Tag Archives: George W. Bush

Voting for Hilary Clinton? Red Lines versus Lesser of Evils

14 Jul



Assuming that the current prospects for presidential candidates hold firm, and Hilary Clinton is nominated by the Democrats and Jeb Bush, Rick Rubio, or Scott Walker win the Republican nomination, what should a conscientious citizen do when it comes to voting in November 2016? Of course, step one is to rule out support for the Republican candidates due to their regressive views on a range of social and economic issues, and their militarist bluster on foreign and defense policy. Step two is more difficult. Clinton is clearly preferable if the domestic agenda is taken into account, and probably no worse than the Republicans when it comes to foreign policy, but also not noticeably better, and in some ways more objectionable.


For instance, she begins her recent letter to the billionaire arch Zionist mega-donor and longtime Clinton family supporter, Haim Saban, on July 7, 2015 this way: “I am writing to express my alarm over the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement, ‘BDS,’ a global effort to isolate the State of Israel by ending commercial and academic exchanges.” She seeks Saban’s guidance in pursuit of this nefarious goal with this deferential language: “Now I am seeking your thoughts and recommendations on how leaders and communities across America can work together to counter BDS.”


I am sure it didn’t escape the gurus of the Clinton campaign that Saban had joined with the casino mogul, Sheldon Adelson not long ago to headline a donors gathering at which each participant was expected to pledge $1 million to fight BDS. Although Adelson identifies as Republican and Saban as Democrat, both fervently embrace the Netanyahu brand of Israeli leadership. Saban has been quoted on Iran in language that manages to outdo Bibi, “I would bomb the daylight out of those sons of bitches.”


Clinton has a variety of other scary credentials, including voting in support of the Iraq War of 2003, and to this day remains unwilling to admit that the war was at the very least a tragic mistake, and more accurately, a costly international crime. She not only argued for intervention in Libya in 2011, but made a chilling comment on CBS News after learning of the grisly vigilante execution of Muammar Qaddafi: “We came, we saw, he died.” Further, among the emails that Clinton has long withheld from the public are several that substantiate the charges that France from the outset both intended to overthrow the Qaddafi regime, and expected to reap economic benefits by way of the spoils of war, especially with respect to Libya’s oil wealth. It is not that Clinton actually conspired with such plans while serving as Secretary of State, but she did knowingly lead the effort to support the French-led NATO intervention in 2011, claiming that its limited goal was the protection of Libyan civilians in Benghazi, when she was well aware that the real purpose of the UN-mandated intervention was regime-change in Tripoli.


Here is my dilemma. In view of such considerations, does one vote for Hilary Clinton with eyes wide open because she is likely to be better for ordinary Americans on a range of crucial issues, including some effort to challenge the obscene scandal of growing inequalities and sustained slippage in the real income and labor rights of workers and the accumulated hardships on much of the middle class? Or does one say there are certain candidates whose views are so abhorrent as to be unsupportable without weighing their suitability against alternatives? Many remember the acrimonious debates along the same lines concerning the 2000 campaign pitting Bush against Gore, and allegedly lost by Gore in Florida because Ralph Nader, running as a third party candidate, received over 90,000 votes, arguably more than enough to swing the state to Gore’s side of the ledger, and thus enough electoral votes to win the presidency. Most Democrats angrily dismissed Nader as a spoiler and harshly criticized supporters for indulging in irresponsible political behavior. As someone who voted for Nader in 2000, while coming to detest the Bush presidency, I continue to believe that primary duty of citizens in a democratic society is to be on most occasions responsive to their conscience rather than to attempt pragmatic calculations often glamorized as ‘the best being the enemy of the good.’ In the case more accurately phrases as ‘the worst being the enemy of the bad.’ I do admit that I didn’t realize in 2000 that Bush would turn out as badly as he did, and if I had, I might have wavered.


Looking ahead to 2016 the issue of choice can be at this stage put as follows: vote for Hilary Clinton as ‘the lesser of evils’ or vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party as the most attractive presidential candidate, but someone with no chance to do more than enliven the debate and give alienated voters like myself a positive option that feels better than not voting. Remember that there were those establishment liberals who in the tense days after the 9/11 attacks were ready to rationalize torture as the lesser of evils. It was alleged lesser as compared to the need for information that would lead to dangerous terrorist suspects, but where it actually led was to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and a nationally humiliating orgy of torture with very little security payoff. The Kathryn Bigelow film on the search for and execution of Osama Bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty,” also gave a bright green light to the torture policies of the Bush presidency, fed to the public by the grotesque evasion embedded in the words ‘enhanced interrogation.’


The alternative logic may be described as respect for ‘red lines.’ I happen to believe that the BDS campaign is a desirable and an essential step in the redesign of a peace process that might produce a just and sustainable peace for Palestinians and Israelis

after more than 67 years of agonizing failure, including the recent frustrations associated with the Oslo diplomacy initiated by the handshake in 1993 between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat, with a beaming Bill Clinton standing in between. For me, Hilary Clinton crossed my red line with her craven letter to Haim Saban, making it impossible for me to vote for her by invoking the alternative logic of the lesser of evil. But maybe, although unlikely, by the time November 2016 comes around, I might reconsider.


I realize that if one of those awful Republicans is elected president by a close vote that is skewed by Green Party votes, I will be bitterly criticized by liberal friends. I admit that it is a tricky issue on principled grounds. Livelihoods and wellbeing will almost certainly be adversely affected by a Republican victory, whereas the differences in foreign policy between the two candidates are murky at best, and on Israel/Palestine there is no up side regardless of which party prevails. At the same time, the American plutocracy has become a bipartisan enterprise, calling for resistance as an ethical and political imperative, acknowledging the validity of Chris Hedges’ powerfully reasoned insistence that the country is experiencing pre-revolutionary tremors.


At this stage of the electoral process, my overall sense is that the lesser of evils is still evil, and that morally significant red lines are important for citizens to draw and respect. Until further notice, then, I have decided not to cast my vote for Hilary Clinton.  

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

29 Mar


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

When a Terrorist Is Not a Terrorist

20 Feb



What the Chapel Hill police in North Carolina initially pitched to the world as ‘a parking dispute’ was the deliberate killing of three young and devout Muslim American students by an ideologically driven ‘new atheist’ killer named Craig Stephen Hicks. What the The Economist unhesitatingly calls ‘terrorism in Copenhagen’ involved the attempted shooting of a Danish cartoonist who repeatedly mocks the Prophet and Islamic beliefs as well as the lethal shooting of a Jewish security guard outside a synagogue. A friend understandably poses a serious question on Twitter that might have been dismissed as rhetorical overkill just a few years ago: “Are only Muslims capable of terrorism?”


I find it deeply disturbing that while the Chapel Hill tragedy is given marginal media attention except among groups previously worried about Islamophobia and racism, The Economist considers that important principles of Western liberal democracy are at stake apparently only in the European context. In the words of Zanny Minton Beddoes, the new editor of the magazine: “Jacob Mchangama, a lawyer and founder of a human-rights think-tank called Justitia, told me it would be a disaster if his country were to grow faint-hearted in its defense of free speech. ‘There can be no truce in the struggle between secular democracy and extremism,’ he says. Above all, politicians should avoid the trap of saying or implying that violence was really the fault of provocateurs, or that religious insult was to be equated with physical injury. Giving in to that sort of relativism would be letting down those followers of Islam who were brave enough to stand up for free speech, and indulging in a sort of “bigotry of low expectations”, said Mr Mchangama, whose paternal forebears were Muslims from the Comoros Islands. A good point.”


I am quite sure that this is not a good point, at least as phrased by Mr. Mchangama. Of course, governments should take action to protect all who are violently threatened, but to refuse to regard Islamophobic messaging as a species of hate speech while so regarding anti-Semitiic slurs or Holocaust denial is to combine two things that are both unacceptable: ignoring the root causes of political extremism and pathological violence; and prohibiting and punishing anti-Semitic utterances as hate speech while treating anti-Islamic or Islamophobic speech as requiring protection from the perspective of ‘freedom of expression.’ Admittedly, these outer bondaries are difficult to draw. Should the views of professional historians that cast doubt on the magnitude of the Holocaust be forbidden? Should critical literary and satiric treatments of Mohammed and the Koran be suppressed for the sake of public order? In the former case we have the experience of the French historian, Robert Faurisson, while in the latter case, that of Salman Rushdie. In my view, the writings of both should be regarded as forms of protected speech, and if a government is unable or unwilling to do this, it compromises its own claims to legitimacy. And what it certainly should not do, is defend Rushdie on freedom of expression grounds while punishing Faurisson on the basis of defamation or collective hate laws.


Another trope along a similar trajectory is the push toward acknowledging ‘war’ between the West and Islam, an embrace of the infamous Huntington thesis of ‘the clash of civilizations.’ Roger Cohen, an ethically oriented regular contributor to the opinion page of the New York Times, in a column headlined as “Islam and the West at War” [Feb. 17, 2015] criticizes the Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, as well as Barack Obama, for describing the adversary as a ‘dark ideology’ and as ‘violent extremists.’ Cohen insists that such terms are euphemisms that evade the central reality of our time, namely, that the West is confronting Islamic movements and governments throughout the world, and even argues that Islam is ‘fair game’ because it “has spawned multifaceted political movements whose goal is power.”


The article also observes that young Muslims feel alienated and are drawn toward ISIS and other radical Islamic movements. Cohen asks the central question “Who or what is to blame?” and then suggests that there are two opposing sets of responses. His descriptions are worth quoting in full: “For the first, it is the West that is to blame through its support for Israel (seen as the latest iteration of Western imperialism in the Levant); its wars (Iraq); its brutality (Gunatanamo, Abu Ghraib); its killings of civilians (drones); its oil-driven hypocrisy (a Jihadi-funding Saudi ally).”


And then comes the second type of response: “… it is rather the abject failure of the Arab world, its blocked societies where dictators face off against political Islam, its repression, its feeble institutions, its sectarianism precluding the practice of participatory citizenship, its wild conspiracy theories, its inability to provide jobs or hope for its youth, that gives the Islamic state its appeal.”


I find several serious flaws in this way of presenting the issue. It should be obvious to any objective commentator that both sets of issues are interwoven, and cannot be separated except for polemical purposes. Furthermore, the failures of the Arab world are presented as detached realities, implying that the Western colonial legacies endured by the Arab world are irrelevant. We need to recall that following World War I, almost one hundred years ago, the European colonial powers effectively insinuated their national ambitions into the diplomatic process that produced the Middle East as we know it today. Such moves undermined Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy of self-determination for the peoples comprising the collapsed Ottoman Empire as well as the promises of a unified country made to enlist Arab support for the war against Germany and the Ottomans.


These historical antecedents certainly contributed to the authoritarianism of the region as the only basis for sustaining a coherent order in the artificial political communities with which the region experienced the transition to political independence. And the sectarianism that Cohen laments was clearly inflamed by American occupation policy in Iraq, as well as providing the most palatable way for Saudi Arabia to justify its hostility to Iran, deflecting attention from corruption and gender cruelty of its dynastic rule.


Overlooking this legacy of colonialism also ignores the effects of the Balfour Declaration, which gave the imperial blessings of British Foreign Office to the Zionist project for Jewish homeland in historic Palestine that were later endorsed by the League of Nation and the UN. It is debatable as to how much of the turmoil and violence in the region is attributable to the open wounds caused by the dispossession and occupation of the Palesinian people, but it is certainly part of the sad regional story that has unfolded in the last several decades.



Not surprisingly, Cohen finds the second series of explanations “more persuasive” and especially so in light of “the failure of the Arab Spring,” which he believe is partly a consequence of Obama’s refusal to do more to promote and sustain democratic outcomes in the Middle East by way of intervention. Somewhat mysteriously he blames the Syrian tragedy on American ‘nonintervention’ without bothering to consider the prolonged national disasters that have followed from such interventions as the sustained ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the more limited one under NATO auspices in Libya. In each instance the aftermath of intervention was not democracy, or even stability, but chaos, strife, and a worsening of human security.


Cohen never ventures to suggest that in light of the colonial legacies in the region, abetted by the oil lust of the West, the least bad arrangement at this point that can be fashioned is a less corrupt and more responsible authoritarianism. As deficient as Saddam Hussein and Muamar Qaddafi were from the perspective of human rights and democracy, they did maintain order within their borders and their countries were rated rather highly by the Human Development Indicators (HDI) of the UNDP. If the United States is to be blamed for its diplomacy during the recent past, it would seem much more convincing to hold the Bush Administration responsible for the downward spiral of politics in the region than to point a critical finger at Obama. It was after all during the Bush presidency that an American interventionary resolve was linked to and justified as ‘democracy promotion.’ If we focus on the alienation of Arab youth, it would seem to be much more the result of these military and political interventions than a consequence of the Obama reluctance to engage the United States in yet another war with a Muslim country. Indeed, Obama can be faulted for being too quick to authorize drone and other air strikes, while pursuing an unimaginative diplomacy that remains the best hope for achieving sustainable peace in the region.


Cohen’s diagnosis and allocation of responsibility is a telling expression of the liberal mind-set as it addresses the interlinked agendas of anti-terrorism and Middle East politics. Liberals both minimize Western and American responsibility for what has gone wrong in the spirit of Bernard Lewis and make the partisan United States relationship to Israel seem almost irrelevant to the troubles of the region, thereby overlooking the high costs of the policy. For instance, many knowledgeable observers agree that regional stability would be dramatically enhanced by the establishment of a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. Yet such a policy option was never even considered in diplomatic settings, apparently because it would exert too much pressure on Israel to give up its arsenal of nuclear weaponry, which has given Israel a monopoly on nuclear weapons in the region that insists on preserving at all costs, including risking a disastrous war with Iran.


At this stage there are no easy answers as to allocating responsibility or producing causal explanations for terrible realities being endured by the peoples of the region. Quite clearly there are no good military answers to the various unresolved disasters in the region, although that is where the sort of ‘war thinking’ that Cohen affirms continues to place its bets.


In contrast, I would contend that a more imaginative diplomacy responsive to international law remains the only way forward. Such an orientation would look with favor on Iran’s active participation, especially in relation to Syria and to the possible negotiation of a regional security framework. It would also presuppose the relevance of a just and sustainable resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which it turn depends upon the adoption of a normal approach by the U.S. Government to its relationship to Israel. Until such a reorientation on the part of Washington policymakers occurs, the path of least resistance is to engage in one air war after another, and mindlessly lend aid and comfort to Sisi’s harsh oppression in Egypt and the dismaying blend of autocracy and theocracy in Saudi Arabia.



























































































Contra Syria Attack

30 Aug

At this stage Informed opinion agrees that the response to the presumed Assad regime’s responsibility for the use on August 21st of chemical weapons in Ghuta, a neighborhood in the eastern surrounding suburbs of Damascus, is intended to be punitive. This is a way of signaling that it is a punishment for the alleged use of chemical weapons, and at the same time denies any ambition to alter the course of the internal struggle for power in Syria or to assassinate Bashar el-Assad. Of course, if it achieved some larger goal unexpectedly this would likely be welcomed, although not necessarily, by such convergent  centers of concern on Syrian policy as Washington, Ankara, Riyadh, and Tel Aviv.

Why not necessarily? Because there is a growing belief in influential Western circles, highlighted in a cynical article by Edward Luttwak published a few days ago in the NY Times, [“In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins,” Aug. 24, 2013] that it is better for the United States and Israel if the civil war goes on and on, and there are no winners. Accorded to this warped reasoning, if Assad wins, it would produce significant regional gains for Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah; if the Syrian Free Army, and its Nusra Front and Al Qaeda allies win, it is feared that it would give violent extremist forces a base of operations that would likely work strongly against Western interests. Only Turkey, the frontline opponent of the Assad regime, and Saudi Arabia, the regional champion of Sunni sectarianism, stand to gain by resolving the conflict in favor of the Sunni-led opposition forces as that would both contribute, as Ankara and Riyadh see it, to greater regional stability, augment their preferred sectarian alignment, and inflict a major setback on Iran and Russia.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are split on whether it matters that upon the fall of Assad, a regime would be defeated that has repeatedly committed crimes against humanity in waging a war against its own people. Their contradictory responses to the el-Sisi coup and massacres in Egypt are illuminating on this score: Turkey adhered to principle despite a sacrifice of its short-term material and political interests in the Middle East, while Saudi Arabia has rushed in to provide Cairo with massive economic assistance and a show of strong diplomatic support for a military takeover that is crushing the leading Muslim political organization in the country.

Another way of thinking about the grand strategy of the United States in the Middle East after the dust from the Arab Spring began to settle in the region is suggested by the noted Israeli peace activist and former Knesset member, Uri Avnery [“Poor Obama,” August 31, 2013]: the U.S. Government at work frantically behind the scenes to restore the function of governance to military dictators, with Egypt the new poster child. Avnery attributes these Machiavellian machinations to CIA masterminds swimming in dark waters, entrapping Obama by overriding his strong rhetorical support for democracy in the Arab world, articulated in his Cairo speech back in 2009.

The rationale for an American-led attack on Syria is mostly expressed as follows:

–America’s credibility is at stake after Obama ‘red line’ was crossed by launching a large-scale lethal chemical weapons attack; doing nothing in response would undermine U.S. global leadership;

–America’s credibility makes indispensable and irreplaceable contributions to world order, and should not jeopardized by continued passivity in relation to the criminal conduct of the Assad regime; inaction has been tried for the past two years and failed miserably [not clearly tried—Hilary Clinton was avowed early supporter of rebel cause, including arms supplies; recent reports indicate American led ‘special forces operations’ being conducted to bolster anti-Assad struggle];

–a punitive strike will deter future uses of chemical weapons by Syria and others, teaching Assad and other leaders that serious adverse consequences follow upon a failure to heed warnings posted by an American president in the form of ‘red lines;’

–even if the attack will not shift the balance in Syria back to the insurgent forces it will restore their political will to persist in the struggle for an eventual political victory over Assad and operate to offset their recently weakened position;

–it is possible that the attack will unexpectedly enhance prospects for a diplomatic compromise, allowing a reconvening of the U.S.-Russia chaired Geneva diplomatic conference, which is the preferred forum for promoting transition to a post-Assad Syria.

Why is this rationale insufficient?

–it does not take account of the fact that a punitive attack of the kind evidently being planned by Washington lacks any foundation in international law as it is neither undertaken in self-defense, nor after authorization by the UN Security Council, nor in a manner that can be justified as humanitarian intervention (in fact, innocent Syrian civilians are almost certain to loom large among the casualties);

–it presupposes that the U.S. Government rightfully exercises police powers on the global stage, and by unilateral (or ‘coalition of the willing’) decision, can give legitimacy to an other unlawful undertaking; it may be that the United States remains the dominant hard power political actor in the region and world, but its war making since Vietnam is inconsistent with the global public good, causing massive suffering and widespread devastation; international law and the UNSC are preferable sources of global police power than is reliance on the discretion and leadership of the United States at this stage of world history even if this results in occasional paralysis as evidenced by the UN’s failure to produce a consensus on how to end the war in Syria;

–U.S. foreign policy under President Barack Obama has similarities to that of George W. Bush in relation to international law, despite differences in rhetoric and style: Obama evades the constraints of international law by the practice of ‘reverential interpretations,’ while Bush defied as matter of national self-assertion and the meta-norms of grand strategy; as a result Obama comes off  as a hypocrite while Bush as an outlaw or cowboy; in an ideal form of global law both would be held accountable for their violations of international criminal law;

–the impacts of a punitive strike could generate harmful results: weakening diplomatic prospects; increasing spillover effects on Lebanon, Turkey, elsewhere; complicating relations with Iran and Russia; producing retaliatory responses that widen the combat zone; causing a worldwide rise in anti-Americanism.

There is one conceptual issue that deserves further attention. In the aftermath of the Kosovo NATO War of 1999 there was developed by the Independent International Commission the argument that the military attack was ‘illegal but legitimate.’[1] The argument made at the time was that the obstacles to a lawful use of force could not be overcome because the use of force was non-defensive and not authorized by the Security Council. The use of force was evaluated as legitimate because of compelling moral reasons (imminent threat of humanitarian catastrophe; regional European consensus; overwhelming Kosovar political consensus—except small Serbian minority) relating to self-determination; Serb record of criminality in Bosnia and Kosovo) coupled with considerations of political feasibility (NATO capabilities and political will; a clear and attainable objective—withdrawal of Serb administrative and political control—that was achieved). Such claims were also subject to harsh criticism as exhibiting double standards (why not Palestine?) and a display of what Noam Chomsky dubbed as ‘military humanism.’

None of these Kosovo elements are present in relation to Syria: it is manifestly unlawful and also illegitimate (the attack will harm innocent Syrians without achieving proportionate political ends benefitting their wellbeing; the principal justifications for using force relate to geopolitical concerns such as ‘credibility,’ ‘deterrence,’ and ‘U.S. leadership.’ [For an intelligent counter-argument contending that an attack on Syria at this time would be ‘illegal but legitimate,’ see Ian Hurd, “Bomb Syria, Even if it is Illegal,” NY Times, August 27, 2013; also “Saving Syria, International Law is not the answer,” Aljazeera, August 27, 2013]

Protecting Snowden

4 Jul

Such self-designated ‘wise men’ of our time as David Brooks and Tom Friedman, highly influential opinion and opinionated writers of the NY Times, have been telling their readers that Edward Snowden was decent and intelligent, but overstepped the law by arrogating to himself the disclosure of the ‘total data’ surveillance programs of the National Security Agency of the U.S. Government. By deliberately releasing abundant evidence of the astonishing breadth and depth of surveillance, Snowden was clearly motivated by the concern that rights of privacy, the quality of democratic life, and respect for the sovereignty of foreign countries and the confidentiality of diplomatic events were being placed in jeopardy. For some, this bold decision to expose American intelligence gathering made Snowden a villain, called ‘a traitor’ by a variety of public officials including John Kerry, the Secretary of State. There is no doubt that Snowden is guilty of violating espionage laws, which automatically almost constitutes treason for those who possess an ultra-nationalist mentality. Those who think this way believe Snowden deserves to be punished to the limits of the law, and that foreign governments friendly to this country should accede to Washington’s request for his detention and expulsion to the United States to face charges.

Of course for many others Snowden is a hero for our times, actions that should be honored by a Nobel Prize. Snowden put democratic accountability ahead of his own career and security, knowingly placing himself at great risk by daring to challenge the security policies of the government of his own mighty country for the sake of avoiding a gathering Orwellian political storm. What President Obama speaking after the Snowden leaks described in Germany somewhat disingenuously as “a circumscribed, narrow system directed at us being able to protect our own people.” What protection of the American people have to do with listening in on the diplomatic communications of European Union members seems more than far fetched!

There are many sober voices declaring themselves worried about the dangerous implications of such a massive breach of national security, especially following the major discrediting disclosures of those recent master whistle blowers—Bradley Manning and Julian Assange. In effect, given the kind of security threats that exist in the post-9/11 world the public must trust the government to strike the right balance between protecting the country against threats to national security and upholding the liberty of its citizens and respecting the sovereignty of other countries. As Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and later the NSA, put it after these events: “We are now going to target the U.S. as if it were a foreign country.” Should Snowden’s violation of his oath and of espionage laws be welcomed as ‘a safety valve,’ a check upon abusive government, or as a gaping hole in governmental operations that needs to be closed as tightly as possible? The Belt Way insiders’ argument is that unless this latter approach is taken governmental policymaking will suffer because the needed institutional confidence that secrets are kept will be lost.

I find the Big Brother fears more credible than these anxieties about leaks in the secrecy enclosures relied upon by supposedly constitutional governments in defiance of the democratic ethos of accountability, transparency, and participation. What one finds consistently in government practice is an excess of secrecy via promiscuous classification tendencies that seem frequently used often to avoid embarrassing politicians from exposing dubious behavior or protecting bureaucrats from second-guessing and hostile commentary by journalists and the public. What is evident is that the government, even in a country that prides itself on freedom and privacy, tends to view information gathering in a spirit similar to weaponry—do whatever the technology allows so long as the costs are reasonable and the risks can be contained at moderate levels. And with the advent of digitized information technology, the sky is the limit: the PRISM program that was what Snowden was working on in his role as private contractor in the employ of the consulting firm of Booz, Allen, and Hamilton, and —-, was an indiscriminate data collection process that didn’t confine its intrusions to those for whom there existed grounds of suspicion. Indeed, every person everywhere was now living under a cloud of suspicion, there were no roster of ‘usual suspects’ to be rounded up in the aftermath of serious criminal incidents. The distinction crucial for the political wellbeing of people living in a liberal society between suspect and citizen now seems superseded and irrelevant, and this is an ominous development that should be challenged.

Two major developments brought this unsavory reality into being, and given ‘libertarian politics’ a new credibility. First, the most feared existential security threat became associated with potential political extremists who could be anywhere, within or beyond national borders, with or without affiliations to a political network. Consider such instances as the Norwegian Islamophobic right wing sociopath, Anders Breivik, guilty of a massacre on July 22, 2011 or the Tsarnaev brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombers on April 15, 2013. It is truly the case that the presence of isolated individuals, as well as transnational terrorist networks, pose severe threats to the viability of constitutional democracies. Many have voiced fears that a repetition of 9/11 in the United States would produce a slide into a kind of reactive fascism, and thus some sacrificing of freedoms, placing our trust in elected leaders and representative institutions, and hoping for the best is a kind of situational necessity. Politicians contend that such information trolling in the private domains of peoples’ lives has already contributed to the avoidance of terrorist attacks and horrifying incidents in as many as 90% of the cases of successful prevention. That is, the kind of threat that dominates our current fears can only be addressed in a responsible manner by giving up any expectations of autonomous citizenship or the promises of accountable government. Such a democratic slippage may simply have become a fact of 21st century life about which most of society has accepted, even if with scant awareness of what is happening.

The second important factor is the ‘can do’ quality of digital technology as applied to the temptations of mass surveillance whether for purposes of governmental control or private profit. Information can be gathered, enlisting the social networking infrastructures of modern society, stored, analyzed, coded, and made available for a wide range of licit and illicit uses. There is a sinister continuity between the technological capabilities of the massive data collection program of the NSA known as PRISM and the lethal drone missions controlled by civilian operators acting far from any combat zone, carrying out battle plans based on the selection of targets from a kill list presented daily to the president, and approving in secret the execution of American citizens and those living in foreign countries who owe no allegiance to American laws. Such is the nature of the ‘global war’ unleashed by George W. Bush after 9/11 and continued by Barack Obama. There are reassurances that care is taken, efforts are made to minimize mistakes, and only the most imminent of threats are targets. The objective assessment of the killing fields tell a different story—of innocent persons killed, of ‘signature’ strikes targeting for death those against whom there is only vague circumstantial evidence, of a reign of terror in areas where suspects are supposed to be based.

In actuality, what Snowden did was surprisingly responsive to national security concerns, including the protection of secrecy surrounding controversial overseas undertakings. Snowden has indicated that he never had an intention to release any documents that implicate particular agents engaged in covert operations or that reveal the location of CIA bases in foreign countries. In effect, Snowden was acknowledging that the government has ‘secrets’ that deserve keeping, and that he was distinguishing these from the those that were not justified by security considerations and posed a severe threat to the future quality of constitutional democracy. It is undoubtedly the case, as Snowden has hinted, that he had good reason to believe without such an unauthorized disclosure, the public would have no way of finding out what was going on and no say in shaping the privacy/security balance, and the government would undoubtedly continue to rely on excessive claims of secrecy to insulate itself from procedures of accountability, including the rather unconvincing forms of oversight that are entrusted with avoiding wrongdoing in its surveillance gulag. I think there is good reason to conclude that it is only the obtrusiveness of whistleblowers that produces these occasional glimmers of sunlight that illumine to some degree the dark corridors of governmental power.

The three major whistleblowing incidents of the last half century bearing on national security, (Ellsberg (Pentagon Papers), Bradley Manning (Iraq and Afghanistan document trove), and Snowden (the NSA Prism Program of Surveillance) had one thing in come, disclosures of state crimes that had been long covered up, and were integral to structures of impunity that seem vital to the performance of the dirty work of empire. Daniel Ellsberg in a Salon interview with Brad Friedman on June 14, 2013 [Salon.com] insisted that a more permissive political atmosphere existed in 1972 when he released the Pentagon Papers. There was then at least the possibility of getting the story out without being thrown into prison under conditions of solitary confinement (Manning) or hounded as if a common criminal (Assange, and now Snowden). Under current conditions it seems as if the only way for Snowden to have some opportunity to give his reasons for doing what he did was to go abroad, and then seek asylum.

What seems most dismaying about the Snowden affair is the prosecutorial zeal of the Obama presidency, supposedly liberal in its outlook on matters of personal freedom and the values of constitutional government. What Snowden has done is so clearly ‘a political crime,’ if it is a crime at all, and in recognition of this there has existed since the French Revolution been seen as inconsistent with the generally desirable policy of inter-governmental cooperation in the apprehension of suspected criminals. In such circumstances it is unseemly to instruct the Vice President to call around the world exerting leverage to discourage grants of asylum or sanctuary to Snowden, or worse yet, to use American influence to interfere with international flights thought to be associated with Snowden’s attempt to seek asylum, itself a right conferred in Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Maybe it is a legal stretch to insist on Snowden’s right of asylum considering that the ‘persecution’ he might face if returned to the United States would be nothing more (or less) than prosecution under applicable American criminal law, which presumably would be carried out in a judicially supervised manner as constitutionally prescribed by due process standards. But given the vindictive response to the Manning release of a cache of documents to WikiLeaks, and the refusal of the government to acknowledge the implications of policies that are criminal in nature, asylum should be granted to Snowden, and the failure to do so exhibits two features of present world order: American exceptionalism (would the US Government really turn over to China or Cuba a person who had risked everything to disclose state secrets to the world? The following statutory language is certainly suggestive of an answer: “No return or surrender shall be made of any person charged with the commission of any offense of a political nature.”); and the logic of major states that share an interest in collaborating with each other so as to keep the lid of secrecy covering their most nefarious practices.


Ending Perpetual War? Endorsing Drone Warfare?

1 Jun



            That President Obama chose on 23 May to unveil his second term cautionary approach to counter-terrorism at the National Defense University epitomized the ambiguity of the occasion. The choice of venue was itself a virtual guarantee that nothing would be said or done on that occasion that challenges in any fundamental way the global projection of American military power. Obama’s skillfully phrased speech was about refining technique in foreign policy, achieving greater efficiency in killing, interrogating the post-9/11 war mentality, and all the while extolling the self-mystifying glories of American exceptionalism. That is, only the United States, and perhaps Israel and NATO, possessed an entitlement to use force at times and places of the actor’s choosing without consulting the UN, respecting the constraints of international law, and heeding the admonition in the Declaration of Independence to show “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” Such exceptionalism, especially as enacted by recourse to aggressive wars, invites resistance, polarizes political struggle, and defeats any hope that stability will be achieved by the gradual realization of global justice rather than through the crude tactics of hard power diplomacy and militarism.


            There were several points of light in the otherwise dark Obama firmament. Perhaps, the most promising aspect of Obama’s presentation was its carefully hedged call for reexamining the still prevailing response to the 9/11 attacks as  ‘perpetual war.’ From the outset this cautious, yet welcome, questioning represented an ironic inversion of Kant’s prescriptions for perpetual peace. In Obama’s words, “..a perpetual war—through drones or troop deployments—will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways.” Depending on how we read world history since 1939, it can be understood as an era of perpetual war with a brief intermission between the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 attacks. Certainly, during the course of this period the United States has been continuously mobilized to engage in major war on a moment’s notice, and that this posture has definitely militarizes state/society relations in the country. There was nothing in Obama’s speech to draw attention to the perils posed by such a militarized state, having achieve global military dominance, and creating a domestic ‘miliary-industrial complex’ that would make even Dwight Eisenhower tremble with fear. There were no benchmarks that would allow the Congress or the citizenry to appreciate that it was time to bring the war on terror to an end.


            Obama also appeared to question the openendedness of the 2001 unlimited legislative mandate to use force overseas without including any requirement of a specific prior procedure of Congressial approval in Authorization to Use Military Force Act (AUMF). In Obama’s words, “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue, but all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.” At the same time, Obama avoided directly challenging this AUMF legislation enacted to give the government precisely the legal authority to use force anywhere and at any time to wage war against supposed terrorist adversaries and their governmental guardians. Such authority can be validly used even where there is no terrorist threat, as was the case for Iraq when it was invaded and occupied in 2003.  At this point, Obama was asking Congress “to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing.” He went on to say that what is needed is “to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF mandate.” Whenever politicians qualify a recommendation with such words as ‘refine’ and ‘ultimately,’ it is an almost sure sign that an end game is not envisioned, and may not even be intended. What Obama made evident is that although he had the right instincts with respecting to changing course with respect to the war on terror, his political will to support any altered course of action was far too weak to produce action, or maybe even too feeble to generate a needed debate on security for the country and the world, given the realities of mid-2013. Obama seems to be comfortable with framing counter-terrorist security policy as war so long as it is moving toward an understanding that war on terror will become more limited in scope at some point, and that at least there will be announced an intention to declare that the war on terror is over.  Obama did not have the resolve to insist that incidents of terrorism should be hereafter handled as criminal acts, which is what happens in the rest of the world—this would certainly have been a major step back from the fire, and might even deserved to be treated as extinguish the fire set for the world on 12 September 2001. The nature of the Boston Marathon murders might have been just the right occasion to make the change, emphasizing the degree to which the major danger was being posed by extremists living within the country. It was no longer necessary to treat the world as a counter-terrorist battlefield.


            There is admittedly a genuine security challenge that was posed on 9/11: the United States is vulnerable to well-planned terrorist attacks on the many soft targets of a complex modern society. And although other countries are also subject to major attacks, as was Madrid train bombings in 2004 and the London attacks in 2007, no country is as likely to arouse extremist anger and resentment due to its global projection of hard power as is the United States, and no country is as fearful, despite its military dominance as measured by realist calculations, as is the United States. Such a mismatch suggests that the American global role requires adjustment to the logic of self-determination in the post-colonial world, that the protection of the last remnants of the colonial edifice is a losing effort, and a dangerous one.


            To be sure there was in Obama’s speech many rhetorical flourishes that were probably designed to please liberal critics of drone warfare and Guantanamo, the two most awkward features of his presidency.  Such rhetoric invited a comparison with the far more bellicose and imperial language relied upon by George W Bush, but Obama’s approach was in a form that was sufficiently nationalistic to take account of the sensitivities of the right wing jackals that give him little, or no slack. Obama voiced his commitments to fight political extremists wherever they are found, while abiding by law, living up to ethical standards, and upholding the Constitution.  He contended that his presidency “has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists—insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability that is now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday,” a boast bound to raise more than a few skeptical eyebrows. Obama also did acknowledge that “this new technology raises profound questions—about who is targeted, and why; about civilian casualties, and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under U.S. and international law; about accountability and morality.” At the same time, this welcome willingness to suggest the need for some comprehensive rethinking was confusing, hedged by claims that all that has been done up to now has worked and that the drone war, despite a few mistakes, has at all stages been consistent with the international laws of war, the Constitution, and international morality. It is notable that Obama refers to ‘profound questions’ that deserve to be asked and answered, but craftily refrains from answering them himself, just as he was relatively polite to Medea Benjamin, when she interrupted his talk from the floor with a direct challenge to use his authority as Commander-in Chief to close Guantanamo, which he responded to by saying that she deserved an attentive audience, although he was in substantial disagreement with what she was proposing, but without saying why and how. In assessing Obama’s performance, I am reminded of the early downplaying  among Soviet dissenters of Mikhail Gorbachev’s claims to be a radical reformer: “He is giving us glastnost (freer speech) without perestroika (substantive and structural change), but he promised us both.”



            In large part Obama was reacting to a tsunami of recent criticism from around the world. His explanations at the National Defense University amounted to an admission that the conduct of drone warfare and the maintenance of Guantanamo, for better and worse, had severely eroded America’s diplomatic stature. Beyond this, such behavior had given rise to acute resentment directed against the United States, and was quite likely spawning the very extremists that the use of attack drones were supposed to be killing. The Obama presidency was clearly attempting to retreat from this precipice of disconnect without falling into an anticipated ambush staged by its obsessive detractors at home. As many have pointed out the speech was long on vague generalities, short on policy specifics. It called in several ways for a more ‘disciplined’ approach to the war on terror, yet at the same time claimed in some detail that what has been done during the Obama years was both ‘effective’ and ‘legal,’ and had been climaxed by the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011. In effect, the speech was acknowledging that the projection of American force around the world had become understandably problematic for many, but could be fixed by acknowledgements and a show of concern without making any discernable major shifts in behavior or objectives. Such a proposed tweaking of policy hardly qualifies as ‘profound’ even if its sentiments were to be fulfilled by such gradual shifts in policy as closing Guantanamo and minimizing reliance on drones, moves that at this point still seems quite unlikely.


            The speech was notably short even on those specifics that had been anticipated by those who gave their expert opinion as to what to expect. For instance, it was expected that the controversial and ethically outrageous ‘signature strikes’ whereby combat-age males have been targeted and killed in Pakistani tribal areas and in Yemen if they are seen congregating in a place supposedly frequented by terrorists, even if no further evidence exists as to their relationship to political violence, would be repudiated. Obama never even mentioned signature strikes. Nor did he refer to the supposed likelihood of an announcement that the CIA would be confined in the future to its primary role as a spy and intelligence gathering agency rather than acting in a variety of paramilitary modes. Even if this does happen at some point, drone policies relating to authorization and accountability will continue to be shrouded in secrecy and deniability whether or not major responsibility for the use of drones remains headquartered at Langley. Of course, the purported significance of such a reassignment of responsibility for the drones to the Pentagon may be typical liberal hype. It seems unrealistic to expect a great breakthrough in transparency and sensitivity to international law and morality just because the Pentagon rather than the CIA would be presiding over the attacks. It might be illuminating in this regard to ask Bradley Manning and Julian Assange what they thought about transparency at the Pentagon and its respect for international law..


            But there is much more at stake than was discussed in the lengthy speech. In trying to make the case that drone warfare is less invasive, resulting in fewer civilian casualties, Obama never even alluded to the severe degree to which attack drones are instruments of state terror, terrorizing the entire region exposed to their habitual use. Drone warfare, this supposedly miracle counter-terrorism weapons system, is in its enactment a new form of intense state terror that is enraging public opinion against the United States around the world, reactions not limited to the places subject to attack, although especially there. A Yemeni citizen, Farea al-Muslimi told the U.S. Senate in recent hearings, about attitudes toward drones in his home village, “..when they think of America, they think of the fear they feel at the drones over their heads.” In Pakistan, American drones have had a disastrously negative impact on public attitudes toward Islamabad’s relationship with the United States, evoking acute and widespread grassroots hostility throughout this key Asian country. Even in Afghanistan, where the political violence shows no signs of abating, the American handpicked leader, Hamid Karzai, is now saying that the prospects for Afghan stability and peace would be enhanced by the departure of American led NATO forces. This is a rather astounding about face for a leader handpicked years ago in Washington and long dependent on American largess and human sacrifice.


            Such realities should have at least tempted Obama to raise some genuinely profound questions about the viability and inherent morality of the continued U.S. insistence on projecting its military power to the far corners of the global. For whose benefit? At what costs? To what effects? But there was Obama silence about such underlying questions that are daily being asked elsewhere in the world.


            There is another line of prudential concern that was no where to be found in this less unconditional embrace of drones, reliance upon which was deglamorized to some degree, yet remains an embrace. Some 70 countries currently possess drones, although not all of these have acquired attack drones, but the day is not far off when drones will be part of the military establishment of every self-respecting sovereign state, and then what? Obama spoke about the right of the United States to kill or capture suspected ‘terrorists’ wherever they may be in the world if deemed by the government to be an imminent threat to American security interests and not amenable to capture. But is there not a de facto golden rule governing international relations: “what you claim the right to do to others, you authorize them to do to you.” Of course, this is often modified by invoking the geopolitical bronze super-rule that is generally operative, at least in relations with most of the non-West: “we can do to you whatever we wish or feel the need to do, and yet there is no legal, moral, or political precedent created that can be invoked by others.” American exceptionalism has long parted company with the central idea that international law is dependent for its effectiveness on the logic of reciprocity: namely, that what X does to Y, Y can do to X, or for that matter to Z, but with the technology of drones emergent, we may soon come to regret resting our claim on such a one-sided anti-law prerogative that encodes double standards. A hegemonic approach to international law has been relied upon in relation to nuclear weapons, with a somewhat similar pronouncement by Obama in 2009 to work ultimately toward a world without such weapons. Four years later the meager effort to realize such a vision should be a cautionary indication that the future military application of drones is unlikely to be significantly restricted so long as the United States finds their role useful, and given this prospect, a borderless future for violent conflict throughout the world should give Pentagon planners many a sleepless night.


            There is another feature of the Obama approach that bears scrutiny. The discipline and care associated with his plea for a more restrictive approach to counter-terrorism is basically entrusted to the suspect subjectivities of governmental good faith in Washington. At least, the Wikileaks disclosures should have taught American citizenry that secrecy at high levels of public sector policymaking is intended to place controversial behavior of government beyond public scrutiny and democratic accountability. Obama is asking the American people to put their trust in the judgment and values of bureaucrats in Washington so as to ensure that democracy can be restored in the country, and a better balance struck between security and the freedoms of the citizenry.  Perhaps, while waving the banner of national security, you can fool most of the people most of the time, but hopefully there are limits to such bromides from on high despite a compliant media. It should be noticed that the Obama presidency has done more to prevent and punish breaches of governmental secrecy than any previous political leadership. In relation to the criminality disclosed by Wikileaks the reaction was to do its best to prosecute the messenger while totally ignoring the message.  


            In most respects, the song that Obama sang at the National Defense Univerity did not conform to the melody. Obama refrained from taking what would have been the most natural and welcome step: belatedly putting the  genie of war back in its box, and finally reject this dysfunctional blending of war and crime. After all the deaths and displacements of the wars waged in Afghanistan and Iraq were major failures from the perspective of counter-terrorism, and it would appear that such an adjustment was overdue. The root error committed immediately after 9/11 was to move the fight against Al Qaeda and international terrorism from the discourse of crime to the framework of war without any kind of thoughtful rationale or appreciation of the adverse consequences. In the traumatic atmosphere that prevailed after the attacks, this rushed transition to war was partially done under the influence of neocon grand strategy that had been actively seeking a global writ to intervene well before the attacks occurred, especially in the Middle East. The Bush entourage made no secret of its search for a pretext to take advantage of what was then being called ‘the unipolar moment,’ a phrase no longer in fashion for obvious reasons. It needs to be remembered that back before 9/11 the Democrats were being chided for their wimpish foreign policy during the 1990s that wasted what was alleged to be a rare opportunity to create the sort of global security infrastructure that was needed to realize and protect the full potential of neoliberal globalization, which included a preoccupation with ensuring that the oil reserves of the Gulf remained accessible to the West. Although the United States has been chastened by its military setbacks in recent wars, its underlying grand strategy has not been repudiated or revised, and even now with so much at stake politically and militarily, there are strong pressures mounting to intervene more robustly in Syria and to launch yet another aggressive war, this time against Iran.


            If effect, we the peoples of the world, can take some slight comfort in the cautionary approach evident in the Obama tilt away from the hazards of ‘perpetual war,’ but until the more fundamental aspects of the American global role and ambitions, and its related militarism become the crux of  debate, advocacy, and policy, we and others cannot rest easy!






Comparing Presidential Elections: 2008 versus 2012

20 Oct


            In 2008, Barack Obama rekindled faith in the America electoral process for many, and revived the deeper promise of American democracy, bringing to the foreground of the national political experience a brilliant and compassionate African American candidate. When Obama actually won the presidency, it was one of the exciting political moments in my lifetime, and rather reassuring as a sequel to the dark years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Of course, many Americans didn’t share such positive feelings, and an important embittered minority believed that the election of a liberal-minded black man was the lowest point ever reached in national politics, challenging this segment of society that now was deeply alienated from the prevailing political current to mobilize their forces so as to win back control of the country on behalf of white Christian Americans, and also a time to indulge such absurd scenarios as an imminent Muslim takeover of the society. Such polarization, gave rise to an Islamophobic surge that revived the mood of fear and paranoia that followed upon the 9/11 attacks and was reinforced by evangelical enthusiasm for Israel. In this regard, the Obama phenomenon was a mixed blessing as it contributed to a rising tide of rightest politics in the United States that poses unprecedented dangers for the country and the world.


            Nevertheless, as mentioned, Obama’s campaign and election was at the time a most welcome development, although not entirely free from doubts. From the outset my hopes were tinged with concerns, although I did my best to suspend disbelief. All along I found little evidence that Obama’s leadership would liberate the governing process from its threefold bondage to Wall Street, the Pentagon, and Israel.  Such a political will to mount such a challenge was never in evidence, and never materialized. Even in lucid moments, however, I reasoned it was important to elect Obama, despite his endorsement of a woefully deficient set of foreign policy assumptions, because more would be done to give assistance to those impoverished and hit by unemployment and home foreclosures, better judges and diplomats would be appointed, and more attention would be given to climate change. After four years, I continue to believe that these differences matter sufficiently to make it irresponsible not to support Obama and the Democratic Party, especially in so-called swing states.


And if there was excitement in much of America during the 2008 electoral campaigned, it was mild compared with pro-Obama sentiments in the rest of the world four years ago, which reached dizzying heights after his victory. This enthusiasm was a compound of several elements: Obama’s success lifted confidence throughout the world that the United States could again play a benevolent role on the global stage and also because it validated that mythic image of America as a country where it was truly possible for anyone in the society, including members of minorities long discriminated against, to reach the pinnacles of wealth and power provided only that they were sufficiently talented and determined, and some would add, lucky. There remains little doubt that if the peoples of the world were allowed to vote in American elections, as might be appropriate in a globalized world, it would have produced a landslide of unprecedented magnitude in Obama’s favor.


All at once in 2008 it became evident that an American presidential election was no longer just a national  ritual that bemused outsiders watched as a kind of spectacle but a global event that affected the entire world. In fact the selection of a leader for the United States might be in some respects more important for other societies than for America, and further that the outcome of an American election could have a greater impact on a country in Asia, Africa, and Latin America than the effects of their own national elections, a significance reinforced by intense global media coverage of the American election in real time. In this respect, the 2008 election of Barack Obama made many of us aware that ‘political globalization’ was now as much a part of our experiences as ‘economic globalization.’ We were no longer living in a world where the standard map based on the borders of territorial sovereign states depicted the essential organization of political life on the planet. Our globalizing world had made the geopolitical cartography of influence much more spatially elusive, almost impossible to depict visually, but no less real.


Overall, the initial candidacy and election of Obama was, despite my qualms, more about hope than fear. There were concerns to be sure that the McCain/Palin Republican opposition would be dangerous for the world, but such anxieties were relatively subdued, and did not extinguish the strong positive expectations generated by Obama. And these hopes seemed somewhat justified in the first months of his presidency. In April Obama delivered a visionary speech in Prague that articulated a strong commitment to work toward a world without nuclear weapons. The newly elected president also seemed determined to carry out his campaign pledge to end the Iraq War in a responsible fashion, although this welcome move was offset by a disquieting hint that such a demilitarizing move in Iraq would be balanced by an increased commitment to prevailing in the ongoing war for the control of Afghanistan.



In June Obama made a relatively forthcoming speech in Cairo promising a new more positive relationship with the Islamic world as a whole and to the Middle East in particular. The president referred to the long ordeal of the Palestinian people and proclaimed his dedication to achieving a peaceful and just resolution of the Israel/Pa;lestine conflict, including a most reasonable call upon Israel to freeze all settlement expansion while peace negotiations were taking place. That this call on Israel to stop unlawful activity during negotiations was treated by the media as such a bold step tells us just how biased the mainstream attitude toward the conflict had become, and when Israel rejected at Obama ‘s moderate plea it experienced no adverse consequences, although the White House was put on the defensive because it had dared to push Israel to take a step that was against its wishes. This initiative, followed by its withdrawal, demonstrated to the world the extent to which the United States Government was in Israel’s corner, was revealed to all who cared to notice that the only superpower in global politics was a paper tiger when it came to the pursuit of a just outcome of the conflict.


            As already indicated, I half expected disappointments in 2008. I worried about Obama’s typical liberal effort to demonstrate his tough approach to national security including support for a bloated defense budget in the face of a fiscal and employment crisis, about his lame effort to distinguish between Iraq as a bad war and Afghanistan as a war necessary for American security, and hence a good war. Also, I was disturbed by the way Obama dumped Rev. Jeremiah Wright when he became a liability to his electoral campaign, seemed embarrassed by his friendship with the distinguished Palestinian political historian, Rashid Khalidi, and made Rahm Emanuel chief of staff, as his first major appointment. Obama surrounded himself with economic advisors who were the same folks that had collaborated with the banks, hedge funds, and big brokerage houses in the 1990s to facilitate the huge regressive redistribution of wealth in the spirit of ‘casino capitalism.’ Unfortunately, these telltale signs of weakness of principle and ideology were an accurate foretaste of what was in store for the country during the next four years, although it apparently never dawned on the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to withhold its coveted award until Obama demonstrated that he was a deserving recipient, which sadly he never did.


            What happened during the first term of the Obama presidency is definitely disappointing, although it is only fair to acknowledge that extenuating circumstances existed. Obama was dealt ‘a bad hand’ in the form of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. American society was sliding to the right as exhibited by the rise of the Tea Party, and the election of increasingly reactionary politicians as senators and congressmen, creating the most rightwing Congress in memory.  It was difficult to govern in such a setting, and Obama compounded the difficulties by moving more than half way to meet the unreasonable demands of the opposition, and continued to do so even in the face of their clear unwillingness to reciprocate in a corresponding manner. Also, the pressures mounted by Israel and its formidable AIPAC lobby led the White House to back pedal awkwardly with respect to its efforts to create an atmosphere conducive to a balanced peace process for Israel and Palestine. On other issues, as well, Obama followed the pollsters and the party insiders more than principle, and failed to do what was best for the country and the world. After promising to take climate change seriously, Obama led an international effort to avoid imposing legal constraints on carbon emissions, and throughout his reelection campaign in 2012 has done his best to avoid the looming challenge of global warming aside from blandly promoting energy independence and green technology. As a result, the near unanimous scientific consensus on the urgent need for mandatory strict limits on carbon emissions has been disastrously pushed further and further into the background of public consciousness.


            For me the 2012 elections have a different tone and relevance,  that is not less consequential than in 2008, although absent the uplift. I believe this time around the stakes in the presidential election have been reversed. The upcoming election is more about fear than hope. The outcome is as fateful, or possibly more so, for the American people and the world, especially those living in the Middle East, but fateful also in the sense of avoiding the worst, not hoping for the best, or at least something better. Romney’s election, even if he means only 50% of what he is saying, could lead to military confrontation with Iran, a completely free hand for Israel, an effort to undermine and control democratic forces in the main Arab countries, a trade war with China, a deepening of the world financial and employment crises, reduced respect for human rights, especially the reproductive rights of women, and a return to the overt lawlessness of the Bush presidency. Obama if reelected would likely be a more prudent leader, although continuing to throw the weight of American influence mostly on ‘the wrong side of history.’ In this sense, although prudence is to be preferred to recklessness, there are no major principled differences between the candidates when it comes to foreign policy (on domestic policy there is). Romney proposes that the U.S. stay longer in Afghanistan, move closer to an attack mode with Iran, and challenge China more vigorously on economic policy, and Obama agrees with all these positions but pursues them in a more nuanced way, with a greater seeming sensitivity to the risks and pitfalls, but nevertheless adhering to the same misguided and regressive policy options.


            When fear rather than hope shapes our political consciousness, the effect on the citizenry is likely to be despair. Such an effect induces collective depression and encourages extremisms. What is also scary is the degree to which those who are making us fearful are being aided and abetted by the deep pockets of extremist billionaires who seem clearly to sense their ability in this period to buy enough votes to distort the will of the citizenry, and if they should be successful will step up to the policy window to cash in their chips, which could produce some disastrous results at home and abroad. In the background, of course, is the disappointment with the political consciousness of the citizenry that seems so receptive to such a dysfunctional and menacing political agenda as is being presented to them by the Republican Party; it does inspire confidence that the democratic way can lead toward sustainability, security, and justice in the years ahead.


            With such an understanding why not support the Green Party candidacy of Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala? Their positions seem principled and admirable, and their alignments are with the poor and with the environment. Their platform is inspirational and congenial compared to what the Republicans and Democrats offer the American people. But their capacity to govern is untested, and their level of support is minimal.


            I ask myself whether a vote for the Green Party in light of these circumstances would be a wasted vote? It evades the question to observe that in some states, say California or Nebraska, the outcome is so clear that takingsides as between the candidates put forward by the Democrats and Republicans is meaningless. The real test is whether it is worth voting for the Green Party candidates as a matter of principle because they are decent enough not to stoop to the dirty games of money and the accommodation of special interests that are poisoning the political process in the United States. At this point, I am not able to resolve my doubts. Is it irresponsible, given what is at stake, not to vote for the lesser of evils? Is it a misunderstanding of modern democracies to expect clear choices based on principled positions, respect for international law and human rights, dedication to environmental protection, sustainable economic policies, and a commitment to social justice for the entire population? Should we not insist on this misunderstanding to avoid ourselves being entrapped in a demeaning morality that overlooks crimes of state? (for instance, drone terror)


            I must admit if living in a swing state I would vote for Obama, not having sufficient courage of my convictions to risk symbolic responsibility for a Romney victory!



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