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Testing for the Mental Disabilities of U.S. Presidential Candidates

21 Sep


 I would have hoped that any sensible American citizen would by now have been sufficiently scared by Donald Trump’s morbid flights of fancy, high school playground style bullying, outlandish threats and bluffs, unrealistic and unsavory promises to crush enemies and enrich workers, to put aside all their concerns about alternative candidates and refuse any temptation to cast a masochistic vote for Trump.


Yet such confidence seems sadly unjustified in this election and points up the vulnerability of the institutional arrangements governing qualifications to be an American president. Far more important than the constitutional requirement of an American birthplace, or even than physical health, is the mental condition of a candidate. Clearly, we cannot trust voters to pass this judgment, even if they were so inclined, as the Trump saga confirms. With Trump’s over the top narcissism and wild bipolar swings of sentiment, it seems painfully obvious that he is mentally unfit for the presidency, and this is frightening considering the embedded capacities of any occupant of the Oval Office to initiate war and use nuclear weapons, as well as inflict less spectacular harms as might result from unraveling the world economy, scrapping the Paris Climate Change Agreement and Nuclear Agreement with Iran, and irresponsibly ending old alliances and entering into new ones.


It must be acknowledged that Hilary Clinton is also multiply deficient as a presidential candidate, but not nearly in ways so scary and in forms far less likely to involve blind dives from the high board of flights of fancy into waterless pools. I dearly wish she was closer to Sanders in outlook, commitment, and character, but she can at least be counted on to do some decent and constructive things to enhance the quality of governance and life at home. She will surely push hard to implement the climate change agreement and probably will abide the Iran agreement despite Israel’s continuing efforts to undermine all that was achieved. Above all, she is not Trump!


It is not that Clinton deserves our vote, especially taking into account her hawkish regime-changing approach to foreign policy in the Middle East, but maybe, just maybe, she learned a thing or two from her support of the Iraq and Libyan disasters, and even if she hasn’t, she still earns my vote by the lamentable logic of ‘the lesser of evils.’ At the same time, I would not criticize those who weighed the pros and cons differently than I do, voting for a third party nominee that seemed the best available candidate regardless of their prospects of winning in November. There is much to be said in favor of voting for someone who is a good enough candidate that a vote of support would be something other than one more iteration of the lesser of evils. It is one of the few ways that an ordinary citizen has to register a vote of no confidence in a system that can do no better than provide citizens over and over again with nothing more congenial than a choice among evils. Unlike football, winning isn’t everything in politics, although most of our politicians approach their challenge with a zero-sum mentality. It is damaging to democracies when the cynical among us call the tune with their belief that casting a principled, yet losing, vote is a wasted vote, or worse, almost a crime against reason! Remember the liberal fury directed at Ralph Nader and his 90,000 or so supporters in Florida that allowed George W. Bush, with a major assist from the U.S. Supreme Court, to win the 2000 election.


In the end, Americans, whether or not they realize it, have a responsibility to the world that citizens of other countries possess to a far lesser degree. If Trump were to become the next American president it would imperil the world, and likely cause grave dislocations in many international settings that could cause massive suffering along with possibly disastrous unintended consequences. Even our most ‘rational’ recent presidents have caused havoc in foreign societies. Our militarized government rests on three principal pillars of influence: the Pentagon, Wall Street, and Israel. These constraining forces can push even the most decent and intelligent of presidents in militarist directions as Barack Obama found out.


The United States as a liberal democratic global state, projecting its power throughout the whole of the planet, should ideally extend its electoral franchise globally. As things stand, and will indefinitely remain so, the United States and its people insist on the absolute prerogatives of territorial sovereignty while denying comparable autonomy to many other nominally sovereign states. Given this uncontested reality, there is as much likelihood of Americans agreeing to extend the vote in its national elections to foreign societies throughout the world as there is of the ISIS leadership waking up one morning to announce adherence hereafter to the pacifist precepts of Gandhiism.


What is a distant second best option, yet far better than nothing, is for as many Americans as possible to be at least aware of their custodial role for the peoples of the world. With such awareness would come the duty to vote responsibly with respect to the wellbeing of others, including taking into consideration impacts on a sustainable human future. Again, predicting that a substantial number of American voters might be willing to behave like world citizens is a bet no oddsmaker in Vegas would be foolish enough to take.


Obviously, mere awareness is not nearly enough to secure the wellbeing of either the country or the world. The realities of technology and complex interdependence are such that the current world order has no capacity to absorb and localize serious mistakes of judgment made by the United States Government. The most minimal elements of political sanity at this stage of history mandates the adoption of a constitutional requirement that candidates for the presidency be certified as to their mental health, and not only by a psychiatrist of their choice. A professional politically neutral mechanism should be established to select a panel of qualified psychiatrists that would then be entrusted with certifying the mental health of aspiring candidates for the presidency and vice presidency.


At present, there is some relevance accorded to physical health with much attention accorded to the disclosure of medical records and indications of physical ailments that might interfere with the discharge of the formidable burdens associated with being president. When Hilary Clinton was found to be suffering from a mild case of pneumonia earlier this month a media frenzy ensued that examined the issue of her health from every conceivable angle. Such a preoccupation highlights by comparison the neglect of the far more serious, and possibly more difficult to detect, presence of serious mental disabilities of a kind that could produce the worst sorts of governmental decisions and policies. The mental disorders of an aspiring presidential candidate are far more threatening to the security of the country and the world than are physical ailments, which although also potentially dangerous to the person, are far less likely to cause catastrophic damage or twist decisions in sinister directions.


Admittedly, certifying mental health is an awkward process that needs to be handled with great sensitivity, and even then could misfire, or be wrongly interpreted by the public. At the same time, this forthcoming election amply demonstrates that business as usual, with eyes and ears closed to issues of mental disability is no longer an acceptable approach to the selection of American leaders in the 21st century. Too much is at stake.


Despite this, there persists a strong taboo surrounding mental health. Raising questions about the mental condition of a candidate for public office is still widely perceived as hitting below the belt. And what is worse, some mental disorders perversely give rise to enthusiastic support among the citizenry. In this regard what makes Trump seem a high risk candidate because of his mental health is what may yet get him elected! This is a thought to ponder. The memory of Hitler and Mussolini reminds us that pathological mental imbalances can be a source of public charisma and political popularity. The Trump candidacy is certainly not the first time that a demagogue’s manifest mental disorders are a principal explanation of his passionate populist support, but it could be the last time!



Failures of Militarism in Countering Mega-Terrorism

27 Aug

[Prefatory Note: I am posting on my blog a short article just published in a very good journal devoted to terrorism, Perspectives of Terrorism. It was originally presented at a conference in Washington, DC, and later revised. As always, civil comments welcome.]



Failures of Militarism in Countering Mega-Terrorism



The introduction of this article is devoted to the distinctive challenges posed by this era of mega-terrorism initiated by the 9/11 attacks. The article offers a critique of the American response which is based on a ‘war’ rather than a law enforcement paradigm. An argument is then made to adapt international law to new modalities of conflict while at the same time learning the right lessons from the repeated militarist failures of transnational counterterrorism. These issues are further considered via the parallel analysis of American counterterrorism policy by the distinguished diplomat, Chas Freeman.


Keywords: Militarism; intervention; terrorism; international law


Introduction: Tensions Between Post-9/11 Counterterrorism and International Law

There are multiple complexities arising from the interactions between sovereign states and large-scale political violence of extremist groups and individuals associated with, or inspired by, such groups. These complexities profoundly challenge the efforts of international law and the capabilities of national governments to contain and minimize political violence. They also raise serious questions about the relations between war, territorial sovereignty, law, and morality under contemporary conditions.

To begin with, international law evolved in the last century to prohibit all uses of force that cannot be convincingly validated as claims of self-defense or as authorized by the UN Security Council. These are innovative and core ideas of the UN Charter that were agreed upon in the aftermath of World War II when the uppermost priority was the establishment of constraints on discretionary recourse to international force by states in the course of international disputes. Article 51 of the Charter further restricts valid claims by limiting self-defense under international law to situations in which a government is responding to “a prior armed attack.”[1] As suggested, supplemental to self-defense claims are authorizations to use force that are given to political actors by the UN Security Council. This was the case with respect to the 2011 NATO regime-changing intervention in Libya, although the precedent remains controversial as the scope of the use of force exceeded the evident intent and language of the authorizing resolution.[2]

Also, within the UN framework, recourse to force is required to be a matter of last resort, that is, after the failure of good faith diplomatic efforts.[3] Arguably, the practice of states during the Cold War was deeply inconsistent with this restrictive view of legally valid uses of force, and so there emerged a degree of uncertainty and disagreement as to the effectiveness of law in regulating recourse to international force.[4] Because of the absence of governmental institutions on a global level, there is a blurred line separating violations of existing international law and the practice of states that can have lawmaking impacts as a result of patterns of behavior that establish precedents.[5]

The kind of transnational political violence that reached its climax in 2001 with the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. World Trade Center and the Pentagon poses a more systemic challenge to the UN framing of lawful uses of international law. First, both al Qaeda (in attacking) and the United States (in responding)—whether prudently or not—viewed the ensuing political violence through the prism of ‘war’ rather than ‘crime,’ expanding the scope and magnitude of the violence. The 9/11 attacks had characteristics blurring the boundaries separating traditional terrorist acts from traditional acts of war, giving political leaders in the United States the choice of whether to respond within a war paradigm or a crime paradigm. That the leadership at the time in the United States immediately chose war partly reflected the neoconservative worldview of the presidency of George W. Bush, the traumatizing and symbolic nature of the targets, the gravity of the harm done, and a feared vulnerability to additional attacks by Al Qaeda.[6]

Second, Al Qaeda’s political violence was uniformly described as ‘terrorism.’ A non-state actor who lacked a territorial presence in the targeted country had attacked major civilian targets in the United States. This feature of 9/11 had the immediate effect of transnationalizing the interaction between terrorism and counterterrorism. In the process a new species of war was borne. By and large terrorism had been largely a state/society interaction, previously treated as a law enforcement challenge to be addressed within the boundaries of the targeted state or, internationally, with the cooperation of foreign police and security forces or through covert special operations. This international militarization of counterterrorism was essentially a new political phenomenon, although there had been a foretaste in the decades before in the form of retaliatory strikes (as distinct from extended military campaigns) against foreign countries thought to have sponsored terrorists, harbored them, or were otherwise complicit in the attacks.[7] The contemporary nature of transnational extremist politics and the forcible responses of geopolitical actors are contributing to the restructuring of world order by way of deterritorializing armed conflict.[8]

Third, the absence of a clear territorial base from which terrorists launched their provocative attacks made it more challenging to design a military response able to engage, defeat, and destroy such an adversary. On the terrorist side, the dispersal of its bases of operations, which are often inter-mingled with the civilian population, had several effects: turning the entire world into a potential battlefield, subverting notions of territorial sovereignty, eliminating legal options of neutrality in situations of armed conflict (as George W. Bush famously put it, “you are either with us or with the terrorists”), and strengthening incentives to engage in political assassinations that undermine the core distinction of international humanitarian law between civilians and combatants.[9]

Fourth, this kind of conflict also shifts the strategic focus away from deterrence and retaliation toward preemption and prevention. Such an anticipatory orientation expands the UN Charter’s conception of self-defense by allowing a threatened state to strike first rather than being compelled by law to wait until attacked.[10] This shift also encourages the adoption of legally and morally controversial tactical and weapon innovations intended to enhance counterterrorist effectiveness, including reliance on torture, drones, and special operations (covert military groups seeking to find and destroy terrorist targets in foreign countries) as necessitated and justified by the distinctive character of the security challenge.[11] The shift also reflects the politically motivated goal of minimizing casualties on the counterterrorist side even at the sacrifice of effectiveness so as to avoid the rise of anti-war sentiments of the sort that were thought by the U.S. government to have interfered with the prosecution of the Vietnam War.

Fifth, the insistence on treating the adversary as ‘terrorist’ identified as ‘evil’ substantially eliminates both diplomacy and self-scrutiny as instruments of counterterrorist statecraft. In the past, many ‘terrorist’ entities were at some stage in a conflict treated as political actors, enabling negotiated arrangements that succeeded in bringing high levels of political violence to a virtual end. Without this option, there is the prospect of permanent war, already acknowledged to some extent by the Pentagon in its designation of the struggle as the ‘long war,’ with side effects that increase the authority of the state and correspondingly decrease the freedom of the citizenry. The decision to treat an international adversary as a ‘terrorist entity’ is a highly subjective determination that can be withdrawn at any point that it becomes convenient to treat the enemy as a political actor.

These five clusters of issues deserve a detailed treatment that is critical of the self-serving manipulation of international law to free state actors from prior constraints on the use of international force. It is also appropriate to consider revisionist steps that loosen the constraints of international law in reasonable response to a series of grave new security challenges.[12] In this regard, the old international law is not reasonably calibrated to address this new generation of transnational mega-terrorist threats, but neither is the wholesale rejection of normative constraints justified, nor practically necessary. How to strike a proper balance is the central question being addressed here by distinguishing between the contextually rational use of counterterrorist force and, at the same time, striving to uphold those features of international law that in the past sought, with admittedly mixed results, to minimize political violence and the human suffering caused by warfare during the past hundred years.[13]



Critical Challenges


These background considerations inform and structure an assessment of how best to fashion an effective response to the ISIS phenomenon. There are two overlapping challenges associated with ISIS. There is the challenge of selecting the best tactics to address the immediate territorial and security threats presently posed by ISIS in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and other parts of the world. In short, within the Middle East and North Africa, the challenge is essentially at this point both territorial and political, which is producing a new hybrid form of armed conflict and asymmetric warfare that gives rise to new tactics of combat that should, in turn, lead to corresponding modifications in the framework of international humanitarian law. So far, this has not happened. As far as Europe and the United States are concerned, the terrorist events have involved mainly individuals or small groups operating independently, although claiming allegiance to, or inspiration from, ISIS, but essentially posing traditional internal state/society challenges.

For these reasons, at least for the present, the challenges emanating from outside the Middle East and North Africa directed at the established order should be treated primarily as an issue of crime prevention, and not as an occasion for war. Turkey situated next to ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria is faced with several types of threats, the radical destabilization of neighboring countries and the disruptive spillover generated by refugee flows and isolated acts of terrorism apparently intended both as retaliatory responses to Turkish counterterrorist initiatives jointly undertaken with the United States and as efforts to widen the conflict theatre and extend the zone of subversive and destabilizing influences attributable to ISIS. The Turkish case is complicated by the priority presently accorded by Ankara to anti-Kurdish operations; creating tensions with counterterrorist goals as has been the case in Syria.

A third deeper challenge associated not only with ISIS, but also with other expressions of jihadism, including Al Qaeda and its affiliates, is to alter relations with the Islamic world in ways that minimize the prospect of the continuing (re-)emergence of anti-Western extremist political organizations and movements. In my view, the militarist and politically deficient character of present and past Western, particularly American, counterterrorism policies has unwittingly contributed to the rise, spread, and success of jihadist militancy. Such movements have in common the perception that the West is their supreme enemy as a result of intervening in the politics of the region as well as engaging in resource exploitation, especially oil and gas, and by a globally influential popular culture perceived to be undermining Islamic values.[14] The West is also viewed as responsible for upholding Arab governments regarded by ISIS and kindred groups as corrupt, incompatible with Islamic ideas of political community, and viewed for other reasons as illegitimate. The very origins of ISIS are bound up with the US/UK occupation policies pursued in Iraq since 2003, particularly the sectarian purge of Sunni elements in the Iraqi armed forces and governing process.

The main focus of this article is on this structural challenges to the West that can only be effectively met by abandoning certain patterns of past behavior, including an attitude toward global security, which has in the past given rise to jihadism that arose to resist foreign military occupation, but adopted perverse types of liberation strategies, including the repeated commission of crimes against humanity which are viewed generally as atrocities. From this perspective, a critique of Western militarism is put forward both with regard to past ineffectiveness in achieving its goals and with respect to the normative unacceptability of the counterterrorist modalities of response. The distinct interpretative lens concerned with policy assessments of counterterrorist containment efforts are sufficiently interrelated with structural dimensions as to cause some overlap in analysis while still respecting the differences between immediate security threats in combat zones and the underlying conditions that give rise to the threats.[15]

The attention given here to the reliance on the military instrument in the service of counterterrorist policy cannot be separated from the surrounding historical circumstances that led to the present conditions, nor be oblivious to prospects for change. The surprises surrounding the Arab Spring events of 2011 should encourage humility with regard to any effort to evaluate the lasting significance of the reactive counterrevolutionary political turn of the last several years.[16] The situation remains in flux as to what will endure and what is likely to change.

This critique of a militarist orientation also reflects skepticism as to whether current terrorist threats to the security of sovereign states and their populations are being adequately interpreted as a new species of international warfare that calls for a rethinking of the proper role of international force. There is also the related question as to whether–by having recourse to war rather than to the criminal justice machinery–the established political order did not unwittingly create a self-fulfilling prophesy, generating the very threat it is designed to suppress. The dysfunctional application of a war approach to counterterrorism indirectly encourages extremist political movements to emerge, especially through treating a non-state movement as if it were a state, and then, being shocked, as in the case of ISIS by the actuality of its territoriality. This heightening of status by establishing a terrorist identity is illustrated by the transition from al-Qaeda in Iraq to ISIS.



Militarism and the Military Instrument


The distinction between ‘militarism’ and ‘military’ instruments of security is central to an understanding of a structural critique of Western post-colonial policy in the Middle East and North Africa over the course of the last century. By militarism is meant the compulsion to address threats and conflict situations primarily by reliance on a militarist reflex, that is, by an over-reliance on the use of force without giving appropriate consideration to such non-military alternatives as diplomatic negotiations, removing legitimate grievances, adhering to international law, and engaging in self-scrutiny as to the roots of, and responsibility for, the emergence, persistence, and appeal of ISIS and other kindred threats. The argument put forward here is not pacifist, but is directed at the misuse of military capabilities that has led to serious blowback phenomena. This should give rise to an overdue occasion for stocktaking with respect to counterterrorist tactics and doctrine since 9/11.[17]

This misuse reflects, in large part, the failure to adjust to altered historical circumstances. At the height of the colonial era, essentially up until 1945, military superiority was used effectively in the Arab world and elsewhere, to satisfy the colonial ambitions of Europe at acceptable costs to the colonizers. What changed politically was the rise of self-confidence on the part of nationalist forces, the influence exerted by strong global anti-colonial support at the UN and elsewhere under the leadership of the Soviet bloc, and the weakening of European colonial powers due to the losses suffered in the two world wars. Although the United States endeavored to fill the geopolitical vacuum left by the collapse of colonialism, it failed to appreciate the accompanying shift in the balance of forces that shape the outcomes of internal political struggle. Hence the US found itself caught between loyalty to alliances and friendships with European colonial powers and an anti-colonial tradition strongly reinforced by recent historical trends – something that goes back all the way to the American Revolution, which was the first fully successful anti-colonial war.

Despite experiencing a series of frustrating setbacks, the United States continues primarily to rely on innovations in military technology (e.g. drones) and doctrine to sustain a false confidence in militarist approaches to the maintenance of the established political order in non-Western settings of strategic interest. It does so by ignoring a record of frustration and failure associated with military interventionism.[18]

The American failure in Vietnam was expected at the time to generate a more realistic understanding of the limits of military superiority in shaping the political outcome of asymmetric wars. In Vietnam the United States military possessed complete and essentially unchallenged control of air, sea, and land dimensions of the battlefield, and yet could not get the assigned job done to win the war. It was unable despite a decade of effort to crush the Vietnamese political will to continue national resistance to foreign intervention whatever the costs, and finally it was Washington gave in, calculating that it was not worth the effort to continue. In effect, the unconditional will to resist prevailed over the conditional will to intervene, and controlled the outcome, but this core explanation of the Vietnam experience was never understood by the American policy community as providing the key lesson for the future. Instead, the lessons learned were to take steps to blunt the rise of opposition to such foreign wars by abolishing the draft, relying on a professional army, and making a greater effort to enlist the media in support of an ongoing war effort.

A second lesson could have been learned in Afghanistan: those opportunistically trained and equipped as allies in a secondary struggle (in this case, containing the spread of Soviet influence) may turn out to be enemies in a more primary sense (the direct attack of 9/11 would never have been undertaken by the Soviet Union, which is inhibited because vulnerable to retaliation).[19] In effect, short-term geopolitical opportunism was pursued at the expense of intermediate-term security and stability. Al Qaeda’s anti-Soviet collaboration in Afghanistan was followed by launching a struggle to dislodge the United States from the Islamic world, especially its large military deployments in close proximity to the sacred sites located in Saudi Arabia.

A third lesson should have been learned in reaction to the spectacular failures of the Iraq policy pursued by the United States ever since 1992, reliant on punitive sanctions, aggressive war, and a badly mishandled occupation.[20] The aims of imposing ‘democracy,’ influencing oil pricing, securing military base rights, containing Iran, and reconnecting Iraq with the world economy were all frustrated. What is worse from Washington’s strategic point of view, the war intensified sectarian tensions throughout the Middle East, which, contrary to the intention of the mission, increased Iran’s regional influence, led to the formation and local popularity of ISIS, and damaged the American reputation in relation to both the effectiveness of its military diplomacy and the propriety of its political goals and methods.

In my view, the U.S. response to security threats posed by transnational terrorism and specifically, by the rise of ISIS, has often been deeply flawed due to this persistence of militarism. The 2016 presidential campaign discourse in the United States on how to deal with ISIS, especially the policies proposed by the opposing presidential candidates, are surrealist exaggerations of this militarist mindset that has so badly served American and regional security needs in the 21st century. This militarism has also intensified widespread suffering and chaos throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It has also accentuated violent disorder and devastation in other parts of the post-colonial world.[21]

This critique of militarism as 21st century counterterrorism should not be understood as a disguised pacifist plea for an unconditional renunciation of force in response to mega-terrorist threats. There are appropriate counterterrorist roles for military power, although its efficiency and effectiveness in achieving global, national, and human security has markedly declined in the period since the end of World War II, especially when used to wage wars of choice in political struggles for the control of foreign states.

The colonial wars after 1945 confirmed the declining historical agency of military power in recent decades. The colonial powers, despite enjoying overwhelming military superiority in relation to national resistance forces, lost almost every colonial war. The French experience in Indochina and Algeria were, perhaps, the clearest instances of this decisive shift in the operation of the balance of forces in conflict situations in the global South. The genocidal behavior of ISIS along with the regional and global consensus that has formed around its containment and defeat provides a legitimate basis for reliance on military power if coupled with a recognition of its narrow utility, given the mix of political circumstances, including the prior Shi’a abuses in Sunni areas of Iraq and the insistence of parts of the population, especially in Iraq, to be freed in the future from Shi’a governance. The superior military capabilities of the intervening forces do not assure an enduring victory even if it achieves temporary control over a combat zone; what counts is a sense that the political future is entrusted to the indigenous society and to a legitimate national government rather than managed and manipulated by outsiders. It is surprising that the colonial record of failure with respect to military interventions under Western auspices in the period since 1945 did not yield a much more selective approach toward uses of force by the West when addressing security threats in the Middle East and elsewhere in the South.

The U.S. war efforts’ outcome in Vietnam was lamented in Washington, provoking much handwringing with respect to why the Vietnam War was lost, but without questioning the militarist mindset that had, for more than ten years, guided American participation in the struggle. After the Vietnam War a variety of steps were taken to fix the military instrument so that it could function more effectively in the future. However, what was not done, was an assessment of why military intervention had itself become intrinsically dysfunctional late in the 20th century–in contrast to earlier times when it provided an efficient instrument of force projection and allowed the assertion of control over foreign societies. It was true that after the Vietnam experience the American public, for several reasons, became disillusioned about getting involved in distant wars seemingly unrelated to national defense or clearly explainable national interests. Militarists derided this public disillusionment by derisively speaking of ‘the Vietnam syndrome,’ a label intended to convey the unhealthy reluctance of the American public to support the use of military power. The Gulf War, and then the NATO Kosovo War, seemed to remedy the political situation by the delivering quick military victories, and–this is crucial–achieved with minimal casualties, accompanied by national enthusiasm that was bolstered by the militarist claim that warfare could now bring victory to the West in what were approvingly labeled ‘zero casualty wars.’ This change in war fighting tactics was promoted by militarists who were trying to regain their political traction in Washington. They sold it as ‘a revolution’ in the conduct of warfare: no boots on the ground, precision targeting from the air and heavy explosive payloads accurately delivered over long distances with ‘shock and awe’ drama, and a supposedly more respectful relationship between intervening forces and the indigenous population.

It is not surprising that President George H.W. Bush’s first exultant words after victory in 1991 were “We have finally kicked the Vietnam Syndrome”. This is best translated as saying “we can again confidently use military force as a potent instrument of American foreign policy, without encountering either anti-war resistance at home or facing the prospect of a disillusioning long war that ends in defeat.” Actually, it was not as innovative as claimed. The neoconservative Project for a New American Century made this clear in its influential 2000 report, which regretfully acknowledged the absence of a political mandate to support the regime-changing military interventions that it strategically favored in the Middle East.[22] The report contended that ‘a new Pearl Harbor’ was needed to create a political atmosphere in the United States that would be supportive of the aggressive geopolitics that neoconservatives believed promoted American interests in the Middle East after the Cold War. Subsequent developments would show this particular analysis of public sentiments was correct. After 9/11, the public and Congress endorsed, on the basis of a bipartisan consensus, militarist and interventionist undertakings in the Middle East that had no persuasive justification as necessary to meet threats of mega-terrorism. As it turned out, carrying out the interventionist agenda has clearly had the opposite effect of generating and intensifying terrorism in the region and beyond, implementing a misguided neoconservative diplomacy centered on upholding ‘special relationships’ with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Iraq War, launched in 2003, was a disaster from a counterterrorist point of view. It transformed a stable autocracy into a strife-ridden, occupied country that became a fertile breeding ground for extremist resistance movements.[23]

The mood of militarist optimism with respect to American uses of military force was short lived; it was discredited by the distinctive challenges of the post-9/11 world. This new approach to war fighting, while enjoying success in removing Iraq from Kuwait and persuading Serbia to withdraw from Kosovo, had not been tested in conflict situations in which the goal was to shape the outcome of political, religious, and ethnic strife in medium-sized states, in response to counterterrorist regime-changing interventions, and in relation to dispersed extremist base areas situated in countries with which the United States is at peace. The threats posed in the post-9/11 world were unlike either the kind of missions undertaken in the failed anti-colonial wars or the success stories of the Gulf War and Kosovo. George W. Bush mindlessly sold the government and the public on a militarist response to 9/11. And surprisingly, there have been no fundamental conceptual reassessments during the Obama presidency despite the major disappointments experienced in Afghanistan, and even more so, in Iraq. At most there have been several controversial and ambiguous cautionary retreats made during the Obama presidency.

Three costly and misleading tactical ideas overlapped. First, that regime change as a result of military intervention could control the post-conflict state’s (re-)building process under the mentorship of a foreign occupation that was subsidizing economic recovery. The actual outcomes witnessed the rise of regimes that proved totally unsatisfactory from a counterterrorist point of view – regimes that seemed not even capable of providing orderly governance within their national borders. Secondly, that eliminating an unfriendly regime or a regime supportive of international terrorism or unable to prevent the use of its territory for international terrorist activities, would lead to the elimination of the terrorist threat rather than its dispersal, reconfiguration, and renewal. In different ways, both Afghanistan and Iraq, are illustrative of these unexpected blowback consequences. Without viewing conflict through a militarist lens, these consequences would have been anticipated, and the fact that they were not, strengthens the contention that policy shaped within a militarist box will not grasp the nuances of post-9/11 security challenges in the Middle East. And thirdly, that a regime-changing intervention would enhance internal security and promote the regional and global security goals of Washington. Even now those that defend the Iraq War claim, without showing why, insist that the Iraqi people are better off without the dictatorial leadership of Saddam Hussein. It seems obvious that a second coming of Saddam, despite many misgivings, is the only way to overcome the violent forms of disorder that continue to dominate the everyday landscape of Iraq.

An obvious puzzle is ‘why do smart people of good faith continue to behave dysfunctionally in the face of such costly military failures?’ There is no simple answer, and none that applies to all conflict situations. There are some elements of the ISIS type challenge that seem useful to take into account in shaping a tentative answer to such a question. I would here only mention six worth analyzing:

  • The difficulty of turning the ship of state around on fundamental issues of security. This is partly because political leaders and their advisors continue to subscribe to hard power versions of political realism, which affirms an abiding faith in the agency of military power in international conflict situations.
  • A combination of bureaucratic and special interests (military-industrial complex) that resist all efforts to reduce the defense budget, and are inclined to justify with militarist bravado high fiscal outlays to augment military capabilities even in peacetime, reinforced by exaggerating security threats that are usually accompanied by fear-mongering; a compliant media has the effect of setting limits on ‘responsible’ debate, marginalizing the critics of militarism.
  • A prevalent feature of collective political consciousness, which views current forms of terrorism as both evil and extremely frightening, with restored security depending on their elimination, and not an eventual negotiated accommodation.
  • More controversially, the merger of counterterrorist tactics with a broader American program of global pacificiation that depends upon a structure of military globalization that is given the unacknowledged mission of upholding the neoliberal world economy. This necessarily mixes the pursuit of geopolitical goals that arouses anti-West resentment with the realization of somewhat inconsistent counterterrorist objectives.[24] The Iraq War, its motivations, frustrations, and eventual failure, exemplify the tensions and contradictions caused by pursuing geopolitical goals beneath a banner of counterterrorism.
  • The adoption of this militarist agenda by the United States is tantamount to a partial rejection of the ethos of self-determination in the post-colonial era and as such opposes the flow of history.
  • The militarist mindset, by its very nature, does not adequately explore alternative and complementary nonmilitary responses to terrorist provocations, and as a result tends to produce outcomes that are the opposite of what is set forth as initially justifying military intervention. For instance, the attack on Iraq was seen as part of a policy to contain Iran, yet its effects were to expand the regional influence of Iran, including the irony of bringing Iraq into its sphere of influence. In this respect, the United States, at great expense, produced widespread devastation and casualties. It not only failed to achieve its goals, but has become worse off than had it accepted Saddam Hussein’s autocracy as it did gratefully during the Cold War due to anti-Soviet, rather than anti-Iran priorities, and then, incidentally, turning a blind eye toward the abusive human rights record.

In my view, the basic conceptual mistake of militarism is its inability to recognize the limits of the military instrument in achieving desired security goals under current historical conditions and in light of the essentially non-military distinctive challenges responsible for the rise of jihadist extremism. As argued, not only does militarism not achieve its goals, it makes matters worse. This has been the experience of warfare generally after 9/11, and most concretely in relation to the ISIS phenomenon. More precisely, the successes of counterterrorist operations have been essentially preventive law enforcement actions, the failures have been foreign wars.



The Diplomatic Critique of Militarism


One of the most seasoned and thoughtful American diplomats in the Middle East, Chas Freeman, has similarly diagnosed this failed militarism in the region from a mainstream perspective–with illuminating insight. As Freeman put it, “the major achievement of multiple interventions in the Muslim world has been to demonstrate that the use of force is not the answer to very many problems but there are few problems it cannot aggravate.”[25] Or more succinctly, the militarist impulse is a goad to action, in his words, “Don’t just sit there, bomb something.” Freeman’s main point is that not only has military intervention failed almost wherever it was relied upon, despite enjoying the benefit of overwhelming superiority in capabilities, but that it has made the situation worse than it would have been had the situation been left to fester on its own. Again Freeman expresses this assessment in clear language: “Our campaign against terrorism with global reach has multiplied our enemies and continuously expanded their areas of operation.”[26]

When it comes to ISIS, or Da’esh as he prefers to call it, Freeman’s diagnosis is a direct challenge to mainstream thinking: “Given our non-Muslim identity, solidarity with Israel, and recent history in the Fertile Crescent, the U.S. cannot hope to unite the region’s Muslims against Da’esh.” Freeman adds that we cannot stop Da’esh “without fixing the broken political environment in which extremism flourishes.”[27] What this might mean is uncertain, and whether such goals are within reach of the US and its allies is dubious even if recalibrated. Yet, what makes Freeman’s approach worthy of close attention is that he is a Washington insider who dares to think outside the militarist box, and has paid a political price for doing so. His views acknowledge the fundamental failures of military intervention, blaming the rise of ISIS (Da’esh) on American mishandling of Iraq and Syria. The failure is not just the formidable difficulty of translating ‘mission accomplished’ results on a battlefield into a program of political transformation designed to produce results congenial to Western ideas of regional and global security. It is the more generic matter of territorial resistance encountered in the 21st century whenever a Western intervening power seeks to override the politics of self-determination.

The political side of the Freeman story is revealingly relevant. When President Obama near the beginning of his presidency proposed Freeman to be the chief of National Intelligence Estimates, a pushback of tsunami proportions blocked the appointment. An official, no matter how qualified, who was situated outside the militarist box would naturally be expected to be a subversive presence inside the box, and for this reason would not be wanted by the Washington nomenclatura. Perhaps, Freeman’s real Achilles’ heel was his willingness to question along the same lines ‘the special relationship’ with Israel in framing his critique of American foreign policy in the Middle East. As the controversy heated up, the White House abruptly withdrew Freeman’s name from further consideration. In effect, this amounted to an undisguised surrender to the militarist worldview with the Israel Lobby serving as the No. 1 enforcer. The Freeman experience confirms the opinion that the militarist bias of governmental policymaking is currently impenetrable. Thus, there is little likelihood of adopting an approach to the menace posed by ISIS and related phenomena that is any less prone to blowback and harmful adverse consequences.

Not all of Freeman’s policy recommendations seem helpful. He is too ready to work toward stability by collaborating with the most authoritarian political actors in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, while overlooking their miserable record in human rights, including crushing popular uprisings. And worst of all, overlooking the massive Saudi financial and diplomatic commitment to the international dissemination of a fundamentalist version of Islam. Freeman puts himself on the wrong side of history by repudiating the Arab Spring from its inception, and is even critical of the American failure to lend support to such old allies as the corrupt and oppressive leader of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak. In these respects, Freeman seems insensitive to the mass misery experienced by impoverished populations in the Middle East; he would likely be antagonistic to the still unfolding effort of the peoples in the region to control their destinies. The appropriate diplomatic posture for the United States is one of non-intervention, not one of either regime change or regime stabilization. Admittedly, this posture of detachment may produce results that bring chaos and strife to a foreign country, but it seems preferable to accept the dynamics of self-determination than to embark on the futile and destructive work of opposing populist and nationalist challenges to the established order.



A Concluding Note


In light of the analysis offered, it is essential to draw a sharp distinction between dealing with ISIS as a present reality and pursuing policies, as in the past, that create conditions conducive to the emergence of jihadist challenges. In this regard, coping with ISIS requires some reliance on military power to contain and preempt its violent activities and, if possible, engage with its forces in battlefield combat in which it is likely to be defeated, but combined with a willingness to have exploratory negotiations and even a receptivity to possible diplomatic compromise. Such an outlook would be in line with the extended effort in Colombia to find an end to the prolonged strife between FARC and the state, in the Philippines to end the rebellion on the island of Mindanao.

On the broader issues of security, abandoning militarism as the cornerstone of counterterrorist strategy would be a dramatic starting point. President Obama has gone part of the way by seeking to reduce American combat activities in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, but with only limited success and an uncertain will. Obama is to be praised for his insistence that the ‘global war’ against terrorism not be treated as a ‘perpetual’ conflict, but the policies pursued by his administration seem insufficiently modified to give such ideas real world credibility.[28] Instead, Obama’s approach is seen as an instance of ‘weak militarism’ that pleases neither militarists nor critics, but has more continuities than discontinuities with his neocon predecessor in the White House.

There are several connected policy proposals that seem responsive to the global and regional setting that exists at the present time. First of all, desist from policies of military intervention that are unlikely to succeed at acceptable costs and will likely generate conditions conducive to the rise and spread of transnational terrorism. Secondly, recognize that the security priority of the West is to prevent attacks within Western homelands or against Western targets, making the challenge more in the nature of law enforcement, inter-governmental collaboration, terrorist prevention than the sort of traditional military undertakings associated with deterrence, defense, retaliation, and foreign territorial occupation. This understanding makes international collaboration with police, intelligence, and internal security forces of foreign countries the most promising way to address this category of mega-transnational terrorist threat.

It also seems sensible to discourage, and even restrict, Islamophobic sentiments and activities, but without abridging freedom of expression. The political response to the Charlie Hebdo incident was exaggerated, and illustrative of how the Western establishment should not respond. Western leaders took the occasion of a horrifyingly brutal and murderous incident to identify unnecessarily and excessively with an often viciously anti-Muslim magazine. And although some display of solidarity with the victims of such a vicious attack was certainly justified as a counterterrorist affirmation of freedom of expression, it was widely perceived and presented to the world as a seizure of an opportunity to slam Islam through appearing to endorse the inflammatory outlook of Charlie Hebdo with greater vigor than was being devoted to upholding the abstract principle of freedom of expression. Beyond this, why should this incident have drawn such a display of global solidarity, with many heads of state joining the huge Paris demonstration, than earlier or subsequent comparably brutal incidents of terrorist violence?

As suggested, the emergence of ISIS was definitely a byproduct of American-led militarism, and its containment will not be effectively achieved by reliance on militarism. The needed policies for such a hybrid war is a mixed strategy that emphasizes the political, seeks the higher moral and legal ground, and is imaginative about and receptive to diplomatic opportunities to restore security.



[1] See United States v. Nicaragua, ICJ Reports 1986.

[2] See UN Security Resolution 1973, 17 March 2011.

[3] For views that practice of dominant states alters legal norms by setting precedents, see Anthony C. Arend & Robert J. Beck, International Law and the Use of Force Beyond the Charter Paradigm (New York: Palgrave, 1993); Mark Weisbrud, Use of Force: The Practice of States Since World War II (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1997); see especially, Ruchi Anand, Self-Defense in International Relations (New York: Palgrave, 2009); for strong geopolitically oriented jurisprudence, see Michael J. Glennon, Limits of Law: Prerogatives of Power: Interventionism after Kosovo (New York: Palgrave, 2001).

[4] There is a good case to be made that Vietnam War was the turning point. In post-Cold War settings, the NATO Kosovo War and the Iraq War of 2003 were both non-defensive wars undertaken without the authorization of the UN Security Council.

[5] In struggling with the relationship between legal norms, defying patterns of state practice, and the absence of strong central institutions, some scholars have identified ‘the law’ with ‘reasonable expectation,’ which turns out to be deferential to dominant political actors. For an influential attempt along these lines, see Myres S. McDougal & Florentino P. Feliciano, Law and Minimum World Public Order (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1961).

[6] An intense fear of further attacks after 9/11 as undermining respect for international legal constraints is depicted from a governmental insider’s perspective in Jack Goldsmith, Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment inside the Bush Administration (New York: Norton, 2007)

[7] For critical commentary on retaliatory strikes in a pre-9/11 atmosphere, see E.P. Thompson & Mary Kaldor, Mad Dogs: The US Raids of Libya (1986); there were also retaliatory responses to the Al Qaeda attacks on the USS Cole and on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

[8] See for a challenging interpretation of the impact of transnational terrorism on the nature of world order: Philip Bobbitt, Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century (New York: Knopf, 2008).

[9] George W. Bush, September 20,, 2001, speech to Joint Session of the US Congress.

[10] Nicaragua vs. United States, ICJ Reports (1986) is the most authoritative judicial treatment of the scope of self-defense, refrains from expressing an opinion on the legality of anticipatory self-defense. In §194 of the decision the following statement appears: “In view of the circumstances in which the dispute has arisen, reliance is placed by the Parties only on the right of self-defence in the case of an armed attack which has already occurred, and the issue of the lawfulness of a response to the imminent threat of armed attack has not been raised. Accordingly the Court expresses no view on that issue.”

[11] On the torture debate, see Sanford Levinson (Ed.), Torture: A Collection (New York, Oxford, 2004); Marjoried Cohn (Ed.), Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse (New York: New York University Press); Alfred McCoy, Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012).

[12] This suggestion of a middle course is not represented in the literature very well; there assessments are either apologetic or denunciatory. For example, Philippe Sands, Lawless World: Making and Breaking Global Rules (New York: Penguin, 2006); compare John Yoo, Crises and Command: The History of Executive Power from George Washington to George W. Bush (New York: Kaplan, 2005).

[13] For two attempts, see Richard Falk, The Great Terror War (Northampton: Interlink, 2003) and Gens David Ohlin, The Assault of International Law (New York: Oxford, 2013).

[14] The root cause of the Arab political encounter with the West was explicitly associated by ISIS with the artificiality of the states generated by colonial ambition in the aftermath of World War I, and originally delineated in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. The other underlying explanation of perceived injustice is traced to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, a pure colonialist pledge by the British Foreign Secretary to support the commitment of the world Zionist movement to establish a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine. See David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (New York: Henry Holt, (19—); David A. Andelman, A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today (New York: John Wiley, 2003); Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (New York: Random House, 2010); Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of the Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (London: Verso, 2015); Daniel Byman, Al Qaeda, The Islamic State, and the Global Jidhadist Movement: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[15] Western diplomacy has also contributed to the spread of jihadist politics as through the ‘special relationship’ with Saudi Arabia despite its encouragement of jihadism in numerous ways, including billions of dollars to finance madrasas throughout the Islamic world. See Richard Falk, “Saudi Arabia and the Price of Royal Impunity,” Middle East Eye, 6 October 2015.

[16] See Marc Lynch, The New Arabs Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East (New York: Public Affairs, 2016); also: Richard Falk, Chaos and Counterrevolution: After the Arab Spring (Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, 2015).

[17] See Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York, Henry Holt, 2000).

[18] See the rise of David Petraeus as a result of his influential text revising counterinsurgency thinking: U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual: U.S. Army Field Manual No. 3-24 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). See Fred Kaplan, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013); the failure of such tactical onslaughts as ‘shock and awe’ in the 2003 attack on Iraq as essentially a belief that political ends could be achieved by a traumatizing show of military superiority.

[19] Effectively explored in Deepak Tripathi, Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2011).

[20] Richard Falk, The Costs of War: International Law, the UN, and World Order after the Iraq War (New York: Routledge, 2008).

[21] See books cited in Note 14.

[22] “Rebuilding American Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century,” Project for a New American Century, Sept. 2000.

[23] See Note 12.

[24] See Jeff Halper, War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians, and Global Pacification (London: Pluto, 2015).

[25] Chas Freeman, “The End of the American Empire,” April 2, 2016, Remarks at the Barrington Congregational Church, Barrington, RI.

[26] Chas Freeman, America’s Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East (Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, 2016), 238.

[27] Note 24, 17

[28] See President Barack Obama, “U.S. Drone and Counterterror Policy,” National Defense University, March 23, 2013.


Why Arms Control is the Enemy of Nuclear Disarmament

9 Jul

No First Use: Arms Control versus Disarmament Perspectives


I have long believed that it is important to disentangle the advocacy of nuclear disarmament from the prevailing arms control approach. The core difference in perspective can be summarized as follows: arms controllers seek to stabilize nuclearism, reserving nuclear weapons for use as deterrent weapons of last resort; nuclear disarmers seek to get rid of nuclear weapons as reliably as possible, and forever; disarmers regard their possession, development, and potential use as deeply immoral as well as dangerous from the perspective of long-term human security.


President Barack Obama ever since his 2009 speech at Prague projecting a vision of a world without nuclear weapons has confused public understanding by straddling the fence between these two incompatible perspectives. He often talks like a potential disarmer, as during his recent visit to Hiroshima, but acts like an arms controller, as in the appropriation of $1 trillion for the modernization of the existing nuclear weapons arsenal over the next 30 years or in NATO contexts of deployment.


There is a quite prevalent confusion among those constituencies that purport to favor nuclear disarmament of supposing that the adoption of arms control measures is not only consistent with, but actually advances toward the realization of their objectives. Such reasoning is deeply confused in my view. It is not just that most formulations of arms control regard nuclear disarmament, if at all, as an ‘ultimate’ goal, that is, as no goal at all falling outside the domain of policy feasibility.

Obama signaled his own confusion in two features of his Prague speech: first, indicating without giving any rationale (there is none) that achieving nuclear disarmament might not be achieved in his lifetime; secondly, avoiding any mention of the legal imperative of a good faith commitment to pursue nuclear disarmament that was unanimously endorsed by an otherwise divided court in the International Court of Justice historic Advisory Opinion of 1996.


Incidentally, the label ‘advisory’ is deeply misleading as this legal pronouncement by the highest judicial body in the UN System is the most authoritative interpretation attainable of relevant international law by distinguished jurists drawn from the main legal and cultural traditions active in the world. For such a diverse group to agree on the legal imperative of disarmament is notable, and for it to be ignored by a supposed advocate who is in a position to act is both revealing and irresponsible.


My view of the tension between the two perspectives can be briefly articulated: arms control measures unless tied to a disarmament scenario make the retention of nuclear weapons less prone to accident, inadvertent use, and unnecessary missions while reinforcing the logic of deterrence and indirectly expressing the view that a reliable nonproliferation regime is the best that can be hoped for ever since the nuclear genie escaped confinement. Such an approach makes the advocacy of nuclear disarmament

appear to be superfluous idealism, at best, and an imprudent

challenge to deterrence and realism, at worst. There is a coherent argument for such a posture, but it is not one that credible supporters of a nuclear zero or nuclear disarmament should feel comfortable with as it undercuts their supposed priority to eliminate the weaponry once and for all, although moving to zero by verified stages. This contrasts with the central undertaking of the arms control community to live with nuclear weapons as prudently as possible, which translates into nonproliferation, safety, prudent foreign

policy, non-provocative weapons development and deployment, and trustworthy crisis management.


Printed below is a recent editorial of the Arms Control Association proposing the American adoption of a no first use policy as a crucial declaratory step in advancing their agenda of nuclear prudence. Its line of argument well illustrates the overall nuclearist logic of the arms control establishment, which also tries to justify its proposal by showing that nuclear weapons are not needed to fulfill America’s worldwide geopolitical ambitions. These ambitions can be satisfied in all circumstances, it is alleged, except a nuclear attack by a nuclear weapons state, by relying on U.S. dominance in conventional weaponry.


Here is a further issue raised: for states that possess or contemplate the possession of nuclear weapons, yet are vulnerable to conventional weaponry of potential adversaries, the implicit rationale of the Arms Control Association editorial is that such states have strong

justifications for retaining, and even for developing such weaponry. In effect, countries such as Iran and North Korea can read this editorial as suggesting that they need nuclear weapons to deter surrounding countries with superior conventional weaponry from exerting undue influence via intervention or coercive diplomacy. In effect, the Arms Control Association no first use position, by treating that the U.S. Government and think tank policy community as its target audience, is undercutting the ethical and political rationale for nonproliferation as a rule of world order. As security is the acknowledged prime value in state-centric world order, an argument justifying nuclear weapons for the leading military power in the world is in effect providing non-nuclear states that feel threatened with a powerful

argument for acquiring a nuclear deterrent.


A final clarification: I have long favored the adoption of a no first use policy on its own merits, including at the height of the Cold War. It not only underscored the immorality and criminal unlawfulness of any initiating use, but if properly explained could be taken as a vital step in a disarming process. As long as no such posture was adopted even by the United States, with its formidable conventional military options, it meant that the potential use of nuclear weapons was never taken off the geopolitical table. This meant, as well, that the nuclear weapons labs were encouraged to envision potential roles for these weapons of mass destruction and design weaponry configured to carry out such missions.


In effect, a nuclear disarmament position also entails a repudiation of geopolitical ambitions to project worldwide military power as the United States has done ever since the end of World War II. This grandiose undertaking has weakened the UN, undermined respect for international law, and subverted democratic institutions within the United States and elsewhere, all while making the country more insecure than at any time in its history and its enemies more bold and aggressive. The common flaw of dominant political actors is to underestimate the will and capability of its militarily weaker adversaries to develop effective modes of resistance. Both the Vietnam experience and 9/11 should have imparted this basic message that the United States was endangering its future (and that of the world) by its posture of geopolitical hubris built on the false belief that the effective agent of change in the twenty-first century is military

dominance. The nuclear dimension of this hubris is particularly dangerous, and ultimately debilitating.


It is long overdue to distinguish arms control from disarmament. Arms controllers have made such a choice, purging genuine advocates of disarmament from their ranks as dreamers. The arms control voice is welcome in government even when their proposals are rejected because they collide with geopolitical goals. In contrast, the voice of disarmers is popular among the peoples of the world. Obama’s Prague speech made such a worldwide social impact, and continues to resonate, because it was widely heard (incorrectly) as putting the United States firmly on a disarmament path.


Unfortunately, after eight years of an Obama presidency it is as clear as ever that it is civil society alone that carried the disarmament torch during this period, somewhat backed by a series of non-nuclear governments that are not complicit beneficiaries of America’s nuclear umbrella (e.g. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan). In this spirit, although not always sufficiently clear about the policy implications of their nuclear disarmament agenda, the best vehicle for those favoring nuclear disarmament is the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and such initiatives as Chain Reaction 2016 and the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy.




Editorial Published on Arms Control Association (; posted June 30, 2016


Take Nuclear First-Use Off the Table

The Cold War standoff that gave rise to tens of thousands of nuclear weapons ended a quarter century ago, and U.S. and Russian deployed arsenals have been slashed through verifiable arms control agreements.

Unfortunately, the risks of nuclear weapons use are still far too high, in part because the policies developed to justify their possession and potential use remain largely the same.

President Obama in 2009 at Hradčany Square Prague, Czech Republic (Photo: White House)

Early in his presidency, President Barack Obama made clear that he sought “to put an end to Cold War thinking” and pledged to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same.”

On June 6, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes pledged that the president “will continue to review whether there are additional steps that can be taken to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our own strategies and to reduce the risk of inadvertent use.”

One very important step would be for Obama to declare that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons. Such a decision could unwind dangerous Cold War-era thinking and greatly strengthen U.S. and global security.

Limiting the circumstances under which the United States would use nuclear weapons was a goal laid out by the “Nuclear Posture Review Report” in 2010, which said the United States should pursue the objective of making deterrence against a nuclear attack the “sole purpose” of the nuclear arsenal.

Nevertheless, current policy still leaves several dangerous and destabilizing nuclear weapons-use options on the table, including the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict to pre-empt a real or suspected nuclear attack, to counter the possible use of chemical or biological weapons, or to halt a massive conventional military threat against U.S. forces or allies.

Today, the United States and Russia still deploy thousands of nuclear warheads on hundreds of bombers, missiles, and submarines. Current U.S. strategy requires that there are enough nuclear forces available to destroy nearly 1,000 enemy targets, many in urban areas, and that these weapons can be launched within minutes of a decision to do so.

Maintaining such a capability plays a large role in compelling Russia—and may soon help to lead China—to field a sizable portion of their nuclear forces in a launch-under-attack mode in order to avoid a disarming nuclear strike. This, in turn, increases the chance that nuclear weapons might be used or dispersed by U.S. adversaries in a crisis.

As Obama correctly said in 2008, the requirement for prompt launch is “a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation.”

By adopting a no-first-use policy, the United States could positively influence the nuclear doctrines of other nuclear-armed states, particularly in Asia. Such a shift in U.S. declaratory policy could also alleviate concerns that U.S. ballistic missile defenses might be used to negate the retaliatory potential of China and Russia following a pre-emptive U.S. nuclear attack against their strategic forces.

Shifting to a no-first-use policy would not, in any way, undermine the U.S. ability to deter nuclear attack by another state. It is well established that U.S. nuclear forces and command-and-control systems could withstand even a massive attack, and given the size, accuracy, and diversity of U.S. forces, the remaining nuclear force would be more than sufficient to deliver a devastating blow to any nuclear aggressor.

Given the overwhelming U.S. conventional military edge, there is no plausible circumstance that could justify—legally, morally, or militarily—the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat. U.S. nuclear weapons are useless in deterring or responding to nuclear terrorism or to a potential chemical, biological, or cyberattack by state or nonstate actors.

A no-first-use policy would not undermine confidence in U.S. defense commitments to key allies. Even if there were to be a conventional military conflict with a nuclear-armed state, such as Russia in the Baltic Sea region or elsewhere, the employment of nuclear weapons would be counterproductive because it would trigger an uncontrollable and potentially suicidal escalation of nuclear weapons use. As a result, the threat of nuclear weapons first-use to counter non-nuclear attacks lacks credibility.

In remarks delivered in Hiroshima May 27, Obama declared that “among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.” Yes, we must.

A U.S. no-first-use policy would reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe, improve the prospects for further Russian nuclear cuts, and draw China into the nuclear risk reduction process. It would put a spotlight on the dangerous nuclear doctrines of Pakistan and North Korea, where the risk of nuclear weapons use is perhaps most severe, and challenge them to reconsider the first-use option.

By encouraging a new norm against first-use of nuclear weapons, Obama could help ensure, for this generation and those to come, that nuclear weapons are never used again.



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

29 Jun



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



Imagining the World After the Cold War


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


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

the world.


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


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


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


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


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



The Unexpected Appeal and Rise of the Reactionary Right


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


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



An Establishment Out of Touch


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


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



Losing it in America


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


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

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


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



The Global Landscape

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


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



‘It’s the System, Stupid’


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

A Weak UN Ensures a Weak Secretary General

13 Jun



There are many angles of interpretation relevant to the startling admission by Ban Ki-moon that he succumbed to undisguised diplomatic pressure when removing Saudi Arabia from the ‘shame list’ of countries whose armies are found responsible the maiming and killing of children, earning them dishonorable mentioned in an annex to the annual UN report on violations of children’s rights. The scale and severe nature of such violations, committed in the course of the Yemeni intervention carried out by the Saudi led coalition of countries is beyond serious doubt, detailed in the UN report and strongly endorsed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. These most respected of human rights NGOs reacted with moral outrage that the SG would give way to such unseemly and crude pressure, which has the effect of undermining the precarious stature of the UN making visible for all to see how geopolitical considerations outweigh even these most fundamental of humanitarian concerns, the protection of children in war zones..


There is more to this incident than one more demonstration that this particular SG lacks the political will to uphold the integrity and autonomy of the UN. On display, as well, was the crude manner in which the UN Saudi ambassador, Abdullah al-Mouallami, threw around his political weight without enduring any backlash. This diplomat openly is accused of threatening the UN with ‘adverse consequences,’ and also with issuing a warning that UN emergency programs in such distressed areas as Gaza, Syria, and South Sudan would lose their Saudi (and Gulf coaltion) funding. Apparently, rather pathetically, Ban Ki-moon, thought it better to give ground, and so explained removing Saudi Arabia from the shame list until a joint review determined what to do as the lesser of evils. The greater evil the SG suggested would be to lose financial support for vital programs that affect a far greater number of children.


The ambassador made clear that this face saving procedure to review the listing was not to be construed as consenting to an objective inquiry, declaring that the removal of Saudi Arabia from the list was ‘unconditional and irreversible.’ Whether the disclosure of these sordid happenings will challenge the Saudi insistence remains to be seen. What is evident, and offers the world a glimmer of encouragement, is that Saudi Arabia, despite its notorious human rights record, takes seriously enough its international reputation as to make such use of strong arm tactics that are as demeaning as the UN report itself. The SG retreat also shows to the world that being a monetary heavyweight can matter in the UN as much as being a P-5 member or geopolitical leader.


What Saudi Arabia had achieved by relying on its economic leverage, Israel and the United States manage to gain more subtly by persuasion. Both governments leaned heavily on the SG to ensure that Israel would not be on the shame list in view of its violations of the rights of children in the course of the bloody 2014 Gaza War. In an earlier massive attack started at the end of 2008, the SG dutifully buried a report strongly condemning Israel for deliberately targeting UN facilities where Palestinian civilians were receiving shelter. So it is important to appreciate that Saudi Arabia is not by any means alone in applying extra-legal pressure to avoid losing face by adverse findings. The fact that the U.S. special relationship with Israel includes helping Israel cover up such serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights standards is also an added reason for disappointment.


The good news is that governments do their upmost to avoid moral and legal opprobrium as a result of UN initiatives, and this is because it matters. Recall the furious Israeli reaction to the infamous Goldstone Report of 2009 that found Israel guilty of numerous violations of the law of war in the course of its attack on Gaza months earlier, which had the effect of burying the report’s recommendations for further action but did validate the allegations of criminality made in civil society, contributing to the discrediting of Israel’s occupation policies and practices, especially as enacted in Gaza. The bad news is that the leverage of the powerful and rich consistently leads the UN to buckle beneath the weight of backroom influence.

What gives this Saudi event salience is the transparency and effectiveness of the inappropriate behavior, which includes the SG’s unusually candid acknowledgement of what took place, producing a media shout out that encourages a critical assessment of the UN and its leadership. Perhaps, Ban Ki-moon in his final months as SG has decided to tell it like it is, having kept his mouth shut and mostly doing what he was told to do for the nearly ten years that he occupied the highest UN post.


There are two ways to view Ban Ki-moon’s handling of Saudi pressure. The first impulse is to condemn the SG for cavalierly disregarding the values of the UN Charter, human rights, and international law. From this perspective, Ban Ki-moon reinforced his overall image throughout his two terms as a weak international civil servant who is blown in whatever the direction of the prevailing wind happens to be. A second line of interpretation is more charitable, suggesting that Ban Ki-moon was confronted by a ‘Sophie’s choice’ dilemma: either to insist on the integrity of the shame list or balance the competing costs, and thus exhibit flexibility by opting to keep the economic assistance flowing to places of dire need.


What both interpretations suggest is the subordination of UN operations to geopolitical realities, not only as this incident unfolded, but also more tellingly with respect to the underlying structural characteristics of the UN. The manner of choosing a SG, requiring endorsement by each of the P-5, virtually guarantees the selection of a person of weak character and strong ambition. The fact that there have been some partial exceptions among the eight SGs that have so far served is mainly an indication that the gatekeepers have not always succeeded in doing their job of making sure that a person of unshakable moral character is ever selected. Political astuteness, which is understood to me a realistic willingness to be responsive to geopolitical pressures has been part of the job description all along. We can still hope for another Dag Hammarskjold, U Thant, or Kofi Annan who will somehow get through the gate, imparting dignity once more to the office of Secretary General, but from a structural point of view such a happy outcome must still be viewed essentially as an accident.


Closely related is the even more fundamental recognition that the funding supply chains of the UN are tied directly to these geopolitical levers of influence. The UN is kept on a short financial leash so that the leaders of the Organization will not get the wrong idea, and think of themselves as independent political actors owing primary loyalty to the UN Charter and the ideals set forth in its Preamble. It would be a simple matter to impose a tax on international financial transactions or international flights that would generate the revenue needed to fund the entire UN system. This idea has been around for decades, earlier discussed as ‘the Tobin tax,’ named after the Yale Nobel Prize economist, James Tobin, who is credited with first proposing such a tax in 1972. Why it has never happened should not be a mystery. Those who control the UN have no incentive to loosen their grip. Civil society, although supportive of such an initiative, has never been sufficiently motivated to mount the sort of transnational campaign that succeeded in getting the International Criminal Court established despite geopolitical resistance. Absent political will from above or mobilization from below there is no prospect of achieving the degree of financial independence that would allow a SG in the future to react with anger to the sort of demand made effectively by the current Saudi Arabia ambassador.


It is evident that the combination of a discretionary veto conferred upon the P-5, which is a legalized exemption of unlimited scope from UN authority, and the leverage provided by the way the Organization is financed, ensures the primacy of geopolitics in the principal operations of the UN. This is what was intended from the beginning of the UN, and this is what has happened all along. It is written into the UN Charter, which provides the constitutional framework and is veto proof against any geopolitically unwanted modification intended to make the UN more responsive to international law rather than to the grand strategies of its dominant members and their closest friends.


Despite such disappointments and shortcomings, the UN plays a vital role on the global stage, and its contributions, actual and potential, should not be overlooked. The UN provides a forum available to all states, raising to global visibility the concerns of the weaker governments in a manner that can make a difference. The UN also provides the principal auspices for multilateral diplomacy, as in relation to such lawmaking events as the Paris Climate Change Agreement of a year ago.


As an organization of states, the UN fails to address the agendas of the peoples of the world, especially those so marginalized and vulnerable as not to be adequately represented by governments. Proposals for the establishment of a Global Peoples Assembly, parallel to the General Assembly, have been forward over the years, but have not been realized because opposed by the representatives of a state-centric world order that are unwilling to share the formal stage of authority with civil society representatives even as the actualities of globalization have drained power and energy away from states.


Perhaps, the most overlooked, yet significant role of the UN is to be a major player in Legitimacy Wars, throwing their weight on one side or the other in the many ongoing struggles around the world. The UN can also issue reports and gather reliable information that disclose ‘inconvenient truths,’ which are influential with world public opinion, and provoke the sort of awkward responses that led to Saudi embarrassment, followed by anger, leading to the even more embarrassing accommodation by a much compromised Ban Ki-moon. At the same time, the incident also called wider attention to the abuse of children in the Yemen intervention than would have followed by its inclusion in a UN report. Political influence and change work in strange ways, and we cannot yet know whether the disgraceful, yet understandable, behavior of the SG will yet persuade the Saudi led coalition to abandon quietly their intervention in Yemen, or at least modify their tactics.


What needs to be understood is that symbolic issues with law, morality, and justice have exerted a major impact on the resolution of conflicts since 1945. It is the normative revolution principally brought about through the achievement of the right of self-determination that has changed the map of the world, and indicated that the anti-colonial flow of history has shaped the narrative of recent decades to a greater extent even than the series of startling innovations in the weaponry and tactics of warfare. The UN seems weak when challenged by geopolitics, yet its mark on the history of our time is the clearest demonstration that its presence still matters, and will continue to do so despite the likelihood of future weak SGs and in the face of its deep structural failings to fulfill the promise of the stirring words set forth in the Preamble of the UN Charter.




Dreaming of the Next UN Secretary General

6 May



“I solemnly swear to exercise in all loyalty, discretion and conscience the functions entrusted to me as Secretary-General of the United Nations, to discharge these functions and regulate my conduct with the interests of the United Nations only in view, and not to seek or accept instructions in regard to the performance of my duties from any Government or other authority external to the Organisation.”

United Nations Secretary General’s Oath of Office


In 2006 Ramesh Thakur, one of the most perceptive and knowledgeable commentators on global issues, wrote a trustworthy account of what it takes to be selected as UN Secretary General, and then to be effective in the job. [Thakur, “In Selecting the New UN Secretary General,” Feb. 3, 2006, Daily Yomiuri] In many ways his assessment, although realistic, confirms the impression that the leadership potential of this titular position as head of the UN is structurally limited and inconsistent with the spirit of the oath of office. The reason for these low expectations, as Thakur points out, is that the “most important” requirement of the job is to be regarded when selected as acceptable to the five permanent members of the Security Council (the so-called P-5), and especially to the United States.


It is a tribute to the potential of the position of SG that the P-5 governments are exceedingly careful in vetting potential candidates, and have not yet ever been deeply disappointed by selecting a rogue SG, although once in office an individual may in some instances become somewhat more responsive to the oath of office than to the secondary wishes of his or her geopolitical masters. Such unresponsiveness, especially as it involved the United States, helps explain why Boutros Boutros-Ghali failed to obtain support for a customary second term in office back in 1996.


In practice, the selection process is ultra sensitive to this overriding need for a Secretary General to be someone that will be respectful of the geopolitical winds that blow at a given time in world politics regardless of the spirit and letter of the UN Charter. Appreciating this pattern makes it misleading to read the Charter as if it is intended to provide an authoritative framing designed to regulate the behavior of its 193 member states. It should be accepted for better and worse what it is, a constitutional framework of the UN that privileged the winners of World War II, and at the time of its founding opted for a state-centric international body that subordinated international law and the equality of sovereign states to the inequalities associated with international hierarchies of hard and soft power. In effect, the Charter itself embodies this tension between its geopolitical operating logic, as reinforced by the lack of independent funding, and the idealistic mandate of its Preamble, Purposes, and Principles. In effect, the tension can be understood as between the affirmation of juridical equality and the constitutional loophole ensuring geopolitical inequality. The UN was intended from the outset to be an Organization that enforced standards of accountability on the multiplicity of states to the best of its ability while deferring to the discretion of those deemed in 1945 to be most powerful, a status formalized by the vesting of this unrestricted right of veto in the P-5 bolstered by permanent membership in the Security Council.


The Charter is astonishingly silent about the qualifications that should guide the selection of a secretary general, but it is clear on the procedure: a recommendation must be made by the Security Council to the General Assembly for its approval. This means that the any one of the P-5 can use their veto to block a candidate. In this context, the veto has not been necessary as the P-5 have managed, even throughout the entire Cold War, to reach agreement on an acceptable candidate for SG by reliance on this method of secret backroom negotiations, which undoubtedly included much wrangling. The first eight secretaries general emerged from these dark shadows of great power bargaining, but this process gave rise to an increasing cascade of complaints from non-P-5 governments and from interested civil society organizations. These players objected to the secrecy and non-transparency of the way in which the SG was chosen.


In an accommodating response, the next secretary general is to be selected by a more seemingly democratic procedure: government nominations of multiple candidates, vision statements by the candidates, and give and take dialogues with civil society representatives. [For a helpful overview of the reformed selection process see Arabella Lang, “Selecting a New Secretary General,” UK House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper No. 7544, 3 March 2015] But we should not be misled. The decisive influence in the selection process remains the Security Council, and there the preferred candidate must still win the unanimous approval of the P-5. In the past, this has produced a race to the bottom, essentially a candidate that is not objectionable to any of these governments. As a result past SGs, with a few notable exceptions, have been ‘company men’ who have been careful not to use leverage of the position to shift the balance of world opinion on a geopolitically sensitive issues. What emerges over the year is that the SG is not expected to manifest a globalist orientation or engage in strong advocacy insisting on the universality of international law.


At the same time, the nature of the office requires that the occupant be held in reasonably high regard throughout the world and have a background of credible leadership such as to ensure confidence that the administrative and ceremonial demands of the position will be competently discharged. In other words, for the sake of the UN bureaucracy and for the morale of civil society, it has been accepted that a SG should be able to run the organization and grace ceremonial occasions with uplifting rhetoric. These secondary, but still crucial concerns, may explain why several secretaries generals have proved to be more than geopolitical placeholders, most notably Dag Hammarskjöld (1953-1961), U Thant (1961-1971), Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992-1996), and Kofi Annan (1997-2006). Surely, some SGs have been better than others at upholding the dignity and appearance of political independence attached to the position. Kurt Waldheim and Ban Ki-moon have been embarrassments to the Organization because of their failures to project the kind of public leadership that lifts spirits without damaging structures.


Against this background, even with the welcome reforms of greater public vetting, transparency, and multiple candidacies, the end result is still likely to be the selection of someone who, above all else, can be expected not to rock the geopolitical boat. Symbolically these reforms seem a step in the right direction, especially if a woman is finally chosen, although the seeming adherence to the principle of regional rotation, which means that the chosen one seems destined to be an East European. This does not augur well for the Organization given the available pool of candidates from that region. If indeed it is to be a woman, then let it be Helen Clark of New Zealand (who has been nominated by her government) or Angela Merkel of Germany or Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile (these latter two seem qualified but are unlikely to be nominated, much less selected), each a proven and principled political leader, as well as being highly experienced in managing organizations. Yet even, as seems unlikely, Clark, Merkel, or Bachelet were to be selected, the best we can hope for is a performance that is graceful and competent but that would be less than what the world needs and what the peoples of the planet deserve. The geopolitical obstacles remain firmly in place and too strong, and even if somehow circumvented, a SG who transcended the demands of geopolitics would likely run the UN into the ground in short order.


Such a pronouncement is sad. There is a severe leadership deficit at the global level, and it centers on the absence of mechanisms to uphold the human interest, as distinct from national and geopolitical interests. This is why I must comfort myself by dreaming of rather than hoping that the selection of the next secretary general is a person, ideally a woman, that would think and act globally as representative of the species, and not to uphold the ways and means of the established order. We have witnessed for decades the sorry spectacle of the failure of the UN to tackle the challenges posed by the development of nuclear weaponry or by the dangers associated with global warming. Instead of serving the human interest by achieving nuclear disarmament, the world has ended up with the protection of hierarchical arrangements as embodied in the regime of nuclear nonproliferation, which allows for the development, possession, and possible use of these weapons by the most dangerous countries in the world while enforcing double standards by precluding the acquisition of these weapons by weaker states even when threatened with an overwhelming attack by stronger neighbors.


With climate change, the search for a solution involved broadening the diplomatic format to include all 193 member states, but with an end result that what was agreed upon was essentially an aggregation of national interests as well as voluntary, with what was agreed upon falling far below what the scientific consensus has determined to be necessary for the health and wellbeing of future generations.


In more flagrant disregard of the Charter itself, and signifying Western as well as P-5 hegemony, has been the reluctance of the Organization or its principal officer ever to challenge the United States and its friends when in the face of flagrant disregard of the UN Charter provisions limiting the use of force to instances of self-defense against a prior armed attack (e.g. Vietnam, after 1965, Iraq, after 2003).


What the world urgently needs at the UN is an unshackled guardian of the global public good who articulates human interests as these arose in international life, and had the institutional capabilities to take effective action. At present, we depend on a religious leader such as Pope Francis to fill this normative vacuum, and occasionally political figures such as Gandhi, Franklin Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King rise above their national identities to represent the human interest, but such figures lack any institutional capacity to carry their words into deeds. At present, we can only dream that such a figure would be selected as the next secretary general, but we should be aware that dreams often disclose deep aspirations and can offer necessary guidance, and thus should not be ignored.


The carnage around the world, as well as the massive migrations of desperate persons, underscores the growing need for a strong United Nations led by a person who above all is dedicated to the promotion of global and human interests, and has the will and mandate to disregard geopolitical pressures. Of course, this now a private pipedream that is politically irrelevant unless it becomes embodied in a global movement for peace, justice, ecological stewardship, and the survival of the species. We have experienced the integrative wonders of neoliberal globalization, with their attendant ravaging of human wellbeing and our natural surroundings. We have also seen the dawn of moral globalization in the rise of international human rights and the call for a global rule of law, but as yet there is not visible on the horizon an organized political undertaking capable of bringing into history these faint gropings toward humane governance of planetary proportions. We still sit around expecting the next SG to continue arranging the deck chairs on a sinking vessel. I feel we are entitled to hope that the ninth UN SG will have the awareness and courage to upset these settled expectations of business as usual.











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

7 Apr


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

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

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

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

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

Israel as Arms Merchant and Pacification Ideologue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matrix of Control

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

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

Pacifying Palestinians and Pacifying the World

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Comments

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

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