Tag Archives: colonialism

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.

 

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Why Foreign Military Intervention Usually Fails in the 21st Century

1 Nov

 

 

When Nehru was taking a train on his return to India after studying abroad when he read of the Japanese victory over Russia in the 1904-05 Russo Japanese War. At that moment he had an epiphany, realizing the hitherto unthinkable, that the British Empire was vulnerable to Indian nationalism. An earlier understanding of the colonial reality by native peoples generally subscribed to the postulates of hard power primacy making it futile or worse to challenge a colonial master, although throughout history there were always pockets of resistance. This soft power attribute of colonial hard power by way of intimidation and a façade of invincibility is what made colonialism efficient and profitable for so long at the great expense of colonized peoples.

 

A traditional colonial occupation assumes that the foreign domineering presence, while oppressive and exploitative, refrains from ethnic cleansing or genocide in relation to the indigenous population. When settler versions of colonialism emerged in relation to the Western Hemisphere and regions occupied by traditional peoples that were without either population density or some kind of industrial capability, the occupier managed to achieve enduring control typically relying on brutal means to establish its state-building claim via some form of dispossession that successfully superseded indigenous identities. Thus the indigenous identity is marginalized or extinguished, and the settler identity is legitimized as the ‘true’ identity.

 

There is still a mysterious connection between military inferiority and political victory. It seems to defy common sense and the pragmatic wisdom of political elites that believe in the historical agency of hard power long after the empirical record casts severe doubt on such ‘realist’ claims. Of course, and it should not be overlooked, if an occupied people mistakenly chooses to risk its future by militarily challenging the occupier on the battlefield it is likely to lose, and may suffer extreme losses. Military resistance is possible, but it needs to be calibrated to the interplay of unequal capabilities and take advantage of elements of conflict that favor the militarily weaker side.

 

As Tolstoy portrays in War and Peace the extraordinary Russian resilience displayed in defeating and expeling the superior military forces of Napoleon’s France, it was a matter of tactically retreating to the point that French supply lines were stretched beyond their capacities to maintain their alien and foreign presence, especially given the rigors of the Russian winter; Hitler’s war machine experienced a similar devastating defeat at the hands of the outgunned Soviet defensive forces who also understood the benefits of withdrawal. In effect, there are tactical, geographical, ideological, normative dimensions of conflict that when intelligently activated can neutralize the seemingly decisive advantages of the militarily superior side that has the best weaponry. The history of imperial decline also illustrates the eventual neutralization of the sharp realist edge that had been earlier achieved through battlefield dominance.

 

The architects of colonial expansion made ideological claims that were able to give their economic and political ambitions a kind of moral justification. It was Europe’s moral hubris to insist upon an imperial entitlement premised on the supposed civilizational and racial superiority of Western peoples. Such a rationale for conquest and occupation put forward an apparent normative claim to govern backward peoples, and additionally argued that more advanced industrial practice make more efficient use of resources than did the native population.

 

In the period since World War II, considering the weakening of the European colonial powers, a determined drive for nationalist self-empowerment spread to all of Asia and Africa. Each situation was different, and in some the colonial power left more or less willingly after a period of struggle, as in India, while in others long wars ensued as in Indochina and Algeria. The wave of anti-colonial successes politically transformed world order, creating dozens of new states that reshaped the political landscape of the United Nations. The anti-colonial movement enjoyed extraordinary success in achieving formal independence for colonized people, but it did not end the role of hierarchy in structuring international relations and the world economy. The geopolitical ascendancy of the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the capitalist world economy sustained on a material basis the exploitative and dominant relationship of the West to the non-West.

 

During the Cold War, geopolitical rivalry and American efforts at counter-revolution directed at left-oriented political developments, led to military interventions designed to impose limits on the exercise of the right of self-determination. The Soviet interventions in East Europe, such as Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 were emblematic of such a pattern within the state socialist bloc of countries. The United States relied on covert interventions whenever possible (as in Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954), and resorted to military interventions when necessary to uphold its strategic and ideological interests. The Vietnam War was the most important example of a full-fledged intervention designed to prevent the emergence of a left-leaning government that would strengthen Communist influence in South Asia.

 

The United States enjoyed complete military dominance in Vietnam throughout the decade long war, having mastery of air, sea, and land, yet proved vulnerable to certain defensive tactics of guerrilla warfare. The war was lost by the United States in the end because its political system lost patience with its inability to establish stability in support of a Vietnamese leadership that was anti-Communist and dependent on the West. Some militarists contend that the war was lost on TV in American living rooms (seeing the body bags of Americans killed in Vietnam swayed public opinion) or because the military presence that reached a half million relied on conscripted troops that gave rise to a student led anti-war movement. In other words, the war was lost politically, not militarily.

 

Such an understanding is partly true, but it overlooks the role of national resistance in Vietnam, and attributes the outcome to the faltering political will of the intervening side. The great advantage of those national forces seeking to expel foreign occupation, even if indirect as in Vietnam where the United States was nominally supporting one side in a civil war, is its familiarity with the terrain and its far greater stake in the outcome. Henry Kissinger made the apt observation that in a counterinsurgency war if the counterinsurgent side doesn’t win, it loses, while if the insurgent side doesn’t lose, it wins. Such a statement, not surprisingly considering its source, overlooks the role of people, especially the greater steadfastness of those fighting for the independence of their country as compared with those seeking to impose an alien or foreign solution on a conflict. The foreign intervener calculates whether it is worth the cost, and in a democratic society, the mixture of casualties and the absence of a timely victory, gradually undermines the popular enthusiasm that may have accompanied the earliest expressions of support. Patience among the citizenry runs out when the foreign war does not seem to be closely connected with the defense of the national homeland. This became especially clear in the United States during the latter stages of the Vietnam War when the American public began to perceive a ‘credibility gap’ between the government’s claim that it was winning the war and a more sober account of a stalemate without a victorious end in sight. For the Vietnamese, this was not a matter of whether to give up or not, but how to continue their struggle despite their material inferiority and the adversities associated with the devastation of their country. The Vietnamese leadership was prepared for every eventuality, including a 50-year retreat to mountainous regions, being convinced that at some point the foreigners would tire of the conflict and go home.

 

The United States as global hegemon is incapable of learning such lessons or accepting the ethos of self-determination that has such salience in the post-colonial world. Instead it tries over and over again to reinvent counterinsurgency warfare, hoping finally to discover the path leading to victory. The American strategic community believed the lessons of Vietnam were to build better support at home for the war effort, embark on war with sufficient force to achieve victory quickly, and abandon the drafting of its military personnel from among its youth. The warmakers also tried to design weaponry and tactics so as minimize casualties in these one-sided wars for the intervening side. At first, the adjustments seemed to work as the adversary was foolish enough to meet the foreign challenge on the battlefield as in the 1991 Iraq War or where the military intervention was itself seeking to remove Serbian foreign rule as in Kosovo in 1999. There was enthusiasm in the Washington think tanks for what were thought to be a new triumphal era of ‘zero casualty wars.’ Of course, there were zero (or very low) casualties, as in these two wars, but only for the foreign intervener; the society being attacked from the air endured heavy casualties, and much devastation, as well as the demoralizing experience of total helplessness.

 

In the post-9/11 atmosphere of ‘a global war on terrorism’ this same geopolitical logic applies. The violence is carried to wherever on the planet a threat is perceived, and the victims are not only those who are perceived, whether rightly or wrongly as posing the threat, but also to the innocent civilians that happen to be living in the same vicinity. There is no deference to the sovereignty of other countries or to civilian innocence, and a unilateral right of preemptive attack is claimed in a manner that would be refused to any adversary of the West. The weaponry is designed to minimize political friction at home, exemplified by the growing reliance on attack drones that can inflict strikes without ever risking casualties for the attacker. Such weaponry allows war to persist almost permanently, especially as it serves both bureaucratic and private sector interests, and produces an almost enveloping securitization of the political atmosphere, destroying democratic freedoms in the process.

 

As the outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq show, despite the enormous military and economic effort by the United States, the political outcome was disappointing, if not yet clearly a defeat. And the results are strategically worse from an American perspective than the original provocation and goals.Putting the point provocatively, many in the Washington policymaking world would be secretly glad if there occurred a second coming in Iraq of Saddam Hussein who alone could restore unity and order to the country. The American version of a civilizing mission was ‘democracy promotion,’ which proved just as unpalatable to the population being attacked and occupied as were the earlier moral claims of outright colonial administrations. Indirect adverse consequences from a U.S. perspective of these failed intervention included the intensification of Sunni/Shi’ia sectarian tensions throughout the region and the establishment of fertile breeding grounds for anti-Western political extremism.

 

The West also builds support for its militarist approaches to contemporary forms of conflict by demonizing its adversary, ignoring their grievances, whether legitimate or not. The politics of demonization that fits so neatly with ascribing terrorist behavior to the other also has the effect of rejecting diplomacy and compromise. Yet interestingly, there is a willingness to regard yesterday’s demon as today’s ally. This shuffling of ‘the enemy’ has been happening constantly in the setting of Iraq and Syria. The abrupt entry of IS on the scene is the most spectacular example of such a shuffling of alignments, having the effect of suspending the anti-Assad efforts of the United States and Europe.

 

There is more to these unlearned lessons than strategic failures, and being on the wrong side of history. These venture cause millions of ordinary people in distant countries to bear the terrifying brunt of modern weaponry that kills, wounds, displaces, and traumatizes. For the intervener the outcome is at worst a regrettable or even tragic mistake, but the society back home persists in its complacent affluence; but for the target societies, in contrast, the experience of such foreign military encroachment is experienced as swallowing a massive dose of criminality in a global setting in which the criminals scandalously enjoy total impunity.

 

Given the way elites think and militarism is structured into the bloodstream of major states, foreign military intervention is intrinsic to the war system. We must work now as hard to eliminate war as earlier centuries worked to eliminate slavery. Nothing less will suffice to rescue the planet from free fall to disaster.

 

In the end, we have reached a stage in the political development of life on the planet where civilizational and species survival itself depends on the urgency of building an effective movement against the war system that remains indispensable to sustain hierarchy and exploitation, wastes huge amounts of resources, and dangerously diverts problem-solving priorities from climate change and the elimination of nuclear weaponry. Unless such a radical transformation of the way life on the planet is undertaken in the decades ahead, two intertwined developments are likely to make the future inhospitable to human habitation even if the worst catastrophes can be avoided: globalization morphing into various forms of authoritarian and oppressive political leadership intertwined with extremist movements of resistance that have no vision beyond that of striking back at the oppressors. How to evade such a dark future is what should be everywhere preoccupying persons of good will.

 

 

 

           

The Toxic Residue of Colonialism: Protecting Interests, Disregarding Rights

8 Feb


At least, overtly, there has been no talk from either Washington or Tel Aviv, the governments with most to lose as the Egyptian Revolution unfolds, of military intervention. Such restraint is more expressive of geopolitical sanity than postcolonial morality, but still it enables some measure of change to take place that unsettles, temporarily at least, the established political order. And yet, by means seen and unseen, external actors, especially the United States, with a distinct American blend of presumed imperial and paternal prerogatives are seeking to shape and limits the outcome of this extraordinary uprising  of the Egyptian people long held in subsidized bondage by the cruel and corrupt Mubarak dictatorship. What is the most defining feature of this American-led diplomacy-from-without is the seeming propriety of managing the turmoil so that the regime survives and the demonstrators return to what is perversely being called ‘normalcy.’ I find most astonishing that President Obama so openly claims the authority to instruct the Mubarak regime about how it is supposed to respond to the revolutionary uprising. I am not surprised at the effort, and would be surprised by its absence, but merely by the lack of any signs of imperial shyness in a world order that is supposedly built around the legitimacy of self-determination, national sovereignty, and democracy. And almost as surprising, is the failure of Mubarak to pretend in public that such interference in the guise of guidance is unacceptable, even if behind closed doors he listens submissively and acts accordingly. This geopolitical theater performance of master and servant suggests the persistence of the colonial mentality on the part of both colonizer and their national collaborators.

The only genuine post-colonial message would be one of deference: ‘stand aside, and applaud.’ The great transformative struggles of the last century involved a series of challenges throughout the global south to get rid of the European colonial empires. But political independence did not bring an end to the more indirect, but still insidious, methods of indirect control designed to protect economic and strategic interests. Such a dynamic meant reliance on political leaders that would sacrifice the wellbeing of their own people to serve the wishes of their unacknowledged former colonial masters, or their Western successors (the United States largely displacing France and the United Kingdom in the Middle East after the Suez Crisis of 1956). And these post-colonial servants of the West would be well-paid autocrats vested with virtual ownership rights in relation to the indigenous wealth of their country provided they remained receptive to foreign capital.  In this regard the Mubarak regime was (and remains) a poster child of post-colonial success. Western liberal eyes were long accustomed not to notice the internal patterns of abuse that were integral to this foreign policy success, and if occasionally noticed by some intrepid journalist, who would then be ignored or if necessary discredited as some sort of ‘leftist,’ and if this failed to deflect criticism than point out, usually with an accompanying condescending smile, that torture and the like came with Arab cultural territory, a reality that savvy outsiders adapted to without any discomfort. Actually, in this instance, such practices were quite convenient, Egypt serving as one of the interrogation sites for the insidious practice of ‘extreme rendition,’ by which the CIA transports terrorist suspects to accommodating foreign countries that willingly provide torture tools and facilities. Is this what is meant by ‘a human rights presidency’? The irony should not be overlooked that President Obama’s special envoy to the Mubarak government in the crisis was none other than Frank Wisner, an American with a most notable CIA lineage.

There should be clarity about the relationship between this kind of post-colonial state, serving American regional interests (oil, Israel, containment of Islam, avoidance of unwanted proliferation of nuclear weapons) in exchange for power, privilege, and wealth vested in a tiny corrupt national elite that sacrifices the wellbeing and dignity of the national populace in the process. Such a structure in the post-colonial era where national sovereignty and human rights infuse popular consciousness can only be maintained by erecting high barriers of fear reinforced by state terror that are designed to intimidate the populace from pursuing their goals and values. When these barriers are breached, as recently in Tunisia and Egypt, then the fragility of the oppressive regime glows in the dark. The dictator either runs for the nearest exit, as did Tunisia’s Ben Ali, or is dumped by his entourage and foreign friends so that the revolutionary challenge can be tricked into a premature accommodation. This latter process seems to represent the latest maneuvering of the palace elite in Cairo and their backers in the White House. Only time will tell whether the furies of counterrevolution will win the day, possibly by gunfire and whip, and possibly through mollifying gestures of reform that become unfulfillable promises in due course if the old regime is not totally reconstructed. Unfulfillable because corruption and gross disparities of wealth amid mass impoverishment can only be sustained, post-Tahrir Square, through the reimposition of oppressive rule. And if it is not oppressive, then it will not be able for very long to withstand demands for rights, for social and economic justice, and due course for solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

Here is the crux of the ethical irony. Washington is respectful of the logic of self-determination so long as it converges with American grand strategy, and oblivious to the will of the people whenever its expression is seen as posing a threat to the neoliberal overlords of the globalized world economy or to strategic alignments that seem so dear to State Department or Pentagon planners. As a result there is an inevitable to-ing and fro-ing as the United States tries to bob and weave, celebrating the advent of democracy in Egypt, complaining about the violence and torture of the tottering regime, while doing what it can to manage the process from outside, which means preventing genuine change, much less a democratic transformation of the Egyptian state. Anointing the main CIA contact person and a Mubarak loyalist, Omar Suleiman, to preside over the transition process on behalf of Egypt seems a thinly disguised plan to throw Mubarak to the crowd while stabilizing the regime he presided over for more than 30 years.  I would expected more subtlety on the part of the geopolitical managers, but perhaps its absence is one more sign of imperial myopia that so often accompanies the decline of great empires.

It is notable that most protesters when asked by the media about their reasons for risking death and violence by being in the Egyptian streets respond with variations on the phrases “We want our rights” or “We want freedom and dignity.”  Of course, joblessness, poverty, food security, anger at the corruption, abuses, and dynastic pretensions of the Mubarak regime offer an understandable infrastructure of rage that undoubtedly fuels the revolutionary fires, but it is rights and dignity that seems to float on the surface of this awakened political consciousness. These ideas, to a large extent nurtured in the hothouse of Western consciousness and then innocently exported as a sign of good will, like ‘nationalism’ a century earlier, might originally be intended only as public relations moves, but over time such ideas gave rise to the dreams of the oppressed and victimized, and when the unexpected historical moment finally arrived, burst into flame. I remember talking a decade or so ago to Indonesian radicals in Jakarta who talked of the extent to which their initial involvement in anti-colonial struggle was stimulated to what they had learned from their Dutch colonial teachers about the rise of nationalism as a political ideology in the West.

Ideas may be disseminated with conservative intent, but if they later become appropriated on behalf of the struggles of oppressed peoples such ideas are reborn, and serve as the underpinnings of a new emancipatory politics. Nothing better illustrates this Hegelian journey than the idea of ‘self-determination,’ initially proclaimed by Woodrow Wilson after World War I. Wilson was a leader who sought above all to maintain order, believed in satisfying the aims of foreign investors and corporations,  and had no complaints about the European colonial empires. For him, self-determination was merely a convenient means to arrange the permanent breakup of the Ottoman Empire through the formation of a series of ethnic states. Little did Wilson imagine, despite warnings from his Secretary of State, that self-determination could serve other gods, and become a powerful mobilizing tool to overthrow colonial rule. In our time, human rights has followed a similarly winding path, sometimes being no more than a propaganda banner used to taunt enemies during the Cold War, sometimes as a convenient hedge against imperial identity, and sometimes as the foundations of revolutionary zeal as seems to be the case in the unfinished and ongoing struggles for rights and dignity taking place throughout the Arab world in a variety of forms.

It is impossible to predict how this future will play out. There are too many forces at play in circumstances of radical uncertainty. In Egypt, for instance, it is widely believed that the army holds most of the cards, and that where it finally decides to put its weight will determine the outcome. But is such conventional wisdom not just one more sign that hard power realism dominates our imagination, and that historical agency belongs in the end to the generals and their weapons, and not to the people in the streets. Of course, there is blurring of pressures as the army could be merely trying to go with the flow, siding with the winner once the outcome seems clear. Is there any reason to rely on the wisdom, judgment, and good will of armies, not just in Egypt whose commanders owe their positions to Mubarak, but throughout the world? In Iran the army did stand aside, and a revolutionary process transformed the Shah’s edifice of corrupt and brutal governance, the people momentarily prevailed, only to have their extraordinary nonviolent victory snatch away in a subsequent counterrevolutionary move that substituted theocracy for democracy.  There are few instances of revolutionary victory, and in those few instances, it is rarer still to carry forward the revolutionary mission without disruption. The challenge is to sustain the revolution in the face of almost inevitable counterrevolutionary projects, some launched by those who were part of the earlier movement unified against the old order but now determined to hijack the victory for its own ends. The complexities of the revolutionary moment require utmost vigilance on the part of those who view emancipation, justice, and democracy as their animating ideals because there will be enemies who seek to seize power at the expense of humane politics. One of the most impressive features of the Egyptian Revolution up to this point has been the extraordinary ethos of nonviolence and solidarity exhibited by the massed demonstrators even in the face of repeated bloody provocations of the baltagiyya dispatched by the regime. This ethos has so far refused to be diverted by these provocations, and we can only hope against hope that the provocations will cease, and that counterrevolutionary tides will subside, sensing either the futility of assaulting history or imploding at long last from the build up of corrosive effects from a long embrace of an encompassing illegitimacy.