After 70 Years: The UN Falls Short, and Yet..

8 Oct

(Prefatory Note: A shorter somewhat modified version of this post was published in Al Jazeera Turka, but only in Turkish translation. The thesis set forth is that the UN has disappointed the expectations of those who took seriously its original promise of war prevention, but that it has over its lifetime done many things that need doing in the world. It also provided a meeting place for all governments, and has developed the best networking sites for all those concerned with the state of the world and what can be done by way of improvement. The UN System faces an important test in the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris at the end of November. The event is billed as the make or break session for the governments of the world to agree finally to serve the human interest by establishing a strong enough framework of constraint governing the release of greenhouse gasses that will satisfy the scientific consensus that global warming will not eventuate in human disaster. If Paris is generally regarded as successful, the UN stock will rise steeply, but if it should fail, then its stature and role of the Organization could become even more marginalized. Either way, it is important to appreciate that the UN as of 2015 is a very different kind of political actor than when it was founded in 1945, disappointing to those who hoped for permanent peace and some justice, while pleasing to those who sought from the outset a wider global agenda for the Organization and felt that its best contributions would likely be in a wide range of practical concerns where the interests of major political actors more or less overlap.]



After 70 Years: The UN Falls Short, and Yet..

When the UN was established in the aftermath of the Second World War hopes were high that this new world organization would be a major force in world politics, and fulfill its Preamble pledge to prevent future wars. Seventy years later the UN disappoints many, and bores even more, appearing to be nothing more that a gathering place for the politically powerful. I think such a negative image has taken hold because the UN these days seems more than ever like a spectator than a political actor in the several crises that dominate the current agenda of global politics. This impression of paralysis and impotence has risen to new heights in recent years.


When we consider the waves of migrants fleeing war torn countries in the Middle East and Africa or four years of devastating civil war in Syria or 68 years of failure to find a solution for the Israel/Palestine conflict or the inability to shape a treaty to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and on and on, it becomes clear that the UN is not living up to the expectations created by its own Charter and the fervent hopes of people around the world yearning for peace and justice.


The UN itself seems unreformable, unable to adapt its structures and operations to changes in the global setting. The Security Council’s five permanent members are still the five winners in World War II, taking no account of the rise of India, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria or even the European Union. Despite globalization and the transnational rise of civil society, states and only states are eligible for UN membership and meaningful participation in the multifold operations of the Organization.


How can we explain this disappointment? We must at the outset acknowledge that the high hopes attached to the UN early on were never realistic. After all, the Charter itself acknowledged the geopolitical major premise, which is the radical inequality of sovereign states when it comes to power and wealth. Five permanent seats in the Security Council were set aside for these actors that seemed dominant in 1945. More importantly, they were given an unrestricted right to veto any decision that went against their interests or values, or those of its allies and friends. In effect, the constitution of the Organization endowed the potentially most dangerous states in the world, at least as measured by war making capabilities, with the option of being exempt from UN authority and international law.


Such an architectural feature of the UN was not a quixotic oversight of the founders. It was a deliberate step taken to overcome what perceived to be a weakness of the League of Nations established after World War I, which did look upon the equality of sovereign states as the unchallengeable constitutional foundation of an organization dedicated to preserving international peace. The experience of the League was interpreted as discouraging the most powerful states from meaningful participation (and in the case of the United States, from any participation at all) precisely because their geopolitical role was not taken into account.


In practice over the life of the UN, the veto has had a crippling political effect as it has meant that the UN cannot make any strong response unless the permanent five (P5) agree, which as we have learned during the Cold War and even since, is not very often. There is little doubt that without the veto possessed by Russia the UN would have been far more assertive in relation to the Syrian catastrophe, and not found itself confined to offering its good offices to a regime in Damascus that never seemed sincere about ending the violence or finding a political solution except on its own harsh terms of all out defeat of its adversaries.


Of course, the General Assembly, which brings all 194 member states together, supposedly has the authority to make recommendations, and act when the Security Council is blocked. It has not worked out that way. After the General Assembly flexed its muscles in the early 1970s emboldened by the outcome of the main colonial wars geopolitics took over. The GA became a venue controlled by the non-aligned movement, and in 1974 when it found backing for the Declaration of a New International Economic Order the writing was on the wall. The larger capitalist states fought back, and were able to pull enough strings to ensure that almost all authority to take action became concentrated in the Security Council. The Soviet Union went along, worried about political majorities against its interests, and comfortable with the availability of the veto as needed. The General Assembly has been since mainly relegated to serving the world as a talk shop, and is hardly noticed when it comes to crisis management or lawmaking. Despite this development the GA is still relevant to the formation of world public opinion. Its Autumn session provides the leaders of the world with the most influential lectern at which to express their worldview and recommendations for the future. Even Pope Francis took advantage of such an influential platform on which to articulate his concerns, hopes, and prescriptions.


There is an additional fundamental explanation of why the UN cannot do more in response to the global crises that are bringing such widespread human suffering to many peoples in the world. The UN was constructed on the basis of mutual and legally unconditional respect for the territorial sovereignty of its members. The Charter itself in Article 2(7) prohibits the UN from intervening in matters that are essentially internal to a state, such as strife, insurgency, abridgement of human rights, and even civil war. Such an insulation of domestic strife runs counter to the practice of intervention by geopolitical actors, and in this respect gives the UN framework a legalistic character that is not descriptive of the manner in which world politics operates.  


True, when the political winds blow strongly in certain threatening directions as was the case in relation to Serbian behavior in Kosovo that seemed to be on the verge of repeating the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, NATO effectively intervened but without the blessings of the UN, and hence in violation of international law. Then again in Libya the Security Council actually gave its approval for a limited intervention in the form of a no-fly-zone to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe befalling the besieged inhabitants of Benghazi. In that setting, the SC relying on the new norm of ‘responsibility-to-protect’ or R2P to justify its use of force. When NATO immediately converted this limited UN mandate into a regime-changing intervention that led to the execution of Qaddafi and the replacement of the Libyan government it was clear that the R2P argument acted as little more than a pretext to pursue a more ambitious, yet legally dubious and politically unacceptable, Western agenda in the country. R2P diplomacy has been further discredited by the failure to offer UN protection in the extreme circumstances of Palestine, Syria, and now Yemen.


Not surprisingly, Russia and China that had been persuaded by Western powers in 2011 to go along with the establishment of a no-fly-zone to protect Benghazi felt deceived and manipulated. These governments lost their trust in the capacity of the Security Council to set limits that would be respected once a decision was reached. This is part of the story of why the UN has been gridlocked when it came to Syria, and why R2P has been kept on the diplomatic shelf. The Security Council to be able to overcome the veto depends upon trust among the P5 sufficient to achieve a consensus, which was badly betrayed by what NATO did in Libya. Human rights advocates have long put forward the idea that the P5 agree informally or by formal resolution to forego the use of the veto in devising responses to mass atrocities, but so far, there has been little resonance. Similarly, sensible proposals to establish an UN Peace Force that could respond quickly to natural and humanitarian catastrophes on the originating initiative of the UN Secretary General have also not found much political resonance over the years. It would seem that the P5 are unwilling to relax their grip on the geopolitical reins on UN authority established in the very different world situation that existed in 1945.


Kosovo showed that, at times, humanitarian pressures (when reinforcing dominant geopolitical interests) induce states to act outside the UN framework, while Libya illustrates the long term weakening of UN capacity and legitimacy by manipulating the debate to gain support of skeptical states for intervention in an immediate war/peace and human rights situation. The hypocrisy of the R2P diplomacy by the failure to make a protective response of any kind to the acute vulnerability of such abused minorities as the Uighurs in Xinjiang Province of China, the Rohingya in Rankhine State of Myanmar, and of course the Palestinians of Palestine. There are, of course, many other victimized groups whose rights are trampled upon by the state apparatus of control that for UN purposes is treated as their sole and unreviewable legal protector.


In the end, what this pattern adds up to is a clear demonstration of the persisting primacy of geopolitics within the UN. When the P5 agree, the UN can generally do whatever the consensus mandates, although it technically requires additional support from non-permanent members of the SC. If there is no agreement, then the UN is paralyzed when it comes to action, and geopolitical actors have a political option of acting unlawfully, that is, without obtaining prior authority from the Security Council and in contravention of international law. This happened in 2003 when the U.S. Government failed to gain support from the SC for its proposed military attack upon Iraq, and went ahead anyway, with disastrous results for itself, and even more so for the Iraqi people.


It is helpful to appreciate that disappointment with the role of the UN is usually less the fault of the Organization than of the behavior of the geopolitical heavyweights. If we want a stronger UN then it will be necessary to constrain geopolitics, and make all states, including the P5 subject to the restraints of international law and sensitive to moral imperatives.


Another kind of UN reform that should have been achieved decades ago is to make the P5 into the P8 or P9 by enlarging permanent membership to include a member from Asia (additional to China), Africa, and Latin America. This would give the Security Council and the UN more legitimacy in a post-colonial world where shifts in the global balance are still suppressed.


Along with the above explanation of public disappointment, there are also many reasons to be grateful for the existence of the UN and to be thankful that despite the many conflicts in the world during its lifetime every state in the world has wanted to become a member, and none have exhibited their displeasure with UN policies to leave the Organization. Given the intensity of conflict in the world, sustaining this universality is itself a remarkable achievement. It perhaps expresses the unanticipated significance of the UN as the most influential and versatile hub for global communications.


There are other major UN contributions to human wellbeing. The UN has been principally responsible for the rise of human rights and environmental protection, and has done much to improve global health, preserve cultural heritage, protect children, and inform us about the hazards of ignoring climate change.


We could live better with a stronger UN, but we would be far worse off if the UN didn’t exist or collapsed. The only constructive approach is to do our best in the years ahead to make the UN more effective, less victimized by geopolitical maneuvering, and more attuned to achieving humane global governance.

Nonagon of Toxic Conflict: Notes on the Turkish Quagmire

2 Oct



The lethal complexity of politics in the Middle East has become overwhelming. The main political actors producing a continuous stream of swerves and turns that randomly juggle alignments and almost casually switch the identity of friends and enemies. In practical terms what this means is that there are indecipherably opaque conflicts, a multitude of state and non-state actors with distinct agendas, a bewildering array of seemingly contradictory and shifting conflict patterns, and controversial media manipulations orchestrated from various sources of governmental and insurgent authority situated both within and without the region. This geometry of conflict can be best approximated as a nonagon connecting the US/Turkey/Kurds/ISIS/Iran/Syria/Russia/Saudi Arabia/Israel, and even this is a crude simplification that leaves out many important actors. It is little wonder the Middle East has become a puzzle so daunting that only fools are clear about what should be done. The best we can do is to pick up a piece at a time, and hope it makes some sense a few weeks later.


Amid all these complexities there are some crucial developments bearing on Turkey’s relations to the overlapping realities of civil, national, regional, and extra-regional warfare. Turkey had deftly managed to avoid toxic engagement with the troubles of the region until 2009 when it began to cross swords with Israel, followed by jumping imprudently and overtly onto the anti-Assad side after the 2011 uprising in Syria. These prior problematic issues were temporarily eclipsed recently after Turkey crossed several additional treacherous thresholds of turmoil: the renewal of the deadly clash with Kurdish aspirations in Turkey and Syria; a formal joint undertaking with the United States to combat ISIS presence while still proclaiming solidarity with ‘moderate’ anti-Assad forces; and the recognition that the scale of the unmanageable flow of Syrian refugees across the Turkish border and outside of the camps is becoming unmanageable and a threat to domestic order.


As if this is not enough to worry about, polarized domestic politics in Turkey was unable to produce either a governing majority for the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in the June elections or in the aftermath an agreed coalition. As a result Turkey has an embattled interim government until a new election on November 1. The country is also beset by a divisive controversy that targets Recep Tayyip Erdoĝan as primarily responsible for all the above alleged wrongs, accusing him both of harboring the unabashed ambition to run the country as its executive president and of needlessly arousing Kurdish hostility and fears by adopting an ultra-nationalist posture during the electoral campaign that ended in June. The Turkish opposition seems to forget the uncomfortable reality that if by magic Erdoĝan disappeared the array of formidable problems facing the country would not disappear with him. And perhaps, even more uncomfortably, awake to the realization that the AKP since 2002, despite some notable errors and deficiencies, has been responsible for a remarkable series of positive economic, social, and political developments, as well as the upgrading of the country as an importantly independent regional and global political actor.


After 30 years of struggle between the Turkish state and it large Kurdish minority (14-18 million) causing up to 40,000 battle deaths there were finally hopes of peace raised in 2013 when a reconciliation process was started and a ceasefire established by the AKP led government. Now these hopes have disappeared and been replaced by daily violence as well as dire fears of what is to come, which includes the possibility of a full-scale civil war. In reaction to these developments Erdoĝan, emphatically declared the end of the peace process, although somewhat later ambiguously renewing a call for national unity, a new ceasefire, and a revived search for reconciliation. As might be expected, conditions were attached by Erdoĝan to such a proposal: abandonment of armed struggle by the Kurdish movement , the PKK (or Turkish Workers Party), which has been operating out of its main base area in Iraq’s Qandil mountains.


The recently proclaimed military collaboration of Turkey and the United States with the agreed goal of jointly battling ISIS adds to the confusion. It is Kurdish armed groups, including the PKK, and especially its Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), along with the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga militia that have proved to be the most effective forces combatting ISIS and the Assad government in recent months, and an indispensable complement to America air strikes. In effect, the anti-ISIS campaign is at cross-purposes with the renewed Turkish preoccupation with the fight against the PKK and the Assad regime. Fighting against the Kurds weakens the fight against ISIS and Assad, and vice versa.


From Ankara’s perspective there is logic to the seeming irrationality of stepping up the fight against the strongest enemy of its main Syrian enemy. Ever since the Iraqi Kurds established their state within a state in northern Iraq and the Syrian Kurds seemed within reach of their goal of establishing Rojava (or Syrian Kurdistan), the more radical parts of the Turkish Kurdish national movement, evidently had second thoughts about negotiating with the Turkish government a peaceful end to their struggle in exchange for rights and some measure of limited autonomy. After so many years of struggle why should Turkish Kurds settle for far less than what their Kurdish comrades in Iraq and Syria achieved? It should be appreciated in raising such a question that the Kurdish minority in Turkey is about three times the size of the Iraqi Kurdish population, estimated to be between 15 and 20 million, which happens to be more than eight times the size of the Syrian Kurdish minority. It would seem that what the reconciliation process would offer Turkish Kurds fell below reasonable expectations, and it could be argued that the success of the Kurdish political party (HDP or Peoples Democratic Party) in the June elections associated with electing 80 members of Parliament as a result of crossing the 10% marker for the first time accentuated rather than alleviated Kurdish anxieties. There is no direct evidence at this point, but circumstantially it seems as if the HDP’s success was not welcome news to the PKK as it seemed to augur a premature accommodation with the Turkish state, and thus a betrayal of more ambitious goals for the Kurdish national movement. How else can we explain the PKK repudiation of the ceasefire with Turkey on June 11th only four days after the historic HDP electoral success in June?


Then the ISIS suicide attack on July 20, 2015 in the Turkish border town of Suruç killing 32 young Turkish civilian activists made clear that Ankara could no longer ignore the threat posed by ISIS despite the disturbing contradiction of battling against an opponent of both the Kurds and Assad. Hence, the agreement with the United States with respect to ISIS, and the accusations that Turkey was nevertheless using most of its military capabilities to fight against the Kurds and Assad.


In this atmosphere of growing political violence the Turkish government faced a mounting internal security threat. Between the June 7 Turkish national elections and late July, there were over 281 violent attacks carried out in Turkey by PKK operatives, including a series of lethal assaults on police and military personnel. In retaliation, unsurprisingly, the Turkish armed forces launched air attacks against PKK positions in the Kandil area of northern Iraq. To blame this upsurge of violence on Erdoĝan is not only simplistic but deeply misleading.


Two other factors can better explain what happened. First, the Kurdish militant leadership in the Kandil base areas came to the conclusion that the political success of Kurdish armed struggle in Iraq and Syria could be duplicated in Turkey; secondly, a concern that the rewards of the reconciliation process started by the Turkish state if allowed to continue would reward Kurdish politicians and business people who took few risks to advance the national movement in Turkey, while the PKK fighters enduring decades of hardship, loss, and danger would end up being invited back to Turkey with an inadequate acknowledgement of their long struggle. Of course, in between the Turkish state and the AKP there were many Kurds and Turks to yearned for peace and political compromise, and opposed any behavior on either side that would resume a zero-sum bloody struggle in which one side or the other would be a winner and the other a loser.


The prolonged Syrian civil strife burdens Turkey further. It is relevant to recall that in the years immediately before 2011, and the Arab Spring, when Turkish regional diplomacy was capturing the imagination by its call for ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ it was then Assad’s Syria that served as the poster child of the policy reaching an unprecedented level of cordiality as between the two governments and their respective leaders. Earlier tensions were dissolved and forgotten, friendship and trade flourished in relations between the two countries, and overnight the governments of Syria and Turkey seemed to reconcile their differences, opened their borders, increased economic and cultural interaction, creating an impression that durable harmony will persist long into the future.


Then came the Arab Spring in early 2011, which spread to Syria in March shortly after the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The Damascus government responded with torture and crimes against humanity in its reactions to peaceful demonstrators who were initially suppressed in Daraa, and later in many parts of Syria. Turkey, along with the UN, tried for several months to coax the Assad leadership into meeting the political demands of the Syrian people by instituting democratic reforms. Assad seemed to agree, but no power-sharing steps were taken. Instead there was a spread of insurgent activity, and an intensification of indiscriminate violence and frequent atrocities by the government, including heavy bombing of rebel held Syrian cities and towns, and eventually recourse to chemical weapons and barrel bombs. Syrian casualties rose, mass atrocities were documented, and hundred of thousands of refugees streamed across the Turkish border, creating a major humanitarian challenge that continues to grow, reaching the astounding figure of over 2 million.


Against this background, Turkey increasingly and overtly sided with the rebel forces. Istanbul becoming the center of operations for anti-Assad political activity, which included explicit backing of the Friends of Syria (a loose and ineffectual anti-Assad coalition put together by the United States and Turkey). Various forms of military assistance were channeled to the Free Syrian Army but it steadily lost ground against the well-equipped Syrian armed forces, which enjoyed support and assistance from Russia and Iran. Early in the conflict Ankara believed that the balance of forces had shifted decisively against Assad, and that the Syrian regime would collapse in a few weeks. It was mistakenly thought that Syria, like Libya, would be easy prey to a popular uprising, forgetting that the Damascus government unlike Tripoli had loyal support from a series of important Syrian minorities as well as from large segment of the urban business world, was strongly backed by Iran and Russia, and possessed significant military capabilities.


The situation became even messier. Even before the appearance of ISIS, it seemed that the Al Nusra Front had become the most effective opposition to Assad, was linked to Al Qaeda. In this mix, when ISIS seemingly came out of the blue to mount an even bigger challenge to Damascus the alignments for and against became hopelessly complex. It is not surprising that given these developments the Turkish leadership was initially reluctant to confront ISIS as its battlefield record of success seemed to pose the biggest threat to their biggest enemy! Turkey still understandably wobbles on the tightrope that stretches between opposing Assad and fighting PKK and ISIS.


How this interplay of US/Turkish/Kurdish/ISIS actions and reactions will play out is currently unknowable. To intervene in such a zone of multiple conflict is beset with risks, costs, and unknowns but so is standing by as horrified spectators. The assumption in the West has been that military power offers the only way to calm the waters without sacrificing Western interests, but the consistent record of intervention is one of repeated costly failures. Perhaps, the very hopelessness of the situation makes the moment right for bold forms of regional diplomacy. Tangibly, what this means is bringing Russia and Iran into the game, and minimizing the influence of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel seems to be promoting regional disorder, destabilizing the internal public order of the major states in the region. Saudi Arabia apparently cares for little other than the survival of the royal regime in the Kingdom. It can savagely undermine the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza yet claim to be leading the Sunni struggle against the spread of Shia Islam, justifying its interventions in Syria and Yemen. And globally, it is Saudi funds and Wahabi militancy that is bringing extremist politics to the forefront throughout the Middle East.


With such tensions, contradictory agendas, and unconditional ideologies at play the outlook for compromise and normalcy is dim. Oddly, Russia without ties that bind is freer to dampen the forces of extremism than is the United States that remains beholden to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Similarly, Iran despite the theocratic and repressive character of its government has the internal stability that Turkey now lacks, and if allowed could play a constructive force role by helping to work out a political transition in Syria and Yemen and playing a leading part in an anti-extremist coalition needed to cope with ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the Al-Nusra Front operating in Syria.


Will this happen? Of course, not. It is far too rational and realistic. The United States despite its power and residual leadership potential finds itself stuck in a geopolitical straight jacket of its own devising, and without its ability to behave like a rational actor. The region seems destined in coming years to fluctuate between chaos and autocracy, and this means that Arab populations will experience repression, displacement, chaos, and cycles of demonic political violence. More than elsewhere, the Middle East is badly in need of political miracles.


Turkey is one of the few actors, situated within and without the Arab World, that retains the capacity to be a constructive influence in support of compromise and nonviolence conflict resolution. This helpful performance depends on the Turkish recovery of composure within its borders, which seems dependent of the AKP recovering an effective majority allowing it to form a government after the results of the new election on November 1st become known. The second best solution would be a strengthening of the AKP and CHP (Republican Peoples Party) parties in November, followed quickly by a coalition between these two parties that puts national unity, economic development, and political stability ahead of partisan confrontation. It is the anti- Erdoĝan preoccupation that has mainly hindered Turkey’s effort at regional leadership, although Erdoĝan has contributed to this atmosphere by his reliance on autocratic tactics in quelling the Gezi uprising in 2013 and expressing his views without sensitivity to opposition values and outlooks ever since scoring a major victory in the 2011 elections. It is time for Erdoĝan and the AKP to abandon ‘majoritarian democracy’ and also time for the political opposition parties and media to assess the Erdoĝan and the AKP in a more balanced, and less polarized views. It is unfortunate that even prior to 2011, the opposition to the AKP was unyielding in voicing its intense hostility, giving no credit, and insisting the AKP under Erdoĝan’s leadership was guiding the country away from the secularism of the Republic era, and toward the imposition of an Islamic theology in the manner of Iran. Let’s hope that the CHP does well enough in the new elections to join with the AKP in giving Turkey the government it deserves, and that Erdoĝan will be content to be presidential in a constitutional system that is essentially based on parliamentary supremacy but with some recourse to judicial checks on arbitrary power.


The focus on Turkey, and its role with respect to Syria and the conflicts with Syria, PKK, and ISIS is not meant to minimize the importance of the other actors in the region that are part of the geopolitical nonogon. There are several overlapping regional proxy wars that have complicated, perhaps precluded, a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, including serious intraregional tensions between Saudi Arabia and Syria as well as the extraregional rivalry between the United States and Russia. Also of indeterminate significance are the variety of undisclosed Israeli regional moves and the leverage exerted by way of its often dysfunctional special relationship with the United States (preventing negotiation of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone or allowing Iran to play an appropriate diplomatic role). Although not as notoriously described, the willingness of the United States to give Saudi Arabia a free pass with respect to internal repression and recourse to force as in Yemen, and earlier Bahrain, is a further source of regional turmoil.

The Yemen Catastrophe: Beset by Contradictions of Will and Intellect

28 Sep

[Prefatory Note: This post modifies an article published in Middle East Eye on September 21, 2015, with title, “Yemen pays the price for Saudis’ sectarian paranoia.” Whether the Saudis are being paranoid about political developments in their neighbors (Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen) or prudent in view of regional threats to the stability of the Kingdom is difficult to ascertain. However this issue is resolved, portraying what has gone wrong as a consequence of sectarianism or an expansionist Iran, evades the real challenges being posed in Yemen, in Syria, and elsewhere in the region. Only in Iraq, where American occupation policy injected

a self-defeating sectarianism as the centerpiece of its post-Saddam Hussein state-building project, does this optic misused when applied to Middle East conflict seem to explain the course of developments, including the alignment of Iraq’s current leaders with Iran rather than with their supposed liberators from the West!]




Yemen Catastrophe: Beset by Contradictions of Will and Intellect


Any attempt to provide a coherent account of the political strife afflicting Yemen is bound to fail. The country is crucible of contradictions that defy normal categories of rational analysis. If we look beyond the political fog that envelops the conflict the tragic circumstances of acute suffering imposed on the civilian population do emerge with stark clarity. Long before the outbreak of civil warfare, Yemen was known to be the poorest country in the region, faced with looming food and water scarcities. The UN estimates 80% of the population is in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, 40% live on less than $2 per day. Further there are high risks of mass famine and epidemic outbreaks of disease will occur, while continuing chaos is a near certainty, with the prospect of yet another wave of desperate migrants swept ashore in Europe.


Against this background, the UN Security Council seems shockingly supportive of a major Saudi military intervention via sustained air attacks that started in March 2015, severely aggravating the overall situation by unanimously adopting a one-sided anti-Houthi Resolution 2216. This Saudi use of force is contrary to international law, violates the core principle of the UN Charter, and magnifies the violent disruption of Yemeni society. The success of the Houthi insurgency from the north that swept the Yemeni leadership from power, taking over the capital city of Sanaa, was perversely treated by the Security Council as a military coup somehow justifying the intervention by a Saudi led coalition of Gulf countries pledged to restore the ‘legitimate’ government to power. To grasp the geopolitics at play it is clarifying to recall that the 2013 blatant military coup in Egypt, with much bloodier reprisals against the displaced elected rulers, aroused not a murmur of protest in the halls of the UN. Once more the primacy of geopolitics is showcased in the Middle East. It’s not what you do, but who does it, that matters when it comes to a UN response.


What makes it even more difficult to make sense of developments in Yemen is the geopolitical tendency, as abetted by the media, to reduce incredibly complex national histories and the interplay of multiple contending forces to a simplistic story of Sunni versus Shia rivalry for the control of the country. Such a prism of interpretation, above all, allows Saudi Arabia to portray once again the strife in Yemen as another theater of the wider region proxy war pitting Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies against Iran, which is a guaranteed way of securing U.S. and Israeli backing. The same rationale has served the Kingdom well (and the world badly) in explaining why it supports anti-Assad forces in Syria during the last several years. It also was the pretext for intervening in Bahrain in 2011 to crush a popular pro-democracy uprising. If considered more objectively we begin to understand that this sectarian optic obscures more than it reveals, and not accidentally.


For instance, when it came to Egypt, however, the sectarian template was completely discarded, and the Saudis immediately used their financial muscle to help the anti-Muslim Brotherhood coup in 2012 led by General Sisi to consolidate its control over the country. Even when Israel attacked Gaza a year ago, seeking to destroy Hamas, a Sunni Islamic version of the Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia made no secret of the startling fact that it gave Tel Aviv a green light. What emerges, then, is not a regional politics based on sectarian priorities, but rather a pathological preoccupation with regime stability in the Saudi monarchy, with anxieties arising whenever political tendencies emerge in the region that elude its control, and are perceived as threatening. Part of the truer explanation of Saudi pattern of behavior also has to do with the Faustian Bargain struck with the powerful Wahabi establishment, which has allowed the Saud royal clan to flourish at home while spending billions to spread the most repressive version of Islam far and wide to madrassas throughout Asia. The fact that the application of Wahabism at home, including more than 100 beheadings already this year and confinement of women to an extent that makes the Islamic Republic of Iran appear liberal by comparison, is a further sign that international clamor of human rights is selective to put it mildly.


The people of Yemen are paying a huge price for this brand of Saudi violent security politics. Whether it is paranoia at work or a healthy respect for the mass unpopularity of its policies, or some mixture, is difficult to assess. Yet what seems clear is that much of the world is lulled to sleep, not taking the trouble to peer below this sectarian cover story. Only scant account taken of the fact that the real threats to regional order in Yemen do not come from a reasonable Houthi insistence on power-sharing political arrangements, but mainly arise from the presence in Yemen of Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS that have been long targeted by American drones as part of the war of the terror ever since 2007. So while the West supports the Saudi fight against the Shia Houthis at the same time it does its best to weaken their most formidable domestic opposition, and in the process further alienates the Yemeni civilian population by its military tactics, which recruits more extremists committed to fighting against this second form of external intervention that finds no basis in international law and enjoys the tacit support of the UN Security Council.


If this was not enough to make the Yemeni crystal ball opaque, there is the internal alignment of forces. On the one side, the 2012 successor regime to the corrupt dictatorial rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh that is headed by its equally corrupt former vice president, Abd Rabbaah Mansour Hadi, now apparently ‘governing’ from exile, although rumored to be seeking a return to Aden. On the anti-regime side, in addition to the Houthis, are the main military and police forces that still respond to the authority of the ousted leader, Saleh, who has returned to the Yemen struggle to oppose the Saudi intervention and have helped turn the tide of battle on the ground against the Hadi-led government. Despite this adverse battlefield reality, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, was quoted as saying “We will do whatever it takes to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling.” Tragically, what this seems to mean, is reducing the country to a shambles that brings starvation and disease to the population, and possibly escalating at some future point of frustration by the launch of a ground offensive. There are confirmed reports of a massing of Saudi troops close to the Yemen border.


At this point, it is difficult to know what would bring some kind of peace and stability to Yemen. What we do know is that both the sectarian optic, Saudi intervention, and American drone warfare are dead end options. The beginning of a constructive approach is to take root causes of the current conflict into account. Several need to be considered. There is a long experience of division in the country between the north and the south, and this means that any unity government for the whole of Yemen can only be sustained by an iron-fisted dictator like Saleh or through a genuine power-sharing federalist kind of arrangement based on decentralized autonomy and a weak central governmental structure. Beyond this, the country bears the scars of Ottoman rule intermixed with a British presence in Aden and the surrounding area, vital to earlier colonial priorities of controlling the Suez and the trade routes to the East.


Additionally, and often forgotten and ignored, Yemen remains a composite of tribes that still command the major loyalty of people and reign supreme in many locales. The modern European insistence on sovereign states in the Middle East never succeeded in overcoming the primacy of Yemeni tribal identities. Any possibility of political stability requires subsidizing and respecting Yemen’s tribes as Saudi Arabia did during Saleh’s dictatorship (1990-2012) or creating a multi-colored quilt of autonomous tribal polities. When the background of the north/south split and persisting tribalism are taken into account recourse to the Shia/Sunni divide or the Riyadh/Tehran rivalry as an explanation of Yemen’s strife-ridden country is more than a simplistic evasion of a far more complicated reality. It is a cruel and futile fantasy.


What should be done, given this overall situation? One potential key to achieving some kind of peace in Yemen is held by policymakers in Washington. So long as the U.S. Government remains beholden to the rulers in Saudi monarchy, to the extremists running Israel, and insistent on striking at AQAP targets with drone missiles, this key is unusable. This combination of factors is what makes the wider political turmoil in the Middle East stuck on a lethal fast moving treadmill. How to get off the treadmill, that is the question for which there answers, but as yet no relevant political will.


There are two obvious moves, neither ideal, but with the modest goal of a first step in creating a new political order: first, negotiate a ceasefire that includes an end to the Saudi intervention; secondly, establish a more credible revival of the National Dialogue Conference that two years ago made a failed attempt at Gulf initiative in Sanaa to find a power-sharing arrangement. It did not help matters then that two successive Houthi representatives at the diplomatic discussions were assassinated on their way to participate. What is needed is establishing a political transition sensitive both to the north/south split and the strength of Yemeni tribes coupled with massive economic assistance from outside, as well as the establishment of a UN peacekeeping presence tasked with implementation and the termination of all forms of external armed intervention. Nothing less has any chance of working.


Such a rational path is currently blocked, especially by the intense militancy of the aggressive Saudi leadership of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, and his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Secretary of Defense, the apparent champion of military intervention. The United States, with its special relationship to Israel, its strong ties to Saudi Arabia, and faith in drone led counterterrorism seems to be swallowing the central contradiction between opposing both its real adversaries, AQAP and ISIS, and its implicit ally, the Houthis. Instead of treating the enemy of their enemy as a friend, Washington has reversed the proverb. This Gordian Knot is strangling the people of Yemen. Cutting it will require a drastic break with current policy. The way forward is evident, but how to get there is not, in the meantime the bodies pile up in what has long been considered the poorest country in the region severely stressed by the prospect of severe water scarcities.


A Gaza Centric History of Palestine: Past, Present, and Future

24 Sep



[Prefatory Note: The review below was initially published in the Journal of the Contemporary Thought and the Islamicate World (SCITIW REVIEW). It is one of three remarkable books dealing with Gaza that I read this past summer. The other two are Mohammed Omer’s Shell Shocked: On the Ground Under Israel’s Gaza Assault (2015) (see my July 8, 2015 post, “Wartime Journalism: Mohammed Omer on Gaza”) and Max Blumenthal’s The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza (2015). Both of these books are accounts of the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza by normatively engaged journalists. Omer giving an insider account that stresses the day by day experience of those exposed to such an onslaught that allows one to almost feel the excruciating pain, fear, and loss that Gazans felt during the attacks. Blumenthal also gives readers the benefit of his presence in Gaza and exposure to its courageous population, but he also includes valuable interpretative material. Their normative engagement is evident from their empathy with the Gaza ordeal of the Palestinians and understandable antipathy to Israel’s tactics and overall behavior. While discarding the liberal posture of neutrality, this high quality journalism under the most difficult and dangerous conditions in the sense of conveying the unfolding reality of important events in ways that deepen awareness and understanding beyond what mainstream media reports.

What makes Filiu’s book so important, beyond its extraordinary historical depth that allows readers to better grasp the tragedy that has befallen the Gazan people, is its persuasive insistence of the centrality played by Gaza throughout the experience of Palestinian resistance to Israeli dispossession and annexation, including the originality of the uprising known as the first intifada in 1987, and even more so an insistence that the Gaza holds the key to any kind of sustainable peace between Israel and Palestine. This is a striking view, given the extent to which both Israel and the world treat Ramallah and the Palestinian Authority as central, and Gaza as marginal if not altogether dispensable in the context of diplomatic negotiations and the outcome of the conflict.]

A Gaza-Centric View of the Palestine National Movement


Jean-Pierre Filiu, Gaza: A History, trans. John King, Oxford University Press, 2014, 440 pp., $29.95 US (hbk), ISBN 9780190201890.

The distinguished French historian, Jean-Pierre Filiu has produced a magisterial overview that recounts the ebb and flow of Gaza’s fortunes from ancient times up through the present. Although a member of the faculty of Sciences Po in Paris, Filiu is not a typical academic historian, having earlier served as a diplomat in Jordan, Syria, and Tunisia, published two novels, and even written popular songs, including one devoted to Gaza. Filiu’s pedigree training and scholarly contribution have earned him a deserved reputation as one of the world’s leading Arabists, and someone particularly expert on political trends in contemporary Islam. He has published several well-regarded books on the Middle East including The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons from the Democratic Uprising (2011) and From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadist Legacy (2015). The latter book poses the haunting question as to whether the political destiny of the peoples in the Middle East is to remain entrapped in the ongoing struggle between tyrannical leaders and Muslim fanatics. More than most commentators on the regional developments, Filiu perceptively realized that the democratizing hopes of the “Arab Spring” in 2011 would be short lived, and likely would be soon overwhelmed by a variety of counterrevolutionary forces intent on restoring an authoritarian status quo ante, however high the costs of doing so. The main motive of these counterrevolutionary elites was to avoid the twin fates of secular democracy and radical Islam.

Filiu’s authoritative treatment of Gaza starts with a useful background summary of its role as a trading center in the ancient world of the Middle East with a past traced back to the Hyksos people of the eighteenth century BCE. Readers are helpfully informed that Gaza, situated between Sinai and Negev Deserts and the Mediterranean Sea, became a major site of struggle for warring neighbors over the long arc of history, including Egyptian pharaohs, Persian kings, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Fatimids, Mamluks, Crusaders, and Ottomans. Filiu emphasizes the rivalry between Baghdad and Cairo with respect to Gaza as contributing to the frequent changes of fortune confronted by the city and region. A second chapter is informative about the generally unappreciated relationship of Gaza to hallowed figures in Islamic tradition. For instance, one principal mosque in Gaza is built to honor the memory of the great grandfather of the Prophet and another is dedicated to one of Muhammad’s close followers who accompanied him on his sacred journey from Mecca to Medina. Both of these men were prosperous traders who brought caravans of goods from Arabia for sale in

September 22, 2015


the markets of Gaza. After presenting this early history, Filiu devotes the remainder of Gaza to Gaza’s experience in the continuing struggle over Palestine’s future that began in a serious way with the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the British Mandate established after World War I under the auspices of the League of Nations lasting until 1947 when Britain turned over responsibility for Gaza’s future to the United Nations.

The remaining fifteen chapters of Gaza narrate the tortured and tormented experience of Gaza, the scene of many dreams of liberation and peace, but also a place of frequent carnage and a continuing ordeal of massive suffering. Gaza, which covers 140 square miles, the size of several middle sized American cities, still plays a central role in the unfolding Israel/Palestine conflict. In this fundamental respect, Gaza is a detailed historical narrative of past and present, which also underscores the totally unresolved future of Palestine as a whole, leaving readers free to contemplate Gaza’s future through the sophisticated optic that Filiu provides.

Filiu has produced, in a manner that I find extraordinary, a study of Gaza’s history over this incredible sweep of time that manages to exhibit at each phase of the narrative an astonishing mastery of detail. Filiu presents us with the dizzying interplay of dominant personalities interweaved with accurate depictions of the many defining incidents that give substance to the complex history and experience of Gaza. Such a tours de force of scholarly achievement does not make for easy reading given the density of the material. As a whole, Gaza is somewhat overwhelming in its cumulative impact as a result of its long succession of unfamiliar names and recitation of one detail after another that are difficult for a normal reader to keep in mind. At the same time, beyond the weight of Filiu’s facticity is a wealth of interpretative knowledge that imparts an unprecedented understanding of the contemporary experience of Gaza and the part it has played for both Israelis and Palestinians in the unfolding conflict.

Despite this challenge posed by this seeming surfeit of names and events, a kind of pre- digital example of information overload, Filiu facilitates comprehension of the main narrative motifs by framing his central interpretative analysis through reference to illuminating conceptual themes. He proceeds chronologically assessing the unfolding Palestinian ordeal in three clusters of four chapters each: “1947-1967: The Generation of Mourning,” “1967-1987: The Generation of Dispossession,” “1987-2007: The Generation of the Intifadas.” The book concludes with a final chapter entitled “The Generation of the Impasse?” as if the currently blocked situation in the underlying conflict between Israel and Palestine that has dominated the lives of the Gazan people for several generations seems likely to continue to be their fate for the indefinite future. Filiu ever so slightly lightens this gloomy prospect by putting a question mark at the end of the chapter title, perhaps acknowledging that not even a master historian should pretend to foretell Gaza’s future with confidence or indicate with confidence hopes and fears that the impasse will be broken at some point.

With this framework Filiu brilliantly portrays the Palestinian ordeal as it has tragically played out during the 67 plus years since Israel came into existence as a sovereign state. There is no attempt by Filiu to write this contemporary history of Gaza from a detached point of view, that is, by suspending empathetic feelings and ethical judgments. The tone of the narrative and the spirit of Filiu’s personal engagement with the Palestinian tragedy is clearly conveyed on the dedication page: “To the memory of the thousands of anonymous who died in Gaza before their time though they had a life to live en famille and in peace.” In effect, without sparing Palestinians and their leaders harsh criticism for failures of competence in the course of his narrative, including their embrace of brutality and

corruption, Filiu laments Palestinian victimization and decries Israeli oppression. With such a perspective it is not surprising that Filiu is generally sympathetic with Palestinian resistance activities over the years.

In discussing partition, the plan proposed by the UN General Assembly to overcome the tensions between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, Filiu makes clear that the Zionist movement was pushing the British hard to endorse such a division during the latter stages of the mandatory period. For Zionist leaders partition seemed at the time the only available path leading to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, thereby achieving the basic Zionist project in accord with the Balfour undertaking. In angry contrast, the most representative Arab voices in Palestine were early united in their fervent opposition to partition ever since it began to be seriously considered by the British government, increasingly aware of rising tensions between the resident Arab population of Palestine and the successive waves of Jewish immigration. Already in 1937 Fahmi al-Husseini, the mayor of Gaza, warned British authorities against partition and any related attempt to promote the emergence of Jewish statehood. Filiu quotes al-Husseini to illustrate this depth of opposition: “It would be better for the British government to consign the inhabitants of Palestine to death and destruction, or even to envelop them in poison gas, than to inflict upon them any such plan” (46). As we know, such Palestinian wishes were ignored not only by the British, but also by the organized international community acting under the auspices of the United Nations. In response to the mounting tension in Palestine between Jews and Arabs, Britain went ahead and proposed partition, which was consistent with their typical colonial endgame and legacy in many other parts of their collapsing empire (for instance, Ireland, India, Malaya, and Cyprus). When the UN in 1947 did finally propose partition in General Assembly Resolution 181, the British surprisingly abstained, perhaps feeling that there was nothing to be gained at that point by further antagonizing the Arab world, especially given the persistence of British interests in the region, epitomized by the retention of the Suez Canal.

The focus on the complex dialectics of victimization and resistance in Gaza is at the core of Filiu’s interpretative standpoint. This emphasis likely represents the most enduring contribution of the book to our appreciation of both the scholarship and policy relevance of the Gaza Strip to the overall story of the Israel/Palestine struggle. What Filiu does convincingly is to challenge the mainstream view that Gaza is but an ugly sideshow of the main Palestinian dramas, generally regarded by both sides to be the West Bank and Jerusalem. Of course, the centrality of Gaza’s victimization has become internationally recognized, especially after the imposition of a blockade in 2007 when Hamas took over the government in Gaza and during the last seven years when Israel launched savage attacks in 2008-2009, 2012, and 2014 that eroded the carefully orchestrated public image of Israel as a benevolent political actor. What Filiu significantly adds to this image of Gazan victimization is the understanding that the broader movement of Palestinian national resistance has been centered in Gaza since the onset of the conflict with the Zionist project, and that this pattern of resistance continues in Gaza more than elsewhere in Palestine despite the severe and prolonged forms of collective punishment imposed by Israel on the Strip over the course of decades.

Even more challenging is Filiu’s controversial insistence that a sustainable peace between Israel and Palestine can only be achieved if Gaza will be accorded a decisive role in the process. Filiu underscores this belief in his drastic revision of thinking surrounding the peace process in the closing sentences of Gaza: “It is in Gaza that the foundations of a durable peace should be laid…The Gaza Strip, the womb of the fedayin and the cradle of the



intifada, lies at the heart of the nation-building of contemporary Palestine. It is vain to imagine that a territory so replete with foundational experiences can be ignored or marginalized. Peace between Israel and Palestine can assume neither meaning nor substance except in Gaza, which will be both the foundation and the keystone” (340).

Filiu’s view of a peaceful solution challenges the view of most Israelis that Gaza, without figuring in Israeli biblical claims, and containing 1.8 million Palestinians hostile to Israel’s very existence, has no place in Israel’s conception of its own final borders or of an acceptable outcome of the conflict. Israelis generally regard Gaza as nothing more than a bargaining chip in any future peace negotiations. From Israel’s perspective Gaza is the one unwanted part of occupied Palestine (in sharp contrast, with Jerusalem and the West Bank), an assessment provisionally expressed by Israel’s “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005, which involved the withdrawal of IDF forces and the removal of Israeli settlers in a plan conceived and implemented by the Israeli hardline leader Ariel Sharon. Gaza continues to be viewed as a threat to Israeli security if ever allowed to become consolidated with the West Bank in a future Palestinian state and is viewed as a threat to Israel’s ethnocratic and democratic claims if incorporated into a single Israeli state encompassing the whole of historic Palestine.

With respect to Gaza, Israelis seem now to prefer either retaining control over a subjugated and devastated Gaza or inducing Egypt to resume responsibility for administering Gaza. The Egyptian government has made clear its unwillingness to accept responsibility for governing Gaza, which makes the unfortunate present situation the most likely scenario for the foreseeable future. In this sense, the whole burden of Filiu’s assessment is at odds with the manner in which Washington framed the “peace process,” which, as might be expected, seems based on an acceptance of Israel’s view of the marginality of Gaza with respect to the final resolution of the conflict.

Filiu’s mode of highlighting Gaza also challenges the views of the Palestinian Authority, with its capital in Ramallah, that gives its highest priority to ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, getting rid of as many Israeli settlements as possible. The Palestinian Authority seems to care little about the fate of Gaza, especially since Gaza fell under the control of Hamas in 2007, although its formal position continues to include Gaza as an integral part of a Palestinian state.

In this respect, Filiu’s Gaza-centric interpretation of the conflict between Israel and Palestine is by far the most original and controversial part of his historical account. It rests on a carefully documented narrative of Gaza’s role as the true center of Palestinian resistance and resilience throughout more than six decades of struggle. As Filiu mentions, the most perceptive of Israeli leaders, notably David Ben-Gurion, were nervous about the developing situation in Gaza from the earliest period of Israel’s existence, especially as Gaza became the default option for many Palestinians displaced during the nakba, the occasions of massive expulsion and dispossession that caused so many Palestinians to be driven from their homes, and to seek sanctuary in Gaza, the West Bank, and neighboring Arab countries. In Filiu’s view, throughout the war that produced the establishment of Israel as a sovereign state, “…Israeli units were systematically driving the Arab population out of the combat zone even when their villages offered no resistance to the advance of the Zionists” (62). The sadness and desolation of dispossession resulted in Gaza becoming early in the conflict dominated and radicalized by refugees and their profoundly alienating experiences. In the late 1940s Palestinian refugees amounted to more than 75% of Gaza’s total population.

The large refugee camps spread throughout tiny Gaza became focal points of ferment and eventually resistance, taking the initial form of the fedayin insurgent activities from the

1950s on. It was the fedayin fighters that found ways to penetrate Israel and inflict casualties particularly on soldiers and police, and later, on Israeli settlers in Gaza. This type of armed struggle inevitably prompted Israeli reprisal raids that were from their outset deliberately disproportionate. As Filiu observes, “[i]t was in Gaza that the fedayin were moulded, and the Hebrew State would soon make Gaza pay for it dearly” (94). This prediction was fulfilled in 1956, Egypt being displaced from Gaza, and Israel occupying the Strip for four months as an aspect of the Suez War, with accompanying massacres of Palestinian civilians being carried out by the Israeli military prior to a UN protective force being inserted to monitor the border. Filiu asks this provocative question: “Is there any doubt that the history of Gaza would have taken a different turn had a Palestinian entity been established there, under UN protection, in defiance of Israel, while maintaining special ties with Egypt” (105-106)? Although Filiu seems to have meant the question to be rhetorical, I am skeptical of any supposition that Gaza might have been spared Israeli fury even if the UN had agreed to sponsor and protect Gazan self-determination and sovereignty within the less crystalized climate of opinion in 1956. The political will to confront Israel has never existed on a global level or within the United Nations except to the extent of adopting a public discourse sharply challenging Israel’s policies and practices that is reinforced by periodic censure moves that were generally softened or opposed by the West.

As dramatic as the fedayin phenomenon, the outbreak of the intifada in 1987 that witnessed an unexpected mobilization of Palestinian civil society in Gaza, later spreading to the West Bank, challenged Israel’s capacity to maintain order in occupied Palestine. As Filiu persuasively argues, it was the fedayin and intifada that finally lent credibility and inspiration to the Palestinian national struggle, somewhat overcoming the humiliating failure of the pathetic international efforts by neighboring Arab states to challenge the existence of Israel. The failure of these several regional wars, culminating in the disastrous Arab defeat in the 1967 War, which greatly expanded Israel’s territorial identity, resulted in a second and permanent occupation of Gaza, with the war having the geopolitical effect of transforming Israel in American strategic thinking from being a heavy burden on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East to becoming a major strategic asset. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, “the rest is history.”

Filiu gives a fascinating portrayal of the rise of Islamism in Gaza, including a depiction of the charismatic leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by an Israeli missile in 2004. What Filiu’s discussion shows it that the early Islamic efforts in Gaza, inspired by and derivative of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, were devoted on principle to resistance activities within the law, focusing on a long range view of liberation by way of family values and education. It was only as a result of Israeli oppression in Gaza and a growing rivalry for popular allegiance with the secular coalition, the Palestine Liberation Organization under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, that led to the formation of the militant Hamas, and with this development, to extreme violence, highlighted by suicide bombing attacks within Israel in the late 1990s, often directed at the civilian population. Israel, at first, actually encouraged the political emergence of Islam, supposing that it would weaken what was perceived to be its principal adversary, the PLO, but as time passed, and Hamas tactics shifted to suicidal violence, Israel treated Hamas as a terrorist organization, and remains unwilling to back off such a view despite Hamas’ effort to pursue a political track for reaching its national goals since it took part in Palestinian elections in 2006.

Arafat is duly presented as the leading Palestinian liberation figure and international diplomat, but also deeply criticized by Filiu for the political innocence of his deferential approach to the United States and accompanying naïve hopes that Washington would deliver



a just peace to the Palestinians after the Oslo Framework of Principles had been agreed upon in 1993. Filiu draws our attention to Arafat’s reaction to the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which brought tears to his eyes and the tormenting cry “It’s over, it’s over” (234)—meaning the prospect of a negotiated peace died with Rabin. Although Filiu does not evaluate Arafat’s reaction, it seems exaggerated, given Rabin’s acquiescence in expanding the settlement movement in the West Bank and Jerusalem and his “iron fist” policies in reaction to the first intifada.

One of the several virtues of Filiu’s historical approach is his willingness to employ evaluative language to describe Palestinian experience of victimization and Israeli tactics of oppression. He repeatedly refers to Israeli practices as imposing “collective punishment,” and as resulting in “massacres” of innocent Gazans, and of the experience endured by Gaza’s population as trauma, including “collective trauma.” At the same time, despite being highly critical of Israel’s approach, Filiu avoids any condemnations based on international humanitarian law or international criminal law. Filiu does not, unlike Ilan Pappé and other critics of Israel’s behavior in Gaza, speak of “genocide” or even “crimes against humanity.” In general, I conclude that Filiu’s sense of critical history with respect to Gaza does not accord significant relevance to international law.

In conclusion, Filiu provides a reader with a wealth of information, an historical perspective that greatly deepens our appreciation of the importance achieved by Gaza in the past, and above all, depicts the brutality of Israel’s behavior toward the people of Gaza and its failure to quell the spirit of Palestinian resistance. At the center of Filiu’s argument, beyond his assessment that the present period is best characterized as one of “impasse,” is the claim that Gaza remains the keystone for a sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians, a view shared by neither the formal Palestinian leadership nor by any influential Israeli, American, or European leaders, past or present. However this issue is resolved, Filiu is highly successful in making a reader appreciate Gaza’s illustrious past and the crucial role that recent generations of its people have played in keeping the fires of Palestinian resistance burning even in the face of Israel’s cruel, domineering, and oppressive behavior.

A few final comments on Filiu’s historiography. First of all, I wonder whether it was necessary to provide so much factual detail in narrating the history of Gaza; it seems to me that the main interpretative lines of assessment could have been developed as authoritatively, and with a gentler reading experience. Secondly, I think that the ethical forthrightness of Filiu’s approach lent added clarity to his interpretive perspectives, and was valuable as a matter of “full disclosure” of author to reader. If hidden from view, it would have raised questions about integrity and trust. And thirdly, the inclusion of prescriptive ideas in a work of contemporary history gives greater practical relevance to the understanding of the past being set forth. Policymakers on all sides would gain much from Filiu’s deeply considered argument for the centrality of Gaza to the Palestinian national struggle and to hopes for a sustainable peace that protects the rights of both peoples on the basis of equality.


Jeopardizing Japanese ‘Abnormality’: Rejoining the War System

23 Sep

[Prefatory Note: The following post was originally published as an opinion piece in the leading Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, and appears here with their permission. The link to the Japanese version: are two converging dangers of a new Cold War—one is confronting Russia in the Middle East and Central Asia and the other is confronting China in the South China Sea and elsewhere with a containment mentality within their own immediate sphere of operations. Washington’s encouragement of Prime Minister Abe’s campaign for a ‘normal’ Japan represents a regressive move regionally and globally, and deserves critical attention from a wider geopolitical perspective as well as from the viewpoint of Japan. It may in the end do more to limit the flexibility of the American approach to China than to free Japan from Article 9 constraints, a post-1945 ‘abnormality.’]




Commenting on the Japanese National Security Debate


At its peril, most of the world is ignoring the intense Japanese debate that surrounds the passage by the Diet of national security legislation that fulfills Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s vision of Japan’s proper role in the world of the 21st century. The core of the debate is about whether famous Article 9 of the Constitution can be interpreted to permit Japan to engage in collective defense arrangements around the world. Despite various prior tests of the outer limits of Article 9, and its seeming restriction of international force to territorial self-defense, the new legislation stakes out a far broader claim to engage militarily in a variety of situations around the world.


Most profoundly at issue is whether a changed national security environment resulting from issues involving nuclear weaponry, extremist non-state actors, and cyber warfare justify this more expansive approach to the use of force. Clearly, Abe’s belief that Japan’s national interests require an expanded role for force, and specifically the option to take part in overseas collective self-defense underlies the crafting of this new national security legislation.


There seems to be other issues at stake as well. The most salient of these is the continuing primacy of the United States in shaping of Japan’s security policy. It is ironic that it was U.S. occupation policy that initially demanded an anti-war clause in the new Japanese constitution, and even more ironic that the current prime minister announced his proposed policy reform with respect to collective self-defense on a state visit to the United States prior to informing the Japanese public. This posture long urged by the U.S. was welcomed by its Secretary of Defense as signaling a Japanese shift from a ‘local’ to a ‘global’ view of national security.


Most of the internal Japanese debate, pro and con, has been focused on the constitutional issues, especially on whether Article 9 can be interpreted in a manner that is compatible with collective self-defense and other features of the new security proposals. An informed consensus appears to be a resounding ‘no’ as expressed in expert testimony in the Diet and strong statements of opposition circulated among constitutional law professors in Japan. The effective LDP control of both houses of the Diet ensured from the outset that whatever the government proposed would be approved regardless of public opinion or constitutional objections. What seems clear is that legislative endorsement is only the first step in what is expected to be a lengthy battle in court to determine whether the ‘legalization’ of this contested interpretation of Article 9 survives judicial scrutiny.


There are more crucial issues at stake than raised by the legal controversy. Abe has previously argued that Article 9 was imposed on a defeated Japan when it was a helpless country without the capacity to form a national will of its own. In effect, his new approach, presented under the banner of making Japan a ‘Proactive Contributor to Peace’ is a bid to overcome the abnormal situation that existed in Japan after 1945. Flexibility for a sovereign government in defining its security priorities should not be, according to this kind of realist thinking, subject to arbitrary and rigid territorial restrictions that Article 9 has imposed. In effect, the new legislation is not militaristic at all, but a recovery of ‘normalcy,’ a restoration of full Japanese sovereignty in a manner enjoyed by other states.


This raises the deepest and most meaningful question: Was Japanese ‘abnormality’ a good or bad thing for the people of Japan and of the world? As someone with a commitment to peace and justice I long ago found the Article 9 approach taken by Japan inspirational, pointing the way toward making the international law of the UN Charter come to life, an example that could beneficially be followed by others, including in my wildest fantasies, by the United States itself. It is also encouraging that the Japanese public appears to agree with the positive contributions of Article 9, opinion polls indicating that a clear majority of the Japanese people oppose the new national security legislation and its implicit endorsement of collective self-defense. As is often the case, society is more peace-oriented than the elected leadership, and when party politics endows those in control of the government a capacity to defy the values and opinions of the citizenry, a crisis for democracy becomes embedded in what is put forward as a revision of security policy in light of changed circumstances.


The last question contained in such reflections is whether changed regional and international circumstances justify abandoning Article 9 and the peace mentality associated with it. Although Prime Minister Abe promises to carry forward Japan postwar tradition of ‘peace and prosperity’ this effort to normalize Japan is a deliberate policy rupture, especially when tied so indiscreetly to a more active geopolitical partnership with the United States. From my perspective, Japanese abnormality remains a most precious reality, a beacon pointing toward the kind of ‘new realism’ that the 21st century urgently requires.

Kissinger: A Hero of Our Time

20 Sep

[Prefatory Note: The essay on Henry Kissinger’s World Order (2014) below was initially published in Millennium: Journal of International Studies 2015, Vol. 44(1) 155–164. For me, Kissinger was the anti-hero, somehow available to justify the unjustifiable, and situate himself in a tradition of statecraft that celebrated the European invention of modern international relations in the 17th-19th centuries. This self-styled realist tradition marginalizes law and morality, posits a fatalistic sense of human destiny, and is dismissive of the pursuit of peace and justice. In Kissinger’s case he climbed to the pinnacles of American state power, and was far from the worst advocate of global primacy based on military superiority. The fact that he owed his prominence to setting forth an argument supporting the feasibility of limited nuclear war branded him with the mark of Cain while still making his way behind the ivy of Harvard University. At the same time, we should not neglect Kissinger’s worldview just because it is antipathetic, especially as he has some important observations about how China’s rise to prominence in world history contrasts with the way in which Europe gained ascendancy.]





Henry Kissinger: A Hero of Our Time


“A Hero of Our Time, my dear readers, is indeed a portrait, but not of one man. It is a portrait built up of all our generation’s vices in full bloom. You will again tell me that a human being cannot be so wicked, and I will reply that if you can believe in the existence of all the villains of tragedy and romance, why wouldn’t you believe that there was a Pechorin? If you could admire far more terrifying and repulsive types, why aren’t you more merciful to this character, even if it is fictitious? Isn’t it because there’s more truth in it than you might wish?”

Mikhail Lermontov, Preface, A Hero of our Time


Combining the features of savant and war criminal, as well as renowned the world over as master statesman, Henry Kissinger deserves the dubious accolade of being ‘a hero of our time’ in the fully ironic sense meant by the Russian novelist, Mikhail Lermontov. Kissinger seems indictable for a series of offenses that deserve accountability in a law-abiding world: deliberate killing of civilians in Indochina; overt complicity in relation to mass killing in Bangladesh; positive association with plan to assassinate a major official in Chile; involvement in conspiracy to kill the head of state in Cyprus; incitement to genocide in East Timor; and direct involvement in plans to kidnap and kill a journalist living in Washington DC.[1] That Kissinger remains not only at large, but the object of reverence the world over, tells us quite a bit about the degree to which geopolitical celebrity trumps accountability and justice when it comes to status and reputation on a global scale.


Additional to Kissinger’s apparent criminality associated with his role as a governmental official developing and implementing American foreign policy in a variety of crucial settings was his earlier assertions of influence as a policy oriented intellectual at a leading American university. Kissinger, as a Harvard professor of international relations, skillfully professed views that proved useful to men who coveted and exercised power on behalf of the United States. Even before he entered government as Richard Nixon’s expert on foreign policy, the Council on Foreign Relations, a gatekeeping venue for the highest echelons of government, otherwise known as ‘the establishment,’ had bestowed stardom on Kissinger in recognition of these contributions to the policy forming community. His initial notoriety rested on an early book arguing the case for accepting the prospect of limited nuclear war as a means of offsetting Soviet superiority in conventional warfare in Europe.[2]



Later when serving as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, Kissinger exerted an enormous influence on the development of American foreign policy. He managed to surround his undertakings with an aura of the invincible maestro of realpolitik, a contemporary counterpart of his own illustrious mentors, Machiavelli and Richelieu.[3]


A weird part of Kissinger’s claim to heroic stature was his extraordinary capacity to be repeatedly wrong about almost every major foreign policy decision made by the United States Government over the course of the last half-century, and yet manage continually to enhance his reputation and influence as the nation’s wisest guide on how the country should shape its role and behavior overseas when facing the next crisis. Kissinger was a supporter of the Vietnam War from start to finish, he even favored the disastrous Iraq War, and of course, the Afghanistan War. To leave us in no doubt as to his deepest inclinations, Kissinger even goes out of his way in this book to laud the presidency of George W. Bush by affirming his “continuing respect and personal affection for President George W. Bush, who guided America with courage, dignity, and conviction in an unsteady time. His objectives and dedication honored his country even when in some cases they proved unattainable within the American political cycle.” [324-25]. Phrase by phrase this is a remarkable encomium considering the degree to which Bush’s core policies turned out to have been such a disaster by almost any measure, with the 2003 attack and subsequent occupation of Iraq being a major contributing cause to the regional turmoil that has brought such massive suffering and political chaos to the Arab world, as well as seriously compromising U.S. goals in the region. To give his blessings to such a failed presidency is mystifying unless one takes into account of Kissinger’s worshipful attitude toward the high and mighty in the conservative American political establishment, and his extraordinary Teflon protective coating that has inoculated him over the years against the normal consequence of policy failures and ugly misdeeds.


It is fair to wonder at this point why I should be writing a review Kissinger’s ideas if I regard him as a disreputable public figure. My answer centers upon an appreciation of the man as an emblematic representative of global leadership in our historical era, and hence of Kissinger as truly ‘a hero’ worthy of our attention. It is not that his ideas are sympathetic, compelling, or even innovative, but rather that despite his long record of wrongdoing, Kissinger’s words continue to be taken seriously as policy guides entitled to the utmost respect by opinion-makers around the world.[4] Beyond this, his comprehensive presentation of the contours of past, present, and possible future world orders, while pretentious and superficial, does provide a helpful commentary on policy choices of immense significance, offering readers a useful platform for dialogue as to the global political future. Despite my reservations, the World Order offers a good basis for seminar discussions in an international relations course or for a reading group of attentive citizens who gather on a monthly basis to ponder the state of the world.


Kissinger is something more than a public figure that has guided and advised some of America’s most influential world leaders. He is also a student of international relations with a rare combination of diplomatic experience at the highest level, a broad historical knowledge of the conceptual underpinnings of statecraft in the modern world, and a street smart talent for gaming the system to his personal advantage. In this respect, the book under consideration, World Order, is likely to be treated as the culminating expression of Kissinger’s worldview and intellectual legacy.[5] And while it is devoid of empathy for the vulnerable or an appreciation of the ecological dangers facing humanity, it does frame debate on global policy in this post-colonial, post-Cold War setting in some useful ways if account is taken of its limitations.


Kissinger’s diagnosis of the present historical situation poses an intriguing puzzle that adopts an unexpected outlook, given its source. For this sage who earlier believed that the European West had evolved a diplomacy that reflected the eternal verities of statecraft it is now surprising to find Kissinger at the start of this book issuing a dire warning to his readers: “Our age is insistently, at times almost desperately, in pursuit of a concept of world order.” Such a sentiment is followed by a haunting question that obviously worries Kissinger: “Are we facing a period in which forces beyond the restraints of any order determine the future?” (2) Kissinger can be read as saying that the dangers posed are a result of the failure of the major world political actors not to have on their own recognized and implemented the Westphalian logic within their own civilizational and religious spheres of influence. Such a lament is conditioned by the realization that in this post-colonial era a belated embrace of some kind of global Westphalian system of world order, while the best we can hope for, cannot happen without its spontaneous adoption by non-Western political actors doing what seems best to achieve their goals in ways that correspond with the deeply embedded cultural values.


What troubles Kissinger most is the disorder that exists in the post-colonial world where the West can no longer run the global show by itself. He believes that the present challenge is to blend “divergent historical experiences and values” into “a common order.” (10) In his view “[a] reconstruction of the international system is the ultimate challenge to statesmanship in our time.” (371) Without this challenge being met Kissinger envisions a “struggle between regions” that might turn out to “be more debilitating than the struggle between nations has been.” (371) He is also worried by the challenges associated with the rise of non-state political actors that do not fit within the template of the only world order that Kissinger knows, the one constituted by the interplay of territorial sovereign states.


In setting forth the nature of this defining quest Kissinger posits several requirements that he never reconciles. He insists that a new global order to be successfully established requires that its central rules and limit conditions are the result of a participatory, non-hegemonic process of relevant actors. Kissinger asserts that only by way of such an existential bonding process will a re-framing of world order have the legitimacy to engender commitment and adherence in a historical situation where the West has lost its dominion over the non-West. In Kissinger’s words: “Any system of order, to be sustainable, must be accepted as just—not only by the leaders but also by citizens. It must reflect two truths: order without freedom, even if sustained by momentary exaltation, eventually creates its own counterpoise; yet freedom cannot be secured or sustained without a framework of order to keep the peace.” (8) This passage is illustrative of the degree to which throughout this text the abstractions of language provide Kissinger with a useful comfort zone of obscurity. In over 400 pages we look in vain to find out what ‘freedom’ means beyond a vague affirmation of the American political experience. (e.g. 235-36).


The tone and message of World Order rests in the end on an affirmation of American exceptionalism as interpreted by Kissinger. The opening lines of the book describe a visit of homage made in 1961 to Harry Truman while Kissinger was a “young academic.” Truman was of course the former American president that took over from Franklin Roosevelt at the end of World War II and then did his part to launch the Cold War. Kissinger admiringly quotes Truman to disclose the distinctive essence of America’s political character: “That we totally defeated our enemies and then brought them back to the community of nations. I would like to think that only America would have done this.” (1)


With the blinkered vision of a true believer, Kissinger adds his own gloss: “All of Truman’s successors have followed some version of this narrative and have taken pride in similar attributes of the American experience.” (1) Such a portrayal of the American global role inflicts a notorious distortion on innocent readers. The truth is that United States has often been vindictive in the aftermath of wars and often not at all willing to help adversaries recover from devastating wartime experiences. For instance, in the lengthy negotiations ending the Vietnam War conducted on behalf of the United States by Kissinger, the reparations agreed upon were neither paid nor any subsequent effort made by Kissinger or the White House to have Congress uphold this clear diplomatic promise, which also was a recognition of a simple moral duty. In the aftermath of the First Gulf War (1991) the United States imposed a punitive peace on Iraq that included maintaining strict sanctions against a people that reportedly cost an additional several hundred thousand Iraqi civilian lives. And historically, the punitive peace imposed on Germany after World War I was undertaken with the deliberate intention of doing the opposite of what Truman claimed for American diplomacy after World War II. In part Truman’s postwar diplomacy represented his effort to avoid repeating the mistakes of Versailles that had earlier contributed to the rise of Hitler and the onset of a major war, as well as gave rise to a severe global economic depression. The disruption, oppression, and extremism that is now the tragic destiny of the Middle East can also be blamed on a ‘peace’ diplomacy one hundred years ago that distributed the spoils of war on the basis of colonial ambition rather than the wellbeing of peoples. How Kissinger, the purported student of history can overlook these features of the American role over its lifetime as a country, can be partly explained by his tendency to obtain historical impunity by invoking abstractions that have no discernible connection with the concrete realities that are supposedly encompassed by this overarching narrative of America’s global benevolence.


Kissinger associates the American goals in the world with the well-intentioned global projection of his idealized image of constitutional democracy as it functions in the United States. He clarifies this image as embodying “an American consensus—an inexorably expanding cooperative order of states observing common rules and norms, embracing liberal economic systems, foreswearing territorial conquest, respecting national sovereignty, and adopting participatory and democratic systems of governance.” (1) Where has this man been? He makes no effort to disentangle myth from performance as it has played out as the American global story has unfolded. Any casual student of history would know that the United States, almost from its birth, has been intervening throughout the Western Hemisphere, and since 1945 has intervened covertly and overtly in many parts of the world, and often with the purpose of dislodging democratically elected governments as it did

in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and Chile (1973), the latter while Kissinger was making policy from his White House office.


It is true that Kissinger does fault the idealistic tendencies of American foreign policy, which he believes reached the peak of unknowing during the latter years of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. In appraising American political leaders Kissinger contrasts those he most admires (Truman, Teddy Roosevelt, and Nixon) with those he finds dangerously naïve (especially Wilson, but also Carter, Clinton, Obama). Essentially, Kissinger affirms those political leaders that share his belief that hard power is the main agent of historical change, as well as the capstone of stability and ‘peace’ (understood minimally as the absence of major war), and in this regard, he finds the ideas that were launched in 1648 by the Peace of Westphalia as the only workable foundation for international order. This Westphalian worldview in Kissinger’s presentation rests on two organizing principles: respect for territorial sovereignty and reliance on countervailing power as necessary to deter potential aggression. As indicated, Kissinger recognizes that this statist framework was European in origin, and if it is to work in a post-colonial era of globalization it will have to be endorsed by civilizational experiences that are quite different from that of Europe and North America. This is the challenge, as Kissinger sees it, of making the logic of Westphalia sufficiently attractive to China, India, and the Islamic community, so as to induce their governments to choose such a blend of respect of others with cooperation for mutual benefit as the one basis of 21st century world order that might work.


There are several problems with this formulation of the contemporary world order problematique. For one thing, it overlooks the vertical dimension of the Westphalian experience that has all along relied for order on the managerial roles of hegemonic claims and structures. This has been especially so for relations between the West and non-West, making it difficult for many countries and some regions to create political communities except through brute force. For another, Kissinger seems mostly blind to the fundamental challenge posed by nuclear weaponry and climate change, and hence sees no important role for international law or the United Nations.[6] In fact, one would look in vain for any sustained discussion by Kissinger of whether a global rule of law and strong central institutions are needed to protect the global interest against the predatory behavior of a world of national governments led by officials with very uneven endowments and perceptions.[7] There is absent any consideration of how to create global governance without the commitment of political actors to uphold human interests on the basis of species identity. Even more striking is the failure to discuss the viability of capitalism as means to achieve the desired ends of world order based on the recognition that sustainable order presupposes legitimate order.[8] One wonders how this market-based system can be deemed even potentially legitimate given the persistence of mass poverty, gross inequalities, widespread corruption, the predatory plundering of the resources of the planet, and increasingly dire expectations of water scarcities and multiple forms of ecological decay.


Overcoming such obstacles presupposes that the values of the main competing centers of regional civilizational identity can be embodied in the new world order. In Kissinger’s view this would now entail combining power and legitimacy on a worldwide basis, and not just offering to organize the world along pre-European Union lines. In the prior historic periods, there were distinct regional forms of order of which central attention is given to that evolved by China and the Islamic world. These are also alternative conceptions of world order to that developed by the West, although challenged and encroached upon by colonialism. Kissinger makes clear that he is particularly drawn to the Chinese soft power foundations of its national greatness, which enjoys the capacity to overwhelm others essentially by reliance on its cultural superiority and the sheer density of its demographic and geographic reality.[9] According to Kissinger, China has succeeded in neutralizing those barbarian forces that have from time to time penetrated its borders by sheer patience, and although it has expressed a defensive mentality by the immense undertaking of the Great Wall, and yet unlike the West, conquest and missionary belligerence has not been its style.


In contrast, Islam has a totalizing vision that associates its domain with peace and righteousness (‘dar al-Islam’), and all else as the domain of infidels and war (‘dar al-harb’). With its religious sense of political community as bases on the umma, the extension of the Western state system to the Islamic world has been problematic and hence illegitimate, especially for those states that are products of colonial ambition as in the Middle East and parts of Africa. Whether such states can even retain their current territorial boundaries is one of the unanswered questions. If not, the likely near term reality is the reemergence of ethnically and religiously bounded communities that either exist autonomously within existing borders or break away to form their own states. In effect, without historical or philosophical depth, Kissinger depicts the Arab world, in particular, as a region of ‘failed states’ for which there is no solution other than military containment and intervention to prevent the disorder spilling over as with the 9/11 attacks.


In the end Kissinger seems to hope that a form of global Wesphalian world order will emerge because states everywhere seek to preserve as much of their autonomy as possible while cooperating to promote common interests in trade and investment. This duality exhibits both a recognition of the realities of economic globalization as conditioned by the non-viability of major warfare given the existence of nuclear weaponry. Kissinger is fully conscious of the extent to which the European invention and development of the state system in the middle of the 17th century responded to distinctively European circumstances, especially an interest in overcoming deadly religious wars and the formation of political communities that were large and stable enough to support efficient economic growth. This Westphalian innovation cannot be globalized despite the intensifying functional imperatives to do so unless the other main political actors on the world stage can agree that such an order serves their interests and is consistent with their values. It also must be perceived as a joint undertaking, not a plan hatched in the West or a byproduct of the American reality as the world’s only global state. World order of global scope in its architectural phases becomes an inter-civilizational soft power project that contrasts with the earlier hard power structures imposed by the global reach of European colonialism. However for Kissinger, seeming unperturbed by contradiction, this new undertaking still presupposes the stabilizing reinforcement of hard power diplomacy and warmaking capabilities, with the United States acting in a meta-regional managerial role.


Kissinger, not without reason, thinks that his world order scheme will only happen if China and the United States are able to make their relationship rest principally on the benefits of cooperation and partnership rather than rivalry and competition. In other words, not a second Cold War, but a new kind of geopolitical relationship that is sensitive to the importance of balancing and equilibrium, but without any ideological dimension of hostility toward the domestic public order system of the other. Kissinger is aware that wars often have broken out in the past when an emerging state seeks to revise the hierarchy of privilege and status that is encoded in the status quo or the hegemon threatened with displacement strikes before the challenger gets too strong. He wonders aloud whether the rising claims of China can be met without either ignoring their ambition or provoking a disastrous military confrontation.


Kissinger considers the United States, despite everything from Hiroshima to drones, as continuing to be the main benevolent force active in history over the course of the last hundred years, especially to the extent it is able to suppress its national proclivity to indulge idealistic temptations that ignore Westphalian parameters. Kissinger appears to believe still that only military capabilities can serve as the ultimate guardian of the public good. In this regard he sees the American leadership role as at once “indispensable” and “ambivalent,” caught between the unrealistic wishful thinking of Woodrow Wilson and the creative realism of Teddy Roosevelt or Richard Nixon, the poles of thought and action that characterize the American global role over the course of its existence as an independent state. Kissinger wants to reconcile these antagonistic energies, and above all he remains deeply opposed to any further American retreat from the responsibilities of global leadership—in contemplating the American role, he says “[w]hat is does not permit is withdrawal.” (370) Kissinger insists that in the interactive reality of the present global situation any renewal of American isolationism would be a self-destructive dead end, and more to the point, he argues that the world needs a globally engaged United States as an offshore balancer that alone can provide the countervailing force that is needed in all regions of the world as a check on dangerous types of expansionism.


In effect, what Kissinger would like to see emerge is a series of regionally based political orders in which the United States is involved as a balancing presence, including in China’s backyard of Asia. This kind of formula pretends to avoid any effort to establish regional hegemony in any part of the world, and disavows an American search for dominance. In this sense Kissinger is arguing for a Westphalian order anchored in the actuality of the United States as the first global state in world history. It is a global state by virtues of its already established military presence throughout the world, reinforced by the dollar as a global currency, English as a global language, and American popular culture and consumerism as influential behavioral constructs everywhere. What Kissinger is proposing with a good deal of commentary on the necessity of taking account of existing diversities linked to demands for participation in the construction of such a legitimate world order is a system of global scope that is neither centralized by law or power. In this way, he acknowledges the interplay between political decentralization and a variety of globalizing tendencies without succumbing to what he would regard as utopian or totalizing traps. Rather cunningly, there is no discussion of how, given its capabilities and assigned leadership role, the United States would be deterred or its ambitions neutralized, or even whether this is necessary. When surveying the terrain of American politics this is a disabling flaw as it is entirely plausible to imagine a militarist Republican president taking over in 2016 with a mandate for safeguarding the nation and the world by waging continuous wars.



[1] This enumeration follows the list of indictable crimes provided by Christopher Hitchens in the Preface to his important book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (London, UK: Verso, 2001). Hitchens offers considerable evidence to back up these allegations, as well as a rationale for why such it is important to conduct this exercise in symbolic accountability, for the latter see especially p. xi.



[2] Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (New York: Council on Foreign Relations by Harpers, 1957), appropriately written under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations, which was responsible for bringing Kissinger to the attention of the political elite in the United States. Kissinger with his Harvard credentials, conservative Cold War politics, and unsentimental approach to the pursuit of national interests on the basis of hard power was a valuable advisor for those of Republican Party persuasion who sought the highest political office in the country.

[3] There is a consensus that the most important scholarly contribution made by Kissinger was his initial book on the mechanisms of the balance of power as operative in 19th century Europe based on the interplay between military capabilities and dynastic legitimacy, as well as admiring portrayals of the statesmen who grasped the Hobbesian logic that made this system work to sustain the established order. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problem of Peace, 1812-22 (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1957

[4] Illustrative of such influence is full page assessment of the controversial framework agreement tentatively reached in April 2015 with respect to the international regulation of Iran’s nuclear program. It is rare for the Wall Street Journal to devote its entire opinion section to a single article, and although George P. Shultz is listed as a co-author, the attention accorded to the article is a reflection of Kissinger’s unique stature as foreign policy guru. Kissinger & Shultz, “The Iran Deal and Its Consequences,” Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2015, A13.

[5] Such earlier books as Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984) and On China (New York, Penguin Press, 2011) are part of his effort to write conceptual memoirs that argue the case for the rightness of his policies and even more so, for his understanding of how the world is organized and operates. All of Kissinger’s writing, carried on in tandem with his work as consultant to the rich and powerful throughout the world via his firm Kissinger Associates founded in 1982. These undertakings share a single minded devotion to self-serving efforts to nail down his reputation as the hero of the age. If mainstream media is to be trusted, which of course it is not, Kissinger has succeeded in becoming the iconic source of foreign policy wisdom for mainstream media audiences, his name being continuously invoked as the most authoritative commentator on foreign policy now alive.

[6] For nuclear weapons, Kissinger reduces the challenge to one of nonproliferation overlooking his own endorsement of abolition of such weaponry resulting from a perception that the nonproliferation regime is unlikely to be able to contain the spread of nuclear weapons in the future. (see 330-41). In an earlier article written in collaboration Kissinger does join in suggesting that the best way to stop further proliferation of nuclear weapons is to eliminate them altogether from military arsenals. See George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 4, 2007.

[7] Elsewhere Kissinger has been directly contemptuous of the role of international law and morality in the conduct of American foreign policy. See e.g. Diplomacy, note 5.

[8] For relevant discussion see Stephen Gill & A, Claire Cutler, eds., New Constitutionalism and World Order (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[9] Clearly Kissinger has through his own diplomatic experience and scholarly inquiry has developed a deep admiration of the achievement and durability of Chinese civilization as appraised from the perspective of world order. This discovery of Kissinger’s later life corrects his earlier insistence that Westphalian world order as the only game in town. See elaborations in his long book, On China, also discussion in chapters devoted to China(212-75).

The Horrifying Syrian Dilemma Persists

15 Sep



[Prefatory Note: This post is a somewhat modified version of the text published on the Middle East Eye website on September 9, 2015, and here by prior arrangement.]


On its surface Syria offers seems an ideal case for humanitarian intervention. An incredible half of the 23 million Syrians are either internally displaced or refugees living in dire circumstances, aggravating the migrant crisis currently overwhelming Europe. What is worse, mass atrocities have continued under the authority of the Damascus regime since March 2011, and to some degree by actions of the opposition. Further, for more than a year ISIS has emerged as a principal opposition force in Syria, and is responsible for unprecedented barbarism in large areas of the country under its control.


Beyond this, a diplomatic resolution of the conflict has so far failed miserably. The UN has appointed several distinguished Special Envoys who have resigned in disgust unable to rely on ceasefire reassurances from Bashar el-Assad. The two Geneva inter-governmental conferences that were convened with great effort ended in utter frustration. The United States is far from blameless, seemingly avoiding Russian compromises early on because it believed that the insurgency was on the verge of victory, and diminishing prospects later by insisting that Iran be excluded from the diplomatic process because of Israeli and Saudi sensitivities.


To complete this depressing picture, the parties to the conflict seem badly stuck, neither having a path to victory nor displaying any willingness to work toward a credible compromise. The opposition to the Assad government remains incoherent and disunited, and certainly seems incapable of offering Syria a workable alternative.


Not surprisingly given this overall situation, especially the spectacle of persisting civilian suffering, with its regional spillover effects destabilizing Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey, is prompting a renewed call for humanitarian intervention, most influentially, in the form of a no fly zone (NFZ). It is contended that a well implemented NFZ could protect Syrians from the ravages being wrought by notorious barrel bombs. These terrible weapons are mainly used by Damascus to make civilian governance impossible in rebel held areas of the country. Proponents of intervention argue that once a NFZ is established it will ease civilian suffering, and might in due course exert sufficient pressure on the Syrian leadership to produce a political climate in which an acceptable diplomatic solution is finally attainable and this dreadful war brought to an end, a result that might even have at this point the benefit of a nudge from Iran and Russia.


Responsibility to Protect


The UN recently held a self-congratulatory session celebrating the 10th anniversary of the R2P (or responsibility to protect) norm, while acknowledging that there was work to be done considering the existence of ongoing killing fields as Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and North Korea. Notably absent from the list, a supreme instance of diplomatic tact at its hypocritical worst, was Gaza, and more generally, occupied Palestine, which since 2012 is after all a ‘state’ in the eyes of the General Assembly. Such other geopolitical touchy places as Kashmir, Rakhine, Xinjiang were also conveniently ignored in this effort to assess the record of R2P’s first decade. Leaving these awkward silences aside, at least the question should be asked: ‘Why has the R2P norm not been applied to Syria?’ The answer illuminates what is wrong with the cynical way world order operates in a post-Cold War setting, being more protective of trade and finance than it is of people, more motivated by oil than by a genuine humanitarian rescue mission.


The superficial obstacle to a R2P operation in Syria is the geopolitical standoff between states continuing to back the Assad regime and those supporting the opposition. This means that approval of an NFZ as a tactic compatible with the UN Charter is unavailable because of an anticipated Russian veto. Thus any use of force, such as establishing a NFZ, in either the north or south of Syria, or both, would neither have the backing of the UN Security Council nor qualify as self-defense under international law. This means that such an undertaking would violate the Charter on its key principle of prohibiting recourse to non-defensive international force without authorization from the Security Council, thereby disregarding the requirement of UN approval that is a critical feature of the R2P approach.


Proceeding outside the UN would further undermine the authority of international law with respect to war/peace issues. A less legalistic and constitutionalist explanation of this blockage arises from the dark side of the R2P precedent set in Libya back in 2011 when Russia and China and other SC members, despite their reluctance, were persuaded to allow a proposed humanitarian NFZ in Libya to be established only to find that the UN debate was a notorious instance of bait-and-switch. It was obvious that NATO’s intentions from the outset were far more expansive than the authorizing resolution in the Security Council, and once the military operation began immediately employed tactics seeking regime change in Tripoli rather than civilian protection for Benghazi. What seemed to skeptics of the R2P approach as an outright deception in its first test of R2P left a bad taste that has definitely discouraged a cooperative approach to Syria that engaged Russia. The Libyan precedent is not the whole story of relative passivity of the international community by any means. Syria’s antiaircraft capabilities also inhibited coercive action by making it more problematic to suppose that air power could shift the balance quickly and at moderate costs against the Assad regime.





Kosovo—A Poor Precedent


Then there is the earlier Kosovo precedent in which a humanitarian intervention was controversially carried out without UN approval, under the authority of NATO before the R2P norm existed and in the face of strong Russian opposition. Arguably, the operation was a success, Serbian oppressive rule ended, Kosovo and its people saved from an impending episode of ethnic cleansing similar to the Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian males (1995), and despite being ignored in the undertaking, the UN willingly entered the post-conflict scene in a big way to help Kosovo achieve transition to political independence. One influential appraisal of Kosovo pronounced the NATO intervention to be unlawful, yet legitimate, because it effectively removed a credible threat of imminent threat of mass atrocity at a moderate cost.

Several problems arise if relying on Kosovo to justify establishing a NFZ in Syria. First of all, Syria is a much larger country within which a civil war has been raging for more than four years causing an estimated 300,000 deaths, the Syrian government is reported to have sophisticated antiaircraft capabilities. Secondly, Europe was unified with regard to an anti-Serb intervention in Kosovo, with the partial exception of Greece, whereas the Middle East is so deeply divided with respect to Syria as to be engaged on opposite sides of a proxy war with sharp sectarian dimensions. Thirdly, the opponents of NFZ, unless persuaded to change their position, are more deeply involved, and have the capabilities to offset the impact of such an operation against their ally in Damascus.


Fourthly, assuming that a Syrian NFZ would be effective, the elimination of Syrian air power might actually work to the advantage of ISIS, which operates exclusively on the ground. Fourthly, unlike Kosovo where the U.S. was eager to demonstrate that NATO still had a role in the post-Cold War world, the geopolitical motivation in Syria remains confused and weak, being uncertain despite the passage of time. Also, the U.S. has had bad experiences with its recent interventions in the region, especially Iraq and Afghanistan, and wants to avoid being drawn into yet another war in a predominantly Muslim country. And fifthly, the present scene in Libya and Iraq show that handling the effects of even a militarily successful intervention can lead to prolonged chaos and militia governance. Such experiences of sustained chaos are not viewed by most of the affected population as improvements over the old authoritarian orders held together by the brutality of Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein, or Assad. When the alternatives are chaos or order, populist sentiments generally opt for order. This pattern has been evident throughout the region, especially in the aftermath of the short-lived Arab Spring.


Further in the background are considerations associated with state-centric world order in a post-colonial setting, which in the Middle East has left many bad memories of the harm the European colonial powers did to the region after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. To override the sovereignty of a state, and its capacity for national resistance, ignores the experience of the world in the period since 1945 where almost every Western intervention has ended in political failure.


The West’s Dilemma


So here is the dilemma: to stand by doing nothing while mass atrocities occur year after year in Syria with no end in sight is an intolerable international failure of moral responsibility for human suffering of this innocent civilian population. Yet to do something that will actually improve the situation is far from obvious, and the record of NFZs in the kind of situation that exists in Syria is not encouraging, nor are other coercive alternatives. General Martin Dempsey, the American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently warned against establishing a NFZ in Syria, pointing out that the government’s antiaircraft capabilities are at least five times greater than what Libya possessed, including some high end systems capable of shooting down high altitude planes.



There are some alternatives that try to find tactics that do something without making the situation worse. One sort proposal is to propose a more assertive approach by the United States, comprehensively advocated in a recent report of the International Crisis Group, believes that a series of non-military and covert initiatives could make a difference. It argues that this approach should start with what is logistically easier, a focus on the South of the country where moderate anti-regime forces are in greater control, and then if successful, extending such tactics to the more contested Northwest where Syrian antiaircraft pose a greater obstacle and ISIS has its strongholds.


All in all, the West cannot stand one more failed intervention in the Middle East, nor can it leave unattended a deep humanitarian crisis that spilling over Syrian borders. The burden in such a tragic situation should be placed on pro-interventionists to show convincingly how a NFZ can be established and maintained in the face of expected resistance from within and opposition from without. So far this burden has not been sustained. There are other ways to help alleviate civilian suffering and to exert greater pressure on Damascus that do not rely on such a blunt and unreliable instrument as a NFZ. In the background is the steadfast refusal of the United States or its European allies to be willing to contemplate an occupation of Syria via a ground attack, not because of legal or moral inhibitions, but due to the lack of political support for any military operation likely to result in significant casualties for the intervenor.


There exists a more drastic diplomatic approach that should have been tried long ago, and still seems worth the effort: bringing Iran and Russia into a peace process as major players, overriding objections by Saudi Arabia and Israel. Such a diplomatic atmosphere might at last create the war-ending conditions for compromise and cooperation that include putting pressure on Damascus. In such an altered setting, either a NFZ, or an equivalent proposal could find support within the Security Council or such a measure would no longer be needed. This diplomatic initiative is admittedly a long shot, but better than the alternatives of doing nothing or acting outside the framework of the UN and international law with scant prospects of success and big chances that things would go badly wrong. There are reliable reports circulating that the U.S. Government rejected a Russian backed initiative 2012 that would have included Assad being removed from power because Washington was then so convinced that the Damascus government was about to collapse in any event, and no diplomatic compromise was needed. At least, there is now a more realistic understanding of the balance of forces in Syria, and what form of compromise has any chance of being sustained. Unfortunately, however, with the emergence in the meantime of the al-Nusra Front and ISIS, difficult questions arise as to whether in the situation that prevails at present any compromise is sustainable unless externally maintained by a major international presence, which itself seems politically unattainable. 

What this prolonged dilemma in the face of mass atrocity shows is the deficiency of state-centric world order if appraised from the perspective of human wellbeing rather than national interests. The failures in Syria are not just the shortcomings of diplomacy and manipulations of geopolitics, but also a severe mismatch between structures and capabilities of global authority and the vulnerabilities of the peoples of the world. Until these structures are transformed on the basis of the human and global interests Syrian dilemmas in one form or another are bound to recur.


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