Archive | February, 2014

Syria: What to Do Now

26 Feb

 

            There is a new mood of moral desperation associated with the ongoing strife in Syria that has resulted in at least 135,000 deaths, 9.3 millions Syrians displaced, countless atrocities, Palestinian refugee communities attacked, blockaded, and dispersed, and urban sieges designed to starve civilians perceived to be hostile. As the second round of negotiations in Geneva-2 ended as fruitlessly as the earlier round, there is a sense that diplomacy is a performance ritual without any serious intent to engage in conflict-resolving negotiations. Expectations couldn’t be lower for the as yet unscheduled, but still planned, third round of this Geneva-2 process.

 

The Damascus regime wants an end to armed opposition, while the insurgency insists upon setting up a transition process that is independently administered and committed to the election of a new political leadership.The gap between the parties is too big, and getting bigger, especially as the Damascus government correctly perceives the combat tide as turning in its favor, leading the main opposition forces seemingly to seek to achieve politically and diplomatically what they appear unable to do militarily. Also, it is unclear whether the opposition presence in Geneva has the authority to speak on behalf of several opposition groups in the field in Syria.

 

In light of these frustrations it is not surprising to observe an acrimonious debate unfolding between American interventionists who believe that only force, or at least its threat, can thread the needle of hope. The interventionists, invoking the responsibility to protect norm that was used effectively to mobilize support in the Security Council to mandate a no fly zone in Libya back in 2011, suggest that such an approach should be used again in 2014 either to establish a no fly zone opening a corridor that will allow humanitarian aid to flow to besieged cities or to achieve regime change in Syria as the only way to end the ordeal by ridding the country of a governing process guilty of repeated mass atrocities against its own people.

 

The anti-interventionists point out that the Libyan precedent of 2011 is tainted by the deliberate expansion of the humanitarian scope of what was authorized by the UN Security Council to undertake a much wider campaign with the clear intent of regime change, which in fact ended with the capture and execution of Qaddafi, then the head of state in Libya. It is also somewhat tarnished by the post-Qaddafi realities of widespread militia violence and the failure to develop a coherent and legitimate governance structure. The anti-interventionist argue that introducing external military force almost always makes matters worse, more killing, more devastation, and no politically sustainable outcome, and there is no good reason to think this will not happen in Syria. Furthermore, without a Security Council mandate such a use of military force would once again be undertaken in violation of the UN Charter and international law as it could not be justified as self-defense.

 

Providing humanitarian relief in a situation mainly free of internal political struggle should be sharply distinguished from the realities amid serious civil strife. The response to the Somali breakdown of governability during the presidency of George H. W. Bush in 1992, is illustrative of a seemingly pure humanitarian response to famine and disease characterized by a posture of political non-interference and by the shipment of food and medical supplies to a people in desperate need. This contrasted with the supposedly more muscular response to a troubled Somalia during the early stages of the Clinton presidency in 1993 when the humanitarian mission was fused with anti-‘warlord’ and political reconstruction goals. Difficulties soon emerged as robust national armed resistance was encountered culminating in the Blackhawk Down incident that resulted in 18 deaths of American soldiers, prompting an almost immediate American pullout from Somalia under a cloud of intense criticism of the diplomacy of ‘humanitarian intervention’ within the United States. This had the disastrous spillover effect of leading the supposedly liberal Clinton White House to discourage even a minimal humanitarian response to the onset of genocide in Rwanda in 1994, which might have saved hundreds of thousand of lives.  In the Rwanda context the United States Government even discouraged a modest upgraded response by the United Nations that already had a peacekeeping presence in the country, and whose commander urged reinforcements and authority to protect the targets of genocidal massacres. This failure to act in Rwanda remains a terrible stain on America’s reputation as a humane and respected world leader, and is frequently interpreted as a racist disregard of threats confronting an African population when no major strategic interest of Western countries were present on the side of the victims.

 

The Syrian reality since its inception was dominated by a political uprising, later an insurgency, demanding regime change in Damascus.  It was also beset with a leadership deficit and by factionalism that only became worse with the passage of time. It was further complicated and confused by its proxy dimensions, both in relation to the supply of arms and with respect to diplomatic alignment.

 

The humanitarian relief argument to be credible, much less persuasive, needs to deal with the complexities of Somalia 2, and not act as if the humanitarian response can be addressed in detachment from the political struggle as was the case in Somalia 1. When political objectives become intertwined with a humanitarian rationale, forces of national resistance are activated on the reasonable assumption that the real goal of the mission is the political one, and the humanitarian relief is being used as a cover. As we can foresee, this complexity makes for a stiffer climb facing an advocate of humanitarian intervention in the current Syrian tragedy. There exists a more difficult burden of persuasion, although not an impossible one. Indeed, against the background of recent failed interventions, every proposed intervention confronts such a burden at some level. The Syrian case makes this burden more formidable, given the record of past interventions in the region and considering the mixture of forces that make up ‘the opposition,’ which is so far from unified even in carrying on the struggle against the Assad regime, on occasion diverting attention to take action against a rival faction.

 

In fact, the Syrian situation has an originality that makes the Somalia template clarifying, but hardly definitive. The Syrian political struggle is more acute and vicious than was the case in Somalia 2. Also the humanitarian crisis is deeper and the plight of many Syrians caught in the maelstrom of this horrifying war that is both internal and contains regional proxy elements in ways that make it more confusing as to the probable effects of threats and uses of force on behalf of genuine humanitarian goals.

 

My basic contention is that there are no easy answers at this stage as to what should be done about the Syrian situation, and dogmatic discourse for or against intervention misses the deeply tragic nature of the policy predicament for all political actors. I would feel more comfortable about the intervention debate if it were expressed in a discourse that accords prominence to the virtue of humility. Too much in Syria remains unknowable to have any confidence that a clear line of advocacy will be historically vindicated.

 

For me the fundamental question is what it is best to do or not do in such a desperate situation of radical uncertainty. It is not only that the interventionists, and perhaps the anti-interventionists are motivated by a convergence of humanitarian/moral considerations with geostrategic ambitions, but that the nature of these hidden calculations are discussed in governmental circles behind locked doors and transcribed in secret policy memoranda. Until we address these questions of consequences and secret goals in the context of uncertainty and unknowability, the public discourse on what to do about Syria offers limited insight into how best to evaluate policy options being endorsed by policymakers and leaders. I hope that such a discussion will ensue, and replace the rather pointless and dogmatic self-righteous indignation of both interventionists and anti-interventionists.

 

I remember hearing the senior State Department diplomat, George Ball, speak just weeks after he left the government in the closing years of the Vietnam War. His primary message was that he only began to understand the war when he stopped reading the cables, that is the secret highly classified messages being sent by the military commanders and their civilian counterparts in the war zone. In effect, rather than make policy more transparent its counter-intuitive reality was to shroud the reality of Vietnam in greater obscurity. It is easy to explain why. Those in the field were committed to achieving victory, and were determined to provide reassurance, however false, to the leaders back in Washington so that they could deal with growing anti-war pressures that were a combination of public fatigue after almost a decade of engagement  and skepticism based on what became known as ‘the credibility gap’ between the claims of continuing progress in the war and what was actually taking place in Vietnam.  

 

A Meeting with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini 35 Years Ago

9 Feb

 

 

Exactly thirty-five years ago I had the experience of a lengthy meeting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni in his tent where he received visitors in the Paris suburb of Neuphle-le-Chateau. It was several days preceding his triumphal return to Iran after almost 14 years of exile, mostly spent in Najaf, Iraq. I was returning to the United States after spending two weeks in Iran during the turbulent final stage of the revolution in Iran that was on the verge of victory. My presence in Iran was in response to an invitation from Mehdi Barzargon. 

 

I was accompanied by Ramsey Clark the former American Attorney General, and still then a prominent although controversial political figure in the country, and Philip Luce, a highly respected leader of a religious NGO who had distinguished himself by much publicized nonviolent civil initiatives of opposition to the Vietnam War. At the time, I was chair of a small American committee opposed to American intervention in Iran, and it was the activities of this group that I assume led to the invitation to get a first-hand look at the revolution. We met with a wide spectrum of Iranian religious and secular personalities, including the Shah’s last prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, and the notorious counter-insurgency diplomat, William Sullivan, who was appropriately the last American ambassador to Iran (there have been no diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979). While we were in Iran, the Shah left the country signaling the end of his monarchy, which occasioned at the time the largest mass display of joy that I have ever witnessed, with millions peacefully marching on the streets of Tehran in a festive mood. It was a remarkable outcome of this almost completely nonviolent challenge mounted against what had been considered one of the strongest military regimes on the entire planet and enjoyed the undivided support of the United States that had major strategic assets (surveillance capabilities in relation to the Soviet Union and a large detachment of military forces in several large bases).

 

Leaving the turbulent scene in Iran, and having the opportunity to meet with Ayatollah Khomeini climaxed this experience of touching the living tissue of revolution. In Iran, with crowds chanting his name and carrying posters bearing his image, it was clear that Khomeini was the iconic inspiration of the revolution that had unexpectedly managed to gain a victory over the Shah. We had little sense, however, of the sort of future Khomeini envisioned for himself or what his hopes were for the revolution. What was obvious from the moment we were seated cross-legged on the ground within his tent was the strength of his arresting presence, especially his shining eyes that seemed almost black.

 

What struck us immediately was his active mind and sharp intelligence. He wanted to know what we thought were American intentions now that the Shah was gone, and given the CIA role in the 1953 events that restored the Shah to power, whether the United States was ready to respect the outcome of Iran’s revolution. In turn, we asked about his hopes for the ‘Iranian Revolution.’ His response fascinates me to this day. First of all, he immediately corrected us insistently pointing out that what had just been completed was ‘an Islamic Revolution,’ that is, asserting as primary an identity associated with religious and cultural affinities rather than emphasizing the nationalist agenda of regime change that was the common way of interpreting what had happened in Iran. Khomeini went on to say that the importance of the unfolding of events in Iran related to the entire region, and subsequent history vindicated this expectation of regional transformations. Prefiguring the future tensions in the region, Khomeini spoke disparagingly about the Saudi Arabian dynasty, calling it ‘decadent’ and out of touch with its people. His emphasis was on the unacceptability of monarchy rather than on what was later emphasized by way of sectarian tendencies between Shi’a and Sunni tendencies in Islam.

 

Khomeini, then, explained his own role in Iran, saying that he entered the political domain because the Shah had “created a river of blood between himself and the people.” He added that he was looking forward to “resuming the religious life” upon his return to Iran, and would leave the governing process to others outside of the religious community, but drawn exclusively from the ranks of the religiously oriented supporters of the revolution. At first, as we know, Khomeini resumed his residence in Qom, a religious city filled with madrasas (or seminaries), but as the new leadership seemed to falter, his political role became more and more pronounced. By the time of the hostage crisis in late 1979, the radicalization and theocratic nature of the new political order became manifest, and Khomeini himself emerged as ‘the supreme guide,’ with the elected political leadership discharging the functions of government, but subject to his veto and vision.

 

There were other important pronouncements made during the meeting. We asked about the fate of minorities, specifically, Jews and Baha’i’s, who were seen as aligned with the Shah, and in jeopardy. Khomeini’s response was thoughtful, and suggestive of what would follow. He said, “For us, the Jews are an authentic religion of the book, and if they are not too entangled with Israel, they are most welcome in Iran, and it would be a tragedy for us if they left.” In contrast, “the Baha’i’s are not a genuine religion, and have no place in Iran.” Such attitudes did foreshadow both the hostile confrontation with Israel that intensified over the years, and the discriminatory approach taken toward the Bahai’s that at one stage approached a genocidal threshold. Both minorities felt uncomfortable living in an Islamic theocracy, and if they possessed the resources, mainly emigrated to friendlier national habitats.

 

Khomeini spoke at some length about the crimes of the Shah’s government, and the responsibility of its political entourage, suggesting the importance of individual accountability. He mentioned the Nuremberg trials of surviving Nazi political figures and military commanders after World War II as a useful precedent that would underpin the approach taken by the new Iranian leadership toward those who had carried out the repressive policies of the Shah, which included widespread torture and massacres of unarmed demonstrators.

 

As we know, this Nuremberg path was never taken by the new Iranian rulers.  The most prominent members of the inner circle of the Peacock Throne who had not fled the country were summarily executed without either indictments or trials. This was aptly treated by the outside world as an indication that the new governing process in Iran would turn out to be repressive and contemptuous of the rule of law. After the fact, it seemed rather obvious why the regime resorted to rough justice. Many of those who had shaped the revolutionary process had studied in Europe or America, and were recipients of economic assistance from Western governments, included funding from the CIA, and maybe performed political roles. Remember that during the Cold War era, Islamically oriented groups and individuals were looked upon as valuable allies in the West. This was due in Iran to their deep dislike of Marxism and the Soviet Union. Sullivan informed us during our visit to the American Embassy that Washington had prepared 26 scenarios of potential political dangers for the Shah, and not one of them had posited Islamic opposition as a threat.

 

Reflecting on this meeting more than three decades ago several strong impressions remain. First, the almost archetypal reality of Khomeini as the embodiment of an Islamic religious leader, who despite a physical frailness, exhibited great strength of mind and will combined with a demeanor of austere severity. Secondly, his vision of an Islamic political future that was rooted in religious and civilizational affinities rather than based on national borders. Thirdly, the discrepancy between his assertions that upon returning to Iran he would resume the pursuit of his religious vocation and his emergence as the dominating political figure who moved from Qom to Tehran to preside over the drafting of a new and suppressive theocratic constitution and the formation of the government.

 

I have thought often, especially about this last observation, and discussed its core mystery with friends. This remains my question: did Khomeini change the conception of his role upon returning to Iran, or did he hide from us either consciously or unconsciously his real game plan? As far as I know, no one has provided a credible explanation. It may be that Khomeini during his long exile underestimated his popularity in Iran, which he reassessed after receiving such a tumultuous welcome when he returned or that he found that the liberal Islamists (such as Bani Sadr, Barzargon, Ghotbzadeh) he was relying upon to manage the government were not committed to the kind of revolutionary future that he believed to be mandated by the Iranian people or upon his return he was pushed by other imams ‘to save the revolution’ from this first wave of post-Shah politicians who had mainly lived in the West and were not trusted in Iran. However such issues are resolved, it is clear that the Islamic Republic that emerged in Iran resembled the kind of ideal design of Islamic government that Khomeini had depicted in a series of lectures on ‘Islamic Government,’ which was published in 1970.

 

There is one further reflection that bears on the present course of events in the Middle East in this period three years after the Arab Spring. Khomeini by insisting on all or nothing in the struggle against the Shah did create a transformative moment in which an Iranian transition to a truly new political order took place. In contrast the 2011 militants in Tahrir Square were content with the removal of the despotic leader and some soft promises of democratic reforms, and ended up succumbing to a counter-revolutionary tsunami that has reconstituted the repressive Mubarak past in a more extreme form. This does not imply that what has unfolded in Iran was beneficial, only that it was a decisive break with the past, and in this crucial sense, ‘revolutionary.’ In this respect, Ayatollah Khomeini was a true revolutionary even if his goal was to turn the clock back when it came to modernity, including secular values.

 

 

OMAR: Uncovering Occupied Palestine

4 Feb

 

            OMAR is the second film directed by Hany Abu-Assad to be a finalist among foreign language films nominated to receive an Oscar at the 2014 Academy Awards ceremony on March 2nd. The earlier film, PARADISE NOW (2005), brought to life the preoccupation at the time with suicide bombing as the principle tactic of Palestinian resistance by exposing the deep inner conflicts of those who partake, the tragic effects of such terror on its Israeli targets, and the hardened manipulative mentality of the leaders who prepare the perpetrators. Abu-Assad born in 1961 in Nazareth, emigrated to the Netherlands in 1980, writes the screen plays for his movies as well as directs. He has a profound gift for story telling that keeps an audience engaged with the human drama affecting the principal Palestinian characters while illuminating broader issues of profound moral and political concern without stooping to didactic means of conveying ‘the message.’ So understood, Abu-Assad’s achievement is artistic in the primary sense, yet attunes us to the dilemmas of oppression and servitude.

 

            In these respects OMAR is superior even to PARADISE NOW, telling the story of what life under Israeli occupation means for the way Palestinian lives are lived, the normalcy’s of romantic attraction contrasting with the abnormalities of humiliating lives lived behind prison walls. The film opens with Omar climbing the high domineering security wall to overcome the separation of Arab families living on either side, being detected by the Israeli guards who sound sirens and fire a shot. Omar manages to clamor back down and leap to safety. Israeli police on foot and in cars pursue Omar through the alleyways and streets of an impoverished Palestinian neighborhood. The underlying poignancy of Omar’s situation is to be at once ‘a freedom fighter’ and a sensitive young man deeply in love with Nadia, the younger sister of Tarek, his militia commander. In an unspoken realism, Omar is unconditionally bound to both causes, jeopardizing his chance to live a shadow life of acquiescence to the realities of occupation by his choice to dedicate himself at great risk and little hope to the liberation of the Palestinian people and their land.

 

            The wall reinforced by the Israeli security forces, portrayed as cunning and unscrupulous, with an occupiers’ fear and loathing for those who cower under the rigors of occupation, provides an unforgettable visual metaphor that captures the daily ordeal of the Palestinian people. In a subtle touch, the rope used by Omar throughout the film to avoid the checkpoints and overcome the separation of his home from that of Tarek and Nadia also conveys an understanding that the wall is much more about humiliation and land than it is about security. The rope remains untouched during the entirety of the film, although its presence and illegal use must have been obvious to the Israeli occupation forces that never bother to remove it.

 

            What emerges most vividly as the story unfolds is the dehumanizing effects of prolonged occupation. Omar and Nadia have charm and humor to give their love for another an unforgettable credibility that is brought to life by their awareness of what it means to live without the right to travel beyond the wall. They talk in the language of fantasy about where to go on their honeymoon: he proposes Mozambique, she counters with Bangla Desh, and then more truly, admits that Paris is her dream, while they both fully realize that they will never get the opportunity to get beyond the dingy confines of the West Bank. Nadia’s biggest trip outside of her immediate neighborhood was a visit to Hebron, the tensest, most humiliated city in occupied Palestine, notorious for daily settler violence against the large residentPalestinian community.

 

            The film conveys better than any book the interactive intimacies of occupier and occupied. The Israeli lead security agent, Rami, calls his mother to ask her to pick up his daughter from school, and when she asks why he can’t do it, he responds “I am stuck in the middle of the fucking West Bank.” Yet the most abiding realization is the horrible dehumanizing effects of this mixture of fear and hatred in contexts of unspeakable inequality, with total control seemingly on one side, and complete vulnerability on the other side. The torture scenes, like the wall, are both horrible in their own enactment, but also metaphors of what it means to live your entire life within master/slave structures of relationship.

 

            The reality of Palestinian violent resistance has two important consequences even though it seems currently futile from the perspective of challenging the occupation in any way that promises to liberation: it gives dignity to Palestinians who seem united in their will to live-unto-death despite their defenselessness and it makes Israelis vulnerable despite their seeming total control of the situation as a result of their weaponry, police, surveillance technology, and arrogant sense of racial superiority. In effect, the desperate slave when life is deprived of all personal meaning can sacrifice himself in a symbolic act of vengeance, and inflict pain and loss on the master. Seen from an Israeli perspective, there is no way to achieve total security (this side of total genocide) no matter how clever, sophisticated, and oppressive the systems of control put in place. Technology is incapable of doing the whole job, and for this reason, human fallibility always produces some sort of payback from the incompletely vanquished subjugated population.

 

            For this reason, from the Palestinian side, nothing is worse that becoming a collaborator, and yet only a hero among heroes, would have the super-human capacity to avoid such a fate given the brutality used by Israelis to acquire the information they need to enforce their will on a hostile population. For the occupier recruiting collaborators is a vital part of improving security; for the occupied, it is the final humiliation, making the fate of the traitor far worse than that of the slave. Omar is portrayed in a fascinating manner because he succumbs, and yet in the end he doesn’t succumb. Amjad, his friend collaborates with the Israelis to steal Omar away from Nadia, with the biopolitical insight that romantic longings may take lethal precedence over political loyalty and lifelong friendship. In this respect, the power of love is greater than the power of power. The film also is faithful to the traditional social norms that bind Palestinians to family relations in ways that also enslave, including the total disempowerment of women. Nadia is portrayed as strong in her dual attachments to love and resistance, and yet is deprived by Palestinian norms of freedom in relation to her body and choice of partner. In this sense, Nadia is doubly occupied.

 

            OMAR makes no effort to depict the larger issues of resistance tactics, to portray some vision of a realizable peace, or to bring into play the behavior of politicians, the UN, the international community. Such considerations are ignored, and seem irrelevant to the forces that impact daily on Palestinian lives. It takes the present as a seemingly permanent given, in effect, a society of prisoners sentenced for life with no hope for parole or escape. So understood, the actual Israeli prison that is depicted in the film is a prison within a prison, that is, a walled enclave that exists within a walled country.

 

            The great achievement of Hany Abu-Assad in this film is to make you feel and think, and maybe hopefully act. I left the theater with the overriding sense that the continuation of this occupation is intolerable for both sides, that it dehumanizes Israelis as much as it does Palestinians, two peoples caught in a vicious circle of subjugation and resistance. But not equally so caught as the masters live life in more satisfying ways than the slaves, at least for now, at least until the walls come tumbling down.