Archive by Author

Alliance Blackmail: Israel’s Opposition to the Iran Nuclear Agreement

26 Jul

 

The Vienna Agreement [formally labeled by diplospeak as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)] reached by the P5 + 1 on July 14, 2015 has been aptly hailed as a political breakthrough, not only because it calms regional worries about Iran’s nuclear program, but more so because it has the potential to remove an ugly dimension of conflict from the regional turmoil in the Middle East. Such a diplomatic success, after so many years of frustration, chaos, and strife, should be an occasion for hope and celebration, and in many venues it is, although not in Israel or Saudi Arabia or among the neo-con kingpins in Washington think tanks and their numerous Republican allies in the U.S. Congress.

 

Which side will prevail in this dysfunctional encounter is presently obscure, which itself is an indication of the dismal conditions of political life in America. Many unanswered and unanswerable questions bedevil the process: Will this agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program be approved, and then implemented, or will it be blocked or unacceptably revised before coming into operation, or later on? Will Iran become associated more openly with Western attempts to defeat ISIS and in the desperate need to bring peace and humane governance to Syria where the people of the country have endured such severe suffering since 2011? Will these developments allow Iran to be treated as a normal state within regional and global political settings, and if this reduced atmosphere of external tension occurs will it also have moderating impacts on the internal governing process in Iran? Or will Israel and its allies succeed in keeping Iran in ‘a terrorist cage’ reserved for pariah states, and continue to insist upon a military option to wage war against Iran? Will Israel receive ‘compensation’ in the form of enhanced military assistance from the United States to demonstrate Washington’s unwavering commitment to the alliance? Will Israel’s secretly acquired nuclear weapons capability be called into question in an effort to achieve denuclearization, which is more consistent with peace and morality than calling into question Iran’s threat of nuclear proliferation? Further afield, will this gap between the American/European and Israeli/Gulf approach lead over time to new geopolitical alignments that broaden beyond policy toward Iran’s nuclear program?

 

At the core these many concerns, is the nature and health of the United States/Israel relationship, and more broadly the appalling balance of forces that controls political life from the governmental hub in Washington. The alliance bonding between the two countries have been called ‘unconditional’ and even ‘eternal’ by Obama, words echoed by every American public figure with any credible mainstream political ambitions, currently including even the supposed radical presidential aspirant, Bernie Sanders. And yet that is not nearly good enough for AIPAC and the Adelson-led legions pro-Israeli fanatics, which periodically lambaste this strongly pro-Israeli president for alleged betrayals of Israel’s most vital security interests, and generally take derisive issue with the slightest sign of accommodationist diplomacy in the region.

The most illuminating discussion of these issues from Tel Aviv’s perspective is undoubtedly the recently published memoir of Israel’s American born ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, who served in this key role during the period 2009-2013. Oren was elected to the Knesset earlier this year representing, Kulanu, a small centrist Israeli party focused on economic and social reform. Oren’s bestselling book, Ally: Managing the America/Israel Divide (Random House, 2015) succeeds in combining an intelligent insider’s account of the strained relations between the Netanyahu government and the Obama presidency with frequent vain and self-aggrandizing autobiographical reflections in the spirit of ‘Look Ma, I am dancing with the Queen,’ reinforced by analysis that justifies every aspect of Israel’s extreme right-wing and militarist approaches to security policy and diplomacy. To understand better the Israeli worldview that mixes genuine fears of its enemies with arrogant behavior toward its friends there is no more instructive book.

 

An American–born Jew, Oren conceived of himself both as a product of and an emissary to the Jewish diaspora in the United States, diplomat discharging his conventional government-to-government diplomatic role. Above all, Oren during his tenure in office (2009-2013) apparently did his best to keep political tensions between these two countries and their personally uncongenial leaders below the surface while unreservedly supporting the public claim that this special alliance relationship serves the interests and values of both countries. Oren ends his book with a dramatic assertion of this overlap: “Two countries, one dream.” Perhaps even more disturbing than the rationalization of all that is Zionist and Israeli throughout the book is the seeming sincerity of Oren’s sustained advocacy. A bit of cynicism here and there might have made Oren less of a self-anointed Manchurian candidate.

 

Given this posture of dedicated advocate, it is hardly surprising that Oren is a harsh opponent of those liberal groups that question AIPAC’s constructive influence on American policy debates or that he views initiatives critical of Israel, such as the Goldstone Report or the BDS campaign, as dangerous, disreputable, and damaging threats to Israel’s security and wellbeing. Even J-Street, harmless as it has turned out to be, was viewed as an anathema to Oren who turned down its invitations and regarded it as somehow exhibiting a leftist posture toward Israel. Only later when it became domesticated by denouncing the Goldstone Report and generally supportive of Israel’s use of force against Gaza did Oren feel it had joined what he calls ‘the mainstream’ of Beltway politics, which in his slanted vision is where he situates AIPAC and the U.S. Congress. Quite incredibly, even Martin Indyk, early in his career an AIPAC researcher and more recently the American ambassador to Israel, was viewed as a poor appointment as Special Envoy to the Kerry peace talks of 2013-2014 because he did not have a cordial enough relationship with Netanyahu. From my perspective, it was also a poor appointment, but for opposite reasons–an in-your-face display of pro-Israeli partisanship that undermined any credibility the United States claimed as a responsible intermediary at the resumed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

 

Central to Oren’s presentation of Israeli behavior is the one-way street that he treats as embedded in the word ‘ally,’ which for Oren expresses the peculiar and generally unacknowledged character of this ‘special relationship.’ It is well illustrated by Oren’s support for Israel’s effort led with undisguised bluntness by Netanyahu to undermine Obama capacity to negotiate a nuclear arrangement with Iran despite JCPOA being strongly endorsed as in the national interest of the United States, but also of France, United Kingdom, China, Russia, and Germany. The agreement also seems beneficial for the Middle East as a whole and indeed for the world. Such an encompassing consensus endorsing the elaborate arrangement negotiated was exhibited in a resolution of support adopted by the UN Security Council [SC Resolution 2231, 20 July 2015] by an unusual unanimous vote. Oren still complains bitterly that Israel’s rejectionist views toward an agreement with Iran were in the end circumvented, at least so far. At one point Oren even suggests that Israel was better off when the inflammatory Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Iran’s president rather than the more measured Hassan Rouhani. In his view, Iran remains just as aggressively disposed toward Israel despite the more moderate language of the present leadership, but that the West has been falsely reassured to the point of being willing to ease gradually the sanctions previously imposed in this latest diplomatic initiative, thereby raising the level of threat faced by Israel and accounting for Netanyahu’s frantic opposition to the agreement.

 

In the end, despite siding with Israel at every turn with respect to tension with the U.S. Government, Oren recognizes that Obama has been on balance been a faithful ally. Although indicting the Obama presidency the United States for being a disloyal ‘ally’ when the Iran chips were on the diplomatic table. It is not presently clear whether Netanyahu’s insistence that the nuclear deal (JCPOA) is ‘a historic mistake’ will overcome rationality and self-interest in the American setting either in the immediate future of approving the (non-treaty) agreement, or over a longer period should the United States have the misfortune of electing a Republican president in 2016 who are presently stumbling over one another in their competition to denounce more decisively.

 

More generally, Oren outrageously proposes that this alliance between Israel and the United States, to live up to its potential, should have three dimensions that would make it unlike all others: ‘no daylight’ on common concerns, that is, no policy differences; ‘no suprises,’ that is, advance notification to the other government of any international policy initiatives bearing on the Middle East; and never a public display of disagreements when policy differences between the two governments emerge as happened with Iran. The justifications given by Oren emphasize the usual litany of two states sharing commitments to political democracy, anti-terrorism, and having common regional strategic and security goals.

 

What seems superficially astounding is that the world’s number one state seems frightened to step on the smallest Israeli toe, while Israel is ready to do whatever it needs to do to get its way on policy issues in the event of a dispute with its supposedly more powerful partner. After negotiating a far tougher deal (on enriched uranium and intrusive inspections) with Iran than the realities warrant, at least partly out of deference to Israeli concerns, Washington still feels it appropriate and apparently necessary to indicate a readiness to provide ‘compensation,’ that is, enlarged contributions beyond the current $3.1 billion, offers of weapons systems designed to bolster further Israel QME (Qualitative Military Edge) in the Middle East. The White House additionally sends its recently appointed Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, to Israel with hat in hand, evidently to reassure the Israeli leadership that nothing about the agreement is inconsistent with continuing support of Israel’s right to defend itself as it sees fit, which appears to be a writ of permission in violation of the UN Charter and international law by granting Israel assurance in advance of U.S. support should it at some future point launch an attack on Iran. It should be noted that no state in the world enjoys such inappropriate benefits from an alliance with the United States. The whole dubious logic of QME implies a continuing willingness to put Israeli security permanently on an unlawful pedestal in the region that places other states in a subordinate position that makes them susceptible to Israeli military threats and hegemonic demands. It is tantamount to providing Israel with assured capabilities to win any war, whatever the pretext, that should emerge in the future, and also means that Israel is the only state in the Middle East not deterred by concerns about retaliation by an adversary. For years Israel has been threatening Iran with a military attack in flagrant violation of Article 2(4) that unconditionally prohibits “any threat or use of force” except in situations of self-defense as strictly limited by Article 51.

 

Oren, of course, sees things much differently. He repeats without pausing to entertain the slightest doubt, that Israeli is the only democracy in the Middle East and joined at the hip to American foreign policy as a result of these shared interests and values. He insists that the UN is biased against Israel, and is thankful for American blanket opposition to all hostile initiatives, whether justified or not, that arise within the Organization. For Oren UN bias is clearly evident in the greater attention given to Israel’s alleged wrongs than those of much bloodier international situations and worse violators. He also faults Obama, as compared to George W. Bush, for being a weak ally, too ready to please the Palestinians and indeed the entire Islamic world, and supposedly causing an unspecified ‘tectonic shift’ in the alliance with Israel during his presidency. In this regard, the Iran Agreement is the last straw for Oren, and the most damaging example of a departure from the alleged alliance code of no daylight and no surprises (epitomized by recourse to secret diplomacy between Washington and Tehran that left Tel Aviv out of the loop for several months leading up to the agreement). Of course, Oren is unapologetic about Israel’s obstructionist behavior. He treats Netanyahu’s conception of Israel’s security as essentially correct, if at times unnecessarily confrontational. He believes that in this instance Israel’s worries are sufficiently vital and well-founded as to deserve putting aside diplomatic niceties. This was the case when the Israeli leader was invited by the Republican leadership in Congress to speak on Iran at a special joint session convened for this purpose in early 2015 without even informing the White House in advance of the invitation, a violation of political protocol.

 

Deconstructing the Oren view of alliance politics makes it clear that its operational code would be better observed if the Congress and not the President represented the United States in matters of foreign policy. Netanyahu and a majority of the U.S. Congress do seem to see eye to eye, including of course on whether the Iran Nuclear Agreement, as negotiated, should be approved. Across the board of foreign policy in the Middle East, Netanyahu and Congress are bellicose, inclined toward military solutions despite the dismal record of failure, and inclined to decide about friends and enemies on the basis of geopolitical alignment and religious orientation without the slightest concern about whether or not supportive of democracy, human rights, and decency.

 

Should a Republican with these views be elected president in 2016, then Oren’s dream of the alliance as based on ‘no daylight, no surprises, and no public discord’ would likely come true, illustrating the proposition that one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare. More carefully considered, it would seem probable that if Hilary Clinton gets the keys to the White House her approach to Israel will be closer to that of Congress than that of Obama even recalling that Obama backed away quickly from his early demand that Israel freeze settlement expansion and has significantly increased military assistance for Israel without exhibiting much concern about peace and justice in the region, or with regard to the Palestinian ordeal. U.S. response to the Sisi coup in Egypt is indicative of a strategic convergence of approach by the Obama White House and Netanyahu’s Likud led government.

 

Two realities are present as surfacing in response to the Iran Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA):

-the presidency is on one side (along with Clinton) and Congress/Israel is on the other side;

–yet more broadly conceived, the alliance remains as unconditional and bipartisan as ever, defiant toward the UN and the constraints of international law whenever expedient.

 

A final point. JCPOA imposes more restrictions on Iranian enrichment capabilities and stockpiles, and on inspection and monitoring of compliance, than has been imposed on any country in the course of the entire nuclear era. Its regional justifications, aside from Israeli security, emphasize the avoidance of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East involving Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. And left out of consideration altogether was the nuclear weapons arsenal of Israel acquired with Western complicity and by covert means, as well as through operations outside the Nonproliferation Treaty regime, which is used to tie Iran’s hands and feet. Such are the maneuvers of geopolitics, that underpin the alliance so strongly celebrated by Michael Oren.

 

 

 

 

 

A Postscript: Campaign for Bernie Sanders

15 Jul

Opposing Hilary Clinton: Supporting Bernie Sanders

 

As a result of several astute comments, I became aware that my prior post on why Hilary Clinton had crossed a red line that could not be erased by invoking the amoral rationale of the lesser of evils, was seriously incomplete. It overlooked the presence of Bernie Sanders as a rival candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Sanders was present in my mind while I was writing the post, but I wrongly jumped to the conclusion that he was sure to lose out to the Hilary juggernaut that has already captured huge campaign contributions (reportedly over $70 million) and has the backing of the Democratic Party bureaucracy and leadership, and hence not worth the effort.

 

What I did not take into account is the importance of Bernie’s campaign, win or lose, in raising for Americans in ways that are substantive and progressive issues involving the 40 year decline of America’s middle classes and poor, and the massive transfers of wealth to the top 1%. Clinton is addressing these issues rhetorically but her policy minders and political instincts are Wall Street crafted (without policy bite) and in the end quite compatible with the rapacious practices of hedge fund operators. The United States desperately needs a genuine attack on predatory capitalism and its increasing success in replacing republican democracy with proto-fascist plutocracy. Perhaps, Bernie Sanders will not go this far by way of critique and prescription, but his campaign deserves the full support of progressives, and hopefully his presence in the political arena will contribute to the belated awakening of more American citizens to the variety of internal dangers (racism, gun culture, collapsing infrastructure) confronting the country, developments that cannot be separated from the geopolitical militarism and geoeconomic neoliberalism that Clinton espouses.

 

My encouragement, then, is for hard campaigning on behalf of Bernie Sanders, and if he should after all lose the nomination to Clinton after putting up a good fight, a message of gratitude as well as a principled shift to the second most worthy candidate on the presidential stage, Jill Stein of the Green Party. If the Democratic Party faithful goes ahead and chooses Clinton over Sanders it should expect the defection of all those of us who insist upon a precautionary approach to climate change and a repudiation of neoliberal capitalism, as well as a genuine embrace of racial justice, immigration equity, and the sexual/gender liberation agenda. Being less distasteful on these litmus issues than the Republicans is not sufficient to warrant support.

Voting for Hilary Clinton? Red Lines versus Lesser of Evils

14 Jul

 

 

Assuming that the current prospects for presidential candidates hold firm, and Hilary Clinton is nominated by the Democrats and Jeb Bush, Rick Rubio, or Scott Walker win the Republican nomination, what should a conscientious citizen do when it comes to voting in November 2016? Of course, step one is to rule out support for the Republican candidates due to their regressive views on a range of social and economic issues, and their militarist bluster on foreign and defense policy. Step two is more difficult. Clinton is clearly preferable if the domestic agenda is taken into account, and probably no worse than the Republicans when it comes to foreign policy, but also not noticeably better, and in some ways more objectionable.

 

For instance, she begins her recent letter to the billionaire arch Zionist mega-donor and longtime Clinton family supporter, Haim Saban, on July 7, 2015 this way: “I am writing to express my alarm over the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement, ‘BDS,’ a global effort to isolate the State of Israel by ending commercial and academic exchanges.” She seeks Saban’s guidance in pursuit of this nefarious goal with this deferential language: “Now I am seeking your thoughts and recommendations on how leaders and communities across America can work together to counter BDS.”

 

I am sure it didn’t escape the gurus of the Clinton campaign that Saban had joined with the casino mogul, Sheldon Adelson not long ago to headline a donors gathering at which each participant was expected to pledge $1 million to fight BDS. Although Adelson identifies as Republican and Saban as Democrat, both fervently embrace the Netanyahu brand of Israeli leadership. Saban has been quoted on Iran in language that manages to outdo Bibi, “I would bomb the daylight out of those sons of bitches.”

 

Clinton has a variety of other scary credentials, including voting in support of the Iraq War of 2003, and to this day remains unwilling to admit that the war was at the very least a tragic mistake, and more accurately, a costly international crime. She not only argued for intervention in Libya in 2011, but made a chilling comment on CBS News after learning of the grisly vigilante execution of Muammar Qaddafi: “We came, we saw, he died.” Further, among the emails that Clinton has long withheld from the public are several that substantiate the charges that France from the outset both intended to overthrow the Qaddafi regime, and expected to reap economic benefits by way of the spoils of war, especially with respect to Libya’s oil wealth. It is not that Clinton actually conspired with such plans while serving as Secretary of State, but she did knowingly lead the effort to support the French-led NATO intervention in 2011, claiming that its limited goal was the protection of Libyan civilians in Benghazi, when she was well aware that the real purpose of the UN-mandated intervention was regime-change in Tripoli.

 

Here is my dilemma. In view of such considerations, does one vote for Hilary Clinton with eyes wide open because she is likely to be better for ordinary Americans on a range of crucial issues, including some effort to challenge the obscene scandal of growing inequalities and sustained slippage in the real income and labor rights of workers and the accumulated hardships on much of the middle class? Or does one say there are certain candidates whose views are so abhorrent as to be unsupportable without weighing their suitability against alternatives? Many remember the acrimonious debates along the same lines concerning the 2000 campaign pitting Bush against Gore, and allegedly lost by Gore in Florida because Ralph Nader, running as a third party candidate, received over 90,000 votes, arguably more than enough to swing the state to Gore’s side of the ledger, and thus enough electoral votes to win the presidency. Most Democrats angrily dismissed Nader as a spoiler and harshly criticized supporters for indulging in irresponsible political behavior. As someone who voted for Nader in 2000, while coming to detest the Bush presidency, I continue to believe that primary duty of citizens in a democratic society is to be on most occasions responsive to their conscience rather than to attempt pragmatic calculations often glamorized as ‘the best being the enemy of the good.’ In the case more accurately phrases as ‘the worst being the enemy of the bad.’ I do admit that I didn’t realize in 2000 that Bush would turn out as badly as he did, and if I had, I might have wavered.

 

Looking ahead to 2016 the issue of choice can be at this stage put as follows: vote for Hilary Clinton as ‘the lesser of evils’ or vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party as the most attractive presidential candidate, but someone with no chance to do more than enliven the debate and give alienated voters like myself a positive option that feels better than not voting. Remember that there were those establishment liberals who in the tense days after the 9/11 attacks were ready to rationalize torture as the lesser of evils. It was alleged lesser as compared to the need for information that would lead to dangerous terrorist suspects, but where it actually led was to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and a nationally humiliating orgy of torture with very little security payoff. The Kathryn Bigelow film on the search for and execution of Osama Bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty,” also gave a bright green light to the torture policies of the Bush presidency, fed to the public by the grotesque evasion embedded in the words ‘enhanced interrogation.’

 

The alternative logic may be described as respect for ‘red lines.’ I happen to believe that the BDS campaign is a desirable and an essential step in the redesign of a peace process that might produce a just and sustainable peace for Palestinians and Israelis

after more than 67 years of agonizing failure, including the recent frustrations associated with the Oslo diplomacy initiated by the handshake in 1993 between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat, with a beaming Bill Clinton standing in between. For me, Hilary Clinton crossed my red line with her craven letter to Haim Saban, making it impossible for me to vote for her by invoking the alternative logic of the lesser of evil. But maybe, although unlikely, by the time November 2016 comes around, I might reconsider.

 

I realize that if one of those awful Republicans is elected president by a close vote that is skewed by Green Party votes, I will be bitterly criticized by liberal friends. I admit that it is a tricky issue on principled grounds. Livelihoods and wellbeing will almost certainly be adversely affected by a Republican victory, whereas the differences in foreign policy between the two candidates are murky at best, and on Israel/Palestine there is no up side regardless of which party prevails. At the same time, the American plutocracy has become a bipartisan enterprise, calling for resistance as an ethical and political imperative, acknowledging the validity of Chris Hedges’ powerfully reasoned insistence that the country is experiencing pre-revolutionary tremors.

 

At this stage of the electoral process, my overall sense is that the lesser of evils is still evil, and that morally significant red lines are important for citizens to draw and respect. Until further notice, then, I have decided not to cast my vote for Hilary Clinton.  

UN Gaza Report Part II: Israel’s Counterinsuurgency Apologist: Colonel Richard Kemp

6 Jul

 

Retired British colonel, Richard Kemp, has been an ardent supporter of Israel’s three major military operations in Gaza conducted over the last six

years. He has collaborated on several occasions with the two notoriously pro-Israeli NGOs, UN Watch and NGO Monitor, serving on the Advisory Board of the latter and appearing as star witness under such auspices at the UN, most recently at a two-day side event at UN Headquarters in Geneva devoted to condemning the UN Commission of Inquiry Report on the Gaza War of 2014.

 

There is no doubt that Col. Kemp has the credentials to speak as a counterinsurgency specialist, having served as commander of British forces

in Afghanistan and elsewhere, where he acknowledges close cooperation with Mossad and the influence of Israeli tactics. In fairness, Kemp writes from such a militarist view with little effort to assess the relevance of international humanitarian law, treating ‘military effectiveness’ as determined by military commanders as the defining criterion of legality for a challenged battlefield practice. In his own words, “[i]t’s the dispassionate military perspective that I bring.” Of course, such an outlook ignores the relevance of international criminal law, which is to superimpose accountability as a constraining framework on this ‘military perspective.’ Actually, Kemp doesn’t so much ignore international criminal law as to (mis)interpret its rules so as to vindicate the tactics of the counterinsurgent side while condemning those of the insurgent.

 

On June 25, 2015 the New York Times published an opinion piece by Kemp assessing the UN Report. What I find scandalous and perverse on the part of this self-claiming authoritative media source, is to publish such a harsh and partisan dismissal of a prudent and overly balanced report without any kind of offsetting piece. I can only imagine the furor that would have been provoked if the NYT had published a piece by an expert in international criminal law, say William Schabas or John Dugard, calling for the indictment and prosecution of Israel’s political and military leaders on the basis of the Report. At least, if such a piece had been published alongside the Kemp article, NYT readers could have been exposed to the realities of controversy flowing from these UN allegations that Israel (and to a far lesser extent, Hamas) was guilty of war crimes.

 

Kemp begins his article with the claim that “..it pains me greatly to see words and actions from the UN that can only provoke further violence and loss of life.” As is ‘law’ imposed on the powerful and not their weaponry is responsible for violence and the loss of life in Gaza. We are not told exactly why reaches this perverse conclusion, but presumably Kemp believes that the condemnation of Israel’s use of indiscriminate and disproportionate force would embolden Hamas, and Palestinians generally, to continue to claim a right of resistance. What Kemp (and Israel) obviously seek is a circumstance in which whatever the dominant military forces do is validated by its effectiveness and what a population under domination does in opposition is condemned with the implication that resistance to Israel’s prolonged occupation is inherently unlawful.

 

Kemp’s puff piece is filled with bland endorsements of Israel’s most blatant propaganda. For instance, Kemp asserts, in complete disregard of the evidence, that Israel imposed the blockade on Gaza “only in response to attacks by Hamas.” While it is common knowledge, even in Israel, that the blockade has been maintained since 2007 as a ‘collective punishment’ imposed on the civilian population of Gaza, having little to do with security, which was mainly sustained by way of rigorous monitoring of all crossings to and from Gaza, and with Egypt’s cooperation at Rafah during the Mubarak era and since Sisi’s ascent. Kemp has nothing to say about Israel’s frequent lethal incursions into Gaza that have accompanied the occupation since it started in 1967, and he uncritically supports Israel’s distorted one-sided timeline that claims Israel only attacks in retaliation for missiles and mortar fire from Hamas, and never initiates violent interactions by on its own. Kemp also never refers to the ceasefires broken by Israel, as in the leadup to Operation Cast Lead at the end of 2008. Instead, as Kemp has written elsewhere of this earlier brutal attack on a vulnerable, cage population, “I can only say this: during Operation Cast Lead, the IDF did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in the combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.”

 

Most disturbingly, Kemp writes in a condescending manner as follows: “The report is characterized by a lack of understanding of warfare,” as revealed by its failure to compare what Israel is doing with what the U.S. and Britain have done in Afghanistan, Iraq. In Kemp’s words, Israeli tactics are no different than those used extensively by American and British forces in similar circumstances.” What is most dangerous about this counterinsurgency worldview is its implicit reasoning that allows such conclusions to be set forth in good faith by professional soldiers. To begin with, Kemp is essentially correct that the counterinsurgency wars waged by the U.S. and Britain have relied on similar tactics, but does that make Israel’s pattern consistent with international law and morality? Most international law assessments of these uses of modern weaponry against densely populated civilian areas consider such tactics to be severe war crimes, not models to be invoked as validation.

Kemp’s state of play is revealed here: converting past crimes into authoritative precedents to justify present crimes, or to transform crimes into legitimate counterinsurgency tactics.

 

Beyond this, Israel’s tactics are worse in some instances than those of its predecessors. Whereas in Vietnam, the United States used its far less precise air power to inflict heavy casualties on the Vietnamese civilian population it refrained from attacking urban population centers as Israel did in the Gaza attack of 2014, as well as the earlier ones. Even in Falluja, the worst instance of American firepower directed at a city believed to be a center of insurgent opposition in Iraq to American occupation, the population was given ample time to vacate the city after warnings of impending attack. In contrast, except for the 800 Palestinians that held foreign passports who were allowed to leave Gaza, the remainder of the civilian population in Gaza was locked into the combat zone, losing even the desperate option of fleeing to safety by becoming a refugee. Col. Kemp, invoking his counterinsurgency experience and knowledge, never sees fit to mention such a damning ‘detail.’

Nor does he bother to point out that the whole of Gaza was a combat zone, and that civilians, including women and children, had no place of sanctuary and safety, other than to seek refuge in UN facilities and mosques, which then were turned into targets because of Israeli claims that weapons were stored in these places.

 

Parroting the worst elements of Israeli hasbara, Kemp sets forth this grotesque characterization of Hamas tactics: “Unable to inflict existential harm on Israel by military means, Hamas sought to cause large numbers of casualties among its own people in order to bring condemnation and unbearable diplomatic pressure against Israel.” To make such an extreme allegation without bothering to cite evidence is to portray Hamas as seeking the genocidal annihilation of its own people. This is an odd accusation in view of the evidence that Hamas became gained more popular support from the Gazan population after this Israeli attack than before, presumably because of its steadfastness under the most severe of pressures. Also, Kemp withholds comments on the repeated and strenuous efforts of Hamas to seek the renewal of the ceasefire prior to the initiation of the Israel onslaught in early July of 2014.

 

In effect, Kemp is appraising Israel’s behavior on the basis of the ‘new normal’ prevailing among counterinsurgency hawks that have led the West into war after war in its futile effort to defer the death of European colonialism, and its American sequel. What is done by the West is justified by military effectiveness (although without noticing that these wars have all been eventually lost), what is done by the forces of national resistance is criminalized if not demonized as ‘barbarism.’

 

 

It is not surprising that UN Watch and NGO Monitor organized an elaborate side event at the Palais des Nations in Geneva last week that featured Richard Kemp as its lead speakers, but included an array of other counterinsurgency specialists, with no attempt whatsoever to bring to bear the perspectives of international humanitarian law except in the spirit of Israeli apologetics. For description of this event held on June 29-30 see the home pages of either UN Watch or NGO Monitor. It is notable that unlike the response to the Goldstone Report in 2009 that featured denunciations of bias and personal attacks, the orchestrated reaction to COI report is more sophisticated, relying on a variety of substantive reports that set forth Israel’s claims of justification, a media blitz, along with major advocacy efforts by Israel’s well-trained NGO poodles.

 

A welcome contrasting vision, closer to law, morality, and reality is offered by Max Blumenthal in his new book, The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza (2015). David Swanson, the noted anti-war activist, titles his review of Blumenthal’s book, “the 51-day Genocide” <http//davidswanson.org/node/4815> As Swanson puts it in his review of the book, “I can think of a few other words that characterized the 2014 assault on Gaza in addition to ‘war,’ among them, occupation, murder-spree, and genocide. Each serves a valuable purpose. Each is correct.”

 

UN Report on War Crimes during Israel’s 51 Day Assault on Gaza

6 Jul

 

 

Exactly a year ago, for 51 days between July 7 and August 26 Israel carried out its third major military assault (2008-09; 2012; 2014) on Gaza in the past six years. This last one, code named Operation Protective Edge by Israeli Defense Forces, was the most vicious, killing 2,251 Palestinians, of which 1,462 were civilians, and included 299 women and 551 children, as well as injuring 11,231, a number that includes 3,436 children, 10% of whom have permanent disabilities, and another 1,500 have been orphaned. Israel also suffered casualties: 73 killed of whom 67 were military personnel, and 1,600 injured. Additional to the human casualties, 18,000 Palestinian housing units were destroyed, along with substantial damage to Gaza’s electricity and sanitation systems, 500, 000 Palestinians (almost 1/3 of Gaza’s population) were forcibly displaced during the military operations and 100,000 remain so a year later, and 73 medical facilities and ambulances were destroyed or damaged. Due to the Israeli blockade, the aftermath of this onslaught has prevented a normal recovery, extending the period of suffering endured by the entire Gazan population. The magnitude of the Palestinian losses, as well as the comparison with Israeli losses, and the comparative ratio of civilians to military killed on the two sides, by itself suggests that the essential character of this Israeli undertaking is best understood as ‘state terror’ directed at Gaza’s population as a whole. Such conclusions are reinforced by Israel’s provocations during the month prior to the launch of the attack and by the refusal of its government even to consider frequent proposals by Hamas to establish long-term internationally supervised ceasefire proposals.

 

This one-sided impression of the events is not conveyed by the much anticipated UN Report of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) set up by the Human Rights Council to investigate violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law in July of 2014 that were occurring during Operation Protective Edge. The Commission was originally chaired by William Schabas, a leading world expert of international criminal law, but he resigned under pressure effectively mounted by Israel and the United States, centering on the discovery that Schabas has accepting a small consulting fee for some professional advice given to the Palestinian Liberation Organization a few years earlier. This unhappy development left the commission with only two members, Mary McGowan Davis from the United States and Doudou Déne from Senegal, with Judge McGowan being named as chair. Neither is considered expert in relation to the subject matter being investigated.

 

Balance amid Imbalance

 

The report strives for ‘balance’ carefully setting off violations by Israel against those of what it calls ‘Palestinian armed groups’ creating a profoundly false sense on the part readers as to equivalent responsibility for wrongful behavior by both Israel and Palestine. I agree with Ali Abunimah’s carefully formulated explanation for this misleading approach taken in the report and the deeper message being conveyed: “Despite the ‘balanced’ language that is now the habitual refuge of international officials hoping to avoid false accusations of anti-Israel bias, the evidence shows the scale and impact of Israel’s violence dwarfs anything allegedly done by Palestinians.” [See Ali Abunimah, “’Balance’ in UN Gaza Report can’t hide massive Israeli War Crimes,” Electronic Intifada, 22 June 2015] Or as the widely respected international NGO, BADIL, expresses a similar reaction: “In the language employed, there appears a desire to portray the adversaries as being on an equal footing, despite this being patently untrue, as revealed in the vast disparity in respective casualties and destructive capabilities…attempts to portray ‘balance’ where there is none is extremely problematic.” Typical of the imbalanced balance, the Report observes that “Palestinian and Israeli children were savagely affected by the events,” [§25] which is accurate in a literal sense, but a gross example of treating unequals equally, given the far greater severity of suffering endured by Palestinian children.

Looking for a glimmer of silver lining, some have endorsed this framing device of balance as justified to so as to persuade the mainstream media in the West, and especially the United States, to view the contents of the report more seriously as it cannot be dismissed simply by being called anti-Israeli, or worse, anti-Semitic.

 

As Abunimah emphasizes there is this strange mismatch between the strong evidence of Israeli disregard of legal constraints on military tactics that unduly imperil civilians and this rhetoric of balance, which in effect, assigns blame to both sides. This is not to argue that the criminality of resistance tactics employed by Hamas and associated military groups in Gaza should be entirely ignored, but rather that the primary human impact of Protective Edge was to leave Gaza bleeding and devastated, while Israel endured minimal damage and dramatically less destructive impacts on its societal order. Israeli damage was repaired almost immediately. In contrast, Israel’s refusal to allow ample reconstructions materials to enter has left substantial parts of Gaza in ruins, with many Gazans continuing to lack adequate shelter, remain homeless, displaced, and understandably traumatized.

 

 

 

 

Civilian Focus

 

Despite what might appear to be overly cautious language, a fair reading of the report supports three important conclusions:

  • that Israel’s supposed efforts to protect the civilian population of Gaza were grossly inadequate from the perspective of international humanitarian law, and probably constituted war crimes; and
  • that the military tactics employed by Israel on the battlefield were “reflective of broader policy, approved at least tacitly by decision-makers at the highest level of Government of Israel.”
  • that the focus was on the civilian victims rather than on a bland acceptance of arguments premised on ‘military necessity’ or ‘asymmetric warfare’: in the words of the report, “The commission considered that the victims and their human rights were at the core of its mandate.”

Such findings, coupled with the detailed evidence set forth in the body of the report, provide the International Criminal Court with a strong, if indirect, mandate to proceed further with its preliminary investigation of Israeli criminality in the Gaza War. Palestine is reinforcing this momentum by submitting its own body of evidence to back up allegations of Israeli criminality related to Protective Edge. The Commission makes clear that it is relying, as is customary for non-judicial inquiries of this sort, on a ‘reasonable grounds’ test of potential criminality [§11], which is not as rigorous as would be applied in an ICC trial of accused individuals where the test is often formulated “as guilty beyond reasonable doubt” or some wording to that effect.

 

The Report makes no pretension of making a professional determination as to whether criminal prosecution should follow from its findings, although in its Recommendations section it does urge both the ICC and national courts relying on Universal Jurisdiction to move forward with indictments and prosecutions if the apparent criminality of either side’s conduct is confirmed by further investigation. The ICC had already begun an investigation of its own in response to a Palestinian request after Palestine became a party to the Rome Treaty that provides the authoritative framework for addressing alleged international crimes at an international level. Whether the ICC can bring any perpetrators of Israel’s criminal policies to justice is extremely doubtful as Israel, a non-member, is certain to denounce the effort and the institution and refuse all forms of cooperation; it is relevant also to note that the ICC is not permitted to hold trials without the presence in the courtroom of those accused. Nevertheless, even the prospect of indictments and arrest warrants is itself a strong challenge to Israel’s approach to Gaza, and to the Palestinians generally, and it will further strengthen the BDS Campaign, as well as the wider global solidarity movement that rests on the delegitimizing of Israel’s policies and practices. It will also inhibit travel of Israeli political and military leaders to those countries that empower national courts to exercise universal jurisdiction in relation to well-evidenced allegations of violations of international criminal law.

 

Context

 

There are some definite positive elements in the Report beyond these general conclusions worth mentioning. Unlike prior assessments, including the Goldstone Report of 2009 dealing with Operation Cast Lead, the attack on Gaza that began on December 27, 2008, this new report specifies the context by referring to the Israeli blockade of Gaza as imposing “a continuing collective penalty against the population of Gaza,” [§15]. The Report fails to take the next logical step of identifying this penalty as a flagrant violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention that unconditionally prohibits any collective punishment, and hence is a continuing crime against humanity. Helpfully, though, the Report does say that “the impact of hostilities cannot be assessed separately from the blockade imposed by Israel.” This view is appropriately reinforced with the significant call for “a full and immediate lifting of the blockade,” [§24] although the relevance of the blockade is not stressed in the COI analysis of the combat tactics relied upon by both sides, which suffers from its resolve to appear ‘balanced.’

 

The Report also took innovative account of the fact that the Palestinians were suffering from ‘protracted occupation’ and that there was absent any prospect of peace between Israel and Palestine. [§14ff] Acknowledging that this defining reality has some bearing on the reasonableness of resistance tactics, and should be treated as relevant when assessing the severity of violations. In contrast, Israel as the occupier that has long not only failed to implement, but actively subverted, the unanimous Security Council injunction to withdraw from territory occupied in 1967, should be held to higher standards of compliance with international law by the UN. In the end, the incendiary question posed indirectly is “What are the Palestinians expected to do by way of resistance, considering that they lack precision weaponry and have long been victimized by a prolonged occupation that is oppressive and exploitative, and shows no sign of ending anytime soon?’

 

These contextual factors are also affected by a diplomatic context in which Israel insists on treating Hamas as a terrorist entity, despite the fact that Hamas has been offering long-term proposals for peaceful coexistence supervised by an international presence ever since it decided to pursue a political track to liberation when it participated successfully in 2006 elections in Gaza and the West Bank and effectively abandoned armed struggle, including suicide bombing, as its approach to liberation. Such a potential diplomatic path to Israeli security is not mentioned in the Report, or its legal correlative, that since World War II, recourse to war is legally valid only as a last resort even where legal claims of self-defense are well-grounded. In this regard, Israel’s refusal to explore a diplomatic alternative to war casts doubts on its claim to be acting in necessary self-defense. This diplomatic option for Israeli security should have been discussed in the Report even if it could not be definitively proven to exist. Also, not discussed, is whether given stage-setting Israeli anti-Hamas provocations in the West Bank, which are set forth in the Report, along with the absence of any substantial damage from Gaza rockets fired at Israel, the legal conditions for a claim of self-defense existed given the seeming absence of a prior armed attack as required by Article 51 of the UN Charter.

 

The Report relies on a methodology based on a reasonable interpretation of customary international law articulated by reference to three principles: of distinction (limiting attacks to discrete military targets) ; of proportionality (avoiding uses of force disproportionate to the value of the target); of precaution (taking reasonable measures to avoid civilian death and destruction). [§13] It is evident to the COI that Palestinian missiles, inaccurate and directed toward Israeli population centers, violate the principle of distinction even if they do little damage as do Israeli strikes directed at densely populated residential neighborhoods that inflict massive damage. For instance, the Report condemns the Israeli use of massive firepower against Rafah and Shuja’iya “in utter disregard of its devastating impact on the civilian population.” [§58] Although the Report finds that the use of human shields by either side is a violation of the laws of war, it fails to find sufficient evidence to reach any firm conclusion.

 

Recommendations

 

In the conclusions and recommendations of the Report there are various calls made for greater vigilance in following through, arguing that imposing accountability for violations of international criminal law is relevant to avoiding a repetition of the Protective Edge experience. In this spirit the Report indicates that the victims, in particular, stressed examining “the root causes of the conflict” as an essential step toward future. [§75] There was also a determined emphasis placed on overcoming impunity with respect to such crimes, and in particular, “Israel must break with its lamentable record in holding wrongdoers responsible.” [§76] There is also a specific call to support the work of the ICC, and for Israel to accede to the Rome Treaty that controls the operation of the ICC.[§86(e); 89(d)]

 

The recommendations that are most relevant are set forth in §86(d):

 

“To address structural issues that fuel the conflict and have a negative impact on a wide range of human rights, including the right to self-determination; in particular, to lift, immediately and unconditionally, the blockade on Gaza; to cease all settlement-related activity, including the transfer of Israel’s own population to the occupied territory; and to implement the advisory opinion rendered on 9 July 2004 by the International Court of Justice on the legal consequences of the construction of a wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

This enumeration is a departure from the tone and substance of balance, and calls upon Israel to bring its behaviour as Occupier into conformity with international humanitarian law. It refrains from mandating the dismantling of the unlawful settlements, but otherwise goes quite far in relation to human rights, including self-determination, settlement expansion, and the wall to address the most fundamental Palestinian grievances.

 

 

 

Conclusion

 

As might have been anticipated, despite the balance of the Report, it was attacked as biased even before being made public by Israel and the United States, and its presentation in an open debate at the Human Rights Council was boycotted. Israel went further, issued extensive report prepared under the aegis of the Israel Defense Forces that exonerated Israel on all counts. [Special Report, ‘Operation Protective Edge,’ Israel Defense Forces, June 2015; “The 2014 Gaza Conflict: Factual and Legal Aspects,” Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, June 2015] It also invited a group of ‘high-level’ military officers and diplomats to review the allegations, which also vindicated Israel’s claims in its consensus report. [“Key Preliminary Findings of the High Level International Military Group on the Gaza Conflict,” June 12, 2015, UN Watch home page] In effect, the familiar battle lines are drawn at inter-governmental levels, making it clear that nothing can be expected to flow from this Report beyond a further recognition that if the Palestinian struggle is to advance at this stage it will depend on the activism of civil society rather than on the policies of governments or the implementation of the Report’s recommendations by the United Nations.

At the same time, as with the earlier Goldstone Report, it is important that this COI fully documented the essential charges with elaborate evidence, and legitimates the coercive tactics of Palestinian resistance and the nonviolent militancy of the global solidarity movement. As the COI noted, Israel again refused cooperation with the investigative efforts from their outset. The political weight of the Report is augmented by the fact that its findings and recommendation were formally received with approval by a vote of 41-1 in the Human Rights Council.

As could be anticipated, the United States was the lone member of the HRC that refused support to the Report. Even Europe, voting as a unit, gave its positive endorsement. Human Rights Watch made the following observation: “The lack of support by the United States—the only state to vote against shows a disappointing unwillingness to challenge impunity for serious crimes during the Gaza conflict and to stand up for the victims of war crimes during the conflict.”

 

It is sad that despite the abusive attitudes exhibited by the Netanyahu government toward the Obama presidency there is no willingness on the part of Washington to back international criminal law in such circumstances of gross violation. When the United States Government, still the world’s most influential political actor, gives such precedence to the most cynical aspects of alliance politics it sends a powerful message that governments can freely abandon principled foreign policy whenever it conflicts with hard power calculations of geopolitics (and in this instance, more relevantly, with the soft power dynamics of American domestic politics).

 

 

 

Turkey’s Electoral Maelstrom        

3 Jul

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If I were Turkish, and not merely a sympathetic observer and part time resident, I would write an Open Letter to the opposition political parties that had separately and collectively achieved several goals in the June 7th elections:

            –repudiating Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s push for a constitutional shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system;

            –for the Kurdish-based HDP, a significant gain in support to cross the 10% threshold, and get a rather large foot in the Parliament;

            –for the ultra-nationalist MHP to achieve a significant gain in electoral support;

            –for the secular stronghold of Kemalist republicanism CHP maintenance of their position as by far the strongest opposition party by almost 10% over their nearest competitor.

 

Since arriving in Turkey a couple of weeks ago, the media is filled with a wide range of informed speculations about what will happen, as well as vigorous advocacy about what is best for the country, for the AKP, and for the various parties and political personalities, and none more so, than the diverse passions that swirl around the name Erdoğan. In such an atmosphere it seems foolhardy to venture into such roiled waters. My only advantages the absence of access to insider gossip and great sympathy with the struggle of Turkey and its leaders to find their way in a chaotic and dangerous region at a time of a deepening global crisis fraught with ecological, political, and economic uncertainties.

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The situation created in Turkey by the elections was one that continued the AKP (Justice & Development Party) as the dominant political party, with 40.9% of the vote, an edge of more than 15% over the CHP (Republican Peoples’ Party) winning 25.0% of the vote. Despite dominating the election and winning 256 seats, the AKP still fell short of the majority of representatives in the 550 seat Parliament required to achieve a mandate to form a new government without entering into a coalition with one of the three parties that together gathered almost 60% of the votes in June. This leaves essentially two broad coalition options—either the AKP forms a coalition with one of the three opposition parties or the opposition parties unite in a three-way coalition (as no two of the three parties have enough representation in Parliament to make a majority).

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So far neither alternative has proved feasible. The AKP has seemed quietly receptive, promising transparency in the process, but has made clear that it is not responsive to proposals that seem disproportionate to the electoral showing of the purported junior partner. When the CHP leader, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, demands that it will only enter a coalition if the prime minister is rotated, and starts with himself as prime minister, he reaches so high as to effectively declare himself out of the game. Similarly, when the MHP insists that its entry into a coalition with the governing depends on ending the peace process with Kurds that the AKP began, it is expressing unacceptable demands for a coalition partnership. Moving forward on Kurdish reconciliation is urgent at this time as a breakdown of negotiations is likely to lead to a renewal of internal violence, which given the regional realities, could spill across boundaries and be even bloodier than the earlier decade of struggle with the PKK. Finally, the DHP, perhaps understandably, sees no gain for its prospects arising from a coalition given the hostility to Kurdish aspirations exhibited by AKP leaders during the electoral campaign and considering the hardline taken by the MHP against even a moderate accommodation with Kurdish expectations.

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This gridlocked situation is adverse to Turkey’s national economic and political interests. Already the World Bank has adjusted downward its forecasts of Turkish economic growth in light of this ambience of uncertainty surrounding Ankara’s governing process, and this situation is likely to worsen if no government is formed within the 45 day window allowed for a coalition process to reach closure.

 

It is in this context that the opposition parties stand to lose all that they appeared to have gained on June 7th. If as seems likely there is no coalition formed by the deadline, then the options open to President Erdoğan are eager to invite the AKP to form a minority government or to call for new elections in the shortest possible time. The minority government option, which Prime Minister Davutoğlu has pronounced as unworkable, would also in all probability lead to new elections rather soon, but maybe not immediately. The political process would be very fragile. Whenever the AKP failed to win parliamentary support from any one of the three opposition groups to support its policy initiatives, the government would be paralyzed by inaction, and a call for new elections would be quickly forthcoming.

 

It is this likely, but still avoidable, failed coalition scenario, that remains threatening to the hopes of opposition forces. In the event that no coalition is formed, and new elections are held, the most probable outcome, although this interpretation is contested, is a big swing of more pragmatically inclined voters toward the AKP. After all, for the Turkish economy to fulfill its potential it definitely needs a government firmly in place as soon as possible, and only the AKP on its own or in stable coalition can achieve this result. Given such a perception, the logical step for a Turkish citizen would be to vote for the AKP even if it wasn’t her or his first choice in June. What is more, such a transfer of votes to the AKP could have two other results, possibly depriving the HDP of its parliamentary representation by reaching a level in this second cycle that fell below the 10% threshold, thereby giving the AKP enough electoral strength not only to resume its role as majority party but to allow Erdogan to press forward with his ambition to convert Turkey into a presidential system. Both the CHP and MHP could also do worse on a second go around, and this would certainly dim their stars.

 

Of course, this outcome, while logical is by no means assured. Voters in the sort of polarized atmosphere that has existed in Turkey during the whole of the AKP period of governance, leads many Turks to vote with their hearts rather than their heads. If this turns out to be the dominant pattern, then it is quite possible that this second electoral cycle will resemble the first, possibly strengthening the incentives of both the AKP and the opposition to swallow some pride and reach a workable set of coalition arrangements. Or it might accentuate the dysfunctionality of Turkish political culture at this point, leading to a sharp economic downturn accompanied by a menacing uptick in political instability, including new signs of insurgent violence.

 

Here, then, is the essential situation: above all, if reason prevails, most Turks will likely increasingly act to create the conditions necessary to form a majority government, and in the process could deprive the country of two achievements attributed to the prior election—minority representation for the Kurds and others plus a curtailment of the ambition of its current president. With this understanding, the unwillingness of opposition parties to minimize their bargaining demands to form a coalition seems unfortunate and even irrational under present conditions, making much more likely an overall outcome that will not be pleasing to anti-AKP forces for one or another reason. It is especially likely that this post-election impasse could give new life to the Erdoğan game plan to revise the Constitution so as establish a presidential system.

 

Such reflections may turn out to be far from the manner in which the Turkish political scene unfolds. It purports only to share my attempt to comprehend a situation that seems complex and confusing to most Turks. Americans are notorious at getting non-Western societies wrong, and I do not claim to be an exception, which is part of the reason I have spent many of my adult years opposing American military interventions in distant lands.

 

Reading Claudia Rankine On Race

1 Jul

 

We white people have lots to learn about racism in America no matter how progressive our attitudes toward race. I realized this some years ago when I found Toni Morrison’s Beloved so grimly illuminating in depicting the cruelty experienced after the abolition of slavery by our African American fellow citizens left in a malicious shadow land of unknowing, a reflection of white indifference. It made me abruptly realize that I had never effectively grasped the intensities of hurt and pain of even close black friends afflicted or threatened with affliction as a result of societal attitudes of hatred and fear that lie just below the surface, behavior socially conditioned to be ‘politically correct.’ White consciousness was preoccupied with the condemnation of hideous events that capture national attention, but remain largely unaware of the everyday racism that is the price African Americans of talent and privilege pay for ‘success’ when penetrating the supremacy structures of society that remain predominantly white.

 

I recall some years ago being picked up at the airport in Atlanta by a couple of white undergraduates assigned to take me to the University of Georgia where I was to give a lecture. On the way we got onto the subject of race, and they complained about tensions on their campus. I naively pointed out that the stars of their football and basketball teams were black, and since white students were fanatic collegiate sports fans at Southern universities, wouldn’t this solve the problem. I assumed that these black athletes who won games for the college would be idolized as local heroes. The students taking me to the lecture agreed with my point, but claimed that the black athletes refused to socialize with whites, displaying an alleged ‘reverse racism’ that the white student body resented. In explaining this pattern of multi-culturalism to me, whether accurate or not I have no idea, these young Southerners did not pause to wonder whether this reluctance by campus blacks, including the sports stars, to mingle socially might have something to do with the history of race relations in the South, and not just the history but an of nasty earlier experiences of racism as well, and not just in the South, but throughout whole of the country, and that this was their reason for choosing to be racially aloof!

 

It is with such thoughts in mind that reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (Greywolf Press, 2014) became for me a revelatory experience, especially against a foreground filled with such extreme reminders of virulent racism as lived current experience as Treyvon Martin, Ferguson, Charleston, and countless other recent reminders that the racist virus in its most lethal forms continues to flourish in the American body politic. The persistence of this pattern even in face of the distracting presence of an African-American president who functions both as a healing ointment and as a glorified snake oil salesman who earns his keep by telling Americans that we belong to the greatest country that ever existed even as it reigns down havoc on much of the world. On a more individual level, I can appreciate the extraordinary talent, courage, and achievement of Barack Obama, hurdling over the most formidable psychological obstacles placed in the path of an ambitious black man. Yet looked at more collectively, it now seems all too clear that the structures of racism are far stronger than the exploits of even this exceptional African American man.

 

What makes Rankine’s work so significant, aside from the enchantment of its poetic gifts of expression, is her capacity to connect the seemingly trivial incidents of everyday race consciousness with the living historical memory and existential presence of race crimes of utmost savagery. In lyrically phrased vignettes Rankine draws back the curtain on lived racism, relying on poetic story telling, and by so doing avoids even a hint of moral pedantry. She tells a reader of “a close friend, who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you be the name of her black housekeeper.” [48][*] Or a visit to a new therapist where she approached by the front door rather than the side entrance reserved for clients, and was angrily reproached, perceived as an unwanted intruder: “Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?” When informed that the stranger was her new patient the therapist realized her mistake, “I am so sorry, so so sorry.” [115].

 

Or when as a candidate for a university job she is being shown around a college campus by a faculty member who lets her know why she has been invited: “..he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.” She shares her unspoken reaction that is the main point: “Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me?” [66] The repetition of these daily occurrences in her recounting let’s us better understand why an African American cannot escapes the unconscious barbs of soft racism no matter how intelligent and accomplished a black person becomes in ways that the dominant society supposedly values and rewards. She invokes the inspirational memories of James Baldwin and Robert Lowell, not that of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, or even Malcolm X, as brilliant wellsprings of understanding and defiance, acting as her undesignated mentors. This experience of racism in America has been told with prose clarity and philosophic depth by my friend and former colleague, Cornel West, in Race Matters, a similar narrative of citizenship that Rankine conveys through poetic insight and emotion, allowing readers enough space to sense somewhat our own poorly comprehended complicity. Reading West and Rankine together is one way to overcome the body/mind dualism, with West relying on the power of reason and Rankine on the force of emotion.

 

As Rankine explains with subtle eloquence, what may seem like hyper-sensitivity to episodic understandable stumbles by even the most caring whites is actually one of the interfaces between what she calls the ‘self self’ and ‘the historical self,’ a biopolitical site of self-knowledge that embodies “the full force of your American positioning.” Such positioning is a way of drawing into the present memories of slavery, lynching, persecution, and discrimination that every black person carries in their bones, not as something past. And as Faulkner reminds us over and over again, the past is never truly past. On this Rankine’s words express her core insight: “[T]he world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you..” [307] Summing up this inability to move on she observes, “[E]xactly why we survive and can look back with a furrowed brow is beyond me.” [364] The mystery, then, is not the failure to forget, but persevering given the agony of remembering.

 

The longest sequence in the book is somewhat surprisingly devoted to the torments experienced by Serena Williams in the course of her rise to tennis stardom. Rankine, who in other places suggests her own connection with tennis, thinks of Serena as the “black graphite against a sharp white background.” She recounts her early career struggles with eminent umpires in big matches who made bad calls, trapped in what Rankine calls “a racial imaginary.” Serena feels victimized because black, and on several taut occasions loses her composure under the intense pressure of the competitive moment, raging and protesting, and then being called “insane, crass, crazy.” [193] While Rankine appreciates that Williams is likely to be considered the greatest woman tennis player ever, she still views her primarily as bravely triumphing over the many efforts to diminish her.

 

As a tennis enthusiast myself, it is the one portion of Rankine’s lyric that does not ring entirely true, or more precisely, that the race optic misses Serena’s triumphal presence on the public stage that has been accomplished with uncommon grace, joyfulness, and integrity. Unlike that other African American over-achiever, Barack Obama, Williams has attained the heights without abandoning her close now inconvenient associates the way Obama ditched Jeremiah Wright and even Rashid Khalidi and William Ayers so as to provide reassurance to his mainstream white backers. Williams has always continued to affirm warmly her Dad despite his provocative antics and defiance of the white establishment that controls the sport. She held out long enough so that the racist taunts she and Venus received at Indian Wells were transformed into tearful cheers of welcome on her return 13 years later after being beseeched by the sponsors. Williams, always gracious and graceful in victory on the court, with a competitive rage that is paralleled by a fighting spirit that puts her in the winners’ circle even when not playing her ‘A’ game, Serena is for me the consummate athlete of our time, doubly impressive because she does not shy away from memories of the Compton ghetto where she grew into this remarkable athlete and person and while still acquiring the wit, imagination, and poise to speak French when given her latest trophy after winning the Roland Garros final in Paris. Considering where she started from she has traveled even further than Obama, although his terrain entails a far heavier burden of responsibility and historical significance.

 

Somehow I feel Rankine perhaps absorbed by the preoccupations that give coherence to Citizen missed the deeper reality of Serena Williams as a glorious exception to her portrayal of the African American imaginary. I do not at all deny that Williams’ life has been framed from start to finish with the kind of micro-aggressions that Rankine experienced, and indeed a closer proximity to the macro-aggressions that the media turns into national spectacles, but presenting her life from this limited viewpoint misses what I find to be the most captivating part of her life story. And maybe a fuller exposure to Rankine’s reality would lead me to celebrate her life as also one that transcends race as the defining dimension of her experience. What is known is that in 1963 Rankine was born in Kingston, Jamaica, raised in New York, educated at the best schools, and is enjoying a deservedly fine career as award winning poet, honored scholar, and rising playwright.

 

With brief asides, coupled with a range of visual renderings that give parallel readings (Rankine is married to John Lucas, a videographer, with whom she writes notes in this text for possible future collaborative scripts on racially tinged public issues), she brings to our awareness such societal outrages as the beating of Rodney King that was caught on a video camera, and led to the Los Angeles riots of 1992 or the racist aspects of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or a series of more recent assaults, including the diabolic frolic of fraternity boys at a university who joyously recalled the pleasures of lynching or the slaying of Trayvon Martin by a security guard whose crime was followed by his unacceptable acquittal. It is this tapestry of experience that seems to be for Rankine the American lyric that provides the sub-title of her book, and silently poses the question, without offering us the satisfaction of answers, as how these awful tales alter the experienced reality of being a ‘citizen’ of this country at this time; that is, if the citizen is viewed as one who owes loyalty to the state and is entitled to receive human security, protection, and the rule of law in return, how does this relate to the black experience of human insecurity and inescapable vulnerability. Rankine leaves me with the impression that even if these entitlements of citizenship can be somehow delivered (which they are not to those struggling), the grant of loyalty in the face of persisting racism is suspect. Raising such doubts is against the background of Rankine’s surface life as mentioned is one of privilege and success, holding an endowed chair at Pomona College, someone who plays tennis and can afford to see a therapist. Rankine is telling us both that this matters, saving her from the grossest of indignities because of the color of her skin, but not sparing her from an accumulation of racial slights or relieving her of the heavy awareness that she could be a Rodney King or Trayvon Martin if her social location were different or that whatever she might do or achieve she is still haunted by the memories of a ghastly past for people with black skin. In the deep structures of composition and consciousness that informs Citizen is a brilliant and instructive interweaving of time present and past, embodying both the memories buried within Rankine’s being and the present assaults she endures as a result of headlines bearing news of the latest hideous racist incident. Despite Rankine’s own personal ascent she as citizen confronts these past and presents challenges to her being, as underscored by the everyday racism that cannot be separated from the lynchings, beatings, and jail time that the black community as community has experienced ever since being transported to this land in slave ships.        

 

Such displays of awareness are followed by more conventionally poetic reflections on what this all means for Rankine. In lines that epitomize her lyric voice, and that she might be choose for her gravestone:

                        “you are not sick, you are injured—

                        you ache for the rest of your life.”

And again:

                        “Nobody notices, only you’ve known

                        you’re not sick, not crazy,

                        not angry, not sad—

                        It’s just this, you’re injured”

The worst effect of such an injury is an acute sense of alienation that separates

the public self from the private self:

                        “The worst injury is feeling

                                                            you don’t belong so much

                        to you—“

 

Reverting one last time to my own experience from the other side of the mirror, I recall my first intimate relationship with an African American as a boy growing up in Manhattan in the 1940s and 1950s. I was raised by a troubled, conservative father acting as a single parent who warily hired an African American man to be our housekeeper on the recommendation of a Hollywood friend. Willis Mosely was no ordinary hire for such a position, being a recent Phi Beta Kappa graduate from UCLA, with a desire to live in New York to live out his dreams to do New York theater, a big drinking problem, and an extroverted gay identity, but beyond all these attributes, he was a charismatic personality with one of the great, resounding laughs and an electrifying presence that embodied charm, wit, and tenderness, demonstrating his intellectual mettle by finishing the Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle in lightning speed, then a status symbol among West Side New Yorkers. Willis was a challenge for my rather reactionary father who could only half hide his racist bias and on top of his, was also unashamedly homophobic; added to this my dad was counseled by family friends that it was irresponsible to have his adolescent son’s principal companion be a gay man in his low 30s. I am relating this autobiographical tidbit because despite this great gift of exposure to a wonderfully loving black man in these formative years, who influenced me greatly in many ways, I was unable to purge the racism in my bones, or was it genes.

 

Years later while dating a gifted former black student, whose outward joyfulness acted as a cover for her everyday anguish and deeper racial torment, she let me know gently that I would never be able to understand her because, as she put it, “we listen to different music.” It happened, I had just taken her to a Paul Winter concert that she didn’t enjoy, and so I missed the real meaning of her comment until this recent reading of Rankine’s Citizen. In effect, it took me several decades to hear this dear friend because until recently I was listening without really, really being able to hear! Of course, the primary failing is my own, but it is a trait I share with almost the whole of my race, and probably most of my species, and is indirectly responsible for the great weight on the human spirit produced by low visibility suffering that goes unnoticed everywhere in the world except by its victims. To become attuned to this everday racism, as Rankine shows so convincingly, is also to become even more appalled by the high visibility racism that in our current societal gives rise to public condemnations across the political spectrum.

 

What Claudia Rankine shares and teaches is that every African American citizen must live with the existential concreteness of racism while even the most liberal of American white citizens live with only an abstract awareness of their own unconscious racism or, at best, their rather detached empathy with the historical victimization of our African American co-citizens. Just as blacks have the torments of racism in their bones, whites are afflicted with resilient mutant forms of unconscious racism. We learn through this extraordinary lyric that moving on, for either black or white, is just not an option! And yet it is a necessity!    

[*] The numbers refer to the lot #s on the Kindle edition. Citizen was a finalist for 2014 National Book Award in the Poetry category. The winner, ironically, was Rankine’s teacher at Williams College, who described her pupil as ‘a phenomenal student.’

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