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A New World Order? ISIS and the Sykes-Picot Backlash

17 Dec

 

I

 

One of the seemingly permanent contributions of Europe to the manner of organizing international society was to create a strong consensus in support of the idea that only a territorially delimited sovereign state is entitled to the full privileges of membership. The United Nations, the institutional embodiment of international society recognizes this principle by limiting membership in the Organization to ‘states.’ Of course, there is an enormous variation in the size, population, military capabilities, resource endowments, and de facto autonomy among states. At one extreme are gigantic states such as China and India with populations of over 1 billion, while at the other are such tiny countries such as Liechtenstein or Vanuatu that mostly rely on diplomacy and police rather than gun powder and armies for security. All four of these political entities have the same single vote when it comes to action in the General Assembly or as participants at global conferences such at the recently concluded Paris Summit on climate change, although the geopolitics is supreme in the Security Council and the corridors outside the meeting rooms.

 

From the point of view of international law and organizational theory we continue to live in a state-centric world order early in the 21st century. At the same time, the juridical notion of the equality of states that is the foundation of diplomatic protocol should not lead us astray. The shaping of world order remains mainly the work of the heavyweight states that act on the basis of geopolitical calculations with respect for international law and morality displayed only as convenient. Yet the political monoculture of territorial states remains formally the exclusive foundation of world order, but its political reality is being challenged in various settings, and no where more so than in the Middle East.

 

This is somewhat surprising. It might have been expected in past decades, especially in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa where the ‘states’ were often arbitrarily imposed a century or more ago to satisfy colonial ambitions and took little or no account of the wishes and identities of the people living in a particular geographic space. Yet without exception nationalist movements and their leaders throughout the world, although aware that the colonial demarcations of boundaries were arbitrary and exploitative, thus lacking the legitimacy of ethnic, religious, and historic experience, nevertheless refrained from challenging the idea that a politically independent state should be delimited by the same boundaries as the prior colonial state. It seems that this worldwide acceptance of the territorial status quo reflected two different considerations. Questioning colonial boundaries would open a dangerous Pandora’s Box filled to overflowing with nasty ethnic conflicts and contradictory territorial claims. Beyond this, achieving control over an existing territorial state was seen in international law as the proper fulfillment for a people seeking liberation through the exercise of their right of national self-determination. Such an outcome was increasingly endorsed as the proper goal of nationalist movements throughout the global South, regardless of whether the ideological animus of a given movement leaned left or right. This conception of self-determination was also endorsed at the United Nations, thereby reversing the earlier acceptance of colonial rule as consistent with international law.

 

Of course, here and there were some rough edges and intense splits at the dawn of the post-colonial era, but surprisingly few of such a character as to produce new delimitations of territorial domain. Malaya split into Malaysia and Singapore, and more significantly, Pakistan broke off from India, and then Bangladesh later split from Pakistan in a bloody struggle. Yet in all these instances the result of political fragmentation was the establishment of an additional coherent territorial sovereign state that had some sort of cultural, religious, or historical rationale. There remain several thwarted movements of national liberation, most notably Palestine, Western Sahara, Kashmir, Tibet, Chechnya, Kurdistan, that is national movements to create independent states that have been under prolonged occupation. It is appropriate to regard these peoples as living in ‘captive nations’ contained by oppressive structure imposed by the dominating state. There is a small degree of ambiguity present as the right of self-determination cannot supposed be validly exercised in any manner that results in the fragmentation of an existing sovereign state. For clarification see UN General Assembly Resolution 2625 on International Law Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, with particular attention to the commentary given with respect to the principle of self-determination. In practice, however, when fragmentation results from successful movements of secession, the new political entities are accepted as ‘states’ for purposes of membership in international society. The breakup of Yugoslavia into component parts illustrates the subordination of the legal principle of state unity to the political realities of fragmentation.

 

There seemed to be no other concept of sovereign political community that challenged the European notion of the state as it evolved out of the Peace of Westphalia (1648). Again there are a few inconsequential exceptions. The Vatican despite being an essentially religious community is acknowledged for some purposes as a state, although denied full membership in the UN. More recently, as a result of decades of frustration, Palestine has succeeded in being accepted by the UN General Assembly as a non-member observer state, but without any right to vote or participate as a member in debates within the General Assembly or Security Council. Palestine as a kind of ‘ghost state’ is accepted as a member of UNESCO, as a state party at the International Criminal Court, and even allowed to fly its national flag outside of UN Headquarters.

 

Perhaps, the most fundamental formal challenge to a purely statist world order arose from the emergence of the European Union. The EU does represent the interests of its 25 member states for many purposes, including at some international conferences. And yet the EU has not been given membership or an independent vote at the UN, nor have there been objections to the permanent membership of both the United Kingdom and France in the UN Security Council. Despite recent tensions associated with fiscal policy, counter-terrorism, and statist reactions to refugee flows, the EU retains the possibility of evolving at some point into some novel kind of post-Westphalian regional polity that represents its members in a variety of global venues, and thus challenges the foundational principles of state-centric world order. Just now the European Commission has issued new rules strengthening European border control in a manner given precedence over Westphalian traditions of national border control.

 

More challenging at present is the meta-territorial operational provenance of the United States, with its vast network of foreign bases, its naval and space capabilities able to target any point on the planet, and its claim of ‘presence’ in all regions of the world. The United States is the first ‘global state’ in world history, with its territorial sovereignty only the psychophysical basis of its non-territorial global reach. It is not an empire as that term was understood to rest on formal and overt control, yet it far from being a normal state that generally confines its security operations and diplomatic claims to its geographic boundaries unless it finds itself involved in a distant war.

 

Sporadic efforts to endow civil society with international status have not gained political traction despite widespread support for the establishment of a ‘global peoples parliament’ modeled on the European Parliament. Populist support for some kind of policy role for civil society at a global level has been reffectively esisted by governments and international institutions opposed to any dilution of the Westphalian template.

 

II.

 

It is against this statist background that some recent Islamic practices with regard to political community and world order is innovative and challenging. When explaining the revolutionary process in Iran that unfolded in 1978-79, Ayatollah Khomeini insisted that what was happening in Iran should be treated as an ‘Islamic Revolution’ rather than an ‘Iranian Revolution.’ What was being asserted was that the most relevant community was the Muslim umma, which has not been actualized in recent times but deserves the primary loyalty and adherence of believers whatever their location in national space happens to be. Such a view was more aggressively articulated in the declarations of Osama Bin Laden whose worldview was Islamic, transcending the secular realities of statehood and nationalism, and expressing what might be described as an Islamic Cosmopolitan worldview.

 

The most significant challenge of all directed toward state-centricism has been mounted by ISIS, and especially its proclamation of a new caliphate in the Middle East, whose contours were based on its de facto territorial governance patterns in Syria and Iraq rather than on the boundaries of existing sovereign states. ISIS leaders also boasted of ‘the end of Sykes-Picot,’ the Anglo-French originally secret agreement in 1916 that led to the formation of the modern statist Middle East in the territories formerly administered by the Ottoman Empire. It was this Sykes-Picot colonialist vision that successfully undermined Woodrow Wilson’s post-colonial advocacy of self-determination as the organizing basis delimiting the Middle East after World War I. So far, ISIS has made good on its claim to govern the area it controls by sharia law strictly applied, and has thus managed to defy the sovereign territorial authority of both Syria and Iraq. ISIS is sometimes described as a ‘quasi-state’ because of its territorial control but utter lack of international diplomatic legitimacy, and perhaps because its durability has not been established for a sufficient length of time.

 

There are at least three elements of this non-state pattern of control that are worth noticing. First, ISIS seems to have no current goal or prospect of being internationally accepted as a state or to be treated as a vehicle of self-determination for Syrians and Iraqis living under its authority. ISIS rests its authority to govern exclusively on a sectarian Sunni claim to be applying sharia to those living under its authority. Secondly, by discrediting those Sykes-Picot states that were imposed on the region after World War I ISIS is claiming for itself a superior political legitimacy to that conferred by international diplomatic procedures or through admission to the United Nations, and the claim has some resonance for those living under its dominion. Thirdly, significant portions of the Sunni population that is dominant presence in the ‘caliphate’ welcomed ISIS, at least at first, as a liberating force freeing the population from Shia oppression and discrimination and more effectively offering social services at a grassroots level.

 

In effect, ISIS has effectively, if harshly, raised questions about the political legitimacy of states imposed by colonial authority and accepted by indigenous nationalist movements during the process of achieving political independence. This questioning of European statism in the Middle East is likely to be more enduring than ISIS itself. From an ethnic angle, the Kurdish movements in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, never having been content with Sykes-Picot borders are now constituting new ethnically delimited political communities that in Iraq and Syria possess the attributes of de facto states. As with ISIS, these emergent entities are being called quasi-states or states within states. In other words we are so entrapped in statist language that we must misleadingly link these innovative political realities to the statist framework.

 

From this perspective it is worth noticing the double proposal of the neocon former American ambassador to the UN, John Bolton. [See “To Defeat ISIS, Create a Sunni State,” NY Times, Nov. 24, 2015] As a resolute interventionist, Bolton wants the West to go all out to destroy the ISIS caliphate, but couples this militarist initiative with the rather startling assertion that Iraq and Syria have lost their statist entitlement to reclaim these territories. Instead, “Washington should recognize the new geopolitics. The best alternative to the Islamic State in northeastern Syria and Western Iraq is a new, independent Sunni state.” As might be expected, Bolton’s rationale is totally neo-colonial in conception and implementation, proposed by a Washington insider, designed to keep Moscow out, to restore U.S. influence in the region, and to support indirectly the anti-Shiite goals of the Gulf monarchies. In other words, what Bolton favors is remote both from Westphalian logic and from the practice of self-determination.

 

True, Bolton’s Sunni state is an externally imposed political construction that is expected to be accepted as a traditional state with authority limited to its international borders. This contrasts with the ISIS caliphate that claims authority based on its extreme Salafi interpretation of Islam, and while it maintains and guards the borders that define the territory under its control, its claimed community of adherents is non-geographical, and notions of citizenship and nationality do not apply. It is suggestive that even Bolton opposes an American approach based on “striving to recreate the post-World War I map.” What makes Bolton’s proposal of interest is only that it unwittingly confirms the ISIS challenge to the legitimacy of how Europe constructed the post-Ottoman Middle East in the colonialist atmosphere that remained dominant after World War I.

 

III

 

It seems obvious when considering the complexity of the world as it now functions that the Westphalian model of state-centricism is no longer, if it ever was, descriptive. To take account of the realities of the U.S. global state, the EU, and ISIS requires a more hybrid framework of concepts, policies, and practices that also is more sensitive to multi-level linkages of authority and power, as well as the elaborate patterns of transnational networks and localized systems of control that produce the complex governance structures that provide billions of people with order and stability on a daily basis. A fuller inquiry into these diverse organizational structures would also need to incorporate the role of transnational corporations and financial institutions that create the operational and exploitative realities of neoliberal globalization.  

 

The Hidden Costs of War Crimes to the Criminal

20 Aug

[Prefatory Note: I am republishing on this blog site a letter and some documentation written by Fred Branfman, a friend and political comrade of more than 40 years. We met first in our shared opposition to the Vietnam War, and engaged in acts of civil disobedience in Washington to express our solidarity with younger Americans who were facing prison for their opposition or death and injury as conscripted soldiers, and our sense of identification with the millions of Vietnamese who were enduring the ravages of high technology war, many without ever having left their villages, much less their country. As he writes, Fred was moved and shocked by the so-called secret war being carried on in Laos by the United States through extensive covert operations, without even the slightest effort to show respect for the US Constitution’s requirements relating to war, and in cruel defiance of international law.  Fred is also very conscious and sensitive about the complexities of his middle class Jewish background, and how it bears on his outlook on Israel-Palestine relations. Throughout his life he has exhibited a primary identity that is preoccupied with what it means to be ‘human,’ taking his cues from religion, ethics, and empathetic experiences. As such, his reflections on the meaning of the events in Gaza in relation to our assessments of Israel’s behavior, whether as Jews or as human beings is relevant for all of us. Fred’s central point about the moral victimization of the perpetrator of crimes as well as the abuse of those being targeted is crucial.]

 

 

 

Dear Friends,

I hope you will consider sending this just-published piece (original version below) to supporters of Israel’s actions in Gaza you know. Most U.S. supporters of Israel that I know are decent people who reflexively support Israel without confronting the actual facts of the atrocities it is committing. But in so doing they must understand that what is at stake is not only Israel’s humanity but their own.

The most painful memories of my life have been triggered by the recent Israeli bombing and shelling of civilian targets in Gaza: the many months I spent interviewing Lao ricefarmers about their 5 years under U.S. bombing – the most significant unknown event of the 20th century. The World Can’t Wait website has just published “Laos: Birthplace of Modern U.S. Executive War and a New ‘Ahuman’ Age” – its lessons apply not only to Laos but to Israel, Gaza, Syria and the many other cases where civilians become the main victims of automated murder.

It is critical to human civilization itself that we make the issue of civilian murder in Gaza personal, by (1) having the personal integrity to look at the facts of, not rationalizations for, Israel-caused civilian destruction in Gaza (please see “The Civilian Impact of Israel’s 2014 Attack on Gaza” below); and (2) to acknowledge that what is at stake here is not only Israel’s humanity but our own. Those who are indifferent to the murder of civilians in Gaza today are also indifferent to the destruction of our own children and grandchildren through climate change tomorrow.

In retrospect it seems like an accident of fate that I so directly encountered the U.S. mass murder of the gentlest, kindest people on earth in Laos. But I regard it now as both the most agonizing and precious experience of my life. For imagining what it means to be on the ground “looking up” at the bombers, rather than “looking down” as we inevitably do in the West, adds a crucial dimension to human existence – and one which may well determine the fate of our species as we confront the growing horrors of the 21st century. ­ Fred

TO ISRAEL’S U.S. SUPPORTERS: PORTABLE GAS CHAMBERS, CHEMICAL WARFARE, BLINDINGS, MASS BOMBING AND SHELLING OF CIVILIANS – WHERE DO YOU DRAW THE LINE?

Note: This message is addressed to U.S. supporters of Israel both because only U.S. pressure can bring about the political settlement which alone can save Israel and Palestine, and because it appears that most Israelis – consumed by fear, hatred and the dehumanization of even Palestinian children – are presently impervious to either reason or human decency.

Dear U.S. Supporters of Israel in Gaza,

If you believed that the IDF could destroy Hamas by employing portable gas chambers or chemical weapons to publicly gas over 1,400 Gazan civilians, including 400 children, chosen at random – or deliberately blinding them – would you favor doing so? I guess not, perhaps you even feel insulted at the suggestion that you might.

But this raises a basic question: if you would not favor gassing Palestinan civilians, how do you justify your support for blowing them to bits? The controversial issue is not Israel trying to destroy Hamas tunnels. Nor is it the attempt to destroy rockets, as if the Israelis can claim that they reasonably suspected the 46-48,000 U.N.-estimated buildings they either partially or totally destroyed of containing rockets. Nor is it rightfully condemning Hamas for rocketing civilian targets as well. As even long-term apologists for Israeli violence like the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier acknowledge, the issue is massive Israeli bombing and shelling of he civilian infrastructure in Gaza, which is wholly disproportionate to combatting tunnels and/or rockets.

It is the actual massive bombing and shelling of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure that raises the basic question: as a human being, where do you draw the line? How do you justify to yourself your support for mass misery inflicted on hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians through a bombing and shelling campaign that – whatever its stated intent – not only murdered 1400 civilians and maimed thousands more, but destroyed hospitals, schools, businesses, and Gaza’s only power station plunging all 1.8 million Gazans into darkness and depriving them even of drinking water, created over 400,000 refugees, and traumatized a U.N.-estimated 373,000 children? (Please see “The Civilian Impact of Israel’s 2014 Attack on Gaza” below. You own integrity requires that you at least acknowledge the facts rather than, as do so many of Israel’s supporters, accept at face-value Israeli claims that it sought to avoid civilian destruction.)

I answered such questions for myself 45 years ago, when I discovered that civilians were well over 90% of the victims of U.S. leaders’ mass bombing of northern Laos. I concluded then that there is never any moral or legal justification for mass bombing or shelling of civilians. Period. Full Stop.

The “World Can’t Wait” website has just posted a PowerPoint presentation on the years-long bombing of northern Laos, perhaps the worst unknown crime of the 20th century. It combines an analysis of automated war, the writings of the rice-farmers who suffered most and were heard from least, and my personal story in discovering and trying to expose it to the world. A Lao mother summed up the nature of mass bombing of civilians for all time: “There was danger as the sound of airplanes led me to be terribly, terribly afraid of dying. When looking at the faces of my children who were losing the so very precious happiness of childhood I would grow in­creasingly miserable. In reality, whatever happens, it is the innocent who suffer.”

The question of protecting civilians in wartime far transcends the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: it is a basic measurement of the progress of human civilization itself. What is at stake in your support for Israel’s recent attacks on Gaza is not only Israel’s humanity but your own.

There are two basic questions regarding warfare: (1) whether a given war is considered legitimate, e.g. whether it is “aggressive war”; and (2) how civilians are treated once a war is launched. These are two distinct questions – even if you consider a given war legitimate there is no moral or legal justification for waging it in a way that mainly murders and maims civilians.

The evolution of international law on this question, beginning with the 1907 Hague Convention, has been slow and painful. But it is today unequivocal: waging war in a way that results primarily in civilian deaths and damage is a punishable war crime. Article 85 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions states categorically that “the following acts shall be regarded as grave breaches of this Protocol … launching an indiscriminate attack affecting the civilian population or civilian objects in the knowledge that such attack will cause excessive loss of life, injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects” – a precise description of Israeli bombing and shelling in Gaza.

Israel claims that it is justified in maiming and murdering civilians because Hamas is using them as “human shields”. But it must be understood: there is always a military and political rationale for bombing civilians. In Laos, Deputy CIA Director James Lilley explained that though North Vietnamese soldiers were not in the villages they would hide there if the U.S. didn’t bomb civilians. Prime Minister Nethanyahu today offers a similar rationale for mass civilian murder.

Other rationales include hoping that mass murder of civilians will turn the population against their leaders, as when former Israeli General Amos Yadlin stated in the N.Y. Times that Israel must bomb partly so that “Gaza’s people (are) given the chance to elect new leaders”. And, as the U.S. Senate Refugee Subcommittee concluded after visiting Laos, the bombing’s purpose was to hurt the enemy by destroying its “social and economic infrastructure.” This was also General Curtis Lemay’s basic rationale for burning alive over 100,000 Japanese civilians in the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9, 1945, an act for which Lemay acknowledged at the time, and his assistant Robert McNamara later
also admitted, was a war crime – for which they should have been executed. (PIease see Note 1 below.)

And it is precisely because there is always a rationale for bombing civilians that the progress of human civilization is largely measured by the extent to which civilians are protected in times of war from indiscriminate bombing and shelling, and that those who violate these rules are prosecuted for crimes of war. Protecting civilians against indiscriminate murder, in short, is not only a question of war. It is a measure of your own humanity.

The Civilian Impact of Israel’s 2014 Attack on Gaza

n CIVILIAN DEAD AND WOUNDED: A U.N.-estimated 1396 Palestinian civilians killed including 222 women and 418 children, thousands more wounded. (Source: Information Management Unit in the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, from “Month-long War in Gaza Has Left a Humanitarian and Environmental Crisis”, Washington Post. August 6, 2014)

n CHILDREN: “Pernille Ironside, who runs the UNICEF field office in Gaza, said the agency estimates that roughly 373,000 Palestinian children have had some kind of direct traumatic experience as a result of the attack and will require immediate psycho-social support … (She) added that she’s seen ‘children coming out of these shelters with scabies, lice, all kinds of communicable diseases.’” (Source: “Amid Gaza’s Ruins, Impact on Children Most ‘Severe’: UN Official”, Common Dreams, August 6, 2014)

n ECONOMIC INFRASTRUCTURE: “175 of Gaza’s most successful industrial plants had also taken devastating hits, plunging an already despairing economy into a deeper abyss” (Source: “Conflict Leaves Industry in Ashes and Gaza Reeling From Economic Toll”, NY Times, August 6, 2014)

n MOSQUES, FARMING, INDUSTRY: “As many as 80 mosques have been damaged or destroyed. Many farming areas and industrial zones, filled with the small manufacturing plants and factories that anchored Gaza’s economy, are now wastelands.” (Source: “Month-long War in Gaza Has Left a Humanitarian and Environmental Crisis”, Washington Post. August 6, 2014)

n THE WATER INFRASTRUCTURE: Oxfam said: “We’re working in an environment with a completely destroyed water infrastructure that prevents people in Gaza from cooking, flushing toilets or washing [their] hands.”(Source: “Gaza’s Survivors Now Face A Battle For Water, Shelter And Power”, The Independent, August 5, 2014)

n 400,000 REFUGEES, 46-48,000 HOMES: “Frode Mauring, the UN Development Programme’s special representative said that with 16-18,000 homes totally destroyed and another 30,000 partially damaged, and 400,000 internally displaced people, ‘the current situation for Gaza is devastating’.” (Source: “Gaza’s Survivors Now Face A Battle For Water, Shelter And Power”, The Independent, August 5, 2014)

n ELECTRICITY: “Mr Mauring said that the bombing of Gaza’s only power station and the collapse at least six of the 10 power lines from Israel, had ‘huge development and humanitarian consequences’ (Source: “Gaza’s Survivors Now Face A Battle For Water, Shelter And Power”, The Independent, August 5, 2014)

n SCHOOLS, REFUGEE CENTERS: “United Nations officials accused Israel of violating international law after artillery shells slammed into a school overflowing with evacuees Wednesday … The building was the sixth U.N. school in the Gaza Strip to be rocked by explosions during the conflict. (Source: “U.N. Says Israel Violated International Law, After Shells Hit School In Gaza”, Washington Post, July 30, 2014)

n HOSPITALS: “Israeli forces fired a tank shell at a hospital in Gaza on Monday … It was the third hospital Israel’s military has struck since launching a ground offensive in Gaza last week.” (Source: “Another Gaza Hospital Hit by Israeli Strike”, NBC News, July 21, 2014)

n HOSPITALS, HEALTH WORKERS: “There has been mounting evidence that the Israel Defense Forces launched apparently deliberate attacks against hospitals and health professionals in Gaza … Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International (said) ‘the Israeli army has targeted health facilities or professionals. Such attacks are absolutely prohibited by international law and would amount to war crimes.’” (Source: “Mounting Evidence Of Deliberate Attacks On Gaza Health Workers By Israeli Army”, Amnesty International, August 7, 2014)

NOTES

1- Robert McNamara, from the Errol Morris film Fog of War:
“LeMay said, ‘If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.’ And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”

Preparing the Path to a Just Peace for Palestine/Israel

14 Jun

 

 

After several past failures to reconcile Fatah and Hamas under the single Palestinian umbrella of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, a unity government was formed and its ministers sworn in on June 2nd in Ramallah. This supposedly interim government of ‘technocrats’ without party affiliations will be presided over by the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Rami Hamdallah.. Hamas was reported unhappy until with the composition of the government, withholding its approval until the last minute, but in the end went along. Additional to the diplomatic and long-term benefits of Palestinian unity, the people of Gaza could stand to gain in the short-term, especially if Egypt can now be persuaded to open its border for the passage of fuel and other necessities. Cairo’s aversion to Hamas’ Brotherhood past would be diluted in view of the PA, not Hamas, having become the legitimated governing authority for all Palestinians, including those living in Gaza. The urgent needs of the Gazans may help explain why the two Palestinian factions finally set aside the bitterness of the past, at least for now.

It is too soon to assess the wider implications of this political move that angers the Israeli government and has been greeted with hostile caution in Washington and Europe. For the first time since Hamas won the Gaza elections in 2006, and forcibly displacing a corrupt and abusive Fatah from its governing role a year later, the Palestinians are represented by a leadership that is inclusive of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. The governmental machinery is presently presided over by Mahmoud Abbas who is Chair of the PLO and the President of the Palestinian Authority, which has promised elections of a new leadership within six months. Many Palestinians hope that the stage is now set to reduce the ‘leadership deficit’ that has hampered diplomacy at least since the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004. Arafat in the years leading up to his death lost the respect of many Palestinians, partly because he seemed too ready to please Washington in his search for a solution and partly because he lost his grip on corrupting elements within his own entourage. Unfortunately, the only Palestinian that has both the stature and a political appeal that stretches from one end of the spectrum of political opinion to the other is Marwan Barghouti, and he is serving a long-term prison sentence in an Israeli jail.

 

Israel’s Response

 

For the moment Palestinian diplomatic unity has been achieved, and seems to be unnerving Israel. Its highest officials and main media have not questioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu truculent insistence that Israel will never negotiate with any Palestinian government that is “backed by Hamas,” and threatens a variety of hostile reactions ranging from accelerating the expansion of settlements to withholding customs transfer payments that the PA needs to meet its big public sector employment payroll of 150,000. Perversely, disavowing as illegitimate any Palestinian government that is backed by Hamas endows the organization with a ‘make or break’ political influence, or put differently, gives Israel a foolproof pretext for doing whatever it wants in occupied Palestine without encountering much adverse reaction. Such an unconditional posture confirms for me Israel’s disinterest in a diplomatic approach to real peace, and serves as an excuse for going forward with settlement expansion, ethnic consolidation of East Jerusalem, and continuing the punitive blockade and isolation of Gaza. This pattern was already present a few years ago when Al Jazeera published a series of documents associated with secret negotiations between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority in which the PA offered major concessions, and Israel reacted with disinterest and the absence of any counter-offers. [See Clayton Swisher, ed., The Palestine Papers: The End of the Road (Chatham, UK, 2011)]

 

The Israeli rejection of this move toward Palestinian reconciliation is rationalized by the contention that Hamas was and remains a terrorist organization, and is unacceptable as a political actor because it refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and renounce violence as a tactic of struggle. The United States and the EU share this assessment as a formal matter, but in a slightly more nuanced way although it continues to view Hamas as a terrorist organization, and hence an illegitimate interlocutor. Yet, to the openly declared disgust of Tel Aviv, the White House has announced that it will for the present continue to work with the PA, including keeping the aid flowing. It announced that it intends to closely monitor the role of Hamas in the unity government as the aid to the PA (worth $440 million this year) has been conditioned by the U.S. Congress on the absence of ‘undue influence’ on the part of Hamas. What constitutes undue influence is obviously in the eye of the beholder. Israel can be counted on do its part, exerting pressure via its lobbying allies on Israel’s many Congressional friends in Washington, to show that Hamas is indeed influencing PA policies at this point despite the absence of any Hamas officials in the formal leadership of the new PA government announced in Ramallah. If Israeli lobbying succeeds it could trigger a break in the flow of aid, and cause fiscal troubles for the PA, but maybe with political side benefits by providing Palestinians with badly needed increased room for diplomatic maneuver free from an overall subservience to the partisan wishes of Washington.

 

Whether this will happen is uncertain. There is sure to be a pushback in the United States by Republicans always eager to score points against the Obama presidency by claiming that Israel is not being supported in the manner that such a key ally deserves. As well, playing the anti-terrorist card still seems to be effective in agitating the American public. Even if Congress does force Obama’s hand, the effects are uncertain. For one thing, the Arab League has pledged $100 million per month to the PA to offset any shortfall arising from a suspension of aid, and several Arab governments have expressed their willingness to provide Ramallah with the equivalent of any funds withheld by Israel and the United States. If such a pledge is fulfilled, no sure thing given Arab past failures to deliver on similar pledges, it means that if aid is cut to the PA, the main effect will be political rather than economic. In this event, Tel Aviv and Washington would likely lose influence, while Cairo, Riyadh, and possibly Tehran seem poised to gain leverage not only with the Palestinians but throughout the Middle East.

 

 

Tentative Assessment

 

It is only possible at this stage to reach tentative conclusions. The move to unity comes after utter failure of the direct negotiations that the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pushed so hard to get started last year. For most observers, especially in light of the continuing expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem, there seems no longer any credible prospect of a two-state solution in a form acceptable to the people of Palestine or with the possibility of creating a viable and fully sovereign Palestinian state. Beyond this, Palestine has started to act more and more as a state, a status dramatically affirmed by Pope Francis in his recent visit to the holy land. In this regard, it should be appreciated that Israel broke off negotiating with Palestine prior to the formation of the unity government, and not because of Hamas. The break occurred because the governing authority in Ramallah decided to sign 15 international conventions as a state party, a seemingly responsible step for Palestine to take if it wanted to be perceived as a state. Such an effort by the PA to confirm Palestine as a state without the endorsement of Israel and Washington is a direct result of the disillusionment by the PA with the ridiculous inter-governmental diplomacy that is still being championed by the U.S. Government as the only path to peace. The Palestinians have been living without rights under Israeli occupation for more than four and a half decades, and many Palestinian families have been languishing in refugee camps in and around Palestine ever since 1948. Besides this, the deferral of a resolution of Palestinian claims is not a neutral reality. It helps Israel expand, while diminishing Palestinian expectations in relation to their own territorial and national destiny.

 

I believe the bottom line importance of the unity government is the Palestinian realization that no solution to the overall conflict is even conceivable without the participation of Hamas. Beyond this, allowing Hamas to become an active part of the political equation strikes a body blow against Israel’s strategy of keeping the Palestinians as divided and subdued as possible. Hamas has taken a series of important steps to be accepted as a political actor, and thereby overcome its reputation as a terrorist organization associated with its earlier embrace of indiscriminate political violence, especially extensive suicide bombing directed at civilian targets within Israel. After entering and winning Gaza elections in 2006, Hamas went on to exercise effective governing authority in the Gaza Strip since 2007. It has been governing under extremely difficult circumstances arising from Israeli blockade and hostility. It has managed to negotiate and comply with ceasefire agreements via Egypt. Most relevantly, by way of statements of and interviews with its leaders indicating a readiness to enter into long-term co-existence agreements with Israel for up to 50 years if Israel withdraws to the 1967 ‘green line’ borders and ends its blockade of Gaza. The firing of rockets that can be directly attributed to Hamas in this period are almost always launched in a retaliatory mode after an unlawful Israeli violent provocation; most of the rockets launched are primitive in design and capability, and have caused little damage on the Israeli side of the border and often seem to be the work of extremist militias in Gaza that act independently and in violation of Hamas. Despite the low number of Israeli casualties, the threats posed by these rockets should not be minimized as they do induce fear in Israeli communities with their range. It should be recognized, also, that Hamas is known to possess more sophisticated rockets that could cause serious casualties and damage, yet has refrained from using them except in the course of defending Gaza in response to the massive attack launched by Israel in November 2012.

 

This profile of Hamas in recent years appears to represent a dramatic departure from its earlier positions calling for the destruction of the Israeli state in its entirety. It is fair to ask whether this more moderate line can be trusted, which cannot be fully known until it is tested by a positive engagement by Israel and the United States. So far Israel has made no reciprocal gestures even to the extent of taking some cautious note of these changes in Hamas’ approach. Israel has continued to repeat its demands that Hamas unilaterally renounce political violence, recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and indicate its acceptance of all past agreements with the Palestinian Authority. Even if Hamas were to take these steps it seems highly doubtful that Israel would alter its defiant position, continue to claim that such acts could not be trusted until further evidence of good faith are available, including amending the Hamas Charter. Doubts about Hamas’ trustworthiness seem a typically misleading distraction put forward by Tel Aviv. As whatever Hamas were to do, or even the PA, Israel would be sure to make its future security depend on its military capabilities, and place no reliance whatsoever on whether Palestinian political actors were true to their word. In the abstract, it does seem unreasonable to expect the Hamas to make these unilateral commitments demanded by Israel so long as the unlawful collective punishment of the people of Gaza in the form of the blockade continues.

At this point Hamas could and probably should do more to establish the bona fides of its abandonment of terror as a mode of armed struggle and its readiness to have peaceful relations with Israel for long periods of time. It could and should revise the Hamas Charter of 1987 by removing those passages that suggest that the Jews as a people are evil and provide jihadists with suitable targets that deserve to be stuck dead. It could also draft a new charter taking account of intervening developments and its current thinking on how best to wage the Palestinian liberation struggle. It may also be time for Hamas to make explicit a qualified commitment to a nonviolent path in pursuit of a just peace. In circumstances of prolonged occupation and state terrorism, Hamas is entitled to claim rights of resistance, although their precise contours are not clearly established by international law. Hamas is certainly entitled to act in self-defense within the constraints of international humanitarian law, and hence can condition any tactical renunciation of armed struggle by reserving these rights.

 

The one side of the Israeli rigidity that is rooted in psychological plausibility is the reality of fear, and Hamas if it wants to make progress toward a sustainable and just peace, would be well advised to do its best to recognize this obstacle. Ari Shavit starts his important, although not entirely persuasive book, in a revealing way: “For as long as I can remember, I remember fear. Existential fear…I always felt that beyond the well-to-do houses and upper-middle-class lawns of my hometown lay a dark ocean. One day, I dreaded, that dark ocean would rise and drown us all. A mythological tsunami would strike our shores and sweep my Israel away.” (My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2013), ix.

 

I am not intending to suggest that such feelings in any way mitigate the injustices imposed on the Palestinian people for almost a century. I am saying that these feelings among Israeli are real and widespread among the Jewish population living in Israel, and that the process of inducing more Israelis to seek a genuine peace depend on sensitivity by Hamas to this reality. Such a call does not mean at all that Israel should not have done more in this period, especially to allay the strong suspicion that the excessive demands of the Israeli government issued in the name of security and the invocation of fear and loathing, whether toward Hamas or Iran, is not being manipulated by a cynical leadership in Tel Aviv with not the slightest interest in peace and accommodation on reasonable terms, but is primarily seeking to proceed toward the control of virtually the whole of historic Palestine and the exploitation of all its resources. In other words Israeli ‘fears’ are at once authentic and offer a useful dilatory tactic. I would also emphasize the relevance of the situation on the ground: Israel as a prosperous powerhouse and fully sovereign state as contrasted to Hamas, which is the governing authority of the tiny, blockaded, and totally vulnerable Gaza Strip whose impoverished population has been deliberately kept by Israel at a subsistence level and continuously subjected to Israeli state terror at least since 1967.

 

A salient issue in this context is whether it is reasonable and desirable to insist that Hamas adopt a new covenant as a precondition to its acceptance as a legitimate political actor. On the one side, as mentioned above, Israel if so motivated, could explore accommodation options without taking additional security risks because of its total military dominance, and thus without either trusting Hamas or making a renunciation of the 1987 Hamas Charter a precondition. On the other side, the fact that Hamas would be willing to amend its Charter or adopt a new one that would provide some tangible indication that it no longer is calling for the killing of Jews (Article 7) and the insistence that a sacred and violent struggle is mandated by Islam to persist until every inch of Palestine falls under Muslim rule (Articles 13 & 14). If the public declarations by Hamas leaders in the last several years are to be taken seriously, then Hamas owes it to itself and those acting in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle to clarify its current political vision of peace and justice. Such clarification is consistent with reaffirming the responsibility of Israel and the Zionist movement for past injustices and the accompanying denial of fundamental and inalienable rights to the Palestinian people, above all, the right of self-determination.

 

From the positions set forth here, it seems clear that at this point the officialIsraeli leadership is not inclined to seek a diplomatic outcome to the struggle that includes addressing legitimate Palestinian grievances. For this reason alone, it is fair to conclude that the 1993 Oslo framing of diplomacy, as most recently exhibited in the Kerry negotiations, is a snare and delusion so far as Palestinians are concerned. It not only freezes the status quo, it shifts the realities on the ground in the direction of Israeli expansionism via annexation, and moves toward the final stage of Zionist thinking, incorporating Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) into an Israeli version of the one-state solution. These moves, in effect, normalize the apartheid structure of relations between Israeli settlers and Palestinian residents, and shed the pretense of agreeing to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Against such a background, the incentive to change the Hamas Charter it should be understood is not to appease the Israeli government, but to manifest its own altered vision and strategy and to exert some influence upon the Israeli citizenry and world public opinion. It needs to be appreciated that whatever Hamas were to do to please Israel, it would make no essential difference. What is relevant to the present stage of the Palestinian national movement is to mobilize nonviolent militant resistance and solidarity support. It is on this symbolic battlefield of legitimacy that Palestinian hopes now rest.

Obama’s Legacy: “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff”

6 Jun

 

 

            So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past, and it will be for the century to come….The question we face..is not whether America will lead but how we will lead, not just to secure our peace and prosperity but also to extend peace and prosperity around the globe.

 

                        President Barack Obama’s Commencement Address, West Point, May 22, 2014

 

            I make the poem of evil also, I commemorate that part also, I am myself just as evil as good, and my nation is…

Walt Whitman

 

 

            Cautioning against militarism at West Point President on May 22nd Obama in a speech mostly notable for its reassertion of what might be best understood as imperial nationalism of global scope declared the following: “Just because we have the best hammer [that is, military dominance] does not mean that every problem is a nail [that is be selective].” Remembering the failure of military intervention in Iraq, positive about achieving a possible diplomatic breakthrough in Iran, and burned by the paucity of results from his strongly endorsed troop surge in Afghanistan early in his presidency, Obama is reminding the graduating cadets, the future commanders of the American military organization, that leadership on the global stage should no longer be conceived as nothing more than a hard power geopolitical game. Interpreted in context, such a statement can and should be appreciated as an embrace of what some call ‘smart power’ shaping policy by a careful understanding of what will work and what will fail, that is, exhibiting a sensitivity to the limits as well as the role of military power in pursuing the American foreign policy agenda.

 

            For the wildly hostile Republicans such language is warped to justify their attack on Obama’s foreign policy as wimpy, exhibiting a declinist mentality that is partially admitted by the sleazy phrase used by the White House during the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, ‘leading from behind.’ The Republicans, resorting to their typically irresponsible hawkish opposition rhetoric, chided Obama for not proceeding to bomb Syria after alleging that they had crossed the red line in 2013 when chemical weapons were used in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta resulting in heavy civilian loss of life. From such neocon perspectives America only loses wars when is loses its nerve. From this perspective every failure of military intervention since Vietnam exhibits not the limits of hard power, but the refusal to do what it takes to achieve victory by which is meant a mixture of weaponry and fortitude. Fortunately, most often when in office the Republicans have a record of finishing the wars that Democrats start. This was what Eisenhower did in the Korean War, and Nixon in the Vietnam War. Republicans bark more often than they bite, while Democrats do the opposite.

 

            Obama’s rejection of mindless militarism is most welcome, but insufficient. Given this American record of demoralizing defeats, those on the right end of the political spectrum should feel reassured by his ultra nationalist language used to describe America’s global dominance: “Our military has no peer. America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world…our economy remains the most dynamic on Earth…Each year we grow more energy independent. From Europe to Asia, we are the hub of alliances unrivaled in the history of nations.” Recalling the oft-quoted boast of Madeline Albright, Obama went on to insist, “So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past, and it will be true for the century to come.”

 

            To exhibit national pride is understandable for a political leader, but the absence of any expression of national humility creates an overwhelming and deeply troubling impression of hubris, especially when the speaker heads the biggest military power in history and his country has its forces spread around the world so as to be ready to strike anywhere. We should be aware that for ancient Greeks hubris was a tragic flaw that makes the powerful complacent about their points of vulnerability and hence destined to freefall from dizzying heights to swampy depths. Such an interpretation is reinforced by Obama’s vision of the place of war making in American foreign policy: “The United States will use force, unilaterally, if necessary, when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger.” What is so stunning here is the absence of any even pro forma acknowledgement of a national commitment to carry out foreign policy in a manner respectful of international law and the authority of the United Nations. Deeply disturbing is Obama’s contention that war might be the appropriate way to go if “our livelihoods are at stake,” which seems to revive the dreams of economic imperialists who seize resources and safeguard unjust enrichment from foreign resources.

 

            With words that echo those of George W. Bush, Obama admits that “[i]nternational opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our homeland and our way of life.” If America should never ask, is that true for others, for say Russia when it protects its homeland and way of life in Ukraine? To be fair, Obama does seem to qualify his unilateralism by saying that before leaping into war “we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just,” but these lofty sentiments are coupled with the glaring omission of the words “and legal.” Obama does advocate “appeals to international law” in the speech, but revealing only as one of several tools of American diplomacy that might be useful in mobilizing allies to join in multilateral recourse to military action against common adversaries.

 

            Toward the end of the speech Obama removes any ambiguity about the kind of prideful realism that he appropriates for the United States, and implicitly disallows to others, acknowledging lofty pretensions on a truly global scale: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional in not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.” Are we stupid? After lauding militarism and unilateralism early in the speech only later to give this Wilsonian spin to the more self-serving meaning of American exceptionalisn the Obama language exhibits a disturbing blend of confusion and hypocrisy. Even the slightest familiarity with America’s use of force in international life over the course of recent decades, including during the Obama presidency, would lead any close observer to conclude that the only honest way to identify American exceptionalism is above all its “ability to flout international norms and the rule of law.” And not only ability, willingness as well, whenever expedient (consider global surveillance, drone warfare) from the perspective of national interests to engage in combat.

 

            As always there is in Obama’s comprehensive statements some visionary language meant to be uplifting. For instance, what he describes as the “final element in American leadership: our willingness to act on behalf of human dignity.” Where exactly? In response, to the oppressive rulership of Sisi’s Egypt? In relation to the civilian population of Gaza so long victimized by Israeli collective punishment? The only plausible answer to the first of these questions is ‘where and when it suits American interests, and not otherwise.’ In fairness, could be expect otherwise in a state-centric world.

 

            There is an awkward reference in the speech to Egypt that makes a mockery of any talk about human dignity and a foreign policy responsive to the claims of justice. Obama employs a strange phrase, perhaps to convey the sense of awkwardness, by starting his explanation of policy with the words “in countries like Egypt.” Such a phrase implies that there are other such countries, which itself seems dubious. We do not receive any hints as to which countries he means to include. Possibly Obama is referring to all those states with deplorable human rights records whose leaders are guilty of crimes against humanity in relation to their own citizens, but whose orientation is favorable to the West. Obama goes on to imply some misgivings about the positive American relationship with Egypt, “we acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests, from peace treaties to Israel to shared efforts against violent extremism.” And then with hypnotic indifference to the tension between words and deeds, he explains, “[s]o we have not cut off cooperation [read as military assistance] with the new government, but we can and will persistently press for reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded.” How should we deconstruct this combination of reassurances and pressures to establish democracy, the rule of law, and human rights? I would say to paraphrase Obama that this strikes me as a callous example of ‘following from behind.’

 

            On such other issues as terrorism, drones, Iran, Syria, and Ukraine Obama affirms mainstream foreign policy positions with nothing new, not daring to endorse any initiative that would break fresh ground. There were some obvious opportunities that would have created a bit of credibility for the basic claim made by Obama that America, and America alone was capable of providing the world with benevolent leadership. Surely, Obama could have proposed that Iran join in an effort to end the war-threatening atmosphere relating to Syria and in view of Western objections to Iran’s nuclear weapons p. Or suggest that Israel’s refusal to stop settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem had doomed, once and for all, any hope of a negotiated and just end to the search for peace in Palestine and Israel that would benefit both peoples instead of voicing mild disapproval and stepping to one side. Or welcome the formation of a unity government that could finally represent the Palestinian people as a whole. Or recognize the complexity of competing national claims in Ukraine, acknowledging that the West as well as Russia was responsible for escalating tensions, thereby inhibiting prospects for a mutually beneficial accommodation. Or Obama might even have chosen such a moment to revive his 2009 Prague initiative by proposing that the time had come to table a draft treaty of nuclear disarmament.

 

            Such innovative steps would have stirred excitement as well as compromise, controversy, and debate. Such moves would have at least encouraged the hope that Obama’s vision of American leadership meant something for the world beyond a watered down neoconservative global agenda. To be sure, it is less belligerent in language and policy than what was being advocated during the Bush presidency. The Obama outlook is certainly more receptive to partnership, alliances, and multilateralism in managing global affairs. Ironically, the Obama conception of American leadership is depressingly similar in some of its essential features to the commencement address given by George W. Bush at West Point twelve years earlier: We were good, they are evil. Terrorism is the main security threat. We will act as we wish when our security and vital interests are at stake. No signs of deference to international law or the UN unless it reinforces American foreign policy. When American policies are challenged, it is up to the political leadership to decide what is right and wrong, but governments that are adversaries of the West should continue to be judged and punished by international procedures, including the International Criminal Court. No humility, and no retreat from the global projection of force as an American entitlement that others welcome.

 

            Perhaps, after all Hilary Clinton was right when she taunted Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign: “If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.” To clarify, not the heat that Clinton meant, but the heat that would be generated if Obama made a serious attempt in these last years of his presidency to translate his visionary language into concrete policies that addressed injustices and disciplined American foreign policy choices by an acceptance of the authority of international law and the UN. One can only daydream about such a legacy for the presidency of Barack Obama. Instead rather than the legacy of forbearance that he seems determined to leave behind, summarized by his own self-professed operating logic—‘don’t do stupid stuff.’

 

The Paradox of Conservative Campaign Solicitations: A Sequel to Critique of Democratic Party Fundraising

15 May

 

The Paradox of Conservative Campaign Solicitations: A Sequel to Critique of Democratic Party Fundraising 

 

I put a post on this website a few days ago complaining about the approach taken by liberals in recent years to soliciting financial support via the Internet. By perverse coincidence, I received a comparable appeal from one of the leading Tea Party ‘conservatives,’ Ted Cruz, Republican senator from Florida, who made national headlines by delivering a 21 hour speech on the floor of the Senate denouncing Obamacare, insisting that this health plan was a menace to the nation and the constitutional integrity of relations between government, society, and citizen.

 

As in my criticisms of the liberal style of solicitation, my interest is not here in the substantive implications of the appeal, but in the way of relating to the citizenry, being disturbed by Democratic Party notables who approach supposed supporters among the citizenry as of little relevance other than as cash cows available for frequent milking! Such a monetizing of the state/society relationship was further corrupted by the false note of addressing me by my first name and signing it with a similar flourish of familiarity. Whoever drafted such a personal appeal, which would certainly not be the signatory, must believe that such shallow intimacy will persuade most recipients to more readily part with a few dollars.

 

Reacting to the appeal from Senator Cruz that is pasted below for your ‘reading pleasure’(!), a few observations occur to me. First of all, there is a greater dignity in being addressed, however wrongly, as ‘Dear Fellow Conservative’ rather than as ‘Richard,’ ending with the formal signoff of ‘Senator Ted Cruz,’ which I found less off putting than ‘Barack’ or ‘Michelle,’ or in my example, ‘Debbie.’ Also, compare the subject lines used by Debbie Wasserman Schultz in messages received the last two days: “This is personal, Richard” My response: “It is anything but personal.” The subject line of her second message was along the same lines: “Can We Count on You, Richard?” My response: “Get real, first.”

 

Further, and more tellingly, the Cruz message is about the political importance of selecting the Republican candidate who will have the best chance of becoming the next senator from Nebraska because of his ideological alignment and stands on issues of principle. There is no mention of money, only a call for support, and the sly promise of promoting a political upset. In the accompanying message signed by the candidate in this primary election, Ben Sasse, substantive issues are stressed, and the appeal for funds is not personalized beyond the usual stress on the relevance of sufficient money to buy the TV time that will offset the funding power of the competing candidate whose campaign has far greater resources. An aggregate sum needed to achieve this result is mentioned, but no suggestion is made as to how much is expected to be contributed by each recipient of the message. It is left to me to decide how much I will give if I am persuaded, which for substantive reasons, I am not. Incidentally, Sasse scored an upset in this primary earlier in the week, and will be the Republican candidate in the Nebraska Senate race come November.

 

I will leave for another time, whether such Republicans relying on the label of ‘conservative,’ however sincere, obscures more than it discloses. To be clear, I support Obamacare 100%. My only wish is that the legislation had been more generous and inclusive. Without governmental empathy, tangibly expressed in action, for the many poor and marginal living within our affluent borders, there is little worth conserving except perhaps the wealth of the conservatives.

 

********************

THE TEXT OF SENATOR TED CRUZ AND BEN SASSE MESSAGES:

 

Fellow Conservative,

 

I am writing today to ask you to support Ben Sasse for U.S. Senate from Nebraska. He is a strong defender of the Constitution. Ben has the courage and character to stand on principle and to tell the bosses in Washington, “I don’t work for you. I work for the people of Nebraska.”

 

 

Ben is a leader in the fight against ObamaCare. He has read the entire ObamaCare bill, and he has a plan to stop it.

 

We need more conservatives who will stand up to defend the Constitution the way that Ben Sasse will. Both Sen. Mike Lee and I urgently need reinforcements like Ben in the U.S. Senate.

 

Please read the below email from Ben and share it with friends? With two days to go until Election Day, I strongly encourage you to support Ben.

 

Sincerely,

 

Senator Ted Cruz

 

 

https://owa.princeton.edu/owa/redir.aspx?C=OK3y_PwUKkKnYQkPrK3iEkSFSrKcQdEIXTdzIkoqcAO8iS5oYDIM84rC7mYXSGEwJ50MLIPYR1U.&URL=https%3a%2f%2fnews.psysmtp.com%2fwta%2flink.php%3fM%3d31172393%26N%3d96763%26L%3d34758%26F%3dH

 

Dear Conservative,

 

I am proud to have the support of Ted Cruz. And I urgently need his help and yours right now to pull off the conservative “upset of the year.”

 

The DC Lobbyist Establishment is 100% determined to stop me. And I can’t survive their onslaught without you by my side.

 

My name is Ben Sasse and my U.S. Senate primary in Nebraska two days from now is the most important race in the nation bar none.

 

The truth is simple. Right now there’s a war raging for the heart and soul of the GOP.

 

On one side stand conservatives like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee who refuse to sit back to let Obama “fundamentally transform” America. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee know the country is at stake — and they want to go on offense and fight for it.

 

On the other side stands the “Old Guard” Washington Establishment. They are raising big bucks for my opponent and will do anything necessary to stop our campaign before May 13.

 

This primary contest may well determine who runs the Republican Party: Conservatives or the Washington Establishment.

 

It’s why the Washington Post is running a story with the headline “Why Nebraska is a make-or-break Senate race for the tea party”.

 

I am not preferred choice of the Permanent Political Class in DC. I’m going to Washington to fight for conservative principles. And that’s why Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Sarah Palin, and Tom Coburn support me.

 

 

 

 

 

But even more threatening, my opponent is raising a flood of cash from Washington, D.C. lobbyists who mostly care about making money off taxpayers for their clients.

 

This is a direct threat to the conservative values you and I hold.

 

Let’s understand something important: the problem in D.C. is not just that the Democrats are in charge. The problem is that we have too many Republicans who think Big Government is perfectly fine and just wish they were in charge.

 

I do not believe in that. I believe that we must be the Party that stands up for liberty, against Big Government and the Special Interests that leech off of it.

 

The DC Lobbyist Establishment is funneling money to my opponent as fast as they can. And I can’t turn on television or radio without hearing some dishonest attack ad that smears my name.

 

I need the help of conservative leaders like you to fight these attacks.

 

With two days left, I need to make an emergency media buy of $67,382 and I need your help to raise it.

 

Too many Republicans go to DC because they want to be in the “Senate Club” and have fancy dinners with lobbyists.

 

That’s not me. I’m going to Washington to fight for conservatives.

 

And today I need you to stand with me to win this primary.

 

Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Sarah Palin, and Tom Coburn are in.

 

Are you?

 

Two days left please consider helping me raise $67,382 for my emergency media buy. Please help me right now.

 

For America,

 

Ben Sasse

 

 

 

 

Monetizing Political Discourse in America

14 May

For some time I have been disturbed by the constant flow of emails from notables in the Democratic Party that tie substance and politics to money, specifically in the form of soliciting donations. The style of such messages is offensive to me. Complete strangers address me in the first person, and assume I share their political outlook, which paints a dark picture of liberal values at risk while never mentioning the illiberal policies of the Democratic presidency. Such messages are signed in a disingenuous manner of faux familiarity, and this includes messages from either President or Ms. Obama, writing to me as if there existed a personal connection between us. The bottom line is a plea ‘to chip in’ by donating $3, $10, or more. See below for a typical such personal message sent to me by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Chair of the Democratic National Committee. I wonder if I am alone in being put off by this way of passing the hat in the digital age.

 

It is not just a matter of personal annoyance about being badgered several times a week. It is much more about making politics and policies seem to depend exclusively on who contributes the most money. The Democrats purport in most of these appeals to be fending off reactionary billionaires, such as the infamous Koch Brothers, who are portrayed satanically as using their fortunes to buy elections and tilt the country even further to the right. Underneath this crude reduction of the political process to which party can purchase more TV prime time is the apparent realization that American democracy is no longer a marketplace of ideas, perhaps, never was. The impression I receive from these email messages is that American democracy has become an auction in which elective office and public policy automatically goes to the candidate able to pony up the most lucre, however filthy. Underneath such attitudes is the dangerous belief that the ordinary citizen has no mind of his/her own, and will most likely vote for whomever Is most often seen on TV. This kind of thinking is especially demeaning to the so-called independent voter trying to make up his/her mind in the final days of a campaign.

 

Of course, there is some truth, and even a principled rationale, for this incessant barrage of funding appeals. If the Republican side is spending in great amounts as a result of support from the ultra-rich, then symbolically it is important to suggest that a government responsive to the people means that the Democratic opposition needs to mobilize ordinary citizens who are struggling daily to make ends meet, and yet still greatly prefer political leadership in the White House and Congress that is broadly in accord with their liberal ideas about fairness and decency. Up to a point this way of interpreting political conflict in the United States is convincing.

 

My concerns are mainly of a different order. There is an implicit disempowerment of the citizen whose identity is associated with her or his bank account rather than with the substantive agenda of politics and a more public engagement with political reform. There is embedded in these messages a loopy good/evil imagery of American political realities, whereas the appeal in recent decades of the Democratic Party has been for me and many others reduced to being the lesser of evils on most, yet not all, issues. Consider the treatment by the Democratic leadership of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, drone warfare, silence about the Egyptian coup and Palestinian ordeal, a slide toward Cold War II in response to the complexities of the Ukraine, and on and on. In other words, it may be pragmatically important to avoid Republican political leadership, but there are many reasons to be disappointed by and even oppose the policies and practices embraced by the current Democratic leadership.

 

Of course, underlying this objection to the sort of either/or choices is a feeling that what is being suppressed is the word and consciousness associated with ‘neither,’ that is neither Republican nor Democrat. But then what? There was that brief rush of fresh air that was brought into the political arena by the Occupy Movement, but without staying power. Subsequently, there has been regression on the public stage. America is not yet a choiceless democracy, but the choices offered do not give much ground for hope in relation to the main challenges facing

either this country or the world, for example, in relation to challenging the excesses of world capitalism, and its byproduct of unsustainable and growing inequality.

 

Getting back to the particulars of this screed, I paste below the latest specimen of this type of political solicitation. Is my reaction naïve, unfair, out of touch? Comments are particularly welcome. And more to the point what might be done to improve the quality of political democracy in this country? How can we as citizens become more effective, not just locally, but nationally and internationally, in this era of the dumbing down and crude monetizing of representative government?

 

 

**************************

 

 

 

The Text of Debbie Wasserman Schultz’ letter:

 

 

Richard —

 

The most thrilling, rewarding, and (sometimes) challenging job I’ve ever had is being a mom — between the twins and my youngest there is never a dull moment.

 

But lately, when I think of my kids, I consider all of the things Democrats are working for that would support my fellow moms and their families the most. We’re the party fighting for equal pay legislation, for raising the minimum wage, protecting Obamacare, and fixing our broken immigration system to keep more moms with their kids. These policies aren’t just good for moms, they’re good for the economy, too.

 

Chip in $10 or more to support Democrats fighting for policies that support moms and families.

 

 

 

We’re celebrating Mother’s Day soon, and I hope we’re all thinking of the millions of moms out there who are doing all they can to raise their kids, support their families, and contribute to their communities. What Democrats are fighting for is personal to me, and probably for you, too.

 

Donate to elect more Democrats who are fighting for policies to support moms:

 

https://my.democrats.org/Stand-with-Moms

 

Thanks,

 

Debbie

 

Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Chair

Democratic National Committee

 

P.S. — To all my fellow moms, Happy Mother’s Day this weekend!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Citizens versus Subjects in a Democratic Society: The American Case

10 May

 

“Have we agreed to so many wars that we can’t

Escape from silence?…”

                        Robert Bly, “Call and Answer”

 

            In my understanding silence is passivity as a way of being. Silence can be much more than the avoidance of speech and utterance, and is most poignantly expressed through evasions of body, heart, and soul. Despite the frustrations and defeats of the period, America was different during the years of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. It was then that alienated gun-wielders assassinated those among us who were sounding the clearest calls for justice and sending messages of hope. In a perverse reaction, Washington’s custodians of our insecurity went to work, and the sad result is this deafening silence!

 

            I have long felt that most American ‘citizens’ increasingly behave as ‘subjects,’ blithely acting as if a love of country is exhibited more by obedience than conscience. In my view the opportunity to be a citizen is a precious reality, a byproduct of past struggles. Genuine citizenship remains possible in the United States, but has become marginal, and is not much in evidence these days. I am identifying the citizen as an ethically sensitive and responsible member of a political community, most significantly of a sovereign state. In contrast, the subject conceives of upright standing in a political community by the willingness to go along with the group and to obey the directives of government and those exercising formal authority.

 

            The moral substance at the core of genuine citizenship only exists if the political structure allows opposition without imposing a severe punishment. If citizenship is possible, then it automatically gives rise to responsibility to act accordingly, that is, by honoring the imperatives of conscience. Unfortunately, considerations of prudence, career, and social propriety make it more attractive these days for most Americans to behave as subjects living within a rigid set of constraints. Citizens are those who not only proclaim the virtues of freedom, but act responsively to the vectors of conscience even if these go against the established public order and prevailing cultural norms.

 

            Thomas Jefferson at the birth of the republic understood that liberty is a process, not an event, which can only flourish if the citizenry as a whole is actively engaged, and above all is vigilant in relation to abuses attributable to the state. Citizenship was better understood in the late 18th century when the struggle against the pretensions of monarchy was vibrant. Today it is irresistibly tempting for ambitious political leaders to encroach upon the liberties of the people by insisting that national ‘unity’ and ‘patriotism’ are practical necessities at times when the country is at war or confronting enemies. And by a convenient Orwellian trope, wartime has become the norm rather than the exception, and peacetime is mainly a memory of ancient times that even the oldest citizen now alive never really experienced. Arguably, the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 ended once and for all the illusions of peace as the normal condition of a democratic society. Even the collapse of the Soviet Union did not restore ‘peace’ except in the misleading senses of the absence of war. This enthronement of war in the permanent collective imagination of the country was vividly re-inscribed by the 9/11 attacks and the Bush response of declaring a global war on terror and terrorists. Bush’s instinctive stroke of political ingenuity was to devise a new kind of war that never needs to end. Obama despite some ritual reassurances to the contrary has not broken faith with the militarist mentality and seems comfortable with treating war as the new normal.

 

           This vulnerability of democracy to the siren song of security has been effectively exploited by power-wielders for decades in the United States. Not only do politicians and militarists sing this song, but also private sector moguls whose primary amoral motivation seems to be the maximization of profits. This weakening of the substance, structures, and spirit of American democracy partly reflected the militarizing impacts of World War II and its Cold War sequel, but also the related extension of the American sphere of direct concern and involvement to all corners of the earth. This unprecedented global force projection coincided with the collapse of European colonialism, the ideological consensus affirming neoliberalism, and the backdrop of a globalizing world in which critical resources, sea lanes, and markets needed to be protected if the world economy was to flourish. This American transformation from being ‘a hemispheric state’ to becoming ‘a global state’ has had an extraordinary impact on national identity, especially giving rise to a self-anointing mission of global leadership that depends on military dominance. Such a mission has also witnessed a promiscuous reliance on ‘American exceptionalism,’ often at the expense of respect for the authority of the United Nations and international law. The claim is that America can set aside rules of behavior at will to meet the challenges confronting the country and the world, but that antagonistic others cannot.

 

            It is true that early in the American experience the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) signaled a national ambition to reign supreme in the Western Hemisphere (except for Canada), which expressed an early refusal by the U.S. Government to confine its definition of national interests to the territorial boundaries associated with being a normal sovereign state. But the strains of extra-territoriality were minimal compared what they became in the 20th century, especially with the onset of World War II. For one thing, the challenge of imposing control was far simpler and cheaper in the era of ‘gunboat diplomacy,’ which enabled a small input of military power to achieve the political objectives of intervention under most circumstances. Since 1945 the mobilization of national resistance around the world has been very effective in raising the costs and risks of intervention, and neutralizing many of the advantages that had made it so easy to translate military superiority into desired political results during the colonial era.

 

            Also relevant for a discussion of the deteriorating quality of democratic life in the United States are expansions of scale and surveillance as byproducts of becoming a global state. To project power globally requires a global network of military bases numbering in the hundreds, a navy that patrols every ocean, missiles that can strike the most distant targets, attack drones that can be programmed to kill anyone anywhere on the planet, and the most extensive information-gathering capability that technology can provide and money can buy. This raises to astronomic levels the investment of energy and resources in sustaining such a global role. Unsurprisingly there are byproducts, including a militarized state at home and the assumption of associated custodial duties related to the protection of the American people against real and imagined enemies and the pursuit of national interests relating to wealth, influence, and prestige. To enhance security in this global setting pushes surveillance toward totalization as the Snowden disclosures began to reveal. It also creates a logic that views domestic opposition with grave suspicion, and leads to finding and destroying ‘the enemy within’ before it gains the leverage to unleash its assault of the established order.

 

            The American global state is different than past empires, which were explicit in projecting their hard power, and insisting upon overt allegiance of those whom they rule. As Rumsfeld succinctly remarked some years ago, “we do not do empire.” What do we do? It is to manage a global state that seeks to meet hostile challenges wherever they emerge, and give a high priority to the maintenance of a trade, investment, and navigational framework that reflects the guiding assumptions of neoliberalism in the networked digital age. And because the most threatening hostile challenges seem currently mounted by non-state actors that have no particular territorial base of operations, the battlefield has been quietly globalized to encompass the economy, the surveillance panopticon, and the counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation sites of intervention and resistance.

 

            What then does American citizenship mean under these altered domestic and global conditions? It should be acknowledged that not all recent developments are negative with respect to the quality of democratic life in America: slavery was overcome, racism diminished, women’s rights strengthened, sexual preferences increasingly respected. Taking these concerns into account has meant that there many avenues that remain open for the expression of conscience in the United States, which entails the non-acceptance of various facets of the status quo: struggles against militarism, surveillance, plutocracy, global warming, poverty, inequality, human insecurity, class warfare, as well as the residues of racism and patriarchy.   Citizens should be selectively active in response to these challenges, while the subject is passive or a regressive champion of the status quo, and at best an advocate of incremental change (as Yeats reminded the world almost a century ago, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The most effective forms of citizen action depend on popular mobilization and the adoption of nonviolent forms of collective action. The subject stands by sullenly, applauding the suppression of dissent and resistance by security forces.

 

            The French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, referred to ‘the democracy to come’ as achieving a far higher degree of social justice than has ever existed in any country. In my view, fulfilling this potentiality would mean the enlargement of the role of the citizen, the decline of the subject, and a much more critical interplay between society and the state, making democracy a participatory process that did not consider itself fulfilled by periodic free elections and functioning representative institutions. Such practices associated with procedural democracy have recently lost most of their charm due to deforming impacts of money, lobbying by special interests, and the virtual disappearance from the political landscape of a progressive option. In effect, the future of American democracy will necessarily now depend on the activity of people of conscience, and the rebirth of a progressive vision that is made attractive across class, race, and geographic lines.

 

            Such a prescription for hope has its own shortcomings and difficulties. Are not the members of the Tea Party composed of those whose conscience leads them to defy the state? Are they not fulfilling the role of citizen, shunning the passivity of the subject? There exists an inevitable clash of values between those who seek a compassionate government that is inclusive as to its nonviolent ethos of hospitality and those who seek an ethnically delimited social order that is xenophobic, exclusivist, and militia-minded in its orientation. In the end such a clash involves sorting out the balance of passions that shape the political culture at a given point in an unfolding national narrative. And this balance may not turn out very well for progressive citizens of conscience, depending on the mix of attitudes and fears that animate the masses at a given historical time.

 

            There is one further consideration bearing on the democracy to come. It must not only be spatially minded about the world, it must also be temporally oriented about past and future. It must learn from the glorious and inglorious episodes of the past, but even more importantly, be alert to the need to live beyond the present, to take responsibility for ensuring that the future is not being diminished in serious and irreversible ways by current policies and practices. Such temporal urgency is currently especially compelling in relation to the environment, the treatment of animals, and above all, the multiple challenges of climate change. Humanity is faced at this juncture with a choice of heeding the scientific consensus on the need to reduce sharply the emission of greenhouse gasses or to live in the false consciousness of pretending that the future can be safely secured by either a technological fix (often described as geo-engineering) or by a guardian god or gods that will not permit an apocalyptic catastrophe to doom the human species. In other words, the conscience of the progressive citizen in our time must not only be globalized in the form of being a ‘world citizen;’ it must also be projected through time, adopting futurist modes of feeling, thinking, and acting,

 

            It is against this background that I have previously suggested an identity shaped through an appreciative reference to ‘the citizen pilgrim,’ that is, to the citizen whose conscience is directed at others without heeding boundaries of space or time, or such contingent features of identity as nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, class. The citizen pilgrim is embarked upon what is essentially a spiritual journey or pilgrimage, seeking an inspirational future that seems neither feasible nor impossible. Such an inspirational dedication also minimizes the imaginative foreclosures of mortality, making the certainty of death a part of life, and accepting this destiny without seeking the comfort of metaphysical fictions, and thus not deeply disconcerted by ‘the dying of the light.’