory Note: What follows is a wide-ranging interview in November 2017 that that concentrates on the failure of the UN and the world to rescue the people of Syria by a timely and effective humanitarian intervention. The interview was conducted by a Turkish journalist, Salva Amor, and is to be published in a magazine, Causcasus International. The text of the interview has been slightly modified.]

 

A missed chance 

 

  1. You previously referred to Syria as “an ideal case for humanitarian intervention” however, rather than becoming a prime example of positive humanitarian intervention it has turned into one of the greatest humanitarian crises with half of the country becoming refugees or internally displaced. 

 

What turned such an Ideal case for humanitarian intervention into one of the worst humanitarian responses we have seen in recent times?

 

Answer: I do not recall this reference to Syria as ‘an ideal case,’ but I must have meant it in a hypothetical sense, that is, as if ‘humanitarian intervention’ was ever called for, it was in Syria, especially at the early stages of the conflict. And yet I am inclined to think that regime-changing intervention was at all stages a mission impossible. We should keep in mind that the record of actual successful instances of what is labeled as ‘humanitarian intervention’ has been dismal, and when successful the motivation was not predominantly humanitarian, but rather a confluence of strategic interests of one sort or another with a humanitarian challenge. In Syria the strategic interests were not sufficiently strong to justify the likely costs, especially in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Sometimes, the intervention is a cover for non-humanitarian goals, as in Afghanistan (2002), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011) and may be effective in attaining its immediate goals of regime change but is extremely costly from the perspective of humanitarianism if assessed from the perspective of prolonged violence, societal chaos, and human suffering.

And only marginally successful strategically given the resilience of territorial resistance and the pressure for long-term occupation if the original gains of intervention are to be preserved.

 

At other times, the humanitarian rationale is present, as in Syria, but there is no strategic justification of sufficient weight, and what is done by external actors or the UN is insufficient to control the outcome, and often ends up intensifying the scale of suffering endured by the population. In effect, humanitarian intervention rarely achieves a net benefit from the perspective of the population that is being supposedly rescued. Perhaps, Kosovo (1999) is the best recent case where an alleged humanitarian intervention enjoyed enough strategic value to be effective, and yet seems to have left the Kosovar population better off afterwards, although even Kosovo is not a clear case.  

 

 

Failures & implications of inaction

 

  1. The humanitarian failures in Syria and for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries including Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq have had far-reaching implications for the EU with millions of refugees choosing to risk their lives in order to enter Europe causing the largest exodus since WWII. 

 

Could the surge of refugees fleeing to Europe have been avoided had a more positive and organized humanitarian intervention taken place?

 

Answer: It is possible that had Syria possessed large oil reserves, the intervention against the Damascus regime would have been robust enough to topple the regime, and create stability before combat conditions prompted massive internal population displacements and gigantic refugee flows, including the European influx. In this sense, Libya with oil, did prompt such an intervention, although it was an easier undertaking, as the Qaddafi regime had much less popular support than did the Assad regime, and was less well equipped militarily and lacked regional allies. In Syria, because of regional and global geopolitical cleavages, the politics of intervention and counter-intervention was far more complicated, and inhibited potential anti-regime interveners from making large commitments. At the early stages of the conflict Turkey and the United States miscalculated the costs and scale of a successful intervention in Syria, supposing that an indirect and low level effort could be effective in achieving regime change, which misunderstood the conditions prevailing in Syria.  

 

 

The best response

 

  1. In your experience, what would have been the ideal humanitarian response to the war in Syria? And who would have been best to implement it? 

 

Answer: As my earlier responses hinted, there is no ideal response, and the current world order system is not reliably capable of handling humanitarian intervention in a situation such as existed in Syria. To have any chance of effectiveness would require entrusting the undertaking to one or more powerful states, but even then the situation that would follow, is highly uncertain. In a post-colonial setting, there is bound to be strong nationalist and territorial resistance to outside intervention and occupation, generally producing serious prolonged chaos. If the country is very small and can be overwhelmed (Granada, Panama) without counter-intervention the undertaking will sometimes work. Iraq serves as a clear example of an intervention that did rid the country of a brutal tyrant, but produced internal violence among competing regions, tribes, and generated extreme sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites, as well as a series of ethnic, tribal, and regional battles.

 

In a better governed world, which is far from existing, the UN would have acted robustly and with the support of the regional governments in the Middle East, the geopolitical actors (U.S. and Russia) would have not pursued their strategic agendas, and a politically neutral intervention would have created the conditions for a post-Assad democratic political transition, including imposing accountability for past crimes. Merely mentioning this desirable scenario is enough to reveal its utopian character. Especially in the Middle East, geopolitics of a regional and global scope badly distort all efforts to fashion a humanitarian response to repression and severe violations of human rights. In the background, but not far in the background, is the relevance of oil. The countries that have experienced massive interventions (Iraq, Libya) possessed abundant oil reserves, while those that have little or no oil have either been ignored or endured prolonged bloody conflict, of which Syria is the worst case, having become the scene of competing and offsetting interventions motivated by political and strategic ambitions with only a thin propaganda rationale associated with alleviating a humanitarian crisis, which at best, was a much subordinated goal of the interveners on both sides.

 

 

Lessons for Future

 

4a. How can the world learn from the humanitarian failures and inaction that occurred in Syria for the past 7 years? What opportunities to protect, defend or support the Syrian people have we missed?

 

Answer: In my view, it is a mistake to speak of ‘inaction’ in the Syrian context. There have been massive interventions of all sorts on both sides of the conflict by a variety of actors, but none decisive enough to end the conflict, and none primarily motivated by humanitarian concerns. Of course, here and there, lives could have been saved, especially if the balance of forces within Syria had been better understood at an early stage of the conflict in the West. What intervention achieved in Syria was largely a matter of magnifying the conflict, and attendant suffering. The conflict itself was surrounded by contradictory propaganda claims making the reality difficult to perceive by the public, and therefore there was political resistance to more explicit and possibly more effective regime changing intervention. 

 

Indifference:

 

4b. Is there any correlation between the rise of Islamophobia and the world’s inaction towards Syrian people’s suffering? Has the ongoing drumming of hatred towards the Islamic religion created a generation of indifference towards those of them who are suffering? Or is such wide indifference a natural response to such overwhelming humanitarian crisis?

 

Answer: The indifference in relation to Syria is mainly a matter of public confusion and distrust. Confusion about the nature of the conflict and distrust as to the motives of political actors that have intervened on either side. The spike in Islamophobia is attributable to the interplay of the European refugee crisis and the occurrence of terrorist incidents that are perpetrated by ISIS and its supporters. Of course, the massive refugee flow was prompted by the violence in the Syrian combat zones, which has made Europe most interested in resolving the conflict even if meant allowing a criminal regime to remain in power.

 

I suppose that the indifference noted in your question is more evident in relation to the plight of the Rohingya people in Myanmar that in response to Syria where, as I have been suggesting, the political context dominates the human suffering, and the Islamic identity of the victimized people is secondary. Also, it is worth recalling the global indifference to genocide in Rwanda (1994) that could have prevented,

or at least minimized, by a timely, and relatively small scale intervention. And on occasion, if the strategic context is supportive, the West will intervene on the Islamic side as in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and there in opposition to the Christian side.  

 

 

  1. The UN has handed over a large portion of the $4bn of its aid effort in Syria to the Syrian regime or partners who have been approved by Bashar Al Assad. How does the UN justify providing tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to one of the worst governments, that has besieged, starved, bombed and killed hundreds of thousands of its own people? 

 

Answer: I suppose the basic justification for this behavior is that from the viewpoint of the UN the Damascus regime remains the legitimate government of Syria representing the country at the UN. This is of course a legalistic justification, and evades the real humanitarian crisis as well as the crimes of Assad’s regime. So far, because there is a geopolitical standoff, regionally (Iran v. Saudi Arabia) and globally (Russia v. the U.S. and Turkey), the UN has tried to remain aloof from the ambit of political controversy to the extent possible while doing what it can to alleviate human suffering. I am not knowledgeable about whether the UN aid is reaching the civilian population as claimed. The language of your question suggests that there should be some mechanism for disqualifying a government that commits repeated crimes against its own people from being treated by the UN as a normal member state, but this is not likely to happen anytime soon, and it is tricky as the UN System is built around state-centric ideas of world order.

 

 

The right to torture

 

  1. The world was shocked in 2015 when the Caesar files were releasedrevealing human stories behind 28,000 deaths in Syrian prisons, most, if not all were tortured prior to their death.Two years later no action has been taken in regards to detainees and torture in prisons. There has been no action or desire to send observers to Syrian Prisons nor to investigate those who were named in the Caesar files for war crimes.What must a dictator have to do for the international community to respond to his crimes? Comparing Libyan intervention with Syria

 

Answer: I took part recently in a ceremony in Nuremberg Germany that awarded a human rights prize to the photographer, whose identity is kept secret for his safety, responsible for the Caesar Report containing photographic images of Syrian prison torture of some 11,000 prisoners, most of whom are reportedly now dead. There is no question that these images are horrifying, but serious issues have been raised as to the authenticity of this photographic archive. It has been authenticated as genuine by Human Rights Watch, but has also been used by persons closely connected with the U.S. Government to build a case for war crimes prosecutions, particularly against Bashar al Assad. I am not in a position to assess the controversy, yet do not doubt that the Damascus regime has committed many atrocities and are responsible for the great majority of civilian deaths over the course of the last six years in Syria. At the same time the anti-regime forces, which are fragmented, have also committed many war crimes.

 

These issues of criminal accountability cannot be reliably answered from a distance, or merely on the basis of media reports. What is required is a credible international fact finding commission of inquiry with adequate access to whatever evidence and witnesses remain available.

 

 

 

  1. Human rights groups have estimated that no less than half a million people have died in the last 7 years in Syria. Although there are many violent factions in Syria, more than 94% of all deaths have been caused by Syrian Government or Russian strikes. In comparison Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi had killed an 257 people including combatants and injured 949 with less than 3% being women and children when UN security council intervened. On March 17, 2011, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 (2011) authorizing “regional organizations or arrangements…to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” in Libya. The resolution was adopted with ten votes for, none against, and five abstentions. In hindsight, many have now questioned whether that intervention was purely to “protect civilians”. Is the UN Security Council still a reliable body that can be relied upon to protect the civilian? The UN’s Responsibility Not – To Protect the Civilian Population

 

Answer: The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) UN norm is interpreted and practice is governed by the UN Security Council, and hence is completely subordinated to the manipulations of geopolitics. In this regard, the lesser humanitarian hazard in Libya led to a UN regime-changing mission because the Permanent Members opposed to intervention (China, Russia) were persuaded not to cast their veto for what was being proposed, which was a limited humanitarian mission to protect the then entrapped civilian population of Benghazi. In fact, the NATO undertaking expanded the mission far beyond the Security Council mandate from its inception, angering Russia and China that had abstained out of deference to pleas relating to the humanitarian claims put forward by the NATO members of the Security Council. They later justified their opposition to a more pro-active UN role in Syria by reference to this failure of trust, the unwillingness of the intervening states to respect the limits of the mandate.

 

What is important to appreciate is that R2P and other UN undertakings must adhere to the constraints of geopolitics. As disturbing as inaction with respect to Syria, is the UN silence with regard to the abuse of the civilian populations of Gaza and Rakhine (Myanmar). It is only when a geopolitical consensus exists, which is quite rare (e.g. failure with respect to Yemen) that it is possible for the UN to play an important humanitarian role in shaping behavior and protecting civilians.

 

 

  1. Why was The UN’s responsibility to protect (R2P ) invisible in the last 7 years in Syria? What must be done now, in order to implement an R2P operation in Syria to avoid further suffering? In past years vetoes have blocked humanitarian intervention.

 

Answer: Part of my response here has already been given in relation to the prior question. I would only add here that the abolition of the veto would be a crucial step, or even an agreement among permanent members of the Security Council to refrain from casting a veto in humanitarian contexts such as Syria. The problem is that the veto powers are extremely unlikely to give up their right of veto, partly because such states do not voluntarily give up power and partly because humanitarian issues are almost always inseparable from diverse and often antagonist geopolitical interests, and therefore the claims are not perceived as humanitarian. This is certainly the case with regard to Syria. The take away conclusion is that the international system as it now functions is rarely motivated by humanitarian considerations when they come into conflict with the strong political preferences and strategic priorities of principal states, and this is true even when the humanitarian crisis is as severe and prolonged as in Syria.

 The most constructive response, in view of these realities, is to advocate global reform, but this will not happen without a major mobilization of people throughout the world or as a frantic response to some earth-shaking catastrophe.

 

 

  1. I understand that there was a veto by Russia and thus a solution was not passed, however, in such cases, when one of the countries that is involved in the atrocities is allowed to veto, does it not raise the alarm?Surely, this situation in Syria and the human cost provides enough of a precedent for (if not the UN, those who care about preventing further atrocities) a new chapter to be drafted and implemented into the UN. –Do you believe that it is time for the UN to adopt a new chapter into itsCharter that would prevent dictators or countries with vested interest in a war from overpowering UN Security Council votes? Normalizing atrocities at the global level.

 

Answer: Yes, there was much criticism of Russia for blocking action on Syria, but Russia was acting in accord with the constitutional structure of the UN. The U.S. uses its veto in a comparable way to protect Israel and other allies, and equally irresponsibly, from a moral or humanitarian point of view. It should be remembered that the League of Nations fell apart because major states would not participate, including the United States. The idea of the veto was designed to persuade all major states to participate, with the goal of universality of membership, but at the cost of engendering paralysis and irresponsible obstructions to action whenever veto powers disagree sharply. Your questions raise the crucial issue if this was too high a price to pay for the sake of maintaining universality of participation. One consequence of this tradeoff between geopolitics and effectiveness is to weaken public respect for the UN as an agency for the promotion of justice and decency in global affairs.

 

As specified in Article 108 of the UN Charter requires the approval of 2/3rds of the entire membership of the UN as well as all five Permanent Members of the Security Council, which means that it will not happen in the foreseeable future in relation to any politically sensitive issue. When World War II ended there was the hope and illusion that countries that cooperated against fascism would continue to cooperate to maintain the peace. As should have been anticipated, it was a forlorn hope.

 

 

  1. The White House accepts Assad’s continued rule in Syria as a “political reality” while European leaders have also taken a soft approach with French president declaring he no longer saw the removal of Assad as necessary. In your view, how do such civilized countries justify good relations with Assad? ISIS the monster that invites intervention: ISIS Affects the West, Assad does not.

 

Answer: Your comment on ISIS is a way of expressing my view that these issues are dominated by geopolitical calculations. ISIS as horrible as it is has not been nearly as responsible for the quality and quantity of suffering inflicted upon the Syrian people by the Damascus regime.

 

At this point, and given the unavailability of humanitarian intervention, the best Plan B for Syria is to seek a sustainable ceasefire, and this would undoubtedly require making some unpalatable compromises, including the possible retention of Assad as head of state. After all, there are many heads of state with much blood on their hands, and yet their legitimacy as rulers is essentially unchallenged. The way the world is organized makes it unable to impose criminal responsibility on the leaders of sovereign states except in special circumstances of total victory as in World War II, or more recently, in relation to the criminal prosecutions of Saddam Hussein and Milosevic, particular enemies of the West.

 

 

  1. Many Syrian groups have released statements to express their dismay at the international community for only intervening to strike ISIS. The Global Coalition’s planes hover over Deir Al Zour and Raqa to target ISIS (often causing civilian casualties) while in the same sky Assad Planes carrying deadly Barrel Bombs hover over nearby towns unperturbed. A) Is there balance in the international community’s actions in Syria? While Assad only kills or affects the lives of Syrians in Syria, ISIS became a threat to western countries. Terrorist attacks in the west killed and injured civilians in the west.
  2. B) Is there an underlying message that the West will “Fight against ISIS in Syria, because it affects people in our countries, but leave Assad because he has no impact on their own people?”

 

Answer: Yes, this is certainly a perceptive observation. When the issue is fairly large scale and internal, and where Muslims are the victims, any effort to intervene is bound to be feeble, at best, which it was in the early stages of 2011-2013 when Turkey and the U.S. cooperated in supporting Friends of Syria, which was mistakenly thought capable of shifting the balance sufficiently in Syria to produce the collapse of the Damascus regime. When that failed, it became obvious that the costs of an effective intervention were viewed in the West as too high and dangerous. Considering the Iranian and Russian alignments with the Syrian government doomed an anti-Damascus intervention.

 

And as you suggest, the West views ISIS as dangerous enemy, and is prepared to take bigger risks and bear higher costs because Western homeland security is at stake. ISIS is a proclaimed enemy of the West that is perceived as responsible for violent acts, Syria is not, being regarded, at most, as an unattractive regime, partly because in the past, hostile toward Israel. Taking account of these circumstances, the political realist seeks a ceasefire in Syria while going all out to achieve the destruction of ISIS.

 

 

  1. Please kindly note any comments, suggestions, opinions, thoughts you have on the Syrian conflict and in particular on the west’s reaction to it and the UN’s role. Also, on what you feel can and should be done from now on. Thanks so much.

 

Answer: From my earlier responses I am skeptical about what can be done beyond the obvious: give up any hope of securing support for an R2P mandate to protect the Syrian people, and pursue a ceasefire so as to end the suffering. This is not justice, but it may at least spare the Syrian people further trauma and bloodshed.

 

What the Syrian tragedy and ordeal reveals vividly is the inability of the international community, as now organized, to deal with a humanitarian crisis unless a geopolitical consensus is present in a relatively strong form, regionally and globally. Such a consensus is not even enough if the difficulties of intervention are seen as producing heavy casualties for the intervening side and would impose burdens of a prolonged occupation to achieve post-intervention political order and security.

 

Europe would benefit at this time from a Syrian ceasefire and the restoration of political normalcy. It would undoubtedly reduce the pressure on European countries created by the Syrian refugee flow, which has given right wing political parties their greatest strength and largest level of popular support since the end of World War II.