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If Obama Visits Hiroshima

24 Apr

 

 

There are mounting hopes that Barack Obama will use the occasion of the Group of 7 meeting in Japan next month to visit Hiroshima, and become the first American president to do so. It is remarkable that it required a wait of over 60 years until John Kerry became the first high American official to make such a visit, which he termed ‘gut-wrenching,’ while at the same time purposely refraining from offering any kind of apology to the Japanese people for one of the worse acts of state terror against a defenseless population in all of human history. Let’s hope that Obama goes, and displays more remorse than Kerry who at least deserves some credit for paving the way. The contrast between the many pilgrimages of homage by Western leaders, including those of Germany, to Auschwitz and other notorious death camps, and the absence of comparable pilgrimages to Hiroshima and Nagasaki underscores the difference between winning and losing a major war. This contrast cannot be properly accounted for by insisting on a hierarchy of evils that the Holocaust dominates.

 

The United States, in particular, has a more generalized aversion to revisiting its darker hours, although recent events have illuminated some of the shadows cast by the racist legacies of slavery. The decimation of native Americans has yet to be properly addressed at official levels, and recent reports of soaring suicide rates suggests that the native American narrative continues to unfold tragically.

 

The New York Times in an unsigned editorial on April 12 urged President Obama to make this symbolic visit to Hiroshima, and in their words “to make it count” by doing more than making a ritual appearance. Recalling accurately that Obama “won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 largely because of his nuclear agenda” the editorial persuasively criticized Obama for failing to follow through on his Prague vision of working toward a world free of nuclear weapons. A visit to Hiroshima is, in effect, a second chance, perhaps a last chance, to satisfy the expectation created early in his presidency.

 

When it came to specifics as to what Obama might do the Times offered a typical arms control set of recommendations of what it called “small but doable advances”: canceling the new air-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile and ensuring greater compliance with the prohibition on nuclear testing by its endorsement coupled with a recommendation that future compliance be monitored by the UN Security Council. The Times leaves readers with the widely shared false impression that such measures can be considered incremental steps that will lead the world over time to a nuclear-free world. Such a view is unconvincing, and diversionary. In opposition, I believe these moves serve to stabilize the nuclear status quo have a negative effect on disarmament prospects. By making existing realities somewhat less prone to accidents and irresponsibly provocative weapons innovations, the posture of living with nuclear weapons gains credibility and the arguments for nuclear disarmament are weakened even to the extent of being irrelevant. I believe that it is a dangerous fallacy to suppose that arms control measures, even if beneficial in themselves, can be thought of as moving the world closer to nuclear disarmament.

 

Instead, what such measures do, and have been doing for decades, is to reinforce nuclear complacency by making nuclear disarmament either seem unnecessary or utopian, and to some extent even undesirably destabilizing. In other words, contrary to conventional wisdom, moving down the arms control path is a sure way to make certain that disarmament will never occur!

 

As mentioned, many arms control moves are inherently worthwhile. It is only natural to favor initiatives that cancel the development of provocative weapons systems, disallow weapons testing, and cut costs. Without such measures there would occur a dangerous erosion of the de facto taboo that has prevented (so far) any use of nuclear weaponry since 1945. At the same time it is vital to understand that the taboo and the arms control regime of managing the nuclear weapons environment does not lead to the realization of disarmament and the vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

 

Let me put it this way, if arms control is affirmed for its own sake or as the best way to put the world on a path of incremental steps that will lead over time to disarmament, then such an approach is nurturing the false consciousness that has unfortunately prevailed in public discourse ever since the Nonproliferation Treaty came into force in 1970. The point can be express in more folksy language: we have been acting for decades as if the horse of disarmament is being pulled by the cart of arms control. In fact, it is the horse of disarmament that should be pulling the cart of arms control, which would make arms control measures welcome as place holders while the primary quest for nuclear disarmament was being toward implementation. There is no reason to delay putting the horse in front of the cart, and Obama’s failure to do so at Prague was the central flaw of his otherwise justly applauded speech.

 

Where Obama went off the tracks in my view was when he consigned nuclear disarmament to the remote future, and proposed in the interim reliance on the deterrent capability of the nuclear weapons arsenal and this alleged forward momentum of incremental arms control steps. What is worse, Obama uncritically endorsed the nonproliferation treaty regime, lamenting only that it is being weakened by breakout countries, especially North Korea, and this partly explains why he felt it necessary back in 2009 to consider nuclear disarmament as a practical alternative to a continued reliance on nonproliferation, although posited disarmament more as a goal beyond reach and not as a serious present political option. He expressed this futuristic outlook in these words: “I am not naïve. This goal will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime.” He never clarifies why such a goal is not attainable within the term of his presidency, or at least its explicit pursuit.

 

In this regard, and with respect to Obama’s legacy, the visit to Hiroshima provides an overdue opportunity to disentangle nuclear disarmament from arms control. In Prague, Obama significantly noted that “..as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.” [emphasis added] In the 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons, the judges unanimously concluded that there was a legal responsibility to seek nuclear disarmament with due diligence. The language of the 14-0 ICJ finding is authoritative: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all aspects under strict and effective international control.” In other words, there is a legal as well as a moral responsibility to eliminate nuclear weapons, and this could have made the Prague call for a world without nuclear weapons more relevant to present governmental behavior. The Prague speech while lauding the NPT never affirmed the existence of a legal responsibility to pursue nuclear disarmament. In this respect an official visit to Hiroshima offers Obama a golden opportunity to reinvigorate his vision of a world without nuclear weapons by bringing it down to earth.

 

Why is this? By acknowledging the legal obligation, as embedded in Article VI of the Nonproliferation Treaty, as reinforcing the moral responsibility, there arises a clear

imperative to move toward implementation. There is no excuse for delay or need for preconditions. The United States Government could at this time convene a multinational commission to plan a global conference on nuclear disarmament, somewhat resembling the Paris conference that recently produced the much heralded climate change agreement. The goal of the nuclear disarmament conference could be the vetting of proposals for a nuclear disarmament process with the view toward establishing a three year deadline for the development of an agreed treaty text whose preparation was entrusted to a high level working group operating under the auspices of the United Nations, with a mandate to report to the Secretary General. After that the states of the world could gather to negotiate an agreed treaty text that would set forth a disarming process and its monitoring and compliance procedures.

 

The United States, along with other nuclear weapons states, opposed in the 1990s recourse to the ICJ by the General Assembly to seek a legal interpretation on issues of legality, and then disregarded the results of its legal findings. It would a great contribution to a more sustainable and humane world order if President Obama were to take the occasion of his historic visit to Hiroshima to call respectful attention to this ICJ Advisory Opinion and go on to accept the attendant legal responsibility on behalf of the United States. This could be declared to be a partial fulfillment of the moral responsibility that was accepted at Prague. It could even presented as the completion of the vision of Prague, and would be consistent with Obama’s frequent appeals to the governments of the world to show respect for international law, and his insistence that during his presidency U.S. foreign policy was so configured.

 

Above all, there is every reason for all governments to seek nuclear disarmament without further delay. There now exists no geopolitical climate of intense rivalry, and the common endeavor of freeing the world from the dangers posed by nuclear weapons would work against the current hawkish drift in the U.S. and parts of Europe toward a second cold war and overcome the despair that now has for so long paralyzed efforts to protect the human interest. As the global approach to nuclear weapons, climate change, and neoliberal globalization should make clear, we are not likely to survive as a species very much longer if we continue to base world order on a blend of state-centric national interests and dominant actor geopolitics. Obama has this rare opportunity to choose the road not often traveled upon, and there is no better place to start such a voyage than at Hiroshima. We in civil society would then with conviction promote his nuclear legacy as ‘From Prague to Hiroshima,’ and feel comfortable that this president has finally earned the honor of the Nobel Peace Prize prematurely bestowed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Anecdote About Fascism

19 Apr

 

 

Recently I participated in a conference on global inequality and human rights held at the University of Texas in Austin, a lively quite cosmopolitan city. During the lunch break I was talking with a young PhD student from Israel who had just presented an informative paper on inequality in the Philippines. I asked her about her career plans and how it was like to be living in Israel these days. She told me that she was married to an Israeli and planned to return to finish her studies in Tel Aviv after a fellowship year at UT.

 

I tried to engage her in conversation about evolving Israeli attitudes toward the Palestinians and the related failed diplomacy, but she seemed rather uninformed and perhaps even disinterested as if the peace agenda was not really present in her active consciousness. Then all at once she said something that surprised me. “I am not looking forward to returning to Israel, it is becoming a fascist state.”

 

What made this strong statement surprising was that it contrasted with the blandness of everything that had preceded it. I asked inquisitively, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, “What makes you say that?”

 

She pondered the question as if it had come to her from the wild blue yonder. It seemed as if she had never thought about it before, and maybe it was just a spontaneous assertion that she was articulating for the first time. After a pause, she answered somewhat hesitantly: “Because the army is the most powerful and admired institution in Israel, and the government controls everything, it is acting as a totalizing force.” I suppose that gets you to Franco style fascism that prevailed for so long in Spain, but not the more virulent forms of fascism associated with Mussolini’s Italy and especially Hitler’s Germany.

 

I agreed with the young woman about the hegemony of the armed forces, both institutionally and psychologically, but I was less sure about the totalizing reach of the government. After all, Haaretz continues to publish Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, and they are both outspoken critics of Israeli policies and leaders, but then again there seems to be mounting pressure in Israel against human rights NGOs and peaceful protests, and an official tone of belligerence toward the BDS movement that even South African apartheid racists never exhibited.

 

The Israeli young woman in Texas never mentioned the oppression of the Palestinians as one dimension of this Israeli drift from democracy to fascism, although many progressive Israelis believe that it is the prolonged occupation of Palestinian territory that has pushed the country toward or over the precipice of fascism. Jeff Halper, author of War Against the People: Israel, Palestinians, and Global Pacification (2015), a leading Israeli activist scholar who emigrated from the U.S. decades ago and has fearlessly placed his body in front of bulldozers to block the demolitions of Palestinian homes, has a different way of putting his concerns about what is happening to the Israeli governing process. “Israel is a vibrant democracy if you are Jewish.” But even for Jews there is pushback, according to Halper, making it “harder and harder to protest.”

 

What of others living in Israel, especially the Palestinians? Those living in Israel or under occupation are given a fugitive identity by being called ‘Arabs,’  a designation that functions as a way of denying nationalist claims based on a ‘Palestinian’ primary identity. As is well known, Israel uses the legalities of citizenship strategically. It has been recently offering the 25,000 Druze residents of the Golan Heights Israeli citizenship, apparently to neutralize their antagonism toward Netanyahu’s land grab, which defies international law by insisting on permanent Israeli sovereignty over conquered and occupied Syrian territory. So far few Druze have accepted this offer of Israeli citizenship, but this could change if Israel is able to sustain its claim.

 

As Palestinians know from bitter experience, the privileged societal status of Jews within and without Israel is mostly achieved by way of nationality laws that are ethnically framed to favor Jews, while Israeli citizens, whether or not Jewish, enjoy formal equality that doesn’t count for much when it comes to rights and legal protection. The most notorious of the many ethnographic discriminations in Israeli law is between Jews who are granted an unlimited right of return wherever they live in the world and however tenuous their links to Israel, while Palestinians and other minorities do not have any right of return even if the Palestinian roots of their families go back many generations. Israeli apologists contend that as a Jewish state Israel can do what many other states do, and be selective about its policies toward immigration, and privilege whoever it wishes, and further that the historical context of Zionist was shaped by the aspiration to create a sanctuary for Jews so long targeted for persecution. What this rationale leaves out is that this sanctuary was created by the displacement of the majority of the indigenous population of Palestine, and surely those Palestinians who remain in Israel should not be disadvantaged in their own homeland.

 

There are other ways in which the fascist tendency toward racism and purification are manifest. The apartheid structures of occupation, differently maintained in the West Bank and Gaza impose systematic and severe discrimination and a miserable status of stateless rightlessness on the Palestinians while according internationally unlawful Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem the full panoply of rights associated with ‘the rule of law’ as bestowed by most constitutional democracies. Also, Israel’s consistent reliance on excessive force against Palestinian protests and resistance activities is also a sign of fascist disrespect for adversary ethnic and religious identities, and even of the right to dissent and display a posture of opposition to the state.

 

Of course, whether Israel is or is becoming fascist or not in the end is a matter of interpretation, but sadly, it is no longer an extremist assertion or a sign of anti-Semitism to regard Israel as a fascist state. And by way of contrast, it is extreme whitewashing to keep insisting that Israel is ‘the only democracy in the Middle East.’

 

Some years ago, Henry Seigman, seemed to imply a similar set of circumstances when he argued that Israel had become an ‘ethnocracy,’ that is, a Jewish state in which non-Jews were at best subordinated, and at worst scapegoated in such a way as to make involuntary population transfers an increasingly popular option with the public. Seigman, former head of the American Jewish Congress, also wrote that instead of being the only democracy Israel has become the ‘only apartheid regime in the Western world.”

 

Of course, the question of the American drift toward fascism has also been noted for several decades. To some extent, the awareness that ‘perpetual war’ is incompatible with the maintenance of real democracy was part of this concern. Peter Dale Scott’s explorations of ‘the deep state’ with its unaccountable dark forces of secrecy that pulled the strings of the national security was an indictment of the merger of covert intelligence and special ops with the underworld of crime and drugs that have intensified fears of the erosion of democratic governance. And we not must overlook Edward Snowden’s brave disclosures of the webs spun by the surveillance state that potentially entangle every person on the face of the earth or the special bonds connections the hedge fund moguls of Wall Street with the bureaucratic elites in Washington that are doing their assigned job of keeping the citizenry on an extremely short leash. This may help explain the anger in America bubbling to the surface during a time when profits continue to rise geometrically while wages remain either flat or keep declining in constant dollars.

 

And then came Trump, unleashing the dormant underbelly of populist fascism in America, surfacing in various virulent forms: Islamophobia and xenophobia being the most obvious. Just as some understanding of white racism was finally seeping into liberal consciousness by the much belated recognition that ‘black lives matter,’ it was also becoming clear that Muslim lives don’t matter, or matter even less, and Latino lives were becoming problematized by the sudden passion for upholding the law that was sweeping across the American plains, lending strident support to those calling for the punishment, and the massive deportation of those categorized as ‘the illegals.’

 

The caustic cultural critic and ardent American Zionist, Leon Wieseltier, recently commented on Trump: “Someone asked me if I thought he was a fascist, and I said, ‘he says fascistic things, but to call him a fascist imputes too great a degree of intellectual coherence to him.” And then condescendingly added, “There is no belief system there. I mean he is not wrong. He’s pre-wrong.” He went on to say that Clinton also worried him as a candidate, not because of her hawkish views and record, but people might not vote for her because she was unlovable. As Wieseltier caustically put it, “I’m getting exceedingly nervous about her ability to beat that monster Trump. She’s not very nimble and nobody loves her.” Of course, no mention of Sanders as a glimmer of light, at least on the American horizon.

 

Instead Wieseltier instructs his 13-year old son “that presidential elections are lesser of evil exercises. I have never once voted happily.” Of course, this is not such an outlandish assessment, although as a candidate eight years ago, I still feel that Barack Obama was not the lesser of evils, but his candidacy represented an extraordinary breakthrough. Although often deeply disappointing later, as president, especially in the domains of security, neoliberalism, and the Middle East, the Republican extreme antipathy toward the man and his policies has fascist, as well as racist, undertones. And why wouldn’t even Wieseltier want to cheer his son up a bit by mentioning Bernie Sanders, who may not be the revolutionary he claims to be, but he is authentically talking some truth to power in ways that defy the mores of the American plutocracy? The American media and liberal mainstream, especially among older folks, is understandably preoccupied with the rightest surge, and is unabashedly counting on a Clinton victory. It is not nearly ready to ditch Democrats linked to Wall Street, Pentagon, and Israel in the manner of Clinton. In fact, most Clinton supporters see little, if any, substantive problem with her, but if critical at all, lament her lack of charm or go ‘tut, tut’ if anyone brings up her past support for the Iraq War, the Libyan intervention, and various authoritarian moves in Central America, most notably Honduras.

 

Robert Paxton, the author of one of the best books on fascism, The Anatomy of Fascism (2004), is reluctant to give a definition of fascism, both because there are many varieties and because it tends to essentialize fascism, which is better comprehended, he believes, as a process that evolves rather than as a system with certain defining attributes. Paxton at the very end of his book relents, offering a list of characteristics that he believes are shared by historical instances of fascism. I believe it is worth reproducing Paxton’s list [219-220], although its application to the U.S. and Israel depends on nuanced interpretation:

 

–“a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solution;”

–“the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it;;”

–“the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;”

–“dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;”

–“the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, by exclusionary violence if necessary;”

–“the need for authority by natural chiefs (always male(, culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny;”

–“the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;”

–“the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success;”

–“the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterior of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.”

 

It makes little difference as to whether we explain this militarist drift observed in Israel and the United States as the outcome of decades of high alert geopolitics or the impoverishment of tens of millions due to the cruel dynamics of neoliberal capitalism or primarily as a response to the changing paradigm of global conflict with its borderless battlefields and extremist non-state, transnational political actors. Widespread violent discontent and highly coercive security structures of state power seem here to stay, and so it becomes prudent to fear resurgent forms of fascism reconfigured to correspond with the parameters of the digital age. Reading through Paxton’s list is a chilling reminder of how fascist regimes destroy the fabric of humane societies, but the list also may be read as a cautionary reminder that what exists in Israel and the United States is best understood as pre-fascist, and that there remain anti-fascist political spaces to turn the tide of events in more progressive directions.

Should We Vote for Hillary Clinton? A Meditation

14 Apr

 

 

It seems now almost inevitable that Hillary Clinton will be the candidate for the Democratic Party in November. This inevitability came about by a combination of ‘a Southern strategy’ (where incidentally the Democrats have virtually no chance in the national elections), some close wins in large industrial states in the North, and above all by that peculiar twist in practical democracy known as ‘delegate logic’ (the party state by state rules as to how delegates are allocated among the candidates to reflect primary results, and for the Democratic Party, the pernicious add on of 719 superdelegates, 469 of whom are already announced as committed to support Hilary, while Bernie has garnered a measly 31). ‘Super’ in name only being members of Congress (11% approval rating) and party officials (often ‘hacks’).

 

This process of delegate selection is problematic from many angles and seems stacked against the guiding idea that purpose of the primaries is to determine as fairly as possible who people identifying with a particular party prefer to have as their candidate. As has been alleged by Bernie Sanders, and for the Republicans, by Donald Trump, the system is rigged: the outcome of the vote is shaped by rules that can be manipulated by a skilled ‘ground game’ to deliver a disproportionate number of delegates compared to what would be expected given relative popularity with those who voted in the primary election.

 

Aside from this disturbing delegate mystique there is the question of money. As has been obvious long before the outrage of Citizens United, big money acts as a formidable vehicle for special interests, exerting a pernicious influence on the entire governing process, deforming policy on a wide range of public issues including guns, coal, and pharmaceutical drug prices. In this regard, once again, Clinton’s far from innocent connections with Wall Street, with a superpac, and with all kinds of special interests from fracking to Israel, should be enough to alienate all but the most blindfolded of citizens.

 

An assortment of insiders defend party control over the primary process through the selection of delegates. They argue that it helps keep so-called ‘insurgent’ candidates from stealing a nomination from a candidate who has passed through the authenticating filters of party loyalty. Policy wonks point out that if the Republican Party had superdelegates, Trump would be out, and likely Cruz too, and thus it is claimed that the party credentials of the superdelegates provides a hedge against extremism or a triumphant maverick, whether from right or left, or even from Hollywood.

 

Tom Hayden, always clear and with a long record of progressive engagement in the American political process, comes down in favor of Clinton on the basis of several mutually reinforcing arguments: the need for unity among Democrats to assure the defeat of whoever the Republicans put forward, Bernie’s lack of a thought through and politically attainable agenda, and most of all, Hilary’s overwhelming support among African Americans and Latinos, including both the Cogressional Black Caucus and the Sacramento Latino Caucus. Hayden emphasizes that his links to these minorities are personal as well as ideological, through marriage and paternity, suggesting that his identity and private life creates an affinity that takes precedence over other considerations. Along the way, he affirms Sanders call for social justice in a number of particulars (student debt, universal health care, tax policy, minimum wage, trade policy), as well as his more moderate stand on foreign policy when compared to the interventionist past of Clinton. I wonder about this reasoning. Should we not ratify the Sanders movement that has excited the young across the nation as an urgent call for change? What we do know is that Clinton even if she delivers on some liberal reforms will not change the fundamentals of American political life, which urgently need changing: the plutocratic control over policy, the kneejerk deference to Pentagon budgetary greed, the unquestioning indulgence of the predatory ways of Wall Street, and the slavish acquiescence to Israel’s defiant militarism.

 

Of course, there is a serious liberal side to this debate that deserves to be considered. It is a matter of ensuring the victory of a Democrat in November coupled with the belief that Clinton is far better situated than Sanders to ensure such an outcome. Clinton is almost certain to appoint empathetic jurists to the US Supreme Court and other federal courts, she will uphold and advance the rights of women, and she will steer the ship of state with a steady and experienced hand.

 

Even granting the above, there are some limits on this liberal position that should not be pushed aside. On foreign policy, there is no doubt that Clinton is experienced, informed, and reliable, more so than Sanders. At the same time her judgment and instincts seem as untrustworthy as those of Henry Kissinger, the foreign policy guru whom she has unfortunately singled out for praise. Kissinger has favored every failed intervention that the US has undertaken in the last half century, including even Vietnam and Iraq, encouraged the 1973 military coup in Chile against the democratically elected Allende government, and was positive about the genocidal approach taken by Indonesia toward the resistant and oppressed indigenous population in East Timor. With this in mind, I would greatly prefer Sanders’ qualities of judgment to Clinton’s record of experience.

 

Against this background, I am left with is a choice between ‘red lines’ and ‘the lesser of evils,’ or as most liberals prefer to put it, ‘the glass half full,’ regarding Hillary as the best choice among those available, and in many respects impressive in ability and achievement. Beyond this, she would be the first woman to become president, and if we are lucky, she might even fashion a memorable legacy around climate change, environmental policy, health, women’s rights, student debt, an enlightened judiciary, international trade regimes, and more.

 

What troubles me, even with a keen awareness of the dangers and antipathies associated with a Republican presidential hopeful, almost regardless of who it ends up being, is the belief that there are certain deficiencies of character or lapses of judgment that deserve to be treated red lines, which once crossed are decisive. Clinton has crossed some lines that are bright red in my eyes. I find it hard to overlook her Iraq War vote back in 2003, her continuing admiration for Kissinger, her lead role in producing the Libyan disaster, her push toward intervention in Syria, and her fawning AIPAC speech delivered during the present campaign. The latter is in some respects the most disturbing of all, being purely opportunistic while exhibiting zero sensitivity to the long ordeal of Palestinian captivity and abuse. Despite her nuanced mind, Clinton comes across as a crude opportunist. For me the thought of Clinton’s fingers close to the nuclear button is hardly reassuring, although less scary than the prospect of Trump or Cruz exercising such an absolute power over human destiny. 

 

Of course, we can try and convince ourselves that most of the bad stuff is behind her and that the really good stuff lies ahead. We can firm this hope up with an expectation that Sanders will use his considerable leverage effectively, nudging her left on economic policy and making her more cautious about intervention. But it is a gamble at best, and once in the White House, special interest and bureaucratic pressures will put the Sanders agenda on a distant back burner.

 

I recall that the Nader third party candidacy, which I at the time supported, seems to have cost Gore the presidency in 2000 due to the outcome in Florida, and if Gore rather than George W. Bush had become president there probably would have been no attack on Iraq in 2003. Initiating a regime-changing war against Iraq was a neocon priority, but never on the agenda of moderate Republicans, much less Democrats. Yet counterfactuals can be misleading. Without the failure of Iraq there might have been a far greater disposition to intervene elsewhere, maybe Ukraine or Syria. As Madeline Albright a stalwart Martian supporter of Clinton memorably reminded us some years ago, ‘what’s the use of this great military capability if we never use it.’

Thinking back to the 2000 makes me hesitate before voting for a third party candidate, although there is a case to be made. The election of Jill Stein, the admirable Green Party candidate, would likely lift our spirits, enhance human security, and make us safer by departing from the cliches of national security. It is sad when the person with the most relevant vision and impeccable character, with nary a blemish, should be marginalized because of the folk wisdom embodied in the saying ‘the best is the enemy of the good,’ or more accurately in this case, ‘the worst is the enemy of the mediocre.’

Despite these doubts, prudence suggests swallowing hard, and voting for Hillary Clinton with eyes wide open. I have not yet decided, although leaning, yet still pondering some questions. Isn’t it time to hold politicians accountable for past wrongdoing? Doesn’t Clinton seem like an unprincipled opportunist, tacking to the left in the primary campaign to take some votes away from Sanders, but probably ready to move right once he is safely out of the way so as to lure independent voters and disaffected Republicans, and later, to govern effectively?

 

Isn’t Sanders right to contend that the problems of America require ‘a social revolution,’ and shouldn’t citizens of conscience stop acting as if incrementalism will address the fundamental challenges facing the country? From such an outlook, it is tempting to withhold support and forego political participation until a national candidate arrives on the scene who gives real promise of seeking the changes we need, or at least enough of them to make it worthwhile. At this point, I am unable to resolve the dilemma posed by this clash of prudence and principle.

 

Maybe in the end Tom Hayden’s approach is the only humane way to cut the Gordian Knot of this presidential dilemma: vote for Hillary Clinton in solidarity with African Americans and Latinos as someone who has stood more in their corner than almost any active politician, and surely more than any present candidate, including Bernie Sanders. Solidarity with the racially and ethnically abused, reinforced by lesser of evils reasoning, may be the best we can do at this point, while hoping that Sanders surge is more than a flash in the pan and becomes the sort of transformative movement from below that alone can restore national confidence in a sustainable and humane future. Should feelings of solidarity and revolutionary patience outweigh a principled refusal to go along with militarist opportunism?

 

Reading Jeff Halper’s ‘War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and Global Pacification’

7 Apr

 

[Prefatory Note: The review below was published in the current issue of Journal of the Society for Contemporary Thought and Islamicate World. I am posting it here because I believe that Jeff Halper’s book deserves the widest possible reading. It explains clearly and convincingly one of the deepest and least understood roots of Israel’s diplomatic support throughout the world, which is its role as a niche arms supplier and influential tactical specialist in waging wars against peoples who dare offer resistance to state power as variously deployed against them. The Israeli experience in exerting oppressive control of the Palestinian people provides the foundation of Israel’s international credibility and perceptions of effectiveness in disseminating for economic and political profit its hardware and software associated with managing and suppressing the resistance of popular movements fighting for their rights. The Israel stress on pacification rather than victory exposes the true nature of what Halper identifies so vividly and comprehensively as the distinctive character of waging ‘war against the people.’ ]

Jeff Halper, War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and Global Pacification, Pluto Press, 2015, 296 pp., $25.00 US (pbk), ISBN 9780745334301.

Jeff Halper is an unusual hybrid presence on both the scholarly and political scene. He describes himself as an “activist-scholar” (6), which adopts a controversial self-identification. The conventional stance erects a high wall between scholarship and activism. To his credit and for our benefit, Halper excels almost equally in both roles. He is one of the most lucid speakers on the lecture circuit combining clarity with wisdom and a rich fund of information and firsthand experience, and his work as a writer is influential and widely known. His activist credentials have been built up over many years, especially in his work as co-founder and leader of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, which has bravely confronted Israeli demolition crews and IDF soldiers, helped Palestinians on multiple occasions to rebuild their destroyed homes, thereby responding humanely to one of Israel’s cruelest occupation practices, an instance of unlawful collective punishment. Halper has estimated that less than 2% of demolitions can lay claim to a credible security justification (the respected Israeli human rights NGO, B’Tselem, estimates 1.3% of demolitions are justified by security, while the rest are punitive or 621 of 47,000 since 1967). As an author his main prior book makes an unsurprisingly strong pitch for activism as the most reliable foundation for analysis and prescription. His important and incisive title gave the theme away—An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel.1 This earlier book remains valuable as testimony by a progressive Zionist in Israel that with good faith Jews and Palestinians might yet learn to live together, including finding a formula for sharing the land.

Halper’s own life experience makes this blend of scholarship and activism particularly compelling. He is an American born Jew who grew up in the Midwest and studied anthropology in Wisconsin, taught at a Quaker university for several years, and then moved to Israel where he married an Israeli and has three grown children. What particularly sets Halper apart from most other principled Jews in the ranks of critics of Israel is the striking combination of the radicalism of his opposition to the policies and practices of the Israeli state together with his evident commitment to remain in Israel no matter how far right the governing process drifts. Most other prominent Jewish critics of Israel have remained outside the country throughout their life (e.g. Noam Chomsky) or were born in Israel and then chose to become expatriate critical voices (e.g. Daniel Levy, Ilan Pappé, Gilad Azmun). There are a few internationally prominent Israeli journalists and cultural figures who have sustained sharply critical commentary (e.g. Gideon Levy, Amira Hass) and kept their Israeli residence despite harassment and threats.

In the book under review Halper broadens his own distinctive identity while enlarging the apertures of perception by which he views the Israeli state. He focuses attention on the Israeli arms industry, security doctrines, and policies, and examines Israel’s acquisition of formidable diplomatic influence grossly disproportionate to its size and capabilities. It is this gap between Israel’s significant impact on current world history and the modest scale of its territorial reality and its outsider status in most global settings that is the core mystery being explicated by Halper. He starts the book with some provocative questions that put the underlying puzzle before us in vivid language: “How does Israel get away with it? In a decidedly post-colonial age, how is Israel able to sustain a half-century occupation over the Palestinians, a people violently displaced in 1948, in the face of almost unanimous international opposition” (1)? He indicates that this phenomenon cannot be adequately “explained by normal international relations” nor by the strength of the Israel lobby in the United States nor by strong Israeli pushback to discredit critics by invoking the Holocaust as an indefinite source of impunity (3). What the book demonstrates very persuasively is that Israeli influence is a result of its extraordinary, partially hidden and understated role as arms supplier to more than 130 countries and as an increasingly significant mentor of national police forces and counter-terrorist operations and practices in many countries, including the United States.

Israel as Arms Merchant and Pacification Ideologue

Without exaggeration, War Against the People, is really three books in one. It is first of all a comprehensive and detailed look at the elaborate Israeli arms industry, including the extensive network of private companies engaged in arms production. Halper explores how Israel managed to become such a valued producer of sophisticated weaponry that so many governments have come to depend upon. Part of Israel’s success in the highly competitive international arms market is to identify and develop niches for itself in the wider global arms market that allows it to compete successfully for market share with companies backed by several of the world’s largest states by supplying specific kinds of weaponry that outperform the alternatives available for purchase. By so serving as an arms merchant to no less than 130 countries gives Israel a powerful unacknowledged source of leverage throughout the entire world. An aspect of Israel’s success is to be apolitical in its operations as an arms supplier, provided only that the foreign government poses no security threat to Israel.

Secondly, the book is a detailed examination of the specific ways that Israel has adapted its security doctrine and practice to the varieties of Palestinian resistance over the decades. The Israeli approach rests on adopting a goal toward internal security that seeks to achieve a tolerable level of “pacification” of the Palestinian population. As such it does not seek to “defeat” the Palestinians, including even Hamas, and is content with keeping violent resistance contained so that Israelis can go about their lives with reasonable security and the economy can prosper. At the same time, the threat of violent resistance never entirely disappears or is absent from the political consciousness and experience of Israeli society, and the fear factor keeps Israelis supportive of oppressive internal policies. Pacification in the face of a potentially very hostile minority Palestinian presence in pre-1967 Israel has presupposed a fusing of Israel’s military, paramilitary, police, and intelligence capabilities, but also a less understood Israeli politics of restraint. The capabilities to sustain pacifications must be continuously updated and adapted to evolving circumstances, including shifts in Palestinian tactics of resistance.

This mental shift from “victory” over the natives to their relentless “pacification” to some extent reflects the ethical orientation of a post-colonial world. In many respects Israel represents a species of settler colonialism, but it takes the form of seeking some kind of imposed accommodation with the native population rather than their extinction or spatial marginalization. Actually, as Israeli politics have moved further and further to the right, the tactics of pacification have become more coercive and brutal, and do seem to push the original dispossession of the nakba toward some kind of “final solution” by way of settlement expansion as likely supplemented at some point by population transfer and by periodic massive military operations of the sort that have occurred in Gaza in 2008-2009, 2012, and 2014. In other words, pacification as conceived in the 1950s has become quite something more ominous for the Palestinians in the twenty-first century as “Palestine” shrinks in size and diminishes in threat while Israel’s territorial ambitions continue to expand and seem to be within reach.

The Israel/Palestine encounter is certainly unique in several of its aspects, yet it bears sufficient similarity to a range of threats facing many governments in the world to allow the Israeli government to serve as an exemplary practitioner of counterinsurgency war/politics. It is precisely the generality of contemporary security challenges situated within society that makes the Israeli experience seem so valuable to others, especially when reinforced by the widespread impression that Israel’s security policies have succeeded in the face of difficult challenges over an extended period. This combination of considerations gives Israel’s weapons, training programs, and security doctrines their global resonance. Especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the long-term character of the Israeli experience became a strong credential on the arms market and among strategy-minded think tanks. Israel’s perceived counterinsurgency record has even led other governments to mute or even abandon their criticisms of the manner in which Israel suppresses Palestinians and flaunts international law. In this way, the Israeli network of arms sales arrangements has not only functioned as direct sources of influence and economic benefit to Israel, but also contributed a political payoff by weakening motivations at the UN and elsewhere in the world to exert meaningful pressure on Israel to modify its policies and uphold its obligations under international law. What Halper helps us to understand is this rarely discussed relationship between the arms trade and what might be called an international diplomacy of pacification. In effect, Israel has quietly bought off most of its potentially most dangerous governmental adversaries by making itself an invaluable collaborator in the security domain, which is given priority by every government when it comes to shaping its foreign policy. The reach of this weapons diplomacy is further extended due to Israel’s willingness to do arms deals discreetly with the most repressive of regimes around the world even while at the same time it takes great pains to substantiate the claim that Israel remains the only democracy in the Middle East.

Thirdly, this long experience of coping with Palestinian resistance has given Israel continuing field experience with tactics and weapons useful to subdue a non-state adversary, including convincing demonstrations of what works and what doesn’t. In fundamental respects the work of pacification is never finished, and so Israel continuously modifies its weapons mix to take account of battlefield lessons and technological innovations, and this is of great value to governments that were seeking to choose among several alternatives to meet the requirements of their particular security challenges. Israel can claim both the reliability of its weaponry through their field testing in response to varying conditions and success in adapting to ever changing tactics of Palestinian resistance. No other country has achieved this mastery over the hardware and software of a pacification approach to internal security.

Halper also makes us aware that pacification is what also best explains the hegemonic ambitions of America’s securitizing approach to world order. What Israel has achieved on a small scale, the United States is managing on a large scale. In other words the several hundred American foreign military bases together with navies patrolling all of the world’s oceans, further reinforced by satellite militarization of space for purposes of intelligence and possible attack are the coercive infrastructure of both neoliberal globalization and American global leadership. The objective is to keep those dissatisfied with this established order under sufficient control so that trade, investment, and basic security relations are not deeply disturbed. Part of Halper’s argument is that Israel understands the dynamics of an effective regime of global pacification better than any other country, and has done its best to be useful to the United States and Europe by providing niche support in terms of weaponry (say for border barriers, surveillance, and control) and doctrine (say targeted assassinations by drone strikes and collective blockades).

Matrix of Control

Halper relies upon an illuminating style of conceptualization to develop his basic analysis. For instance, one of his important contributions is to specify global pacification by reference to a “Matrix of Control.” The basic argument of the book is that the most defining “wars” of our times involve using state violence against a mobilized population that mounts threats against the established economic and political order. The matrix of control is the complex interaction of weapons, policies, practices, and ideas that make this project a reality. The paradigmatic case is the Israeli pacification of the Palestinians, which is less than their defeat or annihilation, but something other than sustained warfare; it is doing enough by way of forcible action to punish, terrorize, and suppress without clearly crossing the line drawn by legal prohibitions on mass atrocity and genocide. It is damping down the fires of Palestinian resistance into a smoldering mass of tensions and resentments that every so often bursts into flames, offering pretexts for launching a new campaign of devastation. The pattern of periodic onslaughts against Gaza since 2008 is indicative of the broader policies, with three massive attacks every 2-3 years, what Israeli officials are comfortable describing as “mowing the lawn” (146), which incidentally stimulates a new round of arms sales.

The Israeli matrix of control (143-190) is specified by reference to its various main components, forming an integrated and distinctive form of what Halper describes as “urban warfare” resting on the premise of “domestic securitization,” that is, conceiving of the enemy as mainly operating within the boundaries of the state, ultimately to be contained rather than defeated. Such an integrated approach relies on walls to keep the unwanted from entering, surveillance, fragmenting the population to be controlled, periodic and punitive violent suppression designed to prevent, preempt, and demoralize, and proactive intelligence that seeks to gain access to the inner circles of militant opposition forces. Such a matrix of control both deploys a mixture of traditional counterterrorist measures and the latest innovations in sophisticated technology, including armed robotics, drones, and a variety of overlapping surveillance techniques. The approach relies on a vertical layering of security measures that rests on redundancy to ensure effective control. What is original about this approach is its conscious realization that “victory” over hostile subjugated forces is not an acceptable or realizable policy option, and what works best is a system of permanent control sustained by a mix of coercive and psychological instruments.

Pacifying Palestinians and Pacifying the World

Halper shows how this matrix of control, which developed to enable Israeli settler society to achieve a tolerable level of security with respect to the indigenous Palestinian population, seeks to fulfill an elusive requirement. It maintains security without resorting to genocide or to the kind of destructive forms of mass slaughter that characterized earlier experiences of settler colonialism where the land occupied was cleared of natives. At the same time, it pacifies in a post-colonial era where the power of the colonial master has been effectively challenged throughout the world. It is no longer possible to beat the native population into a condition of passive resignation as had been the case so often during the heyday of the extensive European colonial empires. These two considerations suggest a policy puzzle for the pacifier who must avoid extreme violence and yet depends on a sufficient degree of violence to intimidate a restive population that believes resistance is justified and currently accords with the flow of history.

The Israeli answer in a variety of acknowledged and disguised forms is best understood by reference to the Dahiya Doctrine, which incorporates a logic of disproportionate retaliation (174-176). In effect, for every Israeli killed or home damaged or destroyed, a far greater number of Palestinians will be killed and entire residential neighborhoods destroyed. The Dahiya Docrtine was proclaimed originally to justify the destruction of the Dahiya neighborhood in south Beirut during the Lebanon War of 2006. The people living in densely populated Dahiya were viewed by Israel as supportive of Hezbollah, but it is descriptive of Israeli behavior generally with respect to Palestinian acts of resistance, particularly with respect to Gaza since falling under Hamas’s control. The supposedly centrist Tzipi Livni, the Israeli political leader who served as Foreign Minister during the massive attack on Gaza at the end of 2008, expressed this Israeli way of dealing with Palestinian resistance in Gaza in the following chilling words: “Hamas now understands that when you fire on its [Israel’s] citizens it responds by going wild—and this is a good thing” (quoted in Halper, 175). I would add that “going wild” is a euphemism for rejecting the efforts of international humanitarian law and the just war tradition to constrain the intensity of violence and suffering by insisting on proportional responses. In effect, to reject so overtly this admittedly vague effort of international law to impose limits on the conduct of warfare, Israel is incorporating into the core of its security approach a repudiation of the humanizing ambition of international law, and implicitly claiming the right on its own to use force as it wishes. This is a step back from the extensive attempt during the prior century to put the genie of war, if not back in its bottle, at least to gesture toward that end. With Israel’s concept of securitization, also descriptive of the approach taken by the United States, as well as such other countries as Russia, France, and China, it is arguable that international society has turned the normative clock back to a nihilistic zero.

There is another crucial feature of the matrix of control that is of wider relevance than Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians that Halper associates with “Framing: A Tendentious Definition of ‘Terrorism’” (149-151). This framing idea is to make it appear that “the terrorists” are always those resisting control by the established political order, and never those that are exercising authority however oppressively. As Halper points out, the IDF may kill over 2,000 Palestinians, two-thirds of whom are civilians, in the course of an armed confrontation in Gaza, as opposed to Hamas killing five Israeli civilians, but Hamas will still be depicted as the practitioner of terror and Israel’s violence will be put forward as defensive measures that are reasonable and necessary for the protection of the civilian population of Israel. The Israeli government will describe Palestinian civilian deaths as regrettable collateral damage, while attributing Hamas’s comparatively trivial lethality to a deliberate intention to kill Israeli civilians. The final step in the ideologizing process is to make this construction of the respective intentions of the two sides hinge on the question of deliberate intention, and since Hamas’s rockets are fired in the general direction of civilian populations the intention is declared to be deliberate, while Israel is seeking to destroy militarily relevant personnel and weaponry. This kind of manipulative framing by Israel has been borrowed by the United States and other governments to lend moral authority to the form of disproportionate violence that has characterized counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan in the post-9/11 era as well as lesser military operations around the world in the course of “the war on terror.”

What Israel has been doing within Palestinian territory it is seeking to control, the United States does globally. The introduction of drone warfare and special ops covert forces into dozens of countries throughout the world is an extension of the matrix of control as perfected by Israel within its limited field of operations. It also reformulates the parameters of permissible violence without regard to the limitations of international law, regarding any point of suspected adversaries throughout the planet as subject to deadly attack, borrowing notions of targeted assassination from the repertoire of Israeli practices. As with Israel, the operative goal of the so-called long war is not victory in the World War II sense, but rather the exercise of a sufficiency of control that is able to establish tolerable levels of security for Western societies and transnational economic activity. It is worth pointing out that as with Israel, the United States is unwilling to pay the costs in reputation and resources that would be required to achieve victory, although in the Iraq occupation as earlier in Vietnam it did seek to do more than pacify but in the end found the costs too high, and abandoned the undertaking.

Halper’s book gives essential insights to a key set of interrelated concerns: the political benefits to Israel arising from its dual role as quality arms supplier and counterinsurgency mentor; the degree to which Israel’s success in managing a hostile Palestinian population as well as a series of dangerous regional threats offers the United States a model for global securitization with a primary objective of preempting threats to the American homeland and safeguarding neoliberal global markets and trade routes from hostile forces; as also noted, the Israeli domestic security apparatus has been influential in the equipping and training of American and other national police forces. Additionally, Isreali technologies and knowhow have been relied upon to monitor borders and to erect barriers against unwanted entry; the advantages of having a seemingly permanent combat zone such as Gaza for field testing weapons and tactics increases the attractiveness of Israel as supplier of choice. This kind of combat zone is real world simulation that has many experimental advantages over the sorts of war games that are used to assess the effectiveness of weapons and tactics. Without incoming rockets from Gaza it would be impossible to reliably test the effectiveness of a defensive system such as the Iron Dome.

Concluding Comments

In the end, Halper answers the question as to why Israel’s seeming international unpopularity based of its long-term suppression of the Palestinian people does not harm its image or status. Israel manages to get away with its abusive human rights record while a more powerful and populous country such as apartheid South Africa was sanctioned and censured repeatedly. Of course, U.S. geopolitical muscle is part of the answer, but what Halper adds to our understanding in an insightful and factually supported manner is an appreciation of Israel’s extraordinary usefulness as arms supplier and counterinsurgency guru. A further implication of Israeli usefulness is a realization that governments give much more weight to relationships that bolster their security capabilities than they do to matters of international morality and law. Given these realities, it remains clear that the Palestinian national movement will have to wage its struggle on its own with principal support coming from civil society. Israel, it must be acknowledged has substantially neutralized both the UN and the foreign policy of most important countries, although public opinion around the world is moving in directions that could exert mounting pressure on Israel in the years to come.

As the title of Halper’s book suggests, what is transpiring worldwide, and is epitomized by the Israeli response to Palestinian opposition, can be best understood as part of a wider shift in the nature of global conflict in the post-Cold War period. Instead of most attention being given by security bureaucracies to rivalries and warfare among leading states, the most salient, dangerous, and cruelest conflicts are between state and society, or wars waged against people. There are no significant international wars between two or more states taking place now, while at least 30 internal wars are raging in different parts of the world. To be sure there have been a series of military interventions as part of the global pacification project under the direction of the United States and proxy wars in the Middle East in which major states intervene on opposite sides of a civil war. Yet whether we think of Syria as the paradigm of twenty-first century warfare or the Israeli matrix of control, it is “the people,” or a mobilized segment, that is being victimized. Halper’s book does the best job so far of depicting this new cartography of warfare, and deserves to be widely read and its main theses debated.

 

 

Three Unshakeable Pillars of American Foreign Policy

3 Apr

 

 

It deserves to be noticed that it is only the two anti-establishment candidates who have challenged the foreign policy consensus that has guided American politicians ever since the end of World War II: consistently express unconditional support for the Pentagon, Wall Street, and Israel (especially since the 1967 War).

 

Bernie Sanders has been the first serious presidential aspirant for several decades to challenge directly and unabashedly at least one of these pillars by way of his principled and concerted attacks on Wall Street, on the billionaire class, on the exploitative 1%. Although moderate overall, Sanders has been respectfully deferential to the other two pillars, Pentagon and Israel. Because he has mobilized an intense following among all categories of American youth there has been a media reluctance to assault his substantive views frontally, except to offer a variety of snide remarks that cast doubt on his ‘electability.’

 

Such a dismissal pretends to be pragmatic, but the polls indicate that Sanders would do better against likely Republicans than Clinton. This leads me to interpret the refusal of the corporatized mainstream to take Sanders seriously, at least so far, as a coded ideological attack, basically a reaction to his anti-Wall Street stand that can be viewed as the opening salvo of class warfare.

 

Donald Trump has encountered a somewhat different firestorm but with a similar intent. At first, when the cognoscenti dismissed him as a serious candidate, he was welcomed as a source of entertainment. When his popularity with primary voters could no longer be overlooked, he was challenged by a steady flow of condescending rebukes that question his competence to govern (rather than his electability) or to be a commander in chief. Again his cardinal sin, in my judgment, is not the extraordinary mobilization of a proto-fascist populism that relishes his anti-Muslim immigration stand, his xenophobic call for a high wall on the Mexican border paid for by Mexico, and his proposed revival of torture as a necessary instrument of anti-terrorism. Most hard core Trump supporters have been long hiding out in a closet until The Donald stepped forward with aplomb and a strident willingness to be politically incorrect. As with Sanders, but seemingly more capriciously and less convincingly, Trump has agitated the guardians of all three pillars, unlike Sanders with a programmatic assault, but more obliquely with provocative comments here and there. He manages to convey, although by way of his many off hand and unrehearsed asides, a heretical state of mind with respect to the received wisdom that has been guiding the country since World War II regardless of which party’s president sits in the oval office.

 

Of the Pentagon, his heretical views seem spontaneous challenges to settled policies. Trump appears to look with some indifference, if not outright approval, at the prospect for further proliferation of nuclear weapons, specifically in relation to Japan and South Korea. Such a comment is regarded as imprudent even if never meant to be acted upon as it makes the so-called ‘nuclear umbrella’ seem leaky to those accustomed to its protection, and more importantly, casts some doubt on American global commitments around the world.

 

Similarly, casting doubt on the role of NATO in a post-Cold War world, asking for the Europeans to pay more, is seen by the Beltway wonks, as both an unacceptable public rebuke to allies and an even more unacceptable failure to take seriously the threat being posed by a newly belligerent Russia that flexed its muscles in the Ukraine, and then Syria. Trump’s skeptical attitude toward NATO was particularly resented as it seemed insensitive to the bellicose slide toward a new cold war that had been gathering bipartisan momentum in Washington.

 

Beyond this, Trump showed little appreciation of the way the Pentagon community views the war on terror. Although war planners likely welcomed the Trump promise to rebuild America’s armed forces so as overcome their alleged decline during the Obama presidency. What bothered the Washington policy community was Trump’s skepticism about such mainstays of American foreign policy as military intervention and regime-changing missions. At one heretical high point Trump even hinted that it would be a good idea to divert Pentagon dollars into infrastructure investment here in America. Annoyed listeners among the guardians might have detected in such a sweeping assertion a disguised, if confused, nostalgia for a revival of American isolationism.

 

Of the Wall Street pillar, Trump is perhaps more seriously worrisome, although not at all in the Sanders’ mode. Trump trashes the international trading regime that has been such an article of faith at the core of ‘the Washington consensus’ that gave substance and direction to neoliberal globalization in the latter stages of the prior century. His views of the world economy clearly favor the nationalist sort of protectionism that is widely held responsible for the Great Depression. Beyond this, Trump seems intent on challenging the terms of trade with China in ways that could expose a disastrous American vulnerability to Chinese countermeasures, especially given their enormous dollar holdings. Although the foreign policy approach to China endorsed by the guardians is ready, if not eager, to confront China on the island disputes in the South China Sea, it does not want to disrupt the enormous economic benefits and continuing potential of orderly relations with the Chinese market. From this perspective, Trump’s aggressive deal-making approach to global economic policy is viewed as highly dangerous.

 

Trump has even made the Israeli pillar quiver ever so slightly by suggesting at one point that he favored neutrality in approaching the relations between Israel and Palestine. He sought to override this unwelcome and uncharacteristic display of judiciousness, by making a fawning speech at the AIPAC annual conference. Yet Trump’s willingness to follow the intimations of his gut must have probably made ardent Israeli advocates yearn for the likes of Clinton and Cruz who have mortgaged what’s left of their soul on the altar of subservience to the lordship of Netanyahu and his extremist cohorts.

 

The candidates who pass the litmus test associated with the three pillars approach are clearly Clinton and Kasich, with Ryan on the sidelines waiting to be called if gridlock ensues at the Republican Convention. Cruz would also be treated as an outlier if it were not for Trump preempting him by this assault on the three pillars. Cruz is hardly the kind of candidate that the guardians prefer. His evangelical religiosity is outside the political box, as is his imprudent stance toward engaging international adversaries, crushing enemies, patrolling Muslim communities, and endorsements of waterboarding. It is not the sort of image of America that the guardians wish to convey to the rest of the world.

 

Sanders is grudgingly admired for his authenticity, but grounded politically for assailing Wall Street and cruel capitalism in ways that threaten the established economic order (universal health care, free public university tuition) with initiatives popular with many voters.

 

For months the guardians assumed that Trump would self-destruct but instead he kept dominating the field of presidential hopefuls among the Republican ranks. Unlike the Clinton control of the Democratic Party machine, the Republican Party bureaucracy has been ineffectual in stemming the Trump tide. For this reason media and establishment reinforcements were called upon, and even President Obama joined the chorus of Trump detractors, not because he overtly opposed to the activation of fascist populism but to relieve pressures on the three pillars consensus.

 

The voters in Wisconsin and elsewhere still have an opportunity to push back. If Sanders should win by double digits on Tuesday, it will create a quandary for the guardians. To have to depend on Clinton’s support among the super delegates for the nomination would be such an anti-democratic rebuff of the Sanders’ constituency that not even Sanders could effectively control the backlash. Many of the Sanders’ faithful would sit out the election no matter what their leader urged, rejecting the lesser of evils plea.

 

If Trump should prevail, even narrowly, it looks as though the Republicans will find themselves swallowing hard while being forced to select a candidate unacceptable to themselves. Such an outcome would also probably mean kissing goodbye to any hope of regaining the White House, leading the main party effort to be directed at holding on to control of Congress.

 

Actually, this primary campaign reveals a dismal underlying situation: in a healthy democracy all three pillars should long ago have been shaken at least as hard as Sanders is currently challenging Wall Street. This benevolent challenge mounted by Sanders is a sign that America may be finally getting ready for a genuinely revolutionary challenge, although the grassroots strength of the Trump legions creates the menacing alternative possibility of a fascist counterrevolution. Such radical options are at this point no more than remote possibilities. The persisting probability is more of the same, most likely under Democratic Party auspices. In this respect, the three pillars seem secure in their dysfunction for the foreseeable future. We who lament this can only wish that this dysfunction does not achieve political maturity in the form of global catastrophe.

 

I have not dwelled on the lesser of evils argument that makes Clinton seem a vastly preferable alternative to a wannabe reactionary like Trump or Cruz. Even if we fear Clinton’s warmongering past, we could at least expect better judicial appointments, more positive initiatives on health care and women’s rights, and more informed and balanced assessment of foreign economic policy. Whether this is enough to overcome our distaste for Clinton’s wanton opportunism and instinctive militarism, is something every citizen will have to ponder on her own if the choice comes down to this next November.                            

Reflections on the Brussels Attack

26 Mar

 

[Prefatory Note: A much abbreviated version of this post was published in Al Jazeera English on March 24, 2016. Although the essential analysis is the same, the reasoning here is greatly elaborated. The themes addressed and the policies proposed are advanced in a tentative spirit. Debate and reflection are urgently needed with respect to the political violence that is being unleashed in various forms in the West and non-West.]

 

This latest terrorist outrage for which ISIS claimed responsibility exhibits the new face of 21st century warfare for which there are no front

lines, no path to military victory, and acute civilian vulnerability. As such, it represents a radical challenge to our traditional understanding of warfare, and unless responses are shaped by these realities, it could drive Western democracies step by step into an enthused political embrace and revived actuality of fascist politics. Already the virulence of the fascist virus dormant in every body politic in the West has disclosed its potency in the surprisingly robust Trump/Cruz run to become the Republican candidate in the next American presidential election.

 

Perhaps, the most important dimension of this 21st century pattern of warfare, especially as it is playing out in the Middle East, is the will and capacity of violent extremists to extend the battlefield to those perceived to be their enemies, and to rely on acutely alienated Europeans and North Americans to undertake the suicidal bloody tasks. The British Independent struck the right note in its commentary, almost alone among media commentary that went beyond condolences, denunciations, and statements of resolve to defeat and destroy ISIS. It included a quote from the ISIS statement claiming responsibility for the Brussels attack: : ‘Let France and all nations following its path know that they will continue to be at the top of the target list for the Islamic State and that the scent of death will not leave their nostrils as long as they partake part in the crusader campaign … [with] their strikes against Muslims in the lands of the Caliphate with their jets.’ … ISIS also released an undated video today threatening to attack France if it continued intervention in Iraq and Syria. ‘As long as you keep bombing you will not live in peace. You will even fear traveling to the market,’ said one of the militants, identified as ‘Abu Maryam the Frenchman.'” It follows this statement with the report that there have been 11,111 air strikes launched by Western and Gulf states against targets in Syria and Iraq, causing massive casualties, human displacement, and great devastation, especially in areas controlled by ISIS. Evidently, given the Belgian attack, for ISIS European unity if accepted as a given, making France as a

locater of an epicenter, but Europe as a whole as circumscribing one crucial combat zone

 

Noticing this reality is not meant to diminish or offer a rationalization for the barbarism involved in the Brussels attacks, as well as the earlier Paris attacks, but it does make clear that intervening in the Middle East, and conceivably elsewhere in the Global South, no longer ensures that the intervening societies will remain outside the combat zone and continue to enjoy what might be called ‘battlefield impunity.’ By and large the sustained violence of the major anti-colonial wars, even the long Vietnam War, were confined to the colonized society, at most affecting its geographic neighbors. In the 1970s and 1980s there were sporadic signs of such a tactical shift: the IRA extended their struggle in Northern Ireland to Britain, and the PLO via airplane hijacking, Libyan explosions in a German disco frequented by American soldiers, and the PLO Munich attack on Israeli Olympic athletes also prefigured efforts to strike back at foreign hostile sources believed to be responsible for the failure to achieve political goals. ISIS seems more sophisticated in the execution of such operations, has the advantages of home grown adherents willing to engage in suicide missions that is often accompanied by a religious motivation that validates the most extremist disregard of civilian innocence.

 

As in any armed confrontation, it is essential to take account of innovative features and opt for policies that seem to offer the most hope of success. So far the public Western responses have failed to appreciate what is the true novelty and challenge associated with the adoption by ISIS of these tactics involving mega-terrorism in the homeland of their Western adversaries as asymmetric ways of extending the battlefield.

 

 

The Attack

 

The attacks of March 22 in Belgium occurred in the departure area of the international airport located in the town of Zaventem, seven miles from Brussels and in the Maelbeek metro station in the heart of the city, nearby the headquarters of European Union. Reports indicate over 30 persons were killed and as many as 250 wounded. The timing of the attack made the motivation at first seem like revenge for the capture a few days earlier in Brussels of Salah Abdelslam, the accused mastermind of the Paris attack of November 13, 2015. It hardly matters whether this line of interpretation is accurate or not. It is known for sure that there are clear links between the Paris events and what took place in Brussels, and the scale of the operation depended on weeks, if not months, of planning and preparation.

 

The essence of the event is one more deeply distressing challenge to the maintenance of domestic public order in democratic space as the conflict that becomes ever more horrible, with ominous overtones for the future of human security in urban environments throughout the world. The hysterical surge of xenophobia is one expression of fear and hate as American politicians debate closing off national access to all Muslims and Europeans pay a large ransom Turkey to confine Syrian refugees within their borders. We are not supposed to notice that recent terrorist acts are mainly the work of those living, and often born, within the society closing its doors to outsiders, moves likely to deepen the angry alienation of those insiders whose ethnic and religious identity makes them targets of suspicion and discrimination.

 

So far, the official statements of the political leaders have adhered to familiar anti-terrorist lines, disclosing little indication of an understanding of the distinctive realities of the events and how best to cope with the various challenges being posed. For instance, the Prime Minister of Belgium described the attacks as “blind, violent, cowardly,” and added a Belgian promise of the resolve needed to defeat ISIS and the threat it poses. François Hollande of France, never missing an opportunity to utter the obvious irrelevance, simply vowed “to relentlessly fight terrorism, both internationally and internally.” And using the occasion for the recovery of European unity so visibly weakened by the recent dangerous tensions generated in bitter conflicts over fiscal policy and the search for a common policy on migrants, Hollande added, “Through the Brussels attack, it is the whole of Europe that is hit.” Whether such appeals to unity will lead anywhere beyond flags lowered and empathetic rhetoric seems doubtful. What should be evident now is that it that not only Europe that is under constant threat, and understandably troubled by the prospect of future attacks, worrying aloud about such menacing relatively soft targets as nuclear power plants. It is virtually the entire world that has become vulnerable to violent disruption from these contradictory sources of intervention and terrorism.

 

 

President Obama offered sensitive condolences to the bereaved families of the victims and expressed solidarity with Europe on the basis of “our shared commitment to defeat the scourge of terrorism.” Again it is disappointing that there is not more understanding displayed that this is a kind of war in which the violence on both sides profoundly violates the security and sovereignty of the other. Until this awareness emerges, we will continue to expect that ‘legitimate violence’ is properly limited to the territories of non-Western societies as it was in the colonial era, and insist that retaliatory strikes constitute terrorism, that is, ‘illegitimate violence.’

What is so far missing from these responses is both a conceptual sensitivity to the originality and nature of the threat and a related willingness to engage in the kind of minimal self-scrutiny that is responsive to the ISIS statement that appears to express its motivation. It is not a matter of giving credence to such a rationalization for criminality, but rather finding out how best to realize what might be described as ‘enlightened self-interest’ in view of the disturbing surrounding circumstances, which might well begin with a review of the compatibility of domestic racism and interventionary diplomacy with the ethics, law, and values of this post-colonial era.

 

From this perspective the iconic conservative magazine, The Economist, does far better than political leaders by at least emphasizing nonviolent steps that can be taken to improve preventive law enforcement. The magazine points out that the significance of the Brussels attack should be interpreted from a crucial policy perspective: the current limitations of national intelligence services to take preventive action that would alone protect society by identifying and removing threats in advance. The Economist correctly stresses that it has become more important than ever to maximize international efforts to share all intelligence pertaining to the activities of violent extremists, although it too avoids a consideration of root causes that can alone restore normalcy and achieve human security.

 

This shift from reactive to preventive approaches to defending the domestic social order represents a fundamental reorientation toward the nature of security threats, and how to minimize their escalating lethality. There are three novel aspects of this type of postmodern warfare: striking fear into the whole of society; creating a huge opening for repressive and irresponsible demagogues in targeted societies; and mindlessly unleashing excessive amounts of reactive force in distant countries that tends to spread the virus of violent extremism throughout the planet more than it eradicates it. As has been widely observed, there is no way to know whether drones and air strikes kill more dangerous adversaries than have the effect of actually expanding the ranks of the terrorists by way of alienation and increased recruitment.

 

It is not yet sufficiently appreciated that the state terror spread by drones and missiles extends to the entire civilian society of a city or even country under attack, making it extremely misleading to treat the lethal impact as properly measured by counting the dead. People living in targeted communities or states all live in dread once a missile from afar has struck, an anxiety aggravated by the realization that those targeted have no way to strike back. The United States reliance on drone warfare in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa has recklessly set a precedent that future generations in the West and elsewhere may come to regret deeply. Unlike nuclear weaponry, there is no likely equivalent for drones to a regime of non-proliferation and there is nothing similar to the doctrine of deterrence to discourage use, and even these instruments of nuclear management, although successful in avoiding the worst, are far from acceptable.

 

 

This New War

 

These deeper overlooked aspects of the Brussels attack that need to be grasped with humility, and responded to by summoning the moral and political imagination to identify what works and what fails in this new era that places such a high priority on atrocity prevention as an explanation of the most widespread, growing, and intense forms of human insecurity.

 

First, and most significantly, this is an encounter between two sides that ignores boundaries, is not properly equated with traditional warfare between states, and is being waged by new types of hybrid political actors. On one side is a confusing combination of transnational networks of Islamic extremists and in one instance (ISIS) a self-proclaimed territorial caliphate retaliating against the most sensitive civilian targets in the West, thereby adopting a doctrine that explicitly proclaims a strategy exalting crimes against humanity. On the other side, is a coalition of states led by the United States, which has foreign bases and navies spread around the world that seeks to destroy ISIS and kindred jihadists wherever they are found with scant regard for the sovereignty of foreign countries. The United States has long ceased to be a normal state defined by territorial borders, and for more than half a century has acted as ‘a global state’ whose writ the entirety of land, sea, and air of the planet.

 

Secondly, it is crucial to acknowledge that Western drones and paramilitary special forces operating in more than a hundred states is an inherently imprecise and often indiscriminate form of state violence that spreads its own versions of terror among civilian populations in various countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. It is time to admit that civilians in the West and the Global South are both victims of terror in this kind of warfare, which will continue to fuel the kind of mutual hatred and fervent self-righteousness toward the enemy that offers a frightening pretext for what now seems destined to be a condition of perpetual war.

 

What has totally changed, and is beginning to traumatize the West, is the retaliatory capacities and strategy of these non-Western, non-state and quasi-state adversaries. The colonial, and even post-colonial patterns of intervention were all one-sided with the combat zone reliably confined to the distant other, thereby avoiding any threat to the security and serenity of Western societies. Now that the violence is reciprocal, if asymmetrical (that is, each side employs tactics corresponding to its technological and imaginative capabilities) the balance of forces has fundamentally changed, and so must our thinking and acting, if we are to break the circle of violence and ever again live in secure peace. The stakes are high. Either break with obsolete conceptions of warfare or discover a diplomacy that can accommodate the rough and tumble of the 21st century.

 

Whether a creative and covert diplomacy can emerge from this tangled web that somehow exchanges an end terrorism from above for an end to terrorism from below is the haunting question that hangs over the human future. If this radical conceptual leap is to be made, it is not likely to result from the initiative of government bureaucracies, but rather from intense pressures mounted by the beleaguered peoples of the world.

 

Part of what is required, strangely enough given the borderless compulsion of the digital age and the dynamics of economic globalization, is a return to the security structures of the Westphalian framework of territorial sovereign states. Perhaps, these structures never actually prevailed in the past, given the maneuvers of geopolitical actors and the hierarchical relations of colonial systems and regional empires, but their ideal was the shared constitutional basis of world order. With the advent of the global battlefield this ideal must now become the existential foundation of relations among states, stressing the inviolability of norms of non-intervention in a new territorially based global security system. This will not overnight solve the problem, and certainly only indirectly overcomes the internal challenges posed by alienated minorities.

 

Obviously, this recommended approach could adversely affect the international protection of human rights and weaken global procedures of sanctuary for those displaced by civil strife, impoverishment, and climate change. These issues deserve concerted attention, but the immediate priority is the restoration of minimum order without which no consensual and normatively acceptable political order can persist. And this can only happen, if at all, by de facto or de jure arrangements that renounce all forms of terror, whether the work of states or radical movements.

 

Two Ways of Looking at the Race for the American Presidency

12 Mar

[Prefatory Note: This is a rewritten and partially modified version of what posted to hastily yesterday.]

 

#1: as an incredibly dumbing down of the political process, turning the presidential campaigns for the nomination as heavily financed shadow shows, hiding special interests and money management, all about selling the candidate by boast and bluster;

 

#2: as pre-revolutionary ferment, mobilizing the young, and confronting the established order, finally, with non-establishment choices between the radical right of Trump & Cruz and the moderate social democratic left of Sanders.

 

This tedious struggle for political prominence and historical name recognition is being played out against a backdrop of the three pillars of America’s global role: the Pentagon, Wall Street, and Israel. No candidate has managed to shake the pillars, although this time around Sanders has at least launched a genuine attack on the Wall Street pillar, and Trump has gestured toward what might turn out to be a mild push against the Israel pillar. This alone makes Sanders and Trump the first outsiders to compete seriously for a mainstream run at the White House. Of course, since Sanders has done so much better than expected, Clinton has taken to making some noises as if she too is ready to take on Wall Street, but as the unreleased transcripts of her mercenary talks at Goldman, Sachs undoubtedly confirm, no one think she means it, and she doesn’t; this is her way of harmlessly sparring with the man from Vermont until she locks up the machine-driven nomination, and then we might get a hint of the real Hilary, that is, unless she worries about alienating the Sanders’ supporters when election time comes in November.

 Torquemada

When we look at the candidates from a Hollywood central casting point of view, we have to wonder who is running the show, especially on the Republican side. Senator Ted Cruz appears to be a credible reincarnation of Tomás de Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor of Spain (1484-1498), grimly ready to deal harshly with the infidels whether within the country or without. Like Torquemada he is sincere, personally austere, and reflective of God’s will. He also seems to have an incidental fondness for ‘carpet bombing,’ and all out war with ‘the enemies’ of the United States wherever they might be in the world, and looks to Netanyahu as the sort of leader he would like to be.

Ted_Cruz,_official_portrait,_113th_Congress 

Then there is Marco Rubio snapping at the Cruz and Trump heals as if a scrappy dog seeking an evening meal. Rubio reminds one of a high school debating champion, articulate and self-assured, yet so lacking in political gravitas as to be irrelevant.

 And I almost forgot John Kasich that redoubtable former governor of Ohio who repeatedly tells his audience in a conversational monotone that he has already solved all of America’s problems in microcosm while he brilliantly managed the public life of Ohio from the state capital in Columbus. He pledges to do the same for America as a whole once in Washington, and puts himself forward as the only candidate with the right experience and track record to take up residence in the White House. It is not surprising that there is a tendency to forget Kasich as he has so far managed to stay on board the train only because he has become the default candidate of that endangered species, ‘moderate Republicans.’

 Trump 2Trump

Then there is Donald Trump who, whatever else, is hardly in danger of being forgotten. He is leading the pack into some wild terrain of which he seems only dimly aware. Trump’s idea of how to do international politics boils down to hard driving real estate deal making backed by an larger, all powerful military machine and tax breaks for American multinationals. Without exhibiting much command of the political domain Trump offers some mildly encouraging, even sensible, takeaways that are almost lost in the bigoted noise—his skepticism about regime-changing interventions, opposition to neoliberal international trade agreements, and even casting a smidgeon of doubt on the special relationship with Israel. Of course, it is not these sensible asides but the Trump thunder that excites his followers and energizes his crowds. He wins his mass following by demonizing Muslims and Latinos, promising to end all Muslim immigration, deport 11 million illegals, and build that high wall along the Mexican border, and then send the bill to the Mexican Government, and, get this, restore American military might. His reputation for repudiating what liberals espouse as ‘politically correct’ earns him a reputation for talking right-wing nonsense to power, and being perceived by his followers as deliciously politically incorrect. The Trump appeal is based totally on the politics of emotion, tapping into resentments, prejudices, and racism, unleashing a venomous tide of proto-fascist activism that should be, but isn’t yet, scaring Americans as much as it seems to be frightening and startling the rest of the world.

 th

The Democrats seem to be doing a little bit better, but only in comparison to the current crop of Republican alternatives.Hilary Clinton, running needlessly scared as frontrunner, seems to have that ‘deer in the headlights’ look every time her ‘core beliefs’ are probed or challenged. The unclassified, yet disclosed, truth, is that she doesn’t seem to have any, or at least not yet. Or maybe she had, but lost track, and now can’t find them or lost them along the way or will rediscover them if necessary. Ever an ambitious opportunist par excellence, it seems that her least laundered credential is her steadfast realization that the three pillars are absolutes in American politics, maybe better represented as ‘sacred cows.’

 

Hence, Hilary is fully credible when promising to improve upon current U.S. relations with Israel and can be trusted never to let down either the Pentagon or Wall Street, or to go wobbly when given the opportunity to champion a new military intervention. What more could the Democratic Party establishment want from a candidate, and this is the point that has seemed to resonate so strongly with the so-called superdelegates (elected officials and party luminaries who can vote for whomever they wish, neither being selected by voters or pledged to a particular candidate) who mostly stand shoulder to shoulder with Clinton and virtually extinguish the slight hopes of Sanders however many Michigan style upsets he manages to pull off.

 

And then there is Bernie Sanders, as genuine a proponent of a decent American society as the political system has produced since FDR, and maybe more so, but he only knows how to carry melodies with only a single note, and while it is a high note, pushing hard against the Wall Street pillar, it exhibits too narrow a grasp of the American political challenge to make him qualified to lead the first global state in human history. His views on the other two pillars seem unthreatening to the mainstream, he goes along, perhaps reluctantly at the margins, seeming to accept the defense budget except some quibbles, as well as existing alliances and alignments, and raises no awkward questions about continuing unconditional support for Israel. Of course, shackling Wall Street while universalizing health care and providing free public education at college levels would give the country a vital breath of free air, but given the U.S. global role, it is not enough to validate the claim of delivering ‘a social revolution.’

 

Let’s ask where all of this leads? The probable short term result is probably Trump versus Clinton, with either Trump navigating the ship of state through turbulent waters fraught with danger and unpredictability or Clinton sailing full speed ahead as if Barack Obama was still serving as the real president, but somehow has grown more macho in the process of aging. Either outcome is, of course, problematic. If Trump, the beast of fascism slouches ever closer to Washington; if Clinton, the gods of war will be dancing through the night.

 

There are a few silver linings that may be merely wishful thinking. It is possible that the Republican Party will implode, or reemerge for what it is becoming in any event, that is, the party of discontent and revenge, shedding its pedigree as the sedate sanctuary of privilege and big business. For the Democrats, the Sanders defeat might give birth to a break with party politics on the part of its young and progressive contingent, who leave discontented, adopting an anti-three pillars agenda that expands upon what Bernie so resolutely initiated. It is this possibility that seems plausible given the extraordinary strength of Sanders’ support among voters 18-25 who will be bound to feel more bitterly frustrated than ever by the dynamics of ‘normal politics.’ The country can again become hopeful about the future if such a progressive vision of a better America prevails among the young and is sustained by a strong consensus giving rise to a militant nonviolent movement for drastic change at home and abroad.

Of course, I may be wrong, my imagination remains trapped in what now seems most likely. It is possible that Trump will be stopped and Sanders will prevail, or that some kind of third party will be insinuated in the political process to save the established order from shipwreck. If it happens, then the  shape of the future will be different from what is conjectured here, but I doubt that I will have to eat many of these words. 

At another level, the political soap opera that seems to be entrancing the American people at present can be seen as an epic battle between ‘the politics of emotion’ (Trump), ‘the politics of sentiment and values’ (Sanders), and ‘the politics of reason and knowledge’ (as variously represented by Clinton, Cruz, Kasich, and Rubio). 

 

 

 

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