Tag Archives: Saudi Arabia

A Weak UN Ensures a Weak Secretary General

13 Jun

 

 

There are many angles of interpretation relevant to the startling admission by Ban Ki-moon that he succumbed to undisguised diplomatic pressure when removing Saudi Arabia from the ‘shame list’ of countries whose armies are found responsible the maiming and killing of children, earning them dishonorable mentioned in an annex to the annual UN report on violations of children’s rights. The scale and severe nature of such violations, committed in the course of the Yemeni intervention carried out by the Saudi led coalition of countries is beyond serious doubt, detailed in the UN report and strongly endorsed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. These most respected of human rights NGOs reacted with moral outrage that the SG would give way to such unseemly and crude pressure, which has the effect of undermining the precarious stature of the UN making visible for all to see how geopolitical considerations outweigh even these most fundamental of humanitarian concerns, the protection of children in war zones..

 

There is more to this incident than one more demonstration that this particular SG lacks the political will to uphold the integrity and autonomy of the UN. On display, as well, was the crude manner in which the UN Saudi ambassador, Abdullah al-Mouallami, threw around his political weight without enduring any backlash. This diplomat openly is accused of threatening the UN with ‘adverse consequences,’ and also with issuing a warning that UN emergency programs in such distressed areas as Gaza, Syria, and South Sudan would lose their Saudi (and Gulf coaltion) funding. Apparently, rather pathetically, Ban Ki-moon, thought it better to give ground, and so explained removing Saudi Arabia from the shame list until a joint review determined what to do as the lesser of evils. The greater evil the SG suggested would be to lose financial support for vital programs that affect a far greater number of children.

 

The ambassador made clear that this face saving procedure to review the listing was not to be construed as consenting to an objective inquiry, declaring that the removal of Saudi Arabia from the list was ‘unconditional and irreversible.’ Whether the disclosure of these sordid happenings will challenge the Saudi insistence remains to be seen. What is evident, and offers the world a glimmer of encouragement, is that Saudi Arabia, despite its notorious human rights record, takes seriously enough its international reputation as to make such use of strong arm tactics that are as demeaning as the UN report itself. The SG retreat also shows to the world that being a monetary heavyweight can matter in the UN as much as being a P-5 member or geopolitical leader.

 

What Saudi Arabia had achieved by relying on its economic leverage, Israel and the United States manage to gain more subtly by persuasion. Both governments leaned heavily on the SG to ensure that Israel would not be on the shame list in view of its violations of the rights of children in the course of the bloody 2014 Gaza War. In an earlier massive attack started at the end of 2008, the SG dutifully buried a report strongly condemning Israel for deliberately targeting UN facilities where Palestinian civilians were receiving shelter. So it is important to appreciate that Saudi Arabia is not by any means alone in applying extra-legal pressure to avoid losing face by adverse findings. The fact that the U.S. special relationship with Israel includes helping Israel cover up such serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights standards is also an added reason for disappointment.

 

The good news is that governments do their upmost to avoid moral and legal opprobrium as a result of UN initiatives, and this is because it matters. Recall the furious Israeli reaction to the infamous Goldstone Report of 2009 that found Israel guilty of numerous violations of the law of war in the course of its attack on Gaza months earlier, which had the effect of burying the report’s recommendations for further action but did validate the allegations of criminality made in civil society, contributing to the discrediting of Israel’s occupation policies and practices, especially as enacted in Gaza. The bad news is that the leverage of the powerful and rich consistently leads the UN to buckle beneath the weight of backroom influence.

What gives this Saudi event salience is the transparency and effectiveness of the inappropriate behavior, which includes the SG’s unusually candid acknowledgement of what took place, producing a media shout out that encourages a critical assessment of the UN and its leadership. Perhaps, Ban Ki-moon in his final months as SG has decided to tell it like it is, having kept his mouth shut and mostly doing what he was told to do for the nearly ten years that he occupied the highest UN post.

 

There are two ways to view Ban Ki-moon’s handling of Saudi pressure. The first impulse is to condemn the SG for cavalierly disregarding the values of the UN Charter, human rights, and international law. From this perspective, Ban Ki-moon reinforced his overall image throughout his two terms as a weak international civil servant who is blown in whatever the direction of the prevailing wind happens to be. A second line of interpretation is more charitable, suggesting that Ban Ki-moon was confronted by a ‘Sophie’s choice’ dilemma: either to insist on the integrity of the shame list or balance the competing costs, and thus exhibit flexibility by opting to keep the economic assistance flowing to places of dire need.

 

What both interpretations suggest is the subordination of UN operations to geopolitical realities, not only as this incident unfolded, but also more tellingly with respect to the underlying structural characteristics of the UN. The manner of choosing a SG, requiring endorsement by each of the P-5, virtually guarantees the selection of a person of weak character and strong ambition. The fact that there have been some partial exceptions among the eight SGs that have so far served is mainly an indication that the gatekeepers have not always succeeded in doing their job of making sure that a person of unshakable moral character is ever selected. Political astuteness, which is understood to me a realistic willingness to be responsive to geopolitical pressures has been part of the job description all along. We can still hope for another Dag Hammarskjold, U Thant, or Kofi Annan who will somehow get through the gate, imparting dignity once more to the office of Secretary General, but from a structural point of view such a happy outcome must still be viewed essentially as an accident.

 

Closely related is the even more fundamental recognition that the funding supply chains of the UN are tied directly to these geopolitical levers of influence. The UN is kept on a short financial leash so that the leaders of the Organization will not get the wrong idea, and think of themselves as independent political actors owing primary loyalty to the UN Charter and the ideals set forth in its Preamble. It would be a simple matter to impose a tax on international financial transactions or international flights that would generate the revenue needed to fund the entire UN system. This idea has been around for decades, earlier discussed as ‘the Tobin tax,’ named after the Yale Nobel Prize economist, James Tobin, who is credited with first proposing such a tax in 1972. Why it has never happened should not be a mystery. Those who control the UN have no incentive to loosen their grip. Civil society, although supportive of such an initiative, has never been sufficiently motivated to mount the sort of transnational campaign that succeeded in getting the International Criminal Court established despite geopolitical resistance. Absent political will from above or mobilization from below there is no prospect of achieving the degree of financial independence that would allow a SG in the future to react with anger to the sort of demand made effectively by the current Saudi Arabia ambassador.

 

It is evident that the combination of a discretionary veto conferred upon the P-5, which is a legalized exemption of unlimited scope from UN authority, and the leverage provided by the way the Organization is financed, ensures the primacy of geopolitics in the principal operations of the UN. This is what was intended from the beginning of the UN, and this is what has happened all along. It is written into the UN Charter, which provides the constitutional framework and is veto proof against any geopolitically unwanted modification intended to make the UN more responsive to international law rather than to the grand strategies of its dominant members and their closest friends.

 

Despite such disappointments and shortcomings, the UN plays a vital role on the global stage, and its contributions, actual and potential, should not be overlooked. The UN provides a forum available to all states, raising to global visibility the concerns of the weaker governments in a manner that can make a difference. The UN also provides the principal auspices for multilateral diplomacy, as in relation to such lawmaking events as the Paris Climate Change Agreement of a year ago.

 

As an organization of states, the UN fails to address the agendas of the peoples of the world, especially those so marginalized and vulnerable as not to be adequately represented by governments. Proposals for the establishment of a Global Peoples Assembly, parallel to the General Assembly, have been forward over the years, but have not been realized because opposed by the representatives of a state-centric world order that are unwilling to share the formal stage of authority with civil society representatives even as the actualities of globalization have drained power and energy away from states.

 

Perhaps, the most overlooked, yet significant role of the UN is to be a major player in Legitimacy Wars, throwing their weight on one side or the other in the many ongoing struggles around the world. The UN can also issue reports and gather reliable information that disclose ‘inconvenient truths,’ which are influential with world public opinion, and provoke the sort of awkward responses that led to Saudi embarrassment, followed by anger, leading to the even more embarrassing accommodation by a much compromised Ban Ki-moon. At the same time, the incident also called wider attention to the abuse of children in the Yemen intervention than would have followed by its inclusion in a UN report. Political influence and change work in strange ways, and we cannot yet know whether the disgraceful, yet understandable, behavior of the SG will yet persuade the Saudi led coalition to abandon quietly their intervention in Yemen, or at least modify their tactics.

 

What needs to be understood is that symbolic issues with law, morality, and justice have exerted a major impact on the resolution of conflicts since 1945. It is the normative revolution principally brought about through the achievement of the right of self-determination that has changed the map of the world, and indicated that the anti-colonial flow of history has shaped the narrative of recent decades to a greater extent even than the series of startling innovations in the weaponry and tactics of warfare. The UN seems weak when challenged by geopolitics, yet its mark on the history of our time is the clearest demonstration that its presence still matters, and will continue to do so despite the likelihood of future weak SGs and in the face of its deep structural failings to fulfill the promise of the stirring words set forth in the Preamble of the UN Charter.

 

 

 

Advertisements

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

22 Nov

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

I

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

II

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

III.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

III

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

IV

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

V

 

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

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

 

Saudi Arabia, Royal Impunity, and the Quicksand of Special Relationships

20 Oct

(Prefatory Note: This post is a substantially revised version of an opinion piece published online by Middle East Eye on October 6, 2015; it challenges the geopolitics of impunity from both principled and pragmatic perspectives, and also casts doubts on ‘special relationships’ that the United States has established in the Middle East with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Finally, an effort is made to suggest that there is an alternative based essentially on the practical wisdom in the 21st century of upholding and strengthening the global rule of law.)

 

Saudi Arabia enjoys a spectacular level of impunity from international accountability. This is not only because it a powerful monarchy or has the world’s richest and largest royal family with influence spread far and wide. And it is not even just about oil, although having a quarter of the world’s pre-fracking energy reserves still engenders utmost deference from those many modern economies that will depend on Gulf oil and gas for as long as this precious black stuff lasts. The Saudi comfort zone is also sustained by its special relationship with the United States that provides geopolitical backing of great benefit.

 

This refusal to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for upholding law and morality raised mainstream eyebrows that have usually looked the other way when it came to the Saudi record on human rights. Recently electing Saudi Arabia to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), partly due to a secret vote swap with the UK, seemed to cross a hereto invisible line. And if that was not enough of an affront to cosmetic morality in the sphere of human rights, the Saudi UN ambassador has been recently selected to chair the influential HRC ‘ consultative panel that recommends to the President of the Council a short-list of whom shall be appointed as Special Rapporteurs, including on such issues as right to women, freedom of expression, and religious freedom.

 

This news is coupled with confirmation that Saudi Arabia has inflicted more beheadings than ISIS this year, over 2 a day, and has ordered Ali Mohammed al-Nimr to be executed by crucifixion for taking part in an anti-monarchy demonstration when he was 17.  In a second representative case, the popular blogger, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to a long prison term and 1000 lashes in public for criticizing the monarchy.  This behavior resembles the barbarism of ISIS more than it exhibits qualifications to occupy senior UN positions dealing with human rights.

 

Additionally, Riyadh like Damascus, seems guilty of severe war crimes due to its repeated and indiscriminate targeting of civilians during its dubious Yemen intervention. The worst incident of late was an air strike targeting a wedding party on September 29th, killing 131 civilians, including many women and children, but the overall pattern of the Saudi military onslaught has been oblivious to the constraints of international humanitarian law as embodied in the Geneva Conventions of 1949.  

 

The Saudi mismatch between stature and behavior cannot be considered, as it appears to be, a grotesque anomaly in the global normative order. Instead, it fits neatly into a coherent geopolitical pattern.  Ever since World War II Saudi Arabia has been an indispensable strategic asset for the West. Oil is the core explanation of this affinity, but it is far from the whole story. Earlier Saudi anti-Communism was important, a kind of health insurance policy for the West that the government would not lured into the Soviet orbit or adopt a non-aligned position in the manner of Nasser’s Egypt, which would have dangerously undermined energy security for Western Europe.

 

In recent years, converging patterns of extreme hostility toward Iran that Saudi Arabia shares with Israel has delighted Washington planners who had long been challenged by the difficulty of juggling unconditional support for Israel with an almost absolute dependence of the West on keeping Gulf oil flowing at affordable prices. This potential vulnerability was vividly revealed in the aftermath of the 1973 Middle East War when Saudi Arabia expressed the dissatisfaction of the Arab world with Western pro-Israel positioning by persuading OPEC to impose an oil embargo that caused a global panic attack. This crisis unfolded on two levels– a high road revealing Western vulnerability to Middle Eastern oil and a low road of severe consumer discontent in reaction to long gas lines and higher prices at the pump attributable to the embargo.

 

It was then that war hawks in the West murmured aloud about coercively ending the embargo by landing paratroopers on Saudi oil fields. Henry Kissinger, never troubled by war scenarios, speculated that such an intervention might be ‘necessary’ for the economic security of the West. The Saudi rulers heard this ‘never again’ pledge from the custodians of world order, and have since been careful not to step on Western toes.

 

Against such a background, it is hardly surprising that NGO concerns about the dreadful human rights landscape in Saudi Arabia falls on deaf ears. President Obama who never tires of telling the world that the national character of America requires it to live accord with its values, centering on human rights and democracy, holds his otherwise active tongue when it comes to Saudi Arabia. He is busy reassuring the new Saudi king that the US remains as committed as ever to this second ‘special relationship’ in the Middle East, the first being, of course, with Israel.

 

If we look beneath the word ‘special,’ which conveys the added importance attached of the relationship, it seems to imply unconditional support, including a refusal to voice criticism in public. US geopolitical backing confers impunity, shielding a beneficiary from any pushback by the international community at the UN or elsewhere. There are other perks that come with this status additional to impunity. Perhaps none more notable than the embarrassment associated with hustling Saudi notables out of the United States the day after the 9/11 attacks. Remember that 15 of the 19 plane hijackers were Saudi nationals, and the US Government still refuses to release 28 pages of detailed evidence on alleged Saudi connections with Al Qaeda gathered by the 9/11 investigative commission.

 

Surely if Iran had remotely comparable linkages to those notorious events it would likely have produced a casus belli; recall that the justification for attacking Iraq in 2003 was partially based on flimsy fictitious allegations of Baghdad’s 9/11 complicity. 

 

The Saudi special relationship (unlike that with Israel) is more mutually beneficial. Because of the enormous revenues earned by selling 10 million barrels of oil a day for decades, Saudi unwavering support for the dollar as the currency of account has been of crucial help to the American ambition to dominate the global economy. Beyond this, the Saudis after pushing the world price of oil up by as much as 400% in the 1970s quickly healed the wounds by a massive recycling of so-called petrodollars through investments in Europe and North America, and especially appreciated, have been the Saudi purchase of many billions of dollars worth of arms over the years. The United States did its part to uphold the relationship, especially by responding to the 1990 Iraqi attack on Kuwait that also menaced Saudi Arabia. By deploying 400,000 troops in Saudi Arabia and leading the successful effort to compel Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, American reliability as Saudis protective big brother was convincingly upheld. Of course, in this interest there was a genuine convergence of interests. Western policy as shaped by American foreign policy accorded an absolute priority to keeping Gulf oil in friendly hands.

 

Despite the major strategic benefits to both sides, the most remarkable aspect of this special relationship is its survival in the face of the Saudi role in its massive worldwide funding of Islamic anti-Western militancy or jihadism. Saudi promotion of religious education with a Wahhabist slant is widely believed to be largely responsible for the rise and spread of jihadism, and the resultant turmoil.

 

I would have thought that the West, especially after 9/11 would insist that Saudi Arabia stop supporting Wahhabist style extremism abroad, even if it overlooked denials of human rights at home due to the imposition of harsh controls upon freedom of expression, of association, women’s rights, cruel and unusual punishments. More damaging in its political consequences than being the shield of Saudi impunity is the willingness of the US to go along with the anti-Iranian sectarian line that the Saudi leadership relies upon to justify such controversial moves as direct interventions in Bahrain and Yemen, as well as the provision of  weapons and money to anti-Assad forces in Syria.

 

Saudi opportunism became evident when the kingdom threw its diplomatic support and a large bundle of cash to an anti-Sunni coup in Egypt against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Saudi’s true enemies are determined by the threat posed to the stability of the monarchy, and not by their sectarian identity. In this sense Iran is an enemy because it is a regional rival that threatens to impinge upon the role and influence of Saudi Arabia, and not because of its adherence to a Shia variety of Islam. Similarly the Muslim Brotherhood, despite being of Sunni persuasion, was perceived as as a threat to royal absolutism by its democratizing challenge directed at the Mubarak autocracy. Sectarian identity is distinctly secondary, especially for the Saudi monarchy that is responsible for the conduct of foreign policy. At home, the stability of royal governance is sustained by allowing a free rein to the Wahhabi religious leadership that subject the Saudi people to its severe sectarian constraints.

 

Saudi impunity makes us appreciate the value of normal relationships among sovereign states. These do not entail exemptions from accountability in relation to international crimes and human rights violations. These special relationships have become politically costly in this century, especially if used to protect rogue states from international scrutiny. Accountability based on the rule of law is far better for stability, security, and sustainable peace than impunity. It has become increasingly awkward for US Government to validate, in part, its global role by championing human rights while refusing to blink when it comes to the most minimum expectations of accountability for Saudi Arabia or Israel.

 

I would go further, and argue that such special relationships, although expressions of the primacy of geopolitics (as over against the implementation of a global rule of law), do not serve on balance to uphold national interests in the course of abandoning national values. Contrary to the precepts of political realism, in the Middle East these two special relationships unthinkingly bind the United States and its European allies to a failing foreign policy that has occasioned great suffering for many of the peoples of the region. The migration crisis that is one direct effect of these unfortunate policies, especially military intervention, is finally leading observers to connect some dots, and recognize that what is done in the Middle East has menacing reverberations for Europe. As well, it further damages the reputation of the United States as a principled leader in a global setting that is serving the global public good as well as promoting its national policy priorities.  Perhaps, that reputation is tarnished beyond recovery at this point in any event, making repetitional considerations almost irrelevant.

Normal
0

false
false
false

EN-US
JA
X-NONE

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-priority:99;
mso-style-parent:””;
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0in;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:12.0pt;
font-family:Cambria;
mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria;
mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria;
mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}

 

The Yemen Catastrophe: Beset by Contradictions of Will and Intellect

28 Sep

[Prefatory Note: This post modifies an article published in Middle East Eye on September 21, 2015, with title, “Yemen pays the price for Saudis’ sectarian paranoia.” Whether the Saudis are being paranoid about political developments in their neighbors (Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen) or prudent in view of regional threats to the stability of the Kingdom is difficult to ascertain. However this issue is resolved, portraying what has gone wrong as a consequence of sectarianism or an expansionist Iran, evades the real challenges being posed in Yemen, in Syria, and elsewhere in the region. Only in Iraq, where American occupation policy injected

a self-defeating sectarianism as the centerpiece of its post-Saddam Hussein state-building project, does this optic misused when applied to Middle East conflict seem to explain the course of developments, including the alignment of Iraq’s current leaders with Iran rather than with their supposed liberators from the West!]

 

 

 

Yemen Catastrophe: Beset by Contradictions of Will and Intellect

 

Any attempt to provide a coherent account of the political strife afflicting Yemen is bound to fail. The country is crucible of contradictions that defy normal categories of rational analysis. If we look beyond the political fog that envelops the conflict the tragic circumstances of acute suffering imposed on the civilian population do emerge with stark clarity. Long before the outbreak of civil warfare, Yemen was known to be the poorest country in the region, faced with looming food and water scarcities. The UN estimates 80% of the population is in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, 40% live on less than $2 per day. Further there are high risks of mass famine and epidemic outbreaks of disease will occur, while continuing chaos is a near certainty, with the prospect of yet another wave of desperate migrants swept ashore in Europe.

 

Against this background, the UN Security Council seems shockingly supportive of a major Saudi military intervention via sustained air attacks that started in March 2015, severely aggravating the overall situation by unanimously adopting a one-sided anti-Houthi Resolution 2216. This Saudi use of force is contrary to international law, violates the core principle of the UN Charter, and magnifies the violent disruption of Yemeni society. The success of the Houthi insurgency from the north that swept the Yemeni leadership from power, taking over the capital city of Sanaa, was perversely treated by the Security Council as a military coup somehow justifying the intervention by a Saudi led coalition of Gulf countries pledged to restore the ‘legitimate’ government to power. To grasp the geopolitics at play it is clarifying to recall that the 2013 blatant military coup in Egypt, with much bloodier reprisals against the displaced elected rulers, aroused not a murmur of protest in the halls of the UN. Once more the primacy of geopolitics is showcased in the Middle East. It’s not what you do, but who does it, that matters when it comes to a UN response.

 

What makes it even more difficult to make sense of developments in Yemen is the geopolitical tendency, as abetted by the media, to reduce incredibly complex national histories and the interplay of multiple contending forces to a simplistic story of Sunni versus Shia rivalry for the control of the country. Such a prism of interpretation, above all, allows Saudi Arabia to portray once again the strife in Yemen as another theater of the wider region proxy war pitting Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies against Iran, which is a guaranteed way of securing U.S. and Israeli backing. The same rationale has served the Kingdom well (and the world badly) in explaining why it supports anti-Assad forces in Syria during the last several years. It also was the pretext for intervening in Bahrain in 2011 to crush a popular pro-democracy uprising. If considered more objectively we begin to understand that this sectarian optic obscures more than it reveals, and not accidentally.

 

For instance, when it came to Egypt, however, the sectarian template was completely discarded, and the Saudis immediately used their financial muscle to help the anti-Muslim Brotherhood coup in 2012 led by General Sisi to consolidate its control over the country. Even when Israel attacked Gaza a year ago, seeking to destroy Hamas, a Sunni Islamic version of the Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia made no secret of the startling fact that it gave Tel Aviv a green light. What emerges, then, is not a regional politics based on sectarian priorities, but rather a pathological preoccupation with regime stability in the Saudi monarchy, with anxieties arising whenever political tendencies emerge in the region that elude its control, and are perceived as threatening. Part of the truer explanation of Saudi pattern of behavior also has to do with the Faustian Bargain struck with the powerful Wahabi establishment, which has allowed the Saud royal clan to flourish at home while spending billions to spread the most repressive version of Islam far and wide to madrassas throughout Asia. The fact that the application of Wahabism at home, including more than 100 beheadings already this year and confinement of women to an extent that makes the Islamic Republic of Iran appear liberal by comparison, is a further sign that international clamor of human rights is selective to put it mildly.

 

The people of Yemen are paying a huge price for this brand of Saudi violent security politics. Whether it is paranoia at work or a healthy respect for the mass unpopularity of its policies, or some mixture, is difficult to assess. Yet what seems clear is that much of the world is lulled to sleep, not taking the trouble to peer below this sectarian cover story. Only scant account taken of the fact that the real threats to regional order in Yemen do not come from a reasonable Houthi insistence on power-sharing political arrangements, but mainly arise from the presence in Yemen of Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS that have been long targeted by American drones as part of the war of the terror ever since 2007. So while the West supports the Saudi fight against the Shia Houthis at the same time it does its best to weaken their most formidable domestic opposition, and in the process further alienates the Yemeni civilian population by its military tactics, which recruits more extremists committed to fighting against this second form of external intervention that finds no basis in international law and enjoys the tacit support of the UN Security Council.

 

If this was not enough to make the Yemeni crystal ball opaque, there is the internal alignment of forces. On the one side, the 2012 successor regime to the corrupt dictatorial rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh that is headed by its equally corrupt former vice president, Abd Rabbaah Mansour Hadi, now apparently ‘governing’ from exile, although rumored to be seeking a return to Aden. On the anti-regime side, in addition to the Houthis, are the main military and police forces that still respond to the authority of the ousted leader, Saleh, who has returned to the Yemen struggle to oppose the Saudi intervention and have helped turn the tide of battle on the ground against the Hadi-led government. Despite this adverse battlefield reality, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, was quoted as saying “We will do whatever it takes to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling.” Tragically, what this seems to mean, is reducing the country to a shambles that brings starvation and disease to the population, and possibly escalating at some future point of frustration by the launch of a ground offensive. There are confirmed reports of a massing of Saudi troops close to the Yemen border.

 

At this point, it is difficult to know what would bring some kind of peace and stability to Yemen. What we do know is that both the sectarian optic, Saudi intervention, and American drone warfare are dead end options. The beginning of a constructive approach is to take root causes of the current conflict into account. Several need to be considered. There is a long experience of division in the country between the north and the south, and this means that any unity government for the whole of Yemen can only be sustained by an iron-fisted dictator like Saleh or through a genuine power-sharing federalist kind of arrangement based on decentralized autonomy and a weak central governmental structure. Beyond this, the country bears the scars of Ottoman rule intermixed with a British presence in Aden and the surrounding area, vital to earlier colonial priorities of controlling the Suez and the trade routes to the East.

 

Additionally, and often forgotten and ignored, Yemen remains a composite of tribes that still command the major loyalty of people and reign supreme in many locales. The modern European insistence on sovereign states in the Middle East never succeeded in overcoming the primacy of Yemeni tribal identities. Any possibility of political stability requires subsidizing and respecting Yemen’s tribes as Saudi Arabia did during Saleh’s dictatorship (1990-2012) or creating a multi-colored quilt of autonomous tribal polities. When the background of the north/south split and persisting tribalism are taken into account recourse to the Shia/Sunni divide or the Riyadh/Tehran rivalry as an explanation of Yemen’s strife-ridden country is more than a simplistic evasion of a far more complicated reality. It is a cruel and futile fantasy.

 

What should be done, given this overall situation? One potential key to achieving some kind of peace in Yemen is held by policymakers in Washington. So long as the U.S. Government remains beholden to the rulers in Saudi monarchy, to the extremists running Israel, and insistent on striking at AQAP targets with drone missiles, this key is unusable. This combination of factors is what makes the wider political turmoil in the Middle East stuck on a lethal fast moving treadmill. How to get off the treadmill, that is the question for which there answers, but as yet no relevant political will.

 

There are two obvious moves, neither ideal, but with the modest goal of a first step in creating a new political order: first, negotiate a ceasefire that includes an end to the Saudi intervention; secondly, establish a more credible revival of the National Dialogue Conference that two years ago made a failed attempt at Gulf initiative in Sanaa to find a power-sharing arrangement. It did not help matters then that two successive Houthi representatives at the diplomatic discussions were assassinated on their way to participate. What is needed is establishing a political transition sensitive both to the north/south split and the strength of Yemeni tribes coupled with massive economic assistance from outside, as well as the establishment of a UN peacekeeping presence tasked with implementation and the termination of all forms of external armed intervention. Nothing less has any chance of working.

 

Such a rational path is currently blocked, especially by the intense militancy of the aggressive Saudi leadership of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, and his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Secretary of Defense, the apparent champion of military intervention. The United States, with its special relationship to Israel, its strong ties to Saudi Arabia, and faith in drone led counterterrorism seems to be swallowing the central contradiction between opposing both its real adversaries, AQAP and ISIS, and its implicit ally, the Houthis. Instead of treating the enemy of their enemy as a friend, Washington has reversed the proverb. This Gordian Knot is strangling the people of Yemen. Cutting it will require a drastic break with current policy. The way forward is evident, but how to get there is not, in the meantime the bodies pile up in what has long been considered the poorest country in the region severely stressed by the prospect of severe water scarcities.

  

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:

http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/08/08/4064106.htm

 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.

Contra Syria Attack

30 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this rationale insufficient?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope, Wisdom, Law, Ethics, and Spirituality in relation to Killing and Dying: Persisting Syrian Dilemmas

12 Oct

 

            In appraising political developments most of us rely on trusted sources, our overall political orientation, what we have learned from past experience, and our personal hierarchy of hopes and fears. No matter how careful, and judicious, we are still reaching conclusions in settings of radical uncertainty, which incline our judgments to reflect a priori and interpretative biases. As militarists tends to favor reliance on force to resolve disputes among and within sovereign states, so war weary and pacifist citizens will seek to resolve even the most extreme dire conflict situations by insisting on the potentialities of non-violent diplomacy.

 

In the end, even in liberal democracies most of us are far too dependent on rather untrustworthy and manipulated media assessments to form our judgments about unfolding world events. How then should we understand the terrible ongoing ordeal of violence in Syria? The mainly polarized perceptions of the conflict are almost certain to convey one-sided false impressions that either the atrocities and violence are the work of a bloody regime that has a history of brutal oppression or that this hapless country has become the scene of a proxy war between irresponsible outsiders, with strong religious sectarian overtones of the Sunni/Shi’ia regional divide, and further complicated by various geopolitical alignments and the undisclosed ambitions of the United States, Russia, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others. Undoubtedly, the truth lies at some point between the two poles, with many ambiguities, undisclosed interferences, and assorted unknowns undermining our capacity to reach any ‘objective’ understanding, and leading many to discount the extremely dirty hands of all the major participants, seen and unseen, so as to permit a clear partisan position of being for or against.

 

The difficulties are even greater. If, in contrast, we seek to interpret the conflict from all angles with as much detachment as possible, the result is likely to be paralyzing so far as action is concerned. There is too much uncertainty, secrecy, and complexity to give rise to the clarity needed to shape policy with any confidence, and without confidence killing or allowing the killing to continue, no responsible conclusion can be reached. In effect, only over-simplification, that is, polarized interpretations, are capable of overcoming passivity, but at a high cost. Arguably, in relation to the Syrian maelstrom, passivity functions as a political virtue, or put differently, as the lesser of evils.  

 

In such a situation, assuming we repudiate proxy and geopolitical agendas as the desired bases for determining the future for Syria, what should we hope for? A rapid end of the violence, some sort of now unimaginable accommodation between the two (or many) sides in the struggle, a recognition by the various ‘interested’ third parties that their goals cannot be attained at acceptable costs, an abdication by Bashar al-Assad, an arms embargo uniformly enforced, the completely implausible emergence of constitutional democracy, including respect for minority rights. Merely composing such a wish list underscores the seeming hopelessness of resolving the situation in as acceptable manner, and yet we know that it will somehow be eventually resolved.

 

From the perspective of the Syrian factions and participants, so much of their own blood has been spilled, that it probably seems unacceptable and unreliable to be receptive at this point to any offer of reconciliation, and when the only hope is for either an unconditional victory for the self or the extermination of the other. And with such extremist attitudes, it is not surprising that the bodies keep piling up! What are we to do when every realistic trajectory adds to an outcome that is already tragic?

 

My approach in these situations of internal conflict has been to oppose and distrust the humanitarian and democratizing pretensions of those who counsel intervention under the alluring banner of ‘the responsibility to protect.’ (R2P) and other liberal rationales supportive of military intervention, what Noam Chomsky tellingly calls ‘military humanism.’ Yet in concrete situations such as existed in Kosovo in 1999, Libya in 2011, and Syria today, to counsel a passive international response to the most severe crimes against humanity and genocidal atrocities would seems to deny the most elemental ethical bonds of human solidarity in a networked, globalized world, bonds that may turn out in the near future to be indispensable if we are to achieve environmental sustainability before the planet burns us to a crisp.

 

            There are structural issues arising from the statist character of world order in the post-colonial era that make political choices in such situations of bitter internal conflict a tragic predicament. On the one side, is the statist logic that endows territorial governments with unconditional authority to sustain their unity in the face of insurgent challenges, a political principle given constitutional backing in Article 2(7) of the UN Charter, prohibiting UN intervention in internal conflicts. This statist logic is deeply confused and contradicted by legitimizing the inalienable and emancipatory right of self-determination conferred on every ‘people,’ and not on governments. In the background, as well, are the various non-Western collective memories, uniformly bad, of colonial rule, and wellfounded contemporary suspicions that humanitarian interventions, however described and unwittingly, represent attempted colonialist revivals, both ideologically and behaviorally.  

 

On the other side of the policy fence, there is an odd coalition of liberal internationalists who sincerely regard intervention as an essential tool for the promotion of a more humane world along with more cynical geopolitical strategists who regard conflict zones, especially where large oil reserves exist, as targets of opportunity for extending Western interests. Further, normative confusion arises from the drift of practice on the part of the UN that has been understood to vest in the Security Council unlimited competence to interpret the Charter as it wishes. (See World Court decision in the Lockerbie case, which coincidentally involved Libya) In this regard, the rhetoric of human rights has been used to circumvent the Charter limits restricting UN competence to address conflicts internal to states: for instance, the Security Council in 2011 authorized a ‘No Fly Zone’ for Libya that was immediately converted by the NATO intervenors into a de facto mandate for ‘regime change’; the whole undertaking was validated for most advocates of the broadened undertaking because it freed Libya from a murderous dictatorship; others approved, believing that the operation involved a proper invocation of the R2P norm, and still others endorsed the intervention on the basis of its supposed post-conflict state-building successes, avoiding chaos, and especially the rather impressive efforts to base the governance of Libya on democratic procedures. As the situation continues to evolve, there exists controversy as to how to assess the positive and negative aspects of post-Qaddafi Libya.

 

In evaluating our positions for or against a given intervention, should our sense of strategic motivations matter? For instance, the Kosovo intervention was at least partially motivated by the desire in Washington and among many European elites to show that NATO was still useful despite the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet threat that generated the alliance in the first place. Do such strategic considerations matter if indeed the people of Kosovo were spared the kind of ethnic cleansing endured not long before by the people of Bosnia, culminating in the genocide at Srebrenica in 1995? Might it not be claimed that only when strategic incentives exist, will an intervention be of sufficient magnitude to be effective? In effect, altruism alone will not produce effective forms of humanitarian intervention. Does the existence of double standards matter? Certain crimes against humanity generate an interventionary response while others are overlooked, for instance, the persisting collective punishment of the people of Gaza. Should we drink from a glass that is only half full? The same question applies to the recent surge of criminal prosecutions under the authority of the International Criminal Court.

 

There are other ways of evaluating what has taken place. For example, should the consequences of intervention or non-intervention color our assessments of the policy choice? Let’s say that Kosovo evolves in a constructive direction of respect for human rights, including those of the Serbian minority, or in contrast, becomes repressive towards of its minority population. Do we, should we, retrospectively reexamine our earlier view on what it was preferable to do back in 1999? And finally, should we give priority to the postulates of human solidarity, what might be called ‘moral globalization,’ or to the primacy of self-determination as the best hope that peoples of the world have of achieving emancipatory goals, recognizing that the grand strategies of the geopolitical actors are indifferent, at best, and often hostile to such claims?

 

My argument reduces to this: in such a global setting we cannot avoid making disastrous mistakes, but to renounce the effort to find the preferred course of action, we should not withdraw from politics and throw up our hands in frustration. We can expose false claims, contradictions, double standards, and we can side with those who act on behalf of emancipatory goals, while not being insensitive to the complexity, and even contradictions, of ‘emancipation’ in many political settings. There are often ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ sides from the perspective of international morality, international law, and global justice, but not always. When all sides seem deeply ‘wrong’ as in Syria, the dilemmas for the engaged global citizen is heightened to the point where the only responsible posture may be one of humility and an acknowledgement of radical uncertainty. In such circumstances, the most salient moral imperative is to refrain from acts that are likely to intensify the violence, intensify suffering, and increase dying and klling. This may not be a heroic political posture, but it may offer the most constructive response to a particular mix of circumstances, minimizing prospects of further escalation.

 

            Finally, it is not very helpful to observe, ‘time will tell whether this was the best response.’ Perhaps, we can learn for the future about factors overlooked that might have altered our assessment, but our past decision was based on what we knew and perceived at that time, and should not be revised by taking account of subsequent developments. In some situations, such as the many struggles of oppressed and occupied peoples, it seems desirable to be hopeful even in the face of the realization that the eventual outcome could bring deep disappointment. We should, I feel, as often as possible be guided by our hopes and beliefs even when, as nearly always, we are confronted by the dilemmas of radical uncertainty. We should also do our best not to be manipulated by those media savvy ‘realists’ who stress fears, claim a convergence of benevolence and interests, exaggerate the benefits of military superiority, and especially in America serve as the self-appointed chief designers of exploitative patterns of geopolitically shaped security.

 

            With hope we can often overcome uncertainty with desire, and engage in struggles for a just and sustainable future that celebrates human potential for moral growth, political enhancement, and spiritual wisdom.

            Without hope we fall victim to despair and will be carried along with the historical current that is leading nation, society, civilization, species, and world toward catastrophe.

 We live in what can be described both as the Information Age and cope daily with information overload. We are supposed to shape policy on the basis of knowledge, yet when it comes to crucial issues such war/peace or climate change, we act and advocate without sufficient knowledge, or even ignore an informed consensus, and what is worse, we put aside law, ethics, and our spiritual sensitivities.

Finally, to think, act, and feel as a citizen pilgrim provides the necessary foundation for hope, and its two sisters, wisdom and spirituality.