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

20 Jun

 

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

 

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

                        “Time with that with this strange excuse

                        Pardoned Kipling and his views

                        And will pardon Paul Claudell

                        Pardon him for writing well”

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Is the Middle East America’s to Lose?

14 Jun

 

I was appalled by the embedded colonialism of a recent issue of The Economist [June 6-12, 2015], boldly proclaiming its mood of geopolitical angst on its cover titling its featured story “Losing the Middle East.” Any glimmer of doubt about the intent of the magazine’s editors is removed by displaying a somewhat bedraggled American flag on the cover accompanied by the sub-title “Why American must not abandon the region.” The rationale offered for this political imperative within this most revered journal of intelligent establishment guidance strikes me as even more appalling than this provocative packaging giving the plot away before we even begin reading the story.

 

What The Economist Proposes

 

The argument set forth rests on the colonialist assumption that the Middle East is America’s to lose, although not quite, as the lead editorial ends with an enigmatic distinction: “The idea has taken root that America no longer has what it takes to run the Middle East. That it ever could was an illusion. But America has a vital part to play. If it continues to stand back, everyone will be worse of—including the Americans.” We are never told whether the catchall ‘everyone’ includes the people of the region, and whether they even matter in the calculations of this organ of elite opinion primarily concerned with the wellbeing of the West, which is linked seamlessly to the operations of the neoliberal world economy. The strong implication of this lead editorial, never adequately explained, is that America should intervene more throughout the Middle East to reverse, or at least contain, present disruptive trends. Why this is so is never really explored beyond the misleading supposition that American military capabilities can improve the situation if brought more directly to bear and without explaining why, insisting that existing alignments with political actors in the region, regardless of their character, should be reinforced and strengthened.

 

The pragmatic side of what The Economist seems to be proposing is two-fold:First, a militarist prescription for the pursuit of America’s regional interests, which are identified as counter-terrorism, oil, and preventing nuclear proliferation; secondly, a willingness to accept contradictions in protecting these interests, such as siding with Iran against IS [Islamic State] in Iran and opposing Iran in Syria. It is within this framing that “[t]he Middle East desperately needs a new, invigorated engagement from America. That would not only be within America’s power, it would also be in America’s interest.” Its central critique is that President Obama’s policy is too weak and wavering to be effective, which is clarified by the insistence that “[h]e must be ready to use force. Mr. Obama’s taboo about deploying American soldiers against IS in Iraq has led to a self-defeating shortage of special forces to guide air strikes to their targets.” In their view, Obama’s approach has created a ‘vacuum’ that has “exacerbated the strife and disorder.” The fuller story in the body of the magazine also welcomes the prospect that either Hilary Clinton or any of the Republican presidential hopefuls seem determined to be far readier than Obama to intervene forcibly throughout the region.

 

Behind this scathing criticism of Obama is the evident belief that America’s geopolitical muscle if applied with skill, militarily and diplomatically, could have lessened the chaos and violence that now pervades the region. Such an argument seems deeply flawed. To begin with, it is hardly accurate to portray Obama as standing aloof from the struggles going on in the Middle East. It is actively militarily engaged against IS and Syria and is in the process of becoming militarily reengaged in Iraq at the present time. It was a strong advocate of the regime changing NATO intervention against Qaddafi’s dictatorial rule in Libya, and it has quietly gone along with the counter-revolutionary shift in Egypt that destroyed the hopes of humane governance, at least temporarily, that surfaced with such excitement in early 2011 throughout the region. My own view is that this degree of American military and diplomatic engagement brought more, not less, chaos to the Middle East. And now, as if to take the critique of The Economist immediately to heart the U.S. Government has announced plans to pre-position heavy weaponry and military personnel in several points in the region so as to be in a better position to intervene rapidly should further crises emerge.

 

Criticizing the Obama Approach

 

In my view, the burden of persuasion should always be upon those who favor greater reliance on military force whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. Without acknowledging any inconsistency, The Economist concedes that the Bush invasion of 2003 and subsequent occupation of Iraq was a disaster, illustrative of imprudently intervening in a massive fashion. As every major effort at intervention by the United States has revealed, upping the ante by intervening a bit more, is a slippery slope that has eventually led to defeat after defeat, most vividly evident in the trajectory and outcome of the Vietnam War. This unquestioning militarization of the political imagination, which is what comes through in this sharp criticism of Obama’s approach, does not even pause to consider the benefits of allowing the dynamics of self-determination to control political outcomes in the 21st century.

 

An unlearned lesson of geopolitics in the post-colonial world is that the power balance has decisively shifted as between intervention by the West and national forces of resistance. These forces have learned to be more effective in their combat tactics, but above all, have come to understand that time is on their side, that a foreign intervener will give up the quest at some point implicitly acknowledging that military dominance is not able to impose a political outcome at acceptable costs. This is not just a matter of democratic societies becoming impatient in the face of a drawn out distant wars with questionable justifications, which causes death and injury to its young citizens, but the deeper realization that the post-colonial politics of resistance over time subverts the will and morale of the intervener. This happened as clearly to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan as it did to the United States in Vietnam, or later in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is more of a reflection of the structure of shifting power relations than of a weakening of ideological resolve.

 

The central metaphor of ‘losing the Middle East’ presupposes that it was America’s to lose rather than an acknowledgement of the empowerment of the peoples of the region and their governments with respect to the control of national and regional destinies. The metaphor of winning and losing is a colonialist framing of geopolitics that amorally vindicates hegemonic ambitions, especially the virtues of Western control. It gives priority to Western interests in a non-Western geographic domain, and pretends that such an orientation conveniently also happens to be an expression of fidelity to Western values, including democracy and human rights, and of benefit to the affected societies. No where in the extensive article are doubts raised about the unconditionality of support for Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies that oppress their populations and subject women to humiliating social constraints or to Israel that has dispossessed most Palestinians from their own homeland, and held the rest captive.

 

The Economist has the temerity to couple its sharp criticism of Obama’s allegedly soft diplomacy by anticipating what is misleadingly described as a “return to the center” that is expected to occur after the U.S. presidential elections in 2016: “The next American president may well be warmer towards Israel, and more willing to turn a blind eye to new settlements in the occupied territories. He or she might do more to reassure Gulf monarchies and speak more sternly to Iran.” What a strange set of hopeful expectations! Obama turned a pretty blind eye to Israeli settlement expansion during the last several years, even instructing his representatives to vote in isolation to shield Israel from UN censure over settlement expansion. His administration has also gone along with the basic approach of the Gulf monarchies, although timidly voicing some recent doubts about the wisdom of respected Saudi air strikes directed against the Houthis in Yemen.

 

And it is astonishing to note that the Obama presidency is situated by The Economist in the political spectrum as left of center? The idea of returning to the center implies that American regional policy these last six years had somehow veered toward the left. And therefore, for me what The Economist calls the center would more accurately be described as the right, or even the hard right. In most respects, including policy toward Iran, Iraq, and Israel, Obama’s essential approach has been to sustain continuity with the policies of the George W. Bush presidency. There was the same willingness to threaten Iran with a military attack if seen to be crossing the nuclear threshold, a similar stance toward supporting the Shia governing process in Iraq, and the same endorsement of Israel’s defiance of international law, as well as insulating its nuclear weapons capability from even a whispered challenge.

 

There are more fundamental deficiencies in this analysis by The Economist of what has gone wrong in the region and what to do about it. There is a seemingly blind eye toward the relevance of the history of Western responsibilities for the unfolding political ordeal that is being enacted throughout the Middle East. This perspective overlooks such defining antecedents as the playing out of British and French overt colonial ambitions in the aftermath of World War I and of the statist goals of the Zionist Movement as abetted by British policies during its period of mandate administration. Imposing arbitrary boundaries on the region by Europe meant establishing unnatural political communities that could be held together (or broken apart) only by violence from above (or below). In a revealing respect Lebanon is a poster child of this era of Sykes-Picot diplomacy, having been carved out of Ottoman Syria to satisfy France’s egocentric craving at the time for a colonial possession in the region with a Christian majority.

 

The Economist’s policy prescriptions are also notable for their failure even to mention international law or the United Nation. These normative sources of authority and constraint are evidently seen as of utterly no concern to the geopolitical optic through which the magazine’s august editors perceive policy options for the region. But if China were to assess its approach to the sovereignty disputes involving the Spratly Islands with the same cavalier attitudes toward the relevance of normative authority, the West would be up in arms, persuasively contending that such behavior is dangerously destructive of a moderate political order in the Pacific.

 

The Old Geopolitics versus the New Geopolitics

 

Even when it comes to the pragmatic level of analysis, I find that The Economist’s sense of editorial guidance is woefully shortsighted. Let’s accept their focus on terrorism, oil, and nuclear proliferation even accepting as accurate their portrayal of American interests. Surely, the best way to combat jihadism is a measured withdrawal from the region. As for oil, the Arab producers in the region have shown through the years that their policies are market-driven with scant attention to ideology as shown by their readiness to throw the Palestinians under the bus. Most persuasive of all, nuclear proliferation would be best prevented by establishing a nuclear free zone in the Middle East, which all governments except Israel favor, and have done so for several years. In other words, the idea of trying to fill the so-called vacuum following the European retreat, which began during World War II and was consummated by the 1956 Suez War, with American military power and diplomatic muscle epitomizes the ‘old geopolitics’ of Western hegemony rather than relying on a potential ‘new geopolitics’ of self-determination.

 

There is, of course, little assurance that the outcome of the interplay of domestic and regional forces in the Middle East will be ethically satisfying or politically stable, but there is at least some likelihood that going with the post-colonial historical flow will produce better results than further reliance on the United States to continue battling the strong currents of nationalism. This clarion call for enhanced trust in the nostalgic imaginary of the old geopolitics seems historically tone deaf. It represents a reliance on the old geopolitics of militarism that should have been discredited long ago by its record of failure and its incredibly high opportunity costs. At the very least, adopting this new geopolitics of self-determination might enable the politicians and citizenry of the United States to take a much needed and long overdue look within its own borders, and devote much more of its imaginative and material resources to creating a humane society at home, starting with its physical and moral infrastructure.

 

One good starting point for such a program is with the language of political discourse. This idea of the West ‘losing’ a country or, as with The Economist’s cover story, losing a whole region, should be banished from the 21st century political imaginary, and with it the realization that such a concept of winning and losing is worse than anachronistic, it is obsolete. It might be helpful to recall that for many years the American political right accused the U.S. Government of ‘losing China’ only to discover later in the Cold War that China had become a valuable geopolitical ally in the core struggle with the Soviet Union, and still later, that China as much as any country, keeps the world economy from unraveling.

Israel’s Shimon Peres Reacts to the Turkish Elections

10 Jun

 

Newspapers reported on June 9th that former Israeli president Shimon Peres (2007-2014) was pleased by the outcome in Turkey. He is quoted as saying “I am happy about what happened in Turkey – Erdoğan wanted to turn Turkey into Iran, and there is no room for two Iran’s in the Middle East.”

 

It is worth recalling that the downward spiral in relations between Turkey and Israel started in a real way when Erdoğan attacked Israel and Peres personally for defending Israel’s massive attack on Gaza at the 2009 World Economic Forum in the course of a panel in which both he and Peres were members. Erdoğan responded to Peres’ contention that Hamas was responsible for violence against Israeli civilians. His words were undiplomatically blunt: “Mr. Peres, you are a senior citizen and you speak in a loud tone. I feel that your raised voice is due to the guilt you feel. But be sure that my voice will not be raised as yours is. When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I know very well how you struck and killed innocent children on the beaches.” So piercing the haze that separates these polite evasions of such international events from the cruel realities under discussion was a welcome rarity: on this occasion Erdoğan was confronting the naked face of power with a truth that needed to be heard. After

interference from the chair, Erdoğan strode off the stage announcing that he was through forever with the World Economic Forum, not for allowing Peres to speak, but for the attempting to stifle a response.

 

The deterioration in Turkish/Israeli relations climaxed the following year when Israeli commandos boarded the Turkish passenger ship, Mavi Marmara, the lead vessel among six in a freedom flotilla containing peace activists bringing humanitarian supplies to Gaza and seeking to break the Israeli blockade. The incident on May 31, 2010 resulted in the death of nine Turkish nationals, and created an enduring rupture in the political relations between the two countries that continues despite efforts by the American president, Barack Obama, to encourage normalization. Turkey is prepared to compromise on the issues raised by the Mavi Marmara attack, but to its credit will not accept normalization until Israel lifts its blockade of Gaza and ceases its use of massive force against the totally vulnerable Gazan civilian population.

 

Erdoğan’s departure from diplomatic protocol at the World Economic Forum illustrated his impulsive tendency to vent his feeling in public places without the usual filters of self-censorship that is second nature for most politicians. Of course, assessing such outbursts generally depends on the context and on whether what is being said so forthrightly has merit or not. Erdoğan’s public venting in relation to policies that were sensitive for secular Turks became particularly frequent, intensifying polarization, especially after the AKP’s one-sided victory in the 2011 general election after which the Turkish leader did seem to embrace a more majoritarian view of democracy (acting on the mandate of the majority of voters), and abandoning the pragmatism of his earlier posture based on an acceptance of republican democracy (that is, respect for minority values and views, checks and balances on the exercise of state power).

 

Reverting to the recent Peres assertion, it is certainly inflammatory and deeply misleading to link Turkey under the AKP with Iran, and to contend that Erdoğan’s hidden project is to convert Turkey into a second Iran. This is both false and insulting, as if Turkey is incapable of self-determination according to the declared will of its own public and elected leaders. There exists no credible evidence that Turkey has in any way endorsed the defining feature of the Islamic Republic of Iran, namely, a theocratic mode of governance.

 

Peres also essentializes Iran, refusing to acknowledge its recent evolution as a result of Hassan Rouhani’s election as president in 2013 and Iran’s forthcoming nuclear diplomacy that went the extra mile in search of a formula that would normalize its regional and global relations, which if accepted by the West and put into practiced, will almost certainly be viewed as a major contribution to regional and world peace. Peres speaks as if Iran is the hermetically sealed embodiment of political evil rather than a country that has struggled to overcome its autocratic past under the Shah, and managed to be stable during this period of exceptional regional turmoil with its theocracy displaying a willingness to indulge a limited democracy despite threats and provocations from the United States and Israel. There is much to criticize in Iran, but for such criticism to be responsible, it should be responsive to actualities, especially in the Middle East where there are such scant grounds for stability, let alone justice.

 

In important respects, the outcome of the Turkish elections is far better interpreted as a Kurdish HDP victory rather than an Erdoğan AKP defeat. Time will tell whether the Kurds will be constructive and creative in this phase of their political engagement within Turkey and in relation to Kurdish political developments in neighboring countries. It will also determine whether Erdoğan is statesmanlike and creative in shaping the political future of the country, taking to heart the electoral message that any shift to a presidential system is not now in the interests of the country.

FIFA Scandals are Worse than Bribes

5 Jun

 

 

Lost in the heavy clouds cast by the spectacular FIFA corruption disclosures climaxing so far with the resignation of its compromised president, Sepp Blatter, is a worse scandal of racist discrimination that has so far been flying beneath the media radar. Blatter, with customary wheeling and dealing, did his best to protect Israel from long standing Palestinian grievances—physical harassment of Palestinian players and teams by long delays and arbitrary restrictions on movement, an indulgent attitude toward the hateful baiting by Beitar Jerusalem threateningly yelling ‘death to the Arabs’ as a warning to Palestinian players, and inclusion of teams from the unlawful settlements competing in Israel soccer leagues violating FIFA’s own rules. The Palestinian Soccer Association was persuaded by Blatter to drop its charges, with a renewal of previously empty pledges to ameliorate conditions confronting Palestinians coupled with a surely ironic plea to keep ‘politics’ from intruding on ‘the beautiful game.’ As if the humiliations and constraints imposed on the Palestinian teams were not political!

 

Without recounting the details, I would make reference to three assertions that are markers for the moral imagination in relation to this provocative interplay of sport and politics in situations of acute oppression and criminality. The first assertion is by the mild mannered president of the Palestinian Soccer Association, Jabril Rajoub: what Palestinians face is worse than what South African blacks faced in the apartheid era—“There they wanted them to be slaves. But here in Palestine, they don’t want us to be.” [quoted in Rudi Rodoven, “Palestinian Soccer Association Drops Effort to Suspend Israel from FIFA,” NY Times, May 29, 2015] Whether there is objective confirmation of such an attitude or not on the Israeli side, this Palestinian subjectivity is widely experienced, and is certainly confirmed

by the tactics and language of right-wing Israelis who increasingly control the political and moral space in the country. There is much public and legal attention right given to establishing genocidal intent, but rarely is there notice paid to the ways acute oppression and racism is experienced by the victimized community.

 

Mr. Rojoub’s cry of torment reminded me of Audre Lorde’s poem, ‘Litany for Survival’ that was frequently quoted a year ago in the days after the Ferguson killing of Michael Brown to express a similar subjectivity prominent among African-Americans. Counseling her people to speak their true feelings even if it produced angry pushback, the last lines of Lorde’s poem resonate with those anguished words of Jabril Rajoub quoted above:

and when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard

nor welcomed
but when we are silent we are still afraid

So it is better to speak remembering
we were never meant to survive

It is a sad truth confirmed over and over again in tragedy after tragedy that those who are dispossessed, subjugated, and displaced are never meant to survive, and thereby finally erased altogether from the consciousness of those who do the dispossessing, subjugating, and displacing. It took a strong dose of revisionist history to challenge generations of delusion that allowed children in America to celebrate Columbus Day without pausing to wonder what tears flowed in native American communities that were never meant to survive.

 

From such a reflection, the mind moves without pause to the sentiments often captured in early self-serving Zionist musings about ‘a country without a people for a people without a country.’ Perhaps the most memorable formulation was that of Chaim Weizman in 1914 at the World Zionist Congress: “..there is a country which happens to be called Palestine, a country without a people, and on the other hand, there exist the Jewish people, and it has no land. What else is necessary than to fit the gem into the ring, to unite this people with this country?” Remember that such malicious falsehoods were uttered long before the name of Hitler was even known, much less Naziism or the Holocaust experienced. This assertion was made even a few years before the infamous Balfour Declaration alerted the world to British colonial support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. It is worth noting that Palestine was inhabited at the time by well over a half million Palestinian Arabs, of whom less that 7% were Jews, and many of these were then opposed to the Zionist project as disruptive of their mostly calm co-existence with the Arab majority.

 

What do these three laconic reflections on the relations between perpetrators and victims tell us? As Rajoub implies, the presence of the slave, however much abused, is wanted, even deemed necessary, as the prevailing social and economic arrangements depend on such exploited labor. As the unfolding South Africa overcoming of apartheid disclosed, at some point, because there is a deformed kind of mutuality between master and slave, when the underlying balance shifts, a previously unimaginable accommodation abruptly becomes attainable.

 

But when the primary stake is land, not labor, then erasure is the goal of the perpetrator and the justifiable fear of the victim is extinction, or at least, exclusion. Fortunately, in our modern world these polarized subjectivities are not acted out to their full extreme except in the most monstrous of scenarios such as the fate that befell European Jewry in the period of Nazi hegemony. Yet even if not literalized there are objective consequences of the illusion that the other doesn’t exist or should be induced quietly to disappear. In the emergence of Israel, the Zionist momentum shifted the site of struggle from the imaginary of emptiness to the battlefields of dispossession inflicting the traumas of the nakba and naksa, and without an end in sight.

 

What has so far been distinctive, even inspirational, about Palestinian perseverance is their refusal to leave the historical stage despite enduring a long litany of unspeakable abuses that would have broken the will of many peoples. We cannot know the future by peering through such ‘a glass darkly,’ but more and more people throughout the world are becoming aware that solidarity with the ongoing Palestinian struggle for political oxygen is the most salient and compelling moral cause of our time.

 

In the aftermath of Netanyahu’s electoral victory in March David Shulman writes movingly and enigmatically of the unsustainability of the status quo: “Perhaps hope lies in a vision of all territory west of the Jordan River as somehow more than one state but less than two, under conditions of true equality… One thing is certain. The demand to fully enfranchise the Palestinians now suffering under Israeli rule will eventually prove irresistible. What happens after that, no one can say.” [Shulman, “Bibi: The Hidden Consequences of His Victory,” NY Review of Books, April 23, 2015] Even such a somewhat hopeful prospect is insufficient to render justice to the Palestinians as it leaves out of account the more than 7 million Palestinians living in refugee camps or exile; in many instances, their circumstances are as desperate, or even more so, than that of Palestinians living in utter vulnerability beneath the yoke of prolonged occupation.

America at Its Best is Strange

31 May

America at Its Best

 

America even at its best is a strange place, alive with contradictions, a Teflon political culture that has an unshakable faith in its innocent and virtuous national character and its overall impact on the world, impervious to the ghosts of slavery and of ethnic cleansing of native Americans that should be tormenting our sleep and darkening our dreams, comfortable with its robust gun culture, and with its promiscuous reliance on rogue drones engineered to kill on command and on the brutal happenings that take place in black sites immorally situated in countries whose leaders agree to avert their gaze from the dirty work taking place. Looked at from a short distance this is not a pretty picture.

 

Yet there are still those rare moments when this unsavory national profile seems not to be telling the whole story. For instance, I felt heartened by a recent news item reporting that the conservative Nebraska Legislature voted to abolish capital punishment, and in doing so went so far as to override the governor’s veto. That’s right, Nebraska!

 

Unfortunately, the welcome Nebraska move may not survive the backlash in the making. The Republican state governor, Pete Ricketts, vows to overturn the new law: “My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical law to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families.” He is supported in this lethal passion by a pro-capital punishment legislator who proposes arranging a ballot initiative that supposedly will allow Nebraskans to reinstate the death penalty. It is not yet certain whether this is a legally permissible tactic.

 

While the abolitionist move stands there is a strong temptation to commend Nebraska for such an unexpected show of humanistic sensitivity, but that would be misleading, overlooking what actually swayed the majority to vote the way they did. Speaking for this majority, Peter Collins put it this way, “We went into it wanting to remain objective. This is purely about costs.” And sure enough, it seems that it was primarily conservatives, not liberals, that pushed hardest for abolition on the amoral grounds of fiscal conservatism and a commitment to “philosophical consistency” when it comes to entrusting the government with authority over life and death. As a Republican legislator, Laure Elke, insisted the bill was “a matter of conscience,” because if you are not able to trust the government on health care, how can it be trusted on such irrevocable life/death decisions. A few other conservatives were apparently troubled by the seeming contradiction between supporting the right to life for the unborn as a sacred matter while permitting a state government to impose death on a life in being.

 

The main crusader for the bill was a Democrat, Senator Ernie Chambers who had tried 37 times during his forty years in the Nebraska Legislature to get rid of the death penalty before achieving this notable victory. Even Chambers was forced to acknowledge that it was ‘conservative pragmatism’ not liberal idealism that made the difference, taking note of a growing Republican trend to oppose capital punishment because it is viewed as costly, inefficient, and for some, un-Christian. On one level, who cares why capital punishment was abolished. It is the outcome that counts. Yet on a second level, it is worth caring, because if the decision reflects cost/benefit assessments rather than a principled ethical stand, it could be quickly reversed when calculations changed.

 

It is indeed a strange country: rapid public strides in the direction of freedom to shape one’s own gender identity giving rise to a series of vindictive pushbacks by those that want to impose their particular life style on those that seek to live differently in ways that do no harm. The opportunistic rants of right wing politicians on such issues as same sex marriage, trans gender identity, and abortion may not be meant to hurt and demean but they do. They hurt and demean those who want to live openly their authentic identities or deeply felt needs, which is what freedom should mean for all of us, not just for ourselves but our neighbors, that is, for every sentient being on the planet. and are so often elsewhere in our world forced to live in locked closets or face harsh criminal punishments. Is not this the deeper meta-religious significance of globalization. For all that is wrong with what the United States is doing to others throughout the world, these explorations on the frontiers of personal freedom might be the start of a better page of national history if this forward momentum can be sustained and exported in relation to personal self-determination.

 

Perhaps, and only perhaps, what we insist upon for ourselves might finally spill over with respect to what we to do to others. I don’t expect the drones to disappear anytime soon or even for capital punishment to become a bad memory, but at least more folks will begin to draw the sort of connection that to align themselves with a conservative repositioning similar to what turned a big majority of legislators against the death penalty in Nebraska. Given the political climate in the country, ‘conservative pragmatism’ may be the best we can currently hope for at this time for America. Sadly, the 99% have once again left the playing field of political life enabling the 1% to indulge their inexhaustible appetites.

 

Of course, for me the abolition of capital punishment has never been a matter of cost/benefit analysis whether measured in dollars or bureaucratic efficiency. It is a matter purely situated in the domain of values. I believe that no government should ever be given the authority to kill its own citizens, or that anyone anywhere should be vested with authority to kill without proper submission to the rule of law, whether acting domestically or internationally, and I believe it would benefit prospects for species survival if many of us as possible strive for and advocate a comprehensive ethos of nonviolence or what Glenn Paige has dubbed ‘a non-killing politics.’ For now, this is a utopian wish, but this goal has long struck me as being a time sensitive ethical and biopolitical imperative. In the domain of social practice, I feel the same way about same-sex marriage, gender self-determination, and the reproductive rights of women. Capital punishment is about wrongful death, same-sex marriage is an emotional component of the right to life, and reproductive rights recognize the sacred endowments and personal responsibility of women in relation to their own bodies.

 

America is not alone in being strange. All countries are strange reflecting the particularities of tradition and experience. Strangeness is bound up with originality and contradiction, and is not necessarily negative. We can be inspired by what is strange and wonderful, and appalled by what is strange and abusive. It is this negative strangeness that we must struggle to mitigate, whether it be capital punishment, human trafficking, or the subjugation that accompanies deep poverty and all forms of forcible dispossession.

Armenians 1915: The Genocide Controversy

19 Apr

Armenia: The Genocide Controversy

 

Of the many current concerns associated with historic wrongs, none is more salient these days than the long simmering tensions between modern Turkey and the Armenian diaspora (and the state of Armenia). And none so convincingly validates the assertion of the great American novelist, William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This year being the centenary of the contested events of 1915 makes it understandable that was simmering through the decades has come to a boil, with the anniversary day of April 24th likely to be the climax of this latest phase of the unresolved drama.

 

The Armenian red line for any move toward reconciliation has been for many years a formal acknowledgement by the Turkish government that the killings that occurred in 1915 should be regarded as ‘genocide,’ and that an official apology to the descendants of the Armenian victims should be issued by the top political leaders in Turkey. It is not clear whether once that red line is crossed, a second exists, this one involving Armenian expectations of reparations in some form or even restorations of property and territory. For now the battleground is over the significance of granting or withholding the G word from these momentous happenings. The utterance of this word, alone, seems the only key capable of unlocking the portals leading to conflict resolution, but it is a key that Turks across the political spectrum refuse to use.

 

What has recently raised the temperature on both sides is the clear alignment of Pope Francis with the Armenian demands. At a solemn mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on April 12th that was devoted to the centenary of the Ottoman killings of Armenian Christians Francis quoted with approval from the 2001 joint declaration of Pope John Paul II and the Armenian religious leader Karenkin II to the effect that these massacres in 1915 were “widely considered the first genocide of the 20th century.” The pope’s reliance upon an earlier declaration by a predecessor pontiff was interpreted by some Vatican watchers as a subtle indication of ‘restraint,’ showing a continuity of view in the Catholic Church rather than the enunciation of a provocative new position. Others equally reliable commentators felt that situating the label of genocide within a solemn mass gave it more authority than the earlier declaration with the 1.1 billion Catholics around the world, with likely more public impact. The unusual stature enjoyed by this pope who is widely admired the world over as possessing the most influential voice of moral authority, exerting a powerful impact even on non-Catholics, lends added significance to his pronouncements on sensitive policy issues. There are some in the Catholic community, to be sure, who are critical of this latest foray into this conflict about the application of the word genocide at a delicate time. For instance, the respected Vatican expert, Marco Politi, said that Pope Francis’s comment were typical of this pope who “uses language without excessive diplomatic care.”

 

For these very reasons of salience, one supposes, the Turkish response has been strident, involving some retreat from the more forthcoming statements made just a year ago by the then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In an apologetic and conciliatory speech addressed directly to the Armenian community Erdoğan in 2014 said: “May Armenians who lost their lives in the early twentieth century rest in peace, we convey our condolences to their grandchildren.” His language in 2015 reverts to a much harsher tone, in a pushback to Francis declaring that religious leaders make a ‘mistake’ when they try to resolve historical controversies. In an effort to constructive, Erdoğan restates the long standing Turkish proposal to open the Ottoman archives and allow a joint international commission of historians to settle the issue as to how the events of 1915 should most accurately be described, and specifically whether the term genocide is appropriate. Both Erdoğan and the current prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, continue to regard the core issue to be a historical matter of establishing the factual reality. The Turkish position is that there were terrible killings of the Armenians, but at a level far below the 1.5 million claimed by Armenian and most international sources, and mainly as an incident of ongoing warfare and civil strife in which many Turks also lost their lives, and hence it was an experience of mutual loss, and not ‘genocide.’

 

The almost internationally uncontested historical narrative is that the essential factual questions have settled: the Ottoman political leaders embarked on a deliberate policy of mass killings of the Armenians living in what is now modern Turkey. From this international consensus, the Armenians claim that it follows that Armenian victimization in 1915 was ‘genocide,’ the position endorsed and supported by Pope Francis, the European Parliament, and about 20 countries, including France and Russia. As might have been expected the NY Times jumped on the bandwagon by publishing a lead editorial with the headline, “Turkey’s Willful Amnesia,” as if was a matter of Ankara forgetting or a dynamic of denial, rather than is the case of selective perception, nationalism, and fears about the fragility of domestic political balance that explain Turkey’s seemingly stubborn adherence to a discredited narrative.

 

Yet there are weighty problems here, as well. The conclusion of ‘genocide’ is ambiguous. Not only did no such crime, labeled as such, exist in 1915, but there was not even the concept crystallyzed in this manner. Indeed the word was not coined until 1944 by Rafael Lemkin in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, written in reaction to the crimes of the Nazis. Lemkin’s text does indirectly lend support to the Armenian insistence that only by acknowledging these events as genocide is their true reality comprehended. Consider this often quoted passage from Lemkin’s book: “I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times in history. It happened to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action.”

 

From a Turkish perspective, it is notable that the Nuremberg Judgment assessing Nazi criminality avoids characterizing the Holocaust as genocide, limiting itself to crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. If in 1945 there was no legal foundation for charging surviving Nazi leaders with genocide, how can the crime be attributed to the Ottoman Turks, and how can the Turkish government be reasonably expected to acknowledge it. Also in the Nuremberg Judgment there is a clear statement to the effect that criminal law can never be validly applied retroactively (nulla poena sine lege). This principle is also embedded in contemporary international criminal law. That is, if genocide was not a crime in 1915, it cannot be treated as a crime in 2015. Yet from an Armenian perspective, this issue of criminality is tangential, and is not the ground on which the Turkish narrative rests. Both sides seem to agree that what is at stake is whether or not to characterize the events as ‘genocide,’ regardless of whether genocide was a distinct crime in 1915.

 

But here ambiguity abounds on this issue of criminality. The preamble of the Genocide Convention (1950) includes language compatible with the wider import of Armenian contentions: “Recognized in all periods of history that genocide has inflicted great losses on humanity.” In effect, that the reality of genocide long preceded the conclusion of the treaty. And even the premise of prior criminality is reinforced by Article 1: “The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace, or time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and punish.” By using the word ‘confirm’ it would appear that the crime of genocide preexisted the use of the word ‘genocide’ invented to describe the phenomenon, and thus no persuasive jurisprudential reason is present to oppose redescribing the events of 1915 as an instance of genocide.

 

Such a discussion of the pros and cons of the legalities is far from the end of the debate. The pressure to call what happened to the Armenians as genocide is best understood as a pycho-political campaign to achieve an acknowledgement and apology that is commensurate with the magnitude of the historical wrong, and possibly to set the stage for a subsequent demand of reparations. The insistence on the label ‘genocide’ seeks to capture total control of the moral high ground in relation to the events by authoritatively associating the tragic experience of the Armenians with the most horrendous events experienced by others, and most particularly by the Jewish victims of Nazism. In this sense, although Nazis were not indicted at Nuremberg for genocide, the whole political effort to criminalize genocide as a crime was in reaction to the Holocaust, lending an initial credibility to the ‘never again’ pledge. In other words, only by calling the events of 1915 genocide can the issues of guilt and responsibility be resolved in accord with the Armenian narrative with sufficient gravitas. The Armenian claim is thus not to be understood as primarily expressive of a criminal law perspective, but reflects the key contention that what took place resembled what is prohibited by the Genocide Convention, and thus in this extra-legal sense is appropriately called ‘genocide,’ which functions as a way of concluding that the Armenians were victimized by the worst possible type of human behavior. And further, that no other word conveys this assessment as definitively as does ‘genocide,’ and hence the Armenian insistence is non-negotiable. Any step back from this posture would be interpreted as a further humiliation, thereby dishonoring the memory of those who suffered and opening the wounds of the past still further.

 

At present, both sides are locked into these contradictory positions. No way forward is apparent at present. Each side is hardening their positions, partly in retaliation for what they perceive to be the provocation of their adversary in the controversy. Erdoğan’s relatively conciliatory tone of 2014 has been replaced on the Turkish side by a relapse into defensiveness and denial, and the revival of the largely discredited nationalist version of the events in 2015 as a mutual ordeal. The Armenian campaign, in turn, has intensified, taking advantage of the centenary mood, and now given the strongest possible encouragement by Pope Francis. In this setting, it is to be expected that Armenians will mount further pressure on the U.S. Government, considered a key player by both parties, to abandon its NATO-oriented reluctance to antagonize Turkey by officially endorsing the view that what happened in 1915 should be acknowledged by Turkey as genocide. Barack Obama had assured the Armenian community during his presidential campaign that he believed that Armenians were victims of genocide in 1915 but has to date refrained from reiterating this position in his role as president.

 

The contextualization of this tension associated with the redress of a historical grievance is also an element in the unfolding story. There appears to be an Israeli role in deflecting Turkish harsh criticism of its behavior in Gaza by a show of strong support for the Armenian campaign. Then there is the peril in the region especially faced by Christians, the Yazidis (an ancient syncretist religion drawing on Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Nestorian Christianity and Islam, and believed by many Iraqi to be devil-worshipers) and non-Muslims, especially at risk from ISIS and other extremist groups seeking to ‘purify’ areas under their control in the Middle East. In this picture also is the rise of Islamophobia in Europe, as well as the moral panic created by the Charlie Hebdo incident and other post-9/11 signs that religiously induced violence is continuing to spread Westwards. When Pope Francis visited Turkey last November there was reported an agreement reached with Erdoğan that the Vatican would combat Islamophobia in Europe while Turkey would oppose any persecution of Christian minorities in the Middle East.

 

I have known well prominent personalities on both sides of this Armenian/Turkish divide. More than twenty years ago I endorsed the Armenian position in talks and some writings. In more recent years, partly as a result of spending several months in Turkey each year I have become more sympathetic with Turkish reluctance to apologize and accept responsibility for ‘genocide.’ Among other concerns is the credible anxiety that any acknowledgement of genocide by Turkish leaders would unleash a furious right-wing backlash in the country imperiling social order and political stability. Aside from such prudential inhibitions there are on both sides of the divide deep and genuine issues of selective perception and identity politics that help maintain gridlock through the years, with no breakthrough in sight. Augmenting pressure on Turkey as is presently occurring is likely to be counter-productive, making the Turkish hard line both more mainstream and inflexible. Indicative of this is the stand of the main opposition leader, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu (head of the CHP) who seldom loses an opportunity to oppose the governing party on almost every issue, when it comes to the Armenian question is in lockstep solidarity with Erdoğan.

 

I see no way out of this debilitating impasse without finding a way to change the discourse. It serves neither the Armenians nor the Turks to continue this public encounter on its present path. The Turkish proposal for a historical joint commission is a bridge to nowhere as either it would reinforce the existing consensus and be unacceptable or the gridlock and be unacceptable. What might be more promising would be a council of ‘wise persons’ drawn from both ethno/religious backgrounds, and perhaps including some third parties as well, that would meet privately in search of shared understanding and common ground. A Turkish columnist, writing in this same spirit, proposes renewing the Erdoğan approach of 2014 by moving beyond sharing the pain to making an apology, coupled with offers of Turkish citizenship to the descendants of Armenians who were killed or diplaced in 1915.[See Verda Özer, “Beyond the Genocide Debate,” Hürriet Daily News, April 17, 2015] One possible formula that might have some traction is to agree that if what was done in 1915 were to occur now it would clearly qualify as ‘genocide,’ and that was done one hundred years ago was clearly genocidal in scale and intent. Perhaps, with good will and a realization that both sides would gain in self-esteem by a win/win outcome, progress could be made. At least it seems worth trying to use the resources of the moral imagination to work through with all possible good will a tangle of issues that has so long seemed intractable.

The Mistakes of the Global Imperial State and the Mistakes of Others  

29 Mar

 

It was pointed out to me that the oddities of reconciliation without truth that I encountered in the Philippines with respect to the persisting prominence of the Marcos family despite the widespread discrediting of his period of ruler ship (1965-1986) is not as strange as I made it appear. After all, Jeb Bush has recently announced his intention to seek the presidency of the United States in 2016, and George W. Bush despite his deplorable presidency, is regarded as a political asset, and is actively campaigning and raising funds on behalf of his younger brother. In the Philippines, unlike the United States, there was a political rupture brought about by the People Power Movement that drove the Marcos clan from power and led directly to Corey Aquino becoming president, widow of Benigno Aquino Jr., the slain Marcos opponent. Even now this populist triumph is celebrated as a day of national pride for the country, and Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III sits in the Malacañang Palace as the elected leader of the country. Yet the political realities in the Philippines, as with America, are more notable for their continuities with their discredited past than by changes that repudiate and overcome it.

 

Barack Obama was acting in an admittedly different political setting in the United States when he put aside well grounded allegations of criminality directed at the leadership during the Bush presidency, prudently contending that the country should look forward not backward when it comes to criminal accountability of its former political leaders. Of course, this is the opposite of what was done with surviving German and Japanese leaders after World War II at the widely heralded Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, nor can such prudence ever become the norm in the United States in relation to the crimes of ordinary people, even the laudable whistleblowing crimes of the sort attributed to Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden. Such selective impunity seems to be the price that imperial democracies pay for avoiding civil strife at home, and preferable to the unity associated with authoritarian forms of governance.

 

For this reason alone, Obama’s morally regressive approach to accountability is politically understandable and prudent. America is polarized, and the most alienated and angry segment of the citizenry embraces the gun culture and likely remains ardently supportive of the sort of militarism and patriotic fervor that had been so strongly in evidence during the Bush presidency.

 

Thoughts along these lines led me a broader set of reflections. The mistakes that the Philippines makes, however horrifying from the perspectives of human rights, are at least largely confined to the territorial limits of the country and victimize its own citizenry. By way of comparison, the foreign policy mistakes that the United States mainly vicitimize others, although they often do at the same time impose heavy costs on the most marginal and vulnerable of Americans. As a society, many regret the impacts of the Vietnam War or the Iraq War on the serenity and self-esteem of American society, but as Americans we rarely, if ever, pause to lament the immense losses inflicted on societal experience of those living within such distant battlefields of geopolitical ambition. These victim societies are passive recipients of this destructive experience, rarely possessing the capability or even the political will to strike back. Such is the one-sidedness of imperial relationships.

 

An estimated 1.6 to 3.8 million Vietnamese died during the Vietnam War as compared to 58, 000 Americans, and similar casualty ratios are present in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, without even considering the disruption and devastation experienced. In Iraq since 2003 it is estimated that between 600,000 and 1 million Iraqis were killed, and over 2 million were internally displaced and another 500,000 Iraqis became refugees as a result of the war, while the United States lost in the vicinity of 4,500 combat personnel. Battlefield statistics should not blind us to the absoluteness of each death from the perspective of loved ones, but they do reveal a central dimension of the distribution of the relative human costs of war as between an intervening government and the target society. This calculus of combat death does begin to tell the story of the devastation of a foreign society, or the residual dangers that can materialize in death and maiming injuries long after the guns are silent from lethal unexploded ordinance that litters the countryside for generations, soil contamination by Agent Orange, and warheads containing depleted uranium, as well as a legacy of trauma and many daily reminders of war memories in the shape of devastated landscapes and destroyed landmarks of cultural heritage.

 

From almost any ethical standpoint it would seem that some conception of international responsibility should restrain the use of force in situations other than those authorized by international law. But that’s not the way the world works. The mistakes and wrongdoing that takes place in a distant foreign war is rarely acknowledged, and never punished or restitution offered. Perversely, it is only the territorial leaders that are held to account (e.g. Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Muammar Qaddafi). The United States Government, specifically the Pentagon, makes it a point to tell the world that it does not collect data on civilian casualties associated with its international military operations. In part, there is an attitude of denial, minimizing the ordeals inflicted on foreign countries, and in part there is the salve of an underlying official insistence that the U.S. makes every effort to avoid civilian casualties. In the context of drone warfare, Washington insists that there are very few civilian victims, as measured by the number of deaths, but never admits that a far larger number of civilians huddle in continuous acute fear that they may be targeted or unintentionally struck dead by an errant missile.

 

Given the statist and imperial structures of world order, it is not surprising that there is so little attention to such issues. The mistakes of an imperial global state have material reverberations far beyond their borders while the mistakes of normal state resound inwardly as in an echo chamber. The wrongs of those who act for the imperial global state are shielded from scrutiny by realistic notions of impunity, while the wrongs of those who act for a normal state are increasingly subject to international procedures of accountability. When this happened after World War II it was called ‘victors’ justice; when it happens now, especially with the one-eyed jurisprudence of ‘liberal legality’ it is explained by reference to prudence and realism, being practical, doing what it is possible, accepting limits, giving a fair trial to those who are accused, deterring some patterns of evil deeds.

 

This will not change unless either of two things come to pass: a global capability to interpret and implement international criminal law comes into being or the political consciousness of imperial global states is dramatically altered by the internalization of an ethos of responsibility toward foreign societies and their inhabitants. Any description of such advances in law and justice should make us aware of how utopian such expectations remain.

 

At present, there is only one global imperial state, the United States of America. Some suggest that China’s economic prowess creates a rival center of power and influence that should be acknowledged as a second global imperial state. This seems misleading. China may be more resilient, and is certainly less militarist in its conception of security and pursuit of its interests, but it is not global, nor does it fight wars distant from its homeland. Furthermore, Chinese language, currency, and culture do not enjoy the global reach of English, the U.S. dollar, and franchise capitalism. Undoubtedly, China is currently is arguably the most significant state in the world, but its reality is in keeping with core Westphalian ideas of territorial sovereignty, while the United States operates globally in all regions to solidify its status as the only global imperial state, indeed the first such state in the history of the world.

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