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Five Years after the Arab Spring: A Critical Evaluation

7 Dec

[Prefatory Note: The post below is an introduction to a series of articles on the theme of assessing the Arab Spring jointly written with the prominent Turkish scholar, Bülent Aras, whose bio-sketch appears below. It was published in the Third World Quarterly, 37 (No. 12): 2258-2334 (2016).]

 

Five Years after the Arab Spring: A Critical Evaluation

Bülent Aras  and Richard Falk

a Professor of International Relations, Sabancı University, Turkey bRichard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University, United States.

[Abstract: A new political geography has emerged in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) after the Arab Spring. The transformative impact of the popular upheavals appeared to put an end to long-term authoritarian regimes. Today, the region is far from stable since authoritarian resilience violently pushed back popular demands for good governance and is pushing to restore former state structures. However, the collective consciousness of the popular revolts endures, and a transformative prospect may emerge on the horizon. The chaotic situation is the result of an ongoing struggle between those who seek change and transformation and others in favor of the status quo ante. A critical evaluation of the Arab Spring after five years indicates a continuous process of recalculation and recalibration of policies and strategies. There are alternative routes for an eventual settlement in the MENA region, which are in competition against both regional and transregional quests for a favorable order.]

 

 

The transformative impact of the Arab Spring on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) symbolizes a turning point in the recent history of the region. The change is obviously visible, although five years is not long enough to see the full effects of a popular movement with the transformative goals of the Arab Spring. The protests and the immediate aftershocks remain confined within regional boundaries, which affect only Arab countries, although the anti-authority discourse has reached a wider resonance. In this sense, one obvious dimension of this novel political development has been the “Arabness” of its core mobilization.

In more specific terms, the MENA region faces transformations on a range of fronts, from state-society relations to resilience of authoritarian regimes, from state failures to shifting alliances in the region. This complex picture is the result of interaction and socialization of new and old actors in the domestic to regional and regional to global flows. The domestic environments in the regional contagion range from failed transitions to civil wars, while regional order as a whole is almost a perfect example of “the anarchical society” without the existence of any overarching authority and institution capable of enforcing rules and establishing order.

On the domestic fronts, the Arab Spring brought the analyses of democratization and robustness of authoritarianism to the fore with a rich variety of cases for discussion. We put forward the idea that the Arab Spring represents a search of the masses under authoritarian regimes for honor, dignity, liberty, good governance, and accountability of rulers. These uprisings created a new collective consciousness or subjectivity strongly influenced by the transnational diffusion of international norms of governance, freedom, and equality. The uprisings in various authoritarian states thus made sense beyond the geography of immediate impact and created a strong transnational impetus for change in a series of countries outside the Arab World. The demands for change, search for representation, and struggle for honor created a new collective consciousness that provides motivation, solidarity, belief, and strategy in various national contexts to engage in similar struggles against rulers. Societal groups enjoy the empowerment of sub-state actors and benefit from state vulnerabilities in undertaking political initiatives within authoritarian settings. The opposition to authoritarian rule also finds its expression in a relatively democratized context, giving rise to further political demands, especially for stronger societal participation. Throughout the different phases of the Arab Spring, the masses have faced several challenges and difficulties associated with imposing their new collective consciousness on rule and transforming authoritarian regimes in desired directions.

The first challenge was the robustness of authoritarianism in the Middle East and the differential ability of rulers to learn and recalibrate policies to preserve their hold on power. Second has been the lack of support from the international community in the struggle for freedom and liberties despite the fact that these ideas have been promoted with “universal” validity. The third challenge has been the fragility and fracturing of the societal consensus that has unleashed the uprisings, which underscores the vitality of sustainable coalitions that could have functioned as a social glue for realizing the transformative goals in its aftermath. The original consensus that gave rise to the new collective consciousness was severely challenged and even broken in some cases when it came to reforming the governing process along more democratic lines. When the popular expectations accompanying the uprising were dashed, active social forces backing the revolution became divided and certain elements indeed turned against the revolution to settle for what has been a reversal of the uprisings in the form of a counterrevolutionary backlash. This was actually what happened in Egypt after the election and overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The reactions of the ruling regimes vary according to their receptivity and resistance to the transformative claims set forth by the new collective consciousness. The Arab Spring has also been a learning process for all sides in terms of new calculations, recalibration of policies, and the development of effective strategies to cope with the new political atmosphere. The rulers and establishment elites as well as the popular movements also face fundamental challenges. Above all is the challenge of meeting societal demands for change in the domestic political order and the governing process. A second challenge concerns the transnational nature of the Arab Spring. This makes countries vulnerable to the potentially subversive transnational diffusion of the new collective consciousness. Inside/outside differences in policy-making have been more fluid than ever during this period. A third challenge has arisen when Arab rulers have found themselves with a capacity and incentive to exert an influence for or against the transformation of other states while at the same time facing a similar situation at home. Attitudes toward transformation of neighbors usually conform to the positions adopted at home. Rulers tend to support resistance to change outside if they adopt status quo policies at home: Most leaders seek outcomes that resemble as much as possible their domestic policies and are in conformity with their interests.

The fourth set of challenges may be the most confusing. The new transnational web of regional and international relations occurs within an atmosphere of flexible alliances and shifting alignments and priorities. Yesterday’s enemy may selectively become today’s friend. The contradictions and multiple dimensions of conflict that have risen to the surface in Syria during the last five years highlight this concern. A number of countries in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, have reacted to the situation elsewhere in the region to raise firewalls to protect their hold on power at home. A fifth set of challenges follows from the involvement of global political actors, mainly Russia, China, the European Union, and the United States. The aspirations of these actors are not always clear, and may alter under pressure and in response to national shifts in the balance of forces. This further complicates an assessment of internal strife, exhibiting both mixed signals coming from some of these actors and rigid attitudes from others. The relations of Middle Eastern countries with these external actors have often become strained by the shifts and turns in response to the Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring is now at a critical phase as both popular forces and the ruling elites are recalculating their policies and reshaping attitudes toward change and the option of resistance. This is a distinctive moment in history that is showing the limits of creativity to meet the challenges of the Arab Spring, which ranges from the particularistic such as determining the future of Bashar al-Assad in Syria to broader issues of the role of Islamism such as the legitimacy and role of the pro-democracy Ennahda movement in Tunisia. The mobilization of new political movements in Iraqi Kurdistan and Northern Syria, or the Saudi attempts to empower the administration in Bahrain and shape an anti-Houthi outcome in Yemen also undermine the political order of the region in different ways. It is possible to analyze the Arab Spring within four subsystems, categorizing their adaptability and resistance to the diffusion of transnational values. The four categories that we set forth are the Arab I and Arab II, Turkish-Iranian complex, and Kurdish de facto autonomy systems.

The Arab System I refers to those Arab states that share the commonalities of high population and low natural resources. These countries have been vulnerable to popular revolts and possess a limited ability to address societal challenges through peaceful means. The Arab System II consists of Arab states having a small population and a strong resource base. They exert more control over societal demands and also enjoy surplus financial capacity to influence political outcomes in other countries. The societal demands are more basic in terms of democratization and appropriation of civil rights and liberties. The state-society tension, in general, has risen to unstable levels and in some cases has led to the outbreak of civil war. One could depict several sub-regions within these subsystems. Furthermore, these two Arab configurations of states are not mutually exclusive. There occur complex and multiple interactions with each other that are further complicated by extra-regional involvements. The “Syriraq” crisis, the rise of Daesh, and the Saudi-led coalition’s air war against Yemen, among others, are issues concentrated in the Arab System I, although these events are also of clear relevance to the Gulf Kingdoms of the Arab System II that are preoccupied with maximizing authoritarian survival beyond their own borders, and devote resources to ensuring the persistence of an authoritarian neighborhood.

The Turkish-Iranian system is different than the Arab systems in reference to political institutions and societal demands. The 1979 revolution put an end to the authoritarian monarchy in power, replacing it with Islamic rule. Iran has regular elections, a diverse civil society, and a functioning parliament. Despite these moderating features of the governing process, the Iranian opposition seeks greater democratization, protection of human rights and basic freedoms. Thus the fundamental questions in Iranian politics are how to secure free and fair elections, political liberalization, the empowerment of civil society and politicians, and normalization of relations with the West against the stronghold of the establishment. In 2009, people protested against the presidential elections with the slogan “Where is my vote?”, yet were suppressed in the name of raison d’etat. The Iran nuclear deal seems to be a game changer since it carries the potential to put an end to Iran’s international isolation and turn Iran into a legitimate actor in regional politics. Iran’s new status helped it to have a psychological upper hand in the course of the scaling down of the U.S. presence in the Middle East, which lessens the likelihood of any new hegemonic order in the region for the foreseeable future. The region will now become even more prone to rivalries, conflicts, and protracting crises as regional actors pursue contradictory goals. This is what has happened during the five years after the Arab Spring. The geopolitics of the Middle East is now being manipulated predominantly within a framework of sectarian conflict and the overall rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional influence.

The Turkish situation is more about the enhancement of democracy, fine-tuning, and active participation in decision-making processes and a fundamental emphasis on economic development.. The societal demands are centered on the call for transparency, accountability, freedom of expression, and further civil rights. There is also an issue of cultural and language rights sought by Kurdish political forces. The Gezi Park protests in 2013 are exemplary in this sense of Turkish unrest. Young people resisted the building of a shopping mall in one of the few green parks in the urban center of Istanbul. The Turkish subsystem, compared to the others, despite its shortcomings, comes closest in the region to institute a democratic order. Turkey has taken strides in good governance and economic development, but has ever since been haunted by the quest for sustaining a democratic transition. In that sense, societal demands for better representation, checks on the political leadership, and the desire to control and limit political excesses fits into the general spirit of the new collective consciousness that has already been in motion within the dynamics of the Turkish system. The challenging issues for Turkey are responding demands for wider representation, addressing growing societal polarization and consolidating democratic institutions against a counterproductive trend in favor of reaching political goals through violence in the Kurdish problem and an undefined social call for security in the face of terrorist attacks launched by the extremists including Daesh.

The failed attempted coup of July 15, 2016 in Turkey can be connected to the Arab Spring experience, including the aftermath, in several significant ways. The most obvious reverberation of 2011 was the degree to which the leader was able to summon the people of Turkey to exhibit historical agency by displaying their support for the existing government and sacrificing their bodies to uphold the elected political leaders of the country. At first glance, the contrasts with Egypt are most striking. In 2011, the Egyptian masses in their revolt against Mubarak’s rule proved themselves and to the world their historical agency by opposing an unelected authoritarian government, and following the overthrow of the regime in Tunisia, catalyzed uprisings throughout the region. Then in 2013, disappointed by the failures of the elected leadership to perform, the Egyptian people were again mobilized effectively, this time to support a military coup against the elected leadership. In these fundamental respects, what happened in Turkey on July 15th is the exact opposite of the second Egyptian uprising that brought General Sisi to power, an outcome later ratified by elections conducted unreliably in a post-coup atmosphere of repression focused on crushing the Muslim Brotherhood that had won the prior nationwide elections held in 2012.

The situation in Turkey remains uncertain as the aftermath of failed coup has created contradictory signals about what to expect from the perspective of stability, human rights and democracy. In the early post-coup atmosphere in Turkey was dominated by a problem unique to the region, the deep penetration of all governmental institutions by the Gulenists, the followers of Fethullah Gülen who resides in the U.S. This left the Turkish government led by its president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with the formidable task of rebuilding the Turkish state without destroying Turkish democracy. On the one side, there are encouraging signals suggesting a new and welcome willingness of the main political parties to work together to preserve constitutional democracy in the country while restoring confidence in the security apparatus of the state. On the other side, there is challenging task of dealing with the detentions of Gülenist suspects from the various branches of government including the armed forces along with mass dismissals from educational institutions and an array of interferences with journalists and writers in a situation of state of emergency.

How these dramatic developments will play out in the region remains to be seen. Even before the coup, Turkey was engaged in a foreign policy reset, featuring successful efforts to renew normal diplomatic relations with Russia and Israel, which had become antagonistic in the prior five years. The Turkish relationship with the United States is also under unprecedented pressure due to the coup as its accused leader, Fethullah Gülen, resides in the United States. The Turkish government has formally requested extradition in accordance with a bilateral treaty, and whether it is granted or denied could affect the future of U.S./Turkish relations, as well as the coherence of NATO.

The Kurdish system is the most problematic challenge confronting Turkey. Although the Kurds do not have a state of their own, they have been empowered in their respective geographies during the Arab Spring, which has raised their expectations. Kurds are a minority group in Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. There are three Kurdish sub-systems emerging within the atmosphere of change and transformation in the Middle East. First is the Syrian-Iranian sub-system, which seems best characterized by war and survival. Second is the Iraqi subsystem, which is a quasi-state structure that faces the challenges of securing the autonomy and consolidation of political and economic order, which may require an opening up of its political structure to satisfy societal demands. Third is the Turkish subsystem, which oscillates between war against the PKK and a peace process with Kurdish political representatives in an environment of a relatively advanced political structure. In the last year or so there has been a definite move away from peace and diplomacy and a firm embrace of armed struggle tactics.by both sides

Against this backdrop, Emirhan Yorulmazlar and Bülent Aras deal with the geopolitics of the Arab Spring and develop a framework to combine the factors that brought the previous regional order to an end. The domestic to regional and regional to global flows are examined in detail as the authors analyze and assess the regional disorder that emerged in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Ever since the regional political landscape appears to have been completely altered. The article identifies the emerging subregional systems in the Middle East, which could pinpoint the basis for further changes and evolve to constitute the prospective regional order.

Fuat Keyman deals with the regional crisis and explains how this contributes to global turmoil. In this regional to global flow, regional problems are elevated to matters of international security. Keyman analyzes Turkey’s dilemma specifically, facing both the rise of Daesh and the refugee problem. He rejects the idea that Turkey is a buffer zone and encourages a more constructive and integrative dialogue between both Turkey and EU and Turkey and the U.S. with the objective of addressing these issues.

Pınar Akpınar focuses on the limits of mediation with respect to conflict resolution in the five years of Arab Spring. Akpınar’s focus on the effects of the multi-actor environment, the results of various trials of mediation, and a particular consideration of the mediation attempts in Syria underlines the necessity to rethink the means, nature, and capability of mediators as an alternative to chaos and armed struggle.

Halil Ibrahim Yenigün explores the repercussions of the purported failure of Islamist experimentations with democracy during the Arab Spring in terms of the inclusion-moderation hypotheses with a specific focus on the Egyptian case. He puts forward that moderation can only go so far because of the relevance and limits of Islamists’ political theology and further democratization may be dependent on a more viable Islamist political theology that accords better with rights and freedoms than a simplistic understanding of majority principle.

Richard Falk evaluates the aftermath of the Arab Spring through the dual optic of a regional phenomenon and a series of country narratives. These narratives are categorized by reference first to the secular states that found a path to stability after experiencing strong uprisings that drove rulers from power , second to the states in which the uprisings generated prolonged resistance and continuing acute instability, and third to the monarchies that neutralized the uprisings at their inception and restored stability. When other dimensions of conflict are taken into account it seems likely that the Middle East will continue to experience chaos, intervention, and counterrevolution for years to come, and possibly even a second cycle of uprisings directed at the evolving order.

 

Notes on Contributors

Bülent Aras is Senior Scholar and Coordinator of the Conflict Resolution and Mediation stream at Istanbul Policy Center, Professor of International Relations in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Sabancı University and Global Fellow at Wilson Center. He is Academic Coordinator of POMEAS (Project on the Middle East and Arab Spring). His current research interests include geopolitics of Arab Spring, non-state actors in peacebuilding and bridging the gap between theory and practice in foreign policy. Recent work has been published in Middle East Policy, International Peacekeeping, Political Science Quarterly, International Journal, Journal of Balkans and Near Eastern Studies, Journal of Third World Studies, Third World Quarterly.

 

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus at Princeton University where he was a member of the faculty for forty years (1961-2001). He is Chair of International Board of Advisers of POMEAS. Between 2002 and 2013 he has been associated with Global & International Studies at the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California, and is continuing to direct a research project on ‘Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy’ in his role as Fellow of the Orfalea Center. Professor Falk has been the Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine for the United Nations Human Rights Council between 2008 and 2014. He served as Chair of the Board, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, 2004-2012, and is now its Senior Vice President. In 2008-2009 he was appointed expert advisor to the President of the UN General Assembly. Over the years, Falk has published more than 50 books. The most recent one is Power Shift: On the New Global Order (2016).

 

* Corresponding author. Email: bulent@sabanciuniv.edu

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Are We Heading Toward Global Autocracy, Ecological Collapse, Political Malaise?

29 Jun

 

 

What follows are preliminary reactions to both the BREXIT vote and the world according to Trump, but also a commentary on the related alienation of large segments of the public that are being badly served by both the established elites and their demagogic adversaries. The failures of neoliberalism, the successes of digitization, the scourge of random violence, and more broadly, the dilemmas posed by late modernity are among the root causes of this global crisis of legitimate governance, which is deepened while being mishandled by unprecedented ecological challenges, extremely irresponsible geopolitical leadership, and a variety of ultra-nationalist backlashes against the encroachments of economic globalization.

 

 

Imagining the World After the Cold War

 

After the end of the Cold War there were various projections that tried to anticipate the likely future of the world in broad interpretative strokes. Three of the most influential conjectures by three prominent American authors received attention in the public sphere: those of Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, and Robert Kaplan.

 

Fukuyama challenged conventional political imagination with his provocative claim that with the collapse of the Soviet version of state socialism and the triumph of capitalist liberalism the world had reached ‘the end of history.’ It was also somewhat dubious that Fukuyama validated his views by reference to the Hegelian contention that history is made by the march and interplay of ideas rather than through the agency of material forces. In this respect history came to a supposedly glorious end because there was no grander possible political vision than that of market-based constitutionalism, epitomized by the American political system. Even the most casual observer of the global scene must have noticed the befogged Western optic through which Fukuyama saw

the world.

 

Huntington, no less provocative or biased, although less comforting for the West, anticipated a ‘the clash of civilizations’ as the sequel to the Cold War, especially stressing the confrontation between the liberal West and the non-West or simply ‘the rest.’ His suggestive emphasis was on blood-soaked fault lines between states, civilizations, and peoples associated with Islam and the Western polities descending from the Enlightenment tradition as it unfolded in Europe, taking root in North America and elsewhere.

 

Kaplan, also punctured the Fukuyama triumphalist tone of geopolitical serenity, by writing of ‘the coming anarchy,’ the breakdown of order at the level of the state. His views were shaped by perceptions of decolonization leading to ungovernable and essentially non-viable political spaces, particularly in Africa where he regarded many of the post-colonial states as incapable of achieving minimum order within territorial space.

 

25 years later it appears that each of these authors saw part of the elephant, but none of the three managed to capture this imposing animal in its majestic totality. Fukuyama was importantly correct in positing market-driven liberalism as the hegemonic ideology of the global future for decades to come, and especially so with respect to the ascendancy of the transnational private sector as shaped by financial flows in a borderless world. The universalization of the liberal international order was devised by and for the West after World War II with the overriding goal of avoiding a return of the Great Depression and retaining as many of the benefits of colonialism as possible in the aftermath of its collapse. This globalizing arrangement of economic and political forces proved robust enough to generate sustained economic growth, as well as to crowd out rivals, thereby making itself into ‘the only game in town.’ That this phase of globalization was grossly uneven in the distribution of benefits and burdens was generally overlooked, as was its predatory character as viewed from the perspective of the economic losers.

 

At the same time, the idea of reaching an endpoint in history even if conceived in Hegelian terms of ideas seemed rather absurd, if not grotesque, to many from its moment of utterance. Given the ideological assault on modernity that has been mounted from the perspective of religion, drawing into question secularism and rationalism, the liberal vision was indeed being challenged from a number of angles. In this regard, transnational terrorism viewed in isolation is a less radical repudiation of Fukuyama’s blueprint for the future than are the various associated challenges to Westphalian territorial sovereignty that have been mounted by Islamic leaders, articulated clearly by both Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama Bin Laden. Both insisted that the territorial sovereignty was not the primary legitimate basis for political community, and indeed put forward less convincing claims to political community than were the organic identities that had been shaped by centries of religious and civilizational traditions and devotional practices.

 

ISIS added its own version of this world order stance in a less reflective modality. Its leaders gave voice to the view that in the Middle East, in particular, armed struggle was undoing the harm done a hundred years earlier. ISIS bluntly repudiated the territorial legacies and authority of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that in 1916 had carved up the Ottoman Empire to satisfy British and French colonial ambitions. Such European hubris had cast the region adrift by creating governance zones that were, at best, artificial political communities that could only be held together by the iron fist of state power, which if removed would lead to chaos. The effect of giving over the fate of the peoples to the mercies of European colonial powers fractured the natural community of Islam and did away with the more ethnically constituted units (or millets) established by the Ottoman Empire. It is hard to be confident about whether the peoples of the region as of 2016, if left free to choose, would prefer the distortions of imposed Westphalian states or opt for boundaries that better reflected the existential sentiments and values of the current national majorities among those living in the region.

 

 

The Unexpected Appeal and Rise of the Reactionary Right

 

Perhaps, more fundamental in its implications for the future, is the shifting ground shaking the foundations of the edifice of ideas and interest upholding neoliberal globalization. That the ground is shaking has been revealed for most crisis deniers by the surge of populist support that allowed Trump to crush a wide field of Republican presidential aspirants with mainstream party credentials. This astonishing outcome has been strongly reinforced by the electrifying vote by Britain in June 2016 to exit the European Union, so-called BREXIT, and what that portends for Britain, the EU, and even the world.

 

We can also throw into the new mix the Sanders Phenomenon, essentially a youth revolt against what the man from Vermont kept calling ‘a rigged system’ good for the 1%, horrible for the other 99%, and especially for the bottom 40-60%. We will not grasp the full meaning of what has occurred for years to come, and surely the November 2016 American presidential election will either be a restorative moment for the established socio-economic order or a death warrant portending that radical, most likely disruptive, change is on its way. Should Hilary Clinton win, especially if she wins decisively as even most of the Republican leadership fear and some even wish for, it will quiet some of the voices on right and left calling for change, but only temporarily, and this is the point as the roots of the crisis are far deeper than this or that election or referendum result.

 

 

An Establishment Out of Touch

 

What strikes me most forcefully, aside from these unexpected outcomes, is how out of touch liberal, urban elites seem to be with the sharply alienated mood of the populace as a whole. This first struck me while visiting Cairo in the months after the overthrow of Mubarak in early 2011 when Egyptians across a wide spectrum welcomed change, and were naively expecting the political transition to be managed according to the will of the people by the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces. The political analogue to this trust displayed by the leaders of the uprising in the military wing of the former oppressive regime was the widespread expectation that Amr Moussa, Secretary General of the Arab League and once the Foreign Minister under Mubarak e would overwhelm opponents in the promised presidential elections.

 

Many in Cairo voiced their personal doubts about Moussa’s suitability, complaining of his complicity with the prior regime and wondering whether he had a genuine willingness and capability to push through a liberal agenda of national reform and manage an economic program that offered some hope to the poor and marginalized Egyptian masses. What representatives of the Cairo establishment and even its critics didn’t disagree about was the near certainty of a Moussa victory in the scheduled 2012 presidential elections because no other candidate had comparable name recognition or possessed elite credibility. As it turned out Moussa, despite his acceptability to urban elites, ended up with less than 12% of the vote in the first round, disqualifying him from competing in the second and final round of the electoral process that surprisingly pitted an undisguised Murarak loyalist, Ahmed Shafek, against the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi. There has been much commentary on this sequence of developments, but what I want to stress is how out of touch the Cairo policymakers and media were with ‘the people’ of Egypt, especially the poor and those living around the country outside the two urban centers of Cairo and Alexandria.

 

 

Losing it in America

 

The utterly unanticipated success of Trump, Sanders, and BREXIT left those who earn their livings by telling us what to think and what will happen in an apparently shell shocked. Because policy wonks can lose their relevance quickly, and maybe their jobs, if they are honest enough to dwell upon their mistaken judgments, they tend to shift the conversation to what these unexpected developments tell us about the vagaries of mass public opinion. They continue to write with the same old assurance and command over details, articulating anew as (un)knowingly as ever their views about what is to come, earning them invitations to influential talk shows and the like. They have no shame. At this moment the prevailing wonk consensus is that Trump cannot possibly win in the national elections next November, and will probably lead the Republicans to a devastating national defeat leaving the party discredited even among its most faithful followers. This scenario has become the latest American version of the liberal wet dream.

 

What is so far missing, or almost so, from the public discourse is a soul searching assessment of why the underclass anger, why the magnetic appeal of political personalities who are ‘outsiders,’ and why the loopy defensiveness and seeming irrelevance of those who speak softly, wrongly supposing that the voice of reason and moderation will win out. Even now there is little discussion of how best to account for this ‘revolt of the masses,’ why it is happening now and not earlier, as well as what can and should be thought and done.

Sanders alone pointed to the relevance of acute inequality as discrediting the prevailing political order and what the two political parties were offering the American people. He was sensitive to social dislocations caused by this inequality being closely linked to the declining real incomes of the middle classes and the poor. He also recognized that such a downward spiral is further aggravated by a dysfunctionally expensive health system, intolerable burdens of student debt, and a bipartisan willingness to sacrifice the fundamental wellbeing of workers in a deindustrializing America on the altar of free trade. In effect, Sanders was putting before the American people a sharply critical diagnosis of the ills besetting the country together with a laundry list of social democratic correctives.

 

Trump, despite being himself a major economic predator, has enjoyed this surge of fanatical backing due to his diabolical talent for blaming ‘the other’ for the failures being experienced by large disaffected sectors of the American people. From this paranoid standpoint it becomes almost logical to threaten China with a trade war, to bar all Muslims from entering the country, and to build a high wall that keeps illegal Latinos from coming across the Mexican border as well as getting rid as rapidly as possible all those who managed to enter illegally in the past, and to accomplish this massive dispossession through the medium of cruel and indiscriminate deportation. All of this negativity is given a smiling face by the catchy, yet vauous, Trump slogan “to make America great again.” Such a heartwarming slogan makes Trump into a kind of political alchemist transforming the base metals of xenophobic negativity into the glow that will follow from recovering a lost never existing American positive exceptionalism, which if decoded simply promises to restore a social order presided over by white men.

 

 

The Global Landscape

Looking around the world is a disquieting complement to myopic readings of these potentially earth shattering recent developments as happening only in Anglo-American political space. What seems evident is that there are throughout the planet converging trends reflecting some widely shared societal grievances coupled with a mood of disillusionment about the purported achievements and promises of democratic forms of governance. It is difficult to recall that after the Cold War a major aspect of American triumphalism was the confidence that the political embrace of American style democracy (what was then being called ‘market-oriented constitutionalism’) would spread to more and more countries in the world, and that this trend should be welcomed everywhere as an irreversible sign that a higher stage of political evolution had been reached. Bill Clinton liberals were forever talking up ‘enlargement’ (the expanding community of democratic states) while subscribing to the tenuous and vague claims of ‘democratic peace’ (the Kantian idea that democracies do not make war against one another).

 

Later George W. Bush neocons more belligerently pushed ‘democracy promotion,’ being impatient or distrustful of leaving the future to the workings of internal political dynamics and the flow of history. They held the geopolitically convenient, yet totally ahistorical, belief that military intervention would be popularly received as a liberating gift even by peoples newly freed from the shackles of European colonialism. In 2003, this commitment to coercing a democratic future was put into practice in Iraq, failing miserably and in an incredibly costly manner. Again what should be a cause for reflection is the misperception of the historical circumstances by the American establishment. This belief is abetted by the accompanying false assumption that if democracy is formally established, ex-colonial societies will docilely accept a prolonged foreign occupation of their country while continuing to endure high levels of chronic unemployment and mass poverty, a situation inflamed by national elites wallowing in luxury, having often gained their wealth by rapacious levels of corruption, rewards for serving the foreign occupiers and associated representatives of global capital.

 

 

‘It’s the System, Stupid’

 

If democratization seemed the wave of the global future as seen from the perspective of the 1990s there are now different horizons of expectation that darkly dominate the political imagination with a blending of fear, rage, and despair. What has so far emerged is a series of drastic political moves in a diverse group of countries that is cumulatively leading national governing processes in inward-looking authoritarian directions. Each national narrative can offer its own plausible explanation of such developments by focusing on the particularities of the national situation without paying much attention to external factors.

 

Yet the fact that such diverse countries share this experience of diminishing democracy and increasing authoritarianism suggests that wider systemic factors are at play. To some extent, this disturbing set of developments is disguised in the constitutional societies of the West where these trends are being validated by popular forces, that is, in full accord with the discipline and legitimacy of what might be understood as procedural democracy, that is, free and fair elections as supplemented by rivalry between political parties, a seemingly free press, referenda, legislation, judicial action, and executive initiatives that appears respectful of the constraints of the rule of law. These authoritarian outcomes should be interpreted mainly as failures of substantive democracy as obscured by the persistence of procedural democracy. This reality is beginning to be perceived by large portions of the population, especially those struggling with poverty, joblessness, and declining standards of living, although it is not articulated by reference to the substantive shortcomings of contemporary democracy. What makes this context so confusing is this tension within democracy between its procedural and substantive dimensions.

 

These substantive democratic failures of equity and performance are not generally experienced by those leading comfortable lives even if unlike earlier generations, expectations about the future at all levels of society are far less hopeful than during the last decades of the 20th century. Gone are the days when it was widely believed that children would almost certainly fare better than their parents. Those who are experiencing this sharp downturn in expectations are just now awakening to insist upon answers, and the easiest place to find them is through scapegoating. In this regard, the influx of foreign cheap labor is believed, and not always inaccurately, to exert downward pressures on wages and cause disquieting increases in the local crime rate. It also tempts many to regard the present challenges to homeland security as the work of ‘Islamic radicalism,’ while the widening gap between rich and poor is depicted as a mixture of corruption and free trade that pushes jobs out of the country to foreign labor markets with low wages, weak or no unions,lax safety and environmental regulations, and bribery as a way of life.

 

Although this shift from democratization to autocratization is being mainly experienced as a national phenomenon or as a series of distinct national dramas, the systemic aspects are crucial. An essential part of the socio-economic mixture of causes is the replacement of human labor by machine labor, a process that is accelerating via automation, and likely to increase at a geometrical pace for many years to come. As a result, a new source of chronic unemployment affecting all classes is occurring. Another aggravating feature results from migration flows escaping from war torn regions or from ecological collapse brought about by climate change. Further, the rise and manipulation of transnational terrorism and counterterrorism gives priority to the security agenda, lending support to a vast expansion of state police powers at the expense of societal autonomy and personal freedom.

 

What such developments portend is the presence of large numbers of desperate people within most national spaces who are blocked in their search for a decent life, are made to feel unnecessary and unwanted or treated, and are regarded as a burdensome democratic surplus by the established order. All that most of these persons want is social change and a recovery of their sense of societal worth, creating a frightening vulnerability to the siren calls of demagogues. Such a pattern is already visible on the global stage, although it tends to be blurred by relying on this still dominant optic of state-by-state developments that suppresses the reality of systemic pressures, and diverts attention from the kind of radical political therapy that is needed.

 

Current global trends exhibit two equally devastating approaches, which are in some settings combined. The most prevalent tendency is to mandate the state to impose order at any cost involving increasing levels of coercion, reinforced by intrusive surveillance, seeking its own legitimacy by claiming fear-mongering alarmism and through scapegoating of immigrants, Muslims, and all outsiders, those ethnically and religiously ‘other.’ A complementary tendency is associated with the demagogic arousal of populist masses that also mandate the state to carry out similar kinds of order-maintaining policies. In effect, the somewhat more cosmopolitan middle is being squeezed between the elites seeking to withstand anti-establishment politics and the aroused masses eager to smash the established order. Both sources of anti-democratic pressure favor closing borders, building walls, and deporting those whose very existence assaults nativist conceptions of the nation.

 

As previously assessed, procedural democracy is not currently much of an obstacle in the face of various populist embraces of proto-fascist political appeals that is offering aspiring demagogues a field day. The advocacy of extremist, simplistic, and violent solutions to complex problems is on the rise, and yet we should know that the present agenda of concerns cannot be effectively addressed until a structural analysis is acted upon and the neoliberal underpinning of the status quo is significantly adjusted. A correct political diagnosis would emphasize the alienating shortcomings of substantive democracy given the degree to which neoliberal capitalism is seen as responsible for accentuating inequality, corruption, and downward standards of living for the majority leaving many without adequate material security as it relates to employment, shelter, health, and education.

 

Overall as the world confronts such challenges as climate change, diminishing biodiversity, and nuclear weaponry that are cumulatively threatening humanity with catastrophe, this emergent reality of global autocracy may be the worst news of all.

Slouching Toward Global Disaster: Chaos and Intervention in the Middle East  

22 Dec

 

The Geopolitical Foreground

 

There are many disturbing signs that the West is creating conditions in the Middle East and Asia that could produce a wider war, most likely a new Cold War, containing, as well, menacing risks of World War III. The reckless confrontation with Russia along its borders, reinforced by provocative weapons deployments in several NATO countries and the promotion of governing regimes hostile to Russia in such countries as Ukraine and Georgia seems to exhibit Cold War nostalgia, and is certainly not the way to preserve peace.

 

Add to this the increasingly belligerent approach recently taken by the United States naval officers and defense officials to China with respect to island disputes and navigational rights in the South China Seas. Such posturing has all the ingredients needed for intensifying international conflict, giving a militarist signature to Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia.’

 

These developments are happening during the supposedly conflict averse Obama presidency. Looking ahead to new leadership, even the most optimistic scenario that brings Hilary Clinton to the White House is sure to make these pre-war drum beats even louder. From a more detached perspective it is fair to observe that Obama seems rather peace-oriented only because American political leaders and the Beltway/media mainstream have become so accustomed to relying on military solutions whether successful or not, whether dangerous and wasteful or not, that is, only by comparison with more hawkish alternatives.

 

The current paranoid political atmosphere in the United States is a further relevant concern, calling for police state governmental authority at home, increased weapons budgets, and the continuing militarization of policing and law enforcement. Such moves encourage an even more militaristic approach to foreign challenges that seem aimed at American and Israeli interests by ISIS, Iran, and China. Where this kind of war-mongering will lead is unknowable, but what is frighteningly clear is that this dangerous geopolitical bravado is likely to become even more strident as the 2016 campaign unfolds to choose the next American president. Already Donald Trump, the clear Republican frontrunner, has seemed to commit the United States to a struggle against all of Islam by his foolish effort to insist that every Muslim is terrorist suspect Islam as a potential terrorist who should be so treated. Even Samuel Huntington were he still alive might not welcome such an advocate of ‘the clash of civilizations’!

 

 

 Historical Deep Roots

 It has taken almost a century for the breakup of the Ottoman Empire to reap the colonialist harvest that was sown in the peace diplomacy that followed World War I. In the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement diplomats of England and France in 1916 secretly negotiated arrangements that would divide up the Middle East into a series of artificially delimited territorial states to be administered as colonies by the respective European governments. Among other wrongs, this devious undertaking representing a betrayal of promises made to Arab leaders that Britain, in particular, would support true independence in exchange for joining the anti-Ottoman and anti-German alliance formed to fight World War I. Such a division of the Ottoman spoils not only betrayed wartime promises of political independence to Arab leaders, but also undermined the efforts of Woodrow Wilson to apply the principle of ethnic self-determination to the Ottoman aftermath.

 

As a result of diplomatic maneuvers the compromise reached at Versailles in 1919 was to accept the Sykes-Picot borders that were drawn to satisfy colonial ambitions for trade routes and spheres of influence, but to disguise slightly its colonialist character, by creating an international system of mandates for the Middle East in which London and Paris would administer the territories, accepting a vague commitment to lead the various societies to eventual political independence at some unspecified future time. These Sykes-Picot ‘states’ were artificial political communities that never overcame the indigenous primacy of ethnic, tribal, and religious affinities, and could be maintained as coherent political realities only by creating oppressive state structures. If World War II had not sapped European colonial will and capabilities, it is easy to imagine that the societies of the Middle East would remain subjugated under mandate banners.

 

After World War II

 

Is it any wonder, then, that the region has been extremely beset by various forms of authoritarian rule ever since the countries of the Middle East gained their independence after the end of the Second World War? Whether in the form of dynastic monarchies or secular governments, the stability that was achieved in the region depended on the denial of human rights, including rights of democratic participation, as well as the buildup of small privileged and exploitative elites that linked national markets and resources to the global economic order. And as oil became the prime strategic resource, the dominance of the region became for the West led by the United States as absolutely vital. From these perspectives the stable authoritarianism of the region was quite congenial with the Cold War standoff between the United States and Soviet Union that was interested in securing strategic and economic partnerships reflecting the ideological rivalries, while being indifferent to whether or not the people were being victimized by abusive and brutal governments.

 

The American commitment to this status quo in the Middle East was most vividly expressed in 1980 after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution of the prior year by the enunciation of the Carter Doctrine. President Carter in his State of the Union Address was warning the Soviet Union by a strong diplomatic signal that the United States was ready to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf by force, which because of supposed Soviet superiority in ground warfare was understood at the time as making an implied threat to use nuclear weapons if necessary.

 

After the Cold War

 When the Cold War ended, the United States unthinkingly promoted the spread of capitalist style constitutional democracy wherever it could, including the Middle East. The Clinton presidency (1992-2000) talked about the ‘enlargement’ of the community of democratic states, implying that any other political option lacked legitimacy (unless of course it was a friendly oil producer or strategic ally). The neocon presidency of George W. Bush (2000-2008) with its interventionist bent invoked ‘democracy promotion’ as its goal, and became clear in its official formulation of security doctrine in 2002 that only capitalist democracies were legitimate Westphalian states whose sovereign rights were entitled to respect.

 

This kind of strident militarism reached a new climax after 9/11. The White House apparently hoped to embark on a series regime-changing interventions in the Middle East and Asia with the expectation of producing at minimal cost shining examples of liberation and democratization, as well as secure the Gulf oil reserves and establish military bases to undergird its regional ambitions. The attacks on Afghanistan, and especially Iraq, were the most notorious applications of this misguided approach. Instead of ‘democracy’ (Washington’s code word for integration into its version of neoliberal globalization), what emerged was strife and chaos, and the collapse of stable internal governance. The strong state that preceded the intervention gave way to localized militias and resurgent tribal, clan, and religious rivalries leading domestic populations to wish for a return to the relative stability of the preceding authoritarian arrangements, despite their brutality and corruption. And even in Washington one encounters whispered admissions that Iraq was better off, after all, under Saddam Hussein than under the kind of sectarian and divisive leaders that governed the country since the American occupation began in 2003, and now threaten Iraq with an implosion that will produce at least two states replacing the shattered one.

 

 

 The Arab Spring

 Then came the Arab Spring in 2011 creating an awkward tension between the professed wish in Washington for democracy in the Arab world and the overriding commitment to upholding strategic interests throughout the Middle East. At first, the West reacted ambivalently to the Arab uprisings, not knowing whether to welcome, and then try to tame, these anti-authoritarian movements of the Arab masses or to lament the risks of new elites that were likely to turn away from neoliberal capitalism and strategic partnerships, and worst of all, might be more inclined to challenge Israel.

 

What happened in the years that followed removed the ambiguity, confirming that material and ideological interests took precedence over visionary endorsements of Arab democracy. The reality that emerged indicated that neither the domestic setting nor the international context was compatible with the existence of democratic forms of governance. What unsurprisingly followed was a series of further military interventions and strategic confrontations either via NATO as in Libya or by way of its regional partners, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates as in Iran, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. With few tears shed in Washington, the authentic and promising democratic beginnings in Egypt that excited the world in the aftermath of the 2011 Tahrir Square were crushed two years later by a populist military coup that restored Mubarak Era authoritarianism, accentuating its worst features. What amounted to the revenge of the urban secular elites in Cairo included a genuine bonding between a new majority of the Egyptian people and its armed forces in a bloody struggle to challenge and destroy the Muslim Brotherhood that had taken control of the government by winning a series of elections. Despite its supposed liberalism the Obama leadership played along with these developments. It obliged the new Sisi-led leadership by avoiding the term ‘coup’ although the military takeover was followed by a bloody crackdown on the elected leadership and civil society leadership. This Orwellian trope of refusing to call a coup by its real name enabled the United States to continue military assistance to Egypt without requiring a new Congressional authorization.

 

The folk wisdom of the Arab world gives insight into the counterrevolutionary backlash that has crushed the populist hopes of 2011: “People prefer 100 years of tyranny to a single year of chaos.” And this kind of priority is shared by most of those who make and manage American foreign policy. Just as clearly as the Arab masses, the Pentagon planners prefer the stability of authoritarianism to the anarchistic uncertainties of ethnic and tribal strife, militia forms of governance that so often come in the wake of the collapse of both dictatorial rule and democratic governance. And the masters of business and finance, aside from the lure of post-conflict markets for the reconstruction of what has been destroyed militarily, prefer to work with dependable and familiar national elites that welcome foreign capital on lucrative terms that benefit insiders and outsiders alike, while keeping the masses in conditions of impoverished thralldom.

 

In many respects, Syria and Iraq illustrate the terrible human tragedies that have been visited on the peoples of these two countries. In Syria a popular uprising in 2011 was unforgivably crushed by the Basher el-Assad regime in Damascus, leading to a series of disastrous interventions on both sides of the internal war that erupted, with Saudi Arabia and Iran engaged in a proxy war on Syrian soil while Israel uses its diplomatic leverage to ensure that the unresolved war would last as long as possible as Tel Aviv wanted neither the regime nor its opponents to win a clear victory. During this strife, Russia, Turkey, and the United States were intervening with a bewildering blend of common and contradictory goals ranging from pro-government stabilization to a variety of regime changing scenarios. These external actors held conflicting views of the Kurdish fighters as either coveted allies or dangerous adversaries. In the process several hundred thousand Syrians have lost their lives, almost half the population have become refugees and internally displaced persons, much of the country and its ancient heritage sites devastated, and no real end of the violence and devastation is in sight.

 

The Iraq experience is only marginally better. After a dozen years of punitive sanctions following the 1991 ceasefire that exacted a heavy toll on the civilian population, the ‘shock and awe’ of US/UK attacks of 2003, an occupation began that rid the country of its cruel and oppressive leader, Saddam Hussein, and his entourage. What followed politically became over time deeply disillusioning, and actually worse than the overthrown regime, which had been hardly imaginable when the American-led occupation began. The Iraqi state was being reconstructed along sectarian lines, purging the Sunni minority elites from the Baghdad bureaucracy and armed forces, thereby generating a widespread internal violent opposition against foreign occupation and a resistance movement against the Iraqi leadership that had gained power with the help of the American presence. This combination of insurgency and resistance also gave rise to widespread feelings of humiliation and alienation, which proved to be conducive to the rise of jihadi extremism, first in the form of al-Qaeda in Iraq and later as ISIS.

 

Toxic Geopolitics 

It is impossible to understand and explain such a disastrous failure of military interventionism without considering the effects of two toxic ‘special relationships’ formed by the United States, with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The basic feature of such special relationships is an unconditional partnership in which the Israelis and Saudis can do whatever they wish, including pursuing policies antagonistic to U.S. interests without encountering any meaningful opposition from either Washington or Europe. This zone of discretion has allowed Israel to keep Palestinians from achieving self-determination while pursuing its own territorial ambitions via constantly expanding settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, fueling grassroots anti-Western sentiment throughout the Arab world because of this persisting reliance on a cruel settler colonialist approach to block for seven decades the Palestinian struggle for fundamental and minimal national rights.

 

The special relationship with Saudi Arabia is even more astonishing until one considers the primacy of economic strategic priorities, especially the importance of oil supplied at affordable prices. Having by far the worst human rights record in the region, replete with judicially decreed beheadings and executions by stoning, the Riyadh leadership continues to be warmly courted in Western capitals as allies and friends. At the same time, equally theocratic Iran is hypocritically bashed and internationally punished in retaliation for its far less oppressive governing abuses.

 

Of course, looking the other way, is what is to be expected in the cynical conduct of opportunistic geopolitics, but to indulge the Saudi role in the worldwide promotion of jihadism while spending trillion on counter-terrorism is much more difficult to fathom until one shifts attention from the cover story of counter-terrorism to the more illuminating narrative of petropolitics. Despite fracking and natural gas discoveries lessening Western dependence on Middle Eastern oil, old capitalist habits persist long after their economic justifications have lapsed and this seems true even when such policies have become damaging in lives and financial burdens.

 

Finding Hope is Difficult

 In such circumstances, it is difficult to find much hope in the current cosmodrama of world politics. It is possible, although unlikely, that geopolitical sanity will prevail to the extent of finding a diplomatic formula to end the violence in Syria and Yemen, as well as to normalize relations with Iran, restore order in Iraq and Libya, although such sensible outcomes face many obstacles, and may be years away. The alternatives for the Middle East in the near future, barring the political miracle of a much more revolutionary and emancipatory second Arab Spring, seems to be authoritarian stability or anarchic strife and chaos, which seems far preferable if the alternative is the deep trauma associated with enduring further American military interventions. If you happen to hear the Republican candidates give their prescriptions for fixing the Middle East it comes down to ‘toughness,’ including the scary recommendations of ‘carpet bombing’ and a greatly heightened American military presence. Even the more thoughtful Democrats limit their proposals to enhanced militarism, hoping to induce the Arab countries to put ‘the boots on the ground’ with nary a worry about either igniting a regional war or the imaginative collapse that can only contemplate war as the recipe for peace, again recalling the degree to which Orwellian satiric irony is relied upon to shape foreign policy prescriptions by ambitious politicians. Imaginative diplomacy, talking and listening to the enemy, and engaging in self-scrutiny remains outside the cast iron cage of the military mentality that has long dominated most of the political space in American foreign policy debates with the conspicuous help of the passive aggressive mainstream media. In this respect, American democracy is a broken reality, and conscientious citizens must look elsewhere as a prison break of the political imagination is long overdue.