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The Confused Russian Hacking Debate, Trump Victory, and U.S. Global State

18 Dec

 

 

The U.S. Government, with the collaboration of a disturbingly compliant media, seems to have discovered a deeply rusted version of The Golden Rule: “Do not permit others to do unto you, what you have repeatedly done.” Everybody in the slightest degree attentive to the way world works, knows that espionage and covert meddling in foreign elections has long been a standard weapon in the arsenal of geopolitical diplomacy. The U.S. proudly thwarted the electoral success of Communist Parties in Europe after World War II, not to mention countless interferences large and small, overt and covert, in elections throughout the Global South, with an especially dark record in Latin America (“so far from God, so close to the United States”). Beyond that, if the outcome of democratic elections should produce leaders that pursue policies that disturb Washington such as nationalization of resources, adoption of leftist policies, friendship with U.S. adversaries, more than meddling is likely to follow. Such a government can depend vary degrees of delegitimation, destabilization, sanctions, and eventually even military intervention. This pattern has been frequently relied upon in the past, and there are several current instances. (Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954, Chile 1973, to name a few instance of reversing political outcomes that our elected leaders deplore); Iran, Venezuela are examples of present instances. [On Chile see authoritative article by Ariel Dorfman, “Now Americans Know How Chile Felt,” NY Times, Dec. 17, 2016.]

 

The mainstream media in the West has focused relentless outrage on claims of Russian hacking of the American electoral process without even taking note of relevant American practices. The establishment’s most trustworthy public voice of imperial reason, Thomas Friedman, refers to Russian behavior as an ‘act of war.’ The very slippery ex-CIA Deputy Director, Michael Morel, uses even more inflammatory language, describing Russian hacking as ‘the political equivalent of 9/11.’ There are numerous raucous calls for a ‘proportionate response’ by the United States including even such provocative and punitive acts as equipping the Ukraine with offensive weaponry. What is extraordinary, even for those familiar with the geopolitical dimensions of world politics, is for this debate and discourse on alleged Russian hacking to proceed with no questions asked about the thick dossier of comparable American electoral meddling all over the world over the course of decades, including taking much more direct forms via bribery, assassination, and assorted other consequential interferences than anything the Russians have done.

 

When we think further about what has been hacked, the hullabaloo is comedic. Wikileaks is accused only of leaking the awkward disclosures of internal Democratic National Committee documents that revealed embarrassing Democratic staff concerns about the way Hillary Clinton was handling her emails and confirming that the DNC actively worked to undermine the primary prospects of Bernie Sanders. If another Snowden had done the original hacking, it would be treated as another case of whistleblowing with ambiguous consequences. The disclosures would be an admittedly controversial status, especially objections to the intrusions on the privacy, really secrecy, relating to the way political parties manipulate the American electoral process. At the same time the emails allowed citizens to know parts of shabby goings on behind the scenes of party politics. Is this truly an interference with American democracy of a magnitude that warrants dangerously escalating international tensions? Barack Obama, while reacting with calm language, goes along with these exaggerated reactions, falsely implying by silence an American innocence of undertaking similar to, and often far worse than what the Russians, under Putin’s direction, are alleged (without even some supportive evidence) to have done.

 

What is more fundamentally at stake is a challenge directed at the one-sided prerogatives of the United States as the first aspiring ‘global state’ in all of history. The Russians violated the First Law of Geopolitics as implemented by the United States in its role as global state: “You are prohibited from doing to us, what we are doing to you and others.” The Second Law: “You will be severely punished if you violate the Fist Law.” The Third Law: “You are forbidden to object to, or even mention, the First and Second Laws of Geopolitics.” The Fourth Law: “The public media is expected to express outrage when the First Law is violated, call for the implementation of the Second Law, while remaining quiet about the presence of double standards and moral hypocrisy.

 

This way of interpreting right and wrong, or the application of law, inverts normal understanding and expectations. What we expect is that all states are either subject to a legal constraint or that it doesn’t exist. We do not expect some to be subject to constraints and one or more others to be entitled to have discretion to act as it wishes, and do so with impunity. Yet international society has long formally and informally allowed power to take precedence over law and the legal ethos of equality. Even the United Nations Charter in establishing the Security Council embedded geopolitics in the formal structure of the world organization by granting the five winners in World War Two with permanent membership (P-5) and the right of veto. This combination means effectively that for these five states compliance with international law is completely voluntary and only those decisions that meet the approval of the P-5 become mandatory. Put more vividly, the UN was able to act decisively in Libya (2011) because there was no veto, while in relation to Syria over the course of the last five years there has been no capacity for the UN to act due to the right of veto threatened and exercised by Russia and China. Another example–Israel has been consistently shielded from UN censure by the Security Council over the years due to U.S. reliance on its veto power.

 

The geopolitics of the global state are similarly structured, although less explicitly. Standards of criminal accountability apply effectively only to losers of major wars (Germany, Japan after World War Two) or countries in the Global South. The United States has exempted itself from any prospect of accountability except by symbolic actions resulting from civil society initiatives. For instance, during the Iraq War of 2003, there took place a series of legal inquiries conducted under civil society auspices. These culminating in a session of the Iraq War Tribunal in 2005 that reached conclusions through its jury of conscience that the United States and the United Kingdom, and their leaders and collaborators, were guilty of aggressive war and violations of the laws of war. The Western press in the liberal democracies upheld the 4th Law of Geopolitics by maintaining a steadfast silence about these proceedings, although the Iraq War Tribunal proceedings carefully documented its findings and enjoyed the participation of some of the world’s leading jurists.  

The same pattern with minor variations applies across the board with respect to global security issues. The nuclear weapons regime is a prime example, with the United States, in particular, using the instrument of ‘counter-proliferation’ to justify aggressive war and to ignore completely the reciprocal legal duties imposed by the Nonproliferation Treaty. Iraq was invaded, Iran and North Korea repeatedly threatened, because of the geopolitical resolve to avoid Iraqi acquisition and possession of nuclear weaponry despite credible security arguments that such weapons were needed to deter hostile adversaries. As is certainly relevant to the hacking debate, prior to the Iraq War the intelligence community was similarly unified in supporting the false contention that Iraq possessed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and was actively pursuing the development of the capability to produce nuclear weapons. The head of the CIA at the time notoriously reinforced this intelligence consensus by calling it ‘a slam dunk.’

 

The nuclear weapons states, as part of the nonproliferation bargain to induce other states to forgo the weaponry, promised back in 1968 to engage in good faith negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament along the way to demilitarization and general and complete disarmament. Although the International Court of Justice in 1996 unanimously upheld this interpretation of the treaty obligations of the nuclear weapons states there has been no movement in the direction of compliance. In fact, Barack Obama, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize partly because of his anti-nuclear posture, approved of a $1 trillion dollar modernization and development program for the American nuclear arsenal over the next thirty years and for the eight years of his presidency has never called upon the United States and other nuclear weapons states to implement their clear NPT treaty obligation.

 

The same geopolitical structure is present with respect to ‘humanitarian intervention’ and general standards of compliance across the spectrum of human rights violations, ranging from torture to judicially enforced racism. The West under American leadership operates as if it enjoys a right of intervention, preferably to be exercised with UN backing, and a corollary tacit right to be free from reciprocal claims even to correct its most flagrant human rights abuses. When the George W. Bush presidency overtly relied on and justified interrogation practices widely viewed as torture, there was no call for the implementation of the international legal disallowance of torture and related abuses of human rights. For the United States to renew a reliance on waterboarding is, at best, a matter of policy, while for other countries such practices would be regarded as a matter of law.

 

My friend and colleague, Rich Appelbaum, raises an important point. Granted this kind of interference has been used a major foreign policy instrument of the United States, what Russia apparently did with respect to hacking and possibly even tilting the election in Trump’s favor is clearly undesirable, and should be treated as unacceptable. Yet even here the context is complex. First of all, to retaliate against Russia without even acknowledging that the U.S. Government has habitually interfered in foreign elections creates a false consciousness among the American people and invites accusations of hypocrisy.

 

There is also a deeper problem associated with security in a state-centric world with a weak UN. If our leaders were confronted by a foreign election in a major state in which one of the candidates was a warmongering extremist and the opponent a moderate, would it not be rational, and in the national, and even the global interest, to do all that could be done to tilt the election away from the extremist. From the Kremlin’s perspective, Hillary Clinton was perceived as hostile and militarist, while Donald Trump was evidently regarded as friendly and supportive of a lower American military profiles, especially in the Middle East. I think these perceptions are faulty overall, but all the evidence suggests that such views are widely believed in Russia and sincere.

 

Regulating the use of cyberspace is decidedly a gray area. International law and the UN Charter give little guidance beyond the vague directive to respect territorial sovereignty. This Russian hacking incident may serve to provide the political impetus for a lawmaking treaty binding all countries to a framework that at least establishes guidelines for governments of sovereign states to follow. Even if such a framework can be agreed upon, a big if, there are many areas of doubt as to what is best considering the present structure of world order. A first question is whether to keep cyberspace as a playground for geopolitics, and a second is whether it is desirable to prohibit all forms of meddling in foreign societies, and their elections and internal politics, no matter how dangerous and malevolent we perceive foreign developments to be. In a globalizing, interdependent, and nuclear armed world it would be playing with species suicide to decree by law, morality, and practice detachment from developments in foreign societies that pose deep threats beyond territorial borders.

 

In the end, perhaps, the best solution is to treat such hacking incidents and related disclosures the same way as espionage. Our spies are heroes, rewarded and honored in various ways, their spies are notorious intruders subject to the harshest punishments that criminal law can impose. Espionage goes on by every conceivable means, including increasingly reliance on the best tools that innovative technology possesses. The ‘game’ played is to defend our ‘secrets’ against foreign spies and domestic whistleblowers by all available means, but to do everything possible to learn their secrets. We can hope for prudence, but little more, in this double game, and maybe this is the way to handle hacking intrusions in our political space: scream about violation of our electoral process, while doing our best to exert control over theirs, but not succumb to the sort of outrage that raises international tensions in dangerous ways. We should take account of the fact that sometimes espionage provides information about adversaries that is reassuring, and discredits domestic hawks calling for dangerously adventurous policies.

 

I am someone who fervently wished, despite strong reservations about Clinton’s foreign policy inclinations and past record, that Clinton has won the election by norms of the electoral college as well as a result of the popular vote. I regret deeply the Russian role in hacking the DNC, their failure to disclose the RNC hacks, and deplore their profoundly flawed judgment in believing that they and the world would be better off with a Trump presidency.

 

In conclusion, I have long opposed American interferences in the political life of foreign countries, believe in accepting the outcome of the dynamics of self-determination, and have long thought the United States and the rest of the world would be better off if the government accepted the discipline of international law as setting limits on foreign policy options. In my view, such a realization is the unlearned lesson of the Vietnam War. I would repudiate the four laws of geopolitics, and opt instead for a global leadership role for Washington based on the rule of law.

 

Of course, we should not embrace international law, or any law, with illusions.

Law can be twisted in contradictory ways by legal experts. Law often is an instrument of geopolitics. Nevertheless, with eyes wide open, international law, diligently applied in accordance with a culture of human rights and peacemindedness, is a better guide for the national and global future than geopolitics.

The Sky Above Turkey

23 Aug

 

[Prefatory Note: An earlier version was published by Middle East Eye on August 10, 2016. It seems so important at this time for the sake of the future of Turkey that the West look at the country and its political circumstances in a far more balanced way than how the situation has been portrayed since the coup. How to explain this imbalance is another matterthat should be explored at some point, but for now is largely put aside.]

 

 

 

 

Much uncertainty remains in Turkey, but there is enough evidence of positive tendencies to raise a tentative banner of hope. Being a witness to the political atmosphere in Turkey that has emerged after the failed coup of July 15th puts me at odds with the secular consensus in the West, which looks up at the sky and sees only dark, ominous clouds of human rights abuse and autocratic leadership. What I have experienced and observed so far is quite different, a sky with much blue in it.

 

There are two opposed, although overlapping, tendencies present that seemed to be responsive to the political priorities that top the post-coup government agenda: sustaining the anti-coup unity by shifting political gears within the AKP leadership circles in the direction of “inclusive democracy” and pragmatism, and with it, a retreat from the polarizing claims of “majoritarian democracy” that greatly intensified after the 2011 national elections and were particularly evident in the clumsy, unacceptable way the Turkish government handled the Gezi Park demonstrations two years later.

The most important concrete embodiment of this post-15 July move toward inclusiveness has been a series of initatives intended to create a common front between the three leading political parties in the country, including the CHP (secular mainstream) and MHP (nationalist rightest) opposition parties. This has been reinforced by several other developments, including a pragmatic approach to foreign policy and a decision by Recip Tayyip Erdoğan to drop the many law suits under a Turkish law that makes it a civil wrong to insult the president.

 

The Ataturk effect

 There is also a reinforcement of these developments with clear evidence of an AKP appreciation of Kemal Ataturk as heroic founder of the country and defender of its political independence and unity, which had been notably absent from the AKP political profile ever since it initially took power in 2002.

 

It was notable that Erdoğan at his dramatic press conference at the Istanbul Airport on the night of the attempted coup spoke below a giant portrait of Ataturk. This gesture was reinforced by the dominance of huge poster pictures of Erdoğan and Ataturk, and no one else, behind the speaker stage at the immense  August 7th Democracy Watch rally, and even more so by a long Ataturk quotation in the course of Erdoğan’s speech, the highlight of the event. This emphasis on Ataturk’s guidance has also been notable in the CHP effort to interpret the defeat of the coup as a great victory of Turkish democracy, as well as a historic moment of national unity and patriotic fervor. It needs to be understood that invoking the image and thought of Ataturk are ways of expressing two realities: most significantly, a reaffirmation of the secularist orientation of the Turkish state accompanied by recognition that Turkey was experiencing a supreme “patriotic moment” that took precedence over all the pre-coup political divisions that had created such toxic polarization prior to July 15th.

 

Learning from mistakes

 Also notable, and a return to an earlier style, has been the generally calm tone and restrained substance of Erdogan’s leadership. In the domestic pro-AKP media, there have been references back to Erdoğan’s then controversial advice to the Egyptian people to insist on a secular foundation for the governing process following the Tahrir uprising that overthrew Mubarak, a position at the time deeply resented by the Muslim Brotherhood as an intrusion on Egyptian internal politics and distrusted or ignored by the secular opposition to Erdoğan in Turkey and abroad.

 

Looking back, Egypt would almost certainly have benefitted greatly if it had followed Erdoğan’s advice, with the ĸimplication that Turkey’s present crisis was brought about by allowing the religiously oriented movement of Fetullah Gülen to penetrate so deeply into the sinews of government.

 

Of course, anti-AKP voices insist, with reason, that Erdoğan failed to adhere to his own guidelines, both by insinuating political Islam into the appointment and policy process of the Turkish state in recent years and also by striking an opportunistic bargain with Gülen forces that years earlier paved the way for this exercise of pernicious religious influence within the Turkish state. Perhaps it is possible to learn from this past while admitting past mistakes (as Erdoğan has done by his extraordinary apology to the nation for past collaboration with and trust in the Gülen movement).

 

‘As many friends as possible’

 Another facet of the present understanding of July 15th is the widespread agreement across the Turkish political spectrum that the US was involved to some degree in relation to the coup. To what degree is a matter of wildly divergent beliefs ranging from active complicity to passive and indirect support. There is even the opinion present in Turkey that the timing of the coup reflected US government nervousness about Ankara’s seeming turn toward Mosow, and at minimum, if the coup had succeeded, Washington it seems would have shed few tears (just as it did after the democratically elected government was overthrown by a coup in 2013).

 

What lends some credibility to such suspicions is that a major foreign policy reset was underway and in motion prior to the coup attempt. It was centered upon diplomatic initiatives seeking to restore positive diplomatic and economic relations with Russia and Israel, and possibly even with Syria, Iran, and Egypt. Prospects for normalisation with Egypt took a turn for the worse as a result of Cairo’s seeming sympathy with the coup attempt, including possible receptivity to an asylum request from Fettulah Gülen.

 

Yet what seems in many respects to be a second coming of Turkey’s pre-Arab Spring approach of “zero problems with neighbours” has been reformulated by the current prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, in a similar formula: “as many friends as possible, and as few enemies.”

This apparent move away from the sort of ideological foreign policy that Turkey has pursued since 2011 may not be pleasing to hardliners in the US and Europe, but it certainly makes sense from the perspective of Turkish national interests, given current national and regional realities.

 

Atmosphere of fear

 Having pointed to some positive responses by the Turkish government to the crisis following the coup attempt, let me mention a few disturbing negative features of the present atmosphere. Erdoğan mobilized mass street support on the night of the failed coup, an initiative that even most of his critics here in Turkey treat as a stroke of political genius that probably turned the tide of battle on the fateful evening of July 15th. Yet some fear that the nightly continuation of populist demonstration that continued for three weeks were leading the country back in the direction of majoritarian democracy and reawakened polarization, and something even worse, if the temporary consensus with the opposition starts to fray.

 

Also extremely worrisome are mass detentions, arrests, dismissals, and suspensions involving many thousands of people, many of whom are viewed as innocent of any incriminating involvement. There are also reliable reports of torture and abuse involving some of those being held, creating a widespread atmosphere of fear and intimidation, making some people even scared to voice their views.

 

Given the fresh memories of the coup attempt, its brutal violence, and the realistic worry that pro-coup elements remain strategically situated in the governing structures of society, great pressure to strengthen internal security exists and should be interpreted with a measure of sympathy, or at least understanding. There is some reason to be guardedly hopeful as many individuals have been cleared and released, and the leadership has repeatedly promised to proceed in accord with the rule of law, including making diligent efforts not to confuse Gülen conspirators with anti-AKP critics. 

 

Populist pressure

 

There is also reason to be concerned about Erdogan’s demagogic appeals that seem designed to mobilize populist pressures on Parliament to restore capital punishment for the intended purpose of prosecuting and punishing Fetullah Gülen. It should be better appreciated in Turkey that any attempted application of capital punishment to Gulen would be unacceptably retroactive, and a violation of the rule of law as universally understood.

 

Among other effects, such a prospect would give the United States a credible legal pretext to deny the pending extradition request, which in turn would create a storm of anti-American resentment in Turkey. It is helpful to do a thought experiment that captures the Turkish political mood. The overwhelming majority of Turks feel what Americans would have felt if after the 9/11 attacks a supposedly friendly government had given safe haven to Osama Bin Laden.

 

The most shortsighted aspect of the current approach is the evident decision by Erdoğan to stop short of including the pro-Kurdish political party, HDP or People’s Democratic Party, in the national unity approach, and the absence of any show of a willingness to renew a peace process with the Kurdish national movement, including representatives of the PKK. The government contends that this is not possible to do so long as the PKK engages in armed struggle, which proceeds on a daily basis.

 

Given ongoing concerns with the Islamic State (IS) group and spillovers from the Syrian war, the future of Turkey will seem far brighter if the Kurdish dimension can be constructively addressed.

 

 

Concluding Observation

 What remains after this look at present pros and cons is a core reality of uncertainty, yet I believe there is presently enough evidence of positive tendencies, to raise a tentative banner of hope about the Turkish future. Such a banner is also justified as a counter to the banner of despair and rage being waved so vigorously by anti- Erdoğan zealots around the world with much support given by mainstream media and not a few governments in the West who withheld support of the Turkish government in its hour of need and have been reluctant to accept the allegations that the coup was the work of the movement headed by Fetullah Gülen from his informal headquarters in Pennsylvania. It is hardly surprising that Ankara should be looking elsewhere for friends, and even contemplating turning its back on Europe, and conceivably even NATO. It could be that a major geopolitical realignment is underway, or maybe not. If it occurs it will be the most significant change in the geopolitical landscape since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the aftermath of

the Cold War.

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

29 Jun

 

 

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

 

 

Imagining the World After the Cold War

 

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

 

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

the world.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

The Unexpected Appeal and Rise of the Reactionary Right

 

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

 

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

 

 

An Establishment Out of Touch

 

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

 

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

 

 

Losing it in America

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

The Global Landscape

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

 

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

 

 

‘It’s the System, Stupid’

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

On (Not) Loving Henry Kissinger

21 May

On (Not) Loving Henry Kissinger

 

There is an irony that would be amusing if it was not depressing about news that Donald Trump has been courting the 92-year old foreign policy sorcerer Henry Kissinger. Of course, the irony is that earlier in the presidential campaign Hilary Clinton proudly claimed Kissinger as ‘a friend,’ and acknowledged that he “relied on his counsel” while she served as Obama’s Secretary of State between 2009-2013. It is indeed strange that the only point of public convergence between free-swinging Trump and war-mongering Clinton should be these ritual shows of deference to the most scandalous foreign policy figure of the past century.

 

Kissinger should not be underestimated as an international personality with a sorcerer’s dark gifts. After all, he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his perverse role in Vietnam diplomacy. Kissinger had supported the war from its inception and was known as a strong proponent of the despicable ‘Christmas bombing’ of North Vietnam. He had earlier joined with Nixon in secretly extending the Vietnam War to Cambodia, incidentally without Congressional knowledge, much less authorization. This led to the total destabilization and devastation of a country that had successfully maintained its neutrality for the prior decade. It also generated the genocidal takeover by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s resulting in the death of a third of the Cambodian population. It was notable that the Nobel had been jointly awarded to Luc Duc Tho, Kissinger’s counterpart in the negotiations, who exhibited his dignity by declining the prize, while Kissinger as shameless as ever, accepted and had an assistant deliver his acceptance speech because he was too busy to attend. Significantly, for the first time, two members of the Nobel Selection Committee resigned their position in disgust.

 

The more familiar, and more damning allegation against Kissinger, is his association with criminal violations of international law. These are convincingly set forth in Christopher Hitchens The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001). Hitchens informed readers that he “confined himself to the identifiable crimes that can and should be placed on a proper bill of indictment.” He omitted others. Hitchens lists six major crimes of Kissinger:

            “1. The deliberate mass killing of civilian population in Indochina.

  1. Deliberate collusion in mass murder, and later in assassination in         Bangla Desh.
  2. The personal suborning and planning of murder, of a senior constitutional officer in a democratic nation—Chile—with which the United States was not at war.
  3. Personal involvement in a plan to murder the head of state in the democratic nation of Cyprus.
  4. The incitement and enabling of genocide in East Timor.
  5. Personal involvement in a plan to kidnap and murder a journalist living in Washington, DC.”

Whether the evidence available would support a conviction in an international tribunal is far from certain, but Kissinger’s association and approval of these unlawful and inhumane policies, and many others, is clear beyond reasonable doubt.

 

In some respects as damaging as these allegations of complicity in war crimes is, it is not the only reason to question Kissinger’s credentials as guru par excellence. Kissinger shares with Hilary Clinton a record of bad judgments, supporting some foreign policy initiatives that would be disastrous if enacted

and others that failed while inflicting great suffering on a foreign civilian population. In his most recent book, World Order published in 2014, Kissinger makes a point of defending his support of George W. Bush’s foreign policy with specific reference to the war of aggression undertaken in 2003. In his words, “I supported the decision to undertake regime change in Iraq..I want to express here my continuing respect and personal affection for President George W. Bush, who guided America with courage, dignity, and conviction in an unsteady time. His objectives and dedication honored his country even when in some cases they proved unattainable within the American political cycle.” [pp. 324-325] One would have hoped that such an encomium to the internationally least successful U.S. president would be a red flag for those presidential candidates turning to Kissinger for guidance, but such is his lofty reputation, that no amount of crimes or errors of judgment can diminish his public stature.

 

Kissinger first attracted widespread public attention with a book that encouraged relying on nuclear weapons in a limited war scenario in Europe, insisting that the United States could prudently confront the Soviet Union without inviting an attack on its homeland. [Nucelar Weapons and Foreign Policy (1967). As already indirectly suggested, he supported the Vietnam War, the anti-Allende coup in Chile, Indonesian genocidal efforts to deny independence to East Timor, and many other dubious foreign policy undertakings that turned out badly, even from his own professed realist perspective.

 

It is true that Kissinger has a grasp of the history of diplomacy that impresses ordinary politicians such as Trump and Clinton. True, also, he rode the crest of the wave with respect to the diplomatic opening to China in 1972 and pursued with impressive energy the negotiation of ceasefire arrangements between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Syria after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. As well, TIME magazine had a cover featuring Kissinger dressed as superman, dubbing their hero as ‘super-K.’ There is, in this sense, no doubt that Kissinger has been a master as refurbishing his tarnished reputation over the course of decades.

 

Yet fairly considered, whether from a normative or strategic outlook, I would have hoped that Kissinger should be viewed as ‘discredited’ rather than as the most revered repository of foreign policy wisdom in this nation. Bernie Sanders struck the proper note when he said “I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend.” And when queried by Clinton as to who he would heed, Sanders responded, “I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger.” In contrast, the words of Hilary Clinton confirm her affinity for the man: “He checked in with me regularly, sharing astute observations about foreign leaders and sending me written reports on his travels.” In fairness she did qualify this show of deference with these words: “[t]hough we have often seen the world and some of our challenges quite differently, and advocated different responses now and in the past….” This was the only saving grace in her otherwise gushing review of Kissinger’s World Order (2014) published in the Washington Post.

 

Let me offer a final comment on this shared adulation of Kissinger as the éminence grise of American foreign policy by the two likely candidates for the presidency. It epitomizes and helps explain the banality of the political discourse that has dominated the primary phases of the presidential campaign. It is hardly surprising that during this time dark clouds of despair hang heavy in the skies above the American body politic. Before either presidential hopeful even walks into the Oval Office both Trump and Clinton are viewed unfavorably by over half of all Americans, and regarded with a mixture of dismay, fear, and shock by political leaders and their publics around the world. To show obeisance to Kissinger’s wisdom and wizardry is thus emblematic of the paucity of mainstream American political imagination, and should worry all who care about the future of the country and the world.

 

 

Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Daniel Berrigan

10 May

Remembering Daniel Berrigan

 

I was privileged to know Daniel Berrigan in the last stages of the Vietnam War, not well, but well enough to appreciate his quality of moral radiance and to admire the spiritual dedication that he exhibited in opposing the Vietnam War, and later nuclearism. I also knew Dan’s brother, Phil, who shared these remarkable qualities, although Phil exuded an earthy embrace of life while Dan seem to keep his distance from quotidian pursuits by living a meditative life as a poet and devoted member of the Jesuit order, as well as being inspirational anti-war activist. In contrast, Phil gave up the priesthood to marry Elizabeth McAlister, herself a former nun and a deeply committed lifelong partner with respect to social and political engagement. Together they established Jonah House (community nonviolence center) in Baltimore that continues to serve the poor and stand for peace and justice in our society and in the world. Despite leaving the Church in a formal sense, Phil never departed from his religious vocation and Christian commitment, to help the poor and struggle against abuses of state power. As I recall when I was in contact with them, because of their parental and community responsibilities, Phil and Liz took turns engaging in the kind of political actions likely to land them in prison, both exhibiting this extraordinary willingness to sacrifice their freedom to exhibit the seriousness and depth of their engagement in the struggle against injustice and evil.

 

Actually, I knew Liz socially before she and Phil were publically together, finding her an astonishingly lively, warmly challenging, and playfully serious personality; Eqbal Ahmed was our close common cherished friend responsible for our initial meetings, and Eqbal and Liz were both Harrisburg defendants being accused of dreaming up the kidnapping caper, which was a fanciful caper that was taken seriously only by our paranoid government security services that had planted an informer in Phil’s prison cell and then proceeded to act as if phantasy was plot. At the same time, it was not so fanciful if international law was taken as seriously as it deserves to be, and the dangers of allowing Henry Kissinger to remain at large were as understood as they ought to be.

 

It is perverse how our government continues to prosecute as criminals those who are its most loyal patriots (for instance, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning) and rewards with the highest offices of the land and the greatest honors those who degrade the nation by rampant militarism responsible for massive suffering in distant lands.

 

My contact with Dan, Phil, and Liz, as well as other Catholic anti-war activists, resulted from my participation in several criminal trials, acting on their behalf as an expert witness. Two trials stand out in my mind—the Harrisburg 7 trial in 1971 held in Harrisburg Pennsylvania of seven defendants, including Phil and Liz (Dan was noted in the government complaint as an unindicted co-conspirator); and the Plowshares 8 case in the early 1980s that resulted from an action damaging the nose cones of the Mark 12A missile and pouring blood on documents while trespassing on the General Electric Nuclear Re-entry Division, located at King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. My main contribution was to visit Ramsey Clark in his Washington office, shortly after he had resigned at Attorney General, and persuade him to represent the Harrisburg defendants, which he did in an effective and deeply committed manner that changed him forever.

 

I also testified in both trials. My line of testimony was along two major lines: first, that it was reasonable to believe that the conduct of the Vietnam War and the development of nuclear weapons were contrary to international law; and secondly, since the Nuremberg Judgment against surviving Nazi leaders after World War II it was reasonable for individuals to believe that they had a right, and possibly, a duty, to act nonviolently in an effort to oppose internationally unlawful behavior on the part of the government.

 

It was apparent to me that the motivation for the actions undertaken by the Berrigans derived from their profound devotion to pre-Constantine Christian ethics, and was coupled with an ambivalence toward institutionalized Christianity. At the same time I felt that both Dan and Phil, in their separate styles, welcomed the legal reinforcement that my testimony attempted to provide. It overcame the widely voiced liberal objection that such disruptive behavior as burning draft cards or damaging potential nuclear weapons was unacceptable in a democratic society as it claimed the right to take the law into one’s own hands, and thus warranted indictment, prosecution, and punishment, and at best, represented ‘civil disobedience’ in the Thoreau sense of exposing the immorality of the law on the books but at the same time backing the governmental responsibility to uphold the law as it existed.

 

Reliance on international law and what I called ‘the Nuremberg obligation’ offered an objective platform upon which to rest such symbolic challenges to lawlessness on the part of the state. In effect, the defense rested on the necessity of such exceptional acts of obstruction as part of a wider effort to halt this lawlessness in view of the failure of governmental institutions to uphold what they believed the law required with respect to war and peace. In this regard, what the Berrigans did was more radical than civil obedience, contending that the government and political leaders were engaged in criminal activities that needed to be stopped by all possible nonviolent means. In this fundamental sense, what the Berrigans di should not be confused with the challenge to the morality of law mounted by Thoreau. The Nuremberg tradition provides a normative foundation for engaged citizenship, and claims that the sovereign state is itself constrained by law, which if it disobeys in matters of war and peace should politically empower citizens to act as enforcers of this higher law.

 

In a manner similar to whistleblowing, these kinds of anti-war actions undertaken by citizens should be appreciated as a populist check on war making and criminality by the state. We the people should support such defiance with gratitude and celebrate its occurrence as signs of democratic vitality and vigilance. This post-modern supplement to republican constitutionalism, distinguished by its reliance on checks and balances, seems currently more necessary than ever given the failure of Congress to fulfill its constitutional responsibility to agree upon a declaration of war as a prerequisite to lawful war making and even more so, given the regulation of recourse to war that is part of contemporary international law and is the core undertaking of the UN Charter, an international treaty, that by virtue of Article VI of the US Constitution is ‘the supreme law of the land.’ In this respect, what Dan and Phil believed with their whole being was the sacred importance of repudiating aggressive war making and reliance on weapons of mass destruction, and holding the state and its representatives, including in relation to their own country, fully accountable if they fail to uphold and respect obligations under international law. This is their moral, political, and legal legacy that should be reminding all of us that passivity in a constitutional democracy should be condemned as a form of lethal complicity in the nuclear age. That such a message seems ‘radical’ is itself a sign of democratic entropy and fatigue. The degree to which the citizenry of this country has been pacified at the very moment when it desperately needs to be awake and vigilant should alarm us all.

 

In these respects, honoring our remembrance of Daniel Berrigan, including being attentive to his poetry that was an organic dimension of his moral and spiritual witnessing, is both a gift and a challenge. What I find most enduring about the lives of the Berrigan brothers is its call to all of us to act as engaged citizens if we want to save our planet from depravities of war, injustice, and avoidable ecological collapse.

 

By highlighting the significance of Dan’s personal resistance to abuses of state power, I would not want to leave the impression that this signified all that made him special. Even aside from such public contributions, it was apparent to all whom Dan touched in the course of his long life that he was an exceptional human being, transparent in moral and spiritual coherence, mindful in his attentiveness to the suffering and wellbeing of others, a powerful and unforgettably vivid and loving presence, a challenge to our daily complacency. In the end, I will keep remembering Dan and Phil as an inspiration and as a challenge, as well as appreciating Liz for all that she continues to achieve by way of spiritual community.

Slouching Toward Global Disaster: Chaos and Intervention in the Middle East  

22 Dec

 

The Geopolitical Foreground

 

There are many disturbing signs that the West is creating conditions in the Middle East and Asia that could produce a wider war, most likely a new Cold War, containing, as well, menacing risks of World War III. The reckless confrontation with Russia along its borders, reinforced by provocative weapons deployments in several NATO countries and the promotion of governing regimes hostile to Russia in such countries as Ukraine and Georgia seems to exhibit Cold War nostalgia, and is certainly not the way to preserve peace.

 

Add to this the increasingly belligerent approach recently taken by the United States naval officers and defense officials to China with respect to island disputes and navigational rights in the South China Seas. Such posturing has all the ingredients needed for intensifying international conflict, giving a militarist signature to Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia.’

 

These developments are happening during the supposedly conflict averse Obama presidency. Looking ahead to new leadership, even the most optimistic scenario that brings Hilary Clinton to the White House is sure to make these pre-war drum beats even louder. From a more detached perspective it is fair to observe that Obama seems rather peace-oriented only because American political leaders and the Beltway/media mainstream have become so accustomed to relying on military solutions whether successful or not, whether dangerous and wasteful or not, that is, only by comparison with more hawkish alternatives.

 

The current paranoid political atmosphere in the United States is a further relevant concern, calling for police state governmental authority at home, increased weapons budgets, and the continuing militarization of policing and law enforcement. Such moves encourage an even more militaristic approach to foreign challenges that seem aimed at American and Israeli interests by ISIS, Iran, and China. Where this kind of war-mongering will lead is unknowable, but what is frighteningly clear is that this dangerous geopolitical bravado is likely to become even more strident as the 2016 campaign unfolds to choose the next American president. Already Donald Trump, the clear Republican frontrunner, has seemed to commit the United States to a struggle against all of Islam by his foolish effort to insist that every Muslim is terrorist suspect Islam as a potential terrorist who should be so treated. Even Samuel Huntington were he still alive might not welcome such an advocate of ‘the clash of civilizations’!

 

 

 Historical Deep Roots

 It has taken almost a century for the breakup of the Ottoman Empire to reap the colonialist harvest that was sown in the peace diplomacy that followed World War I. In the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement diplomats of England and France in 1916 secretly negotiated arrangements that would divide up the Middle East into a series of artificially delimited territorial states to be administered as colonies by the respective European governments. Among other wrongs, this devious undertaking representing a betrayal of promises made to Arab leaders that Britain, in particular, would support true independence in exchange for joining the anti-Ottoman and anti-German alliance formed to fight World War I. Such a division of the Ottoman spoils not only betrayed wartime promises of political independence to Arab leaders, but also undermined the efforts of Woodrow Wilson to apply the principle of ethnic self-determination to the Ottoman aftermath.

 

As a result of diplomatic maneuvers the compromise reached at Versailles in 1919 was to accept the Sykes-Picot borders that were drawn to satisfy colonial ambitions for trade routes and spheres of influence, but to disguise slightly its colonialist character, by creating an international system of mandates for the Middle East in which London and Paris would administer the territories, accepting a vague commitment to lead the various societies to eventual political independence at some unspecified future time. These Sykes-Picot ‘states’ were artificial political communities that never overcame the indigenous primacy of ethnic, tribal, and religious affinities, and could be maintained as coherent political realities only by creating oppressive state structures. If World War II had not sapped European colonial will and capabilities, it is easy to imagine that the societies of the Middle East would remain subjugated under mandate banners.

 

After World War II

 

Is it any wonder, then, that the region has been extremely beset by various forms of authoritarian rule ever since the countries of the Middle East gained their independence after the end of the Second World War? Whether in the form of dynastic monarchies or secular governments, the stability that was achieved in the region depended on the denial of human rights, including rights of democratic participation, as well as the buildup of small privileged and exploitative elites that linked national markets and resources to the global economic order. And as oil became the prime strategic resource, the dominance of the region became for the West led by the United States as absolutely vital. From these perspectives the stable authoritarianism of the region was quite congenial with the Cold War standoff between the United States and Soviet Union that was interested in securing strategic and economic partnerships reflecting the ideological rivalries, while being indifferent to whether or not the people were being victimized by abusive and brutal governments.

 

The American commitment to this status quo in the Middle East was most vividly expressed in 1980 after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution of the prior year by the enunciation of the Carter Doctrine. President Carter in his State of the Union Address was warning the Soviet Union by a strong diplomatic signal that the United States was ready to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf by force, which because of supposed Soviet superiority in ground warfare was understood at the time as making an implied threat to use nuclear weapons if necessary.

 

After the Cold War

 When the Cold War ended, the United States unthinkingly promoted the spread of capitalist style constitutional democracy wherever it could, including the Middle East. The Clinton presidency (1992-2000) talked about the ‘enlargement’ of the community of democratic states, implying that any other political option lacked legitimacy (unless of course it was a friendly oil producer or strategic ally). The neocon presidency of George W. Bush (2000-2008) with its interventionist bent invoked ‘democracy promotion’ as its goal, and became clear in its official formulation of security doctrine in 2002 that only capitalist democracies were legitimate Westphalian states whose sovereign rights were entitled to respect.

 

This kind of strident militarism reached a new climax after 9/11. The White House apparently hoped to embark on a series regime-changing interventions in the Middle East and Asia with the expectation of producing at minimal cost shining examples of liberation and democratization, as well as secure the Gulf oil reserves and establish military bases to undergird its regional ambitions. The attacks on Afghanistan, and especially Iraq, were the most notorious applications of this misguided approach. Instead of ‘democracy’ (Washington’s code word for integration into its version of neoliberal globalization), what emerged was strife and chaos, and the collapse of stable internal governance. The strong state that preceded the intervention gave way to localized militias and resurgent tribal, clan, and religious rivalries leading domestic populations to wish for a return to the relative stability of the preceding authoritarian arrangements, despite their brutality and corruption. And even in Washington one encounters whispered admissions that Iraq was better off, after all, under Saddam Hussein than under the kind of sectarian and divisive leaders that governed the country since the American occupation began in 2003, and now threaten Iraq with an implosion that will produce at least two states replacing the shattered one.

 

 

 The Arab Spring

 Then came the Arab Spring in 2011 creating an awkward tension between the professed wish in Washington for democracy in the Arab world and the overriding commitment to upholding strategic interests throughout the Middle East. At first, the West reacted ambivalently to the Arab uprisings, not knowing whether to welcome, and then try to tame, these anti-authoritarian movements of the Arab masses or to lament the risks of new elites that were likely to turn away from neoliberal capitalism and strategic partnerships, and worst of all, might be more inclined to challenge Israel.

 

What happened in the years that followed removed the ambiguity, confirming that material and ideological interests took precedence over visionary endorsements of Arab democracy. The reality that emerged indicated that neither the domestic setting nor the international context was compatible with the existence of democratic forms of governance. What unsurprisingly followed was a series of further military interventions and strategic confrontations either via NATO as in Libya or by way of its regional partners, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates as in Iran, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. With few tears shed in Washington, the authentic and promising democratic beginnings in Egypt that excited the world in the aftermath of the 2011 Tahrir Square were crushed two years later by a populist military coup that restored Mubarak Era authoritarianism, accentuating its worst features. What amounted to the revenge of the urban secular elites in Cairo included a genuine bonding between a new majority of the Egyptian people and its armed forces in a bloody struggle to challenge and destroy the Muslim Brotherhood that had taken control of the government by winning a series of elections. Despite its supposed liberalism the Obama leadership played along with these developments. It obliged the new Sisi-led leadership by avoiding the term ‘coup’ although the military takeover was followed by a bloody crackdown on the elected leadership and civil society leadership. This Orwellian trope of refusing to call a coup by its real name enabled the United States to continue military assistance to Egypt without requiring a new Congressional authorization.

 

The folk wisdom of the Arab world gives insight into the counterrevolutionary backlash that has crushed the populist hopes of 2011: “People prefer 100 years of tyranny to a single year of chaos.” And this kind of priority is shared by most of those who make and manage American foreign policy. Just as clearly as the Arab masses, the Pentagon planners prefer the stability of authoritarianism to the anarchistic uncertainties of ethnic and tribal strife, militia forms of governance that so often come in the wake of the collapse of both dictatorial rule and democratic governance. And the masters of business and finance, aside from the lure of post-conflict markets for the reconstruction of what has been destroyed militarily, prefer to work with dependable and familiar national elites that welcome foreign capital on lucrative terms that benefit insiders and outsiders alike, while keeping the masses in conditions of impoverished thralldom.

 

In many respects, Syria and Iraq illustrate the terrible human tragedies that have been visited on the peoples of these two countries. In Syria a popular uprising in 2011 was unforgivably crushed by the Basher el-Assad regime in Damascus, leading to a series of disastrous interventions on both sides of the internal war that erupted, with Saudi Arabia and Iran engaged in a proxy war on Syrian soil while Israel uses its diplomatic leverage to ensure that the unresolved war would last as long as possible as Tel Aviv wanted neither the regime nor its opponents to win a clear victory. During this strife, Russia, Turkey, and the United States were intervening with a bewildering blend of common and contradictory goals ranging from pro-government stabilization to a variety of regime changing scenarios. These external actors held conflicting views of the Kurdish fighters as either coveted allies or dangerous adversaries. In the process several hundred thousand Syrians have lost their lives, almost half the population have become refugees and internally displaced persons, much of the country and its ancient heritage sites devastated, and no real end of the violence and devastation is in sight.

 

The Iraq experience is only marginally better. After a dozen years of punitive sanctions following the 1991 ceasefire that exacted a heavy toll on the civilian population, the ‘shock and awe’ of US/UK attacks of 2003, an occupation began that rid the country of its cruel and oppressive leader, Saddam Hussein, and his entourage. What followed politically became over time deeply disillusioning, and actually worse than the overthrown regime, which had been hardly imaginable when the American-led occupation began. The Iraqi state was being reconstructed along sectarian lines, purging the Sunni minority elites from the Baghdad bureaucracy and armed forces, thereby generating a widespread internal violent opposition against foreign occupation and a resistance movement against the Iraqi leadership that had gained power with the help of the American presence. This combination of insurgency and resistance also gave rise to widespread feelings of humiliation and alienation, which proved to be conducive to the rise of jihadi extremism, first in the form of al-Qaeda in Iraq and later as ISIS.

 

Toxic Geopolitics 

It is impossible to understand and explain such a disastrous failure of military interventionism without considering the effects of two toxic ‘special relationships’ formed by the United States, with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The basic feature of such special relationships is an unconditional partnership in which the Israelis and Saudis can do whatever they wish, including pursuing policies antagonistic to U.S. interests without encountering any meaningful opposition from either Washington or Europe. This zone of discretion has allowed Israel to keep Palestinians from achieving self-determination while pursuing its own territorial ambitions via constantly expanding settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, fueling grassroots anti-Western sentiment throughout the Arab world because of this persisting reliance on a cruel settler colonialist approach to block for seven decades the Palestinian struggle for fundamental and minimal national rights.

 

The special relationship with Saudi Arabia is even more astonishing until one considers the primacy of economic strategic priorities, especially the importance of oil supplied at affordable prices. Having by far the worst human rights record in the region, replete with judicially decreed beheadings and executions by stoning, the Riyadh leadership continues to be warmly courted in Western capitals as allies and friends. At the same time, equally theocratic Iran is hypocritically bashed and internationally punished in retaliation for its far less oppressive governing abuses.

 

Of course, looking the other way, is what is to be expected in the cynical conduct of opportunistic geopolitics, but to indulge the Saudi role in the worldwide promotion of jihadism while spending trillion on counter-terrorism is much more difficult to fathom until one shifts attention from the cover story of counter-terrorism to the more illuminating narrative of petropolitics. Despite fracking and natural gas discoveries lessening Western dependence on Middle Eastern oil, old capitalist habits persist long after their economic justifications have lapsed and this seems true even when such policies have become damaging in lives and financial burdens.

 

Finding Hope is Difficult

 In such circumstances, it is difficult to find much hope in the current cosmodrama of world politics. It is possible, although unlikely, that geopolitical sanity will prevail to the extent of finding a diplomatic formula to end the violence in Syria and Yemen, as well as to normalize relations with Iran, restore order in Iraq and Libya, although such sensible outcomes face many obstacles, and may be years away. The alternatives for the Middle East in the near future, barring the political miracle of a much more revolutionary and emancipatory second Arab Spring, seems to be authoritarian stability or anarchic strife and chaos, which seems far preferable if the alternative is the deep trauma associated with enduring further American military interventions. If you happen to hear the Republican candidates give their prescriptions for fixing the Middle East it comes down to ‘toughness,’ including the scary recommendations of ‘carpet bombing’ and a greatly heightened American military presence. Even the more thoughtful Democrats limit their proposals to enhanced militarism, hoping to induce the Arab countries to put ‘the boots on the ground’ with nary a worry about either igniting a regional war or the imaginative collapse that can only contemplate war as the recipe for peace, again recalling the degree to which Orwellian satiric irony is relied upon to shape foreign policy prescriptions by ambitious politicians. Imaginative diplomacy, talking and listening to the enemy, and engaging in self-scrutiny remains outside the cast iron cage of the military mentality that has long dominated most of the political space in American foreign policy debates with the conspicuous help of the passive aggressive mainstream media. In this respect, American democracy is a broken reality, and conscientious citizens must look elsewhere as a prison break of the political imagination is long overdue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sympathetic Skeptic: Luis Cabrera’s Interview with Richard Falk on behalf of the World Government Research Network

12 Sep

[Prefatory Note: The following interview was conducted by Professor Luis Cabrera, a political theorist on the faculty of Griffith University in Brisbane Australia. Cabrera has written notable books on themes of world government and global integration. He is also the co-founder and co-director of the Global Government Research Network. The original posting of the interview can be found at <wgresearch.org/seven-questions-for-richard-falk/?tve=true>

 

[I would describe myself as a strong skeptic, and place less emphasis on the sympathetic aspects of my views about finding institutional mechanisms protective of global and human interests. I do believe that a stronger and more independent UN is part of the answer as are special governmental and quasi-governmental arrangements to deal with specific subject-matter of global scope. At the same time, advocacy of world government irresponsibly overlooks the danger of sanctioning a move to global tyranny and to a frozen economic order that would almost certainly need to deal with disparities in material circumstances by coercive means. I do recommend checking out the website recently put together by Luis Cabrera and James Thompson, and can be found via Google at ‘World Government Research Network’ where high quality articles and world government related news can be found.]

 

 

[The following biosketch preceded the interview: Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and associated with the program on Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara since 2002. He has been a prominent and prolific voice in scholarship on international law and world order since the late 1950s, and more recently has championed the promotion of ‘humane global governance’ as an alternative to top-down economic globalization. Falk was centrally involved in the World Order Models Project in 1960s-1980s. WOMP was a research-focused outgrowth of the world government movements of the 1940s and 1950s, and its head, Prof. Saul Mendlovitz of Rutgers, was an unabashed advocate of binding world government. Falk was more skeptical, famously arguing that most world government proposals are guilty of ‘premature specificity.’ The World Government Research Network interviewed Prof. Falk on his long career and current views on global integration in August 2015.]

 

1) You were the North American director for the World Order Models Project (WOMP), which was aimed in part at developing an inclusive international academic dialogue on global integration. What were the major challenges to developing a genuinely global dialogue, and how successful do you think the project was in meeting them?

 

I think the main participants in WOMP were very disposed to a global dialogue, although sharp differences in outlook were present from its inception. There was an initial split between those of us from the North who focused on war prevention given the anxieties generated by the U.S./Soviet geopolitical rivalry and those in the South who were concerned with development, overcoming European colonial legacies, and steering clear as possible of the Cold War. A secondary split was between Saul Mendlovitz, the overall director and fund raiser who made the project possible, who strongly believed in the near term inevitability and desirability of world government in some form and the rest of us who believed that the preconditions for democratic world government did not exist, were not on the horizon, and in any event were fearful of international integrations of political authority and power beyond the level of regionalism. WOMP was successful so long as it agreed to disagree, which it did during its initial decade or so of existence. There were stimulating meetings in various parts of the world, and a series of interesting books describing our ‘preferred world for the 1990s.’ Mendlovitz edited a volume of essays that gave an overview of the project by giving the authors an opportunity to put forth their distinct visions of a feasible, necessary, and desirable future for world order. Of the principal authors my book A Study of Future Worlds came by far closest to endorsing a global integrationist vision by its stress on the necessity of ‘a central guidance system’ to deal with the problems of the world in the 1970s, but still tried to keep my distance from the Western tradition since the end of World War I of pushing world government schemes.

 

The second phase of WOMP sought to fashion a consensus view of the future of world order. Its shared framework was based on the acceptance of world order values (peace, human right rights, economic wellbeing & justice, and environmental protection) rather than on trends toward global integration. There was little attention given to the emergence of ‘globalization’ and its economistic orientation via neoliberalism or the optic provided by ‘the Washington consensus.’ This second phase of WOMP coincided with the end of the Cold War. The differences in regional priorities persisted, and the projected ended in a mood of frustration, especially on the part of Mendlovitz who until the very end believed that the secret to a peaceful future was challenging the war system and establishing a robust form of global constitutionalism. The rest of the WOMP participants were either not interested in this form of advocacy or suspected it as a kind of Western geopolitical Trojan Horse that contained a blueprint for global domination that was to be disguised in public discourse as a plan for world government.

 

2) Overall, what do you see as the most significant contribution of WOMP? What are the lessons that current scholars should take from the WOMP experience, including in such coalitional efforts such as the World Government Research Network?

 

I think the idea of bringing together prominent scholars in their respective regions who shared normative preferences for a humane world order was an extraordinarily prescient initiative, but it may have been prematurely enacted. I believe there is more awareness in this period of the early 21st century of the need for the collaborative design of alternative futures in an historical context of intensifying global integration and a growing awareness of the fragility of political arrangements in a state-centric structure of world order that can neither protect the global/human interest in relation to climate change and nuclear weaponry nor can provide national or human security for peoples living within the boundaries set by the nation-state.

 

Online collaboration provides exciting opportunities for collaboration without any dependence on major funding, although it gives up the benefit of face-to-face contact that deepens social networking. The WOMP experience may be helpful in identifying the limits of such collaboration as well as the importance of setting a research agenda that gives space and relevance to a variety of viewpoints. The dialogic experience works best when there is a shared normative ground that is at the same time comfortable with the reality and legitimacy of divergent views, with participants refraining from any compulsion to overcome disagreements and divergent priorities.

 

3) You have long been associated with world order studies and world federalism, but you have also been consistently skeptical of advocating a binding world government in the relatively near term. What would you say to the many researchers who in recent years have helped revive academic dialogue around world government, in many cases advocating it?

 

I am not sufficiently familiar with the recent trends in world government advocacy by scholars to have any strong opinion about its usefulness either pedagogically or as the basis for engaged citizenship. I continue to find absent the political preconditions for any kind of constitutional consolidation of authority at the global level as distinct from considerable latent potential for regional and sub-regional integrative developments. I also see some societal benefits accruing from reversing trends toward global integration, and have an interest in what I have enigmatically called ‘anarchism without anarchism’ and might seem to be at odds with my earlier support for global reform to achieve central guidance capabilities.

 

My scepticism about world government is grounded on three types of objection: first, creating a global polity without a prior global community is almost certainly a formula for either collapse or tyranny; secondly, the unevenness of material circumstances and cultural outlook would make the control of the political center almost certain to depend on iron fist structures of domination and exploitation; thirdly, the almost total absence of political will among either contemporary elites or publics to create a world government, or even to posit world government as a desirable goal; nationalism remains a strong ideological reinforcement for the maintenance of a state-centric world order.

 

What I do agree about is the vital importance of finding procedures and mechanism that will promote the global and human interest. The UN was conceived to fill this gap, but its statist structures has made it mainly a venue where competing conceptions of national interests seek to find compromises. Such a framework has not been able to address problems of global scope such as nuclear weaponry, climate change, and the regulation of the world economy. Is it possible to imagine the effective promotion of the global/human interest without the existence of world government, whether in federalist or unitary form? I regard this as the primary survival question facing the human species that pertains to the role and nature of global governance. Without a capability to serve the global/human interest, I lack the imagination to grasp how a catastrophic future for generations to come can be avoided.

 

 

4) You have championed global civil society, or ‘globalization from below’ as a means of promoting more humane global governance and ultimately preparing the way for shared rule well beyond the state. Are you encouraged by developments in global civil society in the 55-plus years of your academic career, discouraged, or do you see the record as more mixed?

 

I remain uncertain how to respond. My mood varies with sudden changes in the global atmosphere. I felt encouraged, even excited, by the unfolding of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement in 2011, but feel more discouraged by the success of subsequent counterrevolutionary forces that have proved so robust in the Middle East and by the inability of the Occupy Movement to sustain its initial impulse to challenge contemporary distortions and injustices attributable to neoliberal capitalist logic and behavior. I continue to believe that hope for the future rests upon challenges from below, a normative insurgency that posits an eco-humanist imaginary with sufficient persuasiveness to mobilize widespread support around the world, including among disaffected segments of economic and political elites that recognize the need for a paradigm shift away from growth-oriented compulsions, as well as a radical turn against the war system as the means to achieve security and stability.

 

 

5) You also have championed, with Andrew Strauss, the development of an initially consultative global parliament. Later versions of the argument advocate the signing of a treaty among existing democratic states to get the ball rolling. Does that still appear to you to be a more promising route than, for example, the one advocated by the Campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly?

 

Yes, I still believe that a global parliament that represents people directly is more promising than the creation of a parliamentary assembly that is likely to reproduce most tendencies already present in the UN. I think there is a better chance of a peoples assembly creating a different kind of global agenda with different priorities if it is established as the outcome of a populist movement. To be worthwhile a global parliament must be responsive to global interests and to the grievances of the most marginalized and vulnerable peoples in the world, and should be proposed with these goals uppermost. Of course, as a political institution a global parliament will evolve in ways that reflect changes in the political climate, but it should be insulated to the extent possible against manipulation by money and by national governments, especially by those governments harboring hegemonic ambitions.

 

6) You are often quoted (from a 1975 piece) as saying that global government proposals and proponents engage in ‘premature specificity.’ How long until the time is right, if ever?

 

What I meant by the phrase is that without a political climate receptive to global government proposals, the blueprinting of institutions is an exercise of limited value, and tends toward an apolitical approach to global change. The Clark/Sohn plan for limited world government through the radical reform of the UN Charter is a clear illustration of what I have in mind. It lacks any conception of a political scenario that has the slightest chance of moving from the current state of affairs to the ideal future that they set forth as a solution for the world order challenges of the Cold War Era. There is a chicken and egg problem admittedly present: the demonstration of offer practical designs for how a world government would work is intended to overcome criticisms that argue that world government is not capable of preserving societal freedoms and could not restrain the abuse of power by those in control of such strengthened institutions. It has been my experience that those who set forth their plans for world government are usually ultra-rationalists who believe that change follows from having the best ideas, winning after dinner arguments. I disagree with such viewpoints, and regard change as following from the interplay and eruption of social forces. What seems useful at this time is for scholars acting in transnational collaboration to construct a series of political scenarios that envision benevolent forms of global transformation, including tentative ideas about institutional design. I would think this would be an excellent undertaking for the World Government Research Network just launched.

 

 

7) You have been actively engaged in social and political affairs for many decades. What advice might you have for upcoming generations of academics, in particular those working in areas of international politics and law, who might also want to engage, and do so effectively?

 

Political participation is a very personal matter, and depends on how a person views the world, as well as on conceptions of the proper interaction of the life of a professional academic and that of a citizen concerned with public policy. I have taken the view, which is controversial within American universities that engaged citizenship can usefully include advocacy work, which can also make contributions to education in a free society. The first challenge is to develop the skills appropriate for critical and independent thinking. The second challenge is the importance of endowing conscience with sufficient authority as to validate the role of citizen/scholars in talking truth to power and entering the arenas of debate and action to promote preferred policy outcomes.

 

I felt that forthrightness in the classroom combined with receptivity and openness to opposing viewpoints gave added vitality to the academic experience, and connect the pursuit of knowledge with a commitment to societal reform in positive ways.

It is important to be sensitive to the political atmosphere as it bears on particular issues. In my own experience there is no doubt that I have paid a price for articulating controversial beliefs on current policy issues and implementing such analyses with shows of solidarity with groups and peoples seeking liberation from oppressive circumstances. Challenging the established order is much more likely to produce pushback, even in the form of discriminatory actions and defamatory attacks, on some issues than others. For instance, on questions of world order, although many disagreements exist that reflect divergent worldviews and ethical standpoints, there is rarely the kind of effort to discredit opponents as is encountered when the focus is on contemporary issues of political and social conflict, especially if it touches on matters of military intervention, religious and ethnic identity or counters the work of strongly entrenched domestic lobbies.