Tag Archives: Trump

Jerusalem Is (Is Not) the Capital of Israel

10 Dec

[Prefatory Note: This post is a slightly modified version of an article published in the global edition of the Italian newspaper, Il Manifesto, on December 8, 2017.]

 Jerusalem Is (Is Not) the Capital of Israel

 Those who speak on behalf of Israel like to defend Donald Trump’s provocative decision of December 6th to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel with this contention: “Israel is the only state in the world that is not allowed to locate its capital in a national city of its choice.” It seems like an innocent enough proclamation, and even accurate pushback against global double standards, until one considers the political, moral, and legal dimensions of the actual situation.

 

With the benefit of just a moment’s reflection, a more thoughtful formulation of the issue would be: “Israel is the only state in the world whose government dares to locate its capital in a city located beyond its sovereign borders and subject to superior competing claims.” Granted, Israel has declined to date to define its borders for purposes of international law, presumably to leave room for its own further territorial expansion until the whole of the promised land as understood to comprise biblical Israel is effectively made subject to Israeli sovereign control. At stake, in particular, is the West Bank, which is known within Israel by its biblical names of Judea and Samaria, signifying Israel’s outlier belief that the ethnic and religious heritage of the Jewish people takes precedence over modern international law.

 

Further reflection casts additional doubt on this Trump/Netanyahu approach to the status of Jerusalem. It is helpful to go back at least 70 years to the controversial UN partition proposals set forth in General Assembly Resolution 181. Israel over the years has often congratulated itself on its acceptance of 181, which it contrasts with the Palestinian rejection. Palestinians suffered massive dispossession and expulsion in the war that ensued in 1947, known as the Nakba among Palestinians. Israel has argued over the years that its acceptance of 181 overrides the grievances attributable to the Nakba, including the denial to Palestinians of any right to return to their homes or place of habitation however deep and authentic their connections with the land and regardless of how persuasive their claims of Palestinian identity happen to be. What Israelis want the world to forget in the present setting is the UN treatment of Jerusalem that was integral to the 181 approach. Instead, Israel has sold the false story to the world that 181 was exclusively about the division of territory, and thus the bits about Jerusalem contained in the resolution can be ignored without comment, and deserve to be long forgotten.

 

What the UN actually proposed in GA Res. 181, and what Israel ‘accepted’ in 1947 was that the city of Jerusalem, in deference to its connections with Palestinians and Jewish national identity, should not be under the sovereign control of either people, but internationalized and subject to UN administration. Beyond the difficulty of reconciling Jewish and Palestinian claims to the city, the symbolic and religious significance of Jerusalem to the three monotheistic religions provided a parallel strong rationale for internationalization that has, if anything, further vindicated with the passage of time.

 

It can be argued by proponents of Trump’s recognition that even the Palestinians and the Arab World (by virtue of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative) have silently replaced the internationalization of Jerusalem with the so-called ‘two-state solution’ in which the common assumption of both sides is that Jerusalem would be shared in ways that allowed both Israel and Palestine to establish their respective capital within the city limits. Most two-state plans called for the Palestinian capital to be located in East Jerusalem, which Israel has occupied for the past 50 years, that is, ever since the 1967 War. The clarity of this conviction is what explains the view that the thorny question of the relationship of both Israel and Palestine to the disposition of Jerusalem should be addressed at the last stage of peace negotiations. But suppose that the prospect of genuine peace negotiations is postponed indefinitely, then what? The geopolitical effort to fill this vacuum is undertaken at the expense of UN authority, as well as international law and international morality.

 

Here again we encounter an awkward split between what Israel claims (as reinforced by U.S. foreign policy) and what international law allows. Israel after the war ended in 1967 immediately asserted that the whole of Jerusalem was ‘the eternal capital’ of the Jewish people. Tel Aviv went even further. It expanded by Israeli legal decree the area encompassed by the city of Jerusalem, almost doubling its size and incorporating a series of Palestinian communities in the process. Israel acted unilaterally and unlawfully, against unified opposition within the UN, in defiance of world public opinion, and even in the face of rebuke by such a widely respected moral authority figure as Pope Francis.

 

East Jerusalem, at least, is ‘Occupied Territory’ according to international humanitarian law, and as such is subject to the Geneva Conventions. The Fourth Geneva Convention governs ‘belligerent occupation,’ and rests on the basic legal norm that an Occupying Power should take no steps, other than those justified by imperative security considerations, to diminish the rights and prospects of a civilian population living under occupation. In this regard, it is hardly surprising that Israel’s actions designed to obliterate East Jerusalem as a distinct ‘occupied’ territory have met with universal legal and political condemnation within the UN. For Trump to depart from this international consensus is not only striking heavy blows against the U.S. role as intermediary in any future peace process, but also mindlessly scrapping the two-state approach as the agreed basis of peace without offering an alternative, leaving the impression that whatever reality Israel imposes the United States will accept, giving scant attention to international concerns or Palestinian rights.

 

Returning to the burning question as to why Israel should be denied the right to locate its capital wherever it wishes, as other states do, it is clarifying to reformulate the Israeli claim: “Does any state have the right to establish its capital in a city that is ‘occupied’ rather than under the exclusive sovereign authority of the territorial government?” This is especially relevant in this instance, given the general agreement within the international community that the Palestinian right of self-determination includes the right to have its national capital both within its territory and in Jerusalem.

 

Trump’s initiative tries to ease the pain by the confusing accompanying assertion that the final disposition of Jerusalem’s borders is something for the parties to decide as part of final status negotiations, that is, at the end of the diplomatic endgame. Aside from Israel’s belief that it need not make further concessions for the sake of peace, a geopolitical assertion of support for Israel’s approach to Jerusalem, especially without the backing of the Arab League, the UN, and the European Union is worse than an empty gesture. It uses an iron fist on behalf of the stronger party, where a minimal respect for law, morality, and justice would counsel giving support for the well-grounded claims of the weaker side, or at least staying neutral.

 

The harm done by the Trump initiative on recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and declared intention to start the process of moving the embassy is impossible to assess fully at this time. Whether there will be an upsurge in resistance violence, political extremism, anti-American terrorism, and wider warfare is now essentially unknowable, although the stage has been recklessly arranged so that these developments seem more likely to occur than earlier, and if they do, will be treated as outcomes of Trump’s faulty diplomacy.

 

What is already evident on the basis of the decision itself is the severe damage done to the global and regional leadership reputation of the United States. As well, the authority of the United Nations has been shown to be no match for geopolitical resolve, and international law and world public opinion have been pushed aside. For the Trump presidency the special relationship with Israel has been enlarged beyond previous outer limits and the part of the Trump base that wanted these policies has been appeased for the moment. Prospects for a diplomacy based on the equality of rights of Palestinians and Israelis have been reduced to zero, and thus no just end of the Palestinian ordeal can be foreseen. Overall, it is not a pleasant balance sheet of gains and losses if evaluated from the perspective of American grand strategy in the Middle East, and if the wider regional setting of Iran’s spreading influence is taken into account, the situation looks even worse.

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Taking Stock: One Year After Trump

20 Nov

[Prefatory Note: This post addresses the need for dialogue with the political, economic, and cultural ‘other,’ that is, those multitudes acutely alienated from and angry with secular globalism and the Enlightenment legacy often equated with ‘modernity’ and ‘modernization.’ At the core is a search for closure on the nature of reality as well as feelings about equity (given many dimensions of inequality) and ethical innovation (revisionist approaches to gender, sexuality, marriage). Does reason or faith or tradition provide greater closure? Can the Thomistic grand synthesis of the 13th Century be repeated under 21st Century condition in the rough waters of controversy generated by Trump and Trumpism? Is this too Western a way of putting the problem? I write as an American, but there are many parallels in other countries. The first step is to admit being out of touch with the ferment below the surface. A second step is a matter of identifying what is to be included, what excluded.]

 

 

 

What is going on? Commentary on the Rise of Populism

 

 

Confessions of Political Myopia

 

To avoid any impression of condescension, I will begin with a humbling root question, “Why have I been so out of touch?” After all, I have become deeply aware in recent years that intellectual elites generally have little understanding of wider public sentiments that animate upheavals and distress in America and several foreign societies. I had big trouble back in the 1970s grasping the grassroots strength of Nixon’s ‘moral majority,’ which I haughtily dismissed as the ‘immoral minority’ (perhaps, my dismissive precursor of Hilary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’). The inspiration for this essay comes not only from personal experience but from a recent reading of Thomas Frank’s non-prophetic, yet deeply illuminating, much discussed, and influential 2005 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.

 

Frank is non-prophetic because he presupposes that cultural values (family, tradition, flag) rather than material concerns would remain at ‘the heart of America.’ Trump rode to power on a demagogic appeal (foolishly discounted by the media and Beltway wizards as a campaign ploy never meant seriously) mobilizing his base with inflammatory language about jobs, jobs, jobs buttressed by fear-mongering about terrorism, blaming Goldman Sachs capitalism for unfavorable international trade deals (above all with China), illegal and unwanted immigrants (that is, Mexicans and Muslims) who tarnish the American dream, and above all Islam as a menacing threat. By and large, he put the right-wing cultural agenda to one side, while embracing its patriotic tropes, which is hardly surprising given his own freewheeling Manhattan celebrity life style that included powwows with the notorious and lewd sexist Howard Stern, not to mention the tape of his Hollywood conversation. The deeper observation here is a scary confirmation of America’s susceptibility to demagogic appeals, ethnic and religious scapegoating, and strong intimations of racism.

 

There are two distinct concerns regarding this tendency toward misperceptions of political reality in America, and elsewhere in the world, that overlap: one is being out of touch with the swift currents of right wing opinion that have abruptly risen to the political surface in recent years to sway the multitudes in populist directions; the other is the failure to understand what is at the root of this unexpected particular political swing, which sometimes may turn out in some cases to be nothing more revealing than skillful, imaginative, unscrupulous, persevering marketing and access to major funding sources, but in more serious situation there are disclosed rips in the societal fabric that seem beyond repair, providing a deliriously ready audience for a demagogue intuitively attuned to the harsh rhythms of discontent unnoticed or dismissed by the established political elites. Trump confounded, and continues to confound, conventional wisdom over and over again, by reading the tea leaves of discontent with alarming accuracy.

 

It is undoubtedly the case, at least in the U.S., that part of the failure of perception is a combination of self-segregation and the widespread tendency of intellectuals to underestimate the political skills of those whose focus is on emotions, religion, and traditional values rather than reason, science, and evidence. To illustrate, not a single person in my social milieu will own up to being a supporter of Donald Trump. In effect, the insularity of my social networks puts me out of touch with what the Trump constituency feels, thinks, fears, and hopes for. The Trump/Bannon formula for electoral victory a year ago, surely abetted by a dismal Clinton campaign, abandoned several familiar Republican positions—especially mounting a critique of neoliberal globalization, and its core reliance on international trade and unhampered capital flows, as well as taking nasty jabs at the Washington establishment, including the standard Republican Party handlers.

 

 

An Egyptian Detour

 

I was in Cairo meeting friends shortly after the dramatic events in Tahrir Square in February 2011 awaiting UN permission (that never came) to visit Gaza on behalf of the Human Rights Council. Amid the tumult and excitement I was struck by the unanimity of opinion believing that Amr Moussa was sure to be elected Egypt’s next president in the country’s first ever free election scheduled for the following year. Moussa was a non-charismatic high profile civil servant in the Mubarak government and former Secretary General of the Arab League who opportunely welcomed the democratizing movement in Egypt, and quickly became the preferred candidate of the Cairo urban cognoscenti. As it turned out Moussa never made it to the second and deciding round of the presidential elections, receiving less than 12% of the vote in the opening round. The point here is not whether Moussa was good or bad, or whether he might have been the best candidate to serve as leader of Egypt in this fragile period of uncertain transition from dictatorship to constitutional democracy. The point is to underscore how out of touch were these most knowledgeable of urban secular Egyptians about the convictions and outlook of the rest of Egyptian. It also became clear that they greatly underrated the organizational strength of the MB and other Islamic oriented political groups that dominated the countryside and much of Egypt other than the middle class and elites of Cairo and Alexandria.

 

In the Egyptian case this detachment was in large part a reflection of the secular/Islamic split that plagued the region ever since the success of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. My other recollection from 2011-12 visits to Cairo related to the feelings of the seculars about the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the post-Tahrir electoral process. Most Egyptians I had contact with expected and accepted MB full participation in the public life of post-Mubarak Egypt, including the political process, regarding the organization as a religiously oriented and secretive but respectful of law and nonviolent, and this entitled to be dream of an inclusive Egyptian democracy that was the widely shared dream of most Egyptians in the weeks following the successful uprising. These knowledgeable urbanites anticipated at the time that the MB would at most win 25-30% representation in the legislative assembly, and did acknowledge that if they ended up doing much better there would be trouble, all the while strongly doubting that this would not happen. Well, it did, causing an immediate reassessment by Egypt’s urban elites, which expressed itself by way of an instantaneous retreat from the democratizing hopes and expectations that had dominated the Tahrir Square moo, and a switch of allegiance to the Mubarak era presidential alternative. In this spirit, the realigned secularists voted for Ahmad Shafik in the runoff election in June 2012 between the two top vote getters in round one. Round two produced a narrow 52%-48% victory for Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood candidate, a result eventually, although reluctantly certified by the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces that was supposed to be the neutral supervisor of the post-Mubarak transition, but more and more leaned toward questioning the legitimacy of a governing process under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood.

 

The earlier Cairo outlook was not wrong about the other part of its assessment of the political scene, which had insisted that MB leadership of the country, as distinct from its minority participation as part of a democratic opposition, was neither acceptable nor viable. It is notable that even the Brotherhood originally accepted a limited political role for itself in the first months after Mubarak was overthrown, seeming acknowledging that it should not seek control as distinct from participation. On this basis, the MD even made a rather unusual pledge for any political party, committing itself not to compete in certain electoral districts in the country and not to put forward its own candidate for the presidency. It later quietly renounced the pledge, likely sensing its strength and historic opportunity, and did go on to win the presidency, but at a high cost to itself. Before realizing that its victory would set off a chain of events that would turn out to be a crushing defeat, the MB experienced an intense backlash in Egyptian society confirming that it too was dangerously out of touch with the red lines of the urban elites and the balance of forces in the country. The Brotherhood obviously greatly underestimated the leverage and convergence of interests that joined the Egyptian Armed Forces, the Gulf monarchies (excepting Qatar), the governments of the United States and Israel, as well as the segments of the working classes and of course the Coptic minority. This formidable array of opposed forces produced in 2013 a counter-revolution in the form of a seemingly popular military coup, a new leader—Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—bloodier and more autocratic and repressive than Mubarak. The new leadership immediately criminalized the elected MB leadership of the country, and labeled the Brotherhood a terrorist organization with the tacit approval of its allies in the region and beyond, and autocratically denied political space even to secular activists who were unwilling to accept this renunciation of democratic hopes for Egypt.

 

This extended look at Egypt is descriptive of broader global trends, confirming that being dangerously out of touch is not only an affliction of Western elites stunned by the unexpected and shocking successes of Brexit and Trump. In the Middle East where politics are highly polarized, both sides are out of touch, miscalculating at great cost to society and to themselves, and totally unprepared for the intensity of backlash politics that have so far reflected an anti-democratic balance of forces in the region and beyond.

 

 

Trending Toward Illiberal Democracies

 

In the United States and Europe where polarization is deepening, there remains some respect for the rules of the game set by procedural democracy, that is, political choices determined by generally fair elections and a constitutional framework that institutionalizes checks and balances. In the United States, Trump shook even these structures late in the presidential campaign of 2016 when he apparently thought he was going to lose by contending that the electoral process was ‘rigged’ against him, even equivocating in public about whether he would accept an adverse outcome, a tactical move evidently supported by the Russians. And then later, after he was officially installed in the White House, Trump irresponsibly contested the Clinton margin of victory in the popular vote by contending wildly that several million unlawful immigrants had been fraudulently registered to stack the vote against him in such states as California and New York.

 

The fact that Trump offered not a scintilla of evidence for either challenge seemed not to bother even slightly his political base. His close advisors were darkly creative, inventing a large arsenal of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘Breitbart news.’ These counter-narratives were invoked brashly to contest such visually clear conclusions as the size of the crowd attending Trump’s presidential inaugural ceremony as compared to the size of the crowd that showed up eight years earlier for Obama. For anti-Trump critics these developments raised foundational issues about whether the constitutional order would be resilient enough to prevail if Trump had lost the election and then were to unleash his followers assigning them the almost unimaginably subversive mission of reversing the outcome. The success of this kind of fact-free discourse also raised the ultimate epistemological question about whether or not an overall respect for truth in the public realm was still expected of politicians, suggesting the possibility that reality was becoming a function of ideology or faith, not fact or evidence.

 

The Trump victory in 2016 mooted these particular challenges to some extent, shifting the tactical locus of opponents to the wrongdoing of Trump and his entourage, especially such potential impeachment and discrediting issues as ‘collusion with the Russians,’ ‘obstruction of justice,’ and ‘improper financial dealings.’ Implicit in these charges was the concession that blatant and consistent lying if not quite okay, was still not so disqualifying as to challenge Trump’s right to remain president even it placed his victory under a dark cloud due to the evidence that Russian meddling swayed enough votes in a close election. This apparent acceptance of this retreat from an ethos of truthfulness seems misguided in a number of respects. Manifest lying breaks the trust between state and society without which a democracy cannot function properly. As such is far more corrosive for a democratic republic than the several wrongful acts being regarded as grounds for impeachment. In part, the media and the people, and the advertising mentality of a consumer society, are all complicit in this de facto acceptance of a leader who lies consistently and willfully. In other words, it is not just the Brietbart alt-righ, the bevy of outrageous late night talk show hosts, and Trump’s use of a Twitter account that cleared the populist pathways leading to Trumpism, but we the people and our materialist indulgences and indifference to or ignorance of the torments of stagnant wages and growing challenges directed at even middle class living standards due to sharply rising costs of health, education, and housing.

 

The constitutional order remains under unprecedented pressure not only because of the way Clinton lost or Trump won, but also because the dominant faction in the American deep national security state lost, and lost badly and for the first time since 1945, although it has in 2017 staged a strong comeback spearheaded by the appointment of generals McMaster, Kelley, and Mattes to key posts. It is crucial to distinguish between business/financial establishment interests that were mostly content with a Trump/Republican victory from the national security oriented think tanks and government elites that were earlier deeply worried by Trump’s campaign language questioning the global alliance network and attacks on foreign regime-changing interventions, especially as played out in the Middle East. But on the security agenda Trump has seemed to give way—he upped the military budget, backed off from his earlier promised confrontation with China and expected soft policy toward Russia, escalated tensions with North Korea and Iran, and maintained continuity in the Middle East, throwing even greater support in the direction of Israel and Saudi Arabia than his predecessor.

 

What remains to be determined is whether the Rule of Law can hold minimally accountable the dual domains of militarism and neoliberal capitalism. Perhaps, the Rule of Law lost out years ago, and we are just now awakening to this somber reality thanks to Trump’s disruptive worldview and modes of governance. Scenarios in this vein are likely to dominate most upcoming episodes of the unfolding Trump tragicomedy. Maybe the center stage contest is not this at all but will be determined by whether the internationalist faction of the deep state remains successful in avoiding the apparent grand strategy revisionism of Trump without necessitating his removal from power. Trump’s real views, especially on global issues, are opaque, and his surface mercurial qualities of contradicting himself make the adaptation scenario more probable than the removal alternative. Either taming or removal both appear to be suitably responsive to the imperatives of the current phase of global capitalism and its dependency ties to the American led global security system. This system consists of a vast costly network of foreign bases, navies in every ocean, the military domination of space, including cyberspace, and assignment of combat units of special forces to carry out armed missions in over 130 countries. Trump was not feared or opposed by the national security establishment because of his pledges to repeal Obamacare or overhaul the tax structure for the benefit of the very wealthy. He was feared and opposed by many Republican hawks because his campaign rhetoric were perceived to raise unacceptable challenges to the stability of the world economy and were interpreted by most deep state aficionados as gesturing toward a possible dismantling of the American global state that had ‘governed’ the world since 1945.

 

 

Out of Touch, Out of Contact

 

Liberals and intellectuals in the United States are generally middle class in life style and outlook, rarely in meaningful existential touch with either the very poor or the very rich, and as a result are not privy to their fears, pain, anger, and agenda, or their affirmations and affiliations. This circumstance of being out of contact contributes to toxic polarization, mirrored in the inability of political parties to cooperate any longer for the sake of the national public good. Among other negative effects, such polarization leads to legislative gridlock and perceptions by the majority of citizens that the institutions of government have become weighted down by lobbyists, special interests, and intense partisanship, and have lost much of their legitimacy. In such a race to the bottom, the winners are business and the military, which is why a pre-fascist depiction of current political life in America, and by indirection, the world, is sadly, not out of touch.

 

Is the Enlightenment to Blame?

 

At the root of these developments are deep tensions between the rational and scientific legacies of the European Enlightenment and religious orientations that rely on faith and revealed truth. On the Enlightenment side are secular values and ideals associated with the human equality and respect for scientific evidence. On the religious side are attachments to traditional values of family, flag, and church. Both orientations are rooted in their own dogmas that exclude the belief systems of their opponents, undoubtedly providing the ideational infrastructure of what has now surfacing in many national variations as polarization, and with it disillusionment with the worth and promise of political democracy.

 

In one respect this is a crude rendition of Hegelianism versus Marxism, with the Hegelians giving priority to the dialectics of the idea whose time has come, while Marxists, in their various schools, in general lend priority to material conditions, class relations, and self-interest. Oddly the right-wing populists are mainly taking a ideational or faith-based posture that emphasizes the purity of the nation, puritan family traditions, an ethos of hard work, good jobs, and religious values, and thus supposedly hostile toward casino capitalists and foreign intruders, advocates of gay rights and legalized drugs, free traders, and secularists. Their liberal antagonists are generally comfortable with global capitalism according to the precepts of Goldman Sachs, free trade, outsourcing, and minimally regulated capital as advocated by the Bretton Woods Institutions (World Bank and IMF) and World Trade Organization, and, of course, sparing no expense to maintain full spectrum military dominance. The two sides converge with respect to militarism, with the Trump right invoking patriotism, arms sales, and national security while the liberal establishment emphasizes the indispensable role of American military superiority in keeping the country and its friends safe and the world more peaceful and global markets more stable than they would otherwise be.

 

Does making these acknowledgements amount to a nihilistic and solipsistic admission that there is no way to justify prevailing patterns of political alignment beyond their caprice? Not at all. Yet, as Gilad Atzmon persuasively argues in Being in Time, a politics of reason has been thrown disastrously off course by the impact of a liberal discourse infected by the taints of ‘political correctness’ and ‘identity politics,’ which substitutes conformity and allegiance for truth-seeking and acknowledgements of the impurities of social reality. Without a suitable discourse respectful of the contingencies and unevenness of reality we cannot find the pathways to humane political behavior. To be sure, the Mammonite discourse of the Trump brand of right-wing politics is certainly no better, offering a greed-saturated form of materialism that feeds the limitless appetite of the very richest among us while manipulating and repressing the rest of us. As Atzmon provocatively insists, this absence of a trustworthy discourse by which to express grievances and aspirations is why it clears the air to admit that our epoch has become ‘post-political,’ at least for now.

 

Yet there is even more than ‘discourse,’ a synonym for clear thought, at stake. There is self-esteem, ethical values, and the meaning of life that is jeopardized by the tradition-breaching dogmas of secular elites. Thus controversies surrounding abortion, gay marriage, legalized marijuana, and even gun control are too often being given precedence over considerations bearing on material wellbeing by this American version of populism preaching economic nationalism at Trump rallies. What makes the Trump phenomenon truly populist is its anti-establishment outrage and the high level of susceptibility to demagogic appeals on the part of his followers. This demagoguery blinds adherents to their true material self-interests and misidentified their real social enemies. By rejecting reasoned discourse, including commitments to truth and evidence, the capacity to manipulate mass opinion and play on such repressed emotion as racism and class envy is without limits. Trump is a master of such demagogic politics who has yet to commit definitively to whether in the end he will strike a deal with the anti-populist elites that have been running the system or proceed to wage open revolutionary warfare against the entire edifice of constitutional governance at home and abroad. Of course, a third way is also possible, a condition of no-peace, no-war, in which there ensue a multitude of skirmishes but no open warfare, which may be the most accurate way of portraying Trump’s first year as president.

 

 

Concluding Remarks

 

A wide variety of populisms, other than the American version, have gained control of the governing process of several important countries, and in each case despite widely different national circumstances, bringing to power an autocratic leader adored by the masses more for his style than his substance, and feared and hated by displaced elites who seem unable to generate a mobilizing program of their own or a charismatic alternative leader. Whether it be Putin in Russia, Modi in India, Erdoğan in Turkey, Sisi in Egypt, or Duterte in The Philippines, the leader claims to have a special capacity to interpret the will of the people, entitling the circumvention of the Rule of Law and conventional truth telling, professing an ardent and exclusivist nationalist ideology that pretends, at least, to abhor the cosmopolitanism of elite tastes and the globalization of economic life. Except for Duterte and Trump these popular autocrats have been rather prudently inclined with respect to political risk taking. Putin and Erdoğan have tried to enlarge their regional spheres of influence with mixed results, and have encountered some costly adverse reactions domestically and internationally.

 

These autocratic leaders in what have become ‘illiberal democracies’ seem more at home when dealing with authoritarian figures in other societies than with counterparts in countries that still qualify as functioning constitutional democracies. Trump seems quite at ease with Xi Jingpin or even Duterte than he does with Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron. What this portends for the future is unknowable at present. Will there emerge a tacit alliance of autocrats that represents the global ideological sequel to the shattered edifice of democratic expectations that had given rise to the Warsaw based, U.S. funded brainchild christened as the ‘Community of Democracies’ with 110 governments signing on at its founding fifteen years ago? As of 2017 neither Poland nor the United States would any longer be welcomed in venues catering to real life democracies!

 

Instead of the anticipated ‘twilight of the nation state’ we are experiencing its worldwide resurgence, energized by a counter-globalization movement that emphasizes borders and walls rather than fluid boundaries facilitating flows of capital and workers. ISIS (or DAESH) has been a partial outlier, as are the more radical versions of political Islam more generally. Instead of territorial enclaves these movements affirm exclusivist Islamic communities whose extension is not geographically identifiable by boundaries on a map, but rather by allegiances and networks however far flung. By proclaiming its caliphate in 2014 in Iraqi and Syrian territory that it then controlled, ISIS seemed to territorialize its sense of political community, which fortunately turned out to be a huge strategic mistake. By insisting that its rise was ‘the end of Sykes-Picot’ ISIS was also announcing to the world that it was not altogether anti-territorial, but was not beholden to the European state concept crudely imposed on the Middle East by a colonial driven statecraft after World War I.

 

It is this deterritorializing of community combined with the embrace of militarist and terrorist versions of jihadism, as well as of the equally deterritorialized technologies of the digital age that makes such movements so disruptive of traditional territorially based forms of security. Territorial states win renewed support from their national populations by celebrating patriotic virtues associated with flag and country, identifications that correspond with their primordial sense of community (providing ideas and causes worth dying for) spatially defined by internationally legitimated geographic boundaries.

 

Finally, it is this collision between antagonistic conceptions of communities in space that define the modern geopolitical landscape. This sense of political engagement is being increasingly itself challenged by communities in time that spring to life in the ecological landscape where the principal preoccupations are with the multiple challenges of global warming toward species sustainability. The ultimate evasion of reality by Trumpism is its willful blindness when it comes to showing respect for the ecological integrity of contemporary human existence. The decision of the Trump White House to refuse participation in the Paris Climate Change Agreement is probably the most destructive blow against sustainable global governance than was the imposition of a punitive peace on Germany after World War I.

 

Trump also intrudes his bluster in ways that subvert nuclear restraint. His words threatening annihilation of North Korea and confrontation with Iran cast the darkest shadows over the present and future.

 

At issue is more than Trump. I want to live and die in a world of inclusive political communities. I also regard as imperative forms of ecological inclusiveness that extend to all of nature, animals, plants, soil, air, water, glaciers, mountains, ravines, and valleys.

 

The Flawed and Corrupted Genius of American Republicanism

15 Oct

Trump as President makes us think as never before about viability of the American version of constitutional democracy, that is, the ‘republic’ that Ben Franklin promised the people at the time of Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

We often forget that Franklin replied to the question by adding several words, “if you’ll keep it.”

With the election of Trump in 2016 these prophetic cautionary words have come home to haunt the country with a cruel vengeance. Of course, arguably nuclear America had long abandoned the pretense of consensual government, and warmongering American had driven the point home with only a whimper of dissent from Congress, mainstream media, and the citizenry. Imagine currently engaged in bombing six countries and combat operations in many more, and the loudest sound from the citizenry or media is an all-encompassing silence. And then we must not forget about the potent ‘deep state’ that took shape during World War II, maturing and consolidating its hold on elected officials during the long Cold War. Or, I suppose, its more visible presence that Eisenhower warned about in his Farewell Address—the military-industrial complex (as abetted by a corporatized media and a wide array of cheerleading think tanks).

 

Yet Trump poses the challenge more bluntly, so crudely that many of us feel we can no longer sit back and hope for the best. So far even the deep state has lost some of its aura of invincibility to the Trump onslaught, although it is fighting back, stacking the White House upper echelons with national security state first responders (McMaster, Mattis, Kelly), and may yet have the last word.

 

The distinctive essence of American republicanism is a distrust of reason on an individual basis combined with a confidence in reason on the level of collective national action. That is the idea of checks and balances, separation of powers, the friction between equal branches of government, the rule of law, and the electoral powers of the citizenry are acknowledgements that the containment and disciplining of individual power and authority are more important than the efficiency of governance. But maybe confusing the efficiency of capital as embodied in the ideology of neoliberal globalization, ideas of restraint in the Executive Branch have gradually been pushed aside as the urgencies of militarism and geopolitics, as well as the preemptive imperatives of security have taken precedence given the time/space features of modern warfare, both in the form of non-state terrorism or in relation to weaponry of mass destruction.

 

In other words, the country has been stripped of any basis for confidence in the rationality of the system to check the irrationalities of the individual. This is where Trump entered the scene, somewhat unintentionally delivering a message: the end of republicanism is at hand, despite the Republicans having the upper hand in all three branches of government. The gap between republicans and Republicans has never been greater.

 

The system is now so flawed that even should the Democrats manage to claw their way back to power the gap would not greatly diminish. The system of republican governance will soon collapse unless the nourishing winds of revolutionary renewal soon arrive.

 

We should not put all the blame, or alternatively, give all the credit to Trump. An insufficient number of American people failed to identify a threat to the virtues of republican government. Neither political party was oriented toward restoring republicanism under 21st century conditions, which would necessitate at a minimum getting rid of nuclear weapons, insisting on Congressional participation in relation to acts of war, safeguarding the national interest by rejecting ‘special relationships’ with Saudi Arabia and Israel, conforming gun control to the true and sensible meaning of the Second Amendment, heeding the call of Black Lives Matter, leading the struggle against global warming, strengthening the UN and respect for international law, relying on ideas of common security, human security, protection of the poor, restorative diplomacy to address threats and disempower adversaries rather than coercive and militarized diplomacy, pursuing global justice by taking the suffering of others seriously, and dealing humanely with the crises of global migration and prolonged refugee status. In other words, the renewal of republicanism requires a new agenda, and undoubtedly requiring a new constitutional convention, and a constitution that might alone give republicanism a second chance.

 

In the meantime, Trump and Trumpism tell us more vividly than we could possibly have imagined about the collapse of 18th century republicanism, and the inability of the system to evolve to meet fundamental changes associated with a globalizing reality that shrinks time and space while stimulating a reactionary politics of ultra-nationalism, territoriality, and ‘gated national communities.’ We need to ask what are system requirements for 21st rationality in the designing of governance structures at all levels of human endeavor.

 

In my view, an ethics of human solidarity and empathy has never been more closely correlated with a politics of human survival, which itself is tied to the urgency of ecological sensitivity to our natural surroundings, including a dangerously deferred implementation of animal rights. When the American Constitution was formulated the guidance of reason was an inspired means to construct a durable government that balanced contradictory goals (admittedly incorporating a gross type of moral blindness in the form of slavery and the rights of native Americans), but now the path to a humane and sustainable future must be built on ethical and ecological foundations in which values are given priority over reason and rationality.

 

The odiousness of Trump’s presidency gives the people of America what might be their last chance to achieve political redemption for themselves, and for others now and in the future who will drawn into the circle of extreme victimization unless this dynamic of renewal suddenly takes hold.          

 

End of Nuclearism or the End of the World: Utopian Dreams, Dystopian Nightmares

9 Aug

 

We are living amid contradictions whether we like it or not, driving expectations about the future toward opposite extremes. Increasingly plausible are fears that the ‘sixth extinction’ will encompass the human species, or at least, throw human society back to a technology of sticks and stones, with a habitat limited to caves and forests. This dark vision is countered by gene editing designer promises of virtual immortality and super-wise beings programming super-intelligent machines, enabling a life of leisure, luxury, and security for all. Whether the reality of such a scientistic future would be also dark is a matter of conjecture, but from a survival perspective, it offers an optimistic scenario.

 

On political levels, a similar set of polar scenarios are gaining ground in the moral imagination, producing national leaders who seem comfortable embracing an apocalyptic telos without a second thought. The peoples of the world, entrapped in a predatory phase of global capitalism, are using their democratic prerogative to shut down dissent, rationality, and science. On one side, 122 governments pledge a legal commitment to the prohibition of nuclear weapons as an unprecedented prelude to the abolition of the weaponry; on the other side, all nine nuclear weapons states, and their closest allies, oppose the prohibition and opt for modernizing their nuclear weapons arsenals even devising strategic plans for their possible use, prompting an urgent search for counter measures.

 

John Pilger issues a solemn reminder that Nevile Shute’s On the Beach depicting a post-nuclear human future that is now more resonant than when it was published in 1957. Leaders that could bluff their way to shared catastrophe bellow forth in Washington and Pyongyang, each deluded by the belief that military options even with nuclear weapons are the only geopolitical security blanket worth relying upon, projecting a reckless obliviousness to the risk of losing their balance while engaging in inflammatory rhetorical posturing alarmingly close to the nuclear precipice.

 

As Pilger also points out, the liberal opposition to this right wing populism in the West is also dangerously disposed toward warmongering. Donald Trump is being pilloried by a bipartisan anti-Russian hysteria that imposes harsh sanctions, seemingly intent on driving Putin’s Kremlin into a corner from which there is no retreat except by way of confrontation, and possibly war.

 

We read of record heat waves, extreme weather events, extended droughts, and wild fires as common as clouds in the sky without blinking. The newspapers report that climate scientists are ready to push the panic button in reaction to the latest studies of grim global warning trends, while the Trump factor renews coal mining and treats denial a political virtue.

 

While these alarming realities dim the light of hope for many of us, the American stock market, a barometer of capitalist expectations by the shrewdest investors, achieves record heights. At the same time famine warnings have been officially endorsed for a series of long suffering populations: Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, northern Nigeria, Gaza. The entire Middle East is being turned into a war and conflict zone, with an anti-Iran warmongering coalition pressuring Iran to choose between nuclear deterrence and sectarian warfare inflamed by militarist Israeli/U.S. grand strategy that appears to be motivated by a regional vision of geopolitical pacification.

 

How best to endure in the face of such fatalistic dualisms? That may be the question of our time, dodged for the sake of sanity by almost all of us, at least most of the time. Business as usual, while living with therapeutic forms of cultural blindness, the opioids of those fortunate enough to live for now in gated communities, whether on the scale of private dwellings or walled off countries.

 

Recently a lively young woman told me that many of her friends had decided not to have children because they are so fearful of the storm clouds of the future, and refuse to wait around for liberating rainbows. At the other extreme, today’s International Edition of the New York Times contains a front page ad of enticement encouraging attendance at an International Luxury Conference to be held in Brussels, November 13-14, on the demeaning theme of “What’s Next: Luxury in a Turbulent World.” My somewhat impatient response—‘whatever turns out to be next, it will not be and should not be luxury!’ More likely, those grown accustomed to luxury will shift their residences to those underground homes built by Silicon Valley billionaires on vast tracts of lands in the New Zealand countryside as the ultimate hedge against an imminent global catastrophe. It could be that the NYT conference will devote its attention to this form of post-apocalyptic luxury living! Yet that assumes a quite unlikely focus on how the world of luxury is adapting to the unpleasant realities of the Sixth Extinction. 

Betwixt and Between: The Shadowy Politics of Political (In)Correctness

3 Jul

 

We are all discovering that Donald Trump has Olympic skills when it comes to traversing a minefield, escaping mostly unharmed from high magnitude explosions that would long ago have ended in ignominy almost any other political life. How can we explain the enigma of an American real estate magnate and raunchy entertainment celebrity who gets away with insulting a war hero like John McCain, demeaning a conservative presidential dynasty that gave the country two recent Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, making public fun of Serge Kovaleski a disabled NY Times journalist, rebuking women with extremely vulgar remarks about their bodies and minds, devaluing the service of an American soldier killed in combat who happened to be the son of Iraqi born parents? For such a man to amble into the Oval Office as the electoral choice of the American people confirms many unflattering suspicions about the body politic as it exists and functions today in the United States. And after proposing one cruel measure after another, rebuffing his gracious predecessor every chance he gets, and undermining the reputation of the American government at home and abroad, Trump’s base support holds steady as if this is just what they wanted and expected. Even the Republican Party establishment has so far held its nose, and except on a few occasions, refraining from jumping ship even in the face of Trump’s childish tantrums and utterly disastrous, mean-spirited health and tax proposals.

 

Explaining the Trump ascendancy is far more complicated than pointing out the electoral weakness of the opposing candidate, or blaming Clinton’s poor tactics at the last stages of the campaign, or attributing Trump’s rise to Russian hacking or the blustering intrusions of the now fired FBI Director, James Comey, shortly before the elections last November. These unsavory realities may have swayed votes here and there, but they do not begin to account for Trump’s overall success or ultra-Teflon sensibility, or the uncanny rapport with his base, those passionate folks that keep showing up at rallies and continue to give him a steady 40% approval rating come what may, give or take a point or two here and there. And it’s really not mainly about jobs, either. Remember a colorless fellow like François Hollande scored around 4% in the last stages of his presidency, and Obama was disliked by close to 80% in Israel despite trying very hard to exhibit unconditional support for every misstep taken by Tel Aviv, probably because his body language revealed some ambivalence and early on he had the ambition of finding a sustainable solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, apparently not aware that Israel was not the least interested in a peace crafted by Washington know-it-alls, no matter how far its framework leaned in Israel’s direction.

 

What then is Trump’s secret? Is it just that he has been anointed as the savior of the justifiably angry and alienated American underclass, not primarily of its material interests, but of its lost self-esteem that depends on the recovery of a sense of belonging and national rootedness?

Clearly, Trump provided a powerful magnet for some contradictory strivings. Some of those most alienated wanted the established order savagely attacked, and were drawn to the Trump inflammatory rhetoric about ‘draining the swamp’ and ‘locking her up.’ It seems not to matter that he doesn’t really mean it, appointing a cabinet of billionaires and insiders and leaving Hillary Clinton to lick her wounds alone in the Chappaqua woods. His credibility did not even hinge on whether he actually builds that ‘beautiful wall’ along the Mexican border as long as he gets tough with illegal Mexicans living in the country and does his best to keep out visitors from Muslim countries, while vigorously waving the American flag. It seems that if the anti-immigrant rhetoric is politically incorrect enough, inconsistencies will be overlooked if not forgiven.

 

In this period of alternate facts, outright lies, and fake news, words speak much louder than words, at least some words depending on who is the speaker. During the presidential campaign of a year ago Trump became the media center of attention night after night, with Beltway pundits parsing the broken twisted language of his tweets, acting if nothing other than Trump’s latest outrage was of any public concern. CNN panels consisting of pro and contra Trump watchers tussled, smiled, even laughed, while Syrians perished in the rubble of Raqqa or Aleppo and Yemenis struggled daily with hunger and Saudi bombs. What seemed to count was that cable ratings went through the roof, and objections were mainly mute. It is no surprise the obsessive interest in the daily doings and undoings of Trump has continued, may have even risen, since he became president: Same old panels, same old heated exchanges of antagonistic interpretations, and same disregard of serious news issues so as to give almost total attention to Trump’s frills and frolics, trivia on the surface, yet subverting the constitutional and societal order as never before.

 

Week after week Trump becomes agitated by this or that media insult. His staff make extraordinary efforts to keep him away from TV and his Twitter account, but to no avail. The latest escapade involves Trump’s response to some minor taunts from ‘Morning Joe,’ with co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski inspiring the mighty leader to tweet “low I.Q. Crazy Mika’ had been “bleeding badly from a Face-Lift’ a few years ago when he excluded her from a New Year’s Eve party at Mar-a-Lago. Responding, a spokesperson for First Lady Melania reminded the public that “..when her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder,” a statement that seems a disproportionate response characteristic of the worst locker room bully. Quite incredibly Melania apparently feels that her defense of The Donald does not make a mockery of her supposed campaign against cyber bullies. The White House media deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders casually dismissed the whole incident as one of ‘fighting fire with fire.’ Somehow proportionality doesn’t matter when it comes to evaluating Trump’s behavior. We can only wonder what happens to someone flattened by a Trump riposte 10 times more severe than the blow struck to his miniscule ego and massive id.

 

This endorsement of disproportion by the Trump White House also recalls the much criticized Dahiya Doctrine relied upon in Israel’s 2006 Lebanon War when a leading general affirmed the use of ‘disproportionate power’ to destroy the civilian infrastructure of a neighborhood in south Beirut thought to be sympathetic with Hezbollah. It seems relevant to recall that one of the most hallowed and deeply rooted principles of international humanitarian law is that of proportionality. It would seem even more essential for maintaining an atmosphere of civility in a deeply divided society. It had been assumed that overall an American president, regardless of party or personal values, would throw his weight behind those elements in society who affirmed the relevance of civility to upholding trust and feelings of coherence in a democratic society. But obviously such an assumption no longer holds.

 

Is this action and reaction mostly about the proper boundaries of discourse in a democratic society? Yes, in part; the liberal insistence that nothing critical should be permitted if it is not respectful of racial minorities or gays currently collides with the Zionist all out push to have Israeli critics condemned and victimized as anti-Semites if they dare attack Israel’s policies and practices. Yet discourse doesn’t explain everything. If Trump were less thin skinned, media assaults would disappear almost as quickly as bubbles blown into the air. As it is, Trump tweets pull scabs off wounds that are not healed. Demeaning the bodies of Mika Brzezinski or Megyn Kelly is more than an insult of a person, it is a slap at the long exploited vulnerabilities of gender, which in the case of women has been endured for centuries.

 

Whose correctness? The white males that make up the most extreme Trump enthusiasts, clearly celebrate his unabashed revalidation of patriarchy, including even its ribald sexism, with a restorative effect on their self-esteem. The women these men most respect are content with their traditional roles, and do not shake the male ship of state, and further, mostly resent those women who challenge the established order of things human and divine. Sadly many religious institutions back them up. So values and worldviews as well as discourse are at stake.

 

The hung jury in Bill Cosby’s sexual assault case also seems relevant. Did it reflect some combination of the Trump gender ethos—men can do no wrong in the bedroom—and racial payback—now whites know better how blacks feel when their lethal assailants are repeatedly found not guilty. Of course, we should demand of our justice system the outcomes predicated on the search for the truth of allegations, which tells us why the goddess of justice is always portrayed blindfolded, safeguarding the judicial process from gender, racial, and class bias. But what if the real life experience of ‘justice’ over many decades has reflected mainstream racism toward minorities, is it then ‘unjust’ to return the favor when the rare opportunity arises? Of course, it is individually ‘unjust’ to exonerate Cosby or O.J. Simpson because each serve in a distinct way as a synecdoche for the numerous black men falsely accused of raping white women, and then cruelly punished? It does not lessen the criminality of their apparent errant behavior, but it may jolt the system enough to create a deeper awareness that accountability to be legitimate must apply to all equally regardless of skin color, ethnicity, or class and if it continues to reflect bias favoring the dominant race, nationality, and class then it deserves no respect from those identities being victimized?

 

Assessing the exploits of Trump, and Cosby, at least raise these difficult issues of individual and collective responsibility that need to be resolved before the country can hope to recover its moral compass, and learn to respect the dignity of all of its citizens in spite of their diversities of experience and background. This may be a more fundamental challenge to those who govern humanely than is the broad latitude accorded when the word ‘security’ is uttered by those in power.

 

 

 

 

 

Interrogating the Qatar Rift

7 Jun

 

The abrupt announcement that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, UAE, Yemen, the Maldive Islands, and the eastern government in divided Libya have broken all economic and political ties with Qatar has given rise to a tsunami of conjecture, wild speculation, and most of all, to wishful thinking and doomsday worries. There is also a veil of confusion arising from mystifying reports that hackers with alleged Russian connections placed a fake news story that implicated Qatar in the promotion of extremist groups in the region. Given Russian alignments, it makes no sense to create conditions that increase the credibility of anti-Iran forces. And finally the timing and nature of the terrorist suicide attacks of June 7th on the Iranian Parliament and on the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini adds a particularly mystifying twist to the rapidly unfolding Qatar drama, especially if the ISIS claim of responsibility is substantiated.

 

Four preliminary cautionary observations seem apt: (1) the public explanation given for this rupture is almost certainly disconnected from its true meaning. That is, the break with Qatar is not about strengthening the anti-ISIS, anti-extremist coalition of Arab forces. Such an explanation may play well in the Trump White House, but it is far removed from understanding why this potentially menacing anti-Qatar regional earthquake erupted at this time, and what it is truly about. (2) Any claim to provide a clear account of why? And why now? should be viewed with great skepticism, if not suspicion. There are in the regional context too many actors, crosscurrents, uncertainties, conflicts, mixed and hidden motives and contradictions at play as to make any effort at this stage to give a reliable and coherent account of this Qatar crisis bound to be misleading.

 

(3) Yet despite these caveats, there are several mainly unspoken dimensions of the crisis that can be brought to the surface, and sophisticate our understanding beyond the various self-serving polemical interpretations that are being put forward, including the centrality of Israeli-American backing for a tough line on Iran and the realization that Gulf grievances against Qatar have been brewing for recent years for reasons unrelated to ISIS, and led to an earlier milder confrontation in 2014 that was then quickly overcome with the help of American diplomacy.

 

And (4) The anti-Iran fervor only makes sense from the perspective of the Gulf monarchies (other than Qatar) and Israel, but seems radically inconsistent with American regional interests and counter-ISIS priorities—Iran is not associated with any of the terrorist incidents occurring in Europe and the United States, and ISIS and Iran are pitted against each other on sectarian grounds. Intriguingly, neither Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), nor Israel, that is, the principal antagonists of Qatar, have been ever targeted by ISIS.

 

The main contention of the anti-Qatar Arab governments, led by Saudi Arabia, is that this coordinated diplomatic pushback is motivated by anti-terrorist priorities. On its face this seems to be a ridiculous claim to come from the Saudis, and can only make some sense as part of a calculated effort to throw pursuing dogs in the hunt for ISIS off a course that if followed would inevitably implicate the Riyadh government. It has long been known by intelligence services and academic experts that it is Saudi Arabia, including members of its royal family, that have been funding Jihadi extremism in the Middle East and has for many years been spending billions to spread Salifist extremism throughout the Islamic world.

 

By comparison, although far from innocent or consistent of terrorist linkages, as well as being internally oppressive, especially toward its migrant foreign workers, Qatar is a minor player in this high stakes political imbroglio. For the Saudis to take the lead in this crusade against Qatar may play well in Washington, Tel Aviv, and London, but fools few in the region. Trump has with characteristic ill-informed bravado has taken ill-advised credit for this turn against Qatar, claiming it to be an immediate payoff of his recent visit to the Kingdom, ramping up still further the provocative buildup of pressure on Iran. To claim a political victory given the circumstances rather than admit a geopolitical faux pas might seem strange for any leader other than Trump. It is almost perverse considering that the al-Udeid Air Base is in Qatar, which is the largest American military facility in the Middle East, operated as a regional command center actively used in bombing raids against Iraq and Afghanistan, and serviced by upwards of 10,000 American military personnel.

 

Netanyahu warmongers will certainly be cheered by this course of events and Israel has not hidden its support for the anti-Qatar moves of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It achieves two Israeli goals: its longtime undertaken to encourage splits and disorder in the Arab world and its campaign to maximize pressures on Iran.

 

Interestingly, Jeremy Corbyn at the start of the week when the momentous British elections are scheduled to take place, called on Teresa May to release a report (prepared while David Cameron was prime minister), supposedly an explosive exposure of Saudi funding and support for Islamic extremism in the Middle East. All in all, a first approximation of the Qatar crisis is to view it as a desperate move by Riyadh to get off the hot seat with respect to its own major responsibility for the origins and buildup of political extremism in the Middle East, which has indirectly produced the inflaming incidents in principal European cities during the last several years. Such a move to isolate and punish Qatar was emboldened by the blundering encouragement of Donald Trump, whether acting on impulse or at the beckoning of Israel’s and Saudi leaders, confusing genuine counter-terrorist priorities with a dysfunctional effort to push Iran against the wall. Trump seems to forget, if he ever knew, that Iran is fighting against ISIS in Syria, has strongly reaffirmed moderate leadership in its recent presidential elections, and if Iran were brought in from the cold could be a major calming influence in the region. True, Iran has given support to Hezbollah and Hamas, but except in Syria not with much effect, and on a scale far smaller than what other actors in the region have been doing to maintain their control and push their agendas. In effect, if Washington pursued national interests in the spirit of political realism, it would regard Iran as a potential ally, and put a large question mark next to its two distorting ‘special relationships,’ with Saudi Arabia and Israel. In effect, reverse its regional alignments in a way that could replace turmoil with stability, but this is not about to happen. The American media, and thoughtful citizens, should at least be wondering ‘why?’ rather than staring into darkness of a starless nighttime sky.

 

But this is not all. The Saudis, along with the UAE and Egypt, have long resented and maybe feared the early willingness of Qatar to give some sanctuary and aid and comfort to various elements of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. It is hardly farfetched to assume that Israel is outraged by the Emir of Qatar’s friendship and earlier support for the Hamas exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal. Saudi Arabia strives to obscure its incoherent approach to political Islam. It loudly proclaims Sunni identity when intervening in Syria, waging war in Yemen, and calling for confrontation with Iran, while totally repudiating its sectarian identity when dealing with societally or democratically oriented Islamic movements in neighboring countries. Such an anti-democratiing orientation was dramatically present when Riyadh and Abu Dhabi scolded Washington for abandoning Mubarak’s harsh authoritarian secular rule in Egypt back in 2011 and then welcoming the anti-Morsi coup led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi two years later, even welcoming its bloody suppression of Sunni adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood. As has been long obvious to close and honest observers of the Kingdom, the Saudi monarchy has become so fearful of an internal uprising challenging its oppressive rule that it will oppose any liberalizing or democratizing challenge anywhere in its neighborhood. The Kingdom is particularly wary of its Shia minority that happens to be concentrated in locations near where the main Saudi oil fields are located. Similar concerns also help explain why Bahrain behaves as it does as it also fearful of a domestic Shia led majority opposition, which has made it a strategically dependent, yet ardent, adherent of the anti-Qatar coalition.

 

Also far more relevant than acknowledged is the presence of Al Jazeera in Doha, which at various times has voiced support for the Arab Uprisings of 2011, criticism of the Israeli practices and policies toward the Palestinians, and provided an Arabic media source of relatively independent news coverage throughout the region. Qatar is guilty of other irritants of the dominant Gulf political sensibility. It has arranged academic positions for such prominent Palestinian dissidents as Azmi Bashara and more than its neighbors has given welcome to intellectual refugees from Arab countries, especially Egypt. Given the way the Gulf rulers close off all political space within their borders it is to be expected that they find the relative openness of Qatar a threat as well as consider it to be a negative judgment passed on their style of governance.

 

Qatar is very vulnerable to pressure, but also has certain strengths. Its population of 2.5 million (only 200,000 of whom are citizens), imports at least 40% of its food across the Saudi border, now closed to the 600-800 daily truck traffic. Not surprisingly, this sudden closure has sparked panic among Qataris, who are reportedly stockpiling food and cash. The Doha stock market dropped over 7% on the first day after the Gulf break was announced. Qatar is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, and is a major source of Turkish investment capital. Western Europe is wary of this American project to establish an ‘Arab NATO,’ and sees it as one more manifestation of Trump’s dysfunctional and mindless impact on world order.

 

What this portends for the future remains is highly uncertain. Some look upon these moves against Qatar as a tempest in a teapot that will disappear almost as quickly as it emerged. The U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and the Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, have urged mediation and offered reassuring comments about anti-ISIS unity remaining unimpaired. It is true that the existence of the Udeid Air Base in Qatar may in time dilute deference to the Saudi-led desire to squeeze the government in Doha, possibly to the point of its collapse. A more fearsome scenario is that the Trump encouraged confrontation sets the stage for a coup in Qatar that will be quickly supported by Washington as soon as Riyadh gives the green light, and will be promoted as part of the regional buildup against Iran. The notorious ceremony in which King Salmon, Trump, and Sisi were pictured standing above that glowing orb with their arms outstretched can only be reasonably interpreted as a pledge of solidarity among dark forces of intervention. Many of us supposed that George W. Bush’s policy of ‘democracy promotion’ that provided part of the rationale for the disastrous 2003 attack on Iraq was the low point in American foreign policy in the Middle East, but Trump is already proving us wrong.

 

While this kind of ‘great game’ is being played at Qatar’s expense in the Gulf, it is highly unlikely that other major players, especially Iran, Russia, and Turkey will remain passive observers, especially if the crisis lingers or deepens. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Mohammed Zarif, has non-aggressively tweeted to the effect that “neighbors are permanent; geography can’t be changed,” stating his view that the occasion calls for dialogue, not coercion. If the isolation of Qatar is not quickly ended, it is likely that Iran will start making food available and shipping other supplies to this beleaguered tiny peninsular country whose sovereignty is being so deeply threatened.

 

Russia, has been long collaborating with Iran in Syria, will likely move toward greater solidarity with Tehran, creating a highly unstable balance of power in the Middle East with frightening risks of escalation and miscalculation. Russia will also take advantage of the diplomatic opportunity to tell the world that the U.S. is seeking to raise war fevers and cause havoc by championing aggressive moves that further the ambitions of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. Such Russian diplomacy is likely to play well in Europe where Trump’s recent demeaning words in Brussels to NATO members made the leading governments rethink their security policies, and to view the United States as an increasingly destabilizing force on the global stage, such feeling being reinforced by the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

 

Turkey seems to believe that its immediate effort should be similar to that of the Tillerson and Mattis approach, having tentatively offered to mediate, and advocates finding a way back to a posture of at least peaceful co-existence between Qatar, the Gulf, and the rest of the Arab world. Turkey has had a positive relationship with Qatar, which includes a small Turkish military facility and large Qatari investments in the Turkish economy.

 

To cool things down, the Foreign Minister of Qatar, Sheik Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, while denying the allegations, has also joined in the call for mediation and even reconciliation. Bowing to Gulf pressures, Qatar has prior to the current crisis withdrawn its welcome from Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood exiles, and seems poised to yield further to the pressures of the moment, given its small size, political vulnerability, and intimations of possible societal panic.

 

While the civilian population of Yemen is faced with imminent famine as an intended consequence of the Saudi intervention, the Saudis seems to be again using food as a weapon, this time to compel Qatar to submit to its regional priorities and become a GCC team player with respect to Iran—joining in the preparation of a sectarian war against Iran while maintaining a repressive hold over political activity at home. One preliminary takeaway is that ISIS dimension is serving as a smokescreen to draw attention away from a far more controversial agenda. The Saudis are deeply implicated in political extremism throughout the region, having likely paid heavily for being treated, temporarily at least, as off limits for Jihadi extremism. Qatar, too is tainted, but mainly by being a minor operative in Syrian violence and in 2015 paying ISIS an amount rumored to be as high as $1 billion to obtain the release of 26 Qataris, including members of the royal family, taken hostage while on a falcon hunting party, of all things, in Iraq. We can gain some glimmers of understanding of what is motivating these Arab governments to act against Qatar, but little sympathy. In comparison, the new U.S. foreign policy in the region defies any understanding beyond its adoption of a cynical and unworkable geopolitical stance, which certainly does not engender any sympathy from the victimized peoples of the region, but rather fear and loathing.  

Trumped Up Diplomacy in the Middle East

20 May

 

In his first overseas trip since moving into the White House, Donald Trump is leaving behind the frustrations, allegations, rumors, and an increasing sense of implosion that seems to be dooming his presidency during its second hundred days. At the same time, a mixture of curiosity and apprehension awaits this new leader wherever he goes making his visit to the Middle East and Europe momentous occasions for the host governments, wide eyed public, and rapacious media. We need to remember that in this era of popular autocrats and surging right-wing populists, Trump is a ‘hero of our time.’

 

Even if all had gone smoothly for the new president in his home country, there should be expressions of deep concern about his travel itinerary. He visits first the two countries with which the United States has ‘special relationships’ in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Israel. What has long made them ‘special’ are a series of pre-Trump departures from realist and normative foreign policy orientations by successive American presidencies. These departures were motivated by oil geopolitics, arms sales and strategic alliances, hostility to Iran, and a disguised American sweet spot for foreign royalty. It is has long been obvious that uncritical deference to Israeli priorities has seriously undermined U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, which would have benefitted much more from policies designed to encourage peace and stability by refraining from regime-changing interventions, massive arms sales, and a diplomacy of respect for the politics of national self-determination.

 

Most remarkably, the U.S. Government has for decades winked at the billions of support given by Saudi members of the royal family to Wahabism, that is, to promote fundamentalist Islam, throughout the Muslim world. The first words uttered by Trump on his arrival in Riyadh were that it ‘an honor’ to be visiting.

Then came signed deals adding up to $110 billions in arms sales and the declaration of a common strategic vision, that is, a super-alliance, called an ‘Arab NATO’ in some circles, a dagger aimed at Iran’s heart. Why turn a blind eye toward the Saudi role in fanning the flames of jihadism while ramping up a military threat to relatively passive Iran that reelected Hassan Rouhani as its president, who has consistently championed moderation at home and normalization abroad.

 

How can we explain this? Trump has been critical of most aspects of the foreign policy agenda of his predecessors, but on the promotion of the special relationships he seems intent on doubling down on the most misguided aspects of earlier approaches to the region. The shape of his travel itinerary during his days confirms this impression. In this regard, Trump repudiates Obama’s hesitant, but in the end successful, efforts to bring Iran in from the cold, while trying to please Saudi Arabia by ignoring its extreme denial of human rights to its own people as well as its contributions to anti-Western terrorism.

 

If Trump was truly intent on putting America first, as he insistently asserts, then he could do so very directly and effectively by taking three major steps toward the protection of national interests: first, demand a firm commitment from the Saudi government to cease using private funds and public diplomacy to spread Wahabism beyond its borders. Any credible public statement along these lines would weaken ISIS and other terrorist movements throughout the world far more than cascades of Tomahawk missiles dumped on a Syrian airfield. Such a challenge to Saudi policies also raises the possibility, however remote, of an endgame in the ‘war on terror.’ If such a reset of Saudi relations could be coupled with an indefinite freeze on arms sales to the Gulf countries that would have been even better, sending a signal throughout the region that America will no longer engage with the bloody conflicts that have brought so much suffering and devastation to the Middle East. This might give some belated meaning to ‘America first.’

 

The second step would have been even harder for an American president to take. It would require Trump to tell Mr. Netanyahu that no further military assistance for Israel would be authorized until an unconditional freeze on settlement expansion was in place and enforced, and the blockade of Gaza lifted once and for all.

 

It does not require a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies to appreciate that the establishment of a nuclear free zone in the region and the adoption of effective steps to minimize the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia Islam would improve future prospects for this horrendously disrupted political realities, at last reducing tensions and risks of wars. Nor does it require special knowledge to identify the obstacles such actions—the one government that already possesses nuclear weapons and the government that feels threatened by a challenge to its regional preeminence. Saudi Arabia and Israel both regard Iran as enemy number one, although it poses no existential threat to either one, and Israel will not even discuss giving up its nuclear arsenal despite being assured by Washington that its qualitative edge in conventional weaponry relative to its neighbors will be upheld.

 

The special relationships block even the consideration of enlightened initiatives, take them entirely off the table. This contrasts with the American proclivity for coercive diplomacy, which always assertively leaves the military option on the table. Without tension-reducing measures, a few false moves could easily give rise to a major war with Iran, which might bring smiles to leaders in Riyadh and Tel Aviv, but would be disastrous for the societies involved and for the United States, as well as for the region.

 

Given the leverage and militancy of pro-Israeli lobbies in the United States, more realistically pursuing American national interests toward Israel and the Middle East, seems tantamount to issuing invitations to Trump’s beheading, and despite his wildly gyrations of policy and mood, he has shown no disposition whatsoever to take on AIPAC, inc.. Quite the contrary.

 

Of course, I am not so naïve to think that the advocacy of rationality in foreign policy will have the slightest echo in Washington in the course of Trump’s current diplomatic foray into uncharted territories. What I wish to point out is that this kind of foreign policy fantasy, however desirable if it were to be enacted, has become a species of political suicide. Any political leader who moved in more rational directions would be risking his own life, at least politically. The proposals mentioned above tells us what an American president should do if a rational and humane political system was in place and organized in such ways as to allow the pursuit of national interests, the realization of values associated with peace and human rights, and to attain the benefits of just and sustainable Isreali/Palestinian peace arrangements.

 

As long as these dysfunctional special relationships are relied upon to define American national interests in the Middle East, violent extremism and turmoil will persist, the authority of the United Nations and international law will suffer, and the credibility of American regional and global leadership will further erode. And maybe worst of all, the mounting ecological and nuclear challenges of global scope and apocalyptical risk will be remain unattended in what has become the greatest display of species indifference to its own survival throughout human history.

 

Mainstream advice on the Middle East being proffered to the Trump presidency by Beltway sharpshooters takes for granted the geopolitical status quo questioned above. The problems presented by the two special relationships are not even mentioned. Given these perspectives there are three broad kinds of approaches recommended for the region: (1) don’t aim too high, lower expectations, and don’t touch raw nerves in Israel or the Arab world (e.g. moving the American embassy to Jerusalem or telling Israel to dismantle the separation wall, stop expanding settlements, or handle the ongoing hunger strike humanely)[See Aaron David Miller, “From My Twenty Years of Failing at Middle East Peace,” Foreign Policy online, May 19, 2017]; (2) gang up on Iran, which will please both Israel and Saudi Arabia, and will have some positive resonance back in the United States [e.g. Michael Doran, “A Trump Plan for the Middle East,” NY Times, May 19, 2017]; (3) adopt the Israeli hard right view, now pushed within the United States, that the best road to ‘peace’ is to give Israel a green light to exert even greater pressure on the Palestinians to the point of their surrender. [a position repeatedly advocated by Daniel Pipes on the online listserv Middle East Forum and elsewhere, see Pipes, “The Way to Peace: Israeli Victory and Palestinian Defeat,” Commentary, Jan. 2017; Pipes boasts of his work with the Congressional Israel Victory Caucus that wants the U.S. Government to stop talking about ‘the two state solution,’ and support an Israeli shift from managing the status quo to launching a campaign to defeat Palestinians so decisively as to end the conflict.]

 

The first of these approaches is a cautionary warning to Trump the maker of grand deals not to exceed the boundaries of the feasible. The Israel/Palestine conflict is not ripe for resolution, Israel has no incentive or inclination to reach a fair compromise and even if it were, the Palestinians are currently too fragmented and poorly led to provide a reliable negotiating partner. The second geopolitically oriented approach makes matters worse, pushing the sectarian and secular divides in the direction of a regional confrontation, even combat. The third is geopolitically triumphalist, assuming that the Palestinians can be induced to give up their century old struggle, and go the way of other indigenous lost causes that have succumbed to predatory settler movements.

 

As Trump dominates the news by his visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel we should not be tricked into thinking that his ‘achievements’ are hopeful developments. The only true beacons of hope for the peoples of the Middle East are the contrarian affirmations of the Palestinian hunger strike, the Rouhani electoral victory, and the BDS Campaign. The fact that such developments are ignored or condemned by the dominant political forces in the West should at least alert us to gathering storm clouds in that tormented region and elsewhere.