Archive | September, 2013

Israel’s Politics of Deflection

30 Sep

 

Israel’s Politics of Deflection: Theory and Practice

 

General Observations

 

During my period as the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Palestine on behalf of the Human Rights Council I have been struck by the persistent efforts of Israel and its strong civil society adjuncts to divert attention from the substance of Palestinian grievances or the consideration of the respective rights of Israel and Palestine under international law. I have also observed that many, but by not means all of those who represent the Palestinians seem strangely reluctant to focus on substance or to take full advantage of opportunities to use UN mechanisms to challenge Israel on the terrain of international law and morality.

 

            This Palestinian reluctance is more baffling than are the Israeli diversionary tactics. It seems clear that international law supports Palestinian claims on the major issues in contention: borders, refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, resources (water, land), statehood, and human rights. Then why not insist on resolving the conflict by reference to international law with such modifications as seem mutually beneficial? Of course, those representing the Palestinians in international venues are aware of these opportunities, and are acting on the basis of considerations that in their view deserve priority.  It is disturbing that this passivity on the Palestinian side persists year after year, decade after decade. There are partial exceptions: support for recourse to the International Court of Justice to contest the construction of the separation wall, encouragement of the establishment of the Goldstone Fact-finding Inquiry investigating Israeli crimes after the 2008-09 attacks on Gaza, and the Human Rights Council’ Independent International Fact-finding Mission on  Isreali settlement expansion (report 22 March 2012). But even here, Palestinian officialdom will not push hard to have these symbolic victories implemented in ways that alter the behavioral realities on the ground, and maybe even if they did do their best, nothing would change.

 

             On the Israeli side, diversion and the muting of legal and legitimacy claims, is fully understandable as a way to blunt challenges from adversary sources: seeking to have the normative weakness of the Israeli side offset by an insistence that if there is to be a solution it must be based on the facts on the ground, whether these are lawful or not, and upon comparative diplomatic leverage and negotiating skill in a framework that is structurally biased in favor of Israel. The recently exhumed direct negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel exemplify this approach: proceeding despite the absence of preconditions as to compliance with international law even during the negotiations, reliance on the United States as the convening intermediary, and the appointment by President Obama of an AIPAC anointed Special Envoy (Martin Indyk), the latter underscoring the absurd one-sidedness of the diplomatic framework. It would seem that the Palestinians are too weak and infirm to cry ‘foul,’ but merely play along as if good natured, obedient, and frightened schoolchildren while the bullies rule the schoolyard.

 

           Such a pattern is discouraging for many reasons: it weights the diplomatic process hopelessly in favor of the materially stronger side that has taken full advantage of the failure to resolve the conflict by grabbing more and more land and resources; it makes it virtually impossible to imagine a just and sustainable peace emerging out of such a process at this stage; it plays a cruel game in which the weaker side is almost certain to be made to seem unreasonable because it will not accept what the stronger side is prepared to offer, which is insultingly little; and it allows the stronger side to use the process and time interval of the negotiations as an opportunity to consolidate its unlawful claims,  benefitting from the diversion of attention.

 

          There are two interwoven concerns present: the pernicious impacts of the politics of deflection as an aspect of conflictual behavior in many settings, especially where there are gross disparities in hard power and material position; the specific politics of deflection as a set of strategies devised and deployed with great effectiveness by Israel in its effort to attain goals with respect to historic Palestine that far exceed what the UN and the international community had conferred. The section that follows deals with the politics of deflection only in the Israel/Palestine context

 

 

The Specific Dynamics of the Politics of Deflection

 

            —anti-Semitism: undoubtedly the most disturbing behavior by Israel and its supporters is to deflect attention from substance in the conflict and the abuses of the occupation is to dismiss criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism or to defame the critic as an anti-Semite. This is pernicious for two reasons: first, because it exerts a huge influence because anti-Semitism has been so totally discredited, even criminalized, in the aftermath of World War II that featured the exposure and repudiation of the Holocaust; secondly, because by extending the reach of anti-Semitism to address hostile commentary on Israel a shift of attention occurs—away from the core evil of ethnic and racial hatred to encompass the quite reasonable highly critical appraisal of Israeli behavior toward the Palestinian people by reference to overarching norms of law and morality.

 

              This misuse of language to attack Jewish critics of Israel by  irresponsible characterizations of critics as  ‘self-hating Jews.’ Such persons might exist, but to infer their existence because of their criticisms of Israel or opposition to the Zionist Project functions as a means to move inhibit open discussion and debate, and to avoid substantive issues. It tends to be effective as a tactic as few people are prepared to take the time and trouble to investigate the fairness and accuracy of such allegations, and so once the shadow is cast, many stay clear of the conflict or come to believe that  criticism of Israel is of less interest than are the pros and cons of the personal accusations.  Strong Zionist credentials will not insulate a Jew from such allegations as Richard Goldstone discovered when he was vilified by the top  tier of Israeli leadership after chairing a fact-finding inquiry that confirmed allegations of Israeli war crimes in the course of Operation Cast Lead. Even the much publicized subsequent Goldstone ‘retraction’ did little to rehabilitate the reputation of the man in Israeli eyes, although his change of heart as to the main allegation of his own report (a change rejected by the other three members of the inquiry group), was successfully used by Israeli apologists to discredit and bury the report, again illustrating a preference for deflection as opposed to substance.

 

            Even such global moral authority figures as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter have been called anti-Semites because they dared to raise their voices about the wrongs that Israel has inflicted on the Palestinian people, specifically identifying the discriminatory legal structures of the occupation as an incipient form of apartheid.

 

            In the unpleasant course of being myself a frequent target of such vilifying techniques, I have discovered that it is difficult to make reasoned responses that do not have the effect of accentuating my plight. To fail to respond leaves an impression among some bystanders that there must be something to the accusations or else there would be forthcoming a reasoned and well-evidenced response. To answer such charges is to encourage continuing attention to the allegations, provides the accusing side with another occasion to repeat the charges by again cherry picking the evidence. NGOs such as UN Watch and UN Monitor specialize in managing such hatchet jobs.

 

            What is more disturbing than the attacks themselves than their resonance among those holding responsible positions in government and international institutions, as well as widely respected liberal organizations. In my case, the UN Secretary General, the U.S. ambassadors at the UN in New York and Geneva, the British Prime Minister, and the Canadian Foreign Minister. Not one of these individuals bothered to check with me as to my response to the defamatory allegations or apparently took the trouble to check on whether there was a credible basis for such damaging personal attacks. Even the liberal mainstream human rights powerhouse, Human Rights Watch, buckled under when pressured by UN Watch, invoking a long neglected technical rule to obtain my immediate removal from a committee, and then lacked the decency to explain that my removal was not ‘a dismissal’ when

UN Watch claimed ‘victory,’ and proceeded to tell the UN and other bodies that if Human Rights Watch had expelled me, surely I should be expelled elsewhere. I learned, somewhat bitterly, that HRW has feet of clay when it came to standing on principle in relation to someone like myself who has

been the victim of repeated calumnies because of an effort to report honestly and accurately on Israeli violations of Palestinian rights.

 

            —Auspices/Messenger: A favorite tactic of those practicing the politics of deflection is to contend that the auspices are biased, and thus whatever substantive criticisms might issue from such an organization should be disregarded. Israel and the United States frequently use this tactic to deflect criticism of Israel that is made in the UN System, especially if it emanates from the Human Rights Council in Geneva or the General Assembly. The argument is reinforced by the similarly diversionary claim that Israeli violations are given a disproportionately large share of attention compared to worse abuses in other countries, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa. Also, there is the complementary complaint that some of the members of the Human Rights Council themselves have appalling human rights records that disqualify them from passing judgment, thereby exhibiting the hypocrisy of criticisms directed at Israel.

 

            It is tiresome to respond to such lines of attack, but important to do so.

First of all, in my experience, the UN has always made fact-based criticisms of Israeli policies and practices, appointed individuals with strong professional credentials and personal integrity, and painstakingly reviewed written material prior to publication to avoid inflammatory or inaccurate criticisms. Beyond this, Israel is almost always given an opportunity to review material critical of its behavior before it is released, and almost never avails itself of this chance to object substantively. In my experience, the UN, including the Human Rights Council, leans over backwards to be fair to Israel, and to take account of Israeli arguments even when Israel declines to make a case on its own behalf.

 

            Further, the heightened attention given to Palestinian grievances is a justified result of the background of the conflict. It needs to be remembered that it was the UN that took over historic Palestine from the United Kingdom after World War II, decreeing a partition solution in GA Resolution 181 without ever consulting the indigenous population, much less obtaining their consent. The UN approach in 1947 failed to solve the problem, consigning Palestinians to decades of misery due to the deprivation of their fundamental rights as of 1948, the year of the nakba, a national experience of catastrophic dispossession. Through the years the UN has provided guidelines for behavior and a peaceful solution of the conflict, most notably Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which have not been implemented. The UN has for more than a decade participated in The Quartet tasked with implementing ‘the roadmap’ designed to achieve peace, but not followed, allowing Israel to encroach more and more on the remnant of Palestinian rights via settlement expansions, wall construction, residence manipulations, apartheid administrative structures, land confiscations, house demolitions. The UN has been consistently frustrated in relation to Palestine in a manner that is unique in UN experience, making the issue a litmus test of UN credibility to promote global justice and overcome the suffering of a dispossessed and occupied people.

 

            Usually, the attack on the sponsorship of a critical initiative is reinforced by scathing screed directed at anyone prominently associated with the undertaking. The attacks on the legendary Edward Said, the one Palestinian voice in America that could not be ignored, were rather vicious, often characterizing this most humanist among public intellectuals, as the ‘Professor of Terror.’ The most dogmatic defenders of Israel never tired of trying to make this label stick by showing a misleadingly presented picture of Said harmlessly throwing a stone at an abandoned guard house during a visit to southern Lebanon not long before his death as if a heinous act of violence against a vulnerable Israeli soldier. This effort to find something, however dubious, that could be used to discredit an influential critic disregard the ethics of fairness and decency. In my case, an accidentally posted cartoon, with

an anti-Semitic angle has been endlessly relied upon by my most mean-spirited detractors, although any fair reading of my past and present scholarship, together with the blog psot in which it appeared in which Israel is not even mentioned, would conclude that its sole purpose of highlighting the cartoon was to defame, and by so doing, deflect.

 

            In like manner, the use of the label ‘terrorist’ has been successfully manipulated by Israel in relation to Hamas to avoid dealing with its presence as the elected governing authority in Gaza or in responding to its offers of long-term coexistence provided the blockade of Gaza is ended and Israeli forces withdraw to 1967 borders. The Hamas demands are really nothing more than a call for the implementation of international law and UNSC resolutions, and thus highly reasonable from the perspective of fairness to both sides, but Israel is not interested in such fairness, and hence avoids responding to the substance of the Hamas proposals by insisting that it is unwilling to respond to a terrorist organization. Such a stubborn position is maintained, and supported by the United States and EU, despite Hamas’ successful participation in an electoral process, its virtual abandonment of violent resistance, and its declared readiness for diplomatic accommodations with Israel and the United States.

 

            If the messenger delivering the unwelcome message lacks prominence or the campaign of vilification does not altogether succeed, then at governmental levels, Israel, and the United States as well, will do its best to show contempt for criticism for the whole process by boycotting proceedings at which the material  is presented. This has been my

experience at recent meetings of the Human Rights Council and the Third Committee of the General Assembly where my reports are presented on a semi-annual basis and Israel and the United States make it a point to be absent. There is an allocation of the work of deflection: at the governmental end substance is often evaded by pretending not to notice, while pro-Israeli NGOs pound away, shamelessly repeating over and over the same quarter truths, which often are not even related to their main contention of biased reporting. In my case, UN Watch harps on my supposed membership in the ranks of 9/11 conspiracy theorists, an allegation that I have constantly explained to be contrary to my frequently articulated views on the 9/11 attacks. It makes no difference what I say or what are the facts of my position

once the defamatory attack has been launched.

 

            Diplomatic Deflection: The entire Oslo peace process, with its periodically revived negotiations, has served as an essential instrument of deflection for the past twenty years. It diverts the media from any consideration of Israel’s expansionist practices during the period that the parties are futilely negotiating, and succeeds in making critics and criticism of Israel’s occupation policies seem obstructive of the overarching goal of ending the conflict and bringing peace to the two peoples.

 

            Geopolitical Deflection: Although not solely motivated by the goals of deflection, the bellicose focus by Israel on Iran’s nuclear program, has seemed so dangerous for the region and the world that it has made Palestinian grievances appear trivial by comparison. It has also led outside political actors to believe that it would be provocative to antagonize Israeli leadership in relation to Palestine at a time when there were such strong worries that Israel might attack Iran or push the United States in such a direction. To a lesser extent the preoccupations with the effects of the Arab upheavals, especially in Syria and Egypt, have had the incidental benefit for Israel of diminishing still further regional and global pressures relating to Palestinian grievances and rights. This distraction, a kind of spontaneous deflection, has given Israel more time to consolidate their annexationist plans in the West Bank and Jerusalem, which makes the still lingering peace image of a two-state solution a convenient mirage, no more, no less.

 

 

A Concluding Comment: Overall, the politics of deflection is a repertoire of techniques used to shift the gaze away from the merits of a dispute. Israel has relied on these techniques with devastating effects for the Palestinians. The purpose of my analysis is to encourage Palestinians in all settings to do their best to keep the focus on substance and respective rights. Perhaps, it is time for all of us to learn from the brave Palestinian hunger strikers whose nonviolent defiance of Israeli detention abuse operated with laser like intensity to call attention to prison and administrative injustice. Unfortunately, the media of the world was silent, including those self-righteous liberal pundits who had for years urged the Palestinians to confront Israel nonviolently, and then sit back, and find satisfaction in the response from Tel Aviv. Waiting for Godot is not a matter of patience, but of ignorance!

 

 

  

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The Westgate Mall Massacre: Reflections

26 Sep

The Westgate Mall Massacre: The Rage of Fanaticism

 

            The carefully planned attack by al-Shabaab on civilians in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall carried the pathology of rage and the logic of fanaticism to unspeakable extremes. Imagine deciding on the life or death of any person, but particularly a child, by whether or not they could name the mother of Mohammed or recite a verse from the Koran. Islamic fanaticism should be condemned with the moral fervor appropriate to such a violation of the most fundamental norms of respect for innocence and human dignity. To gun down at random whoever happened to be shopping at Westgate Mall on the fateful day of September 21st is to carry political violence beyond a point of no return.

 

            Of course, even fanatics have a certain logic of justification that makes their acts congruent with a warped morality. In this instance, the al-Shabab case rests on a vengeful response to the participation of the Kenyan army units in a multinational military operation of the African Union in neighboring Somalia. This AU operation, reinforced by U.S. drone attacks and special forces, has led to the severe weakening of al-Shabab’s political influence in Somalia, provoking an evident sense of desperation and acute resentment, as well as a tactic of making those that interfere in Somalia’s internal politics bear some adverse spillover effects. But if such an explanation is expected to excuse the demonic actions at Westgate, in any but equally depraved pockets of alienated consciousness, it is deeply mistaken. What may be most frightening, perhaps, in this whole set of circumstances is the degree to which Western counter-insurgency specialists have stepped forward to pronounce the Westgate Mall massacre a ‘success’ from terrorist or extremist perspectives, and likely to generate al-Shabab recruits among the large  Somalia minorities living in Nairobi and in some parts of the United States.  

 

            As is common with such anguishing events, there are some ironies present. The catastrophe occurred on the day set aside in Kenya as The International Day of Peace. Even stranger, Osama Bin Laden has been openly critical of the excessive harshness toward Muslims of the current al-Shabab emir, Ahmed Abdi Godane. Some commentators have speculated that this explains why there was such an effort to spare Muslims who were in the Westgate Mall at the time of the attack. In other earlier al-Shabab vicious attacks in Somalia and Uganda (2010), such distinctions were not made, with Muslims and non-Muslims alike being victims of attacks. 

 

            It was a disturbing synchronicity that on the following day outside an Anglican Church in Peshawar, Pakistan, two suicide bombers detonated explosives that killed more than 80 persons as they were leaving the church after religious services. An extremist organization in Pakistan, TTP Jundullah, shamelessly claimed responsibility, offering an unabashedly fanatic jusitification: “They are enemies of Islam. Therefore we target them. We will continue the attacks on non-Muslims in Pakistan.” Contained in such a statement is the absolutism of a jihadist mandate to eliminate infidels combined with an ultra nationalist insistence that non-Muslims and foreigners in Pakistan are sentenced to death, and should leave the country if they wish to survive. There is in the background a furious response of outsiders, whether from Kenya, Ethipia, and Uganda, or further afield, from the United States, as seeking to deny to Somalia the outcome of an internal struggle, and thus in effect encroaching upon the inalienable right of self-determination inhering in the people of Somalia. Even so, there in no way excuses such crimes against humanity, but given the kind of belief systems that occupy the minds of fanatics, we can expect more such appalling incidents.

 

            Fanaticism carried to these extremes poisons human relations, whether it rests its belief structure on secular foundations as was the case with the Nazis or rests its claims on a religious creed. It is no more helpful to blame religion, as such, for the Westgate Massacre than it would be to insist that godless secularism was responsible for the rise of Hitler or depredations of Stalinism. What we can say with confidence is that there is a genocidal danger associated with any belief system that claims truth solely for itself and treats those who do not accept the claim as utterly unworthy, if not outright evil. What happens when such a pattern is situated at the extremes of political consciousness is a disposition toward massacre and genocide, with terrorism being the fanatic’s form of ‘just war.’

 

            We live at a time when such patterns of horrifying behavior seem mainly, although by no means exclusively, associated with Islamic extremism. Such pathologic behavior must be resisted and repudiated in every way possible, but without worsening the situation by blaming a specific religion or religion in general as responsible for recourse to fanaticism. The West needs only to recall the Inquisition, the Crusades, and many decades of barbaric religious wars to realize its own susceptibility to the siren calls of the fanatics, which seem almost irresistible in periods of societal crisis. The virus of fanaticism lies dormant in the body politic of every society and can find consoling support by twisting the meaning and practical relevance of religious scripture. Explaining the fanatic by deploring Islam and its adherents multiplies the challenges facing society rather than mitigates them by situating the source of the problem. Islamophobia as a response to 9/11 or to these awful incidents in Kenya and Pakistan pours vinegar on wounds experienced by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and yet it seems an inevitable reflex, which if carried to its own limit by opportunists leads to a mimicry of the originating fanaticism. In its moralizing rationalizations for violence against the innocent, the purported anti-fanatic operates in the same milieu of alienated consciousness as the fanatic. The one resembles the other in mentality and deed, although the fanatic is more likely to be sincere than the anti-fanatic who often acts out of ambition rather than belief.

 

            There is some reason to feel that fanaticism of this kind is largely a product of monotheistic religion and thought, specifically ideas of dualism separating good and evil, and the insistence that the human mind has access to ‘the truth’ that is applicable to social and political relations. In this regard, the philosophic and religious traditions of the East do not seem, at first glance, to nurture such fanatical mentalities as emerge in the West: there is a rejection of dualism and a general acceptance of the view that there are a variety of ways to find fulfillment and salvation, and no single truth that is universally applicable. Nevertheless, communal, religious, ethnic, class, and political tensions can and do generate habitual genocidal behavior. Tragically, the land of Gandhi is also the land of Gujurat, where genocidal surges of violence against Muslims have occurred repeatedly, with a major outbreak in 2002. Hindu nationalism in its extreme enactments is as capable of fanatic politics as are extremist exponents of political Islam. There are also distinctions to be drawn within the Hindu tradition between those who support and those who repudiate the Indian caste distinctions carried to their own inborn extremes in ideas and practices associated with ‘untouchability’ and ‘bride burning.’ Even Buddhism, the religion that is most admired for its valuing of compassion, can be lured into the situational camps of fanaticism as was clearly evident in the final stages of the holy war carried to genocidal extremes in Sri Lanka or in the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minorities in Myanmar, especially in Rakhine state.

 

            In other words, culture and political tensions can give rise to radical forms of denial of species identity as the essential imperative of people living together in peace and equity. There are three dimensions of these perfect moral storms that manifest themselves in various forms of fanaticism: (1) the fragmentations of identity so as to elevate the status of the fragment in such a way as to denigrate the whole, that is, the shared human identity is overridden by the alleged superiority of the fragmentary identity as Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Nazi, Communist, and so on; (2) the truth claims made on behalf of a particular belief system, whether religious or secular, which is posited in absolutist terms that leaves no political space for any celebration of diversity or even tolerance of the other; it is bio-politically acceptable to have faith in the ‘truth’ and correctness of a given path as a matter of personal choice so long as the same opportunities for faith are accorded to others; (3) the failure to be sensitive to the commonalities associated with the bio-political primacy of humanness; it is only a sense of shared humanity that can endow the people of the planet with the political will to respond effectively to such global challenges as climate change and weaponry of mass destruction upon which depends the collective survival and wellbeing of the species.

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The Violence of Psalm 21

23 Sep

Psalm 21 and the Human Predicament

 

            There is some difficulty in reconciling humanistic ethics with biblical scripture that has disturbed me recently. If a religious text nurtures morally unacceptable impulses that are acted upon either consciously or sub-consciously in political domains, how can these adverse influences be repudiated without purporting to claim a hegemonic status for a secular reader? Even a religiously oriented person such as myself, who rejects deference to whatever is contained in the most holy of books if it conflicts with conscience, is troubled by this tension between what we believe to be right and what can be found in the holiest of books. In the West, where the specific religious roots of political authority are rarely acknowledged directly, the problem persists, especially in claims by the state to deal with its enemies at home and abroad.

 

            Even if we leave to one side the problems that the modern mind has with the metaphysical and miraculous claims made on behalf of religious authority, and take refuge in how Paul Tillich handled these issues by way of identifying God with the human experience of ‘ultimate depth’ regardless of the form assumed, provided only that it did not serve to vindicate ethically unacceptable behavior. In effect, the post-theistic core of religious devotion in this reworking of tradition becomes almost synonymous with spirituality and awe as experiential realities, having more in common with the thought of Alfred North Whitehead than with the institutional religions.

 

            My concern here is far more modest and limited, and can be expressed in a very particular manner. Its main concern is how to read Psalm 21 in ways that are neither designed to avoid the awkwardness of its apparent endorsement of genocidal violence nor to repudiate the spirituality that is bound up with the sentiments that led the psalmist, reputedly King David, to intone sentiments that seem too extreme. After exalting the Lord for his support of the earthly ruler, the psalmist removes any doubt about an affirmation of unquestioning faith: “For the king trusts in the Lord, and through the mercy of the Most High he shall not be moved.”

 

            What particularly impresses the psalmist is the strength of God, and his power and will to subjugate all that is found to be evil, or in practical terms, posing a threat to an earthly ruler or society: “You shall make them as a fiery oven in the time of Your anger; the Lord shall swallow them up in His wrath, and the fire shall devour them.” Even beyond exterminating those who are enemies of the favored ruler and designated as evil, this wrath attributed to God shall know no bounds: “Their offspring You shall devour from the earth, and their descendants among the sons of men.” Continuing in this vein, “[f]or they intended evil against You; they devised a plot which they are able to perform.” With a military flourish such enemies will be made to “turn their back” while the arrows of the Lord are strung so as to carry out their lethal mission. The psalm ends glorifying this sacred violence: “Be exalted, O Lord, in your own strength! We will sing and praise Your power.”

 

            Psalm 21 is not an aberration in the Bible, but neither is it a summary of the biblical worldview. The Book of Esther is another tale of God’s wrath unleashed on behalf of Jews living in the vast kingdom of King Ahasueres. Saving these Jews of the kingdom from a plot to destroy them, the king heeding Queen Esther, is merciless and shows no respect for innocence: “Thus the Jews defeated all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, with slaughter and destruction, and did what they pleased with them.” (Esther 9:5) It is this absence of limits if the cause is righteous that prepares the way for the commission of what today are called ‘crimes against humanity.’

 

            There are many biblical expressions of God’s wrath mobilized against the enemies of the Israelites in ways that offend those strands of contemporary morality that rejects ideas about the absolute evil of the enemy or the unconditional goodness of the nation and its friends, and is sensitive to the innocence of those who are not themselves perpetrators of wrongful acts. The ethical and legal rejection of genocidal vengeance became supported by an almost universal secular consensus after the Holocaust, but unfortunately genocidal politics and sentiments remain embedded in human experience of ethnic and religious conflict, and everywhere lye dormant just below the surface in virtually every society.

 

            Religious websites do not condemn or contextualize such genocidal language, but insist that the intention of the psalmist is to underscore the degree to which evil will be punished and the degree of protection given to those who put their trust in God. In most institutionalized religious circles there is little willingness to consider such sentiments as problematic or exerting dangerous cultural influences. What seems required is a repudiation of the plain meaning of the language used as well as an explanation that such sentiments was never meant to be taken as guides to action and justifications for limitless violence against enemies. It might also be observed that the distinction between friends and enemies was somewhat more polarized in ancient times.

 

            Of course, I am far from the first to raise some doubts about literal deference biblical ethics, although it should be noted that the two later monotheistic religions incorporate without reservation the Old Testament, including Psalm 21, although in various ways they move beyond it, exhibiting a moral evolution. Thomas Jefferson, among many others, in the Deist tradition, prepared his own biblical text, removing passages that he found ethically offensive or contrary to reason. Such an undertaking would seem to be clearly heretical from most institutional perspectives, privileging individual human judgment over a sacred text endorsed by religious authority over the course of many centuries. Yet is this display of reverence for revealed truth really different than subtle moves in the opposite direction, suchas giving a sanitizing reading to the text so as to avoid the ethically offensive content of its clear meaning as interpreted on the basis of common sense?

 

            Have we in the modern world truly rejected these absolutist attitudes toward ‘the enemy’? The Nazi death camps and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki suggest that the hatred of the other and the uncritical celebration of the self continue to produce the most hideous crimes against humanity. These shameful undertakings are usually accompanied by rationalizations and erasures that result in widespread denial in the relevant national communities and manage to suppress critical reactions by ‘good Germans’ and ‘good Americans’ who insist that they know not often in apparent good faith. 

 

            The anti-terrorist rhetoric of recent years is rather exterminist in its expression, and political implications. George W. Bush, not someone who shuns self-serving moralism, openly endorsed the idea that the attackers of 9/11 were evil, and should be hunted down and exterminated, although at least he did not implicate the descendents. There is a biblical resonance in his words spoken during his commencement address to West Point graduates in June 2002: “Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree…We are in a conflict between good and evil. And America will call evil by its name.” Such a dualistic passage, at once presupposing that we are the side of the good and opposed by that which is evil is confusing if thought about. It, at once, claims a religiously sanctioned authority to destroy and violates the specifically Christian teaching that rejects such a sharp divide between good and evil since we are all born sinners. What Bush does somewhat contrary to a more refined religious understanding is to fuse his ultra-nationalist agenda with a moral imperative to destroy the enemy without worrying about limits, restraints, and compassion.

 

            A similar entitlement to kill was claimed by Barack Obama when Osama bin Laden was finally found hiding out in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2010, killed although unarmed, with few questions being raised as to whether such an almost ritualized execution was justified or necessary. Instead the American president, presented the event as a major victory for his presidency, and the process by which this outcome came about was celebrated in a rare bipartisan spirit by the public and given an attempted public vindication in the film “Zero Dark Thirty,” which included an indirect endorsement of torture as an essential element in the CIA search process yielded crucial information about the whereabouts of the al-Qaeda leader.

 

            This kind of partisan morality is more in keeping with the ethos of Psalm 21 than with the mainstream Christian understanding of good and evil, which condemns as heresy the idea of the absolute good of the self and the absolute evil of the enemy. In this regard human undertakings if claiming moral authority, should always include respect for the redemptive potential of the other, as well as the element of sinfulness of the self. To claim God’s partnership in warlike undertakings thus seems like a distortion of the truer understanding of the spiritual core of the biblical message, especially as understood and interpreted over the centuries in relation to the New Testament. Yet such protection against the hubris of the powerful stands on the shoulders of unrepudiated biblical texts such as Psalm 21 or the Book of Esther.

 

             The retaliatory threat embedded in the doctrine of nuclear deterrence

seems defensive in its posture, yet it proposes an absolute lethality of response that threatens to kill tens of millions, and even to risk endangering the future of the species; E.P. Thompson in his condemnation of any reliance on nuclear weapons, believed that even the mental and cultural preparation required to make a credible deterrent threat to bomb enemy cities embraces an exterminist form of national security, and as such, is morally decadent.   

           

            This radical separation of good and evil in the globalized world of politics, either with bold conviction, as during the Bush presidency, or more subtly, during the Obama administration, suggests that societies are still comfortable with the dangerously self-serving approach of Psalm 21. This commentary is not meant to single out for criticism either the Old Testament or the United States. These tendencies are embedded deeply within Western political culture, and unless challenged and repudiated, possess several ominous implications for the entire human future: The absolutist pretensions of nationalist and religious extremism, the globalization of conflict, scarcities of space and resources, the devastations and uncertainties of climate change, prospects for pandemics, the apocalyptic potential of military technology, pervasive insecurity and vulnerability, and the unavailability of actors and capabilities on a global stage to uphold human and global interests.

 

            There is a narrow question: should not those of us who affirm the spiritual significance of our life experience insist on a reading of religious texts that corresponds with our conscience, and not evade the challenge of rejecting some elements of religious tradition rather than attempting to explain it away?

 

            There is also a broader issue: unless we purge our individual and collective lives of these destructive patterns, the destiny of modern civilizations and even of the species is placed in severe jeopardy.  The idea of civilizational collapse has been extensively explored from the perspective of collective failures to heed warnings and adapt, but as a matter of delimited ethno-religious communities, not in relation to the species and entire world, which notoriously lack effective sensors for dangers directed at the whole as distinct from challenges to the part. Our modern world order, an evolving state-centric structure, absolutizes the parts, marginalizes the whole, and thus seems dangerously obsolescent as the challenges to the whole grow more and more relevant, while remaining unmanageable. To grasp onto what must be done is also perplexing. For instance, in my view the advocates of philosophical anarchism have more to teach us than the champions of world government.

 

Resolving the Syrian Chemical Weapons Crisis: Sunlight and Shadows

15 Sep

 

            The Putin Moment: Not only did Vladimir Putin exhibit a new constructive role for Russia in 21st statecraft, spare Syria and the Middle East from another cycleof escalating violence, but he articulated this Kremlin initiative in the form of a direct appeal to the American people. There were reasons to be particularly surprised by this display of Russian diplomacy: not since Nikita Khrushchev helped save the world from experiencing the catastrophe of nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 by backing down and agreeing to a face-saving formula for both superpowers, had Moscow distinguished itself in any positive way with respect to the conduct of international relations; for Putin to be so forthcoming, without being belligerent, was particularly impressive in view of Obama’s rather ill-considered cancellation only a few weeks ago of a bilateral meeting with the Russian leader because of Washington’s supposed anger at the refusal of the Russian government to turn the NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, over to the United States for criminal prosecution under American espionage laws; and finally, considering that Putin has much blood on his hands given past policies pursued in relation to Chechnya and in the autocratic treatment of domestic political opposition, it was hard to expect anything benevolent during his watch. And so Putin is emerging as a virtual ‘geopolitical black swan,’ making unanticipated moves of such a major character as to have the potential to transform the character of conflict management and resolution in the 21st century.  It should be understood that Putin could have stayed on the sidelines, and benefitted from seeing Obama sink deeper and deeper into the Syrian quagmire, and instead he stepped in with a momentous move that seems to have served the regional and global interest.

Putin has explained in a coherent manner in his opinion piece that was published in the NY Times on September 11th (without invoking the symbolism of  the twelfth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks) that his approach to Russian foreign policy relies on two instruments: soft power and economic diplomacy. He acknowledged American leadership, but only if exercised within a framework of respect for international law and the UN Charter. And he appropriately took issue with Obama’s sentiments expressed a night earlier to the effect that America in its leadership role had a unique entitlement to use force to overcome injustice in situations other than self-defense and even without authorization by the UN Security Council. It was Putin, perhaps disingenuously, who claimed (quite correctly) that such a prerogative was “extremely dangerous.” He rejected Obama’s pretension that a unilateral discretion with respect to the use of force could be inferred from American exceptionalism. Whether disingenuous or not, the requirement of a Security Council authorization for non-defensive uses of force, while sometimes preventing a peacekeeping response by the UN to certain tragic situations of civil strife and humanitarian crisis overall contributed to finding diplomatically agreed upon solutions for conflict and enabled the UN (unlike the League of Nations) to persist despite severe tensions among its dominant members. Let hope that this Putin vituoso exhibition of creative diplomacy prompts his counterpart in the White House to explore more diligently soft power opportunities that will better protect American national interests, while simultaneously serving the global interest in war prevention and the rejection of militarism, and might also have the added benefit of reversing the steady decline of American credibility as a benevolent global leader ever since the end of the Cold War.

Constitutional Balance: Perhaps what might be of even greater importance than averting an ill-considered punitive attack on Syria, is the grounding of recourse to war on the major republican premise of Congressional authorization. There is little doubt that here the efficient cause and anti-hero was David Cameron, who turned to Parliament to support his wish to join with Obama in the attack coalition despite the anti-war mood in British public opinion. Cameron was politically spared by the vote of the House of Commons to withhold authorization. It is hard to believe that Obama’s decision to seek authorization from the U.S. Congress was not a belated realization that if Britain deferred to its Parliament as an expression of constitutional democracy, it would be unseemly for the United States to go to war without the formal backing of Congress. Of course, the Putin initiative saved Obama from the near certain embarrassment of being turned down by Congress, which would mean that either he would follow in Cameron’s and face savage criticism from his hawkish boosters or insist upon his authority as Commander in Chief to act on his own, a prerogative that seems constitutional dubious to support a bill of impeachment. Beyond this, the War Powers Act that would seem to require some emergency justification for the presidential bypassing of Congress in the context of a proposed military action. Hopefully, we are witnessing, without an accompanying acknowledgement, the downfall of the ‘imperial presidency’ that got its start during the Vietnam War. The governmental pendulum in the United States may have started to swing back toward the separation of powers and checks and balances, and thus be more in keeping with the original republican hopes of limited executive authority, especially in relation to war making. This renewal of republican constitutionalism, combined with growing populist skepticism about military adventures abroad, might make this Syrian crisis of decision a welcome tipping point, reversing the unhealthy subordination of Congress in war/peace situations during the last half century and anti-democratic disregard of the views of the citizenry.

But it is also possible that the imprudence of the proposed punitive strike against Syria will turn out to be a one-off experience, and that when and if Iran clearly crosses the weapons threshold in its nuclear program, the presidency will retrieve its lost claims to be the unilateral guardian of national, regional, and global interests without feeling that it must await authorization from the Congress and the UN. Note that Congressional approval, even if in concert with the President, cannot sanitize a use of force that is illegal under international law. It is the state as a whole that is bound by the constraints of international law, and not just the head of state. There are two distinct issues present: the domestic constitutional requirement of collective authorization for recourse to war by the United States; and the complementary international requirement of acting in compliance with international law and the UN Charter (which is itself acknowledged in supremacy clause of the Constitution with respect to validly ratified treaties).

Coercive Diplomacy: Obama/Kerry contend that Syria’s chemical weapons would never have been put under international controls and in an atmosphere of unprecedented international cooperation, but for the credible threats mounted by the U.S. Government. In this regard, the poker style bluff can be said to have worked without any sure proof that the threat would have been carried out in the face of a refusal by Congress to authorize and the public failure to show support for an attack. As matters now seem to be unfolding, assuming that the plans for abolishing the chemical weapons of Syria proceed as agreed, threat diplomacy will be applauded by the Obama administration without any widespread sensitivity to the fact that the international law as embodied in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits ‘threats’ as well as ‘uses’ of force, although such a prohibition has not been taken seriously as part of the ‘living law’ despite its status as a prime instance of ‘positive law.’ The categorical language of Article 2(4) is unmistakeable: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity and political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

Syria and its People: In the background of the diplomatic controversy about what to do in response to the large-scale lethal use of sarin gas against the people of Syria on August 21st, was the awareness that such an attack did not even pretend to end the violence in Syria or to produce regime change in Damascus or to change the balance of force in the civil war. From this perspective, it seemed mainly a punitive strike that upheld Obama’s red line credibility, although there was an additional argument set forth that a military strike would have a deterrent impact on any contemplated future recourse to chemical weaponry by the Assad regime and other political actors, assuming that the allegations that the Syrian government order the attack are confirmed and reinforced by the reports of the UN inspection team and other respected sources.

What tends to be given only a secondary glance is the effects of an attack on the Syrian people who have been subject to a harrowing ordeal these past two years that has resulted in over 100,000 deaths, countless wounded, and an estimated 7,000,000, almost one-third of the population, as either internally displaced or forced into overcrowded and under-resourced refugee camps in neighboring countries. Beyond this, the always vulnerable Palestinians have endured Syrian attacks on their refugee camps forcing them to flee once more, to become, quite incredibly, refugees from their refugee arrangements, a largely untold Palestinian tragedy hidden within the larger Syrian tragedy. There is almost no political will on the outside to do anything to stop either the proxy war being waged by states external to Syria or the internal struggle being waged by a fragmented opposition against a discredited government that has been incredibly cruel to its own citizens and strangely indifferent to the great cultural and religious heritage of their own country. There are even grotesque murmurings in the background of strategic chatter in Western circles, suggesting that the best outcome is not an end to the violence, but its indefinite continuation with an effort to calibrate future arms supplies and humanitarian aid with the principal aim of making sure that neither side can achieve victory. If this is not an exposure of the raw immorality of strategic discourse at its immoral nadir, I am not sure what would be.

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Responses to Questions on avoidance of an American Attack on the Assad Regime

14 Sep

Prefatory Note: The following questions were put to me by Patricia Lombroso of the Italian publication, Il Manifesto.

1] How much you think the opposition of the entire world for another war influenced US to put on hold the go ahead to intervention with military attack in Syria.

IT IS DIFFICULT TO MEASURE, AS SUCH AN INFLUENCE IS NEVER ADMITTED. AT THE SAME TIME, I THINK THERE IS NO DOUBT THAT THE ADVERSE OUTLOOK OF THE WORLD’S PUBLIC, ESPECIALLY IN EUROPE, WAS A CLEAR FACTOR IN HALTING THE DRIFT INTO WAR. EVEN MORE IMPORTANT WAS THE REFUSAL OF THE BRITISH PARLIAMENT TO BACK DAVID CAMERON, THE BRITISH PRIME MINISTER. ALSO SIGNIFICANT, WAS WAR WEARINESS IN THE UNITED STATES, WHICH OBAMA MENTIONS FREQUENTLY, WHICH IS A CODED WAY OF ACKNOWLEDGING THE FAILURES OF AMERICAN WAR POLICIES IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN.

2] How much is the ideology favoring “military intervention” on behalf of supposed “humanitarian wars,” still operative in US and the Western world as suggested by finding Hilary Clinton and John McCain on the pro-interventionist side of the Syrian debate.

I THINK THE MILITARIST WING OF BOTH POLITICAL PARTIES TENDS TO CONVERGE ON POLICY OPTIONS THAT ARE DEBATED IN PRE-WAR CONTEXTS WITHIN THE UNITED STATES. SUCH ADVOCACY IS INCREASINGLY OUT OF TOUCH WITH THE POLITICAL CLIMATE IN THE USA, WHICH IS NO LONGER SUPPORTIVE OF WARS THAT SEEM TO LACK A STRATEGIC MAJOR JUSTIFICATION. THERE IS ALSO A  GROWING AWARENESS THAT AMERICAN MILITARY INTERVENTION HAS NOT LED TO SUCCESSFUL POLITICAL OUTCOMES, AND HAVE ENTAILED SERIOUS ECONOMIC DIVERSIONS OF RESOURCES AND HUMAN CASUALTIES THAT ARE NOT JUSTIFIED. THE AMERICAN PUBLIC HAS BEGUN TO UNDERSTAND IS POSSIBLE TO WIN ON THE BATTLEFIELD AND YET LOSE THE WAR. THIS SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE MAJOR LESSON OF THE VIETNAM WAR, BUT IT HAS NOT BEEN LEARNED BY THE POLITICAL LEADERSHIP WHO DERISIVELY REFERRED TO SUCH LEARNING AS ‘THE VIETNAM SYNDROME,’ SOMETHING TO BE OVERCOME. IT WAS GEORGE H.W. BUSH’S FIRST CLAIM AFTER THE GULF WAR IN 1991 THAT “WE HAVE FINALLY KICKED THE VIETNAM SYNDROME.” PROBABLY THINK TANKS ARE ALREADY PRODUCING POLICY PAPERS ON HOW TO GET OVER ‘THE IRAQ SYNDROME”!

3] Is your opinion that the explosion of a war in the Middle East as too

risky in relation to its probable consequences that might have persuaded Obama

to be cautious in planning his moves against the Assad regime in Syria?

IT WAS PARTLY THE SENSE THAT ONCE SUCH AN ATTACK OCCURRED THERE COULD BE SERIOUS UNANTICIPATED CONSEQUENCES AND COSTS THAT UNDERMINED ITS INITIAL RATIONAL. ALSO, THE PROPOSED SCOPE OF THE CONTEMPLATED INVOLVEMENT MADE NEITHER STRATEGIC NOR HUMANITARIAN SENSE. SUCH A CONTEMPLATED ATTACK WAS NOT CAPABLE OF WINNING SUPPORT IN THE UN, IN CONGRESS, AND AMONG PUBLIC OPINION AT HOME AND ABROAD. EVEN IF THE ATTACK WAS SUCCESSFULLY CARRIED OUT IT WOULD NOT LIKELY ALTER EITHER ASSAD’S CONTROL OF THE SYRIAN GOVERNMENT OR THE COURSE OF THE CIVIL OR PROXY WAR AFFLICTING SYRIA. THE IMPULSE TO LAUNCH AN ATTACK BECAUSE  ASSAD HAD CROSSED OBAMA’S RED LINE ABOUT CHEMICAL WEAPONS SEEMED LIKE AN OVERLY PERSONAL, ARBITRARY, AND UNTENABLE JUSTIFICATION FOR MILITARY ACTION WITH ITS VARIOUS RISKS AND HUMAN COSTS, INCLUDING THE ALMOST CERTAIN DEATH OF INNOCENT PERSONS. THE FACT THAT OBAMA WAS RESCUED BY PUTIN AND OPPOSED BY A REACTIONARY CONGRESS ADDED AN IRONIC DIMENSION TO THE TWISTS AND TURNS OF U.S. POLICY ON SYRIA. THE SITUATION IS STILL UNFOLDING WITH NO CLEAR WAY TO PREDICT THE OUTCOME, ALTHOUGH THE RENEWED TURN TOWARD DIPLOMACY ENGENDERED A GLIMMER OF HOPE. FOR THE SAKE OF THE SYRIAN PEOPLE, AND THE STABILITY OF THE REGION, THE PRIME GOAL SHOULD BE A DOMESTIC POLITICAL PROCESS THAT PROJECTS A FUTURE FOR SYRIA THAT COMBINES UNITY WITH THE DEVOLUTION OF AUTHORITY IN EFFECTIVE FORMS THAT BRING HUMAN SECURITY TO THE VARIOUS ETHNIC AND RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES THAT CONSTITUTE 21ST CENTURY SYRIA.

AFTERTHOUGHT: THE U.S. AND RUSSIA HAVE NOW REACHED AN AGREEMENT THAT HAS BEEN ACCEPTED IN DAMASCUS TO THE EFFECT THAT SYRIA WILL AGREE TO ACKNOWLEDGE ITS STOCKPILES OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS, AND HAVE THEM DESTROYED BY MID-2014 UNDER INTERNATIONAL SUPERVISION AND VERIFIED BY UN INSPECTORS. THE PROVISIONAL OUTCOME, ASSUMING IT HOLDS UP, REPRESENTS A MASTER TRIUMPH OF RUSSIAN DIPLOMACY, A GEOPOLITICAL SETBACK FOR AMERICAN GLOBAL LEADERSHIP, AND AN AMBIGUOUS VICTORY FOR THREAT DIPLOMACY. THE OVERALL RESULTS IN RELATION TO HOLDING LEADERSHIP DEMOCRATICALLY ACCOUNTABLE BEFORE LAUNCHING NON-DEFENSIVE WARS AND DETERRING THE USE OF WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION REMAINS TO BE SEEN.

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Why Congress Should Say to ‘No’ on Syria

6 Sep

[I am not sure this attempt at clarifying the present stage of the Syria debate adds much to my prior posts, yet I hope that it provides a kind of summary that is helpful in following the unfolding debate; all along I have felt that the Syrian impasse presented the UN and the world with a tragic predicament: trapped between doing something to stop the Assad regime from committing atrocities against its own people so as to retain power and the non-viabiility and illegality of military intervention, a predicament further complicated by the proxy war within the region along sectarian lines, by the strategic involvement of the U.S. and Russia on opposite sides, the maneuverings behind the scenes by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel, and the avowed Turkish support for regime-changing intervention; also, the overall regional turmoil, and past bad feeling in relation to the UN role in the overthrow of Qadaffi posed additional obstacles; efforts to shape the political outcome by military means, because of the proxy war dimensions (including an increasingly evident, although still surprising, tacit alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia) have so far only escalated the violence on the ground in Syria; Turkey, Russia, and the United States have all along  oscillated between principled and pragmatic responses favoring one side or the other, and exhibiting an ambivalent commitment to equi-distant diplomacy.]

There are three positions that have considerable support in Washington circles, although rarely acknowledged and not popular with the public, partly because of recent foreign policy failures, and partly too removed from perceptions of genuine security interests:

–undertake an attack to uphold ‘red line’ credibility of the president and the United States Government;

–undertake an attack too avoid an insurgent defeat, but on a scale that will not produce an insurgent victory; goal: keep the civil war going;

–undertake an attack to convince Iran that Obama is ready to use force if diplomatic coercion doesn’t work.

There are several other considerations that need to be taken into account:

–the Assad regime is guilty of numerous crimes against humanity aside from and prior to its probable (although far from assured) responsibility for the August 21st attack with chemical weapons on Ghouta; Syria lacks a legitimate government from the perspective of international criminal law; with respect to the violation of the Geneva Accord with respect to chemical weapons, the responsibility of Assad personally and the Syrian government generally has not been established beyond a reasonable doubt at this point;

–nevertheless, the Assad regime retains considerable support from various segments of the Syrian population, possesses substantial military capabilities, and is unlikely to collapse without a major ground invasion; the Assad government retains a measure of legitimacy from the perspective of the politics of self-determination;

–insurgent forces are divided, without coherent leadership, and are also responsible for committing atrocities, and contain political extremists in their ranks; a victory by the insurgency does not seem likely to lead to legitimate governing process from the perspective of law and morality;

–the negative American experiences of relying on war in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan should create a presumption against the authorization of force and reliance on military option in conflict situations; there is mounting evidence from past cases that the costs and risks associated with military options tend to be grossly understated during pre-war debates in the United States due partly to the political mobilization role played by mainstream media;

–the diplomatic alternative to force has been handicapped by its past abuse in the UN Security Council with respect to Libya authorization of ‘responsibility to protect’ undermining the trust of Russia, China, and others, and by the refusal to bring Iran into the political conversation as a key actor.

Against this background there are four important independent reasons for Congress to withhold authorization in this instance:

–a use of force that can neither be justified as self-defense, nor is authorized by the UN, is contrary to the UN Charter, which is an obligatory treaty, as well as being the most serious type of violation of international law in a post-Nuremburg world; the Nuremberg precedent with regard to crimes against peace (as the ‘crime of crimes’) should be respected, especially by the United States, which continues to serve for better and worse, as  the main normative architect of world order;

–the Kosovo precedent of ‘illegal, but legitimate’ is not applicable as a military attack is not likely to achieve either its political goals of ending the civil war and of causing the collapse of the Assad regime, nor its moral goals of stopping the slaughter and displacement of the Syrian people, and the devastation of their cities and country;

–even if the political and moral goals could be achieved, Congress, as well as the president, lacks the authority to authorized foreign policy uses of force that are incompatible with the UN Charter and international law;

–Congress should defer to domestic and world public opinion that clearly is opposed to a proposed military attack in the absence of an exceptional demonstration can be made as to the positive political and moral benefits of such an attack; for reasons mentioned, no such demonstration can be made in this instance; even the European Union has withheld support for a military attack on Syria at the

September meeting of the G-20 in St. Petersburg; only France among America’s traditional allies supported Obama’s insistence on reliance on a punitive military strike, supposedly for the sake of enforcing international law, bizarre reasoning because the rationale reduces to the following proposition: in view of the political realities, it is necessary to violate international law so as to be able to enforce it.

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Questioning Obamacare for Syria

5 Sep

When it comes to war, Obama is okay just this once, especially for Republicans

 

            There is something particularly distressing about the ongoing debate on authorizing an internationally illegal and immoral military attack on Syria: a show of political support on the right. Such a ‘coming together’ of some of the center and much of the right in the American Congress has been sadly absent during Obama presidency until now, whether the issue was health, taxes, social services, keeping the government running, and immigration. And this support emerges on the rare occasion when a majority of American citizens, not known for their cosmopolitan sentiments or affection for the UN Charter, oppose attacking Syria, as was the British Parliament, and as is public opinion throughout Europe. In such a setting, it is not only international law and the UN are being repudiated in a war/peace situation, but the whole fabric of democratic accountability to law and the judgment of the people.

 

            At least we can conclude that the reactionary tendency in American political life over the course of the last decade or so is consistent in its adherence to irresponsible means in the pursuit irresponsible ends. It appears that the real selling point for the looming attack on Syria is not for the sake of the Syrians, but to warn the leadership of Iran that it is next on the White House hit list unless it soon surrenders to Washington’s demands, echoing those more stridently made by Israel. Is this what global leadership of the United States has come to mean? To let adversaries be reminded that the global bully means business.

 

            And what about damaging the Obama legacy? There is a loss/loss feeling about the eventual attack, if indeed it should happen. If the attack on Syria is truly limited and does not produce many civilian casualties, his Republican champions, including such hawkish stalwarts as Senators McCain and Graham, will quickly change sides, arguing that doing such a slap on the wrist is worse than doing nothing. The broadening of the Congressional resolution suggests that the hawk support depends on launching a major attack that has much wider ambitions than what Obama seemed to favor in his call to Congress for authorization. Does he heed his earlier concept of the attack or go along with his more militarist supporters?

 

            If, as seems probable, there are casualties, retaliations, escalation, diplomatic fallout, persisting civil strife, cross border spillover effects, then Obama is almost sure to face a grassroots protest movement expressing national and global disaffection, and including some of those Democrats who go along because a ‘red line’ once drawn by an American president needs to get respect, even if the cost of doing so is irresponsible, irrational, imprudent, illegal, and immoral. Carrying out Obama’s preferred course of action would mean reverting to the once derided ‘Nixon madman’ approach to foreign policy, that is, inhibiting the Kremlin during the height of the Cold War by making their leaders believe that the American president was trigger-happy and crazy. Do whatever it takes to make sure else that America is feared around the world, endowing even its ill-advised threats with maximum potency. This iron fist style of ‘keeping of the peace’ is totally divorced from adherence to international law and support for the UN. It excessively values keeping ‘the military option’ on the table at all times in the hope of either annihilating its enemies or make them suffer the consequences of opposition to Washington ideas about how to run the world.

 

            If Congress responds with an authorization for force in Syria, and even in a form that exceeds what the president requested, it will no doubt recall the last major Congressional dark folly: the infamous Gulf of Tonkin resolution, giving LBJ a blank check to widen the Vietnam War in ways of his devising. His first step was to escalate the American engagement by attacking North Vietnam from air and sea in 1965. It is never pleasant to revive bad memories except possibly to avoid another foreign policy fiasco, as well as to deepen the impression that America as a imperial superpower has lost its capacity to learn from past mistakes.

 

            Dear friends, if the only way America can seem strong is to cast itself in the role of global bully, supplanting the earlier somewhat more understandable imperial cover of pax Americana, then the wise and virtuous will conclude, if they have not already, that America is actually weak. In this century true strength will not be measured by degrees of military dominance and battlefield victories, but by helping to solve the growing agenda of national, regional, and global problems endangering the future of humanity.

Such a constructive path can only be taken if the major states show respect for international law and the UN Charter as the foundational premises of a sustainable world order. Thinking otherwise, that the history will be interpreted from the militarist perspectives of those who base human and societal security on a global war machine places global civilizations, and even the human species, on a slippery slope of extinction, nothing less! At this time, we need to fear more a clash of rationalities than a clash of civilizations, although both should be transcended.

 

            Could it not be offered in response that such thoughts are a hysterical over-reaction to what will be at worst a flash flood soon to be forgotten? Along these lines, it is contended that any attack on Syria is likely to be over in several days (although the current language of the resolution offers a wide open window to war making by extending authorization to 90 days), the reaction by Syria and its friends, if any is forthcoming, will probably be muted, and life in America, the Middle East, and the world will return to what passes for ‘normalcy.’ Even if we assume that such a moderate unfolding is more or less accurate foretelling, yet even so, the effect would be deeply destructive. It will enable most of us to remain ignorant of an underlying frightening reality: our body politic suffers from this crippling disease of ‘martialitus’ for which there is no known cure, and at present not even a widely agreed upon diagnosis. Indeed, the disgraceful edifice of global surveillance may have as its primary task suppressing knowledge that our political leaders suffer from severe versions of this disease. Snowden, Manning, and Assange were likely seen to pose such a great danger because they were attempting to remove the geopolitical cataracts clouding our vision of such a distressing political reality. After such knowledge, there would be no forgiveness, only urgent responsibilities. Under these conditions cultivating the false consciousness of normalcy is itself an ominous sign of a collective refusal to acknowledge the disease, much less to begin treating it by such moves as a Congressional resolution requiring the president to obtain authorization for non-defensive force from the United Nations and under all circumstances act in accordance with the requirements of international law as objectively determined. It would be also important to insist that the government move toward fulfilling its obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 by tabling a proposal for phased and verified nuclear disarmament. It may also be appropriate to introduce a resolution in Congress that would make mandatory a declaration of war in all instances where international force was to be used by the United States other than in circumstances of genuinely imminent foreign attack.

 

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