Tag Archives: Israel

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

22 Nov

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


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

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


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





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

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


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


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








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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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




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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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






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


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


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


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


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


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




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


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


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


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


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




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

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


Edward Said’s Humanism versus the U.S. State Department’s Anti-Semitism

9 Nov

[Prefatory Note: This post consists of my written text for a public presentation on the theme of “Edward Said’s Humanism and the Rejection of the State Department’s Definition of Anti-Semitism” at a conference at Fresno State University, Nov. 6, 2015 bearing the title “Universities at the Crossroads: The Assault on Academic Freedom,” which was the last event of the “Edward Said Lecture Series” organized by Professor Vida Samiian of the Department of Linguistics at FSU. My talk as given departed considerably from this text.]


Edward Said’s Humanism versus the U.S. State Department’s Anti-Semitism 

In these remarks, I will present the following analysis: (1) the most ardent Zionist forces have longed tried to conflate criticism of Israel and Zionism with hatred of Jews, the traditional understanding of anti-Semitism, but this effort has intensified recently, and even has been endorsed by the US Government and is currently under consideration by the University of California and elsewhere; (2) examine the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the U.S. State Department, and discuss briefly why it has pernicious implications for academic freedom, and indeed even for an understanding of the genuine nature of anti-Semitism; (3) show why Edward Said despite his intense opposition to anti-Semitism would nevertheless be vulnerable to allegations of being an anti-Semite if the State Department definition were to be applied to his writings and activities; (4) and finally to point out that according to the imperatives most influentially expressed by Noam Chomsky and Said, the ‘responsibility of the intellectual’ would perversely require them to be ‘anti-Semitic’ according to this pernicious wider conception.



My personal experience with this theme of anti-Semitism and Israel can be summarized by recalling two different occasions: The first was in Greek Cyprus more than a decade ago at a meeting of the Inter-Action Council (composed of ex-heads of states) devoted to conflict resolution in the Middle East. I had been invited as a resource person. At a session devoted to Israel/Palestine the Israeli ambassador to Greece spoke at some length, insisting that it was anti-Semitic to express strong criticisms of Israel and Zionism. As the only other Jew at the table I felt it to be almost a duty to clarify what I believed to be a mischievous manipulation of ideas. In my intervention I explained that Zionism was a project or ideology, Israel was a state, and that Jews were a people or persons. I attempted to explain that to disagree with Zionism or to criticize Israeli policies and practices as a state was not at all anti-Semitic, but to exhibit hostility, hatred, and discrimination against Jews as a people or as individuals was indeed anti-Semitism. Recall that Hitler did not persecute Jews for being Zionists, but for being Jews, for partaking of a race or ethnicity. After the meeting recessed, several participants thanked me for my comments, indicating that only a Jew could offer this kind of clarification, which they found persuasive. In contrast, the Israeli ambassador and his NGO sidekick came to me to complain vigorously, insisting that Zionism had become synonymous with Jewish identity through the establishment of Israel as a state of the Jewish people, making the three ideas interchangeable. In effect, their separation was now deemed deeply hostile to the Jewish experience, and was properly viewed as ‘anti-Semitism’; I walked away unconvinced, yet disturbed by the encounter.


This trivial incident still seems relevant as it illustrates what I believe has been an effective effort by unconditional Israel supporters to stifle criticism of Israel by inappropriately playing such an anti-Semitic card. It is inappropriate as it merges what might be called genuine hate speech with an attempt to intimidate freedom of expression in a domain where it seems needed, that is, in justifiable questioning of Israel’s state behavior and the colonial nature of the Zionist project as it is playing out in the 21st century. It is a doubly unfortunate and dangerous tactic as it tends to weaken and confuse opposition to real anti-Semitism by this misleading linkage of a contentious political argument with a condemnation of racism.


My second experience was to receive an email a couple of years ago informing me that the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a non-governmental organization devoted to unconditional support of Israel, had issued its annual list of the ten most dangerous anti-Semites in the world, and that I was listed as third. I found it quite astounding, especially after discovering that #1 was the Supreme Guide of Iran and #2 was the then Prime Minister of Turkey. Others on the list included such notable authors as Alice Walker and Max Blumenthal. It was obvious that I was placed on the list as a consequence of my role as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine in the period between 2008 and 2014. In the fulfillment of this role, I had indeed written very critically from the perspective of human rights and international law about the manner in which Israel was administering the occupation, which involved elements of annexation, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid. But nothing in my reports directly or indirectly exhibited hatred or hostility toward the Jewish people or toward Jews as Jews. My prominence on the Wiesenthal list at first troubled me deeply, fearing that it would damage my credibility as well as be a painful and unjustified attack on my identity that would be humiliating and probably ineffective to oppose. I never overcame these feelings, but they became somewhat balanced by my realization that highlighting my name in this way could only be explained by the degree to which my UN reports were exerting some influence on the way in which the Israel-Palestine conflict was being more generally perceived, especially within UN circles. I continue to feel a certain pride in bearing witness as best I could to the realities under law of Israel’s occupation policies, and the extent to which prolonged Palestinian suffering has been the result.


These personal experiences relate to the current debate nationally, internationally, and here in California. The essential argument is that Jews in Europe feel threatened by what they describe as a new wave of anti-Semitism, which is deliberately linked to the rise of anti-Israeli activism, and was dramatized by several recent terrorist incidents, especially the 2014 attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The European migration crisis is undoubtedly giving rise in Europe to a strengthening of the political right extreme, including its neo-Nazi fringe that does express real anti-Semitic hatred, but it is far less virulent in its racism toward Jews than toward Muslims. One problem with this focus on anti-Semitism is to treat Jews as accorded extra protection while at the same time immunizing hostility to Islam by reference to freedom of expression. There is no doubt that Charlie Hebdo, while victimized for its opinions, was disseminating toward Muslims the kind of hate images and messages that if directed at Jews would be regarded by almost everyone as anti-Semitism, including myself.


It is somewhat understandable that Europe would be sensitive to any return of anti-Semitism, given that it was both the scene of the Holocaust, the historic center of anti-Semitism, and in many ways provided the historic vindication of the Zionist movement. We should not forget that the international validation of the Zionist quest for a Jewish homeland received its first formal encouragement in the notoriously colonialist letter written by the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Alfred Balfour, in 1917. As well, during the 1930s, prior to Hitler’s adoption of the Final Solution, the preferred solution of the so-called Jewish Problem in Europe was mounting widespread pressure on Jews to emigrate to Palestine or even to face forced expulsion, and this was not solely a consequence of Nazi policies. Timothy Snyder in his important recent book, Black Death, documents the extent to which Polish anti-Semitic political leaders collaborated with Zionist leaders, including even providing military training and weapons that developed the Zionist militias that laterchallenged the British mandatory presence in Palestine and then successfully waged a war of independence. In effect, many European anti-Semites, who were prominent throughout the continent, shared with the Zionist leadership the belief that the way to solve ‘the Jewish problem’ was to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and in keeping with the prevailing colonial mentality gave little thought to the impact of such a development on the indigenous Arab population of Palestine.


The contemporary American argument and debate has less historical baggage compared to Europe and is more subtle, mainly focused on campus activity and is a reflection to some extent of the U.S. government’s ‘special relationship’ with Israel. It is evident that Israeli officials definitely project the view that hostility to Israel or Zionism is indistinguishable from what the State Department calls ‘traditional anti-Semitism,’ that is, hatred or persecution of Jews because of their ethnicity. What is most troublesome in the State Department approach is its incorporation of what it calls ‘new anti-Semitism,’ which “manifests itself in the guise of opposition to Zionism and the existence and/or policies of the state of Israel.” [Contemporary Anti-Semitism: A Report Provided to the U.S. Congress, U.S. Department of State, n.d.; See also fact sheet of U.S. Dept of State, June 8, 2010, on defining anti-Semitism] This “..new anti-Semitism, characterized by anti-Zionist and anti-Israel criticism that is anti-Semitic in effect—whether or not in intent- [and] is more subtle and thus frequently escapes condemnation.” As many of you know the Board of Regents of the University of California is currently considering whether to adopt such a conception of anti-Semitism as official university policy. The principal arguments advanced in its favor are that pro-Palestinian student activism, especially around calls for boycotts and divestments, are making Jewish students feel uncomfortable, even under threat, with the further implication that such insecurity should not be present in any academic community. This rationale skirts the issue that the BDS campaign has been gaining significant traction in recent years, and this effort to brand the activist dimension of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle as anti-Semitic is motivated by a major multi-pronged Israeli effort to weaken BDS by having those who support such an unacceptable campaign as guilty of ‘anti-Semitism.’


Such developments go back to my experience in Cyprus, and reflect this determined effort to meet the rise of Palestinian solidarity efforts with its suppression being justified as opposition to the new anti-Semitism. [See also to the same effect, Michael Oren’s Ally that depict Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. making an effort to render unacceptable any public utterance of criticism of Israel] Note the features of this negative branding: only the sensitivities of Jews are singled out despite the far greater discomfort confronting Muslim minority students and others on campuses and throughout America; the initiative is overtly designed to weaken popular support for a just and sustainable peace in Palestine given the collapse of diplomatic efforts to produce the two-state solution; the BDS campaign is being challenged in ways that never occurred during earlier comparable campaigns, especially in the American civil rights movement and the BDS movement contra South African apartheid, both of which relied on boycott and divestment tactics. Part of the context that is rarely mentioned in debating the scope of anti-Semitism is the degree to which this surge of pro-Palestinian nonviolent militancy is in reaction to two developments: Israel’s reliance on excessive force, collective punishment, and persistence with such unlawful activities as settlement expansion and the completion of the separation wall.


It is in this atmosphere of endowing anti-Semitic smearing with respectability that outrages to academic freedom such as the revocation of a tenure contract issued to Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois was revoked because of some allegedly anti-Semitic tweets written during Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza that would make his students uncomfortable. In fact, Salaita possesses an outstanding performance record in the classroom, his teaching is greatly appreciated by his students, including those who were Jewish and pro-Israeli. Undoubtedly more serious than high profile cases are the invisible effects of this inflammatory and aggressive use of anti-Semitism, exhibited by the reluctance to hire or promote individuals who have engaged in Palestinian solidarity activity or even to invite speakers that would be attacked as bringing an anti-Semite onto campus. Again my experience is relevant. During the six years that I held the UN position, everywhere I went to speak, including at my former university, Princeton, or in foreign settings as remote as Beirut or Sydney, Australia concerted campaigns were conducted by Zionist groups to persuade university administration to cancel my lectures. The claim being made was that I should not be allowed to speak because I was a notorious anti-Semite. These efforts were backed up by threats to withhold contributions to the university if the event went ahead as scheduled. These efforts failed, and my talks went given without incident, but what the campaign did accomplish was to shift media and audience attention from the substance of my presentation to the utterly false issue of whether or not I was an anti-Semite, which of course, required me to deal with accusations that were hurtful as well as false.




It is against this background that I wanted to mention Edward Said’s humanism, which in the context of this State Department approach, would clearly qualify as an unacceptable, if disguised, form of the ‘new anti-Semitism.’ As many of you know Edward Said was the most passionate and influential voice of the Palestinian people, and indeed of people worldwide seeking liberation. His books, Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism continue to be read all over the world more than a decade after his death. I was privileged to have Edward Sasid as a close and cherished friend who over the years nurtured my interest in and engagement with the Israel/Palestine conflict, and whose remarkable life remains an inspiration to many of us. His views are peculiarly relevant to the theme chosen for my remarks as he was both a fierce opponent of the old anti-Semitism and an exemplary exponent of the new anti-Semitism, which as I am mainly arguing should not be considered anti-Semitism at all, and these attempts to discredit criticisms of Israel and Zionism should themselves be discredited, especially in view of recent behavior.


As his colleague and close friend at Columbia University, Akeel Bilgrami, an Indian professor of comparative literature observed, Said “..despised anti-Semitism as much anyone I know.” [Kilgrami, Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment (Ranikhet, India: Permanent Black, 2014) Humanism was the only –ism with which Said was comfortable. His circle of identification embraced the human species, although rooted in the particularity of his Palestinian background. His academic training, publications, and career were situated firmly in literature until awakened by the 1967 Six Day War to take up the Palestinian struggle in a dedicated manner for the rest of his life.


Said’s writing on Palestine was always informed by fact and shaped by his deep grasp of history and culture, initially in his important The Question of Palestine. What is striking about Said’s approach, despite his anger about the refusal of the world to appreciate and correct the terrible injustices done to the Palestinian people in the course of establishing the Israeli state, is his steadfast appreciation that Zionism did what it did beneath the shadow of Nazi persecution, especially culminating in the Holocaust. In other words, his sense of the conflict with Israel is conceived in inclusive terms as pertaining to Jews as well as Palestinians. In his words, “I have spent a great deal of my life during the past thirty-five years advocating the rights of the Palestinian people to national self-determination, but I have always tried to do that with full attention to the reality of the Jewish people, and what they suffered by way persecution and genocide.” (Orientalism, XXVIII) He never endorsed a solution to the struggle that was not sensitive to both Palestinians and Jews, and in a sense his approach embodied a principled rejection of the Israeli claim that the Palestinians were intent on pushing the Jews into the sea.


While insisting that Jews must never experience in Israel the sort of dispossession inflicted upon the Palestinian people by the Zionist project, Said was unrelenting in linking a sustainable peace to acknowledging the justices of the past. As he expressed it Ari Shavit in one of his last interviews, “[U]ntil the time comes when Israel assumes moral responsibility for what it has done to the Palestinian people, there can be no end to the conflict.” He goes on to add, “[W]hat is needed is a ‘bill of particulars’ of all our claims against Israel for the original dispossession and for the occupation that began in 1967[Power Politic, 446] In effect, the injustices of the past can be superseded but only if they are acknowledged in an appropriate format with due solemnity. On at least one occasion Said seems to suggest a truth and reconciliation process modeled on what was done in South Africa after the fall of apartheid.


Said central contribution of developing a critique of West-centric views of the Arab world are most influentially set forth in Orientalism, one of the most widely studied and seminal books of the past century. Among many other facets of the analysis in the book it led Said to offer this surprising convergence: “Not accidentally, I indicate that Orientalism and modern anti-Semitism have common roots.” (Orientalism, XXVIII) This convergence is explained by the dual effort to achieve “a better understanding of the way cultural domination have operated.” (Orientalism 27).


At the same time, Said felt that Zionist exclusivism sought to keep the issue as one of what Jews had endured in the Holocaust as a sufficient vindication of Zionism and the creation of Israel, with the adverse effects on the Palestinians as self-inflicted or irrelevant to this hegemonic Israeli narrative. Said writes that “..all liberals and even most ‘radicals’ have been unable to overcome the Zionist habit of equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.” [Question, 59] Long before the present debate he believed that such an informal tactic prevented truthful conversation as non-Jews were inhibited by “..the fear of treading upon the highly sensitive terrain of what Jews did to their victims, in an age of genocidal extermination of Jews—all this contributes to the dulling, regulated enforcement of almost unanimous support for Israel.” [59] Writing in the late 1970s Said felt that criticism of Israel was often insensitive to the background of its establishment as a last bastion of defense for the Jewish people after the ordeal of the Holocaust.


Almost 40 years later the context has altered, but not the effect of treating anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism. Because of the failure to establish some kind of solution, and given Israeli defiance of international law through the settlements, separation wall, reliance on excessive force and collective punishment, the issue has captured the imagination of many people around the world, especially students, to become the leading unresolved moral struggle of our time, a successor to the South African struggle against apartheid a generation earlier, as acknowledged by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Now the government itself intrudes its influence on American society to make sure that the extended definition of anti-Semitism as incorporating strong criticism of Israel and Zionism is treated as hate speech. This is not only threatening freedom of expression and academic freedom, it is undermining the capacity of American citizens to fight nonviolently for what they believe is right in the world. When the government adopts punitive measures to discourage the BDS campaign or even academic conferences addressing the conflict, it is behaving in a profoundly anti-democratic manner. Such behavior follows directly from the understanding given to the ‘special relationship’ binding Israel to the United States in a manner that often contradicts proclaimed national values and even national interests. Our Secretary of State, John Kerry, boasts of the hundreds of occasions where the U.S. has blocked votes critical of Israel within the UN without even bothering to consider whether any of such initiatives were justified or not.  










Let me finally raise the questions as to why this debate about what is and what is not anti-Semitism relates to the responsibility of the intellectual as understood, especially by Edward Said and Noam Chomsky. In his 2003 Preface to Orientalism Said writes these telling words: “Above all, critical thought does not submit to state power or to commands to join in the ranks marching against one or anther approved enemy.” [XXII] Frequently, Said reinforces the role of the intellectual to remain on the margins, an outsider, whose only weapon is bearing witness and truth-telling, a role authenticated by the absence of any claim to have expert knowledge, more a standing in solidarity with those being victimized by oppression and injustice, a normative posture that rests on moral and legal foundations of respect for the value of all persons and peoples. Said’s succinct expression is memorable. He characterizes the public intellectual “as exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak truth to power.” [Representations, XVI]


The irony of this orientation of the intellectual is that it collides directly with the State Department conception of the new anti-Semitism. In other words, to avoid the blanket charge of anti-Semitism as now officially defined Said would have to renounce his chosen identity as a public intellectual. This would weaken the quality of academic freedom as well as undermine public discourse. No resource of higher education is more precious, in my judgment, than the presence of those all to few public intellectuals who challenge the prevailing wisdom of the society on the basis of conscience and truthfulness. It is the foundation of vigilant citizenship, already recognized by Thomas Jefferson as indispensable for sustaining democracy, and it is also the basis for challenging vested interests and mistaken policies. This role of public intellectuals is threatened by this assault on freedom of expression wrapped up in a false effort to discourage anti-Semitism, and it relates to such broader concerns as the stifling of political discourse due to the corporatization of the media and higher education.


On no issue is this unfettered dialogue more needed in the United States than in relation to Israel/Palestine. As Michael Oren showed in his memoir Ally the special relationship bonding Israel and the United States implies the absence of any public acknowledgement of policy disagreements and a policy of unconditional support. Israel did its bit to uphold its end of this unseemly bargain recently by being the only country of 194 in the UN that supported the United States determination to maintain sanctions on Cuba despite the Obama renewal of diplomatic relations. After all American taxpayers have long sent annually billions of dollars to Israel, as well as a range of weapons and munitions. They are entitled to know if this money is being spent in a manner that accords with international law and American national interests. The overriding of Israel’s objections to the Iran Nuclear Agreement illustrated the extent to which Israel can challenge vital policy

initiatives undertaken by the elected leaders of the American government.


Never have we more needed to protect and celebrate our public intellectuals, and never more so than in the context of Israel/Palestine. For this reason we

should be celebrating the legacy of Edward Said, a world famous public intellectual, and the person, who more than anyone on the planet fulfilled the role of responsible public intellectual. Instead of defending him against these incendiary charges of anti-Semitism we should be honoring his memory by studying his ideas and enacting the values of resistance and struggle that he commends in the face of injustice.




In concluding, there is an obvious tension that exists more vividly than when Edward Said was alive, and commenting on the Palestinian struggle. Israel has created on the ground a set of circumstances that seem irreversible and are institutionalizing a single apartheid Israeli state encompassing the whole of historic Palestine (minus Jordan). The Israeli leadership has made clear the inappropriateness of establishing a Palestinian state, and given the insistence on making even the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as ‘a Jewish state,’ the dye seems cast. At the same time, the international Palestinian solidarity movement has never been stronger, with the BDS campaign leading the way, moving from success to success. And so as ‘the battlefield’ has shifted to a legitimacy war that the Palestinians are winning, the Israeli tactics have retaliated with an all out effort to demonize as anti-Semitism these new forms of non-violent resistance. This is the essential objective of the new anti-Semitism, and it is scandalous the U.S. State Department has endorsed such demonization with its newly adopted formal definition of anti-Semitism. To defeat this effort is essential not only for the Palestinian struggle, but to keep America safe for democratic discourse and universities hospitable to the kind of critical thinking that Edward Said’s scholarship and activism exemplified.


Al Jazeera Turka Interview on Turkish Foreign and National Policy

28 Oct

[Prefatory Note: This is a modified text of an interview conducted by Semin Gumusel Guner of Al Jazeera Turka, and published online in abbreviated form on October 19, 2015. The situation in Turkey is increasingly precarious and troublesome: extremist violence; intensifying polarization; governmental uncertainty due to absence of electoral majority for governing AKP, and inability to form coalition; obsession with leadership issues associated with the controversial personality of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; the refugee spillover from the Syrian War; the revived violence and strife associated with the unresolved conflict with the Kurdish national movement. The interview touches on many of these issues, indicating my own distance from either pole presently seeking to control Turkish destiny. I have spent part of each year during the past 20 in Turkey, and have observed as closely as possible the simultaneous parallel developments of an unyielding and dogmatic opposition giving way to a dangerous spiral of polarization. In my view, the prevailing leadership of the AKP, governing Turkey since 2002, has made its share of mistakes, but it has put the country on a course of development that raised living standards, improved public services, exhibited sensitivity to minority rights, and did its best to reconcile the secular orientation of the constitution with a broadened conception of religious freedom. Compared to other countries in the region, and indeed worldwide, this is a record to engender pride, but increasingly it gives rise to bitter recrimination, a variety of conspiracy allegations, and an atmosphere inimical to compromise and the public good. It is a truism that the rotation of governing parties is a sign of political health, suggesting that it makes sense to seek alternative leadership after 13 years of AKP governance, but it makes greater sense not to express this desire by a change through a predominantly negative approach that seems to be lurching toward a crisis of political legitimacy. Just as there is wisdom in the conventional wisdom of the saying, “the best is the enemy of the good,” so is there reason to ponder whether change for change sake is not irrational when there is no political alternative to AKP leadership, possibly best exercised at this stage in coalition with the CHP, in sight.]



Syria has become gridlocked. Following the West’s operation against ISIS, now Russia is conducting an air operation claiming that the operation is against ISIS. However, it is openly saying “I am here”. What does Russia want to do? Tense messages are being exchanged among NATO, Turkey and Russia. Are you worried about these developments? How long can Russia continue to cause this tension? For example, what would happen if Russian warplanes, that have violated the Turkish airspace for the last few days, shoot down a Turkish warplane?


Of course it would be a catastrophe to widen the Syrian combat zone to include a confrontation between Turkey and Russia: it would be politically catastrophic for a region already suffering from multiple conflicts and in danger of producing a larger war zone. In order to understand Russian foreign policy in Syria, it is necessary to realize that after the Cold War, Russia was more or less pushed out of the region. In the Cold War, it was a player, US and Soviet Union were more or less balancing each other in the spirit of bipolarity. I think Putin is a strong leader now, and has done his best to make Russia to be taken as seriously globally as the Soviet Union was taken. I would interpret this Russian move as part of a broader pattern of reassertion of Russian influence in the world. But it’s a dangerous game because of the fragility of the situation in Syria, the multiple players in this complex game, states, non-states, regional actors, non-regional actors, as well as the bad record of military intervention in the region, and beyond. It is always destabilizing when major states seek to alter their relative status in the geopolitical hierarchy. In the Asian setting this kind of issue takes the form of China’s rise and America’s decline, always believed since ancient times to be an occasion for war-generating confrontations.


I think there never has been a conflict such as Syria in the modern world that has such a complex cast of characters or political actors on all sides giving rise to many contradictions of alignment and opposition. One particularly dismaying contradiction is of course between the so-called opposition to Assad and the attack on ISIS since ISIS is also seeking the overthrow of the Damascus regime.


The US and Turkey trapped by similar contradictions. Turkey has the problem on the one side of not wanting its Syrian policies to have the side effect of strengthening the Kurdish movements in the region while at the same time wanting to cause the downfall of the Assad regime. So multiple contradictions, multiple tensions are present. One can only hope that Russia, the US, and Turkey each act prudently and sensibly, and don’t push their various involvements across thresholds where a regional war of even greater magnitude results.


To what extent Russia could increase the tension? What’s the plan of Russia? Why now?


These are difficult questions that are virtually unanswerable at this time. I think there is a danger of misinterpreting the Russian point of view, especially given American behavior in the world, which has included the marginalization of Russia in the period since the end of the Cold War. US behavior has been provocative on Russia’s borders with respect to Georgia a few years ago and more recently in Ukraine. Again maybe this Moscow diplomacy is nothing other than an attempt for Russia to say to the West, “If you don’t want a second Cold War, you better respect our vital security interests. You are not the only country with security interests. We have interests too. We’re tired of being ignored, and put under pressure. We are not a minor power, and seek to resume our rightful place in world politics. We have long been a great power and we demand to be taken once more as a great power. And that requires mutual respect.” I think this is the main goal of Russian policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.


The encounter with Turkey seems to be a sideshow, it’s not the main priority of Moscow, whose main objective is the reset of the relationship with the West, particularly with the US., but also Europe. We need to keep in mind that the US and NATO has not taken appropriate account of Russian interests since the end of the Cold War, promoting policies that from Moscow’s perspective were aggressive and provocative, including weapons deployments in neighboring countries including Turkey. Of course, these comments on Russia’s intention is speculation on my part. Overall, it’s much too soon to tell what really Russia wants, which may depend on how the West reacts, which so far has been ambiguously.


There is another line of speculative interpretation that pays more attention to the Syrian situation. It calls attention to recent reports that Russia had privately or secretly offered an accommodation on Syria to the West two or three years ago. That was the period when Turkey and the US believed the Assad regime was about to collapse, and there was thus no reason to compromise. In such an atmosphere, Washington and Ankara refused even to consider such a Russian initiative. One way of understanding the recent Russian involvement is to say “This time you better accept a political compromise or the situation in Syria is going to get even worse”.


Whether such a compromise emphasizes agreeing on a ceasefire but leaving Assad in power remains unclear. The US, NATO, and Turkey have been saying “we can’t tolerate Assad as the leader.” In the background are some bad memories. Earlier Turkey made a major mistake by embracing too quickly the Assad regime. It was never a good decision to make Syria the poster child of the zero problems diplomacy. The Turkish leadership tried to persuade Assad to undertake democratic reforms after the outbreak of an anti-regime uprising in 2011. When Assad evidently failed to follow through on informal agreements to do so, an extremely awkward challenge was presented to Davutoğlu and Erdoğan. They had taken a controversial step by promoting accommodation with Syria and then in 2011 when Assad reacted in a very harsh way to the Arab Spring uprising that started in Dera’a shortly after the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt. It seems important to take this history into account in grasping the evolution of Turkey’s policy toward Syria.


It should be appreciated that Turkey has played, in my view, an admirable humanitarian role with respect to Syrian refugees that now number over two million. It has done so far more for refugees than any other country in the region or in Europe, and it has done so quietly and in a humane way. I think the Turkish government has not been given proper credit for its various humanitarian initiatives. For instance, its support for Somalia several years ago was a notable contribution to avoiding a human catastrophe. At the time the rest of the world refused to do anything, regarding Somalia as a failed state and hopelessly chaotic situation. Despite the challenge, Turkey took this bold initiative; with impressive commitment, they tried to restore some kind of normalcy to Somalia, financing some major civic projects.


I would make the general point that Turkey has done some very good things internationally and regionally during the period of AKP governance for which the government, and especially its leadership, has not received deserved credit. Such a withholding of credit is one symptom of severe polarization that is destructive of the kind of policy debate and political conversation that is a sign of a functioning democracy of high quality.


Turkey’s reaction to Syria seemed emotional as it stopped all the relations when Assad refused to make the agreed reforms. Finally Turkey lost its chance to be in a position to influence Assad. 


I agree. I think Turkey resorted to a kind of impulsive diplomacy, which is not a good idea in international relations. It is true that not only did Ankara shift its policy when Assad failed to follow through after seeming to agree leading the Turkish leaders to interpret this failure of diplomacy as a personal betrayal of trust that ended any possibility of cooperation and compromise. We should remember that Assad did repress the early uprisings in Syria very brutally, including widely confirmed reports of the torture of Syrian children who had been part of the protest activity. It was morally unacceptable behavior on Assad’s part. I think the Turkish official reaction was understandable on a moral level, but did not provide a calculated basis for the interventionary policies that followed. Ankara jumped too quickly given the realities of the situation and seems to have misunderstood the Syrian internal conflict, badly underestimating the capabilities of the Damascus regime to withstand these challenges to its authoritarian and minority rule. The Turkish leadership seemed to act and think that Syria was similar to Libya, supposing Assad to be as isolated and weak as Qaddafi turned out to be, and would quickly collapse in the event of a small push from below and without.


At this point, don’t you think that Turkey underestimated Russia and Iran in their role as the main supporters of Syria? 


Yes, without a doubt, but it goes deeper. It’s not only Iran and Russia that lent Damascus support, but also the non-Sunni minorities within Syria that make up almost half of the population, and who believed they would be at risk if the Assad regime was overthrown. It was even clear to an outsider like myself that the Syrian government was also well-armed and trained, and quite relevantly possessed modern and extensive anti-aircraft capabilities. Even without taking account of Iran and Russia as allies of Assad, regime change in Syria should never have been perceived as a foregone conclusion. Turkish policy was mistaken during the early stages of Syrian strife when a quick victory of the sort that NATO achieved in Libya was anticipated. In retrospect, given the chaotic aftermath, observers now question whether the Libyan outcome, considered four years later, should ever have been treated as ‘a victory’ for the regime-changing intervention.


If the involvement of Iran and Russia are added to the political mix in Syria, Turkey’s Syrian policy becomes even more problematic as it seemed to assume that by helping in a minor way the array of anti-regime forces it would be enough to change the political balance, and produce the collapse of the Syrian state. Actually, the Turkish policy had the unintended effect of expanding the conflict.
In my judgment this failed policy reflected Ankara’s mistaken assessment of the power relationships in Syria and the region. Given the way the conflict in Syria has evolved the Turkish interpretation of the Syrian developments seemed quite unreliable, and not knowledge based. The Turkish approach especially tarnished the previously high reputation of Davutoğlu that had been built during his period as foreign minister, and even earlier when he served as chief advisor on foreign policy. Davutoğlu’s energy and intelligence were widely admired in this pre-Syrian period, and this had a major beneficial impact on Turkey’s standing in the region and world. His diplomatic skill put Turkey on the international diplomatic map. This was no small achievement, helping to modify the prior image of Turkey as the passive and subordinate junior partner of US, an image that lasted during the entire Cold War period. Despite the somewhat more independent foreign policy of the Ozel period, Turkey was widely perceived before Davutoğlu exerted his influence as having no significant foreign policy goals on Middle East issues that transcended Turkish borders.


Davutoğlu’s personal efforts really made a difference, which was confirmed for me by the reaction of some of the foreign officials who had related to him.

I had conversation with the Brazilian foreign minister who was deeply impressed by Davutoğlu’s statesmanship, by his search for a measure of independence in the face of America’s domination of the geopolitical scene, and by his intelligent understanding of diplomacy displayed during the joint Brazil/Turkey bold initiative to resolve the dangerous conflict associated with Iran’s nuclear program. As well, a leading Egyptian diplomate who had become foreign minister immediately after the overthrow of Mubarek and is currently serving as Secretary General of the Arab League, held a similar view of Davutoğlu. He was particularly impressed by Davutoglu’s intelligence, energy, social skills, and constructive diplomatic initiatives.


Syria was the first real break in that positive image, which was given greater weight for a series of reasons unrelated to Syria. Turkey began experiencing an unfair negative backlash in the media because of its clash with Israel. Until 2009 -2010 Turkey had very positive international image despite the intensity of the domestic polarization that has existed ever since 2002 when the AKP came to power. After the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, which followed upon Erdoğan‘s confrontation with Peres at the World Economic Forum in 2009, the international media and diplomatic treatment of Turkey shifted abruptly. Israel pushed back hard using its considerable influence within the international media, and giving adding weight to the preexisting secularist critiques of the AKP, which were especially prominent among the diaspora of Turkish academics and think tank experts living in Europe and North America. The failure of the Syria policy and the deterioration of relations with Israel need to be taken into account in understanding how Turkey is now perceived internationally.


Do you think this misperception is linked to Israel’s reaction?


It’s a complicated situation as my prior response tried to suggest. Many Turkish intellectuals overseas are very strong Kemalists, or at least ‘secularists,’ who have always been opposed to and threatened by the AKP. Ever since 2002, they tried their best to discredit Erdoğan and the AKP from the outset. I have had contact during the past 20 years with the secular elites here, regarding the ascent of the AKP as doomsday for republican Turkey. There is some tendency in 2015 to say that from 2002 until 2011 the AKP did fine, but since 2011 there has been a sharp decline. This kind of secularist revisionism will not withstand scrutiny of the pre-2011 political debate in Turkey, and is deeply ideological, seeking to insist that after 2011 Erdoğan changed his identity or revealed his true identity, namely the pursuit of authoritarian goals. I share some of this sense that the AKP political direction after 2011 moved toward the embrace of ‘majoritarian democracy’ as conferring a mandate to govern in accord with the values and expectation of the electoral majority without sufficient sensitivity to minority views and anxieties. In other words, what is most misleading is not the critique of recent policies and style, but the false claim that this attitude should now be given special credibility because earlier the current critics claim to have been positive about AKP governance during its early years in power.


The confrontation with Israeli expanded the political space for the articulation of anti-AKP points of view. Such a consideration puts the extremity of criticism of Turkey in its proper context. These Turkish intellectuals who were always been against this government were granted greater access to the international media. This intensified the already difficult situation in Turkey, and shaped what I regard as a distorted image Turkey’s political realities.


It is perverse to compare Erdoğan with Putin given the radical differences in the manner in which they shape their role as political leaders, as well as the great differences in political background and current agendas. Such a comment is not meant to whitewash the record of Erdoğan and the AKP or to deny that he exhibits some authoritarian tendencies, and has engaged in some unpardonable wrongdoing, including the endorsement of the police tactics used to control the Gezi Park demonstrations.


I just spent most of the day in the main immigration office in Istanbul trying to correct my own visa problems. I was struck by the presence of a huge portrait of Atatürk in all these government offices and not a single picture of the current Turkish leadership. This made a strong impression, reminding me of one dimension of Turkish originality that rarely attracts commentary. It is impossible to find another country where a dead leader continues to be the dominant and essentially uncontested iconic image of national political identity. Such reverence is especially striking given the degree to which the approach to Turkish identity associated with the AKP is at variance with

the Atatürk legacy as championed by the secularist opposition.


Atatürk’s lingering legacy was undoubtedly even greater in 1990’s when I first came to Turkey. Yet it is still rather unprecedented to have the current supposedly authoritarian figure without a portrait in government offices, and seen only in public spaces Turkey in the posters of political parties. Only Atatürk’s picture is omni-present in Turkish society. People should think about this. Such a visual imagery is important in the shaping of public consciousness, and invites claims by various oppositional groups of being the true heir of the Atatürk legacy.


What is going on in Syria? Is the country splitting up?

Certainly I am not intelligent or clairvoyant enough to peer into such a fogged up crystal ball. Only a fool would give a clear answer to such a question. We need to acknowledge that the Syrian reality in late 2015 is far too confused, too complicated to lend itself to a predicted future. And in fairness to Turkey and the criticism made earlier about misinterpreting the Syrian conflict it is helpful to realize that all the political actors who became involved either misinterpreted or manipulated the conflict. Turkey wasn’t alone. It was more intimately involved in Syria than most other countries. But all of them misunderstood the situation. So we have to conclude that what has been happening in the region during the last several years was not predictable. Even the most respected experts did not anticipate the convulsive events that have shaken the foundations of the region since 2011. This includes the extraordinary events that led observers to speak about ‘the Arab Spring.’ The Arab Spring surprised the world. No one predicted it and few predicted its counterrevolutionary aftermath.

I was in Egypt in February 2011, right after Tahrir Square. I felt at the time that the Egyptians didn’t understand that getting rid of an individual autocrat while leaving the whole bureaucracy, including the armed forces, in place was unlikely to produce the desired political changes. Hence, I was not surprised by the counterrevolutionary developments that followed, but I never expected the restoration of authoritarian rule to be as bloody, as sectarian as is turned out to be.

With respect to Syria, I think the best hope remains some kind of inclusive diplomatic process at the earliest possible time that searches for enough common ground to establish a durable ceasefire along with a political atmosphere that encourages compromise and patience. Nothing less will save the remnants of what was a country with a deep historical and cultural past.

Do you think there is hope for a ceasefire and diplomatic solution? Or is only solution partition at this point?

I think the most probable futures are either some kind of partition or some kind of inclusive diplomatic process. And I think the fragile diplomatic process is probably better of the two options but at this point it may be the less likely one. I think that Russia and the US at least under the Obama presidency – it’s not clear what will happen afterwards – have come to two connected conclusions about Syria: “it’s better to get a political compromise, it’s better not to allow ISIS to spread beyond its present area of control.” The Russians have their own worries about a further spread of Islamic extremism to their Central Asian region. Moscow faces a continuing challenge in Chechnya that could explain part of the motivation for their risky and controversial Syrian intervention.

Turkey too has been accused of claiming to be fighting against ISIS but really giving military priority to its effort to contain the Kurdish movements in and around Turkey. I would need an operational awareness of the battlefield realities to assess such an argument. Part of what makes Syria so confusing is that all the various actors have disclosed and undisclosed complex, contradictory agendas. Reductive binary formulas such as state v. society, Sunni v. Shia, Saudi Arabia v. Iran, United States/Turkey v. Assad regime all evade the centrality of this complexity that follows from the multi-dimensionality of the various overlapping tensions and interests.

I know of no other political conflict that has had such complexity and contains so many contradictory and hidden elements. This feature alone is worth pondering. Maybe the Syrian anticipates the characteristic way we will come to understand conflict in the 21st century: patterns of multiple involvements by states, non-states and movements pursuing contradictory and cross-cutting goals, augmented or obstructed by the active participation of a range of regional and global actors. This kind of configuration may increasingly become the bewildering shape of warfare as the century continues to unfold.

Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Is the map of the Middle East being redrawn?

I think that the Sykes-Picot agreement is responsible for some of the present troubles in the region because it helped to form political communities that were convenient for the colonial powers but didn’t reflect the national identities and the affinities of ethnic and religious communities that had long existed in the region. This current turmoil can be interpreted as a deferred revolt against the colonialist legacy of Sykes-Picot, which offers an example of extreme Orientalist diplomacy with disastrous results for the societies affected.

But having emphasized this revolt as being partly against those boundaries imposed a century ago, I think for state system remains quite strong in the Middle East given the absence of viable alternatives. There is lots of pressure not to revert to some variant of the pre-state fragmented international world that preceded the modern state system. And if the politics of fragmentation succeeds in this region, there are many other subnational movements in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America likely to seek their own sovereign destiny. I think a strong geopolitical interest persists for better or worse to keep the borders of the Middle East more or less as they are even while acknowledging their inadequacy, but less so than the turmoil associated with conscious efforts to break up the existing sovereign states. Whether the state system survives its various challenges in the Middle East will also depend on the wisdom and prudence of territorial governments in protecting the rights of distinct ethnicities and religions, and more generally the extent to which these governments respect the rights of all who live within their boundaries.

It is certainly true that if I were a Kurdish nationalist, I would see this as an opportune moment to achieve the national goals for Kurdish movement. And I think the Iraqi and the Syrian Kurds have taken advantage of the fluidity of the situation to further their ambitions. The success of Kurdish movements in neighboring countries partly explains the breakdown, at least temporarily, of the so-called peace or reconciliation process here in Turkey. It is my suspicion that the PKK decided at some point that it should be able to achieve as good an outcome in Turkey as the Iraqis and the Syrians seem to be getting in their struggles. Further, it seems plausible that the PKK current leadership decided HDP was not a suitable vehicle by which to reach this desired outcome as it was committed to some sort of accommodation without exerting sufficient pressure on the Turkish government.

So as an outsider to Turkey, I don’t have any claims to special knowledge. Nevertheless, according to my observations, I think there exists a split in the Kurdish movement. Part of the reason for this belief is that the ceasefire was repudiated by the PKK shortly after the June elections in which the HDP had performed so impressively. The repudiation doesn’t make sense unless the PKK wanted to spoil that political victory of the HDP. From this angle the renewal of violence that has emerged in recent weeks is a tactical move by the PKK reflecting its more ambitious agenda for resolving the conflict with the Turkish state that has lasted for decades.

In my opinion, the AKP also shares some responsibility for this renewal of violence as between the PKK and the Turkish state. Erdoğan cast doubt on the legitimacy of the reconciliation process by the way he campaigned before the June 7th elections. In this period he seemed often to be appealing to the MHP constituency in an effort to attract ultra-nationalist votes. And by adopting such an approach, Erdoğan definitely created the impression, whether or not intended, that he was no longer committed to the reconciliation process that he himself had earlier initiated. Under these circumstances, it would be quite natural for Kurds to react by themselves withdrawing from such unpromising negotiations. Kurdish reactions can be summarized: “We don’t want to get tricked and fooled by engaging in a reconciliation process that will go nowhere,” especially as led by someone who is a Turkish nationalist that does not want to solve the Kurdish problem in a manner that respects Kurdish hopes and reasonable expectations.

PYD is trying to establish cantons on Turkey’s southern border. It has become an ally of the US in the fight against ISIS. At the same time, the ceasefire with the PKK has ended. The opposition movement against Barzani has become stronger in Northern Iraq. Barzani’s chair is shaking. What do the Kurds want to do in the current conjuncture?


I think the situation is fluid as I said, can go in many directions. It’s like a river with no clear riverbanks. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that I believe it is important to realize that the Kurdish movement has always been quite divided and there are several diverse tendencies within the Kurdish national movement. The fact that Öcalan who remains in prison – despite this, he remains the only potentially unifying and authoritative Kurdish voice. Whether he still has this credibility with the PKK and HDP leadership is rather uncertain as of 2015. If Öcalan were to deliver a moderating message at this time that was received as an authentic expression of his views, it could help end this recurrence of civil strife. If he was released from prison or shifted from prison to house arrest it could allow him to play a more active constructive role that might calm the broader situation while furthering Kurdish attainable goals. It’s in Turkey’s great interest, in my view, to solve the Kurdish problem in a durable way. And I think the government and the Kurdish people seemed to have been on a path to find a solution. It should be appreciated that the AKP has made a stronger effort than any earlier political leadership in the country to address the Kurdish challenge through a process of humane accommodation. Now sadly we must ask whether the Turkish president in his ambition to control the June elections spoiled this possibility. It’s hard to tell what will happen but there are several reasons to fear that the renewal of Kurdish violence is spinning out of control. If this is so it will have very serious repercussions, and not only Turkey but for the whole region. You may be familiar with the expression ‘perfect storm’ to describe a situation in which several adverse developments come together at the same time. I am afraid that such a perfect strorm is enveloping the region, and threatens the relative calm of Turkey.


Do you think the Kurds in Iraq, in Syria and in Turkey have as a goal the creation of a new Kurdish entity in the form of a state? Is it possible that we will witness the emergence of a Kurdish state?

I think this is certainly the dream of some Kurds, which indeed has been the case ever since the end of World War I. Yes, the emergence of a Kurdish political entity remains a possibility but seems unlikely to happen because of a lack of flexibility in these three countries to allow some kind of autonomous of confederal association of these distinct Kurdish national movement to come into being. It is possible that the best solution for all sides would be to invent a new and creative form of political association for the Kurdish peoples in the region that enjoyed transnational autonomy, but did not undermine territorial sovereignty. In an extreme form Kurdish nationalism could force the redrawing of existing state boundaries so as to delimit an emergent Kurdish state. As mentioned earlier such a development would be resisted vigorously both by the three governments of the present states faced with secessionist threats and also by the international community that is generally opposed to any further fragmentation of existing territorial states. India, Russia, and China are confronted by secessionist movements that pose threats to territorial unity.

Today non-state actors are very active in the Middle East and the most important of them is ISIS. Hezbollah, the al-Nusra Front and ISIS are major players in the main continuing struggles in Syria and Iraq. As the media frequently says, ISIS in the Middle East now controls a piece of land bigger than the UK, so it is very dominant. What do you think about ISIS? In your opinion, how strong is this non-state actors’ effect? How long can ISIS continue to exist?

I think the salience of these non-state and often transnational political actors is a 21st century phenomenon. It reflects the impact of the new technologies, the social media, and the discovery that you don’t need to be a government to organize widely, effectively, and inexpensively. Every country is vulnerable to such challenges. The most important disclosure of this new political situation took place in 2001 in the form of the 9/11 attacks on the US. Prior to these shocking attacks the US projected itself as the most powerful country in the history of the world, seemingly invulnerable to any attack by another state. What these attacks demonstrated was that despite the mighty American military machine the country was acutely vulnerable, but not from traditional adversaries. These 19 unarmed extremists who were prepared to give up their life exposed this vulnerability for the world to witness. These al-Qaeda hijackers were able without any weapons to cause a major trauma in West with lasting radical effects on security policy, and not only in US. The US Government aggravated the situation by reacting inappropriately, declaring a global war on terror rather than treating the attacks in a similar way to how terrorism had been treated in past—namely, as a crime. In my opinion, if the US had adopted such an approach it would have produced a very different set of outcomes, and that in my view would have enhanced rather than diminished national and global security. To understand why the war option was chosen it is necessary to consider the wider political context. The neoconservative Bush presidency was intent on finding a convincing pretext for launching an attack on Iraq, and this was provided by 9/11. In other words, the US sought to bring into being a war mentality so as to be in a position to pursue its preexisting foreign policy goals that were present quite independent of responding to the al-Qaeda challenge. This reality of the situation was most unfortunate, and many societies in the Middle East and Asia are living with the tragic consequences of this unduly militarized response.

Particularly in the Middle East, this role of non-state movements and organizations has turned out to be historically influential. To comprehend this development it is helpful to consider the Iranian revolution of 1978-79. At the time few observers expected the regime of the Shah to collapse in response to such an unarmed populist challenge. The government was very well equipped and quite brutal, repressive and violent in reacting to oppositional activity. Few observers expected the movement against the Shah to be so successful. This surprising outcome in Iran inspired movements elsewhere in the Islamic World

On one side, you have a popular movement of radical discontent from below as in Iran, and on the other side, you have the kind of 9/11 scenario where a small number of people are capable of disrupting a major modern country and permanently revising its whole approach to security and stability.

These developments have altered the nature of international conflict in fundamental ways. And again Syria as with so many other current issues helps us understand this new set of circumstances: when Hezbollah entered the war on the side of Assad it shifted the balance, at least temporarily.

How can we explain this seemingly sectarian response? There are present these crosscutting dimensions of conflict that make any interpretation contingent and complex. It’s not just state against state as in traditional forms of international conflict. Additional dimensions include the sectarian division between Sunni and Shia, and also a resurgent tribalism, revealing its relevance in Yemen and in Libya, as well as in Iraq (and also Afghanistan). Political leaders have underestimated the degree to which these old forms of political organizations and collective loyalty have reasserted their relevance in conflict situations, both assuming a religious form as here in Turkey and political forms as in these other countries. A major aspect of this mishandling of the post World War I diplomacy was to treat tribalism and religion as irrelevant to the establishment of stable and legitimate political communities. The region is living with these fundamental oversights of a hundred years ago.

ISIS? They’re so brutal, and also exhibit a sophisticated approach to media. What does ISIS symbolize in Middle East? Will they survive?


I hope that ISIS will disintegrate or disappear, but this may be wishful thinking. At this time it is difficult to tell. One thing that’s very interesting about ISIS in comparison to Al Qaeda is that while its modes of combat and tactics are barbaric, its operational sensibility is more modern in the sense of being in tune with the digital age. It has demonstrated a sophisticated mastery of new communications technologies that Al Qaeda never possessed. ISIS represents a strange new phenomenon in the contemporary world, but we should be careful about considering it unique with respect to the depravity of its behavior. We need to take some note of comparable behavior by governments that are accepted as legitimate members of international society. We can ask in this spirit “Is ISIS really more barbaric than Saudi Arabia that has presided over more than 100 beheadings in the first six months of this year, that is, more than two a day.” There is a relevant saying “It’s not where you look, it’s what you see”. There are public lashings in Saudi Arabia. Saudi judicial authorities just sentenced a 17-year-old boy who participated in a demonstration that was critical of the monarchy. He was sentenced to death, but that is not all. It was officially decreed that he be crucified in public. You rarely hear anything at all about that kind of state barbarism, and even the UN signals its indifference. Saudi Arabia has just been elected to become a member of the UN Human Rights Council, and beyond this, their ambassador has been selected to chair the most influential committee within the organization. This is just one small illustration of the many contradictions we must live with given the way the world is organized.


There is something else that deserves comment. We need to remember that it is not only these non-state organizations that are engaged in terrorism. If you look at the suffering Israel has inflicted on the people of Gaza, it becomes clearer that state terrorism also is a part of the picture, especially if you want to understand the process by which political violence has escalated beyond reasonable limits in many different conflict settings.


ISIS has shocked us most. It is not only the way they entered the political stage and behaved, but the alarming realization that ISIS was able to develop so quickly an effective military and political capability. This contrasts with the US experience. US spent billions in Afghanistan and in Iraq to train national armies but they have ended up being almost useless. We need to reflect upon how ISIS managed to produce seemingly overnight this extraordinary military capability. How did they do it?

And why – which is another thing I can’t explain – why is ISIS not more vulnerable to the kind of weaponry that the US, Russia, and Turkey each possess? If, as seems to be true, that it is possible to target an individual car, and the news media shows ISIS convoys moving from one place to another in areas under its control. You would think that these convoys offer an easy target, but they never seem to be attacked. There is also drone warfare that seems to have not affected the level or nature of ISIS combat activity. This is a mystery.


From what we know, Saudi Arabia had some role in the emergence of ISIS by way of early financing, and according to some reports, struck a deal with ISIS leadership– in exchange for support ISIS promised not to attack anything directly involving Saudi Arabia. Was this true? What is perplexing is that we have no way of confirming or disconfirming such reports. It is more conclusive that the US contributed to the rise of ISIS through its encouragement of sectarianism as a tactic of its ill-fated occupation in Iraq. This sectarian move took the form of purging the top Sunni military leadership from the Iraqi armed forces. Many of those purged apparently later provided the personnel to shape the military command structure of ISIS. There is much conjecture about how Turkey and the US acted toward ISIS in its early period when the Western priority was the overthrow of the Assad regime, and ISIS seemed to offer the most effective anti-Assad military option. As of now this attempt to explain the underpinning and background of ISIS is based on conjecture and bits of information, and is in no way reliable.


Recently we have seen Iran’s nuclear deal and the likelihood of re-participation in the Western system, no embargoes, Tehran gaining respect, etc. What changed on Iran’s side to make them accept this deal? What’s Iran’s next step?


You can’t think of Iran in isolation from the Israel, the US, and Saudi Arabia. Iran is not acting in a political vacuum. In recent years Iran was being threatened over and over again with unlawful military attacks on its nuclear program and it was subjected to harsh international sanctions that were having a major impact on the economy and on the people. From Iran’s point of view, especially after the elections of Rouhani on 2013, and with the support of the Supreme Leader Khamenei, a calculation was evidently made that the country and its people would be better off with an accommodation with the West and normalization than by a continuing confrontation. Further, as seems probable, Iran never intended to have nuclear weapons, beyond creating some kind of option to protect against being bullied or attacked. From this perspective Iran gave up nothing that mattered to get out of this trap, although it will be obliged to accept a more intrusive and rigorous inspection regime than has been established for any other country. The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has issued a fatwa saying that nuclear weapons contradict the values of Islam. It would be wrong to disregard something as clear as this from a religious leader. My view is that there is little evidence that Iran was an aspiring nuclear weapons state, and even if it was, there is no legal bar to acquiring nuclear weapons under the circumstances, especially if Iran exercised its NPT treaty withdrawal option. At the same Iran undoubtedly felt that it was prudent to create at least some kind of non-nuclear deterrent force sufficient to offset the aggression of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and US consisting of destabilization interferences in its domestic life as well as threats of future large-scale attacks.


I view this agreement as a constructive development for the Middle East and I think that overriding the intense opposition to the agreement from Israel and Saudi Arabia is significant. For the first time it puts limits on these two special relationships with the US that have proved so harmful to the Middle East, and displayed a capacity to override a determined effort by AIPAC, the Israeli lobbying group that has been so effective in the past.


The region is very complex, filled with tensions and contradictions and uncertainties and unknowns and unknowable factors. As I said earlier, anyone who sets forth and unqualified answers to these policy questions seems to me a dogmatic fool out of touch with the confused, contradictory, and overlapping layers of complexity.


Everybody agrees that the world order established after World War I is collapsing. We have been suffering from pains of that since the Arab Spring, right? How long will this suffering last? Where do you think this will lead? Where is the region heading? How you expect to be the Middle East in 2025?


The regional order imposed and established after World War I is being tested as never before. During the Cold War there occurred many internal revolts, coup d’etats, but never this kind of turmoil and complexity, and never the current forms of proxy warfare engaging external actors. And this political reality must also be combined with the behavior of elites in these countries whose destinies are tied closely to the world economy. Economic globalization is part of this picture that has created a very unfair distribution of wealth as between the upper classes and the rest of the population in many countries. Such a pattern is an essential feature of the Egyptian reality and is characteristic of the situation that exists in most Arab countries. To alter such a structure depends on the success of a radical transformative movement. To maintain this inequitable structure of power and wealth presupposes autocratic, and often highly repressive, control of the society. The notion that you can bring Western liberal democracy to these countries with such an unfair economic structure is quite delusional. Throughout the Bush presidency that featured democracy promotion goals its preferred national candidates failed consistently to win much political support. The same thing occurred in Egypt after 2011 when the hopes and expectations in the West was focused a known secular liberal figure like Amr Moussa. It was hoped and widely believed by the Cairo elites that the Egyptian people would elect Moussa as their president. This expectation grossly underestimating the strength of Muslim Brotherhood, which was further enhanced at the time by the Salafi entry into the political arena.


There were many geopolitical miscalculations. It was thought that the displacement of Saddam Hussein in Iraq would produce a major political and economic victory for the West with positive regional reverberations. Instead it produced strategic gains for Iran and national chaos in Iraq that shows few signs of abating. In other words despite the battlefield dominance surrounding the American military intervention the result has been the direct opposite of what was intended–chaos in the country and alignment with Iran.


A similar reversal of expectations has resulted in Egypt. Instead of Western style secular democracy Egypt is experiencing worse autocracy than during the period of Mubarak’s rule. The Sisi government is more repressive. The governmental alternatives for the states in the Middle East at this time seem to be chaos or autocratic government. Turkey is so far a major exception to this dismaying regional pattern, although sadly many Turkish people don’t realize this, or appreciate their relatively good fortune. In the current political environment it is very dangerous for Turks not to protect the gains that have been achieved in Turkey during the last 13 years, and indeed since the establishment of the Republic. Such an assertion is mindful of the failures of AKP leadership and governmental policies, especially since 2011, but the potentiality for constructive governance in an essentially democratic framework remains, and should not be further jeopardized by irresponsible opposition tactics.


How these various conflicts in the region will work out is impossible to predict at this point. We can venture the opinion that unless some radical challenge leads to a second Arab Spring there seems no way to escape the terrible dilemma confronting the region as between chaotic conflict and authoritarian order. A popular saying that I quote in my book [Chaos and Counterrevolution: After the Arab Spring] on the region: “The people prefer a 100 years of tyranny to a single year of chaos” Overcoming this dilemma, which has terrible consequences for ordinary human beings is a great challenge that anyone who seeks to envision and realize a better future in the region. I don’t pretend to have the political imagination that can identify how this challenge might best be met, and those political actors that have intervened, trumpeting such democratizing intentions, have consistently made the situation worse. Only Tunisia where the West has remained mainly aloof seems to have some chance of making the transition from corrupt autocracy to a governance structure that is somewhat more equitable and less repressive.


In your last book you say: “The sharply falling price of oil in recent months has led to further uncertainties in the region and world and, if this continues, will likely somewhat diminish the geopolitical importance of the Middle East.” If the oil prices continue to fall, what could happen in the Middle East?


This assertion didn’t mean to suggest that the Middle East becomes unimportant, only somewhat less geopolitically contested. Besides the energy dimension there are other reasons to think that the region will remain important, including tensions surrounding the role of Israel and efforts to contain the further spread of Islamic radicalism. And then there are geopolitical habits that do not change quickly. The West has been involved for so long in seeking to control the region that it is unlikely to suddenly abandon the region. I think what I meant to express by pointing to the falling price of oil is that oil had been the most important economic and geostrategic interest in the entire world, and this salience might lessen given the expansion of non-Middle Eastern energy sources. Europe could not maintain its economy without reliable access to Middle Eastern oil during the Cold War and the last portion of the 20th century. More recently, with the development of alternative energy capabilities in Germany and France, there is a reduced feeling of dependence on Middle Eastern oil than existed earlier. The West seemed ready to fight World War III to prevent Saudi Arabia oil reserves from falling into Soviet hands. Jimmy Carter made it clear in 1979 that the US would use nuclear weapons to defend the Western interests in the Middle East in reaction to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan invasion.


Also relevant here is what Obama has called “the pivot to Asia” expressive of a sense that the new center of world politics is likely to be the contest for control of the Asia Pacific region. First there was a shift after the Cold War, from Europe to the Middle East and now the next shift of emphasis may be from the Middle East to Asia, although this is far from clear at this point. But that should not be interpreted to mean that the Middle East will lose its importance as a zone of turmoil and rivalry.


Turkey’s biggest ally, the US is cooperating with the PKK which Turkey is at war with. Its biggest neighbor, Russia is militarily standing behind a regime Turkey is trying to topple. Do you still think Davutoğlu’s foreign policy is successful?


Unless I misunderstand your intention, this strikes me as a loaded question. First of all, I am not clear that you can say that the US is in really active collaboration with PKK. NATO and the US continue to view the PKK as a terrorist organization. This unexpected convergence of interests between adversaries does produce temporary impressions of collaboration, which reflects the contradictory and crosscutting patterns of overlapping conflicts in the region. It is an aspect of this bewildering new phase of international relations. For the US this is strange and unfamiliar territory. It claims to be fighting a war against terror, but at the same time it tacitly allies with terrorist organizations yet continues to classify such expedient allies as ‘terrorist.” This seems self-contradictory. All of the political actors in the region are somewhat engaged in this self-contradictory geopolitics which, as I say, seems to be the new signature of 21st century conflict. These kinds of questions did not arise to any serious degree throughout the Cold War that was dominated by the bipolar standoff between the US and the Soviet Union. Prior to this, during the first half of the 20th century, the colonial system still controlled the region, although confronted by various types of sporadic resistance.


There is one important facet of the situation in the Middle East that we haven’t touched on, namely, the reality of a post-colonial world. And this means, above all, that there is far less West-centric control of what’s going on in this region. The West has lost most of its capacity to shape the politics of the region, which it retained until the end of the Cold War. I think the US Government, especially under the banner of neo-conservatism and ‘democracy promotion,’ was primarily responsible for the idea that it could and should establish a new political architecture in the region after the Cold War. The failure of the 2003 Iraq intervention also confirmed that this vision of a new future for the region was driven partly by Israeli priorities, being responsible for a terrible geopolitical disaster that deeply discredited American foreign policy in the Middle East, and has continued to have detrimental effects. If we are reluctant to treat the Sykes-Picot Agreement as the root cause of the regional turmoil, then we should probably point the finger of blame at the Iraqi war, especially because it greatly intensified the sectarian dimension of the overall İslamic configuration of forces during the American led occupation that lasted more than a decade. This sectarian occupation policy arguably led indirectly to the emergence of ISIS, created or at least strengthened Al Qaeda of Iraq and Al Qaeda of the Arab peninsula, which seems now to be the strongest and most active branch of the Al Qaeda terrorist network. There are many wrongdoing actors in the region. It is misleading to assign causal primacy to any one issue. Many irresponsible and destructive actions were undertaken by the variety of actors pursuing their own agendas without regard for the general circumstances prevailing in the region.


There are additional unresolved problems in the region: above all the Israel-Palestine encounter that for the people of the Arab world is a very important part of the explanation for why Israel becomes so nervous whenever there is a democratic movement in its neighborhood. Israel realizes that the more democratic an Arab government becomes, the more likely it is that it will be exert pressures on its leadership to adopt a stronger anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian position. These overlapping complexities makes it difficult to the point of impossibility to interpret in any useful way how the interplay of forces will play out in the future.


To summarize, Davutoğlu couldn’t be expected to have anticipated this present set of circumstances in the Middle East. The supposed collaboration between the US and the PKK in the context of the anti-Assad and anti-ISIS struggle is something that continues to work against a coherent depiction of the conflict pattern. When evaluating Davutoğlu’s foreign policy record it seems appropriate to distinguish the period before the Arab Spring from what came later. I believe that Davutoğlu’s diplomacy was extraordinarily successful up to the Arab Spring. It is also helpful to realize that no political leader could be expected to have anticipated the ruptures brought about by the Arab Spring. The unfolding developments were not grasped by the political imagination of any the actors, and the events confused and surprised academic experts, as well. Davutoğlu’s affirmative reaction to the Arab Spring does now seem premature and overly optimistic. It included the faulty assessment that the mass dissatisfaction with authoritarian government exhibited by the various uprisings was irreversible. He was enthusiastic about the events in Egypt and Tunisia as heralding inevitable further transformations in the region. He was particularly positive about the agency or the new role of Arab youth in transforming the politics of the region.


What Davutoğlu and others underestimated, which bears comparison with his miscalculations in Syria, is the strength, resolve, and effectiveness of counterrevolutionary forces in the region. In fairness to him, others also didn’t anticipate the convulsive aftermath of 2011, although some wise voices were more cautious in their efforts to depict what to expect, realizing that the fragility of the uprisings and their supportive movements made the future opaque. He along with others in the region were also mistaken in the belief that it was possible to create a coherent policy to moderate the counterrevolutionary developments that have been dominating the political scene since 2011.


I continue to believe that Turkey had persuasive principled reasons for opposing the 2013 Sisi coup in Egypt. Unfortunately, given the balance of regional forces led by Saudi Arabia and international forces led by the United States, the Sisi coup was widely encouraged by an array of forces that were deeply opposed to the continuation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s control of Egypt. As a result, Turkey found itself at odds with the new regional consensus, led by the Gulf monarchies and quietly endorsed by Israel and the United States, which welcomed this counterrevolutionary backlash. One consequence has been the decline of Turkish influence in the Middle East.


It should be recalled that in the months during and after the Arab Spring, Erdogan was the most popular political leader in the region and indeed in the world. He was greeted very positively when he visited Egypt in the spring of 2011. While there he even annoyed the Brotherhood by encouraging Egypt to adopt a secular approach to its political future in a speech given at Cairo University. Erdoğan’s advocacy of such an inclusive and pluralist approach to the post-Mubarak situation was ignored in Turkey where it should have been welcomed by the secular opposition. Looking back, it seems evident that what Erdoğan was then advocating, if followed, would likely have produced a more moderate and less stressful future for Egypt. There were thus two misfortunes: Turkish polarization turned a deaf ear to Erdoğan’s message, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s triumphalism repudiated his counsel of secular pluralism.


Before passing any adverse judgment, as I have been saying, it is only fair to take account of the fact that no one has successfully ridden this wild horse that emerged from the Arab Spring. It is certainly true that Davutoğlu hasn’t been successful in riding it, nor has Erdoğan. It seems appropriate to be critical in a constructive way by understanding that faced with such an unpredictable set of developments it is impossible for anyone to comprehend how the situation will evolve, and therefore it is wise to be cautious and non-committal while voicing hopes amid such fluidity. At this point the challenge facing the Turkish government is how to recover some kind of control over events that is firm while opposing the brutal and violent tactics of both ISIS and the Assad regime. Both of these political actors, and others, are guilty of massive atrocities. It suggests the distortion of perception that is produced by anti-terrorist propaganda. If ISIS is made the focus of condemnation, as in the recent Western media coverage of conflict in the region, the effect is to downplay the atrocities committed by the Assad regime, the wrongdoing of the Saudi government, and the unacceptable behavior of a range of other political actors. Tragically, there is throughout the region much blood on many hands.


In an interview you gave in 2010 you said “Everyone in the world admires Turkey. Turkey has achieved what the UN could not do”. What do you think about the situation now? Does the world still admire Turkey?  Turkey was a role model, a success story for many countries in the Middle East. With their support of Palestine, with the soft power they created, zero problems with neighbors, developing trade and investments with neighbors, etc. How about now? How is Turkey seen now in Middle East?


I don’t recall my statement in 2010, but it strikes me now as an unfortunate exaggeration on my part even in the atmosphere of widespread admiration and respect for Turkey that existed back then. There are many reasons for the international shift in the attitude toward Turkey that has taken place in the last five years. More than anything else, it is important to realize that Arab elites are primarily preoccupied with their own survival. These elites believe that their survival is threatened by democratic nationalist movements in the region, whether in Egypt with the Tahrir uprising or the Palestinian movement. They view stability as the prime value and in this post Arab Spring period the Turkish government is regarded as following a different agenda, more oriented around ideological issues of Sunni nationalism than supportive of the Arab consensus seeking to restore political quietism. Because Turkey favored the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, and is supportive of Hamas in Gaza it is treated as an unreliable collaborator by these Arab elites.


On a popular level, there’s a much more mixed perception and Turkey is generally appreciated for its support of the Palestinians. Turkey is more likely to be seen as following a principled position in relation to Egypt and in relation to some of the other conflicts in the region. If a sustainable diplomatic solution can be soon found in Syria, a big if, then I think Turkey could very quickly recover its positive image in the region, and a renewed effort by other Middle Eastern governments to emulate its economic growth policies and its political stablity. Although the economy and the political situation have definitely deteriorated, Turkey still remains the only genuine success story in the region. Despite all the efforts to discredit Turkey, if you look beneath the surface of the barrage of current criticisms, Turkey is, on balance, by far the most promising country in the region. And one hopes and even prays that Turkey can overcome its immediate challenges with respect to the Kurds, ISIS, and the Syrian spillover. If these challenges can be met Turkey will be able to resume the role that it had played so promisingly in the years preceding the Arab Spring.


According to you, what’s the biggest success of Turkey since 2002?


The most obvious answer is to put restraints on the role of the Turkish military with respect to the governing process. This is a domestic development, but it affects Turkey’s international behavior because it means that policy formation became more subject to civilian control. Despite all the criticisms of the Turkish leadership, Turkey is no longer the sort of national security state that it used to be. It is well to recall that the international discourse on the ‘deep state’ arose to describe the degree to which Turkey’s foreign policy was shaped by unaccountable and unelected forces hidden from public view within its security and intelligence bureaucracies, a set of circumstances incompatible with the functioning of democratic governance.


The fact that in 2003 – 2004 a coup against the AKP did not happen represented an extraordinary achievement by the Erdoğan leadership for which he and the party have been given almost no credit, especially by the internal opposition in Turkey. As far as foreign policy concerned, I think Ankara’s most impressive achievement was to depart from the Cold War passivity of Turkey and to create an independent and constructive regional and even global role that was tied to Washington. Along these lines, especially given the contentious mood of the present, it should be remembered that Turkey emerged between 2002 and 2011 as the most trusted, intelligent, reliable international voice for much of the non-aligned movement. Quite remarkably Turkish influence was felt not only in the Middle East, but in Africa, and to some extent in parts of Asia.


Turkey along with Brazil even challenged U.S. strategic dominance in this period. While it was not an accident, it came as a surprise that these two countries could emerge from the shadows so impressively, and despite the stark differences in the orientation and outlook of their respective leaders, the conservative Erdoğan in Turkey, and the leftist Lula in Brazil. It was in this period that the proactive foreign policy of the AKP were put forward, gaining widespread respect for Turkey. As mentioned earlier, after 2011 this positive image of Turkey’s assertiveness lost its glamor, and was even discredited in some quarters. I think this loss of influence was partly a side effect of overconfidence on the part of the AKP and Erdoğan, who after winning eight consecutive elections became more antagonistic at home and more controversial abroad. Erdoğan may have become exasperated by the relentless criticism of an opposition never acknowledged the impressive successes of the early AKP years. In an unfortunate display of defiance Erdoğan seemed to embrace so-called majoritarian democracy, apparently believing that because he had won all these elections he could justifiably claim a mandate to govern from the Turkish people, and could overlook the objections of an embittered opposition that was determined, whatever he might do, to denigrate and undermine the policies being pursued.


And what’s the biggest mistake?


Jumping on the Syrian horse too quickly and then jumping off too abruptly. Beyond this, Erdoğan abandoned his earlier political style of compromise and pragmatic goals. He increasingly vented controversial opinions that enraged the opposition and overreacted, as with respect to Gezi in 2013, to challenges from the Turkish citizenry that contributed to a worsening of polarization.


What are the main criticisms of AKP’s foreign policy. Do you think Davutoğlu’s foreign policy was enacting a Pan-Islamist ideology? Do you think Turkey is a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East? Is Turkish foreign policy sectarian?

On the question of pan-Islamic ideology, I think Davutoğlu may be sympathetic with such a vision but his understanding and world view as embodied in his Strategic Depth book, is one that is both multicivilizational and transcivilizational, as well as being deeply rooted in a strong sense of the distinctiveness of Turkey’s national culture and political history. I find it misleading to accuse him of pursuing as Foreign Minister a pan-Islamic ideology. I think it is more accurate to think of Davutoğlu as a visionary and ethical nationalist who looks back upon the Ottoman period mainly as a time of Turkish achievement and glory. And now he looks forward to a Turkey that doesn’t dominate other countries, leads by example, and is on the giving and receiving end of mutual enrichment through cultural contact. He favors an international role for Turkey that is inconsistent with a pan-Islamic approach and from its outset gave the highest priority to an all out Turkish effort to be accepted as a full EU member. His animating dream was for Turkey to participate meaningfully in Europe, Africa, and Asia, serving as an intercivilizational hinge, but without the promotion of a pan-islamic agenda.

As far as sectarianism is concerned, I think Turkey did its best in this first years of AKP ascendancy to avoid any kind of sectarianism in shaping its policies within and beyond its borders. In this regard it is notable that reconciliation with Assad was the first notable initiative of the Zero Problems foreign policy that Davutoğlu initiated. If Turkey had pursued a strictly Sunni dominated agenda, surely they would have chosen Qaddafi or some other leader in the region but surely not the Alewite led regime of Assad.

And if you remember, it was Turkey, jointly with Brazil, that took the initiative with Iran on the nuclear issue in 2010. Turkey was heavily criticized in the West for exceeding its proper place in the geopolitical problem-solving hierarchy applicable to the region. Turkey was guilty of stepping on sensitive geopolitical toes by acting without a green light from Washington. Overall, I think it is completely inaccurate to blame Turkey for sectarianism in the pre-Arab Spring period.

In the post-Arab Spring period, there was a convergence of views as between the democratic tendencies in some countries and the rise of Sunni movements in Syria, in Egypt and in Yemen. There seemed present a temptation to align Turkish foreign policy with support for these Sunni movements. But as I say, such support was a consistent response to democratizing tendencies and opposition to cruel authoritarian regimes that used great violence against their people. This was Ankara’s original argument for turning against Assad. In reaction to what took place in Syria Davutoğlu was compelled to refine and clarify his doctrine. Now it became zero problems with people rather than governments, and if governments kill their own citizens then problems with inter-governmental relations will emerge. In retrospect, we can criticize Davutoğlu for not making this distinction evident from the outset.

If you consider the Sisi coup against the Brotherhood, it was the overthrow of an elected government and the commission of atrocities that are offer the best justification for Turkey’s hostility to the military takeover. On the basis of Turkey’s foreign policy record, I find this justification persuasive.

I think Erdoğan’s reaction, going back to World Economic Forum, against Shimon Peres was a genuine and spontaneous expression of solidarity with the Palestinian people. And for better and worse, Erdoğan says what he feels and gets himself in lots of trouble as a result. But on that occasion, he was expressing a widely shared moral and political repudiation of Israel’s recent attack on Gaza. Erdoğan was voicing his opposition to the kind of tactics Israel used in Gaza, including its reliance on excessive force and the repeated attacks directed at the civilian population.

As far as I know, in each of these situations, Turkey has opposed leaders that massively attack their own people or engage aggression against a foreign people in ways that are inconsistent with international humanitarian law and normal moral principles.  

Turkey claims that it is pursuing a foreign policy based on ethics and conscience. And it is insisting on this policy saying such an approach is compatible with the Zeitgeist and the course of history. Is Turkey strong enough to continue this policy?


I hope so. It is very important for a peaceful world order that an ethics driven foreign policy not be discredited as being naïve or sentimental. I think Davutoğlu is genuine when he professes these commitments. From long experience of personal contact, I believe him to be a person who combines a measure of realism with a strong ethical commitment and as someone who also holds the view that politics endeavor to the extent possible to merge ethics with a realistic understanding of national interests. In that sense I think Turkey has been very fortunate to have someone of his character and intelligence in such an influential position. Very few countries can claim to have that quality of leadership near the top of the governmental pyramid.

Of course the current relationship between the prime minister and the president is complicated, and may even have become problematic. The Turkish political future may hinge of whether these leaders are able to distribute power and authority among themselves in ways that promote stable governance and are responsive to the democratic requirements of accountability, transparency, and adherence to the rule of law.

Do you think Erdoğan has become more authoritarian? There are critics claiming that Turkey turned out to be a tyranny because of Erdoğan? What do you think about these critics?


I think that while this criticism of Erdoğan has not been convincingly demonstrated, there are some disturbing signs of authoritarian tendencies, especially in the 2011–2015 period. I think Erdoğan did give the impression of shifting from being a rather prudent constitutionally oriented leader to invoking a mandate from the Turkish people and insisting on the prerogatives of majoritarian democracy. I find it helpful to distinguish majoritarian democracy from what I called republican democracy that is restrained by checks and balances, separation of powers, and respect for fundamental rights. The American political system illustrates the republican model when it functions properly.


I believe it is that grossly misleading to equate Erdoğan with either Putin or Sisi. Turks who do make such comparisons are being irresponsible and provocative, unintentionally inviting a future that they will regret if it were to come about. At the same time, I agree that in a democracy it’s important not to be silent when an elected leader seems to be ignoring constitutional constraints. Let’s remember that Erdoğan made in 2014 the most forward-looking and sensitive statement about the Armenian issue of any Turkish leader.


Again one needs to look at both the dark and the light sides. They are both real. Erdogan is a gifted political leader and despite all the attacks, he continues to enjoy by far the strongest popular following of any individual in the country. That should count for something in a constitutional democracy. Of course, it doesn’t count for everything. Erdoğan should be held accountable for upholding the rule of law and I think he has been damaged by the corruption allegations leveled against him and his family. We haven’t mentioned the split with Hizmet. I think that has been a difficult issue for the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu leadership, especially deciding how to deal with what they call ‘a parallel government,’ resulting from alleged penetration of the governmental bureaucracy, but exhibiting primary loyalty to the movement rather than to the government.


So Turkey has faced a series of challenges that very few governments could handle successfully in this period, regional challenges, domestic challenges and discovering a significant disloyal presence within the Turkish police and judiciary. Such questioning of the integrity of your own government is extremely threatening to any political leadership, and has been deeply upsetting to the AKP leadership.






In the last days, we see some positive news about Erdoğan and Turkey in the Western media which are normally criticizes Erdoğan. Can we interpret this by the argument that Europe needs Erdoğan because of the refugee crisis? Do you think Europe needs Erdoğan to handle this problem?


Yes. I think Europe’s renewed friendly approach to Turkey is opportunistic, pragmatic. And one more thing, I always say to my anti- Erdoğan Turkish friends. What if Erdoğan disappeared, would Turkey’s array of problems disappear with him? It seems far easier for the opposition to concentrate all blame on Erdoğan than to wrestle with the serious problems confronting the country. There is a national obsession with him. He is far from completely innocent with respect to this obsession. He has sought to accumulate power and to associate his person with the destiny of the country. Yet, even when he was being a careful political leader in that post 2002 period during a time when the AKP leadership was properly worried about being overthrown by a military coup he was the target of unremitting hostility. Irresponsibly he was being falsely accused of trying to produce a second Iran in Turkey, a very divisive message and without any credible supportive evidence.


Did Arab Spring end? What has Arab Spring changed in the Middle East?


The process that originated with the Arab Spring hasn’t ended. It is important to compare the Arab Spring with Iranian revolution of 1979. The leadership in Tehran understood that it was necessary to transform the bureaucracy to make the revolution. It is unrealistic to adopt revolutionary goals without adopting revolutionary means. In Egypt it was not enough to get rid of autocratic leaders and their immediate entourage. The Egyptian movement didn’t understand that trusting the national armed forces and relying on the former governmental elites that ran the government was not going to achieve their ends. When it turned out that the people selected the Brotherhood as their democratic choice this accentuated the problem of not going far enough in mounting a challenge to the established status quo.


Such thin transformations also underestimated the political will of forces of reaction that wanted to retain the old system. Those who had benefitted in the Mubarak period were unwilling to accept a new system dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamic radicals that threatened their economic privileges as well as their political and cultural ascendancy. This turned out to be a tragic political miscalculation on the part of the activist leadership that had been the spearhead of the anti-Mubarak movement.


But the Arab Spring has had some durable consequences. Above all, it changed the political subjectivity of the people, and its associated former consciousness of fear. Before the Arab Spring, there was no confidence or belief that people by their actions could change politics, and there existed widespread fear that any attempt to do so would produce disastrous results. Since the Arab Spring, this understanding that people can have agency in history, that they can actually make history is widely held. History in the past had always been made from above, but now it could also be made from below. In the second phase of the Arab Spring, it is clear that in the Egyptian development, the Sisi coup was not an isolated military phenomenon but was conditioned and prepared, in the end enjoying broad popular support. Undoubtedly this show of support was manipulated and orchestrated from above, but it gave the appearance of being mandated from below. In my view this more robust Arab subjectivity remains a source of potential change in the region.


A third factor that we should consider is the manipulation by external forces of neoliberalism and its relation to economic globalization and the geopolitical links to Israel and the US who were very nervous about impending political changes that seemed to follow from the Arab uprisings. There exists a great amount of what I describe as “popular discontent” in the region. The entrenched elites are aware that this popular discontent could now be translated into a political movement that would be very dangerous for their strategic, economic, and political interests. But there are also very big obstacles in the way of reform, much less revolution: Strong security forces with a large economic stake in the old order, an apparatus power imbued with the belief that state terror works, and if pursued vigorously enough will be successful. There are also many destabilizing extremist forces in the region, as well as the renewal of the rivalry between the United States and Russia.


Can we say that Tunisia is a successful result of Arab Spring?


We should hesitate before making this affirmation. It seems too soon. Tunisia’s experience since 2011 can be situated somewhere between what happened in Egypt and what happened in Libya. In a stunning reversal, the citizenry elected a leadership for the country that has returned the old order to power by peaceful means. We must ask whether this is transformation, or even serious democratic reform? Is this development evidence of change or merely the restoration of the old arrangements? The Islamic movement in Tunisia has been led by Gannushi, and has been far more open to dialogue and pluralism than its Islamic counterpart in Egypt. Tunisia has a decent prospect of stability and moderation, but it still has to cope with some problematic elements like a dissatisfied Salafi movement, the restored Ben Ali elites, and tensions between secularists and Islamists. Tunisia is not a clear success, certainly not yet, but it has also avoided chaos and sustained violence.


Is there a winner after Arab Spring?


The temporary winner is the counterrevolutionary forces that have restored the pre-Arab Spring autocracies and the monarchies, the Gulf monarchies, Morocco, they have survived the political storm very well up to this point. These governments made some small, little cosmetic adjustments but nothing really fundamental with respect to either the distribution of power or wealth.


The West especially US didn’t support the movement, the yourh at the streets. Finally they all preferred Sisi to Morsi. Why did they afraid from this movement and not support?


I think there was a fair amount of support in America for the Arab Spring in its early phases. But there was a fear that the movement in Egypt was more radical than turned out to be the case, and that the new leadership was poised to pursue policies threatening to Western economic and strategic interests. There was also concerns that the unexpected strength of Muslim movements would lead to a second and third Iran in the region. There were those anxieties about changing the status quo. America had lived relatively happily with the former status quo for a long time. I would describe the early reaction to the Arab Spring as one of ambivalence, uncertainty, a worried wait and see approach. It wasn’t outright opposition, but it was certainly not strongly in favor of what was happening. There were some inconsistencies within governments in the West as to how best to respond. The American president, Barack Obama epitomized this posture of uncertainty by the indecisiveness of his reactions and policies, especially played out in relation to Egypt, Libya, and Syria.


What has happened to American values, democracy, freedom of expression, human rights?


American policy toward the region reflects what I call ‘the primacy of geopolitics.’ I keep coming back to Saudi Arabia. If America and the West can partner with Saudi Arabia, they can live with any political order, however distasteful to Western liberal values, if it serves major strategic interests.


But Washington didn’t want to live with Morsi.


Yes. The US can live with anything that is perceived to be consistent with their interests, but the American government is far less insistent on compatibility with its professed values. Values are largely window-dressing, interests account for the real policy of nations. The American public is quite unsophisticated about its understanding of the Middle East. And the people that know more are mostly people who are very pro-Israeli. Jewish public opinion is important in big cities in America, and there is evangelical Christian support for Israel in other parts of the country. After the American failure in Iraq many people have privately come to the conclusion that Iraq and American interests would better off with Saddam Hussein in power than they were after this regime change in Baghdad with its radiating detrimental impact on the stability of the region.


A Third Intifada? Do you think this might happen?


It is certainly possible, and maybe we are witnessing these days its first phase. The political will is certainly present because there’s a great deal of frustration and despair among the Palestinians, especially among young people who increasingly feel that resistance is their only and last hope. Beyond this, they feel discouraged, if not dismayed, by the Palestinian Authority and the quasi-collaborative kind of leadership that Abbas has provided. I think there will be very serious bloodshed if there is a third Intifada, that is, if Palestinian resistance takes the form of a sustained and widespread form of popular resistance. The current leadership in Israel is very far to the right and exceedingly violent itself. Any harm on Israelis that the resistance produces will lead Israel to try to do something 100 times worse. Israel consistently overkills when they feel challenged and endure losses.


On the other hand, if the Palestinians are remain passive, they’ll soon confront a situation in which Israel will likely declare the conflict over and incorporate the whole West Bank or most of the West Bank and proclaim the establishment of a greater Israel. So both sides face a fork in the road, the situation can either witness intensified struggle or an Israeli fait accomplis. There is an international mood that has concluded that diplomacy has failed, and some confusion about what to do in light of this.





And what about the insufficiency of UN?


The UN is no better or no worst than its powerful members. It was setup to operate in this way. Conferring the veto right on the five most influential states in the world in 1945 delivered a somewhat coded message: “You’re not bound by international law or UN authority, you are fully sovereign, you’re not accountable.” The structure of the system makes this reality unavoidable if the big states are not by their own choice acting in a responsible and constructing way. The UN system is fully dependent on how these leading governments behave. Of course, there is the second set of issues associated with the reality that the geopolitical landscape in 2015 is not what it was 70 years ago, and yet the structure of influence has not changed. The same five permanent members of the Security Council have exclusive rights to exercise the veto power for themselves and their friends.


You cannot blame the UN for not doing more because it was created not to do more than these big states wanted it to do. When geopolitics supports a UN initiative, it can be act powerfully, maybe too much so as it did in Libya in 2011. It’s the primacy of geopolitics that is the real explanation of why international law and the UN are not more effective. At the same time we couldn’t live in this complicated, globalized world without an operationally reliable legal framework governing trade, investments, diplomacy, communications, travel, and many other spheres of transnational activity. Considering the role of the UN and international law only in relation to war/peace issues is misleading, and ignores the importance of its contributions to reliable order for routine transnational interactions of many varieties.



The Nuclear Challenge (4): 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki-The Iran Agreement in Perspective

24 Aug

The Nuclear Challenge (4): 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki-The Iran Agreement in Perspective


Without question the P5 +1 nuclear agreement with Iran is a vital move toward peace and stability in the Middle East, a step back from the maelstrom of conflict that is roiling much of the region, and leaving what stability there is among sovereign states under the control of various absolutisms that repress and exploit their own populations.


At the same time before congratulating the negotiators and building a strong rationale for yet another Nobel Peace Prize given to architects of Western diplomacy, we should pause and peer behind the curtain of hegemonic confusion embellishing a more dubious statecraft by an ever compliant mainstream media. If we pull back the curtain, what do we see?


First of all, we should immediately recognize that the most sensible agreement for the region and the world would have included Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal in the negotiating mix, and yielded a unanimous call for responding to nuclear anxieties with a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. As far I know, every government but Israel in the region, and this includes Iran and Saudi Arabia, favors regional nuclear disarmament, and is decidely uncomfortable with Israel as the sole nuclear weapons state in the region.


Many may feel that I am dreaming when I raise this point, but without the clarifying impact of dreams, political reality remains an opaque spin chamber. In a decent world order that was built on a foundation of law and equality among sovereign states with respect to the challenge of nuclear weapons there would be no double standards and no discriminatory policies. When reflecting on the current emphasis on reaching an agreement with Iran there is a political unwillingness to widen the optic for discussion, much less for implementation, of the most rational and ethically coherent approach to denuclearization of the Middle East.


If we are so obtuse or arrogant to ask ‘why?’ this is so there are several explanations. Undoubtedly, the most illuminating response is to point out that to include Israel’s nuclear weaponry in denuclearization diplomacy would violate ‘the special relationship’ binding the United State to Israel, although not vice versa as the Netanyahu/AIPAC outrageous campaign to undermine the P5 +1 initiative unmistakably demonstrates. Obama’s refusal to go along with Israel’s insistence on far tighter restraints on Iran as a precondition for its acceptance of an agreement is straining the special relationship and weakening the overwhelming support it had previously enjoyed among Jews in the United States. These tensions also reveal that even this most special of special arrangements has its outer limits! Yet it seems evident that these have yet to be discovered by the majority of the U.S. Congress.


Secondly, Iran is targeted by the agreement as a pariah state that is being subjected to a more stringent regime of inspection and restraint than has ever been imposed on any other non-nuclear state. Yet what has Iran done internationally to deserve such harsh treatment? In the period since the Islamic Republic took control of the country in 1979, Iran was aggressively attacked by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1980 with the encouragement and blessings of the United States Government, resulting in approximately one million battlefield deaths in the eight-year war to both sides. In the last decade or so, Iran has been the acknowledged target of destabilizing covert violent acts by the United States and Israel, including targeted assassinations of nuclear scientists and cyber efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. Additionally, Israel has made a series of unlawful threats of military attack and the United States has exhibits Martian solidarity by uttering somewhat more veiled assertions of its residual reliance on a military option, recently rearticulated by Obama as ‘war’ being the only alternative to the agreement should it be rejected by the United States.


We should not forget that Iran that is surrounded by belligerent adversaries openly talking about the feasibility of military attacks upon their country under present world conditions. From a purely realist perspective it is Iran that has one of the most credible security claims ever made to acquire nuclear weapons as a deterrent weapon in response to Israeli aggressiveness reinforced by American backing. After all, it has been reliably disclosed and documented that Israel on more than one occasion was on the verge of attacking Iraq, backing off at the last minute due only to splits within the Israeli cabinet over issues of feasibility and fears of adverse consequences.


This whole discourse on Iran’s nuclear program is notable for presuming that policy options can be selected by its adversaries without any consideration of the relevance of international law. Even supposing that Iran was, in fact, overtly seeking a nuclear weapon, and approaching a threshold of acquisition, this set of conditions would not validate recourse to force. There is no foundation whatsoever in international law for launching an attack to preempt another country from acquiring nuclear weapons. The U.S. relied on such a pretext to justify its attack on Iraq in 2003, but such an argument was rejected by the UN Security Council, and the American led attack and occupation were widely viewed as contrary to international law and the UN Charter. To launch a non-defensive attack on Iran would be a flagrant violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter and of the norm prohibiting recourse to aggressive war used to convict German and Japanese surviving leaders after World War II of state crime. It is well to acknowledge that Iran succumbed to a kind of geopolitical blackmail by accepting this one-sided agreement. It is hardly surprising that the logic of geopolitics triumphed over respect for international law, and yet the fact that the liberal media and world public opinion smile so gratefully, apparently not realizing what an unhealthy an atmosphere exists, is discouraging, and not a good omen for the future.


Maybe there could be a case for bending, or even breaking international law, if Iran was genuinely posing a plausible threat that could not be met through diplomacy and defensive capabilities. But the realities are quite different. Iran has been the target of unlawful threats and various forms of covert intervention, and has responded with responsible caution, if at all. To reinforce this one-sided experience of insecurity with this kind of agreement sets the unfortunate perverse precedent of treating the victim of an unlawful intervention as the culprit justifying international sanctions, and possibly a future military onslaught. This represents a perversion of justice, as well as exhibiting a fundamental disregard of international law.


This reasoning is not meant to exonerate Iran from severe criticism for its internal failures to uphold the human rights of its citizens or for its continued punitive action against the leaders of the Green Revolution. It is important to realize that regulating recourse to international uses of force has been deliberately separated in the UN Charter from interfering in state/society relations absent the commission of severe crimes against humanity or genocide, and a green light is given by the UN Security Council for what amounts to ‘humanitarian intervention,’ recently justified by reference to the emergent international norm of a ‘right to protect’ or R2P. Such a R2P justification was put forward and controversially enacted in Libya in 2011.


True, during the Ahmedinejad years irresponsible fiery and provocative language was used by Tehran with reference to Israel, including repeated calls for the abolition of the Zionist project. The language used by Ahmedinejad was given its most inflammatory twist by Israeli translations of the Farsi original. Read more objectively, it was not Jews as such that were the subject of the invective, or even Israel, but Zionism and its belligerent behavior in the region, especially its refusal over the course of decades to achieve a sustainable peace with the Palestinian people, and on the contrary, its policy of continual land grabbing in Palestine to make peace between the two peoples an increasingly distant prospect of diminishing relevance in the domains of practical diplomacy.


The principal point of this analysis is to show that this agreement reflects the primacy of geopolitics, the neglect of international law, the impact of the US/Israel special relationship, and yet despite these drawbacks, it is still the best that supporters of peace and stability can hope for under present conditions of world order. Such a reality is occluded by the presentation of the debate in the United States as mainly the exaggerated mini-dramas associated with pressuring key members of Congress to vote for or against the agreement and engaging in sophisticated discussions as to whether the constraints imposed by the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, although the strongest ever imposed, are still as strong as Obama claims or as some uncertain Congress people demand. As argued here, support for the agreement is overwhelmingly in the national, global, regional, and human interest, but this assessment does not mean we should view world order through the distorting lens of heavily rose-tinted glasses.


This nuclear agreement reflects where we are in dealing with global crises, not where we should be. It is this distinction that is suppressed by the liberal media and government spokespersons that tout the agreement as an extraordinary achievement of international diplomacy. If we value international law, global justice, and indeed the future of the human species, then the distinction between the realm of the ‘feasible’ and the realm of the ‘desirable’ deserves energetic critical exposure by all of us who fancy ourselves as citizen pilgrims, that is, devotees of human and natural survival, as well as of global justice and human rights.

Why Congress Must Support the Nuclear Agreement With Iran

22 Aug


[Prefatory Note: this post republishes an article appearing in the Huffinton Post on Aug. 21, 2015. It is jointly written with Akbar Ganji, an important human rights defender who spent several years for his efforts in an Iranian jail. Ganji is a leading commentator on Iranian affairs and world issues, and recipient of an International Press Association World Press Hero award. Our articles stresses the critical importance of obtaining American approval of the nuclear agreement.] 



Why Congress Must Support the Nuclear Agreement With Iran


Akbar Ganji & Richard Falk


What should have been an occasion of diplomatic rejoicing has turned into an ugly partisan struggle over whether or not the international agreement negotiated with Iran will or will not be approved by the United States Government. The extremely troublesome obstruction to the agreement is centered in the U.S. Congress where anti-Obama Republicans are teaming up with pro-Netanyahu Democrats to create uncertainty as to whether the arrangments negotiated with such persistence by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council together with Germany will be undermined by this unprecedented leverage being exerted by Israel on the internal governmental processes in America. It should be appreciated that the agreement has been unanimously endorsed by a positive vote of all 15 members of the Security Council, a rarity in UN politics for an issue of this geopolitical magnitude.


In the end this debate raises some fundamental questions about American domestic politics along with its leadership in the Middle East and indeed, the credibility of its global role. Here is an agreement, restricting Iran’s freedom of action with regard to its nuclear program beyond that imposed on any other country ever, clearly serving the national interest of the United States in Middle Eastern stability, an outcome of dedicated efforts by the President and Secretary of State to find a way to avoid both another war in the region and a dangerous nuclear arms race.


That such a diplomatic breakthrough is being so furiously opposed posts a warning that irrationality is mounting a serious challenge to common sense and self-interest. As Obama has noted on several occasions he knows of no other leader that interferes so directly in the national policy debates of a foreign country than deos Netanyahu( 1 and 2 ) . Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond observed: “Israel wants a permanent state of stand-off and I don’t believe that’s in the interests of the region. I don’t believe it’s in our interest.”


Israel has used all the influence at its disposal to block approval, mobilizing rich ultra-Zionist donors in the U.S. to create a war chest of $20 milion and relying on AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) to twist enough legislative arms to override an expected Obama veto if the agreement is turned down by a majority in the two houses of Congress. This drive has been led by the ever belligerent Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, but it is disturbing to realize that all the leading political parties in Israel are united in their opposition to the agreement. This alone tells us the degree to which political attitudes in Israel are out of sinc with those prevailing in the rest of the Middle East, and indeed the world.


As such, there is a moment of truth for the relationship between the United States and Israel. A rejection of the agreement will raise serious questions about the capacity of this country to pursue a foreign policy that reflects its best interests and dominant values. It will also raise doubts about whether it is capable of constructive leadership in the Middle East and the world. If the agreement is approved, as we firmly believe it should be, it will not only confirm the autonomy of national institutions in the United States but show that the alliance relationship with Israel can withstand disagreement when vital issues are at stake.


The Iran Problem


The Islamic Republic of Iran is a religious dictatorship that systematically violates the rights of its citizens, and has demonstrated enmity toward the United States since the 1979 Revolution. Despite this, compared with other Islamic countries of the Middle East and North Africa, it is far better situated to realize democracy and respect human rights.


Iran is a stable nation that has not invaded another country for nearly 300 years. Its population has nearly more than doubled since the 1979 Revolution, but its number of university students has increased by a factor of 27, with more than 60 percent of them female. The most important international writings of Western liberal, feminist, and secular thinkers have been translated into Farsi, including the work of some of the most important Jewish thinkers. Iran has a large middle class, and is the only country in the region, aside from Turkey, that has the prerequisites for a transition to democracy despite problematic features of the relations between state and society.


For over 22 years Netanyahu has been “making” nuclear bombs for Iran, continuously claiming that Iran is only a short time away from having the bomb. The predictions have turned out to be false and inflammatory, but his desire and appetite for war with Iran seems only to have increased over time. The nuclear agreement with Iran, which has imposed severe restrictions on its peaceful nuclear program despite going well beyond what the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty requires, has agitated Netanyahu and the political mainstream in Israel. There are several explanations of this irrational Israeli response to an agreement that help all in the region. Netanyahu has engaged in fear-mongering that has mobilized Israeli society. Beyond this, a focus on Iran’s nuclear program draws attention away from other difficult problems confronting Israel,, including the Palestinian problem and its own covertly acquired arsenal of nuclear weapons.


National interests of the United States or Netanyahu’s political interests?


As President Obama has repeatedly said, the only alternative to the nuclear agreement with Iran is war. But, this would be a war that Israel wants the United States to fight on its behalf. Military attacks on Iran will almost certainly produce an extremely strong reaction by Iran and other nations in that region, a process likely to set the entire Middle East on fire. Iran with its population of 78 million will likely degenerate into another Iraq and Syria, and extremists from throughout the world will stream across its borders to join the struggle. How can risking such an outcome possibly be in the interests of the United States?


Approving the nuclear agreement with Iran is by far the least costly solution to whatever problems can be associated with Iran’s nuclear program, and approval will also promote peace and stability in the Middle East. With this background in mind Congress should clearly approve the agreement, and it is also why the citizenry of the United States should welcome it. After approval,, the United States would find itself in an excellent position, perhaps in coopeation with other governments to help address other problems on the Middle East agenda by proposing an ambitious diplomatic package with the following essential elements:


Guaranteeing present national borders through resolutions backed by the United Nations Security Council


Elimination of all weapons of mass destruction from the region through the establishment of a nuclear free zone in the whole of the Middle East


Resolving the Palestinian problem encouraging two-state diplomacy premised on the right of the Palestinian people to form their own independent, viable and contiguous state on all territories occupied since 1967, and if diplomacy fails, then more coercive measures should be imposed by action of the United Nations


A collective security and mutual non-aggression treaty signed by all the Middle Eastern nations

Investment in the economic and political development of the region combined with the regulation of arms sales

Moving forward from the agreement it is important to appreciate that peace is a common value envisioned and shared by Jews, Muslims, and Christians:

“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”(Matthew 5:9).

“Making peace is the best” (an-Nissa 128) and “O, you who believe! Fulfill the promises and covenants made [by you]” (al-Maidah 1).



For too long these shared values, deeply embedded in the worldviews of these civilizational perspectives, have been ignored, even repudiated. The nuclear agreement with Iran creates the opportunity to move the flow of history in better directions. Such an opportunity must not be lost. If lost, the United States and Israel would be morally, politically, and legally responsible for whatever harm befalls the region and the world.

Eco-Insurgency, Tribal Vision, and Ultra-Nationalist Geopolitics

31 Jul

In further critique of Michael Oren


I devoted my last post to an expression of support for the July 14th P5 + 1 agreement reached with Iran on its Nuclear Program, and coupled this with criticism of what the former Israel ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, sets forth in his memoir, Ally, as the ideal form of special alliance relationship that exists and should exist between Israel and the U.S.. In this sequel, I explore the further implications of such a special relationship as a template for dangerous trends in political life at all levels of social organization. Oren reflects these trends, and his views and their implication deserve out attention. He has enjoyed an extremely successful life after surmounting serious childhood learning disabilities and a humble social background. He became a prize-winning historian, an elite IDF paratrooper and intelligence operative, a high-ranking civil servant, and a prominent diplomat, and most recently launched a further career as a politician, being elected to the Knesset in March. In addition to all these worldly achievements Oren appears to have had a long, satisfying marriage accompanied by a fulfilling family life, mostly spent in Israel.


With this background in mind, I find Michael Oren’s life experience to be at once impressive, worrisome, provocative, and overall, alien and emblematic of dangerous trends in politics. I compare my own background, not to claim a comparable stature, but to highlight how small differences in our social locations seem to have produced dramatic variation in life circumstances and outlook. We were both born as American Jews, and were later influenced by spending significant portions of our lives at Princeton University. Yet our experience diverges sharply when it comes to Princeton, Israel, America, Zionism and almost everything in between. It makes me wonder anew about the tenuous links between the subjectivity of consciousness and our perceptions of reality within what Habermas calls the ‘lifeworld.’


Let me start with Princeton, perhaps unfairly, because Oren seems to be so far from the reality I experienced over the course of forty years as to make me think that his ideological affinities with Israel and Zionism clouded his vision of the place to the point of extremity, if not absurdity. In Ally a single reference to me is inaccurate and inflammatory, and raises doubts about Oren’s credibility as an observer.

After calling “outrageous” the UN Human Rights Council inquiry into war crimes committed in the course of Israel’s attack of 2008-09 on Gaza Oren goes on to write in the same sentence that “..its special rapporteur on Palestine, Richard Falk, regularly compared Israelis to Nazis.” With this view of the HRC in mind Oren adds approvingly of George W. Bush being so “disgusted by its anti-Israel bias” that he withdrew the American representative from participation in the council. [references are to location 1069 of the Kindle Edition of Ally]. His reference to me is totally false, and maliciously misleading. On only a single occasion, well before serving as UN Special Rapporteur, lacking any connection with HRC, did I draw any connection between Israel and Nazi Germany, and then only in a very restricted reference to the disturbing similarities between the sort of collective punishment being inflicted on the people of Gaza with the forms of collective demonization relied upon by the Nazis. Not only was there no comparison of any sort while serving in the UN, even in my journalistic writing, there was never ‘regular’ assertions along the lines that

Oren irresponsibly alleges to show HRC bias. In fact, such language was never a part of the critical discourse directed at Israel in the HRC. Rather as the Goldstone Report elaborated in conservable detail, there existed a widely shared perception that Israel’s policies and practices in Gaza before, during, and after the Operation Cast Lead (the IDF name given the 2008-09 attack) amounted to

Crimes Against Humanity, a view that resurfaced again in 2015. The later contentions are to be found in the report of a new fact finding commission appointed by the HRC to examine Israeli military operation, code-named Protective Edge, a 51 day devastating military attack upon Gaza in July 2014. Oren makes his inflammatory reference to my views presumably to make readers believe, contrary to the true situation, that the HRC relies on a deeply flawed and overly critical attitude toward Israel, and its behavior.


Oren’s approach to Princeton is no more convincing, and clearly contradicts my experience. Oren writes that he found himself isolated at Princeton because his Zionist sympathies and support for Israel were so out of step with the prevailing attitudes. In the course of completing his graduate studies Oren found that his support for Israel “was scarcely popular at Princeton.” He doesn’t single out Princeton, but believes his experience was reflective of a more widespread national “mood on many American campuses [that] had turned against Israel and even against America.” [Loc. 567] He goes on, “I held firm but the academic atmosphere regarding Israel remained toxic.” [loc. 594] He even portrays himself as a victim of an anti-Israeli academic establishment, suggesting that his Zionist views exacted a high ‘professional’ cost: “Publisher after publisher rejected my books, precluding an academic career.” [loc. 638; later he alludes to his academic success, having his books appear under prestigious publishing imprints and find their way onto bestseller lists as indirect benefits of Israel’s victory in the 1967 War] At Princeton, and elsewhere, Oren holds that his support for Israel was responsible for leaving him “..often a lone voice in an increasingly one-sided harangue.” [loc. 622]


My impressions of Princeton are diametrically opposed. It was considered precarious on campus to voice any opinions that were out of step with support for Israel or that showed sympathy with the Palestinian struggle. Bernard Lewis was a hegemonic presence in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, and used his influence to marginalize and banish Israeli critics from academic arenas, not only at Princeton, but throughout the world. Michael Walzer was the second most visible scholarly luminary at Princeton who was concerned with this subject-mater, and like Lewis, a stalwart supporter of Israel and an ardent proponent of the Zionist Project, and then after him there was Fouad Ajami, a prominent Lebanese-American intellectual who increasingly sided with Israel in its clash with Palestinian aspirations and later became associated with the Hoover Institutions and the most bellicose views on the Middle East. Not surprisingly, I experienced hostile and condescending treatment from Lewis and Walzer, and their departmental colleagues, on several occasions. There were few contrary voices on these issues at Princeton during my entire period at the university, and those few of us who held more critical positions toward Israel were the ones who during these felt sidelined at the university during the 1980s and 1990s. There were almost always Israeli military officers among the small group of doctoral students interested in international relations, and prominent pro-Israeli diplomats were frequent visitors. I had to get permission from the State Department to allow a PLO diplomat, Shafik al-Hout to speak as a guest in my seminar, and it was granted on condition that he not deliver a public

lecture. Even such a prominent Princeton graduate as Edward Said came to the university to speak in my classes, and never as an invited public speaker.


Many students from the Arab world in this period complained to me about this one-sided pro-Israeli atmosphere at Princeton, and in an effort to counter its presence a wealthy student from Morocco who had suffered from Orientalist pedagogy during his Princeton years took it upon himself to fund a parallel research center with the express purpose of giving students and scholars an alternative voice more open to a sympathetic treatment of issues on the policy agenda affecting Islam and Palestinian aspirations. Such an institutional initiative was a breadth of fresh air so far as the intellectual and political mood was concerned, diluting to some extent the pro-Zionist atmosphere that had dominated the university during my period as a faculty member.


Oren’s undisguised hostility to Edward Said’s Orientalism is a further revelation of his zealous hostility to all intellectual efforts to widen the conversation on Israel and Palestine. In a wildly overstated observation, Oren writes that “Said’s book became canonical in many Middle East Studies Departments, pressuring students and professors to prove that they were not Orientalists.” [loc. 576] To Oren, Said’s book was abhorrent because it alleged that the academic study of the Arab world was shaped by racist, imperialistic, and European ethnocratic assumptions of cultural superiority, and further that Said’s prime targets, such as Bernard Lewis, should be

discarded as purveyors of false consciousness. [Loc. 567, 576] In reaction to these supposed pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli trends, Oren felt “compelled to stand my ground. I worked to expose Said’s Orientalism’s screed.” [Loc. 576] To describe Said’s seminal book as ‘a screed’ is polemical at best, and more likely an indication that Oren had never bothered to read Said’s careful exploration of his hypotheses by literary and cultural analysis. After so much fire and brimstone, Oren’s main refutation of Said seems to be his rather trivial contention that the earliest Middle Eastern scholarship was the work of scholars from Germany and Hungary, “neither of whom colonized the region.” [Loc. 585] This strikes me as a silly argument, considering that both countries were firmly in the Western camp, and shared an Orientalist worldview. But no matter, as Oren professed purpose is to deflect to the extent possible criticisms of Israel. Oren does make some perfunctory remarks acknowledging that Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians in 1948 and establishment of settlements after 1967 might have something to do with growing criticism of Israel. This is mere window dressing as Oren makes it clear that whatever wrongs Israel might commit is beside the point, and a diversion from his us or them worldview: “The terrorists, together with their Arab and Iranian state supporters, would still try to massacre us even if every settlement were removed.” [Loc. 588] This kind of declamation exposes the raw tissue of Oren’s beliefs—that hostility toward Israel is at bottom anti-Semitism and premised on an absolute Arab rejection of Israel’s right to exist in Palestine as a Jewish state. This is a convenient and opportunistic standpoint, trivializing criticism of Israel, which should always deserves support as the sole Western style democracy in the entire region. Oren indirectly inverts the argument of Orientalism, claiming that hostility to Israel is based on ethnocratic criteria rather than being a reaction to Israel’s violation of fundamental Palestinian rights, which serve the Arab world as a respectable rationalization for hatred of Jews.


Oren grew up in a Catholic neighborhood in West Orange, New Jersey where he experienced daily bullying because he was a Jew. This early contact with anti-Semitism was combined with a strong Jewish involvement based on family, community, and synagogue, giving Oren, while growing up, an attachment to Zionism and Israel as a sanctuary for diaspora Jews. He became a Zionist youth activist, departing for Israel at a young age, and never looked back. He combined ardent participation in all things Israeli while maintaining a strong attachment to America. It is not surprising that Oren developed the state of mind of a dual citizen. He movingly describes the day that he was compelled to renounce his American citizenship so that he could become the official representative of Israel in the United States. This act of choice caused anguish for Oren as it violated the reality of his depth experience of dual identity that never dissipated regardless of the legal niceties.


It is very tempting to compare my childhood and adult life with that of Oren, and reflect upon the starkness of the differences. I lived in Manhattan as a child in a middle class neighborhood dominated by Jews, and attended a private school that was almost deserted on Jewish holidays, which were totally ignored on the secular homefront. At the same time my immediate societal environs were sufficiently assimilationist so as to make it seem natural to observe Christmas by singing Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and decorating a Christmas tree. My parents, although both Jewish, were completely post-ethnic in temperament and behavior, as well as post-religious in their beliefs. Already as an adolescent I challenged their secular humanist leanings by becoming interested in religion, and later explored several religious traditions. This inclination toward an embrace of religion may have resulted from the fact that as a child I was cared for by a young Irish immigrant who was a devout Catholic, and took me with her frequently to attend mass at a nearby church, which I found satisfying despite the mysteries of Latin Rite being lost on me. This early exposure to religion has led a non-denominational spirituality throughout my life, but left me without much attraction for institutional affiliations with organized religions.


Also, the rise of Nazism did not impact strongly on my experience during childhood. I had no known relative that was ever in a concentration camp, and the Holocaust seemed horrible, but something that happened in Europe, which seemed distant and remote to in those years. From the age of seven I was raised by my father as a single parent. He was a conservative, strongly anti-Communist lawyer and historian who managed in his spare time to write a couple of widely read books about the rise of Japanese sea power. My father, a tender and loving man in concrete relationships, lacked public empathy. He deeply disliked FDR’s New Deal, accepted the judicial logic of strict constitutionalism, and wrote a book attacking Roosevelt’s plan to circumvent the Supreme Court by enlarging the number of judges through appointment of individuals who would uphold his policies. These parental politics, and my status as a de facto only child, led me to interact with prominent people in several fields as an adolescent, but also to drift inconsequentially in search of an authentic identity. Israel and Zionism were completely remote from this search. I learned from my father that what mattered was national identity, not the sort of tribal reality that Oren acknowledges as an essential part of his experience of being Jewish. As I matured, and decided on the study of law without have clear career goals, my orientation became increasingly anti-vocational. From this standpoint, I hoped to practice ‘international law’ or find something to do that had nothing to do with being a ‘real’ lawyer. With such an outlook, I ended up focusing on international law and law in India while still a law student, and due to a series of coincidences, was hired upon graduation on an emergency basis (substituting for a faculty member who had suddenly fallen ill) to teach some courses for the year at the College of Law at Ohio State University. I ended up spending five years on the campus in Columbus, almost immediately discovering that academic life was congenial, providing me with autonomy and interesting friends at the very beginning of a professional career.


It was in this period that I began to develop a political identity. While still a law student, I had instinctively opposed McCarthyism, and was surprised that my classmates at the supposedly very liberal Yale Law School were generally unwilling to sign a petition opposing blacklisting of so-called ‘Fifth Amendment Communists’ for fear that it would hurt their job prospects. At Ohio State I became involved as a non-tenured faculty member in litigation against several members of the Board of Trustees alleging that as they were owners of off-campus student housing that unconstitutionally discriminated against African American student renters they were personally responsible for violation of rights. Although a favorable settlement of the case was a source of satisfaction, what turned out to be more influential for my political development in this period was interaction with progressive graduate students at Ohio State. And even more so was an afternoon in the university library where I started reading by accident of the French defeat in their war to retain colonial control over Indochina. I was so persuaded that afternoon by Owen Lattimore’s critique of the French colonial enterprise that it led me to became an early opponent of the Vietnam War adopting the realist premise that if the French failed, so would the United States fail, and at great cost to itself, and to its wider alignments and interests. My opposition at that time was framed by reference to arguments about international law and realist assessments of costs and benefits.

A decade later, in 1968, I accepted an invitation to visit North Vietnam as both a peace activist and academic expert on the international law aspects of the war. During this visit, relating again to this contrast with Oren, I found myself identifying with the vulnerability of the Vietnamese peasantry in response to the high-techology warfare being waged by the United States against their country, people, and nationalist aspirations. I shifted emphases from being an opponent of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam to becoming a supporter of Vietnam’s struggle for self-determination.


It became a normative preoccupation rather than a realist stance, the latter being much more respected within the Princeton environment, especially among the faculty. In the course of this political development, I had never experienced any tribalist longings to affirm my Jewish identity, and now I found myself at odds with my government, beginning to feel more comfortable with an affirmation of human identity than with the national identity derived mechanically from my American birth and citizenship, and the dynamics of socialization beneath an American flag. Long before I encountered the words of Vincent Harding, I resonated to the sentiment he movingly articulated: “I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.” Derrida, I believe, was pointing to a similar reality when he wrote and spoke of ‘a democracy to come,’ that is, a democracy not yet existing, and not even clearly envisioned beyond some humanistic values that constituted a political community with no spatial boundaries. I have never doubted the primacy of this human identity in my political consciousness, although I find that remaining dedicated to the better realization of national identity through the fulfillment of America’s promise and potential both compatible, and in a sense intertwined. I have at times envied some forms of tribal identity, especially if not enacted at the expense of others, but it never resonated existentially. I believe the interplay of tensions between tribal, national, and human identities in our life experiences goes a long way toward explaining why I see the world so differently than Oren.


Perhaps, another take on these differences, would emphasize forms of empathy that are chosen by each of us. Clearly, Oren has strong empathy when it comes to family, clan, tribe, and nation, but less so, or not visibly at all, when it comes to the human species (putting aside how becoming fully human means extending empathy to animals and even plants). I found surprising that Oren approvingly quotes Atticus, the wise lawyer hero of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, as saying, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” [Loc. 2222] In his text, I find no effort to achieve such understandings as when he deals with Palestinian militancy or Edward Said’s attack on Orientalism. It is this failure of comprehending the other that makes it accurate to brand Oren, however well educated, as primarily a tribalist and nationalist when it comes to politics, while being a very dedicated husband, father, and friend when focusing on the realm of personal relations.


For myself, I raise the historical and humanist question as to whether species survival is increasingly at risk because of the lethal rivalries produced by tribal and national agendas as reinforced by ever more sophisticated technologies of destruction and control. Thinking hopefully, the Anthropocene Age may soon witness the first species insurgency against the eco-tyrannical elites of the world, who have become the suicidal guardians of our neoliberal market forces joined in an unbreakable alliance with dominant forces of tribalism and nationalism. In moments of despair, the end-time hegemony of this unbreakable alliance are likely to retain control of species destiny, perhaps justifying their techno-violence and paralyzing surveillance by imagined struggles with ISIS-like forces, given mass credibility by a compliant, fear-mongering media. In effect, if we care about future generations and the wellbeing of the species and its natural surroundings, we must begin to think, feel, and act like an eco-insurgent.

The Undisclosed Second Paradox in Michael Walzer’s The Paradox of Liberation

20 Jun


There is little doubt that several of Michael Walzer’s contributions to political theory will long remain influential (Revolution of the Saints (1965); Just and Unjust Wars (1977); Spheres of Justice (1983)). Although his work lacks the cumulative weight of a major philosophic presence, the ideas and issues Walzer has been exploring in the last several decades with great conceptual coherence and originality. His work exhibits a consistent practical relevance to the realities of the unfolding world around us. His writing is lucid, well informed, and is mainstream enough to be non-threatening. Walzer’s worldview is congruent with widely shared ethical presuppositions prevalent among liberals in Western society. Added to this, Walzer’s writings are tinged with a socialist nostalgic edge that imparts a now harmless progressive resonance. This is somewhat soothing for all those suffering varying degrees of guilty conscience as we go on as before, enjoying life in non-sustainable consumptive Western societies.


Aside from John Rawls, Jacques Derrida, Jürgens Habermas who enjoy preeminence, only Michel Foucault, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, and Amartya Sen have had a comparable contemporary influence to that of Walzer by way of philosophic commentary on major public issues. Apart from Walzer’s strong scholarly emphasis on Judaic Studies and ideological support for Israel, it is Rorty who seems closest to Walzer in ethos, philosophic stance, and intellectual style. As I read this latest extended essay by Walzer I kept thinking of the lines from Auden’s great poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”:

                        “Time with that with this strange excuse

                        Pardoned Kipling and his views

                        And will pardon Paul Claudell

                        Pardon him for writing well”

The point being that despite often finding Walzer’s views suspect, I never find his writing dull or his ideas without force and relevance, and that maybe in the end what flourishes through time is more style than substance.


Walzer has been a strong and consistent advocate of Israel and outspoken adherent of moderate Zionism throughout his career. Sometimes his eloquent partisanship has been hidden below the surface of his theorizing, giving his undisclosed messages the status of a sub-text, adored by the faithful and repudiated by the critical. Among critics this Walzer tendency to hide his political commitments beneath his theoretical generalization, creates an impression of a rather sneaky lack of forthrightness. For instance, his influential Just and Unjust Wars can be read (without any acknowledgement from Walzer) as a show of strong support for Israel’s approach to Palestinian armed resistance that is expressed in the abstract language of the ethics of counter-terrorism. Walzer’s tendency to be not straight forward about his ideological agenda is intriguingly relevant to his latest book, The Paradox of Liberation, which sets forth a bold and challenging general thesis—that the distinct secular movements that produced national liberation in Algeria, India, and Israel a few generations ago have each most unexpectedly and progressively yielded their identities to intense religious counter-revolutions. These counter-revolutions have each sought to restore tradition and religious observance in public spaces, including the governing process. This religious turn against the secular came as an unwelcome surprise to the founding generation of national liberation leaders whose successors find themselves pushed aside by more socially conservative elites.


These secularizing movements were rooted initially in the opposite belief that only by breaking with societal traditions can liberation be achieved for a national people that is being oppressed or acutely denied its true destiny. As Walzer summarizes: “The old ways must be repudiated and overcome totally. But the old ways are cherished by many of the men and women whose ways they are. That is the paradox of liberation.” (19) In the Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions (Yale University Press, 2015). Walzer is preoccupied by this paradox, and devotes himself to its explication. He contends that the paradox arises from the tension between the mobilization of a people around the negation of that which the majority society affirms (that is, religious values) and while this negation seems useful (even to many of the religiously oriented) during the struggle against alien oppression, it will itself be negated a generation or so after liberation, a phenomenon of negating the negation that can also be understood as the return of the repressed in the form of religious resurgence. The secularists enjoyed a temporary ascendancy because they were active resisters to oppressive circumstances rather than as was the case with religiously oriented leaderships, which tended to be passive and even deferential to the status quo.


This pattern of secularist victory giving way to religion is reproduced in a nationally distinctive form in each of these specific historical circumstances by the seemingly inexplicable rise and potency of religious zeal. In each of Walzer’s three cases, the political moment of successful liberation by secularists was soon to be superseded to varying degrees by the religious moment, an entirely unexpected sequel. The liberators whether led by Ben Bella, Jawaharlal Nehru, or David Ben Gurion were modernizers who strongly believed that religion was being and should be superseded by science and rationality. This meant that religion was largely a spent force with respect to cultural identity and public policy, and should in the future be confined in its role to state ritual occasions and private devotional practice. Walzer argument explains the central misunderstanding of these secular leaders, and expresses his own hope that the religious resurgence should not be viewed as the end of the national narrative. Also, Walzer would not welcome the Algerian phase three sequel to the religious challenge by way of bloody civil war, followed by military autocracy and renewed societal passivity.


What makes the book challenging is its main prescriptive argument that runs as follows. The secular nationalists made a crucial initial mistake, according to Walzer, by basing their movement on the negation of religion rather than byseeking its incorporation. If their secularist goal was sustainable liberation, which it certainly was, then the adoption of an either/or orientation toward religion and its practice was wrong from the start. Instead the attitude of the secular liberators toward religion should have one of constructive engagement, and not negation. What this means in the context of each movement is not spelled out by Walzer. The stress is placed on a recommended (re)incorporation of religious values into the reigning secular ideology combined with sensitivity to traditional values and practices. Walzer is fully aware that his proposed approach becomes problematic as soon as it is pursued unconditionally. As he recognizes, the traditions in each of these nations denies equality to women, often in cruel and unacceptable ways. Walzer does not want secularists to give up their commitment to gender equality for the sake of reconciliation with religiously oriented sectors of society. What he encourages is a sympathetic awareness of traditional attitudes toward gender while seeking to overcome their embedded biases. As is often the case, Walzer is more persuasive in diagnosis than prescription, delineating the problems far better than finding credible solutions.


One difficulty with the framework we are offered in the book is the failure to consider the discrediting relevance of the corruption and incompetence of the liberators, which amounted to a betrayal of their promises to lead a new and happy society of free people. Whether through corruption or the failure to deliver a better life to a large portion of the population, a post-liberation mood of disillusionment takes hold in different patterns, but they share in common the search for an alternative orientation.


In other words the excitement of liberation is hard to sustain during the state-building rigors of governance, and also in most cases, the personalities suitable for liberation are not well adapted to handle the routines and typical challenges of post-liberation existence. Israel, in particular, was an outlier from these perspectives, as its claims of liberation were at all stages shadowed by doubts as a result of fears, threats, uncertainties, and opposition to its underlying legitimacy claim from within its ethnic ranks and more so from those it sought to subdue by either displacement or subjugation. The anti-colonial liberations of India and Algeria never faced such basic challenges to its core identity.


There is for me a closely related yet more fundamental problem with the misleading comparisons relied upon by Walzer to develop his argument. India and Algeria were genuine liberation movements waged by indigenous nations to rid from the entire territorial space of their respective countries a deeply resented, exploitative, and domineering foreign presence. To place Israel in such a category is to foster several deep misunderstandings—there is the master presupposition that the Zionist movement is being properly treated as a case of ‘national liberation’ even if the Jewish nation was not engaged in reclaiming control over its residential territorial space. Jews were scattered in enclaves around the world when the Zionist movement was launched and most of its leaders relied on biblical claims to Palestine to ground its territorial claims. Although the early debate about whether a homeland in Uganda would fulfill Zionist goals illuminates the distinctiveness of the Zionist quest. Beyond this Zionists became legally dependent upon British colonialist support to carry forward their efforts to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine with the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. Zionism cannot be meaningfully regarded as a revolt against alien rulership, although in its last pre-state stage it did try to expel Britain from Palestine so as to compel an abandonment of its mandatory administration. Unlike standard anti-colonial movements, Zionism is more correctly perceived as an activist effort to overcome the realities of diaspora Judaism confronted by the persecution, discrimination, and assimilation in an array of national settings.


Given this background, it seems dubious, indeed polemical, to treat Israel’s establishment as an instance of ‘liberation,’ a terminology that obscures the centrality of the ‘dispossession’ experienced by the majority indigenous Palestinian Arab population in the course of Israel’s acquisition of statehood. In passing, Walzer does somewhat acknowledge some of these differences that distinguish Israel from India and Algeria, but regards them as inconsequential contextual issues that do not raise for him any serious doubts about the basic reasonableness of regarding Israel as coming into being as a result of national liberation led by the Zionist movement. Walzer’s focus is rather upon whether Israel fits the pattern of a secularist phase one giving way to a religious phase two, leaving us with a big question mark as to whether there will be a phase three, and if so, whether it will reflect Walzer’s hopes for a belated constructive engagement with religion rather than an Alegerian style relapse into civil strife and autocracy. Although Walzer expresses his personal wish for the Palestinians to have their own sovereign state (53) at some point, this wish is never contextualized or concretized by reference to criteria of equality between the two peoples. The Palestinian national liberation movement is discussed by Walzer as correlative to his main thesis. Walzer notes that even prior to achieving Palestinian statehood, the PLO’s secular leadership has been increasingly challenged and even discredited by a rising Islamist alternative. (53-55)


This reference to the Palestinian national movement is an interesting aside in relation to Walzer’s essential set of contentions relating to the paradox he is depicting, but it fails to engage the issue I find central, which is whether Israel’s establishment can qualify as an instance of national liberation. To be sure Zionism generated an extraordinary international movement that overcame many formidable obstacles that stood in its way, and none more formidable than an indigenous Palestinian Arab majority population that did its best to prevent Zionists from reaching their goal of statehood on behalf of the Jewish people. Although Walzer notes that the early secularist Zionist leaders stressed a commitment to equality when articulating their ideas about the preferred relationship between Jews and non-Jews in the Israeli state. In my view, it is questionable in the extreme whether this idealistic goal ever represented the actual intentions of Zionist leaders. It should be evident to all that such egalitarianism was never expressive of Israeli policies and practices on the ground from even before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.


More problematic still, was the dispossession and displacement from the land of most of the indigenous Arab population that had been living in Palestine for many generations. Surely this Palestinian experience is profoundly different in character and consequence from the repudiation of exploitative rule of a country by a foreign, usually European, elite and its native collaborators. Again Walzer’s sub-text, whether consciously intended or not, seems to be the retroactive legitimation of Israel’s claim to be an example of national liberation of the sort achieved by Algeria and India, and hence to be situated in the highest echelon of 20th century state-building undertakings. As many of us realize this ‘liberation’ was for Palestinians a catastrophe, known by its Arabic word nakba.


Overall, this is a peculiar book, developing a general view of religious counter-revolutions against secular movements of national liberation, but due to the inclusion of Israel as a principal case despite not seeming to fit, there is an implicit polemical motivation that involves whitewashing the criminality of Israel’s emergence. Acknowledging such criminality is not meant to be a covert argument for delegitimizing the present state of Israel that has now been in existence for more than 67 years, and is a member state of the United Nations. My critique of Walzer, in other words, is not meant to lay the groundwork for a second Palestinian dispossession, this time directed toward Jews. I side with Edward Said in a commitment to fair future for both peoples based on their shared rights under international law and on diplomacy to negotiate compromises where rights overlap. I do agree with Said that such a jointly conceived future cannot be undertaken without a prior Israeli acknowledgement of the recent past as epitomized by the nakba, and such rituals of redress must include a formal apology to the Palestinian people for the suffering they have for so long endured.


In the end, the paradox that Walzer dwells upon is less consequential than the paradox he ignores: namely, that what is being represented as ‘national liberation’ of the Jewish people by Zionist ideologues is more objectively presented as the ‘national oppression’ of the Palestinian people. This oppression is experienced in different sets of circumstances: as a subjugated minority; as an occupied people; as a nation of refugees and exiles; as a community of resistance aspiring to Palestinian ‘national liberation’; as communities victimized by state terrorism. This second paradox is that what is portrayed as ‘liberation’ for one people serves at the same time as pretext and rationale for the ‘oppression’ of another people. In my view, the second paradox raised life or death questions for both peoples to a far greater extent than does the first paradox that seems to control Walzer’s own Zionist imagination.


Michael Ignatieff, whose political orientation resembles that of Michael Walzer, in the course of a mostly laudatory review of The Paradox of Liberation confirms my suspicion that the undisclosed intent of this book is to connect Israel’s fate with that of such exemplary liberation movements as those that took place in India and Algeria. Consider Igantieff’s revealing language innocently proclaiming this reading: “While Israel remains the central focus of The Paradox of Liberation, Walzer has made a major contribution to the question of what’s happening there simply by arguing that Israel may not be so special after all: the same kinds of problems may be occurring in other states created by national liberation movements. He compares what happened to Ben-Gurion’s vision with what befell Jawaharlal Nehru’s in India and Ahmed Ben Bella’s in Algeria.” [Michael Ignatieff, “The Religious Spector Haunting Revolution,” NY Review of Books, 19 June 2015] In a stunning instance of ‘benign neglect’ Ignatieff never once even mentions the relevance of Palestinian dispossession in his lengthy

assessment of Walzer’s version of Israel’s ‘national liberation’ story. Instead, he makes the opposite point, suggesting that Walzer in an indirect way diminishes Israel by his implicit denial of Israeli exceptionalism. As the language quoted above seems to suggest, Israel is upgraded by its similarities with (rather than differences from) other liberation narratives.


In closing, it is plausible, even morally, to argue that the Zionist cause was in keeping with a variety of attempts over the course of the last century by many nations and peoples to possess a state of their own that is defined by ethnic or religious boundaries that transcend in psycho-political relevance geographic boundaries, which incidentally have yet to be authoritatively drawn to delineate Israel’s territorial scope. Yet what is not plausible is to lump together the Israeli experience with that of India and Algeria just because the founding generation of leaders shared a secular ideology that was later subjected to a religious challenge once the state was established. For India and Algeria their respective anti-colonial struggles each possessed its originality, but without raising doubts about the delineation of the scope of territorial sovereignty and without needing to coercing the native population to submit or leave. This became integral to Zionism in the course of the struggle between opposed nationalisms, with expulsion necessary to ensure Jewish dominance over the development and governance of the country.


If Jewish biblical claims to territorial sovereignty are dismissed, as surely should be a major premise of secular thinking, then the Zionist project needs to be conceived of as essentially one of colonizing a foreign country. The presence of a deeply rooted Jewish minority, less than 5% when the Zionist movement got started in the late 19th century, does not make Palestine any less of a foreign country from the perspective of Jews who settled in Palestine in a spirit of missionizing zeal. As Walzer himself makes clear, Zionists were self-consciously opposed to the Judaism they had experienced in the diaspora that was premised on passivity and deference to the rulers of their country of residence and religiously expressed by the message of patience, the religious duty to wait for the Messiah, the only religiously acceptable experience of liberation. The founders of Zionism, and its current leaders, were determined to reconstitute Jewish life on the basis of assertiveness and even aggressiveness, overcoming the alleged diasporic legacy of passivity, and this feature of their movement has been transformative for even religious Jews. From this perspective, the historic triumphal event was undoubtedly Israel’s victory in the 1967 War, which became inspirational for diasporic Jewish communities identified more strongly than ever with the state of Israel, and questioned their own traditional postures of passivity.


My contention is that Walzer’s paradox dissolves as soon as the claim to categorize Zionism as a mode of ‘national liberation’ is deconstructed, while the second paradox remains to be explained. This second paradox dwells on the moral and political interplay of what transpires when the liberation of the self is organically linked to the dispossession of the other. In a postscript (134-146) Walzer explains why America does not belong with his three cases, which is because America’s original founding never truly embraced secularism. What he might have also said, but doesn’t, is that what the founding of America and Israel have most in common is the dispossession of the native populations, and it is this foundational fact that shapes the state-building experiences of both countries more than either has been willing to acknowledge. In this sense, we might invite Walzer to write a sequel on this second more consequential paradox, but realizing that such an invitation is certain to be refused. Its acceptance would implicitly repudiate the ideological benefits and normative authority of the first paradox that treats the establishment of Israel as if it is entitled to be regarded as one of the illustrious examples of 20th century anti-colonial struggles.



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