Tag Archives: Terrorism

Failures of Militarism in Countering Mega-Terrorism

27 Aug

[Prefatory Note: I am posting on my blog a short article just published in a very good journal devoted to terrorism, Perspectives of Terrorism. It was originally presented at a conference in Washington, DC, and later revised. As always, civil comments welcome.]

 

 

Failures of Militarism in Countering Mega-Terrorism

 

Abstract

The introduction of this article is devoted to the distinctive challenges posed by this era of mega-terrorism initiated by the 9/11 attacks. The article offers a critique of the American response which is based on a ‘war’ rather than a law enforcement paradigm. An argument is then made to adapt international law to new modalities of conflict while at the same time learning the right lessons from the repeated militarist failures of transnational counterterrorism. These issues are further considered via the parallel analysis of American counterterrorism policy by the distinguished diplomat, Chas Freeman.

 

Keywords: Militarism; intervention; terrorism; international law

 

Introduction: Tensions Between Post-9/11 Counterterrorism and International Law

There are multiple complexities arising from the interactions between sovereign states and large-scale political violence of extremist groups and individuals associated with, or inspired by, such groups. These complexities profoundly challenge the efforts of international law and the capabilities of national governments to contain and minimize political violence. They also raise serious questions about the relations between war, territorial sovereignty, law, and morality under contemporary conditions.

To begin with, international law evolved in the last century to prohibit all uses of force that cannot be convincingly validated as claims of self-defense or as authorized by the UN Security Council. These are innovative and core ideas of the UN Charter that were agreed upon in the aftermath of World War II when the uppermost priority was the establishment of constraints on discretionary recourse to international force by states in the course of international disputes. Article 51 of the Charter further restricts valid claims by limiting self-defense under international law to situations in which a government is responding to “a prior armed attack.”[1] As suggested, supplemental to self-defense claims are authorizations to use force that are given to political actors by the UN Security Council. This was the case with respect to the 2011 NATO regime-changing intervention in Libya, although the precedent remains controversial as the scope of the use of force exceeded the evident intent and language of the authorizing resolution.[2]

Also, within the UN framework, recourse to force is required to be a matter of last resort, that is, after the failure of good faith diplomatic efforts.[3] Arguably, the practice of states during the Cold War was deeply inconsistent with this restrictive view of legally valid uses of force, and so there emerged a degree of uncertainty and disagreement as to the effectiveness of law in regulating recourse to international force.[4] Because of the absence of governmental institutions on a global level, there is a blurred line separating violations of existing international law and the practice of states that can have lawmaking impacts as a result of patterns of behavior that establish precedents.[5]

The kind of transnational political violence that reached its climax in 2001 with the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. World Trade Center and the Pentagon poses a more systemic challenge to the UN framing of lawful uses of international law. First, both al Qaeda (in attacking) and the United States (in responding)—whether prudently or not—viewed the ensuing political violence through the prism of ‘war’ rather than ‘crime,’ expanding the scope and magnitude of the violence. The 9/11 attacks had characteristics blurring the boundaries separating traditional terrorist acts from traditional acts of war, giving political leaders in the United States the choice of whether to respond within a war paradigm or a crime paradigm. That the leadership at the time in the United States immediately chose war partly reflected the neoconservative worldview of the presidency of George W. Bush, the traumatizing and symbolic nature of the targets, the gravity of the harm done, and a feared vulnerability to additional attacks by Al Qaeda.[6]

Second, Al Qaeda’s political violence was uniformly described as ‘terrorism.’ A non-state actor who lacked a territorial presence in the targeted country had attacked major civilian targets in the United States. This feature of 9/11 had the immediate effect of transnationalizing the interaction between terrorism and counterterrorism. In the process a new species of war was borne. By and large terrorism had been largely a state/society interaction, previously treated as a law enforcement challenge to be addressed within the boundaries of the targeted state or, internationally, with the cooperation of foreign police and security forces or through covert special operations. This international militarization of counterterrorism was essentially a new political phenomenon, although there had been a foretaste in the decades before in the form of retaliatory strikes (as distinct from extended military campaigns) against foreign countries thought to have sponsored terrorists, harbored them, or were otherwise complicit in the attacks.[7] The contemporary nature of transnational extremist politics and the forcible responses of geopolitical actors are contributing to the restructuring of world order by way of deterritorializing armed conflict.[8]

Third, the absence of a clear territorial base from which terrorists launched their provocative attacks made it more challenging to design a military response able to engage, defeat, and destroy such an adversary. On the terrorist side, the dispersal of its bases of operations, which are often inter-mingled with the civilian population, had several effects: turning the entire world into a potential battlefield, subverting notions of territorial sovereignty, eliminating legal options of neutrality in situations of armed conflict (as George W. Bush famously put it, “you are either with us or with the terrorists”), and strengthening incentives to engage in political assassinations that undermine the core distinction of international humanitarian law between civilians and combatants.[9]

Fourth, this kind of conflict also shifts the strategic focus away from deterrence and retaliation toward preemption and prevention. Such an anticipatory orientation expands the UN Charter’s conception of self-defense by allowing a threatened state to strike first rather than being compelled by law to wait until attacked.[10] This shift also encourages the adoption of legally and morally controversial tactical and weapon innovations intended to enhance counterterrorist effectiveness, including reliance on torture, drones, and special operations (covert military groups seeking to find and destroy terrorist targets in foreign countries) as necessitated and justified by the distinctive character of the security challenge.[11] The shift also reflects the politically motivated goal of minimizing casualties on the counterterrorist side even at the sacrifice of effectiveness so as to avoid the rise of anti-war sentiments of the sort that were thought by the U.S. government to have interfered with the prosecution of the Vietnam War.

Fifth, the insistence on treating the adversary as ‘terrorist’ identified as ‘evil’ substantially eliminates both diplomacy and self-scrutiny as instruments of counterterrorist statecraft. In the past, many ‘terrorist’ entities were at some stage in a conflict treated as political actors, enabling negotiated arrangements that succeeded in bringing high levels of political violence to a virtual end. Without this option, there is the prospect of permanent war, already acknowledged to some extent by the Pentagon in its designation of the struggle as the ‘long war,’ with side effects that increase the authority of the state and correspondingly decrease the freedom of the citizenry. The decision to treat an international adversary as a ‘terrorist entity’ is a highly subjective determination that can be withdrawn at any point that it becomes convenient to treat the enemy as a political actor.

These five clusters of issues deserve a detailed treatment that is critical of the self-serving manipulation of international law to free state actors from prior constraints on the use of international force. It is also appropriate to consider revisionist steps that loosen the constraints of international law in reasonable response to a series of grave new security challenges.[12] In this regard, the old international law is not reasonably calibrated to address this new generation of transnational mega-terrorist threats, but neither is the wholesale rejection of normative constraints justified, nor practically necessary. How to strike a proper balance is the central question being addressed here by distinguishing between the contextually rational use of counterterrorist force and, at the same time, striving to uphold those features of international law that in the past sought, with admittedly mixed results, to minimize political violence and the human suffering caused by warfare during the past hundred years.[13]

 

 

Critical Challenges

 

These background considerations inform and structure an assessment of how best to fashion an effective response to the ISIS phenomenon. There are two overlapping challenges associated with ISIS. There is the challenge of selecting the best tactics to address the immediate territorial and security threats presently posed by ISIS in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and other parts of the world. In short, within the Middle East and North Africa, the challenge is essentially at this point both territorial and political, which is producing a new hybrid form of armed conflict and asymmetric warfare that gives rise to new tactics of combat that should, in turn, lead to corresponding modifications in the framework of international humanitarian law. So far, this has not happened. As far as Europe and the United States are concerned, the terrorist events have involved mainly individuals or small groups operating independently, although claiming allegiance to, or inspiration from, ISIS, but essentially posing traditional internal state/society challenges.

For these reasons, at least for the present, the challenges emanating from outside the Middle East and North Africa directed at the established order should be treated primarily as an issue of crime prevention, and not as an occasion for war. Turkey situated next to ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria is faced with several types of threats, the radical destabilization of neighboring countries and the disruptive spillover generated by refugee flows and isolated acts of terrorism apparently intended both as retaliatory responses to Turkish counterterrorist initiatives jointly undertaken with the United States and as efforts to widen the conflict theatre and extend the zone of subversive and destabilizing influences attributable to ISIS. The Turkish case is complicated by the priority presently accorded by Ankara to anti-Kurdish operations; creating tensions with counterterrorist goals as has been the case in Syria.

A third deeper challenge associated not only with ISIS, but also with other expressions of jihadism, including Al Qaeda and its affiliates, is to alter relations with the Islamic world in ways that minimize the prospect of the continuing (re-)emergence of anti-Western extremist political organizations and movements. In my view, the militarist and politically deficient character of present and past Western, particularly American, counterterrorism policies has unwittingly contributed to the rise, spread, and success of jihadist militancy. Such movements have in common the perception that the West is their supreme enemy as a result of intervening in the politics of the region as well as engaging in resource exploitation, especially oil and gas, and by a globally influential popular culture perceived to be undermining Islamic values.[14] The West is also viewed as responsible for upholding Arab governments regarded by ISIS and kindred groups as corrupt, incompatible with Islamic ideas of political community, and viewed for other reasons as illegitimate. The very origins of ISIS are bound up with the US/UK occupation policies pursued in Iraq since 2003, particularly the sectarian purge of Sunni elements in the Iraqi armed forces and governing process.

The main focus of this article is on this structural challenges to the West that can only be effectively met by abandoning certain patterns of past behavior, including an attitude toward global security, which has in the past given rise to jihadism that arose to resist foreign military occupation, but adopted perverse types of liberation strategies, including the repeated commission of crimes against humanity which are viewed generally as atrocities. From this perspective, a critique of Western militarism is put forward both with regard to past ineffectiveness in achieving its goals and with respect to the normative unacceptability of the counterterrorist modalities of response. The distinct interpretative lens concerned with policy assessments of counterterrorist containment efforts are sufficiently interrelated with structural dimensions as to cause some overlap in analysis while still respecting the differences between immediate security threats in combat zones and the underlying conditions that give rise to the threats.[15]

The attention given here to the reliance on the military instrument in the service of counterterrorist policy cannot be separated from the surrounding historical circumstances that led to the present conditions, nor be oblivious to prospects for change. The surprises surrounding the Arab Spring events of 2011 should encourage humility with regard to any effort to evaluate the lasting significance of the reactive counterrevolutionary political turn of the last several years.[16] The situation remains in flux as to what will endure and what is likely to change.

This critique of a militarist orientation also reflects skepticism as to whether current terrorist threats to the security of sovereign states and their populations are being adequately interpreted as a new species of international warfare that calls for a rethinking of the proper role of international force. There is also the related question as to whether–by having recourse to war rather than to the criminal justice machinery–the established political order did not unwittingly create a self-fulfilling prophesy, generating the very threat it is designed to suppress. The dysfunctional application of a war approach to counterterrorism indirectly encourages extremist political movements to emerge, especially through treating a non-state movement as if it were a state, and then, being shocked, as in the case of ISIS by the actuality of its territoriality. This heightening of status by establishing a terrorist identity is illustrated by the transition from al-Qaeda in Iraq to ISIS.

 

 

Militarism and the Military Instrument

 

The distinction between ‘militarism’ and ‘military’ instruments of security is central to an understanding of a structural critique of Western post-colonial policy in the Middle East and North Africa over the course of the last century. By militarism is meant the compulsion to address threats and conflict situations primarily by reliance on a militarist reflex, that is, by an over-reliance on the use of force without giving appropriate consideration to such non-military alternatives as diplomatic negotiations, removing legitimate grievances, adhering to international law, and engaging in self-scrutiny as to the roots of, and responsibility for, the emergence, persistence, and appeal of ISIS and other kindred threats. The argument put forward here is not pacifist, but is directed at the misuse of military capabilities that has led to serious blowback phenomena. This should give rise to an overdue occasion for stocktaking with respect to counterterrorist tactics and doctrine since 9/11.[17]

This misuse reflects, in large part, the failure to adjust to altered historical circumstances. At the height of the colonial era, essentially up until 1945, military superiority was used effectively in the Arab world and elsewhere, to satisfy the colonial ambitions of Europe at acceptable costs to the colonizers. What changed politically was the rise of self-confidence on the part of nationalist forces, the influence exerted by strong global anti-colonial support at the UN and elsewhere under the leadership of the Soviet bloc, and the weakening of European colonial powers due to the losses suffered in the two world wars. Although the United States endeavored to fill the geopolitical vacuum left by the collapse of colonialism, it failed to appreciate the accompanying shift in the balance of forces that shape the outcomes of internal political struggle. Hence the US found itself caught between loyalty to alliances and friendships with European colonial powers and an anti-colonial tradition strongly reinforced by recent historical trends – something that goes back all the way to the American Revolution, which was the first fully successful anti-colonial war.

Despite experiencing a series of frustrating setbacks, the United States continues primarily to rely on innovations in military technology (e.g. drones) and doctrine to sustain a false confidence in militarist approaches to the maintenance of the established political order in non-Western settings of strategic interest. It does so by ignoring a record of frustration and failure associated with military interventionism.[18]

The American failure in Vietnam was expected at the time to generate a more realistic understanding of the limits of military superiority in shaping the political outcome of asymmetric wars. In Vietnam the United States military possessed complete and essentially unchallenged control of air, sea, and land dimensions of the battlefield, and yet could not get the assigned job done to win the war. It was unable despite a decade of effort to crush the Vietnamese political will to continue national resistance to foreign intervention whatever the costs, and finally it was Washington gave in, calculating that it was not worth the effort to continue. In effect, the unconditional will to resist prevailed over the conditional will to intervene, and controlled the outcome, but this core explanation of the Vietnam experience was never understood by the American policy community as providing the key lesson for the future. Instead, the lessons learned were to take steps to blunt the rise of opposition to such foreign wars by abolishing the draft, relying on a professional army, and making a greater effort to enlist the media in support of an ongoing war effort.

A second lesson could have been learned in Afghanistan: those opportunistically trained and equipped as allies in a secondary struggle (in this case, containing the spread of Soviet influence) may turn out to be enemies in a more primary sense (the direct attack of 9/11 would never have been undertaken by the Soviet Union, which is inhibited because vulnerable to retaliation).[19] In effect, short-term geopolitical opportunism was pursued at the expense of intermediate-term security and stability. Al Qaeda’s anti-Soviet collaboration in Afghanistan was followed by launching a struggle to dislodge the United States from the Islamic world, especially its large military deployments in close proximity to the sacred sites located in Saudi Arabia.

A third lesson should have been learned in reaction to the spectacular failures of the Iraq policy pursued by the United States ever since 1992, reliant on punitive sanctions, aggressive war, and a badly mishandled occupation.[20] The aims of imposing ‘democracy,’ influencing oil pricing, securing military base rights, containing Iran, and reconnecting Iraq with the world economy were all frustrated. What is worse from Washington’s strategic point of view, the war intensified sectarian tensions throughout the Middle East, which, contrary to the intention of the mission, increased Iran’s regional influence, led to the formation and local popularity of ISIS, and damaged the American reputation in relation to both the effectiveness of its military diplomacy and the propriety of its political goals and methods.

In my view, the U.S. response to security threats posed by transnational terrorism and specifically, by the rise of ISIS, has often been deeply flawed due to this persistence of militarism. The 2016 presidential campaign discourse in the United States on how to deal with ISIS, especially the policies proposed by the opposing presidential candidates, are surrealist exaggerations of this militarist mindset that has so badly served American and regional security needs in the 21st century. This militarism has also intensified widespread suffering and chaos throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It has also accentuated violent disorder and devastation in other parts of the post-colonial world.[21]

This critique of militarism as 21st century counterterrorism should not be understood as a disguised pacifist plea for an unconditional renunciation of force in response to mega-terrorist threats. There are appropriate counterterrorist roles for military power, although its efficiency and effectiveness in achieving global, national, and human security has markedly declined in the period since the end of World War II, especially when used to wage wars of choice in political struggles for the control of foreign states.

The colonial wars after 1945 confirmed the declining historical agency of military power in recent decades. The colonial powers, despite enjoying overwhelming military superiority in relation to national resistance forces, lost almost every colonial war. The French experience in Indochina and Algeria were, perhaps, the clearest instances of this decisive shift in the operation of the balance of forces in conflict situations in the global South. The genocidal behavior of ISIS along with the regional and global consensus that has formed around its containment and defeat provides a legitimate basis for reliance on military power if coupled with a recognition of its narrow utility, given the mix of political circumstances, including the prior Shi’a abuses in Sunni areas of Iraq and the insistence of parts of the population, especially in Iraq, to be freed in the future from Shi’a governance. The superior military capabilities of the intervening forces do not assure an enduring victory even if it achieves temporary control over a combat zone; what counts is a sense that the political future is entrusted to the indigenous society and to a legitimate national government rather than managed and manipulated by outsiders. It is surprising that the colonial record of failure with respect to military interventions under Western auspices in the period since 1945 did not yield a much more selective approach toward uses of force by the West when addressing security threats in the Middle East and elsewhere in the South.

The U.S. war efforts’ outcome in Vietnam was lamented in Washington, provoking much handwringing with respect to why the Vietnam War was lost, but without questioning the militarist mindset that had, for more than ten years, guided American participation in the struggle. After the Vietnam War a variety of steps were taken to fix the military instrument so that it could function more effectively in the future. However, what was not done, was an assessment of why military intervention had itself become intrinsically dysfunctional late in the 20th century–in contrast to earlier times when it provided an efficient instrument of force projection and allowed the assertion of control over foreign societies. It was true that after the Vietnam experience the American public, for several reasons, became disillusioned about getting involved in distant wars seemingly unrelated to national defense or clearly explainable national interests. Militarists derided this public disillusionment by derisively speaking of ‘the Vietnam syndrome,’ a label intended to convey the unhealthy reluctance of the American public to support the use of military power. The Gulf War, and then the NATO Kosovo War, seemed to remedy the political situation by the delivering quick military victories, and–this is crucial–achieved with minimal casualties, accompanied by national enthusiasm that was bolstered by the militarist claim that warfare could now bring victory to the West in what were approvingly labeled ‘zero casualty wars.’ This change in war fighting tactics was promoted by militarists who were trying to regain their political traction in Washington. They sold it as ‘a revolution’ in the conduct of warfare: no boots on the ground, precision targeting from the air and heavy explosive payloads accurately delivered over long distances with ‘shock and awe’ drama, and a supposedly more respectful relationship between intervening forces and the indigenous population.

It is not surprising that President George H.W. Bush’s first exultant words after victory in 1991 were “We have finally kicked the Vietnam Syndrome”. This is best translated as saying “we can again confidently use military force as a potent instrument of American foreign policy, without encountering either anti-war resistance at home or facing the prospect of a disillusioning long war that ends in defeat.” Actually, it was not as innovative as claimed. The neoconservative Project for a New American Century made this clear in its influential 2000 report, which regretfully acknowledged the absence of a political mandate to support the regime-changing military interventions that it strategically favored in the Middle East.[22] The report contended that ‘a new Pearl Harbor’ was needed to create a political atmosphere in the United States that would be supportive of the aggressive geopolitics that neoconservatives believed promoted American interests in the Middle East after the Cold War. Subsequent developments would show this particular analysis of public sentiments was correct. After 9/11, the public and Congress endorsed, on the basis of a bipartisan consensus, militarist and interventionist undertakings in the Middle East that had no persuasive justification as necessary to meet threats of mega-terrorism. As it turned out, carrying out the interventionist agenda has clearly had the opposite effect of generating and intensifying terrorism in the region and beyond, implementing a misguided neoconservative diplomacy centered on upholding ‘special relationships’ with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Iraq War, launched in 2003, was a disaster from a counterterrorist point of view. It transformed a stable autocracy into a strife-ridden, occupied country that became a fertile breeding ground for extremist resistance movements.[23]

The mood of militarist optimism with respect to American uses of military force was short lived; it was discredited by the distinctive challenges of the post-9/11 world. This new approach to war fighting, while enjoying success in removing Iraq from Kuwait and persuading Serbia to withdraw from Kosovo, had not been tested in conflict situations in which the goal was to shape the outcome of political, religious, and ethnic strife in medium-sized states, in response to counterterrorist regime-changing interventions, and in relation to dispersed extremist base areas situated in countries with which the United States is at peace. The threats posed in the post-9/11 world were unlike either the kind of missions undertaken in the failed anti-colonial wars or the success stories of the Gulf War and Kosovo. George W. Bush mindlessly sold the government and the public on a militarist response to 9/11. And surprisingly, there have been no fundamental conceptual reassessments during the Obama presidency despite the major disappointments experienced in Afghanistan, and even more so, in Iraq. At most there have been several controversial and ambiguous cautionary retreats made during the Obama presidency.

Three costly and misleading tactical ideas overlapped. First, that regime change as a result of military intervention could control the post-conflict state’s (re-)building process under the mentorship of a foreign occupation that was subsidizing economic recovery. The actual outcomes witnessed the rise of regimes that proved totally unsatisfactory from a counterterrorist point of view – regimes that seemed not even capable of providing orderly governance within their national borders. Secondly, that eliminating an unfriendly regime or a regime supportive of international terrorism or unable to prevent the use of its territory for international terrorist activities, would lead to the elimination of the terrorist threat rather than its dispersal, reconfiguration, and renewal. In different ways, both Afghanistan and Iraq, are illustrative of these unexpected blowback consequences. Without viewing conflict through a militarist lens, these consequences would have been anticipated, and the fact that they were not, strengthens the contention that policy shaped within a militarist box will not grasp the nuances of post-9/11 security challenges in the Middle East. And thirdly, that a regime-changing intervention would enhance internal security and promote the regional and global security goals of Washington. Even now those that defend the Iraq War claim, without showing why, insist that the Iraqi people are better off without the dictatorial leadership of Saddam Hussein. It seems obvious that a second coming of Saddam, despite many misgivings, is the only way to overcome the violent forms of disorder that continue to dominate the everyday landscape of Iraq.

An obvious puzzle is ‘why do smart people of good faith continue to behave dysfunctionally in the face of such costly military failures?’ There is no simple answer, and none that applies to all conflict situations. There are some elements of the ISIS type challenge that seem useful to take into account in shaping a tentative answer to such a question. I would here only mention six worth analyzing:

  • The difficulty of turning the ship of state around on fundamental issues of security. This is partly because political leaders and their advisors continue to subscribe to hard power versions of political realism, which affirms an abiding faith in the agency of military power in international conflict situations.
  • A combination of bureaucratic and special interests (military-industrial complex) that resist all efforts to reduce the defense budget, and are inclined to justify with militarist bravado high fiscal outlays to augment military capabilities even in peacetime, reinforced by exaggerating security threats that are usually accompanied by fear-mongering; a compliant media has the effect of setting limits on ‘responsible’ debate, marginalizing the critics of militarism.
  • A prevalent feature of collective political consciousness, which views current forms of terrorism as both evil and extremely frightening, with restored security depending on their elimination, and not an eventual negotiated accommodation.
  • More controversially, the merger of counterterrorist tactics with a broader American program of global pacificiation that depends upon a structure of military globalization that is given the unacknowledged mission of upholding the neoliberal world economy. This necessarily mixes the pursuit of geopolitical goals that arouses anti-West resentment with the realization of somewhat inconsistent counterterrorist objectives.[24] The Iraq War, its motivations, frustrations, and eventual failure, exemplify the tensions and contradictions caused by pursuing geopolitical goals beneath a banner of counterterrorism.
  • The adoption of this militarist agenda by the United States is tantamount to a partial rejection of the ethos of self-determination in the post-colonial era and as such opposes the flow of history.
  • The militarist mindset, by its very nature, does not adequately explore alternative and complementary nonmilitary responses to terrorist provocations, and as a result tends to produce outcomes that are the opposite of what is set forth as initially justifying military intervention. For instance, the attack on Iraq was seen as part of a policy to contain Iran, yet its effects were to expand the regional influence of Iran, including the irony of bringing Iraq into its sphere of influence. In this respect, the United States, at great expense, produced widespread devastation and casualties. It not only failed to achieve its goals, but has become worse off than had it accepted Saddam Hussein’s autocracy as it did gratefully during the Cold War due to anti-Soviet, rather than anti-Iran priorities, and then, incidentally, turning a blind eye toward the abusive human rights record.

In my view, the basic conceptual mistake of militarism is its inability to recognize the limits of the military instrument in achieving desired security goals under current historical conditions and in light of the essentially non-military distinctive challenges responsible for the rise of jihadist extremism. As argued, not only does militarism not achieve its goals, it makes matters worse. This has been the experience of warfare generally after 9/11, and most concretely in relation to the ISIS phenomenon. More precisely, the successes of counterterrorist operations have been essentially preventive law enforcement actions, the failures have been foreign wars.

 

 

The Diplomatic Critique of Militarism

 

One of the most seasoned and thoughtful American diplomats in the Middle East, Chas Freeman, has similarly diagnosed this failed militarism in the region from a mainstream perspective–with illuminating insight. As Freeman put it, “the major achievement of multiple interventions in the Muslim world has been to demonstrate that the use of force is not the answer to very many problems but there are few problems it cannot aggravate.”[25] Or more succinctly, the militarist impulse is a goad to action, in his words, “Don’t just sit there, bomb something.” Freeman’s main point is that not only has military intervention failed almost wherever it was relied upon, despite enjoying the benefit of overwhelming superiority in capabilities, but that it has made the situation worse than it would have been had the situation been left to fester on its own. Again Freeman expresses this assessment in clear language: “Our campaign against terrorism with global reach has multiplied our enemies and continuously expanded their areas of operation.”[26]

When it comes to ISIS, or Da’esh as he prefers to call it, Freeman’s diagnosis is a direct challenge to mainstream thinking: “Given our non-Muslim identity, solidarity with Israel, and recent history in the Fertile Crescent, the U.S. cannot hope to unite the region’s Muslims against Da’esh.” Freeman adds that we cannot stop Da’esh “without fixing the broken political environment in which extremism flourishes.”[27] What this might mean is uncertain, and whether such goals are within reach of the US and its allies is dubious even if recalibrated. Yet, what makes Freeman’s approach worthy of close attention is that he is a Washington insider who dares to think outside the militarist box, and has paid a political price for doing so. His views acknowledge the fundamental failures of military intervention, blaming the rise of ISIS (Da’esh) on American mishandling of Iraq and Syria. The failure is not just the formidable difficulty of translating ‘mission accomplished’ results on a battlefield into a program of political transformation designed to produce results congenial to Western ideas of regional and global security. It is the more generic matter of territorial resistance encountered in the 21st century whenever a Western intervening power seeks to override the politics of self-determination.

The political side of the Freeman story is revealingly relevant. When President Obama near the beginning of his presidency proposed Freeman to be the chief of National Intelligence Estimates, a pushback of tsunami proportions blocked the appointment. An official, no matter how qualified, who was situated outside the militarist box would naturally be expected to be a subversive presence inside the box, and for this reason would not be wanted by the Washington nomenclatura. Perhaps, Freeman’s real Achilles’ heel was his willingness to question along the same lines ‘the special relationship’ with Israel in framing his critique of American foreign policy in the Middle East. As the controversy heated up, the White House abruptly withdrew Freeman’s name from further consideration. In effect, this amounted to an undisguised surrender to the militarist worldview with the Israel Lobby serving as the No. 1 enforcer. The Freeman experience confirms the opinion that the militarist bias of governmental policymaking is currently impenetrable. Thus, there is little likelihood of adopting an approach to the menace posed by ISIS and related phenomena that is any less prone to blowback and harmful adverse consequences.

Not all of Freeman’s policy recommendations seem helpful. He is too ready to work toward stability by collaborating with the most authoritarian political actors in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, while overlooking their miserable record in human rights, including crushing popular uprisings. And worst of all, overlooking the massive Saudi financial and diplomatic commitment to the international dissemination of a fundamentalist version of Islam. Freeman puts himself on the wrong side of history by repudiating the Arab Spring from its inception, and is even critical of the American failure to lend support to such old allies as the corrupt and oppressive leader of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak. In these respects, Freeman seems insensitive to the mass misery experienced by impoverished populations in the Middle East; he would likely be antagonistic to the still unfolding effort of the peoples in the region to control their destinies. The appropriate diplomatic posture for the United States is one of non-intervention, not one of either regime change or regime stabilization. Admittedly, this posture of detachment may produce results that bring chaos and strife to a foreign country, but it seems preferable to accept the dynamics of self-determination than to embark on the futile and destructive work of opposing populist and nationalist challenges to the established order.

 

 

A Concluding Note

 

In light of the analysis offered, it is essential to draw a sharp distinction between dealing with ISIS as a present reality and pursuing policies, as in the past, that create conditions conducive to the emergence of jihadist challenges. In this regard, coping with ISIS requires some reliance on military power to contain and preempt its violent activities and, if possible, engage with its forces in battlefield combat in which it is likely to be defeated, but combined with a willingness to have exploratory negotiations and even a receptivity to possible diplomatic compromise. Such an outlook would be in line with the extended effort in Colombia to find an end to the prolonged strife between FARC and the state, in the Philippines to end the rebellion on the island of Mindanao.

On the broader issues of security, abandoning militarism as the cornerstone of counterterrorist strategy would be a dramatic starting point. President Obama has gone part of the way by seeking to reduce American combat activities in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, but with only limited success and an uncertain will. Obama is to be praised for his insistence that the ‘global war’ against terrorism not be treated as a ‘perpetual’ conflict, but the policies pursued by his administration seem insufficiently modified to give such ideas real world credibility.[28] Instead, Obama’s approach is seen as an instance of ‘weak militarism’ that pleases neither militarists nor critics, but has more continuities than discontinuities with his neocon predecessor in the White House.

There are several connected policy proposals that seem responsive to the global and regional setting that exists at the present time. First of all, desist from policies of military intervention that are unlikely to succeed at acceptable costs and will likely generate conditions conducive to the rise and spread of transnational terrorism. Secondly, recognize that the security priority of the West is to prevent attacks within Western homelands or against Western targets, making the challenge more in the nature of law enforcement, inter-governmental collaboration, terrorist prevention than the sort of traditional military undertakings associated with deterrence, defense, retaliation, and foreign territorial occupation. This understanding makes international collaboration with police, intelligence, and internal security forces of foreign countries the most promising way to address this category of mega-transnational terrorist threat.

It also seems sensible to discourage, and even restrict, Islamophobic sentiments and activities, but without abridging freedom of expression. The political response to the Charlie Hebdo incident was exaggerated, and illustrative of how the Western establishment should not respond. Western leaders took the occasion of a horrifyingly brutal and murderous incident to identify unnecessarily and excessively with an often viciously anti-Muslim magazine. And although some display of solidarity with the victims of such a vicious attack was certainly justified as a counterterrorist affirmation of freedom of expression, it was widely perceived and presented to the world as a seizure of an opportunity to slam Islam through appearing to endorse the inflammatory outlook of Charlie Hebdo with greater vigor than was being devoted to upholding the abstract principle of freedom of expression. Beyond this, why should this incident have drawn such a display of global solidarity, with many heads of state joining the huge Paris demonstration, than earlier or subsequent comparably brutal incidents of terrorist violence?

As suggested, the emergence of ISIS was definitely a byproduct of American-led militarism, and its containment will not be effectively achieved by reliance on militarism. The needed policies for such a hybrid war is a mixed strategy that emphasizes the political, seeks the higher moral and legal ground, and is imaginative about and receptive to diplomatic opportunities to restore security.

 

Notes

[1] See United States v. Nicaragua, ICJ Reports 1986.

[2] See UN Security Resolution 1973, 17 March 2011.

[3] For views that practice of dominant states alters legal norms by setting precedents, see Anthony C. Arend & Robert J. Beck, International Law and the Use of Force Beyond the Charter Paradigm (New York: Palgrave, 1993); Mark Weisbrud, Use of Force: The Practice of States Since World War II (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1997); see especially, Ruchi Anand, Self-Defense in International Relations (New York: Palgrave, 2009); for strong geopolitically oriented jurisprudence, see Michael J. Glennon, Limits of Law: Prerogatives of Power: Interventionism after Kosovo (New York: Palgrave, 2001).

[4] There is a good case to be made that Vietnam War was the turning point. In post-Cold War settings, the NATO Kosovo War and the Iraq War of 2003 were both non-defensive wars undertaken without the authorization of the UN Security Council.

[5] In struggling with the relationship between legal norms, defying patterns of state practice, and the absence of strong central institutions, some scholars have identified ‘the law’ with ‘reasonable expectation,’ which turns out to be deferential to dominant political actors. For an influential attempt along these lines, see Myres S. McDougal & Florentino P. Feliciano, Law and Minimum World Public Order (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1961).

[6] An intense fear of further attacks after 9/11 as undermining respect for international legal constraints is depicted from a governmental insider’s perspective in Jack Goldsmith, Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment inside the Bush Administration (New York: Norton, 2007)

[7] For critical commentary on retaliatory strikes in a pre-9/11 atmosphere, see E.P. Thompson & Mary Kaldor, Mad Dogs: The US Raids of Libya (1986); there were also retaliatory responses to the Al Qaeda attacks on the USS Cole and on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

[8] See for a challenging interpretation of the impact of transnational terrorism on the nature of world order: Philip Bobbitt, Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century (New York: Knopf, 2008).

[9] George W. Bush, September 20,, 2001, speech to Joint Session of the US Congress.

[10] Nicaragua vs. United States, ICJ Reports (1986) is the most authoritative judicial treatment of the scope of self-defense, refrains from expressing an opinion on the legality of anticipatory self-defense. In §194 of the decision the following statement appears: “In view of the circumstances in which the dispute has arisen, reliance is placed by the Parties only on the right of self-defence in the case of an armed attack which has already occurred, and the issue of the lawfulness of a response to the imminent threat of armed attack has not been raised. Accordingly the Court expresses no view on that issue.”

[11] On the torture debate, see Sanford Levinson (Ed.), Torture: A Collection (New York, Oxford, 2004); Marjoried Cohn (Ed.), Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse (New York: New York University Press); Alfred McCoy, Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012).

[12] This suggestion of a middle course is not represented in the literature very well; there assessments are either apologetic or denunciatory. For example, Philippe Sands, Lawless World: Making and Breaking Global Rules (New York: Penguin, 2006); compare John Yoo, Crises and Command: The History of Executive Power from George Washington to George W. Bush (New York: Kaplan, 2005).

[13] For two attempts, see Richard Falk, The Great Terror War (Northampton: Interlink, 2003) and Gens David Ohlin, The Assault of International Law (New York: Oxford, 2013).

[14] The root cause of the Arab political encounter with the West was explicitly associated by ISIS with the artificiality of the states generated by colonial ambition in the aftermath of World War I, and originally delineated in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. The other underlying explanation of perceived injustice is traced to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, a pure colonialist pledge by the British Foreign Secretary to support the commitment of the world Zionist movement to establish a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine. See David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (New York: Henry Holt, (19—); David A. Andelman, A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today (New York: John Wiley, 2003); Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (New York: Random House, 2010); Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of the Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (London: Verso, 2015); Daniel Byman, Al Qaeda, The Islamic State, and the Global Jidhadist Movement: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[15] Western diplomacy has also contributed to the spread of jihadist politics as through the ‘special relationship’ with Saudi Arabia despite its encouragement of jihadism in numerous ways, including billions of dollars to finance madrasas throughout the Islamic world. See Richard Falk, “Saudi Arabia and the Price of Royal Impunity,” Middle East Eye, 6 October 2015.

[16] See Marc Lynch, The New Arabs Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East (New York: Public Affairs, 2016); also: Richard Falk, Chaos and Counterrevolution: After the Arab Spring (Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, 2015).

[17] See Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York, Henry Holt, 2000).

[18] See the rise of David Petraeus as a result of his influential text revising counterinsurgency thinking: U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual: U.S. Army Field Manual No. 3-24 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). See Fred Kaplan, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013); the failure of such tactical onslaughts as ‘shock and awe’ in the 2003 attack on Iraq as essentially a belief that political ends could be achieved by a traumatizing show of military superiority.

[19] Effectively explored in Deepak Tripathi, Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2011).

[20] Richard Falk, The Costs of War: International Law, the UN, and World Order after the Iraq War (New York: Routledge, 2008).

[21] See books cited in Note 14.

[22] “Rebuilding American Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century,” Project for a New American Century, Sept. 2000.

[23] See Note 12.

[24] See Jeff Halper, War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians, and Global Pacification (London: Pluto, 2015).

[25] Chas Freeman, “The End of the American Empire,” April 2, 2016, Remarks at the Barrington Congregational Church, Barrington, RI.

[26] Chas Freeman, America’s Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East (Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, 2016), 238.

[27] Note 24, 17

[28] See President Barack Obama, “U.S. Drone and Counterterror Policy,” National Defense University, March 23, 2013.

 

Is the Middle East America’s to Lose?

14 Jun

 

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

 

What The Economist Proposes

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Criticizing the Obama Approach

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Old Geopolitics versus the New Geopolitics

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Semantics of Struggle

9 May

Words Against the Grain

 

While reporting to the UN on Israel’s violation of basic Palestinian rights I became keenly aware of how official language is used to hide inconvenient truths. Language is a tool used by the powerful to keep unpleasant realities confined to shadow lands of incomprehension.

 

Determined to use the rather modest flashlight at my disposal to illuminate the realities of the Palestinian ordeal as best I could, meant replacing words that obscure ugly realities with words that expose as awkward truths often as possible. My best opportunity to do this was in my annual reports to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the General Assembly in New York. My courageous predecessor as Special Rapporteur, John Dugard, deserves credit for setting the stage, effectively challenging UN complacency with language that looked at the realities lurking below the oily euphemisms that diplomat seem so fond of.

 

Of course, I paid a price for such a posture as did Dugard before me. Your name is added to various black lists, and doors once open are quietly closed, if not slammed shut. If the words used touched enough raw nerves, you become a target of invective and epithets. In my case, my temporary visibility as UN Special Rapporteur meant being called ‘an anti-Semite,’ even ‘a notorious anti-Semite,’ and on occasion ‘a self-hating Jew.’ Strong Zionist pressures are now seeking to induce legislative bodies in the United States to brand advocacy of BDS or harsh criticism of Israel as prohibited forms of ‘hate speech.’ In April of this year pressures  by the British Jewish Board of Deputies led the University of Southampton to cancel a major academic conference on the Israel/Palestine conflict.

 

In relation to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the clarifying/some of the offending words are ‘apartheid,’ ‘ethnic cleansing,’ ‘settler colonialism,’ ‘annexation,’ ‘crimes against humanity,’ and ‘genocide.’ The UN evades such invasions of light by speaking of Israeli ‘occupation’ (as if a static reality without history) and without challenging certain strong normative tendencies, including the criminalization of apartheid and ethnic cleansing, the delegitimation of colonialism, and the unlawfulness of annexation (as in Jerusalem by legal diktat and the West Bank by the de facto settlement phenomenon).

 

It was my experience that using words that connect the realities with the norms changes the discourse that is used by some of those at the UN and in the media, especially among those who seek genuinely to understand the significance of what is actually happening. Right language encourages right action. What is right language follows from how convincingly the word links to the reality being pointed to, and whether ideological obstacles can be overcome. The weakness of Israel’s position from the perspective of controversy is being expressed by their avoidance of substantive debate, for instance, challenging the labeling of occupation as apartheid, and recourse instead to character assassination of those who dared to connect these dots.

 

I feel that Israel is losing this struggle to obscure the true nature of their activities, and its devastating effects on Palestinian lives and rights. Whether this will mean that Israel will alter its policies is far less clear, and certainly not assured, and the outcome of the 2015 Israeli elections and formation of the new coalition government would suggest that the most extremist Israeli government ever has been installed under the leadership of Netanyahu and the Likud Party.

 

Nothing should be more shocking to Western liberal sensibilities than the appointment of Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home Party as the Minister of Justice in Netanyahu’s newly formed coalition government. Ms. Shaked, while being a member of the Knesset, became globally notorious as a result of her post sent around during the Israeli attack on Gaza in the summer of 2014 in which she called the entire Palestinian population the “enemy” that “should be destroyed.” Leaving no room doubt she went on to say that even that even “its elderly and and its women” should not be spared, and that the killing of Palestinian mothers is justified because they give birth “to little snakes.” Ali Abunimah asks rhetorically, “If Shaked’s post does not meet the legal definition of genocide then nothing does.” What is as shocking as these sentiments of Shaked is the silence of the Western media and leaders in the face of such an appointment in the only democracy in the region. Imagine the self-righteous angry posturing from liberals in the West if Hamas dared to select such a personality from their ranks to serve as the Minister of Justice. As it is the Hamas Covenant is invoked to confirm genocidal sentiments although subsequent behavior and political initiatives have moved in a far more accommodating direction. What is at stake is the discriminatory manner of either noticing or not noticing the elevation of adherents of ‘genocide’ to the pinnacles of state power. This two-way approach to language is fully displayed in the political discourse surrounding the Israel/Palestine conflict. And closer to home, compare Ayelet’s selection as Minister of Justice after her offensive tweet with the University of Illinois’ breach of Steven Salaita’s contract to become a tenured professor in reaction to his tweets expressing his outrage about Israel’s 51 day criminal assault on Gaza last summer. It conveys a lively sense of the extremity to which double standards are carried when it comes to Israeli behavior. 

 

There is another set of intense struggles around language that arise when a single word is insisted upon because of its emotive value, and possibly its legal ramifications. I am referring to the unconditional insistence of the Armenian diaspora that the catastrophic events that climaxed in the 1915 massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians should be acknowledged as ‘genocide’ by Turkey in the form of an official apology by the government and its leaders. The Armenian insistence stems from several motivations, it seems. Above all, the fact that once ‘genocide’ is admitted, then the link to ultimate evil is established beyond controversy, the Armenian narrative is validated beyond controversy, descendants of victims are granted a kind of clisure, and what happened to the Armenians is implicitly equated with what later happened to the Jews as a result of Naziism. It is psychologically important to prevail with respect to how these events are described so as to alleviate the pain endured over the years by the Armenian people because of what they have experienced as ‘genocide denial’ on the part of Turkey.

 

Turkey’s response to the Armenian allegations has evolved over the years, but it remains somewhat edgy. The 2014 statement of Erdogan seemed to accept the Armenian narrative to the extent of acknowledging the massacres and wrongdoings of 1915, while stopping well short of using the G-word. A few weeks ago, Prior to the centenary of April 24, Pope Francis brought his moral authority to bear by describing in a solemn mass as ‘genocide’ what happened to the Armenian people, and called upon Turkey to recognize these events for what they were. In reaction, Erdogan and other Turkish leaders stepped back, declaring that the issue of what happened in 1915 has not yet been sufficiently resolved by historians to justify attaching the word ‘genocide’ to this horrific set of events, that wrongdoing was not as one-sided as Armenians claim, and that the pope stepped out of line by issuing such an ill-informed and partisan statement concerning historical events that are complex and contested. 

 

Taking a different tack than that of Pope Francis, Barack Obama angered Armenians (even more than the pope angered Turks) by refusing to include the word ‘genocide’ in his centenary message to the Armenian people, instead using the Armenian descriptive Meds Yegham (the great calamity). Obama added that the 1915 events constituted a ‘massacre,’ produced ‘a terrible carnage,’ and were ‘a dark chapter of history.’ It seemed meant to be a strong statement of solidarity with the Armenian campaign, omitting only the word ‘genocide,’ but this omission was all that was needed to turn this expression of solidarity with the Armenian call for redress of grievances into an anti-Armenian statement that was unwelcome because it refused to show its support for all that now mattered to the Armenians, namely, that their victimization be regarded as ‘genocide’ beyond any doubt. For this goal to be reached, the endorsement by the U.S. Government is deemed to be necessary, and hence the Obama formulation fell decisively short.  No denunciation of the 1915 events that did not adopt the descriptive label of genocide was acceptable for the aggrieved and mobilized Armenian diaspora. This semantic hard line shows how much meaning can be invested in whether or not a particular word is used.

 

In response to Obama, representatives of the organized Armenian diaspora expressed their disappointment in harsh language, going so far as to say it would have been better if Obama had said nothing at all. They called ‘disgraceful’ his refusal to live up to a 2008 campaign pledge that if elected president he would identify the events of 1915 as genocide. Obama’s apparent justification for this semantic retreat is that as the head of state his primary obligation is to care for the strategic interests of the country, and Turkey as a NATO ally was too important to antagonize over such an issue. But my point here is to take account of the power of the word, as well as to notice that the language functions differently in private and public domains. To refer to 1915 as Meds Yegham is a strong affirmation of the Armenian narrative. By comparison, if Obama were to describe the dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948 as the nakba, there would be dancing in the streets of Ramallah and Gaza City. Such a designation, if ever used by an American president, would be correctly viewed as a mighty slap in Israel’s face and a great symbolic victory for the Palestinians. The point here is that the Armenians have been able to raise the threshold of semantic redress to the very highest level by this insistence on genocide, and accompanying sentiment that nothing else will be acceptable, while the Palestinians have yet to receive even a formal acknowledgement that they were victims of a calamity in the less incendiary terminology of Arabic, much less that of genocide or ethnic cleansing.

 

What are we to make of this bitter fight about the words used to describe a series of events that happened 100 years ago? First, and most obviously, words matter, and are made to matter deeply by political actors, especially when the purpose is to challenge conventional wisdom. Some words achieve a charismatic stature, and none more than genocide. [As an aside, I was never more attacked by Zionist activists and the mainstream media than when in 2007 I referred in a newspaper article to Israel’s policies of punitive siege imposed on the entire civilian population of Gaza as ‘genocidal’ (not ‘genocide’) in its intent and effect, a contention given governmental endorsement by Shaked’s appointment, but still manages to slip under the radar of Western moral and political sensibilities.

 

Secondly, the alleged Turkish reason for its objection to genocide is based on the factual contention that historical realities of 1915 remain contested, and can only be resolved by an international commission composed of historians enjoying unrestricted archival access. The Armenians summarily reject such an approach as proof of Turkish bad faith, insisting that there already exists an authoritative international consensus supportive of their claim of genocide due to the establishment of systematic, one-sided, deliberate massive slaughter designed to eliminate the Armenian presence in Turkey. Thirdly, the American position is aligned with the Armenians on the facts, but with the Turks on the appropriate language at governmental levels, which seems the weakest of all rationalizations for evading the charge of genocide. Fourthly, if the search is for a way to resolve the conflict, the Armenian tactic of invoking foreign governments and moral authority figures such as the pope, is dysfunctional although it does provide strong moral support for the campaign. If, on the contrary, the mobilization of support is primarily intended to generate a heightened collective memory of victimization among Armenians, then soliciting these external expressions of solidarity from leading moral authority figures is of great value.

 

I find my own view trapped midway between the positions put forward by Pope Francis and President Erdogan. On the facts, although as Turkey argues the events occurred in wartime with the Armenians acting as adversaries and sometimes engaged in violence against Turks, still the basic character of the events  certainly seemed to be genocidal in character, with entire Armenian communities being forced to make death marches. As a lawyer, however, I would refrain from using the label genocide as there was no crime of genocide in 1915, and criminal law can never properly have a retroactive application. As I have pointed out before, even the London Agreement of 1945 setting up the Nuremberg Tribunal to assess Nazi crimes did not include ‘genocide’ among the international crimes that could be charged even though the word genocide had been coined by Rafael Lemkin in 1944, or before.

 

Yet is it not appropriate in view of the consensus on the facts, to recognize the links to catastrophes that have been definitively called genocide by affixing the term to the onslaught against Armenians planned and executed by ‘the young Turks’ acting under Ottoman authority? Surely no sane person objects to categorizing the Holocaust as ‘genocide’ even though the death camps were established and the final solution occurred before the Genocide Convention of 1950, and was long underway before Raphael Lemkin had invented the word. Thinking along this line, and acknowledging that the crime of genocide had yet to be established, it would seem that it is politically, morally, and therapeutically correct to describe the 1915 tragic ordeal of the Armenian people as genocide, but legally irresponsible to do. In this gap between semantic contexts there seems room for a conflict resolving compromise. Yet the distinction drawn may seem obscure, and somewhat academic, unlikely in the end to be attractive for either side in the controversy.

 

How, then, can such an encounter over the word be resolved? It seems doubtful that Turkey will back down without some face saving ritual, and it is virtually certain that the Armenian diaspora having raised the temperature surrounding this single word to such a fever pitch will be content with anything less than a full fledged Turkish capitulation. The Armenian campaign will certainly continue to refuse to risk an ambiguous outcome arising from convening the sort of historical inquiry that Turkey proposes as the necessary next step in resolving the controversy. It doesn’t require much sophistication to conclude that the parties are stuck and likely to remain so for a long time.

 

This is a pity. Both sides would have much to gain by finding a way forward. It is quite likely that if the word issue was finessed, Turkey would be relieved, and go out of its way to preserve a vibrant memory of the events through such initiatives as a national museum, agreeing to a commemorative day, and hosting a variety of Armenian cultural events. If the Turkish leadership could persuade itself that the historical issue is substantially settled, and what matters is the present relationship, maybe then it could issue the kind of statement the Armenian people so fervently seek, and a mutually beneficial future could likely unfold. Both sides need to look in the mirror sufficiently to realize that more is at stake then fidelity to their fixed position for and against the use of the word genocide. Yet, the way in which psycho-political works, it is likely that the wait for such a sensible breakthrough to happen will be long. The burden of magnanimity is on the Turkish side, the stronger party and with less at stake concerning national identity.

 

Before concluding, I would mention another word that is obstructing reason and decency in the national and global political realm. It is ‘terrorism,’ used to demonize the grievances and the tactics of the adversary, and in mainstream discourse preempted by governments and their media apologists to create an unbridgeable moral distance between themselves and a political challenge.

“We refuse to negotiate with terrorists” is the rationale for keeping a hot war going. We should also notice that the language of terrorism is racialized. If the incident involves a white American, there is a tacit turn toward focusing on his mental condition and sociopathic sensibility, but if the suspect is Islamic a frantic search is undertaken to link the acts of violence with either jihadist groups or to trace its source to the Koran.

 

There are efforts to offset equalize word play. For instance, critics of hegemonic semantics introduce the phrase ‘state terror,’ to designate violence by state entities against their non-state enemies. This rejects the attempt by governments to immunize their own violence from censure, while branding the violence of their adversary as morally and legally prohibited because it is terror

 

We know that the accusatory language of terrorism is in the toolkit of governmental policymaking, and can be dropped when convenient. When a political actor is ready to negotiate, adherents of the former enemy are no longer described as ‘terrorists.’ Think how effortlessly the former leaders of the IRA, ANC, or even the PLO were seated at diplomatic dinner tables when the right moment arrived! Yet until the appointed hour, relying on the terminology of terrorism is the equivalent of a hunting license that can be used as a rationale for torture, disproportionate force, civilian casualties, extraordinary rendition, drone strikes, and special ops wherever, whenever without regard to constraints of law or morality.

 

Public reason in democratic society would greatly benefit from a renunciation of terrorism as a respectable term of art. Instead, the focus could be placed on what to do in effective and humane ways to sustain security and safeguard just political orders. In effect, to forego the temptation to call the enemy ‘a terrorist’ the path would be clear to talk as well as fight, and to resist the absurd dichotomy that we are totally ‘good’ and the adversary is totally ‘evil.’

 

But what if the insurgent challenge is demonizing the established order by contending that it is decadent, corrupt, and oppressive? Is it not reasonable if such a critique jumps the barriers of law, and mobilizes for violent struggle, to respond? Of course it is not only reasonable, but morally and politically imperative to respond as persuasively as possible, and to uphold the security of what is deemed legitimate societal arrangements. What is not helpful, actually diversionary, is to respond as if the struggle was between good and evil, and that is what happens as soon as the insurgent challenger is labeled

‘a terrorist.’ Such language exempts the defenders of the status quo from self-criticism and considering accommodationist tactics, proscribing negotiation and assessment of grievances. The response to ‘terrorists’ is war talk, rendering peace talk as irrelevant of worse.

 

Shall we also abandon the label of ‘state terror’ for crimes of the state associated with violence directed toward the innocent? Yes, as part of a wider semantic contract to banish ‘terrorism’ from the lexicon of political discourse. Yet, not unilaterally, as under existing conditions ‘state terror’ at least creates some understanding that it is the manner of deploying violence that should be repudiated rather than the blackening of insurgent reputation. As terrorism is used on behalf of the state, even violence carefully directed at state structures and their human instrumentalities are called ‘terrorists.’ In any event, state terror calls attention to policies and practices, and does not purport to demonize the state itself, leaving open possibilities of diplomacy and reconciliation.

 

At the very least, it would be a salutary move to call for a moratorium on the use of the word ‘terrorist’ from this day forward. And as with the fierce ideological struggles over ‘genocide’ it is best to know when to be provocative so as to expose suppressed realities and when to be pacifying so as to calm the atmosphere raising hopes for compromise and a shift of energies in the direction of nonviolent struggle.

On the North Carolina Killings

14 Feb

[Prefatory Note: a short interview on how to interpret the ghastly murder of three young Muslims living in the North Carolina university town of Chapel Hill. Should such a grisly event be viewed as a tragic response of a deranged neighbor whose emotions took a violent turn after a dispute over parking in their common residential community or is it better understood as one more indication of the toxic realities associated with the interplay of gun culture and Islamophobia? My responses seek to give reasons for adopting this wider understanding of why such incidents, although horrible on their own, are also bringing death to canaries in the mines of American society. As such the embrace of the movie American Sniper can be seen as another dimension of how ‘the long war’ unleashed after 9/11 to satisfy a range of global ambitions is increasingly casting its dark shadow across the domestic life of the country. We are, indeed, living in a globalizing world where the wrongs done without will be in due course superseded by the wrongs done within. I thank Dan Falcone for his questions that gave me the opportunity to offer these responses.]

 

 

 

Dan Falcone: In light of the recent shooting of Muslims in North Carolina, Russian Television was pondering if the killings would have received a quicker, more widespread and more responsive media reaction had the perpetrator been a Muslim, instead of victims, as seen in this case. My thought is that this question is beyond the hypothetical. What are your thoughts?

 

Response: I think there is every reason to believe that the identity of the perpetrator influences the media response and approach taken by the public. If the actors are Muslim, whether linked or not to a political network, there is an aura of suspicion surrounding the crimes committed. In contrast, if the perpetrator is white, and Christian, he will be considered a lone actor suffering a severe mental disorder even if he is shown to have links to wider extremist communities as was the case with Timothy McVeigh and Andrew Breivik who engaged in terrorist acts in Oklahoma City (1995) and Norway (2011). The Islamophobic cultural mood predisposes the media and public to incline toward worst case interpretation of Muslim perpetrators and best case scenarios of Christian perpetrators, especially when the victims are Muslim as is the case for the murder of the three young Muslims in North Carolina (Daele Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammed, and Razan Mohammed Abu-Sahla) being partially trivialized as a ‘parking’ dispute among neighbors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DF: Electronic Intifada and The New Republic reported on the case relative to what they call, “New Atheism,” a social and political secular movement that tends to use classical liberal views to masquerade the advance of reactionary behaviors. Furthermore, when coupled with neo-conservatism, new atheism cherry picks which socio-political groups are targeted in the name of freedom. Do you see this as an attempt in double-speak to intentionally cloud the issue?

 

Response: There may be an element of insight into some particular cases on this basis, but by and large this kind of discourse obscures the far greater relevance of the Islamophobic atmosphere prevailing in the United States and Europe, and also removes from consideration the linkage between overseas American militarism directed at Muslim societies and recourse to extremist behavior by Muslims. Both the views of the Tsarnaev brothers who exploded the bombs at the Boston Marathon and the Dzhokhar brothers who carried out the recent Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris seemed shaped by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by the Abu Ghraib pictures confirming the torture and humiliation of Muslim prisoners.

 

DF: I noticed many educated readers and citizens and the popular press exhausting ways to explain how the killing of Muslims might not be a hate crime, whereas in the coverage of many killings around the world, there seems to be an automatic subtext anticipated in the first hour of reporting: “No word yet if terrorism played a role.” Does this type of thinking remind you of Edward Said’s work in Unveiling Islam?

 

Response: Yes, definitely. The journalistic tropes used to describe incidents of this sort, especially the initial take when little has been firmly established, are revealing of underlying cultural biases and self-serving governmental ways of processing sensationalist news. To ignore the Muslim identity of the victims, and explain the behavior of the killer as an exaggerated reaction to a dispute over parking is illustrative of this effort to avoid treating Muslim victimization as an expression of ‘hate.’

 

The insertion of a terrorist possibility is immediate and reflexive if the persons accused are Muslim, and avoided if not even when involving the mass killing of innocent civilians. Why was the Sandy Hook less of a display of a terrorist mind set than that of those who acted in Boston or Oslo?

 

 

DF: New atheism seems to suggest that hate crimes are symmetrical and are both color and religiously blind. Given the fact that all three victims had a Palestinian origin or background will this motivate the United States and take say, Israel to discuss the issue with the most minimal amount of complications? And do you think this tragedy provides the Palestinian community a chance to foster additional solidarity?

 

Response: I do feel that what is being described as the ‘new atheism’ is bound up with the recent popularity in some circles of the secularist idea that most of the evil in our midst can be blamed on religious belief that fuels fanaticism. Authors such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and media impresario Bill Maher all feed such views by adopting reductive views of religion that end up associating religious belief with sociopathic extremism. In one respect, such secular thinking is itself fundamentalist in ways that can result in violent behavior on the part of disturbed individuals. It is worth noticing that Craig Stephen Hicks, the North Carolina killer, was self-described as ‘a gun-toting liberal’ (former auto parts dealer now studying to be a paralegal professional) proclaiming his hostile attitudes toward religion on his Facebook page, making the fact that two of the victims wore headscarves possibly an element that heightened his lethal anger to the point of uncontrollable rage. That such a person, whose previous erratic was widely known, should be authorized to possess and wield guns in an intimidating fashion is itself a severe indictment of what ‘the right to bear arms’ has come to mean here in America.

 

I do not think stressing the links between atheism and extremist violence is helpful as it minimizes attention to the cultural and religious prisms through which political behavior is being predominantly shaped, especially with respect to foreign policy. It is likely that there will be a temporary surge of sympathy with those who share an Islamic identity with these victims, and a realization that such politically and cultural tainted crimes are a serious threat to the moral order of the country, including the maintenance of a sense of political community. I doubt that it will translate in any meaningful way into sympathy for Palestinian victimization, which as far as I have been aware is not given much attention in the mainstream reporting of the incident. It is true that the pro-Palestinian boycott groups associated with the BDS campaign have seized upon these events to indicate their solidarity with the victims of the North Carolina crime, as they did earlier with African American victimization in relation to the recent police killings in Ferguson (Michael Brown) and Staten Island ( Eric Garner).

Pope Francis, Salman Rushdie, and Charlie Hebdo

20 Jan

 

 

(Prefatory Note: This post is a much modified piece published a few days ago in AlJazeera English, and republished elsewhere on line. As many have now done it tries to enlarge the context in which the Charlie Hebdo events are understood beyond a highlight film clip in ‘the war on terror.’ The alleged link between the Chouachi brothers and Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) allows the attack on Charlie Hebdo to be experienced as the French 9/11, and with this a return of France to a status of post-colonial geopolitical relevance. Without grasping the relevance of how the dominant treat the dominated within our societies and throughout the world, we are consigning ourselves to many repetitions of the private and public horrors experienced in France on January 7, 2015.)

 

 

There is some common ground, but not much. The killings in Paris last week were horrifying crimes that expose the vulnerability of democratic societies to lethal vigilante violence, whether facilitated from outside or as a spontaneous expression of homegrown psychopathic alienation. Beyond this naked, morbid reality associated with the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, police officers, and the supermarket hostages there is nothing but darkness, and in that darkness some dangerous monsters lurk.

 

We can be again thankful for the moral clarity of Pope Francis who a few days ago in the impromptu setting of a plane taking him from Sri Lanka to Manila shined a light upon the darkness. Unlike those who so ardently wielded the slogan “Je suis Charlie” the pope understood that free speech without limits is an invitation to indulge the worst negative impulses that will then operate as viruses destroying the vital organs of the body politic.

 

What Pope Francis underscored was the impossibility of reconciling dignity with hurtful insults, especially as directed toward the already marginalize and socially vulnerable. He illustrated his view by saying that if one of his companions on the plane, Dr. Alberto Gazparri a Vatican official, hurled obscene insults at his mother Gazparri could expect to receive a punch. The pope called such a physical response normal: “It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” Perhaps, this is too strong an expression of limits, but it does indirectly raise the Derrida urgent question of how and whether we can ever learn to ‘live together’ in peace, with respect within globalizing social space, while swallowing differences of race, class, religion, ethnicity, gender.

 

Francis went on to say the obvious, that to kill in response to any provocation, however severe, hurtful, and lewd, is not compatible with religion properly understood. If it claims a religious motivation, such behavior is an expression of “deviant forms of religion.” He goes on to say “To kill in the name of God is an aberration.” At the same time, how lines are drawn with respect to acceptable and unacceptable forms of provocation is highly political, changeable, and culturally influenced and even constructed.

 

In one respect France and other governments understand both sides of this argument, but twist it for political purposes. The popular African comedian Dieudonné has been repeatedly charged with criminal offenses because his humoraous routines deeply offend Jews, Zionists, and Israel. He is being currently prosecuted in France for ‘defending terrorism’ It turns out that there are no less than 54 pending cases in the country associated with ‘condoning terrorism’ by way of speech. The Associated Press reports that despite present tensions and the public celebration of free speech the government in Paris has “ordered prosecutors around the country to crack down on hate speech, anti-Semitism, and glorifying terrorism.” But note no message by the French government is sent mentioning ‘hate cartooning’ or addressing the surge of ‘Islamophobia’ in the country in the days following the January 7th attack on the Charlie Hebdo editorial offices. A large number of mosques in France and elsewhere in Europe have been desecrated in the last week. There are numerous reports of harassment of Muslims as they walk the streets of the country, and indeed throughout Europe. It is understandable that the Muslim community as a whole feels on edge given the ambiguity of the ‘je suis Charlie’ fervor that includes a new press run of 5 million, compared to the former figure of 60,000, that features a cover demeaning the prophet Mohamed. The ambiguity arises because there is a merger of solidarity with the victims and their families after such a shocking attack and an endorsement of their depiction of the Muslim religion as depraved and degrading.

 

This kind of double standards toward these two kinds of hate speech performs a variety of insidious functions for the French state. It uses the language of ‘terrorism’ or ‘anti-Semitism’ to demonize its political enemies and ‘freedom of expression’ to insulate its political allies from any adverse consequences. It blends the criminalization of terrorist advocacy and anti-Semitism with public action taken in the face of strong criticisms of Israel, especially if proposes concrete nonviolent action as is the case for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign. And it makes it even clearer to Muslims that they are fair game for Islamophobes and xenophobes. In effect, a French political community is being upheld that seeks to include Jews as valued and protected members while reinforcing the Muslim understanding that their residences and social standing can be fully understood by reference to the negatively imaged banilieus of the country depicted by the corrupted custodians of public virtue as virtual no-go zones for ordinary Frenchmen, and hazardous neighborhoods even for public officials and the police.

 

In the wake of these events, there is in the West the mainstream media has given a renewed prominence and sympathetic look back at the ordeals that Salman Rushdie endured after the publication of his satirical novel The Satanic Verses in 1988. Rushdie, appearing as a guest on Bill Maher’s talk show and delivering a lecture at the University of Vermont, understandably defended freedom of expression as an absolute right. His words, deeply felt, are worth heeding as the counterpoint to the views expressed by Pope Francis: “And so artists who to that edge and push outwards often find very powerful forces pushing back. They find the forces of silence opposing the forces of speech. The forces of censorship against the forces of utterance..At that boundary is that push-and-pull between more and less. And that push and pull can be very dangerous to the artist. And many artists have suffered terribly for that.” To speak as an ‘artist’ is not a warrant for hate speech that is directed at a group where there needs to be a balance struck between opposed societal values.

The context of Rushdie’s recent remarks was the Charlie Hebdo incident, but his outlook was intended to be sweeping in its generality as applicable to Islam in general. And yet he did not, nor did Bill Maher, pause to take note of those powerful forces in the West that have tried to shut down critics of Israel by shouting ‘anti-Semite’ at the top of their lungs. Some sensitivity to Jews is certainly appropriate as a social value in our post-Holocaust world, but such sensitivity should not be coupled with insensitivity to the victimization of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel. Without some degree of consistency it is difficult to consider clearly how societal balance should be struck in a given situation. The intermingling of East and West has given rise to deep grievances among many Muslims throughout the world, and calls attention to exploitative structures of political, economic, and cultural life within our world that link the domineering to the dominated, giving rise to desperate forms of resistance in response to despicable forms of domination by the powerful and rich.

 

It should not be surprising that the killers in Paris were moved to action by Abu Ghraib pictures portraying the torture and humiliations of Muslims held in American run Iraqi jails. In 2007 Chérif Kouachi said these words in a French court: “I was ready to go and die in battle. I got this idea when I saw injustices shown by television on what was going on over there. I am speaking about the torture that the Americans were inflicting on the Iraqi.” Was it wrong for Kouachi to be appalled? Was it wrong for him to want to act in support of his beliefs? What were his real life options? Of course, it was wrong to do what he did. As W.H. Auden wrote in a famous poem: “Those to whom evil is done do evil in return.” This is essence of blowback, a kind of warning to the rich and powerful to act justly. Yet we find the rich and powerful in denial, and so the vicious cycles of blowback persist in their fury.

 

What makes this confrontation so difficult to resolve is that it engages at least two truths, not the single one that has dominated public space. The essential beginning of ethical credibility is an insistence upon consistency. Either Rushdie and France have to uphold the freedoms of Dieudonné whose humor they find abhorrent as well as safeguard the publication of Charlie Hebd discriminating as between various ethnicities and religions in its midst when it comes to drawing lines between protecting the freedom of expression and punishing hate speech.

 

The U.S. Supreme Court long ago decided that free speech does not entitle someone to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. This is what courts are for, to draw these lines in specific cases, balancing opposing truths in the light of practicality and the evolving values of the community. What a judicial body had to say about race or homosexuality a century ago is different than what is says today. And as we in American know too well, the prevailing ideology among the justices is often of greater relevance in determining how such lines are drawn than are the legislative, constitutional enactment, and cultural norms being interpreted. In some respects, then, such determinations are more part of the problem than of the solution.

 

I find myself siding with the abstract sentiments of Pope Francis, but in sympathy with Rushdie’s view of minimizing the role of law and the state. In this respect, if we impose limits by way of government we are entering the domain of censorship. At the same time, we need to protect individuals and groups against malicious forms of defamation and hateful attacks on identities without confusing such protection with efforts to channel public awareness in certain prescribed directions. My own experience suggests that ‘freedom’ of this sort has been used by some pro-Zionist and pro-Israeli organizations to discredit and deter and criticism of Israel, and especially of Israeli state crimes victimizing the Palestinian people. In Rushdie’s case we need to protect his right to publish The Satanic Verses, while condemning the fatwa imposing a death sentence for blasphemy and apostasy, yet respecting the right, and possibly the duty, of non-Western political communities to prohibit distribution of such a book due to its provocative nature in certain civilizational settings.

 

Obviously, there are no cookie cutter answers. The proper limits are a matter of history, ethics, cultural priorities, political leadership, societal circumstances, and most of all, spiritual sensitivity. I feel that the central question is raised by Derrida’s inquiry into how we can learn to live together as well as possible, or at least better. For me living together, given the originality of our historical moment, involves the construction of overlapping communities of destiny—from family to world, with a major focus on national and sub-national political communities without forgetting the wholeness of humanity, our too often suppressed or distorted species identity. Such an undertaking needs to be combined with a greater effort to establish a global political community so that challenges posed by climate change, nuclear weaponry, infectious disease, religious and ethnic intolerance, world poverty, and societal marginalization can be addressed more effectively and humanely.

 

 

Terrorism, Torture, and the Problem of Evil in Our Time

31 Dec

Reading Confessions of a Terrorist: a novel by Richard Jackson (published by Zed Books, London & New York, 2014, $24.95, £16.99)

 

Richard Jackson, a professor of peace studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, has written a probing political essay that takes the form of an imagined dialogue between a British interrogator and an Egyptian terrorist who is apparently thought at the time of their conversation to be the mastermind of an imminent attack on Great Britain. Jackson is a well-regarded expert on the politics and tactics of terrorism and counterterrorism.

 

The novel complicates our understanding of such fundamental questions as ‘what is terrorism?’ ‘who are the terrorists?’ ‘when is violence justified?’ ‘is torture ever justified?’ ‘what is the proper balance between resistance and violence against the innocent?’ ‘is there an effective alternative to violence in conditions of foreign occupation? The motivation of those who choose violent resistance against various forms of oppression are depicted in a balanced and perceptive way, as well as the life choices made by individuals who forsake ‘normalcy’ to pursue radical political goals are sensitively explored.

 

There is a narrative line that keeps the reader engaged, and slightly disoriented. The text of the novel is presented to the reader in the format of an official government transcript replete with redactions and occasional italicized comments made by a higher ranking bureaucrat who recommends various deletions so as to avoid causing adverse impressions on politicians and public opinion. The interrogator acknowledges from time to time the validity of his captive’s arguments, but by contrast the commentary by the bureaucrat is totally devoid of affect, concerned only with saving face in the event of exposure, and has recourse to various devices to cover up any disclosures in the transcript that could prove awkward if exposed.

 

Part of what makes Confessions such an effective book is its non-judgmental tone that accepts this role-playing dynamic in which the two characters largely choose their respective ‘careers’ on the basis of their distinct social locations and individual experience. Neither is presented as morally superior to the other. Above all, morality and legality are sidelined by according priority to the higher callings of ‘freedom’ and ‘security’ by both characters—by the interrogating official and by the terrorist (addressed as ‘professor’ because he had been a professor economics in Egypt before joining the struggle). There is a spirit of mutual recognition, which occasionally lapses into an attitude of appreciation. Each person is responding to a challenging situation in an understandable manner, and yet each at the same time passes judgment on the dirty work of his counterpart. The interrogator is dragged through the counterterrorist mud by ‘the professor’ while the terrorist is humanized by linking his violent behavior to his deep experience of intolerable realities of inequality and oppression. In the end both men seem to coexist on a plane of ethical equivalence, with each destined to play out their part as if entrapped in a tragic drama. The tone of Confessions contrasts with American neocon Manicheanism, epitomized by the simplistic language of George W. Bush who insists that the CIA torturers were ‘patriots’ (and good) while their victims were ‘terrorists’ (and evil).

 

Jackson leaves readers on their own to contemplate the carnage and suffering caused by the actual encounters taking place in the real world, inevitably raising concerns as to whether there might be a better way to organize the collective life of the planet. In other words, can the characters in the novel escape from their assigned roles?

 

With nuclear weapons under the control of as many as nine governments and trends toward global warming showing few signs of abatement, the hegemonic and militarized dynamics of control and resistance seem dangerously precarious compulsions, threatening future catastrophe, and maybe even species annihilation. It seems to me that the sub-text of Confessions, if I am not (mis)reading is the question that haunted many of Jacques Derrida’s later reflections: are societies capable of finding ways to live together in peace and harmony? Not just to get along or cohabit, but to enjoy the reality of the other in sustainable and mutually satisfying ways. Even positing such an aspiration amid the turmoil and strife of our lifeworld strikes an irresponsibly utopian note. Perhaps, Jackson doesn’t want us to go there at all, but to stop short, and be content to decode what these archetypal adversaries of contemporary state/society relations are really saying and doing. If this is indeed the intention, we can thank Jackson for bestowing an excellent pedagogical tool that can serve us well in classrooms and life circumstances.

 

While the dialogue proceeds, there is also a drama of sorts mysteriously unfolding. It becomes unclear toward the end who is the prisoner of whom, and the entire plot thickens, raising the broad question as to which side has the upper hand in these titanic struggles of our time. In effect, is there ‘a right side’ of history that will eventually prevail, or are we forever doomed to be afflicted by the toxic dialectics of violence? The collapse of European colonialism suggests one kind of answer, but the rise of neoliberalcapitalism suggests another. These larger concerns are not addressed directly by this fundamental interplay between violence from below and violence from above, which is what our preoccupation with whether such a struggle can be restrained within limits (respecting prohibitions on torture, refraining from targeting schools and hospitals) or is inevitably controlled by revolutionary absolutes.

 

The decision to have the interrogator be British, not American, seems odd at first, appearing to divert attention from the core global encounter, but on further thought, there is a supporting rationale. The colonial background of Britain in the Middle East may be a more valid perspective than the more conventional focus on the post-colonial role being played by the United States throughout the world.

 

Whatever else, Jackson has written a page-turning and thought-provoking book, which is highly recommended to anyone perplexed by this incurable scourge of violence. Although its characters are invented and the dialogue imagined, the reading experience is uncomfortably closer to non-fiction than fiction. In this instance, the imagined world is the real world! You can get a fuller sense of Richard Jackson’s thinking by visiting his consistently intelligent blog <richardjacksonterrorismblog.wordpress.com> The foreign offices and intelligence services of the world should have been required to read his posts on ISIS, which might have encouraged some thinking outside the militarist box, which is long overdue.

 

The Westgate Mall Massacre: Reflections

26 Sep

The Westgate Mall Massacre: The Rage of Fanaticism

 

            The carefully planned attack by al-Shabaab on civilians in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall carried the pathology of rage and the logic of fanaticism to unspeakable extremes. Imagine deciding on the life or death of any person, but particularly a child, by whether or not they could name the mother of Mohammed or recite a verse from the Koran. Islamic fanaticism should be condemned with the moral fervor appropriate to such a violation of the most fundamental norms of respect for innocence and human dignity. To gun down at random whoever happened to be shopping at Westgate Mall on the fateful day of September 21st is to carry political violence beyond a point of no return.

 

            Of course, even fanatics have a certain logic of justification that makes their acts congruent with a warped morality. In this instance, the al-Shabab case rests on a vengeful response to the participation of the Kenyan army units in a multinational military operation of the African Union in neighboring Somalia. This AU operation, reinforced by U.S. drone attacks and special forces, has led to the severe weakening of al-Shabab’s political influence in Somalia, provoking an evident sense of desperation and acute resentment, as well as a tactic of making those that interfere in Somalia’s internal politics bear some adverse spillover effects. But if such an explanation is expected to excuse the demonic actions at Westgate, in any but equally depraved pockets of alienated consciousness, it is deeply mistaken. What may be most frightening, perhaps, in this whole set of circumstances is the degree to which Western counter-insurgency specialists have stepped forward to pronounce the Westgate Mall massacre a ‘success’ from terrorist or extremist perspectives, and likely to generate al-Shabab recruits among the large  Somalia minorities living in Nairobi and in some parts of the United States.  

 

            As is common with such anguishing events, there are some ironies present. The catastrophe occurred on the day set aside in Kenya as The International Day of Peace. Even stranger, Osama Bin Laden has been openly critical of the excessive harshness toward Muslims of the current al-Shabab emir, Ahmed Abdi Godane. Some commentators have speculated that this explains why there was such an effort to spare Muslims who were in the Westgate Mall at the time of the attack. In other earlier al-Shabab vicious attacks in Somalia and Uganda (2010), such distinctions were not made, with Muslims and non-Muslims alike being victims of attacks. 

 

            It was a disturbing synchronicity that on the following day outside an Anglican Church in Peshawar, Pakistan, two suicide bombers detonated explosives that killed more than 80 persons as they were leaving the church after religious services. An extremist organization in Pakistan, TTP Jundullah, shamelessly claimed responsibility, offering an unabashedly fanatic jusitification: “They are enemies of Islam. Therefore we target them. We will continue the attacks on non-Muslims in Pakistan.” Contained in such a statement is the absolutism of a jihadist mandate to eliminate infidels combined with an ultra nationalist insistence that non-Muslims and foreigners in Pakistan are sentenced to death, and should leave the country if they wish to survive. There is in the background a furious response of outsiders, whether from Kenya, Ethipia, and Uganda, or further afield, from the United States, as seeking to deny to Somalia the outcome of an internal struggle, and thus in effect encroaching upon the inalienable right of self-determination inhering in the people of Somalia. Even so, there in no way excuses such crimes against humanity, but given the kind of belief systems that occupy the minds of fanatics, we can expect more such appalling incidents.

 

            Fanaticism carried to these extremes poisons human relations, whether it rests its belief structure on secular foundations as was the case with the Nazis or rests its claims on a religious creed. It is no more helpful to blame religion, as such, for the Westgate Massacre than it would be to insist that godless secularism was responsible for the rise of Hitler or depredations of Stalinism. What we can say with confidence is that there is a genocidal danger associated with any belief system that claims truth solely for itself and treats those who do not accept the claim as utterly unworthy, if not outright evil. What happens when such a pattern is situated at the extremes of political consciousness is a disposition toward massacre and genocide, with terrorism being the fanatic’s form of ‘just war.’

 

            We live at a time when such patterns of horrifying behavior seem mainly, although by no means exclusively, associated with Islamic extremism. Such pathologic behavior must be resisted and repudiated in every way possible, but without worsening the situation by blaming a specific religion or religion in general as responsible for recourse to fanaticism. The West needs only to recall the Inquisition, the Crusades, and many decades of barbaric religious wars to realize its own susceptibility to the siren calls of the fanatics, which seem almost irresistible in periods of societal crisis. The virus of fanaticism lies dormant in the body politic of every society and can find consoling support by twisting the meaning and practical relevance of religious scripture. Explaining the fanatic by deploring Islam and its adherents multiplies the challenges facing society rather than mitigates them by situating the source of the problem. Islamophobia as a response to 9/11 or to these awful incidents in Kenya and Pakistan pours vinegar on wounds experienced by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and yet it seems an inevitable reflex, which if carried to its own limit by opportunists leads to a mimicry of the originating fanaticism. In its moralizing rationalizations for violence against the innocent, the purported anti-fanatic operates in the same milieu of alienated consciousness as the fanatic. The one resembles the other in mentality and deed, although the fanatic is more likely to be sincere than the anti-fanatic who often acts out of ambition rather than belief.

 

            There is some reason to feel that fanaticism of this kind is largely a product of monotheistic religion and thought, specifically ideas of dualism separating good and evil, and the insistence that the human mind has access to ‘the truth’ that is applicable to social and political relations. In this regard, the philosophic and religious traditions of the East do not seem, at first glance, to nurture such fanatical mentalities as emerge in the West: there is a rejection of dualism and a general acceptance of the view that there are a variety of ways to find fulfillment and salvation, and no single truth that is universally applicable. Nevertheless, communal, religious, ethnic, class, and political tensions can and do generate habitual genocidal behavior. Tragically, the land of Gandhi is also the land of Gujurat, where genocidal surges of violence against Muslims have occurred repeatedly, with a major outbreak in 2002. Hindu nationalism in its extreme enactments is as capable of fanatic politics as are extremist exponents of political Islam. There are also distinctions to be drawn within the Hindu tradition between those who support and those who repudiate the Indian caste distinctions carried to their own inborn extremes in ideas and practices associated with ‘untouchability’ and ‘bride burning.’ Even Buddhism, the religion that is most admired for its valuing of compassion, can be lured into the situational camps of fanaticism as was clearly evident in the final stages of the holy war carried to genocidal extremes in Sri Lanka or in the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minorities in Myanmar, especially in Rakhine state.

 

            In other words, culture and political tensions can give rise to radical forms of denial of species identity as the essential imperative of people living together in peace and equity. There are three dimensions of these perfect moral storms that manifest themselves in various forms of fanaticism: (1) the fragmentations of identity so as to elevate the status of the fragment in such a way as to denigrate the whole, that is, the shared human identity is overridden by the alleged superiority of the fragmentary identity as Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Nazi, Communist, and so on; (2) the truth claims made on behalf of a particular belief system, whether religious or secular, which is posited in absolutist terms that leaves no political space for any celebration of diversity or even tolerance of the other; it is bio-politically acceptable to have faith in the ‘truth’ and correctness of a given path as a matter of personal choice so long as the same opportunities for faith are accorded to others; (3) the failure to be sensitive to the commonalities associated with the bio-political primacy of humanness; it is only a sense of shared humanity that can endow the people of the planet with the political will to respond effectively to such global challenges as climate change and weaponry of mass destruction upon which depends the collective survival and wellbeing of the species.

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