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Trump, the UN, and the Future of Jerusalem

31 Dec

 

Trump, the UN, and the Future of Jerusalem

 

[Prefatory Note: This post is the modified text of an interview on behalf of the Tasnim News Agency in Iran as conducted by Mohammed Hassani. It tries to assess the wider implications of the UN reaction to Trump’s December 6th decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and to follow this by relocating the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.]

 

Q1: As you know, nearly 130 countries recently voted in favor of a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the US decision to recognize Jerusalem (al-Quds) as the capital of the Israeli regime. What message does the vote signal to the world’ public opinion?

The main message of this overwhelming rejection of the Trump recognition of al-Quds as the capital of Israel by the UN General Assembly is to disclose that the Palestinian national movement continues to enjoy strong support from each and every important country in the world, thereby rejecting the current Israeli approach, supported by the United States, to impose unilaterally a solution of the long struggle over land and rights on the Palestinian people. Such a solution would foreclose both a sovereign Palestine, deny the Palestinian people the most fundamental of all rights, that of self-determination, and preclude any fair and just arrangement of shared sovereignty between the two people.

A secondary message was the consensus in the General Assembly that on this issue of Jerusalem matters of global justice take precedence over geopolitical maneuvers. There can also be read into the vote the growing erosion of global leadership that had been exercised by Washington since the end of World War II. This erosion reflects the rise of China, and its advocacy, along with that of Russia, and maybe also even leading countries in Europe, of a multipolar approach to the formation and implementation of global policy with respect to security issues, environmental policies, and economic governance. The fact that America’s closest allies, including France, United Kingdom, and Japan voted for the resolution condemning the effort of the U.S. Government to legitimize the establishment of Jerusalem (al-Quds) as Israel’s capital is also of considerable significance. What remains to be seen is how the future of Jerusalem will unfold in light of these dramatic developments. There are currently visible two tendencies—first, the handful of negative votes by tiny island countries and a few minor and dependent Central American countries to follow the lead of the U.S. and move their embassy to Jerusalem; secondly, the counter-initiative of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to declare Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, given concrete expression by the Turkish decision to establish its embassy for Palestine in East Jerusalem.

What remains to be seen is whether the Trump presidency softens its stand on these issues or doubles or even triples down by defiantly moving its embassy to Jerusalem, withholding economic assistance from countries that voted for the resolution, and reducing its financial contributions to the UN in a vindictive display of hostility at the various actors viewed as responsible for humiliating the U.S. Government, thereby pleasing those pro-Israeli forces that insist that the UN is primarily a venue for Israel-bashing.

Q2: Prior to the UN vote on Jerusalem, US President Donald Trump had threatened to cut off financial aid to countries that voted in favor of the resolution. It seems that his warning has been ineffective. What do you think?

Yes, the ineffectiveness of such an unprecedented overt threat at the UN, abetted by back channel pressures, is definitely a sign that U.S. soft power leadership in the world is experiencing a sharp decline if measured against its reality in the years after World War II, and extending throughout the Cold War Era. More generally, the failure of Haley’s threats to influence the vote of a single country of stature in the world is also indicative of a parallel decline of geopolitical capabilities to control global policy at least on the key issue of the rights of the Palestinian people, particularly in the context of Jerusalem, which has a strong symbolic significance for many countries. What is unclear is whether this vote exhibits a broader trend among states to pursue foreign policies that exhibit their sovereign independence and distinct views of global policy, rather than as in the past, displaying a strong tendency to defer to the views of a globally dominant state(s). In this context, the radical character of Trump’s presidency may be having the effect of fracturing hegemonic structures of control in contemporary world order that were in any event faced with accumulating skepticism since the end of the Cold War, and the breakdown of the bipolar structure that had shaped much of global policy between 1945 and 1992. What Trump has done is to intensify pre-existing pressures for global restructuring, a dynamic also reinforced by the rejectionist approach taken by the United States on other key issues of global concern, including climate change, the Iran Nuclear Program (5 + 1) Agreement, global migration, ad international trade. The Trump slogan of ‘America, First’ has to be coupled with ‘World, Last,’ to grasp the extent to which the United States invites by its own initiatives a reaction against its outlier policies at odds with strong countervailing views of the international community of states as to desirable forms of global cooperation for the public good. At the very historical moment when the future of humanity depends on unprecedented action on behalf of human, habitat, and global wellbeing, the leading political actor not only withdraws from the effort, but does its best to obstruct constructive behavior. It is as if the United States Government has become a deadly virus attacking the fabric of the global body politic.

 

 

Q3: In a speech at the White House on December 6, Trump said his administration would also begin a years-long process of moving the American embassy in Tel Aviv to the holy city of Jerusalem. Do you see any chance that Trump would press ahead with his plan to relocate the embassy given the widespread international opposition? 

 

My guess at this point is that the U.S. Government will definitely implement its decision to relocate the embassy, but will probably do so in a gradual manner that does not provoke a major subsequent reaction, especially if implementation is entrusted to the State Department. Of course, any steps taken to relocate the American Embassy in Jerusalem will be correctly perceived as a defiant and provocative rejection of the conclusions set forth in the GA Resolution. In this sense, the quality and impact of reactions will depend on the political will of the Palestinian Authority, the OIC, the UN, and world public opinion. At stake, is whether the United States further produces an adverse international reaction to its behavior and whether governments seek to engage further on the issue to preserve the rights of the Palestinian people with respect to Jerusalem. The future interaction with respect to Jerusalem will be very revealing as to both the responsiveness of the United States to the rejection of its approach to the recognition of the Israeli capital at this time and as to the energy of those that supported the resolution to take further steps in the direction of achieving compliance. There is little doubt that a test of wills is likely to emerge in the months ahead that will reveal whether the Jerusalem resolution was a mere gesture or a tipping point.

 

The fact that the al-Quds resolution was itself based on The Uniting for Peace Resolution (GA Res. 377 A (V), 1950) gives its text a special status, both as the outcome of a rare Emergency Session of the General Assembly and as a truly responsible reaction on behalf of peace and security to an irresponsible use of the veto in the Security Council to block its decision of condemnation backed by a 14-1 vote, that is, all other members. This status gives the General Assembly response on Jerusalem an authoritativeness that should extend far beyond its normal recommendatory capabilities, but as earlier indicated there are few guidelines as to how such an initiative will be implemented if defied.

At stake is the larger issue of whether this path taken to circumvent a P-5 veto in the Security Council might produce a shift in UN authority to the more representative General Assembly.

 

In any event, it may well be that whatever course of action ensues will exert an important influence on how well the UN in the future can serve the human and global interest, as well as take account of distinct and aggregate national interests as opportunities present themselves. The Trump phenomenon gives a pointedness to fundamental issues of world order viability, especially a capacity to address challenges of global scope in the course of the first biopolitical moment, confronting humanity as such with a prospect of its own mortality.

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The Jerusalem Votes at the UN

23 Dec

 

 

What struck me as the most significant dimension of the Jerusalem votes in the Security Council and General Assembly has been oddly overlooked by most commentary in the media. The public discourse has, of course, been correct to identify the isolation of the United States with respect to the rest of the world as well as regarding the majority position as a defiant rejection of Trump’s leadership and bullying tactics. Although as some have noted, without the bullying by Ambassador Haley (including, I will report yes votes to the president; those that vote for the resolution will not receive economic assistance in the future; we are watching; “America will remember this day;” “the vote will make a difference on how Americans look at the UN.”), there might been as many as 150 positive votes for the resolution instead of 128, with fewer abstentions (35) and fewer absences from the vote (21).

 

Nevertheless, 128-9 is a clear expression of an overwhelming moral and legal sentiment, and deserves to be respected by any government that values the role of the General Assembly as the arbiter of legitimacy with respect to sensitive global issues. Although far weaker and more subject to geopolitical manipulation than is desirable, these main political organs of the UN provide the best guide that currently exists as to what global policy should be if the global and human interest is to be protected, and not merely an array of national interests and their multilateral aggregation to achieve cooperative results.

 

What this discussion glosses over in this instance without stopping to observe its significance is the degree to which issues of substance prevailed over matters of geopolitical alignment. Not one of America’s closest allies (UK, France, Germany, and Japan) heeded the fervent arguments and pleas of Haley and Trump. Beyond this, every important country in the world backed the General Assembly Resolution on December 21, 2017 regardless of geography or political orientation (China, Russia, India, Brazil, Turkey, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran). This unanimity enhances the quality of the consensus supportive of the resolution repudiating Trump’s arrogant decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as ‘null and void.’ Such an impression is strengthened by listing the nine governments that voted against the resolution (Guatemala, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Israel, Miscronesia, Nauru, Palau, Togo, and the U.S.).

 

Should these striking results be interpreted as the demise, or at least twilight, of geopolitics? Any such speculation would be wildly premature. What seems to have swayed many governments in this case is the negative fallout expected to follow from Trump’s unilateralism that disregards decades of international practice and agreement about the status and treatment of Jerusalem, as well as the gratuitous neglect of Palestinian rights and aspirations by taking such an initiative without even pretending to take account of Palestinian grievances. In this regard, Trump’s poor international reputation as a result of pulling out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, decertification of the Nuclear Agreement with Iran, and withdrawal from negotiations to fashion an agreed approach to the global migration crisis undoubtedly help tip the scales on the Jerusalem resolution, especially among European governments. Trump’s unpopular implementation of his diplomacy of ‘America, First’ is arguably morphing into the disturbing perception of ‘America, Last’ or the United States as ‘rogue superpower.’ Consciously or not, the UN vote was a distress signal directed at Washington by friends and adversaries alike, but as near as can be told, it will be disregarded or angrily rebuffed by the White House and its spokespersons unless they decide to pass over these happenings in silence.

 

As has been observed, the Jerusalem decision was not part of a carefully crafted international approach to the Israel/Palestine struggle. It seemed mainly to be a payoff to domestic support groups of Trump’s presidential campaign in the United States (large pro-Israeli donors and Christian Evangelists wedded to a (mis)reading of the Book of Revelations), as well as a further display of post-Obama affection for Bibi Netanyahu. Apparently, for Trump being adored in Tel Aviv seems worth being discredited with allies and leading states throughout the rest of the world. As for the threatened major aid recipients (Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and South Africa; Kenya was absent during the vote); it was impressive that all of these states ignored the threat and voted for the resolution. If Washington follows through on withholding aid it will certainly not serve America’s strategic interests as previously understood, particularly in the Middle East, but also in Africa. Yet if it fails to carry its threat, its diplomatic posture will be seen as that of a novice poker player whose untimely bluff has been called.

 

There is also the question of ‘what next?’ Will the Jerusalem resolution be remembered as a moment in time to be superseded by contrary behavioral trends? In this regard, the U.S. now has its own chance to exhibit defiance and disrespect by quickly and ostentatiously moving its embassy to Jerusalem, which will of course give rise to further anger. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has already seized the occasion to reassert its prominence in the Muslim world, first by co-sponsoring (with Yemen) the resolution, and then by explicitly calling on the U.S. Government to rescind its decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. I would darkly imagine that the Trump presidency would opt for World War III before it backed down on Jerusalem.

 

As widely reported, the Jerusalem resolution is symbolic in nature, and yet it does have serious political consequences for all relevant political actors. Does it clear a political space for the European Union to play a central role in seeking to revive a diplomatic approach on a more balanced basis than what could have been expected from Washington? How does the U.S. Government negotiate the fine line between disregarding the resolution and harming its foreign policy objectives in the Middle East? How unyielding should the Palestinian Authority be about insisting on a parallel recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine before it agrees to participate in negotiations with Israel? Will Turkey seek further steps at the UN and elsewhere to back up the resolution, including possibly fashioning realignments throughout the Middle East? Will the second tier of officials in the Trump Administration create pressure to create a foreign policy that more closely reflects U.S. national interests by taking better account of the many dimensions (digital, economic, security) of global integration?

Democracy, Development, and Reputation: Vietnam and Turkey

17 Dec

 

 

More than 25 years ago I took part in a major conference in Kuala Lumpur affirming the importance of human rights. At the end of the second day, the convener of the conference, Chandra Muzaffar, a leading advocate of human rights and democracy in Malaysia, arranged for a few of the speakers to meet with the controversial leader of the country, Prime Minister, Mahathir. I was the only Westerner among the 4 or 5 of us given this opportunity. As soon as we entered the room Mahathir looked straight at me while posing a rhetorical question: “Why do Western human rights NGOs and experts look only at our performance with respect to civil and political rights when our natural preoccupation is the promotion of economic and social rights?” Of course, his assertion was meant to challenge the complacent Orientalizing conventional wisdom, reducing the practice of human rights to whether or not a government is doing well or poorly on such issues as free elections and freedom of expression. No one denies the relevance and core vitality of rights, but not more so than whether the bottom strata of the citizenry, as measured by standard of living, can meet their basic material needs. This outlook remains dominant in the West, coloring condescending comments on non-Western human rights failures,, and persisting despite the West’s own downward spiral into the dark domains of illiberalism.

 

I was reminded of this meeting while in Vietnam for two weeks recently. Several Vietnamese intellectuals as well as the rather large Western expat community contended that the government of Vietnam had become repressive in the period since its extraordinarily victory in the Vietnam War. It was accused of harshly punishing critics and dissenters as if more scared of domestic protest than they had been of American B-52 carpet bombing. Such critics were right, of course, to lament this fall from grace on the part of Vietnam’s leaders, who also lacked the charisma and inspirational leadership of their wartime predecessors. At the same time it was unfortunate to fall into the Western trap of focusing on the failures of glasnost, while overlooking the achievements of perestroika, that is, judging political performance as the ACLU might rather than by reference to the overall wellbeing of the Vietnamese people.

 

What I am trying to draw attention to is the remarkable story of Vietnamese economic and social achievements, which center on drastically reducing extreme poverty and stimulating agricultural growth to such a level that Vietnam, previously frequently at the edge of massive famine, had become the third leading rice exporter in the world (after the U.S. and Thailand). In effect, the government of Vietnam, while failing to live up to expectations when it comes to such liberal ideals as transparency, participation, and accountability of their citizenry, was nevertheless successfully building a needs based economy in which there were relatively few below the poverty line and where almost everyone had their health, education, and housing needs met by the state. Not only was this an impressive profile of current Vietnamese society, but it represented a trajectory of steadily improving achievement. Since the 1990s, Vietnamese poverty rate had fallen from about 50% to 7% in 2015 in a period during which roughly 1/3 of the population overcame conditions of food insecurity, according to the UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food.

 

These Vietnamese national accomplishments are the normative realities obscured or ignored by the regressive kinds of thinking that validates and invalidates performance in leading capitalist societies of the West—selective quantitative indicators of economic growth and stock market performance. Let us remember that rich countries in the West are at ease living with large pockets of extreme poverty in their own affluent societies as measured by homelessness and extreme poverty, including the absence of health care, educational opportunity, and even food and housing necessities. Shocking figures of inequality are hardly ever taken into serious account. For example, the fact that the three richest Americans—Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffet—possess wealth that exceeds the earnings of the entire American working class should occasion revolutionary incitement, but actually it is put to one side as a neutral outcome of moving beyond industrial capitalism.

 

The same one-sidedness is present in the discussion of another of my favorite countries in the world: Turkey—where I have spent several months each year for the last twenty. Of course, the dynamics are very adifferent within each national setting. The discourse in Turkey resembles that of Vietnam far more than that of the United States. The critical focus of anti-government forces has been the democratic failings of AKP since it assumed power in 2002; this criticism has sharpened since a drift toward more authoritarian rule in 2011, the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations, and spiked sharply, especially in international circles, after the failed FETO coup of 2016 and the often crude and often cruelly implemented overreactions of the Erdogan government to threats that it was entitled to perceive as dangerous. The purge in universities and media of those whose views and activities were deemed unacceptable by the Turkish government, as well as the moves against specific journalists and politicians, especially those associated with supporting the struggle of the Kurdish people, are deeply troubling developments, should worry the society as a whole, and do warrant international criticism.

 

But these negative developments should not be presented as the whole story about Turkey and the AKP/Erdogan leadership. Part of the Turkish problem of perception and accuracy is a tendency of debate toward polarizations of good and evil, secular and religious, and even truth and falsity. This has led negative criticism of Turkish governmental behavior to be misleadingly expressed in the form of unbalanced criticism. In the early phase of AKP governance of the country the standard complaints of an unrelenting opposition were directed at Erdogan as dictatorial and leading the country away from Ataturk secular legacy and toward a religious polity similar to that in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Of course, this line of attack was totally wrong. The early policy priority of the AKP consisted of satisfying European Union criteria for membership, which was actually a major step in the Ataturk direction of Europeanizing the country as the best path to economic modernization. During these early AKP years, the government in Ankara made a parallel effort to get the military out of politics and back in their barracks. Fairly considered, the first decade of AKP leadership dating from say 2002 was notable for achieving fundamental democratizing reforms that many knowledgeable observers of the country could never happen in Turkey. For example, Eric Rouleau, the eminent French journalist of Middle Eastern politics and later French ambassador to Turkey believed that the Turkish military would never give up its tutelage role that was not only well entrenched in the government bureaucracy, but also considered part of the hallowed legacy of Ataturk, as to be unchallengeable. Erdogan’s leadership achieved the impossible. Additionally in this period Turkey managed to break free of its Cold War straight jacket as a NATO pawn pursuing an independent and sensibly assertive foreign policy throughout the Middle East and beyond. The country also achieved a series of successes in trade and investment that led Turkey to be considered one of the most promising of emerging economies.

 

As things got worse from the perspective of political and civil rights, it was difficult for critics to express accurately these disappointments and criticism because the earlier negative comments of the opposition had earlier been so exaggerated. Some of the harshest critics, claiming with varying degrees of accuracy that they had applauded ed what the Erdogan leadership achieved in its early years, but in recent years the management of the Turkish state had fallen from grace. Recent exaggerations claim ‘there are no longer any newspapers in Turkey worth reading’ and the like. I would argue that there has been some decline in the range of media coverage and some lessening of criticism, yet several English language newspapers, including Sabah and Daily Hurryiet remain well worth reading, have useful critical commentaries on government policies and are informative about the major issues of domestic and international policy facing the country.

 

If international assessments were more balanced and less polarized, the AKP leadership would receive considerable credit in domestic and foreign policy from better educated and informed observers of the political scene in Turkey. Criticisms of Turkey’s failed Syrian policies would be set off against the success of Ankara’s African diplomacy, the vitality of its economy despite the obstacles created by the anti-Turkish international campaign, the robustness of its foreign assistance program (second only to that of the U.S., and highest in per capita terms), the care it has accorded over 3 million Syrian (and some Iraqi) refugees, the global attention it has brought to the plight of the Rohingya, and its various regional efforts at conflict resolution (including Cyprus; Israel/Syria; Iran’s nuclear program; Balkan and Caucuses internal relations within their respective regions). Turkey, unlike either Saudi Arabia or Iran, has mostly promoted a politics of reconciliation in the region, and unlike Egypt has done a great deal to help raise the standard of living of its most disadvantaged citizenry. The Turkish government has made Istanbul a global city in many respects, a center for inter-civilizational dialogue and alliance, and a sponsor of conferences dedicated to a more peaceful, prosperous, and humane global future. The TRT World Forum a couple of months ago in Istanbul featured presentations at the opening by the Turkish Prime Minister and at the closing by Erdogan, and in between panels on a variety of world order issues with a fairly wide range of speakers (including myself).

 

My most basic criticism of the anti-government discourse in and about Turkey is along the lines of my sense of what is right in Vietnam. For the bottom 50% or so of Turks the policies of the government have enhanced greatly their material life circumstances when it comes to health, security, housing, public transportation, as well as improved participatory rights of those outside the Western urban sectors. Talking with ‘ordinary’ Turkish workers during this period, such as private car drivers, apartment managers, barbers, fruit sellers, suggest that since the AKP has governed, their lives and that of their families has steadily improved, especially with respect to basic material needs, daily life, and enjoyment of what a modern society has to offer. Often ‘secularists’ deride these AKP supporters, and Erdogan enthusiasts, as uneducated and stupid. Their response when asked why they vote Erdogan adopts the opposite line: ‘Are we stupid?’ Many of these persons actually dislike the Islamic edge of the government identity or think the Syrian policies were a huge mistake, but for what is important for them, the AKP is far superior to alternatives. In effect, there’s nothing the matter with Anatolia, unlike Kansas!

 

It is not at all like the Trump base in America where the policies adopt by the elected leaders are in general materially harmful to much of this angry and alienated American underclass, and what they get from Trump are signals encouraging racism, xenophobia, and nativist patriotism, which seem to generate strong feelings of cultural satisfaction, especially when he punctures political balloons, many of which in any event were filled                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        with liberal hot air as suggested by the many glaring human rights failures during the long period of secular hegemony.

 

In the end we would all like to live in humane societies but in the interim it would diminish polarization and enhance understanding to balance strengths and weaknesses in a more balanced manner, especially with respect to class interests. The weakening of free expression, especially by punishing dissent and

treating criticism as subversion, has horrible effects for the intellectual and creative life that affects especially the sense of wellbeing of the upper echelons of society, but also weakens the innovativeness of those working in the private sector. The material neglect of the underclass causes fundamental deprivations in the daily life of the most economically marginalized portions of societies, hitting minorities especially hard. What I am objecting to is the invisibility of the suffering of the very poor (as in America) and the refusals to acknowledge the public achievement of their improved circumstances (as in Turkey or Vietnam).

 

My argument is not meant to be a reworking of the Huntington argument in the 1970s that developmental priorities tend to make authoritarian rule a palatable prelude to democratically oriented modes of governance. I am not suggesting that it makes sense to defer concerns with democratic practices and human rights, but that normative backsliding should not be the occasion for overlooking how well or badly a government behaves in other spheres of activity. In a sense, this is a search for balance and moderation, and a plea against using ideological brickbats to tear down legitimate governing processes, which undoubtedly need reforms, but do not deserve to be blacklisted except in the most extreme cases, and this is not happening. For instance, the human rights record of Turkey and Vietnam is the target of far more insistent criticism and attack than is the far worse records of Saudi Arabia or Sisi’s Egypt. Again, it is not that being worse elsewhere does not excuse being bad, but it does raise questions about motivation and geopolitical motivation. Vietnam is in a more fortunate position that Turkey because it is valued as part of the U.S. effort to contain Chinese influence, while Turkey is increasingly seen as a thorn in the side of such American allies in the region as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. In effect, bashing countries for their poor human rights records needs to be geopolitically decoded if it is to be taken seriously.    

 

Taking Stock: One Year After Trump

20 Nov

[Prefatory Note: This post addresses the need for dialogue with the political, economic, and cultural ‘other,’ that is, those multitudes acutely alienated from and angry with secular globalism and the Enlightenment legacy often equated with ‘modernity’ and ‘modernization.’ At the core is a search for closure on the nature of reality as well as feelings about equity (given many dimensions of inequality) and ethical innovation (revisionist approaches to gender, sexuality, marriage). Does reason or faith or tradition provide greater closure? Can the Thomistic grand synthesis of the 13th Century be repeated under 21st Century condition in the rough waters of controversy generated by Trump and Trumpism? Is this too Western a way of putting the problem? I write as an American, but there are many parallels in other countries. The first step is to admit being out of touch with the ferment below the surface. A second step is a matter of identifying what is to be included, what excluded.]

 

 

 

What is going on? Commentary on the Rise of Populism

 

 

Confessions of Political Myopia

 

To avoid any impression of condescension, I will begin with a humbling root question, “Why have I been so out of touch?” After all, I have become deeply aware in recent years that intellectual elites generally have little understanding of wider public sentiments that animate upheavals and distress in America and several foreign societies. I had big trouble back in the 1970s grasping the grassroots strength of Nixon’s ‘moral majority,’ which I haughtily dismissed as the ‘immoral minority’ (perhaps, my dismissive precursor of Hilary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’). The inspiration for this essay comes not only from personal experience but from a recent reading of Thomas Frank’s non-prophetic, yet deeply illuminating, much discussed, and influential 2005 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.

 

Frank is non-prophetic because he presupposes that cultural values (family, tradition, flag) rather than material concerns would remain at ‘the heart of America.’ Trump rode to power on a demagogic appeal (foolishly discounted by the media and Beltway wizards as a campaign ploy never meant seriously) mobilizing his base with inflammatory language about jobs, jobs, jobs buttressed by fear-mongering about terrorism, blaming Goldman Sachs capitalism for unfavorable international trade deals (above all with China), illegal and unwanted immigrants (that is, Mexicans and Muslims) who tarnish the American dream, and above all Islam as a menacing threat. By and large, he put the right-wing cultural agenda to one side, while embracing its patriotic tropes, which is hardly surprising given his own freewheeling Manhattan celebrity life style that included powwows with the notorious and lewd sexist Howard Stern, not to mention the tape of his Hollywood conversation. The deeper observation here is a scary confirmation of America’s susceptibility to demagogic appeals, ethnic and religious scapegoating, and strong intimations of racism.

 

There are two distinct concerns regarding this tendency toward misperceptions of political reality in America, and elsewhere in the world, that overlap: one is being out of touch with the swift currents of right wing opinion that have abruptly risen to the political surface in recent years to sway the multitudes in populist directions; the other is the failure to understand what is at the root of this unexpected particular political swing, which sometimes may turn out in some cases to be nothing more revealing than skillful, imaginative, unscrupulous, persevering marketing and access to major funding sources, but in more serious situation there are disclosed rips in the societal fabric that seem beyond repair, providing a deliriously ready audience for a demagogue intuitively attuned to the harsh rhythms of discontent unnoticed or dismissed by the established political elites. Trump confounded, and continues to confound, conventional wisdom over and over again, by reading the tea leaves of discontent with alarming accuracy.

 

It is undoubtedly the case, at least in the U.S., that part of the failure of perception is a combination of self-segregation and the widespread tendency of intellectuals to underestimate the political skills of those whose focus is on emotions, religion, and traditional values rather than reason, science, and evidence. To illustrate, not a single person in my social milieu will own up to being a supporter of Donald Trump. In effect, the insularity of my social networks puts me out of touch with what the Trump constituency feels, thinks, fears, and hopes for. The Trump/Bannon formula for electoral victory a year ago, surely abetted by a dismal Clinton campaign, abandoned several familiar Republican positions—especially mounting a critique of neoliberal globalization, and its core reliance on international trade and unhampered capital flows, as well as taking nasty jabs at the Washington establishment, including the standard Republican Party handlers.

 

 

An Egyptian Detour

 

I was in Cairo meeting friends shortly after the dramatic events in Tahrir Square in February 2011 awaiting UN permission (that never came) to visit Gaza on behalf of the Human Rights Council. Amid the tumult and excitement I was struck by the unanimity of opinion believing that Amr Moussa was sure to be elected Egypt’s next president in the country’s first ever free election scheduled for the following year. Moussa was a non-charismatic high profile civil servant in the Mubarak government and former Secretary General of the Arab League who opportunely welcomed the democratizing movement in Egypt, and quickly became the preferred candidate of the Cairo urban cognoscenti. As it turned out Moussa never made it to the second and deciding round of the presidential elections, receiving less than 12% of the vote in the opening round. The point here is not whether Moussa was good or bad, or whether he might have been the best candidate to serve as leader of Egypt in this fragile period of uncertain transition from dictatorship to constitutional democracy. The point is to underscore how out of touch were these most knowledgeable of urban secular Egyptians about the convictions and outlook of the rest of Egyptian. It also became clear that they greatly underrated the organizational strength of the MB and other Islamic oriented political groups that dominated the countryside and much of Egypt other than the middle class and elites of Cairo and Alexandria.

 

In the Egyptian case this detachment was in large part a reflection of the secular/Islamic split that plagued the region ever since the success of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. My other recollection from 2011-12 visits to Cairo related to the feelings of the seculars about the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the post-Tahrir electoral process. Most Egyptians I had contact with expected and accepted MB full participation in the public life of post-Mubarak Egypt, including the political process, regarding the organization as a religiously oriented and secretive but respectful of law and nonviolent, and this entitled to be dream of an inclusive Egyptian democracy that was the widely shared dream of most Egyptians in the weeks following the successful uprising. These knowledgeable urbanites anticipated at the time that the MB would at most win 25-30% representation in the legislative assembly, and did acknowledge that if they ended up doing much better there would be trouble, all the while strongly doubting that this would not happen. Well, it did, causing an immediate reassessment by Egypt’s urban elites, which expressed itself by way of an instantaneous retreat from the democratizing hopes and expectations that had dominated the Tahrir Square moo, and a switch of allegiance to the Mubarak era presidential alternative. In this spirit, the realigned secularists voted for Ahmad Shafik in the runoff election in June 2012 between the two top vote getters in round one. Round two produced a narrow 52%-48% victory for Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood candidate, a result eventually, although reluctantly certified by the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces that was supposed to be the neutral supervisor of the post-Mubarak transition, but more and more leaned toward questioning the legitimacy of a governing process under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood.

 

The earlier Cairo outlook was not wrong about the other part of its assessment of the political scene, which had insisted that MB leadership of the country, as distinct from its minority participation as part of a democratic opposition, was neither acceptable nor viable. It is notable that even the Brotherhood originally accepted a limited political role for itself in the first months after Mubarak was overthrown, seeming acknowledging that it should not seek control as distinct from participation. On this basis, the MD even made a rather unusual pledge for any political party, committing itself not to compete in certain electoral districts in the country and not to put forward its own candidate for the presidency. It later quietly renounced the pledge, likely sensing its strength and historic opportunity, and did go on to win the presidency, but at a high cost to itself. Before realizing that its victory would set off a chain of events that would turn out to be a crushing defeat, the MB experienced an intense backlash in Egyptian society confirming that it too was dangerously out of touch with the red lines of the urban elites and the balance of forces in the country. The Brotherhood obviously greatly underestimated the leverage and convergence of interests that joined the Egyptian Armed Forces, the Gulf monarchies (excepting Qatar), the governments of the United States and Israel, as well as the segments of the working classes and of course the Coptic minority. This formidable array of opposed forces produced in 2013 a counter-revolution in the form of a seemingly popular military coup, a new leader—Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—bloodier and more autocratic and repressive than Mubarak. The new leadership immediately criminalized the elected MB leadership of the country, and labeled the Brotherhood a terrorist organization with the tacit approval of its allies in the region and beyond, and autocratically denied political space even to secular activists who were unwilling to accept this renunciation of democratic hopes for Egypt.

 

This extended look at Egypt is descriptive of broader global trends, confirming that being dangerously out of touch is not only an affliction of Western elites stunned by the unexpected and shocking successes of Brexit and Trump. In the Middle East where politics are highly polarized, both sides are out of touch, miscalculating at great cost to society and to themselves, and totally unprepared for the intensity of backlash politics that have so far reflected an anti-democratic balance of forces in the region and beyond.

 

 

Trending Toward Illiberal Democracies

 

In the United States and Europe where polarization is deepening, there remains some respect for the rules of the game set by procedural democracy, that is, political choices determined by generally fair elections and a constitutional framework that institutionalizes checks and balances. In the United States, Trump shook even these structures late in the presidential campaign of 2016 when he apparently thought he was going to lose by contending that the electoral process was ‘rigged’ against him, even equivocating in public about whether he would accept an adverse outcome, a tactical move evidently supported by the Russians. And then later, after he was officially installed in the White House, Trump irresponsibly contested the Clinton margin of victory in the popular vote by contending wildly that several million unlawful immigrants had been fraudulently registered to stack the vote against him in such states as California and New York.

 

The fact that Trump offered not a scintilla of evidence for either challenge seemed not to bother even slightly his political base. His close advisors were darkly creative, inventing a large arsenal of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘Breitbart news.’ These counter-narratives were invoked brashly to contest such visually clear conclusions as the size of the crowd attending Trump’s presidential inaugural ceremony as compared to the size of the crowd that showed up eight years earlier for Obama. For anti-Trump critics these developments raised foundational issues about whether the constitutional order would be resilient enough to prevail if Trump had lost the election and then were to unleash his followers assigning them the almost unimaginably subversive mission of reversing the outcome. The success of this kind of fact-free discourse also raised the ultimate epistemological question about whether or not an overall respect for truth in the public realm was still expected of politicians, suggesting the possibility that reality was becoming a function of ideology or faith, not fact or evidence.

 

The Trump victory in 2016 mooted these particular challenges to some extent, shifting the tactical locus of opponents to the wrongdoing of Trump and his entourage, especially such potential impeachment and discrediting issues as ‘collusion with the Russians,’ ‘obstruction of justice,’ and ‘improper financial dealings.’ Implicit in these charges was the concession that blatant and consistent lying if not quite okay, was still not so disqualifying as to challenge Trump’s right to remain president even it placed his victory under a dark cloud due to the evidence that Russian meddling swayed enough votes in a close election. This apparent acceptance of this retreat from an ethos of truthfulness seems misguided in a number of respects. Manifest lying breaks the trust between state and society without which a democracy cannot function properly. As such is far more corrosive for a democratic republic than the several wrongful acts being regarded as grounds for impeachment. In part, the media and the people, and the advertising mentality of a consumer society, are all complicit in this de facto acceptance of a leader who lies consistently and willfully. In other words, it is not just the Brietbart alt-righ, the bevy of outrageous late night talk show hosts, and Trump’s use of a Twitter account that cleared the populist pathways leading to Trumpism, but we the people and our materialist indulgences and indifference to or ignorance of the torments of stagnant wages and growing challenges directed at even middle class living standards due to sharply rising costs of health, education, and housing.

 

The constitutional order remains under unprecedented pressure not only because of the way Clinton lost or Trump won, but also because the dominant faction in the American deep national security state lost, and lost badly and for the first time since 1945, although it has in 2017 staged a strong comeback spearheaded by the appointment of generals McMaster, Kelley, and Mattes to key posts. It is crucial to distinguish between business/financial establishment interests that were mostly content with a Trump/Republican victory from the national security oriented think tanks and government elites that were earlier deeply worried by Trump’s campaign language questioning the global alliance network and attacks on foreign regime-changing interventions, especially as played out in the Middle East. But on the security agenda Trump has seemed to give way—he upped the military budget, backed off from his earlier promised confrontation with China and expected soft policy toward Russia, escalated tensions with North Korea and Iran, and maintained continuity in the Middle East, throwing even greater support in the direction of Israel and Saudi Arabia than his predecessor.

 

What remains to be determined is whether the Rule of Law can hold minimally accountable the dual domains of militarism and neoliberal capitalism. Perhaps, the Rule of Law lost out years ago, and we are just now awakening to this somber reality thanks to Trump’s disruptive worldview and modes of governance. Scenarios in this vein are likely to dominate most upcoming episodes of the unfolding Trump tragicomedy. Maybe the center stage contest is not this at all but will be determined by whether the internationalist faction of the deep state remains successful in avoiding the apparent grand strategy revisionism of Trump without necessitating his removal from power. Trump’s real views, especially on global issues, are opaque, and his surface mercurial qualities of contradicting himself make the adaptation scenario more probable than the removal alternative. Either taming or removal both appear to be suitably responsive to the imperatives of the current phase of global capitalism and its dependency ties to the American led global security system. This system consists of a vast costly network of foreign bases, navies in every ocean, the military domination of space, including cyberspace, and assignment of combat units of special forces to carry out armed missions in over 130 countries. Trump was not feared or opposed by the national security establishment because of his pledges to repeal Obamacare or overhaul the tax structure for the benefit of the very wealthy. He was feared and opposed by many Republican hawks because his campaign rhetoric were perceived to raise unacceptable challenges to the stability of the world economy and were interpreted by most deep state aficionados as gesturing toward a possible dismantling of the American global state that had ‘governed’ the world since 1945.

 

 

Out of Touch, Out of Contact

 

Liberals and intellectuals in the United States are generally middle class in life style and outlook, rarely in meaningful existential touch with either the very poor or the very rich, and as a result are not privy to their fears, pain, anger, and agenda, or their affirmations and affiliations. This circumstance of being out of contact contributes to toxic polarization, mirrored in the inability of political parties to cooperate any longer for the sake of the national public good. Among other negative effects, such polarization leads to legislative gridlock and perceptions by the majority of citizens that the institutions of government have become weighted down by lobbyists, special interests, and intense partisanship, and have lost much of their legitimacy. In such a race to the bottom, the winners are business and the military, which is why a pre-fascist depiction of current political life in America, and by indirection, the world, is sadly, not out of touch.

 

Is the Enlightenment to Blame?

 

At the root of these developments are deep tensions between the rational and scientific legacies of the European Enlightenment and religious orientations that rely on faith and revealed truth. On the Enlightenment side are secular values and ideals associated with the human equality and respect for scientific evidence. On the religious side are attachments to traditional values of family, flag, and church. Both orientations are rooted in their own dogmas that exclude the belief systems of their opponents, undoubtedly providing the ideational infrastructure of what has now surfacing in many national variations as polarization, and with it disillusionment with the worth and promise of political democracy.

 

In one respect this is a crude rendition of Hegelianism versus Marxism, with the Hegelians giving priority to the dialectics of the idea whose time has come, while Marxists, in their various schools, in general lend priority to material conditions, class relations, and self-interest. Oddly the right-wing populists are mainly taking a ideational or faith-based posture that emphasizes the purity of the nation, puritan family traditions, an ethos of hard work, good jobs, and religious values, and thus supposedly hostile toward casino capitalists and foreign intruders, advocates of gay rights and legalized drugs, free traders, and secularists. Their liberal antagonists are generally comfortable with global capitalism according to the precepts of Goldman Sachs, free trade, outsourcing, and minimally regulated capital as advocated by the Bretton Woods Institutions (World Bank and IMF) and World Trade Organization, and, of course, sparing no expense to maintain full spectrum military dominance. The two sides converge with respect to militarism, with the Trump right invoking patriotism, arms sales, and national security while the liberal establishment emphasizes the indispensable role of American military superiority in keeping the country and its friends safe and the world more peaceful and global markets more stable than they would otherwise be.

 

Does making these acknowledgements amount to a nihilistic and solipsistic admission that there is no way to justify prevailing patterns of political alignment beyond their caprice? Not at all. Yet, as Gilad Atzmon persuasively argues in Being in Time, a politics of reason has been thrown disastrously off course by the impact of a liberal discourse infected by the taints of ‘political correctness’ and ‘identity politics,’ which substitutes conformity and allegiance for truth-seeking and acknowledgements of the impurities of social reality. Without a suitable discourse respectful of the contingencies and unevenness of reality we cannot find the pathways to humane political behavior. To be sure, the Mammonite discourse of the Trump brand of right-wing politics is certainly no better, offering a greed-saturated form of materialism that feeds the limitless appetite of the very richest among us while manipulating and repressing the rest of us. As Atzmon provocatively insists, this absence of a trustworthy discourse by which to express grievances and aspirations is why it clears the air to admit that our epoch has become ‘post-political,’ at least for now.

 

Yet there is even more than ‘discourse,’ a synonym for clear thought, at stake. There is self-esteem, ethical values, and the meaning of life that is jeopardized by the tradition-breaching dogmas of secular elites. Thus controversies surrounding abortion, gay marriage, legalized marijuana, and even gun control are too often being given precedence over considerations bearing on material wellbeing by this American version of populism preaching economic nationalism at Trump rallies. What makes the Trump phenomenon truly populist is its anti-establishment outrage and the high level of susceptibility to demagogic appeals on the part of his followers. This demagoguery blinds adherents to their true material self-interests and misidentified their real social enemies. By rejecting reasoned discourse, including commitments to truth and evidence, the capacity to manipulate mass opinion and play on such repressed emotion as racism and class envy is without limits. Trump is a master of such demagogic politics who has yet to commit definitively to whether in the end he will strike a deal with the anti-populist elites that have been running the system or proceed to wage open revolutionary warfare against the entire edifice of constitutional governance at home and abroad. Of course, a third way is also possible, a condition of no-peace, no-war, in which there ensue a multitude of skirmishes but no open warfare, which may be the most accurate way of portraying Trump’s first year as president.

 

 

Concluding Remarks

 

A wide variety of populisms, other than the American version, have gained control of the governing process of several important countries, and in each case despite widely different national circumstances, bringing to power an autocratic leader adored by the masses more for his style than his substance, and feared and hated by displaced elites who seem unable to generate a mobilizing program of their own or a charismatic alternative leader. Whether it be Putin in Russia, Modi in India, Erdoğan in Turkey, Sisi in Egypt, or Duterte in The Philippines, the leader claims to have a special capacity to interpret the will of the people, entitling the circumvention of the Rule of Law and conventional truth telling, professing an ardent and exclusivist nationalist ideology that pretends, at least, to abhor the cosmopolitanism of elite tastes and the globalization of economic life. Except for Duterte and Trump these popular autocrats have been rather prudently inclined with respect to political risk taking. Putin and Erdoğan have tried to enlarge their regional spheres of influence with mixed results, and have encountered some costly adverse reactions domestically and internationally.

 

These autocratic leaders in what have become ‘illiberal democracies’ seem more at home when dealing with authoritarian figures in other societies than with counterparts in countries that still qualify as functioning constitutional democracies. Trump seems quite at ease with Xi Jingpin or even Duterte than he does with Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron. What this portends for the future is unknowable at present. Will there emerge a tacit alliance of autocrats that represents the global ideological sequel to the shattered edifice of democratic expectations that had given rise to the Warsaw based, U.S. funded brainchild christened as the ‘Community of Democracies’ with 110 governments signing on at its founding fifteen years ago? As of 2017 neither Poland nor the United States would any longer be welcomed in venues catering to real life democracies!

 

Instead of the anticipated ‘twilight of the nation state’ we are experiencing its worldwide resurgence, energized by a counter-globalization movement that emphasizes borders and walls rather than fluid boundaries facilitating flows of capital and workers. ISIS (or DAESH) has been a partial outlier, as are the more radical versions of political Islam more generally. Instead of territorial enclaves these movements affirm exclusivist Islamic communities whose extension is not geographically identifiable by boundaries on a map, but rather by allegiances and networks however far flung. By proclaiming its caliphate in 2014 in Iraqi and Syrian territory that it then controlled, ISIS seemed to territorialize its sense of political community, which fortunately turned out to be a huge strategic mistake. By insisting that its rise was ‘the end of Sykes-Picot’ ISIS was also announcing to the world that it was not altogether anti-territorial, but was not beholden to the European state concept crudely imposed on the Middle East by a colonial driven statecraft after World War I.

 

It is this deterritorializing of community combined with the embrace of militarist and terrorist versions of jihadism, as well as of the equally deterritorialized technologies of the digital age that makes such movements so disruptive of traditional territorially based forms of security. Territorial states win renewed support from their national populations by celebrating patriotic virtues associated with flag and country, identifications that correspond with their primordial sense of community (providing ideas and causes worth dying for) spatially defined by internationally legitimated geographic boundaries.

 

Finally, it is this collision between antagonistic conceptions of communities in space that define the modern geopolitical landscape. This sense of political engagement is being increasingly itself challenged by communities in time that spring to life in the ecological landscape where the principal preoccupations are with the multiple challenges of global warming toward species sustainability. The ultimate evasion of reality by Trumpism is its willful blindness when it comes to showing respect for the ecological integrity of contemporary human existence. The decision of the Trump White House to refuse participation in the Paris Climate Change Agreement is probably the most destructive blow against sustainable global governance than was the imposition of a punitive peace on Germany after World War I.

 

Trump also intrudes his bluster in ways that subvert nuclear restraint. His words threatening annihilation of North Korea and confrontation with Iran cast the darkest shadows over the present and future.

 

At issue is more than Trump. I want to live and die in a world of inclusive political communities. I also regard as imperative forms of ecological inclusiveness that extend to all of nature, animals, plants, soil, air, water, glaciers, mountains, ravines, and valleys.

 

Failing the people of Syria during Seven Years of Devastation and Dispossession

13 Nov

 

Failing the people of Syria during Seven Years of Devastation and Dispossession

 

[Prefatory Note: What follows is a wide-ranging interview in November 2017 that that concentrates on the failure of the UN and the world to rescue the people of Syria by a timely and effective humanitarian intervention. The interview was conducted by a Turkish journalist, Salva Amor, and is to be published in a magazine, Causcasus International. The text of the interview has been slightly modified.]

 

A missed chance 

 

  1. You previously referred to Syria as “an ideal case for humanitarian intervention” however, rather than becoming a prime example of positive humanitarian intervention it has turned into one of the greatest humanitarian crises with half of the country becoming refugees or internally displaced. 

 

What turned such an Ideal case for humanitarian intervention into one of the worst humanitarian responses we have seen in recent times?

 

Answer: I do not recall this reference to Syria as ‘an ideal case,’ but I must have meant it in a hypothetical sense, that is, as if ‘humanitarian intervention’ was ever called for, it was in Syria, especially at the early stages of the conflict. And yet I am inclined to think that regime-changing intervention was at all stages a mission impossible. We should keep in mind that the record of actual successful instances of what is labeled as ‘humanitarian intervention’ has been dismal, and when successful the motivation was not predominantly humanitarian, but rather a confluence of strategic interests of one sort or another with a humanitarian challenge. In Syria the strategic interests were not sufficiently strong to justify the likely costs, especially in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Sometimes, the intervention is a cover for non-humanitarian goals, as in Afghanistan (2002), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011) and may be effective in attaining its immediate goals of regime change but is extremely costly from the perspective of humanitarianism if assessed from the perspective of prolonged violence, societal chaos, and human suffering.

And only marginally successful strategically given the resilience of territorial resistance and the pressure for long-term occupation if the original gains of intervention are to be preserved.

 

At other times, the humanitarian rationale is present, as in Syria, but there is no strategic justification of sufficient weight, and what is done by external actors or the UN is insufficient to control the outcome, and often ends up intensifying the scale of suffering endured by the population. In effect, humanitarian intervention rarely achieves a net benefit from the perspective of the population that is being supposedly rescued. Perhaps, Kosovo (1999) is the best recent case where an alleged humanitarian intervention enjoyed enough strategic value to be effective, and yet seems to have left the Kosovar population better off afterwards, although even Kosovo is not a clear case.  

 

 

Failures & implications of inaction

 

  1. The humanitarian failures in Syria and for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries including Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq have had far-reaching implications for the EU with millions of refugees choosing to risk their lives in order to enter Europe causing the largest exodus since WWII. 

 

Could the surge of refugees fleeing to Europe have been avoided had a more positive and organized humanitarian intervention taken place?

 

Answer: It is possible that had Syria possessed large oil reserves, the intervention against the Damascus regime would have been robust enough to topple the regime, and create stability before combat conditions prompted massive internal population displacements and gigantic refugee flows, including the European influx. In this sense, Libya with oil, did prompt such an intervention, although it was an easier undertaking, as the Qaddafi regime had much less popular support than did the Assad regime, and was less well equipped militarily and lacked regional allies. In Syria, because of regional and global geopolitical cleavages, the politics of intervention and counter-intervention was far more complicated, and inhibited potential anti-regime interveners from making large commitments. At the early stages of the conflict Turkey and the United States miscalculated the costs and scale of a successful intervention in Syria, supposing that an indirect and low level effort could be effective in achieving regime change, which misunderstood the conditions prevailing in Syria.  

 

 

The best response

 

  1. In your experience, what would have been the ideal humanitarian response to the war in Syria? And who would have been best to implement it? 

 

Answer: As my earlier responses hinted, there is no ideal response, and the current world order system is not reliably capable of handling humanitarian intervention in a situation such as existed in Syria. To have any chance of effectiveness would require entrusting the undertaking to one or more powerful states, but even then the situation that would follow, is highly uncertain. In a post-colonial setting, there is bound to be strong nationalist and territorial resistance to outside intervention and occupation, generally producing serious prolonged chaos. If the country is very small and can be overwhelmed (Granada, Panama) without counter-intervention the undertaking will sometimes work. Iraq serves as a clear example of an intervention that did rid the country of a brutal tyrant, but produced internal violence among competing regions, tribes, and generated extreme sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites, as well as a series of ethnic, tribal, and regional battles.

 

In a better governed world, which is far from existing, the UN would have acted robustly and with the support of the regional governments in the Middle East, the geopolitical actors (U.S. and Russia) would have not pursued their strategic agendas, and a politically neutral intervention would have created the conditions for a post-Assad democratic political transition, including imposing accountability for past crimes. Merely mentioning this desirable scenario is enough to reveal its utopian character. Especially in the Middle East, geopolitics of a regional and global scope badly distort all efforts to fashion a humanitarian response to repression and severe violations of human rights. In the background, but not far in the background, is the relevance of oil. The countries that have experienced massive interventions (Iraq, Libya) possessed abundant oil reserves, while those that have little or no oil have either been ignored or endured prolonged bloody conflict, of which Syria is the worst case, having become the scene of competing and offsetting interventions motivated by political and strategic ambitions with only a thin propaganda rationale associated with alleviating a humanitarian crisis, which at best, was a much subordinated goal of the interveners on both sides.

 

 

Lessons for Future

 

4a. How can the world learn from the humanitarian failures and inaction that occurred in Syria for the past 7 years? What opportunities to protect, defend or support the Syrian people have we missed?

 

Answer: In my view, it is a mistake to speak of ‘inaction’ in the Syrian context. There have been massive interventions of all sorts on both sides of the conflict by a variety of actors, but none decisive enough to end the conflict, and none primarily motivated by humanitarian concerns. Of course, here and there, lives could have been saved, especially if the balance of forces within Syria had been better understood at an early stage of the conflict in the West. What intervention achieved in Syria was largely a matter of magnifying the conflict, and attendant suffering. The conflict itself was surrounded by contradictory propaganda claims making the reality difficult to perceive by the public, and therefore there was political resistance to more explicit and possibly more effective regime changing intervention. 

 

Indifference:

 

4b. Is there any correlation between the rise of Islamophobia and the world’s inaction towards Syrian people’s suffering? Has the ongoing drumming of hatred towards the Islamic religion created a generation of indifference towards those of them who are suffering? Or is such wide indifference a natural response to such overwhelming humanitarian crisis?

 

Answer: The indifference in relation to Syria is mainly a matter of public confusion and distrust. Confusion about the nature of the conflict and distrust as to the motives of political actors that have intervened on either side. The spike in Islamophobia is attributable to the interplay of the European refugee crisis and the occurrence of terrorist incidents that are perpetrated by ISIS and its supporters. Of course, the massive refugee flow was prompted by the violence in the Syrian combat zones, which has made Europe most interested in resolving the conflict even if meant allowing a criminal regime to remain in power.

 

I suppose that the indifference noted in your question is more evident in relation to the plight of the Rohingya people in Myanmar that in response to Syria where, as I have been suggesting, the political context dominates the human suffering, and the Islamic identity of the victimized people is secondary. Also, it is worth recalling the global indifference to genocide in Rwanda (1994) that could have prevented,

or at least minimized, by a timely, and relatively small scale intervention. And on occasion, if the strategic context is supportive, the West will intervene on the Islamic side as in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and there in opposition to the Christian side.  

 

 

  1. The UN has handed over a large portion of the $4bn of its aid effort in Syria to the Syrian regime or partners who have been approved by Bashar Al Assad. How does the UN justify providing tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to one of the worst governments, that has besieged, starved, bombed and killed hundreds of thousands of its own people? 

 

Answer: I suppose the basic justification for this behavior is that from the viewpoint of the UN the Damascus regime remains the legitimate government of Syria representing the country at the UN. This is of course a legalistic justification, and evades the real humanitarian crisis as well as the crimes of Assad’s regime. So far, because there is a geopolitical standoff, regionally (Iran v. Saudi Arabia) and globally (Russia v. the U.S. and Turkey), the UN has tried to remain aloof from the ambit of political controversy to the extent possible while doing what it can to alleviate human suffering. I am not knowledgeable about whether the UN aid is reaching the civilian population as claimed. The language of your question suggests that there should be some mechanism for disqualifying a government that commits repeated crimes against its own people from being treated by the UN as a normal member state, but this is not likely to happen anytime soon, and it is tricky as the UN System is built around state-centric ideas of world order.

 

 

The right to torture

 

  1. The world was shocked in 2015 when the Caesar files were releasedrevealing human stories behind 28,000 deaths in Syrian prisons, most, if not all were tortured prior to their death.Two years later no action has been taken in regards to detainees and torture in prisons. There has been no action or desire to send observers to Syrian Prisons nor to investigate those who were named in the Caesar files for war crimes.What must a dictator have to do for the international community to respond to his crimes? Comparing Libyan intervention with Syria

 

Answer: I took part recently in a ceremony in Nuremberg Germany that awarded a human rights prize to the photographer, whose identity is kept secret for his safety, responsible for the Caesar Report containing photographic images of Syrian prison torture of some 11,000 prisoners, most of whom are reportedly now dead. There is no question that these images are horrifying, but serious issues have been raised as to the authenticity of this photographic archive. It has been authenticated as genuine by Human Rights Watch, but has also been used by persons closely connected with the U.S. Government to build a case for war crimes prosecutions, particularly against Bashar al Assad. I am not in a position to assess the controversy, yet do not doubt that the Damascus regime has committed many atrocities and are responsible for the great majority of civilian deaths over the course of the last six years in Syria. At the same time the anti-regime forces, which are fragmented, have also committed many war crimes.

 

These issues of criminal accountability cannot be reliably answered from a distance, or merely on the basis of media reports. What is required is a credible international fact finding commission of inquiry with adequate access to whatever evidence and witnesses remain available.

 

 

 

  1. Human rights groups have estimated that no less than half a million people have died in the last 7 years in Syria. Although there are many violent factions in Syria, more than 94% of all deaths have been caused by Syrian Government or Russian strikes. In comparison Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi had killed an 257 people including combatants and injured 949 with less than 3% being women and children when UN security council intervened. On March 17, 2011, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 (2011) authorizing “regional organizations or arrangements…to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” in Libya. The resolution was adopted with ten votes for, none against, and five abstentions. In hindsight, many have now questioned whether that intervention was purely to “protect civilians”. Is the UN Security Council still a reliable body that can be relied upon to protect the civilian? The UN’s Responsibility Not – To Protect the Civilian Population

 

Answer: The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) UN norm is interpreted and practice is governed by the UN Security Council, and hence is completely subordinated to the manipulations of geopolitics. In this regard, the lesser humanitarian hazard in Libya led to a UN regime-changing mission because the Permanent Members opposed to intervention (China, Russia) were persuaded not to cast their veto for what was being proposed, which was a limited humanitarian mission to protect the then entrapped civilian population of Benghazi. In fact, the NATO undertaking expanded the mission far beyond the Security Council mandate from its inception, angering Russia and China that had abstained out of deference to pleas relating to the humanitarian claims put forward by the NATO members of the Security Council. They later justified their opposition to a more pro-active UN role in Syria by reference to this failure of trust, the unwillingness of the intervening states to respect the limits of the mandate.

 

What is important to appreciate is that R2P and other UN undertakings must adhere to the constraints of geopolitics. As disturbing as inaction with respect to Syria, is the UN silence with regard to the abuse of the civilian populations of Gaza and Rakhine (Myanmar). It is only when a geopolitical consensus exists, which is quite rare (e.g. failure with respect to Yemen) that it is possible for the UN to play an important humanitarian role in shaping behavior and protecting civilians.

 

 

  1. Why was The UN’s responsibility to protect (R2P ) invisible in the last 7 years in Syria? What must be done now, in order to implement an R2P operation in Syria to avoid further suffering? In past years vetoes have blocked humanitarian intervention.

 

Answer: Part of my response here has already been given in relation to the prior question. I would only add here that the abolition of the veto would be a crucial step, or even an agreement among permanent members of the Security Council to refrain from casting a veto in humanitarian contexts such as Syria. The problem is that the veto powers are extremely unlikely to give up their right of veto, partly because such states do not voluntarily give up power and partly because humanitarian issues are almost always inseparable from diverse and often antagonist geopolitical interests, and therefore the claims are not perceived as humanitarian. This is certainly the case with regard to Syria. The take away conclusion is that the international system as it now functions is rarely motivated by humanitarian considerations when they come into conflict with the strong political preferences and strategic priorities of principal states, and this is true even when the humanitarian crisis is as severe and prolonged as in Syria.

 The most constructive response, in view of these realities, is to advocate global reform, but this will not happen without a major mobilization of people throughout the world or as a frantic response to some earth-shaking catastrophe.

 

 

  1. I understand that there was a veto by Russia and thus a solution was not passed, however, in such cases, when one of the countries that is involved in the atrocities is allowed to veto, does it not raise the alarm?Surely, this situation in Syria and the human cost provides enough of a precedent for (if not the UN, those who care about preventing further atrocities) a new chapter to be drafted and implemented into the UN. –Do you believe that it is time for the UN to adopt a new chapter into itsCharter that would prevent dictators or countries with vested interest in a war from overpowering UN Security Council votes? Normalizing atrocities at the global level.

 

Answer: Yes, there was much criticism of Russia for blocking action on Syria, but Russia was acting in accord with the constitutional structure of the UN. The U.S. uses its veto in a comparable way to protect Israel and other allies, and equally irresponsibly, from a moral or humanitarian point of view. It should be remembered that the League of Nations fell apart because major states would not participate, including the United States. The idea of the veto was designed to persuade all major states to participate, with the goal of universality of membership, but at the cost of engendering paralysis and irresponsible obstructions to action whenever veto powers disagree sharply. Your questions raise the crucial issue if this was too high a price to pay for the sake of maintaining universality of participation. One consequence of this tradeoff between geopolitics and effectiveness is to weaken public respect for the UN as an agency for the promotion of justice and decency in global affairs.

 

As specified in Article 108 of the UN Charter requires the approval of 2/3rds of the entire membership of the UN as well as all five Permanent Members of the Security Council, which means that it will not happen in the foreseeable future in relation to any politically sensitive issue. When World War II ended there was the hope and illusion that countries that cooperated against fascism would continue to cooperate to maintain the peace. As should have been anticipated, it was a forlorn hope.

 

 

  1. The White House accepts Assad’s continued rule in Syria as a “political reality” while European leaders have also taken a soft approach with French president declaring he no longer saw the removal of Assad as necessary. In your view, how do such civilized countries justify good relations with Assad? ISIS the monster that invites intervention: ISIS Affects the West, Assad does not.

 

Answer: Your comment on ISIS is a way of expressing my view that these issues are dominated by geopolitical calculations. ISIS as horrible as it is has not been nearly as responsible for the quality and quantity of suffering inflicted upon the Syrian people by the Damascus regime.

 

At this point, and given the unavailability of humanitarian intervention, the best Plan B for Syria is to seek a sustainable ceasefire, and this would undoubtedly require making some unpalatable compromises, including the possible retention of Assad as head of state. After all, there are many heads of state with much blood on their hands, and yet their legitimacy as rulers is essentially unchallenged. The way the world is organized makes it unable to impose criminal responsibility on the leaders of sovereign states except in special circumstances of total victory as in World War II, or more recently, in relation to the criminal prosecutions of Saddam Hussein and Milosevic, particular enemies of the West.

 

 

  1. Many Syrian groups have released statements to express their dismay at the international community for only intervening to strike ISIS. The Global Coalition’s planes hover over Deir Al Zour and Raqa to target ISIS (often causing civilian casualties) while in the same sky Assad Planes carrying deadly Barrel Bombs hover over nearby towns unperturbed. A) Is there balance in the international community’s actions in Syria? While Assad only kills or affects the lives of Syrians in Syria, ISIS became a threat to western countries. Terrorist attacks in the west killed and injured civilians in the west.
  2. B) Is there an underlying message that the West will “Fight against ISIS in Syria, because it affects people in our countries, but leave Assad because he has no impact on their own people?”

 

Answer: Yes, this is certainly a perceptive observation. When the issue is fairly large scale and internal, and where Muslims are the victims, any effort to intervene is bound to be feeble, at best, which it was in the early stages of 2011-2013 when Turkey and the U.S. cooperated in supporting Friends of Syria, which was mistakenly thought capable of shifting the balance sufficiently in Syria to produce the collapse of the Damascus regime. When that failed, it became obvious that the costs of an effective intervention were viewed in the West as too high and dangerous. Considering the Iranian and Russian alignments with the Syrian government doomed an anti-Damascus intervention.

 

And as you suggest, the West views ISIS as dangerous enemy, and is prepared to take bigger risks and bear higher costs because Western homeland security is at stake. ISIS is a proclaimed enemy of the West that is perceived as responsible for violent acts, Syria is not, being regarded, at most, as an unattractive regime, partly because in the past, hostile toward Israel. Taking account of these circumstances, the political realist seeks a ceasefire in Syria while going all out to achieve the destruction of ISIS.

 

 

  1. Please kindly note any comments, suggestions, opinions, thoughts you have on the Syrian conflict and in particular on the west’s reaction to it and the UN’s role. Also, on what you feel can and should be done from now on. Thanks so much.

 

Answer: From my earlier responses I am skeptical about what can be done beyond the obvious: give up any hope of securing support for an R2P mandate to protect the Syrian people, and pursue a ceasefire so as to end the suffering. This is not justice, but it may at least spare the Syrian people further trauma and bloodshed.

 

What the Syrian tragedy and ordeal reveals vividly is the inability of the international community, as now organized, to deal with a humanitarian crisis unless a geopolitical consensus is present in a relatively strong form, regionally and globally. Such a consensus is not even enough if the difficulties of intervention are seen as producing heavy casualties for the intervening side and would impose burdens of a prolonged occupation to achieve post-intervention political order and security.

 

Europe would benefit at this time from a Syrian ceasefire and the restoration of political normalcy. It would undoubtedly reduce the pressure on European countries created by the Syrian refugee flow, which has given right wing political parties their greatest strength and largest level of popular support since the end of World War II.

Nobel Peace Prize 2017: International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)

8 Oct

 

Finally, the committee in Oslo that picks a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize each year selected in 2017 an awardee that is a true embodiment of the intended legacy of Alfred Nobel when he established the prize more than a century ago. It is also a long overdue acknowledgement of the extraordinary dedication of anti-nuclear activists around the planet who for decades have done all in their power to rid the world of this infernal weaponry before it inflicts catastrophe upon all living beings even more unspeakable that what befell the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on two infamous days in August 1945. Such a prize result was actually anticipated days before the announcement by Fredrik Heffermehl, a crusading Norwegian critic of past departures from Nobel’s vision by the prize committee. In making the prediction that the 2017 prize would be given in recognition of anti-nuclear activism Heffermehl prophetically relied on the outlook of the current chair of the Nobel selection committee, a distinguished Norwegian lawyer, Berit Reiss-Andersen, who has publicly affirmed her belief in the correlation between adherence to international law and world peace.

 

 

The recipient of the prize is ICAN, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a coalition of more than 450 civil society groups around the world that is justly credited with spreading an awareness of the dire humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and of making the heroic effort to generate grassroots pressure sufficient to allow for the adoption of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons by 122 UN members on 7 July 2017 (known as the ‘BAN Treaty’). The treaty was officially signed by 53 governments of UN member states this September, and will come into force when 50 instruments of ratifications have been deposited at UN Headquarters, which suggests its legal status will soon be realized as signature is almost always followed by ratification.

 

The core provision of the BAN Treaty sets forth an unconditional legal prohibition of the weaponry that is notable for its comprehensiveness—the prohibition extends to “the developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, possessing, stockpiling and deploying nuclear weapons, transferring or receiving them from others, using or threatening to use them, or allowing any stationing or deployment of nuclear weapons on national territories of signatories, and assisting, encouraging, or inducing any of these prohibited acts.” Each signatory state is obligated to develop “legal, administrative and other measures, including the imposition of penal sanctions, to prevent and suppress” activities prohibited by the treaty. It should be understood that the prohibition contributes to the further delegitimation of nuclear weapons, but it does nothing directly by way of disarmament.

The BAN Treaty no where claims to mandate disarmament except by an extension of the reasoning that if something is prohibited, then it should certainly not be possessed, and the conscientious move would be to seek a prudent way to get rid of the weaponry step by step. In this regard it is notable that none of the nuclear weapons states are expected to be parties to the BAN Treaty, and therefore are under no immediate legal obligation to respect the prohibition or implement its purpose by seeking a disarmament arrangement. A next step for the ICAN coalition might be to have the BAN prohibition declared by the UN General Assembly and other institutions around the world (from cities to the UN System) to be binding on all political actors (whether parties to the treaty or not), an expression of what international lawyers call ‘peremptory norms,’ those that are binding and authoritative without treaty membership and cannot be changed by the action of sovereign states.

 

Standing in opposition to the BAN Treaty are all of the present nuclear weapons states, led by the United States. Indeed, all five permanent members (P-5) of the UN Security Council and their allies refused to join in this legal prohibition of nuclear weapons, and to a disturbing degree, seem addicted sustainers of the war system in its most horrific dimensions. Their rationale for such a posture can be reduced to the proposition that deterrence is more congenial than disarmament. Yet the nuclearism is a deeply discrediting contention that the P-5 provide the foundations of responsible global leadership, and therefore have accorded favorable status.

 

What the BAN Treaty makes clear is the cleavage between those who want to get rid of the weaponry, and regard international law as a crucial step in this process, and those who prefer to take their chances by retaining and even further developing this omnicidal weaponry and then hoping for the best. Leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jung-un make us aware of how irresponsible it is to hope to avoid the use of nuclear weapons over time when such unstable and impulsive individuals are only an arm’s reach away from decreeing a nuclear Armageddon. What the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 should have taught the world, but didn’t, is that even highly rational governments of the world’s most powerful states can come within a hair’s breath of launching a nuclear war merely to avoid an appearance of geopolitical weakness (the U.S. initial refusal to remove nuclear missiles deployed in Turkey even though they were already scheduled for removal because obsolete as it feared that such a step would be taken as a sign of weakness in its rivalry with the Soviet Union). Further, we know that it was only the unusual and unexpected willingness of an unheralded Soviet submarine officer to disobey a rogue order to fire off a nuclear missile that then saved the world from a terrifying chain of events.

 

The nuclear weapons states, governed by political realists, basically have no trust in law or morality when it comes to national security, but base their faith in the hyper-rationality of destructive military power, which in the nuclear age is expressed in the arcane idiom of deterrence, an idea more transparently known in the Cold War Era as Mutually Assured Destruction (or MAD!!). It is impossible to grasp the essential links between geopolitical ambition and security without understanding the complementary relationship of deterrence and the nonproliferation regime (its geopolitical implementation to avoid the disarmament obligation of Article VI).

 

In essence, the grandest Faustian Bargain of all times is contained within the confines of the Nonproliferation Regime, which is a geopolitical instrument of control by permanently dividing the world between those that have the bomb and decide who else should be allowed to develop the capability and those who are without the bomb but also without any way to secure a world in which no political actor possesses a nuclear weapons option. In a central respect, the issue between the militarized leadership of the nuclear weapons states and the peoples of the world is a question of trust—that is, a matter of geopolitics as practiced versus international law if reliably implemented.

 

Everything in the human domain is contingent, including even species survival. This makes it rational to be prudent, especially in relation to risks that have no upper limit, and could produce massive suffering and devastation far beyond tragedies of the past. Of course, there are also risks with a world legally committed to prohibit the possession, threat, and use of nuclear weapons, although if nuclear disarmament were to carry forward the overriding intent of the BAN Treaty, a disarming process would seek with the greatest possible diligence to minimize these risks. A world without nuclear weapons would almost certainly be a safer, saner, more humane world than the one we now inhabit.

 

Beyond that it would move national and international policy away from the gross immorality of a security system premised on mass destruction of civilian life along with assorted secondary effects of ‘nuclear famine’ caused by dense smoke blockage of the sun, potentially imperiling the wellbeing of all inhabitants of the planet. The dissemination of toxic radiation as far as winds will carry is an inevitable side effect with disastrous consequences even for future generations. Such an ecocidal gamble is not only a throw of the dice with respect to the human future but also in relation to the habitability of the planet by every living species. As such, it profiles an aggravated form of Crimes Against Nature, which while not codified, epitomize the peak of anthropogenic hubris.

 

It with these considerations in mind that one reads with consternation the cynical, flippant, and condescending response of The Economist: “This year’s Nobel peace prize rewards a nice but pointless idea.” Such a choice of words, ‘nice,’ ‘pointless’ tells it all. What is being expressed is the elite mainstream consensus that it is the height of futility to challenge conventional realist wisdom, that is, the Faustian Bargain mentioned earlier. The challenge is declared futile without even considering the dubious record of geopolitics over the centuries of war upon war, which in the process has deprived humanity of untold resources wasted on generations of deadly weaponry that have inflicted massive suffering and could have been put to many far better and necessary uses.

 

Of course, the BAN Treaty as an expression of faith in the path of international law and morality radically diverges conceptually and behaviorally from the political path of nuclearism, hard power, and political realism. It will require nothing less than a passionate and determined mobilization of peoples throughout the world to get rid of nuclear weapons, and its accompanying deep ideology of nuclearism. This is a far preferable alternative than passively waiting for the occurrence of a traumatizing sequence of events that so jolt political consciousness as to topple the power structures that now shape security policy throughout the world.

 

What the BAN Treaty achieves, and the Nobel Prize recognizes, is that the cleavage is now clear between international law and geopolitics with respect to nuclear weapons. The BAN Treaty provides likeminded governments and animated citizen pilgrim throughout the world with a roadmap for closing the gap from the side of law and morality. It will be an epic struggle, but now at least there are some reasons to be hopeful, which should itself strengthen the political will of the global community of anti-nuclear militants. It is helpful to appreciate that this BAN Treaty was achieved despite the strenuous opposition of the geopolitical forces that run the world order system. Just as Nehru read the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 as a decisive sign that European colonialism was vulnerable to national resistance, despite military inferiority, so let us believe and act as if this occasion of the Nobel Peace Prize is another tipping point in the balance between morality/legality on one side and violent geopolitics on the other.

 

Geopolitical Dirty Dreams: Israel’s ‘Victory Caucus’

29 Jul

 

 

The word hubris is far too kind in describing Donald Trump’s approach to the Middle East cauldron of conflict, with his response to the Palestinian struggle being more revealing of his absurd braggadocio brand than of malice, although its impact is malicious. Insisting that he has the will and capacity to strike an Israel/Palestine deal while simultaneously intimating that he plans to fulfill his inflammatory campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Worse, he appoints David Friedman as ambassador, an ardent American supporter of settler extremists whose politics is to the right of Netanyahu on the Israeli spectrum. This bankruptcy lawyer turned diplomat has compared the liberal Zionists of J Street to the Nazi kapos (Jews who collaborated with Nazis in death camps). Here as elsewhere Trump’s errant behavior would prompt the darkest laughter if the blood of many innocents were not daily being spilled on the streets of Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza.

 

It seems likely that Trump, assuming against all reason and evidence that his presidency survives and settles down, will likely do what Netanyahu and his son in law tell him to do: leave Israel free to maintain, and as necessary, intensify its policies of oppression toward the Palestinian people as a whole that are cruelly subjugated beneath an overarching structure of apartheid. At the same time the U.S. Government will continue to give credence to the big lie that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Israeli apartheid as an operative system of control, subjugates not only those Palestinians living under occupation but also extends its reach to refugees in neighboring countries, involuntary exiles around the world, and the discriminated minority living in Israel.

 

The main Trump assignment within the United States will likely be to lend full support to the Congressional and state-by-state pushback against the BDS campaign, slandering this nonviolent civil society movement of militant solidarity and human rights by castigating it as ‘the anti-Semitism of our time.’

 

On an international level Trump will be expected by Zionist forces to translate the UN-bashing of Nikki Haley into concrete reality by defunding any organ of the UN (e.g. Human Rights Council, UNESCO) that dares document and censure Israeli wrongdoing under international law. And regionally, Trump seems determined to champion the dangerous Saudi/Israel agenda of anti-Iran war mongering, a posture that threatens to convert the entire region into a war zone.

 

Trump’s clumsy touch was also evident during his much heralded May visit to Riyadh where he gave his blessings to the anti-Qatar, anti-Iran Gulf + Egypt coalitions headed by Saudi Arabia. The occasion offered the Saudis an opportunity to exert collective pressure on their tiny neighbor, insisting that Qatar curtain its sovereignty and endured a misguided hit for supposedly being the country most supportive of terrorism and extremism in the region. To lend American backing to such a hypocritical initiative is perverse and strange for several reasons obvious to almost anyone not totally oblivious to the rather blatant realities of the Middle East: Qatar is the site of the largest American military facility in the entire region, the Al Udeid Air Base, staffed by 11,000 U.S. military personnel, and serving as the counter-terrorist hub for regional military operations. Secondly, the obvious fact that Qatar’s slightly more open domestic political scene, including its sponsorship of Al Jazeera, was far closer to the supposed American political ideal than are the overtly anti-democratic governments ganging up against Qatar. And thirdly, as almost anyone following the rise of Islamic extremism knows, it is Saudi Arabia that has a long record of being the primary funding source, as well as providing much of the ideological inspiration and engaging in anti-democratic and sectarian interventions throughout the region. The Saudi government extends its baneful influence far afield by heavily subsidizing the madrassas in the Muslim countries of Asia, and doing its best to promote fundamentalist versions of Islam everywhere in the world.

 

Extreme as are these geopolitical missteps taken during Trump’s first few months in the White House, they are less calculated and more expressive of dysfunctional spontaneity than anything more malevolent, more bumbling than rumbling (with the notable exception of Iran). There is another more sinister civil society initiative underway that rests its claim to attention on a geopolitical fantasy that deserves notice and commentary. It is the brainchild of Daniel Pipes, the notorious founder of Campus Watch, an NGO doing its very best for many years to intimidate and, if possible, punish faculty members who are critical of Israel or appear friendly to Islam. Pipes is also the dominant figure in a strongly pro-Zionist, Islamophobic think tank in Washington misleadingly named the Middle East Forum (MEF). Much more an organ of hasbara musings on Israel/Palestine and promoter of hostility toward Islam than informed analysis and discussion, MEF is now fully behind an idea so absurd that it may gain political traction in today’s Washington. This MEF initiative is called Israel Victory Caucus in the U.S. Congress and Israeli Knesset.

 

In explaining the Victory Caucus Pipes at the opening of a recent hearing in the U.S. Congress to launch the project, now backed by 20 members of the House of Representatives, made an almost plausible introductory statement. Pipes told the assembled members of Congress that he had been for months racking his brain for what he called an “alternative to endless negotiations which nobody believes in.” Pipes is right to pronounce the Oslo diplomatic track a dead end with no future and a sorry past. His ‘Eureka Moment’ consisted of abandoning this failed diplomacy and replacing it by bringing Israel’s military superiority “to convince the Palestinian they have lost,” thereby awakening them to the true realities of the situation. In effect, this awareness of Israeli victory causing Palestinian defeat was the way to move forward, arguing that long wars can end only when one side wins, the other loses. Pipes personally made a parallel effort in Israel, including at the Knesset, being the lead performer in a conference in Tel Aviv dedicated to the ‘victory’ theme, and holding a highly publicized meeting with Netanyahu intending to promote the Victory Caucus. In effect, since the diplomatic track leads no where, and Israel possesses the capacity to increase Palestinian suffering at any stage, it should use this leverage to compel those representing Palestinian interests to face up to reality as Israel sees it. Part of the background is the self-serving insistence that the reason that diplomacy doesn’t work is because the Palestinians are unwilling to accept the permanent presence of a Jewish state in their midst, and until they do so, the war will go on. From this perspective, the diplomatic track could not get the Palestinians to yield in this manner, and so Israel should shift its efforts from persuasion to coercion, with the implicit false assumption that Israel was too nice in the past.

 

What Israel wants from the official representatives of the Palestinian people is a formal acknowledgement that their effort to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine has failed, and that they should formally express their acceptance of this outcome, not only in international languages, but also in Arabic. Victory Caucus also expects the Palestinians to affirm officially a right of self-determination in Palestine that belongs to the Jewish people. Also, the Palestinians are advised to be ‘realistic,’ and drop their dreams of a right of return to be exercised by Palestinian refugees. [for explication of the Victory Caucus approach consult the website of Middle East Forum, especially the many articles and presentations by Daniel Pipes; also helpful is Efraim Inbar, “Victory Requires Patience,” July 19, 2017] Again, there is an implicit assumption that Israel has been realistic over the years despite ignoring the guidelines of international law relevant to ‘belligerent occupation,’ including prohibitions on collective punishment and population transfer/settlements.

 

Pipes is very clear that the implications of victory, what he terms the details, should be left to the Israelis to decide upon. With a turn of phrase that seems an extreme version of wishful thinking to make himself sound reasonable and less partisan, Pipes insists that once this central fact of an Israeli victory is accepted, it will “be more beneficial to the Palestinians” than the present road to nowhere. The fine print may be the most disturbing and consequential aspect of the Victory Caucus arising from its realization that whatever Zionists and their most ardent supporters know to be true is not what most Palestinians believe to be the case.

 

Thus, for the Pipes’ logic what needs to happen, is to make the Palestinians see this particular light, and given the MEF convenient (yet deeply misleading) view of Arab mentality, this awareness can only be brought about by raising the costs to the Palestinians of continuing their struggle. Efraim Inbar frames the present situation as follows: “The Palestinian reluctance to adopt realistic foreign policy goals and the Israeli hesitation to use its military superiority to exact a much higher cost from the Palestinians are the defining features of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Although what would be realistic for the Palestinians is not specified, but from the context of the argument and overall Pipes’s outlook, it would be pretty much an acceptance of the entire Israeli agenda: the settlements, including their infrastructure of roads and the wall, retention of Galilee and Jordan Valley for security, and a unified Jerusalem under Israeli control that serves as its capital.

 

When Inbar premises his policy proposals on overcoming “Israeli hesitation to use its military superiority” to get the Palestinians to accept reality, one can only shudder at what this writer has in mind. Pipes assures his audience that whatever is done along these lines to convince the Palestinians should respect “legal, moral, and political limits” but by explicitly leaving it up to Israel to determine what this might mean, these limits lack all credibility, especially given Israel’s past behavior, which flagrantly and repeatedly ignores these limits in enacting policies that produced massive and acute suffering for the Palestinians over a period of decades. Against such a background I find these lines of MEF advocacy to be irresponsibly provocative in their formulation, and frightening if ever relied upon as the basis of action.

 

What is left out of this Pipes’ proposal seems far more significant than what is included. The justification for the Victory Caucus is based on a supposed posture of Palestinian rejectionism explains far less about the unfolding of the conflict over the course of the last hundred years than would referencing Zionist expansionism, combined with the salami tactics of always disguising more ambitious goals during the process of achieving their proximate objectives. In recent years, particularly, the Palestinian side has badly wanted a deal, signaling even their willingness to accept a bad deal, so as to end the occupation, and establish a state of their own. Any objective approach to this question of why the Oslo diplomacy reached a dead end would attribute the lion’s share of responsibility to the Israeli side with its practice of putting forward ever escalating demands that it knows in advance that the Palestinians must reject, not because they are unrealistic, but because Israel’s demands for ‘peace’ are the permanent subjugation of the Palestinian people.

 

Most disturbing of all is without doubt this image of Israeli hesitation to use the force at its disposal as if implying that Israel have been gentle occupiers and benign oppressors for these past 70 years since the UN proposed partition of Palestine. The evidence is overwhelming that Israel consistently relies on disproportionate excessive force, as well as collective punishment, in response any violent act of Palestinian resistance, and even to nonviolent Palestinian initiatives, for instance, the first intifada (1987), demonstrations against the unlawful wall, and the reaction to the recent restrictions on entry to Al Aqsa were met with violence. One of the most striking conclusions of the Goldstone Report on the Israeli attack on Gaza at the end of 2008 was its referencing of the Dahiya Doctrine, referring to the Israeli rationalization for destroying civilian neighborhoods in south Beirut assumed to be pro-Hezbollah as part of a strategy of disproportionate response to Hezbollah’s acts of violence in the course of the 2006 Lebanon War. Israeli military commanders gave two complementary explanations: the civilian population is part of the enemy infrastructure, thereby abolishing the distinction between civilians and military personnel; it is helpful for actual and potential enemies to perceive Israel as madly overreacting in response to even a minor provocation.

 

With more than a touch of irony, as of this writing, it is the Palestinians who are with greater credibility claiming ‘victory’ given the apparent resolution of the Al Aqsa crisis, which induced Israel to back down by agreeing to remove metal detectors and surveillance camera from two of the entrances to the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount esplanade leading to the mosque, and what is equally relevant, Israel appears for now to accept the continuing Wafq role as the only legitimate administrative authority in relation to this sacred Muslim religious site. Whether this is indeed more than a tactical retreat by Israel remains to be seen, and will be determined by how the recurrent battle for the governance of Al Aqsa proceeds in the future.

 

Similarly, whether the Victory Caucus is viewed in the future as a sinister display of Zionist arrogance or a step toward closure in the Israeli end game

in Palestine will depend, not on the positing of grandiose claims, but what happens in the future with respect to Palestinian resistance and the global solidarity movement. Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, recently warned Israelis that the BDS campaign poses “a strategic threat’ to Israel. Such a sentiment makes more than a little odd, and absurdly premature, for American and Israeli legislators to step forward to call upon Israel to up the ante by increasing their pressure on the Palestinians so that they are forced to admit in public what they now refuse to say even in private, what MEF wants us all to believe, that Israel has won, Palestine lost.