Tag Archives: Trump

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.          

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trump versus International Liberalism: Should We Care?

28 Apr

 

 

The pre-Trump establishment is anxiously discussing among themselves such questions as ‘is this the end game of liberalism’ and ‘how best to revive liberalism under present conditions?’ The contrary question I pose is the one assumed by the Washington/New York elites, that is, whether liberalism in its present and recent forms is worth saving. There is an embedded language problem. The mainstream arbiters of ‘political correctness’ here in the United States treat being liberal as a kind of leftist orientation associated with Democrats, being soft of crime, beholden to minorities, and friendly toward gay marriage and trans people, but such a designation is highly misleading when used to depict international policy positions. In these contexts, liberal is used synonymously with contemporary capitalism as currently ideologized as neoliberal globalization. True, ‘liberal’ in American political discourse is often used domestically to identify those who support civil liberties, a suspicion of state power, rights of suspected criminals, regulation of the police, the abolition of capital punishment, are suspicious of the military industrial complex, pro-UN and pro-human rights, and sometimes dislike military adventures abroad, but far from always. These ‘liberal’ positions tends to be situated left of center. These kinds of liberals overlap to a considerable degree with those on the right who champion market forces as protected by the American global state as the foundation of world order, and laud the achievements and benefits of international liberalism. That is, many Republican conservatives have long been collaborated international liberals, while decrying the social damage that they attribute to domestic liberalism.

 

Almost twenty years ago I published a small book, Predatory Globalization: A Critique (Polity, 1999), and although it needs updating, its central argument about the failings of international liberalism continue to seem relevant, perhaps, more so than when published. In the interim, these failings have given rise to an angry backlash that currently imperils the post-Cold War rule-based liberal international order, more popularly known as ‘the Washington consensus.’ The defining feature of this approach is its economistic view of the world, which contrasts with the outlook associated with old-fashioned European-schooled realists such as Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger, and such American-oriented counterparts as George Kennan, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Samuel Huntington who interpret the world through a predominantly geopolitical optic.

 

Perhaps, John Ikenberry is the most articulate, informed, and humane exponent of international liberalism, initially emergent after 1945 at the end of World War II, and then revamped significantly, in the Reagan/Thatcher years in the 1980s in ways that accentuated the autonomy of transnational capital flows in the 1990s in the triumphalist period after the end of the Cold War. [For a full presentation of Ikenberry’s views see his Liberal Leviathan (2011)] In two recent issues of Foreign Affairs several articles set forth the normative case for liberalism, insisting that compared to all past “imperial and anarchic systems..the liberal order stands alone.” [G. John Ikenberry, “The Plot Against American Foreign Policy: Can the Liberal Order Survive?” Foreign Affairs 96:2-9 (2017). Ikenberry goes on to explain his affirmation: “..in terms of wealth creation, the provision of physical security and economic stability, and the promotion of human rights and political protections, no other order in history comes close.” In other words, so far as human experience is concerned, the world has never had as good as under liberalism. Gideon Rose, editor of this prestigious and influential organ of the American liberal establishment, echoes this mood of liberalism under imminent siege due to Trumpism, by observing that “if the new administration tries to put [its anti-liberal] vision into practice, it will call into question the crucial role of the United States as the defender of the liberal international order as a whole, not just the country’s own national interests.” [Foreign Affairs 96:1 (2017)] One doesn’t need to be a cryptographer to read such an admonition as celebrating the marriage of capitalism and militarism under the banner of the liberal internatonal order, which could be more transparently labeled as the American ‘global domination project.’ Rose is hopeful that once Trump starts governing he will see the light, and avoid a damaging retreat from its global leadership role. Some commentators regard Trump’s retreat from his most confrontational campaign positions on trade and economic nationalism as already vindicating this expectation.

 

For Ikenberry also, the demonic forces threatening the downfall of this best of all possible worlds are associated with the worldview of Donald Trump as he articulated it throughout his presidential campaign and in inaugural address, further reinforced by his extremist cabinet appointments and the issuance of several early policy directives emanating from the White House. In sum, Ikenberry regards early Trumpism as “a frontal attack on the core convictions of the postwar U.S. global project,” although after 100 days seems to be moving toward an embrace of the national security consensus, although it is too soon to tell which way the tree will fall.

 

Ikenberry explains what he means by setting forth the beneficial elements of the liberal economic order that he believes threatened by Trump’s feared nationalist approach. First, comes ‘internationalism,’ the commitment to a robust international engagement based on “rules, institutions, partners, and relationships,” and concretized in the form of security alliances. Trump clearly draws this bedrock approach into question by his ‘America First’ rhetoric and his apparent demand that close allies begin to pay their fair share or even act to uphold their security by developing their own needed military capabilities, even possibly nuclear weapons, without hovering any longer under America’s nuclear umbrella. Again, the evidence of whether Trump really intends to follow through on such departures from American foreign policy orthodoxy is difficult to assess at this point.

 

A second feature of international liberalism is the dependence upon a closely related open international trading and investment framework, including mechanisms for involving disputes with foreign governments arising over contested economic policies. Trump is criticized by liberals for adopting a transactional approach to trade and investment issues, an approach that looks for favorable deals rather than for the establishment of mutual beneficial cooperative frameworks, and capriciously risks the revival of protectionist regimes, imposing high tariffs, border taxes, and other burdens on imports that would invite retaliation by adversely affected trading partners.

 

The third pillar of Ikenberry’s version of liberalism is the network of institutions and rules that allegedly lent stability to a market-based world economy. It remains anchored in the so-called Bretton Woods institutions established after World War II, as well as the World Trade Organization and the UN. For Ikenberry this was a system that bound states together in mutually beneficial webs of interdependence and cooperation designed to deal effectively with both routine and crisis situations as these arose in the world economy. Ikenberry regards Trump’s stress on nationalist priorities as a serious threat to multilateralism in general, and thus as undermining America’s credibility as global leader.

 

The fourth pillar of the liberal edifice endangered by Trump is the challenge directed as America’s traditional support for receptivity to immigrants and societal openness. The crusade against illegal immigrants, constructing a massive wall on the Mexican border, and a general espousal of nationalist priorities adds up to an embrace of exclusionary nationalism, which again weakens the legitimacy of American global leadership, giving a nationalist edge to hostile populist backlashes against globalization already evident around the world.

 

Fifth and finally, Trump is derided by international liberals because he is seen as abandoning the bonding of likeminded liberal democracies as the basis for an extra-national ‘security community.’ Ikenberry notes with derision that Trump “trusts Merkel and Putin equally,” which implicitly repudiates the relationship between domestic liberalism and international cooperation. It is contended that such a leveling of relationship tempts America’s former closest friends to hedge their bets by forging more diverse alignments that could be better trusted to uphold their security and contribute to their prosperity under conditions of diplomatic uncertainty.

 

In the end Ikenberry is convinced that Trump, unless restrained (or self-restrained), will damage the liberal approach to world order, but Trump is not able to destroy the liberal edifice all by himself. Ikenberry hopes that other forces at home and abroad will create sufficient resistance to lead Trump to revise his policy agenda in ways compatible with the liberal agenda. He ends his article with these words: “If the liberal democratic world is to survive, its champions will have to find their voice and act with more conviction.” Such an expectation is rather opaque with respect to specifics as we do not know exactly who are these ‘champions’ or what they might do unless Ikenberry is hoping for the mobilization and intervention of the ‘deep state.’ If this is the case he should be mildly reassured by recent developments, the firing of 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airfield and the bellicose diplomatic response to North Korea’s nuclear program.

 

Joseph Nye, the doyen of celebrants of the benign effects of US global leadership also exhibits similar concerns about the Trump threat to the postwar global liberal order that Ikenberry seeks to sustain. [See Nye, “Will the Liberal Order Survive?” Foreign Affairs 96:10-16 (2017)] For Nye “[t]he liberal international order that emerged after 1945 was a loose array of multilateral institutions in which the United States provided global public goods such as freer trade and freedom of the seas and weaker states were given access to the exercise of American power.”[11] This strikes me as a peculiarly elliptical formulation, which presupposes that it is beneficial for weaker states to be given “access’’ to American power, whatever that access might mean as a practical matter! And we know what it meant for countries whose governments were perceived as moving left such as Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Chile (1973), and Vietnam (1963-1975). Nye does acknowledge that in the past there were “bitter debates and partisan differences over military interventions” but concludes by affirming “the demonstrable success of the order in helping to secure and stabilize the world over the past seven decades has led to a strong consensus that defending, deepening, and extending this system has been and continues to be the central task of U.S. foreign policy.”[12] There is revealingly no reference to the various failed American interventions in Muslim majority states or the rise of Islamophobia in the West. Nye considers the threat to international liberalism posed by the rise of China, the general diffusion of power internationally, and the rise of non-state transnational forces, yet he exhibits confidence that the liberal order can effectively cope with these challenges. What worries Nye most are not these challenges from without, but the challenge from within.

 

In this regard, Nye like Ikenberry, and the American national security establishment worry most about the rise of an illiberal populism within the United States that is hostile to economic globalization and its frameworks of multilateral rules and institution. Without mentioning Trump by name, Nye believes that polarization at home will diminish the effectiveness of a liberal order that he believes depends upon a continuation of a central American role in global policymaking and security arenas with respect to both hard and soft power. Nye believes that this role is imperiled by “[p]olitical fragmentation and demagoguery,” which undermine the ability of the U.S. “to provide responsible political leadership.”[16] Nye ends his essay on a forlorn note, suggesting that “Americans and others may not notice the security and prosperity that the liberal order provides until they are gone—but by then it may be too late.”[16] In effect, Nye is of the opinion that a danger is the tendency for Americans to take the benefits of liberalism for granted, and thus be complacent about its protection.

 

A more European perspective, more nuanced and less U.S.-centric, is provided by Robin Niblett, Director of Chatham House (the British counterpart to the Council on Foreign Relations) [Niblett, “Liberalism in Retreat: The Demise of a Dream,” Foreign Affairs 96:17-24(2017). Although agreeing with Nye that the main threat is internal as well as sharing the view of both Ikenberry and Nye that populism is challenging the liberal order, Niblett points out that the limitations of American-led global leadership preceded Trump. Niblett believes that the effort to spread the values and institutions of liberalism in the post-colonial world were not generally successful, failing most spectacularly in the Middle East, exemplified by the tragic fate of Syria. Niblett also stresses the innovative contributions to liberalism by way of the pooled sovereignty that characterized the European Union, which he believed to be the cutting edge of “a new liberalism” exhibiting many capabilities that exceeded those of states acting on their own, but he regards this promising past to be in deep trouble in the post-Brexit era. In this regard, Niblett is implicitly critical of those American intellectuals who think that liberalism is essentially an American contribution to world order, and do not properly acknowledge the co-equal European role.

 

Niblett is not optimistic about restoring the kind of liberalism that Ikenberry and Nye believe produced a long period of relative security and rapid economic growth and stability. Instead he sees things falling apart: “..over the past decade, buffeted by financial crises, populist insurgencies, and the resurgence of authoritarian powers, the liberal international order has stumbled.”[18] He attributes this downward spiral to “deep unease with globalization,” which is not likely to be soon reversed, and certainly not merely by reining in Trump. In Niblett’s view the liberal order has been decisively weakened in the West and can no longer serve as the basis of a coherent world order. Despite Niblett’s sensitivity to the weakness of liberalism his hopes for the future rest on the willingness to work out a kind of pragmatic coexistence between liberal and illiberal states reinforced by a continued realization that “a liberal international economic order” is indispensable for the maintenance of the “prosperity and internal security of both types of states.”[24] Note that this kind of diversely constituted community of states challenges the Ikenberry/Nye emphasis on domestic constitutionalism as an essential element of the international liberal approach to world order. In effect, Niblett detaches domestic public order considerations from the viability of international liberalism.

 

Despite this, Niblett sees the future as shaped by a new phase of ideological competition for hearts and minds, this time between liberalism and authoritarianism (fueled by right-wing populism and ultra-nationalism) as alternative internal public order systems. He concludes by observing “[i]f history is any guide, liberal democracy is the best bet.”[24]

 

I can only wonder whether history is a trustworthy guide in the twenty-first century, given the radical and unprecedented challenges confronting a state-centric system with very little capacity to generate global public goods, or to promote global interests as distinct from aggregating national interests. It is questionable whether the affirmation of the past American role as global leader during a period when the liberal consensus prevailed internally, at least in the West, can withstand critical scrutiny, given the degrees of inequality, persisting poverty, refusals to work toward nuclear disarmament, marginalization of the UN and international law with respect to war/peace issues, and patterns of militarism and interventionary diplomacy. What seems beyond serious question is that the collapse of this internal liberal consensus here in the United States, which long preceded Trump’s shattering of any illusions about the continuity of American foreign policy, makes impossible any reasonable expectation of responsible U.S. leadership in the near future. Although Obama was a dedicated domestic and international liberal, efforts to promote his policy agenda were increasingly stymied by a right-leaning Republican Congress, and when it came to counter-terrorism, his approach did not depart very significantly from the preferences of his illiberal critics. Whether it is any longer even accurate to locate the United States on the liberal side of the geopolitical balance sheet is an open question.

 

Other liberal heavyweights were also participants in this debate about the future of world order, which centered on offering prescriptive suggestions to offset the advent of Trump. For instance, Richard Haass, President of the Council of Foreign Relations, the publisher of Foreign Affairs, has his own way of trying to adapt to the challenges of the present. [Haass, “World Order 2.0: The Case for Soverign Obligation,” Foreign Affairs 96:2-9] He accurately avoids putting all the blame on Trump, and considers the problem of change in the global policy agenda to be at the root of the challenge to international liberalism, and seems to suggest that a response requires recasting the Westphalian state in rather fundamental ways. He rests his hopes for the future on states accepting a new identity that gives central importance to what he calls ‘sovereign obligation,’ the responsibility that each state should accept to gear its policies toward the provision of global public goods, a move so fundamental as to give rise to ‘World Order 2.0.’ We are never told how at a time of resurgent and inward looking nationalism almost everywhere, the political energy will come for such a deep change in the approach of governments to the balancing of national interests against the wider claims of global wellbeing. Underneath this call by Haass for reform is an affirmation similar to that of Ikenberry, regarding globalization, benign U.S. leadership, and mutually beneficial international cooperation as indispensable.

 

What is most missing from this debate, aside from self-scrutiny, is the failure to appreciate that Trump and the populist surge, are trivial distractions from addressing the more fundamental challenges to the very survival of the human species. There seemed absent from the Foreign Affairs symposium any awareness that nuclear weaponry and climate change are generating a biopolitical moment that is testing whether the human species has a sufficient collective will to survive to surmount the current array of global challenges. Whether we realize it or not, we may be living in end-times, meaning that the christening of this age as ‘the anthropocene’ is nothing more than an indirect acknowledgement of human responsibility for the ascendance of negativity.

 

Liberalism is an intergovernmental structure maintained and enforced by geopolitical actors, chiefly the United States. What is required to address the challenges of the biopolitical moment are globally constituted problem-solving mechanisms. Such mechanisms can alone provide enough support to achieve global public goods under current conditions, but are prevented from coming into being by the interacting resistance of global market forces and state-centrism. Only civil society militancy on an unprecedented scale can create a mandate for the kind of global transformation in ideas and structures are necessary to enable a sustainable future resting on the values of eco-humanism. If this analysis is correct, Trumpism and liberalism are nothing but sideshows.

The U.S. Attack on al-Shayrat Airfield

8 Apr

 

 

In early morning darkness on April 7th the United States fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Syrian al-Shayrat Airfield from two American destroyers stationed in the Eastern Mediterranean. It described the targets as Syrian fighter jets, radar, fuel facilities used for the aircraft. It asserted prior notification of Russian authorities, and offered the assurance that precautions were taken to avoid risks to Russian or Syrian military personnel. Pentagon spokespersons suggested that in addition to doing damage to the airfield, the attack had the intended effect of “reducing the Syrian government’s ability to deliver chemical weapons.”

 

President Donald Trump in a short public statement justified the attack as a proportionate response to the Syrian use of chemical weapons against the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the western Syrian province of Idlib a few days earlier, which killed an estimated 80 persons, wounding hundreds more. Although there were denials of Syrian responsibility for the attack from Damascus and Moscow, a strong international consensus supported the U.S. view that Bashar al-Assad had ordered the attack allegedly as a means of convincing opposition forces concentrated in Idlib that it was time to surrender.

 

In the background, is the conviction among the more militaristic policy advisors and political figures, including Trump, that President Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his 2012 ‘red line’ warning to Syria emboldened Assad to launch this latest attack with chemical weapons. Of course, this is all hawkish speculation that can be neither proven nor disproven, but it undoubtedly influenced the Trump entourage to suppose that it was presented with an opportunity to exhibit a greater readiness to use American military force in the Syrian conflict, incidentally, an outlook long advocated by Hillary Clinton and many of her advisors and foreign policy supporters. To do so, abandoned one of Trump’s signature pledges, to avoid military engagement in the conflicts raging throughout the Middle East, which he portrayed as a costly failure of prior American political leaders. Trump under pressure due to the growing evidence of ties with Russian political leaders during the 2016 presidential campaign may have welcomed an occasion on which to demonstrate his independence from Moscow and Putin. The departure from the Trump campaign agenda is particularly pointed as there were no American casualties resulting from the attack on Khan Sheikhoun 60 hours earlier than the Tomahawk response.

 

In Trump’s brief public rationale, the red line argument was not relied upon, but rather the combination of humanitarian outrage and grief with an assertion of the “national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” This geopolitical purpose was reinforced by a cursory appeal to international law and even the UN Security Council: “There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council.” Yet identifying Syria’s evident violation of international law should not be confused with an international law justification for the use of retaliatory force. In using this language Trump was evidently seeking to weaken the impression of an irresponsible unilateral American recourse to non-defensive force without bothering to seek an endorsement from the U.S. Congress or the UN. Not surprisingly Moscow and Damascus both condemned the attack as an act of ‘aggression’ and ‘a flagrant violation of international law.’

 

Trump used some additional words designed to draw attention away from the unilateral nature of the attack by contending that it fulfilled the common goals of “civilized nations” to deter Assad and defeat terrorism, thereby linking the American initiative to what he called ‘justice’ rather than basing legitimacy exclusively on an appeal to ‘law’ or ‘order.’ Trump expressed this sentiment as follows: “And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, that peace and harmony will in the end prevail.” This is very different in tone, substance, and policy from Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which stridently stressed ‘America first,’ clarified as a call to act with reinvigorated resolve to devote military capabilities exclusively to promoting U.S. material national interests, and to stop wasting resources and energy by trying to address the larger concerns of the world, especially in the Middle East. This abrupt affinity with an internationalist spirit is made explicit in Trump’s final words—“Good night, and God bless America and the entire world.” As far as I know, this ritualistic invocation of God so much associated with George W. Bush and mimicked by Barack Obama never was extended to include “the entire world,” which is such an unfamiliar wording as to suggest that it was deliberately inserted to stake a quite unexpected and renewed claim to American moral leadership in world affairs. As with the attack itself, it seems likely to be a one/off embrace of cosmopolitan sentiments, but it is still worth noting. After all, language matters.

 

As has been suggested, bombing a Syrian airfield is unlikely to help Syrian children exposed to the terrible ravages of this war, that is, unless it does create a new momentum for a sustainable ceasefire. Already, the Russian reaction signals a worsening of relations with the United States in Syria and generally, and may end up producing the kind of confrontation that had led Republicans in the national security establishment to abandon Trump during the presidential campaign a year ago. With the removal of Bannon from the National Security Council it may not be premature to suggest that the deep state has found ways to reestablish its influence on national security policy after all seemed lost due to Trump’s electoral victory and vindictive attitude toward ‘the intelligence community.’ It is far too early to say that bureaucratic wars are over, but there is at the very least clear movement evident toward the restoration of the pre-Trump established order in Washington.

 

The Khan Sheikhoun attack raises more fundamental questions that are neither raised nor resolved by Trump’s speech. Despite making a gesture in the direction of international law by reference to the Chemical Weapons Convention and Security Council directives, the strike against al-Shayrat Airfield was a non-defensive use of force by the United States that violates the core UN Charter prohibition unless carried out on the basis of an explicit Security Council authorization. It is precisely the sort of unilateralism that the Charter, and post-1945 international law, made unlawful. In this context there was no urgency or necessity to strike immediately that might have made the departure from Charter norms seem more reasonable. Of course, Security Council authorization would not have been forthcoming, given the near certainty that Russia would use its veto. In that sense, assuming the attribution of responsibility for the chemical weapons attack to the Assad regime holds up, which is by no means assured, there is a dilemma presented when the moral and political case for action is strong, but lacks an ample justification in international law.

 

Of course, international law has for more three decades given way to the dictates of counterterrorism policies, which have featured retaliatory strikes ordered by American presidents without international authorization. Has this pattern of essentially unchallenged practice by the U.S. Government done away with the legal constraints of the UN Charter? Some jurists suggest that state practice of this character creates new expectations about the scope of legality of international uses of force by states in addressing security threats posed by non-state actors or by internal threats of state/society atrocities as here and in the Kosovo War of 1999. In a decentralized world, lacking governmental authority at regional and global levels, it seems regressive to endorse this return to a state of affairs where warfare is discretionary, and international law and respect for the authority of the United Nations are reduced to considerations of convenience and self-interest, and thus, as here, when inconvenient, a powerful state can use force with unconditional impunity in pursuit of its foreign policy goals.

 

There are also accompanying prudential questions about recourse to a military response in this instance where the intended target is the internationally recognized government of a sovereign state that is engaged in a protracted civil war. Is this a further challenge to state-centric world order? Will the attack magnify the conflict still further rather than deter Assad and make a political compromise more likely? Will the antagonism of Russia and Iran make it more difficult to bring the conflict to an end by reliance on diplomacy? There is no way to answer such questions beyond the observation that where, as here, international law opposes recourse to force, the risks of further escalation are considerable, and the rise of geopolitical tensions inevitable, the presumption should be strongly against a military response.

 

Then there are domestic questions about whether it is okay for an American president to resort to an international use of force without some sort of Congressional debate and authorization (short of a Declaration of War). Again Trump has plenty of precedents for acting without a specific Congressional authorization from the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Executive warmaking authority was definitely increased after the 9/11 attacks, and given a limited, although broad, legislative imprimatur in the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) statute of 2001. AUMF is limited to those forces responsible for the 9/11 attacks and ‘associated forces,’ which the Obama presidency interpreted to extend to Al Qaeda wherever located, and without any time horizon. It seems beyond doubt that constitutionalism in the war/peace context has been severely weakened over the course of the last 70 years, and this latest episode just continues the trend. It would seem that where there is no necessity to act instantly and where there is no formal UN authorization, the underlying republican commitment to checks and balances to avoid abuses of power, should have led Trump to seek authorization from Congress, and in light of his failure to do so, a critical reaction from Congress.

 

There are two clusters of serious questions raised. Is this a new turn toward belligerent internationalism by the Trump presidency that will shape the near future of American foreign policy in the Middle East, and possibly elsewhere? Does the reversion to unilateralism with respect to international uses of force heighten the risks of geopolitical escalation and large-scale warfare, including possibly the threat or use of nuclear weapons?