Tag Archives: Middle East

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.



Is the Middle East America’s to Lose?

14 Jun


I was appalled by the embedded colonialism of a recent issue of The Economist [June 6-12, 2015], boldly proclaiming its mood of geopolitical angst on its cover titling its featured story “Losing the Middle East.” Any glimmer of doubt about the intent of the magazine’s editors is removed by displaying a somewhat bedraggled American flag on the cover accompanied by the sub-title “Why American must not abandon the region.” The rationale offered for this political imperative within this most revered journal of intelligent establishment guidance strikes me as even more appalling than this provocative packaging giving the plot away before we even begin reading the story.


What The Economist Proposes


The argument set forth rests on the colonialist assumption that the Middle East is America’s to lose, although not quite, as the lead editorial ends with an enigmatic distinction: “The idea has taken root that America no longer has what it takes to run the Middle East. That it ever could was an illusion. But America has a vital part to play. If it continues to stand back, everyone will be worse of—including the Americans.” We are never told whether the catchall ‘everyone’ includes the people of the region, and whether they even matter in the calculations of this organ of elite opinion primarily concerned with the wellbeing of the West, which is linked seamlessly to the operations of the neoliberal world economy. The strong implication of this lead editorial, never adequately explained, is that America should intervene more throughout the Middle East to reverse, or at least contain, present disruptive trends. Why this is so is never really explored beyond the misleading supposition that American military capabilities can improve the situation if brought more directly to bear and without explaining why, insisting that existing alignments with political actors in the region, regardless of their character, should be reinforced and strengthened.


The pragmatic side of what The Economist seems to be proposing is two-fold:First, a militarist prescription for the pursuit of America’s regional interests, which are identified as counter-terrorism, oil, and preventing nuclear proliferation; secondly, a willingness to accept contradictions in protecting these interests, such as siding with Iran against IS [Islamic State] in Iran and opposing Iran in Syria. It is within this framing that “[t]he Middle East desperately needs a new, invigorated engagement from America. That would not only be within America’s power, it would also be in America’s interest.” Its central critique is that President Obama’s policy is too weak and wavering to be effective, which is clarified by the insistence that “[h]e must be ready to use force. Mr. Obama’s taboo about deploying American soldiers against IS in Iraq has led to a self-defeating shortage of special forces to guide air strikes to their targets.” In their view, Obama’s approach has created a ‘vacuum’ that has “exacerbated the strife and disorder.” The fuller story in the body of the magazine also welcomes the prospect that either Hilary Clinton or any of the Republican presidential hopefuls seem determined to be far readier than Obama to intervene forcibly throughout the region.


Behind this scathing criticism of Obama is the evident belief that America’s geopolitical muscle if applied with skill, militarily and diplomatically, could have lessened the chaos and violence that now pervades the region. Such an argument seems deeply flawed. To begin with, it is hardly accurate to portray Obama as standing aloof from the struggles going on in the Middle East. It is actively militarily engaged against IS and Syria and is in the process of becoming militarily reengaged in Iraq at the present time. It was a strong advocate of the regime changing NATO intervention against Qaddafi’s dictatorial rule in Libya, and it has quietly gone along with the counter-revolutionary shift in Egypt that destroyed the hopes of humane governance, at least temporarily, that surfaced with such excitement in early 2011 throughout the region. My own view is that this degree of American military and diplomatic engagement brought more, not less, chaos to the Middle East. And now, as if to take the critique of The Economist immediately to heart the U.S. Government has announced plans to pre-position heavy weaponry and military personnel in several points in the region so as to be in a better position to intervene rapidly should further crises emerge.


Criticizing the Obama Approach


In my view, the burden of persuasion should always be upon those who favor greater reliance on military force whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. Without acknowledging any inconsistency, The Economist concedes that the Bush invasion of 2003 and subsequent occupation of Iraq was a disaster, illustrative of imprudently intervening in a massive fashion. As every major effort at intervention by the United States has revealed, upping the ante by intervening a bit more, is a slippery slope that has eventually led to defeat after defeat, most vividly evident in the trajectory and outcome of the Vietnam War. This unquestioning militarization of the political imagination, which is what comes through in this sharp criticism of Obama’s approach, does not even pause to consider the benefits of allowing the dynamics of self-determination to control political outcomes in the 21st century.


An unlearned lesson of geopolitics in the post-colonial world is that the power balance has decisively shifted as between intervention by the West and national forces of resistance. These forces have learned to be more effective in their combat tactics, but above all, have come to understand that time is on their side, that a foreign intervener will give up the quest at some point implicitly acknowledging that military dominance is not able to impose a political outcome at acceptable costs. This is not just a matter of democratic societies becoming impatient in the face of a drawn out distant wars with questionable justifications, which causes death and injury to its young citizens, but the deeper realization that the post-colonial politics of resistance over time subverts the will and morale of the intervener. This happened as clearly to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan as it did to the United States in Vietnam, or later in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is more of a reflection of the structure of shifting power relations than of a weakening of ideological resolve.


The central metaphor of ‘losing the Middle East’ presupposes that it was America’s to lose rather than an acknowledgement of the empowerment of the peoples of the region and their governments with respect to the control of national and regional destinies. The metaphor of winning and losing is a colonialist framing of geopolitics that amorally vindicates hegemonic ambitions, especially the virtues of Western control. It gives priority to Western interests in a non-Western geographic domain, and pretends that such an orientation conveniently also happens to be an expression of fidelity to Western values, including democracy and human rights, and of benefit to the affected societies. No where in the extensive article are doubts raised about the unconditionality of support for Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies that oppress their populations and subject women to humiliating social constraints or to Israel that has dispossessed most Palestinians from their own homeland, and held the rest captive.


The Economist has the temerity to couple its sharp criticism of Obama’s allegedly soft diplomacy by anticipating what is misleadingly described as a “return to the center” that is expected to occur after the U.S. presidential elections in 2016: “The next American president may well be warmer towards Israel, and more willing to turn a blind eye to new settlements in the occupied territories. He or she might do more to reassure Gulf monarchies and speak more sternly to Iran.” What a strange set of hopeful expectations! Obama turned a pretty blind eye to Israeli settlement expansion during the last several years, even instructing his representatives to vote in isolation to shield Israel from UN censure over settlement expansion. His administration has also gone along with the basic approach of the Gulf monarchies, although timidly voicing some recent doubts about the wisdom of respected Saudi air strikes directed against the Houthis in Yemen.


And it is astonishing to note that the Obama presidency is situated by The Economist in the political spectrum as left of center? The idea of returning to the center implies that American regional policy these last six years had somehow veered toward the left. And therefore, for me what The Economist calls the center would more accurately be described as the right, or even the hard right. In most respects, including policy toward Iran, Iraq, and Israel, Obama’s essential approach has been to sustain continuity with the policies of the George W. Bush presidency. There was the same willingness to threaten Iran with a military attack if seen to be crossing the nuclear threshold, a similar stance toward supporting the Shia governing process in Iraq, and the same endorsement of Israel’s defiance of international law, as well as insulating its nuclear weapons capability from even a whispered challenge.


There are more fundamental deficiencies in this analysis by The Economist of what has gone wrong in the region and what to do about it. There is a seemingly blind eye toward the relevance of the history of Western responsibilities for the unfolding political ordeal that is being enacted throughout the Middle East. This perspective overlooks such defining antecedents as the playing out of British and French overt colonial ambitions in the aftermath of World War I and of the statist goals of the Zionist Movement as abetted by British policies during its period of mandate administration. Imposing arbitrary boundaries on the region by Europe meant establishing unnatural political communities that could be held together (or broken apart) only by violence from above (or below). In a revealing respect Lebanon is a poster child of this era of Sykes-Picot diplomacy, having been carved out of Ottoman Syria to satisfy France’s egocentric craving at the time for a colonial possession in the region with a Christian majority.


The Economist’s policy prescriptions are also notable for their failure even to mention international law or the United Nation. These normative sources of authority and constraint are evidently seen as of utterly no concern to the geopolitical optic through which the magazine’s august editors perceive policy options for the region. But if China were to assess its approach to the sovereignty disputes involving the Spratly Islands with the same cavalier attitudes toward the relevance of normative authority, the West would be up in arms, persuasively contending that such behavior is dangerously destructive of a moderate political order in the Pacific.


The Old Geopolitics versus the New Geopolitics


Even when it comes to the pragmatic level of analysis, I find that The Economist’s sense of editorial guidance is woefully shortsighted. Let’s accept their focus on terrorism, oil, and nuclear proliferation even accepting as accurate their portrayal of American interests. Surely, the best way to combat jihadism is a measured withdrawal from the region. As for oil, the Arab producers in the region have shown through the years that their policies are market-driven with scant attention to ideology as shown by their readiness to throw the Palestinians under the bus. Most persuasive of all, nuclear proliferation would be best prevented by establishing a nuclear free zone in the Middle East, which all governments except Israel favor, and have done so for several years. In other words, the idea of trying to fill the so-called vacuum following the European retreat, which began during World War II and was consummated by the 1956 Suez War, with American military power and diplomatic muscle epitomizes the ‘old geopolitics’ of Western hegemony rather than relying on a potential ‘new geopolitics’ of self-determination.


There is, of course, little assurance that the outcome of the interplay of domestic and regional forces in the Middle East will be ethically satisfying or politically stable, but there is at least some likelihood that going with the post-colonial historical flow will produce better results than further reliance on the United States to continue battling the strong currents of nationalism. This clarion call for enhanced trust in the nostalgic imaginary of the old geopolitics seems historically tone deaf. It represents a reliance on the old geopolitics of militarism that should have been discredited long ago by its record of failure and its incredibly high opportunity costs. At the very least, adopting this new geopolitics of self-determination might enable the politicians and citizenry of the United States to take a much needed and long overdue look within its own borders, and devote much more of its imaginative and material resources to creating a humane society at home, starting with its physical and moral infrastructure.


One good starting point for such a program is with the language of political discourse. This idea of the West ‘losing’ a country or, as with The Economist’s cover story, losing a whole region, should be banished from the 21st century political imaginary, and with it the realization that such a concept of winning and losing is worse than anachronistic, it is obsolete. It might be helpful to recall that for many years the American political right accused the U.S. Government of ‘losing China’ only to discover later in the Cold War that China had become a valuable geopolitical ally in the core struggle with the Soviet Union, and still later, that China as much as any country, keeps the world economy from unraveling.

When a Terrorist Is Not a Terrorist

20 Feb



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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


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


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


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



























































































Looking Back on World War I One Hundred Years Later: Four Mixed Messages

10 Nov

[Prefatory Note: A few days ago I gave a lecture in that was the second annual occasion honoring the memory of a beloved New Zealand peace activist, Dorothy Brown. My host for the occasion was the National Centre of Peace and International Studies, University of Otago, Dunedin, NZ, where two days later I gave another lecture, “Obstacles to Peace in the Middle East.”]



Looking Back on World War I One Hundred Years Later: Four Mixed Messages

(Dorothy Brown Memorial Lecture, Auckland, New Zealand, November 8, 2014)


Identity Politics a Century Later


I admit to surprise that a place as distant from Europe as New Zealand would have had such a strong interest in World War I until I looked a bit deeper into its relationship to that war and to the country’s place sense of imperial duty or citizenship at that time. Discovering that more that 100,000 New Zealanders participated in the Great War as either soldiers or nurses in a population of just over a million exhibited the extraordinary bonds prevailing between the people and government of NZ and Great Britain, a monarchy acenter of a global empire that still was widely accepted as the mother country, exercising control over its foreign dominions that were neither fully colonies nor yet completely independent states. Such an appreciation of the bond is further strengthened by the realization that of those New Zealanders who went to war 16,697 died and another 41,317 were wounded resulting in an astounding casualty rate of 58%, which was considerably higher than either Canada or Australia. In view of such losses it is hardly surprising that Auckland built an imposing war memorial museum honoring the memory of those who fought in World War I.


New Zealand also participated in World War II in a similar spirit of Commonwealth solidarity despite the formal loosening of the imperial ties as a result of the 1931 Statute of Westminster. It may have been relevant that the Pacific dimension of the war made the prospect of a Japanese victory appear dangerous for the security of New Zealand, and hence posed the kind of direct threat to both New Zealand and Australia that was not present in 1914. This security dimension validated New Zealand’s involvement in World War II from a realist perspective of state interests, reinforcing the psychological identification of the interests of the two countries. I wonder what New Zealand would do if Britain become engaged in a future major war. It raises questions of whether national values, sentimental memories, and current identity has moved away from what might call ‘the settler colonial stage’ to an outlook weighing national interests, which is the more typical approach of sovereign states confronting the momentous choice of assessing its security interests in wartime situations. It is a deep challenge for democratic societies, especially when account that any such an engagement in non-defensive wars is a call upon citizens to risk their life and limb on behalf of the nation, sometimes for might seem to many a remote, and even dubious, political cause. I cannot help but wonder whether New Zealand continues to possess this mentality of unquestioning solidarity and deference that in the past has so automatically linked its national destiny with that of Britain considering differences in national consciousness and threat perceptions, as well as the changed status of war in international law? Or is there a divided consciousness present in the country between conservatives who continue to give great weight to the empire rechristened as ‘the Commonwealth’ years ago and more liberal or progressively minded New Zealanders who think either more nationally or even may be beginning to view themselves as global citizens.


It occurs to me as an outsider that a comparison of national identity in 1914 and 2014 must be quite illuminating in relation to such issues of shifts in prevailing national identity as would such a comparison be for my country where the shift from isolationism to globalism has been so dramatic, and in many respects, disastrous. It seems also that the enduring impact of the Cold War has been to move both Australia and New Zealand a bit further from Britain and closer to America, illustrating a sense of increased dependence on American military prowess should New Zealand’s security ever become directly threatened.


I think also of the orientation of American foreign policy that continues to give some weight to Anglo-American traditions of solidarity that developed over the course of the last century, but mainly conditions its involvements in war on the basis of self-interested realist calculations of national interest combined with strategic concerns associated with geopolitical ambition. It should be remembered that unlike New Zealand, in the world of 1914, the United States had to overcome its break with Britain in its war of independence as well as its strong traditional stance of noninvolvement in European wars. The U.S. did not enter the war until towards the end of 1917 and then when provoked, in part, by unrestricted German submarine warfare, as well as being disturbed by the ideological consequences of a German victory. Of course, in this cross-Atlantic relationship, it has for decades become Britain that subordinated its normalcy as a state to what became in Britain an unpopular willingness to follow wherever the United States leads, as in the disastrous Iraq War during which the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was often derided as ‘Bush’s poodle.’ It is also relevant to recall that back in 2013, the House of Commons refused to back Prime Minister Cameron’s call for air strikes in Syria in response to an alleged major use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, and just recently has again annoyed Washington by calling on the British Government to recognize Palestinian statehood.


I raise these preliminary questions mainly in the spirit of curiosity as to how those living in this country now view their past history in relation to the imperatives national and human security in the present global context. In my visit to the country more 30 years ago, I became involved in the then controversial policy of disallowing American naval vessels suspected of carrying nuclear weapons to make use of NZ ports, and recall that the debate centered on an interplay of benefits and detriments to NZ as a member of ANZUS, the Pacific alliance that was part of an American-led network of alliances, as well as the status under international law and morality of this weaponry of mass destruction. It is worth contemplating whether in this century alliance geopolitics and regional trade and investment relations has gradually come to overwhelm the more ethnically and historically valued multi-state frameworks of the Commonwealth. Now that New Zealand has been recently elected to the UN Security Council, which is itself a notable achievement for a small state in a hotly contested competition, might not the stage be set for a move toward a more cosmopolitan worldview to take hold here in the country? Such a posture would be widely appreciated in other parts of the world, especially if New Zealand began to act as a global voice of conscience that was as concerned with promoting the human interest as it is with protecting its national interest.


Learning from the First World War


Let me make a confession of sorts. When I was first told that the subject of this talk should be a set of reflections on memories of the First World War I had a mild panic attack, realizing that my historical knowledge of the period was grossly inadequate to fulfill such an assignment. I conveyed my anxiety to the conveners who thankfully took pity, allowing me to consider the legacies of the First World War rather than to reflect on how we now remember these momentous events of a century ago. I found this altered challenge more to my likely. I came to realize that the enduring reverberations of World War I tell us far more about present trials and tribulations in world politics than most of us appreciate. I was struck in this regard by a passage in Hannah Arendt’s great book The Origins of Totalitarianism: “The days before and the days after the first World War are separated not like the end of an old and beginning of a new period, but like the day before and the day after an explosion. Yet this figure of speech is as inaccurate as are all others, because the quiet which settles down after a catastrophe has never come to pass. The first explosion set off a chain reaction in which we have been caught ever since and which nobody seems able to stop. The first World War exploded the European comity of nations beyond repair, something which no other war had ever done.” [267] This is an extraordinary statement that seems an exaggeration when we first take account of its grandiose claims, but as I will try to show, this assessment remains essentially accurate more than fifty years after Arendt’s book was published. For most of us the impacts of World War I are still grossly under-appreciated. So much has changed in the world that such a a distant war is mainly regarded as one more historical occasion buried in the realities of its time. In my view such a perception should be corrected. As I will argue, for instance, the terrifying turmoil now going on in the Middle East can be traced back to some fundamentally wrong decisions made in the peace diplomacy that followed the war, and cannot be properly understood or addressed without appreciating its World War I roots.


There is one misleading dimension of Arendt’s words, the implied Euro-centric character of world order as an enduring reality. In important respects, Europe since losing her colonies after World War II has become marginalized as a major participant in shaping world history. This assertion is not meant to deny that Europe was clearly responsible for setting in motion the events that shook the foundations that existed a hundred years ago, and then and now pose obstacles in the search for peace, justice, and even stability. Such global developments as the world hegemonic role of the United States, the rise of China, neoliberal globalization, the emergence of the BRICS makes any projection of a Euro-centric world as simplistic and not very relevant in 2014. Despite this it remains crucially relevant to grasp even if belatedly, the 1914 reverberations that persist. Achieving a better understanding of these reverberations may help to make our world a bit more secure, more just, and less prone to violence.


In this spirit, I have chosen four sets of developments that owe their origins and unfolding to the disruptive impacts of World War I. In part, these developments arose because of various efforts to vindicate the immense suffering and sense of loss resulting from the war. Both idealists and realists strained to make the peoples of Europe and their allies feel that the sacrifices made in the war would be justified by the gains associated with the peace. For some this involved enjoying the spoils of victory as measured mainly be extending the colonial reach. For others, a pattern also present following the Second World War, but revealingly not after the Cold War, to build a future world order that would discourage, if not prevent, the recurrence of major wars in the future.


Political Extremism. First of all, was the recognition that World War I and its aftermath had profoundly dislocating effects on societal coherence and political authority throughout Europe. The war is widely believe to be responsible for unleashing polarizing social forces dedicated to overturning the established order, pointing in the opposite political directions of revolutionary change from below and totalitarian rule from above. These strong political demands exhibited the extreme and complex alienation of contending social classes in several of the countries experiencing the traumas of war. What eventuated were a lethal mixture of domestic and international ideological orientations associated with a variety of fascist and communist political movements, most dramatically producing both the Russian Revolution and the rise in Germany of National Socialism. The messianic militarism of fascism (and Japanese imperialism) produced confrontations with the liberal democracies and with Soviet communism that reached a climax with the outbreak of World War II. This rise of extremisms created as its dialectical legacy a political resolve by the victors, aside from the Soviet Union, to do their best to avoid embittering the defeated nations. The Western allies went further by making a strong effort to restore these devastated countries to economic and political normalcy as soon as possible. In this regard the occupations of Germany and Japan, absorbing the lessons associated with some of the mistakes made in the aftermath of World War I exerted their influence in such a way as to nurture political moderation and hostility toward extremism in the defeated countries. With sensitivity to the culture of these defeated countries, making such moves as retaining the emperor system in Japan, the enemies of yesterday quickly and willingly became friends and allies in the conflict patterns taking shape after 1945. Such a reversal was prompted by the second phase of the struggle of moderate governments against political extremism, this time taking the form of the long Cold War, whose conduct managed to avoid the curse of a third world war that would likely have been fought with nuclear weapons. With the collapse of Communism and the disintegration of the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe, and the accompanying triumph of Liberalism, there occurred in the West a brief exultant mood of triumphalism captured best by Francis Fukuyama’s striking image of ‘the end of history.’ Such a West-centric Hegelian interpretation of the outcome of the Cold War enjoyed a bit of added plausibility when China’s drive toward modernization under Deng Chau Ping bought this gigantic country into the neoliberal world order, which the Brizilian leader Fernando Henrique Cardozo acknowledged to be ‘the only game in town.” That is, the victory over Communism was understood as facilitating a globalized world economy that was guided by a market-driven ideology that is most commonly identified as ‘neo-liberal.’


Leaving aside the anti-Western extremisms that came to the surface in the Islamic Revolution in Iran, a cost of this complacent celebration of Western liberalism was to foster an intolerant attitude toward visionary politics, whether of a radical or utopian variety. The politically influential classes endorsed the belief that only incremental change is constructive and feasible, and that any greater political ambition necessarily plunges society, if not the world, into a descending spiral that inevitably produces terrorism and extremism. This reading of history goes back to the French Revolution as well as forward to an account of the Soviet experience, referencing Nazism along the way. Over-learning this initial lesson of the First World War is very disempowering in the present global setting where it is only ‘a necessary utopianism’ that might meet the challenges of nuclear weapons and climate change.


Unlike the rise of extremisms in the aftermath of World War I there was no comparable experience after World II. This undoubtedly partly a reflection of the reality that a large proportion of public in the occupied countries felt that their extremist leaders had brought destruction upon the country by the embrace of morally unacceptable and politically imprudent policies. It is also partly resulted from success of the United States as the prime victor quickly recasting itself in the role of principal protector against the unfinished agenda of defeating expansionist extremism. On the basis of such a feeling the Soviet Union after World War II was quickly seen to be a surviving extremism with values and goals that were antithetical to Western liberal individualism, a reality supposedly confirmed by the Soviet moves to exert permanent control over Eastern Europe. Left European intellectuals themselves later turned against the excesses Stalinism, a collection of essays by prominent personalities, and published under the intriguing title, The God that Failed.

In an important respect, the Cold War can be viewed as the final stage of an ongoing global war of being waged by moderates and capitalists against socialists and extremists, or liberals against totalitarians, that began with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo and ended with the breaking of the Berlin Wall.



Flawed Accountability. A second somewhat ambiguous reverberation from First World War were ideas about imposing some kind of accountability for violations of international law by those acting in the name of the state. The seemingly progressive idea was that there needed to be a law that overrode sovereign claims of being only accountable internally, especially in the context of aggressive war.


The impulse was confused and controversial from the outset as the insistence on accountability became intertwined with the eagerness of the winner to demonstrate that it deserve to win. In its initial expression, which seemed dubious given the origins and character of the First World War, was the idea that losers in a major war should be held collectively responsible for causing the damage and suffering and that, correspondingly, the behavior winners should not be scrutinized. The victorious governments should be at liberty to determine the punishment to be imposed. In the Versailles arrangements this took the form of requiring Germany to pay significant reparations to offset the damage its war machine had caused and to accept strict limitations on the form of military capabilities that it would be allowed to develop and possess in the future. Such a punitive peace as embodied in the Versailles Peace Treaty definitely accelerated the German descent into a struggle between extremisms, and created a national mentality of defiance and wounded pride. Such a German reaction seemed understandable as it was difficult to draw a sharp moral line between the military behavior of victors and vanquished other than by reference to the way the conflict was resolved on the battlefield, which seemed quite detached from questions of moral and legal responsibility for the war and its conduct. As a result, Germans felt bitterly betrayed by emergent political order that seemed to reject that principle of comity among sovereign states that Arendt referred, which had in the European setting treated losing states in war as no more morally reprehensible or politically dangerous than the winner.


Yet this idea that there was a moral and legal dimension to warfare that must be factored into post-war arrangements survived to live another day. It surfaced in the war crimes trials held in Germany and Japan after the Second World War, most spectacularly in the prosecution of the surviving leaders of the two countries in the much studied Nuremberg and Tokyo trials. The Nuremberg approach was generally vindicated by the consensus view that the Nazi experience was such an unprecedented assault on European values, first by so overtly launching a major aggressive warf and then by the commission of numerous atrocities in its course, especially genocide against Jews and other minorities. The Tokyo trials were far more controversial as the onset of the Pacific theater of warfare was as prompted by the deliberate encirclement and squeezing of the Japanese economy as it was by the surprise attack in 1941 on Pearl Harbor. This moral and political ambiguity is heightened as soon as one takes into consideration the failure to impose any accountability on the victors for the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or for the fire-bombing of Tokyo. The cry of ‘victors’ justice,’ the title of a book by the historian Richard Minear, seemed understandable, if not justifiable. In the German case the American prosecutor, Robert Jackson, tried to soften the one-sided approach toward individual criminal responsibility taken after World War II by declaring a Nuremberg Promise, namely that in all future wars those governments sitting in judgment in relation to the Germans would submit themselves to the same discipline of international criminal law. This Nuremberg Promise was broken by each of the victors, none of whom have ever accepted the application of a procedure of criminal accountability being applied to themselves, and have opted out to the extent possible from the activities of the International Criminal Court. The United States and Europe continue to make a political use of international criminal law by staging prosecutions of their recent enemies, including Slobadan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and Muamar Qadaffi, and finance the ICC in its focus upon the criminal wrongdoing of sub-Saharan African leaders while granting de facto impunity to the West.


In effect, the idea of criminality associated with war could have taken either of two forms, as an emergent branch of the rule of law that would apply the same standard of accountability and judgment to the victors as to the vanquished or it could accept the double standards of imposing accountability on the defeated and granting impunity to the victor. Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” expresses such a choice in more personal and universalistic language:


“Two roads diverged in a wood, and
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”



Unlike the poet, the statesmen of the world have chosen the more traveled road of political realism and geopolitics, which had long been accustomed to the amoral dualism of one law for the strong, another for the weak. This realist was concisely set forth long ago by Thucydides in the Melian Dialogue in his History of the Peloponesian Wars: “The strong do what they will, the weak what they must.” What World War I initiated was a moral/legal translation of this political tendency that liberals viewed as a step forward, conservatives generally regarded as a risky departure from realism, and progressives viewed as an hypocritical and misleading effort to seize the high moral and legal ground. The impulse was renewed after World War II, but individualized by way of war crimes trials thus abandoning the war-provoking practice of World War I that consisted of imposing onerous burdens on a defeated country at the very time when its population was struggling with the urgencies of survival in the ravaged conditions of post-war realities. It is regrettable that this idea of a punitive peace was revived in dealing with Iraq after the Gulf War of 1991 as if the lesson of World War I’s misbegotten breach of comity was irrelevant when dealing with the global South that never had enjoyed the benefits of comity.

Global Institutions. Thirdly, the horrors of warfare that caused millions of casualties and destroyed economies in the period 1914-1918, gave rise to a vibrant peace movement, and to the willingness of the peoples of Europe to look with favor toward a fundamental revision of world order based on the institutionalization of peace and security at a global level. The establishment of the League of Nations was the result, but hampered from the outset by the sovereignty oriented statesmen who dominated diplomacy, as well as by an American leadership that was ambivalent about giving up America’s traditional non-involvement in European conflicts and its related posture of isolationism based on the insulating presence of oceans on either coast. Of course, there was more to the American position as it combined this non-interference in Europe with a determination to resist European interference anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. The enunciation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 gave tangible expression to this two-sided American diplomacy.


After every major war in Europe there have been attempts to learn from the experience and avoid the recurrence of such a traumatizing and dislocating experience that had given rise to such massive suffering. This tendency was evident in every major post-war instance of diplomacy since the birth of the modern European state system in 1648. In part this was a reaction to the tendency of political leaders to fail to anticipate the true costs and harmful societal impacts of war, whatever its outcome, inducing to a concerted effort to insulate Europe from future mistakes of the same kind.


The Thirty Years War led to the Westphalian framework based on territorial sovereignty in 1648, later reinforced by legally acknowledging the right of the sovereign to determine the religion of the state. The Napoleonic Wars led to the Concert of Europe in 1815, which attempted to create collective mechanisms for resolving disputes by diplomatic negotiation rather than war and through a consensus as to the nature of legitimate government that would act collectively against the sort of revolutionary challenges posed by Napoleon. World War I produced the League of Nations and World II the UN, the Bretton Woods institutions, and encouraged the establishment of collective mechanism for mutual cooperation that evolved into the European Union.


In contrast, the Cold War produced nothing at all, perhaps demonstrating that since it was never really a war, there were no mistakes to be overcome. In retrospect this seems like a tragic failure to use the atmosphere of relief and liberation to achieve nuclear disarmament and a stronger UN. What was revealed, instead, was a geopolitical complacency and a preoccupation with taking advantage of the globalization of the world economy in line with neoliberal capitalism. The political leadership in the United States lacked imagination and the public lacked motivation. There may be a species destiny contained in this regressive learning curve. At present, the world system seems incapable of meeting any formidable global challenges to human wellbeing except during that brief window of opportunity that is opened in the immediate aftermath of a major hot war. We notice that despite widespread scientific and public agreement on the dangers posed by nuclear weaponry and climate change, the problem-solving mechanisms available in the world have not been responsive, and show no signs of being able to surmount the peaceful obstacles posed by vested bureaucratic and private sector interests. We must ask ourselves whether it would require yet another war of global proportions to shake off this disabling lethargy that is literally endangering the very survival of the human species. And given the weaponry with which such a war would likely be fought, and its dire environmental impact, whether the human race confronts the unprecedented dilemma of being unable to act effectively without a war and likely being too devastated if such a war should occur to act reconstructively.


Returning to our focus on the legacies of World War I it is certainly appropriate to note that for the first time in history the impetus to form a global institutional mechanism with the overriding mission of preventing future wars entered the mainstream, at least rhetorically. The extraordinary suffering, devastation, and societal dislocation of a long war that accomplished very little that could be called positive led to social demands to ensure that less destructive means of achieving international peace and security could be developed. As well, the missionary vision of Woodrow Wilson that called for organizing the peace in durable ways captured the imagination of the European public in ways that helped make the establishment of the League of Nations a realistic project. The concrete implementation of such a vision was obstructed by the thinly disguised colonial ambitions of Britain and France, abetted by the secret machinations of diplomats and also by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia that threatened the European established order to such an extent that a counter-revolutionary intervention was organized to reverse the outcome. Globalist impulses were also captive to American ambivalence that could not decide whether to abandon the tradition of avoiding entangling alliances, especially centered in Europe, and assert itself internationally as a global leader in peacetime as well as during large wars. The U.S. failure to join the League was certainly a blow to the hopes of those who believed that peace and security could only be preserved in the future by establishing alternatives to balance of power geopolitics, and was a deficiency corrected after World War II, but with the debilitating concession of a veto to the victorious powers who were self-anointed as the peace enforcers, except against each other, which meant that the step forward from the view of participation was nullified by the step backward in relation to political effectiveness.


Mark Mazower in his perceptive book Governing the World confirms the view that the birth of the League was “abrupt” and that war served as its “midwife.” [v] For Mazower who does not discuss the prior contributions of post-war statecraft to global reform, poses as the central question for those planning the peace after World War I, how to explain the birth of a new political idea. He considers the critical question to be why the dominance of statist views of world order seemed to give way with so little opposition to the sort of internationalism embodied in the League concept. He wants to know “why, in other words, some of the most powerful states in the world threw their weight behind the construction of a permanent peacetime world security organization and built the League of Nations.” [117] Perhaps, as Mazower doesn’t consider, the embrace of the League project was facilitated by the realization that such a feeble form of institutionalization was nothing more than window dressing that would neither inhibit colonialist diplomacy or confuse realist political leaders.


In the background were ideological issues that pointed in both directions. The League as established was at once perceived as a threat to sovereignty oriented nationalists and as too weak to carry out its mission of preserving the peace if a strong state emerged with a serious set of grievances about the status quo together with the means and will to mount a challenge by force of arms. As we all know both Germany and Italy in Europe and Japan in Asia did emerge with a revisionist agenda that could only be met by countervailing power, which underscored what was already known, that the League was useless when it came to containing aggressor states. The real test was posed by Fascism, especially as it manifested itself in the Nazi rise to power in Germany.




Destabilizing the Middle East. Fourthly, and least commonly acknowledged, was the degree to which the ‘peace’ concluded after the First World War contributed over the decades to ‘war’ in the Middle East region. This outcome resulted from the unwillingness of the European colonial powers to abide by their promise made during the war of independence for Arab peoples in exchange for their support of the Allied war effort by rising up and fighting against the Ottoman Empire. Instead, Britain and France through secret diplomacy, highlighted by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, plotted behind the scenes to achieve a distribution of Ottoman lands between themselves without regard either to their earlier commitment or to the dynamics of self-determination. This diplomatic process was responsible for the emergence of a series of particularly artificial states with borders drawn to reflect colonial ambitions relating to the location of oil and other strategic interests such as protecting navigational security in the Suez Canal. This approach to the Middle East has been responsible for successive waves of instability and suppression of minorities, as well as perceptions of illegitimacy by those affected and intense conflict.

Among the most anguishing legacies of the First World War is the current acute turmoil that afflicts almost the entire Middle East. Of course there are many intervening developments during the past hundred years that are relevant to explain the specific patterns of conflict that are present in the region. Nevertheless, as the perceptive regional expert, Mohammed Ayoob argues, it is the colonialist aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire that constitutes “the primary factor” in accounting for “the mayhem and anarchy” in the region. [158] Ayoob is critical of those who are content to attribute these regional torments to Islamic radicalism and sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shi’ia believers. He believes that this substitution of proximate for the more illuminating root causes leads to a faulty understanding of the underlying situation and what must be done about it. An earlier line of explanation associated with Bernard Lewis attributed the problems of the region to Islamic cultural resistance to a transition to Western style modernity. Of course, the importance of Middle Eastern oil to keep the world stable is a central part of the regional drama, and linked closely to such other concerns as American interventions in the region, preoccupation with the spread of radical Islam, the avoidance of the spread of nuclear weapons, and the destabilizing Israeli claims to uphold its security by periodic aggression and disproportionate reliance on force. In one way or another each of these issues can be traced back to the difficulties associated with the collapse of Ottoman rule as the occasion for the arrangements put in place after World War I.


The diplomacy of World War I was rather confusing and contradictory when it came to the Middle East. As mentioned, particularly Britain encouraged Arab leaders to revolt against Ottoman rule, promising postwar independence in the form of a regional Arab state. At the same time Woodrow Wilson was advocating a quite different approach, proposing the establishment of a series of successor states to the Ottoman control of the region based on the principle of nationality as the means to realize his overriding goal, the self-determination of peoples. In opposition to this the British and French were secretly plotting to divide up the region without regard to such considerations, but rather to satisfy their overriding interest in gaining control over territories that contained oil and satisfied certain strategic interests. The British were preoccupied with safeguarding the Suez Canal, staking claims for countries nearby including Jordan, Palestine, while the French wanted to be near the old Silk road to facilitate trade with Asia by overland routes, and were eager to create a distinct Christian state that would satisfy Maronite aspirations. However, there were also some relevant anti-colonial influences at work in the Versailles peace negotiations associated with American influence, yielding a compromise taking the form of the mandates system. This upheld the British/French ideas about post-Ottoman territorial delimitations, but instead of giving colonial title, these two governments were given unrestricted administrative control over these territories as ‘a sacred trust of civilization’ that included a vague commitment to grant independence at a future time. Without the impact of World War II on the colonial system it is doubtful that political independence would have been achieved without greater struggles against British and French tutelary administrative regimes throughout the region.


As Ayoob persuasively points out, the legacy of these arrangements was the creation of a series of artificial states that experienced great difficulty in governing effectively. Ayoob identifies what followed as ‘state failures’ that have generated the extremism and sectarianism that continues to afflict the region, not the reverse. It seems correct that when sovereign states are not natural political communities severe inner tension and instability inevitably results. The denial to the Kurds of a state of their own has created very disruptive issues of minority and self-determination challenges to state legitimacy that constitute one dimension of persisting problems in Iraq, Syria, with spillovers to Turkey and Iran. What has recently become evident is the capacity of non-state actors to ‘outgovern’ the formal governance institutions of the state. This extraordinary development has been recently acknowledged in relation to the extensive areas under the undeniably harsh and brutal control of the IS, and also in Afghanistan where from the perspective of human security of the people, the Taliban is doing a better job of meeting the daily health and security needs in Afghanistan than is the heavily subsidized government in Kabul. [See “Pakistan’s parallel justice system proves Taliban are ‘out-governing’ the state,”] This radical form of state failure has given well-organized and dedicated Islamic civil society actors a political base that includes a reputation for getting things done without corruption, and contrasts with governmental practice that is perceived as being both corrupt and incompetent.

The other source of fundamental difficulty in the region is associated with the Israel-Palestine conflict that also emanated from a colonial gesture during the final stages of World War I. In 1917 Lord Balfour made an initially secret commitment to the Zionist Movement that Britain would look with favor at the establishment of a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine. The population of Palestine was never consulted, and much conflict has resulted with no present end in sight. Understandably many Arab scholars are outraged by this colonialist intrusion on the political development of the Middle East. Walid Khalidi, the noted Arabist, recently called the Balfour Declaration “..the single most destructive document in the twentieth century.” This may be hyperbole, but there is no doubt that the unresolved Palestinian quest for self-determination has caused frequent wars, as well as inflicted on the Palestinian people both the catastrophic dispossession of 1948, the nakba, and a brutal occupation that has continued since 1967, increasingly assuming an apartheid structure of military administration. The United States has assumed the role earlier played by Britain in protecting Israel’s interests in what has been a hostile environment regardless of Israel’s frequent violation of international law and elemental morality, above all, its unwillingness to cooperate in reaching agreement with Palestinians based on equality of rights as the foundation for a sustainable and just peace.



 For several reasons it seems correct to view World War I as the biggest rupture in global history since the French Revolution, and more revolutionary in its impact than subsequent major wars. Perhaps, most notable is the degree to which World War I exhibited interconnections between mobilizing the resources and enthusiasm of national societies for engaging in war and the decline of the capacity to rely on diplomatic compromises to bring wars to an end in a manner that minimizes the suffering experienced and the dislocation caused. As Raymond Aron expresses this idea, “..it was peculiarly difficult to end by negotiation in the traditional way a war that had become a war of peoples and of ideas.” [The Century of Total War, 27] The public had to believe in the war, which fed the claims that the issues in contention were of fundamental importance and that the enemy was pursuing evil ends, and this is what Arendt meant by the end of European comity.

 In line with this observation are the elaborate commentary of Gabriel Kolko set forth in his important study, Century of War. Kolko insisted that the World War I initiated a process of war making in which the leaders and citizens anticipate and plan for a short war, and instead experience a long and far more destructive, alienating, and costly war that brings vast human suffering, creating serious societal dislocations. Kolko writes of both the specific deforming impacts of the conflict and its patterning of the successive major wars that have subsequently taken. He writes, “..it is so desperately imperative that we escape from the present uneven yet steady descent along the path of war on which the mankind has been locked since 1914.” [453] He indicts political leaders for their “ignorance that has cost humanity a price in suffering beyond


Any measure.” [454] In effect, World War I initiated a modern tendency for what Kolko calls “the consummate irresponsibility” of leaders who are “playing with the lives of anonymous people..who are sent off to die” without any appreciation of or concern about the societal costs that will be incurred.

We in America remember the anger aroused caused by the Bush presidency promising that the Iraq War would be a cakewalk in which the American occupiers would be welcomed as liberators. It was an arduous decade long campaign that ended in failure and there was no welcome in Iraq despite widespread opposition in the country to the autocratic regime of Saddam Hussein.


In effect, the kind of war making that occurred in World War I and took new technological forms in World War II is a virus that continues to lie dormant in the body politic. It is exhibited by the refusal to seek the abolition of nuclear weaponry or the globalizing of the rule of law, and by the insistence that our side in every war is essentially innocent and good and our adversary is evil, even barbaric.


The current global war on terror is inscribed in public consciousness in accordance with the kind of moralizing self-assurance that guided the peacemakers at Versailles almost a century ago. Unfortunately, the imperative lesson involving the dysfunctionality of war has not yet been learned by either the leaders of the most important sovereign states or their publics. The only useful thing that has been learned about war is the importance of exercising caution in the nuclear age whenever a crisis in international relations occurs. We must pause and ask ourselves what seems to be a decisive moral and political question, which may also be an ultimate survival question: ‘is caution enough?’ And if not, ‘What must be done?’ We certainly do not want people coming together one hundred years hence to lament the persistence of war as the defining feature of world history.


Strange Regional Alignments in the Gaza Massacre

11 Aug

Neighborly Crimes of Complicity in Gaza


[Prefatory Note: my post below, an earlier version of which was published in AlJazeera English as an opinion piece. It was written before I had the opportunity to read an illuminating assessment of the regional and global turmoil that culminated for now in the massacre carried out by Israeli armed forces in Gaza. I highly recommend “The Tragedy of Great Power: The Massacre of Gaza and the Inevitable Failure of the Arab Spring” written by the learned Islamic jurist and scholar, Khaled Abou El Fadl, a distinguished professor at UCLA School of Law, with the link to the article below:


 What makes Professor El Fadl profound essay particularly valuable is his ability to fit the regional pieces together in a convincing manner, showing how and why governments that rule in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, encouraged the overthrow of Egypt’s elected government headed by Mohamed Morsi in mid-2013 and more recently encouraged Israel to destroy Hamas. He also shows that Hamas is not accurately perceived as a byproduct of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, but has its own “very distinct pedagogies, objectives and methodologies.” In depicting the forces of resistance and transformation as opposed to the geopolitics of counterrevolution as constituting the core struggle taking place throughout the region it becomes clear why the alignments in the Middle East are assuming their current configurations.

 It is telling and provocative for Professor El Fadl to situate the Palestinian Liberation Organization (and by implication, the Palestinian Authority) as de facto allies of Sisi’s Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE as well as being existential partners of the United States and Israel in subjugating the region to Western goals. What has developed further since the end of the Cold War rivalry that long dominated the region should be considered a geopolitical protection racket that gained political salience in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The upheavals of 2011 shook the foundations of the old order, and led to renewals throughout the region of Faustian Bargains by which various authoritarian regimes receive protection, including help with the destruction of any political actor, whether Islamic or not, that dares to challenge this established order composed of ultra-rich native elites claiming dynastic privileges conferred by colonial powers then seeking native collaborators to manage exploited and oppressed populations. While these elites appease Israel, the masses in the same political space remain passionately and symbolically dedicated to the Palestinian struggle as became evident in the September 9, 2011 attack by several thousand Egyptians on the Israeli Embassy shortly while the heroic memories of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak were still fresh.]


Of all the complexities surrounding the reaction of the world to the horrifying spectacle of Israel’s severe criminality in Gaza none is more perplexing than the complicity of most governments throughout the Arab world. What makes their political posture particularly bewildering is the degree of ethnic, religious, cultural, and historical commonality that creates such close ties of identity among the peoples of the region. And no single issue has been as unifying over the decades for these people than has their long intensely felt opposition to the injustice, suffering, and exploitation that the Palestinian people have endured for the past century as a result of the encroachments of the Zionist movement on their lands. It should be recalled that at earlier stages of the Palestinian ordeal, the governments of the neighboring Arab countries did exhibit strong, if ineffectual, solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. Several Arab states jointly attacked Israel, initially in 1948 to prevent the establishment of Israel, and later in the failed wars of 1967 and 1973 that challenged Israel’s existence. These defeats together with Egypt’s accommodation via the peace treaty of 1979 was a defining moment at which the Arab neighbors of Israel abandoned the Palestinians politically, but not yet diplomatically or economically. At this time any tangible form solidarity at the level of Arab governments is now a distant and ironic memory, and has been supplanted in the main by active hostility to Palestinian aspirations and implicit sympathy with, or at least acquiescence in Israel’s regional ambitions in conjunction with U.S. grand strategy in the region .


Some official formal hostility to Israel and sympathy for the Palestinian struggle persists at rhetorical levels, but rings hollow. It is true that many Arab countries to this day refuse entry to anyone with an Israeli entry or exit stamp in their passport. Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981 was widely interpreted at the time as a populist response in Egypt to his willingness to sign a peace treaty with Israel without simultaneously securing justice for the Palestinians, thereby crossing what was then a red line of betrayal. It was observed by the Western media that few Egyptians bothered to leave their apartments as a show of respect as Sadat’s funeral procession as it passed through the streets of Cairo because the slain leader was so reviled for shamelessly appeasing the enemy of the Palestinian people.


Above all, the ongoing struggle for Palestinian self-determination is understood by the peoples of the Middle East, and indeed the world over, as a struggle for the empowerment and liberation of the Palestinian people in the face of severe injustices done unto them over a long period of time, and involving such crimes against humanity as apartheid and massacre, verging on genocide. Increasingly, and never more than in reaction to this recent Gaza horror show, the Palestinian struggle will have to be waged not only against Israel, and its American and European allies, but also against the Arab collaborationist governments in the region that have betrayed their own larger religious and cultural identities, and more revealingly, the most fundamental ideas of justice and compassion associated with ideals of humanity and the ethical underpinnings of Islamic unity.


It is notable that only non-Arab Turkey and Qatar have acted responsibly in response to the Israeli attacks that commenced on July under the IDF code name of Protective Edge. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has spoken movingly, without hiding his condemnation of Israeli behavior behind the euphemisms of diplomacy, in characterizing Israel’s behavior in Gaza as criminal. Even a group of distant Latin American countries, including Brazil and Chile, have at least shown the depth of their disapproval of Israel’s conduct by withdrawing their ambassadors from Israel. This symbolic expression of disapproval is something that not one government in Europe or North America, the self-proclaimed centers of world civilization, has yet done. The countries of the South have by and large also turned their backs to the Palestinians and the confrontation in Gaza, with the exception of South Africa.


Taken together these considerations make it morally distressing and politically mystifying to observe that almost every Arab governments has seemed either to be flashing a green light in Israel’s direction or pointedly looking away. Given the criminality of the Israeli attack and the tragic suffering inflicted on the Palestinian people, complicity by way of such diplomatic endorsements, or even stony silent acquiescence, is at the very least a breach in Arab and Islamic identity, and worse, seems to be an unimaginable case of aiding and abetting genocidal political violence directed at the Palestinian people. Such a diplomacy of indifference is especially notable as expressed toward Gaza, which is governed by a Moslem-oriented leadership. Israel’s persistence in a massacre mode despite the near universal calls for a responsibly negotiated ceasefire was widely attributed to the fact that the Netanyahu government was being encouraged behind the scenes by Egypt and Saudi Arabia ‘to finish the job,’ not of the tunnels and rockets that served as the security pretext, but of Hamas itself as ‘the head of the snake,’ the one Palestinian actor that continued to believe in a politics of resistance. For these Arab governments to act so opportunistically, particularly given the frequency and magnitude of Israeli atrocities is shocking to all but the most numbed of political imaginations.


To be sure, the behavior of these Arab governments as mystifying, legally and morally unacceptable, and politically self-destructive warrants condemnation, but it also needs to be understood and explained as clearly as possible. What quirks of political realism led these Arab regimes to so calculate their future?


The Enemy of my Enemy


The core explanation of Arab complicity (excepting Qatar) has to do with the Arab governments hating and fearing the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) far more than they resent Israel. This logic is then extended to Hamas, which is misleadingly treated as nothing other than a branch of this supposedly poisonous tree. This hostility to an Islamic movement authenticated from below overshadows Israel’s encroachment on their region, and even its appropriation and control of Muslim sacred places in Jerusalem. In effect what is going on in these top heavy monarchies is a passionate search for protection from possible uprisings by their own populations, which are feared as potential adversaries. Such an initial assessment pushes the question one step further but it does not give us any insight into why this should be so.


What are the sources of this hatred of the MB? The MB is perceived as the essential expression in the Arab world of bottom up political Islam that is viewed as toxic by the established order because of its grassroots legitimacy. This reality has induced panic among these Arab regimes that goes back at least as far as the explosive regional reverberations unleashed by the revolution that overthrew the Shah’s supposedly secure imperial rule in Iran (1979). This revolutionary process caused high intensity tremors, especially throughout the Arab world, and especially among the monarchies nurturing privileged and unscrupulous elites that have long kept their populations cruelly repressed and in backward conditions of mass misery. These regimes, generally aligned with the United States, remain obsessed with the maintaining stability of their own rule, and seem to feel that stifling all voices calling for change is a vital ingredient of their own survival.


Hamas as an active resistance movement is in this sense perceived as an acute threat to the kind of future that these Arab governments are intent of achieving no matter what the costs in lives and societal wellbeing. First of all, Has has historical ties to the Egyptian MB, the older organization of Muslim activists that has kept the flame of political Islam burning despite enduring harsh suppression dating back to decades before Israel came into existence. Secondly, Hamas demonstrated its legitimacy, and credibility as a voice of the Palestinians living in Gaza by its electoral victory in 2006, and more recently by its resilience (sumud) and resistance to Israeli tactics of aggression and massacre. Thirdly, Sunni Hamas crossed sectarian boundaries by having its closest political ties with Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, and the Alawite regime in Syria, and although these relationships have grown weaker as a result of recent regional developments, their very existence further alarms the Sunni supremacists in Riyadh whose second source of anxiety is associated with a sectarian/nationalist struggle that pits Saudi Arabia and its allies against Iran and its allies. The terrible carnage in Syria is one expression of this sectarian dimension of the regional struggle that complements efforts to crush any expression of political Islam with a strong societal base of support.


Egypt’s Betrayal


Of course, in the foreground is the experience of the Arab anti-authoritarian upheavals in 2011, especially the dislodging of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, followed by expressions of far greater popular electoral support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi candidates throughout Egypt than had been expected by the anti-Mubarak liberals and progressive youth who had earlier dominated the crowds in Tahrir Square. The Gulf countries made no secret of their disappointment with Washington’s refusal to do more to beat back this populist tide that swept over the Mubarak regime, who like the Shah in Iran 30 years earlier, had seemed to offer leaders of these Arab monarchies a model of invulnerability in relation to popular upheavals.


And so two years later in 2013 when the chance came, as it did during the faltering presidential term of Mohamed Morsi, it is no secret that the counterrevolutionary coup led by General Ahmed Fattah el-Sisi was most warmly welcomed by Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Sisi coup won immediate aid bestowed in huge quantities (at least $8 billion) from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, hoping that such a large infusion of cash would create a soft economic landing for the new regime, and set up a contrast with the economic failures of the Morsi government. It was hoped that a rapid economic recovery would reassure the majority of Egyptians that they were experiencing a change for the better even if there was little effort by the new leaders to hide the return to the methods and style of the previously despised Mubarak rule that had prompted the earlier upheaval. What is startling is that these Arab supporters never blinked in the face of the crimes of Sisi’s military leadership in Cairo, which featured a bloody crackdowns of anti-government demonstrations in Cario, including even the killing of many MB members while they were at prayer. Sisi proceeded to move against the MB as an organization, having it criminalized and defined legally as ‘a terrorist organization,’ encouraging judicial action that included imposing mass death sentences on many of its members, and generally engaging in state crime on a scale that far exceeded the abuses of the Mubarak period. Even Washington was embarrassed by these excesses, although it maintained a pragmatic silence that overlooked the tensions between its calls for democracy and its actual strategic goal of restoring the regionalstability of the pre-Arab Spring status quo.




Iran Explodes the Myth of Regional Stability


Until this pattern became evident I didn’t appreciate the relevance of some remarks made to me by Ayatollah Khomeini while in Paris just as he was about to return to Iran from exile to lead the new Islamic Republic in January 1979. This austere religious leader was very clear about rejecting the then prevailing idea that a national revolution was taking place in Iran. He said again and again during the meeting, “This is an Islamic revolution, not an Iranian revolution.” He went on to observe that the dynastic regime in Saudi Arabia was decadent and oriented toward the West. In his view it was as illegitimate a source of governance as was the Shah’s regime that had just been overthrown in Iran, and a justifiable target for further political initiatives by those societal forces that were infused with Islamic values.


The revolution in Iran, whether understood as a national or ideological phenomenon, was deeply threatening to political stability of the region. It was a political movement from below that shattered a monarchic power structure in Iran that was viewed in the region and by the West as invulnerable to internal challenge, once described by Kissinger “as that rarest of things, an unconditional ally.” In other words, it was not just that the foundations of the status quo gave way in Iran, but that their crumbling was brought about by populist tremors that enjoyed widespread cultural legitimacy. It was this cultural legitimacy that again surfaced in the immediate aftermath of the Arab upheavals in 2011, and sent tremors of fear throughout the region, and could not be dismissed on sectarian grounds.


The explosive emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS) reinforces Ayatollah Khomeini’s central message. Its proclamation of a new caliphate is precisely in line with this type of thinking. The whole carving up of the Arab world into a series of sovereign states is seen from these perspectives as an imposition of European civilization, destroying and destabilizing the only true political community, that of the Islamic uma.


Israel’s Parallel Universe


Israeli strategists over the years have been divided about their regional priorities, but agreed on the general contour of principal goals. Israel’s preferred Middle East would consist of governments that were both friendly and stable, which made Iran a favorite until it unexpectedly fell apart in 1978-79. Next best, were governments that were formally cool, or even hostile, but remained mostly on the sidelines in relation to the conflict of with the Palestinians, such as King Hussein’s Jordan, Mubarak’s Egypt, and the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. If such stability was not attainable, then strife in a country that was politically hostile was viewed as next best, which is the story of Syria, and to a degree Iraq, in recent years. In other words, Israel could live with regional actors that were rhetorically hostile, as with passport exclusions or UN speeches, but not with states that were politically hostile, and perceived as allies of Palestinian resistance struggle. In that sense, Israel pushed behind the scenes for the American attack on Iraq after 2001 and has done its best to push the United States into a belligerent encounter with Iran in recent years.


When it comes to Gaza, and Hamas, the convergence of the Israeli approach and the Arab governmental consensus is an invaluable political blessing for Tel Aviv. It gives Israel unlimited space to push its militarist agenda, however great the carnage and devastation, and even if much the rest of the world may lament the assault upon international law and morality. Even the United States, and its ‘subaltern’ UN Secretary General, have felt the pressure to use their influence to establish a ceasefire, although without daring to lift a critical finger in Israel’s direction and following an Egyptian-oriented peremptory diplomacy that seems more concerned about PR dimensions than achieving an end to the violence. This skeptical reflection was confirmed by the initial ceasefire proposal that was presented to Hamas on a take it or leave it basis, and quite incredibly, that its leaders were informed about only through its media publication. The newer ceasefire approach, based on a sequence of 72 hour truces, follows the same pattern with Israeli and American negotiators refusing to sit at the same table as the representative of Hamas, and yet claiming to seek an agreement that would end the violence.


While Israel talks about rockets and tunnels, its massive military operation is being increasingly interpreted by knowledgeable commentators as punitive, and directed not only at Hamas but at Palestinians generally. Some Israeli leaders and their prominent supporters seem to believe that Gazans deserve to die because they voted for Hamas back in 2006, although many Gazans who are dying didn’t back Hamas then or now, and certainly not the Palestinian children who were not even born when Hamas won the elections. A second punitive motivation, and more explicitly endorsed, is a punishment directed at Palestinians in general for daring to form a unity government back in early June, thus challenging ever so slightly the illusion that Israelis had successfully crushed Palestinian political ambition to pursue self-determination by any means other than the futile charade of periodic spurts of diplomacy. Crushing Hamas is seen as a way to make Palestinians submit to the permanence of occupation, the annexation of most of the West Bank, the realities of apartheid administrative and detention policies, and the burial of any prospect of an independent Palestinian state. The Palestinian Authority had been awkwardly docile until it timidly went forward with the unity government, and now must be disciplined by Israel for getting out of line, being taught a lesson once and for all that if it has any future it is to collaborate with Israel, as it had done in the past, with the suppression of Palestinian resistance, above all Hamas, as a telltale sign of its political outlook.


A Concluding Word


More than anything else, these terrible happenings in Gaza should lead to a realization that the future of the Palestinian people and of the region as a whole depends on finding a just solution of the conflict. The abysmal failure of the Kerry induced talks showed definitively that Israel has lost all interest in a diplomacy that promises the Palestinians a viable and independent sovereign state at the end of the road. With a show of self-confidence the Knesset made clear its own rejection of the two-state diversion by choosing an ardent Likud one-stater, Reuven Rivlin, to replace Shimon Peres, as President of Israel. It is past time for the peoples of the world to wake up to the real nature of the challenge and support a more militant international campaign of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and insist on boycott and divestment in all venues, working to support arms embargoes and sanctions on the part of as many governments as possible.

GAZA: The Unfolding Tragedy

30 Nov

GAZA: The Unfolding Humanitarian Catastrophe

This material below was distributed by John Whitbeck, distinguished American lawyer and author, living in Paris,and doing his best to keep a group concerned with world affairs informed about latest developments, especially inthe Middle East. I also add a slightly edited text of a message sent by Robert Stiver from Hawaii, who has exhibited consistent empathy for the suffering of the Palestinian people.My press release below, although far less emotional than the cri de coeur that Robert Stiver wrote, issues from the same place of urgent concern for the brave and resolute people of Gaza. I hope that Robert is wrong however when he ends with self-tormenting words of despair: “What to do, in the name of common justice?  I know not; it seems useless, all useless.” Such feelings of futility are quite understandable, but let us do all within our power to make sure that this unfolding catastrophe ENDS before its full tragic character is totally realized.

It hardly needs to be observed that the silence of the United Nations and the global media is a continuing disgrace, particularly given the pomp and circumstance of those mighty statesmen who self-righteously proclaim a new doctrine: ‘the responsibility to protect’ (R2P) those whose survival and dignity is at stake due to crimes of state or as a result of natural catastrophe.


Cutting edge Middle East news analysis edited by Oliver Miles
 Web Arab News Digest
Gaza: a disgraceAccording to a BBC report military action in Gaza between Israel and Hamas has been limited since the serious fighting a year ago in which about 170 Palestinians and six Israelis died. But tension remains high, as also between Hamas and Egypt where northern Sinai has been the scene of much fighting. Meanwhile living conditions for 1.7 million Gazans remain atrocious.

Reuters reports that Turkey has pledged $850,000, $200,000 of which have already reached Gaza, to alleviate the fuel crisis which has closed Gaza’s only power station and a major sewage treatment plant, so that raw sewage is running in the streets. Fuel deliveries by the UN have started, and are reported to be promised by Qatar. The immediate cause of the fuel crisis is the destruction by Egypt of cross-border tunnels, and the longer term cause the Israeli blockade.

We thank John Whitbeck for an “Action Alert” from the Friends of Al-Aqsa (a UK NGO) drawing attention to the first item below, a UN report on action needed to avert a humanitarian crisis. He comments that the Action Alert refers to the “smuggling” of fuel and other basic necessities into Gaza through tunnels on the border between Egypt and Palestine. ‘This terminology is standard media usage in Israel and the West, intended to semantically criminalize the victims, but, as a matter of both law and common sense, I believe that the use of the word “smuggle” is totally inappropriate in these circumstances. “Smuggling” is an illegal activity, usually involving a violation of the laws of the importing state. Under whose applicable laws is importing basic necessities into Gaza illegal? Certainly not the laws of the importing state, Palestine, or the current de facto government of Gaza, as to which Israel insists that it has not been the occupying power (and, accordingly, has had no responsibilities or obligations) since it withdrew its illegal settlers, locked the gates and, effectively, threw away the keys. If there is an Egyptian law banning the export of basic necessities from Egypt, I am not aware of it. The provisioning of Gaza with the basic necessities of life should be characterized as humanitarian relief, those who prevent Gazans from receiving the basic necessities of life should be characterized as criminals and those who are aware of the situation and fail to speak out should be characterized as moral bankrupts.’

The second item below is a report published by Al Jazeera on the impact of Israeli drones over Gaza, particularly on children. The author is a British journalist resident in Nazareth, Israel.

Gaza fuel crisis: UN expert calls for urgent action to avert a humanitarian catastrophe

GENEVA (26 November 2013) – United Nations Special Rapporteur Richard Falk today called for urgent action to address the power shortage in occupied Palestine  that has left 1.7 million residents of the Gaza Strip in a dire situation. More than three weeks after the only power plant shut down due to a critical fuel shortage, power supply has been limited to six hours a day.

“The situation in Gaza is at a point of near catastrophe,” warned the independent expert charged by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor and report on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.

“The fuel shortage and power cuts have undermined an already precarious infrastructure, severely disrupting the provision of basic services, including health, water and sanitation,” he said. “The onset of winter is certain to make things even worse.”

Less than half of Gaza’s total power needs are being met and disruptions to specialized health services, such as kidney dialysis, operating theatres, blood banks, intensive care units and incubators are putting the lives of vulnerable patients in Gaza at risk.

Mr. Falk highlighted the plight of patients in Gaza unable to seek affordable specialized medical treatment in Egypt as a result of Egypt’s closure of the Rafah crossing in recent weeks. “The Israeli authorities have been more forthcoming in issuing permits to Gazans in need of urgent specialized treatment, but the high cost of medical treatment in Israel places it beyond the reach of most Gazans,” he noted.

For the past two weeks, approximately 3000 residents, including children, living in or near the Gazan neighbourhood of Az Zeitoun have been wading through raw sewage on the streets after the largest sewage treatment facility in area overflowed due to a power failure.

The Special Rapporteur stressed that other sewage treatment stations may soon also run out of petrol to fuel generators and result in more sewage overflowing onto the streets of Gaza. Medical experts have warned of the serious risk of disease, and even an epidemic

“Up to 40 per cent of Gaza’s population receives water only once every three days,” he noted. “In this situation of dire necessity those who can afford to do so, are shockingly buying unsafe water from unregulated water vendors and distributors.”

The human rights expert believes that the main trigger for the latest crisis is Egypt’s ongoing crackdown on the vast network of tunnels and fuel tanks near the southern border of Gaza, which allowed Gaza to avoid some of the hardships associated with the Israeli blockade maintained since 2007.

“We mustn’t forget that the underlying cause of a lack of adequate medical facilities and specialized care in Gaza is a consequence of Israel’s illegal blockade,” Mr. Falk said.

The Special Rapporteur explained that, under present conditions, Israel has a special responsibility under international humanitarian law to take whatever measures are necessary to protect the civilian population of Gaza against this mounting threat to their wellbeing. “The failure to do so would be an aggravated instance of collective punishment, which is unconditionally prohibited by the 4th Geneva Convention,” Mr. Falk cautioned.

He also urged the governing authorities in Gaza to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority in a joint effort to ensure that desperately needed fuel becomes available to the residents of Gaza at the earliest hour.

“Israel must end its illegal blockade and exercise its core responsibility as the occupying Power to protect the civilian population,” the expert said.

Last Tuesday, an aid convoy carrying medicine, medical equipment and canned food was reportedly permitted to enter Gaza via the Rafah crossing for first time since June this year.

“Under these conditions of humanitarian emergency, the international community also has a responsibility to take special measures to safeguard the acutely vulnerable people of Gaza from impending tragedy,” the Special Rapporteur underscored.

In 2008, the UN Human Rights Council designated Richard Falk (United States of America) as the fifth Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights on Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. The mandate was originally established in 1993 by the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Gaza: Life and death under Israel’s drones

Drones buzzing overhead are a source of daily trauma for Palestinians in the occupied Gaza Strip.

Jonathan Cook: 28 Nov 2013

Jerusalem – There are many things to fear in Gaza: Attacks from Israel’s Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets, the coastal enclave’s growing isolation, the regular blackouts from power shortages, increasingly polluted drinking water and rivers of sewage flooding the streets.

Meanwhile, for most Palestinians in Gaza the anxiety-inducing soundtrack to their lives is the constant buzz of the remotely piloted aircraft – better known as “drones” – that hover in the skies above.

Drones are increasingly being used for surveillance and extra-judicial execution in parts of the Middle East, especially by the US, but in nowhere more than Gaza has the drone become a permanent fixture of life. More than 1.7 million Palestinians, confined by Israel to a small territory in one of the most densely populated areas in the world, are subject to near continual surveillance and intermittent death raining down from the sky.

There is little hope of escaping the zenana – an Arabic word referring to a wife’s relentless nagging that Gazans have adopted to describe the drone’s oppressive noise and their feelings about it. According to statistics compiled by human rights groups in Gaza, civilians are the chief casualties of what Israel refers to as “surgical” strikes from drones.

“When you hear the drones, you feel naked and vulnerable,” said Hamdi Shaqura, deputy director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, based in Gaza City. “The buzz is the sound of death. There is no escape, nowhere is private. It is a reminder that, whatever Israel and the international community assert, the occupation has not ended. We are still living completely under Israeli control. They control the borders and the sea and they decide our fates from their position in the sky,” said Shaqura.

The Israeli military did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

Suffer the children

The sense of permanent exposure, coupled with the fear of being mistakenly targeted, has inflicted deep psychological scars on civilians, especially children, according to experts.

“There is a great sense of insecurity. Nowhere feels safe for the children, and they feel no one can offer them protection, not even their parents,” said Ahmed Tawahina, a psychologist running clinics in Gaza as part of the Community Mental Health Programme. “That traumatises both the children and parents, who feel they are failing in their most basic responsibility.”

Shaqura observed: “From a political perspective, there is a deep paradox. Israel says it needs security, but it demands it at the cost of our constant insecurity.”

There are no statistics that detail the effect of the drones on Palestinians in Gaza. Doctors admit it is impossible to separate the psychological toll inflicted by drones from other sources of damage to mental health, such as air strikes by F-16s, severe restrictions on movement and the economic insecurity caused by Israel’s blockade.

But field researchers working for Palestinian rights groups point out that the use of drones is intimately tied to these other sources of fear and anxiety. Drones fire missiles themselves, they guide attacks by F-16s or helicopters, and they patrol and oversee the borders.

A survey in medical journal The Lancet following Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s month-long attack on Gaza in winter 2008-09, found large percentages of children suffered from symptoms of psychological trauma: Fifty-eight percent permanently feared the dark; 43 percent reported regular nightmares; 37 percent wet the bed and 42 percent had crying attacks.

Tawahina described the sense of being constantly observed as a “form of psychological torture, which exhausts people’s mental and emotional resources. Among children at school, this can be seen in poor concentration and unruly behaviour.” The trauma for children is compounded by the fact that the drones also disrupt what should be their safest activity – watching TV at home. When a drone is operating nearby, it invariably interferes with satellite reception.

“”It doesn’t make headlines, but it is another example of how there is no escape from the drones. Parents want their children indoors, where it feels safer and where they’re less likely to hear the drones, but still the drone finds a way into their home. The children cannot even switch off from the traumas around them by watching TV because of the drones.”

Israel’s ‘major advantage’

Israel developed its first drones in the early 1980s, during its long occupation of south Lebanon, to gather aerial intelligence without exposing Israeli pilots to anti-aircraft missiles. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, said drones help in situations where good, on-the-ground intelligence is lacking. “What the UAV gives you is eyes on the other side of the hill or over the border,” he said. “That provides Israel with a major advantage over its enemies.”

Other Israeli analysts have claimed that the use of drones, with their detailed intelligence-collecting abilities, is justified because they reduce the chances of errors and the likelihood of “collateral damage” – civilian deaths – during attacks.

But, according to Inbar, the drone is no better equipped than other aircraft for gathering intelligence or carrying out an execution.

“The advantage from Israel’s point of view is that using a drone for these tasks reduces the risk of endangering a pilot’s life or losing an expensive plane. That is why we are moving towards much greater use of these kinds of robots on the battlefield,” he said.

‘Mistakes can happen’

According to Gaza human rights group al-Mezan, Israel started using drones over the territory from the start of the second intifada in 2000, but only for surveillance.

Israel’s first extra-judicial executions using drones occurred in 2004, when two Palestinians were killed. But these operations greatly expanded after 2006, in the wake of Israel’s withdrawal of settlers and soldiers from Gaza and the rise to power of the Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas.

Drones, the front-line weapon in Israel’s surveillance operations and efforts to foil rocket attacks, killed more than 90 Palestinians in each of the years 2006 and 2007, according to al-Mezan. The figures soared during Operation Cast Lead and in its aftermath, with 461 Palestinians killed by drones in 2009. The number peaked again with 199 deaths in 2012, the year when Israel launched the eight-day Operation Pillar of Defence against Gaza.

Despite Israeli claims that the intelligence provided by drones makes it easier to target those Palestinians it has defined as “terrorists”, research shows civilians are the main victims. In the 2012 Pillar of Defence operation, 36 of the 162 Palestinians killed were a result of drone strikes, and a further 100 were injured by drones. Of those 36 killed, two-thirds were civilians.

Also revealing was a finding that, although drones were used in only five percent of air strikes, they accounted for 23 percent of the total deaths during Pillar of Defence. According to the Economist magazine, the assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari, which triggered that operation, was carried out using a Hermes 450 drone.

Palestinian fighters report that they have responded to the constant surveillance by living in hiding, rarely going outdoors and avoiding using phones or cars. It is a way of life not possible for most people in Gaza.

Gaza’s armed groups are reported to be trying to find a way to jam the drones’ navigation systems. In the meantime, Hamas has claimed it has shot down three drones, the latest this month, though Israel says all three crashed due to malfunctions.

Last week, on the anniversary of the launch of Pillar of Defence, an Israeli commander whose soldiers control the drones over Gaza from a base south of Tel Aviv told the Haaretz newspaper that “many” air strikes during the operation had involved drones. “Lt Col Shay” was quoted saying: “Ultimately, we are at war. As much as the IDF strives to carry out the most precise surgical strikes, mistakes can happen in the air or on the ground.”

Random death by drone

It is for this reason that drones have become increasingly associated with random death from the sky, said Samir Zaqout, a senior field researcher for Al-Mezan.

“We know from the footage taken by drones that Israel can see what is happening below in the finest detail. And yet women and children keep being killed in drone attacks. Why the continual mistakes? The answer, I think, is that these aren’t mistakes. The message Israel wants to send us is that there is no protection whether you are a civilian or fighter. They want us afraid and to make us turn on the resistance [Palestinian fighters].”

Zaqout also points to a more recent use of drones – what has come to be known as “roof-knocking”. This is when a drone fires small missiles at the roof of a building to warn the inhabitants to evacuate – a practice Israel developed during Operation Cast Lead three years earlier, to allay international concerns about its repeated levellings of buildings with civilians inside.

In Pillar of Defence in 2012, 33 buildings were targeted by roof-knocking.

Israel says it provides 10 minutes’ warning from a roof-knock to an air strike, but, in practice, families find they often have much less time. This, said Zaqout, puts large families in great danger as they usually send their members out in small groups to be sure they will not be attacked as they move onto the streets.

One notorious case occurred during Cast Lead, when six members of the Salha family, all women and children, were killed when their home was shelled moments after a roof-knocking. The father, Fayez Salha, who survived, lost a case for damages in Israel’s Supreme Court last February and was ordered to pay costs after the judges ruled that the attack was legitimate because it occurred as part of a military operation.

A US citizen who has lived long-term in Gaza, who wished not be named for fear of reprisals from Israel, said she often heard the drones at night when the street noise dies down, or as they hover above her while out walking. “The sound is like the buzz of a mosquito, although there is one type of drone that sometimes comes into view that is silent,” she said.

She added that she knew of families that, before moving into a new apartment building, checked to see whether it housed a fighter or a relative of a fighter, for fear that the building may be attacked by Israel.

Shaqura said the drones inevitably affect one’s day-to-day behaviour. He said he was jogging early one morning while a drone hovered overhead.

“I got 100 metres from my front door when I started to feel overwhelmed with fear. I realised that my tracksuit was black, the same colour as many of the fighters’ uniforms. I read in my work too many reports of civilians being killed by drones not to see the danger. So I hurried back home.”



Robert Stiver’s message:

“I seethe with helpless indignation and rage at the despicable members of the “human” race, including me, who (i) perpetrate and (ii) allow this unspeakable tragedy to continue, always worsening, most often vindictive, all too often indifferent to the hapless-victims aspects of it.  And I must admit that I am as outraged at the God who, via the vaunted “free will” He is credited with giving us, has not yet found “His time” to intervene and put paid to this unending stain on humanity — a stain that, in my 20th-21st Century view, begins and ends with militant/political Zionism and its ever-present worldwide practitioners.

Sadly – how sadly – the Palestinian Authority and the quisling Fateh are in lockstep, fellow travelers with this miasma of shame and inhumanity.  Hamas and Fateh must overcome the USraeli “divide and rule” tactics and link arms as a solid force of resistance to the illegal occupation of their homeland.  Today, that must be the number one priority!


And thanks to Turkey and Qatar for having the scruples to toss a few coins to the suffering masses, perhaps alleviating but by no means solving their torment…as I am mystified that they don’t join hands, trek to Geneva or NYCity and demand a white-hot emergency meeting of the UNSC in demand that international law and countless supportive UNSC resolutions be enforced.  Failing any action there, a certainty because of the US’ enabling of pure evil, the Turkish-Qatari reps should trek to the UNGA and orchestrate a (I’ve forgotten the term…”Uniting for Peace”) proper response and accompanying action.  The “response” would be overwhelming – on the order of 150 pro, 5 opposed.  Why cannot this scenario take place?

Let us pity – we have nothing else to offer – the brave, beleaguered residents of Gaza.  Our pity should be informed by mental images of the children there, slogging through a toxic mix of urine and feces, facing epidemics of pestilence ready to strike at any moment, lacking hope for any surcease of their everyday misery and for a future of human rights, normality and dignity — victims of a deliberately vicious, internationally illegal collective persecution (not “mere” punishment…persecution) of them and their families.

Today/29th is the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.  Where is the solidarity?

What to do, in the name of common justice?  I know not; it seems useless, all useless…”

Invisible Horizons of a Just Palestine/Israel Future

4 Nov

I spent last week at the United Nations, meeting with ambassadors of countries in the Middle East and presenting my final report to the Third Committee of the General Assembly as my term as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine comes to an end. My report emphasized issues relating to corporate responsibility of those companies and banks that are engaged in business relationships with the settlements. Such an emphasis seemed to strike a responsive note with many delegations as a tangible way of expressing displeasure with Israel’s continuing defiance of its international law obligations, especially in relation to the unlawful settlements being provocatively expanded in the West Bank and East Jerusalem at the very moment that the resumption of direct negotiations between the Palestine Authority and the Government of Israel is being heralded as a promising development.

There are two reasons why the corporate responsibility issue seems to be an important tactic of consciousness raising and norm implementation at this stage: (1) it is a start down the slippery slope of enforcement after decades of UN initiatives confined to seemingly futile rhetorical affirmations of Israeli obligations under international law, accompanied by the hope that an enforcement momentum with UN backing is underway; (2) it is an expression of tacit support for the growing global movement of solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people for a just and sustainable peace agreement, and specifically, it reinforces the claims of the robust BDS Campaign that has itself scored several notable victories in recent months.

My intention in this post is to put aside these issues and report upon my sense of the diplomatic mood at the UN in relation to the future of Israel/Palestine relations. There is a sharp disconnect between the public profession of support for the resumed peace negotiations as a positive development with a privately acknowledged skepticism as to what to expect. In this regard, there is a widespread realization that conditions are not ripe for productive diplomacy for the following reasons: the apparent refusal of Israel’s political leadership to endorse a political outcome that is capable of satisfying even minimal Palestinian aspirations; the settlement phenomenon as dooming any viable form of a ‘two-state’ solution; the lack of Palestinian unity as between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas undermining its representational and legitimacy status.

The most serious concern on the Palestinian side is whether protecting the interests and rights of the totality of the Palestinian people in a peace process can be achieved within the present diplomatic framework. We need to be constantly reminded that ‘the Palestinian people’ cannot be confined to those Palestinian living under Israeli occupation: refugees in neighboring countries; refugees confined within occupied Palestine, but demanding a right of return to their residence at the time of dispossession; the Palestinian minority living in Israel; and 4-5 million Palestinians who constitute the Palestinian diaspora and its underlying reality of enforced exile.

It was also clear that the Palestinian Authority is confronted by a severe dilemma: either to accept the inadequate proposals put forward by Israel and the United States or reject these proposals and be blamed once again by Tel Aviv and Washington for rejecting a peace offer. Only some Israeli anxiety that the Palestinians might actually accept the U.S. proposals might induce Israel to refuse, on its side, to accept what Washington proposes, and spare the Palestinians the embarrassment posed by the dilemma of swallowing or spitting. That is, Israel when forced to show its hand may actually be unwilling to allow any solution to the conflict based on Palestinian self-determination, even if heavily weighted in Israel’s facvor. In effect, within the diplomatic setting there strong doubts exist as to whether the present Israeli leadership would accept even a Palestinian statelet even if it were endowed with only nominal sovereignty. In effect, from a Palestinian perspective it seems inconceivable that anything positive could emerge from the present direct negotiations, and it is widely appreciated that the PA agreed take part only after being subjected to severe pressure from the White House and Secretary Kerry. In this sense, the best that Ramallah can hope for is damage control.

There were three attitudes present among the more thoughtful diplomats at the UN who have been dealing with the Palestinian situation for years, if not decades: the first attitude was to believe somehow that ‘miracles’ happen in politics, and that a two state solution was still possible; usually this outlook avoided the home of the devil, that is the place where details reside, and if pressed could not offer a scenario that explained how the settlements could be shrunk sufficiently to enable a genuine two-state solution to emerge from the current round of talks; the second attitude again opted to support the resumption of the direct talks because it was ‘doing something,’ which seemed preferable to ‘doing nothing,’ bolstering this rather vapid view with the sentiment ‘at least they are doing something’; the third attitude, more privately and confidentially conveyed, fancies itself to be the voice of realism in world politics, which is contemptuous of the advocacy of rights and justice in relation to Palestine; this view has concluded that Israel has prevailed, it has won, and all that the Palestinians can do is to accommodate an adverse outcome, acknowledging defeat, and hope that the Israelis will not push their advantage toward a third cycle of dispossession (the first two being 1948, 1967) in the form of ‘population transfer’ so as to address their one remaining serious anxiety—the fertility gap leading to a feared tension between professing democracy and retaining the primary Zionist claim of being a Jewish state, the so-called ‘demographic bomb.’

As I reject all three of these postures, I will not leave my position as Special Rapporteur with a sense that inter-governmental diplomacy and its imaginative horizons have much to offer the Palestinian people even by way of understanding evolving trends in the conflict, much less realizing their rights, above all, the right of self-determination. At the same time, despite this, I have increased my belief that the UN has a crucial role to play in relation to a positive future for the Palestinian people—reinforcing the legitimacy of seeking a rights based solution rather than settling for a power based outcome that is called peace in an elaborate international ceremony of deception, in all likelihood on the lawn of the White House. In this period the UN has been playing an important part in legitimating Palestinian grievances by continuously referencing international law, human rights, and international morality.

The Israelis (and officialdom in the United States) indicate their awareness of this UN role by repeatedly stressing their unconditional opposition to what is labeled to be ‘the delegitimation project,’ which is a subtle propagandistic shift from the actual demand to uphold Palestinian rights to the misleading and diversionary claim that Israel’s critics are trying to challenge Israel’s right to exist as a state sovereign state. To be sure, the Palestinians are waging, with success a Legitimacy War against Israel for control of the legal and moral high ground, but they are not at this stage questioning Israeli statehood, but only its refusal to respect international law as it relates to the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people.

Let us acknowledge a double reality. The UN is a geopolitical actor that is behaviorally manipulated by money and hard power on many fundamental issues, including Palestine/Israel; this stark acknowledgement severely restricts the effectiveness of the UN with regard to questions of justice. Fortunately, this is not the whole story. The UN is also a normative actor that articulates the grievances of peoples and governments, influences public discourse with respect to the global policy agenda, and has great and distinctive symbolic leverage in establishing the legitimacy of claims. In other words, the UN can say what is right, without being necessarily able to do what is right. This distinction summarizes the narratives of articulating the Palestinian claims and the justice of the Palestinian struggle without being able to overcome behavioral obstacles in the geopolitical domain that block their fulfillment.

What such a gap also emphasizes is that the political climate is not yet right for constructive inter-governmental negotiations, which would require both Israel and the United States to recalculate their priorities and to contemplate alternative future scenarios in a manner that is far more congruent with upholding the panoply of Palestinian rights. Such shifts in the political climate are underway, and are not just a matter of changing public opinion, but also mobilizing popular regional and global support for nonviolent tactics of opposition and resistance to the evolving status quo. The Arab Spring of 2011 initially raised expectations that such a mobilization would surge, but counter-revolutionary developments, political unrest, and economic panic have temporarily, at least, dampened such prospects, and have lowered the profile of the Palestinian struggle.

Despite such adverse developments in the Middle East from a Palestinian perspective, it remains possible to launch within the UN a broad campaign to promote corporate responsibility in relation to the settlements, which could gradually be extended to other unlawful Israeli activities (e.g. separation wall, blockade of Gaza, prison and arrest abuses, house demolitions). Such a course of action links efforts within the UN to implement international law with activism that is already well established within global civil society, being guided by Palestinian architects of 21st century nonviolent resistance. In effect, two disillusionments (armed struggle and international diplomacy) are coupled with a revised post-Oslo strategy giving the Palestinian struggle a new identity (nonviolent resistance, global solidarity campaign, and legitimacy warfare) with an increasing emancipatory potential.

Such an affirmation is the inverse of the ultra realist view mentioned above that the struggle is essentially over, and all that is left is for the Palestinians to admit defeat and for the Israelis to dictate the terms of ‘the peace treaty.’ While admitting that such a visionary worldview may be based on wishful thinking, it is also appropriate to point out that most political conflicts since the end of World War II have reflected the outcome of legitimacy wars more than the balance of hard power. Military superiority and geopolitical leverage were consistently frustrated during the era of colonial wars in the 1960s and 1970s. In this regard, it should be understood that the settler colonial enterprise being pursued by Israel is on the wrong side of history, and so contrary to appearances, there is reason to be hopeful about the Palestinian future and historical grounds not succumb to the dreary imaginings of those who claim the mantle of realism.


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