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ISIS, Militarism, and the Violent Imagination

18 Sep

 

 

 

 

Before ISIS

 

The beheading of American and British journalists who were being held hostage by ISIS creates a truly horrifying spectacle, and quite understandably mobilizes the political will to destroy the political actor who so shocks and frightens the Western sensibility, which is far from being free from responsibility for such lurid incidents. Never in modern times has there been a clearer example of violence begetting violence.

 

And we need to ask ‘to what end?’ Political leaders in the West are remarkably silent and dishonest about what it is that they wish to achieve in this region beset since 2011 by a quite terrifying outbreak of political extremism, whether from above as in the cases of Syria, Egypt, and Israel or from below as with ISIS and al-Nusra.

 

It is difficult to recall that at the start of 2011, just three years ago, progressive voices around the world were inspired by the Arab upheavals, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, that burst upon the political scene unexpectedly. These extraordinary events appeared to repudiate the prevailing patterns of authoritarian, exploitative, and corrupt collaboration between oppressive domestic elites, neoliberal economic forces, and the regional imperial juggernaut that had kept this humanly disastrous reality stable for so long. Yet even during that time of optimism about the Arab future, a closer scrutiny of what was happening disclosed many reasons to be worried. It is helpful to look to this recent past to have some comprehension of the perplexing present.

 

A Revolutionary Spirit Without Revolutionary Action

 

The goals of these upheavals were far too ambitious to be realized by such limited challenges directed at the established order. These movements were essentially confined to getting rid of a hated ruler. Associating single individuals such as Mubarak, Ben Ali, or Assad with the grievances of an exploited and oppressed people overlooks the degree to which class interests and entrenched bureaucracies constituted structures. The popular forces bravely challenging the status quo lacked leadership, program, and even a clear agenda, and naively expected the remnants of the old regime to disappear or go along with the anguished call of mass discontent that sought bread, freedom, and dignity as the effect of removing the hated leader.

 

This innocence of exaggerated expectations made what had seemed a remarkable achievement of doing the impossible more vulnerable to reversal than was generally understood at the time when the immediate results seemed so stunning. What particularly impressed thoughtful commentators was being described as ‘a new subjectivity’ of the Arab masses. It had long been presumed that these Arab publics were reconciled to their fate, and would remain passive victims of their sorry fate. That they rose up with such force and resolve surprised the world, and themselves, by these courageous displays of self-empowerment and political creativity. It was also impressive that these upheavals, each distinct, shared a vision of an inclusive democracy that when established, would henceforth govern society with respect for all classes, religious and ethnic identities, genders, and political persuasions.

 

The reluctance to challenge the old order more fundamentally and punitively became coupled with a paradoxical and perverse situation of dependence on the old regime to manage in good faith the transition to the promised new dawn of constitutional democracy and freely elected political leaders. There seemed to be no understanding that these old elites in each country had interests that had been generally served by the previously established order, and would inevitably be threatened by the longings of the people, including expectations of moves toward greater social and economic equity threatening the prior acceptance of predatory arrangements with neoliberal globalization.

 

Preconditions for Transformative Political Ambitions

 

In this sense, there seemed little awareness in these movements of Lenin’s insistence that a successful transformative politics necessarily depends on substantially destroying the prior state structures; (“you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”), that is, by rebuilding the new transformed state from the ground up and getting rid of the old bureaucracy. This generalization is especially true if the old order was managed by indigenous leadership, and not imposed from without as in the colonial era. Also, as Hannah Arendt argued in her book on revolution, if the overthrow of the former regime does not have a radical social agenda, as was the case with American Revolution, only then does the possibility of a smooth and peaceful transition exists. [See Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (1969). Excluding the prospects for improved material conditions, including jobs for youth, was a political impossibility in the Arab world, where conditions of mass misery were what partially explained the role of oppressive structures and the assignment of security forces to prevent workers from organizing effectively.

 

Revealingly, in contrast to the activists in Tahrir Square, Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran encouraged a kind of Islamic Leninism, rejecting all pleas to reach compromises with the Shah’s regime in exchange for social peace and shared political power. From the perspective of late 2014 we take note of contrasting realities: Iran’s Islamic Republic is celebrating its 35th anniversary without a serious threat to its governance, while the so-called Egyptian Revolution barely lasted two years before the old regime in a more extreme form was fully restored under the bloody military leadership of General Sisi.

 

 

 

Underestimating Political Islam

 

There were additional factors at work in Egypt and the region. Perhaps, most significantly, those who sought to liberalize the governance structures without shaking their foundations greatly underestimated the electoral strength of political Islam, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the ideals of the Tahrir movement affirmed inclusionary democracy, the assumption of many who initially championed a new political order was that the MB would participate as a minority presence that would not displace the old urban ruling classes or threaten its privileges. When this turned out to be wrong it immediately shifted the political balance in such a way as to promote counter-revolution. As Europe discovered after 1848, nothing is worse for progressive politics than revolutionary ambitions to exceed revolutionary means.

 

This situation was further stressed by the rich and influential Gulf oil dynasties that felt deeply threatened by the Arab upheavals, and cared far more about their own stability than they did about promoting Sunni politics in the region. These governments were disturbed by the fall of Mubarak, and hoped for a political reversal in Egypt, welcoming the counter-revolution led by Sisi with an avalanche of funding, without blinking when this new military leadership proceeded to commit major atrocities against members of the MB and to criminalize the organization. It should not be ignored that this counter-revolutionary violence also served the strategic interests of Israel and the United States, restoring stability, marginalizing Muslim and democratizing forces, and avoiding the emergence of governments much more inclined to support Palestinian aspirations and to challenge neoliberal links with global capitalism. Into this mix that emerged in Egypt, must also be added the political ineptness of the MB, neither appreciating its popular support nor recognizing that MB political hegemony would never be accepted by either the remnants of the old regime nor by secular liberals who wanted Mubarak overthrown, but not the system. In this sense, it appears in retrospect that it was a great mistake of the MB to withdraw their earlier pledge after the Tahrir success story to refrain from seeking either to dominate the parliamentary elections or compete for the presidency.

 

Not Forgetting Iraq or Syria

 

If we consider other developments in the region there is another disturbing ‘truth’: the region at this stage seems better off being governed in an authoritarian manner than by either the sort of ‘democracy promotion’ that was the theme song of the George W Bush presidency (2000-2008) or through the political responses to the kind of popular uprisings that erupted in Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, elsewhere, but turned out to be unsustainable. The least bad outcomes as of now appear to be those countries where the old authoritarian regimes prevailed without much struggle (e.g. Morocco) and made a few gestures of reform averting both civil strife and a more brutal turn in authoritarian rule. The alternatives to authoritarian in the region now seem far worse: terrible civil warfare (as in Syria) or chaos without respite (as in Libya). Given the mess that unfolded in Iraq during a decade of American occupation, what Washington policymaker would not at this point secretly consider the second coming of Saddam Hussein in Iraq as a gift of the gods?

 

Syria, as well, sent the wrong signal throughout the region. First, there occurred a popular challenge to the Assad regime that occasioned a bloody counterinsurgency campaign. Then outside forces, Turkey, the United States, Gulf countries teamed up as ‘Friends of Syria Group’ to help the insurgency prevail, badly underestimating the military capabilities and political support of the Damascus government, which enabled it to withstand these efforts to repeat the Mubarak/Qaddafi experience of overthrow either from below (by a mass movement) or from without (by a NATO air campaign). In Syria instead of regime change there occurred an ongoing civil war that has taken upwards of 200,000 lives, caused millions to flea the country as refugees and millions more to become internally displace.

 

Three negative political effects also followed: neighboring countries were destabilized, the unresolved Syrian struggle gave rise to various forms of Islamic extremism within Syria and in the region, and the atrocities of Assad gave license to others in the region (such as Sisi) to commit crimes against humanity with the prospect of impunity.

 

What lessons can we learn? Above all, beware of what is wished for. In effect, above all else, the last several decades should teach the West that the days of staging successful colonial interventions at acceptable costs are long past, and that premising post-colonial interventionist diplomacy on a moral crusade of human rights, democracy, and counter-terrorism fools almost no one except some of the people in the metropole, and wins few real friends in the target societies other than cynical opportunists or desperate insurgents. If intervention is followed by military occupation many of those who were initially willing to accept any and all outside help to get rid of the hated leader quickly get disillusioned and turn on their earlier benefactor, a process dubbed ‘blowback.’ [For identification of the phenomenon and its naming see Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, 2004) If the intervention is not followed by an occupation the results are not much better. Piles of bodies and debris are left behind, but the new reality is likely to be, as in Libya, the kind of ungovernable chaos with armed militias substituting for the rule of law. Washington tends to call such situations ‘failed states’ as if it had nothing to do with the collapse of governance.

 

America’s and NATO’s Unlearned Lessons

 

America and NATO should have learned the limits of military superiority and the problematics of occupation from their failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Military superiority and shock and awe tactics can generally overwhelm a Third World government and quickly destroy its military capability, but that is only initial and easy phase of an effort to control the political future of a targeted country. Notoriously, Bush didn’t understand this in relation to Iraq when he infamously announced ‘mission accomplished’ to the world immediately after Iraqi military resistance crumbled and Saddam Hussein was driven from power.

Phase two of the Iraq undertaking involved occupation and state-building neoliberal style, and the emergence of formidable political resistance. The early glow of victory soon fades away, and a variety of troubles start to overwhelm the intervening side. A movement of national resistance takes shape, and adopts insurgent tactics against the foreign invader that takes away many of the benefits of military superiority that earlier achieved an easy battlefield victory. Resistance consists of various acts of violent disruption that gradually turn a hostile and foreign occupation into a long nightmare. The high tech weaponry of the occupier remains an effective killing machine, but it increasingly kills the wrong people, alienates far more, and seems helpless to establish minimal order much less to deliver on the promise of democracy, economic prosperity, and human rights for all. The prime objective of the occupier becomes one of crafting a graceful exit that disguises the abandonment of the original enterprise, and if that fails, leaving in a humiliating manner without being able to disguise the defeat. It should have been evident from the outset in Iraq that the effort to embed democracy is in tension with the strategic goal of integrating the country in accord with Western ideas of security and political economy. The idea of turning over security to an indigenous and partisan army trained to make safeguard the government put in place by a military intervention is truly a ‘mission impossible.’

 

Strategic Failure

 

What was the real outcome of both of these major military interventions that cost many lives, generated mass refugee and internally displaced populations, and expended trillions of dollars on these futile ventures? In Afghanistan the results were a mixture of chaos, destabilization of Pakistan, and the reemergence of the Taliban as a formidable political force. In Iraq, the ironic outcome after a decade of occupation was a strategic victory for Iran and its pro-Shi’ite foreign policy, along with sectarian strife and widespread chaos, culminating during this past year with the eruption of ISIS occupying a significant expanses of territory in Iraq, and Syria. ISIS had the audacity to proclaim itself the Islamic State and to found a new caliphate without regard to international borders.

 

In both societies these results are exactly the opposite of the goals set by the intervening side. What were the real motivations of the intervenors? There are, I believe, three overlapping answers given varying weights by commentators: for oil, for arms sales and the political economy of militarism, and to ensure the desired strategic hegemony of the American/Israeli partnership throughout the Middle East.

 

The failure results from a basic disconnect. Securing the neoliberal priority of assuring access to Middle Eastern oil at stable prices bolstered by a maximum Western private sector investment depends upon maintaining good relations with stable governments and receptive societies. Stable political structures, given the American commitment to Israel, together with capitalist predatory behavior, produces a hostile cleavage between state and society throughout the region, making political order fully dependent on effective authoritarian governance. Under these conditions it is evident that any claimed commitment to human rights and democracy is hypocritical, and at best peripheral. Such claims serve as misleading rationalizations for intervention in a post-colonial era where naked imperial justifications are no longer credible. It puts the West in the position of inevitably collaborating with national elites that suppress the most fundamental human right of their own peoples—that of the right of national self-determination, which is highlighted as common Article I of both the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

 

Remembering Vietnam

 

There is a further disconnect. Relying on military intervention to achieve the goals of foreign policy is not a new recipe for political failure, and such an approach should have been discarded long ago for realist reasons. A repudiation of interventionary diplomacy should have been the crucial lesson learned from the Vietnam War. Remember America won all the big battles, controlled every combat zone, and yet lost the war. A Vietnamese military commander’s response is worth pondering made to an American official who insisted that despite the political outcome of the war, the United States was never defeated militarily by Vietnam: “Yes, that is true, but it is irrelevant.”

 

Understanding why it is irrelevant is the great unlearned lesson in relation to the conflicts taking place the period since World War II. It should by now be clear even to the most dimwitted real politik analyst that every colonial war since World War II was won by the militarily inferior side. Perhaps, the most dramatic instance of people power triumphing over imperial power occurred in India’s defeat of the mighty British Empire without firing a shot. In Indochina and Algeria French colonialism finally gave way to national movements with far worse weaponry. National resilience in the end proves stronger than foreign military and police control.

 

The real untold story of this string of losses sustained by the West is the empowerment of people. This empowerment was eventually accorded moral and legal respect by a global diplomatic process that now seems a false gesture of imperial disempowerment. Acceptance of the moral claims of and legal right to self-determination was formally acknowledged, but the geopolitics of power and wealth went on as before, and continued at great costs to seek by force of arms what could not otherwise be justly acquired.

 

The recent Israeli military operation against the helpless people of Gaza is an extreme illustration of this dynamic. No people in the Middle East have endured as much cruelty and suffering during their long national movement for independence and sovereignty than have the Palestinians. And no state has been as determined as Israel to rely on its vastly superior military means to maintain control, expand, and ruthlessly suppress opposition. And yet after nearly 70 years of dispossession, occupation, militarist subjugation, and Western backing, the Palestinians are far from defeated. In the recent one-sided Protective Edge campaign over 2100 Palestinians were killed, 75% of whom were civilians, as compared to Israel reporting losses of 70 dead, of whom 66 were members of the IDF. It suggests that ‘state terrorism’ is far deadlier for the civilian population than is the violence of enemy resisters. But consider the political dynamics: the Israeli reasons for staging this horror show seemed to be mainly to convince the collaborationist leadership in Ramallah to stop cooperating with Israel and to weaken decisively the organization structure and political support of Hamas. As with the cases mentioned earlier, the military dominance produced great devastation combined with a political defeat: instead of weakening Hamas, the organization gained in popularity not only in Gaza, but even more so in the West Bank where new polls show that in any forthcoming election Hamas would easily win over the Palestinian Authority, which was unlikely before Israel launched its latest deadly attack to once more ‘mow the lawn’ in Gaza.

 

The next concern, following from what has been argued, is ‘why such a clear pattern of repeated failures should not lead to policy adjustments?’ There are two explanations: the political elites of the world are hard-wired to think within an anachronistic realist box in which military power is the controlling force of history. Such thinking is also part of the political culture of the United States where security is correlated with hard power, no matter the facts are. This defiance of reality is sadly reinforced by American political culture. When recent horrific crimes in movie theaters and schools where innocent persons are willfully slaughtered by a deranged heavily armed individual, the militarized mentality of the citizenry leads it not to demand the prohibition of assault weapons in private hands, but perversely to a surge in private arms sales.

 

The ISIS Challenge Revisited

 

This brings us back to ISIS, and what might be done that improves the situation rather than worsen it. Barack Obama has presided over shaping the regional response. He was confronted by a multifaceted dilemma. He had been elected president twice partly to end American engagement in overseas wars, especially in the Middle East, and here he was once more rallying the region and Europe for yet another war against an adversary that posed no discernable threat to the American people. To overcome this awkward fact, it was necessary to dramatize the barbarism of ISIS tactics, pointing to the

American victims of ISIS atrocities, and at the same time promise there would be no American casualties. Barbarous as were these atrocious acts, beheadings were unfortunately not new to the region, and were regularly used upon by the Saudi Arabian government in punishing convicted criminals. True, these incidents involved American and British nationals who were innocent of wrongdoing, but the emphasis was not so much placed on their innocence as on the horrifying technique used to carry out the executions.

 

Here is the core problem: America’s leadership in the region depends on actively protecting the authoritarian status quo, especially in the Gulf, and so doing nothing about ISIS was not an option. What Obama is proposing to do repeats the old formula of failure: air strikes; training, arming, and advising friendly forces (Iraqi Kurds, moderate Syrians, Iraqi military units), disrupting ISIS overseas recruiting and funding. Obama’s program is a pale version of post-Vietnam counter-insurgency doctrine where risks of American casualties must be minimized while air power, including drones, plus native ground forces with their own political agendas are relied upon to carry out the dirty work. Yet, as in earlier encounters, the likely result is to induce chaos and alienation arising from accidental targeting of innocent civilians arousing public resentment, and a no win/no lose standoff that causes great suffering to the society, including producing many refugees and internally displaced persons. It is illustrative of thinking within the old militarist box, and its prescriptions are almost certain to make any particular situation worse than if left alone.

 

Of course, there are far preferable options, but to adopt these requires looking below the surface. It would have to start with the admission that the American occupation of Iraq was the proximate cause of the emergence of ISIS, especially due to the purge of Bathist elements in the government and armed forces, and the encouragement of Shi’ite sectarianism. Abandoning sectarian maneuvers is one way to avoid some of the worst recent mistakes.

 

Another productive path presupposes an American diplomatic outlook oriented around wider ethical and world order concerns. Such an adjustment would require loosening the dependency ties to Israel, and follow a rational line of geo-strategic self-interest in the Middle East. Such a course of action, hardly ever mentioned because it seems too unrealistic, would involve taking three steps: bringing Iran into the effort to find a political solution for the Syrian civil war; proposing a nuclear free zone throughout the Middle East; exerting pressure on Israel to uphold Palestinian rights under international law. This is a distinctly political approach that contrasts with militarism that has produced destructive turbulence in the region in the period since the partial stabilities of the Cold War era collapsed along with the Berlin Wall in 1989.

 

Militarist geopolitics seems destined to lead to yet another Western catastrophe in the tormented Middle East. There is no political will visible anywhere on the horizons of world politics that might pose a humane challenge to such disaster-prone policymaking. And so the murderous cycle of violence repeats itself yet again, the alien militarism of this Western led coalition is confronting the indigenous violence of ISIS that the mistakes of earlier interventions by the West have helped to nurture. And so dispiriting repetition occurs instead of uplifting innovation, and the wheels of violence turn with accelerating velocity.

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Why the Peace Talks Collapsed—and Should Not be Resumed

2 May

 

           A week ago Israel suspended participation in the peace talks in response to news that the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah had for a third time concluded a unity agreement with the Hamas leadership of Gaza. Such a move toward intra-Palestinian reconciliation should have been welcomed by Israel as a tentative step in the right direction. Instead it was immediately denounced by Netanyahu as the end of the diplomatic road, contending that Israel will never be part of any political process that includes a terrorist organization pledged to its destruction. Without Hamas’ participation any diplomatic results of negotiations would likely have been of questionable value, and besides, Hamas deserves inclusion. It has behaved as a political actor since it took part in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, and has repeatedly indicated its willingness to reach a long-term normalizing agreement with Israel if and when Israel is ready to withdraw fully to the 1967 borders and respect Palestinian sovereign rights. The contention that Hamas is pledged to Israel’s destruction is pure hasbara, a cynical means to manipulate the fear factor in Israeli domestic politics, as well as ensuring the persistence of the conflict. This approach has become Israel’s way of choosing expansion over peace, and seemingly ignoring its own citizens’ mandate to secure a stable peace agreement.

 

            Israel had days earlier complained about an initiative taken by the PA to become a party to 15 international treaties. Again, a step that would be viewed as constructive if seeking an end to the conflict was anywhere to be found in Israel’s playbook. Such an initiative should have been interpreted in a positive direction as indicating the Palestinian intention to be a responsible member of the international community. Israel’s contrary lame allegation that by acting independently the PA departed from the agreed roadmap of negotiations prematurely assuming the prerogatives of a state rather than waiting Godot-like for such a status to be granted via the bilateral diplomatic route.

 

            To remove any doubt about the priorities of the Netanyahu-led government, Israel during the nine months set aside for reaching an agreement, authorized no less than 13,851 new housing units in the settlements, added significant amounts of available land for further settlement expansion, and demolished 312 Palestinian homes. These acts were not only unlawful, but actually accelerated earlier settlement trends, and were obviously provocative from a Palestinian perspective. As Haaretz columnist, Gideon Levy, observed in a TV interview, if Israeli authorizes even one additional housing unit during negotiations it is sending a clear signal to the Palestinian people and their leaders that it has no interest in reaching a sustainable peace agreement.

 

            The revival of direct negotiations last August between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority was mainly a strong arm initiative of the U.S. Government, energized by John Kerry, the American Secretary of State, who has put relentless pressure on both sides to start talking despite the manifest futility of such a process from its outset. Such resolve raises the still unanswered question, ‘why?’ Kerry melodramatically proclaimed that these negotiations were the last chance to save the two-state solution as the means to end the conflict, in effect, declaring this new round of U.S. sponsored negotiations to be an all or nothing moment of decision for the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Kerry has reinforced this appeal by warning that Israel risks isolation and boycott if no agreement is reached, and in the last several days, declared behind closed doors that Israel was taking a path that could lead Israel to becoming an apartheid state by this apparent refusal to seek a diplomatic solution.

 

            It is probably beside the point that no one at the State Department informed Kerry before he started to walk this tightrope that the two-state goal that he so unconditionally endorsed was already dead and buried as a realistic option. Further, that Israel had established an apartheid regime on the West Bank decades ago, making his supposedly controversial statement better understood to be ‘old news.’ In other words, Kerry showed himself awkwardly out of touch by issuing future warnings about matters that were already in a past tense. With respect to apartheid he discredited himself further by apologizing for using the a-word in response to objections by Israeli supporters in the United States, however descriptive ‘apartheid’ has become of the discriminatory nature of the occupation. American leaders present themselves as craven in relation to Israeli sensibilities when they retreat in this manner from reality without showing the slightest sign of embarrassment.

 

            The agreement of Israel and the PA to sit together and negotiate formally expired on April 29th, yet the indefatigable Kerry rather remarkably pushed the parties to agree on an extension by a flurry of meetings in recent weeks disclosing a mood hovering uneasily between exasperation and desperation. Even if the talks were to resume, as still might happen, it should not be interpreted as a hopeful development. There is utterly no reason to think that a diplomatic process in the current political climate is capable of producing a just and sustainable peace. To think differently embraces an illusion, and more meaningfully, gives Israel additional time to consolidate its expansionist plans to a point that makes it absurd to imagine the creation of a truly viable and independent sovereign parallel Palestinian state. So long as the political preconditions for fruitful inter-governmental diplomacy do not exist, calls for direct negotiations should be abandoned. Both sides must approach negotiations with a genuine incentive to strike a deal that is fair to the other side, which implies a willingness to respect Palestinian rights under international law. For reasons suggested, those preconditions do not exist on the Israeli side. This makes it deeply misleading to put the blame for the breakdown of the talks on both sides, or sometimes even to point the finger at the Palestinians, as has been the practice in the mainstream Western media whenever negotiations hit a stone wall.

 

            It has been painfully obvious ever since Oslo (1993), that there is something fundamentally deficient about the double role played by the United States Government in relation to such negotiations. How can it be trusted when American officials declare over and over again that the country will forever remain the unconditional ally of Israel, and yet at the same time give even minimal confidence to the Palestinians that it a neutral third party seeking to promote a just peace? The short answer is that ‘it can’t’ and ‘will not.’ From the very outset of the recent diplomatic initiative this contradiction in roles was resolved in Israel’s favor by the Obama appointment of Martin Indyk as Special Envoy entrusted with the delicate symbolic role of overseeing the negotiations. Indyk has a long public career of involvements supportive of Israel, including past employment with the notorious AIPAC lobby that exerts its disproportionate pro-Israeli influence over the entire American political scene. Only the weakness of the Palestinian Authority can explain a willingness to entrust its diplomatic fate to such a framework already strongly tilted in favor of Israel due to Israel’s skills and strengths as an experienced political actor on the global stage.

 

            Against this background we have to ask what is gained and lost by such fruitless negotiations. What is gained by Israel and the United States is some hope that while negotiations proceed the conflict will not escalate by taking an unwelcome turn toward a Third Intifada that forcibly challenges Israel’s occupation policies associated with the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. There is also the sense that so long as the U.S. Government is seen as backing a two-state solution it satisfies regional expectations, and provide a rationale for supporting even a futile diplomatic effort because it is the only game in town, and it seems perverse to challenge its utility without presenting an alternative. The Arab world itself endorsed and recently reaffirmed its 2002 regional peace initiative calling for Israel’s withdrawal from occupied Palestine and formal acceptance of Palestinian state within 1967 green line borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Such a vision of peace derives from unanimous Security Council Resolution 242 that was premised on Israel’s withdrawal from territories occupied in the course of the 1967 War, but additionally on a just solution of the refugee problem. And there is near universal appreciation expressed for Kerry’s dedication to resolving the conflict, and so it is a kind of public relations success story despite the serious drawbacks mentioned.

 

            In effect, there has existed a global consensus since 1967 on establishing peace between Israel and Palestine, reinforced by the apparent absence of alternatives, that is, the only possibilities are widely believed to be either two-states or the persistence of the conflict. It should be appreciated that way back in 1988 the Palestinian Liberation Organization, then speaking for all Palestinians under the leadership of Yasir Arafat, gave up its maximalist goals, and formally indicated its willingness to make peace with Israel based on these 1967 borders, with an implied readiness to compromise on the refugee issue. Such an approach allowed Israel to possess secure borders based on 78% of historic Palestine, and limited the Palestinian state to the other 22%, which is less than half of what the UN had offered the Palestinians its partition proposal of 1947, which at the time seemed unreasonable from a Palestinian perspective. In appraisals of the conflict this historic Palestinian concession, perhaps imprudently made by the PLO, has never been acknowledged, much less reciprocated, by either Israel or the United States. In my view, this absence of response exhibited all along a fundamental lack of political will on the Israeli side to reach a solution through inter-governmental negotiations, although some would interpret the Camp David initiative in 2000 as the last time that Israeli leadership seemed somewhat inclined to resolve the conflict diplomatically. The Palestinian Authority depends on Israel to transfer tax revenues upon which its governing capacity rests, and it can usually be brought into line if it acts in defiance of Tel Aviv and Washington. Also, collaboration on security arrangements with Israel creates both co-dependency and give a measure of stability to the otherwise frozen situation. Occasionally, seemingly with quixotic intent, the PA and Abbas challenge this image by suggesting their option to quit the political stage and return the responsibilities of administering the West Bank to Israel.

 

            The two-state consensus has been increasingly challenged over the years by influential Palestinians, including Edward Said, who toward the end of his life argued that in view of intervening developments subsequent to 1988, only a one-state solution could reconcile the two peoples in an acceptable manner based on mutual respect for rights, democracy, and equality. The advocacy of a single secular democratic state draws on two sets of arguments—a pragmatic contention that the settlement process and the changed demographic of East Jerusalem are essentially irreversible, and thus there is no feasible means at this time to create a viable Palestinian state, and this becomes more apparent with each passing day; and a principled contention that it makes no political or ethical sense in the twenty-first century to encourage the formation of ethnic states, especially as in this case, 20% of the Israeli population is Palestinian, and subject to an array of discriminatory legislative measures. In some respects, the essence of the Palestinian predicament is to acknowledge that it is too late for the two-state solution and seemingly too early for a one-state solution.

 

            Assuming that the diplomatic route is blocked, is the situation hopeless for the Palestinians? I believe that Palestinian hopes for a just peace should never have rested on the outcome of formal diplomacy for the reasons given above. Put succinctly, given the Israel failure to heed the call for withdrawal in SC Res. 242, its non-response to the 1988 PLO acceptance of Israel within the 1967 borders, and its consistent commitment to settlement expansion, no sane person should have put much faith in an Israeli readiness to make a peace respectful of Palestinian rights under international law. Currently, the best prospect for realizing Palestinian self-determination is by way of pressures exerted through the mobilization of a movement from below, combining popular resistance with global solidarity. Such a process, what I have called ‘legitimacy war,’ exemplified by Gandhi’s nonviolent victory over the British Empire and more recently by the success of the global anti-apartheid movement against racist South Africa, represents the latest strategic turn in the Palestinian national movement, and seems even compatible with the recent outlook of Hamas as expressed by its leaders and confirmed by its behavior.

 

            It is time to appreciate that the current approach of the Palestinian national movement rests on two broad undertakings: the adoption of nonviolent resistance tactics and an increasingly strengthened global solidarity movement, centered on the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) initiative, which is gaining momentum throughout the world, especially in Europe. These developments are reinforced by UN calls to Member States to remind corporate and financial actors under their national control that it is problematic under international law to continue engaging in business dealings with Israeli settlements. In effect, there are horizons of hope for Palestinians with respect to seeking a just and sustainable peace between these two ethnic communities that is gaining most of its impact and influence from the actions of people rather than the maneuvers of governments. Of course, if the political climate changes in response to legitimacy war pressures, governments could have a crucial future role to play, taking advantage of a new balance of forces that could enable diplomacy to move towards solutions. Constructive diplomacy would contrast with what has recently transpired, which seemed to combine deflection from Israeli expansionism followed by participation in a childish blame game. It is important that world public opinion reject as meaningless the diplomatic charade of peace talks while the fate of a people continues to be daily sacrificed on the altar of geopolitics.

 

Armenian Grievances, Turkey, United States and 1915

26 Apr

 

 

            On April 10 by a vote of 12-5, with one abstention, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave its approval to Resolution 410 calling upon Turkey to acknowledge that the massacres of Armenians in 1915, and subsequently, constituted ‘genocide.’ It also asks President Obama to adjust American foreign policy by advocating an “equitable, constructive, stable and durable Armenian-Turkish relationship including full acknowledgement of ‘the Armenian genocide.’” So far, Obama since becoming president has refrained from uttering the g-word, although he has acknowledged the historical wrongs done to the Armenian people in the strongest possible language of condemnation.

 

            Such resolutions, although widely understood to be symbolic and recommendatory, reflect the efforts of the Armenian diaspora to raise awareness of the true nature of what the Armenians endured in 1915, and especially to induce the Turkish government to acknowledge these events as ‘genocide,’ or else suffer the reputational consequences of embracing what is being called ‘denialism.’ The resolution is the latest move to build a strong international consensus in support of the Armenian sense of grievance, and in so doing generate pressures on the accused Turkish government to admit the full enormity of the crimes against the Armenian people by admitting that it was genocide. Further there may also be present an intention to reinforce an appropriate apology, should it be forthcoming, with such tangible steps as restoring stolen property and possibly even establishing a reparations fund.

 

            The Armenian campaign also makes the wider claim that this process of redress for a horrendous historic grievance will also act as a deterrent to the commission in the future of similar crimes. The Senate resolution, however, make a minimal contribution to these goals. It is little more than a gesture of good will explicitly associated with commemorating the 99th anniversary of the 2015 events. As the April 24th day of commemoration has passed without the resolution being put on the action agenda of the full Senate prior to its Easter recess the resolution becomes consigned to the permanent twilight of a recommendation that is never even consummated by the relevant legislative body. Such an interplay of action and inaction manifests an underlying governmental ambivalence as to how this issue should be formally addressed by the United States at official levels of government. Why? Because the expression criticism of the Turkish government for the manner it is addressing the Armenian demands for redress inevitably engages American foreign policy.

 

            The Turkish Foreign Minister has already indicated his displeasure with such initiatives, insisting that respected historians should investigate the claim of genocide, that it is not appropriate for third countries to meddle in such matters, and that such an initiative, if it were formally endorsed at higher levels in Washington, will have a negative influence on the search for some kind of mutually acceptable resolution of these persisting tensions. The Turkish narrative on 1915, which has been softening its oppositional stance during the past decade, still argues that there were atrocities and suffering for Turks as well as Armenians, including a considerable number of Turkish casualties. Further, that the massacres of Armenians were less expressions of ethnic hatred than expressive of a reliance on excessive and undisciplined force to suppress an Armenian revolt against Ottoman rule at a time when Armenians were siding with invading Russian armies in the midst of World War I.

 

What is at Stake

 

            There are two important, intertwined concerns present. First, the whole issue of inter-temporal justice, how to address events that took place one hundred years ago in a manner that is as fair as possible to the victims yet takes account of the passage of time in assessing responsibility for such long past events. Secondly, the degree to which such an issue should be resolved by the parties themselves within the frame of the country where the events took place, or within the framework of the United Nations, rather than be addressed in the domestic politics of third countries whose governments are likely swayed by the presence or absence of aggrieved minorities.

 

            My impression is that the current leadership in Turkey is less seriously committed to upholding the Turkish narrative than in the past, but neither is it willing to subscribe to the Armenian narrative in some of its key elements, especially the insistence that what took place in 1915 must be described as genocide if it is to be properly acknowledged. It is not only the inflammatory nature of the word itself, but also a reasonable apprehension in Ankara of ‘the Pandora’s Box’ aspects of such a process, which once opened would likely move from the word genocide to such delicate embedded questions as reparations and the restoration of stolen property. Especially in recent months, the Turkish political scene has been rather chaotic, and undoubtedly there is a present reluctance by Turkish leaders to stir the hot embers of its nationalist political culture by acceding to the Armenian agenda relating to resolving the conflict. Yet with the 100th anniversary of 1915 around the corner, Turkey has its own strong incentives for being pro-active in developing a forthcoming posture in relation to Armenia and the Armenians.

 

            Against such a background, it seems important to ask what it is that the Armenian demand for the redress of historic grievances is seeking. Is it the belated satisfaction of having Turkey formally declare and admit that what took place in 1915 was ‘genocide,’ or is it more than this? Is there embedded this further demand that Turkey honor the memory of these events by some sort of annual observance, perhaps coupled with the establishment of an Armenian Genocide Museum? Or as signaled already that Turkey is expected to establish a fund and reparations procedures that will allow descendants of the victims to put forward economic claims for the harms endured? In effect, is the full range of Armenian expectations apparent at this stage or merely somewhat clouded? As the experience with the Holocaust suggests, there is no single event that can permanently shut the doors of history or dry the tears of extreme remorse. At most, acknowledgement, apology, and even tangible steps initiate a process that will never completely end, nor bring a satisfying closure to those who identify with the victims of such an unforgivable stream of past occurrences.

            As well, parallel to the genocidal and 1915 Armenian agenda, is a long festering inter-governmental dispute between Turkey and the sovereign state of Armenia over control of Nagorno-Karabakh region in the middle of Azerbaijan that has closed the border between the two countries since 1993. The Acting Armenian Foreign Minister, Edward Nabandian, added fuel to this diplomatic fire by welcoming the Senate resolution as “an important step” toward establishing “historical truth and prevention of crimes against humanity.” By so doing, the international dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh is joined at the hip to the historical controversy about the events of 1915. In an unusual way, the Armenian campaign is mainly conducted under the direction of the Armenian diaspora, and has only been given a secondary emphasis by Armenia itself, which has generally seemed more concerned about economic relations, and especially the territorial dispute in Azerbaijan, when dealing with its Turkish neighbor.

 

            What is one to do about a course of events that occurred under distinct national and international conditions expressive of different structures and legal norms that prevailed a century earlier? I was similarly challenged recently after giving a lecture on moral responsibility in international political life. The question was posed by a native American in the audience who angrily asked me why I had failed to advocate the restoration of the land seized in earlier centuries from the indigenous peoples who then inhabited North America, implying that my silence about such matters was an implicit endorsement of genocide. Such a reaction is understandable on the part of those who identify with a victimized community, but cannot be prescriptive in relation to 21st century realities. Certainly it was genocidal in willing that distinct ethnic groups become extinct or endure forcible dispossession, but there was at the time no legal prohibition on such behavior, and whatever moral interdiction existed was inconclusive, despite the manifest cruelty of the colonizing behavior. At this point, the clock cannot be rolled back to apply contemporary standards of justice to past wrongdoings, although ethical sensitivity and empathy is fully warranted. And what is totally unacceptable are any present efforts to rationalize or even glorify past barbarisms. For instance, the disgusting revisionist view of American slavery recently articulated by the right-wing libertarian rancher, Cliven Bundy, who absurdly asserts that slaves were probably happier than freed African Americans because they enjoyed the satisfactions of family life. As Charles Blow observes in an opinion piece, “Slaves dishonored in life must not have their memories disfigured by revisionist history.” {Blow, “A Rancher’s Romantic Revisionism,” NY Times, April 26, 2014]

 

            We must begin from where we are (but not end there), seeking as humane and transparent a response to these historic injustices as seems possible given both the intervening developments and the relevant balance of forces now and then. True, the anti-colonial movements of the last half of the 20th century did undo earlier injustices because of their capacity to mobilize effective movements of popular resistance. Indigenous people do not have this capacity, and are confined to what legal remedies are voluntarily conferred, and to what degree documenting the past creates sufficient public sympathy to support initiatives seeking some fractional measure of moral and material rectification.

 

            To some extent, accurate documentation is itself a form of historic redress, as was the case with the post-dictatorial ‘truth and reconciliation’ processes that tried in Latin American and South Africa to reconcile peace and justice during a transition to constitutional democracy, yet never brought anything approaching satisfaction or even closure to the victim communities that had earlier experienced unforgiveable criminality. We should also learne from Nelson Mandela’s willingness to overlook the structural injustices associated with economic and social apartheid in achieving the ‘political miracle’ of a peaceful dissolution of political apartheid. Also relevant are some of the late reflections of Edward Said on how to address the Palestine/Israel struggle given the realities that existed fifty years after the establishment of Israel. In effect, Said was of the opinion that despite the legally and morally unacceptable dispossession of the Palestinian people from their homes and homeland in 1948, it was now both futile and wrong to challenge any longer the existence of Israel. To resolve the conflict, in his view, required an acknowledgement of past injustices, especially the nakba, and mutually agreed arrangements that allowed the two peoples to live and co-exist in peace under conditions of equality, security, and dignity.

 

Was it Genocide?

 

            Is there a single historical truth that must be affirmed by all those of good will, and is it what the Armenian movement and U.S. Senate resolution contends? Can Turkey only express its good faith by subscribing literally to the main features of the Armenian narrative? Until it makes such a willingness clear it is unlikely to deflect the accusatory agenda of those demanding redress. In effect, is the litmus test of Turkish sincerity and remorse dependent upon a formal acknowledgement that what took place in 1915 was unequivocally ‘genocide’? I believe the historical truth is quite unequivocal from a factual and moral perspective, namely, that there was a systematic and deliberate effort to eliminate the Armenian minority from Turkey stemming from government orders and plans, and although occurring in the midst of war, political instability, and national upheaval, the ethnic violence was so one-sided and comprehensive as to undermine the credibility of the central contention of the Turkish narrative that World War I brought about an inter-ethnic experience of shared suffering replete with atrocities, but the blame cannot be exclusively attributed to Turkey, nor can the suffering be exclusively assigned to the Armenian community. This historical truth of predominant Turkish responsibility, however, is far more equivocal in relation to the further Armenian insistence that these genocidal events constitute the crime of genocide as embodied in the 1948 Genocide Convention, which came into force in 1951.

 

            Criminal law is not retroactive. Even the Nuremberg Judgment, which endorsed such innovations as ‘crimes against the peace’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ avoided any attempt to hold the Nazi leaders being prosecuted responsible for genocide despite the magnitude of the Holocaust and the abundance documented evidence of the deliberate and planned elimination of the Jewish people. What exactly, then, is the crime of ‘genocide’? Can it be said to pre-exist the entry into force of the Genocide Convention, considering the wording of its first article, but if so, why was genocide ignored in the prosecution of these Nazis? The wording of Article 1 of the Genocide Convention lends an aura of ambiguity to such queries: “The contracting parties confirm that genocide whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.” (emphasis added). The word ‘confirm’ in Article 1 seems supportive of the view that the crime depicted in the treaty somehow preexisted the adoption of the Convention, and that only the usage of the word is retroactive. Yet the concept of genocide was not conceived to be a legal category until the crime was proposed in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin. I would suppose that had Lemkin persuaded the political community to adopt the Genocide Convention a decade earlier the Nuremberg indictments would have included the crime, and possibly the decision would have given guidance as to whether the crime came into being with treaty or antedated its ratification.

 

            Controversy is present as soon as the idea is to compel Turkey to admit that the massacres of 1915 are massive commissions of the crime of genocide, and as such, have an array of legal implications. More flexible, by far, would be a process of inquiry by an international commission of independent experts, which included well respected international lawyers, that would likely conclude that the events in question were clearly ‘genocidal’ in character, and if they had occurred after the Genocide Convention was adopted in 1950, they would constitute ‘genocide.’

            The World Court in responding to the Bosnia complaint alleging Serbian genocide concluded that a high evidentiary bar exists to establish the crime of genocide even with the benefit of the Convention, but it did find that the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica was ‘genocide.’ The majority decision of the highest judicial body in the UN System indirectly highlights the crucial differences between the crime of genocide and the psycho/political/sociological realities of genocidal behavior.

 

Is U.S. Government Involvement Constructive?

 

            The question of whether the United States should be involved in shaping international public opinion is less significant than the substantive dispute about the events, but far from trivial. The questionable political opportunism that connects the responsiveness of Congress to a well-organized Armenian lobby in the United States does seem to make reasonable the official Turkish response that it is never helpful for a foreign government to take the anti-government side in an unresolved controversy of this sort. It is bound to harm bilateral relations between the two countries. In effect, the mutual respect for sovereignty requires governments to refrain from such meddling under almost all circumstances. One can easily imagine the furor in the United States if the Turkish Parliament passed a resolution insisting that Washington finally acknowledge that native American tribal communities were victims of genocide or that descendants of slaves are entitled to reparations. However sincere and morally plausible, in a world where legality and legitimacy are almost always matters for territorial sovereigns to resolve, the foreign source of such sentiments are deeply resented, and are more likely to produce an angry backlash than to induce an accommodating retreat.

 

Finding a Solution

            From the Armenian perspective seeking redress, is this show of American governmental support helpful or not? I suspect that a more discreet effort would produce less defensiveness on the Turkish side, and more willingness to seek a mutually satisfactory outcome. Mobilizing the American Congress and French legislative bodies is somewhat similar to looking beneath the lamppost for a watch dropped in the darkness of the night. Admittedly, if the purpose is to raise awareness and mobilize support from the Armenians such a public relations campaign may be effective even if it stiffens Turkish resistance in the short run.

             A second important concern is how to address the genocide issue given the passage of time, and the interplay of preoccupations on both sides. My preference would be for both Turkish and Armenian representative to agree that it is permissible to use the word genocide with reference to the Armenian ordeal of 1915, but with a shared understanding that the use of the word in relation to the massacres of Armenians is without legal effect. The concept of genocide is inherently ambiguous as it simultaneously puts forward an empirical description of a set of events that offers a political, psychological, sociological, and ethical evaluation of those events, while also advancing the possible legal evaluation of such events as constituting the crime of genocide, which would also mean sustaining a heavy burden of proof as required to establish specific intent, which is a vital element of the crime.

 

            What does not help internationally, it would seem, is posturing by the U.S. Congress. It will probably necessitate some quiet fence-mending by the Obama presidency to maintain good Turkish-American relations, a key strategic priority. At the same time, the Turkish government should not sit still. It should do more than angrily push aside this American initiative and the related Armenian campaign, and show a more forthcoming attitude toward finding common ground to heal gaping Armenian wounds that remain open after a century. Mounting pressure due to the worldwide Armenia is definitely raising the level of awareness, but only wisdom, empathy, and good will on both sides can overcome such an embittered past. In some respects, there is something tragic about this standoff between those who have reason to want the past to be a matter of historical reflection and those who insist that the past is forever present.

 

            The Turkish government has reiterated its offer to establish a joint commission composed of Armenian, Turkish and international historians to establish an authoritative narrative. Besides the likelihood that existing disagreements would be reproduced in the working of this type of commission, the idea that core concern is ‘historical’ misses a main point that such a traumatic series of events need to be interpreted from multiple perspectives, including that in this instance of international criminal law. Establishing the factual reality, which strongly favors Armenian empirical claims, does not resolve the question of what would qualify as an appropriate acknowledgement by the Turkish government, nor does it address the lurking concern as to whether acknowledgement is sufficient, and if not, what further steps must be taken by Turkey if it is to satisfy the Armenian campaign.

 

 

Syria: What to Do Now

26 Feb

 

            There is a new mood of moral desperation associated with the ongoing strife in Syria that has resulted in at least 135,000 deaths, 9.3 millions Syrians displaced, countless atrocities, Palestinian refugee communities attacked, blockaded, and dispersed, and urban sieges designed to starve civilians perceived to be hostile. As the second round of negotiations in Geneva-2 ended as fruitlessly as the earlier round, there is a sense that diplomacy is a performance ritual without any serious intent to engage in conflict-resolving negotiations. Expectations couldn’t be lower for the as yet unscheduled, but still planned, third round of this Geneva-2 process.

 

The Damascus regime wants an end to armed opposition, while the insurgency insists upon setting up a transition process that is independently administered and committed to the election of a new political leadership.The gap between the parties is too big, and getting bigger, especially as the Damascus government correctly perceives the combat tide as turning in its favor, leading the main opposition forces seemingly to seek to achieve politically and diplomatically what they appear unable to do militarily. Also, it is unclear whether the opposition presence in Geneva has the authority to speak on behalf of several opposition groups in the field in Syria.

 

In light of these frustrations it is not surprising to observe an acrimonious debate unfolding between American interventionists who believe that only force, or at least its threat, can thread the needle of hope. The interventionists, invoking the responsibility to protect norm that was used effectively to mobilize support in the Security Council to mandate a no fly zone in Libya back in 2011, suggest that such an approach should be used again in 2014 either to establish a no fly zone opening a corridor that will allow humanitarian aid to flow to besieged cities or to achieve regime change in Syria as the only way to end the ordeal by ridding the country of a governing process guilty of repeated mass atrocities against its own people.

 

The anti-interventionists point out that the Libyan precedent of 2011 is tainted by the deliberate expansion of the humanitarian scope of what was authorized by the UN Security Council to undertake a much wider campaign with the clear intent of regime change, which in fact ended with the capture and execution of Qaddafi, then the head of state in Libya. It is also somewhat tarnished by the post-Qaddafi realities of widespread militia violence and the failure to develop a coherent and legitimate governance structure. The anti-interventionist argue that introducing external military force almost always makes matters worse, more killing, more devastation, and no politically sustainable outcome, and there is no good reason to think this will not happen in Syria. Furthermore, without a Security Council mandate such a use of military force would once again be undertaken in violation of the UN Charter and international law as it could not be justified as self-defense.

 

Providing humanitarian relief in a situation mainly free of internal political struggle should be sharply distinguished from the realities amid serious civil strife. The response to the Somali breakdown of governability during the presidency of George H. W. Bush in 1992, is illustrative of a seemingly pure humanitarian response to famine and disease characterized by a posture of political non-interference and by the shipment of food and medical supplies to a people in desperate need. This contrasted with the supposedly more muscular response to a troubled Somalia during the early stages of the Clinton presidency in 1993 when the humanitarian mission was fused with anti-‘warlord’ and political reconstruction goals. Difficulties soon emerged as robust national armed resistance was encountered culminating in the Blackhawk Down incident that resulted in 18 deaths of American soldiers, prompting an almost immediate American pullout from Somalia under a cloud of intense criticism of the diplomacy of ‘humanitarian intervention’ within the United States. This had the disastrous spillover effect of leading the supposedly liberal Clinton White House to discourage even a minimal humanitarian response to the onset of genocide in Rwanda in 1994, which might have saved hundreds of thousand of lives.  In the Rwanda context the United States Government even discouraged a modest upgraded response by the United Nations that already had a peacekeeping presence in the country, and whose commander urged reinforcements and authority to protect the targets of genocidal massacres. This failure to act in Rwanda remains a terrible stain on America’s reputation as a humane and respected world leader, and is frequently interpreted as a racist disregard of threats confronting an African population when no major strategic interest of Western countries were present on the side of the victims.

 

The Syrian reality since its inception was dominated by a political uprising, later an insurgency, demanding regime change in Damascus.  It was also beset with a leadership deficit and by factionalism that only became worse with the passage of time. It was further complicated and confused by its proxy dimensions, both in relation to the supply of arms and with respect to diplomatic alignment.

 

The humanitarian relief argument to be credible, much less persuasive, needs to deal with the complexities of Somalia 2, and not act as if the humanitarian response can be addressed in detachment from the political struggle as was the case in Somalia 1. When political objectives become intertwined with a humanitarian rationale, forces of national resistance are activated on the reasonable assumption that the real goal of the mission is the political one, and the humanitarian relief is being used as a cover. As we can foresee, this complexity makes for a stiffer climb facing an advocate of humanitarian intervention in the current Syrian tragedy. There exists a more difficult burden of persuasion, although not an impossible one. Indeed, against the background of recent failed interventions, every proposed intervention confronts such a burden at some level. The Syrian case makes this burden more formidable, given the record of past interventions in the region and considering the mixture of forces that make up ‘the opposition,’ which is so far from unified even in carrying on the struggle against the Assad regime, on occasion diverting attention to take action against a rival faction.

 

In fact, the Syrian situation has an originality that makes the Somalia template clarifying, but hardly definitive. The Syrian political struggle is more acute and vicious than was the case in Somalia 2. Also the humanitarian crisis is deeper and the plight of many Syrians caught in the maelstrom of this horrifying war that is both internal and contains regional proxy elements in ways that make it more confusing as to the probable effects of threats and uses of force on behalf of genuine humanitarian goals.

 

My basic contention is that there are no easy answers at this stage as to what should be done about the Syrian situation, and dogmatic discourse for or against intervention misses the deeply tragic nature of the policy predicament for all political actors. I would feel more comfortable about the intervention debate if it were expressed in a discourse that accords prominence to the virtue of humility. Too much in Syria remains unknowable to have any confidence that a clear line of advocacy will be historically vindicated.

 

For me the fundamental question is what it is best to do or not do in such a desperate situation of radical uncertainty. It is not only that the interventionists, and perhaps the anti-interventionists are motivated by a convergence of humanitarian/moral considerations with geostrategic ambitions, but that the nature of these hidden calculations are discussed in governmental circles behind locked doors and transcribed in secret policy memoranda. Until we address these questions of consequences and secret goals in the context of uncertainty and unknowability, the public discourse on what to do about Syria offers limited insight into how best to evaluate policy options being endorsed by policymakers and leaders. I hope that such a discussion will ensue, and replace the rather pointless and dogmatic self-righteous indignation of both interventionists and anti-interventionists.

 

I remember hearing the senior State Department diplomat, George Ball, speak just weeks after he left the government in the closing years of the Vietnam War. His primary message was that he only began to understand the war when he stopped reading the cables, that is the secret highly classified messages being sent by the military commanders and their civilian counterparts in the war zone. In effect, rather than make policy more transparent its counter-intuitive reality was to shroud the reality of Vietnam in greater obscurity. It is easy to explain why. Those in the field were committed to achieving victory, and were determined to provide reassurance, however false, to the leaders back in Washington so that they could deal with growing anti-war pressures that were a combination of public fatigue after almost a decade of engagement  and skepticism based on what became known as ‘the credibility gap’ between the claims of continuing progress in the war and what was actually taking place in Vietnam.  

 

Northern Ireland and the Israel/Palestine ‘Peace Process’

22 Dec

Richard HaassUnknown-1UK flagIrish flag

            I visited Belfast the last few days during some negotiations about unresolved problems between Unionist and Republican (or Nationalist) political parties, I was struck by the absolute dependence for any kind of credibility of this process upon the unblemished perceived neutrality of the mediating third party. It would have been so totally unacceptable to rely on Ireland or Britain to play such a role, and the mere suggestion of such a partisan intermediary would have occasioned ridicule by the opposing party, confirming suspicions that its intention must have been to scuttle the proposed negotiations. In the background of such a reflection is the constructive role played by the United States more than a decade ago when it actively encouraged a process of reconciliation through a historic abandonment of violence by the antagonists. That peace process was based on the justly celebrated Good Friday Agreement that brought the people of Northern Ireland a welcome measure of relief from the so-called ‘Time of Troubles’ even if the underlying antagonisms remain poignantly alive in the everyday realities of Belfast, as well as some lingering inclination toward violence among those extremist remnants of the struggle on both sides that reject all moves toward accommodation. The underlying tension remains as Republican sentiments favor a united Ireland while the Unionists Having continue to be British loyalists, deeply opposed to any moves toward a merger with the Republic of Ireland.

 Indyk Kerryimages

            The current round of negotiations going on in Belfast involve seemingly trivial issues: whether the flag of the United Kingdom will be flown from the Parliament and other government buildings on 18 official holidays or everyday and whether the Irish tricolor will be flown when leaders from the Republic of Ireland are visiting Belfast; the degree to which annual Unionist parades passing through Republican neighborhoods of the city will be regulated to avoid provocations; and how might the past be addressed so as to bring belated solace to those who have grievances, especially associated with deaths of family members that were never properly addressed by those in authority at the time.  Apparently, in recollection of the achievements attributed to George Mitchell, the distinguished American political figure who was principally associated with developing the proposals that produced the Good Friday Agreement, the present phase of an evolving accommodation process is being presided over by another notable American, Richard Haass. Haass is a former State Department official and current President of the Council on Foreign Relations, the influential establishment NGO in the foreign policy domain. In this setting the United States Government (as well as its leading citizens) is seen as an honest broker, and although the government is not now directly involved, an individual closely associated with the established order has been chosen and seems acceptable to the five Northern Ireland political parties participating in the negotiations. This effort to ensure the continuation of stability in Northern Ireland seems responsive to the natural order: that negotiations in circumstances of deep conflict do benefit from third-party mediation provided it is perceived to be non-partisan, neutral, and competent, and acts credibly and diligently as a check on the gridlock of partisanship.

 Unknown

            The contrast of this experience in Northern Ireland with what has emerged during the past twenty years in the effort to resolve the Israel/Palestine conflict could not be more striking. The negotiating process between Israel and Palestine is generated by an avowedly partisan third party, the United States, which makes no effort to hide its commitment to safeguard Israeli state interests even if at the expense of Palestinian concerns. This critical assessment has been carefully documented in Rashid Khalidi’s authoritative Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (2013). Beyond this taint, sand is repeatedly thrown in Palestinian eyes by White House gall in designating AIPAC related Special Envoys to oversee the negotiations as if it is primarily Israel that needs reassurances that its national interests will be protected in the process while Palestinian greater concerns do not require any such indication of protective sensitivity.

 

            How can we explain these contrasting American approaches in these two major conflict-resolving undertakings? Of course, the first line of explanation would be domestic politics in the United States. Although Irish Americans by and large have republican sympathies, Washington’s multiple bonds with the United Kingdom ensure a posture of impartiality would be struck from the perspective of national interests. The United States had most to gain in Ireland by being seen to help the parties move from a violent encounter to a political process in pursuing their rival goals. Such would also seem to be the case in Israel/Palestine but for the intrusion of domestic politics, especially in the form of the AIPAC lobbying leverage. Can anyone doubt that if the Palestinians had countervailing lobbying capabilities either the United States would be excluded as the diplomatic arbiter or it would do its best to appear impartial?

 

            There are other secondary explanatory factors. Especially since the 1967 War, it has been a matter of agreement with American policymaking circles, that Israel is a reliable strategic ally in the Middle East. Of course, interests my diverge from time to time, as seems recently to be the case in relation to interim agreement involving Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but overall the alliance patterns in the region put the United States and Israel on the same side: counter-terrorist operations and tactics, counter-proliferation, containment of Iran’s influence, opposition to the spread of political Islam, support for Saudi Arabia and conservative governments in the Gulf. Since 9/11, in particular, Israel has been a counter-terrorist mentor to the United States, and to others in the world, offering expert training and what it calls ‘combat-tested weaponry,’ which means tactics and weapons used by Israel in controlling over many years the hostile Palestinian population, especially Gaza.

 

            A third, weaker explanation is purported ideological affinity. Israel promotes itself, and this is endorsed by the United States, as the ‘sole democracy’ or ‘only genuine democracy’ in the Middle East. Despite the many contradictions associated with such an assertion, ranging from eyes closed when it comes to Saudi Arabia or the Egyptian coup to a wide-eyed refusal to notice the Israeli legalized pattern of discrimination against its 20% Palestinian minority. It has been persuasively suggested that part of the reason that Arab governments are reluctant to support the Palestinian struggle is the fear that its success would destabilize authoritarian regimes in the region. In this regard, it was the first intifada, back in 1987, that seems in retrospect to have been the most important antecedent cause of the 2011 Arab Spring. It is also notable that despite the profession of democratic values in the Middle East, Israel showed no regrets when the elected government in Egypt was overthrown by a military coup whose leadership then proceeded to criminalize those who had been chosen only a year earlier by the national electorate to run the country.

 

            These are weighty reasons when considered together, help us understand why the Oslo Framework and its Roadmap sequel, and the various negotiating sessions, have not produced an outcome that remotely resembles what might be fairly described as ‘a just and sustainable peace’ from a Palestinian perspective. Israel has evidently not perceived such a conflict-resolving outcome as being in its national interest, and has not been given any sufficient incentive by the United States or the UN to scale back its ambitions, which include continuous settlement expansion, control over the whole of Jerusalem, denial of Palestinian rights of return, appropriation of water and land resources, intrusive, one-sided, and excessive security demands, and an associated posture that opposes a viable Palestinian state ever coming into existence, and is even more opposed to give any credence to proposals for a single secular bi-national state. What is more, despite this unreasonable diplomatic posture, which attains plausibility only because of Israel’s disproportionate influence on the intermediary mechanisms and its own media savvy in projecting its priorities, Palestine and its leadership is mainly blamed for the failures of the ‘peace process’ to end the conflict by a mutually agreed solution. This is a particularly perverse perception given Israel’s extreme unreasonableness in relation to resolution of the conflict, the U.S. partisanship, and Palestine’s passivity in asserting its claims, grievances, and interests.

 

            Finally, we must ask why Palestinian leaders have been willing to give credibility for so long to a diplomatic process that seems to offer their national movement so little. The most direct answer is the lack of the power to say ‘no.’ This can be further elaborated by pointing to the lack of a preferable alternative. A further indication of Palestinian diplomatic dependence, is the degree to which the United States exerts pressure on Ramallah because it finds the management of this bridge to nowhere of the peace process to be useful, despite its many frustrations and failures, allows Washington to exhibit both a commitment to peace and to Israel. The American Secretary of State, John Kerry, has in recent months pressured the parties to resume peace talks, talking often of ‘painful concessions’ that both sides would have to make if the negotiations are to succeed. This misleading appeal to symmetry overlooks the gross disparity in position and capabilities of the two sides. Whether such a disparity is so great as to make it dubious to use the language of conflict is itself an open question. Would it not be more forthright and revealing to ask due to the degree of inequality, whether Palestine has any capability to say anything about the terms of a resolution other than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to what Israel is prepared at any time to offer? In this sense it more closely resembles the end of a war in which there is a winner and loser except that here the loser at least retains the sovereign right to say ‘no.’ Also it needs to be observed, that this perception is deeply misleading because it overlooks what might be called ‘the other war,’ that is, the Legitimacy War that the Palestinians are winning, and given the history of decolonization, seems to have a good chance of controlling the political outcome of the struggle.

 

             Returning to the inter-governmental approach, it should also be noticed that the diplomacy does not take account of the historical background. Did not Palestine concede more than enough before the negotiations even began, accepting a frame for territorial proposals that seems content with 22% of historic Palestine, although this territory is less than half of what the UN partition plan proposed in 1947, and seemed then to be unfair given the ethnic demographics at the time? We should also take account of the relevance of the supposed basic UN policy against the acquisition of territory by the use of force, which would seem to mandate a rollback of Israeli territory at least to the 1947 UN proposals contained in General Assembly Resolution 181. The implication of Kerry’s painful concession rhetoric is that Israel would only be expected to remove some isolated settlements and outposts in the West Bank even though they were unlawful ever since established, and could retain the valuable land it has appropriated for the settlement blocs established since 1967 despite their existence being in flagrant violation of Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In other words, Palestine is expected to give up fundamental rights while Israel is supposed to abandon some relatively minor unlawful aspects of its prolonged occupation of the West Bank and retain most of the ill-gotten gains.

 

            What do we learn from such an analysis?

(1)  Third-party intermediation only works if it is perceived to be non-partisan by both sides;

(2)   Partisan intermediation can only succeed if the stronger side is able to impose its vision of the future on the weaker side;

(3)   Analyzing the Palestine/Israel diplomacy underscores the relevance of (2), and should not be confused with its claimed character as an instance of (1);

(4)   Perhaps in the aftermath of a Palestinian victory in the Legitimacy War the sort of framework for constructive diplomacy achieved in Northern Ireland could be devised, but its credibility would depend on non-partisan intermediation.