Tag Archives: Iran

Bolton’s Red Sky Worldview: ICC, International Law, and Iran

26 Sep

Bolton’s Game: Not Sovereignty, Not International Law—Clearing the Path for U.S., Geopolitical Primacy

 

To be sure, on September 10thJohn Bolton, Trump’s National Security Advisor, pushed all the thematic buttons that might beexpected of a luncheon speaker invitedto address the Federalist Society, long known asthe ideological home of rabid advocates of the so-called ‘new sovereignty.’ The hallmark of this pre-Trump neocon law bastion of Scalia worshippers was their role in the career nurturing of such jurisprudential embarrassments as John Yoo and Jack Goldsmith. Yoo the notorious author of the torture memos and Goldsmith the public servant usually give credit forcrafting an expert approval text validating ‘extreme rendition’ of CIA suspects to notorious ‘black sites,’ known around the world as safe havens for torture, surely acrude instance ofex parte criminal legalism. It should be noted that both of these individuals are senior faculty members at two of America’s finest law schools, UC Berkeley and Harvard, both of which exhibit institutional pride in the fact of treating legal ethics as integral part of professional education.

 

John Bolton was the safest of choices as a featured speaker, having earned his Federalist Society credentials many times over.  He seems perversely proud of leading the unprecedented effort on behalf of George W. Bush in 2002 to ‘unsign’ the Rome Statute, the treaty that brought the International Criminal Court (ICC) into force in 2002, and now has 123 sovereignstates as parties, including all NATO members except the U.S. and Turkey. At the talk, Bolton paused to boast of orchestrating this unusual move to highlight and underscore this repudiation of the ICC by the Bush presidency, and in the process, of the crusading success of a transnational civil society movement and a coalition of moderate governments around the world to institutionalize individual accountability of political leaders and military commanders for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  It should be humiliating that such a global undertaking to strengthen international criminal law enforcement is regarded as posing a direct threat to Americans and governmental policy. It puts a preemptivetwist on the previous reliance on ‘victors’ justice’ to ensure that none of the Allied crimes during World War II would be subjected to legal scrutiny while the crimes of German and Japanese political leaders and military commanders were being prosecuted.

 

Actually, even if Bush had not bothered to have the Clinton signature removed, the U.S. would never in this dark period of anti-internationalism have joined the ICC. To become a party to the treaty would have needed the additional step of ratification of the Rome Statute, and that would require an affirmative vote of 2/3rds of the U.S. Senate. A favorable outcome would have been even more unlikely than for Donald Trump to nominate Anita Hill or Robert Mueller as his next choices for the U.S. Supreme Court. In this sense, only the up tempo language of Bolton is notable for its willingness to denigrate and even smear the ICC.

 

Slick Willy Clinton had his own reservations about the treaty and never took the normal step following an official signature of a negotiated inter-governmental agreement of submitting it for ratification. Indeed, it is a technical violation of customary international law that imposes a good faith obligation on governments to seek formal adherence of signed treaties in accordance with constitutional procedures of the particular state. In other words, even the supposedly liberal side of American political life has opted out of its earlier tradition of supporting the institutional development of the Rule of Law on a global level as an aspect of its commitment to the role of law and institutions as essential ingredients of a peaceful and just world order.

 

Congress removed any doubt as to its hostility toward the ICC when in 2002 it passed the American Service-Members’ Protection Act, authorizing the President to use all necessary means, even force, to prevent prosecution at The Hague of Americans accused of war crimes or crimes against humanity. What is especially disturbing about such a slap at criminal accountability is the absence of slightest show of concern as to whether the allegations in a particular case were well grounded in evidence or not.  When Bolton alluded to this bit of ultra-nationalism he appropriately noted that the legislation enjoyed bipartisan support, which suggests that the American posture of claiming ‘lawless geopolitics’ for itself is a fixed feature of world order for the seeable future no matter who occupies the Oval Office. It is ironic that while criminality is ensured of impunity, the practice of impunity, a dubious encroachment on the logic of legality, is not only claimed but offered that most unusual feature of international enforcement.

 

Bolton implied that the problems of criminality in world affairs are associated with the leaders of the foreign adversaries of the United States, identifying such individuals as Saddam Hussein, Hitler, Stalin, and Qaddafi. His assertion implied that the good behavior of the United States and its allies was such as to be inherently benevolent and the bad behavior of its adversaries would require more than law to deter: “The hard men of history are not deterred by fantasies of international law such as the International Criminal Court.” We can only meekly ask, “Are the supposedly soft men  of history, such as Trump or G.W. Bush, any less undeterred?” “And why should we ever expect these hard men to be deterred if the ICC and international law are but ‘fantasies.’

 

Getting back to Bolton’s luncheon remarks, his own summary of his feverish assault on the audacity of the ICC to consider investigating Israel’s international crimes, and the alleged crimes of the Taliban and the United States in Afghanistan reads as follows:This administration will fight back to protect American constitutionalism, our sovereignty, and our citizens. No committee of foreign nations will tell us how to govern ourselves and defend our freedom. We will stand up for the US constitution abroad, just as we do at home. And, as always, in every decision we make, we will put the interests of the American people first.

 

These are predictable sentiments, given the occasion and taking into account Bolton’s long advocacy of a militarist foreign policy that disregards the restraints of law, morality, and political prudence. It isthe ethics and politics of this disregard that is Bolton’s realmessage. We should be attentive to this real message hidden within the fiery ‘sovereignty, first’ verbiage, which is that the geopolitical practices of the United States will not be subject to legal accountability no matter how flagrant the violation of fundamental norms might be in the future. Bolton may overstep the bounds of the liberal order when he attacks the ICC as an institution, which had not been previously treated as a threat to American foreign policy. Only recently did it dawn on Washington policymakers that the ICC might at some point actually challenge what the U.S. and its allies, most notably Israel, are doing in the world.

 

Previously, the U.S. was a supporter of criminal accountability of foreign leaders, especially if they were adversaries of the U.S.. It should be remembered that even during the Bush presidency, the government sent dozens of government lawyers to Iraq to help prepare a war crimes prosecution of Saddam Hussein and his entourage after their capture. This capture occurred in the course of a war of aggression initiated against Iraq in 2003 without any prior provocation. The U.S. attack, regime change, and long intrusive occupation took place, it should be recalled, despite the failure of the U.S. Government to secure the support of the UN Security Council despite a feverish attempt to gain authorization.

 

In other words, so far as even the Boltons of this world are concerned, there is nothing wrong with criminal accountability of leaders and military personnel so long as the indictments, prosecutions, and punishments are confined to enemies of the United States. Such a self-serving geopolitical appropriation of international criminal law should not be confused with legitimate law, which presupposes that the rules, norms, and procedures apply to all relevant actors, the strong as well as the weak, the victors as well as the defeated, geopolitical wrongdoers as well their adversaries.

 

What is sad about the Bolton worldview, and indeed the new sovereignty ideologues that shape the public image of the Federalist Society, aside from its influence in the Trump Era, is that it completely misunderstands the relevance of international law in this period of global interdependence and planetary challenge. State-centric world order as beset by geopolitical rivalries is a blueprint for civilizational collapse in the 21stcentury, and probably represents the worst possible way to uphold core sovereign rights and national interests over time.

 

What is still sadder is that the Bolton/Trump worldview, which seems so outlandish and anachronistic is not that extremist, compared to Democratic establishment approaches, when it comes to behavior. It represents a surreal rhetorical extension of the bipartisan consensus that is complacent about the failures of the neoliberal international order, including especially the destructive impacts of predatory globalization on democratic forms of governance, on safeguarding of social and economic rights, and on ecological sustainability.

 

As many have noted Hilary Clinton’s push toward a confrontation with Russia was more in keeping with Bolton’s preferred foreign policy than the more accommodationist proposals of Trump during his presidential campaign. It is against such a background that I reach the lamentable conclusion that when it comes world peace and global justice the Democratic Party establishment has little to offer when it comes to foreign policy, and may be more inclined to initiate wars and raise geopolitical tensions than even their reactionary and militarist Republican rivals. Bernie Sanders, although international affairs is not his strong suit, at least gestured toward a less militarist and dysfunctional  foreign policy. For the Democratic Party to generate enthusiasm upon American youth and the deeply discontented in the country it must reinvent itself by embracing progressive and forthcoming policies than in the recent past and positions that are more constructive and programmatic than even the Sanders foreign policy. Without such bold moves there will be a loud sigh of relief when Trump loses control of Congress in November, and even louder one when Trump leaves the White House, but the American ship of state will still resemble the maiden voyage of the Titantic.

 

As if to confirm the analysis above we should take account of Bolton past warmongering toward North Korea including advocating a preemptive strike, and recently articulating grossly unlawful threats of force directed at Iran. It should be appreciated that contemporary international law, as embodied in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter forbids threatsas well as uses of aggressive force.

Such a prohibition underlines the criminality of Bolton’s recent formulations of military threats directed at Iran: “I might imagine they [“the mullahs of Tehran”] would take me seriously when I assure them today: If you cross us, our allies, or our partners; if you harm our citizens; if you continue to lie, cheat and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay.” Such chilling words must be understood in the context of Bolton’s past advocacy of bombing Iran and of the Trump approach to the region that can be summarized in a few words: ‘do what Netanyahu wants.’

 

Even if war and aggression do not actually occur, and we must pray that they do not, this kind of geopolitical bullying by a leading official of a country that has up to one thousand military bases spread around the world should be criminalized, and not just criticized as intemperate.

 

 

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Interview: Middle East Turmoil: Israeli Massacre, Palestinian Grievances

3 Apr

The Middle East is Heating Up — Again: An Interview with Richard Falk (with C.J. Polychroniou)

 

[Prefatory Note: This is a somewhat modified text of an interview of two weeks ago conducted by the Greek journalist and author, C.J Polychroniou. Since then several developments have occurred, none more significant than the Return Home Land Day demonstrations of March 30, 2018. The original interview appeared in several online publications. The format is altered to make somewhat more reader friendly.]

 

CJP: Richard, let’s start with Donald Trump’s decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US embassy there by May of this year. First, is this legal from the standpoint of international law, and, second, what are likely to be the long-term effects of the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on the region as a whole?

 

RF: There is no question, Chronis, that Trump’s Jerusalem policy relating to recognition and the move of the American embassy is regionally and religiously provocative and disruptive, underscoring the abandonment by Washington of even the pretense of being a trustworthy intermediary that can be relied upon by both sides to work for a sustainable peace between the two peoples. Some critics of the initiative are saying that the U.S. is free to situate its embassy in Jerusalem, but the whole of Jerusalem isn’t Israel. The status of this holy city remains to be determined and East Jerusalem, where the Old City is located, which for the present is considered to be an ‘occupied territory’ in international humanitarian law.

 

Recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a clear violation of international humanitarian law, which rests on the central proposition that an occupied territory should not be altered in any way that changes its status and character without the consent of the occupied society. It also is a unilateral rejection of a near unanimous international consensus, endorsed by the United Nations, that the future of Jerusalem should be settled by negotiations between the parties as a part of a broader peacemaking process. Israel had much earlier violated both international law and breached this international consensus by unilaterally annexing an enlarged Jerusalem, and declared that the whole city, within expanded boundaries, would be the ‘undivided, eternal capital’ of Israel. It is notable that the General Assembly on December 21, 2017 approved by an overwhelming majority of 128-8 (35 abstentions) a strong condemnation of the U.S. move on Jerusalem, with even America’s closest allies joining in this vote of censure.

 

It is difficult to predict the long-term consequences of this diplomatic rupture. It depends, above all, on whether the U.S. Government acts convincily to restore its claim to act as a conflict-resolving intermediary. The Trump administration continues to insist that it is working on a peace plan that will require painful compromises by both Palestine and Israel. Of course, given the unconditional alignment of Washington with Netanyahu’s views of Israel and the Palestinian future, as well as the orientation of those entrusted with drafting the plan, it is highly unlikely that even Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, generally accommodationist will be inclined to enter a diplomatic process that is virtually certain to be weighted so heavily in favor of Israel. Yet as many have come to appreciate, nothing is harder to predict than the future of Middle Eastern politics.

At the same time, Jerusalem has an abiding significance for both Islam and Christianity that makes it almost certain for the indefinite future that there will be formidable regional and civilizational resistance to subsuming Jerusalem under Israeli sovereign control.

 

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CJP: Israel appears bent on restricting Iran’s rising influence as a regional power in the Middle East. How far do you think the US can go in assisting Israel to contain Tehran’s strategy for empowering Shia’s?

 

Richard Falk: Israel and Saudi Arabia are both for different reasons determined to confront Iran, and quite possibly, initiate a military encounter with potentially widespread ramifications for the entire region, if not the world. A quick glance at the Syrian conflict suggests how complex and dangerous is this effort to destabilize the Iranian governing process, with the dual objectives of destabilizing the governing process mixed with the more ambitious goal of causing civil strife of sufficient magnitude as to produce a civil war, and ideally from the perspectives of Iran’s adversaries, regime change.

 

The Israeli adherence to this recklessness seems partly motivated by its overall security policy of seeking to weaken any country in the region that is hostile to its presence and has the potential military capability to threaten Israeli security and regional role in a serious manner. Israel has been so far successful in neutralizing each of its credible adversaries in the region (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, Syria) with the exception of Iran. In this sense, Iran stands out as the last large unfinished item on Israel’s post-1967 geopolitical agenda. Israel’s real intentions are difficult to pin down, shifting with context and perceived opportunity. Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders frequently manipulate the alleged Iranian threat to cause fear among Israelis. Their goal seems to be the mobilization of domestic support for adhering to an aggressive foreign policy. This manipulation panics many Israeli security specialists who express are more alert to the risks of an actual military confrontation with Iran than are political leaders.

 

Saudi motivations are quite different, associated with a fierce regional rivalry that is articulated in terms of a sectarian clash between Shia and Sunni Islam, aggravated by a concern that Iran’s influence increased as a result of the Iraq and Syrian Wars, which both seem to have outcomes favorable to Tehran. The sectarian rationale of the conflict seems intended to disguise the more fundamental explanation, which is that there is a power struggle between these two sovereign states to determine which one will achieve regional ascendancy. The sectarian explanation was also somewhat undermined by the intensity with which the Saudis and other Gulf monarchies used their financial and diplomatic resources to crush the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt despite its strong Sunni identity. From the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 Tehran looked upon the monarchy governing Saudi Arabia as corrupt and decadent in the same manner as it regarded the Shah’s dynastic rule in Iran as politically illegitimate.

 

Your focus on how far the U.S. can go in restricting Iran’s influence is difficult to assess at this point. Trump’s virtual repudiation of the agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program seems to express a commitment to join with Israel and Saudi Arabia to engage in coercive diplomacy, consisting of intensifying sanctions, covert operations to encourage internal opposition, and a variety of military threats. Where this will lead, if indeed it goes forward in defiance of the other parties to the agreement and almost all UN members, is anybody’s guess, but it is a highly irresponsible diplomatic gambit that risks a deadly ‘war of choice.’

 

Trump’s regional diplomacy, such as it is, has been most notable for giving even greater emphasis to the ‘special relationships’ with Israel and Saudi Arabia than earlier American leaders. Even previously, under Obama, George W. Bush, and prior presidents, the subordination of American strategic interests and national values to this posture of unquestioning support, which is the operational significance of designating these links as special relationships.

 

 

 

CJP: Syria’s civil war not only continues unabated but the country has become a battlefield for the spread of the influence of various powers in the region, including Turkey and Russia. Do you see a way out of this mess?

 

Richard Falk: The Syrian War is among the most complex conflict patterns in the history of warfare. Not only is there an internal struggle for control of the Syrian state that has been waged by not one, but by several insurgent movements that are not even compatible with one another. There is also a regional proxy war pitting Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar against Iran, with Turkey playing a confusing role that sometimes seems guided by anti-Damascus goals but at other times is preoccupied with curtailing the Kurdish challenge. The various national struggles of the Kurds for autonomous rights, possibly independent political communities, threatens the territorial integrity of several Middle Eastern states, as well as Syria. In addition to all of this there are major multi-faceted and fluid Russian and American involvements on opposite sides, although not even this opposition is clear cut and consistent. For a time there was an almost collaborative effort to defeat ISIS and obtain a Syrian ceasefire, although the basic involvement has been to put Russia on the side of the Damascus government and the U.S. as aligned with the insurgencies.

 

Because the anti-ISIS dimension of the conflict is at odds with the anti-Damascus dimension, depending on the priority accorded to one rather than the other, alignments are contradictory and shifted over time. Sometimes precedence has been given to achieving regime-change in Damascus by removing Assad from power, and in such contexts, it was acknowledged silently that ISIS was the most effective military challenge on the ground being mounted against the Syrian government. At other times, the counterterrorist campaign against ISIS was given uppermost prominence, and there was even high-level indications that Washington was willing to live with the Assad regime, a position given added credence recently due to the success of the Syrian government in quelling its opposition, making continued opposition futile politically and irresponsible ethically. Whenever pragmatism gained the upper hand, Russia and Iran were accepted as partners in these efforts to defeat and destroy ISIS.

 

All wars eventually come to an end, and I am sure Syria will not be an exception. Yet it difficult at present to project a solution that brings about more than a ceasefire, and even this kind of ending of what has become an orgy of senseless killing is highly elusive, as each of the many parties to the conflict jockeys violently for minor positional advantages to improve its bargaining leverage when the conflict enters some kind of negotiating phase. Although all wars end eventually, internal wars of this kind, especially with such complex regional and international aspects, can simmer for decades with no clear winner or loser as has been the case in the Philippines and Colombia. It seems as if at present the Syrian government believes it is on the verge of victory, and is pressing for an outcome in East Ghouta and Idlib such that it will not be expected to make significant concessions.

 

The best hope, which has been the case for several years, is that the various parties will recognize that the situation is indeed a mess that is causing mass suffering and widespread devastation without producing political gains. Yet translating that recognition into a formula that produces an end to the violence has so far proved futile and frustrating as each party sees the conflict from its partisan perspective of gain and loss.

 

 CJP: With the two-state solution having ceased long ago being a viable alternative, what are the most likely prospects for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations?

 

Richard Falk: The safest response is to anticipate a persistence of the present status quo, which involves continuing Israeli expansionism by way of the settlements and the persistence of the Palestinian ordeal, with some resistance in the occupied West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem and a growing global solidarity movement exerting pressure on Israel in the form of the BDS campaign. There may be some attention given to a variety of proposals to end the conflict by revived diplomacy. The Trump blustery promise of ‘a deal of the century’ has received skeptical attention, but its likely one-sidedness makes it almost certain to be a non-starter, especially as the Israeli government feels insufficient pressure to produce a peaceful solution based on a genuine political compromise and the Palestinian Authority remains unwilling to accept a demilitarized statelet as a token Palestine state, or even to participate in negotiations that are so obviously stacked against it. For public relations reasons, the international consensus clings to the two-state solution even though, as your question suggests, its viability has long been superseded by Israeli expansionist policies intended to fulfill the Zionist goal of making the boundaries of Israel coterminous with the whole of the Jewish biblical conception of the ‘promised land.’

 

There are other outcomes that are possible. Daniel Pipes has been promoting what he dubbed ‘the victory caucus,’ which posits Israel as the victor in the struggle to establish a Jewish state and Palestine the loser. Pipes argues that diplomacy has failed to resolve the conflict after years of effort, and hence that the only alternative is for one side to win and the other to lose if peace is to be established. He encourages Israel to escalate pressure on the Palestinians to make them see the light, accept the reality of a Jewish state, and move on. Such an initiative is distasteful to those who support the Palestinian struggle, and it seems oblivious to the claims of international law and international morality as these are generally understood in the 21st century when colonialism and ethnic nationalism are illegitimate forms of political control and the right of self-determination has become universally accepted as an inalienable right of an oppressed people in the circumstances of the Palestinians.

 

In my view, neither the two-state nor a consensual one-state outcome of the struggle is currently within the realm of political feasibility. We are necessarily speculating about future political scenarios within the domain of ‘political impossibility.’ Yet the impossible sometimes happens. Colonialism was successfully challenged, the Soviet Union collapsed, South Africa renounced apartheid, the Arab Spring erupted. In none of these cases did such occurrences seem possible except in retrospect. After the events, as expected, experts appeared who explained why these impossible developments were, if closely considered, inevitable.

 

In this spirit, I think it useful to acknowledge the limits of rational assessment, and either remain silent, or offer for consideration, a solution that is ‘impossible,’ yet ‘desirable’ from the perspective of humane values, which in this case involves a secure, equitable, and sustainable peace for both peoples that is, above all, sensitive to their equality and to their distinct, yet legitimate, claims to self-determination. I find it unimaginable to realize such a peace within the current structure of the Middle East, which consists of a group of artificial and autocratic states held together by varying mixtures of coercion, corruption, and external military assistance. Israel/Palestine peace cannot unfold in a benevolent manner without a structural return to the Ottoman framework of regional unity and ethnic community, and possibly Islamic caliphate, adapted to post-colonial realities. Such a stateless Middle East would reverse the harm inflicted on the region by the imposition of European territorial states through the infamous Sykes-Picot diplomacy.

 

 CJP: South Africa’s former apartheid system has been employed analytically by many to describe the current status of the state of Israel with regard to it’s treatment towards Palestinians. Indeed, it is from such a comparison that the Boycott, Divestment and Sactions (BDS) movement was borne, but to what extent are the two cases compatible? South Africa was pretty much isolated by the early 1980s, but the same cannot be said about Israel today. In fact, Israel has even managed to expand recently it’s network of allies with Greece and the Sunni states. So, what are your thoughts on the comparison between the former South African apartheid regime and Israel and the effectiveness of the strategy of BDS?

 

RF: Your question raises two distinct issues: Is Israel responsibly regarded as an ‘apartheid state’? If so, is Israeli apartheid similar to South African apartheid?

 

Prior to responding to these questions, it seems helpful to clarify the status of the international crime of apartheid as it has evolved in international law, taking particular note of the fact that although the name and core idea is based on the specific condemnation of South African racism, the international crime is detached from this precedent. The essence of the international crime is any form of discriminatory domination by one race over another that relies on ‘inhuman acts’ to sustain its purposes. In this important sense, Israeli forms of domination over the Palestinian people may be quite different than the domination of whites over blacks in South Africa and yet constitute the international crime of apartheid. Treating apartheid as an international crime is based both on the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and on the 2002 Rome Statute governing the operations of the International Criminal Court that categorizes ‘apartheid’ in Article 7 as one of eleven types of Crime Against Humanity.

 

In a study commissioned by the UN Economic and Social Commission, Virginia Tilley and I concluded that the policies and practices of Israel toward the Palestinian people as a whole satisfy the requirements of the international crime of apartheid. Our conclusion is based on the view that Israel, to maintain an expanding Jewish state has subjected the Palestinian people to structures of subjugation and victimization that are sustained by excessive violence and other inhuman means. It was our judgment that Jews and Palestinians are distinct ‘races’ as the term is understood in international law. The scope of Israeli apartheid is based on coherent strategies designed to subjugate the Palestinian people whether they are living under occupation, the most obvious case, or as a discriminated minority within Israel or as residents in refugee camps in neighboring countries or living is a global diaspora as involuntary exiles. Each of these domains is connected with the Israeli efforts to ensure not only the prevalence of a Jewish state, but also a secure Jewish majority population that could only be achieved by a process of dispossession, dispersion, and fragmentation, as well as by the denial of any right of return.

 

South African apartheid was very different in its operation as compared to Israeli apartheid. For one thing, white South Africa was a minority demographic in the country and critically dependent on black labor. For another, the South African concept of law, citizenship, and democracy was delineated along racial lines, while Israel claims to be an inclusive democracy, although is more accurately understood to be an ethnocracy. Despite these fundamental differences, the core reality of ‘inhuman acts’ and ‘discriminatory structures of domination’ are present, although distinctly enacted, in both national settings.

 

Finally, it should be understood that such allegations of Israeli apartheid are made on the basis of academic study, and while they may be persuasive morally and politically, it is also true that until a valid tribunal passes judgment on such allegations, the legal status of the allegations remains unresolved, and is of course feverishly contested by Israel and its supporters.

 

CJP: Overall, what are the prospects for restored stability and a positive future for the countries in the Middle East?

 

RF: Without the intervention of unanticipated developments, the prospects are poor. On one level, the extreme turmoil in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and neighboring Libya are likely to continue and could spread to additional states. On a second level, the regional rivalries between Iran and a Saudi led coalition on the one side and Israel on the other, seem likely to intensify. On a third level, there is no plausible scenario for establishing a sustainable peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. On a fourth level, with the reassertion of Russian engagement and the U.S. pursuit of a strategic agenda related to Israel, oil, political Islam, Iran, and nuclear nonproliferation, the region has as in the Cold War become a site of dangerous geopolitical maneuver and confrontation. On a fifth level, perhaps less serious than the others, is the sort of intra-regional tensions that have given rise to the Gulf Crisis centered upon the relations of Qatar to other Gulf countries, and to the role of Turkey as partner and antagonist, especially in relation to the continuing search of the Kurdish peoples for self-determination. Finally, on a sixth level, there is almost certain to be new expressions of internal strife and various extremisms that strike against the West, inviting retaliation, which will probably be accompanied by further migratory flows that aggravate relations between the Middle East and Europe.

 

The drastic and prolonged victimization of the Middle East also exhibits the failure of the West to understand, much less address, the root causes of conflict and chaos that have produced mass suffering and material deprivations throughout the region. These root causes can be traced back at least a century to the imposition of European style states on the region, reflecting colonial ambitions, in the aftermath of World War I and by way of a colonial pledge to the world Zionist movement to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, then inhabited by a Jewish minority not larger than 6%. The other principal root cause related to the abundance of oil in several parts of the Middle East, which created rentier mentalities in development contexts and provided strong strategic motivations for intervention and control by global political actors.

 

In the end, this complexity joining the historical past to the tormented past creates a dismal set of prospects for the future of the Middle East. At this point, only paradoxical, although unrealistic, hopes for prudence and moderation can make the portrayal of the situation less gloomy than the evidence and trajectory suggest.

 

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After the Interview: A Postscript on the Land Day Massacre (‘Great March of Return’)

 

The precise statistics remain inconclusive, although there exists general agreement that more than 15 Palestinians were killed by live ammunition fired by Israeli snipers stationed at the border with Gaza, another estimated 750 Palestinians were injured by ammo and rubber bullets resulting in an estimated total of 1,500 injuries, including from tear gas dropped on the largely unarmed demonstration. Whether the Israeli behavior should be viewed as ‘excessive force’ or ‘collective punishment,’ or both, is a matter for debate, but there is no question that the killings and firepower were in direct conflict with Israel’s obligations as an Occupying Power as specified in the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel’s ‘disengagement’ in 2005 did not end the occupation from the perspective of international humanitarian law, but rather rearranged its management, with control and deployments being concentrated on the borders rather than throughout Gaza, and reinforced by periodic massive military incursions causing large numbers of civilian casualties and widespread devastation.

 

This latest interaction returned the Palestinian litany of grievances to the front pages of the world’s media often accompanied by gruesome pictures, but also revealed two kinds of gaps: between the Western and non-Western media and between the mainstream media response and that of civil society. The mainstream media worries that this is a public relations setback for Israel and urges restraint on both sides. In contrast, the activist segment of civil society condemns the Israeli tactics as constituting a massacre, and calls for an arms embargo. This distinction at the level of response is revealing, with the mainstream and almost every Western government pinning their public hopes on reviving negotiations aiming at a political solution based on the establishment of a sovereign and independent Palestine. Engaged civil society has lost all faith in diplomacy under current conditions, believes only escalating nonviolent pressure can change the political climate sufficiently to make negotiations sufficiently promising to undertake, and then only if the two-state mantra is abandoned once and for all.

 

 

 

 

Remembering Ebrahim Yazdi

13 Sep

[Prefatory Note: I am republishing in modified form a short tribute to the memory of Ebrahim Yazdi. My original text, including its Arab translation, can be found at this link– http://tarikhirani.ir/fa/files/112/bodyView/1098 I had the privilege of knowing Dr. Yazdi, a pharmologist living in Houston until the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79, for the last 35 years of his life. A close associate of Ayatollah Khomeini, Dr. Yazdi became Foreign Minister in the Interim Government established immediately after the revolution succeeded, but resigned following the seizure of the American Embassy in November 1979, the point at which the Iranian revolution was dramatically radicalized and theocratized. For the remainder of his life, although remaining a devout Muslim, Dr. Yazdi struggled on behalf of constitutional democracy within the frame of the Islamic Republic of Iran. For these activities he was eventally sentenced to eight years in prison, and released a few years ago for health reasons.

 

More importantly, as my essay tries to highlight, Dr. Yazdi believed that despite the formal theocratic trappings, the democratic spirit continued to flourish among the Iranian people, and was indeed gradually transforming the Iranian state from within and below. Such a perception is especially important as this positive development has been put at serious risk by the Netanyahu, Salmon, Trump confrontational and warmongering diplomacy that strengthens the hand of hardliners within Iran and correspondingly weakens the positions of those continuing Dr. Yazdi’s brave struggle for a pluralist, tolerant, and progressive future with normalized relations with neighbors and the world.]

 

 

Remembering Ebrahim Yazdi

For all those dedicated to the attainment of real democracy, the name and life of Ebrahim Yazdi is a precious legacy worth reflecting upon because it has so much to teach us today. Among those who struggled for an Iranian future that was Islamic, genuinely democratic, and humanly decent no one was more steadfast and clear about their commitment than Dr. Yazdi. He participated in the revolution that overthrew the Shah long before its victory was achieved, and yet he vigorously opposed the radicalizing tendencies that led to the take over of the Iranian governing process at the time of the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979.

 

I first met Dr. Yazdi in the middle of 1978 when he led a group of student activists at an event organized at Princeton University where I was a faculty member. It was my first encounter with the religious wing of the overseas movement opposed to the Shah. I had been previously supportive of those opposing the American interference in the internal affairs of Iran, a reality that existed ever since 1953 when the CIA played such a major role in the overthrow of the elected government of Mohammad Mosaddeq. Until meeting with Dr. Yazdi I had not adequately appreciated the role of Ayatollah Khomeini as the real leader of this extraordinary nonviolent revolution unfolding in Iran that seemed to be growing stronger each day.

 

Some months later I had the opportunity to meet Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris, and was impressed at the time by his seeming commitment to resume a religious life and let post-Shah Iran be run in Tehran by political figures dedicated to establishing a humane relationship between the Iranian state and its people. I was struck by the degree to which the moderate views of Dr. Yazdi seemed also to inform the outlook of Ayatollah Khomeini, as well as Mehdi Bazargan, who had been my host during a political visit to in the midst of the climactic phase of the revolution in Iran and just prior to the meeting in Paris.

Dr. Yazdi was an early supporter of Khomeini’s leadership and encouraged a post-Shah governing process that would be guided by a strong constitution and led by officials selected by the people in fully free elections. However, this moderate vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran was opposed all along by various hardline elements in the Khomeini entourage, while this spiritual leader’s attitude seemed unformed when it came to the post-revolutionary governing process. The views of Dr. Yazdi seemed to win out at first as reflected by the character of the Interim Government, but gradually lost out, being decisively rejected after the embassy seizure that led to Dr, Yazdi’s resignation as Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of the Interim Government that had been earlier appointed by Khomeini to run the country immediately after the revolutionary victory and until elections could be organized.

 

No one has yet clarified whether Dr. Yazdi was correct in thinking that Khomeini was undecided as to how post-Shah Iran should be governed until around the time of the hostage seizure, which had been provoked by the Shah’s admission to the U.S. supposedly for medical treatment, although others suspected Washington’s counterrevolutionary intentions. Reading his lectures on the governance of an Islamic republic gave one sense, his early tendency to surround himself with secular liberal political figures in Europe and America created a different impression. I had several intelligent friends who were strong supporters of Khomeini’s leadership at first who became disenchanted later on, and chose exile or endured imprisonment and severe alienation. Dr. Yazdi never chose the path of disenchantment and alienation.

 

Rather than withdraw from the political arena after removing himself from a position of governmental authority, Dr. Yazdi entered the opposition, forming a political party, the Freedom Movement of Iran, which was dedicated to the democratizing of Iran by legal means. He even sought the presidency as the party’s candidate in 2005. It is a tribute to Dr. Yazdi’s courage and perseverance that he never lost faith in this democratizing mission, and believed that despite all the adverse Western criticisms of the Iranian government, the people of Iran were increasingly learning, and even practicing, the true virtues of democracy, and more significantly, that this pattern of practice was slowly but surely transforming the reality of the Islamic Republic of Iran in desirable directions.

 

It is this faith in the Iranian people and the related conviction that democracy, if it is to take root, must be grown and nurtured from within a country and in harmony with its distinctive political culture that is the core belief of Dr. Yazdi. As such, Dr. Yazdi’s view clashed with America’s ‘international liberalism’ that acted as if democracy could be imposed from without, a position that reached its disastrous climax by the attack on and occupation of Iraq after 2003, an intervention partially justified under the banner of ‘democracy promotion.’

 

Dr. Yazdi was sentenced to prison by a military court during the Shah’s rule for anti-government activity and then imprisoned in Iran under similar charges, being released only after an international campaign appealed to Iranian authorities on grounds of health. The legacy that Dr. Yazdi leaves behind is the profound political message that not only can an Islamic orientation toward governance be combined with democratic pluralism, tolerance, constitutionalism and a receptivity to all that modernity has to offer, but that is must be so combined if humane governance is to be achieved for Iran and other countries seeking to embed the best of their political culture and religious traditions in their political institutions.

 

A crucial part of this message, which few have so far grasped in the West, is that this process of democratization is presently being realized by the Iranian people and many of their leaders despite many past mistakes and in the face of criminal abuses by the regime, and that democracy can arise unexpectantly when a convergence of ethics, religion, and politics takes place.

 

Dr. Yazdi’s way of interpreting Iranian developments is being dangerously obscured in the West by the current aggressive postures adopted and inflammatory propaganda disseminated by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. We who wish for peace and justice can only hope that Dr. Yazdi’s vision comes to prevail in Iran and is respected by the world, and especially by the United States. Although his lifelong preoccupation was Iran, Dr. Yazdi’s deep engagement with democracy has universal applicability, and never more than now, and not only in the Islamic world, but wherever people seek to live together in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding, somewhat along the lines that Jacques Derrida had in mind when he spoke of ‘democracy to come.’

Interrogating the Qatar Rift

7 Jun

 

The abrupt announcement that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, UAE, Yemen, the Maldive Islands, and the eastern government in divided Libya have broken all economic and political ties with Qatar has given rise to a tsunami of conjecture, wild speculation, and most of all, to wishful thinking and doomsday worries. There is also a veil of confusion arising from mystifying reports that hackers with alleged Russian connections placed a fake news story that implicated Qatar in the promotion of extremist groups in the region. Given Russian alignments, it makes no sense to create conditions that increase the credibility of anti-Iran forces. And finally the timing and nature of the terrorist suicide attacks of June 7th on the Iranian Parliament and on the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini adds a particularly mystifying twist to the rapidly unfolding Qatar drama, especially if the ISIS claim of responsibility is substantiated.

 

Four preliminary cautionary observations seem apt: (1) the public explanation given for this rupture is almost certainly disconnected from its true meaning. That is, the break with Qatar is not about strengthening the anti-ISIS, anti-extremist coalition of Arab forces. Such an explanation may play well in the Trump White House, but it is far removed from understanding why this potentially menacing anti-Qatar regional earthquake erupted at this time, and what it is truly about. (2) Any claim to provide a clear account of why? And why now? should be viewed with great skepticism, if not suspicion. There are in the regional context too many actors, crosscurrents, uncertainties, conflicts, mixed and hidden motives and contradictions at play as to make any effort at this stage to give a reliable and coherent account of this Qatar crisis bound to be misleading.

 

(3) Yet despite these caveats, there are several mainly unspoken dimensions of the crisis that can be brought to the surface, and sophisticate our understanding beyond the various self-serving polemical interpretations that are being put forward, including the centrality of Israeli-American backing for a tough line on Iran and the realization that Gulf grievances against Qatar have been brewing for recent years for reasons unrelated to ISIS, and led to an earlier milder confrontation in 2014 that was then quickly overcome with the help of American diplomacy.

 

And (4) The anti-Iran fervor only makes sense from the perspective of the Gulf monarchies (other than Qatar) and Israel, but seems radically inconsistent with American regional interests and counter-ISIS priorities—Iran is not associated with any of the terrorist incidents occurring in Europe and the United States, and ISIS and Iran are pitted against each other on sectarian grounds. Intriguingly, neither Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), nor Israel, that is, the principal antagonists of Qatar, have been ever targeted by ISIS.

 

The main contention of the anti-Qatar Arab governments, led by Saudi Arabia, is that this coordinated diplomatic pushback is motivated by anti-terrorist priorities. On its face this seems to be a ridiculous claim to come from the Saudis, and can only make some sense as part of a calculated effort to throw pursuing dogs in the hunt for ISIS off a course that if followed would inevitably implicate the Riyadh government. It has long been known by intelligence services and academic experts that it is Saudi Arabia, including members of its royal family, that have been funding Jihadi extremism in the Middle East and has for many years been spending billions to spread Salifist extremism throughout the Islamic world.

 

By comparison, although far from innocent or consistent of terrorist linkages, as well as being internally oppressive, especially toward its migrant foreign workers, Qatar is a minor player in this high stakes political imbroglio. For the Saudis to take the lead in this crusade against Qatar may play well in Washington, Tel Aviv, and London, but fools few in the region. Trump has with characteristic ill-informed bravado has taken ill-advised credit for this turn against Qatar, claiming it to be an immediate payoff of his recent visit to the Kingdom, ramping up still further the provocative buildup of pressure on Iran. To claim a political victory given the circumstances rather than admit a geopolitical faux pas might seem strange for any leader other than Trump. It is almost perverse considering that the al-Udeid Air Base is in Qatar, which is the largest American military facility in the Middle East, operated as a regional command center actively used in bombing raids against Iraq and Afghanistan, and serviced by upwards of 10,000 American military personnel.

 

Netanyahu warmongers will certainly be cheered by this course of events and Israel has not hidden its support for the anti-Qatar moves of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It achieves two Israeli goals: its longtime undertaken to encourage splits and disorder in the Arab world and its campaign to maximize pressures on Iran.

 

Interestingly, Jeremy Corbyn at the start of the week when the momentous British elections are scheduled to take place, called on Teresa May to release a report (prepared while David Cameron was prime minister), supposedly an explosive exposure of Saudi funding and support for Islamic extremism in the Middle East. All in all, a first approximation of the Qatar crisis is to view it as a desperate move by Riyadh to get off the hot seat with respect to its own major responsibility for the origins and buildup of political extremism in the Middle East, which has indirectly produced the inflaming incidents in principal European cities during the last several years. Such a move to isolate and punish Qatar was emboldened by the blundering encouragement of Donald Trump, whether acting on impulse or at the beckoning of Israel’s and Saudi leaders, confusing genuine counter-terrorist priorities with a dysfunctional effort to push Iran against the wall. Trump seems to forget, if he ever knew, that Iran is fighting against ISIS in Syria, has strongly reaffirmed moderate leadership in its recent presidential elections, and if Iran were brought in from the cold could be a major calming influence in the region. True, Iran has given support to Hezbollah and Hamas, but except in Syria not with much effect, and on a scale far smaller than what other actors in the region have been doing to maintain their control and push their agendas. In effect, if Washington pursued national interests in the spirit of political realism, it would regard Iran as a potential ally, and put a large question mark next to its two distorting ‘special relationships,’ with Saudi Arabia and Israel. In effect, reverse its regional alignments in a way that could replace turmoil with stability, but this is not about to happen. The American media, and thoughtful citizens, should at least be wondering ‘why?’ rather than staring into darkness of a starless nighttime sky.

 

But this is not all. The Saudis, along with the UAE and Egypt, have long resented and maybe feared the early willingness of Qatar to give some sanctuary and aid and comfort to various elements of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. It is hardly farfetched to assume that Israel is outraged by the Emir of Qatar’s friendship and earlier support for the Hamas exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal. Saudi Arabia strives to obscure its incoherent approach to political Islam. It loudly proclaims Sunni identity when intervening in Syria, waging war in Yemen, and calling for confrontation with Iran, while totally repudiating its sectarian identity when dealing with societally or democratically oriented Islamic movements in neighboring countries. Such an anti-democratiing orientation was dramatically present when Riyadh and Abu Dhabi scolded Washington for abandoning Mubarak’s harsh authoritarian secular rule in Egypt back in 2011 and then welcoming the anti-Morsi coup led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi two years later, even welcoming its bloody suppression of Sunni adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood. As has been long obvious to close and honest observers of the Kingdom, the Saudi monarchy has become so fearful of an internal uprising challenging its oppressive rule that it will oppose any liberalizing or democratizing challenge anywhere in its neighborhood. The Kingdom is particularly wary of its Shia minority that happens to be concentrated in locations near where the main Saudi oil fields are located. Similar concerns also help explain why Bahrain behaves as it does as it also fearful of a domestic Shia led majority opposition, which has made it a strategically dependent, yet ardent, adherent of the anti-Qatar coalition.

 

Also far more relevant than acknowledged is the presence of Al Jazeera in Doha, which at various times has voiced support for the Arab Uprisings of 2011, criticism of the Israeli practices and policies toward the Palestinians, and provided an Arabic media source of relatively independent news coverage throughout the region. Qatar is guilty of other irritants of the dominant Gulf political sensibility. It has arranged academic positions for such prominent Palestinian dissidents as Azmi Bashara and more than its neighbors has given welcome to intellectual refugees from Arab countries, especially Egypt. Given the way the Gulf rulers close off all political space within their borders it is to be expected that they find the relative openness of Qatar a threat as well as consider it to be a negative judgment passed on their style of governance.

 

Qatar is very vulnerable to pressure, but also has certain strengths. Its population of 2.5 million (only 200,000 of whom are citizens), imports at least 40% of its food across the Saudi border, now closed to the 600-800 daily truck traffic. Not surprisingly, this sudden closure has sparked panic among Qataris, who are reportedly stockpiling food and cash. The Doha stock market dropped over 7% on the first day after the Gulf break was announced. Qatar is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, and is a major source of Turkish investment capital. Western Europe is wary of this American project to establish an ‘Arab NATO,’ and sees it as one more manifestation of Trump’s dysfunctional and mindless impact on world order.

 

What this portends for the future remains is highly uncertain. Some look upon these moves against Qatar as a tempest in a teapot that will disappear almost as quickly as it emerged. The U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and the Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, have urged mediation and offered reassuring comments about anti-ISIS unity remaining unimpaired. It is true that the existence of the Udeid Air Base in Qatar may in time dilute deference to the Saudi-led desire to squeeze the government in Doha, possibly to the point of its collapse. A more fearsome scenario is that the Trump encouraged confrontation sets the stage for a coup in Qatar that will be quickly supported by Washington as soon as Riyadh gives the green light, and will be promoted as part of the regional buildup against Iran. The notorious ceremony in which King Salmon, Trump, and Sisi were pictured standing above that glowing orb with their arms outstretched can only be reasonably interpreted as a pledge of solidarity among dark forces of intervention. Many of us supposed that George W. Bush’s policy of ‘democracy promotion’ that provided part of the rationale for the disastrous 2003 attack on Iraq was the low point in American foreign policy in the Middle East, but Trump is already proving us wrong.

 

While this kind of ‘great game’ is being played at Qatar’s expense in the Gulf, it is highly unlikely that other major players, especially Iran, Russia, and Turkey will remain passive observers, especially if the crisis lingers or deepens. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Mohammed Zarif, has non-aggressively tweeted to the effect that “neighbors are permanent; geography can’t be changed,” stating his view that the occasion calls for dialogue, not coercion. If the isolation of Qatar is not quickly ended, it is likely that Iran will start making food available and shipping other supplies to this beleaguered tiny peninsular country whose sovereignty is being so deeply threatened.

 

Russia, has been long collaborating with Iran in Syria, will likely move toward greater solidarity with Tehran, creating a highly unstable balance of power in the Middle East with frightening risks of escalation and miscalculation. Russia will also take advantage of the diplomatic opportunity to tell the world that the U.S. is seeking to raise war fevers and cause havoc by championing aggressive moves that further the ambitions of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. Such Russian diplomacy is likely to play well in Europe where Trump’s recent demeaning words in Brussels to NATO members made the leading governments rethink their security policies, and to view the United States as an increasingly destabilizing force on the global stage, such feeling being reinforced by the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

 

Turkey seems to believe that its immediate effort should be similar to that of the Tillerson and Mattis approach, having tentatively offered to mediate, and advocates finding a way back to a posture of at least peaceful co-existence between Qatar, the Gulf, and the rest of the Arab world. Turkey has had a positive relationship with Qatar, which includes a small Turkish military facility and large Qatari investments in the Turkish economy.

 

To cool things down, the Foreign Minister of Qatar, Sheik Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, while denying the allegations, has also joined in the call for mediation and even reconciliation. Bowing to Gulf pressures, Qatar has prior to the current crisis withdrawn its welcome from Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood exiles, and seems poised to yield further to the pressures of the moment, given its small size, political vulnerability, and intimations of possible societal panic.

 

While the civilian population of Yemen is faced with imminent famine as an intended consequence of the Saudi intervention, the Saudis seems to be again using food as a weapon, this time to compel Qatar to submit to its regional priorities and become a GCC team player with respect to Iran—joining in the preparation of a sectarian war against Iran while maintaining a repressive hold over political activity at home. One preliminary takeaway is that ISIS dimension is serving as a smokescreen to draw attention away from a far more controversial agenda. The Saudis are deeply implicated in political extremism throughout the region, having likely paid heavily for being treated, temporarily at least, as off limits for Jihadi extremism. Qatar, too is tainted, but mainly by being a minor operative in Syrian violence and in 2015 paying ISIS an amount rumored to be as high as $1 billion to obtain the release of 26 Qataris, including members of the royal family, taken hostage while on a falcon hunting party, of all things, in Iraq. We can gain some glimmers of understanding of what is motivating these Arab governments to act against Qatar, but little sympathy. In comparison, the new U.S. foreign policy in the region defies any understanding beyond its adoption of a cynical and unworkable geopolitical stance, which certainly does not engender any sympathy from the victimized peoples of the region, but rather fear and loathing.  

Trumped Up Diplomacy in the Middle East

20 May

 

In his first overseas trip since moving into the White House, Donald Trump is leaving behind the frustrations, allegations, rumors, and an increasing sense of implosion that seems to be dooming his presidency during its second hundred days. At the same time, a mixture of curiosity and apprehension awaits this new leader wherever he goes making his visit to the Middle East and Europe momentous occasions for the host governments, wide eyed public, and rapacious media. We need to remember that in this era of popular autocrats and surging right-wing populists, Trump is a ‘hero of our time.’

 

Even if all had gone smoothly for the new president in his home country, there should be expressions of deep concern about his travel itinerary. He visits first the two countries with which the United States has ‘special relationships’ in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Israel. What has long made them ‘special’ are a series of pre-Trump departures from realist and normative foreign policy orientations by successive American presidencies. These departures were motivated by oil geopolitics, arms sales and strategic alliances, hostility to Iran, and a disguised American sweet spot for foreign royalty. It is has long been obvious that uncritical deference to Israeli priorities has seriously undermined U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, which would have benefitted much more from policies designed to encourage peace and stability by refraining from regime-changing interventions, massive arms sales, and a diplomacy of respect for the politics of national self-determination.

 

Most remarkably, the U.S. Government has for decades winked at the billions of support given by Saudi members of the royal family to Wahabism, that is, to promote fundamentalist Islam, throughout the Muslim world. The first words uttered by Trump on his arrival in Riyadh were that it ‘an honor’ to be visiting.

Then came signed deals adding up to $110 billions in arms sales and the declaration of a common strategic vision, that is, a super-alliance, called an ‘Arab NATO’ in some circles, a dagger aimed at Iran’s heart. Why turn a blind eye toward the Saudi role in fanning the flames of jihadism while ramping up a military threat to relatively passive Iran that reelected Hassan Rouhani as its president, who has consistently championed moderation at home and normalization abroad.

 

How can we explain this? Trump has been critical of most aspects of the foreign policy agenda of his predecessors, but on the promotion of the special relationships he seems intent on doubling down on the most misguided aspects of earlier approaches to the region. The shape of his travel itinerary during his days confirms this impression. In this regard, Trump repudiates Obama’s hesitant, but in the end successful, efforts to bring Iran in from the cold, while trying to please Saudi Arabia by ignoring its extreme denial of human rights to its own people as well as its contributions to anti-Western terrorism.

 

If Trump was truly intent on putting America first, as he insistently asserts, then he could do so very directly and effectively by taking three major steps toward the protection of national interests: first, demand a firm commitment from the Saudi government to cease using private funds and public diplomacy to spread Wahabism beyond its borders. Any credible public statement along these lines would weaken ISIS and other terrorist movements throughout the world far more than cascades of Tomahawk missiles dumped on a Syrian airfield. Such a challenge to Saudi policies also raises the possibility, however remote, of an endgame in the ‘war on terror.’ If such a reset of Saudi relations could be coupled with an indefinite freeze on arms sales to the Gulf countries that would have been even better, sending a signal throughout the region that America will no longer engage with the bloody conflicts that have brought so much suffering and devastation to the Middle East. This might give some belated meaning to ‘America first.’

 

The second step would have been even harder for an American president to take. It would require Trump to tell Mr. Netanyahu that no further military assistance for Israel would be authorized until an unconditional freeze on settlement expansion was in place and enforced, and the blockade of Gaza lifted once and for all.

 

It does not require a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies to appreciate that the establishment of a nuclear free zone in the region and the adoption of effective steps to minimize the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia Islam would improve future prospects for this horrendously disrupted political realities, at last reducing tensions and risks of wars. Nor does it require special knowledge to identify the obstacles such actions—the one government that already possesses nuclear weapons and the government that feels threatened by a challenge to its regional preeminence. Saudi Arabia and Israel both regard Iran as enemy number one, although it poses no existential threat to either one, and Israel will not even discuss giving up its nuclear arsenal despite being assured by Washington that its qualitative edge in conventional weaponry relative to its neighbors will be upheld.

 

The special relationships block even the consideration of enlightened initiatives, take them entirely off the table. This contrasts with the American proclivity for coercive diplomacy, which always assertively leaves the military option on the table. Without tension-reducing measures, a few false moves could easily give rise to a major war with Iran, which might bring smiles to leaders in Riyadh and Tel Aviv, but would be disastrous for the societies involved and for the United States, as well as for the region.

 

Given the leverage and militancy of pro-Israeli lobbies in the United States, more realistically pursuing American national interests toward Israel and the Middle East, seems tantamount to issuing invitations to Trump’s beheading, and despite his wildly gyrations of policy and mood, he has shown no disposition whatsoever to take on AIPAC, inc.. Quite the contrary.

 

Of course, I am not so naïve to think that the advocacy of rationality in foreign policy will have the slightest echo in Washington in the course of Trump’s current diplomatic foray into uncharted territories. What I wish to point out is that this kind of foreign policy fantasy, however desirable if it were to be enacted, has become a species of political suicide. Any political leader who moved in more rational directions would be risking his own life, at least politically. The proposals mentioned above tells us what an American president should do if a rational and humane political system was in place and organized in such ways as to allow the pursuit of national interests, the realization of values associated with peace and human rights, and to attain the benefits of just and sustainable Isreali/Palestinian peace arrangements.

 

As long as these dysfunctional special relationships are relied upon to define American national interests in the Middle East, violent extremism and turmoil will persist, the authority of the United Nations and international law will suffer, and the credibility of American regional and global leadership will further erode. And maybe worst of all, the mounting ecological and nuclear challenges of global scope and apocalyptical risk will be remain unattended in what has become the greatest display of species indifference to its own survival throughout human history.

 

Mainstream advice on the Middle East being proffered to the Trump presidency by Beltway sharpshooters takes for granted the geopolitical status quo questioned above. The problems presented by the two special relationships are not even mentioned. Given these perspectives there are three broad kinds of approaches recommended for the region: (1) don’t aim too high, lower expectations, and don’t touch raw nerves in Israel or the Arab world (e.g. moving the American embassy to Jerusalem or telling Israel to dismantle the separation wall, stop expanding settlements, or handle the ongoing hunger strike humanely)[See Aaron David Miller, “From My Twenty Years of Failing at Middle East Peace,” Foreign Policy online, May 19, 2017]; (2) gang up on Iran, which will please both Israel and Saudi Arabia, and will have some positive resonance back in the United States [e.g. Michael Doran, “A Trump Plan for the Middle East,” NY Times, May 19, 2017]; (3) adopt the Israeli hard right view, now pushed within the United States, that the best road to ‘peace’ is to give Israel a green light to exert even greater pressure on the Palestinians to the point of their surrender. [a position repeatedly advocated by Daniel Pipes on the online listserv Middle East Forum and elsewhere, see Pipes, “The Way to Peace: Israeli Victory and Palestinian Defeat,” Commentary, Jan. 2017; Pipes boasts of his work with the Congressional Israel Victory Caucus that wants the U.S. Government to stop talking about ‘the two state solution,’ and support an Israeli shift from managing the status quo to launching a campaign to defeat Palestinians so decisively as to end the conflict.]

 

The first of these approaches is a cautionary warning to Trump the maker of grand deals not to exceed the boundaries of the feasible. The Israel/Palestine conflict is not ripe for resolution, Israel has no incentive or inclination to reach a fair compromise and even if it were, the Palestinians are currently too fragmented and poorly led to provide a reliable negotiating partner. The second geopolitically oriented approach makes matters worse, pushing the sectarian and secular divides in the direction of a regional confrontation, even combat. The third is geopolitically triumphalist, assuming that the Palestinians can be induced to give up their century old struggle, and go the way of other indigenous lost causes that have succumbed to predatory settler movements.

 

As Trump dominates the news by his visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel we should not be tricked into thinking that his ‘achievements’ are hopeful developments. The only true beacons of hope for the peoples of the Middle East are the contrarian affirmations of the Palestinian hunger strike, the Rouhani electoral victory, and the BDS Campaign. The fact that such developments are ignored or condemned by the dominant political forces in the West should at least alert us to gathering storm clouds in that tormented region and elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interview on Israel, Palestine, and Peace

14 Sep

[Prefatory Note: The interview below, conducted by C.J. Polychroniou and Lily Sage (bios at the end of the interview) was published in TruthOut on Sept. 10, 2016. It is republished here with a few stylistic modifications, but substantively unchanged. It is relevant, I suppose,to report that subsequent to the interview the U.S. Government and Israel have signed a military assistance agreement promising Israel $38 billion over the next ten years, the largest such commitment ever made. Such an excessive underwriting of Israel’s policies and practices should be shocking to taxpaying Americans but it passes almost noticed below the radar. It is being explained as a step taken to ensure that Obama’s legacy is not diminished by claims that he acted detrimentally toward Israel, but it is, pathetically, one of the few instances of genuine bipartisanship in recent U.S. foreign policy. Again, we should grieve over the extent to which ‘reality’ and morality is sacrificed for the sake of the ‘special relationship’ while looking the other way whenever the Palestinian ordeal is mentioned.

The initial question pertaining to Turkey is explained by my presence in that turbulent country when the interview was conducted.]

 

 

“A Continuous War Mentality”: Richard Falk on Israel’s Human Rights Abuses

Polychroniou & Sage: Israel’s treatment of Palestinians mirrors the abominable system of apartheid in South Africa, but many members of the “international community” who fueled the gradual delegitimization and eventual collapse of South Africa’s apartheid regime are failing to apply similar pressure against Israel. In fact, many nations are even strengthening their ties with the Israeli government.

 

Even Greece has established close ties to Israel under the opportunistic Syriza government, while Sultan Erdogan in Turkey has also begun a process of kissing up to Israel after a few years of pursuing an “antagonistic” relation with the US’s closest ally under the pretext of expressing solidarity towards the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, the increased militarization of Israeli society continues to intensify the oppression and subjugation of Palestinians.

 

The Israeli government has recently suggested that a “normalization” process is underway with the Palestinians, but in reality Israel’s construction of illegal settlements continues unabated, and the right-wing politicians inside Israel who portray Palestinians as an “inferior race” are gaining ground. This is exactly what “normalization” has always meant in Israeli political jargon: continuing to commit abominable human rights violations against Palestinians while the world looks away. Indeed, apartheid, annexation, mass displacement and collective punishment have become core policies of the state of Israel.

 

 

After years of intense antagonism, the Erdoğan regime has begun making overtures once again to Israel. Why now?

 The normalization agreement with Israel needs to be appreciated as part of a broader foreign policy reset that started well before the failed coup attempt of July 15th. The basic Turkish motivation appears to be an effort to ease bilateral tensions throughout the region, and as Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has expressed it, “make as many friends as possible, and as few enemies.” It is the second coming of what had earlier gained political traction for Turkey throughout the region in the first 10 years of AKP (Justice and Development Party) leadership with the slogan “zero problems with neighbors.”

 

The main reset by far is with Russia, which had become an adversary of Turkey in the context of the Syrian War, but Israel is a close second. [Israel’s relationship with Turkey] had been in freefall after Erdoğan harshly criticized Israel at the World Economic Forum in 2009, directly insulting the then-Israeli President Shimon Peres, who was present.

 

Then in 2010 came the Mavi Marmara incident, when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, and directly challenging the Israeli blockade together with a group of smaller boats filled with peace activists in an initiative known as the Freedom Flotilla. The Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara resulted in nine Turkish deaths among the peace activists on the ship and pushed the Israeli-Turkish relationship close to the brink of war. For the past year or so both sides have shown an interest in de-escalating tensions and restoring diplomatic normalcy. And Turkey, now more than ever, would like to avoid having adversary relations with Israel, which is being given precedence over Turkey’s support of the Palestinian national struggle.

 

Israeli Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu said recently that he cares more about the Palestinians than their own leaders. Do you wish to offer a comment on this statement?

 

Netanyahu has a gift for exaggerated, bombastic, and misleading, often outrageous political language. This is a clear instance. There are plenty of reasons to question the adequacy of the Palestinian Authority as the representative of the Palestinian people in advancing their national struggle. But to leap from such an unremarkable acknowledgement to the absurd claim that Netanyahu cares more about the Palestinian future than do Palestinians themselves represents a grotesque and arrogant leap into the political unknown. It is Netanyahu who led the country to launch massive attacks against Gaza first in 2012, and then again in 2014. It is Netanyahu who has pushed settler expansion and the Judaizing of East Jerusalem. For Netanyahu to speak in such a vein is to show his monumental insensitivity to the daily ordeal endured by every Palestinian and to the agonies associated with living for so long under occupation, in refugee camps, and in exile.

 

What do you make of the “anti-normalization” campaign initiated by some Palestinian factions and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement?

 

I think the BDS campaign makes sense under present conditions. These conditions include the recognition that the Oslo “peace diplomacy” is a dead-end that for more than two decades gave Israel cover to expand settlements and the settler population. They also include the realization that geopolitical leverage of the United States at the UN blocks all efforts to exert meaningful political pressure on Israel to reach the sort of compromise on issues of land, refugees, borders, water, settlements and Jerusalem that is indispensable if sustainable peace arrangements are to be agreed upon by Israelis and Palestinians.

 

Against this background, it is important to recognize that civil society is presently “the only game in town,” and that BDS is the way this game is being played at present with the benefit of Palestinian civil society guidance and enthusiasm. Whether this campaign can exert enough pressure on Israel and the United States to change the political climate sufficiently to induce recalculations of national interest — only the future can tell. Until it happens, if it does, it will be deprecated by Israel and its Zionist supporters. While being dismissed as futile and destructive of genuine peace initiatives its participants will be attacked. A major effort is underway in the United States and Europe to discredit BDS, and adopt punitive measures to discourage participation.

 

Israel’s pushback by way of an insistence that BDS is seeking to destroy Israel and represents a new virulent form of anti-Semitism suggests that BDS now poses a greater threat to Israel’s concept of an established order than armed struggle or Palestinian resistance activities. Major Zionist efforts in the United States and elsewhere are branding BDS activists as anti-Semites.

 

It seems clear that nearly the entirety of the population of Israel and Palestine are in a constant trauma-reification cycle that began when Israel largely became inhabited by traumatized Jewish refugees, post-WWII. Do you think it is possible to overcome this, and would it be possible to find a peaceful resolution if this didn’t occur?

 

This is an insightful way of conceiving of the toxic interactions that have taken place over the years being harmful, in my view, to both people. However, unless the assertion is seriously qualified, it suffers from a tendency to create impressions of symmetry and balance, when the reality of relations from the outset, especially since the Nakba [the mass displacement of Palestinians from their homes and villages in 1948], has been one of oppressor and oppressed, invader and invaded, occupier and occupied. It is undoubtedly true that Israeli ideas about the use of force and security were reflections of their collective trauma and Holocaust memories, and Zionist ideology.

 

This Israeli narrative is further reinforced by biblical and ancient historical claims, but it is also the case that the Palestinians were invaded in their habitual place of residence, and then occupied, exploited, dispossessed and turned into refugees in their own country, while Israelis came to prosper, and to establish a regional military powerhouse that has enjoyed the geopolitical reinforcement of an unprecedented special relationship with United States. The early politics surrounding the establishment of Israel were also strongly influenced by the sense of guilt that existed in Western liberal democracies after World War II. Such guilt was epitomized by the shame associated with the refusal to use munitions to disrupt the Holocaust through air bombardment.

 

Under Netanyahu, Israel has moved dangerously closer to becoming a fundamentalist and neo-fascist state, although long-standing Israeli propaganda has it that “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.” In your view, what accounts for the transformation of Israel from a once-promising democracy to an apartheid-like state with no respect for international law and human rights?

 

I believe there always were major difficulties with Israel’s widely proclaimed and internationally endorsed early identity as a promising democracy guided by progressive ideals. This image overlooked the dispossession of several hundred thousand Palestinian residents, the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages, and the long-term discriminatory regime of military administration imposed on the remaining Palestinian minority that coincided with the establishment of the newly established Israeli state. What is important to appreciate is that this 20th-century process of state-creation took place in an era that was increasingly imbued with anticolonial activism that was at odds with the project to establish Israel from its international genesis and given a colonialist certificate of approval by way of the Balfour Declaration in 1917). Even taking into the Holocaust into account as the culminating historic tragedy of the Jewish people there is no way evading the conclusion that the establishment of Israel amounted to a European colonialist imposition on the Arab world and the latest instance of settler colonialism, although abetted by the Zionist mobilization of world Jewry on behalf of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine.

 

 

Against this background, Israel became embattled in various ways with internal Palestinian resistance and regional hostility that produced several wars. In that process, a series of developments moved Israel further and further toward the right. A continuous war mentality tends to erode democratic structures and values even under the best of circumstances. Military successes, especially after the 1967 War, created a triumphalist attitude that also solidified US geopolitical support and made it seem possible for Israel to achieve security while expanding its territorial reality (via settlements) at Palestinian expense. Israeli demographics over the years, involving large-scale immigration of Sephardic and Russian Jews and high fertility rates among Orthodox Jews, pushed the political compass ever further to the right. These key developments were reinforced by Israeli public opinion that came to believe that several proposals put forward by Israel to achieve a political compromise were irresponsibly rejected by the Palestinians. These negative outcomes were misleadingly interpreted as justifying the Israeli conclusion that they had no Palestinian partner for peace and that the Palestinians would settle for nothing less than the destruction of Israel as a state. These interpretations are gross misreadings of the Palestinian readiness to normalize relations with the Israel provided a sovereign Palestinian state were to be established within 1967 borders and some kind of arrangements were agreed upon for those displaced from their homes in 1948.

 

Additionally, the supposed need for Israel to remain aggressively vigilant after Gaza came under the control of Hamas in 2007 led Israelis to entrusting the government to rightest leadership and in the process, weakened the peace-oriented political constituencies remaining active in Israel. In part, here, memories of the Nazi experience were invoked to induce acute anxiety that Jews suffered such a horrible fate because they remained as a group too passive in face of mounting persecution, and failed to take Hitler at his word. Fear-mongering with respect to Iran accentuated Israeli security-consciousness, and undercut more moderate political approaches to the Palestinians.

 

Have you detected any changes in US foreign policy toward Israel under the Obama administration?

 

There has been no change of substance during the eight years of the Obama presidency. At the outset in 2009 it seemed that the US government under Obama’s leadership was ready to pursue a more balanced diplomacy toward Israel, at first insisting that Israel suspend settlement expansion to enable a restart of the Oslo peace process with a fresh cycle of negotiations. When Israel pushed back hard, abetted by the powerful Israeli lobby in the US, the Obama administration backed off, and never again, despite some diplomatic gestures, really challenged Israel, its policies and practices, and its overall unilateralism. It did call Israeli settlement moves “unhelpful” from time to time, but stopped objecting to such behavior as “unlawful.” Washington never seemed to question the relevance of a two-state solution, despite the realities of steady Israeli de facto annexation of prime land in the West Bank, making the prospect of a Palestinian state that was viable and truly sovereign less and less plausible. Although, for public relations credibility in the Middle East, the Obama presidency continued to claim it strongly backed “peace through negotiations,” it did nothing substantive to make Israel respect international law as applied to the occupation of Palestine, and consistently asserted that the Palestinians were as much to blame for the failure of past negotiations as were the Israelis, fostering a very distorted picture of the relative responsibility of the two sides, as well as who benefitted and who lost from the failure to resolve the conflict. Western media tended to accept this pro-Israeli picture, making it appear that both sides were equally unready to make the concessions necessary to achieve peace.

 

What could make Israel change course regarding its treatment toward Palestinians and the “Palestinian question?”

 

The easy answer to this question is a sea change in Israeli outlook as to its security, combined with an insistence by the US government that continued backing of Israel was contingent on its adherence to international law and its credible readiness to reach a fair political compromise, whether in the form of a two-state or one-state solution, but based on a recognition that sustainable peace depends on acknowledging Palestinian rights under international law and a concern for the equality of the two peoples when it comes to issues of security, resources, and sovereignty. Such a shift in Israeli elite opinion could conceivably come about through a reassessment of Israeli prospects in reaction to mounting international pressures and continued Palestinian resistance in various forms. This seems to have been what happened in South Africa, producing an abrupt and unexpected change of outlook by the governing white leadership in Pretoria that signaled a willingness to dismantle its apartheid regime and accept a constitutional order based on racial equality and procedural democracy. Such a development will be dismissed as irrelevant by Israeli leaders until it happens, if it ever does, so as to avoid encouraging those mounting the pressures.

 

You served for many years as special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights for the United Nations Human Rights Council. Did that experience teach you anything about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that you were not aware of prior to this appointment?

 

In many ways, it was a fascinating experience, in almost equal measure dispiriting and inspiring. UN Watch, acting as an Israeli surrogate within the UN, repeatedly targeted me with vicious contentions that I was an anti-Semite and a proponent of a variety of extremist and irresponsible views that didn’t represent my actual views. UN Watch, along with other pro-Israeli NGOs, organized a variety of protests with the purpose of canceling my speaking invitations throughout the world, and threatening institutions with adverse funding implications if they went ahead with the events. Although no speaking invitation was withdrawn or event canceled, it shifted the conversation at the event and in the media — often from the substance of my presentation to whether or not the personal attacks were accurate. Also, I know of several invitations that were not issued because of these institutional concerns with controversy.

 

I also learned in ways that I only suspected prior to my six years as Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Palestine, what a highly politicized atmosphere prevails at the UN, and how much leverage is exercised by the United States and Israel to impair UN effectiveness in relation to Israel/Palestine. At the same time, I realized that from the perspective of strengthening the legitimacy and awareness of Palestinian claims and grievances, the UN provided crucial venues that functioned as sites of struggle.

 

Are there Israeli organizations working on behalf of Palestinians and their ordeal, and, if so, what can we do from abroad to assist their efforts?

 

There are many Israeli and Palestinian NGOs within Israel and in Occupied Palestine that are working bravely to protect Palestinians from the worst abuses of the Israeli state, both in Occupied Palestine and in Israel (as defined by the 1949 “green line”). On the Israeli side, these initiatives, although having no present political relevance so far as elections and governing policy is concerned, are important ways of maintaining in Israel a certain kind of moral awareness.

 

If the political climate changes in Israel due to outside pressure and a general recognition that Israel needs to make peace to survive, then those that kept the flame of justice and peace flickering despite internal harassment will be regarded, if not revered, with long overdue appreciation as the custodians of Jewish collective dignity. In the meantime, it is a lonely battle, but one that we on the outside should strongly support.

It is also important to lend support to the various Palestinian efforts along the same lines and to the few initiatives that brings together Jews and Palestinians, such as the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, of which scholar-activist Jeff Halper was a cofounder and remains a leader. There are many Palestinian initiatives under the most difficult conditions, such as Human Rights Defenders working courageously in and around Hebron, and of course, in Gaza.

 

There is an unfortunate tendency by liberal Zionists to fill the moral space in the West by considering only the efforts of admirable Israeli organizations, such as B’Tselem or Peace Now, when presenting information on human rights resistance to Israeli oppressive policies and practices. This indirectly marginalizes the Palestinians as the subject of their own struggle and in my view unwittingly denigrates Palestinian national character.

 

What’s the best way to explain the conversion of an oppressed group of people into oppressors themselves, which is what today’s Israeli Jews have structurally become?

 

This role reversal is part of the tragedy that Zionist maximalism has produced for the Jewish people living in Israel, and to some extent, for Jews worldwide. It has made the Nakba into a continuing process rather than an historical event that could have been addressed in a humane manner from the perspective of restorative justice as depicted so vividly and insistently by Edward Said, including in his influential 1993 book Culture and Imperialism. What has ensued has been a geopolitically conditioned unbalanced diplomacy that has served as a shield behind which Israel has been creating conditions for an imposed, unilateralist solution.

 

Israeli leaders, especially those on the right, have used the memories of the Holocaust, not as an occasion for empathy toward the Palestinians, but as a reminder that the well-being of Jews is based on strength and control, that Hitler succeed because Jewry was weak and passive. Further, that even the liberal West refused to lift a finger to protect Jews when threatened with genocidal persecution, which underscores the central Zionist message of Jewish self-reliance as an ethical and political imperative.

 

Psychologically, this general way of thinking is further reinforced by supposing that only the Israeli Defense Forces keeps Israel from befalling the fate of deadly Palestinian maximalism, a political delusion reinforced by images of a second Holocaust initiated by Iran or generated by the terrorist tactics attributed to Hamas. In effect, Israeli oppressiveness is swept under the rug of security, while the settlements expand, Gaza is squeezed harder, and the regional developments give Israel the political space to attempt an Israeli one-state solution.

 

The Interviewers

LILY SAGE

Lily Sage is a Montessori pedagogue who is interested in questions of symbiosis, intersectional feminism and anti-racist/fascist praxis. She has studied in the fields of herbalism, visual/performance art, anthropology and political theory in Germany, Mongolia and the US.

 

C.J. POLYCHRONIOU

C.J. Polychroniou is a political economist/political scientist who has taught and worked in universities and research centers in Europe and the United States. His main research interests are in European economic integration, globalization, the political economy of the United States and the deconstruction of neoliberalism’s politico-economic project. He is a regular contributor to Truthout as well as a member of Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project. He has published several books and his articles have appeared in a variety of journals, magazines, newspapers and popular news websites. Many of his publications have been translated into several foreign languages, including Croatian, French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish.

 

 

Aftermath of Political Ruptures: Iran, Egypt, Turkey

12 Aug

 

 

[Prefatory Note: This post offers a commentary of recent dramatic developments within Turkey and the largely critical international media and diplomatic responses. It compares international reactions to political ruptures in Iran (1979) and Egypt (2011, 2013), and encourages greater public attention to the importance attached by the Turkish citizenry to the defeat of the coup attempt and more sympathy with the kind of political leadership provided by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since the coup attempt of July 15th.]

 

Aftermath of Political Ruptures: Iran, Egypt, Turkey

 

 A political rupture is a sequence of events affecting essential relations between state and society, and its occurrence is neither widely anticipated nor properly interpreted after its occurrence. After a rupture there occurs a revisioning of political reality that involves a recalibration of state/society relations in ways that remain occasions of enduring historic remembrance. Often these occasions are negative happenings, as Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are for the United States, but sometimes they epitomize points of light in the past as with July 4th commemorating the issuance of the Declaration of Independence.

 

9/11 was the most recent American experience of a political rupture. It resecuritized state/society relations within the country and transformed foreign policy. It marginalized debates about economic globalization and enlarged the war paradigm beyond conflicts between and within sovereign states. In so doing it highlighted new features of intrastate conflict, treated the entire world as a counterterrorist battlefield, and rewrote the international law of self-defense. Instead of responding to attacks, national self-defense, understood as policy rather than right was dramatically extended to encompass remote perceived threats and even latent potential capabilities.

 

Another innovative feature of major conflicts in the present global setting is the preeminence of non-state actors as principal antagonists. This preeminence takes the dual form of the United States as ‘global state’ and ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other as non- or at most quasi-territorial political actors, but surely not Westphalian states as understood by the membership rules of the UN. The United States in many of its roles and activities operates as a Westphalian state that accepts limits on its sovereign rights based on internationally recognized borders and the territory thereby enclosed and respects the sovereignty of other states. What makes the United States a post-Westphalian or global state is its projection of military capabilities throughout the entire world reinforced by non-territorial patterns of security claims along with extensive global networks of diplomatic, economic, and cultural influence.

 

What this all mean is complex, evolving, and controversial. It does signify that war has again, as before Paris Peace Pact of 1928, become a largely discretionary domain of policy, at least for geopolitical actors. We are experiencing, in the arresting phrasing of Mary Kaldor, an era of ‘new wars.’ The rewriting of international law is being done by way of authoritative and largely uncontested state practice, mainly that of the United States. At the margins, there persists a subordinate interpretation of international law of war that clings to what is written on the books, inscribed in the politically unrevisable UN Charter, and shaped by quite divergent authoritative practices that provides a useful summary of expectations with respect to uses of force. Jurists have yet to clarify, much less codify, these new realities in a reformulated jurisprudence that to be usefully descriptive must respond conceptually and normatively to the increasingly post-Westphalian character of world order.

 

There are also more contained political ruptures that have their primary focus on the internal nature of state/society relations, and seem to be territorial or regional occurrences that may have global repercussions, but do not challenge the preexisting frameworks of law and security that shape world order. I have a particular interest in, undoubtedly reflecting my experienced proximity to three political ruptures that have taken place in the Middle East: Iran, 1979; Egypt, 2011/2013; Turkey 2016. In each of these instances, the issues raised touched not only on the control and reform of state structures, but also on state/society balances pertaining to security and freedom, the relations of religion and politics, the contested agency of popular social forces, and the expansion or contraction of constitutional democracy. In each of these national settings, the controversial responsibility of the United States as influential actor introduces the often problematic role of a global state as a crucial actor in the interplay of contending national political forces.

 

Comparing these political ruptures is instructive with respect to grasping what works and what fails when it comes to transformative politics that are variously engineered from below, from above, from without, and from within to achieve or resist fundamental changes. In some instances, there are coalitions of forces that blur these distinctions, and the interaction is dialectic rather than collaborative or antagonistic. Especially, the imagined or demonstrated relevance of external involvement gives rise to conspiracy explanations, which are denied and hidden until the whistleblowing of Wikileaks and its various collaborators exposes more of the truth, although not necessarily a coherent or widely accepted counter-narrative. The formal diplomacy of world order is still largely premised on the autonomy and legitimacy of sovereign states, the major normative premise of the European invention of the state-centric Westphalian system, but this has always been qualified to varying degrees by geopolitical ambitions and realities, and despite the collapse of colonialism, this hierarchical ordering role remains a defining feature of the contemporary world, but it tends to have become more covert and difficult to establish on the basis of open sources. Unlike the imperial past when geopolitical hierarchies were overt and transparent, post-Westphalian patterns of intervention and extra-territorial governance are largely kept as hidden from public scrutiny as possible.

 

My intention is to mention very briefly the experiences of Iran and Egypt, and concentrate on the unfolding situation in Turkey after the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016. Because these developments in Turkey have yet to assume a definitive or final shape, the fluidity of the situation is illustrative of the forces in contention, and the outcome will for better and worse influence the future of Turkish democracy as well as exerting a major impact on regional and global alignments.

 

Iran 1979: From the perspective of 2016, it is difficult to appreciate the intensity of the political rupture brought about by the extraordinary popular uprising in Iran that brought an end to the dynastic rule of the Pahlevi Dynasty by the abdication of the Shah. What was extraordinary beyond the display of the transformative impact of a mobilized people, prepared to risk death by confronting the violent guardians of state power, to express their opposition to the established order, was the role of Ayatollah (or Imam) Ruhollah Khomeini in leading the anti-Shah movement. In its failure to perceive the threat to the Shah until it was far too late, the United States was blindsided by the emergence of political Islam as a source of resistance to its grand strategy in the Middle East that was constructed around the ideological suppositions of the Cold War, that is, being anti-Soviet with respect to international alignments and anti-Marxist, pro-capitalist with regard to internal political llfe. Islam was treated either as irrelevant or as an important ally.

 

Iran was a major theater of contestation throughout the Cold War. It should be remembered that the United States has somewhat admitted the CIA role in the 1953 coup against the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mosaddegh. It was claimed that Mosaddegh was opening Iran to Soviet influence, but the moves against him seem mainly prompted by his strident form of economic nationalism, climaxing with the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. It is notable that after the Shah was put back on his throne, an early initiative was to re-privatize the oil industry, dividing ownership between European and American oil giants, thereby supplanting British corporate dominance of Iranian oil production.

 

The 1979 rupture was notable in several respects: the emergence of political Islam as a formidable challenge to Western interests throughout the post-colonial Middle East; the revolutionary transformation of the Iranian state, establishing an Islamic Republic governing a theocratically reformed constitutional framework and an accompanying state structure; the identification of the United States, as ‘the great dragon,’ the principal enemy of Iran and Islam, a situation further aggravated by the hostage crisis following the occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran that lasted more than a year; the inflammatory impact of the failed American-led effort to achieve counter-revolutionary goals by encouraging the Iraqi attack in 1980 and by way of various covert operations designed to destabilize the country from within.

 

In its enduring effects, the political rupture of 1979 produced an Islamic theocratic state establishing a limited form of democratic governance, a prolonged encounter with the West as well as with regional rivals, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel; an ebb and flow between military threats, sanctions, and challenges directed at the leadership in Iran and diplomatic initiatives seeking some degree of normalization, most notably the Iran Nuclear Agreement of 2015.

 

Egypt 2011 & 2013: Without any direct acknowledgement to Iran, what took place in Egypt, following a similar rupture in Tunisia, was a successful uprising that led Hosni Mubarak, whose dictatorial presence had dominated Egyptian politics for 30 years, to relinquish political power. The enduring importance of the popular uprising was to exhibit the political agency of a mobilized populace in the Arab world, as well as demonstrate that social media could serve as a potent weapon of political resistance if properly used. Yet, in retrospect, the movement associated with Tahrir Square in 2011 lacked a political understanding either of the politics of Egypt or of the extent to which the established order encompassed the armed forces and was determined to retain control of the state after sacrificing its long term leader. The lack of awareness about the true balance of political forces in Egypt soon manifested itself by way of an electoral success of Islamic political parties, especially the party associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, far beyond what had been anticipated. The failure of the Tahrir Square militants to appreciate the counter-revolutionary danger was expressed especially by their willingness to leave the former governmental bureaucracy in tact and to view the armed forces as trustworthy executors of the popular will rather than as beholden to their affiliations with the old established political and economic order as it operated in the Mubarak era and by benefitting from its close professional and political links to the United States.

 

For all these reasons, the political developments in Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was elected president help us grasp the strength of counter-revolutuonary response that culminated in the coup led by General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in 2013, with huge populist backing under the slogan ‘the armed forces and the people are one’ (or fingers of the same hand’). The result of the 2013 coup was the restoration of authoritarian rule, more bloody in its oppressive tactics than under Mubarak, a crackdown directed at peaceful demonstrators and extended to the elected Muslim Brotherhood leadership of the country, and significantly, an immediate smoothing of relations with the United States, European Union, and Israel, as well as being the recipient of a major infusion of economic assistance from several Gulf country governments.

 

What these Egyptian events disclose is the acute vulnerability of

an extra-legal challenge to the established order that fails to take control of key state institutions after succeeding in eliminating the dictatorial ruler. Further, that popular discontent can be turned against political reformism to turn back the clock of progress, especially if the armed forces remain responsive to relevant geopolitical priorities and the new leadership fails to deliver economic gains to the population, especially the urban poor. Perhaps, the most enduring effect of the combination of the 2011 and 2013 events is to overcome the earlier impression of the deeply entrenched passivity of the Arab masses, and the related insight that populism can work either for or against secularist or Islamic agendas depending on the domestic context, and its shifting balance of forces.

 

Turkey 2016: The coup attempt that came close to succeeding, but failed, on the night of July 15th, was immediately converted by the Turkish government into an instant holiday commemorating those who gave their lives to save the Turkish republic against its enemies. There is little doubt in Turkey, regardless of diverging views on other issues, that the Hizmet movement headed by Fetullah Gülen bears prime responsibility for the coup attempt. And there is again wide acceptance among Turks of the related perception that the United States Government aided and abetted both the coup attempt and had been deeply involved for many years in lending various measures of support to the Gülen movement. To what extent and to what end is much discussed, but with little hard evidence, but many suspicious links between the CIA and Fetullah Gülen have been exposed, including even sponsorship of Gülen’s green card residency in the United States by such CIA notables as Graham Fuller.

 

It is too early to sort out the facts sufficiently to put forward a clear account of the coup attempt, its peculiar timing, its botched execution, and its political intentions. What is clear at this point is that the failure of the coup is a political rupture unlike either the Iranian Revolution or the Egyptian uprising as reversed by a populist military coup. The reactions by the Erdoğan led Turkish government centered on seizing the occasion of the aftermath as an opportunity to forge unity and national reconciliation, and this has so far had impressive results in the principal form of creating a common front among the three leading political parties in the country, culminating in the Yenikapı rally that brought several million people together on August 7th in Istanbul to listen to speeches by the heads of the Government and the heads of the two leading opposition parties. As further signs of what is being called the Yenkapı Spirit were giant portraits of Erdoğan and Kemal Ataturk on the wall behind the podium used by the speakers, and as notable, a long quote from Ataturk in the midst of Erdoğan’s speech. This positive inclusion of Ataturk is a strong indication that the governing party is making a gesture of acceptance to Kemalists and other secular oppositionists who were viewed as the staunchest critics of Erdoğan’s style and substance, as well as providing reassurance that the Turkish state will not abandon its secularist orientation as it moves toward constitutional reform and the distinctive post-coup attempt challenge of eliminating Gülenist penetration from the institutions of state and society that had long nurtured subversive intentions in their secretive leadership cadres while pretending even to their faithful adherents to be promoting nonviolence, moderation, human rights, and a moderate, flexible Islam.

 

 

After such a long period of polarization the anti-Erdoğan secularists, although at least deeply grateful that the coup failed and intensely critical of the Gülenist plot as well as convinced of America’s dirty hands, remain wary and suspicious of Erdoğan’s motives. They point out that Ataturk’s portrait was only present and of the same size as Erdoğan’s because Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the CHP (Peoples Republican Party), made it a condition of his participation and presence. They also note that Erdoğan in his speech referred to Ataturk as ‘Mustafa Kemal’ avoiding the honorific name conferred by the Turkish Parliament. Opponents of Erdoğan contend that he is using the atmosphere of heightened patriotism to carry out a government purge, detaining and purging thousands, declaring a state of emergency, whipping up popular support for restoring the death penalty, and pushing ahead with plans for a referendum that endorses his strong advocacy of constitutional reform featuring the establishment of an executive presidency with minimal checks and balances.

 

Tempering this skepticism of the anti-Erdoğan secularist are several considerations that lead to a more hopeful overall appraisal of the present situation. First, and foremost, Erdoğan has staked his politica future on an approach based on reconciliation that to work in the future entails a commitment to greater participatory and more inclusive democracy. This may seem expedient, but was far from predictable prior to July 15th. It would have been quite feasible in the inflamed post-coup atmosphere for Erdoğan to have strongly reaffirmed majoritarian democracy, claiming that he had received a mandate from the Turkish people to govern without constraint and to reconstruct the state along lines favored by the AKP. The reconciliation approach may not last, and depends on mutuality, but as long as it does, the stress on inclusive democracy implies a willingness to make compromises, including the reaffirmation of a secularist foundation of the proposed new constitution. True, Kılıçdaroğlu’s bargained to get Ataturk’s picture to hang at the rally, but the willingness of Erdoğan to give ground and exhibit flexibility is what gives ground for hope about the future.

 

As far as the mass suspensions are concerned, especially as involving journalists, the media, and educational institutions, there are reasons for concern. There are also contextual reasons to be

hesitant about voicing criticisms oblivious to the security threats that are still present and hard to assess and identify. After all, the Turkish state barely survived a coup arranged from within, and evidently reinforced by elaborate networks of Gũlen supporters that had infiltrated so widely as to make it virtually impossible to distinguish friend from foe. Part of the Gülen strategy was to gain and spread its influence through its extensive school system and the government-run military high schools. There are numerous seemingly reliable reports that entrance exam questions were given in advance to students later made subject to the cultic discipline of the Hizmet movement. What remains to be seen is whether a conscientious effort will be made to distinguish between innocence and guilt in accordance with due process and the rule of law. The state is entitled to take reasonable measures to protect itself, and this includes the declaration of a 90 day ‘state of emergency,’ but a claim of extraordinary authority is still a time to ascertain whether the rights of citizens are being respected and distinctions made between the guilty and the innocent. Again, if Erdoğan wants to sustain the Yenkapı Spirit, he has a strong incentive to avoid launching a witch hunt, and to roll back quickly excesses whenever detected.

 

The political rupture in Turkey, up to this point, concerns the core of state/society relations. The fact that the failure of the coup attempt is being mainly attributed to ‘the people’ is a recognition of the power and responsibility of the citizenry to defend an elected government when threatened by unlawful and violent seizures of power. As such it extends the democratic mandate beyond the ballot box, and explores a protective role for and responsibility of the Turkish populace. In the case of the populist role in Iran and Egypt, it was to mount opposition against the abuses of the state, while in Turkey it was quite opposite–the defense of the state against a hostile and unlawful enterprise of subversion led by Gülen operatives in the military.

 

As with the earlier ruptures in Iran and Egypt, the United States Government seems to have had a shadowy, as yet unproven, role in the events of July 15th, as well as in the buildup over the years of the vast networks of Gülen influence, not only in Turkey but by way of its educational presence in over 100 countries. The American relationship with Turkey is deeply at risk if it turns out that the CIA was actively intervening in an important NATO ally. Anger and suspicions resulted from the failure of the U.S. to show more support for the elected Turkish government as the coup events unfolded, contrasting unfavorably with an immediate response by Russia and Iran. The persistence of anti-Americanism is also dependent on how the United States handles Turkey’s formal extradition request. For technical legal reasons, as well as probable political embarrassment, it seems extremely doubtful that the request will be granted. As Erdoğan has already made clear, an American refusal to extradite, regardless of reasons given, will be viewed as unacceptable. In Turkey it will not lessen the anger if the decision is couched in standard legal reasoning (no prospect of fair trial; possible retroactive application of capital punishment; and accusation centered on non-extradictable political crime). Recall the United States refusal after 9/11 to accept the response of the Taliban-led Afghan government that it would be willing to deliver Osama Bin Laden, but only if it was given convincing evidence of his role in the attacks. Such a response was put to one side, and did not for an instant divert the Bush presidency from moving ahead with its regime-changing military intervention.

 

As with the Iran rupture, the developments in Turkey seem already to have had profound geopolitical effects, especially greatly strengthening Turkish moves toward establishing a close diplomatic and economic relationship with Russia, moving closer to Iran, and adopting a less zero-sum approach to the Syrian conflict. As yet neither Ankara nor Washington has mentioned these policy shifts as potential sources of tension. In fact, the U.S. Government has indicated its willingness to explore seriously the Turkish extradition request. Much is at stake, including the fight against ISIS being carried on from the major American Incirlik Airbase where 50 nuclear weapons are reportedly stored.

 

Post-rupture Turkey presents many uncertainties at this stage. Among the most important are the following:

 

–is there a continuing serious threat of a second coup attempt?

 

–will the current spirit of reconciliation based on participatory and inclusive democracy hold? Will it be broadened to include the pro-Kurdish political party (HDP)? Will Erdoğan revert to his earlier (2002-2009) style of moderate and pragmatic leadership, abandoning the kind of authoritarian ambitions that proved so divisive after 2010?

 

–what impact, if any, will Erdoğan’s Muslim devoutness have on the political future of Turkey?

 

–how will geopolitics be affected? A diplomacy of equi-distance as between Russia and the United States/Europe? Realignment by shifts toward Russia, Iran, maybe China and India?

 

How these various questions will be resolved cannot be foretold with any confidence, and depend on complex interactions within Turkey, in the region, and the world. It would encourage better future outcomes if the media in the West adopted a more evenhanded approach that empathized with the trauma generated by the coup attempt and the difficulties of restored confidence in the loyalty of public institutions, particularly the armed forces. Unfortunately, up to now, the positive aspects of the response to the Turkish rupture of July 15th have been largely ignored in Europe and North America and the problematic aspects stressed usually without even making due allowance for context.