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Once More: Blog Gatekeeping Dilemmas

22 May

 

 

Whenever Palestinian grievances become prominent, as they have recently due to the U.S. embassy move and defiant opening in Jerusalem, which coincided in time and outrage with the massacre at the Gaza border, Zionist nerves grow frayed, insults fly, and nasty moves are made to shift the conversation as far away from both the grievances and Israeli brutality as possible. In the humble setting of my blog apologists for Israel’s war crimes and crimes against humanity invite us to read their comments that blame Hamas for the shooting of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators. Since Hamas, as everyone knows, is ‘a terrorist organization’ and that alone is supposed to end discussion. Of course, such tactics of closure take no notice of the fact that Hamas was encouraged by Washington to participate in the 2006 elections by Washington, and then was punished for winning internationally supervised elections.

 

After that Hamas quietly tried to urge Washington to take steps to avoid violence in and surrounding Gaza by diplomatic initiatives that would promote co-existence. Hamas put forward in subsequent years a number of long-term ceasefire proposals that Israel left unanswered. If Hamas ignored comparable Israeli initiatives it would be severely denigrated by governments and the media. When violence involving Gaza has erupted, it has usually been Israel that has not only initiated major attacks, but has done so in a one-sided manner inflicting massive death and devastation on the Palestinian civilian population by taking full advantage of their military dominance. For Israel it has obviously been useful to keep Hamas in a terrorist box, which has kept a bright green light shining in the IDF direction.

 

The second argument made by Israeli apologists is to contend that every country has a right to defend itself, and when Israel repeatedly shoots, kills, and maims large numbers of unarmed demonstrators with live ammunition it is within its rights–acting in lawful self-defense. Such an abstract argument is only possible by either ignoring the true nature of the conflict or pretending that Israel, with its vast experience in controlling hostile demonstrations, has no alternative better way to address these unruly Palestinians who have been locked in captivity for decades and denied the most elemental human rights. Such a line of argument should be shameful, yet isn’t treated as such by mainstream media. Imagine the public outcry if East German border guards has used IDF sniper tactics at the Berlin Wall to repel enraged West German demonstrators (with far less justification for desperate anger than the Palestinians), it could have meant war, and certainly would have produced widespread denunciations of Communist barbarism.

 

With reluctance I have blocked such comments, as unhelpfully detached from reality. My actions have elicited especially the anger of Fred Skolnik, Mike71, and some others who have left the website. Fred and Mike have been more persistent, hiding their contempt for me long enough from time to time so as to regain temporary access to the blog, pleading free speech and with comedic absurdity, claiming that I block or filter their comments because I fear that the truth that they have to tell will expose the lies I tell or to avoid their arguments that are so convincing to the objective mind as to make mincemeat of mine.

 

There are some well funded major websites that serve loyally as strident voices for the Zionist right, such as Gatestone Institute, a regular outlet for Alan Dershowitz, and the Middle East Forum, featuring the views of Daniel Pipes. These websites would no more dream of publishing my comments than would Nikki Haley invite me over for dinner. I should point out, in a burst of liberal self-righteousness, that I have also mostly excluded comments that do express extreme anti-Zionist, anti-Israel views that appear to me to cross the line of political criticism and enter with their language the domain of ‘killing fields.’ Exactly where that line should be drawn is not easy for me, although it is obvious for my critics who claim I am easy on those that hate Israel while harsh on its defenders. I can only respond by saying “not true.”

 

It is never congenial for me to play this filtering role. I would make a terrible censor. I waver from time to time, which lead to inconsistent decisions, and sometimes disappoint friends as much as other times I anger my worst adversaries. My liberal, Habermasian inclinations are toward discourse and dialogue, and I am aware that restrictions, even if taken responsibly are a slippery slope. I confess also that I resent spending time reaching decisions about whether comments that stray close to the line of what I would call ‘inhumane apologetics’ (as in defending Israel’s shoot to kill or maim policies at the Gaza border) or involve defamatory attacks on my character, competence, motivations. Except in the most extreme cases it strikes me as a Hobson’s Choice: respond and futile engage or ignore and leave behind a trail of suspicion.  This same dilemma applies to invective directed at comment writers that express views similar to mine.

 

I know I have written along these lines in the past, dueling with my frustration, with some anger, and the debilitating feeling of being trapped in a fruitless exercise, and yet when the volume of blocked comments pile up from time to time, silence does not seem a good option. I am tempted at such intervals to stop comments altogether, thereby sidestepping the issue. I have so far resisted this temptation because despite some acute discomfort, on balance, I find most of the comments supportive and of great interest, containing independent insights, and offering constructive criticisms that I do my best to take into account in the future.

 

 

 

There is no conversation possible, especially as those who disagree are branded as showing their alleged hatred for Israel. As the principal target of such defamatory comments, I am particularly sensitive to the issue.

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Transforming World Order?

20 May

 

[Prefatory Note:  This post is my review of an important critical study of the deplorable conditions of law and politics in the current global setting. The author grounds his diagnosis and proposals on a philosophical interpretation of this subject-matter, but the radical vision although appealing gives little attention to how such a vision can become a political project, and so this learned text creates an impression of apolitical utopianism. This review will be shortly published in the American Journal of International Law.]

 

 

 

TRANSFORMING WORLD ORDER?

 

Eutopia: New Philosophy and New Law for a Troubled World.By Philip Allott. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2016, Pp. xi, 368. Index. $135.

 

Grasping Allott’s Ambitious Undertaking

 

It is not by chance that Philip Allott, professor emeritus of international public law and fellow of Trinity College, University of Cambridge, UK,offers unusual guidance to readers in the opening sentence of the Preface to Eutopia: “The reader may want to read this book more than once, and to read it with unusual care” (p. vi). If anything, this advice is understated. Allott has written a learned, conceptually intense, and wildly ambitious book that demands the most dedicated attention taxing the perseverance of even the most diligent of readers. Allott challenges us on every page, really on each of its paragraphs given a systematic inflection by being numbered as if elements of a mathematical proof. Putting the bar of comprehension so high raises preliminary awkward questions—is the immense burden imposed on the reader sufficiently rewarded by the contribution that Allott makes to our understanding of the human condition? There is a second subsidiary question—is Allott’s distinctive methodology an effective and necessary means by which to raise and resolve such fundamental issues? and for what audience is this undertaking intended? I will return to these matters at the end of my attempt to assess Allott’s undertaking, which by any measure is extraordinary. It is nothing less than a philosophically coherent depiction of a comprehensive and desirable future for humanity designed to do nothing less than achieve the totality of human potentiality if properly enacted.

Allott attributes his sense of profound concern with the way the world was organized to his experience decades ago as a legal advisor in the British Foreign Office (1960–1973). It was there that he became aware of “all significant aspects of international government” leading him to the “settled moral conviction—that the nature of so-called international relations must be changed fundamentally and, with it, the nature of international law.”[1]Although the argument put forward is expressed abstractly, without civilizational specificity or very much by way of policy critique and example, there is no doubt that Allott is deeply offended and worried by his various encounters with political realism while serving the British crown. In a strong passage Allott vigorously rejects the major premise of the nuclear age, which he decries as “the development of the grotesquely named strategic nuclear weapons, as if mass murder and mass destruction could be strategies adopted by rational human beings.”[2]Such strong language suggests Allott’s repudiation of conventional wisdom in the world that he inhabits, which stands in stark contrast to the world that he believes can be brought into being by new thinking responsive to the overriding moral and political imperative of seeking a new world order in which all human beings can flourish, and find happiness, as well as address the formidable challenges of global scope that threaten the survival of the human species and much of its natural habitat.[3]

To begin with, it is important to realize that Eutopiais a sequel to an equally challenging and ambitious earlier work, Eunomia: New Order for a New World, published in 1990.[4]In a long Preface written especially for the 2001 publication of a paperback version, Allott gives readers important clues to what led his thinking in such radical directions, including his disdainful treatment of incremental global reform steps advocated by liberal internationalists that he believes irrelevant, given the magnitude of the challenges facing humanity. Allott is convinced that only a revolutionaryprocess can generate the capacity needed to enable humanity to produce a positive future for itself. Clarifying this orientation, Allott writes,

 

We are people with a permanent revolutionary possibility, the power to make a revolution, not in the streets but in the mind. And the long journey of revolutionary change begins with a single revolutionary step. We can, if we wish, choose the human future. We, the people, can say what the human future will be, and what it will not be.[5]

 

This appears to be affirming a radical form of political agency vested in the people, that is, change from below, although this is never asserted in this form or as an ingredient of democracy or transformative populism.

This crucial matter of orientation and perspective, with its Hegelian confidence in the power of ideas to transform and regulate behavior, leads Allott to distance himself from those who insist that “practicality” in the domain of politics is the only responsible approach to the advocacy of change and reform. Allott rejects the mainstream consensus that constrains debate within the confines of feasibility as interpreted by the powers that be: “To disprove a claim that a set of ideas is merely Utopian, it is useful simply to recall that those ideas contain a future which is not only possible but also necessary, and that the human future is always an imaginary potentiality until it becomes a present actuality.”[6]As Allott puts it elsewhere, “We make the human world, including human institutions, through the power of the human mind. What we have made by thinking we can make new by new thinking.”[7]This theme pervades Allott’s entire undertaking, but such an unconditional statement of benign mental potency seems to be oblivious to the darker forces of the unconscious that drive human behavior in destructive and self-destructive directions. The dominance of these darker forces has, in my view, entrapped the political imagination in an iron cage, accounting for the widespread feelings of despair on the part of those who confront the future with eyes wide open.[8]Allott is fully aware of this, shares this foreboding, but offers us the redemptive possibility of this mental revolution.

Allott writes in the Preface to his present book,

 

Since Eunomia was published, the globalising of human social and mental existence has proceeded at a pace and in ways that could not have been predicted then, and with ever more troubling consequences, and ever more serious threats and challenges. Chaotic globalizing is even negating humanity’s tentative unity-in-diversity. (P. viii)

 

We should appreciate that Eunomiaand Eutopiaasserted this dramatic diagnosis well before Donald Trump’s “America First” approach has aggravated the world order situation by a series of dramatic withdrawals of America’s engagement in cooperative forms of globalization with respect to such crucial policy contexts as climate change, international trade, global migration, and arms control (currently most pointedly, the decertification of the 2015 5+1 Agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program). I think it is safe to assume that Allott’s worldview as of 2018 would move closer to moral panic, given Trump’s intensifications of “chaotic globalizing.” In the Foreword to Eutopia,Allott contrasts his earlier effort as one of meeting a “global socialchallenge” with the more momentous current undertaking in the book under review of overcoming “a universal humanchallenge” (p. ix). Putting this progression of perspective in relation to knowledge systems, Allott has shifted his outlook from that of social and jurisprudential engineer to that of global anthropologist or planetary ethnographer.

In Allott’s work the reader encounters a perplexing blend of pessimism about the existing human condition and of optimism about the limitless potentiality of the human species. In stirring words, “We are a species with unlimited potentiality that is failing in crucial aspects of its self-evolving and self-perfecting” (p. ix). What gives direction to Allott’s radical way of thinking is a post-Enlightenment belief in thought, reason, and knowledge as guiding action, best exemplified by the great philosophical traditions in the West that have been appraising the human condition for centuries. In this spirit he laments, as he rejects, the contemporary Anglo-American philosophic turn against its own tradition, uselessly shifting its energies to arcane language puzzles and esoteric logical quirks while abandoning reflections on and prescriptions for the desirable unfolding of humanity in light of its surrounding human circumstances.

In a short Afterword, Allott makes plain his oppositional stance to the hegemony of science and engineering modes of thought in the public domain where governments act and citizens form their policy preferences. Allott categorizes his own work as exhibited in a private domain and premised on what he calls “humanist thinking” (p. 341), that is shaped by values, wisdom, and erudition. At the same time, he asserts a positive role for such thought against the grain, needed in his view, to enable “the human mind . . . to imagine a better human future” and to activate “the human will” so as to “mak[e] a better future happen” (id.). He follows this with the haunting exposure of his own foreboding about the human future, ending the book with these words: “For how much longer?” (id.). As a reader I would say that the main message left behind here by Allott is the urgency associated with a revival of humanist thinking as a necessary precondition for meeting the challenges of our historical circumstance as a profoundly threatened species.

 

Sources of Inspiration

 

Allott is forthright about acknowledging three inspirational points of departure for Eutopia. Allott roots his extraordinary exploration of prospects for radical change in the utopian tradition of Thomas More who “enabled his readers to see their own social life with new eyes, and to judge it, and to imagine other ways of life” (p. vii). In effect, this kind of utopianism creatively provides a stimulus for critical reflections on the world as it is, as well as unleashing imaginative efforts to project on the screen of human expectations more satisfying and uplifting alternatives as potentially attainable.

Francis Bacon is his second inspirational spark, by way of his foundational anticipation of the degree to which scientific and technological innovation—in effect, “revolutions”—would open the doors of human understanding in dramatic new ways that led in the past to drastic forms of societal restructuring. Bacon “saw that a revolution in our understanding of the human mind could produce every other kind of revolution. He saw that the human mind can transform the human world. We are his beneficiaries to this day” (pp. vii–viii). Allott definitely follows Bacon in believing that altering authoritative templates of human subjectivity has the potential for unleashing transformative forces, and given his severe indictment of how human coexistence is currently (mis)managed on all levels of social interactions, he leaves the reader with this urgent sense of “revolution or doom.” The French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, raises comparable questions, yet without any prospect of revolutionary closure with a focus on what “living together well” might mean and what “democracy to come” could achieve.[9]Allott comes close to Derrida’s approach in a chapter entitled “New Society: Living the Good Life Together.”

Allott’s undertaking bears comparison with the World Order Models Project (WOMP), which proceeded from a comparable diagnosis to prescribe a series of “relevant utopias” or “preferred worlds” as necessary, desirable, and achievable.[10]It grounds its hope for the human future on the emergence of what might be called ethical universality(shared values associated with minimizing collective violence, social and economic well-being, humane governance, and ecological sustainability) that could foster collaborative undertakings of sufficient scope and depth.[11]By so doing it would become possible to overcome both the political fragmentation of state-centric world order and the civilizational diversity of post-colonial identity patterns. Such a relevant utopia depends more humbly than Allott’s revolution in the mind on a retuning of the rational mind and the sharpening of normative sensibilities to take account of the globalizing pressures being exerted by nuclearism, neoliberalism, and digitized networks.

The third source of inspiration affirmed by Allott is the canon of Western philosophy as a response to “a miasma of nihilism and despair, unable to comprehend or to redeem terrible real-world events that the human mind itself had caused” (p. ix). Only by turning to philosophizing in the classic tradition can there be any hope for “the necessary and urgent revolution in the human mind” (p. ix). Allott invests philosophical inquiry with an incredible capacity of human empowerment: “Without philosophy, we have little or no control over the making and the remaking of a better human future. Without philosophy, now and hereafter, the human species may not survive” (p. ix). He underscores this rather dismaying observation with the assertion that Eutopiais designed with no less an objective than bringing “the great and ancient existential debate back to life, before it is too late . . . the permanent possibility of making the human world into ‘a place of happiness’” (p. ix). I wonder whether this is a proper reading of the philosophic canon in which the warnings and admonitions of St. Augustine, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer unaccompanied by the view that history can be reshaped by a revolution in the precincts of the human mind. At the same time each of these thinkers, except Schopenhauer, did at least endorse a vision of a better human future, but not as an achievement of the creativity and normative capabilities of the rational mind.

 

Allott’s Distinctive Methodology

 

It should be understood that unlike Eunomia, which drew on Allott’s professional experience and academic specialty (international public law), Eutopia is a remarkable achievement of amateurship, that is, an immersion in philosophic thought for which the author had neither evident training nor prior publications, but great love and intimacy. In this regard it is informed by the philosophic canon of the West, especially as developed by British philosophers, but with its own rather peculiar and somewhat questionable methodology. In clusters of chapters entitled “The Human Condition,” “Human Power,” and “Human Will,” Allott sets forth the grounds and components of his belief in the potency of the human mind. Each chapter is, in turn, divided in two parts, with the first part consisting of numbered paragraphs containing in logical sequence, fundamental elements of the human mind such as memory, imagination, knowledge, and emotions. The second part of each chapter consists of a series of quotes from a wide spectrum of thinkers, mainly philosophers, from Plato and Aristotle to Marx, Lenin, and Karl Popper, and many, many others. Despite impressions of inclusiveness, there are some surprising names missing. For instance, for me none of three twentieth century philosophers who shed the most light on the human condition are even mentioned once: Hannah Arendt, Jacques Derrida, and Martin Heidegger. As well, non-Western thought is touched on very lightly both in the text and the complement of philosophical quotations: The Buddha and Gandhi are never mentioned, Confucius once.

I have no doubt that Allott is a learned student of philosophy who has developed more or less on his own, without specific debts in the course of his argument to earlier thinkers, a coherent cartography of the human mind as possessed of great agency. At the same time, this dualist methodology of putting the argument one place and the philosophic sources in an entirely separate place without any explicit effort to establish a linkage between the two seems questionable to me, and neither rationalized nor explained by Allott. Either the section of quotations is to be read as conveying somewhat randomly the spirit of philosophical conjecture with regard to a theme covered by the argumentative text, or the reader is left to do the immense work of finding for herself connections between an individual quoted passage and the argument of the text, which I can report in my case to have been a daunting, time-consuming, and not very rewarding, challenge.

There are other issues raised by this methodology. Allott does not explain his reasons for inclusion and exclusion. Also, his conception of philosophy is very capacious, extending to literary figures (Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Goethe, and T.S. Eliot), social and natural scientists (Durkheim, Max Weber, Harold Lasswell, and E.O. Wilson), and even cultural and political critics (Marshall McLuhan, Ruskin, and Thomas Paine). If each of these quotes was tied to passages in Allott’s text even as footnotes, or given a distinct commentary that explicated their linkage, I would likely applaud the approach. Left alone as distinct items to be read in sequence following the chapter text, seems either without redeeming value or requiring too much of an effort for the reward. In Eunomiawhere Allott is on much firmer ground in terms of professional competence, the methodology is more conventional, and although demanding because of the abstractness and systematic quality of the thought, and more effective in conveying a distinct critique and way forward. In this earlier book Allott’s chapters contain only the numbered paragraphs of argument with no second part that gives sources.

 

The Essential Role of Law

 

Allott’s vision is very much influenced by his appreciation of law as a fundamental ordering device with respect to all that transpires in the universe. In this regard “the laws of nature” and “scientific laws” are seen as achieving results that human-created law can only aspire to produce, especially with respect to international law. What underlies this emphasis on law is the fact that all activities in the cosmos exhibit for Allott a tendency to exhibit orderas a fundamental reaction to the alternative of chaos.In Allott’s view order is the result of law governed behavior.

In EunomiaAllott makes clear that the two modern theorists of international law who make contributions along the lines of a systemic reworking of law as constitutive of world order are Hans Kelsen and Myres McDougal.[12]What they have done to merit this affirmation is “to elevate international law on to a plane appropriate to a true legal system.” In Kelsen’s case, it involved detaching law from its social and political infrastructure so as to create an autonomous legal order of encompassing generality, with international law a derivative subsystem. While in McDougal’s case, the effort was almost opposite to that of Kelsen, integrating and connecting international law with the underlying social, economic, and political processes, and disciplining its operations by reference to what Allott calls “value-processing,” a phenomenon that is present in all forms of social activity.[13]

Allott calls McDougal “ahead of his time,” especially by undertaking the prophetic task of “preaching a new dispensation to a recalcitrant group of human beings who were almost beyond redemption, the participants in international relations” (p. IX). It is clear from a broader exposure to Allott’s thinking that he is referring to the hard power realists who exclude values from international relations, and thus marginalize international law, and whose operating procedures can perhaps be most easily comprehended by reference to Henry Kissinger’s theory and practice of international relations.[14]Allott concludes that neither Kelson nor McDougal reshaped the manner with which international relations, with its race to the bottom of human endeavor, was being conducted.

Nevertheless, Allott regards the challenge confronting him is to integrate a philosophically coherent and grounded legal order in the manner of Kelsen with a normatively driven legal order geared to the most general features of international life in the spirit of McDougal, and considered his earlier book as having such a purpose by proposing “a general theory of society and law which is potentially universal” (p. IX). He faults McDougal as rooting his approach too parochially in the distinctively Western democratic experience to be universally acceptable. These ideas about law are carried forward in Eutopia, but under the North Star of fear and trembling about the human future.

For Allott, “[l]aw is the primary social system serving the survival and flourishing of the human species” (p. 210). In a somewhat grandiose assertion he writes, “[b]y means of the idea of law we human being have taken power over everything, not least power over ourselves” (p. 209). In this era of seeming powerlessness against the pushbacks of nature or the eruption of irrational politics among publics and leaders, it becomes difficult to comprehend such celebrations of the role of law in regulating the human condition. So as to align lawmaking and rule of law with the present, Allott insists “[i]t is time for human beings to become a kind of philosopher” (p. 210). Presumably, such a sentiment should be read as his kind of philosopher who would tie the rule of law, constitutionalism, and international law to human survival and flourishing, the normative goals affirmed throughout as vital within our historical situation.

In a comprehensive chapter on law as a generic dimension of the human condition Allott gives his ideas about the functioning of law and order, as well as law and custom, law and power, law as a system, and law and value (pp. 210–31). With respect to international law discussed as a distinct system, “a primary purpose of the present volume,” Allott argues that it is necessary to promote “a fundamental reconstituting of international society, including the reimagining and remaking of the international legal system,” giving special attention to the relations between law and power (p. 215).

After reviewing the existing theories of law as applied to the international situation Allott is convinced that international law must be fundamentally changed so that it can serve the goals of human survival and flourishing, but how, and by whom? Allott calls for new law that is based on the primacy of these goals, reaffirming human agency in controlling the role of law, contending that we are the makers of law as “the supreme judges of the common good” (p. 232). In some tautological sense, yes, but as an existential matter of politics, psychology, history, and social structure, I would say, no to such an outpouring of anthropomorphic enthusiasm.

 

Conclusion

 

For anyone seeking a comprehensive world order vision of what exists and what might be, this book is definitely worth the effort, even if the result, as in my case, is to feel that its value is mainly the focus on the centrality of the law phenomenon rather than on depicting a plausible path to a desirable human future. I find Allott’s call for a revolution of the human mind as itself the means for asserting benign control over the human condition now so imperiled to be “whistling in the dark.” The structures of power and wealth are entrenched in support of the worst features of “lawlessness.” We are in the midst of a regressive era in which we, as a species, are losing the ecological, geopolitical, and ethical struggles for a benign human future.

There has been much discussion in scientific circles as to whether it is appropriate to label our age as that of the “anthropocene,” given the impact that human activity has on the sustainability of life on planet earth. Allott converts this acknowledgement into a hyperbolic version of anthropomorphism in which the human mind is crowned as supreme ruler over all that transpires on earth. I find this points our worried sensibilities in the wrong direction.

Although agreeing with Allott on the dangers of state-centricism and political realism, as well as on the goals of species survival and flourishing, I disagree on the dynamics of collective awakening. I would urge “humility” and “compassion” as the guiding values in any constructive reappropriation of the human future motivated by the desire to ensure survival and promote goals of living together happily as a species.

In the end, we can thank Allott for providing us with a vision that is rich in conceptual content and moral energy, a philosophic manual for the job that needs to be done. But even after a close reading, the roadmap is missing, and we are left with the imperative of providing one as a civilizational priority. We can agree with Allott that a new international law that is guided by human well-being rather than the old international law catering to the power/wealth lusts of powerful states is essential, but to identify such a need is far removed from its satisfaction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]Philip Allot, Eunomia: New Order for a New World, at xli (2001).

[2]Id.at lii.

[3]Allott sets forth his purpose in writingEutopiaalong these lines at several points (pp. 215, 260, 269, 296, 312–13).

[4]Indeed, it is not possible to ignore the first book in approaching the even more elaborate framework of Eutopia.

[5]Allott, Eunomia,supra note 1, at xxxiv.

[6]Id.at xxvii.

[7]Id.

[8]My formulation of the human non-responsiveness to these darker forces that currently pose such formidable challenges of global scope is set forth in an essay, Richard Falk, Does the Human Species Wish to Survive?,inRichard Falk, Power Shift: On the New Global Order253–62 (2016).

[9]See discussions of Derrida’s focus on living together in Living Together: Jacques Derrida’s Communities of Violence and Peace(Elisabeth Weber ed., 2012); also Fred Dallmayr, Democracy to Come: Politics as Relational Praxis(2017).

[10]SeeSaul H. Mendlovitz, On the Creation of a Just World Order: Preferred Worlds for the 1990s(1975);Richard Falk, A Study of Future Worlds(1975).

[11]SeeHans Küng. A Global Ethic for a Global Politics and Economics(1998).

[12]SeeAllott, Eunomia, supranote 1, at xlvii.

[13]All references in this and succeeding paragraphs are to id.at xlviii.

[14]SeeHenry Kissinger, World Order(2014). For critique, see Richard Falk, Henry Kissinger: Hero of Our Time, 40 Millennium155–64 (July 6, 2015).

GAZA: Grief, Horror, Outrage, Remembering

15 May

[Prefatory Note: Slightly revised at the end.]

 

GAZA: Grief, Horror, Outrage, Remembering

 

GRIEF

 

How can one not feel intense grief for the young Palestinians who out of despair and fury joined the Great March of Return, and so often found death and severe injury awaiting them as they approached the border unarmed!!?

 

This was not a gratuitous event, or something that happened spontaneously on eitherside. After 70 years of Palestinian suffering, with no end of torment in sight, to show the world and each other their passion was what would be seen as normal, even admirable, demonstrating a spirit of resistance that endured after decades of repression, violence, humiliation, and denial of the most fundamental of rights. After 70 years of Israeli statehood, this violent confirmation of our worst fears and perceptions, seals a negative destiny for Israel as far as the moral eye can see.

 

 

HORROR

 

When exposed to such visual images of resistance and sniper violence the scene expresses the horror of burning steel rubbing against raw flesh. There is no way to grasp this particular cartography of risk, vulnerability, and security than to have recourse the language and imagery of horror. Such a sad narrative of horror will linger on both sides to haunt both collective and individual memories, but one with tragic pride, the other with repressed shame.

 

The horror was magnified by coinciding with obscene celebratory events in Jerusalem where Americans representing the Trump presidency, including Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and the American Ambassador, David Friedman, brought infamy to the United States by this unseemly display of indifference to crimes against humanity being unabashedly committed as they spoke. Such moral and political insensitivity will not and should not be forgotten.

 

 

OUTRAGE

 

Words are all we have, but they will do. As Thomas Merton taught some crimes

are situated in the domain of the unspeakable.

 

The occasions for outrage about the treatment of the Palestinian people are many, but the Israeli reaction to this Palestinian march reaches a new level of moral, political, and legal wretchedness. It recalls the cry of religious leaders of conscience in the last stage of the Vietnam War, expressed by their dutiful compilation of criminal acts of American violence committed in relatively defenseless Vietnam bearing the telling title—NOT IN OUR NAME.

 

As Jews, as Americans, as human beings, isn’t it about time to take a similar stand, and at least create symbolic distance between the perpetrators of these crimes and ourselves?

 

The feeble Israeli claims of its right of self-defense or attributing Palestinian martyrdom to Hamas are so shallow and lacking in credibility as to discredit further rather than provide justifications for this exhibition of homicidal violence on a massive scale not as isolated incident but as a series of arrogant reenactments.

 

 

REMEMERING

 

Not with words or argument, but with tears, and tears will not do.

 

Certainly as the Martyrdom of Gaza, and quite possibly seen as a kind of silent bonding by the Palestinian people with the African victims of the Sharpeville Massacre (1960) or the civil rights marchers at Selma (1965) but far worse!

 

From this darkness will come an as yet undisclosed inspiration.  

The End of Democracy?

8 May

[Prefatory Note: This post is an expanded and somewhat modified version of an opinion piece published by the online publication, global-e on May 1, 2018. It seeks to raise questions and suggest different ways of conceiving of democratic governance.]

 

The End of Democracy?

As demagogic leaders with popular approval or at least acquiescence now dominate the political process of several important ‘democratic’ states, questions about the core or indispensable content of democracy are more appropriate than ever. How should we understand the meaning of democracy in a variety of national circumstances? Is democracy, as properly defined, the best mode of governance under all conditions for every society enjoying sovereign rights? Or in the more reserved spirit of Churchill’s quip, is democracy just ‘the least bad?” Do China or Singapore offer the world, or at least certain societies, a preferred alternative compared to democracy as it evolved and perceived in the West?

 

Many states seek the imprimatur of ‘democracy’ but limit drastically the choices open to the citizenry or proclaim themselves ‘a Jewish state’ or ‘an Islamic Republic,’ which means they are more accurately regarded as an ethnocracy(Israel) or theocracy(Iran). The legitimating imprimatur of democracy should be based on something more objective than the language of self-identification, that is, claiming to be a democracy because the governing arrangements have a formal appearance that resembles what is expected in a democracy, nothing more, nothing less. Instead, it seems an opportune time to delineate the particular institutions, values, and practices that identify the distinctive features of democratic forms of governance.

 

It is not only a matter of taking note of the weakening of the democratic character of ‘democracies’ in recent decades. It is also the attractiveness of China as an efficient developmental model and functional problem-solving mechanism. This Chinese political system is recently being identified as ‘pragmatic authoritatianism.’ Such a comparison of political systems is currently of particular interest because of the disturbing behavior of the United States in this period, both its repudiation of liberalism at home when it comes to the protection of human rights and a kind of blustering militarism abroad that is accentuated by Trump’s retreat from responsible global leadership that had previously given American foreign policy a certain legitimacy despite being the first ‘global state’ in world history. In this regard it is notable that China has shaped its ascendancy in recent decades by mastering soft power diplomacy while the U.S. decline has been accompanied by costly demonstrations of the growing deficiencies of continued reliance on the hard power geopolitics, unsuccessfully defying the realities of the post-colonial world in the early 21stcentury.

 

Against this background, the remainder of this essay explores the notion of democracy from a number of perspectives, seeking to distinguish between political arrangements that serve their citizens normatively as well as materially. There are also historical questions about whether democracy can flourish in an atmosphere in which intense stresses are generated by wide inequalities in circumstances that produce hardships and resentments, creating a susceptibility to opportunistic politicians who scapegoat outsiders and vulnerable groups. Such a pattern has surfaced in the West, increasingly so after the declaration of ‘the war on terror’ that has contributed to the massive generation of refugees, especially as a consequence of prolonged warfare and chaos in the Middle East. This has itself exerted pressures on humane governance by pushing political parties and publics further and further to the right, creating a populist base for fascism if the system becomes further stressed by economic crisis or through fears of terrorism, whether real or contrived.

 

Procedural and Republican Democracy

The idea of ‘free elections’ is certainly a prerequisite of a governing process in which the leadership is somehow accountable to the citizenry. It is not possible to think of a political system as democratic if it does not allow its citizens to select, without fear or interference, among a wide range of candidates of their choice, even if the process is filtered through political parties or primaries or otherwise. What qualifies as a free election can be debated endlessly, but it seems enough to suggest that candidates should represent significantly divergent societal viewpoints on major issues that compete for support, that votes are counted honestly, and no obstacles are intentionally placed in the path of those in the electorate who are poor, less educated, and not fluent in the native language.

 

The relationship of money to the electoral process is increasingly problematic, and abetted by well-funded lobbying. As might be expected, the configuration of these issues varies from state to state. A crisis of democracy in the United States has highlighted these issues. On the one side, many, perhaps most, qualified candidates are discouraged from taking part in the political process or are subjected to defamatory treatment if they do. On the other side, NGOs such as the NRA and AIPAC distort the political process, making it politically impossible to serve the public interest, for instance, by rendering unlawful the sale and possession of assault weaponry and in the case of AIPAC making it as difficult for the United States to pursue foreign policies in the Middle East that reflect the national interest of the country and the global interest of people due to the overwhelming and often mindless pressures to follow Israel’s policy priorities no matter where they might lead. The pressure exerted to repudiate the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration in 2015 illustrates the way lobbying obstructs the implementation of the public interest. In some sense, it is this interplay of money, influence, and regressive policies that raise fundamental questions about the political and moral legitimacy of governing process. A clouding of public interest in democratic practiceresults from this lethal mixture of private sector money and a frustrated public that poses fundamental threats to American democracy as it formerly operated, and in different ways, to other political systems that purport to retain a democratic system jiust because they hold periodic, free elections. 

 

Looked at from a different angle, a state should not necessarily jeopardize its democratic credentials if it disqualifies candidates and parties that deny basic human rights to segments of the citizenry on some principled basis or espouse fascist agendas, or if rights are somewhat abridged during periods of national emergency as during wartime. This contingent dimension of democratic governance is almost always controversial. It can be discussed in relation to specific instances by reference to the acceptable limits that can be imposed on the practice of procedural democracy. Such a form of government is sensitive to the dangers of abuses and corruptions when power becomes too concentrated, invoking ‘checks and balances’ and ‘separation of powers’ as institutional bulwarks of restraint on ‘the tyranny of the mob’ or the predatory behavior of the tyrant. To the extent that such restraints are regularized the governmental form is more precisely identified if labeled asrepublican democracy.’ There is some concern that minorities with strong agendas can encroach on free speech by overreaching by suppressing dissident views of contested historical happenings, as with the Holocaust denial laws of several European countries and in relation to the effort by Armenian communities to make it a hate crime to question the description of the 1915 massacres in turkey as ‘genocide.’

 

Such restraints on the capricious exercise of power tend to be challenged, however, by technological legerdemain and excessive government classification procedures that seriously undermine political transparency and the constitutional constraints on war making by leaders if present, leaving weighty decisions in the hands of an unaccountable few. Without democratic accountability in such instances, democracies lose legitimacy, especially considering the risks and dangers of the nuclear age. Whistleblowers, although often subjected to a criminalizing backlash, are an indispensable resource of contemporary democracy.

 

It may be that only the elimination of nuclear weapons from the arsenals ofallcountries can restore a semblance of substantive reality to a procedural or republican understanding of democracy, and the primacy that could then be again accorded ‘checks and balances’ and ‘separation of powers.’ There is growing concern that what Bruce Franklin and Chas Freeman call ‘the forever war’ can be reconciled with the political freedom of the citizenry. Security concerns are now associated with the behavior of persons not necessarily associated with formal military or intel activities, putting the whole society perpetually under suspicion, a condition that provides pretexts for pervasive intrusions on privacy and technically feasible totalizing surveillance.

 

Liberal versions of democracy—especially in their republican form—almost always includes a guaranty of intra-governmental friction and judicial protection of civil and political rights, especially freedom of expression and the right of assembly, but not necessarily (and likely not at all) social and economic rights. In this sense, these seemingly unresolvable tensions between neoliberal versions of capitalism and political democracy are of paramount importance in many societies widely regarded as ‘democratic.’

 

Normative Democracy

To achieve an inclusive political order a substantive commitment to deal with basic social and economic rights is essential, although infrequently acknowledged. This raises questions about the potential compatibility of real democracy with contemporary forms of capitalism. The protection of social and economic rights are necessary so as to satisfy the material needs of all people under sovereign control, especially with respect to food, health, shelter, education, environmental protection, responsibility to future generations. Yet a market-driven ethos has not been effectively challenged in ideologically or behaviorally even by large-scale homelessness or extreme poverty so long as the gates of opportunity pretend to be available to all. This dimension of democratic governance is rarely analyzed, and is best considered by reference to values-driven, inclusive, andnormative democracy. A society should also be protected against war-prone leadership that defies transparency by relying on claims of secrecy and national security, and authorizes leaders to engage in reckless coercive diplomacy and even to make war on their own without the participation of other branches of government.

 

Somewhere in between selecting leaders, upholding rights, and ensuring a minimal standard of living that entrenches human dignity and enables a humane society are considerations of internal and external security. Meeting the threats from within and without while avoiding hysteria, paranoia, and different forms of suppression is a fundamental responsibility of every legitimate state, and especially of those that claim a democratic pedigree. There is no satisfactory label, but since a state unable to protect sovereign rights and internal political order loses the respect and allegiance of its citizenry, the security dimension of governance can be associated witheffective democracy. For without political order, and a capability to address external threats and internal disorder, no form of governance can avoid chaos, foreign penetration, and a hostile backlash from its own citizenry, although specific assessments of this kind involve subjective appreciations of capabilities and political will.

 

There are increasing critiques of democratic states for having weakened the bonds between what citizens seek and what the government does. In the United States, for instance, special interests inflate the prices of pharmaceutical products to astronomical heights, insulate gun control from public opinion to a grotesque degree, and allow corporations, banks, and billionaires to contribute unlimited amounts to (mis)shape political campaigns. Markets are further distorted by corruption of various kinds that undermine the capabilities of government to serve the people. This dimension of democratic governance can be considered under the rubric ofresponsive democracy. Without a high degree of responsiveness on central policy issues, a governing process will steadily lose legitimacy, especially if seen as deferring to special interests.

 

Majoritarian Democracy

It becomes increasingly evident that in some political systems free elections occur, demagogues participate—and sometimes prevail—and a majority of the citizenry is either submissive or supportive. In this kind of atmosphere toxic, win/lose polarizations develop, with extremist and paranoid rhetoric justifying suppression and demonization of undocumented immigrants, refugees, and even asylum seekers. Walls are proposed and built; borders are militarized; and exclusionary ideas of political community gain traction in the marketplace of ideas. One result is that the values, views, and security of vulnerable and oppositional populations are ignored or even condemned. Genuine news is dismissed as fake news, and vice versa, creating fact-free political leadership. This kind of political order can be termedmajoritarian democracy, and contains worrisome attitudes that are pre-fascist in character.It also generates a mirror-image opposition that demonizes the leadership, as in Turkey, in ways that grossly exaggerate wrongdoing, generating a vicious circle of denunciation and abuse.

 

This majoritarian form of democracy tends to rest its claims on passion and a perversion of Rousseau’s ‘general will’ rather than on reason and evidence, and is contemptuous of limits on the exercise of state power on behalf of the nation, especially if directed against foreign or domestic ‘enemies.’ As a result, the rule of law and, especially, respect for international law and the authority of the United Nations are weakened, while deference to the ruler increases in conjunction with claims of indefinite tenure atop the political pyramid, ratified by periodic votes of approval in which the opposition is ineffectual, being demoralized, split, suppressed, and disfavored by most of the mainstream media. Such leaders as Putin, Xi, Trump, Erdoğan, Sisi, Modi, and Abe manifest the trend, remaining popular while often treating ‘citizens’ as if they were ‘subjects’, thereby blurring the distinction between democracy and authoritarianism when it comes to state/society relations.

 

Aspirational Democracy

In opposition to these disturbing trends are more humanistic and spiritual concerns that focus attention on the protection of human rights, especially of those who are vulnerable and poor. The idea of ‘democracy to come’ as depicted by the deceased French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and recently developed further by Fred Dallmayr, is being taken more seriously by those dedicated to achieving genuine democratic forms of governance.

 

This idea centers on the belief that democracy in all its manifestations, even at its best, remains an unfinished project with unfulfilled normative potential. It represents a call to work toward an inclusive democracy based on the serious implementation of ‘the spirit of equality’ (Dallmayr), the goal of humane governance best articulated by Montesquieu. Such a political order goes beyond upholding the rule of law by seeking to promote justice within and beyond sovereign borders. Such a democratic political order would now subordinatenationalinterests tohumanandglobalinterests as necessary in relation to climate change, nuclear weaponry, migration, disease control, peace and security, and the regulation of the world economy. No democracy of this kind has so far existed, but as a goal and ideal this political vision of democratic fulfillment can be understood asaspirational democracy, and might take different forms depending on the societal context and civilizational orientation.

 

Concluding Comments

These different forms of democracy overlap and are matters of degree, but do call attention to the various and variable features of political life that rest on the shared proposition that ‘the people,’ or their representatives, should be regarded as the proper source and validation of political authority and legitimacy. Yet such a mandate for democracy as flowing upwards from the people, superseding God-given or self-anointed authority figures legitimized by ritual and reinforced by claims of a monarchical or divine aura of absolutism, is in many societies again being scrutinized, and under all conditions, is precarious and must be safeguarded and periodically revitalized. Many informed and concerned persons are asking whether democracy is any longer the least bad system of governance for the challenges confronting their societies, yet these critics seem at a loss to propose an alternative. In this setting, the question posed for many of us is whether democracy, as now practiced and constituted, can be restored and extended by legitimating reforms. As engaged citizens we must accept this challenge in ways that are sensitive to the particularities of time, place, traditions, challenge, and opportunities.

 

Because of globalization in its manifest forms, it is no longer tenable to confine the ambitions of democracy to national spaces. Global democracy has become, is becoming, a matter of ultimate concern. Issues raised concern transparency, accountability, participation, and responsiveness of global policy processes, and of course, how the global is to be linked to the regional and national so as to pursue the goal of global humane governance: equitable, stable, sustainable, peaceful, compassionate, and attentive to threats, challenges, and policy choices.

 

 

 

 

Postscript: Additional Indonesian Impressions

1 May

Postscript: Additional Indonesian Impressions

 

It occurs to me that two additional impressions of Indonesia seem relevant enough to be worth a short supplement to my post of a few days ago.

 

Multituli, Max Havelaar, or the coffee auction of the Dutch trading company  (Penguin Classics, 1866)

 

Multituli is the pen name of Edouard Douwes Dekkar, a 19thcentury Dutch civil servant who worked in the East Indian Civil Service as a colonial official. Multituli produced an extraordinary critique of the colonial mentality from the standpoint of a disenchanted colonialist with eyes wide open, who eventually resigned his position out of disgust, returned to Holland, and subsequently lived in poverty despite an upper class marriage, while trying to survive as an author.

 

This novelistic treatment of Dutch colonial rule is deservedly viewed as a literary masterpiece, written in an engaging style that has a contemporary feel, especially by inserting illusions and subtle qualifications pertaining to scene and character. What makes this novel worth reading so long after when it was written is its contemporaneous appreciation of the false consciousness that artificially sustained the colonialist sense of Dutch superiority. What Multituli shows so vividly is that the condescension of the Dutch toward the Javanese was pure racism, and that in fact it was the deep traditions of culture and civility native to Java that far exceeded in virtue and ethical quality the empty pretensions of the Dutch claims to be a vehicle for the dissemination of ‘civilization.’

 

A couple of quotations suggest the tone and direction of the novel’s critique. After discussing some of the functions of administration in a particular region of Java, Multituli writes: “All this, then, results in a strange situation whereby the inferior really commands the superior.” (italics in original) A bit later in the text is this reinforcing observation: “Even the lower-class Javanese is far more polite than his European equivalent—making this apparently difficult relationship more tolerable than it would otherwise be.”

 

I strongly recommend reading Max Havelaar not only for the pleasure of encountering an intriguing work of fiction reflecting a lively imagination, but also for its capacity to convey a strong sense of how the colonial mind manipulated reality to validate its exploitative relationship to the land, resources, and people of Java, achieved by distorting and deforming social relations between foreign intruder and native inhabitant., producing suffering and humiliation followed by resistance Max Havelaarcan be valuably read in conjuction with the wonderful quartet of Pramoedia, which addresses the evolving political consciousness of a native resister.

 

 

 

 

The President of Indonesia—Joko ‘Jokowi’ Wadido

 

Joko Wadido or Jokowi is the seventh president of Indonesia, elected in 2014  for a five year term, and the first president that does not come from an elite military or civilian past. Jokowi, riding his motorcycle around the country, creates the sense of ‘a man of the people’ and is given widespread credit for needed infrastructure reforms and a popular crackdown on tax evasion. His election, popularity, and governing style confirms the impression of a democratizing trend in Indonesia that is benefitting the population as a whole and runs counter to the rise of autocracy throughout Asia and the world. Despite this generally positive assessment of Jokowi’s leadership serious problems remain in the country, including treatment of refugees, corruption, poverty, class tensions, unmanageable traffic, serious pollution, an ethnic and religious grievances among non-Indonesians and non-Muslims. 

 

 

Indonesian Impressions

28 Apr

Impressions from a Third Visit to Indonesia

 

 

Indonesia Visits

 

This was my third visit to Indonesia. The first visit was very brief. It consisted of two stops on a Princeton allumni cruise to South Asia in 1992.  I was invited to go along as ‘ a guest.’ In exchange, I was expected to give a few lectures on the political dimensions of our trip, especially pertaining to Indochina. Another academician, Ainslee Embree, an erudite comparative religion scholar, recently retired from Columbia, informed the 80 or so participants, mainly affluent Princeton alumni, about cultural and religious issues.

 

The notable highlights of the Indonesian phase of the trip included a stop at the world’s largest Buddhist temple at Borobudur in central Java. It is a spectacular structure, with nine levels, 504 Buddha statues, with 72 Buddha statues each encased in a stupa surrounding the central dome.  Climbing around the pyramidal structure in Indonesian humidity was a struggle, but a memorable one. I can only wonder at the immense effort of many hundreds of anonymous workers who produced such a timeless monument to ‘detachment’!  Our small ship also made a short stop at Bali, where several of the more luxury-addicted passengers, not content with the rather spacious staterooms on board, arranged to stay overnight at a splendidly expensive new hotel in the center of the island. They paid at least $1,000 per night; for the rest of us an elegant lunch on land more than sufficed as we happily retreated to the waiting ship.

 

Besides Indonesia, the cruise included on its itinerary several other countries. We started from Singapore, and made stops at Saigon and Pnom Penh on the Mekong, going inland to see magnificent Angkor Wat temple complex near Siem Reapin the dawn light, regarded as the largest religious monument in the world. It was surprising to learn that Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu place of worship, dedicated to Vishnu, and gradually became a Buddhist site in the 12thcentury. The more one is exposed to Asian culture and history, the more we come to realize that power shifts from one culture to another, but the symbols of cultural greatness and religious devotion are interchangeable. The countries of Asia are strikingly different from one another in almost all respects, and yet there is a civilizational commonality that makes it possible for the religious tradition to merge and overlap in ways inconceivable in the West where the dyadic logic of either/or continues to prevail, making it mandatory to distinguish ‘this’ from ‘that.’

 

 The thrilling cultural experience at Angkor Wat was followed by a sobering visit to ‘the killing fields” of Cambodia.  We were given a guided tour of the accompanying memorial museum that documented the decimation of the Cambodian population, portrayed in the Western Cold War media as genocide (Cambodian deaths estimated at between one point five and two million) in the period about between 1975 and 1979. The brutal Khmer Rouge policies of ‘re-education, forced communes, and anti-Westernism under the rigid Communist leadership of Pol Pot, so-called Brother #1, were blamed for the humanitarian catastrophe. What is held less remarked upon, if noticed at all, is the relevance of Nixon’s extension of the Vietnam War to Cambodia to the genocide. This extension included saturated bombing of the Cambodian countryside forcing the peasant population to seek refuge in Phnom Penh where food shortages did much of the damage. Our cruise passengers, generally on the political right, seemed interested in my remarks on these contested events, becoming almost receptive and unexpectedly friendly. One rather opinionated Princeton middle-aged alumnus ‘confessed’ that before embarking he had ‘pictured me with horns’ and almost withdrew from the cruise for that reason alone. Despite such forebodings, he admitted to being pleasantly surprised by my demeanor and approach. I did not altogether reciprocate these heartwarming sentiments as such a cruise attracts wealthy and snobbish individuals who are often spoiled and greedy, never humble, and generally dogmatically reactionary when commenting on the issues of the day. In this vein, among our passengers were several leading ‘junk bond’ operatives who survived the scandal of the 1980s seemingly unscathed and a pre-Trump NYC real estate mogul who were forever complaining that the fringe luxuries didn’t meet their standards (while I must admit it was exceeding mine!) As with many ambivalent experiences, I was glad to have been part of this cruise, but would never do it again unless the itinerary was limited to Antarctica!

 

 

 

Second Indonesian Visit

 

My second visit to Indonesia was more personally satisfying. I came in 1998 as an invited guest of the newspaper Kompass, with lectures in several cities in Java preceded by a week of vacation in Bali where we stayed at an eco-tourist inn (Sua Bali) run by a German expatriate and his Indonesian partner, an anthropologist. Meals were eaten communally with the other guests and plumbing was pre-modern. Nearby Ubud was a culturally vibrant local community where expatriate writers and artists gathered to live a life away from the pressure of markets and critics. Bali exceeded even our highest expectations in all respects accept for the consistently high levels of humidity.

 

I came to Indonesia with Hilal. We were assisted and guided throughout by an extremely engaging and sensitive young former student activist leader, Taufik Rahzan, who greatly enriched our experience. During our three weeks in the country the Indonesian currency was hard hit by a volatile speculative market, which seemed inflamed by hedge fund traders in the West betting on the falling value of the Rupiah, and doing their best to make it happen! Mahathir Mohamed, then leader of Malaysia, made headlines by blaming the currency crisis in the region on George Soros, and lauding his own efforts to steer clear of neoliberal globalization, which he contended helped minimize the adverse impacts of the currency manipulations.

 

Recalling Indonesia means above all remembering my most cherished Australian friend, Herb Feith, who devoted his too short life to the study of Indonesia, and was probably responsible for my invitation to visit and speak. Herb was wonderfully strange in his intense innocence that led people to overlook his moral passion, exceptional intellectual capacity, and significant scholarly achievements. I will never forget his inexplicable practice of eating the meat on chicken bones left as garbage on their plates by others at several dinners we had together. Herb died far too soon while riding his bike in Yogyakarta where he also did some teaching. I first met Herb, and his advance student protégé, Richard Tanter, years earlier when they sought me out at Princeton in the 1970s, apparently looking for an anti-war activist hiding behind Ivy Walls. They were doing research at Cornell, which had a highly regarded academic program on Indonesia, and we instantly bonded for life.

 

Another human highlight for me was a long meeting with Indonesia’s extraordinary literary figure, Pramoedya Ananta Tuer, whose novels I had been reading with great admiration in preparation for the visit. I requested the meeting, and it was arranged for me to visit this left author/activist who had languished in terrible prisons for much of his life, having opposed and fought against Dutch colonialism, Japanese occupation, and Suharto’s reactionary regime, and been imprisoned by each.

 

Perhaps, the most remarkable feature of Pramoedya’s life was the story behind his literary masterwork, the Buro Quartet, four novels strung together by way of the life story of Minke, an Indonesian journalist and activist who became a resistance fighter during the last phase of Dutch colonial rule. Adding to the literary quality of these novels is the amazing story of their composition. While in the miserable prison on the arid island of Buro for seven years Pramoedya was denied paper and pen, but refused to be silenced. Instead, each evening he would tell Minke’s story of hardship and struggle  to his fellow prisoners. How this oral transmission was transcribed and converted into a gripping series of novels is not clearly established.

 

Politically, Pramoedya was on the left, paying a heavy price, being arrested and hustled off to prison in the aftermath of the anti-Communist massacre that led to the arrest of thousands more Indonesians. He supported Sukarno, who led the Indonesian independence struggle, and held General Suharto in contempt, and even after Suharto’s retirement, Pramoedya found no good things to say about the way the country was governed even though its democratically elected leader, Megawati Sukarnputri, was the daughter of his national hero, Sukarno. In his harsh words,”[a]fter Sukarno there have only been clowns who had no capability to run the country.”

 

When I visited Pramoedya he was frail (he died from health issues a few years later, in 2006), somewhat hesitant to talk much about his past, and seemingly worried about who was listening and watching. I had the sense of someone suffering from post-prison traumatic stress disorder or

PPTSD. I was glad I made this pilgrimage as it did give me the sense of someone brave and principled who lived his life and did his work in conformity with his beliefs, and yet despite enduring extreme deprivation and punishment managed 30 books, and created a legacy of distinguished achievement that has gavin the Indonesian people a national narrative detailing their struggles against the external and internal enemies of Indonesian self-determination and democratic legitimacy.

 

I cannot now remember even the themes of my talks to local groups of intellectuals. I also gave several lectures within university settings to students, stressing human rights. These activities provided stimulating contact with local personalities in three cities: Yogyakarta, Bandung, and Jakarta.

 

Unquestionably, for all of us, the enduring drama of this illuminating visit arose from a humbling incident occurring at the end of our last day in Indonesia. I had the temerity to disturb the local gods at dusk by losing my balance as I jumped from the pier to the ship moored below that was to take around the Jakarta harbor for a sunset tour. I fell rather deeply and uncontrollably into the scummy waters, prompting Taufik to dive in after me, losing his glasses in the process, and creating big fears of disease and infection for both of us as the water was extremely polluted. My fall was an event, attracting hundreds of local onlookers several of whom rushed me to a nearby shower, and while they were warmly empathetic they were also appropriately amused by my plight borne of awkwardness. The shower was on a moist stone floor in a broken down shack. It was as forbidding as the harbor water. With a genuine Good Samaritan spirit these local people who were obviously very poor provided me with a simple sarong to replace my infected clothes. Nothing happened to confirm these fears, but it has made me careful never again to anger the gods at dusk!

 

A Third Visit

 

My third trip to Indonesia was in early April of 2018. This time I was accompanying Hilal on a UN mission trip in her role as UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food, a position established some years ago by the Human Rights Council in Geneva. As I was not part of the mission team, I was able to pursue an independent line of activity, spending much time in our various hotels trying to write, but still managing to gather impressions that convinced me that Indonesia is not only an important and distinctive country, but an exciting place to be due to its deep, vibrant, and plural cultural identity and its warm traditions of hospitality.

 

Important because of a population of 260+ million, the largest Muslim country in the world, rich in a variety of resources, and exhibiting a strong record of economic growth and poverty reduction in recent years, as well as seeming to be evolving in democratizing and humanistic directions via elections, leadership, civil liberties, and social & economic rights. At the same time the country is beset by problems, old and new, arising from a variety of sources. A major problematic set of issues is connected with the rapidly expanding palm oil production causing harmful environmental and cultural side effects, some Islamic extremism, corruption, urban blight, weak infrastructure, and various dimensions of inequality, as well as some lingering dark shadows from past traumas whose memory has not yet faded away, and may never.

 

Indonesia is distinctive (with some comparison to the Philippines) as an island archipelago dominated by a single island, Java (comparable to Luzon’s dominance in the Philippines) spread over great distances. Within its many semi-autonomous communities there are numerous languages, separate ethnicities and traditions, a variety of ways of being Islamic, and overall, a bewildering complexity that make all generalizations suspect..

 

 

Remembering Sukarno, Forgetting Suharto

 

I made it point of asking a variety of persons I encountered during the ten days about their feelings toward the two dominant political personalities in Indonesian political history since it won political independence from The Netherlands in 1949 after four years of armed struggle. In short, those I spoke to remembered Sukarno favorably as the father of the country who was politically victimized by the malevolently tragic events of 1965, a massive anti-Communist national blood bath, abetted by the United States and reflecting the passions that overwhelmed morality during the height of the Cold War. For an understanding of how these past crimes haunt Indonesian political and moral consciousness I recommend highly the two documentary films of Joshua Oppenheimer: “The Act of Killing” (2013) and “The Look of Silence” (2014).

In contrast to the warmth toward Sukarno, there was disapproval, or at best, a stony silence when asked about their recollections of General Suharto who governed Indonesia with an iron fist in the period 1967-1998.

 

 

New Urbanism: Vitality and Blight

 

Clashing images struck me, especially in Jakarta: many striking examples of high rise contemporary architecture, much more so than in the typical American city, coupled with traffic gridlock. Hilal’s urban logistics would have been totally frustrating had not the government supplied a police motorcycle escort leading her cars from appointment to appointment, or making our way to and from the airports. The way Indonesian police found space to move our cars through the thickest concentration of vehicles was truly amazing, a kind of postmodern magic!

 

We were told that studies of urban life showed that an average Indonesian will spend ten years of his/her life behind the wheel. Such a situation gives rise to innovations. Many Indonesians cope with the traffic ordeal by relying on Go-Jek to get around cities by hired motorcycle, arranging rides by phone similar to Uber. There were abundant Go-Jek drivers all over Jakarta, recognizable by their Green jackets, many working for a company aptly named ‘Grab.’ Go-Jek service, like Uber or Lyft, also includes deliveries of takeout food and a courier service.

 

Jakarta, and its metropolitan surroundings, is estimated at over 20 million, making it the second largest urban center in the world, with ten million in the city, and the other ten million close by where rents are cheaper, and it is possible to have more space.

 

As incomes rise, and the car population grows quicker than the high birth rate what can only wonder whether Indonesian ingenuity can keep pace. Maybe the digitation of work will produce a deurbanizing trend in coming years to avoid having survey in the 2020s finding that an Indonesian spends 20 years getting to and fro work.

 

 

Archipelago Identities

 

Of course, every large country has regional differences, expressed by dialects, distinct language preferences, and food taste and local cuisine, but islands seem to accentuate their separate identities. Island pride often exceeds nationalist sentiments. This was clearly evident during our brief time in Indonesia.

 

There are also significant power/wealth differences within and among islands. For instance, other islands complain about Java’s dominance, which can be grasped through the geography of leadership, development assistances, and a variety of preferential investments, including centers of educational and cultural excellence. The remoteness and ethnic differences of Papua is cited as an example of how such prejudice operates on an inter-island, and in this case, an inter-civilizational basis. On Java there are complaints about inequalities between Jakarta and the rest of this main island, exhibited in the quality of the roads, employment opportunities, and cultural life.  Of course, Bali is a world apart, maybe mostly because it is where the unconverted Hindus retreated (and Buddhists seemed to disappear) when Islam took over the rest of the archipelago starting as early as the  9thcentury, and spreading gradually (with no clear narrative) over the course of the next six centuries until 95% of Indonesia is regarded as Muslim..

 

We went for a few days to Ambon, a glimpse of paradise. The stillness of the place creates sea vistas with the vividness of fine Asian paintings, a sense of lost tradition and eternal ways of living, the marginality of the human presence in the Asian, the primacy of nature, experienced as ‘the exotic other,’ inscribing the depth of pre-modern authenticity.  On the roads, motorcycles dominate the unlit roads, and driving at night feels hazardous as cars with impatient drivers move past slower vehicles on rather narrow roads, heedless of streams of approaching single headlights weaving in and out, without the slightest awareness of separate sides, much less lanes. Fortunately, the skill levels of drivers and bikers is high, the speeds are low; otherwise, fatal accidents would be sure abound.

 

 

Debating Flogging

 

On Java, in particular, devotion to Islam seems low keyed. I don’t recall hearing a call to prayer during our whole time in Indonesia or even seeing many mosques, unlike Turkey where the smallest village community will have a minaret defining its skyline, and city views will usually display several minarets wherever one is positioned. Also, again unlike Turkey, notable is the seeming non-issue arising from head scarves worn by many Indonesian women, worn with a strong sense of color and feminine grace, and freely mingling with girls and women who have their hair uncovered. This kind of pluralism, unselfconsciously a form of virtuous practice in our world troubled by secular and religious fundamentalisms. In Indonesia living together seemed to flow as naturally as the current in a lively river. Such a sense of harmony creates a calmness that is absent in the West where the atmosphere is stressed by encounters, explicit or not, between Islamophobes and humanists, as well as rigid secularists and their religious counterparts. To avoid being seen as a romantic, I would not that ethnicity can be an issue in

Indonesia as the Chinese minority, punching above their weight in the economy, know only too well.

 

But on the island of Ache things are different. Scarred by the 2004 tsunami disaster (more than 170,00 dead) and by a bloody independence struggle that seems paused if not ended by a peace agreement featuring autonomy in exchange for disarmarment, Ache exisst beneath the thralldom of far stricter Islamic law than elsewhere in Indonesia.

 

While we were in Jakarta, the daily papers were reporting on discussions in Ache about whether flogging of prisoners should be done in public to warn children to behave as they should in the future or behind the secrecy of prison walls so as to spare young Indonesians such gruesome spectacles. As near as I could tell, renouncing flogging as a punitive practice toward prisoners is not on the public agenda in Ache. It is not a question of whetherflogging, but howit is most constructively performed. What lies beneath such religiously vindicated cruelty is culturally specific, yet mysteriously disturbing.

 

 

Airport Security

 

With so much travel, we have become aware that airport security reflects the vagaries of national temperament, and sometimes reflects the personal style of the local administrative official. My bionic knees that set off the inspection alert in even the crudest of detector devices have given me much more extensive experience than I wish in the comparative practice of touch and feel. The Germans, as we might expect, are the most rigorous, with heavy hands leaving no body part untouched. The Indonesians are at the other extreme except when it comes to umbrellas. For Indonesian airports security personnel inspecting the body of strangers seems an embarrassment, even if gendered, and appears situated somewhere between the unpleasant and the unnecessary. But when it comes to umbrellas it is another story. As shown in crime films, umbrellas can be weaponized, and ours was viewed with suspicion, which was the case even though it was a humble umbrella with UN logos as its design motif. Finally, with pleading just short of tears we prevailed, and walked away hoping for rain!

 

 

The Lure of the Feminine

 

Our hotel in Jakarta, The Hermitage, was the embodiment of post-colonial tradition and elegance, with hostesses and staff selected for their charm and beauty, and undoubtedly trained to be conversational and friendly. These Indonesian smiles have a special radiance that is best understood (metaphorically) as the transparency of the soul. Another way of perceiving this lure of the feminine in this pure Indonesian form is as ‘gracious composure’ that is classless, purposeless, and without the taints of a colonial mentality left behind by the Dutch. These qualities also made Hilal’s female team of assistants and interpreters especially engaging, the Indonesian ways of being were contagious enough to reach an Indian regional coordinator and a Korean staff member from the Geneva Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights. It was my pleasure to experience this conviviality in a work-free atmosphere as my only obligation during the trip was to stay out of the way, and indulge my natural inclination for non-obtrusiveness, which happens to be the best way to observe the unfamiliar, whether it be persons or places.  

 

A Concluding Word

 

Nothing better summarizes the experience of another culture or country than whether or not at the time of departure you leave with a strong desire to return as soon as possible. Certainly, despite age and geographic remoteness, I was unrealistic enough to hope that we would return soon to Indonesia, and especially experience that sense of Ambon bliss, perhaps on other islands as well. Indonesians told us that there many Ambons waiting to be visited, bearing a vivid witness to one version of what Derrida had in mind when he spoke so intriguingly of what it means to ‘live well together.’

 

 

Attacking Syria

18 Apr

Attacking Syria

 

[Prefatory Note: This post is an assessment of the recent Syrian missile attack by the armed forces of the U.S., UK, and France from a variety of perspectives. It is a modified and expanded version of a text earlier published in The Wire  (Delhi) and Il Manifesto(Rome). I intend to write two further posts suggested by the controversy generated by the airstrikes of April 14, 2018 against sites associated with Syria’s alleged chemical weapons capabilities. These strikes raise questions of international law, domestic constitutional authorization for international uses of force, strategic logic, and moral imperatives and rationalizations. Each of these issues is capable of multiple interpretations raising further concerns about the appropriate location of the authority to decide given the nature of world order in the 21stcentury.]

 

 

Preliminary Reflections

 

At this stage it seems reasonable to wonder whether Syria was attacked because it didn’tuse chemical weapons rather than because it did. That may seem strange until we remember rather weighty suspicions surrounding the main accusers, especially the White Helmets with their long standing links to the U.S. Government, and past skepticism about their inflammatory accusations that critics claim reflect fabricated evidence conveniently available at crisis moments.

 

A second irreverent puzzle is whether the dominant motive for the attack was not really about what was happening in Syria, but rather what was nothappening in the domestic politics of the attacking countries. Every student of world politics knows that when the leadership of strong states feel stressed or cornered, they look outside their borders for enemies to blame and slay, counting on transcendent feelings of national pride and patriotic unity associated with international displays of military prowess to distract the discontented folks at home, at least for awhile. All three leaders of the attacking coalition were beset by rather severe tremors of domestic discontent, making attractive the occasion for a cheap shot at Syria at the expense of international law and the UN, just to strike a responsive populist chord with their own citizenry—above all, to show the world that the West remains willing and able to strike violently at Islamic countries without fearing retaliation. Beleaguered Trump, unpopular Macron, and post-Brexit May all have low approval ratings among their own voters, and seem in free fall as leaders making them particularly dangerous internationally.

 

Of course, this last point requires clarification, and some qualification to explain the strictly limited nature of the military strike. Although the attackers wanted to claim the high moral ground as defenders of civilized limits on military actions in wartime, itself an oxymoron, they wanted even more crucially (and sensibly) to avoid escalation, carrying risks of a dangerous military encounter with Russia, and possibly Iran. As Syrian pro-interventionists have angrily pointed out in their disappointment, the attack was more in the nature of a gesture than a credible effort to influence the future behavior of the Bashar al-Assad government, much less tip the balance in the Syrian struggle against the government. As such, it strengthens the argument of those who interpret the attack as more about domestic crises of legitimacy unfolding in these illiberal democraciesthan it is about any reshaping of the Syrian ordeal, or a commitment to upholding the Chemical Weapons Convention.

 

A third line of interpretation insisting that what was said in public by the leaders and representatives of the three attacking Western powers was not the real reason that the attack was undertaken. In this optic, it is pressure from Israel to mute President Trump’s feared slide toward disengagement from Syria as a prelude to a wider strategic withdrawal from the Middle East as a whole, a region that Trump in his speech justifying the attack calls ‘troubled’ beyond the capacity of the United States to fix. At least temporarily, from Israel’s point of view, the air strikes sent a signal to Moscow that the United States was not ready to accept Syria becoming a geopolitical pawn of Russia and Iran. Supposedly, the Netanyahu entourage, although pleased by the Jerusalem move, the challenge to the Iran Nuclear Agreement, and silence about the IDF lethal responses to the Gaza Great Return March, have new worries that when it comes to regional belligerence and overall military engagement, Trump will be no more help than Obama, who quite irrationally became their nightmare American president.

 

And if that is not enough to ponder, consider that Iraq was savagely attacked in 2003 by a U.S./UK coalition under similar circumstances, that is, without either an international law justification or authorization by the UN Security Council, the only two ways that international force can be lawfully employed, and even then only as a last resort after sanctions and diplomatic avenues have been tried and failed. It turned out that the political rationale for recourse to aggressive war against Iraq, its alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction was totally false, either building the case for war on the elaborately orchestrated presentation of false evidence or more generously, as awkwardly victimized by a hugely embarrassing intelligence lapse.

 

To be fair, this Syrian military caper could have turned out far worse from the perspective of world peace and regional security. The 105 missile attack war over in 3 minutes, no civilian casualties have been reported, and thankfully, any challenge to the Russian and Iranian military presence in Syria was deliberately excluded from the targeting plan, or to the Syrian government, thus taking precautions to avoidT setting in motion the rightly feared retaliation and escalation cycle. This was not an idle worry. More than at any time since the end of the Cold War sober concerns abounded preceding the attack that a clash of political wills or an accidental targeting mistake could cause geopolitical stumbles culminating in World War III.

 

Historically minded observers pointed out alarming parallels with the confusions and exaggerated responses that led directly to the prolonged horror of World War I. The relevant restraint of the April 14thmissile attacks seems to be the work of the Pentagon, and certainly not the hawk-infested White House. Military planners designed the attack to minimize risks of escalation, and possibly even reaching behind the scenes an undisclosed negotiated understanding with the Russians. In effect, Trump’s red line on chemical weapons was supposedly defended, and redrawn at the UN as a warning to Damascus, but as suggested above this was the public face of the attack, not its principal motivations, which remain unacknowledged.

 

 

Doubting the Facts

 

Yet can we be sure at this stage that at least the factual basis of this aggressive move accurately portrayed Syria as having launched a lethal chlorine and likely nerve gas attack on the people of Douma, killing at least 40? On the basis of available evidence, the facts have not yet been established beyond reasonable doubt. We have been fooled too often in the past by the confident claims of the intelligence services working for these same countries that sent this last wave of missiles to Syria. International maneuvering for instant support of a punitive response to Douma seemed a rush to judgment amid an array of strident, yet credible, voices of doubt, including from UN sources. The most cynical observers are suggesting that the timing of the attack, if not its real purpose other than the vindication of Trump’s red line, is to destroy evidence that might incriminate others than the Syrian government as the responsible party. Such suspicions are fueled by the refusal to wait until the factual claims could be validated. As matters stand, the airstrike seem hastened to make sure that the respected Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), when finally carrying out its fact finding mission would have nothing to find.

 

To allay reactions that these are ideologically driven criticisms, it is notable that the Wall Street Journal, never a voice for peace and moderation, put forward its view that it was not “clear who carried out the attack” on Douma, a view shared by several mainstream media outlets including the Associated Press. Blaming Syria, much less attacking, was definitely premature, and quite possibly altogether false, undermining the essential factual foundation of the coalition claim without even reaching the formidable doubts associated with issues of the unlawfulness and illegitimacy of an international use of non-defensive force without authorization by the United Nations.

 

 

Remnants of Colonialism

 

Less noticed, but starkly relevant, is the intriguing reality that the identity of the three states responsible for this aggressive act share strong colonialist credentials that expose the deep roots of the turmoil afflicting in different ways the entire Middle East. It is relevant to recall that it was British and French colonial ambitions in 1916 that established the blueprint for carving up the collapsed Ottoman Empire, imposing artificial political communities with borders reflecting European priorities not natural affinities, and taking no account of the preferences of the resident population. This colonial plot foiled Woodrow Wilson’s more positive proposal to implement self-determination based on affinities of ethnicity, tradition, and religion of those formerly living under Ottoman rule.

 

The United States fully supplanted this colonial duopoly as the colonial sun was setting around the world, especially after the Europeans faltered in the 1956 Suez Crisis. At the same time the U.S. quickly made its own heavy footprint known, feared, and resented throughout the region with an updated imperial agenda featuring Soviet containment, oil geopolitics, and untethered support for Israel. Even earlier in 1953 the Truman Doctrine and CIA support for the overthrow of the democratically elected and nationalist government of Mohammad Mosaddegh disclosed the extent of U.S. involvement in the region.  These strategic priorities were later supplemented by worries after 1979 about the spread of Islam and fears after 2001 that nuclear weaponry could fall into the wrong political hands. After a century of exploitation, intervention, and betrayal by the West, it should come as no surprise that anti-Western extremist movements have surfaced throughout the Arab World, and engendered some populist sympathies despite their barbaric tactics.

 

 

 

Violating International Law, Undermining the UN

 

It is helpful to recall the Kosovo War (1999) and the Libyan War (2011), both managed as NATO operations carried out in defiance of international law and the UN Charter. Because of an anticipated Russian veto, NATO, with strong regional backing in Europe launched a punishing air attack that drove Serbia out of Kosovo. Despite the presence of a strong case for humanitarian intervention within the Kosovo context it set a dangerous precedent, which advocates of a regime-changing intervention in Iraq found convenient to invoke a few years later. In effect the U.S. found itself backed into insisting on an absurd position, to the effect, that the veto should be respected without any questioning when the West uses it, most arbitrarily and frequently to protect Israel from much more trivial, yet justifiable, challenges than what this missile attack on the basic sovereign rights of the internationally legitimate government of Syria signifies.

 

American diplomats do not try to justify, or even explain, their inconsistent attitudes toward the authority of the UN veto, despite the starkness of the contradiction. Perhaps, it is a textbook example of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. More accessibly, it is a prime instance of a continued reliance on the benefits of American exceptionalism. As the self-anointed guarantor of virtue and perpetual innocence in world politics the United States is not bound by the rules and standards by which its leaders judge the conduct of others, especially adversaries.

 

As a personal aside, with some apologies owed, I was the main author of the section of the report in my role as a member of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo, which put forth the rationale of ‘illegal but legitimate’ with respect to the Kosovo intervention. I had misgivings at the time, but was swayed by the shadow of Srebrenica and the difficulties of finding a consensus among the members of the Commission to put forth this line of argument, qualified to an extent in the text of the report, by invoking the exceptional facts and expressing what turned out to be the vain hope that the UNSC would itself create greater flexibility in responding to humanitarian crises of this kind and overcome what seemed at the time giving credibility to a pattern of justification for war making that could in the future be twisted out of shape by geopolitical opportunism. My fears have been realized, and I would now be very reluctant to endorse my own formulations that seemed, on balance the right way to go back in the year 2000. Now I lose sleep whenever I recall that I was responsible for what has become an insidious conceptual innovation, ‘illegal but legitimate,’ which in unscrupulous geopolitical hands operates as an ‘open Sesame’ rendering irrelevant Charter constraints.

 

The Libyan precedent is also relevant, although in a different way, to the marginalization of the UN and international law to which this latest Syrian action is a grim addition. Because the people of the Libyan city of Benghazi truly faced an imminent humanitarian emergency in March of 2011 the argument for lending UN protection seemed strong. Russia and China, permanent members of the UNSC, and other skeptical members, were persuaded to suspend their suspicions about Western motives and abstained from a resolution specifically authorizing the establishment of a No Fly Zone to protect Benghazi. It didn’t take long to disabuse Russia and China, mocking their trust in assurances by the NATO states that their objective were limited and strictly humanitarian. They were quickly shocked into the realization that actual NATO mission in Libya was regime change, not humanitarian relief. In other words, these same Western powers who are currently claiming at the UN that international law is on their side with regard to Syria, have themselves a terrible record of flouting and manipulating UN authority whenever convenient and insisting on their full panoply of obstructive rights under the Charter when Israel’s wrongdoing is under review.

 

Ambassador Nikki Haley, Trump’s flamethrower at the UN, arrogantly reminded members of the Security Council that the U.S. would carry out a military strike against Syria whether or not  it was permitted by the Organization. In effect, even the veto as a shield is not sufficient to quench Washington’s geopolitical thirst. It also claims the disruptive option of the sword of American exceptionalism to circumvent the veto when it anticipates being blocked by the veto of an adversary. Such duplicity with respect to legal procedures at the UN puts the world back on square one when it comes to restraining the international use of force by geopolitical actors. Imagine the indignation that the U.S. would muster if Russia or China proposed at the Security Council a long overdue peacekeeping (R2P) mission to protect the multiply abused population of Gaza. And if these countries went further, and had the geopolitical gall to act outside the UN because of an expected veto by NATO members of the Security Council and the urgency of the humanitarian justification, the world would almost certainly experience the bitter taste of apocalyptic warfare.

 

 

The Charter Framework is Not Obsolete

 

The Charter framework makes as much sense, or more, than when crafted in 1945. Recourse to force is only permissible as an act of self-defense against a prior armed attack, and then only until the Security Council has time to act. In non-defensive situations, such as the Syrian case, the Charter makes clear beyond reasonable doubt that the Security Council alone possesses the authority to mandate the use of force, including even in response to an ongoing humanitarian emergency. The breakthrough idea in the Charter is to limit as much as language can, discretion by states to decide on their own when to have recourse to acts of war. Syria is the latest indication that this hopeful idea has been crudely cast in the geopolitical wastebasket.

 

It will be up to the multitudes to challenge these developments, and use their mobilized influence to reverse the decline of international law and the authority of the UN. Most members of the UN are themselves so beholden to the realist premises of the system that they will never do more than squawk from time to time.

 

Ending Trump’s boastful tweet about the Syrian airstrike with the words ‘mission accomplished’ unwittingly reminds us of the time in 2003 when the same phrase was on a banner behind George W. Bush as he spoke of victory in Iraq from the deck of an aircraft carrier with the sun setting behind him. Those words soon came back to haunt Bush, and if Trump were capable of irony, he might have realized that he is likely to endure an even more humbling fate, while lacking Bush’s willingness to later acknowledge his laughable mistake.

 

 

Fudging Constitutional Authorization

 

Each of the attacking countries claims impeccable democratic credentials, except when their effect is to impede war lust. Each purports to give its legislative branch the option of withholding approval for any contemplated recourse to military action, except in the case that the homeland is under attack. Yet here, where there was no attack by Syria and no imminent security threat of any kind each of these governments joined in an internationallyunlawful attack without even bothering to seek domesticlegislative approval, claiming only that the undertaking served the national interest of their governments by enforcing the norms of prohibition contained in the Chemical Weapons Convention.

 

The American attempts to supply flimsy domestic justifications are decisively refuted by two widely respected international jurists, including one, Jack Goldsmith, who was a leading neoconservative legal advisor in the early years of the George W. Bush presidency. [Jack Goldsmith & Oona Hathaway, “Bad Legal Arguments for the Syria Airstrikes,” Lawfare website, Aprile 14, 2018]  Their article rejects arguments based on theAuthorization for the Use of Military Force, which in 2001 gave broad authority to use military force in response to the 9/11 attacks, but has no bearing here as Syria has never been accused of any link. The other legal claim that has been brought forward argues that the airstrikes are expressions of the president’s authority under Article II of the Constitution to serve as Commander in Chief, but any freshman law student knows, or should know, that this authority is available only if the use of force has been previously validated by Congress or is in response to an attack or a plausible argument of the perceived imminence of such an attack. Revealingly, the internal justification for Trump’s authority has not been disclosed as yet, and has been heavily classified, showing once again that government secrets in wartime are not primarily kept to prevent adversaries from finding things out, but as with the Pentagon Papers, are useful mainly to keep Americans in the dark about policies that affect their wellbeing and possibly their survival. It also gives the leadership more space for deception and outright lies.

 

It has been reliably reported that the Trump White House preferred to act without seeking Congressional approval, presumably to uphold the trend toward establishing an ‘executive presidency’ when it comes to war/peace issues, thereby effectively negating a principal objective of the U.S. Constitution to apply the separation of powers doctrine to any recourse to war. This also marginalizes the War Powers Act enacted into law in the aftermath of the Vietnam War in the vain attempt to restore the Constitutional arrangement after a period during which the President arrogated power to wage war and the policy acted upon produced the worst foreign policy failure in all of American history.

 

 

Where Does This Leave Us?

 

There are several levels of response:

 

–with respect to Syria, nothing has changed.

 

–with respect to the UN and international law, a damaging blow was struck.

 

–with respect to constitutionalism, a further move away from respect for separation of powers, thus marginalizing the legislative branch with respect to war/peace policies.

 

–with respect to oppositional politics, citizen protest, and media reactions, an apathetic atmosphere of acquiescence, with debate shifting to questions of purpose and effectiveness without virtually no reference to legality, and quite little, even to legitimacy (that is, moral and political justifications).