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The Yemen Catastrophe: Beset by Contradictions of Will and Intellect

28 Sep

[Prefatory Note: This post modifies an article published in Middle East Eye on September 21, 2015, with title, “Yemen pays the price for Saudis’ sectarian paranoia.” Whether the Saudis are being paranoid about political developments in their neighbors (Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen) or prudent in view of regional threats to the stability of the Kingdom is difficult to ascertain. However this issue is resolved, portraying what has gone wrong as a consequence of sectarianism or an expansionist Iran, evades the real challenges being posed in Yemen, in Syria, and elsewhere in the region. Only in Iraq, where American occupation policy injected

a self-defeating sectarianism as the centerpiece of its post-Saddam Hussein state-building project, does this optic misused when applied to Middle East conflict seem to explain the course of developments, including the alignment of Iraq’s current leaders with Iran rather than with their supposed liberators from the West!]




Yemen Catastrophe: Beset by Contradictions of Will and Intellect


Any attempt to provide a coherent account of the political strife afflicting Yemen is bound to fail. The country is crucible of contradictions that defy normal categories of rational analysis. If we look beyond the political fog that envelops the conflict the tragic circumstances of acute suffering imposed on the civilian population do emerge with stark clarity. Long before the outbreak of civil warfare, Yemen was known to be the poorest country in the region, faced with looming food and water scarcities. The UN estimates 80% of the population is in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, 40% live on less than $2 per day. Further there are high risks of mass famine and epidemic outbreaks of disease will occur, while continuing chaos is a near certainty, with the prospect of yet another wave of desperate migrants swept ashore in Europe.


Against this background, the UN Security Council seems shockingly supportive of a major Saudi military intervention via sustained air attacks that started in March 2015, severely aggravating the overall situation by unanimously adopting a one-sided anti-Houthi Resolution 2216. This Saudi use of force is contrary to international law, violates the core principle of the UN Charter, and magnifies the violent disruption of Yemeni society. The success of the Houthi insurgency from the north that swept the Yemeni leadership from power, taking over the capital city of Sanaa, was perversely treated by the Security Council as a military coup somehow justifying the intervention by a Saudi led coalition of Gulf countries pledged to restore the ‘legitimate’ government to power. To grasp the geopolitics at play it is clarifying to recall that the 2013 blatant military coup in Egypt, with much bloodier reprisals against the displaced elected rulers, aroused not a murmur of protest in the halls of the UN. Once more the primacy of geopolitics is showcased in the Middle East. It’s not what you do, but who does it, that matters when it comes to a UN response.


What makes it even more difficult to make sense of developments in Yemen is the geopolitical tendency, as abetted by the media, to reduce incredibly complex national histories and the interplay of multiple contending forces to a simplistic story of Sunni versus Shia rivalry for the control of the country. Such a prism of interpretation, above all, allows Saudi Arabia to portray once again the strife in Yemen as another theater of the wider region proxy war pitting Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies against Iran, which is a guaranteed way of securing U.S. and Israeli backing. The same rationale has served the Kingdom well (and the world badly) in explaining why it supports anti-Assad forces in Syria during the last several years. It also was the pretext for intervening in Bahrain in 2011 to crush a popular pro-democracy uprising. If considered more objectively we begin to understand that this sectarian optic obscures more than it reveals, and not accidentally.


For instance, when it came to Egypt, however, the sectarian template was completely discarded, and the Saudis immediately used their financial muscle to help the anti-Muslim Brotherhood coup in 2012 led by General Sisi to consolidate its control over the country. Even when Israel attacked Gaza a year ago, seeking to destroy Hamas, a Sunni Islamic version of the Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia made no secret of the startling fact that it gave Tel Aviv a green light. What emerges, then, is not a regional politics based on sectarian priorities, but rather a pathological preoccupation with regime stability in the Saudi monarchy, with anxieties arising whenever political tendencies emerge in the region that elude its control, and are perceived as threatening. Part of the truer explanation of Saudi pattern of behavior also has to do with the Faustian Bargain struck with the powerful Wahabi establishment, which has allowed the Saud royal clan to flourish at home while spending billions to spread the most repressive version of Islam far and wide to madrassas throughout Asia. The fact that the application of Wahabism at home, including more than 100 beheadings already this year and confinement of women to an extent that makes the Islamic Republic of Iran appear liberal by comparison, is a further sign that international clamor of human rights is selective to put it mildly.


The people of Yemen are paying a huge price for this brand of Saudi violent security politics. Whether it is paranoia at work or a healthy respect for the mass unpopularity of its policies, or some mixture, is difficult to assess. Yet what seems clear is that much of the world is lulled to sleep, not taking the trouble to peer below this sectarian cover story. Only scant account taken of the fact that the real threats to regional order in Yemen do not come from a reasonable Houthi insistence on power-sharing political arrangements, but mainly arise from the presence in Yemen of Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS that have been long targeted by American drones as part of the war of the terror ever since 2007. So while the West supports the Saudi fight against the Shia Houthis at the same time it does its best to weaken their most formidable domestic opposition, and in the process further alienates the Yemeni civilian population by its military tactics, which recruits more extremists committed to fighting against this second form of external intervention that finds no basis in international law and enjoys the tacit support of the UN Security Council.


If this was not enough to make the Yemeni crystal ball opaque, there is the internal alignment of forces. On the one side, the 2012 successor regime to the corrupt dictatorial rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh that is headed by its equally corrupt former vice president, Abd Rabbaah Mansour Hadi, now apparently ‘governing’ from exile, although rumored to be seeking a return to Aden. On the anti-regime side, in addition to the Houthis, are the main military and police forces that still respond to the authority of the ousted leader, Saleh, who has returned to the Yemen struggle to oppose the Saudi intervention and have helped turn the tide of battle on the ground against the Hadi-led government. Despite this adverse battlefield reality, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, was quoted as saying “We will do whatever it takes to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling.” Tragically, what this seems to mean, is reducing the country to a shambles that brings starvation and disease to the population, and possibly escalating at some future point of frustration by the launch of a ground offensive. There are confirmed reports of a massing of Saudi troops close to the Yemen border.


At this point, it is difficult to know what would bring some kind of peace and stability to Yemen. What we do know is that both the sectarian optic, Saudi intervention, and American drone warfare are dead end options. The beginning of a constructive approach is to take root causes of the current conflict into account. Several need to be considered. There is a long experience of division in the country between the north and the south, and this means that any unity government for the whole of Yemen can only be sustained by an iron-fisted dictator like Saleh or through a genuine power-sharing federalist kind of arrangement based on decentralized autonomy and a weak central governmental structure. Beyond this, the country bears the scars of Ottoman rule intermixed with a British presence in Aden and the surrounding area, vital to earlier colonial priorities of controlling the Suez and the trade routes to the East.


Additionally, and often forgotten and ignored, Yemen remains a composite of tribes that still command the major loyalty of people and reign supreme in many locales. The modern European insistence on sovereign states in the Middle East never succeeded in overcoming the primacy of Yemeni tribal identities. Any possibility of political stability requires subsidizing and respecting Yemen’s tribes as Saudi Arabia did during Saleh’s dictatorship (1990-2012) or creating a multi-colored quilt of autonomous tribal polities. When the background of the north/south split and persisting tribalism are taken into account recourse to the Shia/Sunni divide or the Riyadh/Tehran rivalry as an explanation of Yemen’s strife-ridden country is more than a simplistic evasion of a far more complicated reality. It is a cruel and futile fantasy.


What should be done, given this overall situation? One potential key to achieving some kind of peace in Yemen is held by policymakers in Washington. So long as the U.S. Government remains beholden to the rulers in Saudi monarchy, to the extremists running Israel, and insistent on striking at AQAP targets with drone missiles, this key is unusable. This combination of factors is what makes the wider political turmoil in the Middle East stuck on a lethal fast moving treadmill. How to get off the treadmill, that is the question for which there answers, but as yet no relevant political will.


There are two obvious moves, neither ideal, but with the modest goal of a first step in creating a new political order: first, negotiate a ceasefire that includes an end to the Saudi intervention; secondly, establish a more credible revival of the National Dialogue Conference that two years ago made a failed attempt at Gulf initiative in Sanaa to find a power-sharing arrangement. It did not help matters then that two successive Houthi representatives at the diplomatic discussions were assassinated on their way to participate. What is needed is establishing a political transition sensitive both to the north/south split and the strength of Yemeni tribes coupled with massive economic assistance from outside, as well as the establishment of a UN peacekeeping presence tasked with implementation and the termination of all forms of external armed intervention. Nothing less has any chance of working.


Such a rational path is currently blocked, especially by the intense militancy of the aggressive Saudi leadership of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, and his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Secretary of Defense, the apparent champion of military intervention. The United States, with its special relationship to Israel, its strong ties to Saudi Arabia, and faith in drone led counterterrorism seems to be swallowing the central contradiction between opposing both its real adversaries, AQAP and ISIS, and its implicit ally, the Houthis. Instead of treating the enemy of their enemy as a friend, Washington has reversed the proverb. This Gordian Knot is strangling the people of Yemen. Cutting it will require a drastic break with current policy. The way forward is evident, but how to get there is not, in the meantime the bodies pile up in what has long been considered the poorest country in the region severely stressed by the prospect of severe water scarcities.


The Nuclear Challenge (9): Relying on International Law: Nuclear Zero Litigation

8 Sep


The Nuclear Challenge (9): 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Nuclear Zero Litigation


[Prefatory Note: Two prior posts, The Nuclear Challenge (1) & (2) address indirectly the efforts of international law and lawyers to highlight the clash between international law and nuclear weapons. In this post I combine a focus on international law with a continuation of the inquiry into the role of civil society activism that was the theme of The Nuclear Challenge (8). Here I attempt a more concrete gaze at the promise and limitations of international law as a policy instrument available to governments and citizens committed to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Zero Lawsuits filed by the Republic of the Marshall Islands on April 24, 2014 provide an occasion for such an appraisal. This litigation reflects opposed counter-currents. It is both an encounter with geopolitical nuclearism and a mode of global consciousness-raising at a time of dangerous complacency about the threats posed by the continuing possession and deployment of nuclear weaponry, as well as the warping of the security mind by supposing that human security can ever be ethically and effectively safeguarded by current strategic thinking surrounding the varying roles assigned to this weaponry by the military planners and political leaders of the nine nuclear weapons states. The text below contains some revisions and corrections of the original post, mainly reflecting my attempt to take account of constructive feedback.]


From the time of the atomic explosions at the end of World War II there have been two contradictory sets of tendencies at work: the repudiation of the weaponry and its contemplated uses as ultimate criminality and the secret feverish refinement of the weaponry to enhance its precision, destructive effects, battlefield capabilities, and delivery systems. To date, the latter tendency has prevailed, but so far, contrary to the worst fears, avoiding uses (but not without unlawful threats to use, think tank proposals for use, and high alert international crises containing unseemly dangers of nuclear war).


From the beginning international law was a tool relied upon by those who challenged the legitimacy of both the atomic attacks themselves and the later developments and doctrines associated with the weaponry and its central role in the superpower rivalry at the core of the Cold War. In the immediate aftermath of the atomic attacks on Japan, there were many governmental pronouncements in the West about nuclear disarmament as an imperative of human survival, and it was widely assumed in the public that international law through the medium of a negotiated treaty containing procedures to assure compliance by all parties was the correct approach to unconditional declearization and principled repudiation of the weaponry, and this remains the consensus view of pro-disarmers at present.


Especially the UN General Assembly from the outset of the nuclear age was a political venue within which the criminality of the weaponry was confirmed, although gradually the impact of nuclear geopolitics moved disarmament off-stage and shifted policy attention to the supposedly more realistic goals of managing the nonproliferation regime and minimizing the spread of the weaponry. As discussed in previous posts, whatever political energy for a world without nuclear weaponry existed has been transferred over time to a variety of civil society venues. During the Cold War, Europe was the most likely military theater for a nuclear confrontation, accounting for a variety of anti-nuclear movements and initiatives. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in Britain being the best known, but also the German Green Party gained anti-nuclear prominence. Since the end of the Cold War the most activist anti-nuclearism has been associated with advocacy and educational efforts that were oriented around the presumed authoritativeness of international law as reinforced by political commitment and international morality in two major respects:

                        –the unconditional unlawfulness of the weaponry with respect to threat, use, deployment, possession, and development;

                        –a reliance on a treaty-making approach to achieve nuclear disarmament by carefully calibrated stages, and subject to monitoring, verification, compliance, and dispute settlement procedures, and containing robust response mechanisms in the event of non-compliance or cheating.

In other words, both the case against all facets of nuclearism as presently operative and the framework proposed for its elimination through a process of total denuclearization are both guided and governed by international law.


At the same time, there are difficulties with an uncritical acceptance of this centrality of international law. First, the evidence is strong that the nuclear weapons states, above all the United States, will not override its security policies as related to nuclear weapons or other vital concerns of foreign policy out of deference to international law. This official lawlessness exists even in the face of assessments of international law enjoying the strong backing of the International Court of Justice, the world’s highest judicial body. The 1996 Advisory Opinion of the ICJ reached two conclusions that should have led to operational adjustments in the announced doctrine and political behavior of governments possessing nuclear weapons: (1) nuclear weapons were only lawfully usable, if ever, when the survival of the state was credibly at issue; and (2) a unanimous views among the judges that the nuclear powers had a good faith obligation to negotiate both an end to the arms race and a disarmament plan, and what is more, and should not be overlooked, that these governments had “an bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament.”


True, this was an advisory opinion, not formally binding on the parties, leading to diverse views as to legal weight of the findings. Also it was the case that the ICJ judges were badly divided, with a slim majority (and even that resting on the President’s second casting vote to break a tie) favoring the view of conditional unlawfulness of the weaponry. Actually, the unlawfulness side was stronger than it seemed by looking only at the vote on the central finding of severely qualified legality as three of the ICJ judges were so committed to unconditional unlawfulness that they refused to support the majority conclusion, which was deliberately made consistent with a very narrowly construed deterrence doctrine. What is more notable is that the nuclear weapons states paid not the slightest operational attention to what these most distinguished judges from the world’s main legal system had determined in the only systematic international review of the arguments about legality that had gone on since the first atomic explosion in wartime (a persuasive national review was set by a Japanese court in the important Shimoda case) . This disdain for the relevance of international law was apparent even before the ICJ issued its advisory opinion, taking the form of the vigorous opposition led by the United States to the General Assembly referral of the question of legality to the World Court, insisting, in effect, that a judicial interpretation of international law was not relevant to the status of nuclear weapons. The substantive claim being made was that the U.S. Government was as it was doing all that it could reasonably do to reduce risks of nuclear war, through arms control, nonproliferation, and deployment policies. Any more foundational judgment was thus deemed inappropriate and misleading. Further, that the ICJ was a judicial body not equipped to evaluate security policy, and thus at best relying on ‘moral’ and ‘political’ considerations couched in legal language.


The same line of reasoning was relevant with respect to the second conclusion relating to the NPT obligation to negotiate in good faith and with an end in view. What was already being done supposedly fulfilled the Article VI obligation of the nuclear weapons states, and the Court had neither the information or the expert competence to pronounce otherwise, although the judges unanimously acted as if they did have the needed knowledge, and hence an institutional responsibility to pronounce their views as to the legality of nuclear weaponry and the requirements of compliance with the NPT.


I think a clear picture evolves. The nuclear weapons states accord primacy to geopolitical policies when in tension with international law, especially on crucial issues bearing on the conduct of warfare and the shaping of peacetime security policies. The geopolitical consensus accepted by all nine weapons states is to disregard or sideline the purported relevance of international law. In reaction to this consensus there is some huffing and puffing by nonnuclear governments, but no political will to mount a challenge on even such a tangential issue as non-compliance with the Article VI obligation, a clear material breach of the NPT. This combination of geopolitical nuclearism and passivity by the members of international society other than ‘the nuclear nine’ has meant that it is up to each of this latter group of states, as a matter of sovereign discretion, to determine what its policies on deployment, threat, and use will be, and whether it will agree or not to specific arms control measures. And because government security policies are treated as the most carefully guarded of all state secrets, there is no meaningful democratic participation, including even by most elected or appointed government officials, and neither knowledge nor leverage by the citizenry. Every government possessing nuclear weapons is authoritarian, with only the head of state having the non-reviewable and unaccountable authority to decide whether and when to use nuclear weaponry against which targets and with what magnitudes of destructive power.


Left to carry on the campaign to rid humanity of the nuclear menace are the disparate and somewhat incoherent forces of civil society as receiving varying degrees of encouragement from non-nuclear states. At times of global crisis, as occurred periodically during the Cold War, these forces from below can be aroused to sound a loud alarm that has some resonance at the political center, but mainly this kind of societal pressure demands prudence and restraint rather than compliance with international law, and gains satisfaction from tiny incremental moves taken to step back from the nuclear precipice. With the decline of anxieties about possible confrontations between major nuclear weapons states after the end of the Cold War, there is mostly evident a mainstream law emphasis on the ‘enforcement’ of the NPT directed at non-nuclear states perceived as seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.


Behind these developments, off to one side, are persevering efforts to insist on the unlawfulness of the weaponry and on gaining support for using the existing legal machinery of states and world society to push harder on the arguments of illegality. As has been pointed out, such efforts even if successful, are unlikely to make the steep climb up the geopolitical mountains on top of which are located the nuclear weapons arsenals. Yet that does not make the struggle to empower law with respect to nuclear weaponry without meaning or irrelevant to a survivable future. The outcome of the ICJ Advisory Opinion on legality, despite the unwelcome outcome of being defiantly deflected by the nuclear weapons states, did have the positive effects of strengthening the political will and morale of anti-nuclear activists and their organizations throughout the world, and even making non-nuclear governments more aware that the nuclear nine were not fulfilling their part of the NPT bargain.


One notable expression of this heightened political will was the initiation of litigation in ICJ and American federal courts by the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) based on the alleged treaty failure to implement Article VI of the NPT by the nuclear weapons states that are parties to the treaty, and by customary international law for India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea (having withdrawn from the treaty in 2003) that are not. Such litigation was grounded in the unanimous conclusion of the ICJ that good faith obligation to negotiate a nuclear disarmament arrangement that needed to be brought to a conclusion. In the 19 years since the Advisory Opinion there have been persuasive confirmations that the nuclear nine were not at all disposed to seek nuclear disarmament, making it highly reasonable for any non-nuclear party to the NPT to mount such a legal argument based on non-compliance, and indeed material breach of treat obligations.


And what country, other than Japan, had a greater moral and political entitlement to do so than the Marshall Islands? RMI lacks a legal entitlement due to Compact of Free Association, and that creates a certain awkwardness in putting forward the allegations of non-compliance with the disarmament obligations of Article VI as the real motivation arising from the legacy, harm, and memories of the nuclear testing cannot be relied upon it putting forward its legal arguments. In an important respect the past matters less than the future, and the only reason to invoke RMI vicitimization as a result of the testing is to create a stronger atmosphere of receptivity in the International Court of Justice in deliberating on the subtleties of the jurisdictional controversy and to pay a deserved homage to those from RMI who paid such heavy costs due to the harm inflicted by the tests.


This archipelago of 1156 islands and islets occupying 750,000 square miles of ocean space in the Pacific was taken over from Japan by the United States after World War II, and formally given the status of Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (a political entity that included several other Pacific island groups) by the United Nations in 1947. The tiny population of 68,480 lives on 29 coral atolls. In a most dramatic betrayal of trust imaginable the United States used the Marshall Islands as the principal test site without consulting the indigenous population or seeking their consent. 67 atmospheric nuclear tests were conducted between 1946 and 1958. The largest was code named Castle Bravo and had an explosive magnitude of 15 megatons, which is 1000 times the force of the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. As a result of this nuclear testing the people of the Marshall Islands have endured a variety of severe harms, ranging from forced evacuation and displacement, radiation sickness that continues to be prevalent, and environmental damage that appears to be permanent. There is a mechanism that has allowed Marshall Islanders to gain compensation from the United States for harm that can be persuasively attributed to the nuclear tests, but at the cost of waiving the pursuit of claims elsewhere as a result of the Compact of Free Association linking RMI to the United States. This mechanism continues to operate as a consequence of the fact that the effects of exposure to high doses of radiation may now result in cancer or genetic defects for many years.


The legal theory behind the case rests on the legal proposition that the Marshall Islands in common with all other parties to the NPT have a legal right to insist on compliance with Article VI. This provides RMI with a basis for arguing that a legal dispute exists with the nuclear weapons states emanating from this alleged treaty breach. RMI contends also as with every state in the world that if a nuclear war occurs, it would be severely harmed as the detrimental effects would be global, impacting upon the security and wellbeing of the Marshall Islands, and indeed of all peoples living on the planet. For the case to be accepted for adjudication by the ICJ a majority of the 15 judges must agree that a ‘legal dispute’ exists between the complaining state and the states accused of being in breach. The wheels of international justice turn slowly, if at all, and it remains to be determined, and I can only hope that the legal team representing the RMI will convince enough of these judges sitting in The Hague to clear this high jurisdictional hurdle. Only then can the court proceed to hear arguments and render a judgment on the merits. This litigation before the ICJ if it goes forward will result in ‘a decision,’ which unlike the 1996 Advisory Opinion is obligatory, and can in theory be enforced by the Security Council acting under Article 94. Any enforcement attempt along these lines could be vetoed by one of the five permanent members, and almost certainly would be. The NPT gives states that are parties the legal option to bring a legal dispute before the ICJ, and every state in the world, including the four nuclear powers that are not parties to the NPT are allegedly also subject to its authority by way of customary international law, which may seem a stretch given the jurisprudential conservatism of the ICJ in the past. The legal reasoning supportive of this extension of customary international law is based on the proposition that the NPT has been so widely adhered to and so fundamental to world order that it has become binding whether or not a country is a party, that it is ‘a lawmaking treaty’ on matters vital to the wellbeing of humanity and that it is obligatory for the entire community of states.


This line of argument raises a complex jurisprudential issue for the ICJ as the legal reasoning goes against the earlier consensus that an attribute of national sovereignty is the option to remain outside of an international legal framework, and even to dissent from it. From the development of progressive international law, this litigation presents a great opportunity for the ICJ to align itself with the authority of international law in the area of war and peace, as well as with respect to  global security and human wellbeing in the nuclear age.


The companion case filed by the Marshall Islands in a Federal District Court resulted in a dismissal on February 3, 2015 resting on the highly questionable notion that the alleged damage to the Marshall Islands was too speculative to qualify as a legal interest that a court of law should adjudicate, and that the issue raised was, in any event, precluded by judicial review as a result of the Political Question Doctrine (PQD), which has led past courts to dismiss international law claims bearing on national security and foreign policy.


Such dismissals invoked separation of powers reasoning and regressively ignores the relevance of international law to the lawfulness of foreign policy, which occurred in stages since the initial formulations of PQD in a period when recourse to war was not covered by international law. Unfortunately, PQD has been interpreted by American courts to mean that such issues are not for the courts to decide, but are matters of foreign policy that should be resolved within the exclusive domain of the executive branch. Accordingly, the judiciary should not venture an assessment of this kind of challenge to security policy even if formulated by reference to a treaty obligation, which the U.S. Constitution explicitly avows as ‘the supreme law of the land.’ This dismissal of the RMI initiative has been appealed to the Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco for review and decision. The continuing invocation of PQD in cases of this kind is to restrict severely the prerogatives of the citizenry to ensure that their elected representatives uphold international law and accept the applicability of a global rule of law when it comes to foreign policy.


Whatever the eventual outcome of these parallel judicial initiatives, the cases have already had a significant civil society impact, which has been galvanized by the law suits, acting to raise public awareness of their potential importance. The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has played a central role in this undertaking in the realm of public education. It has taken the lead in fashioning a consortium of more than 90 civil society organizations supportive of the litigation, and through its websites it has tracked the progress of the cases through the courts in a manner that is both educative and energizing. Whether this litigation can ignite the sort of transnational collaboration between governments and civil society organization in the manner that proved so successful in generating support for an anti-personnel land mines treaty and for the International Criminal Court remains to be seen. Such a positive outcome for an anti-nuclear grassroots and moderate government coalition can only be conjectured at this point, but such a result would be no more surprising than establishing the ICC over the objections of the world’s leading geopolitical actors. 


These law suits have also brought much wider and overdue attention to the nuclear exploitation of the Marshall Islanders, as well as admiration for the willingness of this tiny stressed and subordinated polity to put forward such a controversial legal argument, especially considering that their own security and economic viability is so linked to the good will of the United States embodied in a paternalistic ‘compact’ (Compact of Free Association with the United States) that entered into force as the trust status was superseded in 1988 when the Marshall Island became “a presidential republic in free association with the United States.” In tangible terms this has meant that the United States has accepted responsibility for the defense and protection of the Marshall Islands and for granting a range of economic subsidies, and in exchange retains use of a missile test site on Kwajalein Atoll, undoubtedly a reminder of the years when the island group was the principal site for developing new generations of nuclear weaponry.


It is pathetic that it has taken so many decades to mount this very limited legal challenge to nuclearism and that the challenge is being made by this small and vulnerable republic while the rest of the governments throughout the world continue to sit on their hands while nuclearism remains essentially unchallenged. To remove all doubts as to its future expectations, the U.S. Government has budgeted $1 trillion over the next thirty years to keep its superior nuclear capabilities up to date so as to ensure its continuing dominance of the outer frontiers of nuclear security strategy. We can only at this stage be thankful to the RMI for embarking on these nuclear lawsuits, and wish that the judicial bodies given this great opportunity to apply international law in a manner directly related to the wellbeing, and indeed the survival, of humanity, will respond appropriately.


The Nuclear Challenge (4): 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki-The Iran Agreement in Perspective

24 Aug

The Nuclear Challenge (4): 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki-The Iran Agreement in Perspective


Without question the P5 +1 nuclear agreement with Iran is a vital move toward peace and stability in the Middle East, a step back from the maelstrom of conflict that is roiling much of the region, and leaving what stability there is among sovereign states under the control of various absolutisms that repress and exploit their own populations.


At the same time before congratulating the negotiators and building a strong rationale for yet another Nobel Peace Prize given to architects of Western diplomacy, we should pause and peer behind the curtain of hegemonic confusion embellishing a more dubious statecraft by an ever compliant mainstream media. If we pull back the curtain, what do we see?


First of all, we should immediately recognize that the most sensible agreement for the region and the world would have included Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal in the negotiating mix, and yielded a unanimous call for responding to nuclear anxieties with a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. As far I know, every government but Israel in the region, and this includes Iran and Saudi Arabia, favors regional nuclear disarmament, and is decidely uncomfortable with Israel as the sole nuclear weapons state in the region.


Many may feel that I am dreaming when I raise this point, but without the clarifying impact of dreams, political reality remains an opaque spin chamber. In a decent world order that was built on a foundation of law and equality among sovereign states with respect to the challenge of nuclear weapons there would be no double standards and no discriminatory policies. When reflecting on the current emphasis on reaching an agreement with Iran there is a political unwillingness to widen the optic for discussion, much less for implementation, of the most rational and ethically coherent approach to denuclearization of the Middle East.


If we are so obtuse or arrogant to ask ‘why?’ this is so there are several explanations. Undoubtedly, the most illuminating response is to point out that to include Israel’s nuclear weaponry in denuclearization diplomacy would violate ‘the special relationship’ binding the United State to Israel, although not vice versa as the Netanyahu/AIPAC outrageous campaign to undermine the P5 +1 initiative unmistakably demonstrates. Obama’s refusal to go along with Israel’s insistence on far tighter restraints on Iran as a precondition for its acceptance of an agreement is straining the special relationship and weakening the overwhelming support it had previously enjoyed among Jews in the United States. These tensions also reveal that even this most special of special arrangements has its outer limits! Yet it seems evident that these have yet to be discovered by the majority of the U.S. Congress.


Secondly, Iran is targeted by the agreement as a pariah state that is being subjected to a more stringent regime of inspection and restraint than has ever been imposed on any other non-nuclear state. Yet what has Iran done internationally to deserve such harsh treatment? In the period since the Islamic Republic took control of the country in 1979, Iran was aggressively attacked by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1980 with the encouragement and blessings of the United States Government, resulting in approximately one million battlefield deaths in the eight-year war to both sides. In the last decade or so, Iran has been the acknowledged target of destabilizing covert violent acts by the United States and Israel, including targeted assassinations of nuclear scientists and cyber efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. Additionally, Israel has made a series of unlawful threats of military attack and the United States has exhibits Martian solidarity by uttering somewhat more veiled assertions of its residual reliance on a military option, recently rearticulated by Obama as ‘war’ being the only alternative to the agreement should it be rejected by the United States.


We should not forget that Iran that is surrounded by belligerent adversaries openly talking about the feasibility of military attacks upon their country under present world conditions. From a purely realist perspective it is Iran that has one of the most credible security claims ever made to acquire nuclear weapons as a deterrent weapon in response to Israeli aggressiveness reinforced by American backing. After all, it has been reliably disclosed and documented that Israel on more than one occasion was on the verge of attacking Iraq, backing off at the last minute due only to splits within the Israeli cabinet over issues of feasibility and fears of adverse consequences.


This whole discourse on Iran’s nuclear program is notable for presuming that policy options can be selected by its adversaries without any consideration of the relevance of international law. Even supposing that Iran was, in fact, overtly seeking a nuclear weapon, and approaching a threshold of acquisition, this set of conditions would not validate recourse to force. There is no foundation whatsoever in international law for launching an attack to preempt another country from acquiring nuclear weapons. The U.S. relied on such a pretext to justify its attack on Iraq in 2003, but such an argument was rejected by the UN Security Council, and the American led attack and occupation were widely viewed as contrary to international law and the UN Charter. To launch a non-defensive attack on Iran would be a flagrant violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter and of the norm prohibiting recourse to aggressive war used to convict German and Japanese surviving leaders after World War II of state crime. It is well to acknowledge that Iran succumbed to a kind of geopolitical blackmail by accepting this one-sided agreement. It is hardly surprising that the logic of geopolitics triumphed over respect for international law, and yet the fact that the liberal media and world public opinion smile so gratefully, apparently not realizing what an unhealthy an atmosphere exists, is discouraging, and not a good omen for the future.


Maybe there could be a case for bending, or even breaking international law, if Iran was genuinely posing a plausible threat that could not be met through diplomacy and defensive capabilities. But the realities are quite different. Iran has been the target of unlawful threats and various forms of covert intervention, and has responded with responsible caution, if at all. To reinforce this one-sided experience of insecurity with this kind of agreement sets the unfortunate perverse precedent of treating the victim of an unlawful intervention as the culprit justifying international sanctions, and possibly a future military onslaught. This represents a perversion of justice, as well as exhibiting a fundamental disregard of international law.


This reasoning is not meant to exonerate Iran from severe criticism for its internal failures to uphold the human rights of its citizens or for its continued punitive action against the leaders of the Green Revolution. It is important to realize that regulating recourse to international uses of force has been deliberately separated in the UN Charter from interfering in state/society relations absent the commission of severe crimes against humanity or genocide, and a green light is given by the UN Security Council for what amounts to ‘humanitarian intervention,’ recently justified by reference to the emergent international norm of a ‘right to protect’ or R2P. Such a R2P justification was put forward and controversially enacted in Libya in 2011.


True, during the Ahmedinejad years irresponsible fiery and provocative language was used by Tehran with reference to Israel, including repeated calls for the abolition of the Zionist project. The language used by Ahmedinejad was given its most inflammatory twist by Israeli translations of the Farsi original. Read more objectively, it was not Jews as such that were the subject of the invective, or even Israel, but Zionism and its belligerent behavior in the region, especially its refusal over the course of decades to achieve a sustainable peace with the Palestinian people, and on the contrary, its policy of continual land grabbing in Palestine to make peace between the two peoples an increasingly distant prospect of diminishing relevance in the domains of practical diplomacy.


The principal point of this analysis is to show that this agreement reflects the primacy of geopolitics, the neglect of international law, the impact of the US/Israel special relationship, and yet despite these drawbacks, it is still the best that supporters of peace and stability can hope for under present conditions of world order. Such a reality is occluded by the presentation of the debate in the United States as mainly the exaggerated mini-dramas associated with pressuring key members of Congress to vote for or against the agreement and engaging in sophisticated discussions as to whether the constraints imposed by the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, although the strongest ever imposed, are still as strong as Obama claims or as some uncertain Congress people demand. As argued here, support for the agreement is overwhelmingly in the national, global, regional, and human interest, but this assessment does not mean we should view world order through the distorting lens of heavily rose-tinted glasses.


This nuclear agreement reflects where we are in dealing with global crises, not where we should be. It is this distinction that is suppressed by the liberal media and government spokespersons that tout the agreement as an extraordinary achievement of international diplomacy. If we value international law, global justice, and indeed the future of the human species, then the distinction between the realm of the ‘feasible’ and the realm of the ‘desirable’ deserves energetic critical exposure by all of us who fancy ourselves as citizen pilgrims, that is, devotees of human and natural survival, as well as of global justice and human rights.

The Nuclear Challenge: 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1)

18 Aug


[Prefatory Note: I have been preoccupied for many years with the multiple challenges posed by nuclear weapons, initially from the perspective of international law and morality, later with regard to prudence diplomacy and political survival in international relations, and in all instances, with an eye favoring deep denuclearization associated in my mind with an abiding abhorrence over the use of atomic bombs against the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II and with the avoidance of any future use of nuclear weaponry or even threatened use. The annual observance of these terrible events encourages reflection and commentary on this darkest of legacies. Zero nuclear weapons is the unconditional goal that I affirm, achieved in a manner that creates as much public confidence as possible that the eliminations of weaponry and enriched uranium stockpiles are being faithfully carried out.


In this spirit, I want to call attention to a notable volume on the continuing menace posed by nuclear weapons that has just been published under the editorship of Geoffrey Darnton, bearing the title Nuclear Weapons and International Law, and available via Amazon or the bookseller Ingrams. The book contains the entire text of the judgment issued by the London Nuclear Warfare Tribunal (1985), a civil society initiative presided over by four judges, three of whom were Nobel Prize winners, the great dissenting opinion of C.G. Weeramantry in the Advisory Opinion on The Legality of Nuclear Weapons issued in 1996 by the International Court of Justice, and other documents and texts discussing the continuing imperative of nuclear disarmament. I recommend the book highly to all those who seek a broad understanding of why the citizen pilgrims of the world should unite in an urgent effort to create a climate of public awareness that pushes governments to make a genuine effort to fulfill by way of a practical disarming process the often articulated and affirmed vision of a world without nuclear weaponry. What is crucial is to shift the discourse from affirming the elimination of nuclear weaponry as an ultimate goal to the adoption of nuclear disarmament as a programmatic goal of practical politics, especially in the nine nuclear weapons states. Whether this entails a simultaneous partial disarmament of conventional weaponry by some states, especially the United States, is a further issue to consider.


At the invitation of Geoffrey Darnton, David Krieger, President of the Nuclear Age Foundation (NAPF), and I contributed a jointly authored foreword to the volume as well as a dialogue on nuclear weapons and international law. Krieger, a lifelong advocate of a zero nuclear world, as well as a poet whose poems are often responsive to his humane concerns, has devoted his professional life to the attainment of this goal, traveling throughout around the globe to reach diverse audiences and take part in a variety of NGO anti-nuclear efforts. The NAPF heads a coalition of civil society support for the historic Marshall Islands legal initiative currently under consideration in the International Court of Justice and in American federal courts that demands fulfillment of the nuclear disarmament provisions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. More information about the NAPF and the Marshall Islands litigation can be found at the NAPF website. A second post will contain our foreword together with David’s poem, “A Short History Lesson: 1945” that raises in the most pointed form the moral tensions and civilizational hypocrisies that related the atomic bombing to the Nuremberg Judgment that held surviving Nazi leaders accountable for their complicity in state crime.]


There are many reasons why nuclear weapons have been retained and acquired by sovereign states, and it is an instructive insight into the workings of the war system at the core of state-centric world order that the first five nuclear weapons states happened to be the five states given preeminent status in the United Nations by being made permanent members of the Security Council with a right of veto. Because of the devastating potentialities of nuclear weaponry to destroy the human future there was from the start of ‘the nuclear age’ a public outcry against their retention and widespread revulsion about dropping atomic bombs on densely populated Japanese cities. This dialectic between hard power maximization and public canons of sensitivity to state-sanctioned atrocity has been evident ever since 1945. The outcome has been the retention and development of the weaponry with related efforts to limit access to the extent possible (the ethos of nonproliferation) and vague affirmations of a commitment to seek nuclear disarmament as a matter of policy and even law. This asymmetry of goals has given us the situation pertaining to the weaponry that haunts the future of humanity. It is epitomized by the geopolitical energies devoted to implementing the nonproliferation provisions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) (1970; 190 states), as evidenced by making the feared apprehension of future acquisition a casus belli in Iraq (2003) and with respect to Iran, hopefully a second nonproliferation war being averted by the Iranian willingness to limit their nuclear program in such a way as to minimize any prospect of acquiring ‘the bomb.’ In contrast, the nuclear disarmament provision, Article VI, of the NPT is treated by the nuclear weapons states as pure window dressing, having the outward appearance of being a bargain reached between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states, but in reality a commitment by the latter to forego the weaponry in exchange for an empty promise that has been discredited by the absence of credible efforts at implementation over a period of almost half a century. Part of this reality is the unwillingness of the non-nuclear states to raise their voices in concerted opposition to the one-sided implementation of the NPT, exhibiting their reality as states but without geopolitical leverage.


The liberal version of this deceptive Faustian Bargain is the claim that the NPT and nuclear disarmament are complementary to one another, and should be linked in thought and action. The statist reasoning that offers a rationale stresses the desirability of limiting the number of nuclear weapons states while efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament move forward. Among the world’s most astute commentators on nuclear weapons policy is Ramesh Thakur, who heads the Secretariat on the Asia Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament. In a recent article in The Japan Times [“Link Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation Efforts,” Aug. 12, 2015] Thakur tells us that “there is an inalienable and symbiotic link between nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament.” He regards “[t]he key to how to protect the political gains and security benefits of the NPT, while also working around it to impart momentum into the disarmament process leading to the total abolition of all nuclear weapons.” From this perspective, Thakur laments the failures of the nuclear weapons states to embrace this linkage in a credible manner, and worries that non-nuclear states are threatening to disrupt the benevolent NPT regime that he credits with greatly restricted the number of states possessing the bomb and has helped avoid any recourse to the weaponry over the 70 years that have elapsed since Nagasaki: “Globally, more and more countries are coming around to the conclusion that the NPT is being used cynically by the nuclear powers not to advance but to frustrate disarmament.”


What is surprising is that it has taken so long for the non-nuclear governments to reach this conclusion, or at least to acknowledge their disaffection in a public space. The mind game played so well by the nuclear weapons states, above all, the United States, rests on the proposition that the main threat posed by the existence and possession of the weaponry is its spread to additional states, not the weaponry itself, and certainly not the nuclear weapons states themselves. This inversion of the real priorities has shifted the policy focus away from disarmament for decades and put the spotlight on proliferation dangers where it doesn’t belong, Iran being the current preoccupation resulting from this way of thinking. The geopolitical discriminatory nature of this mind game is further revealed by the treatment of Israel, what Thakur calls “The global double standards” that are “reinforced by regional hypocrisy, in which all sides stayed studiously silent on Israel’s bombs. ”Sanctions and war threats directed at Iran, silence and denial conferred on Israel.


My disagreement with Thakur rests on his central assertion of linkage. In my view, the NPT regime has been posited for its own sake (operationalizing the sensible global consensus that the fewer nuclear weapons states, the better) but even more robustly, and here is the unacknowledged rub, as a long-term alternative to nuclear disarmament. In other words, while it is theoretically possible that the NPT regime could have been established as a holding operation to give time for a nuclear disarmament process to be negotiated and acted upon, it has been obvious from an early stage that the government bureaucracies of the leading nuclear powers had no intention of accepting an arrangement that would deprive themselves of the bomb. What the Faustian Bargain imposed was the false pretension that nuclear disarmament was integral to the policy agenda of the nuclear weapons states. From time to time political leaders, usually with sincerity, express their commitment to nuclear disarmament. At various times, several American presidents, including even Ronald Reagan, have affirmed their dedication to such a nuclear free future, most recently Barack Obama at his Prague speech in 2009, but after a flourish of attention, nothing happens.


Understanding why nothing happens is the real challenge facing the global disarmament movement. It is here that attention should be given to the ideologies of realist geopolitics that shapes the worldview of the policy elites that control the formation government policies and the supportive self-interested bureaucracies deeply entrenched in the media, think tanks, weapons labs, and private sector (the phenomenon Eisenhower flagged as ‘the military-industrial-complex’ in his Jan. 17, 1961 Farewell Address). It is these ideological and structural factors that explain why nothing happens, and is never allowed to happen. In what should have been treated as a startling confirmation of this disheartening assessment occurred when four former top government officials with impeccable hard power realist credentials decided a couple of years ago that the only way to uphold U.S. security dominance in the future was to abolish nuclear weapons, even their eminence did not prevent their hard power arguments for nuclear disarmament being shunted to one side by the nuclear weapons establishment. [See George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 4, 2007; see also Shultz et al., “Deterrence in the Age of Nuclear Proliferation,”Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2011.]


Winning the mind game is a process that needs periodic diversions from the actuality of the global apartheid approach to nuclear weaponry that has never been seriously challenged, but is deeply antithetical to Western professed repudiation of genocidal tactics and ethos. When fears mounted of a breakdown in the bipolar standoff during the Cold War there did take place a popular mobilization of opposition to nuclearism. The anti-nuclear movement reached peaks in Europe after the scares of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and in response to some of the weapons deployment decisions by NATO. (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, CND). The main ground of anti-nuclear opposition was fear, although the most articulate leader of CND, E.P. Thompson expressed antipathy to nuclear weapons and doctrine on essentially ethical grounds. Thompson argued on the basis of an illuminating analysis that the culture that embraced the then prevailing policies of mutual deterrence was already an active accomplice of Satan by its announced willingness to annihilate tens of millions of innocent people should its will to survive as a state be tested by an unacceptable enemy provocation. [See “Notes on Exterminism: The Last Stage of Civilization,” New Left Review I/121 , May-June 1980] It is indicative that the governments of the nuclear weapons states, and here most notably again the United States was most adamant, never were unequivocally willing to commit themselves to ‘no first use policies’ even in relation to non-nuclear adversaries. In other words, nuclear weapons were treated as instrumental to foreign policy contingencies, and not tainted with illegitimacy based on the supposed ‘nuclear taboo.’


Nonproliferation was the most brilliant of all diversions from the transparent acknowledgement that, whatever rhetoric was used to the contrary, the lead states never accepted nuclear disarmament as a genuine goal of their foreign policy. Quite the contrary. All moves to manage the arms race, including reductions in the size of nuclear arsenals and arrangements about communications during times of crisis, were also designed to reduce public fears of nuclear war and thereby weaken anti-nuclear movements—first, through the message that steps were being taken to minimize risks of an unintended or accidental nuclear war, and secondly, that these steps were steps on a path leading to eventual nuclear disarmament.


This double coded message providing the policy rationale for arms control. Militarist contributors to this process, raising their doubts about whether risks were in fact being reduced if military options were being constrained by arms control measures. But it was the second element in the arms control approach that enjoyed tacit and sometimes explicit bipartisan support in the United States where this kind of debate mainly took place. The entire spectrum of policymaking elites agreed that the enactment of nuclear disarmament was both unrealistic and dangerous, and if a visionary president allowed his moral enthusiasm to get the better of him the backlash was swift and decisive as even Reagan found out after informally agreeing with Mikhail Gorbachev at their Reykjavik summit in 1986 on a treaty framework that was premised on getting to zero. In reaction, even liberal democrats in the political establishment chided Reagan for being naïve and insufficiently informed when he was blamed for mindlessly stepping across the invisible but rigorously enforced red line that separates managerial arms control from transformational nuclear disarmament. The lesson was learned, as the next presidential administration headed by George H.W. Bush, adopted as a cautionary internal slogan ‘no more Reykjaviks.’ The ‘No’ of the American establishment to nuclear disarmament could not be clearer, nor could the belligerent ‘Yes’ to upholding by war if necessary the NPT regime.


With such an understanding, my disagreement with Ramesh Thakur becomes clear and fundamental, and to make it unmistakable, I would conclude by saying the time is now ripe for the total de-linkage of nonproliferation from disarmament with respect to nuclear weapons policy. Without such a de-linkage false consciousness and confusion are unavoidable. It is time to generate populist impatience with the refusal of decades by government establishment to act on the basis of reason, ethics, and prudence: this requires the adoption of policies truly committed to the total abolition of nuclear weaponry in a period of not more than seven years.

Wartime Journalism: Mohammed Omer on Gaza

7 Aug

thI visited North Vietnam in 1968, and had meetings with its leaders in the midst of the ongoing war, which resulted in receiving the outlines of a proposal for ending the conflict on a basis more favorable to the United States than what was finally negotiated by Henry Kissinger seven years and many deaths later.  Because I was among the early anti-war visitors to Hanoi and may have been the first with a combination of academic credentials and some access to American decision-makers there was great journalistic interest inmy experience. I was approached on my return by mainstream journalists from major newspapers and TV networks, especially those who harbored growing doubts about the war, resulting in a series of interviews given prominent media attention for several days.


Yet I was deeply disappointed and disturbed by the experience, and the journalistic ethos that it revealed. The mainstream interest was totally focused on what I had been told by the North Vietnamese leadership about their receptivity to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. This preoccupation was, of course, understandable, but what I found so distressing at the time was a total disinterest in my accounts of the total vulnerability of the Vietnamese people to the onslaught of high tech weaponry, the resulting suffering and devastation, as well as the absence of military targets in the Vietnamese  countryside where the only structures were churches and hospitals. I was deeply affected by this exposure to the human fabric of warfare, as well as by the Vietnamese spirit of resilience and perseverance coupled with an absence of bitterness toward the American people in part a reflection of the way Vietnam was governed at the time. School children were taught that it is not contradictory to view the government of the United States as an enemy and yet maintain friendship with American people and the best of their national traditions. Throughout the war, I found it remarkable that Vietnamese school children were taught to regard the American Declaration of Independence as a step toward human liberation that deserved universal affirmation.


What I encountered in Europe and the United States when I tried to convey these impressions to journalists, especially those who were unashamedly liberal in their critical outlook toward the war, was a total disinterest in the (in)human face of the Vietnam War. Their concerns were confined to the realist agenda about how the war was going and whether the Vietnamese were serious about their posture of seeking peace via diplomacy on the basis of a political compromise rather than through victory on a battlefield outcome. The more I reflected on this, the more I came to realize that the journalistic ethos as applied to foreign policy was indifferent to the wartime suffering of the enemy population and a humanitarian catastrophe of massive proportions.


This deep seated indifference had several components. Above all, it reflected the nationalistic limits of empathy, which highlights sufferings of our side, and essentially ignores the losses of the other side, an extension of the friends/enemies dichotomy that underlies the realist paradigm. At most, the losses of the enemy other will be reported as statistics, but except in rare circumstances, without much human context to exhibit the terrible impact of war on the civilian population of a country that is subject to the sort of one-sided onslaught that afflicted Vietnam for so long.  A second explanation had to do with the imperial mentality that dominated Western journalism whether liberally inclined or not, which dissented from the war not because it violated the UN Charter or international law or was an affront to fundamental morality, but either because it was not producing a victory or was not worth the cost in American lives and resources. It is this realist calculus that is filtered through a nationalist optic that helps understand the peculiar form of liberalism that prevails in the United States and endorses the pernicious postulates of  ‘American exceptionalism.’


A third explanation had to do with the overt commitment of Western mainstream journalism to a style of reportage based on facts, nor feelings or opinions, both of which are distrusted because of their supposedly subjective character.  The primary journalistic claim in this tradition of professionalism is ‘the news without spin.’ In this respect, my post-Vietnam interviewers were acting ‘professionally’ given this canon as any display of empathy for Vietnamese suffering would be discrediting to their claims to stand outside the circle of controversy when reporting the news. Not that such disengagement was unbiased, hiding rather than acknowledging its nationalist and realist framings.


All of which brings me to Mohammed Omer’s extraordinary Shell-Shocked: On the Ground under Israel’s Gaza Assault, published by Or Books (New York & London) in 2015.  The book consists of dispatches from the war zone by a young prize-winning journalist who has been telling the world about the Gaza ordeal for almost ten years, since his early 20s. Omer’s prior reporting earned him the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2007, recognizing the excellence of his reportage on Gaza (‘a voice for the voicelss’). After receiving the award in The Netherlands, Omer on his return home received a brutal reception at the Gaza border by Israeli security guards being beaten so severely as to endure serious injury that required specialized surgery. With the help of a Dutch diplomat and medical treatment Omer restored his health while studying in overseas universities, yet opting to return to Gaza rather than to enjoy a life abroad as an honored exile. Omer wrote this book while doing his best during the 51 day war of 2014, what Israelis called Operation Protective Edge, to tell the world about the war from the perspective of those enduring it, that is, the civilian population of Gaza. Shell-Shocked raises many issues worthy of commentary but here I will limit myself to issues bearing on the style and ethics of professional journalism.


In essence, Omer does not have the option of detachment from the ordeal of war in the manner of the liberal journalists who I describe above as covering the Vietnam War as an instance of failure for American foreign policy. Omer by choice and circumstances refused to be detached, but that does not mean that he cannot be trusted.  On the contrary.  As Omer explains, “..I’m a journalist, and I owe it to my people and the Israeli people to get to the truth. I choose to stay in Palestine, my beloved home, with my wife, son, mother, father, siblings. I am not willing to let Israel or Zionism exterminate me.” (28) He has a Dutch passport, and could leave, and lament the fate of Gaza from afar, and who could blame him for doing so. Obviously, the choice is not an easy or simple one. He observes at one point, “I wish I could airlift my wife and son (3 months) out of here. But this is my ancestral home; what else can I do?” (26) In describing the effects of the war, minimizes his own struggle to stay alive, courageously confronting life-threatening dangers on an hourly basis so as to fulfill his role as the eyes and voice of the Palestinian people enduring the ultimate horrors of war.


Part of what separates Omer from even the most empathetic of foreign journalists, for instance Max Blumenthal, is his embeddedness in the history and realities of life in Gaza. Even if he were to leave, his family would be surviving under the heavy weight of the Israeli assault. He can never escape emotionally from his deep attachment to Gaza. Again his words are the best evidence of the authenticity and importance of his journalistic witnessing: “..I am offended, not only as a human, as a Palestinian in Gaza and as a father, but also as a journalist in Gaza. To get a story, I navigate a sea of body parts and blood each day, much it the remnants of people I know: my neighbors, friends and community. Unlike international reporters, those of us from Gaza don’t simply report. We live and die here.” (23) Of course, the last part of this passage is not entirely fair. Many brave international correspondents have risked their lives and paid the highest price on some occasions. I recall the great French reporter, Bernard Fall, being blown up by a mine while walking on a Vietnam beach, or more recently, the grisly 2014 TV beheading of the American journalist, James Foley, but Omer’s distinction still generally holds. The outsider who enters such a cauldron of political violence puts his life at risk, yet in almost all circumstances, can after awhile withdraw from the combat zone, resuming normalcy, although some journalists are subject to a kind of ‘fever of war,’ and only feel truly human when in the close vicinity of mortal danger. I remember Peter Arnett telling me in Hanoi on my second trip there in 1972 that after covering many major wars he only felt fully alive when doing first-hand war journalism, but the New Zealand born Peter, although animated and brave, never allowed the suffering of the civilian population to get to him, managing a detachment in the Western style, supposedly letting the facts do all the talking.


In important respects, this is also what Omer does, but with an undisguised sharp normative edge. The book consists of describing the daily ordeal experienced by the citizens of Gaza living under the fury of the Israeli attacks with no way of finding secure sanctuary, often relying on their own words to give the details of their struggles for survival and to recount their harrowing loss of loved ones. In this spirit Omer makes the reader almost feel what it must be like not to find food on the shelves of the neighborhood store or not to afford the spike in prices that follows from growing scarcities or not to have safe drinking water for growing children or not to be able to escape the confines of one’s house, which is itself never out of the danger zone.  And most of all, what it feels like to cope with the unspeakable death and maiming of family members and neighbors as a result of Israeli military tactics. These graphic descriptions of what the 51-day war meant for specific residents of Gaza constitutes the basic reportage of Shell-Shocked.


One expects that within this frame of witnessing Omer reports as accurately as possible, without exaggeration or invention. From what I know of Omer (he is a friend who I have known and admired for seven years) and of the situation in Gaza from other sources, I am utterly convinced that Omer is adhering to the highest standards of accuracy in reportage, relying heavily on descriptions of the scene and the witness of those who have endured the worst  losses of loved ones, homes, livelihood. As well, his local affiliations are neutral. Omer does not belong to or identify with any political party or association. He is embedded in Gaza by life circumstances, being a member of the victimized society with deep family and community affinities, and by this identity disposed toward ending the occupation of Gaza, achieving self-determination for the Palestinian people, and the achieving a durable and just peace for both peoples.


Omer never pretends that he has no personal stake in this conflict. In introducing his book Omer gives the reader a sense of his outlook: “As for myself, I try to remain optimistic, no small feat in ruined shell of what was once a beautiful and self-sufficient coastal enclave. Our reality is predicated upon Israel’s determination to drive us from our homes for good.” (7)  More than this, Omer observes critically that “[v]ery few in the mainstream media ever talk about the right of the people of Gaza to defend ourselves, or even just to exist.” (10) Note in the tangled syntax of this sentence that Omer gets trapped between describing the right that pertains to the people and a right that belongs to himself as one of the people.  Making his political viewpoint even clearer, and from the Western journalistic ethos unacceptable, Omer acknowledges his support for BDS as raising the costs of occupation for Israel, and besides being a tactic that is lawful and nonviolent. Omer also affirms the inclusiveness of his hopes: “Speaking personally I would like to see a single state where equity and tolerance are the only way forward for Israelis and Palestinians.” (11)


Omer also makes it clear that Israel understands that from its perspective that such journalistic depictions of the effects of the war both complicate and even undermine their propagandistic portrayals of good versus evil. Omer quotes a Beirut-based TV camera man, Abed Afifi, who reacts to the intentional targeting of a journalistic colleague with these words: “Such [an] attack is meant to intimidate us. Israel has no bank of targets, except civilians and journalists.” (55) He goes on to insist that “[A]ll these attacks on civilians should not stop us from working—the world has to see what Israel is doing in Gaza.” (55) And so it has to some degree, thanks to the efforts of Omer, Afifi, and many others.


Given the Israeli use of precision missiles against clearly marked TV vans, the inference of deliberate targeting seems hard to avoid. Israel has half acknowledged this by claiming that the journalists targeted are not ‘legitimate journalists,’ a claim refuted by Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch, pointing out that such an attack is a violation of international humanitarian law even if the journalists can be shown to be partisan. In effect, the subjectively motivated journalist is by choice and hostile perception a kind of warrior, seeking to help win that part of the war, often the decisive part, waged for control of the psychological terrain governing ‘hearts and minds,’ and hence ‘illegitimate’ in the eyes of the side relying on a military onslaught to impose its will.


Finally, I return to my central comparison between objectively styled journalism that prevails in the West and the subjectively styled approach taken by Mohammed Omer and other journalists who work from a vantage point within the orbit of extreme victimization. I recall my friend, Walden Bello, the noted author and political figure from the Philippines, saying that he didn’t have to determine whether imperialism was real or not as he experiences its reality on a daily basis, which shaped and conditioned his observational standpoint. For Omer, the reality of violent oppression does not have to be determined as it is experienced in the most intense possible ways.


Some years ago, in collaboration with Howard Friel, I was the junior co-author of two books highly critical of the manner in which the New York Times handled foreign policy debates and reported on Middle East issues, especially the Israel/Palestine conflict. [The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports U.S. Foreign Policy (2004) and Israel-Palestine on Record: How the New York Times Misrepresents Conflict in the Middle East (2007). We reached two main conclusions: (1) the Times systematically excluded the relevance of international law whenever it was seen as impinging on American choices in the pursuit of foreign policy goals; (2) the selective presentation of evidence sought to maintain a pro-Israeli consensus and to minimize the actualities of Palestinian victimization, a pattern very evident in the news coverage, but also in the type of opinion writers who were published and those who were excluded. In this regard, the claim of objectivity and detachment were sham, and devices used to manipulate and indoctrinate the reader, a phenomenon brilliantly depicted by Noam Chomsky in his studies of ‘indoctrination in a liberal society. I remember telling my students during the height of the Cold War that if you were a Russian in Moscow you learned how to discern realities by reading between the lines but if you were an American in Washington it required much greater sophistication to gain a comparable appreciation of the news from the New York Times or Washington Post, despite their widely accepted claims of being ‘papers of record.’


In this sense, I learn more about the news and the infrastructure of opinions that are shaping its editorial assessments from the avowedly conservative Wall Street Journal than I do from reading these liberal, more sympathetic, papers of record. And without doubt I learn more from Mohammed Omer about the realities of what happened during those 51 days in Gaza than I do from the mainstream media with its hidden biases and posture of apolitical detachment. That this learning corresponds with my political and ethical inclinations makes the experience moving and congenial as well as informative, and I encourage all with concern for Palestine’s present and future to read Omer’s brave book that can also be appreciated as a documentary compilation of testimony by the residents of Gaza caught in the maelstrom of a particularly cruel military onslaught and who yet manifest that quality of sumud that has made Palestinian resilience such an inspiring human reality amid the doldrums of the early 21st century. Mohammed Omer deserves the last word: “I have written this book as a way of preserving and passing on stories that need to be told.” (11)





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

6 Jul


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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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



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


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


The Undisclosed Second Paradox in Michael Walzer’s The Paradox of Liberation

20 Jun


There is little doubt that several of Michael Walzer’s contributions to political theory will long remain influential (Revolution of the Saints (1965); Just and Unjust Wars (1977); Spheres of Justice (1983)). Although his work lacks the cumulative weight of a major philosophic presence, the ideas and issues Walzer has been exploring in the last several decades with great conceptual coherence and originality. His work exhibits a consistent practical relevance to the realities of the unfolding world around us. His writing is lucid, well informed, and is mainstream enough to be non-threatening. Walzer’s worldview is congruent with widely shared ethical presuppositions prevalent among liberals in Western society. Added to this, Walzer’s writings are tinged with a socialist nostalgic edge that imparts a now harmless progressive resonance. This is somewhat soothing for all those suffering varying degrees of guilty conscience as we go on as before, enjoying life in non-sustainable consumptive Western societies.


Aside from John Rawls, Jacques Derrida, Jürgens Habermas who enjoy preeminence, only Michel Foucault, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, and Amartya Sen have had a comparable contemporary influence to that of Walzer by way of philosophic commentary on major public issues. Apart from Walzer’s strong scholarly emphasis on Judaic Studies and ideological support for Israel, it is Rorty who seems closest to Walzer in ethos, philosophic stance, and intellectual style. As I read this latest extended essay by Walzer I kept thinking of the lines from Auden’s great poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”:

                        “Time with that with this strange excuse

                        Pardoned Kipling and his views

                        And will pardon Paul Claudell

                        Pardon him for writing well”

The point being that despite often finding Walzer’s views suspect, I never find his writing dull or his ideas without force and relevance, and that maybe in the end what flourishes through time is more style than substance.


Walzer has been a strong and consistent advocate of Israel and outspoken adherent of moderate Zionism throughout his career. Sometimes his eloquent partisanship has been hidden below the surface of his theorizing, giving his undisclosed messages the status of a sub-text, adored by the faithful and repudiated by the critical. Among critics this Walzer tendency to hide his political commitments beneath his theoretical generalization, creates an impression of a rather sneaky lack of forthrightness. For instance, his influential Just and Unjust Wars can be read (without any acknowledgement from Walzer) as a show of strong support for Israel’s approach to Palestinian armed resistance that is expressed in the abstract language of the ethics of counter-terrorism. Walzer’s tendency to be not straight forward about his ideological agenda is intriguingly relevant to his latest book, The Paradox of Liberation, which sets forth a bold and challenging general thesis—that the distinct secular movements that produced national liberation in Algeria, India, and Israel a few generations ago have each most unexpectedly and progressively yielded their identities to intense religious counter-revolutions. These counter-revolutions have each sought to restore tradition and religious observance in public spaces, including the governing process. This religious turn against the secular came as an unwelcome surprise to the founding generation of national liberation leaders whose successors find themselves pushed aside by more socially conservative elites.


These secularizing movements were rooted initially in the opposite belief that only by breaking with societal traditions can liberation be achieved for a national people that is being oppressed or acutely denied its true destiny. As Walzer summarizes: “The old ways must be repudiated and overcome totally. But the old ways are cherished by many of the men and women whose ways they are. That is the paradox of liberation.” (19) In the Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions (Yale University Press, 2015). Walzer is preoccupied by this paradox, and devotes himself to its explication. He contends that the paradox arises from the tension between the mobilization of a people around the negation of that which the majority society affirms (that is, religious values) and while this negation seems useful (even to many of the religiously oriented) during the struggle against alien oppression, it will itself be negated a generation or so after liberation, a phenomenon of negating the negation that can also be understood as the return of the repressed in the form of religious resurgence. The secularists enjoyed a temporary ascendancy because they were active resisters to oppressive circumstances rather than as was the case with religiously oriented leaderships, which tended to be passive and even deferential to the status quo.


This pattern of secularist victory giving way to religion is reproduced in a nationally distinctive form in each of these specific historical circumstances by the seemingly inexplicable rise and potency of religious zeal. In each of Walzer’s three cases, the political moment of successful liberation by secularists was soon to be superseded to varying degrees by the religious moment, an entirely unexpected sequel. The liberators whether led by Ben Bella, Jawaharlal Nehru, or David Ben Gurion were modernizers who strongly believed that religion was being and should be superseded by science and rationality. This meant that religion was largely a spent force with respect to cultural identity and public policy, and should in the future be confined in its role to state ritual occasions and private devotional practice. Walzer argument explains the central misunderstanding of these secular leaders, and expresses his own hope that the religious resurgence should not be viewed as the end of the national narrative. Also, Walzer would not welcome the Algerian phase three sequel to the religious challenge by way of bloody civil war, followed by military autocracy and renewed societal passivity.


What makes the book challenging is its main prescriptive argument that runs as follows. The secular nationalists made a crucial initial mistake, according to Walzer, by basing their movement on the negation of religion rather than byseeking its incorporation. If their secularist goal was sustainable liberation, which it certainly was, then the adoption of an either/or orientation toward religion and its practice was wrong from the start. Instead the attitude of the secular liberators toward religion should have one of constructive engagement, and not negation. What this means in the context of each movement is not spelled out by Walzer. The stress is placed on a recommended (re)incorporation of religious values into the reigning secular ideology combined with sensitivity to traditional values and practices. Walzer is fully aware that his proposed approach becomes problematic as soon as it is pursued unconditionally. As he recognizes, the traditions in each of these nations denies equality to women, often in cruel and unacceptable ways. Walzer does not want secularists to give up their commitment to gender equality for the sake of reconciliation with religiously oriented sectors of society. What he encourages is a sympathetic awareness of traditional attitudes toward gender while seeking to overcome their embedded biases. As is often the case, Walzer is more persuasive in diagnosis than prescription, delineating the problems far better than finding credible solutions.


One difficulty with the framework we are offered in the book is the failure to consider the discrediting relevance of the corruption and incompetence of the liberators, which amounted to a betrayal of their promises to lead a new and happy society of free people. Whether through corruption or the failure to deliver a better life to a large portion of the population, a post-liberation mood of disillusionment takes hold in different patterns, but they share in common the search for an alternative orientation.


In other words the excitement of liberation is hard to sustain during the state-building rigors of governance, and also in most cases, the personalities suitable for liberation are not well adapted to handle the routines and typical challenges of post-liberation existence. Israel, in particular, was an outlier from these perspectives, as its claims of liberation were at all stages shadowed by doubts as a result of fears, threats, uncertainties, and opposition to its underlying legitimacy claim from within its ethnic ranks and more so from those it sought to subdue by either displacement or subjugation. The anti-colonial liberations of India and Algeria never faced such basic challenges to its core identity.


There is for me a closely related yet more fundamental problem with the misleading comparisons relied upon by Walzer to develop his argument. India and Algeria were genuine liberation movements waged by indigenous nations to rid from the entire territorial space of their respective countries a deeply resented, exploitative, and domineering foreign presence. To place Israel in such a category is to foster several deep misunderstandings—there is the master presupposition that the Zionist movement is being properly treated as a case of ‘national liberation’ even if the Jewish nation was not engaged in reclaiming control over its residential territorial space. Jews were scattered in enclaves around the world when the Zionist movement was launched and most of its leaders relied on biblical claims to Palestine to ground its territorial claims. Although the early debate about whether a homeland in Uganda would fulfill Zionist goals illuminates the distinctiveness of the Zionist quest. Beyond this Zionists became legally dependent upon British colonialist support to carry forward their efforts to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine with the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. Zionism cannot be meaningfully regarded as a revolt against alien rulership, although in its last pre-state stage it did try to expel Britain from Palestine so as to compel an abandonment of its mandatory administration. Unlike standard anti-colonial movements, Zionism is more correctly perceived as an activist effort to overcome the realities of diaspora Judaism confronted by the persecution, discrimination, and assimilation in an array of national settings.


Given this background, it seems dubious, indeed polemical, to treat Israel’s establishment as an instance of ‘liberation,’ a terminology that obscures the centrality of the ‘dispossession’ experienced by the majority indigenous Palestinian Arab population in the course of Israel’s acquisition of statehood. In passing, Walzer does somewhat acknowledge some of these differences that distinguish Israel from India and Algeria, but regards them as inconsequential contextual issues that do not raise for him any serious doubts about the basic reasonableness of regarding Israel as coming into being as a result of national liberation led by the Zionist movement. Walzer’s focus is rather upon whether Israel fits the pattern of a secularist phase one giving way to a religious phase two, leaving us with a big question mark as to whether there will be a phase three, and if so, whether it will reflect Walzer’s hopes for a belated constructive engagement with religion rather than an Alegerian style relapse into civil strife and autocracy. Although Walzer expresses his personal wish for the Palestinians to have their own sovereign state (53) at some point, this wish is never contextualized or concretized by reference to criteria of equality between the two peoples. The Palestinian national liberation movement is discussed by Walzer as correlative to his main thesis. Walzer notes that even prior to achieving Palestinian statehood, the PLO’s secular leadership has been increasingly challenged and even discredited by a rising Islamist alternative. (53-55)


This reference to the Palestinian national movement is an interesting aside in relation to Walzer’s essential set of contentions relating to the paradox he is depicting, but it fails to engage the issue I find central, which is whether Israel’s establishment can qualify as an instance of national liberation. To be sure Zionism generated an extraordinary international movement that overcame many formidable obstacles that stood in its way, and none more formidable than an indigenous Palestinian Arab majority population that did its best to prevent Zionists from reaching their goal of statehood on behalf of the Jewish people. Although Walzer notes that the early secularist Zionist leaders stressed a commitment to equality when articulating their ideas about the preferred relationship between Jews and non-Jews in the Israeli state. In my view, it is questionable in the extreme whether this idealistic goal ever represented the actual intentions of Zionist leaders. It should be evident to all that such egalitarianism was never expressive of Israeli policies and practices on the ground from even before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.


More problematic still, was the dispossession and displacement from the land of most of the indigenous Arab population that had been living in Palestine for many generations. Surely this Palestinian experience is profoundly different in character and consequence from the repudiation of exploitative rule of a country by a foreign, usually European, elite and its native collaborators. Again Walzer’s sub-text, whether consciously intended or not, seems to be the retroactive legitimation of Israel’s claim to be an example of national liberation of the sort achieved by Algeria and India, and hence to be situated in the highest echelon of 20th century state-building undertakings. As many of us realize this ‘liberation’ was for Palestinians a catastrophe, known by its Arabic word nakba.


Overall, this is a peculiar book, developing a general view of religious counter-revolutions against secular movements of national liberation, but due to the inclusion of Israel as a principal case despite not seeming to fit, there is an implicit polemical motivation that involves whitewashing the criminality of Israel’s emergence. Acknowledging such criminality is not meant to be a covert argument for delegitimizing the present state of Israel that has now been in existence for more than 67 years, and is a member state of the United Nations. My critique of Walzer, in other words, is not meant to lay the groundwork for a second Palestinian dispossession, this time directed toward Jews. I side with Edward Said in a commitment to fair future for both peoples based on their shared rights under international law and on diplomacy to negotiate compromises where rights overlap. I do agree with Said that such a jointly conceived future cannot be undertaken without a prior Israeli acknowledgement of the recent past as epitomized by the nakba, and such rituals of redress must include a formal apology to the Palestinian people for the suffering they have for so long endured.


In the end, the paradox that Walzer dwells upon is less consequential than the paradox he ignores: namely, that what is being represented as ‘national liberation’ of the Jewish people by Zionist ideologues is more objectively presented as the ‘national oppression’ of the Palestinian people. This oppression is experienced in different sets of circumstances: as a subjugated minority; as an occupied people; as a nation of refugees and exiles; as a community of resistance aspiring to Palestinian ‘national liberation’; as communities victimized by state terrorism. This second paradox is that what is portrayed as ‘liberation’ for one people serves at the same time as pretext and rationale for the ‘oppression’ of another people. In my view, the second paradox raised life or death questions for both peoples to a far greater extent than does the first paradox that seems to control Walzer’s own Zionist imagination.


Michael Ignatieff, whose political orientation resembles that of Michael Walzer, in the course of a mostly laudatory review of The Paradox of Liberation confirms my suspicion that the undisclosed intent of this book is to connect Israel’s fate with that of such exemplary liberation movements as those that took place in India and Algeria. Consider Igantieff’s revealing language innocently proclaiming this reading: “While Israel remains the central focus of The Paradox of Liberation, Walzer has made a major contribution to the question of what’s happening there simply by arguing that Israel may not be so special after all: the same kinds of problems may be occurring in other states created by national liberation movements. He compares what happened to Ben-Gurion’s vision with what befell Jawaharlal Nehru’s in India and Ahmed Ben Bella’s in Algeria.” [Michael Ignatieff, “The Religious Spector Haunting Revolution,” NY Review of Books, 19 June 2015] In a stunning instance of ‘benign neglect’ Ignatieff never once even mentions the relevance of Palestinian dispossession in his lengthy

assessment of Walzer’s version of Israel’s ‘national liberation’ story. Instead, he makes the opposite point, suggesting that Walzer in an indirect way diminishes Israel by his implicit denial of Israeli exceptionalism. As the language quoted above seems to suggest, Israel is upgraded by its similarities with (rather than differences from) other liberation narratives.


In closing, it is plausible, even morally, to argue that the Zionist cause was in keeping with a variety of attempts over the course of the last century by many nations and peoples to possess a state of their own that is defined by ethnic or religious boundaries that transcend in psycho-political relevance geographic boundaries, which incidentally have yet to be authoritatively drawn to delineate Israel’s territorial scope. Yet what is not plausible is to lump together the Israeli experience with that of India and Algeria just because the founding generation of leaders shared a secular ideology that was later subjected to a religious challenge once the state was established. For India and Algeria their respective anti-colonial struggles each possessed its originality, but without raising doubts about the delineation of the scope of territorial sovereignty and without needing to coercing the native population to submit or leave. This became integral to Zionism in the course of the struggle between opposed nationalisms, with expulsion necessary to ensure Jewish dominance over the development and governance of the country.


If Jewish biblical claims to territorial sovereignty are dismissed, as surely should be a major premise of secular thinking, then the Zionist project needs to be conceived of as essentially one of colonizing a foreign country. The presence of a deeply rooted Jewish minority, less than 5% when the Zionist movement got started in the late 19th century, does not make Palestine any less of a foreign country from the perspective of Jews who settled in Palestine in a spirit of missionizing zeal. As Walzer himself makes clear, Zionists were self-consciously opposed to the Judaism they had experienced in the diaspora that was premised on passivity and deference to the rulers of their country of residence and religiously expressed by the message of patience, the religious duty to wait for the Messiah, the only religiously acceptable experience of liberation. The founders of Zionism, and its current leaders, were determined to reconstitute Jewish life on the basis of assertiveness and even aggressiveness, overcoming the alleged diasporic legacy of passivity, and this feature of their movement has been transformative for even religious Jews. From this perspective, the historic triumphal event was undoubtedly Israel’s victory in the 1967 War, which became inspirational for diasporic Jewish communities identified more strongly than ever with the state of Israel, and questioned their own traditional postures of passivity.


My contention is that Walzer’s paradox dissolves as soon as the claim to categorize Zionism as a mode of ‘national liberation’ is deconstructed, while the second paradox remains to be explained. This second paradox dwells on the moral and political interplay of what transpires when the liberation of the self is organically linked to the dispossession of the other. In a postscript (134-146) Walzer explains why America does not belong with his three cases, which is because America’s original founding never truly embraced secularism. What he might have also said, but doesn’t, is that what the founding of America and Israel have most in common is the dispossession of the native populations, and it is this foundational fact that shapes the state-building experiences of both countries more than either has been willing to acknowledge. In this sense, we might invite Walzer to write a sequel on this second more consequential paradox, but realizing that such an invitation is certain to be refused. Its acceptance would implicitly repudiate the ideological benefits and normative authority of the first paradox that treats the establishment of Israel as if it is entitled to be regarded as one of the illustrious examples of 20th century anti-colonial struggles.



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