Tag Archives: Balfour Declaration

GEOPOLITICAL CRIMES: A REVOLUTIONARY PROPOSAL

23 Jul

[Prefatory Note: The essay below is a modified version of the 2018 Annual Lecture of the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) of Queen Mary’s University London, given on March 22 of that year. Its original title was “Geopolitical Crimes: A Preliminary Jurisprudential Proposal.” The text of the lecture has been further revised since publication in the Spring 2019 issue of the Journal of State Crime. Its major premise is that international criminal law has developed a framework for judging the criminal conduct of states with respect to armed conflict and in the relations of state/society relations, but is silent about even the most severe crimes of diplomacy. It is these ‘geopolitical crimes’ that are more responsible for inflicting mass suffering on civilian populations than are most of the forms of international behavior currently criminalized. I am aware that criminalizing acts of diplomacy is a revolutionary idea, but no less for that, deserving of commentary and debate.]

 

GEOPOLITICAL CRIMES: A REVOLUTIONARY PROPOSAL

Points of Departure

When we think about international relations in a general way we typically presuppose a state-centric world order. I find this misleading. Actually, there are two intersecting and overlapping systems of rules and diplomatic protocols that are operative in international relations: a juridicalsystem linking sovereign states on the basis of equality before the law; and a geopoliticalsystem linking dominant states regionally and globally with other states on the basis of inequalities in power, scale, wealth and status. It is convenient to consider the juridical system as horizontal and the geopolitical system as vertical so long as this distinction is understood as a metaphor to distinguish hierarchical from non-hierarchical relations that are operative in international politics.

The United Nations (UN) embodies this structural dualism that pervades world order, and is hierarchical: the subordinate horizontal organizational axis based on juridical equality as exhibited by membership procedures and by the recommendatory authority of the General Assembly. This compares to the supervening vertical axis as embodied in the Security Council in which the permanent membership of the five states considered victors in World War II enjoy a right of veto, and possess an exclusive authority vested in the Security Council to make decisions that are theoretically enforceable.

My purpose in these remarks is to extend the notion of international state crime from its familiar horizontal axis, and suggest the significance of state crime on the vertical axis, which I will call “Geopolitical Crime”. I believe that this category of criminality has been “overlooked” in international criminal law (ICL) despite its responsibility for massive human suffering, and directly linked to some of the most serious deficiencies and unresolved turmoil in contemporary world order. Perhaps, overlooked is not the best word to describe the malign neglect. Maybe “blocked” is more accurate, as consistent with successful efforts of geopolitical actors through the centuries to evade all forms of accountability under international law for state crime unless adversary leaders are. targeted by the winners in major wars.

Of course, I am mindful of the fact that Geopolitical Crimes have not yet been formally or conceptually delimited, and are not even conceptually delimited in aspirational language at the present time, and are likely to never be accepted by the current breed of juridical gatekeepers as a valid legal category. Nevertheless, I believe that the identification and articulation of Geopolitical Crime is of pedagogical value in understanding the causal antecedents of some of the worst features of global politics, as well as of normative value in identifying what kinds of behavior in certain diplomatic settings are likely to produce future harm and by so identifying, encourage more mindful statecraft in the future.

At the outset it needs to be appreciated that international criminal law (ICL) as part of the horizontal/vertical normative mix is currently a very flawed system of law: in such crucial areas as humanitarian intervention, criminal accountability, human rights and the International Criminal Court (ICC), the application of ICL exhibits double standards, which has been producing a pattern of increasing accountability for the weak and vulnerable, and almost total impunity for the rich and geopolitically powerful and politically insulated. The result is a form of “liberal legality” that is structure blind when it comes to holding geopolitical actors to the same standards of criminal accountability as other sovereign states.

My intention is to put forward in an exploratory and tentative spirit a somewhat comprehensive proposal to imagine and delimit two closely related behavior patterns that deserve to be properly classified as Crimes Against Humanity, but are not now so treated. I am provisionally calling these “crimes” “Geopolitical Crimes of War” and “Geopolitical Crimes of Peace”.

My purpose is to identify patterns of deliberate behavior by leading governments in global or regional contexts that inflict severe harm on the individual and collective wellbeing of people, and do so knowingly, willfully, or with extreme negligence, especially in the contexts of war and post-war “peace diplomacy”. Actually, I would be receptive to suggestions of a more suitable label for these patterns of behavior than “Geopolitical Crime”, but for now will stick with this terminology. These proposed “crimes” have yet to be acknowledged as such, much less formally prohibited by treaty or practice. In this sense, this proposal for their inclusion in a jurisprudence fit for humanity is ‘revolutionary.’

On one level, I realize that I may be casting myself in the role of a latter day Don Quixote tilting at the windmills of an ideal legal order rather as did the erstwhile nobleman of La Mancha as he yearned for the gallantry of knights of old. I am sensitive to the fact that delimiting the behavior of leading states as a Geopolitical Crime may strike many persons as a wildly romantic or utopian non-starter, if not seen more destructively, as an effort to subvert the authority of liberal legality by highlighting its jurisprudential deficiencies.

My central critique of ICL is its grant of a free pass or exemption to geopolitical actors and their close allies, which has caused so much harm in the past, continuing into the present, and threatens to do even greater harm in the future. It can be argued that even if this is the case, why call attention to the weakness of ICL by proposing a form of criminalization that is unlikely to ever happen, and if it does, will never be implemented. The experience of the ICC makes these low expectations seem realistic. Nevertheless, while aware of these concerns, I believe there are several reasons that make it worthwhile to delimit Geopolitical Crimes.

First of all, to discuss what I propose to identify as “Geopolitical Crimes” by pointing to historical examples helps us consider why many things have gone so badly wrong in international relations over the course of the last hundred years at the cost of millions of lives. I am well aware that counterfactual narratives of history are inevitably problematic as we can never know what might have happened had we chosen “the road not taken” to recall the motif of Robert Frost’s famous poem.

Secondly, aspirational norms of ICL can become meaningful for civil society actors, even if ignored or rejected by the diplomacy of geopolitical actors (e.g. BAN Treaty – UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, New York, United Nations General Assembly 2017). Delimiting Geopolitical Crimes seeks to fill serious world order and international law gaps created by destructive and intentional policies and practices of geopolitical actors. Raising an awareness of such gaps also helps us understand the degree to which the UN, including its subsidiary organs, is similarly constrained when seeking to fulfil its substantive undertakings as set forth in the Preamble to the UN Charter.

Indeed, civil society tribunals, ever since the Russell Tribunal (International War Crimes Tribunal, Stockholm/Roskilde, 1967) have examined allegations of unacknowledged war crimes of geopolitical actors, including Crimes Against Humanity, by the U.S. in Vietnam, back in 1966 to 1967. Such an undertaking was dismissed and denigrated at the time by mainstream thinking as an absurdly misguided challenge to the behavior of a geopolitical giant in the midst of an aggressive war. In fact, the Vietnam War was the kind of war that international criminal law in the aftermath of World War II had no trouble classifying as a Crime Against Peace at the Nuremberg Tribunal when addressing the behavior of a defeated Axis power.

Despite these efforts to discredit the Russell Tribunal its inquiries and testimonies produced valuable commentaries on the Vietnam War that would not otherwise be available to us. In this regard, in a manner similar to the government-organized war crimes tribunals after World War II, the main value of such civil society initiatives is to narrate on the basis of substantial evidence the wrongdoings of the defendants, whose punishment is of secondary importance, despite these individuals having done terrible things on behalf of a particular state.

I was involved in the Iraq War Tribunal that in 2005 brought to Istanbul before a jury composed of internationally known. moral authority figures, Iraqi testimonies of combat experiences and an array of international experts to record the violations of international law and of the UN Charter on the part of the United States and United Kingdom. In the end, in a manner no other institutional actor could do, this civil society initiative documented and supplied moral and legal reasoning as to why this war should be regarded as a criminal enterprise.

Part of my argument here is that the failure to delimit “Geopolitical Crimes” deprives us of a truer understanding of what went wrong and was wrong, particularly in the course of and the aftermath of World War I and II, and more recently in the responses to the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The wrongfulness in these instances arises from the manner in which the war and peace diplomacy was used to demonize the adversary and exonerate the victor, or in the 9/11 instance, to embolden a wounded and traumatized superpower to take steps previously treated as prohibited by international law. Considering Geopolitical Crimes is also a matter of attentiveness to the historical antecedents of conflict and political extremism that are habitually misrepresented by propaganda and one-sided interpretations, if treated at all.

The third justification for this line of prescriptive thinking is essentially pedagogical to influence normative discourse in relation to war and peace, suggesting that to ignore geopolitical wrongdoing is to overlook one of the major causes of conflict, chaos, injustice and extremism in the world order experience of the last hundred or more years. Jurisprudential innovations of the kind recommended here has taken place in the past. Raphael Lemkin is often heralded as the person who single-handedly invented the word “genocide” in 1944, and finally produced its acceptance by the powers that be, leading to its incorporation in the authoritative Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in New York (United Nations General Assembly 1951).

In the course of the Vietnam War, in response to the conduct of environmental warfare, a biologist at Yale, Arthur Galston, came up with the term “ecocide”, an analogue to genocide, but in relation to natural surroundings. I later drafted a proposed Ecocide Convention that I hoped at the time could and should become part of international criminal law (see Falk 1973). Unfortunately, unlike genocide, ecocide has not yet been incorporated into ICL, at least never at the inter-governmental level, although civil society actors are active in promoting ecocide as an international crime that should be implemented by enforcement. In this regard, the idea of ecocide as a crime has been widely accepted in several influential civil society settings, and has become part of the progressive public discourse relating human activity to environmental harm.

And fourth and finally, the articulation of geopolitical crimes, as crimes, might induce greater care on the part of some policy planners and governmental leaders in avoiding harmful practices in the future, even if such decision makers continue to deny any legal obligation to do so. The nuclear taboo is an example of a tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons that in part stems from the horrific realization of the atomic antecedent of these weapons in the closing days of World War II. The normative discourse reinforced this taboo, most notably by General Assembly Resolutions (United Nations General Assembly 1946), the Shimoda Case decided by a (Tokyo District Court 1962) and by a 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice (International Criminal Court 1996). We might describe such a taboo as “informal law” that if backed by practical wisdom can lead to impressive levels of compliance, sometimes higher than what is achieved by formal law, even in a treaty form, especially if compliance is geopolitically inconvenient (Article VI, United Nations Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, New York, United Nations 1968). Beyond this, if such taboos are violated, the perpetrators might appropriately be deemed responsible for criminal behavior if what is done is widely regarded as Geopolitical Crimes, which might have the effect of expanding the jurisprudential and pedagogical influence of civil society tribunals.

Delimiting “Geopolitical Crimes”: Jurisprudential Clarifications and Historical Illustrations

It is appropriate to consider Geopolitical Crimes from a jurisprudential perspective, and then provide illustrative cases. I will choose the impact Geopolical Crimes on the practices and policies imposed on the Middle East in the peace diplomacy of the victors after World War I. I will also make brief reference to the Geopolitical Crimes of War and of Peace associated with the conduct of World War II and the conditions of peace established subsequent to the war, especially the ambiguous legacies of the Nuremberg and Tokyo War Crimes Trials. I would also point to early initiatives of the United Nations, which bears serious unacknowledged responsibility for the ordeals of the Palestinian people and the failure over the course of decades to find a sustainable peace based on the respective rights of these two long embattled peoples.

These various historical circumstances present complicated and controversial contexts, and as I am suggesting, my commentaries at this point are more intended as a means to initiate discussion than a claim to achieve an authoritative interpretation of such multiply contested and layered historical events.

An alternative illustrative situation that qualifies as geopolitical criminality could have been provided by offering a critical account of punitive restrictions imposed on German sovereignty by the Versailles Treaty in the form of reparations and demilitarization. It is arguable that this diplomacy constituted Geopolitical Crimes of gross negligence contributing to the rise of Hitler and Nazism. It is significant, suggesting an informal learning process, that peace diplomacy after World War II deliberately avoided the imposition of a punitive peace upon the defeated Axis Powers, although these defeated states and their leaders were guilty of a far worse path of criminality than what the countries defeated in World War I had done.

More recently, in the context of the First Gulf War in 1992, the victorious coalition again imposed a punitive peace on Iraq in the form of economic sanctions that pro- duced catastrophic predictable losses of civilian lives, including among children (see Beres 1992). Why these punitive and indiscriminate sanctions were imposed remains not entirely clear. Partly it reflected a substitute or compensatory course of action for the failure of the victorious coalition to pursue all out political victory of the sort that ended both world wars. The post-war sanctions imposed on Iraq can be thought of as compromise between pushing for regime change in Baghdad and the grudging acceptance of the government of Saddam Hussein as legitimate. The Geopolitical Crime arises from the failure to take steps to avoid causing suffering to the civilian population of Iraq. To target civilians is an instance of state terror that should be treated as an international crime.

Let me first try to describe more adequately what I mean by “Geopolitical Crimes”. My reference is to deliberate or grossly negligent undertakings by leading governments representing sovereign states or international institutions that violate core norms of international law, diplomatic customary practices and the protocols of international relations, and fundamental principles of international ethics. Often, the most serious harm done by these violations results from longer term dislocations that should reasonably have been foreseen. If this is so, it provides a rationale for imposing legal responsibility as reasonable and appropriate, especially with an eye towards inhibiting the repetition of comparable behavior in the future. It could be thought of as ‘a precautionary principle’ for diplomats. For example, if the imposition of “punitive peace” had been rendered unlawful in light of the World War I experience it might have exerted some deterrent impact on imposed harsh conditions on Iraq in 1992.

Historically, there is a tendency for the victors in major wars to have opportunities to alter international relations according to their values, interests and fears. This was certainly true of the outcomes of the major wars involving Europe (see Beres 1992). However, this is not always the case. Sometimes Geopolitical Crimes have immediate, intended and foreseeable effects. Two obvious recent examples: the 2017 blockade and related steps coercively imposed on Qatar in response to its failure to meet the 13 Demands made by a coalition of members of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt (see Falk 2018). The Geopolitical Crime present centers on the unlawful intrusion on Qatari sovereignty, with intended harm to public and private sector activities, as associated with the impact of the 13 unreasonable demands as reinforced by administrative decrees and blockades.

My second example is President Trump’s thrashing (Borger et al. 2018) and subsequent repudiation of the P5 + 1 Agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action 2015), a course of action that makes a destructive and unlawful war in the Middle East far more likely, and its threat, a certainty.

It is, of course, entirely reasonable to argue that some alleged “Geopolitical Crimes” produced bad outcomes that could not have been reasonably anticipated or that the political actors involved had been motivated at the time by good faith, conventional wisdom and political realism. One important context for geopolitical criminality, as earlier suggested, is in post-conflict peace diplomacy where the victor calls the shots.

For instance, at the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials of surviving German and Japanese military and political leaders, the criminal activities of the victors were exempted from scrutiny, and could not be mentioned by the defense, however serious and relevant. In partial deference to such a constraint on prosecution, German and Japanese defendants were not charged with crimes that the Allied countries had committed. This selectivity was extensively critiqued as “Victors’ Justice” (see Minear 1971). More specifically, in light of the Allied “saturation” bombing of German cities, the German, Italian and Japanese bombing of civilian populations was not among the crimes alleged. Such forbearance in the manner of victors’ justice not only exempted the practice from accountability in the war crimes tribunals, it unwittingly normalized for the future saturation bombing as beyond the reach of international law.

This double effect was particularly striking in light of the pre-war denunciations of

Germany, Italy, and Japan for the “inhuman barbarism” of the bombing of cities in their military operations, which of course were far smaller. It led Franklin Delano Roosevelt to address an “urgent appeal to every Government which may be in hostilities to publicly affirm its determination that its armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, under- take the bombardment from the air of civilian populations” (quoted in Franklin 2018; reactions to German bombing of Guernica in Spain, Japan in Manchuria, Italy in Ethiopia. No effort to condemn at Nuremberg & Tokyo in view of Allied practice, also McNamara’s acknowledgement to LeMay in The Fog of War, [2003], that if war lost, they would likely be prosecuted as war criminals.). What seemed “inhuman barbarism” when done by the enemy became a matter of “military necessity” when done by the victorious side in the course of the war, despite being done on a far larger and more destructive scale. Such an exemption from legal accountability offered the West de facto justifications for recourse to massive bombing tactics in the Korean War (1950– 1952) and the Vietnam War (1962–1975) that cost several million civilian lives.

In partial acknowledgement of this failure to hold the strong responsible for compliance with international law in a manner equivalent to those formally charged, the American prosecutor at Nuremberg, Justice Jackson, famously declared in his closing statement, “We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.” Robert H. Jackson’s (1945) belief that Nuremberg would generate new standards of international behavior applicable to the victors quickly turned out to be wishful thinking. It is of the essence of being a geopolitical actor to refuse as a matter of principle, the discipline of legal or moral restraint. Each of the states that pre- vailed in World War II subsequently committed acts violating the Nuremberg findings without incurring any serious normative backlash, but worse than this, their wrongdoing in this prior war established precedents that so normalized the behavior as to place outside the orbit of legal accountability.

 

Often, the complexities, subtleties and secrecy surrounding diplomacy make it virtually impossible to establish the mental state of mind of the perpetrators of Geopolitical Crimes. One notable exception is an exchange on the U.S. news pro- gram, “60 Minutes”, between Lesley Stahl, TV journalist, and Madeline Albright, on 12 May 1996, then the U.S. Secretary of State, on the impact of harsh sanctions imposed on Iraq after the Gulf War. Lesley Stahl asked the American official, “(w)e have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” and Albright replied “we think the price is worth it.” Although this chilling response was later partially retracted by Albright, it offers a striking example of a high government official endorsing the indiscriminate targeting of civilians by way of a sanctions policy framed to punish the Iraqi regime for its Kuwait attack and as a warning to Iraq and others to remain within its borders in the future of face the geopolitical fury of the United States.

There are, then, two complementary tendencies that bear on my inquiry into the interplay of state crime and world order: the first, is to obscure crimes of state by manipulating the public discourse in misleading ways; Israel has been very effectively done this with respect to the victimization of the Palestinian people in the course of implementing the Zionist project; e.g. persuading the U.S. Government to describe the unlawful Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestine as “unhelpful” rather than “criminal”; the second, is to treat as “crimes” morally and politically distasteful past acts, which were not crimes at the time of their commission, which is my main theme in these remarks, that is, retrospectively criminalizing past behavior. In the first case, the crimes of state are denied or obscured, while in the second instance past governmental wrongdoing is irresponsibly criminalized.

A similar issue is presented by the frequent assertion that indigenous peoples in various settings in the Western Hemisphere and elsewhere were victims of genocide perpetrated by settler communities, generally backed by colonial powers. Again, there is an inevitable normative ambiguity present – the behavior can be properly castigated as “genocide” if this is understood to be a moral and political condemnation, but the implication that such past behavior was also “a crime” in a legal sense is misleading absent an acceptance of natural law thinking based on notions of intrinsic wrong. This would itself be a rather strange jurisprudential move in a modern context where valid international law is based on the consent, or secondarily on the pronouncement of respected civil society organizations..

Nuremberg never directly addressed the criminality of the Holocaust as the most systematic and massive form of genocide out of this respect for “legalism”. It should be remembered that Stalin and Churchill favored summarily executing Nazi war criminals without the ritual of a trial, enabling the moral and political condemnation to be clear and absolute, as well as focused on the core evil without the distracting irrelevance of a long trial. The American view prevailed but at the previously discussed heavy jurisprudential cost of legalizing and normalizing civilian bombing, which had previously been viewed as falling outside the scope of acceptable behavior (see Bruce 2018),

There was a notable progression from strategic bombing to saturation bombing as Allied tactics against Germany intensified in the latter stages of the European theatre of combat. In relation to Japan’s case, this refusal to apply legal standards of accountability to both sides in the war had the momentous side effect of legalizing the atomic bomb for the future, which set the stage for the legalization of nuclear weaponry. (Nuclear weapons are geopolitically legal, while being considered juridically unlawful, at least under most circumstances. (See International Court of Justice, Advisory Opinion, 1996.) This unfortunate byproduct of the war crimes approach was further distorted by the NPT approach, which allows nuclear weapons states to possess, deploy, threaten, and use, while denying even pre-acquisition development options to other sovereign states. (After waiting for disarmament over the course of decades the patience of non-nuclear states and civil society has begun to run out; (See United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, 2017, and International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons [ICAN] Nobel Peace Prize 2017 counter-moves; Geopolitical Crimes of World War II). In this sense, the NPT approach, as supplemented by a geopolitical regime of implementation currently threatening to unleash a war with a Iran, has given geopolitical support to a highly dangerous feature of world order as currently operationalized.

 

Geopolitical Crimes Arising from World War I’s Peace Diplomacy

As suggested, the Geopolitical Crimes of World War I and II are specified as including an extended conception of war as encompassing “peace diplomacy”, that is, the arrangements imposed on the defeated side after active combat ended. The basic contention is that diplomacy that was deliberately wrongful should be held subject to accountable procedures if responsible for inflicting massive suffering on innocent people and their societies. More specifically, the argument set forth suggest the desirability of adding Geopolitical Crimes to the list of Crimes against Humanity set forth in Article 7 of the Rome Statute (United Nations General Assembly 1998) governing the activities of the ICC.

It seems relevant to ignore chronology and mention the most obvious Geopolitical Crimes of World War II before turning to World War I. As earlier suggested, the most consequential Geopolitical Crime involved the normalization of bombing of civilian populations and cities as exemplified by post-1945 patterns of warfare in Korea, Vietnam and more recently in Iraq, Syria and Yemen; this normalization covered atomic bombs, which without comment also extended the cover of legal- ity to nuclear weapons under the positivist precept that whatever is not explicitly forbidden is permitted; imposed “partition” arrangements for Korea, Vietnam and Germany, disrupting natural and traditional political communities of these countries giving rise to warfare and war-threatening tensions that lasted for decades, and reflecting geopolitical arrangements of convenience that under later Cold War conditions could have led to the outbreak of World War III, Korean War

and Vietnam War. These divided country arrangements were implemented with- out consulting the people affected and ignored what became known as “the inalienable right of self-determination” in the decolonization period.

Turning to the peace diplomacy that followed the ending of World War I, it too created by design severe problems that would haunt the affected populations for generations. Although mindlessly indifferent, given the failure to prohibit such behavior, it is admittedly not responsible to suggest after such a lapse of time that this peace diplomacy was a Geopolitical Crime in any plausible legal sense. However, it is in my view quite reasonable to suggest, even retroactively, that the Allied powers were politically and ethically responsible for the commission of grave Geopolitical Crimes. A similar logic seems applicable to Armenian contentions that Ottoman Turkey was guilty of “genocide” due to its responsibility for the organized massacres of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915. A genocide occurred, as noted by Hitler and the world did nothing to stop it. This distinction between what is unlawful and what is political and ethically wrong is important. In 1915, the word genocide had not yet been invented and no norm of prohibition was formally adopted prior to 1951, making any attempted legal application retroactive in violation of the fundamental principle of criminal justice “no punishment without a prior law”.

And so unlike Albright’s assertion, which is contemporaneous with the events, the World War I allegations are of a political and ethical nature, but with the encouragement that such negative diplomacy be stigmatized by being criminalized. In the context of World War I’s peace diplomacy I would call attention to three major initiatives each of which contributed to the current regional landscape of turmoil, extremism and violence causing massive suffering: the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), the Balfour Declaration (1917) and the abolition of the Islamic Caliphate (1924). The first two of these initiatives occurred prior to the ending of World War I but were explicitly incorporated into the peace arrangement imposed on the Middle East. These two colonialist initiatives embedded in the peace diplomacy, did not as such violate prevailing legal norms, nor directly contradict Western political and ethical standards, but seemed imprudent in view of nationalist challenges emanating from the non-West and the wholly disruptive nature of the Zionist project (creating a Jewish state, temporarily disguised as a Jewish “homeland” in a non-Jewish society; at the time of Balfour the Jewish population in Palestine was in the vicinity of 8%).

Kemal Ataturk decreed the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924 as part of his central project of making Turkey a Europeanized secular state along the specific lines of France. Although such an undertaking would have negative reverberations later in Turkey, it would not be reasonable to expect a political leader to anticipate this, and in fact, the secularization of Turkey was consistent with the modernization

norms that prevailed politically and ethically in the West. In actuality, however, Ataturk’s modernization project had a dislocating effect in Turkey that bears comparison with the Zionist impact on Palestine: it represented an attempt from above to impose a secular Europeanized state on a religiously oriented and non-Western multiethnic society that had long existed in Turkey. The Shah of Iran attempted the same sort of social engineering transformation of Iran that also produced a drastic backlash.

In my view the basic Geopolitical Crime committed with respect to the Ottoman Empire involved the imposition of European territorial states on a region that had been previously governed in a loose and largely non-territorial manner. More concretely, the region had for centuries been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire that divided the Arab world into “millets” vested with responsibility for local self- government, based on distinct units reflecting ethnic and religious identities. This system of governance was long largely accepted by inhabitants as “natural” or legitimate political communities, with identities that were local and tribal as well as civilizational and religious, and essentially non-territorial in the sense of the modern state system based on the central juridical idea of territorial sovereignty.

What Sykes-Picot attempted to do was to satisfy the colonial ambitions of Britain and France substituting territorial colonies within fixed international boundaries for Ottoman millets. This meant overriding the preceding natural and established communities by imposing borders and authority structures responsive to colonial priorities (e.g. Britain wanted to secure Palestine so as to be in a better position to protect the Suez Canal and trade routes to India; France wanted to establish Lebanon within borders that would ensure the presence of a Christian majority state in the region subject to its control).

I find it significant that the most influential and stark critiques of this extension of the European state system to the Middle East emphasize the illegitimacy of this element of territoriality. For instance, Ayatollah Khomeini expressed the view that neither territorial European style states nor dynastic monarchies were legitimate forms of political community. He contended that the revolution in Iran was “Islamic” (that is, non-territorial) and not “Iranian” (that is, territorial). Osama Bin Laden in explaining the ethos of his movement challenging the status quo in the Arab world pointed to 80 years of humiliation for Muslims due to the abolition of the Islamic Caliphate. The first slogan after ISIS established its ill-fated caliphate in 2014 was “the end of Sykes-Picot”, exhibiting a historical consciousness hostile to territoriality. It is possible to discount such statements as the voice of Islamic extremists that are not representative of the region, and cannot validly claim to be the voice of the people, which is more accepting of modernity, secularism and territoriality, and the accompaniment of territorial states. At the same time, one notices that these states have not succeeded in establishing any kind of voluntary or natural political community, have confronted recurrent chaos, geopolitical interventions, a series of governing authorities relying on brute force to establish and maintain order. The region has experienced a century of violent conflict, punctuated by periodic regional wars and a series of large-scale military operations, and leading to the expulsion of several hundred thousand Palestinians from their homeland.

One of the worst Geopolitical Crimes involved the coercive fragmentation and victimization of the Palestinian people as a whole. It is little wonder that in the era of decolonization, the establishment of Israel would occasion cycles of resistance and repression with still no end in sight. Surely, Balfour, despite the colonial arrogance of the declaration, could not be held responsible for foreseeing what would unfold, and colonial ambitions were later somewhat moderated by being forced into the mandates system that promised, although vaguely, eventual political independence. As with the Armenian case, what we can learn by looking back a century is that if the Balfour Declaration and its subsequent implementation had been undertaken in today’s post-colonial world it would qualify without question in the sense used here as a Geopolitical Crime, although not from the perspective of ICL.

Similarly, with the third initiative which was a spillover from World War I although distinct from its formal diplomacy. Turkey achieved independence by force of arms under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk, a visionary leader who deter- mined to take Turkey down the path of modernization, which meant secularism, nationalism, industrialization, and statism. This led Ataturk to shift course, and in 1924 abolish the Islamic caliphate that had its administrative center in Istanbul, once again reinforcing the trend away from statelessness in the Ottoman Middle East and towards a statist region organized around the somewhat alien European model of territorial sovereignty.

I am suggesting that these three initiatives constitute the deep roots of the tragedy we currently witness in the Middle East undoubtedly aggravated by the presence of abundant oil reserves vital for the functioning of the world economy. This is not meant to diminish the relevance of more proximate realities that help up grasp the more immediate con- text of the present awful conjuncture of forces in the region. The Cold War, starting with the Truman Doctrine, led to rigidity and confrontation that also produced regime-changing interventions, as in Iran in 1953, protecting foreign investment in the oil industry and also ensuring ideological alignment with the West. These realities underlay the later inducements of geopolitical actors to intervene in the region to protect their access to the vast oil reserves of the Gulf, the concern of the West to stem the tide of political Islam that flowed from the Iranian experience in 1979, and to act in ways that bolstered Israel’s security. The 9/11 attacks, an outgrowth of these earlier developments, further aggravated by internal and external engagements that sought to shape the political future of the region. The Arab Spring of 2011 followed by counterrevolutionary responses have led to the chaos and violence evident in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq, as well as the kind of repressive regime brought about by the 2013 military coup in Egypt.

 

Conclusion

I think that so me Geopolitical Crimes are ongoing and others are being initiated to reflect current realities. In. my judgment, the democratic citizenries of the world have strong incentives to oppose their commission. To illustrate this contemporary dimension, I would regard the withdrawal by Trump from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change (2016) or his decertification of the Iran Nuclear Program Agreement (2015) as blatant Geopolitical Crimes that should be so understood and in a more humane world order, would be prohibited, if possible prevented, and if necessary, accordingly punished.

Telford Taylor, one of the American prosecutors at Nuremberg, ends his book comparing Nuremberg with Vietnam with this provocative quote from the French statesman, Georges Clemenceau: “It was worse than a crime it was a mistake.”  (Taylor, Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy, 1970). What I have been suggesting is that we should criminalize geopolitical mistakes of grave magnitude. In this more normative sense, crimes are far worse than mistakes.

We can no longer afford the occurrence of deliberate choices by representatives of leading governments that should be foreseen as producing grave harm to the human interest in achieving humane societies and a sustainable future for the species. In effect, the vertical dimension of world order needs to become subject to the discipline of international criminal law for the sake of human wellbeing, species survival, and ICL needs to be expanded to include Geopolitical Crimes.

References

Beres, L. (1992) “Prosecuting Iraqi Gulf War Crimes: Allied and Israeli Rights under International Law”, Hastings International and Comparative Law Review 16(1): 41–66.

Borger, J., Dehghan, S. and Holmes, O. (2018) “Iran Deal: Trump Breaks with European Allies over ‘Horrible, One-Sided’ Nuclear Agreement”, The Guardian, 9 May. Available online at https:// http://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/08/iran-deal-trump-withdraw-us-latest-news-nuclear- agreement (accessed 5 February 2019).

Franklin, B.(2018) Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Falk, R. (1973) “Environmental Warfare and Ecocide – Facts, Appraisal, and Proposals”, Bulletin of Peace Proposals 4(1): 80–96.

Falk, R. (2018) “A Normative Evaluation of the Gulf Crisis”. Humanitarian Studies Foundation Policy Brief. Available online at http://humsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/HSF_PolicyBrief_2.pdf.

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Minear, R. (1971) Victors’ Justice: Tokyo War Crimes Trial. Princeton: Princeton Legacy Library. Robert H. Jackson Center. (1945) “Opening Statement before the International Military Tribunal”, November 21. Available online at: https://www.roberthjackson.org/article/justice-jackson-delivers-

opening-statement-at-nuremberg-november-21-1945/ (accessed 5 February 2019).
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Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy”. New York: United Nations.
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Crime of Genocide”, vol. 78. New York: United Nations.
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A/CONF.229/2017/8, pp. 1–10. New York: United Nations.

 

 

Why the United Nations Matters (even for the Palestinians)

18 Jan

 

There are many reasons for persons with very different worldviews to feel disillusioned by, if not angry at, the United Nations. These negative feelings arise usually because the UN stands idly by the sidelines while terrible national and human tragedies unfold as the world media visually narrates horrific events in real time. At other times the hostile feelings toward the UN arise because the Organization is seen as a plaything of geopolitics, as bowing to crude leverage wielded by major funding governments, and in the process violating the letter and spirit of the UN Charter. Such behavior undermines the UN’s constitutional foundations and casts doubt on the central claim that the Organization is dedicated to the cause of war prevention.

 

No people have more reason to be disappointed with the UN, international law, and the precepts of international morality than do the people of Palestine. From the moment the UN was established up until the present moment, the Palestinians have been victimized either by the use of the UN to pursue geopolitical goals or by the inability of the UN to implement its own decisions and assessments that are responsive to Palestinian grievances or supportive of Palestinian aspirations.

 

Obviously, there is present a world order puzzle that needs solving. Many believe, especially here in the United States, that it is Israel that is the victim of UN bashing and bias, being singled out at the UN for continuous censure and criticism, and it is the Palestinians that have over the years received aid and comfort in the halls of the UN for their contentions, however inflammatory. For our dualistic Western minds, incapable of reconciling opposites, something must be wrong. It seems impossible for both the Palestinians and Israelis to be both victimized at the UN.

 

Yet this is precisely the case. The Palestinians are victimized because the UN doesn’t mean what is says, at least not on the plane of action. The UN gives the Palestinians the pabulum of words, while refraining from the reality of deeds, which over time gives rise to resentment and cynicism summarized by the sentiment: ‘what good are words, if nothing happens, and the situation on the ground even deteriorates.

 

At the same time, partly in reaction to this sense of impotence when it comes to imposing its views effectively on behavior, the UN slaps, sometimes strongly, the defiant Israelis. And the Israelis, never above playing the anti-Semitic card, keep telling the world that they are singled out for bashing even though their wrongs are far less bad than that of others. Of course, never far in the background is the weight of geopolitics, with the United States wielding a punitive stick on Israel’s behalf.

 

History needs to be taken into account in sifting through the complexities of argument and counter-argument carried on now for decades about the performance of the UN in relation to Palestinians and Israelis. With respect to the geopolitical explanation of Palestinian disillusionment, the UN already in 1946 accepted the responsibility to supersede the United Kingdom, which had been administering Palestine on behalf of the international community since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I., in working out a solution on behalf of the two peoples. Yet instead of consulting the resident population of Palestine on its wishes with respect to the implementation of the right of self-determination, the UN on its own initiative proposed an Orientalizing solution that gave Israel 55% of Palestine despite less than 33% of the population being Jewish. This demographic disparity existed despite several decades of Jewish immigration spurred by energetic Zionist efforts around the world as well as by the British, eager for strategic reasons of their own to carry out the Balfour pledge of 1917. Jewish immigration was also greatly encouraged by the rise of Nazism, which intensified the search for a sanctuary that could protect Jews, especially those fleeing Hitler’s Germany.

 

Then to compound this imposition of a settler colonialist outcome, repugnant from the outset to the majority Arab population, the UN proceeded in 1948 to accept Israel as a member of the UN without first making obligatory provision to ensure an equitable future for the Palestinian people. This flawed UN response to the end of the British mandate has been compounded by years of Israeli expansionism, especially since 1967. Such an internationally tilted outcome reflected intense liberal guilt toward Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust combined with the skill and tactics of the Zionist movement in influencing the Jewish diaspora as well as government policy in Europe and North America. It was an early demonstration of geopolitics triumphing over international law and global justice within the UN. It should not be forgotten that the UN was established in ways that gave leading states a geopolitical comfort zone, more familiarly known as ‘the veto,’ a blunt instrument for opting out of responsibilities, and useful to protect friends and batter enemies.

 

Turning to the impotence of the UN when it comes to its resolutions and decisions that encounter geopolitical resistance, the pattern has been evident all along. After the outcome of the 1967 War, the international community by way of the UN acquiesced with hardly a whimper to the extension of Israeli territorial claims from 55% to 78% of mandate Palestine. Ever since, this enlargement of Israeli territorial expectations has formed the basis for the two-state consensus, and was even accepted by the Palestinians as the realistic territorial baseline for a compromise solution.

 

Beyond this central issue of territorial allocation, the UN General Assembly affirmed the right of return of Palestinians forced to leave their homes in the 1947-48 War in General Assembly Resolution 194, and a second wave dispossessed in the 1967 War. The resolution has been pointedly rejected by Israel without any adverse consequences.

 

In similar fashion, the expansion and annexation of Jerusalem has been strongly condemned, most canonically, by the UN Security Council in Resolution 478 (1980), a unanimous vote except for the U.S. abstention. Finally, despite this, and the periodic Security Council denunciations of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestine territory, Israel has continued year upon year to build and increase the settler population. Against this background, it is to be expected that the Palestinians feel that having their rights affirmed at the UN is a worthless exercise, if not a feeble way to obscure UN impotence, given that the Palestinian ordeal has worsened year after year, decade after decade.

 

And yet despite all this the Jerusalem resolution of last December (passed by a vote of 128-9 with 35 abstentions and 21 absences) repudiating the Trump initiative is significant, partly because symbols are of great, if indirect, importance in international life. Symbolic victories at the UN do on occasion have subtle, yet real, behavioral impacts. The UN for all its weaknesses has long been the primary source for authoritative determinations of the legitimacy and illegitimacy of internationally recognized claims and grievances. This resolution is illustrative, supported by every important country in the world including the closest allies of the United States, with the symbolic and unequivocal rejection of the Trump diplomatic gesture of recognition being clear and consequential.

 

The Jerusalem resolution seems likely to produce a series of consequences: it greatly weakens, if not terminates, the central role that the United States has played as the only recognized third party mediator between Israelis and Palestinians, thereby creating an opportunity for the EU and individual European states to fill the diplomatic vacuum that seems to have formed; besides this, demonstrations around the world opposing the U.S. recognition initiative are translating support throughout the world for the Palestinian global solidarity movement that is likely to be expressed in several ways, especially by way of a more robust Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Campaign. And at least for the moment, the Palestinian Authority, and its leadership, has moved away from adopting a quasi-collaborative stance in its relations with Israel, insisting that Trump’s move caused a damaging rupture. In effect, if diplomacy is to go forward in the future, it will have to proceed under new auspices, possibly Europe, maybe even China or the UN. Such radical expectations, while expressing a welcome refusal to be coopted by the Tel Aviv/Washington charade carried on for so long within the Oslo framework, is totally unrealistic in the near term. Israel would much rather be a pariah state than to submit its fate to Chinese or UN diplomacy, or for that matter, any intermediary that would seem fair to the Palestinians rather than partisan as in the past in favor of Israel. For so long Israel has

been coddled by American leaders that it became a hardened expectation with little wiggle room as Barack Obama found out early in his presidency when he dared to take baby steps in search of a middle ground.

 

It is worth recalling the anti-apartheid campaign against the South African racist regime that achieved prominence in the decades after 1945. The UN played a crucial role by its authoritative condemnation of apartheid as a crime against humanity and by its indirect encouragement of nonviolent resistance to South Africa racism throughout the world. This anti-apartheid experience is an instructive precedent, raising hope for the eventual success of the Palestinian national struggle, although the South African leadership had been far less creative and effective than the Israelis in insulating their governing process from external pressures.

 

What is analyzed with reference to Palestine and the Jerusalem resolution can be understood as a template for a general appreciation of both what the UN can and cannot do. The UN has this central role to play in either confirming or dismissing symbolic claims associated with the grievances and rights of subjugated peoples in the world. It is for this reason that governments fight so hard to have their policies accepted at the UN, or at least not criticized, censured, or punished, none more so than the government of Israel. Israel’s vicious attacks on the UN should be understood as disclosing the Israeli appreciation that, despite everything, the UN is a crucial site of struggle in the contemporary world order. Its findings of legitimacy and illegitimacy, especially if they resonate with feelings of justice around the world, impact strongly on civil society and often exert a strong influence on international public opinion and media coverage.

 

At the same time even if there is intense support for a symbolic outcome, it will rarely be self-enforcing, and it will be almost impossible to enforce at all absent a rare supportive geopolitical consensus. For instance, with respect to imposing sanctions on North Korea given its provocative nuclear program and accompanying diplomacy, it has been possible for all 15 members of the Security Council to agree sometimes on a common course of action, although as worried by Trump’s blustering belligerence that increases the danger of a universally unwanted and feared war. The geopolitical divergencies that were present at the UN were temporarily overcome by compromises. In this instance, the shared goal of avoiding a war on the Korean Peninsula encouraged governments to find some common ground.

 

The role of the UN in the Middle East has been particularly lamentable, First, the legacies of colonialism have left artificial political communities throughout the region. The Middle East also suffered from the geopolitical ambitions of the U.S., including its Cold War containment policy, strategic priorities accorded Gulf oil reserves and the security of Israel, and since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, its resolve to limit the spread of Islamic influence and political extremism. In effect, when the geopolitical stakes are high and associated with the policy priorities of dominant states, then the UN becomes marginalized, playing only trivial roles as in the long international civil wars that have caused such massive suffering in Syria and Yemen.

 

The conclusion to be reached is to view the UN realistically, affirming its central role with regard to symbols of legitimacy and its relative impotence if geopolitical forces are mobilized against any UN calls for action. Sometimes, arguably, the UN can be too effective, as when geopolitical forces turn a blind eye to issues of sovereignty and justice in a weaker country. This happened when in 2011 the Security Council was hoodwinked into endorsing a NATO regime-changing intervention in Libya undertaken in the name of freedom and democracy, but resulting in chaos, violent strife, and ethnic tensions.

 

The prospects for a stronger UN presence in international life involve tethering geopolitics by taking steps that now seem politically impractical: abolishing the veto power of the five permanent members of the Security Council, making resolutions of the General Assembly binding if supported by ¾ of UN members, basing UN funding on an independent tax base tied to international civil aviation or transnational financial transactions, and removing the selection of the Secretary General from the filter of P-5 approval. These steps have been long advocated by those seeking a more effective UN, but have been blocked by states that do not want to diminish their international status or their geopolitical leverage.

 

Until the international system experiences a shock or intense stress, it is hard to imagine such steps being taken. In fact, given Trump’s regressive approach to global policy and thinly disguised hostility to the UN, it is more likely that the UN will be even more constrained in the near future as to what it can do to make the world more peaceful, prosperous, sustainable, and just. The diplomatic rebuff of the U.S. after its irresponsible Jerusalem unilateralism, including the failure of its bullying tactics, has undoubtedly made the Trump presidency realize that the UN will not be a venue in which to push its regressive version of ultra-nationalist militarism.

 

Despite understandable degrees of disillusionment, people of good will dedicated to UN ideals should not give up on the Organization or its potentiality, but work harder to make the UN come closer to fulfilling its original promise, needed now more than ever. Justice for the Palestinian people, however long deferred, remains the defining moral prism by which to assess the shifting balance between achieving global justice and bowing to the whims of geopolitics at the UN and elsewhere.

Balfour: Then and Now

2 Nov

 

 

Today, November 2, is exactly 100 years after the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, the pledge given to the World Zionist Movement in a letter signed by the British Foreign Secretary to support the establishment of a ‘national home’ in the then Ottoman millet of Palestine. Certainly ‘a day of infamy’ for the Palestinian people and their friends around the world, while unfortunately treated as ‘a day of pride’ by the British Government, and all in the West those morally bankrupt enough to regret the passing of the colonial era, and to pretend without embarrassment that the Balfour legacy is something to celebrate, rather than to mourn, in the year 2017.

 

The British pledge was an unabashed expression of colonialist arrogance in 1917, ironically made at the dawn of the worldwide movement of national upheavals that would lead in the course of the century to the collapse of European colonialism. At the end of World War I colonialism was being increasingly questioned morally, but not yet challenged legally or politically. Such challenges only began to emerge as the struggles of national liberation gained political traction globally after 1945.

 

It is worth noticing that there was a certain amount of diplomatic pushback even in the post-1918 diplomacy, especially by way of Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy of ethnic ‘self-determination’ for the Ottoman held territories of the Middle East. More strongly in the same direction was Lenin’s radical critique of colonialism as a system of oppression that needed to be opposed and crushed wherever in the world it existed. This pushback did lead Britain and France to moderate their colonial ambitions as embodied in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, but these two unrepentant colonial powers still managed to gain essentially uncontested de facto control of political communities throughout the Middle East by way of the mandate system, which might be better understood as ‘tutelary colonialism.’

 

I am led to wonder whether if Wilson had had his way at Versailles in 1919 would the Balfour impact have been lessened with respect to the unfolding reality of Palestine? Presumably, Arab self-determination throughout the region would have drastically reduced the British and French role. Perhaps this European displacement would have been to an extent as to prompt a shift of Zionist energies away from Palestine, leading to a willingness to find a secure homeland somewhere that would be more receptive to the establishment of a Jewish state in their midst. This might have spelled a different tragedy for a different people than what has befallen the Palestinian people. Of course, ‘what might have been,’ is only of interest as a way of historically decoding the injustices that currently afflict oppressed and deprived peoples. We are helpless to change the past, although we can imagine unfolding in more benevolent ways. As much as the Palestinians, the Kurds throughout the region were fragmented and subjugated, and continue to this hour to struggle for some measure of ethnic autonomy, collective dignity, and self-determination. The Kurds were promised by World War I victors a state of their own situated mainly in present day Turkey and embodied in the Treaty of Sévres (1920). A few years later what was given was taken away, reflecting geopolitical moves that adapted to intervening political developments at the enduring expense of the Kurdish people. The main intervening event between the two treaties was the shocking Ataturk victory over European powers in Turkey, which helps understand why the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) abandoned the arrangements proposed at Sevres.

 

Reverting to reality, Britain became the mandatory administrator of Palestine in 1923, opening the country to the incremental realization of the Zionist agenda, which concentrated during the 1920s and 1930s on buying land from Palestinians that could be given to Jewish settlers, doing it all it could to induce Jews to emigrate to Palestine, and resorting to a terrorist campaign that was intended to make the British position in Palestine untenable. To make the whole Zionist undertaking credible ideologically, economically, and politically it was imperative to overcome the huge demographic imbalance that existed in Palestine during the early phases of the Zionist movement. It is instructive to recall that the Jewish presence in Palestine at the time of Balfour was no more than 5-7%. Such a small minority could not possibly succeed in establishing and dominating the government of a state that was to be ethnically oriented and yet democratic. Not a single Zionist expected the resident population to accept willingly such an outcome. Israel as a viable sanctuary for Jews escaping persecution necessarily depended on finding the right formula for combining armed struggle and political deception.

 

In this sense Balfour launched a project that was utopian from the Zionist point of view and dystopian from the Palestinian perspective. On the utopian side, establishing a Jewish state that could show a democratic face to the world seemed well beyond the horizon of feasibility. To attain the Zionist goal of a democratic Jewish state in Palestine ran directly counter to the anti-colonial historical tide in the 20th Century that swept away all in path elsewhere in the non-Western world. And then to overcome such a one-sided

demographic imbalance seemed a mission impossible no matter how much the Jewish diaspora was goaded into emigrating to Israel.

 

On the dystopian side as experienced by the Palestinians, the nakba dispossession and expulsion of about 750,000 Palestinians, reinforced by discriminatory immigration policy, rigid security policies, and by Zionist expansionism that continues to this day has inflicted a tragic destiny upon the Palestinian people. This kind of ethnic restructuring also was coupled with the legitimation of a settler colonial state, including by the United Nations, at a historical moment when colonialism was entering its sunset phase and the UN was supposed to reflect the moral will of the organized global community. This outcome was permanently disillusioned for the Palestinians, and involves a cruel and paradoxical twist to the long Palestinian ordeal.

 

As an American terrified by Trump and Trumpism I cannot refrain from noting the analogies with the efforts of this leadership to airbrush the Confederate past of the United States, featuring slavery, with broad strokes of moral relativism. Trump’s outrageous assertion that there were good people on the white supremacist side of the Charlottesville demonstrations and General John Kelly’s more recent obtuse contention that the American Civil War resulted from the failure of the two sides (North and South) to strike a compromise, as if a compromise with slavery was a preferred option. A rejection of this kind of high profile posturing is not only a matter of political correctness, it is much more a matter of elemental moral sensitivity and political vigilance then and now.

 

Without letting Britain off the Balfour hook, the main international culprits since 1945 are surely the United States and the UN, jointly and separately failing to produce a sustainable and just peace for both peoples. At this time such a peace will not be achieved by continued recourse to the two-state solution that with each passing Israeli settlement expansion becomes, at best, an empty slogan, and more realistically, a way of changing the conversation to avoid considering the step that alone could bring peace to both peoples: ending the apartheid structures that have fragmented, subjugated, and victimized the Palestinian people ever since the state of Israel was proclaimed in 1948. Until Israel is persuaded to dismantle its apartheid regime (as the racist South African regime was a decade earlier), peace diplomacy is bound to be a farce that does more harm than good. If this more realistic appreciation of the preconditions for peace between Palestinians and Israelis were to begin emerging on this day of remembrance, the Balfour century could at least claim to end on a more hopeful note than it began.

Evolving International Law, Political Realism, and the Illusions of Diplomacy

21 Aug

 

 

International law is mainly supportive of Palestinian grievances with respect to Israel, as well as offering both Israelis and Palestinians a reliable marker as to how these two peoples could live normally together in the future if the appropriate political will existed on both sides to reach a sustainable peace. International law is also helpful in clarifying the evolution of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination over the course of the last hundred years. It is clarifying to realize how the law itself has evolved during this past century in ways that bear on our sense of right and wrong in the current phase of the struggle. Yet at the same time, as the Palestinians have painfully learned, to have international law clearly on your side is not the end of the story. The politics of effective control often cruelly override moral and legal norms that stand in its way, and this is what has happened over the course of the last hundred years with no end in sight.

 

 

The Relevance of History

 

2017 is the anniversary of three crucial milestones in this narrative: (1) the issuance of the Balfour Declaration by the British Foreign Secretary a hundred years ago pledging support to the World Zionist Movement in their campaign to establish a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine; (2) the passage of UN General Assembly Resolution 181 seventy years ago proposing the partition of Palestine between the two peoples along with the internationalization of the city of Jerusalem as a proposed political compromise between Arabs and Jews; and (3) the Israel military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip over fifty years ago after the 1967 War.

 

Each of these milestones represents a major development in the underlying struggle. Each combines an Israeli disregard of international law the result of which is to inflict major injustices on the Palestinian people. Without due regard for this past, it will not be possible to understand the present encounters between Israelis and Palestinians or to shape a future beneficial for both peoples that must take due account of the past without ignoring the realities of the present.

 

Israel is sophisticated about its use of international law, invoking it vigorously to support its claims to act in ways often motivated by territorial ambitions and national security goals, while readily evading or defying international law when the constraints of its rules interfere with the pursuit of high priority national goals, especially policies of continuous territorial encroachment at the expense of reasonable Palestinian expectations and related legally entrenched rights.

 

To gain perspective, history is crucial, but not without some unexpected features. An illuminating fact that demonstrates the assertion is that when the British foreign office issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917 the population of Palestine was approximately 93% Arab, 7% Jewish in a total population estimated to be about 600,000. Another historical element that should not be forgotten is that after World War I there were a series of tensions about what to do with the territories formerly governed by the Ottoman Empire. In the background was the British double cross of Arab nationalism, promising Arab leaders a single encompassing Arab state in the Ottoman territories if they joined in the fight against Germany and its allies in World War I, which they did. Palestine was one of these former Ottoman territories that should have received independence within a unified ‘Arabia,’ which almost certainly would have led to a different unfolding over the course of the last century in the region.

 

As European greedy colonial powers, Great Britain and France ignored commitments to contrary, and pursued ambitions to control the Middle East by dividing up these Ottoman imperial possessions, making them colonies of their own. These plans had to yield to friction that resulted from United States Government support of the ideas of Woodrow Wilson to grant independence to the Ottoman territories by applying the then innovative and limited idea of self-determination. It should be appreciated that Wilson was not opposed to colonialism per se, but only to the extension of European colonizing ambitions to fallen empires. In this same period, however, two other anti-colonial forces were simmering, the Leninist version of self-determination the core of which was anti-colonialism and the rise of movements of national resistance throughout Asia and Africa.

 

In the end, the diplomats at Versailles negotiated a slippery compromise in the form of the Mandate System. The European colonial powers were authorized to administer various Middle Eastern territories as they wished, not as colonial masters, but by assuming the role of trustee acting on behalf of the organized international community as represented by the League of Nations. Unlike such an arrangement in the contemporary world, the rejection of self-determination and the subjection of a foreign country to this form of mandatory tutelage was not then perceived to be a violation of international law, although it was widely criticized in progressive political circles as imprudent politically and questionable morally.

 

The British were particularly eager to govern Palestine, and eagerly accepted their role as mandatory authority. Their imperial interests revolved around the protection of the Suez Canal and overland trade routes to India. As was their colonial practice, Britain pursued a divide and rule strategy in Palestine despite its mandatory status. With this governing perspective in mind the British were eager at the outset of the mandate in the 1920s to increase the Jewish presence in Israel as quickly as possible so as to create a better balance with the native Arab majority population. This, of coincided with Zionist priorities, and led Britain to endorse strongly the Zionist project of encouraging Jewish immigration to Palestine. This dynamic greatly accelerated in the 1930s, especially after the Nazis took over the German government. In reaction to this influx of Jews, the Arab population in Palestine became increasingly restive, worried by and hostile to this rapid increase in the size of the Jewish and viewed with growing alarm increasingly manifest Zionist state-building aspirations, which gave rise to the so-called Arab Uprising of 1936-39. It should be understood that when it became clear that the Zionists wanted their homeland to be in the form of a Jewish state in Palestine it produced a qualitative escalation of friction between immigrant Jews and indigenous Arabs.

 

This circumstance led in two directions that illuminate the evolution of the conflict. First of all, the Palestinians felt threatened in their homeland in a period of their own rising nationalism, a process evident throughout the non-Western world, and sought political independence for themselves but lacked adequate leadership and a resistance movement with sufficient military skills to bring it about. Secondly, the Zionist movement in Israel by manifested its contrary ambitions to establish its own independent state in Palestine increasingly were in conflict with Britain, their earlier benefactor. To achieve their goals the Zionist movement, or more accurately, the more radical sections of the movement, launched a sustained and intensifying terrorist campaign that had the strategic goal of raising the costs of governance of Palestine past the tipping point. When this goal was achieved it led Britain to contemplate alternatives to a continuation of their role as administrator of the Mandate.

 

As is the British tendency whenever stymied by a large bump in the road, a royal commission is formed and given the job of devising a solution. The commission became known as the Peel Commission, in recognition of its Chair, Lord Earl Peel, which was appointed to assess the situation in 1937. As also was the British tendency after conducting a comprehensive inquiry, the principal and unsurprising recommendation of the commission was partition of Palestine. It is this idea of dividing up the people of Palestine on the basis of ethnic identity that continues to be the preferred solution of the international community, commonly known as ‘the two-state solution,’ and was eventually accepted by the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1988, seemingly creating the essential common ground that could produce a territorial compromise acceptable to both peoples. It is helpful to realize that at some point in the 20th century such a solution dictated by an external actor lacked legitimacy even if sincerely seeking the wellbeing of the affected peoples, a presumption of good will that was not itself strong in the case of Britain given its past broken promises to Arab leaders. For partition to be legitimate by the time of World War II it would have required some formal expression of approval from the Palestinian population or its recognized representatives. Such approval would not have been forthcoming. Even at the end of World War II the Jewish population of Palestine was definitely a minority, and there is every indication that the non-Jewish majority population would have overwhelmingly opposed both partition and the establishment of a Jewish state. There was also present significant Jewish opposition to the Zionist project that is rarely acknowledged; its extent although non-trivial, is difficult to estimate with any reliability.

 

Nevertheless, with the notable exception of the Arab world, was the near universal acceptance of the two-state solution has it never materialized? There have been numerous diplomatic initiatives up until the present, and yet this two-state outcome has never come close to becoming a reality. Why is this? It is one among several seemingly mystifying dimensions of the Israel/Palestine encounter.

 

I would venture a central line of explanation. The main leaders of the Zionist movement before and after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 never subjectively accepted the two-state approach, at least with the parameters understood in Washington, the West, and among Palestinian leaders. Although Israeli political leaders blandly indicated their acceptance of a two-state approach if it meant real peace, the territorial dimensions and curtailed sovereignty of any Palestine state that was to be agreed upon were never set forth in terms that Palestinians could be expected to accept.

 

In this respect, it is necessary to appreciate that both the right of a people to self-determination had become incorporated into international law, most authoritatively in common Article 1 of the two human rights covenants adopted in1966, and that colonialist patterns of foreign rule and settlement had become unlawful in the decades following World War II. A central historical paradox is that Israel successfully established itself as independent state, almost immediately admitted to the UN, in the very historical period during which European colonialism was collapsing throughout the world, and losing any claim to political legitimacy.

 

Israel defied these transforming international developments in several concrete and unmistakable ways. Although at the time of the UN General Resolution 181 recommending partition of Palestine, the resident population was not consulted as to their wishes for the future despite the fact that the Jewish population in 1947, even with the post-Holocaust immigration surge, still numbered no more than 30% of the total. The ‘solution’ imposed by the UN, and ‘accepted’ by Israel as a tactical step on the path to control over all or most of Palestine and rejected by the Arab world and Palestinian leaders, amounted to an existential denial of inalienable Palestinian rights at the time. Undoubtedly moral factors played a decisive role, ranging from sympathy for Holocaust survivors to compensating for the failures of the liberal democracies to do more to prevent the Nazi genocide, but these powerful humanitarian considerations do not provide a legal justification for disregarding the rights of the Palestinian people protected by international law, or even a moral justification. After all, the harm inflicted upon Jews as a people was essentially a European phenomenon, so why should the Arabs of Palestine bear the burdens associated with creating a Jewish national sanctuary. Of course, the Zionist answer rests the claims to Palestine on its status as ‘the promised land’ of the Jewish people, an historical/religious claim that has no purchase in state-centric world order that allocates territorial claims on the basis of sovereign rights and effective control. From the perspective of political realism the strongest basis for Jewish territorial rights in Palestine has always rested on effective control established by successful military operations.

 

Nor did international law uphold the acceptance of the later outcome of the 1948 war in which Jewish forces increased their effective territorial sovereignty from the 55% proposed by the UN to 78% obtained by success in the war, which also resulted in the permanent dispossession of over 700,000 Palestinians and the deliberate destruction of as many as 531 Palestinian villages to ensure that coercive dynamic of ethnic cleansing was not later reversed. The armistice at the end of the 1948 War became internationally accepted, demarcating provisional borders between the two peoples, known as the ‘green line,’ and also separating the military forces at the end of the 1948 War. These provisional borders became the new negotiating baseline to be relied upon to establish agreed permanent boundaries. This enlargement of the territory assigned to Israel in 1948 directly violated one of the prime rules of contemporary international law, the non-acquisition of territory by conquest or use of force. In effect, the politics of effective control was to apply only intranationally, but not internationally.

 

The 1967 War resulted in Israel replacing Jordan as the administering authority in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Egypt in the Gaza Strip, as well as occupying the Syrian Golan Heights. At the UN Security Council unanimous Resolution 242 called upon Israel to withdraw from these territories, comprising 22% of the Palestine governed by Britain during the mandate period, and for a just resolution of the refugee problem. 242 carried forward the idea of ethnic separation contained in the UN partition solution, although without mentioning a Palestinian state. 242 also confirmed as authoritative the norm that territory could not be validly acquired under international law by forcible means. The resolution did envision a negotiated withdrawal and border adjustments to reflect Israeli security concerns, but it left the implementation up to the parties with no limits on reasonableness or duration. After 50 years, the various unlawful encroachments on what the UN calls Occupied Palestinian Territories, especially the annexation and enlargement of the entire city of Jerusalem and the establishment of an archipelago of Israel settlements and a related network of Israeli only roads, cast serious doubt on whether Israel ever had the intention to comply with the agreed core withdrawal provision of SC Resolution 242. With respect to Jerusalem Israel defiant unilateralism exhibited a rejection of the supposed compromise that was hoped by UN member would bring an end to the conflict. Israel has compounded its defiance by continuously undermining the stability of Palestinian residence in Jerusalem while engaging in a series of cleansing and settlement policies designed to give the city a higher Jewish demographic profile.

 

These three historical milestones call attention to two important aspects of the relevance of international law: first, what was acceptable under international law 100, 70, and 50 years ago is no longer acceptable in 2017; secondly, that Palestinian grievances with respect to international law need to be taken into account in any diplomatic solution of the conflict, above all the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, which needs to realized in a context sensitive to the right of the Jewish people resident in historic Palestine. Although injustices and international law violations have shaped the unfolding of this contested country over the course of the last century, history can neither be ignored nor reversed. Giving proper effect to this double right of self-determination is the central challenge facing an authentic peace diplomacy. Thirdly, the entrenched presence of the Jewish population of Israel, and the state structures that have emerged, even if brought about by legally questionable means, are now part of the realistic status quo that needs to be addressed in a humane and politically sensitive manner.

 

 

The Politics of Effective Control

 

In this sense the historical wrongs endured by the Palestinian people, however tragic, do not predetermine the shape of a present outcome reflective of international law. A peaceful solution presupposes a diplomatic process that recognizes this right as inhering in the situation of both peoples. A mutually acceptable adjustment also does not imply either a two-state or one-state solution or something inbetween, or even an as yet unimagined alternative. Any legitimately agreed solution by the two peoples would be in accord with present day international law. How the historical experience is taken into account is up to the parties to determine, but unlike the Balfour Declaration or the UN partition proposal, in this post-colonial era it is unacceptable under international law for a solution to be imposed, whether by force or under the authority of the UN or by a third party intermediary such as the United States. Unfortunately, international law, and related considerations of justice, are not always determinative of political outcomes as effective control maintained over time generates a framework of control that becomes ‘legal’ if internationally recognized in an authoritative manner.

 

Charlottesville Through a Glass Darkly

18 Aug

 

I suggest that Zionists fond of smearing critics of Israel as ‘anti-Semites’ take a sobering look at the VICE news clip of the white nationalist torch march through the campus of the University of Virginia the night before the lethal riot in Charlottesville. In this central regard, anti-Semitism, and its links to Naziism and Fascism, and now to Trumpism, are genuinely menacing, and should encourage rational minds to reconsider any willingness to being manipulated for polemic purposes by ultra Zionists. We can also only wonder about the moral, legal, and political compass of ardent Zionists who so irresponsibly label Israel’s critics and activist opponents as anti-Semites, and thus confuse and bewilder the public as to the true nature of anti-Semitism as racial hatred directed at Jews.

 

There must be less incendiary ways of fashioning responses to the mounting tide of criticism of Israel’s policies and practices than by deliberately distorting and confusing the nature of anti-Semitism. To charge supporters of BDS, however militant, with anti-Semitism dangerously muddies the waters, trivializing hatred of Jews by deploying ‘anti-Semitism’ as an Israeli tactic and propaganda tool of choice in a context of non-violent expressions of free speech and political advocacy, and thus challenging the rights so elemental that they have long been taken for granted by citizens in every funcitioning constitutional democracy. It is worth recalling that despite the criticisms of BDS during the South African anti-apartheid campaign, militant participants were never, ever smeared, despite being regarded as employing a controversial approach often derided as counterproductive in politically conservative circles.

 

And of course it is not only Zionists who have eaten of this poisonous fruit. As a result of Israel’s own willingness to encourage such tactics, as in organizing initiatives seeking to discredit, and even criminalize, the nonviolent BDS campaign, several leaders of important Western countries who should know better have swallowed this particular cool aid. A recent statement by the new and otherwise promising President of France, Emmanuel Macron: “Anti-Zionism…is the reinvented form of anti-Semitism,” and implicitly such a statement suggests that to be anti-Zionist is tantamount to criticism of Israel as a Jewish state.

 

After grasping this tortured reasoning, have a look at the compelling Open Letter to Macron, written in response by the famed Israeli historian, Shlomo Sand, author of an essential book, The Invention of the Jewish People. In his letter Sand explains why he cannot himself be a Zionist given the demographic realities, historical abuse of the majority population of historic Palestine, and the racist and colonialist overtones of proclaiming a Jewish state in a Palestine that a hundred years ago was a national space containing only 60,000 Jews half of whom were actually opposed to the Zionist project. This meant that the Jewish presence in Palestine represented only about 7% of the total population, the other 700,000 being mostly Muslims and Christian Arabs. The alternative to Zionism for an Israel that abandons apartheid is not collapse but a transformed reality based on the real equality of Jews and Palestinians. Shlomo Sand gives the following substance to this non-Zionist political future for Israel: “..an Israeli republic and not a Jewish communalist state.” This is not the only morally, politically, and legally acceptable solution. A variety of humane and just alternatives to the status quo exist that are capable of embodying the overlapping rights of self-determination of these two long embattled peoples.

 

To avoid the (mis)impression that Charlottesville was most disturbing because of its manifestations of hatred of Jews it is helpful to take a step backward. Charlottesville was assuredly an ugly display of anti-Semitism, but it only secondarily slammed Jews. Its primary hateful resonance was its exhibition of white supremacy, American nativism, and a virtual declaration of war against Black Lives Matter and the African American and immigrant struggle against racial injustice. Jews are doing better than all right in America by almost every indicator of economic, political, and social success. African Americans, Hispanics, and Muslims are not. Many of their lives are daily jeopardized by various forms of state terror, as well as by this surge of violent populism given sly, yet unmistakable, blessings by an enraged and unrepentant White House in the agonized aftermath of Charlottesville. Jews thankfully have no bereaved victims of excess uses of force by American police as have lethally victimized such African Americans as Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Jews in America do not fear or face pre-dawn home searches, cruel family disrupting deportations, and the mental anguish of devastating forms of uncertainty that now is the everyday reality for millions of Hispanic citizens and residents.

 

What Charlottesville now becomes is up to the American people, and to some lesser extent to the reactions and responses throughout the world. The Charlottesville saga has already auditioned Trump and Spence as high profile apprentices of white nationalism. Whether an array of Republican tweets of disgust and disapproval gain any political traction remains to be seen, or as in the past they dissolve as bubbles in the air and soon seem best regarded as empty tropes of political correctness. What counsels skepticism about this current cascade of self-righteous pronouncements is the awareness that many of these same individuals in the past quickly renewed their conniving habits behind closed doors, working overtime to deprive the racially vulnerable in America of affordable health insurance, neighborhood security, and residence rights. As is so often the case in the political domain these days disreputable actions speak far more loudly than pious words.

 

If the majority of Americans can watch the torch parade and urban riot of white nationalists shouting racist slogans, dressed for combat, and legally carrying assault weapons, in silence we are done for as a nation of decency and promise. If the mainstream does not scream ‘enough’ at the top of its lung it is time to admit ‘game over.’ This undoubtedly means that the political future of this country belongs to the likes of Trump/Spence, and it also means that a national stumble into some kind of fascist reality becomes more and more unavoidable. The prospect of a fascist America can no longer be dismissed as nothing more than a shrill and desperate ploy by the moribund left to gain a bit of attention on the national stage before giving up the ghost of revolutionary progressivism once and for all.

 

So we must each ask ourselves and each other is this the start of the Second Civil War or just one more bloody walk in the woods?

2017: Palestine’s Three Dark Commemorations

16 Jan

 

 

 

Increasingly, Palestinians seem doomed to become subjects, or at best second-class citizens, in their homeland. Israeli expansionism, United States unconditional support, and UN impotence. These factors are combining to create dismal prospects for Palestinian self-determination and for a negotiated peace that is sensitive to the rights and grievances of both Palestinians and Jews.

 

Recalling three notable commemorations to be observed in 2017 may help us understand better how this distressing Palestinian narrative unfolded over the course of the past hundred years. Perhaps, such remembrances might even encourage the rectification of past failures, and encourage flagging national and international efforts to find a way forward even at this belated hour. The most promising initiatives are now associated with a growing global solidarity movement dedicated to achieving a just peace for both peoples. For now, neither the United Nations nor traditional diplomacy seem to have much leverage over the play of social and political forces that lies at the core of the Palestinian struggle. Only the nonviolent resistance of Palestinians to their prolonged ordeal of occupation and transnational civil society militancy seem to have any capacity to exert positive leverage over the status quo and to sustain hope.

 

At the same time, legitimacy and visibility remain important, and here the UN and international society have important roles to play, especially to reaffirm the legitimacy of Palestinian goals and grievances, the importance of political compromise, and the persisting refusal of Israel to show respect for international law, the authority of the United Nations, and the world public opinion.

 

 

1917

 

On November 2, 1917 the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, was persuaded to send a letter to Baron Lionel Rothschild, an influential supporter of the world Zionist project, expressing the support of the British government, for the aspirations of the movement. The key language of the letter is as follows:

 

His Majesty ‘s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use its best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

 

An obvious initial observation is why was Britain moved to take such initiative in the midst of World War One. The most plausible explanation is that the war was not going so well, nurturing the belief and hope by British leaders that siding with the Zionist movement would encourage Jews throughout Europe to back the Allied cause, especially in Russia and Germany. A second motivation was to further British interests in Palestine, which Lloyd George, then Prime Minister, regarded as strategically vital to protect the overland trade route to India as well as safeguard access to the Suez Canal. An apparent third motivation was as an expression of gratitude to Chaim Weizmann, a Zionist leader, for his contributions as a chemist to the British war effort. And finally, there were many Europeans, including Balfour himself, who agreed with Zionism that the only lasting assurance of an elimination of anti-Semitism was for Jews to migrate to Palestine.

 

The Balfour Declaration was controversial from the day of issuance, even among some Jews. For one thing, such a commitment by the British Foreign Office was a purely colonialist undertaking without the slightest effort to consider the sentiments of the predominantly Arab population living in Palestine at the time (Jews were less than 10% of the population in 1917) or to take account of rising international support for the right of self-determination to be enjoyed by all peoples. Prominent Jews, led by Edward Montagu, Secretary of State for India at the time, opposed the Declaration, fearing that it would fan the flames of anti-Semitism, especially in the cities of Europe and North America. Beyond this, the Arabs felt betrayed as Balfour’s initiative was seen both as breaking wartime promises to the Arabs of postwar political independence in exchange for joining the fight against the Turks. It also signaled future troubles arising between the Zionist promotion of Jewish immigration to Palestine and the agitation of the indigenous Arab population, as well as producing in the midst of the Arab world a country with great military capabilities in relation to the surrounding region.

 

It should be acknowledged that even Zionist leaders were not altogether happy with the Balfour Declaration. There were deliberate ambiguities embedded in its language. For instance, Zionists would have preferred the word ‘the’ rather than ‘a’ to precede ‘national home.’ Also, the pledge to protect the status quo of non-Jews was seen as inviting trouble in the future, although as it turned out, this assumption of colonialist responsibility was never taken seriously. Most importantly, the Zionists received support only for the ambiguous reality of a national home rather than a clear promise of a sovereign state with full participatory rights in international society. On this latter point, informal backroom British diplomatic chatter agreed that a Jewish state might emerge in the future, but it was believed that this could happen only after Jews became a majority in Palestine, which happened only by way of the permanent dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Arab Palestinians in the course of the violent establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, which was also shadowed by the recent confirmation of the magnitude of the Holocaust.

 

It is worth this backward glance at the Balfour Declaration to realize how colonial ambition morphed into liberal guilt and humanitarian empathy for the plight of European Jews after World War II, while creating an endless nightmare of disappointment, oppression, and rightlessness for the Palestinian population.

 

 

 

1947

 

After World War Two, with strife in Palestine rising to intense levels, and the British Empire in free fall, Britain relinquished its mandatory role and gave the fledgling UN the job of deciding what to do. The UN created a high level group of diplomats to shape a proposal, resulting in a set of recommendations that featured the partition of Palestine into two communities, one for Jews, the other for Arabs. Jerusalem was internationalized with neither community exercising governing authority nor entitled to claim the city as part of its national identity. The UN report was adopted as an official proposal by a large majority of UN members in the form of General Assembly Resolution 181.

 

The Zionist movement purported to accept 181, while the Arab governments and the representatives of the Palestinian people rejected it, claiming it encroached upon rights of self-determination and was grossly unfair. At the time, Jews formed less than 35% of the population yet were given more than 55% of the land. It seems also that the Zionist acceptance of 181 was tactical rather than a principled commitment to confine border to the territory granted to Jews. This interpretation is reinforced by Israel’s refusal to withdraw from the land allocated to Palestine by 181 after fighting ceased in 1948, and instead Israel became a state based on ‘the green line’ borders that greatly enlarged the territorial expanse set aside for Jews in the UN plan.

 

As is widely appreciated, a war ensued, with armies of neighboring Arab countries entering Palestine being defeated by well-trained and armed Zionist militias. Israel won the war, obtaining control over 78% of Palestine at the time an armistice was reached, dispossessing over 700,000 Palestinians, and destroying several hundred Palestinian villages. This experience is the darkest hour experienced by the Palestinians, a continuing occasion of mourning, being known among Arabs as the nakba, or catastrophe.

 

 

 

 

 

1967

 

The third anniversary of 2017 is that associated with the 1967 War, which led to another military defeat of Arab neighbors, and the Israeli occupation of the whole of Palestine, including the entire city of Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. The Israeli victory changed the strategic equation dramatically. Israel that had been previously viewed as a strategic burden for the United States was now appreciated and acknowledged as a strategic partner with impressive military capabilities, and thus deserving of unconditional geopolitical support.

 

In famous Resolution 242 UN Security Council unanimously decided on November 22, 1967 that the withdrawal of Israeli forces should be negotiated, with certain agreed border modifications understood to be minor, in the context of reaching a peace agreement that included a fair resolution of issues pertaining to Palestinian refugees living throughout the region. There was no expectation that Israel would avoid withdrawal, and immediately obstruct diplomacy by embarking on the unlawful settlement undertaking.

 

During the next fifty years we have come to realize that 242 has not been implemented. On the contrary, Israel has further encroached on Occupied Palestine through the continually expanding settlements and related infrastructure of roads and security enclaves, including the separation wall found unlawful by a near unanimous majority of the International Court of Justice in 2004.

 

A point has now been reached where few believe that an independent Palestinian state co-existing with Israel is any longer feasible or even desirable, making further reliance on ‘a two-state’ solution delusional, playing into Israeli hands by giving additional time to carry forward a hybrid approach that mixes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem a de facto pattern of gradual annexation with an apartheid structure of occupation. Despair follows because no plausible alternative to the two-state solution enjoys political traction, except possibly an Israeli one-state solution imposed upon the Palestinians at the cost of effectively relinquishing Israel’s lingering pretensions of democracy. Whether the alternative political form of an ethnocracy enjoys political legitimacy is questionable from either a human rights or global public opinion perspective.

 

 

Conclusion

 

These dark remembrances reveal three stages in the steadily worsening Palestinian reality. They also reveal the inability of the UN or international diplomacy to solve the problem of how Palestinians and Jews should share the land. It is too late to reverse altogether these strong currents of history, but the challenge remains acute to find a humane outcome that somehow finds a way to allow these two peoples to live peacefully and securely together or in separated equal political communities that do not trample upon Palestinian rights. Let’s fervently hope that a satisfactory solution is miraculously found or achieved before another dark remembrance commands our attention.  

 

The Failure of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East

22 Nov

[Prefatory Note: What follows is a modified version of the Morton-Kenney annual public lecture given at the University of Southern Illinois in Carbondale on November 18, 2015 under the joint sponsorship of the Department of Political Science and the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.]

 

The Failure of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East

While focusing on the ‘failure’ of American foreign policy in the Middle East it is relevant to acknowledge that given the circumstances of the region failure to some degree was probably unavoidable. The argument put forward here is that the degree and form of failure reflected avoidable choices that could and should have been corrected, or at least mitigated over time, but by and large this has not happened and it is important to understand why. This analysis concludes with a consideration of three correctible mistakes of policy.

 

It is also true that the Middle East is a region of great complexity reflecting overlapping contradictory features at all levels of political organization, especially the interplay of ethnic, tribal, and religious tensions internal to states as intensified by regional and geopolitical actors pursuing antagonistic policy agendas. Additionally, of particular importance recently is the emergence of non-state actors and movements that accord priority to the establishment and control of non-territorial political communities, giving primary legitimacy to Islamic affinities while withdrawing legitimacy from the modern state as it took shape in Western Europe. Comprehending this complexity requires attention to historical and cultural background, societal context, and shifting grand strategies of geopolitical actors.

 

 

I

 

From many points of view American foreign policy in the Middle East has been worse than a disappointment. It has been an outright failure, especially in the period following the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Even such an ardent supporter and collaborator of the U.S. government as Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has acknowledged as much in a recent set of comments where he basically says that the West has tried everything, and whatever the tactics were relied upon, the outcome was one of frustration and failure. In Blair’s telling words:

“We have tried intervention and putting down troops in Iraq; we’ve tried intervention without putting in troops in Libya; and we’ve tried no intervention at all but demanding regime change in Syria. It’s not clear to me that, even if our policy did not work, subsequent policies would have worked better.” [as quoted in David Swanson, “Tony Blair is Sorry, a Little,” http://davidswanson.org/node/4960] In Blair’s either/or world the political imagination is militarized to the extent that the only viable alternatives are to intervene/or not to intervene, suggestive of that most celebrated of binaries, Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be,’ an utterance relating to whether or not he should kill the usurping king, the presumed murderer of his father.

 

Several comments are worth observing: first, the scope of inquiry in Blair’s comment is limited to an assessment of military intervention as a tactic, without any consideration of diplomacy or respect for the dynamics of self-determination; secondly, the ‘we’ in his comments is the West, which mainly has meant the United States, rather than the UN or the wider international community; it is a geopolitical ‘we’; thirdly, the fact that intervention violates the UN Charter and international law is irrelevant for a post-colonial advocate of Western militarism, such as Blair. This comment is revealing in the same way that Sherlock Holmes famously perceived the nature of a crime by noticing that a dog was not barking in its habitual manner, that is, identifying what is omitted from Blair’s assessment is far more interesting and illuminating than what is acknowledged, which is the frustrations of interventionist statecraft in the Middle East; fourthly, it is a misrepresentation of Western policy toward the Syrian conflict to classify it as an instance of ‘nonintervention’ because there has been no concerted air campaign or ground forces mounted by external actors; fifthly, and perhaps most important of all, Blair’s focus on intervention as a Western instrument to control behavior in particular countries does not attempt to encompass the blowback or boomerang effects of intervention as being increasingly unconstrained by the territorial geography of the combat zone; this extra-regional extension of intervention is being most vividly experienced in the contradictory forms of the migration crisis and the horrifying Paris attacks; the point here being that the reverberations of Western intervention can no longer be reliably confined to non-Western battlefields as was the case during the colonial era.

 

Tom Mayer gives a more satisfactory gloss on this same range of experience. Mayer is a peace activist in Boulder Colorado who manages a very perceptive listserv with the name “Just Peace in the Middle East.” His assessment: “US military intervention has been a calamity in the Middle East. They have destroyed Iraq, destabilized Libya, fostered dictatorship in Egypt, accelerated civil war in Syria, and the destruction of Yemen, and helped squelch a pro-democracy movement in Bahrain.” [Oct. 25, 2015] The difference in outlook between Blair and Mayer is evident: Blair is exclusively concerned with whether Western policy attained its goals or not, while Mayer emphasizes the harmful effects on the society that is on the receiving end of intervention. Blair epitomizes what I regard as an obsolete yet dangerous form of ‘geopolitical thinking’ while Mayer focuses on the primacy of people and the suffering brought about by a misguided reliance on military solutions for conflicts in the Middle East. Mayer’s consequentialist thinking is also like Blair, not overtly sensitive to the relevance of restraints associated with the United Nations or international law but puts all his emphasis on the effects of these Middle Eastern uses of force. He also does not here mention the post-colonial globalization of conflict, the non-localization of Western political violence in the non-Western world, or more dramatically, the recourse by non-Western extremist forms of resistance to striking back at Western civilian or ‘soft’ targets. In my view, this last point is great significance signaling the end of a long era of one-sided violence in which non-Western resistance was confined to the territorial limits of the combat zone.

 

 

 

 

 

II

 

Before proceeding on the facile assumption of the ‘failure’ of American foreign policy in the Middle East, it is illuminating to consider alternative interpretations of recent developments.

 

There are important senses in which American foreign policy in the Middle East has not failed given certain assumptions about its character and priorities. If U.S. priorities are oil, Israel, non-proliferation, and the containment of political Islam, then American policy in the region, despite the collateral devastation and suffering entailed, has been surprisingly successful. For decades U.S. strategic relationships with the Gulf states have been successfully balanced with support for Israel. Oil has continued to keep the world economy going at affordable prices during a period when additional energy sources outside the region have been under development and exploration. After being a strategic burden during the early stages of its existence, Israel emerged as a valued strategic asset and partner with the United States in the region, especially since 1967. The U.S. together with Israel has successfully challenged all instances of the threatened proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region, while quite remarkably enabling Israel to maintain its regional monopoly of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, even to the extent of being insulated from criticism and pressure that should have been expected given such a blatant double standard as well as its process of covert acquisition. [Israel’s attack destroying Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981; Seymour Hersh, The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy (1991)]

 

Beyond these central points, it is relevant that both Israel and Saudi Arabia are also valued as major purchasers of American weaponry, and that Israel has field tested new tactics and weaponry in relation to the Palestinians that seem to have had a particular influence on Washington since the 9/11 attacks. Israel has joined with Washington in the development of counter-terrorism doctrine and tactic in all phases, including shared intelligence. In addition, Saudi Arabia has, despite its own fundamentalist orientation, operated as an unlikely counterweight in the region to the spread of Islamic radicalism, especially due to its bitter rivalry with Iran and hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, by relying on the cool abstractions of geopolitics it is possible to make a strong case for concluding that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, given the priorities, has been a success, and the current devastation chaos, and oppressiveness in several of the countries is a diversionary sideshow that should not be understood as outweighing the benefits.

 

It must be acknowledged that this positive assessment is no very convincing given the inability to prevent the turbulence of the Middle East from spilling over to the West is taken into account. The migration crisis confronting Europe and the extra-regional terrorism of jihadism must now be included in any credible calculation of foreign policy success and failure. Put differently, those countries not militarily engaged in the region, including China and Brazil, have not yet experienced the lethal backlash of Middle East turbulence and the related jihadi backlash.

 

As indicated, much depends on whether the prevailing geopolitical outlook of dominant states in the West is the criterion of success or failure rather than the normative criteria of peace, human rights and justice in the region. I am far more inclined to rely on the latter evaluative approach as coupled with a revisionist interpretation of 21st Century geopolitics. I contend that given the realities of the contemporary world, a nonviolent geopolitics respectful of international law, the authority of the United Nations, and the primacy of the politics of self-determination, despite some difficulties, best serves the strategic interest of the United States. [See Jens David Ohlin, The Assault on International Law (2015)] In effect, the United States position in the Middle East and the world would have been much more successful if built around adherence to international law and respect for UN authority than it has been by the refusal to accept the dynamics of self-determination. In this primary sense there is no conflict between affirming normative priorities and geopolitics, that is, presupposing reliance on this revisionist version of geopolitics.

 

This refusal to accept the political verdicts of self-determination remains in my view the unlearned major lesson of the American defeat in the Vietnam War, a lesson reinforced by the outcome of a series of wars against European colonial powers and by the unhappy post-Vietnam experiences of the United States with military intervention, most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq. The only convincing reading of international history since the end of World War II is that military superiority does not produce political victories in struggles for national independence waged against foreign domination and generates a number of extra-geographical negative effects. These results are unlike the experience of earlier centuries when military superiority did largely shape the historical process. It is quite understandable that this decline in the agency of military policy is hard to difficult to integrate into the thinking and behavior of Western elites.

 

After the Vietnam War, a conversation between an American colonel who was a counterinsurgency specialist and his Vietnamese counterpart makes this essential point. The American declares, “You know that you never defeated us on the battlefield,” to which the Vietnamese colonel replies, “Yes that is true, but it is irrelevant.” From my perspective, the failures of American foreign policy in the Middle East, and elsewhere, is largely a consequence of the inability and unwillingness to comprehend this irrelevance. General David Petraeus, rose to the top of the military bureaucracy by reinventing counterinsurgency warfare in the late 1980s as part of the effort to overcome what American policymakers were derisively calling ‘the Vietnam Syndrome,’ that is, the post-Vietnam inhibition on the use of force due in the pursuit of international goals. I would argue that until the U.S. Government and its political leaders are ready to think outside this military box, we should expect more calls in the future for intervention, followed by new instances of frustration, failure, and non-territorial blowback. If you have watched the presidential debates there is no sign at all given by the candidates of either party of any understanding of the questionable role of military power in addressing characteristic 21st century conflicts. This understanding of the limited usefulness of military power has yet to penetrate the political consciousness of leaders and the public, and is rarely reflected in the media treatments of the Middle East. The consensus in Washington remains that it is military power that best correlates with American security and strategic interests in the Middle East and elsewhere. It had seemed for a while that the ex-colonial powers in Europe had learned this preeminently important lesson, and were successfully creating a culture of peace in Europe that included a reluctance to use force internationally except in self-defense as set forth in the UN Charter. Then the Libyan temptation came along in 2011, and spoiled this impression, which has now

all but disappeared given the challenges posed for Europe by mass migration and ISIS.

 

Against this background, it seems helpful to depict the historical depth of the present circumstances together with a discussion of events that have shaped the

challenge faced by American foreign policy in the region, and then reach for some partial explanations of what went wrong, followed by some thoughts as to what might be done by way of corrective. The distorting impact on American foreign policy of the two so-called special relationships that the United States maintains with Israel and Saudi Arabia deserves special attention. A critical attitude toward these special relationships is at the core of my revisionist approach to the regional turmoil and its extra-regional spillover. At the very point where grand strategists in the old realist tradition think American foreign policy has been most effective is where I think it has gone off the tracks if objectively appraised from the perspective of interests, policies, and values of the United States. In my view fixing these special relationships would initiate a long journey that will be needed if American foreign policy in the Middle East is to more effective and more consistent with international norms and proclaimed American values.

 

III.

 

I am fully aware that there is something arbitrary and opinionated about any insistence that certain lines of historical explanation should be labeled ‘root causes.’ My effort is to highlight some historically rather remote happenings that are not often enough mentioned when discussing policy options in the region. Also, as my focus is on the conceptual and normative failures of American foreign policy in the Middle East, I point to these early developments without any implication of a direct American responsibility, unlike the more recent proximate causes for which there exists a definite and direct American role. Indeed, here the responsibility that is asserted relates not to participation in misguided policies of past colonial actors but to the national failure of policymakers and leaders to make the effort to learn from the past.

 

Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. An initially secret agreement between Britain and France on how to divide up the Middle East in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The goal of the agreement was to extend European colonial rule to the region, thereby circumventing the self-determination aspirations of Woodrow Wilson and the United States as well as breaking promises to Arab leaders that assured sovereign independence. Russia had originally been party to this colonial diplomacy, but after the Russian Revolution, the agreement was made public by the new Soviet leadership with the intention of discrediting such diplomatic maneuvering.

 

What emerged were two developments that have significant relevance to the current turbulence and coercive ordering of the region: first, the establishment of artificial political communities with borders determined by colonial convenience rather than by historical and ethnic circumstances, completely neglecting the will of the relevant population or its prior experiences of community and culture. To give an example, Lebanon was carved out of Ottoman Syria to satisfy the French desire to have a Christian majority country in the region. In fact, all of the contemporary Middle Eastern territorial sovereign states were imposed from above and without, and lack indigenous legitimacy. Hence, when Osama Bin Laden, and more recently, ISIS, talk about the end of Sykes-Picot and the renewal of the Islamic caliphate, there is a cultural and historical resonance. The modern territorial sovereign state may seem like an inevitable choice given the character of world order and the persisting Orientalist mentality, but its legitimacy in the Middle East is fragile because the states failed to emerge as a consequence of the trials and errors of self-determination. From this perspective it is not so surprising that transnational non-state actors have emerged as the most formidable challengers of the established order in the Middle East, and no where else.

 

I encountered a similar non-territorial mindset when interviewing Ayatollah Khomeini in early 1979. On that occasion he made clear that the victory in Iran should not be grasped by reference to national or territorial parameters suggested by the label ‘the Iranian Revolution.’ He insisted on the primacy of community as religious conceived, that is as an ‘Islamic Revolution.’ In passing I would note that the state system is constitutive of world order, and that Iran as political actor has been challenged and responded since 1979 as a typical Westphalian state, especially given the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and the Israeli-American policy of aggressive containment of subsequent years.

 

Secondly, in such countries as Iraq, Libya, and Yemen the governance role of the state has been challenged from below. The idea of ‘the nation’ so vital to the coherence and success of the modern European state was relatively weak in the Middle East, and never succeeded in displacing the primacy of tribal loyalties in many countries and regions within countries, eroding the capacity of the state to maintain order and control except by highly coercive methods. Further, in many states a particular tribal or kinship group would gain control of the state, and privilege their own group while discriminating against and persecuting rival tribes.

 

Thirdly, the inability after World War I to implement the Sykes-Picot vision of the Middle East leading to a kind of compromise in the form of the mandate system that combined colonial paternalism with a sacred trust given to the organized international community that these peoples subject to administrative rule by the European colonial powers would when ‘ready’ be granted independence. In effect, this arrangement satisfied the substance of colonial ambition (trade routes, access to Suez Canal, resources) while ambiguously compromising its formal legitimacy. Without the weakening of Europe as a result of World War II, it is not clear that such independence would have been achieved, at least without lengthy wars of liberation of the sort fought in Indochina and North Africa.

 

Balfour Declaration 1917. Also initially secret, and equally colonialist, was the promise made by the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Alfred Balfour, to the World Zionist movement to look with favor on the establishment of a Jewish Homeland in

Palestine. Such an initiative was an enormous morale boost for the fledgling Zionist project, and can be seen as a decisive negative turning point for the Palestinian people. It was a pure colonialist gesture, both the form of the declaration and the complete disregard of the wishes of the indigenous population. What Balfour proposed was written into the mandate arrangement for Palestine administered by Britain, which leaned toward the Zionist side at first because there was more of a convergence of interest than with the native Arab population. In the end, when Zionism became more robust, and aimed for the establishment of a Jewish state, it turned against the British, relying on terrorist tactics to induce the British to abandon the mandate, and give responsibility for the future of Palestine to the UN, which as we know, carried forward the colonialist approach by proposing a partition plan that was adopted without the participation or agreement of the people living in Palestine, two-thirds of whom at the time were Palestinian Arabs, and about one-third Jews. Perhaps, the intentions underlying the UN proposal were benign, seeking some formula for peace and reconciliation, but the approach lacked the political will to implement the plan embodied in GA Resolution 181 and suffered from a process that was insensitive to the self-determination imperative.

 

Geopolitics also played a part in completing this Zionist project. The combination of the Holocaust and the guilty conscience of the liberal democracies led the international community to endow the state of Israel with immediate membership in the UN and left the Palestinian people in a permanent condition of limbo where they remain 68 years later. We hear frequent complaints from the U.S. Government and Israel that the UN pays disproportionate attention to Israel and Palestine, forgetting that unlike the other unresolved self-determination struggles in the world such as Kashmir, Western Sahara, Sri Lanka, the UN was from the outset directly implicated and responsible for the flawed approach to the post-Ottoman evolution of Palestine.

 

The Suez War of 1956. Without going into detail, the Suez War in which Britain, France, and Israel collaborated in waging war against Egypt in retaliation for the nationalization of the Suez Canal and the harassment of Israel by guerrilla fighters based in Egypt, had the major geopolitical impact of shifting the burden of protecting Western interests from Europe to the United States. At the time, it seemed like a benevolent sequel to the colonial era, but after the passage of 59 years it is not evident that this was helpful to the peoples of the region or for that matter to the United States. Put provocatively, the subsequent period might have had a different character if under the waning colonialism of a weak Europe rather than a strong and proactive United States (as complemented during the Cold War by a strong Soviet Union).

 

In conclusion, we cannot adequately grasp the depth of turmoil in the Middle East without looking back a century ago at the diplomacy associated with World War I.

The denial of Kurdish rights, the questionable legitimacy of the borders of the countries in the region, and the frustration of Palestinian self-determination are persisting unresolved issues that offer insight into present challenges, and the difficulties of response. The region, and even the world, is paying the deferred costs of these policies in the form of chaos, oppression, severe civil strife, and terrorist blowback.

 

 

 

III

 

By moving from root causes to proximate causes the methodological claim is being made that the present regional turmoil was significantly generated by several seismic happenings in recent decades. Again these events singled out should be understood as shorthand designations of turning points that have had a lasting impact on the political life of the region, and are themselves a product of the earlier root causes. Because they occurred after the enhanced American engagement in the Middle East after 1956 the United States was more of a participant, with more at stake.

 

The 1967 War. This war was a turning point in the strategic perception of Israel, changing its relationship to the United States rather dramatically from being a burden undertaken for moral and political reasons in defiance of realist calculations to becoming a strategic asset that could facilitate American hegemonic goals in the region. In this way the special relationship with Israel began to be perceived in terms of mutual benefits, and this was reinforced by the growth and influence of the Israel Lobby within the country. There is another more controversial view that the special relationship, at least as enacted, continued to distort American foreign policy, a position articulated by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their book. [The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007)] It can be illustrated by the added complexities of the relationship with Iran and its nuclear program due to the need to insulate Israel’s nuclear weapons monopoly in the region; similarly diplomacy to end the Syrian War has been definitely inhibited by giving in to Israel (and Saudi Arabia) on the role of Iran in seeking a negotiated end to the war.

 

Perhaps, the biggest detrimental effect of the special relationship in relation to the greatly expanded territorial expanse of Israel after the 1967 War was the U.S. unwillingness to exert effective pressure on Israel to withdraw to the ‘green line’ boundaries, which was the unanimously decreed directive of Security Council Resolution 242. I would imagine that if the withdrawal core of the resolution had been implemented, we would today have a two state solution rather than a single Israeli apartheid state that seems destined to sustain in one form or another its unilateral control over the whole of historic Palestine for the indefinite future. To give greater credence to this conjecture we should take into account both the 1988 PLO/PLC acceptance of the legitimacy of the Israeli presence within these 1967 green line borders on the basis of implementing 242 and the 2002 Arab Initiative along the same lines that offered Israel legitimacy and normalization. The United States has consistently affirmed this basis of Israel/Palestine peace, but it has been unwilling to use its geopolitical muscle to make it happen, and in fact has done the opposite, shielded Israel from criticism while the settlements expanded, and various steps were taken to make a viable Palestinian state incapable of realization. This double game of the United States that has bipartisan backing is to proclaim in public diplomacy its commitment to an independent Palestinian states and yet through the maneuverings of private diplomacy conspire with Israel’s increasingly evident resistance to the emergence of a Palestinian state.

 

The Islamic Revolution in Iran (1978-79). Without elaborating on this unexpected challenge to Western interests, the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran had a profoundly unsettling effect on American behavior in the region. First of all, it reversed the apparent success of the 1953 geopolitical move that had returned the Shah to his throne with the help of the CIA; secondly, it led to the shocked realization that political Islam was becoming a greater threat to American interests in the Middle East than either Marxism or Soviet encroachment; thirdly, it introduced the notion of Islam as the natural political community in the Islamic world, with its ideas of a non-territorial caliphate and umma, which contrasted with the post-Ottoman imposition on the region of territorial sovereign states, which were not legitimate or natural even by Westphalian criteria.

 

The United States reacted hostilely to the popular movement that arose in Iran to displace its imperial ally in Tehran. Again, the root failure of American foreign policy was its unwillingness to respect the principle of self-determination if it seemed to go against its grand strategy in the region, which was then built around anti-Communism, oil, and Israel, soon supplemented by a strong commitment to oppose the spread of political Islam (unless serving Western interests as was the case with Saudi Arabia).

 

The Fall of the Berlin Wall (1989). The fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by the collapse of the Soviet empire, contributed dramatically to upgrading the American role in the Middle East. It removed the Soviet Union as rival and left the United States as the uncontested external political actor in the region. It also had the effect, given salience by Israeli strategic thinking coupled with the rise of neo-conservative foreign policy in Washington, of shifting the central venue of geopolitical significance from Europe to the Middle East. [See neocon report “Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies (1996, 2006); also reports of Project for a New American Century] What followed were years of supposed unipolarity in which the United States was being criticized in conservative circles for its passivity in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War in which a dramatic military victory was not followed up by imposing a regime-changing political solution that removed Saddam Hussein from control over the Baghdad government. Such a shift has been somewhat diluted during the Obama presidency by the so-called ‘pivot to Asia,’ but the persistence of chaos, warfare, and sectarian rivalries continues the preoccupation with the Middle East of American foreign policy.

 

IV

 

The Al Qaeda 9/11 Attacks. The fact that the Al Qaeda attacks in 2001 were carried out by Middle Easterners (manly Saudis) and that Al Qaeda, as led by Osama Bin Laden, took responsibility sharpened the perception that the main strategic threat to the United States now emanated from religious extremism in the Middle East as materialized through the medium of a non-state and non-territorial actor. Such a traumatic event has had lasting impacts by way of focusing attention on counter-terrorism and global securitization of foreign policy, categorizing terrorism as a mode of warfare rather than as crime as in the past, and transforming warfare from a territorial encounter to engage with on a global battlefield. It also led to a further positive perception of the special relationship with Israel as counterterrorist mentor. Ariel Sharon’s remark that Yasir Arafat was Israel’s Osama Bin Laden summarized this sentiment of solidarity, which Netanyahu repeated in crude form after the 2015 Paris attack. This mentorship I believe encouraged drone warfare, targeted assassinations, and even led to extensive reliance on Israel to train American police forces in a paramilitary approach to opposition. President François Hollande of France has taken the same path, calling the Paris terrorist attacks as ‘an act of war’ by ISIS, adopting the disastrous Bush discourse of warfare, rather than elaborating upon the European counter-terrorist path of cooperative criminal law enforcement. [Philip Bobbitt, Terror and Consent: Wars for the Twenty-first Century (2008)]

 

In light of the foregoing, what may seem more surprising is the resilience of the special relationship with Saudi Arabia, given its connections with 9/11. Notable Saudis were alone allowed to leave the United States on 9/12, and more relevantly, the Saudi role in the worldwide financing of Wahabbist jihadism was publically ignored by American leaders, and implicitly tolerated, which seems a perverse contradiction with the securitization of American global policy based on a post-9/11 counterterrorist rationale. What seems shocking is that this tolerance persists even in the face of the terrorist spillovers beyond the Middle East.

 

The Iraq War and Occupation. (2003-2014). The main response to 9/11 was George W. Bush’s declaration of war on global terror, starting with the attack on Afghanistan, governed by harsh Taliban rule and offering Al Qaeda its base area for training and ideological leadership. In many ways this American shift from crime to war is most responsible for the severity and spread of the regional turmoil. This approach reached its climax with the attack on Iraq, which lacked a foundation in international law, and could not gain an endorsement at the UN Security Council. In this regard, the Iraq War of 2003, which was misleadingly principally justified by efforts to remove weapons of mass destruction from the country and to react to the false alleged complicity in the 9/11 attacks, was the occasion for bringing an American military presence into the center of the Middle East, and connecting this with safeguarding Israel and Saudi Arabia, confronting Iran, and establishing permanent military bases and assured access to the oil and natural gas reserves of the Gulf.

 

After a heavy expenditure of military personnel and resources, the outcome in Iraq after a decade of occupation and economic reconstruction aid, has been dismal. Instead of a partner with the West, there is a Shi’ia leadership in Iraq that is pledged to Iran, instead of constitutional democracy there is civil strife and chaos, instead of security there is ISIS control over a large portion of Iraqi territory, instead of some kind of regional collective security arrangement there is sectarian rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Under such circumstances is it any surprise that the United States policy planners dream of a second coming of Saddam Hussein? Once again American failure was mainly associated with trying to impose an external solution that defied the logic of self-determination.

 

The Arab Spring (20ll). It is impossible to overlook the impact of the Arab uprisings of 2011. What occurred was first an unexpected challenge from below to secular autocracies throughout the region. It caught the United States by surprise, and alarmed to various degrees the two beneficiaries of special relationships—Israel and Saudi Arabia—although for somewhat different reasons. After calling for democratization in the Middle East for many years, the actuality of democratic glimmerings was greeted in Washington with ambivalence, at best, and more accurately, as an occasion of tension as between democratic values and geopolitical goals. This tension rose to the surface in the counterrevolutionary aftermath in which the United States sided with suppression in Bahrain, intervention in Libya, looked the other way when the Egyptian armed forces staged a bloody coup to overthrow the first ever democratically elected leader in the country’s history, and seemed bewildered by what to do in Syria, even seeming to give tacit tactical backing to jihadist anti-regime forces and to Kurdish militant entities previously regarded as ‘terrorist organizations.’

 

V

 

Conclusion: What should be done to calm the situation is in sharp tension with the realistic assessment of what is politically possible. For example, the special relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia should be abandoned, and replaced by normal relationships based on true mutuality and respect for human rights and international law. Pressure should be mounted to establish a just and sustainable peace that acknowledges rights of self-determination of both Israeli and Palestinians. Further, foreign policy in the Middle East should be carried out in accord with the guidelines of international law and with respect for the authority of the United Nations. Finally, self-determination of peoples in the Middle East offers the only hope for legitimating the state system within the region. It seems obvious that without a sea change in perceptions and behavior of the West there is no prospect for overcoming the failures of American foreign policy in the Middle East. These failures have contributed to the turmoil, oppressiveness, and migratory and terrorist spillovers from the region. At present, there seems no likelihood of such a sea change, and so we must expect more of the same sense of failure and frustration.

At least, the citizenry can begin to understand what is wrong with American foreign policy in the Middle East.