In Praise of the Syria Withdrawal

29 Dec

[Prefatory Note:The following interview, to be published in Counterpunchwas conducted by Daniel Falcone on December 20, 2018. Trump’s withdrawal of American troops from Syria that defied the bipartisan consensus that has shaped U.S. foreign policy since 1945 poses the biggest challenge to the Trump presidency, especially as it shook Israel’s confidence and coincides with woes of Wall Street. In coming weeks it should become clear whether the American version of the deep state remains asleep or perceives this ‘watershed moment’ (Friedman) as the opportunity to restore confidence in the pre-Trump version of world order.]

 

In Praise of the Syria Withdrawal

Q1: As an expert on American foreign policy what is the true meaning and significance of trump pulling ground troops out of Syria. Is it this simple and straightforward?

 

Of course, with Trump we never know either the real motivation for an apparently abrupt decision of this sort or whether in the next day or so it might be reversed in an equally abrupt manner. It all depends on how the winds of his imperial ego are blowing. And this is not a reassuring awareness in the nuclear age. Gareth Porter, a reliable commentator on what goes on in Washington, has insisted that the decision was not abrupt, but long in the works, reflecting Trump’s correct insistence that the American military presence in the Middle East was not worth the costs or burdens, having little capacity to control political outcomes.

 

With Trump we should also assume that egocentric motivations of the moment are part of the story. We do know that such an inflammatory decision shifts attention away, at least briefly, from the Mueller developments that seem more threatening to Trump’s comfort zone day by day. Beyond these explanations, Trump can accurately claim that he is fulfilling one of his most emphatic pledges of his 2016 presidential campaign, namely, offering scathing criticism of costly interventions in the Middle East as the basis for his commitment to bring American troops home very soon. Such a pledge made a great deal of sense as the American experience with military interventions was a record of unacknowledged failure with a learning curve that hovered around zero.

 

The unprovoked attack on Iraq in 2003 followed by a prolonged occupation, was a flagrant violation of the prohibition on aggressive war, the core principle of the UN Charter and modern international law. It was also the cause of massive suffering and devastation, resulting in internal strife and constant chaos. The mindless occupation policy imposed by the United States deliberately inflamed sectarian tensions in Iraq, which in turn spread Sunni/Shi’ia turmoil throughout the region.

 

Geopolitically, as well, the Iraq War illustrated the dysfunctional nature of such uses of international force even when the superior military capabilities of the United States are brought to bear. A central strategic goal of the intervention was to weaken the regional footprint of Iran by placing a Western-oriented government on the Iranian border of a country ready and willing to have American military bases on its territory. The main effect of the American intervention and extended presence was the reverse of what was intended. Iranian regional influence in part because the American occupation approach sought to disempower the Sunni dominance that had been associated with Saddam Hussein’s regime and put in its place an Iran-oriented Shi’ite leadership. The Iraqi negative reactions to the Trump Christmas visit to American troops suggested that the U.S. presence in Iraq is far from secure, and continues to be an affront to Iraqi nationalism.

 

A further result of the purge of Sunni elements in the upper echelons of the Iraqi armed forces soon after the occupation began in 2003 was the formation of ISIS as a terrorist organization committed to the expulsion of the occupying forces from the Middle East and spreading governance under the auspices of radical Islamic leadership. In retrospect the real irony is that Saddam Hussein’s regime, although repressive and repulsive, was far preferable for the Iraqi people and even for American strategic goals in the Middle East than was the unlawful intervention and bungled occupation if unintended consequences are taken into account. Our war planners never were willing to come to terms with this systemic series of miscalculations, and more or less arrayed themselves beneath the notorious banner, ‘mission accomplished’ unfurled to honor the presence of George W. Bush on an American aircraft carrier. Although this banner was mocked due to the resistance encountered in the course of the occupation, it had a second life through the unwillingness of the national security establishment in Washington to heed the lessons of the Iraq failure. Rather than learning from failure, the experience was pushed aside and effectively forgotten.

 

Trump claims that his policies for the past two years have defeated ISIS, making it prudent and appropriate from a national security perspective to withdraw American ground forces at this time. The claim as to ISIS is disputed by the entire defense establishment in the U.S., and seems to have contributed to the Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, decision to submit a thinly veiled criticism of Trump’s withdrawal approach on strategic grounds, stressing especially the importance of acting in concert with allies. The decision has also been criticized as abandoning Syrian Kurds to the tender mercies of Assad’s regime and Erdogan’s Turkey. For the governments in Damascus and Ankara, the Kurds, while allied with the U.S. in its anti-ISIS campaign, pose threats to the territorial integrity and political stability of both Syria and Turkey. Such criticisms are suspect, assuming that on balance the American military presence in Syria, although small, played a positive stabilizing role. If my assessment is correct there is never an appropriate moment for withdrawing a combat presence from an overseas country previously the scene of an American intervention. We need to remember that this military involvement in Syria was already almost twice as long as World War II, with no convenient end in sight.

Q2: How do you assesses the mainstream agenda setting media’s response to trump’s latest foreign policy decision regarding Syria?

 

My impression is that the media response has so far been dominated by the sort of bipartisan approach that earlier underpinned American foreign policy during the Cold War and produced the ‘Washington Consensus’ that provided ideological coherence for the neoliberal version of economic globalization. During the Cold War this militarization of foreign policy led to a series of interventions on the geopolitical periphery, culminating in the Vietnam War. With respect to the world economy, a capital-driven approach to economic policy that was largely indifferent to the human consequences of market forces resulted in gross inequities with respect to the distribution of the benefits of economic growth or its damaging ecological side effects. The experience of widening disparities of wealth and income became a structural feature of the world economy, and seems closely connected to the rage expressed by those multitudes. A majority of persons quite reasonably feel victimized by the policies accepted by the entire policy establishment, whether they identify as Democrats, Republicans, or independents. This rage has been translated into various forms of political frustration, including giving rise to an electoral tidal wave in the leading constitutional democracies around the entire world that brought to power demagogic figures whose defining message was to pose as enemies of the established order. In Trump’s case, he sloganized this hostility by a campaign promise ‘to drain the swamp.’ This political spectacle is enacted in various ways reflecting the distinctiveness of the autocrat and the particularities of each set of national circumstances.

 

In the American case, Trump’s approach has been to weaken constitutional structures of government, while strengthening the grip of Wall Street on the American economy via massive tax cuts for the wealthy and the dramatic weakening of regulatory authority with respect to labor practices and environmental protection.

 

The Syrian withdrawal decision is perceived as one more unacceptable consensus-disruptive move by Trump that includes a repudiation of one the pillars of the Cold War Era, namely, tight alliances epitomized by NATO. Such a unilateral move by Trump without any reliance on prior consultations with leading allies is seen as a further blow to American leadership of the Western democracies. The fact that the Trump decision was publicly endorsed by Putin at a time when Western elites are urging a more confrontational approach to Russia is taken by the media as a further sign that the U.S. is in a go it alone foreign policy.

 

The Mattis resignation letter very effectively encouraged the media to react in this manner. It challenges Trump in all but name, complaining both about alliance disruption and the failure to heed the views of those who opposed the Syrian pullout. He is obviously upset that his own advice, and that of his high-ranking colleagues, was ignored. His letter reminds readers of his extensive professional experience and knowledge that is relevant to understanding both the Syrian reality and the implausibility of claiming that ISIS is defeated. In essence, he deplores the military withdrawal from Syria, insisting that it will be of help to America’s principal rivals in the world, Russia and China, “whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours.” The following sentence in the Mattis letter could have been written in the midst of the Cold War: “It is clear that China and Russia..want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions—to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies.” Mattis perceives the world as an arena for continuous geopolitical rivalry where a militarily proactive global posture is the only acceptable approach for the United States and the West.

 

It is not only that most influential media outlets side with the critics of this Trump initiative, but their failure to convey the rationale justifying his decision beyond saying that he is fulfilling a campaign pledge or shifting the national conversation away from the Special Counsel. If Trump follows up the withdrawal with a termination of air strikes in Syria, and makes a significant use of the funds saved by foregoing military operations to hasten a Syrian recovery from seven years of devastation, massive human displacement, and incredible civilian suffering, the policy should be acknowledged as a constructive and long overdue move then in a demilitarizing direction that begins to undo the immeasurable harm done by the Iraq War that commenced in March 2003, and was an assault on the international legal order, including the UN, from the outset.

 

I would predict that the national security establishment will condemn even this evidence of a serious shift toward disengagement from Middle East turmoil as an unwelcome retreat from American leadership, and a form of encouragement to its adversaries and rivals to take more risks to expand their zones of influence. If this is so, the mainstream media is sure to follow along, nightly parading a series of retired generals who bemoan this renunciation of the U.S. global security role of the past half century of a ‘forever war.’ What may be worse is the failure to treat the issue as even debatable. There is no media effort to balance criticism of Trump’s decision by presenting progressive voices drawn from civilian society.

 

It is common for media pundits to question policy choices so long as they do not touch the fundamental guidelines of structure and geopolitical priorities that have shaped the American global role ever since 1945. These fundamentals include the Atlantic Alliance as embodied in NATO, market-oriented constitutionalism as embedded in the neoliberal credo, and the globe-girdling military presence as typified by more than 800 overseas military bases, a sizable naval operation patrolling in every ocean, and a capability to wage hyper war from any point in space. The media will not challenge those that defend this security structure, and even Fox News and the Murdoch media outlets can be expected to be neutral, departing from their habitual acceptance of whatever Trump does.

 

It is not surprising that CNN news anchors such as Don Lemon or Chris Cuomo almost salivated in response to the Mattis letter, reading it aloud as if it was an instant classic in political rhetoric to be compared with the Gettysburg Address. Their anti-Trump animus was so intense that they did not even express any skepticism about Mattis’ geopolitical hubris in the letter that seemed both dated and overly belligerent. His words: “the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world.” Really. Such an opinion is not widely shared in most parts of the world. Many people and foreign leaders now worry far more about what the United States does than they do about China and Russia.

 

In my view the anti-Trump media frenzy does reflect well-grounded worries about Trump’s style and substance, yet it is failing to expose the citizenry to pluralist views, especially in foreign policy by shutting out almost completely progressive voices. The media may not be guilty of spreading fake news, but it is guilty of partisanship, ideological conformity, and hostility to critics on the left. In fact, the media blurs the issue by misleadingly treating the center and the liberal establishment as ‘the left.’

Q3: What are the important implications for the Syria pull out that coincides with harsh treatment of Iran? Does this negate any positive steps with Middle East diplomacy?

 

At this point it is difficult to tell whether the Syrian withdrawal will intensify Trump’s anti-Iran policy or lead to its weakening, and even its gradual abandonment. It seems as though neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia are comfortable with Trump’s latest move, partly because they were evidently not consulted, or even briefed, and partly because it could be interpreted as the beginning of a wider American disengagement from the Middle East and a long overdue phasing out of George W. Bush’s ‘war on terror’ launched after 9/11, continuing year after year without an endgame, although Obama at one point openly regretted this, and promised to devise one, but it never happened.

 

I am hard put to find any positive initiatives in recent Middle East diplomacy emanating from Washington. Trump/Kushner have carried the partisan pro-Israeli policies of earlier presidencies to absurdly one-sided extremes by way of announcing the embassy move to Jerusalem in December 2017, Washington’s silence about the weekly atrocities at the Gaza fence, cruel cuts the UNRWA funding, closing the PLO office in Washington, questioning Palestinian refugee status, a blind eye toward unlawful settlement expansion and the seeming acceptance of Israel’s recent moves in its Knesset toward a one-state apartheid solution. To refer to Israel as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ has become so obviously false that even Zionist militants have quietly abandoned the claim.

 

Perhaps, American pressures are moving Saudi Arabia and its allies to end their intervention in Yemen, previously materially and diplomatically backed by the United States, and pushing the civilian population to the very brink of starvation. The situation in Yemen is already being described as the worst famine in the past hundred years, putting at severe risk over 17 million Yemenis. If the Yemen War is brought finally to an end, it can be seen as an unintended consequence of the grotesque Khashoggi murder, creating strong incentives in Washington to rethink its embrace of Mohammed Bin Salmon as ally and partner. Or put more crudely, the arms sales bonanza with Riyadh could be in trouble unless the Yemen War is brought to an end before the humanitarian ordeal becomes catastrophic.

Q4: Trump’s doctrine has been called “me first.” Does this title apply in the case?

 

I have no reason to doubt that Trump’s actions with regard to Syria are basically reflections of his narcissistic political style as expressed at a particular moment through concrete actions. Yet, as earlier suggested, because Trump withdrew from Syria at this time on the basis of selfish motives, does mean that we should not evaluate the policy on its merits rather than through the eyes of the dominant political class in Washington that has brought grief to tens of millions for decades. These ‘experts’ have over time built up an intellectual and career dependence on global militarism and permanent warfare. It means, among other things, a stubborn refusal to take note of a string of failures where battlefield dominance has not translated into control of political outcomes, but instead ended in stinging political defeats. At bottom, there persists a stunning refusal to heed this central lesson of the Vietnam War, a refusal repeated in Afghanistan, Iraq, and with respect to most of the colonial wars. In each instance the side that won on the battlefield lost the war in the end, yet only after inflicting terrible damage and itself enduring heavy human, economic, and reputational costs. Nothing helpful was learned, and energies were devoted to how to reinvent counterinsurgency and counterterrorist doctrine so as to win such struggles for the political control of distant countries, and not be hampered by anti-war activism and elite skepticism.

 

If Trump stumbles onto a security path that ends such interventions in the global south we should celebrate the result, even if we withhold praise of Trump as a virtuous political actor. Beyond this, we should not be too quick to condemn his openness to a cooperative relationship with Russia if it helps the world avoid a second, more dangerous cold war that it can ill afford at this time of climate change. Trump might not know exactly what he is doing but bypassing Europe for a geopolitical bargain with Moscow might make realist sense given present historical circumstances, and it time self-styled realists themselves woke up to this benign possibility.

 

Of course, my wish for an end to militarism, nuclearism, and foreign interventions may be coloring my views, blindfolding me with respect to the dangers and risks that some associate with Trump’s march to the apocalypse. I acknowledge this, but I am also convinced that the conventional candidates of either political party would never in a thousand years pull the rug out from under this globalized militarism that could never tolerate a peaceful future for humanity. Humanity remains trapped in a cage sometimes called ‘the war system,’ which has the semblance of a permanent lockup.

Q5: Will liberal hawks react to same way to Syria as they typically do with Russia? This seems to be a failing strategy to reclaim the presidency in 2020. Do you agree?

 

I fear the centrist pragmatism of liberals, and not only the regressive approaches taken by hawks. These liberals have supported war after war as well as forged a strong new consensus that the time has come to challenge Russia and China once again. The logic is perverse: If Putin is pleased it is proof that Trump is wrong. Such reasoning seems to be dominant among the policy planners in Washington and the opinion and editorial commentary of CNN and the NY Times. Such issues are not even treated as fit subjects for debate and discussion. Instead, there are two or more guests with military or CIA backgrounds that take turns lambasting Trump’s Syria moves, especially as it has been coupled with a White House decision to halve the American troop contingent in Afghanistan by withdrawing 7,000 soldiers, hardly a rash decision considering that the American military presence in Afghanistan is about to enter its 17thyear, and stability for the country is further away than it was in 2002 when the occupation began.

 

As far as the 2020 election is concerned, it will be a great lost opportunity if the Democrats nominate a centrist liberal, who might be far more humane than Trump at home, but would likely recommit to the war of terror and a revival of American readiness to avoid political setbacks in various parts of the world, never having learned this supreme lesson that military intervention does not and should not work in the post-colonial world.

 

Of course, these days we cannot be sure of anything, including being confident that such a return to the old ways of doing foreign policy by a Democratic candidate would be an electoral disaster. Trump remains unpopular outside his base. This means that if the stock market stays down, trade wars reduce living standards in the country, the undocumented are cruelly deported or asylum seeking women and children are shot at the border, a smooth talking Democrat with the politically correct national security views would win, maybe even scoring a landslide.

 

But would this outcome be a victory for the peoples of the world? If Trump were to stay the Syrian withdrawal course, not a likely

prospect, it might not be so easy to vote him out of office with a clear conscience. This suggestion is meant as a provocation to liberals and establishmentarians, but it does call attention to the likely frightful foreclosure of peaceful options for American voters given the likely choices in 2020. The liberal line in 2016 was that compared to Sanders, Hillary Clinton was electable and would get things done, and look where that bit of practical wisdom landed us!

 

 

 

 

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Can Trump Survive Syria, Mattis, Stock Market Fall, & Friedman’s ‘Watershed Moment’?

25 Dec

Can Trump Survive Syria, Mattis, Stock Market Fall, & Friedman’s ‘Watershed Moment’?

 

I have long believed that the three red lines in Washington that no elected president can significantly transgress without being ejected from the Oval Office are unwavering support for the priorities of Wall Street, the Pentagon, and Israel. With the announced withdrawal of American troops in Syria (and their 50% cut in Afghanistan), transgressed one of these red lines. What is more, he upset what the mainstream media has been calling ‘the last adult in the room,’ the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who made the country critically ponder Trump’s transgression by his thinly veiled rebuke in the form of a letter of resignation that has been treated as scripture by such hegemonic media outlets as CNN and the NY Times. It has become clear that Trump transgressed two of the three red lines, a reality further aggravated by the Christmas shutdown of the Federal Government and his babyish tantrum about financing his wall.

 

And even Israel, the only untransgressed red line, visibly shuddered in response to the Syria announcement, evidently worried by the way it was abruptly done without consultation. Probably even more worrisome to its leaders was what might follow from this withdrawal, which hinted at the possibility of a further American political disengagement from the Middle East. Given Trump’s contention that now that ISIS had been defeated, a conclusion contested within the Beltway, further steps along these lines might soon occur. I am sure Trump watchers in Tel Aviv are aware that he tends to double down when under attack, and the 50% cut in the Afghanistan combat force may be regarded as a step in this direction.

 

Trump has long developed a formidable reputation for managing to cross red lines without suffering adverse consequences. It was a surprise to me that he got away with attacking the service record of Senator McCain, the most celebrated name among recent American war heroes, deriding the Bush family, and even mocking the sacrifice of a gold star family whose son had died in Iraq. Beyond these personal slurs, Trump had undermined the rule of law, overcome an array of challenges to his business empire, and even publicly insulted and berated such hallowed public institutions as the FBI and CIA. His private life should have shocked his Evangelical base, but it seems that his support for right to life judicial appointments was enough to earn him a free pass with respect to gambling, beauty shows, and even hush money handed out to throw a blanket of denial over his promiscuity.

 

Yet has he gone too far this time? We will find out early in 2019. Perhaps he can mend fences by finding ‘an adult’ to replace Mattis at the Pentagon, escalate the war-mongering rhetoric directed at the UN and Iran, reaffirm his undying commitment to Israel backed by taking some concrete initiative, and explain the stock market decline as the dirty work of the Democrats and some treasonous behavior in the back rooms of the financial mavens who run Wall Street. If he so acts, the Republicans at least will be inclined to forgive. After all their options have been limited ever since Trump’s base made it clear that their adoration of Trump is an absolute, and their support for the Republican Party is relative in all respects, and would vanish altogether the minute Trump is thrown under the nearest bus.

 

Tom Friedman, the self-anointed arbiter of establishment moods has portentously called the Syrian imbroglio ‘a watershed moment’ in which he decided for himself that it was no longer tenable to wait out Trump’s four years, and then go all out to defeat him in 2020 with a centrist candidate. Friedman now puts a ball of urgency in the court of the Republican Party, calling for a family intervention, therapy style, in which Trump is read the riot act and told that unless there is “a radical change in how he conducts himself,” even Republicans will have no choice but to press for his resignation, and if that fails, then impeachment. [NY Times, Dec. 24, 2018] 

 

There are ironies present. When Trump makes a demilitarizing move he is under severe attack by the liberal establishment and representatives of the national security elite. This contrasts with the applause he received when he launched an air strike against Syrian targets in April 2017 after an alleged chemical weapons incident. The bipartisan consensus that sustained the Cold War for more than four decades has never reconciled itself to geopolitical peace, and has closed its eyes to any prospect of peace ever..

 

In revealing ways this pattern is not new. When Ronald Reagan, a president beloved by American conservatives and military hawks, returned in 1986  from a high profile summit at Reykjavik, Iceland with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, with signs of a breakthrough with respect to getting rid of nuclear weapons, even he was subjected to attack as ‘unprepared’ and not to be trusted with the protection of America’s strategic interest. Of courtse, the liberal establishment joined in supporting the chorus of national security voices marginalizing. To embark upon a path that might produce nuclear disarmament was viewed with alarm in Washington, and the defenders of the militarist red line stepped forward. Under these pressures Reagan retreated to his comfort zone, which meant resuming the posture of being a hawkishf Cold Warrior. At this point those who spoke for the established order breathed sighs of relief and reaffirmed Reagan as an inspirational leader/

 

Further back, in the early 1950s, when the notorious Senator Joe McCarthy attacked the Army, he transgressed, and soon had his wings clipped. This ability to destroy those who would weaken support for militarism and the American commitment to uphold global security has remained unassailable ever since World War II. It has been manifest in what has been dubbed ‘the forever war’ by H. Bruce Franklin borrowing from Joe Haldeman’s celebrated science fiction classic. [See his fine book, Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War(2018) and it has made the existence of a peacetime economy and military budget a political impossibility. Some thought the Soviet collapse at the end of the Cold War might change this outlook, but in retrospect any such hope was never realistic, out of touch with how militarism had restructured the American state since 1945. After the Cold War ended, the war planners conjured up new threats and pursued strategic ambitions with undiminished zeal, and the world responded in kind.

 

If Trump manages to get away with these transgressions without either retreating or resigning, he might hang around for a long time, especially with the Democratic Party poised to adopt a losing centrist strategy for 2020. As Yeats reminded us generations ago, under quite different circumstances, ‘the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Only a progressive alternative has a chance of meeting the true challenges facing the American people and indeed, the world. If we as a people sleep through the Trump ordeal and the urgencies of climate change, inequality, and nuclearism, then doomsday gurus will soon be hailed as visionary prophets with fires of discontent burning ever brighter all around us, the planet ablaze.

Can Yemen Be Saved?

23 Dec

Can Yemen Be Saved?

 

[Prefatory Note: The people of Yemen has been experiencing devastating civil strife for several years. This ordeal was greatly intensive by a massive and sustained Saudi-led air attacks and other belligerent tactics that have targeted civilians, even hospitals. Several recent events hint at the possibility of restoring peace to the country, thereby averting the worst effects of a threatened mass famine, risks starvation for more than 75% of Yemen’s population of over 22 million. These developments pushing toward some kind of political compromise in Yemen include the dark cloud over Riyadh since the Khashoggi murder, the heightened concern of the UN and world public opinion, and the spillover from possible US disengagement in view of the sudden withdrawal of troops from Syria. We should be fully aware that Washington has been complicit and supportive of this criminally unlawful Saudi war policy, including its flagrant crimes against humanity, throughout the conflict, the struggle for control of Yemen being defined in sectarian and anti-Iranian terms. The shift in domestic mood was recently disclosed when the US Senate has expressed opposition to any continued funding for the Yemen War. Whether this followed up in 2019 by a strong effort to achieve US disengagement from the conflict remains to be seen.

This post consists of modified responses to an interview by Javad Heirania published on December 18, 2018 in the Tehran Times.]

 

 

 

 

Q 1: Stockholm talks in Sweden led to a cease-fire agreement in Al Hudaydah and other agreements. What do you think about these agreements?

The atmosphere relating to Yemen is not conducive to sustaining agreements if past experience is taken into account. There are apparently various rogue militia factions supporting the government side that might be motivated to disrupt the agreement, and there already have been some worrisome incidents along these lines.

At the same time, from a humanitarian perspective, it is crucial to uphold even this partial mitigation of the suffering of the Yemenpeople. The opening of the port cities of Al Hudaydah and Sanaa, both covered by the Stockholm Agreement, handle up to 80% of humanitarian imports of food and medicine. At this point, according to the most reliable international sources, 17.8 million Yemenis out of a population of 22.2 million are on the brink of starvation. The UN has fortunately supported a peacekeeping mission to maintain compliance with the Stockholm Agreement.

 

Q2: Will this agreement lead to an agreement on the Sana’a airport and brings an end to this horrible war?

It is difficult to predict with any confidence any development with respect to Yemen, but if the Stockholm Agreement holds up, then there is an expectation that the same humanitarian arguments and needed minimal cooperative outlook would lead to the reopening of the Sana Airport in the very near future.

 

Q3: What made the countries involved in the Yemen war come to the negotiating table?

Again, it is difficult to offer any confident interpretation. We all know that governments in situations of this kind do not reveal in public disclosure the real basis of their behavior. It is likely that on the Saudi side, especially in the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder there appeared to be a serious Saudi concern relating to being blamed for another major humanitarian catastrophe if the Yemeni ports remained closed. For similar reasons, Washington may have exerted pressure to negotiate at this point with the central aim of reducing regional tensions. Such speculation gains credibility when account is taken of the recent U.S. Senate anti-Trump move to oppose further funding and involvement in the Yemen War, which while not binding without endorsement by the House of Representatives, which is unlikely until the Democrats take control in 2019.

Q4: Regarding repeated war crimes of the Saudi coalition in Yemen, will the United Nations and the International Criminal Court review this matter?

The answer here depends on the political context, and whether the war can be brought to a rapid end by diplomacy. If this is done there may be considerable pressure on the various interested parties to refrain from any initiative that would raise tensions, induce mutual recriminations, and worst of all, could lead to a resumption of hostilities. The answer to your question may also be linked indirectly to whether war crimes allegations are brought before the UN and ICC with respect to the Syrian War, especially in relation to the serious criminal policies and practices attributed to the Assad regime over the entire combat period stretching back to 2011.

 

Chomsky’s 90th Birthday

16 Dec

[Prefatory Note: What follows is an interview with Daniel Falcone, author and educator, that was published in CounterPunchon December 14, 2018. The text has been slightly modified.]

 

[Prefatory Note: What follows is an interview with Daniel Falcone, author and educator, that was published in CounterPunchon December 14, 2018. The text has been slightly modified.]

 

Celebrating Noam Chomsky’s 90th Birthday

 

 

Daniel Falcone: How were you first introduced to Chomsky? What initial work brought you into contact with Chomsky?

 

Richard Falk: Actually, my first awareness of Noam Chomsky was in the late 1950s while I was teaching at Ohio State University. I had a smart linguist friend who told me about the revolutionary work of a young scholar at MIT who was completely transforming his field by the work he had done while still a graduate student on ‘structural linguistics’ and ‘generative grammar.’ As I remember our conversation nothing was mentioned about Chomsky’s politics.

Later on in the early 1960s I continued to hear of Chomsky as the great linguist, but also about Chomsky as the militant anti-Vietnam Waractivist.

 

We met in the mid-1960s as a result of common interests. We were both deeply involved as opponents of the escalations of American involvement in Vietnam, and indeed we were opposed to any military involvement at all. At that point Chomsky was strongly supporting draft resistance in addition to speaking at anti-war events. I was mainly engaged during the 1960s in academic debates and teach-ins devoted to questions of the legality of the American role in Vietnam, and after 1965, discussions often focused on the decision by the Lyndon Johnson presidency to extend the war to North Vietnam.

We interacted quite frequently in this decade, and stayed at each other’s homes in Lexington and Princeton when we spoke in the other’s venue.

 

I recall Chomsky insisting in response to an invitation from the Princeton Philosophy Department that he would only agree to give a series of lectures on linguistics that was the nature of the invitation if his hosts would also arrange parallel formats for him to address his political concerns. He apparently frequently made this a condition of his acceptance, and because he was such a star attraction, it was almost always enthusiastically accepted, and even viewed as a bonus.

 

I found the Princeton lectureson theoretical tensions within the field of linguistics to be not only abstruse, but also quite memorable from a performance perspective. The first of Chomsky’s linguistic lectures was held in one of the largest auditoriums at Princeton. Before Noam was introduced the hall was filled to capacity in excited anticipation of being enlightened by whatever this already famous scholar had to say. Chomsky’s style and delivery were highly technical, presupposed a fairly sophisticated understanding of the complex issues of linguistic theory at stake, which meant that his presentation seemed way above the head of 90% of the audience, including myself.

 

By the end of the lecture there were less than 25 people left in the huge hall. What impressed me then and even now was Chomsky’s attitude of apparent indifference to this reaction, which was confirmed by his failure to alter his style in the next two lectures. It was hardly surprising that the second and third lecturewere given in a rather empty room, being attended by only a small coterie of graduate students and a few on the faculty who had strong linguistic interests.

 

When he gave his talk on political issues, Chomsky’s style was strikingly different. His presentation on political issues was meant to reach people with little prior knowledge. His interpretations were supported by abundant evidence – fact-based, carefully and clearly reasoned, and were even spiced by humorous asides, usually of a wry and satiric nature. Chomsky was personally engaged, clearly hoping to persuade the audience to adopt his viewpoint, and conveying an assured sense that there existed no other coherent and ethical to view the issues being discussed. As with his opening linguistics lecrure, his political talk was held in a large hall that was overflowing, but this time no one left.

 

The response was enthusiastic and responsive. I came away with the sense those attending felt that just by being there they had taken part in an historic experience. It was also an audience that drew heavily from the community as well as the university, and had far fewer faculty members than did the linguistic talks. I was struck by Chomsky’s confident, calm manner, his wide knowledge, and his utter insistence on speaking truth to power. These truths of Chomsky went far beyond mainstream ways of thinking and acting.

 

My only reservation from the perspective of frequently being a member of Chomsky’s audience was his reluctance to acknowledge even slight differences of opinion, much less admit error. I felt this to be a weakness. There was something disturbing about this unwillingness to concede small points to those who shared his views 95% of the time. This polemical style left even admirers sometimes feeling that his presentation could have been more effective if he had left a bit of space for doubt and divergent opinions. This style of unwavering assurance seemed to reflect a public sensibility more than deriving from a fixed ideology. Off camera, Noam was always gentle and non-dogmatic, but while performing I found his demeanor sometimes to be leonine.

 

 

DF: Scholar Henry Girouxonce told me that he thought Chomsky was “a national treasure.” How is Chomsky a national treasure in your view?

 

RF: I share this expression of exceptional mode of appreciating  Chomsky’s many contributions to enlightened and critical thought. Such contributions are essential if the vitality of a democratic society is to be sustained through dark times, such as at present. To quibble a bit, I would prefer to identify Noam even more grandly as ‘a global treasure.’ His following is global in ways that exceed that of any other

living public intellectual

 

Noam’s worldwide following has identified him as a beacon of truth and conscience who can be trusted, whatever the issue, to express his views with honesty, through the medium of reasoned analysis, and on the basis of a dazzling familiarity with a wide range of evidence supporting his conclusions. He conveys a sense of having read and remembering everything ever written on the topic he happens to be addressing on any particular occasion.

 

There are many other highly intelligent and progressive persons in the world, but few if any, who have the professional record of world class scholarship and the astonishingly wide range of knowledgeabout subjects that embrace concerns that cover the waterfront. Chomskyis always worth listening to whatever the topic, whether it happens to be the philosophical foundations of knowledge and existence or the specifics of atrocities taking place in some remote part of the world.

 

His presence and role is so precious because of this rare mix of qualities: a trustworthy character, comprehensive knowledge, mastery over the logic of argument and reasoned analysis, a speaking style that is measured and never relies on shouting to make a point. Chomsky has a special gravitas that I have never before encountered, and helps account for the attitudes of reverence and gratitude that so many persons from all corners of the globe feel in his presence.

 

DF: What ideas and activities of Chomsky have influenced you the most over the years?

RF: I have been particularly influenced by Noam’s extraordinary perseverance, his spectacular displays of intellectuality and moral engagement, his willingness to enter domains where angels fear to tread, and above all by his insistence on following the evidence wherever it might lead. Noam, in this sense, is one of the great moral voices of all time, guided by a sense of justice and decency, and possessed of a skilled deconstructive voice that dismisses much conventional wisdom with a flip of his rhetorical wrist.

 

On a more doctrinal level, I have found Chomsky’s thought particularly valuably deployed in his authoritative depiction of how ‘indoctrination in a free society’ works. This is not a simple matter.  I would express Chomsky’s line of critique by a more concrete phrase, ‘how the New York Timesmisleads, especially with regard to the Middle East.’ Chomsky can be devastating when showing how the liberal mainstream distorts reality by its selective interpretations of the facts and norms at stake, never more so than in relation to Israel/Palestine over the decades or by the liberal acceptance of the structures of militarism and predatory capitalism without a whimper while bemoaning the cruelty of extreme poverty. Like the monkeys who see and hear no evil, so it is with most liberals. They are willing to do good so long as it doesn’t interfere with their supreme interest in doing well!

 

I am aware that Chomsky’s views on Israel/Palestinehave given rise to some fierce criticism, and not just from Zionists. Chomsky has been steadfastly supportive of a two-state solution that he has, although perhaps not so clearly recently, insisted as only viable solution that would allow the two peoples to live in a sustainable peace. In my understanding of Chomsky’s recent reflections on these issues, he seems to be saying that an Israeli version of a one-state solution is coming into being, and that a series of internal and international developments now make it impractical to achieve any kind of acceptable form of a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future. Despite disagreements with Said on such questions I never observed Noam or Edward expressing anything other than sentiments of respect and admiration for the work and commitment of the other.

 

Now that Chomsky is convinced that the political and physical conditions no longer exist to achieve a two-state peace, and the Israeli one-state solution is unacceptable, it would be of great value to know what Chomsky now proposes. Perhaps, he has already set forth his ideas in light of the present circumstances, but I am not familiar with any such statement.

 

Chomsky has also been criticized for failing to support BDSor coercive nonviolence as a tactic of the global solidarity movement to support the Palestinian national movement. I am not aware of the deep roots of this reluctance to exert pressure on Israel, although I do know that his family background was one of left Zionism, which he felt that Israel as a state and Zionism as a movement and project had seriously betrayed, and the Palestinian people have been paying the price.

 

I also found Noam’s critique of what he called ‘military humanism’ as a pushback to those who favored the Kosovo intervention to be challenging and almost persuasive as a refutation of the case for humanitarian intervention in the pre-war context of 1999. In the end, with strong feelings of ambivalence, my fear of a Kosovo repetition of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 led me to support the NATO intervention on behalf of Kosovo independence from Serbia.

 

Chomsky argued that the moral rhetoric of those calling for intervention in Kosovo was chosen to hide the real reasons for recourse to this admittedly non-defensive war, which were strategic and amoral. These true motivations for the proposed war, according to Chomsky, had to do with extending the life of NATO in the post-Cold War world and making sure that the Russians were not given a pretext for establishing a presence in the Balkans. He rested his argument on the moral inconsistencies and hypocrisy of American foreign policy, pointing to the sustained indifference of the West toward the comparable Kurdish plight in Turkey.

 

Noam opposed this mixing of humanitarianism with militarism while taking a lifelong interest in depicting severe abuses of human rights. There were numerous settings in which Noam stood up for the human rights of vulnerable and abused peoples, including individuals. Chomsky also made a series of fine scholarly contributions along these lines in several books written in collaboration with the late Edward S. Herman.

 

DF: How do the leading intellectual figures of the past one hundred years compare with Chomsky?’

RF: I have no real awareness of Chomsky’s own views beyond his sense that Bertrand Russellwas an admirable figure, perhaps a role model, and at least warranted a large picture in Noam’s MIT office. I think Russell is an appropriate antecedent figure to capture the core reality of Chomsky, despite the obvious fact that these two extraordinary men were so different in class and ethnic backgrounds. Such differences were superficial compared to their similarities: exceptional scholarly achievement, belief in Enlightenment ideals, values, and practices, and moral engagement in ways that challenged both conventional wisdom and the consensus affirmed by the governing political class and the official policies in each of their respective countries. Both were derided for swimming against strong national currents.

 

In my own intellectual and personal experience, the closest parallels to Chomsky are Jean-Paul Sartreand Edward Said. More than others, it was this threesome that made me understand the role and contributions of those who came to be known as ‘public intellectuals.’ Each took risks in their work and acted with courage and moral clarity within the political context within which they lived gave full attention to the historical moment. Each took sides that accorded with their view of moral engagement with the struggles of their time, and each stood unconditionally behind their beliefs even if it meant standing alone. In the context of the Cold War Chomsky published his inspirational essay, “The Responsibility of the Intellectual,” in the initial issue of the New York Review of Books, Feb. 23, 1967. No piece in my lifetime exerted a stronger positive influence on public debate in the United States than did this call to act in opposition to the Vietnam War at a crucial moment when doubts about the American war policies were beginning to challenge the government.

 

Sartre rejected the Nobel Prize for Literature and broke with Camusand official France over the Algerian War. Said rejected Arafat’s and the PLO’s willingness to trust Washington, resigned from the PNC, and refused from the outset to support the betrayal of Palestinian goals and rights as set forth in the 1993 Oslo Frameworkof Principles. Chomsky broke with the Zionist world, especially after the Israeli victory in the 1967 War, and lent support to the academic freedom of an embattled Holocaust denier in France, the British born historian Robert Faurisson. When questioned about this, Chomsky provocatively responded that Faurisson’s research was no worse than that of many of his MIT colleagues, although he did object when Chomsky’s statement of support was published as a foreword to a Faurisson book without his permission.

 

Each of these three confronted the world around them with undiminished passion, and never wasted their energy offering apologies or setting forth justifications for their dissenting views. In a last interview Sartrewas asked, what was his greatest regret? I found Sartre’s response suggestively provocative–that he had not gone far enough in the articulation of his radical views, a response that Chomsky might also have made, and Said as well. In effect, rather than backing down or retreating by acknowledging that he might have been more diplomatic, he opts for an even more strident clarity of belief and action.

 

If I look around at later generations, I take note of many passionate and articulate voices, but none that achieves the scale, scope, gravitas, and impact of these three. More than ever we need such exceptional voices for guidance and inspiration. We are living at a moment of unprecedented bioethical crisis that Chomsky has come to acknowledge and discuss in his recent interviews and writings. Even in these years when approaching the awesome age of 90,Noam’s voice remains as loud and clear as ever. It is always worthy of listening, and almost always of heeding. In recent years Chomsky has impressively broadened his interests to engage the more general challenges facing humanity, and given less attention to the various flaws of American foreign policy or to critiques of capitalism. At the same time, he has delivered scathing attacks on Trump and Trumpism as the climax of degenerative politics in America.

 

DF: How has the left changed over the course of Chomsky’s career in your view or have you noticed changes in his work over time?

 

RF: This is a difficult question for me as I am not sure that I am familiar enough with Chomsky’s engagement with the left at the various stages of his long life. He is certainly what one might call ‘a radical progressive,’ but he is also clearly uncomfortable with the organized left and never was an apologist for the Soviet Union. Although familiar with Marxist literature and socialist thought, his writing and commentary was not directed at theoretical issues that were so often debated in European leftist thinking. My impression is that Chomsky endorsed socialist values within a framework of philosophical anarchism— that is, characterized by deep suspicion directed toward all governmental embodiments of statist authority.

 

Chomsky’s writing and preoccupations have consistently been responsive to historical circumstances. There is no political issue that is outside his domain, although to my knowledge he has never commented extensively on cultural issues in the manner with which Said wrote about opera or Sartre contributed to literature. Two years ago Chomsky and I took part in a workshop on the dangers of nuclearism, along with Daniel Ellsberg, and I was struck by Noam’s unexpectedly hopeful contributions to the discussions. He argued that there were and are, many missed opportunities that might have addressed the dangers posed by nuclear weapons in a different manner than the paths chosen by policymakers and leaders. He wanted us to believe that the geopolitics of power is not the only game in town, and that civil society engagements on behalf of what we believe is worthwhile, necessary, and not foreclosed. I found this line of assessment a refreshing departure from my impression of Chomsky’s early posture of pessimistic critical realism. It may reflect the personal serenity that Noam seems to be experiencing in this stage of his life.

 

My sense of Chomsky’s leftism is that of someone who is incredibly attentive to the calls of conscience and freedom, and devotes extraordinary energy to the changing situational challenges, but thinks and acts by himself without taking part in organizational efforts, or any kind of collective process. At present, this tendency has led Chomsky both to decry Trump and Trumpism, and to worry about a fascist drift in world political behavior, but also to grasp the ecological and ethical menace of unregulated global capitalism. In my terminology, Chomsky has become an exemplary ‘citizen pilgrim,’ responding as an individual to the injustices of today with an abiding hope for a better tomorrow.

 

I did feel in the late 1960s that Chomsky was too ready to concede the future, at least in Vietnam, to those who dominated hard power capabilities. If my memory is correct, Noam was convinced that the U.S. would prevail in Vietnam because of the battlefield imbalances, and thus underestimated the depth of the Vietnamese national movement of resistance and the potentialities of anti-war activism. He also downplayed the reversibility of the intervention, not fully appreciating that if the costs became too high for enough Americans the leaders in Washington would bring the war to an end even if it produced an embarrassing defeat for a militarist foreign policy. In a sense, these assessments seemed to arise from a certain kind of realism that underlies Chomsky’s analysis, reflecting his fidelity to the facts as he comprehends them and his readiness to disregard his most ardent preferences when his reading of the facts of a complex political situation points to an outcome that is contrary to his wishes.

 

At the same time, Chomsky is ready to stand in solidarity with any dedicated person willing to act unlawfully so as to reveal the lies and distortions relied upon by governments, including in liberal societies, to befuddle and manipulate the citizenry. He stood by Dan Ellsberg after he released the Pentagon Papers, refusing to testify before the Boston Grand Jury, thereby risking a prison sentence. In retrospect, Ellsberg committed the perfect ‘crime’ from a Chomskyan worldview, defying the state so as to expose realities cynically hidden from the citizenry, heightened by the context of an unlawful war leading to the deaths of many innocent persons.

 

I should add that Chomsky’s positive attitude toward my work, which meant a great deal to me, was related to his respect for international law as legitimating dissent and nonviolent opposition to the militarist characteristics of American foreign policy. He favored a foreign policy that complied with international law and showed respect for the UN and its Charter as matters of elemental morality and geopolitical prudence.

 

DF: What is to account for Chomsky’s ability to reach such large amounts of people for so long? What do you find most interesting about him?

 

RF: You touch upon one of Chomsky’s most distinctive qualities, his influence and popularity throughout the world. I think that two features in his demeanor and approach help us understand this global reach.

 

First, Chomsky’s analysis is accessible to an audience of non-specialists, whether sophisticated or not. His grasp of the facts, and coherent and sensible interpretations of wrongdoings in high places, communicates an understanding of the world surrounding us that most of us have difficulty of formulating.

 

Secondly, Chomsky’s style, personal engagement, and life experience epitomizes authenticity. You may disagree with Chomsky, but it is impossible to doubt his sincerity and dedication to truth telling. Those who are dissatisfied with the status quo find in Chomsky a lucid accounting of what is wrong and why in a manner that generates trust and stimulates action, and even hopes for a better future.

 

My only reservation is a tendency by Chomsky sometimes to overlook ambiguity and uncertainty, and countervailing lines of thought. Perhaps, my discomfort reflects my own background, especially law school training that made me aware, perhaps overly aware, that there are always at least two sides to any contested position.

 

Without the ambiguity of the law, lawyers would have no role and no livelihood. For me as someone trained in law, the challenge has always been to acknowledge this epistemological fuzziness while making ethically driven choices that can produce one-sided political commitments whenever appropriate. More concretely, how I am able to acknowledge the existence of an Israeli narrative yet firmly side with the Palestinian struggle for their basic rights. My own answer to this seeming dilemma is to make such choices ‘by taking suffering seriously,’ which almost always means identifying with the vulnerable and exploited, but it also means understanding hierarchies of abuse and exploitation as the core reality of apartheid structures..

 

I seek the moral clarity associated with Chomsky, Sartre, and Said, but do so more circuitously because of this continuing subservience to the way lawyers are taught to think and act.

 

DF: Are there positions and perspectives that you are surprised that Chomsky holds?  Do you have many Chomsky books in your studyand which of those has influenced you’re foreign policy perspectives in particular?

 

RF: I have a shelf full of Chomsky books, and try to keep up with his synoptic capacity to encompass all that is worth thinking about. The range and persistence of his productivity is nothing short of astounding, and I might add, humbling. Few prophets in all of history have been as endowed with such mental resilience and blessed by physical longevity!

 

As far as direct influence is concerned I would mention two areas. I learned from Chomsky’s acute critique of the practices of liberalism, and the essential importance of grasping the sources of human suffering that cannot be understood without engaging in structural analysis. Among the most serious intellectual inadequacies of liberalism is to opt for incremental policy changes while taking the underlying hegemonic structures of power and economic forces for granted, even ignoring their relevance.

 

Chomsky has helped me understand why I am not a liberal. In this sense, it helps explain why I was outraged by the way the Democratic Party subverted the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sandersin 2016, while promoting that of Hillary Clinton. Sanders was treated as unacceptable to the Democratic National Committee, despite not even being consistently radical in his outlook. Yet he was radical enough to threaten the verities of Goldman Sachs and the ethos of neoliberalism, and that was enough to disqualify his candidacy although he emerged as the most popular and trusted political figure in America, greatly exceeding the approval ratings of the prevailing candidates, Trump and Clinton.

 

And secondly, I learned from Chomsky the importance of not compromising when it came to matters of principle even if it requires enduring defamation and marginalization. I found Chomsky’s strong early criticisms of how the Zionistproject was being enacted in Israel, and the American complicity, not only persuasive, but it also challenged me to stop hiding in the shadows. I think Chomsky’s moral posture has been as influential as his substantive views. Standing up for truth, rejecting the liberal consensus, and always being in solidarity with those struggling against injustice are the insignia of Noam Chomsky’s most illustrious career and life.

 

And it would be wrong not to reiterate Chomsky’s overwhelming sense of the responsibility of an intellectualto engage in dialogue. Over the years I have encountered many ‘ordinary’ persons who have written to Noam after hearing him speak or reading his books, and have been amazed by receiving detailed and respectful responses, and a readiness to continue the correspondence. It takes energy and time to be so available, but it also expresses a commitment to the seriousness of ideas and likeminded communication, and the value of what amounts to informal education. Again, I have tried to follow this path set by Noam, trailing behind, but grateful for the grandeur of his example.

 

 

 

Daniel Falcone: How were you first introduced to Chomsky? What initial work brought you into contact with Chomsky?

 

Richard Falk: Actually, my first awareness of Noam Chomsky was in the late 1950s while I was teaching at Ohio State University. I had a smart linguist friend who told me about the revolutionary work of a young scholar at MIT who was completely transforming his field by the work he had done while still a graduate student on ‘structural linguistics’ and ‘generative grammar.’ As I remember our conversation nothing was mentioned about Chomsky’s politics.

Later on in the early 1960s I continued to hear of Chomsky as the great linguist, but also about Chomsky as the militant anti-Vietnam Waractivist.

 

We met in the mid-1960s as a result of common interests. We were both deeply involved as opponents of the escalations of American involvement in Vietnam, and indeed we were opposed to any military involvement at all. At that point Chomsky was strongly supporting draft resistance in addition to speaking at anti-war events. I was mainly engaged during the 1960s in academic debates and teach-ins devoted to questions of the legality of the American role in Vietnam, and after 1965, discussions often focused on the decision by the Lyndon Johnson presidency to extend the war to North Vietnam.

We interacted quite frequently in this decade, and stayed at each other’s homes in Lexington and Princeton when we spoke in the other’s venue.

 

I recall Chomsky insisting in response to an invitation from the Princeton Philosophy Department that he would only agree to give a series of lectures on linguistics that was the nature of the invitation if his hosts would also arrange parallel formats for him to address his political concerns. He apparently frequently made this a condition of his acceptance, and because he was such a star attraction, it was almost always enthusiastically accepted, and even viewed as a bonus.

 

I found the Princeton lectureson theoretical tensions within the field of linguistics to be not only abstruse, but also quite memorable from a performance perspective. The first of Chomsky’s linguistic lectures was held in one of the largest auditoriums at Princeton. Before Noam was introduced the hall was filled to capacity in excited anticipation of being enlightened by whatever this already famous scholar had to say. Chomsky’s style and delivery were highly technical, presupposed a fairly sophisticated understanding of the complex issues of linguistic theory at stake, which meant that his presentation seemed way above the head of 90% of the audience, including myself.

 

By the end of the lecture there were less than 25 people left in the huge hall. What impressed me then and even now was Chomsky’s attitude of apparent indifference to this reaction, which was confirmed by his failure to alter his style in the next two lectures. It was hardly surprising that the second and third lecturewere given in a rather empty room, being attended by only a small coterie of graduate students and a few on the faculty who had strong linguistic interests.

 

When he gave his talk on political issues, Chomsky’s style was strikingly different. His presentation on political issues was meant to reach people with little prior knowledge. His interpretations were supported by abundant evidence – fact-based, carefully and clearly reasoned, and were even spiced by humorous asides, usually of a wry and satiric nature. Chomsky was personally engaged, clearly hoping to persuade the audience to adopt his viewpoint, and conveying an assured sense that there existed no other coherent and ethical to view the issues being discussed. As with his opening linguistics lecrure, his political talk was held in a large hall that was overflowing, but this time no one left.

 

The response was enthusiastic and responsive. I came away with the sense those attending felt that just by being there they had taken part in an historic experience. It was also an audience that drew heavily from the community as well as the university, and had far fewer faculty members than did the linguistic talks. I was struck by Chomsky’s confident, calm manner, his wide knowledge, and his utter insistence on speaking truth to power. These truths of Chomsky went far beyond mainstream ways of thinking and acting.

 

My only reservation from the perspective of frequently being a member of Chomsky’s audience was his reluctance to acknowledge even slight differences of opinion, much less admit error. I felt this to be a weakness. There was something disturbing about this unwillingness to concede small points to those who shared his views 95% of the time. This polemical style left even admirers sometimes feeling that his presentation could have been more effective if he had left a bit of space for doubt and divergent opinions. This style of unwavering assurance seemed to reflect a public sensibility more than deriving from a fixed ideology. Off camera, Noam was always gentle and non-dogmatic, but while performing I found his demeanor sometimes to be leonine.

 

 

DF: Scholar Henry Girouxonce told me that he thought Chomsky was “a national treasure.” How is Chomsky a national treasure in your view?

 

RF: I share this expression of exceptional mode of appreciating  Chomsky’s many contributions to enlightened and critical thought. Such contributions are essential if the vitality of a democratic society is to be sustained through dark times, such as at present. To quibble a bit, I would prefer to identify Noam even more grandly as ‘a global treasure.’ His following is global in ways that exceed that of any other

living public intellectual

 

Noam’s worldwide following has identified him as a beacon of truth and conscience who can be trusted, whatever the issue, to express his views with honesty, through the medium of reasoned analysis, and on the basis of a dazzling familiarity with a wide range of evidence supporting his conclusions. He conveys a sense of having read and remembering everything ever written on the topic he happens to be addressing on any particular occasion.

 

There are many other highly intelligent and progressive persons in the world, but few if any, who have the professional record of world class scholarship and the astonishingly wide range of knowledgeabout subjects that embrace concerns that cover the waterfront. Chomskyis always worth listening to whatever the topic, whether it happens to be the philosophical foundations of knowledge and existence or the specifics of atrocities taking place in some remote part of the world.

 

His presence and role is so precious because of this rare mix of qualities: a trustworthy character, comprehensive knowledge, mastery over the logic of argument and reasoned analysis, a speaking style that is measured and never relies on shouting to make a point. Chomsky has a special gravitas that I have never before encountered, and helps account for the attitudes of reverence and gratitude that so many persons from all corners of the globe feel in his presence.

 

DF: What ideas and activities of Chomsky have influenced you the most over the years?

 

RF: I have been particularly influenced by Noam’s extraordinary perseverance, his spectacular displays of intellectuality and moral engagement, his willingness to enter domains where angels fear to tread, and above all by his insistence on following the evidence wherever it might lead. Noam, in this sense, is one of the great moral voices of all time, guided by a sense of justice and decency, and possessed of a skilled deconstructive voice that dismisses much conventional wisdom with a flip of his rhetorical wrist.

 

On a more doctrinal level, I have found Chomsky’s thought particularly valuably deployed in his authoritative depiction of how ‘indoctrination in a free society’ works. This is not a simple matter.  I would express Chomsky’s line of critique by a more concrete phrase, ‘how the New York Timesmisleads, especially with regard to the Middle East.’ Chomsky can be devastating when showing how the liberal mainstream distorts reality by its selective interpretations of the facts and norms at stake, never more so than in relation to Israel/Palestine over the decades or by the liberal acceptance of the structures of militarism and predatory capitalism without a whimper while bemoaning the cruelty of extreme poverty. Like the monkeys who see and hear no evil, so it is with most liberals. They are willing to do good so long as it doesn’t interfere with their supreme interest in doing well!

 

I am aware that Chomsky’s views on Israel/Palestinehave given rise to some fierce criticism, and not just from Zionists. Chomsky has been steadfastly supportive of a two-state solution that he has, although perhaps not so clearly recently, insisted as only viable solution that would allow the two peoples to live in a sustainable peace. In my understanding of Chomsky’s recent reflections on these issues, he seems to be saying that an Israeli version of a one-state solution is coming into being, and that a series of internal and international developments now make it impractical to achieve any kind of acceptable form of a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future. Despite disagreements with Said on such questions I never observed Noam or Edward expressing anything other than sentiments of respect and admiration for the work and commitment of the other.

 

Now that Chomsky is convinced that the political and physical conditions no longer exist to achieve a two-state peace, and the Israeli one-state solution is unacceptable, it would be of great value to know what Chomsky now proposes. Perhaps, he has already set forth his ideas in light of the present circumstances, but I am not familiar with any such statement.

 

Chomsky has also been criticized for failing to support BDSor coercive nonviolence as a tactic of the global solidarity movement to support the Palestinian national movement. I am not aware of the deep roots of this reluctance to exert pressure on Israel, although I do know that his family background was one of left Zionism, which he felt that Israel as a state and Zionism as a movement and project had seriously betrayed, and the Palestinian people have been paying the price.

 

I also found Noam’s critique of what he called ‘military humanism’ as a pushback to those who favored the Kosovo intervention to be challenging and almost persuasive as a refutation of the case for humanitarian intervention in the pre-war context of 1999. In the end, with strong feelings of ambivalence, my fear of a Kosovo repetition of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 led me to support the NATO intervention on behalf of Kosovo independence from Serbia.

 

Chomsky argued that the moral rhetoric of those calling for intervention in Kosovo was chosen to hide the real reasons for recourse to this admittedly non-defensive war, which were strategic and amoral. These true motivations for the proposed war, according to Chomsky, had to do with extending the life of NATO in the post-Cold War world and making sure that the Russians were not given a pretext for establishing a presence in the Balkans. He rested his argument on the moral inconsistencies and hypocrisy of American foreign policy, pointing to the sustained indifference of the West toward the comparable Kurdish plight in Turkey.

 

Noam opposed this mixing of humanitarianism with militarism while taking a lifelong interest in depicting severe abuses of human rights. There were numerous settings in which Noam stood up for the human rights of vulnerable and abused peoples, including individuals. Chomsky also made a series of fine scholarly contributions along these lines in several books written in collaboration with the late Edward S. Herman.

 

DF: How do the leading intellectual figures of the past one hundred years compare with Chomsky?’

RF: I have no real awareness of Chomsky’s own views beyond his sense that Bertrand Russellwas an admirable figure, perhaps a role model, and at least warranted a large picture in Noam’s MIT office. I think Russell is an appropriate antecedent figure to capture the core reality of Chomsky, despite the obvious fact that these two extraordinary men were so different in class and ethnic backgrounds. Such differences were superficial compared to their similarities: exceptional scholarly achievement, belief in Enlightenment ideals, values, and practices, and moral engagement in ways that challenged both conventional wisdom and the consensus affirmed by the governing political class and the official policies in each of their respective countries. Both were derided for swimming against strong national currents.

 

In my own intellectual and personal experience, the closest parallels to Chomsky are Jean-Paul Sartreand Edward Said. More than others, it was this threesome that made me understand the role and contributions of those who came to be known as ‘public intellectuals.’ Each took risks in their work and acted with courage and moral clarity within the political context within which they lived gave full attention to the historical moment. Each took sides that accorded with their view of moral engagement with the struggles of their time, and each stood unconditionally behind their beliefs even if it meant standing alone. In the context of the Cold War Chomsky published his inspirational essay, “The Responsibility of the Intellectual,” in the initial issue of the New York Review of Books, Feb. 23, 1967. No piece in my lifetime exerted a stronger positive influence on public debate in the United States than did this call to act in opposition to the Vietnam War at a crucial moment when doubts about the American war policies were beginning to challenge the government. 

 

Sartre rejected the Nobel Prize for Literature and broke with Camusand official France over the Algerian War. Said rejected Arafat’s and the PLO’s willingness to trust Washington, resigned from the PNC, and refused from the outset to support the betrayal of Palestinian goals and rights as set forth in the 1993 Oslo Frameworkof Principles. Chomsky broke with the Zionist world, especially after the Israeli victory in the 1967 War, and lent support to the academic freedom of an embattled Holocaust denier in France, the British born historian Robert Faurisson. When questioned about this, Chomsky provocatively responded that Faurisson’s research was no worse than that of many of his MIT colleagues, although he did object when Chomsky’s statement of support was published as a foreword to a Faurisson book without his permission.

 

Each of these three confronted the world around them with undiminished passion, and never wasted their energy offering apologies or setting forth justifications for their dissenting views. In a last interview Sartrewas asked, what was his greatest regret? I found Sartre’s response suggestively provocative–that he had not gone far enough in the articulation of his radical views, a response that Chomsky might also have made, and Said as well. In effect, rather than backing down or retreating by acknowledging that he might have been more diplomatic, he opts for an even more strident clarity of belief and action.

 

If I look around at later generations, I take note of many passionate and articulate voices, but none that achieves the scale, scope, gravitas, and impact of these three. More than ever we need such exceptional voices for guidance and inspiration. We are living at a moment of unprecedented bioethical crisis that Chomsky has come to acknowledge and discuss in his recent interviews and writings. Even in these years when approaching the awesome age of 90,Noam’s voice remains as loud and clear as ever. It is always worthy of listening, and almost always of heeding. In recent years Chomsky has impressively broadened his interests to engage the more general challenges facing humanity, and given less attention to the various flaws of American foreign policy or to critiques of capitalism. At the same time, he has delivered scathing attacks on Trump and Trumpism as the climax of degenerative politics in America.

 

DF: How has the left changed over the course of Chomsky’s career in your view or have you noticed changes in his work over time?

 

RF: This is a difficult question for me as I am not sure that I am familiar enough with Chomsky’s engagement with the left at the various stages of his long life. He is certainly what one might call ‘a radical progressive,’ but he is also clearly uncomfortable with the organized left and never was an apologist for the Soviet Union. Although familiar with Marxist literature and socialist thought, his writing and commentary was not directed at theoretical issues that were so often debated in European leftist thinking. My impression is that Chomsky endorsed socialist values within a framework of philosophical anarchism— that is, characterized by deep suspicion directed toward all governmental embodiments of statist authority.

 

Chomsky’s writing and preoccupations have consistently been responsive to historical circumstances. There is no political issue that is outside his domain, although to my knowledge he has never commented extensively on cultural issues in the manner with which Said wrote about opera or Sartre contributed to literature. Two years ago Chomsky and I took part in a workshop on the dangers of nuclearism, along with Daniel Ellsberg, and I was struck by Noam’s unexpectedly hopeful contributions to the discussions. He argued that there were and are, many missed opportunities that might have addressed the dangers posed by nuclear weapons in a different manner than the paths chosen by policymakers and leaders. He wanted us to believe that the geopolitics of power is not the only game in town, and that civil society engagements on behalf of what we believe is worthwhile, necessary, and not foreclosed. I found this line of assessment a refreshing departure from my impression of Chomsky’s early posture of pessimistic critical realism. It may reflect the personal serenity that Noam seems to be experiencing in this stage of his life.

 

My sense of Chomsky’s leftism is that of someone who is incredibly attentive to the calls of conscience and freedom, and devotes extraordinary energy to the changing situational challenges, but thinks and acts by himself without taking part in organizational efforts, or any kind of collective process. At present, this tendency has led Chomsky both to decry Trump and Trumpism, and to worry about a fascist drift in world political behavior, but also to grasp the ecological and ethical menace of unregulated global capitalism. In my terminology, Chomsky has become an exemplary ‘citizen pilgrim,’ responding as an individual to the injustices of today with an abiding hope for a better tomorrow.

 

I did feel in the late 1960s that Chomsky was too ready to concede the future, at least in Vietnam, to those who dominated hard power capabilities. If my memory is correct, Noam was convinced that the U.S. would prevail in Vietnam because of the battlefield imbalances, and thus underestimated the depth of the Vietnamese national movement of resistance and the potentialities of anti-war activism. He also downplayed the reversibility of the intervention, not fully appreciating that if the costs became too high for enough Americans the leaders in Washington would bring the war to an end even if it produced an embarrassing defeat for a militarist foreign policy. In a sense, these assessments seemed to arise from a certain kind of realism that underlies Chomsky’s analysis, reflecting his fidelity to the facts as he comprehends them and his readiness to disregard his most ardent preferences when his reading of the facts of a complex political situation points to an outcome that is contrary to his wishes.

 

At the same time, Chomsky is ready to stand in solidarity with any dedicated person willing to act unlawfully so as to reveal the lies and distortions relied upon by governments, including in liberal societies, to befuddle and manipulate the citizenry. He stood by Dan Ellsberg after he released the Pentagon Papers, refusing to testify before the Boston Grand Jury, thereby risking a prison sentence. In retrospect, Ellsberg committed the perfect ‘crime’ from a Chomskyan worldview, defying the state so as to expose realities cynically hidden from the citizenry, heightened by the context of an unlawful war leading to the deaths of many innocent persons.

 

I should add that Chomsky’s positive attitude toward my work, which meant a great deal to me, was related to his respect for international law as legitimating dissent and nonviolent opposition to the militarist characteristics of American foreign policy. He favored a foreign policy that complied with international law and showed respect for the UN and its Charter as matters of elemental morality and geopolitical prudence.

 

DF: What is to account for Chomsky’s ability to reach such large amounts of people for so long? What do you find most interesting about him?

 

RF: You touch upon one of Chomsky’s most distinctive qualities, his influence and popularity throughout the world. I think that two features in his demeanor and approach help us understand this global reach.

 

First, Chomsky’s analysis is accessible to an audience of non-specialists, whether sophisticated or not. His grasp of the facts, and coherent and sensible interpretations of wrongdoings in high places, communicates an understanding of the world surrounding us that most of us have difficulty of formulating.

 

Secondly, Chomsky’s style, personal engagement, and life experience epitomizes authenticity. You may disagree with Chomsky, but it is impossible to doubt his sincerity and dedication to truth telling. Those who are dissatisfied with the status quo find in Chomsky a lucid accounting of what is wrong and why in a manner that generates trust and stimulates action, and even hopes for a better future.

 

My only reservation is a tendency by Chomsky sometimes to overlook ambiguity and uncertainty, and countervailing lines of thought. Perhaps, my discomfort reflects my own background, especially law school training that made me aware, perhaps overly aware, that there are always at least two sides to any contested position.

 

Without the ambiguity of the law, lawyers would have no role and no livelihood. For me as someone trained in law, the challenge has always been to acknowledge this epistemological fuzziness while making ethically driven choices that can produce one-sided political commitments whenever appropriate. More concretely, how I am able to acknowledge the existence of an Israeli narrative yet firmly side with the Palestinian struggle for their basic rights. My own answer to this seeming dilemma is to make such choices ‘by taking suffering seriously,’ which almost always means identifying with the vulnerable and exploited, but it also means understanding hierarchies of abuse and exploitation as the core reality of apartheid structures..

 

I seek the moral clarity associated with Chomsky, Sartre, and Said, but do so more circuitously because of this continuing subservience to the way lawyers are taught to think and act.

 

DF: Are there positions and perspectives that you are surprised that Chomsky holds?  Do you have many Chomsky books in your study and which of those has influenced you’re foreign policy perspectives in particular?

 

RF: I have a shelf full of Chomsky books, and try to keep up with his synoptic capacity to encompass all that is worth thinking about. The range and persistence of his productivity is nothing short of astounding, and I might add, humbling. Few prophets in all of history have been as endowed with such mental resilience and blessed by physical longevity!

 

As far as direct influence is concerned I would mention two areas. I learned from Chomsky’s acute critique of the practices of liberalism, and the essential importance of grasping the sources of human suffering that cannot be understood without engaging in structural analysis. Among the most serious intellectual inadequacies of liberalism is to opt for incremental policy changes while taking the underlying hegemonic structures of power and economic forces for granted, even ignoring their relevance.

 

Chomsky has helped me understand why I am not a liberal. In this sense, it helps explain why I was outraged by the way the Democratic Party subverted the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders in 2016, while promoting that of Hillary Clinton. Sanders was treated as unacceptable to the Democratic National Committee, despite not even being consistently radical in his outlook. Yet he was radical enough to threaten the verities of Goldman Sachs and the ethos of neoliberalism, and that was enough to disqualify his candidacy although he emerged as the most popular and trusted political figure in America, greatly exceeding the approval ratings of the prevailing candidates, Trump and Clinton.

 

And secondly, I learned from Chomsky the importance of not compromising when it came to matters of principle even if it requires enduring defamation and marginalization. I found Chomsky’s strong early criticisms of how the Zionist project was being enacted in Israel, and the American complicity, not only persuasive, but it also challenged me to stop hiding in the shadows. I think Chomsky’s moral posture has been as influential as his substantive views. Standing up for truth, rejecting the liberal consensus, and always being in solidarity with those struggling against injustice are the insignia of Noam Chomsky’s most illustrious career and life.

 

And it would be wrong not to reiterate Chomsky’s overwhelming sense of the responsibility of an intellectualto engage in dialogue. Over the years I have encountered many ‘ordinary’ persons who have written to Noam after hearing him speak or reading his books, and have been amazed by receiving detailed and respectful responses, and a readiness to continue the correspondence. It takes energy and time to be so available, but it also expresses a commitment to the seriousness of ideas and likeminded communication, and the value of what amounts to informal education. Again, I have tried to follow this path set by Noam, trailing behind, but grateful for the grandeur of his example.

 

 

On the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

10 Dec

On the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

[Prefatory Note: Responses to questions relating to the Universal Declaration of Human Right addressed to me by the journalist Rodrigo Craveiro on behalf of the Brazilian newspaper, Correio Braziliense. I am posting slightly modified responses today, December 10, the 70thanniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly. This Declaration was a notable step in the direction of asserting that persons by virtue of their humanness are entitled to protection in the exercise of a broad spectrum of rights, and hence, that sovereignty is subject to certain constraining limitations. Much progress has been made since 1948, although we live in a period of mounting pressure on human rights deriving from a surge of right-wing populism combined with the effects of an insufficiently regulated capitalism. We also live at a time of expanding ecological consciousness, which includes a more serious concern about animal rights. Perhaps, the time has come to propose and draft a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Animals.]

 

1– How do you see the meaning and the importance of  Universal Declaration of Human Rights? What are the main parts of the Declaration in your point of view?

 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was a historic document as it represented the first time that an authoritative and comprehensive conception of internationalhuman rights was formulated and agreed upon by the leading governments of the world. It was also significant that rights were formulated as inhering in being ‘human’ rather than as a matter that was to be determined in accord with national or civilizational norms. Even so this historic text was set forth in a declaratory form that meant that it was not obligatory, and the implementation of human rights standards remained essentially voluntary. While affirming human rights, governments were not ready to make legal commitments that could weaken their sovereign rights to have the final say in state/society relations.

 

However, the UDHR had more political traction than anticipated in 1948. Opposition groups in East Europe found it useful as a way to assert the legitimacy of posing demands to their governments. NGOs formed in the West, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, did their best to persuade governments throughout the world to live up to human rights standards partly by relying on the authority of the USHR. Furthermore, the UN anti-apartheid campaign was based on a human rights rationale, and proved eventually effective in inducing the South African leadership to change course and dismantle their racist regime. These developments established the political relevance of human rights as something more than a pious declaration of good intentions.

 

Furthermore, the Western democracies found the UDHR a useful propaganda instrument in their ideological rivalry with the Soviet bloc countries. This gave human rights a prominent role in the foreign policy of the Western democracies. At the same time it weakened the authority of human rights to the extent that it became an attack weapon rather than a source of self-criticism and self-correction.

 

The UDHR is partly notable for its inclusion of economic, social, and cultural rights alongside civil and political rights. Article 25 contains a revolutionary norm to the effect that everyone is entitled to a standard of living that meets basic material needs. Article 28 even promisesas a human right, an international order capable of providing satisfaction of the various distinct human rights as coherently set forth in the UDHR.

 

It is important to appreciate that governments did set about the task of translating the UDHR into a treaty form through negotiations that lasted almost two decades, and featured the split between the capitalist countries of the West and the socialist countries of the East. The resulting compromise was a rather awkward split of the unity of rights as set forth in the UDHR into two treaty instrument reflecting this Cold War ideological division: Covenant of Civil and Political Rights reflective of the values of liberal individualist societies and the Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressive of the collective identities fostered by socialism.

 

It is notable that in the UN Conference on Human Rights and Development held in Vienna in 1975 the indivisibilityof human rights was reaffirmed, reflecting a revival of the unified approach of the UDHR and a rejection of the fracturing of the two categories of human rights into parallel covenants. In this respect, although the UNDH was only a declaration it may be more expressive of the true nature of human rights than are the 1966 treaty instrument, the Covenants being a product of the temporary Cold War atmosphere, but also, of the incompatibility of the protection of economic and social rights with the logic and operation of the neoliberal economic order that emerged on a global scale after the Cold War.

 

2– Do you believe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is being fully accomplished by all nations which signed it? Is it actually a very important guideline for all nations?

 

I think it is helpful here to distinguish between governments and societies. Social forces in society found the UDHR incredibly helpful in assessing whether their own government was living up to proper standards in state/society relations as measured by law and morality. It has also proved to be a useful yardstick within the UN System to determine whether states are in compliance with fundamental human rights.

 

In the present period when many important countries are governed by elected autocrats, there has been a notable decline in the observance of the standards embodied in the UDHR. There is no doubt that the status of human rights of a political character is dependent upon the quality of democratic governance. If democracy declines, so does the observance of human rights, and vice versa. We are presently living through a period of decline, especially with respect to civil and political rights, less so in relation to economic and social rights, but not much less so as capitalism is in a predatory stage due to the absence of normative and ideological challenges since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the adoption of a market approach to political economy by China.

 

3– What are the main violations of Universal Declaration of Human Rights you could point as most serious ones? Why?

 

It is not possible to give a complete answer as different countries and civilizations are inclined to violate different categories of human rights. It is possible to offer some generalizations, but these need to be adjusted to various national conditions.

 

Countries committed to market driven forms of economic practice tend to be weak when it comes to the observance of economic and social rights. For instance, some of the richest countries in the global North have huge pockets of extreme poverty. Neoliberal globalization has accentuated various forms of inequality that have led to widespread violations of economic and social rights.

 

Islamic countries do not adhere to those aspects of human rights that mandate equal treatment of women in all sphere of public and family life. Such discrimination may be also present in the treatment of sexual identities that deviate from the mainstream dualist norm such as are associated with the identities of persons of gay, lesbian, and trans persuasion.

 

Countries governed in an autocratic manner tend to encroach upon freedom of expression and suppress journalistic and media dissent, as well as interfere with dissenting views in universities, labor unions, political parties. There are currently campaigns in various Western countries to treat criticism of Israel as a form of hate speech that has been labeled as ‘the New Anti-Semitism’ causing punitive reactions to opinions that should be protected by canons of freedom of expression in a manner consistent with the guidelines of the UDHR, as well as the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

 

4– Do you think the Declaration is quite obsolete due to the fact it didn´t predict digital privacy challenges, artificial intelligence and climate changing? In spite of that, is the text still a very important tool?

 

I do not think the Declaration is obsolete or even anachronistic, although it needs to be updated in various ways to take account of the distinct human rights challenges posed by the realities of the digital age. My responses to earlier questions suggest the important relevance of the UDHR to contemporary non-digital conditions of life throughout the world.

 

I would suggest the preparation of a new consensus international legal instrument with the title Declaration of Human Rights Pertaining to the Challenges of the Digital Age. This Declaration could address issues of privacy, surveillance, robotics, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering. It might prove difficult, if not impossible, to find sufficient common ground among leading governments and other stakeholders to reach a consensus. Even so, the fact that a negotiating process leads to a declaration rather than an enforceable treaty might facilitate reaching a framework agreement on fundamental principles, which later could be formalized in an obligatory form and given greater specificity.

 

 

Sputnik News Agency Interview on G20 Meeting and U.S./Russia Relations

2 Dec

 

Sputnik News Agency Interview on G20 Meeting and U.S./Russia Relations

 

(Prefatory Note:What follows are my responses to questions addressed to me by Sputnik News Agency in Moscow. These responses were submitted on December 1, 2018. Although the focus was on the ongoing G20 meeting in Buenos Aires, the real concern was the future of U.S./Russia relations and how these relations should be managed to avoid arms races, geopolitical rivalry, and ideological tensions. Ironically, of all the weaknesses in the Trump approach to the world, his apparent wish for a normalized relationship with Russia was what most antagonized the American political class, whether Democrat or Republican. Indeed, it so antagonized the established order in this country to such a degree as to undermine Trump’s apparent intention to downgrade NATO and Atlanticism while normalizing and improving relations with Russia. It is always uncertain to assess the real motivations of Trump, which here may involve some kind of vulnerability on his part for undisclosed and awkward economic entanglements or embarrassing personal behavior, but whatever the explanation, the world would be better off with a positive geopolitical atmosphere, and that means cooperative behavior with Russia and China. In our delegitimizing of Trump it is important not to lose sight of the ingredients of sustainable world peace. The Sputnik text is slightly modified.)   

  1. The talks of G20 leaders led to a possible breakthrough on the global trading system. How likely is any progress to be achieved? Will the US be onboard with this?

 

I would be very surprised if there is any outcome of the G20 meeting that can be properly called a ‘breakthrough.’ The leaders of these governments do not have a shared understanding of what would constitute a mutually beneficial world trade framework. Perhaps, such a consensus never existed, yet in the period after World War II, the United States leadership of the West was able to generate what has alternatively been call ‘the liberal economic order’ or ‘the Washington consensus.’ These arrangements rested on giving the World Bank and IMF a central role in stabilizing global conditions, including currency markets, and rested on a rule-based set of procedures. Its performance was assessed almost solely by the rate of global economic growth, which overlooked both issues of the equitable distribution of the benefits of growth and the regulation of adverse ecological side effects.

 

Since the Trump presidency, there has emerged serious ambiguities as to whether the United States, the leading world economy, was itself willing to participate any longer in the liberal world order. Such doubts arose after Trump rejected the Trans Pacific Partnership, sought the renegotiation of North American arrangements set forth in the NAFTA agreements, and adopted a series of protectionist measures inconsistent with the promotion of the most efficient use of capital, a major guideline of the neoliberal ideology that guided American foreign economic policy ever since 1945.

 

The United States, in particular, during the Trump presidency regards world trade as a s sequence of transactions rather than as systemic aggregate of institutions, rules, and procedures by which to regulate and facilitate transnational capital flows and trade relations. By this I mean, that the U.S. wants now to proceed on the basis of economic advantage for itself in each economic policy context rather than promote an overall framework that benefits all participants in the world economy. Under Trump the United States no longer perceives the more structural advantages of having a global trading system that provides a framework that binds together all countries that adhere to principle of market economics on the assumption of shared interests. Of course, such a framework is only a practical possibility if there is a strong political will on the part of leading governments to proceed in this manner. It is difficult to be confident about making assessments of government intentions, but I think most governments would still like to retain a systemic framework for the world economy with the exception of the United States, which wants to leverage its strength in a more flexible and muscular diplomatic atmosphere. We should await the final declaration from Buenos Aires before reaching firm conclusions as to whether this cleavage will be exposed or hidden from public view.

 

This is a different cleavage than existed during the Cold War when fundamental ideological differences led to dual structures for international and transnational economic relations. During the Cold War the market economies organized their trade and fiscal relations within the liberal framework established under American leadership. The Soviet bloc of countries was neither invited to join this liberal world order nor did it seek entry, but rather maintained its economic relations based on the orientation of state socialism as tempered by Soviet hegemonic leadership and the pursuit of national and regional interests.

 

  1. Meanwhile, Trump is reportedly ready to hold talks with Putin after Russia releases Ukrainian sailors. How high are hopes that the two leaders will sit down for talks in the future given the development?

 

It is important for Russian society to understand that Trump seems to be handling diplomacy particularly with Russia, but also with other countries, mainly on the basis of his calculations of domestic politics in the United States as connected with his ‘America First’ mantra. Anti-Trump forces in the U.S. have, wrongfully in my view, concentrated their criticism of Trump, including the apparent focus of the investigations of wrongdoing by the Special Counsel, on the supposedly improper relationship between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the 2016 presidential elections. In doing this, it overlooks the importance of establishing peaceful and constructive relations between Russia and the United States, keeping in mind that these two dominant states are the world’s leading nuclear weapons states. World peace depends on avoiding a second Cold War in any form, and this reality is obscured by the focus on alleged Russian interference in the American elections and Trump’s supposed collusion in this process.

 

Some degree of interference no doubt occurred, but it should have raised few eyebrows in Washington, have been a staple instrument of American soft power intervention in many countries over the course of several decades. Furthermore, the belligerent tone of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, as well as the outlook of her closest advisors, gave good reason for Moscow to fear a Clinton victory in 2016, and do their best to avoid such an outcome. This is not intended to reject efforts to insulate American elections from manipulation from without or within. When thinking of the wrongfulness of Russian tactics we as a country tend to overlook the wrongfulness of gerrymandering, racial bias, special interests and money being used to manipulate election results in the United States. Both types of interference are incompatible with a legitimate democratic political process.

 

On the immediate prospects for productive relations with Russia following the Ukrainian incidents, I think it is likely that bilateral talks can be held in coming months, maybe even in coming weeks. It should be realized, however, that the main American focus now is in resetting the economic relationship between the United States in China in ways that avoid a trade war and do not make either side appear to be the loser in this important confrontation. In actuality, most attention at the G20 meeting in the West was given over to the question as to whether the U.S. and China could use the occasion to agree on a political compromise, which would undoubtedly benefit the world as a whole. The failure to reach such a compromise could produce detrimental effects for the world economy, as well as raise political tensions and risks of regional, and even global warfare. Therefore, the so-called ‘truce’ reportedly agreed upon by Trump and Xi Jinping were viewed positively at the G20 as constituting an informal agreement to defer American tariffs on Chinese metal exports in exchange for a Chinese commitment to purchase more exports from the United States. It is notable that this stepping back from an economic confrontation required China to make a gesture of acceptance of the American complaints as well as deferring indefinitely American efforts to gain short-term advantages by raising tariffs on goods imported from China. The central drama on the global stage is now how the United States and China will handle their conflicts in the South Asia islands and with regard to trade. The relationship of the West with Russia is of secondary importance. The status of Russia as a major political actor has been significantly restored in the era of Putin’s leadership, but it remains secondary except in certain limited spheres, such as Syria or along its own borders.

 

Unfortunately, the relationship between Trump and Putin is seen by a broad spectrum of political opinion in the West as one where the challenge being posed is how to stand up to perceptions of renewed threats of Russian expansionism. This is why the Ukrainian incident is viewed as something more serious that the event itself. There is a fear, whether justifies or not, of Russian territorial ambitions that is being relied upon by militarist forces in the West to generate anti-Russian sentiments and expanded defense spending.

 

Unfortunately, President Putin did not help those seeking more benevolent relations with Russia by his unseemly show of friendship when greeting Mohammed bin Salmon (MBS) at the G20 meetings. These images were caught on camera by journalists, and widely shown here in the United States evoking commentary that interpreted this greeting as a cynical indirect endorsement by Putin of the gruesome murder of the Saudi journalist, Kamal Khashoggi. Trump has been under pressure to react to this murder, and widely criticized for reaffirming close alliance ties between Washington and Riyadh in the aftermath of the murder, but at least in the G20 context he displayed the good sense to keep his distance from MBS at least when cameras were around, and avoided any public or personal display of friendship for this discredited foreign leader.

 

At this point, the relationship between Putin and Trump are on the American side primarily reflections of political calculations about the effects on the upcoming 2020 presidential elections. Although still two years away, these forthcoming American elections are already shaping the behavior of Trump on such delicate matters as relations with Russia, and the American mood seems now to favor the adoption of a more confrontational approach toward both Russia and China.

 

  1. What is Trump’s earlier move to cancel the meeting indicative of?

 

As I have indicated, Trump’s recent behavior is responsive to growing pressures on his leadership from within the American political system, especially due to his low popularity with the public, the prospect of a damaging report by the Special Counsel investigating Trump’s alleged improper behavior, and the loss of control of Congress due to the outcome of the recent midterm election. He no longer acts as if free to pursue a policy of accommodation with Russia even if this is what he would wish. It is true that when he ran for president in 2016 Trump’s outlook dramatically contrasted with that of Hillary Clinton on the question of relations with Russia. Many Americans then worried about a new Cold War, voted for Trump solely to avoid a rise in tensions with Russia that seems certain to have followed had Clinton been elected. At the same time there remains a strong consensus that is bipartisan in character, and included the Pentagon and CIA, that leans toward a more aggressive approach toward Russia, even more so than toward China. It is in this general atmosphere that it is best to comprehend and interpret Trump’s behavior with regard to Putin and Russia generally. The revelations of Russian interference in American elections further hardens public attitudes in an antagonist direction.

 

On the other side, it is not clear what Russia seeks to achieve during G20 meetings and in its relationship with the United States at this point, although Moscow clearly seemed earlier to be receptive to the Trump approach, and gave many indications of wanting to restore normal peaceful relations. It also seemed that Putin would have welcomed a positive political atmosphere and encouraged robust economic and cultural interactions between the two countries.

 

The fault associated with these deteriorating prospects is not only with America. Russia could achieve a more favorable image in the world if it made some constructive initiatives such as the renewal of nuclear disarmament negotiations or the establishment of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East or the establishment of a global migration compact. Perhaps, we in the West are not aware of Russian attempts to contribute to a more peaceful and just world order, in which case a greater effort needs to be made to set forth the positive content of Russian foreign policy. As matters now stand, the Russian role is viewed through the prism of bullying the Ukraine and propping up the criminal Assad regime in Syria.

 

The New New Anti-Semitism

18 Nov

The New New Anti-Semitism

 

 

Hiding Israel’s Crimes of State Behind False Claims of Victimization

 

I along with many others am being victimized these days. They are being labeled anti-Semites, and in some instances, self-hating Jews as well. This is a Zionist and Israeli effort to shut down our voices and punish our non-violent activism, with special venom directed at the BDS Campaign because it has become so effective in recent years. This negative branding of the opposition is being called ‘the new anti-Semitism.’ The old anti-Semitism was simply hatred of Jews as expressed through negative images and attitudes, as well as discriminatory practices, persecution, and vigilante violence. The new anti-Semitism is criticism of Israel and Zionism, and it has been endorsed by governments friendly to Israel and pushed by a variety of prominent Jewish organizations, including some associated with Holocaust survivors and memories. Emmanuel Macron, President of France, put this pushback by apologists for Israel rather clearly, if in a rather malicious form: “We will never surrender to the expressions of hatred. We will not surrender to anti-Zionism because it is the reinvention of anti-Semitism.” The false premise is equating Zionism with Jews, automatically making criticism and opposition to the Zionist state of Israel as anti-Semitism.

 

Already in 2008 the U.S. State Department moved more subtly in a direction similar to that of Macron with this formal statement: “Motives for criticizing Israel in the UN may stem from legitimate concerns over policy or from illegitimate prejudices. […] However, regardless of the intent, disproportionate criticism of Israel as barbaric and unprincipled, and corresponding discriminatory measures adopted in the UN against Israel, have the effect of causing audiences to associate negative attributes with Jews in general, thus fueling anti-Semitism.” The fallacy here is to view criticism as ‘disproportionate’ without ever considering the realities of Israel’s long record of unlawfulness with regard to the Palestinian people. To those of us who view the reality of Israeli policies and practices have little doubt that the criticisms being advanced, and the pressures being exerted, are in every sense proportionate.

 

A related argument often made is that Israel is being held to higher standards than other states, and this discloses an anti-Semitic sub-text. Such an argument is disingenuous. It is not a defense to suggest that the criminality of others is more severe. Besides, the U.S. subsidizes Israel to the extent of at least $3.8 billion a year, besides its unconditional backing of its behavior, creating some responsibility to impose limits according with international humanitarian law. As well, the UN contributed to the Palestinian ordeal by failing to implement the partition solution, and allowing for 70 years for millions of Palestinians to be subject to apartheid structures of domination. No other people can so justifiably blame external forces for its own sustained tragedy.

 

 

In 2014 Noam Chomsky explained the false logic of such an allegation with typical moral and intellectual clarity: “Actually, the locus classicus, the best formulation of this, was by an ambassador to the United Nations, Abba Eban, […] He advised the American Jewish community that they had two tasks to perform. One task was to show that criticism of the policy, what he called anti-Zionism — that means actually criticisms of the policy of the state of Israel — were anti-Semitism. That’s the first task. Second task, if the criticism was made by Jews, their task was to show that it’s neurotic self-hatred, needs psychiatric treatment. Then he gave two examples of the latter category. One was I.F. Stone. The other was me. So, we have to be treated for our psychiatric disorders, and non-Jews have to be condemned for anti-Semitism, if they’re critical of the state of Israel. That’s understandable why Israeli propaganda would take this position. I don’t particularly blame Abba Eban for doing what ambassadors are sometimes supposed to do. But we ought to understand that there is no sensible charge. No sensible charge. There’s nothing to respond to. It’s not a form of anti-Semitism. It’s simply criticism of the criminal actions of a state, period.

 

 

One feature of this new anti-Semitism is its non-response to the well-evidenced allegations of crimes against humanity made by those being labeled as anti-Semites. Do these ardent supporters of Israel really carry their sense of impunity to such an extent that silence is allowed to stand as an adequate defense? Underlying such a denial of the very idea of legal accountability and moral responsibility is this sense of Israeli exceptionalism, an outlook toward international criminal law that it shares with American exceptionalism. Those who adhere to such exceptionalism purport to be outraged even by the implication that such a government might be subject to the norms embedded in the statute of the International Criminal Court or the UN Charter. Israeli exceptionalism does have its own roots in biblical tradition, especially a secular reading of Jews as ‘the chosen people,’ but really rests on a comfort zone created by the geopolitical umbrella shielding its most law-defying moves from global scrutiny. Illustrative of many such protective actions was the recent UN General Assembly Resolution declaring Israeli steps toward the annexation of the Golan Heights to be null and void, with only Israel and the United States voting ‘no’ as against 151 UN members voting ‘yes.’

 

If we take just a minute to consult international law we find the issue so obvious as to be unworthy of serious discussion. A cardinal principle of contemporary international law, often affirmed by the UN in other contexts, is the impermissibility of the acquisition of territory by force of arms. There is no dispute that Golan Heights were part of Syrian sovereign territory until the 1967 War, and that Israel acquired control that it has exercised ever since as a result of forcible occupation.

 

 

 

 

 

The Ironies of the New New Anti-Semitism

 

There is an opportunistic irony present. The new anti-Semitism seems to have no trouble embracing Christian Zionist despite their hostility to Jews that is coupled with their fanatical devotion to Israel as a Jewish state. Anyone who has watched a Christian Zionist briefing knows that their reading of the Book of Revelations involves an interpretation that Jesus will return once all Jews return to Israel and the most holy temple in Jerusalem is restored. Such a process does not end there. Jews then face an ultimatum to convert to Christianity or face eternal damnation. And so there is present among these fanatical friends of Israel a genuine hostility to Jews, both by trying to insist that ending the Jewish diaspora as a matter of religious imperative for Christians, and in the dismal fate that awaits Jews who refuse to convert after The Second Coming.

 

An illuminating perversity is present. Unlike the new anti-Semites that have no hostility to Jews as people, the Christian Zionists give priority to their enthusiasm for the state of Israel, while being ready to disrupt the lives of diaspora Jews and eventually even Israeli and Zionist Jews. Maybe it is less perversity than opportunism. Israel has never had any reluctance to support the most oppressive and dictatorial leaders of foreign countries provided they buy arms and do not adopt an anti-Israeli diplomacy. Netanyahu’s congratulatory message to Jair Bolsonaro the newly elected leader of Brazil is but the most recent instance, and Israel received a quick reward by an announcement of a decision to join  the United States in moving its embassy to Jerusalem. In effect, the new anti-Semitism is comfortable with both Christian Zionism and with foreign political leaders that exhibit fascist inclinations. In effect, a blind eye toward the core reality of true anti-Semitism is a characteristic of the new anti-Semitism so favored by militant Zionists. For abundant documentation see the important book by Jeff Halper,War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and Global Pacification (2015).

 

Against such a background, we need a descriptive term that identifies this phenomenon and rejects its insidious claims. I am here proposing the inelegant label ‘the new new anti-Semitism.’ The idea of such a label is to suggest that it is the new anti-Semites not the critics and activists critical of Israel that are the real bearers of hatred toward Jews as Jews. Two kinds of arguments are contained in this pushback against the campaign seeking to discredit or even criminalize the ‘new anti-Semites.’ First, it deflects criticism from the persistence of an alarming reality, the continuing ordeal of apartheid imposed on all the Palestinian people as a whole, which should become the salient concern for all who wish the best for humanity. Secondly, it deliberately or unwittingly diverts attention from, and confuses, objections to real anti-Semitism by accepting on behalf of the state of Israel the embrace of Christian Zionists (and evangelicals) along with that of fascist leaders who preach messages of ethnic hatred.

 

To conclude, we who are attacked as new anti-Semites are really trying to honor our humanidentity, and to reject tribalist loyalties or geopolitical alignments, in our commitment to the realization of Palestinian rights, above all their right of self-determination. As Jews to hold Israel accountable under standards that were used to condemn Nazi surviving political and military leaders is to honor the legacy of the Holocaust, not to defile it. In contrast, when Israel sells weapons and offers counterinsurgency training to fascist led governments around the world or remains ready to accept post-Khashoggi Saudi Arabia as a valued ally, it obscures the evil nature of the Holocaust in ways that could haunt Israel and even diaspora Jews in the future.