Tag Archives: Iraq War

Should We Vote for Hillary Clinton? A Meditation

14 Apr

 

 

It seems now almost inevitable that Hillary Clinton will be the candidate for the Democratic Party in November. This inevitability came about by a combination of ‘a Southern strategy’ (where incidentally the Democrats have virtually no chance in the national elections), some close wins in large industrial states in the North, and above all by that peculiar twist in practical democracy known as ‘delegate logic’ (the party state by state rules as to how delegates are allocated among the candidates to reflect primary results, and for the Democratic Party, the pernicious add on of 719 superdelegates, 469 of whom are already announced as committed to support Hilary, while Bernie has garnered a measly 31). ‘Super’ in name only being members of Congress (11% approval rating) and party officials (often ‘hacks’).

 

This process of delegate selection is problematic from many angles and seems stacked against the guiding idea that purpose of the primaries is to determine as fairly as possible who people identifying with a particular party prefer to have as their candidate. As has been alleged by Bernie Sanders, and for the Republicans, by Donald Trump, the system is rigged: the outcome of the vote is shaped by rules that can be manipulated by a skilled ‘ground game’ to deliver a disproportionate number of delegates compared to what would be expected given relative popularity with those who voted in the primary election.

 

Aside from this disturbing delegate mystique there is the question of money. As has been obvious long before the outrage of Citizens United, big money acts as a formidable vehicle for special interests, exerting a pernicious influence on the entire governing process, deforming policy on a wide range of public issues including guns, coal, and pharmaceutical drug prices. In this regard, once again, Clinton’s far from innocent connections with Wall Street, with a superpac, and with all kinds of special interests from fracking to Israel, should be enough to alienate all but the most blindfolded of citizens.

 

An assortment of insiders defend party control over the primary process through the selection of delegates. They argue that it helps keep so-called ‘insurgent’ candidates from stealing a nomination from a candidate who has passed through the authenticating filters of party loyalty. Policy wonks point out that if the Republican Party had superdelegates, Trump would be out, and likely Cruz too, and thus it is claimed that the party credentials of the superdelegates provides a hedge against extremism or a triumphant maverick, whether from right or left, or even from Hollywood.

 

Tom Hayden, always clear and with a long record of progressive engagement in the American political process, comes down in favor of Clinton on the basis of several mutually reinforcing arguments: the need for unity among Democrats to assure the defeat of whoever the Republicans put forward, Bernie’s lack of a thought through and politically attainable agenda, and most of all, Hilary’s overwhelming support among African Americans and Latinos, including both the Cogressional Black Caucus and the Sacramento Latino Caucus. Hayden emphasizes that his links to these minorities are personal as well as ideological, through marriage and paternity, suggesting that his identity and private life creates an affinity that takes precedence over other considerations. Along the way, he affirms Sanders call for social justice in a number of particulars (student debt, universal health care, tax policy, minimum wage, trade policy), as well as his more moderate stand on foreign policy when compared to the interventionist past of Clinton. I wonder about this reasoning. Should we not ratify the Sanders movement that has excited the young across the nation as an urgent call for change? What we do know is that Clinton even if she delivers on some liberal reforms will not change the fundamentals of American political life, which urgently need changing: the plutocratic control over policy, the kneejerk deference to Pentagon budgetary greed, the unquestioning indulgence of the predatory ways of Wall Street, and the slavish acquiescence to Israel’s defiant militarism.

 

Of course, there is a serious liberal side to this debate that deserves to be considered. It is a matter of ensuring the victory of a Democrat in November coupled with the belief that Clinton is far better situated than Sanders to ensure such an outcome. Clinton is almost certain to appoint empathetic jurists to the US Supreme Court and other federal courts, she will uphold and advance the rights of women, and she will steer the ship of state with a steady and experienced hand.

 

Even granting the above, there are some limits on this liberal position that should not be pushed aside. On foreign policy, there is no doubt that Clinton is experienced, informed, and reliable, more so than Sanders. At the same time her judgment and instincts seem as untrustworthy as those of Henry Kissinger, the foreign policy guru whom she has unfortunately singled out for praise. Kissinger has favored every failed intervention that the US has undertaken in the last half century, including even Vietnam and Iraq, encouraged the 1973 military coup in Chile against the democratically elected Allende government, and was positive about the genocidal approach taken by Indonesia toward the resistant and oppressed indigenous population in East Timor. With this in mind, I would greatly prefer Sanders’ qualities of judgment to Clinton’s record of experience.

 

Against this background, I am left with is a choice between ‘red lines’ and ‘the lesser of evils,’ or as most liberals prefer to put it, ‘the glass half full,’ regarding Hillary as the best choice among those available, and in many respects impressive in ability and achievement. Beyond this, she would be the first woman to become president, and if we are lucky, she might even fashion a memorable legacy around climate change, environmental policy, health, women’s rights, student debt, an enlightened judiciary, international trade regimes, and more.

 

What troubles me, even with a keen awareness of the dangers and antipathies associated with a Republican presidential hopeful, almost regardless of who it ends up being, is the belief that there are certain deficiencies of character or lapses of judgment that deserve to be treated red lines, which once crossed are decisive. Clinton has crossed some lines that are bright red in my eyes. I find it hard to overlook her Iraq War vote back in 2003, her continuing admiration for Kissinger, her lead role in producing the Libyan disaster, her push toward intervention in Syria, and her fawning AIPAC speech delivered during the present campaign. The latter is in some respects the most disturbing of all, being purely opportunistic while exhibiting zero sensitivity to the long ordeal of Palestinian captivity and abuse. Despite her nuanced mind, Clinton comes across as a crude opportunist. For me the thought of Clinton’s fingers close to the nuclear button is hardly reassuring, although less scary than the prospect of Trump or Cruz exercising such an absolute power over human destiny. 

 

Of course, we can try and convince ourselves that most of the bad stuff is behind her and that the really good stuff lies ahead. We can firm this hope up with an expectation that Sanders will use his considerable leverage effectively, nudging her left on economic policy and making her more cautious about intervention. But it is a gamble at best, and once in the White House, special interest and bureaucratic pressures will put the Sanders agenda on a distant back burner.

 

I recall that the Nader third party candidacy, which I at the time supported, seems to have cost Gore the presidency in 2000 due to the outcome in Florida, and if Gore rather than George W. Bush had become president there probably would have been no attack on Iraq in 2003. Initiating a regime-changing war against Iraq was a neocon priority, but never on the agenda of moderate Republicans, much less Democrats. Yet counterfactuals can be misleading. Without the failure of Iraq there might have been a far greater disposition to intervene elsewhere, maybe Ukraine or Syria. As Madeline Albright a stalwart Martian supporter of Clinton memorably reminded us some years ago, ‘what’s the use of this great military capability if we never use it.’

Thinking back to the 2000 makes me hesitate before voting for a third party candidate, although there is a case to be made. The election of Jill Stein, the admirable Green Party candidate, would likely lift our spirits, enhance human security, and make us safer by departing from the cliches of national security. It is sad when the person with the most relevant vision and impeccable character, with nary a blemish, should be marginalized because of the folk wisdom embodied in the saying ‘the best is the enemy of the good,’ or more accurately in this case, ‘the worst is the enemy of the mediocre.’

Despite these doubts, prudence suggests swallowing hard, and voting for Hillary Clinton with eyes wide open. I have not yet decided, although leaning, yet still pondering some questions. Isn’t it time to hold politicians accountable for past wrongdoing? Doesn’t Clinton seem like an unprincipled opportunist, tacking to the left in the primary campaign to take some votes away from Sanders, but probably ready to move right once he is safely out of the way so as to lure independent voters and disaffected Republicans, and later, to govern effectively?

 

Isn’t Sanders right to contend that the problems of America require ‘a social revolution,’ and shouldn’t citizens of conscience stop acting as if incrementalism will address the fundamental challenges facing the country? From such an outlook, it is tempting to withhold support and forego political participation until a national candidate arrives on the scene who gives real promise of seeking the changes we need, or at least enough of them to make it worthwhile. At this point, I am unable to resolve the dilemma posed by this clash of prudence and principle.

 

Maybe in the end Tom Hayden’s approach is the only humane way to cut the Gordian Knot of this presidential dilemma: vote for Hillary Clinton in solidarity with African Americans and Latinos as someone who has stood more in their corner than almost any active politician, and surely more than any present candidate, including Bernie Sanders. Solidarity with the racially and ethnically abused, reinforced by lesser of evils reasoning, may be the best we can do at this point, while hoping that Sanders surge is more than a flash in the pan and becomes the sort of transformative movement from below that alone can restore national confidence in a sustainable and humane future. Should feelings of solidarity and revolutionary patience outweigh a principled refusal to go along with militarist opportunism?

 

Viewing American Sniper

26 Jan

Viewing American Sniper

 

[American Sniper was released on Christmas Day, 2014. It is a movie version of Chris Kyle’s memoir, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, with 255 kills, 160 officially confirmed by the Department of Defense. The movie set in Iraq is directed by Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper plays the part of Chris Kyle, and Sienna Miller is brilliantly cast in the role of his wife, Taya]

 

American Sniper is a fictionalized movie version of the war stories associated with Chris Kyle’s experience as a Navy SEAL in the Iraq War as recounted in his best-selling memoir. The film can be viewed from a variety of angles, including even as one more indictment of war as hell. A second line of interpretation focuses on the intense psychological tensions experienced by this single American soldier and his comrades caught up in the horrors of urban warfare in Iraq.  A connected theme are the adverse impacts of Kyle’s war service on his family that is made to cope with the complex and contradictory traumas of his absence (confronting his potential death on a distant battlefield) and his alienated presence whenever he returns, a scarred individual who longs to go back to Iraq to resume his assigned role as ‘legendary sniper.’  Multiple scenes in the movie portray Kyle as haunted by his service. In his book, Kyle consistently treats his victims as “savage, despicable.” At one point he makes such statements as “I only wish I had killed more,” “I loved what I did. I still do. If circumstances were different – if my family didn’t need me – I’d be back in a heartbeat. I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun. I had the time of my life being a SEAL.” The film avoids giving emphasis such to extreme statements, but it does portray this sniper as convinced he was cut out for the combat role given to him, and that he seems more alive and content when active in the killing fields of Iraq than when back home.

 

 

Kyle’s own violent death is also metaphorically significant—actual events disclosed by text in the film but not depicted, Kyle was killed by an American soldier wounded in Iraq whom he had helped at a nearby veterans’ hospital where he worked at the advice of a psychiatrist to overcome his own version of PTSD. Such an ending of his life conveys the irony that for Kyle the more dangerous battlefield turned out to be in the neighborhood of his family residence, his assailant not the evil ‘savages’ he mowed down in Iraq but a fellow American veteran who had experienced those very same encounters. Kyle had survived four tours of duty as a sniper in the midst of the most bloody military operations in Iraq, but these survival skills proved irrelevant to the minefields of innocence that now made the American countryside a dangerous war zone.

 

From box office success and right-wing praise, American Sniper, is obviously most commonly regarded as a celebration of Chris Kyle as war hero who deserves the thankful praise of the country. From this outlook, Kyle killed enemies of America at great risk and cost to himself, and spared the country a repetition of the 9/11 attacks. It is this self-serving and essentially distorted vindication of the Iraq War that the film presupposes, even to the extent of having Kyle watch on TV as the plane strikes the World Trade Center, with a quick scene shift in the movie to waging war against those presupposed to be the foot soldiers of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Embedded in this view was a double false narrative that the American mission in Iraq was to carry out a necessary counter-terrorism operation linked to the 9/11 attacks and that the Iraqis being killed in Falluja and elsewhere should be perceived as ‘terrorists’ rather than as fighters against an invasion and occupation of their country by a foreign power that disrespects their religion, culture, and sovereignty.

 

These narratives dominated my perception of the movie, although those associated with its production deny such lines of interpretation. Clint Eastwood (the director and producer) and Bradley Cooper (who plays Kyle in the film) have publicly questioned employing a political optic in commentary on the film. They insist, in contrast, that the movie was ‘a character study’ of Kyle and ‘apolitical’ in the sense of not taking a position pro or con the Iraq War. Eastwood has tried to lend credibility to his claim by pointing out that he opposed the Iraq War, and was even skeptical about Afghanistan. Yet whatever he privately feels this not how most viewers most viewers would experience the film, either being enthralled by Kyle’s exploits or appalled by them. Eastwood may have aspired to tell an apolitical story, but if so, he has failed badly.

 

The Iraq War was a war of aggression undertaken in 2003 despite the rejection of a well-orchestrated (and misleading) American plea to the UN Security Council for authorization. Against such a background,  the attack on Iraq and subsequent occupation were widely regarded as international crimes bearing resemblance to the category of aggressive warfare for which German and Japanese leaders were punished for waging after World War II. In this light, the Iraqi violence associated with the hostile American occupation needs to be portrayed as a unilateral repudiation of the limits set by international law and the UN Charter on recourse to war by the world’s most powerful country. Additionally, American Sniper depicts the doomed efforts of an outgunned society to resist a militarily dominant foreign invader that is imposing its will on the country’s future by force of arms. Such a viewing is not meant to imply that we need to endorse some of the horrific Iraqi tactics relied upon, but it should remind us that presenting the Iraqis as ‘evil’ and as ‘savages’ functions in the film as an unchallenged display of Islamophobic propaganda, and cannot be credibly explained away as a realistic exploration of a war hero’s temperament and struggle for sanity and survival. American Sniper also presents Kyle’s story in such a way as to avoid any self-criticism directed at the American mission in Iraq.

 

The movie also lacks redeeming artistic merit. It is relentless and repetitive in portraying battle scenes of intensity intertwined with Kyle’s tormented relationship with his wife and efforts to become a father to their two children during his brief interludes of home leave between military assignments. We learn nothing about the realities of our world beyond a tired rendering of the embedded post-9/11 polemic on the necessity of foreign wars to keep America safe from evil forces lurking in the Islamic world. This orthodoxy is not even interrogated, much less rejected. And no where in the film is there any acknowledgement that the United States in Iraq was acting in defiance of international law and causing great devastation and suffering to a totally vulnerable foreign country, as well as producing a massive displacement of the civilian population. Leaving behind a devastated country and widespread chaos. The Iraqi experience of such carnage in their own country is treated as irrelevant, and is reminiscent of Vietnam War films that were mostly devoted to explorations of the victimization of the young Americans caught up in an experience of war that they could neither understand nor win, while overlooking almost altogether the massive suffering being inflicted on a foreign people in a distant land. That is, even most anti-war portrayals of these American wars accept the dehumanization of the foreign others.

 

For me the most significant impressions resulting from American Sniper’s narrative of the Iraq War are as follows:

 

            –the striking imbalance between the sophisticated military technology at the disposal of the United States versus the primitive weaponry in the possession of the Iraqi adversaries, creating an overwhelming impression that the Iraq War was more ‘a hunt’ than ‘a war;’ such an impression is somehow deepened by a scene in the film in which Kyle is teaching his very young son to hunt for deer;

            –the failure to make any effort at all to understand the experience of this war from the perspective of the Iraqis, creating the absurd impression that the only victims deserving empathy were Americans like Kyle who had endured the torments of warfare and suffered its admittedly disorienting consequences; the emotions of remorse as associated with the harm done to Iraq and Iraqis is no where to be found in the film.

 

What may be disturbing is the radical subjectivity of likely audience responses. In America, great popularity of mostly uncritical commentary on American Sniper, reinforcing the regressive national mood of glamorizing bloody military exploits as the most admirable expression of true patriotism. Elsewhere in the world the perception is likely to be quite opposite: American Sniper inducing anti-American attitudes either out of fear or resentment or both, solidifying the global image of the United States as a cruel geopolitical bully. That is, American Sniper is wildly pro-American for most domestic viewers, and severely anti-American for most foreign viewers. This gap in subjectivities exhibits the degree to which Americans are living in a bubble of their own devising.

 

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It is highly unlikely that many Americans will appreciate this disparity of perception, and even fewer will pause long enough to assess its significance. If more of us could see ourselves as we are seen in the mirror of foreign reactions it might help end this unhealthy national romance with permanent war that started after World War II with the Cold War and continues now in the form of the ‘War on Terror.’  Such a pattern of delusional geopolitics will never produce peace and security in the 21st century, and will fatally divert attention from meeting the challenges of humanity associated with climate change, nuclear weapons, poverty, and extremism. To question this American domination project is to antagonize the entrenched bureaucratic, media, and neoliberal forces that benefit from endless war making and its associated expenditures of trillions. In the end it is this grand project of late capitalism that American Sniper indirectly vindicates, thereby burdening the nation and the world, perhaps fatally.

Remembering Fouad Ajami

9 Jul

 

 

 

Christopher Hitchens and Fouad Ajami are probably the two foremost once progressive intellectuals who turned right in their later years, and reaped rich career rewards for doing so. I was an acquaintance of Hitchens, who died in 2011. We participated on a couple of occasions in the same event and he publicly ridiculed me. I was appalled by his contemptuous dismissal of those who disagreed with him or whom he regarded as lesser beings, that is, not less than 99% of humanity. His informed brilliance made him always worth reading or listening to even if his views were dogmatically uncongenial, never more so than in his self-righteous championing of the Iraq War as a humanitarian rescue mission undertaken on behalf of the Iraqi people. When Hitchens died I was impressed by his brave struggle against cancer, but he was never a friend, and his death never tempted me to mourn.

 

Fouad Ajami was at one time a dear friend, a close colleague, and someone whose worldview I once shared. I had been partly responsible for bringing Fouad to Princeton where I was on the faculty, and was deeply impressed by his incisive mind, deep reading of difficult scholarly texts, and ethical/political engagement with the world that seemed to express intellectual independence. In this time of friendship we shared a critical outlook on the follies of the American imperial role and felt a deep sympathy for the Palestinian struggles for their place in the sun. I introduced Fouad to Edward Said and Eqbal Ahmad, believing them to be kindred spirits in a shared commitment to justice in all its manifestations with a focus on the deep processes of decolonization being pursued in the countries of the South. At first my social impulse was affirmed as there occurred a rapid bonding of these three extraordinary intellectuals, but before too long, Fouad’s unexpected welcoming of the 1982 Israeli attack on Lebanon, and then a more intense fight among three as to whether or not to attend a CIA-sponsored conference on the Middle East at Harvard led to an open break, with Fouad not only deciding to attend but to write a letter to Edward and Eqbal declaring that he wished no further contact with either of them.

 

In the process, without any such dramatic break, my friendship with Fouad lapsed without ever ending either formally or psychologically. I continued to read his journalistic and scholarly writing, admiring his stylistic gifts and literary sensibility despite my disappointment with the kind of beltway, Israeli-oriented sophisticated polemics he had cast his lot with in the manner of Naipaul, but worse because overtly political. He was warmly welcomed into the establishment, first by the Council on Foreign Relations, and then later an influential participant in the inner sanctum of neocon retreats, ending his career and life, as a senior scholar attached to the notorious Hoover Institution, where even Donald Rumsfeld found sanctuary after his disastrous tenure as Secretary of Defense.

 

In reacting to his death, commentators were sharply polarized as might be expected. In the Wall Street Journal Bret Stephens called Ajami “..the most honest and honorable and generous of American intellectuals,” [June 23, 2014] and went on to explain why. In contrast, Shakir Husain dismisses Ajami as an opportunistic fraud who will be mostly remembered for his enthusiastic and very public endorsement of the 2003 Iraq War and as a high profile apologist for the worst Israeli excesses, a classic example of Mahmood Mamdani’s ‘good Muslim.’ [Daily Sabah, July 8, 2014] Prior to the war Ajami had promised American on TV and his neocon friends, notably Paul Wolfowitz, that Iraqis would celebrate their liberation from the clutches of Saddam Hussein with flowers and dances, and should expect Iraqi crowds welcoming American troops and tanks in the streets of Baghdad and Basra. Ajami seemed so excited by the shock and awe aggression against Iraq that began the war ‘an amazing performance,’ an initial expression of his unflagging endorsement of the Bush-Cheney criminal foreign policy from which he never retreated. [CBS News, March 22, 2003] Adam Shatz constructed a devastating portrait of Ajami’s rightward swing, portraying him as a lethal combination of ‘native informant’ and ‘a cheerleader for American empire,’ dismissing his claim of ‘intellectual independence as a clever fiction.’ [The Nation, April 10, 2003]

 

Despite all this, Fouad was still in my mind and heart a friend with whom I had shared many intimate times, who had cared for my two sons while traveling abroad, who was both affectionate and stimulating, and who seemed to hold my views as to what it meant to be on ‘the right side of history.’ After his disturbing political ‘awakening’ to the realities of the world, we met one time by chance in the 1990s while walking on the streets of the nation’s capital; we stopped and had a friendly coffee together, almost avoiding politics while reminiscing mainly about common friends and his days at Princeton. I remember he was then worried by some comments critical of his role that Edward Said had apparently made to an Arab audience, Fouad telling me that such criticism amounted to ‘a death sentence’ given the high tide of emotions in the region. I can’t recall my response beyond expressing an opinion that Edward would never knowingly encourage violence toward someone with whose views he disagreed, however deeply. We never met again, although I saw Fouad from time to time on TV, and to my surprise, did not disagree with much of his early CNN commentary in seeming support of the Tahrir Square uprising against the Mubarak regime in late January 2011.

 

Reflecting now, I wonder if I can and should separate in my mind the man from his reactionary views and career choices, which will always remain an anathema for me. I wonder also if I was blinded by Fouad’s wit and brilliance and warmth, and failed to detect character flaws that surfaced politically later in his life. Or are political orientations inherently so subjective that what seemed to me an unforgivable ‘betrayal’ was for Fouad a genuine ‘epiphany,’ a swerve of conscience that just happened to land him in the gilded lap of the winners, that is, on the uppermost platforms of elite pampering? It is a whimsical moment that inhibits mourning such a loss, but not the sadness that always accompanies losing a once cherished and trusted friend. To be sure, thinking along these lines recalls Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken.’ I firmly believe that I chose the better road, but it will take decades for history to decide.

 

For me Fouad Ajami’s legacy is that of ‘sleeping with the enemy.’ And it is an enemy that is politically, morally, and legally responsible for millions of deaths, displacements, and devastating losses. In a just world such a responsibility would lead to criminal accountability, but such a prospect is for now situated in what Derrida called the ‘democracy to come,’ a polity in which there would be no impunity for crimes against humanity.

Rethinking ‘Red Lines’

11 May

The Wrong ‘Red Line’ (expanded and revised Al-Jazeera opinion piece)

 

            There are widespread reports circulating in the media that President Obama had not fully appreciated the political consequences of responding to a question at an August press conference that asked about the consequences of a possible future use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. Obama replied that such a use, should it occur, would be to cross ‘a red line.’ Such an assertion was widely understood to be a threat by Obama either to launch air strikes or to provide rebel forces with major direct military assistance, including weaponry. There have been sketchy reports that Syria did make some use chemical weapons, as well as allegations that the reported use was ‘a false flag’ operation, designed to call Obama’s bluff. As the New York Times notes in a frontpage story on May 7th, Obama “finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.” Such a policy dilemma raised tactical issues for the U.S. Government about how to intervene in the Syrian civil war without risking a costly and uncertain involvement in yet another Middle Eastern war. Not responding also raises delicate questions of presidential leadership in a highly polarized domestic political atmosphere, already shamelessly exploited by belligerent Republican lawmakers backed by a feverish media that always seem to be pushing Obama to pursue a more muscular foreign policy in support of alleged America’s global interests, as if hard power geopolitics still is the key to global security.

 

            What is missing from the debate on Syria, and generally from the challenge to American foreign policy, is a more fundamental red line that the United States at another time and place took the lead in formulating—namely, the unconditional prohibition of the use of international force by states other than in cases of self-defense against a prior armed attack. This prohibition was the core idea embodied in the United Nations Charter, embedded in contemporary international law, and it was also a natural sequel to the prosecution and punishment of surviving German and Japanese leaders after World War II for their commission of Crimes against Peace, which was the international crime associated with engaging in aggressive warfare.  The only lawful exception to this prohibition was a use of force consistent with the terms of a prior authorization given by the UN Security Council. The key hope for world peace was this consensus among the winners in World War II that in the future aggressive war and any acquisition of territory by force, even acquired in the exercise of self-defense, must be outlawed without exceptions. Such authorizations by the Security Council were obtained by the West in the Gulf War of 1991 and again in the NATO Libya War of 2011, but in each instance the actual undertaking became controversial as a result of the scope and intensity of the military operations far exceeding the UN mandate. As a consequence, there was a loss of trust on the part of China and Russia in endorsing limited uses of force under UN auspices, which became evident in the course of the gridlocked debate about what to do in response to the regionally dangerous violence in Syria that combined internal strife with external proxy involvements threatening the expansion of the war zone in a variety of menacing ways.

 

            Actually the Charter red line has been surprisingly well respected over the period since 1945, at least in clear instances of border-crossing sustained violence. The UN authorized the defense of South Korea in response to an armed attack by North Korea in 1950. The UN, with surprising U.S. support, even exerted effective pressure in 1956 on the United Kingdom, France, and Israel to withdraw from territory seized after their attack on Egypt, which was the sole prominent example of law prevailing over geopolitics. In 1991 the UN successfully authorized force that followed sanctions, and succeeded in restoring the sovereignty of Kuwait after Iraq’s aggressive occupation and annexation of the country in the previous year. The UN red line held up reasonably well until the end of the last century, although all along its interpretation was subject to geopolitical manipulations by reference to a variety of loopholes and evasions associated with claims of humanitarian intervention, as well as a variety of strategically motivated covert interventions (e.g. Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954). This pattern of evasion was a prominent feature of the Cold War as both sides intervened in foreign states or in their respective spheres of influence (e.g. South Vietnam, Eastern Europe, Afghanistan) to uphold by force of arms an ideological alignment with one or the other superpower. Such uses of international force by rival superpowers without engaging the UN framework definitely eroded the authority of the anti-aggression red line and its stature in international law, but it did not lead political actors to call for its abandonment in view of the behavior of leading states. It is true that some anti-legalist international law specialists who subscribed to a realist worldview felt that patterns of state practice overrode the claims of international law and the UN Charter, and that, in effect, the red line had been erased, at least for the top tier of sovereign states. Although not made explicit, the American position was increasingly exhibiting the psychological characteristics of geopolitical bipolarity: no red line for American foreign policy, while maintaining a bright red line for others, especially for adversary states.

 

            What weakened this red line even more decisively was undoubtedly the American led ‘coalition of the willing’ attack on Iraq in 2003 after an American plea for UN permission to use force had been rebuffed by the Security Council despite a concerted effort to convince its members that Iraq’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction was such a great menace to world peace as to justify what amounted to a ‘preventive war’. This undisguised defiance of this most fundamental red line of international law by the United States also defied world public opinion that had expressed itself in the most massive anti-war demonstrations in all of history held in some 80 countries on February 15, 2003, a little more than a month before the ‘shock and awe’ start of the Iraq War.  Richard Perle, often touted as the most astute of the neocon intellectuals who fashioned American strategic policy during the Bush years, was exultant about this seemingly definitive breach of the red line, celebrating American aggression against Iraq in a Guardian article aptly headlined, “Thank God for the Death of the UN.” [March 20, 2003] Although the authority of the UN was definitely flouted by the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the UN is far from dead as an Organization in its manifold efforts to address the concerns of the world, and even its red line, although covered with dust, has not yet been erased. Maybe we should really thank God that the collective global consciousness is so forgetful!

 

            What is baffling about the Obama approach is that it purports to be very mindful of the importance of exhibiting respect for international law. Just last September in a speech to the General Assembly Obama said, “We know from painful experience that the path to security prosperity does not lie outside the boundaries of international law..” In his Second Inaugural Obama repeated the sentiment: “We will defend our people and uphold values through strength of arms and rule of law.” And in arguing on behalf of taking collective action against states that violate international law told the Nobel Peace Prize audience in Stockholm, “[t]hose that claim respect for international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted.”

 

            And yet, when reflecting on intervening in Syria or resort to a military option in relation to Iran’s nuclear program, Obama is silent about the relevance of international law, although neither instance of contemplated uses of force can be remotely claimed to be justified as either individual or collective self-defense. And for obvious reasons, there is also no mention of circumventing the red line by failing to seek authorization for a contemplated used of force from the Security Council. Presumably since approval would not be forthcoming due to the anticipated opposition of Russia and China it was not even worth considering as a public tactic. It is true that the Clinton presidency in participating via NATO in the Kosovo War proceeded also to embark on a non-defensive war without seeking prior authorization for somewhat similar reasons as any resolution on Kosovo proposing use of force was sure to be vetoed by Russia and China. The Kosovo precedent generated worries about non-defensive military undertakings lacking a legal foundation. These were offset in the belief that a humanitarian catastrophe had been averted. The Kosovo undertaking was convincingly justified at the time on credible moral grounds of imminent genocide, on political grounds as enjoying support from almost all of Kosovo’s European neighbors, and on practical grounds as a military intervention that was feasible. In effect, the legitimacy of the intervention was allowed to offset its illegality. As it turned out the military undertaking and political follow up was more difficult than anticipated, but still achieved at a reasonable cost, within a relatively short period, and productive of zero casualties among the intervening forces.

            The question raised is whether from an overall perspective, the red line of international law at stake in Syria is more like Iraq or Kosovo/Libya. It is unlike Iraq in the sense that there is an ongoing unresolved civil war in Syria that is actively destabilizing the region and already spilling over national borders to cause unrest in neighboring countries.  Syria is also the scene of severe Crimes Against Humanity that are being mainly committed by the regime. Finally, at present, there is no end of the violence is in sight give the relative strength of the two sides. It is, however, unlike Kosovo/Libya as there are proxy states acting as participants on both sides, the Damascus regime despite its behavior maintains considerable internal support while the opposition is widely viewed with deep suspicion and fear as to its democratic credentials, its lack of inclusiveness, and its uncertain respect for non-Sunni minorities. In a sense it is essential that each conflict be assessed within its own distinctive context, which should raise for discussion whether the red lines of international law and UN authority should be crossed in this instance on behalf of the blue lines of legitimacy (saving a vulnerable people from a humanitarian catastrophe) and white lines of feasibility (likelihood of success with minimum loss of life and high probability of positive net effects).

 

            Finally, it has been argued that the changing nature of conflict has made the red line embedded in the UN Charter obsolete or at least in need of a drastically modified interpretation.  The rationale for rethinking the Charter approach to the use of force is associated with the global security situation that has resulted from terrorist attacks since 9/11 leading to the global war on terror being waged on a battlefield without national limits and increasingly doing the killing via reliance on robotic warfare on the one side and very primitive forms of disruptive violence by political extremists on the other side. Traditional ideas of deterrence, containment, and territorial defense seem almost irrelevant in relation to global security regimes when the perceived assailants are individuals who cannot be deterred, and are operating in non-territorial networks and exhibiting a readiness to die to complete their mission. As matters are proceeding the policy about force is being formulated without bothering with the red lines of international law and the UN, regressively producing once again a world of unregulated sovereign states and extremist non-states essentially deciding on their own when war is permissible. The recent Israeli air strikes on Syrian targets is illustrative: unprovoked and non-defensive, yet eliciting scant criticism in the media or even commentary about the dangers of unilateralism with respect to uses of international force. Such normative chaos in a world where already nine countries possess nuclear weapons seems like a prescription for eventual species suicide, an impression reinforced by the failure to take precautionary steps with respect to the menace of global warming. Never has the world more needed red lines that are drawn by major states, and upheld by them out of the realization that the national interest has also merged with the global interest. Arguably the red lines of the Charter need to be modified in light of the rise of non-state actors and the advent of non-territorial warfare, but such an undertaking is no where on the agenda of major states, and so the world drifts back to the pre-World War I era of unrestricted warfare, at least on the level of geopolitics.

 

            What is strange in all this is that Obama talks the talk, but seems unwilling to walk the walk. Such a disjunction invites cynicism about law and morality, and induces despair on the part of those of us who believe the world we inhabit badly needs red lines, but the right red lines. Redrawing the red lines that fit the realities of our world and keep alive hopes for peace and justice, should be the great diplomatic challenge of our time, the visionary projects of leading diplomats whose imaginative gaze extends beyond addressing immediate threats. The old red lines have been put aside in contemplating what to do in relation to Syria, but without trying to establish new red lines that can serve humanity well in what has been so far a  disorienting journey in the 21st century.

The Iraq War: 10 Years Later

17 Mar

 

 

            After a decade of combat, casualties, massive displacement, persisting violence, enhanced sectarian tension and violence between Shi’ias and Sunnis, periodic suicide bombings, and autocratic governance, a negative assessment of the Iraq War as a strategic move by the United States, United Kingdom, and a few of their secondary allies, including Japan, seems near universal. Not only the regionally destabilizing outcome, including the blowback effect of perversely adding weight to Iran’s overall diplomatic influence, but the reputational costs in the Middle East associated with an imprudent, destructive, and failed military intervention make the Iraq War the worst American foreign policy disaster since its defeat in Vietnam in the 1970s, and undertaken with an even less persuasive legal, moral, and political rationale. The ongoing blowback from the ‘shock and awe’ launch scenario represents a huge, and hopefully irreversible, setback for the American global domination project in the era of hypertechno geopolitics.

 

            Most geopolitical accounting assessments do not bother to consider the damage to the United Nations and international law arising from an aggressive use of force in flagrant violation of the UN Charter, embarked upon in the face of a refusal by the Security Council to provide a legitimating authorization for the use of force despite great pressure mounted by the United States. The UN further harmed its own image when it failed to reinforce its refusal to grant authorization to the United States and its coalition, by offering some kind of support to Iraq as the target of this contemplated aggression. This failure was compounded by the post-attack role played by the UN in lending full support to the unlawful American-led occupation, including its state-building mission. In other words, not only was the Iraq War a disaster from the perspective of American and British foreign policy and the peace and stability of the Middle East region, but it was also a severe setback for the authority of international law, the independence of the UN, and the quality of world order.

 

            In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the United States was supposedly burdened by what policymakers derisively called ‘the Vietnam Syndrome.’ This was a Washington shorthand for the psychological inhibitions to engage in military interventions in the non-Western world due to the negative attitudes towards such imperial undertakings that were supposed to exist among the American public and in the government, especially among the military who were widely blamed for the Vietnam disaster. Many American militarists at the time complained that the Vietnam Syndrome was a combined result of an anti-war plot engineered by the liberal media and a response to an unpopular conscription or ‘draft’ that required many middle class Americans to fight in a distant war that lacked both popular support, a convincing strategic or legal rationale, and seemed to be on the wrong side of history, which as the French found out in their own Indochina War favored anti-colonial wars of liberation. The flag-draped coffins of dead young Americans were shown on TV, leading defense hawks to contend somewhat ridiculously that ‘the war was lost in American living rooms.’ The government made adjustments that took these rationalizations serious: the draft was abolished, and reliance  henceforth was placed on an all-volunteer professional military complemented by large-scale private security firms; also, intensified efforts were made to assure media support for subsequent military operations by ‘embedding’ journalists in combat units and more carefully monitoring news reporting.

 

            President, George H.W. Bush told the world in 1991 immediately after the Gulf War that had been successfully undertaken to reverse the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait that “we have finally kicked the Vietnam Syndrome.” In effect, the senior President Bush was saying to the grand strategists in the White House and Pentagon that the role of American military power was again available for use to do the work of empire around the world. What the Gulf War showed was that on a conventional battlefield, in this setting of a desert war, American military superiority would be decisive, could produce a quick victory with minimal costs in American lives, and bring about a surge of political popularity at home. This new militarist enthusiasm created the political base for recourse to the NATO War in 1999 to wrest Kosovo from Serb control. To ensure the avoidance of casualties, reliance was placed on air attacks conducted from high altitudes. The war took more time than expected, but was interpreted as validating the claim of war planners that the United States could now fight and win ‘zero casualty wars.’ There were no NATO combat deaths in the Kosovo War, and the war produced a ‘victory’ by ending Serbian control over Kosovo as well as demonstrating that NATO could still be used and useful even after the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet threat that had explained the formation of the alliance in the first place.

 

            More sophisticated American war planners understood that not all challenges to United States interests around the world could be met with air power in the absence of ground combat. Increasingly, political violence involving geopolitical priorities took the form of transnational violence (as in the 9/11 attacks) or was situated within the boundaries of territorial states, and involved Western military intervention designed to crush societal forces of national resistance. The Bush presidency badly confused its new self-assurance about the conduct of battlefield international warfare where military superiority dictates the political outcome and its old nemesis from Vietnam War days of counter-insurgency warfare, also known as low-intensity or asymmetric warfare, where military superiority controls the battlefield but not the endgame of conflict which depends on winning the allegiance of the territorial population.

 

            David Petraeus rose through the ranks of the American military by repackaging counterinsurgency warfare in a post-Vietnam format relying upon an approach developed by noted guerrilla war expert David Galula, who contended that in the Vietnam War the fatal mistake was made of supposing that such a war would be determined 80% by combat battles in the jungles and paddy fields with the remaining 20% devoted to the capture of the ‘hearts and minds’ of the indigenous population. Galula argued that counterinsurgency wars could only be won if this formula was inverted.  This meant that 80% of future U.S. military interventions should be devoted to non-military aspects of societal wellbeing: restoring electricity, providing police protection for normal activity, building and staffing schools, improving sanitation and garbage removal, and providing health car and jobs.

 

            Afghanistan, and then Iraq, became the testing grounds for applying these nation-building lessons of Vietnam, only to reveal in the course of their lengthy, destructive and expensive failures that the wrong lessons had been learned by the militarists and their civilian counterparts. These conflicts were wars of national resistance, a continuation of the anti-colonial struggles against West-centric  domination, and regardless of whether the killing was complemented by sophisticated social and economic programs, it still involved a pronounced and deadly challenge by foreign interests to the national independence and rights of self-determination that entailed killing Iraqi women and children, and violating their most basic rights through the unavoidably harsh mechanics of foreign occupation. It also proved impossible to disentangle the planned 80% from the 20% as the hostility of the Iraqi people to their supposed American liberators demonstrated over and over again, especially as many Iraqis on the side of the occupiers proved to be corrupt and brutal, sparking popular suspicion and intensifying internal polarization. The truly ‘fatal mistake’ made by Petraeus, Galula, and all the counterinsurgency advocates that have followed this path, is the failure to recognize that when the American military and its allies attack and occupy a non-Western country, especially in the Islamic world, when they start dividing, killing and policing its inhabitants, popular resistance will be mobilized and hatred toward the foreign ‘liberators’ will spread. This is precisely what happened in Iraq, and the suicide bombings to this day suggest that the ugly patterns of violence have not stopped even with the ending of America’s direct combat role.

 

            The United States was guilty of a fundamental misunderstanding of the Iraq War displayed to the world when George W. Bush theatrically declared on May 1, 2003 a wildly premature victory from the deck of an American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, with the notorious banner proclaiming ‘mission accomplished’ plainly visible behind the podium as the sun sank over the Pacific Ocean. Bush reveled in this misunderstanding by assuming that the attack phase of the war was the whole war, forgetting about the more difficult and protracted occupation phase. The real Iraq War, rather than ending, was about to begin, that is, the violent internal struggle for the political future of the country, one made more difficult and protracted by the military presence of the US and its allies. This counterinsurgency sequel to occupation would not be decided on the kind of battlefield where arrayed military capabilities confront one another, but rather through a war of attrition waged by hit and run domestic Iraqi forces, abetted by foreign volunteers, opposed to the tactics of Washington and to the overall aura of illegitimacy attached to American military operations in a Third World setting. Such a war has a shadowy beginning and a still uncertain ending, and is often, as in Iraq, as it proved to be earlier in Vietnam and Afghanistan, a quagmire for intervening powers. There are increasing reasons to believe that the current Iraqi leader, Nouri al-Maliki, resembles the authoritarian style of Saddam Hussein more than the supposed constitutional liberal regime that the United States pretends to leave behind, and that the country is headed for continuing struggle, possibly even a disastrous civil war fought along sectarian line. In many respects, including the deepening of the Sunni/Shi’a divide the country and its people are worse off that before the Iraq War without in any way questioning allegations about the cruelty and criminality of the regime headed by Saddam Hussein.

 

            The Iraq War was a war of aggression from its inception, being an unprovoked use of armed force against a sovereign state in a situation other than self-defense. The Nuremberg and Tokyo War Crimes Tribunals convened after World War II had declared such aggressive warfare to be a ‘crime against peace’ and prosecuted and punished surviving political and military leaders of Germany and Japan as war criminals. We can ask why have George W. Bush and Tony Blair not been investigated, indicted, and prosecuted for their roles in planning and prosecuting the Iraq War. As folk singer Bob Dylan instructed us long ago, the answer is ‘blowin’ in the wind,’ or in more straightforward language, the reasons for such impunity conferred upon the American and British leaders is one more crude display of geopolitics—their countries were not defeated and occupied, their governments never surrendered and discredited, and such strategic failures (or successes) are exempted from legal scrutiny. These are the double standards that make international criminal justice a reflection of power politics more than of evenhanded global justice.

Global civil society with its own limited resources had challenged both the onset of the Iraq War, and later its actual unfolding. On and around February 15, 2003, what the Guinness Book of Records called “the largest anti-war rally in history” took the form of about 3,000 demonstrations in 800 cities located in more than 60 countries and according to the BBC involved an estimated 6-10 million persons. Although such a global show of opposition to recourse to war was unprecedented, it failed to halt the war. It did, however, have the lasting effect of undermining the American claims of justification for the attack and occupation of Iraq. It also led to an unprecedented effort by groups around the world to pass judgment on the war by holding sessions in which peace activists and international law experts alleged the criminality of the Iraq War, and called for war crimes prosecutions of Bush and Blair. As many as twenty such events were held in various parts of the world, with a culminating Iraq War Tribunal convened in June of 2005, which included testimony from more than 50 experts, including several from Iraq and a jury of conscience headed by Arundhati Roy.

 

            There is also the question of complicity of countries that supported the war with troop deployments, such as Japan, which dispatched 1000 members of its self-defense units to Iraq in July 2003 to help with non-combat dimensions of the occupation. Such a role is a clear breach of international law and morality. It is also inconsistent with Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. It was coupled with Tokyo’s diplomatic support for the U.S./UK-led Iraq War from start to finish. Should such a record of involvement have any adverse consequences? It would seem that Japan might at least review the appropriateness of its complicit participation in a war of aggression, and how that diminishes the credibility of any Japanese claim to uphold the responsibilities of membership in the United Nations. At least, it provides the people of Japan with a moment for national soul-searching to think about what kind of world order will in the future best achieve peace, stability, and human dignity.

 

            Are there lessons to be drawn from the Iraq War? I believe there are. The overwhelming lesson is that in this historical period interventions by the West in the non-West, especially when not authorized by the UN Security Council, can rarely succeed in attaining their stated goals. More broadly, counterinsurgency warfare involving a core encounter between Western invading and occupying forces and a national resistance movement will not be decided on the basis of hard power military superiority, but rather by the dynamics of self-determination associated with the party that has the more credible nationalist credentials, which include the will to persist in the struggle for as long as it takes, and the capacity to capture the high moral ground in the ongoing legitimacy struggle for domestic and international public support. It is only when we witness the dismantling of many of America’s 700+ acknowledged foreign military bases spread around the world, and see the end of repeated US military intervention globally, that we can have some hope that the correct lessons of the Iraq War are finally being learned. Until then there will be further attempts by the U.S. Government to correct the tactical mistakes that it claims caused past failures in Iraq (and Afghanistan), and new interventions will undoubtedly be proposed in coming years, most probably leading to costly new failures, and further controversies as to ‘why?’ we fought and why we lost. American leaders will remain unlikely to acknowledge that the most basic mistake is itself militarism and the accompanying arrogance of occupation, at least until this establishment consensus is challenged by a robust anti-militarist grassroots political movement not currently visible.      

Comparing Presidential Elections: 2008 versus 2012

20 Oct

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A Stronger ‘Political Europe’ might save a Stumbling ‘Economic Europe’

11 Jun


 

            It was only a few years ago that Europe was being praised as the savior of world order, and heralded as the hope for the future of world order. Books with such titles as The European Superpower and Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century were widely read. They celebrated the realities of a European post-colonial recovery, even a new type of ascendancy, results that were welcomed by many who hoped for a more peaceful and equitable world. I shared much of this enthusiasm, believing that the European Union was a bold and generally progressive experiment in regionalism that was better suited to our era of intensifying globalization than a state-centric world of sovereign territorial communities habituated to the dynamics of warfare. This statist world order had been evolving through the centuries, but always with the premise that the sovereign state was not subject to external authorities and law if its fundamental security interests were at stake. The origins of this state system are conveniently associated with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that brought to an end the bloody Thirty Years War, a struggle between Catholics and Protestants to determine primacy within Christendom. 

 

            A world of regions provided a structural vision that seemed an attractive sequel to a world of sovereign states. It seemed more attainable than a quixotic leap in the direction of world government, which neither political nor business leaders took seriously. Populist forces were also suspicious of any advocacy of world government, generally fearing it was intended as or would turn out to be a scheme for Western dominance. From these perspectives the EU seemed to be the most interesting world order game in town!  It was an exciting experiment in world order that had grown through the years far beyond its early modest post-1945 beginnings as an instrument for limited economic cooperation on matters of coal and steel among a small number of European countries. By stages the EU had become the most impressive supranational presence in modern times, seemingly a far more significant alternative to state-centricism than the UN or even the international financial institutions (World Bank, IMF, WTO).

 

            European regionalism was mainly applauded in mainstream circles because of its achievements associated with economic integration that produced benefits in trade and investment, as well as overall economic growth. EU was not only a clever adjustment to European participation in a globalizing world economy that featured the expanding role of such major actors as the United States, Japan, and China, it also seemed to facilitate a positive European future . Perhaps, most notably, Europe had become a culture of peace, not a small accomplishment on a continent long ravaged by devastating wars, particularly in the 20th century. In a stimulating book, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone, its author James Sheehan informs us that “[t]he eclipse of the willingness and ability to use violence that was once so central to statehood has created a new kind of European state, firmly rooted in new forms of public and private identity.” (p. 221) Most especially, this new European outlook, while certainly not pacifist, was generally seemed disinclined to endorse global militarism.

 

            Such a shift in Europe was not without ambiguities. Europe’s habits of obedience to Washington acquired during the long Cold War often led European governments to give priority to their alliance relations with the United States rather than give expression to this altered political consciousness. Some skeptics suggested that Europe had not really adopted a culture of peace, but rather found it expedient to concentrate their collective energies on meeting the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union. NATO waged war in 1999 to end the oppressive Serb occupation of Kosovo in a situation in which there did exist credible dangers of ethnic cleansing and the encouragement of an Albanian majority population that welcomed the intervention. Although European governments were split on backing the Iraq War in 2003, the public opinion in every European country was strongly opposed to the war. NATO had been a defensive regional alliance generated by concerns about Soviet expansionist ambitions and anchored in the military capabilities of the United States that seemed dedicated to the defense of Europe even if meant enduring the onslaught of a third world war.

 

            Above all, the EU evolution confirmed the view that intra-European relations were now insulated from war, that open borders did not pose security threats, and that a common European foreign policy was likely to be achieved in the near future. To some extent, the EU reinforced this positive image by taking the lead in efforts to shape a responsible global policy on climate change.

Their efforts were so successful that the United States at the 2009 Copenhagen UN Conference on Climate Change tried to build a new coalition of pro-growth economies with the intention of marginalizing the European insistence on cutting back drastically on greenhouse gas emissions.

 

            Europe veered in a wrong direction after the 9/11 attacks when it allowed NATO to express solidarity with the United States decision to respond by way of launching a global war on terror that persists. This implicated Europe in the dubious approach by the neoconservatives in Washington to pursue a worldwide grand strategy aimed at global domination. It completely transformed NATO into an instrument of post-colonial Western interventionary diplomacy, having nothing to do with the defense of Europe, and engaged in warfare in such non-European battlefields as Afghanistan and Libya. The claims to achieve a culture of peace were deeply compromised by this participation in these non-defensive wars, and as a result the idea of an emergent progressive European alternative to state-centricism has almost vanished from the imaginary of a preferred future for humanity.

 

            But more than peace, Europe also showcased the realities of a humane form of capitalism in which the mass of society could enjoy a secure and satisfying life, a welfare state in which high quality education and health care was provided, human rights upheld and implemented by a regional judicial process that had the mandate to override national policy, and an economic space that combined robust growth with the free flow of capital, goods, and labor. This 21st century social contract between the state and its citizenry that emerged in Europe seemed to provide a model for others to follow, or at least to be challenged by. Other nearby countries seemed eager to join the EU to benefit economically and politically from such an association of states in which the whole seemed definitely to exceed the value of the parts, and extremist politics of either left or right seemed precluded.

 

            Disappointment with developments pertaining to Europe can be expressed schematically. The preoccupation with economic Europe produced an accommodation with populist insistence on a decent life to produce advances in ‘social Europe’ and this produced a climate of opinion that allowed the radical step of monetary integration. This process proceeded but without corresponding political integration needed to establish a strong European identity. Political Europe, while enjoying some governmental presence in the form of the European Court of Justice, European Court of Human Rights, and the European Parliament, never generated a sense of Europeanness that extended beyond market ambitions, and perhaps the aggrandizing moves that prompted the enlargement of the EU to encompass the countries formerly part of the Soviet Bloc. As the great French Europeanist, Jacques Delors, well understood, without congruence between economic and political integration, the onset of a crisis affecting money and markets will revive fierce nationalist sentiments and accompanying blame games. Instead of a bold experiment in regional identity politics, we seem faced once again with Europe as a collection of separate sovereignties.

 

            All is not yet lost, but there is a message beyond that of the obsessive bailout/default dialogue. It is that Europe to ensure its future must renovate its political architecture. This means overcoming the peculiar capitalist brand of economic materialism that seems perversely convinced that if money and banks are the problem, then money and banks must be the solution. No, the solution a political, ethical, and psychological leap of faith that a European sense of community is necessary to save the EU and the constraints of obsolete nationalism, and therefore it is possible.