Tag Archives: United Nations

Trump’s Idea of World Order Endangers the Human Future

12 Oct

[Prefatory Note: This post is an interview with Daniel Falcone that was published in slightly modified form in Counterpunch on October 4, 2018]

 

Trump’s Idea of World Order Endangers the Human Future

 Q 1. What are your general thoughts on Trump’s recent UN talk and how world opinion received it?

 

A: The Trump speech at the UN this year was a virtual mirror image of Trump’s overall political profile, slightly embellished by some idealistic sentiments of an abstract and vague character, and if the content is analyzed, revealing glaring tensions between the banal abstractions and the concrete lines of policy being advocated by the American president. However, if Trump’s remarks are compared with his first speech to the General Assembly a year earlier, except for the warmongering toward Iran, it was less belligerent, and a bit more ingratiating to other members and to the UN as an organization, yet essentially unchanged so far as its essential features affirming nationalist policy, values, and prescriptions are concerned. It was a speech that not only subscribed to the premises of a state-centric world order, but celebrated sovereignty as the best and only reliable foundation for security on a global level.

 

A central theme articulated by Trump throughout the speech and strongly stressed at the beginning and end was the primacy of a sovereignty-centered world order based on territorial nation-states. This amounts to a strong affirmation of Westphalian ideas of world order as these have evolved in Europe since the middle of the 17thcentury. The essential tone of the speech was awkwardly encapsulated in this pithy statement: “We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the doctrine of patriotism.” Throughout the speech this notion of patriotism was kept obscure unless thought of as an emotional attachment to sovereign rights that reinforced its rational claim to loyalty of individuals.

 

It is far from clear what is meant by ‘the ideology of globalism,’ although it can be inferred from other formulations in the text, and elsewhere, that for Trump it means rejecting any policy prescription that puts the wellbeing of the region or world ahead of the interests of individual sovereign states. Trump leaves no doubt about this: “Sovereign and independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom has ever survived, democracy has ever endured, or peace has ever prospered. And so we must protect our sovereignty and our cherished independence above all.” Quite a lot of history is overlooked in this sweeping generalization, although its descriptive weight may depend on how ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are understood. At least with regard to ‘peace’ empires have done better for longer time intervals than have sovereign states.

 

The emotive embodiment of such a state-centric worldview is conveyed by Trump’s stress, unusual in statements by leaders at the UN, on ‘the doctrine of partriotism.’ Again, the meaning is clear even if the words chosen are rather odd, even out of place. There is no doctrine of patriotism in either the annals of diplomacy or in scholarly writing lying about waiting to be explained. A claim of patriotism is normally associated with expressions of overriding, sometime blind, loyalty to a particular national political community, especially in relation to war and ideology. Patriotism is also invoked to justify the sacrifices made by citizens, even unto life itself, and to explain the bestowal of unconditional support to one’s own country in situations of international conflict or ideological conflict. In the Cold War period it was a common slogan among anti-Communist self-proclaimed patriots to shout at ideological critics of capitalism or national policy: “America, love it or leave it.”

 

Against such a background, Trump’s next moves in his address to this UN audience is exactly what we have come to expect from him. First, he puts America forward as a model nation that demonstrates to the world what achievements can be had with respect to constitutional stability and prosperity, giving other states a blueprint to mimic if they seek the best possible future for their respective societies. And secondly, insisting that America will respect the sovereignty of others and cooperate for mutual benefits, but only on the basis of reciprocity and as measured by what the U.S. government deems as fair, which Trump insisted would require several drastic course corrections within and without the UN. Trump in his now familiar framing contends that the U.S. has in the past borne a disproportionate share of financial burdens at the UN, and elsewhere in its international relationship, but vows that this pattern will not be allowed to continue in the future. Whether in trade relations or foreign economic assistance, the United States will demand not only good balance sheet results as assessed by a transactional logic, but shows of political support in international venues from those governments that are beneficiaries of American largesse.

 

Where Trump tramples on normal diplomatic decorum, so much so that his comments provoke derisive laughter from the assembled delegates, occurs when he boasts so grossly about the accomplishments of his presidency. “In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any other administration in the history of our country.” To give more tangible grounds for this extraordinary moment of self-congratulation with representatives of the governments of the entire world sitting in front of him, Trump claims “America’s economy is booming as never before.” To substantiate such a boast Trump points to the record highs of the stock market and historic lows for unemployment, especially for minorities. He also points to counterterrorism successes in Syria and Afghanistan, and to border security in relation to illegal migration.

Maybe most distressing in the context of telling this global audience about how well the United States is doing under his leadership is Trump’s unabashed embrace of militarism as if it is a sign of the virtuous character of the United States. He speaks with pride, rather than shame, of record spending of $700 billion for the military budget, to be increased in the following year to $716 billion. Such expenditures are announced with no felt need for a security justification beyond the bald assertion “[o]ur military will soon be more powerful than it has ever been.” There is no explanation given for why such gigantic sums are needed or how they will be used.

 

Trump gives here an unintended hint of a globalist element. He resorts to the familiar trope that “[w]e are standing up for America and for the American people. And we are also standing up for the world.” In other words, American militarism is a win/win proposition for all nations, provided, of course, that they are not identified as enemies to be sanctioned and destabilized from within and without.

 

The UN was affirmed by Trump so long as it operated according to this template based on the interaction of sovereign states that were dedicated above all to maximizing the benefits of international cooperation for their own national societies. Two caveats along the way qualified this endorsement of sovereign rights. First, respect for the sovereign rights of others does not apply to ideological and geopolitical adversaries of the United States and its allies. Hence, sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela, regimes which were singled out to express Trump’s view that socialism inevitably produces misery are justified as such states deserve no respect for their sovereignty. This ideological provincialism, which hearkens back to the worst of hawkish ideologues during the Cold War Era, is coupled with the vitriolic repudiation of the sovereign rights of Iran, which is blamed for exporting terrorism throughout the Middle East and ruling its own people with an iron fist. What follows is not a statement of grudging respect for the sovereignty of such miscreant states, but escalating sanctions, and harsh threats of confrontation and destabilization.

 

Secondly, Trump claims, with reference to the UN, that the U.S. has in the past borne an unfair share of UN expenses, and as with trade and other international arrangements, argues that this must stop. In the Trump future cooperation will only be possible if this situation is corrected, while at the same time making sure that the Organization behaves in ways that correspond with the wishes of its largest financial contributor. Trump singled out the UN Human Rights Council [HRC] and the International Criminal Court [ICC] for fierce condemnation, alleging that such institutions fall far below his criteria of acceptable behavior. Trump refers to the embarrassment associated with the fact that the elected membership of the HRC includes governments with terrible human rights records, one of his few observations that has merit. For the ICC no words of rejection are strong enough for Trump, but he chooses the following language to make his point: “As far as America is concerned, the ICC has no jurisdiction, no legitimacy, and no authority.. We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureau.” Such sentiments amount to the death knell of all prospects for a global rule of law if American geopolitical leverage is sufficiently strong.

 

I was also struck by what Trump left unsaid in his speech. There was no reference to his supposed ‘deal of the century’ with its pledge to deliver an enduring peace to Israel and Palestine. I can only wonder whether the evident content of the approach being long prepared by the White House seems so politically unacceptable that it has either been shelved or is in the process of being repackaged. Although it is probably foolish to speculate, the Kushner/Greenblatt/Friedman plan according to what is known, involved an unpalatable mixture of ‘economic peace’ incentives for the Palestinians with some sort of arrangement to transfer Gaza to the governmental authority of Jordan and Egypt. In effect, this strikes me as a pseudo-diplomatic version of the ‘Victory Caucus’ promoted so vigorously by Daniel Pipes and the Middle East Forum, but for the sake of appearances made by the Kushner group to seem as if a new peace process. For Pipes, the road to peace is based on the prior renunciation of Palestinian political aspirations coupled with the acknowledgement both that Israel is the state of the Jewish people and that international diplomacy had been tried within the Oslo framework for more than 20 years, and failed.

 

The Trump approach appears to want a similar outcome to that put forward by Pipes, but seeks to reach such a diplomatic finishing line by creating in advance a set of political conditions favorable to Israel and offering a different set of inducements to the Palestinians if they will kneel down politically. This approach had been signaled by adopting the Israeli line on Jerusalem, settlements, refugees, UNRWA, and Gaza, yet in UN venues Trump uses uncharacteristically cautious language, expressing only the faintest hope that some kind of solution will mysteriously issue forth: “The United States is committed to a future of peace and stability in the region, including peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. That aim is advanced, not harmed, by acknowledging the obvious facts.” Among the most ‘obvious facts’ is the provocative announcement of the intention to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem last December.

 

Perhaps, the most notable change from Trump’s remarks of the prior year is his praise of Kim Jung-un for taking denuclearizing steps. The prior year Kim was insultingly called ‘the rocket man’ and his government demeaned as a ‘depraved regime.’ This year Trump seemed to be suggesting, and even thanking neighboring countries for their support, that there exists, thanks of course to Washinton’s bold diplomacy, the best chance ever that a peaceful transition will occur, leading to a unified Korea devoid of any threat of a war on the peninsula fought with nuclear weaponry. 

 

Not surprisingly, also, there was not a word mentioned in Trump’s lengthy speech about climate change, or the need for enhanced lawmaking treaties to solve global challenges. Trump’s implicit message is that the UN should not try to do more than provide meeting places for geopolitical leaders to address the peoples of the world while enjoying what the great city of New York has to offer by way of restaurants and culture. In this view the real role of the UN is to give geopolitical actors a convenient venue to pursue their foreign policy ambitions, but to step aside when it comes to prescriptions for behavior in accord with international law, or even its own Charter.

 

To give an inevitable Orwellian spin to a speech that at several points lauds democratic forms of governance as the only legitimate way to structure state/society relations, Trump singles out four countries with notably autocratic leaders for positive recognition near the close of his remarks: India, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Poland in that order. If we ask ‘what do these otherwise dissimilar states have in common’? The answer is certainly not democracy, as none are ‘democatic’ in any satisfactory sense. Periodic elections are not enough. The obvious answer to the question is ‘having autocratic leadership.’ Perhaps an even more instructive answer is ‘they all have favorable relations with Trump’s America.’ This is certainly not due to their democratic credentials. Indians refer to Modi as ‘our Trump,’ Saudi Arabia is as repressive and atrocity-prone as any state on earth, Israel maintains an apartheid state to keep Palestinians under oppressive control while it establishes an exclusivist Jewish state in what was not so long ago a non-Jewish society, and Poland is harsh toward refugees and generally repressive toward dissent.

 

Apart from Netanyahu and other authoritarian leaders, there was little in Trump’s speech that would appeal to foreign leaders, other than perhaps his show of selective respect for the sovereign rights of other states, which was incidentally the only applause line of the entire speech. It was essentially a speech telling the world that it had taken Trump only two years to make America great again. And if other states seek greatness, their leaders should follow along by relying on the Trump’s simple formula: abandon globalism, choose patriotism. Such an empty, anachronistic message was properly unheeded by those who quietly stayed in their seats throughout the speech except for the delegates from countries where Trumpism already controlled the government.

 

Q 2. Can you talk about how Trump manages to be such an effective politician at his rallies yet fails to parlay this to successful UN addresses?

 

A: At his rallies, Trump performs as a fiery demagogue to the delight of his populist base drawn from right-wing America. His audience consists mainly of white working class supporters who have reason to feel enraged and victimized by the regressive internationalism of the American political establishment, whether Democratic or Republican. Despite his wealth Trump successfully projects an anti-establishment posture that has even managed to captured the Republican internationalist mainstream, partly by promoting economic nationalism, and has effectively neutralized the neoliberal internationalism of Wall Street by claiming credit for the stock market rise while tearing down the pillars of the liberal global order so carefully constructed by bankers and corporate giants ever since 1945.

 

This demagogic appeal is furthered bolstered by promising a robust sovereignty-oriented nationalism in which the rights and interests of Americans will be given the highest priorities, illegals deported, Muslims kept out, and dog whistles of approval given to white supremism. Trump promises that these policies will be embodied in economic arrangements that are capable of keeping jobs in America, employment low, and encouraging capital investment to stay at home to reap tax benefits and windfall profits to entrepreneurs by way of environmental deregulation and the weakening of social protection for the poor and homeless.

 

Such an abandonment of internationalism in rhetoric and policy is rather displeasing to most other countries, including the Atlantic coalition that had been the mainstay of American foreign policy until Trump came along. The Trump engagement with the world is backed up by blunt forms of  militarism, and pledges to back up its threats with missiles if resistance is met, and ultimately playing the role of geopolitical bully at the UN and elsewhere. This is a departure from the avowals of American leaders since World War II to provide enlightened global leadership that is beneficial to the whole world, which can fairly be described as a brand of globalism with the military instrument present but used sparingly, although still excessively. 

Q 3. Trump might feed his base by disrespecting the international community but at some point this is not sustainable correct?

 

So far Trump has not paid a high price for ignoring global challenges such as climate change, nuclearism, famine, global migration, refugee flows, and global inequalities, but days of reckoning will come, and when they do the costs of his version of militant nationalism will be extremely high, and likely unmanageable without bringing chaos and catastrophe. In this basic sense, the reaffirmation of nationalism as the only acceptable political model for this century is a way of fiddling madly while the planet bursts into devastating flames. Trump’s repudiation of the Paris Climate Change Agreement and Iran Nuclear Program Agreement, as well as his denunciation of the International Criminal Court and the Human Rights Council are normative retreats from the fledgling efforts to construct a world community based on the rule of law and respect for human dignity.

Q 4. Trump continues to shock and frighten the world regarding Cuba and Iran with antiquated threats of sanctions and continued hostility.     Furthermore, Trump has no method to the madness re: China and Canada in terms of trade. Can you discuss theses matters respectively and how we we’ve become a laughing stock on a world stage?

 

Instead of being a laughing stock, it is more realistic to view Trump’s America as bringing tears to the eyes of those who care about present human suffering and future prospects for peace, human rights, global justice, economic stability and equity, and ecological sustainability. What we need is an equitable globalismthat is dedicated to safeguarding and promotinghuman interests. What we don’t need is a militarized patriotism that builds walls of exclusion and criminalizes socialist governments while turning a blind eye to bloody autocrats and coal emissions, which seems to be the rough guidelines shaping Trump’s language, and most of his policies. It is not a good time for those who seek the present and future wellbeing of the human species and co-evolutionary relations with the surrounding natural environment. In contrast, citizen pilgrims seeking a world community, are dedicated to a peaceful transitions to an ecologically sensitive and equitable planetary civilization that incorporates empathy as a core value. 

 

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Palestine, Israel, and the UN: A PassBlue Interview

4 Aug

Palestine, Israel, and the UN: A PassBlue Interview

 

 

[Prefatory Note: I am posting an interview with Dulcie Leimbach, the wonderfully

probing editor of PassBlue, an online new service covering the United Nations. PassBlue is sxc r.la nonprofit digitial journalism website covering the United Nations. Check it out: http://www.passblue.com/2018/07/24/richard-falk-on-palestine-israel-and-the-un-in-the-trump-age/

 

The interview was initially published on July 17, 2018, and Dulcie managed to get me to talk more about my personal background than I intended, but here it is for those with curious eyes, although most of the private disclosures were not in the published text. Part of the motivation for the interview stems, I suppose, from the bewilderment of how a Jewish boy from Manhattan’s West Side should become so committed to the Palestinian national struggle. I could evade the issue by insisting that before the Palestinians I was an ardent advocate of the Vietnamese people, the anti-apartheid campaign targeting South Africa, and on behalf of other peoples struggling against heavy odds to achieve their rights, including native Americans and indigenous Hawaiians. I would like to think of my commitments as flowing from a global humanist perspective rather than offering hostile critics an example of an inverted ethnic attachment that marked me at birth, but only seems relevant by referencing the still prevalent markers of a tribalized world order. As a self-proclaimed citizen pilgrim I have sought for myself the markers of an ecologically sensitive and morally attuned citizen pilgrim, and invite others to join this invisible, yet deliberately subversive and potentially transformative, world political movement.]

 

 

 

 

Dulcie Leimbach’s introductory note: Richard Falk is an American academic and writer who from 2008 until 2014 was the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Palestine since 1967, a post that nearly always invites controversy. For Falk, however, the work compelled him to declare, among other things, that Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza in 2008 amounted to “war crimes.” He has been banned from Israel since then.

 

His appointment in 2008 by consensus in the Human Rights Council was criticized at the time by John Bolton, United States Ambassador to the United Nationsfrom 2005-2006, who said,”This is exactly why we voted against the new human rights council,” and that “He was picked for a reason, and the reason is not to have an objective assessment — the objective is to find more ammunition to go after Israel.”

 

Falk, who is 87, was born in New York City and raised in midtown Manhattan. He graduated from the Wharton Schoolat the University of Pennsylvania, in 1952, before completing a Bachelor of Laws degree at Yale. He obtained a doctorate in law from Harvard University in 1962.

 

His academic career started at Ohio State University and eventually landed him at Princeton University for 40 years as a professor of international law. He is now affiliated with the University of California at Santa Barbara.

 

  1. First things first, what you have been doing since your work ended as the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967? Are you still affiliated with the University of California at Santa Barbara? You live in the city year-round, but you spend some months in Turkey, where your wife, name tk, is from and where you are right now?

 

Falk: Since ending my role as special rapporteur in 2014, I have continued to write on various international topics, publishing two books on general international relations, Power Shift: On the New Global Order, Zed, 2017) andRevisiting the Vietnam War(edited by Stefan Andersson, CUP, 2018) as well as a book on the ongoing Palestinian national struggle, Palestine Horizon: Toward a Just Peace, Pluto, 2017).  I was also the co-author with Virginia Tilley of a controversial report to the UN Economic and Social Council of West Asia [ESCWA], released on March 15, 2017, as to whether Israel’s practices and policies toward the Palestinian people amounted to apartheid. The report was harshly attacked by Ambassador Nikki Haley with a demand that it be repudiated by the new UN secretary-general, António Guterres. Haley’s rant included an attack on me but without any specific criticisms of either my record or the report. The SG ordered the report removed from the website of ESCWA, but its director [Rima Khalaf, a Palestinian living in Jordan] resigned in protest, explaining her reasons in an open letter to the SG, rather than follow this instruction. Formally, the report has never been repudiated, has been officially archived by ESCWA and was always meant to be an academic study without necessarily pretending to reflect UN thinking with a clear disclaimer to this effect.  Of course, the fury of the attack gave this otherwise obscure report much more attention than it would otherwise have likely received. The text is available on several websites under the title, and has been published in French, Spanish, and Arabic. Here is a helpful link.

“Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, March 15, 2017.

 

I am continuing to live most of the year in Santa Barbara, where my wife and I both maintain an affiliation with UCSB, as research fellows. We do spend several months in Turkey every year, and have some academic and journalistic affiliations there. I am currently completing work on a volume of my collected writings over the years on issues affecting nuclear weapons, as well as struggling with a memoir. All in all, I think I am entitled to claim “an active retirement,” at least from Princeton, where I taught from 1961-2001.

 

  1. What is it like to be in Turkey now, as an American, as the nature of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “executive presidency” becomes apparent?

 

Falk: This had been a period of intense contestation in Turkey, especially in view of the national elections on June 24, the most important in the history of the country, which not only resulted in the re-election of Erdogan as president, but involved implementing the constitutional transformation of Turkey from being a parliamentary system to a presidential system with a very strong concentration of power in the presidency and few of the constraints that we associate with a “republican democracy” (checks and balances, separation of powers, independent judiciary, human rights as beyond governmental reach). At the same time, two things should be kept in mind: the changes have not yet altered state/society relations in Turkey; what had previously been done by Erdogan in a de facto manner over a period of almost 16 years is now given the blessings of law, making it de jure. Also, it should be remembered that before Erdogan and the AK Party [Justice and Development Party] came on the scene, the elected government was subject to a military tutelage system with periodic coups taking place whenever the military leadership felt dissatisfied with the policies pursued by the elected leaders. It should also be kept in mind that when the Turkish government made many changes enhancing human rights in the early years of Erdogan leadership, from 2002-2009, partly to satisfy its ambition to gain membership in the European Union, it received no encouragement; in fact, the opposite. Nevertheless, in the period since the failed coup of July 15, 2016, there has been a serious repression of dissent, affecting freedom of expression in universities, media and the governmental civil service, as well as a clampdown on the Kurdish national movement. There are extenuating circumstances, involving the penetration by the [Fethullah] Gulen movement of all sectors of government, as well as security threats from the conflicts in the region. The Erdogan leadership has delivered many benefits to the more disadvantaged classes in Turkey and public funds for development of the previously neglected eastern part of the country.

 

  1. Your work as the UN special rapporteur was controversial, given the topic of Palestine. The US government, including Susan Rice, as ambassador to the UN, consistently rejected your findings. How did you feel when your work was refuted by the US? Would you have done your work differently, in hindsight?

 

Falk: I felt during the period disappointed by the criticism from high officials in the US government (during the Obama presidency) and that of a few other governments (Canada, Australia, UK), which seemed in all instances to be based on pressures exerted and “information” supplied by ultraZionist NGOs, such as UN Watch and NGO Monitor. These pressures took no account of the substance of my reports but attacked me as biased and unbalanced, misleadingly referring to my supposed views on other issues, taking them out of context and then exaggerating their contentions. I realized when I accepted the position that some of this defamatory pushback came with the territory, but its intensity and personal invective surprised me somewhat, as well as the irresponsible reinforcement by high officials in my own government. I would not report differently in hindsight.

 

I have told journalists that anyone with 10 percent objectivity would come to the same assessment of Israeli occupation policies and practices from the perspective of international humanitarian law. There was no need to be balanced to reach these conclusions, as the realities associated with Israeli control of Occupied Palestine were so clear, and really mostly beyond dispute and often confirmed even by official Israeli sources. I came to the view that this explains why the pushback on criticism of Israel is not substantive, but focuses on killing the messenger while ignoring the message, and even in discrediting the institution rather than refuting the criticisms.

 

  1. What was the most rewarding aspect of your work as UN rapporteur? How can the role of the rapporteur be enhanced and more influential more generally?

 

Falk: I found that despite the attacks that were directed at me, and possibly partly because of them, there was much offsetting appreciation from many governments, including those in Europe that conveyed views privately that were more critical of Israel than the posture taken publicly. Within the UN, my reports did have some effect on changing the discourse with respect to the use of some words that were more illuminating than the standard ways of describing the situation. For instance, talking of “de facto annexation” with respect to the impact of settlement expansion in the West Bank rather than the static term “occupation,” and calling attention to the “colonialist” nature of the dispossession of the native population, which was a long-term phenomenon continued after the mass dispossession in the 1948 War through the “settlements,” which violated Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

 

I also discovered that several important governments relied on my reports to shape their understanding of the situation, and shaped their policies responsively. Perhaps, most importantly, these comprehensive reports that I submitted twice a year (once to the Human Rights Council in Geneva and once to the General Assembly in New York) were relied upon by many influential groups in the NGO world, including religious organizations like the World Council of Churches. The role of special rapporteurs [SRs] has become more recognized in recent years, and receives more attention and respect from the global media. The position is unpaid and voluntary, and as a result, SRs are not formally part of the UN civil service, giving those selected a valuable degree of independence, and this has come to be more widely understood in public spaces concerned with various issues of global concern. Even in the face of my difficult tenure, many excellently qualified persons applied to be my successor, and despite a great effort being made by the US government and Israel to influence the electoral process in the Human Rights Council, which did have some effect in disqualifying suitable candidates, but not enough to avoid the selection of someone who has turned out to be as critical of Israel as I was, Michael Lynk, a widely respected law professor from Canada.

 

  1. What do you see as the most profound changes in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since you stopped being the UN rapporteur?

 

Falk: The advent of the Trump presidency has changed the tone of the relationship between the United States and [Israel] with Washington abandoning any pretense of impartiality, making clear that Palestinian interests and concerns are irrelevant to the US government’s public discourse and concrete policies. This development has been accentuated by the shifts in approach taken by Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which have been outspoken in their comments encouraging the Palestinian Authority to accept whatever is offered to them by Washington.

 

In the opposite direction, the BDS [Palestinian-led  and originated Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] Campaign, having its 13thanniversary, has gained momentum in the last year, and governments, including South Africa and Ireland, are moving toward endorsements of boycotts. There is also a sense in the European Union that if a diplomatic solution is to be reached it will require a more balanced intermediary than what the US has provided.

 

In this context, Israel has felt empowered to move to maximize settlement expansion

and legalization (within Israeli law), while using excessive force in response to shows of Palestinian resistance.

 

The most basic development in the last few years has been the marginalization of the Palestinian issue due to the priorities of leading Arab governments, the sense that further diplomacy is futile, and some international acceptance of the Israeli claim that the conflict is essentially over, and a “solution” can be reached only if Palestinians can be persuaded to accept political defeat, abandoning their struggle to achieve the central national goal of self-determination, and some kind of sovereign polity, whether in a two-state or one-state format.

 

  1. Do you think President Trump has an actual peace plan? If so, what do you know about it and how do you think Palestinians will react to it? Some people think Trump will announce the peace plan close to US midterm elections in November to boost the prospects of the Republican party?

 

Falk: My understanding of the Trump proposals is that they are built around the idea of “economic peace,” — support for enhancement of Palestinian material circumstances and daily experience, if and only if the political goal of genuine statehood and the normative pursuit of self-determination are quietly renounced, or nominally satisfied in a way that does not emancipate the Palestinian people from the realities of subjugation. Such proposals are likely to be so unsatisfactory to the Palestinian leaders and public, including from the perspective of the quasi-collaborationist Palestinian Authority, as to be rejected without any effort to negotiate on such a one-sided basis. If this happens, Israel will rejoice, and Trump will almost certainly condemn the Palestinians as “rejectionist,” allowing the Israelis to insist, as they have in the past that they have “no partner” in the search for peace.

 

How this turn of events will play politically in the US prior to the midterm elections is hard to foresee. Trump may get some credit from his base by claiming that he has done his utmost to promote peace, but could not overcome Palestinian rejectionism. Without much doubt, his main Zionist donors will express some gratitude by upping their donations, but whether this will make any tangible difference in an election that is almost certain to be essentially a popularity contest about Trump and Trumpism, even though the November elections are limited to Congressional races. Aside from the balance between pro- and anti-Trump sentiments, the Republican electoral performance will likely hinge on the public perception of economic factors, and may reflect the outcome of the Mueller investigation, especially if the Special Counsel submits his final report in October, as rumored. As Mueller was my senior thesis advisee 52 years ago at Princeton, I have some sense as to his style of reasoning, and believe there are grounds for supposing that he will follow the trail of the evidence wherever it might lead. I attach here the link to my article that discusses what I learned from rereading his thesis a few weeks ago.  https://www.thenation.com/article/robert-muellers-undergraduate-thesis-adviser-wrote-gives-hints-hell-special-counsel/

 

 

 

  1. What do you recommend that the Palestinian leadership – Mahmoud Abbas – do for Palestinians in this increasingly difficult situation, with the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem, the murders of Gazans during the Great Return March with impunity and zero progress on a two-state solution?

 

Falk: It is a difficult, no-win situation for Abbas and the PA [Palestinian Authority] in this setting. The present posture of public defiance, indicating objections to the embassy move and Israel’s use of excessive force, while collaborating with the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] in maintaining West Bank security and suppressing Hamas is not contributing to the legitimacy of Abbas as leader or the PA as international representative of the Palestinian people. Abbas is caught in a swirl of contradictory dimensions of his leadership role, which is itself under attack by Palestinians under the PA administration and throughout the refugee and exile communities.

 

There have been some less-noticed PA initiatives that disturb Israel, such as recourse to the International Criminal Court, and continuing efforts to establish the trappings of statehood via increased diplomatic recognition (over 130 countries), membership in international institutions, and adherence to international treaty arrangements. These formal developments have raised the Palestinian status as a participant in the UN system and generally, but these changes have had no positive effect on the lives of Palestinians living under occupation or in refugee camps. For Palestinians, their living circumstances have continued to deteriorate.

 

It might be possible, given other pressures for the PA to work out some sort of sustainable reconciliation with Hamas that would give the Palestinian people a more unified and credible representation in international settings. Hamas seems receptive, and has moderated its tactics, ideology and goals in recent years, but this has not led to any lasting cooperation between the PA and Hamas. Israel strongly favors maintaining these existing tensions, which are regarded as contributing some political force to their apparent interest in separating Gaza from the rest of Occupied Palestine, encouraging Jordan or Egypt to resume administrative responsibilities, and thus allay Israeli concerns about “the demographic bomb” if Israel moves toward an Israeli one-state endgame.

 

  1. Why do you think the Trump administration – and Nikki Haley as US ambassador to the UN – are seemingly so averse to remedying the plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation? Do you think they have intensified the problem with their rhetoric and actions?

 

Falk: My sense is the Trump administration—and Haley as the lead voice—seek to please their domestic political base by killing two birds with one stone: attacking the UN and siding with Israel as supreme counterterrorist, anti-Islamic ally. In this regard, the policies are not qualitativelydifferent than what was done during the Obama presidency, but more bombastically and belligerently articulated by Trump and Haley, and backed by some tangible reinforcement—especially, the embassy move to Jerusalem while ignoring the massacre at the Gaza border, signaling that so far as Washington is concerned Israel can do what it wants in the name of security and without any regard to international law or UN majority views. There was almost no prospect for a sustainable peace during the Obama years and less than zero now.

 

 

  1. Is the Trump administration’s increasing global isolationism seriously damaging the UN? What do you think are the motives of Trump and Haley for walking away from many aspects and agencies of the UN, such as the Human Rights Council? What do you predict will happen to the Human Rights Council without the US as a member?

 

Falk: It is helpful to realize that the Trump hostility to the UN is part of a broader retreat from American involvement in international institutions and multilateral arrangements. In this regard, the UN posture is fully consistent with the American withdrawal from the Paris Climate  Agreement, the Iran nuclear agreement and the Transpacific Trade Partnership (TPP). Trump questions multilateralism in general as he seems to believe it weakens the bargaining advantages of the US as the strongest state, militarily, economically and diplomatically. For these reasons, Trump is seen as an advocate of transactionalapproaches to international cooperation based on bilateral agreements worked out by threat, coercion and, above all, reflecting disparities of power. One outcome is the unfolding trade war with China, and tension with even close allies in Europe and North America. Another is the great loss of soft power leadership that had been exercised by the US ever since World War II, a reputational decline that leaves the world without much capacity for global policymaking at a time of several urgent global challenges.

 

The Human Rights Council loses some of its stature without the participation of the US, and creates enmity by withdrawing when it could not force its will on this leading UN human rights arena. At the same time, without US obstructionism, the proceedings of the Council should be more amicable and possibly more fruitful and constructive.

 

Q If you had lunch with UN Secretary-General António Guterres, what would you say to him?

 

I would, of course, suggest meeting at the best Portuguese restaurant in New York City.

 

I would express empathy, first of all. It is not pleasant to become secretary-general at

a time during which the UN faces financial pressures and the loss of prestige due to the rise of nationalistic tendencies throughout the world, the bullying diplomacy of Haley/Trump,

the decline of human rights amid a rising tide of migration. Never has the global setting been more averse to the pursuit of UN goals. At the same time, never has the world more needed a robust global problem-solving capability. The UN suffered serious losses of credibility by its failures to protect Iraq against American aggressive warfare in 2003 and its seeming irrelevance to the Syrian strife that has continued since 2011 at great human cost.

 

I think that Mr. Guterres would do well to speak more openly and directly to the peoples of the world, accepting invitations to address influential conferences and set forth the case for a more responsible participation in the activities of the UN. His position as SG [secretary-general] still enjoys prestige as a source of commentary on the human condition — what is encouraging and what it discouraging. Along with Pope Francis, the SG post enjoys the greatest weight with respect to voicing opinions on the morality of international behavior. If Mr. Guterres articulated effectively a positive role for the UN at this stage of world history he could exert a benevolent influence on world public opinion that could affect governmental attitudes and behavior especially if there are swings back to more internationalism in important states in the next few years. In this regard, the US remains the most important national arena with respect to the UN, both because of its funding role and the symbolic fact that UN headquarters and its most important organs are situated within the US.

 

During dessert, I would encourage Mr. Guterres to focus on those issues that affect humanity as a whole, and are not currently contentious as between states. I would thus emphasize the importance of climate change, extreme poverty, nuclear disarmament and the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity. The SG has an opportunity to become the most visible exponent of the conscience of the world. I think if this were done imaginatively, with a certain ironic humor, it would have spillover effects allowing the UN to become again more effective in addressing immediate challenges in the domain of war and peace, thereby recovering from its various disappointing roles in the Arab world, including Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya.

 

To be effective, considering the UN structure, heavily weighted in favor of the five permanent members of the Security Council [Britain, China, France, Russia and the US], the SG must navigate between the pressures exerted by geopolitical actors and the high ideals and procedures embedded in the UN Charter. This requires skillful navigation, but it also holds out the possibilities of lighting candles that could Illuminate a path to a safer and more sustainable and satisfying future for the peoples of the world.

 

The UN: Instrumental or Normative?

21 Mar

The UN: Instrumental or Normative?

 

[Prefatory Note: A greatly modified version of this post was published in Middle East Eye on March 12, 2018, under the title, “The UN: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.”]

 

 A Renewed Crisis of Confidence

 

During the Cold War, the UN frequently disappointed even its most ardent followers because it seemed paralyzed by the rivalry between East and West whenever a political crisis threatened world peace. Giving the veto power to the five permanent members of the Security Council almost assured that when ideological and geopolitical views clashed, which was virtually all the time, during the first 40 years after 1945, the UN would watch unfolding war-threatening events and violent encounters between ideological adversaries from the sidelines.

 

Then in 1989-1991 the Cold War abruptly ended, and the UN seemed to function for a short while as a Western-led alliance, dramatized by the Security Council support for the First Iraq War that restored Kuwaiti sovereignty in 1992 after Iraq’s aggression the prior year with a show of high technology American military power. Such a use of the UN was hailed at the time by the U.S. Government as signaling the birth of ‘a new world order’ based on the implementation of the UN Charter, and making use of the Security Council as the bastion of world order, which was at last made possible by the Soviet collapse and its acceptance of a Westernized spin on global policy issues. Yet this image of the convergence of the geopolitical agenda and the UN Charter was soon criticized as ‘hegemonic’ and began to be questioned by Russia and China. Even an independent minded UN Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, let it be known that the unconditional mandate given to allied powers in the Gulf War was not in keeping with the role envisioned for the UN as keeping a watchful eye on any use of force that the Security Council had authorized. The Secretary General at the time, Perez de Cuellar went further, suggesting the Iraq was ready to withdraw from Kuwait prior to being attacked if only given an assurance that it would not in any event , which was never given, suggesting that even this supposed triumph of UN peace diplomacy was a sham, disguising a geopolitical war of choice.

 

The misleading plea at the Security Council in 2011 for a strictly limited humanitarian intervention in Libya under the auspices of NATO to protect the people of Benghazi from an onslaught was used as a blatant pretext to achieve regime change in Libya by an all out military attack. It succeeded in ridding the country of Qaddafi, replacing his brutal dictatorship with an undeliverable promise to instill a democratic political order. Instead of order what NATO brought to Libya, with Obama’s White House ‘leading from behind,’ was prolonged chaos and strife, and a set of actions that far the initial, quite ambivalent (five absentions, including Russia, China, and Germany) Security Council mandate, the West eventually paid a heavy price, and the UN an even heavier one. The Libyan deception undermined the trust of Russia and China, and others, in the good faith of the West, incapacitating the UN in future crisis situations where it might have played a constructive humanitarian role, most notably Syria, and also Yemen.

 

Arguably, the tragic ordeal of Syria epitomizes the inability of the UN to uphold even the most minimal interests of humanity, saving civilians from deliberate slaughter and atrocity. Even when ceasefires were belatedly agreed upon, they were almost immediately ignored, making a sad mockery of UN authority, and leaving for the world public to witness a gory spectacle of the most inhumane warfare that went on and on without the will or capacity of the UN to do anything about it. For this reason it is not surprising that the UN is currently belittled and widely seen as irrelevant to the deeper challenges facing the world, whether in combat zones, climate change, human rights, or even threats of nuclear conflagration.

 

Such a dismissive view of the UN is understandable, in view of these recent developments, but it is clearly mistaken, and even dangerously wrong. The world needs, more even than in 1945 when governments established the UN as a global problem-solving mechanism with the overriding objective of avoiding future major wars, an objective given urgent poignancy by the atomic bombings of Japanese cities. The UN despite failing badly in the context of war/peace has reinvented itself, providing a variety of vital services to the world community, especially valuable for the less developed, smaller, and poorer countries. The UN retains the potential to do more, really much more, but in the end the UN role and contributions are dependent upon the political will of its five permanent members, the so-called p-5, which amount to requiring a geopolitical consensus, which in the current world setting seems almost as elusive as during the Cold War, although for somewhat different reasons.  

 

 

 

Four Ways of Looking at the UN

 

Since its origins there have been four main attitudes toward the UN. When considered together these four overlapping viewpoints help explain why the UN remains controversial in achievement even after more than 70 years of existence. The fact that the Organization is still there, and it is notable that every sovereign state, without exception, values the benefits of membership even if the target of censure or sanctions. This should tell us something about the degree to which governments value participation in the UN and the services that it provides. These four attitudes are not distinct, and do overlap to varying degrees, yet each captures an aspect of the overall debate that has swirled about appraisals of the UN ever since its founding.

 

First, there are the idealists who want to believe the stirring pledge of the Preamble to the UN Charter “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Such persons believe that a new era of law-based global security was launched when the UN was established in 1945, thinking that the Organization would be ready and able to prevent the recurrence of major war as even leading governments had become scared of future warfare, and it was shown during the anti-Fascist war that ideological and geopolitical adversaries could cooperate when their interests converged. These idealists, although disappointed over the years, continue to hope that at some point the leaders of the big states will strengthen the capabilities of the UN so that it can fulfill this original lofty aspiration of securing a peaceful and just world order and stand ready to meet whatever global challenges arise in the future. In some helpful sense we can think of these UN idealists as ‘incurable optimists,’ given the accumulated experience since 1945.

 

Then there are the realists who dominate governments and think tanks, and were worried in the immediate aftermath of World War II that the idealists would lead the world astray by raising expectations of great power restraint and cooperation beyond reason and the lessons of history. The realists believe that international history was, and always will be a narrative of military power and powerlessness, with war, war making, and coercive diplomacy a permanent part of the global setting regardless of drastc changes in technology and global power balances. For realists the UN can be of occaisonal use to its dominant members in shaping global policy, provided its limitations are properly understood. The UN offers world leaders a talk shop in a complex world and discussion can sometimes be helpful in swaying international public opinion in the direction being advocated by a government or even in uncovering common ground. Realists adopt an essentially instrumental and marginalizing view of the UN, in effect believing that major political action on security and economic matters will always be shaped in venues under the discretionary control of sovereign states represented by governments that make security policy with blinders that ignore, or at lest minimize, non-military approaches to conflict resolutions. In essence, realists embrace a tragic sense of life, and can be regarded as ‘incurable pessimists,’ who however catastrophic the costs, continue to rely on war and threats to keep the peace.

 

A third set of attitudes is that of cynics who regard the UN as a hypocritical and dangerous distraction from serious global problem-solving. The UN has neither power nor authority to take action to keep the peace except in the rare instances when major players agree on what to do. In effect, the UN was always irrelevant and worthless from the perspective of shaping a peaceful and just world, and to believe otherwise is to be naïve about the workings of world politics in a state-centric system. From this cynical perspective the UN is a wasteful and misleading public relations stunt that diverts energy and clear thought from prudent present behavior, and even more so, from the kind of radical political action that would be needed to make the world secure and just. The UN cynics are essentially the gadflies who remind the public that it is foolish, or worse, to invest hope in the UN on the big challenges facing humanity.

 

Finally, there are the opponents, who oppose the whole idea of the UN as a world organization, and fear that it poses a threat to the primacy of national sovereignty and the pursuit of national interests and grand strategy. Opponents are hostile to the UN, often susceptible to conspiracy theories warning that there are social forces plotting to turn the UN into a world government, which they consider a prelude to global tyranny. The paranoia of the opponents is the furthest removed from reality among these four viewpoints, but remains influential as shaping populist attitudes toward the UN and internationalism generally in the present era where democratic forms of governance are giving way to a variety of autocracies that have in common a refusal to meet global challenges by reliance on the UN or other cooperative mechanisms, including even in the domain of trade, investment, and environmental protection. Trump’s ‘America First’ chant is emblematic of this outlook, which exerts political pressures, using funding as leverage, on the UN to serve the national interests of its leading members. It is illustrative of this atmosphere that the UN is being attacked as an Israel-bashing organization rather than being criticized for its failure to respond to well-grounded Palestinian grievances. These opponents are not reality-based, but rather are faith-based, and can be considered as ‘rejectionists’ when it comes to respect for the authority of the UN, or for that matter, of international law in general.

 

If we ask who has gotten the better of the implicit argument between these four ways of perceiving the UN, it is hard to avoid giving the prize to the realists. In a way this is not surprising. As realists dominate all public and private institutions, their dominant tendency is to treat the UN as a site of struggle that can be most useful in all out efforts to mobilize support for a controversial policy—for instance, sanctions against North Korea or Iran. Yet the most effective realists do not wish to appear as cynics or rejectionists, and so often hide their instrumental moves behind idealistic rhetoric. The realists are able to impose their view of the UN role on the operations of the Organization, but at the same time, realists are at a loss as to the nature of ‘the real,’ and thus seem oblivious to the need for a stronger UN to address global challenges, including climate change, nuclear crises, humanitarian catastrophes, and natural disasters.

 

In contrast, the cynics want to pierce illusions, not only of the idealists, but also of the realists, especially when their voices seek to cloak power moves in the sweeter language of human rights, democracy, and peace. Idealists also struggle to gain relevance by claiming that their views are more realistic than those of the realists, pointing to the looming urgencies of nuclear war and climate change. And, of course, opponents see these differences about the UN role as a dangerous smokescreen hiding the never ending plot to hijack the UN to establish a world government or to serve the nefarious interests of global adversaries.

 

 

What the UN Contributes

 

These perspectives, while illuminating general attitudes, are too crude to tell the whole story of what the UN can and cannot accomplish First of all, there is the question of organizational complexity. The UN is composed of many institutions with very different agendas and budgets, many of which are either technical or removed from the everyday scrutiny of diplomats and experts. Most people when they think of the UN are mainly concerned with what the Security Council does with respect to the main war/peace issues of the day, maybe a bit attentive to action taken by the General Assembly, especially if it collides with geopolitical priorities, and sometimes responsive to what the UN Secretary General says or does.

 

There is only interest, for instance, in the Human Rights Council in Geneva when it reinforces or thwarts some kind of foreign policy consensus of big powers or issues a report critical of Israel. In the early 1970s countries from the Global South wanted to reform trade and investment patterns, mounting a campaign in the General Assembly, which led them to be slapped down by the West that wanted above all to insulate the operations of the world economy from any reforms that would diminish their advantageous positions in global trading and investment contexts.

 

The UN is exceedingly valuable, especially for poorer countries, as a source of information and guidance on crucial matters of health, food policy, environment, human rights, protection of children and refugees, and preservation of cultural heritage. Its specialized agencies provide reliable policy guidance and offer governments help in promoting economic development, and set humane policy targets for the world in the form of Sustainable Development Goals. In effect, the UN quietly performs a wide array of service functions that enable governments to pursue their national policies in a more effective and humane manner, and operates within a normative setting that is best characterized as ‘global humanism.’

 

Perhaps even more significantly, the UN has greater authority than any political actor in determining whether certain claims by states or peoples are legitimate or not. UN responses to the legitimacy of a national struggle is an important expression of soft power that often contributes to shaping the political outcome of conflicts. In effect, the UN is influential in the waging of Legitimacy Wars that are fought on the symbolic battlefields of such principal UN organs as the Security Council and General Assembly. Contrary to what realists profess, most international conflicts since 1945 have been resolved in favor of the side that prevails in a Legitimacy War rather than the winner of hard power struggles on the battlefield. The UN played a crucial role in supporting the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles, as well as setting forth normative standards supportive of the Right to Development and Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources, and also in promoting public order of the oceans and Antarctica. Despite its shortcomings in directly upholding peace and promoting justice, the UN remains, on balance, a vital presence in international life even with respect to conflict and peacekeeping, its potential to do much more remains as great as the day it was established.

 

 

Conclusion

 

The UN has been disappointing in implementing its Charter in relation to the P-5, and has not overcome the double standards that apply to upholding international law. The weak are held potentially accountable, while the strong enjoy impunity almost without exception. Nevertheless, the UN is indispensable as a soft power actor that helps the weaker side prevail in Legitimacy Wars. The UN seems helpless to stop the carnage in Syria or Yemen yet it can identify wrongdoing and frequently mobilize public opinion on behalf of the victims of abusive behavior. We can hope for more, but we should not overlook, or fail to appreciate, the significant positive accomplishments of the UN over the years.

 

If we seek a stronger more effective UN, the path is clear. Make the Organization more detached from geopolitics, abolish the veto, establish independent funding by a global tax, and elect a Secretary General without P-5 vetting. There was a golden opportunity to do this in the decade of the 1990s was never acted upon. American global leadership failed, being focused on a triumphalist reading of the end of the Cold War, and directed its attention to maximizing neoliberal globalization and liberal forms of democratic governance around the world, believing that states so organized do not wage war against one another. This refusal to adopt a normative approach based on shared values, goals, and challenges has marginalized the UN that continues to be dominated by the instrumental tactics of its main members.

 

 

Dreaming of the Next UN Secretary General

6 May

 

 

“I solemnly swear to exercise in all loyalty, discretion and conscience the functions entrusted to me as Secretary-General of the United Nations, to discharge these functions and regulate my conduct with the interests of the United Nations only in view, and not to seek or accept instructions in regard to the performance of my duties from any Government or other authority external to the Organisation.”

United Nations Secretary General’s Oath of Office

 

In 2006 Ramesh Thakur, one of the most perceptive and knowledgeable commentators on global issues, wrote a trustworthy account of what it takes to be selected as UN Secretary General, and then to be effective in the job. [Thakur, “In Selecting the New UN Secretary General,” Feb. 3, 2006, Daily Yomiuri] In many ways his assessment, although realistic, confirms the impression that the leadership potential of this titular position as head of the UN is structurally limited and inconsistent with the spirit of the oath of office. The reason for these low expectations, as Thakur points out, is that the “most important” requirement of the job is to be regarded when selected as acceptable to the five permanent members of the Security Council (the so-called P-5), and especially to the United States.

 

It is a tribute to the potential of the position of SG that the P-5 governments are exceedingly careful in vetting potential candidates, and have not yet ever been deeply disappointed by selecting a rogue SG, although once in office an individual may in some instances become somewhat more responsive to the oath of office than to the secondary wishes of his or her geopolitical masters. Such unresponsiveness, especially as it involved the United States, helps explain why Boutros Boutros-Ghali failed to obtain support for a customary second term in office back in 1996.

 

In practice, the selection process is ultra sensitive to this overriding need for a Secretary General to be someone that will be respectful of the geopolitical winds that blow at a given time in world politics regardless of the spirit and letter of the UN Charter. Appreciating this pattern makes it misleading to read the Charter as if it is intended to provide an authoritative framing designed to regulate the behavior of its 193 member states. It should be accepted for better and worse what it is, a constitutional framework of the UN that privileged the winners of World War II, and at the time of its founding opted for a state-centric international body that subordinated international law and the equality of sovereign states to the inequalities associated with international hierarchies of hard and soft power. In effect, the Charter itself embodies this tension between its geopolitical operating logic, as reinforced by the lack of independent funding, and the idealistic mandate of its Preamble, Purposes, and Principles. In effect, the tension can be understood as between the affirmation of juridical equality and the constitutional loophole ensuring geopolitical inequality. The UN was intended from the outset to be an Organization that enforced standards of accountability on the multiplicity of states to the best of its ability while deferring to the discretion of those deemed in 1945 to be most powerful, a status formalized by the vesting of this unrestricted right of veto in the P-5 bolstered by permanent membership in the Security Council.

 

The Charter is astonishingly silent about the qualifications that should guide the selection of a secretary general, but it is clear on the procedure: a recommendation must be made by the Security Council to the General Assembly for its approval. This means that the any one of the P-5 can use their veto to block a candidate. In this context, the veto has not been necessary as the P-5 have managed, even throughout the entire Cold War, to reach agreement on an acceptable candidate for SG by reliance on this method of secret backroom negotiations, which undoubtedly included much wrangling. The first eight secretaries general emerged from these dark shadows of great power bargaining, but this process gave rise to an increasing cascade of complaints from non-P-5 governments and from interested civil society organizations. These players objected to the secrecy and non-transparency of the way in which the SG was chosen.

 

In an accommodating response, the next secretary general is to be selected by a more seemingly democratic procedure: government nominations of multiple candidates, vision statements by the candidates, and give and take dialogues with civil society representatives. [For a helpful overview of the reformed selection process see Arabella Lang, “Selecting a New Secretary General,” UK House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper No. 7544, 3 March 2015] But we should not be misled. The decisive influence in the selection process remains the Security Council, and there the preferred candidate must still win the unanimous approval of the P-5. In the past, this has produced a race to the bottom, essentially a candidate that is not objectionable to any of these governments. As a result past SGs, with a few notable exceptions, have been ‘company men’ who have been careful not to use leverage of the position to shift the balance of world opinion on a geopolitically sensitive issues. What emerges over the year is that the SG is not expected to manifest a globalist orientation or engage in strong advocacy insisting on the universality of international law.

 

At the same time, the nature of the office requires that the occupant be held in reasonably high regard throughout the world and have a background of credible leadership such as to ensure confidence that the administrative and ceremonial demands of the position will be competently discharged. In other words, for the sake of the UN bureaucracy and for the morale of civil society, it has been accepted that a SG should be able to run the organization and grace ceremonial occasions with uplifting rhetoric. These secondary, but still crucial concerns, may explain why several secretaries generals have proved to be more than geopolitical placeholders, most notably Dag Hammarskjöld (1953-1961), U Thant (1961-1971), Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992-1996), and Kofi Annan (1997-2006). Surely, some SGs have been better than others at upholding the dignity and appearance of political independence attached to the position. Kurt Waldheim and Ban Ki-moon have been embarrassments to the Organization because of their failures to project the kind of public leadership that lifts spirits without damaging structures.

 

Against this background, even with the welcome reforms of greater public vetting, transparency, and multiple candidacies, the end result is still likely to be the selection of someone who, above all else, can be expected not to rock the geopolitical boat. Symbolically these reforms seem a step in the right direction, especially if a woman is finally chosen, although the seeming adherence to the principle of regional rotation, which means that the chosen one seems destined to be an East European. This does not augur well for the Organization given the available pool of candidates from that region. If indeed it is to be a woman, then let it be Helen Clark of New Zealand (who has been nominated by her government) or Angela Merkel of Germany or Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile (these latter two seem qualified but are unlikely to be nominated, much less selected), each a proven and principled political leader, as well as being highly experienced in managing organizations. Yet even, as seems unlikely, Clark, Merkel, or Bachelet were to be selected, the best we can hope for is a performance that is graceful and competent but that would be less than what the world needs and what the peoples of the planet deserve. The geopolitical obstacles remain firmly in place and too strong, and even if somehow circumvented, a SG who transcended the demands of geopolitics would likely run the UN into the ground in short order.

 

Such a pronouncement is sad. There is a severe leadership deficit at the global level, and it centers on the absence of mechanisms to uphold the human interest, as distinct from national and geopolitical interests. This is why I must comfort myself by dreaming of rather than hoping that the selection of the next secretary general is a person, ideally a woman, that would think and act globally as representative of the species, and not to uphold the ways and means of the established order. We have witnessed for decades the sorry spectacle of the failure of the UN to tackle the challenges posed by the development of nuclear weaponry or by the dangers associated with global warming. Instead of serving the human interest by achieving nuclear disarmament, the world has ended up with the protection of hierarchical arrangements as embodied in the regime of nuclear nonproliferation, which allows for the development, possession, and possible use of these weapons by the most dangerous countries in the world while enforcing double standards by precluding the acquisition of these weapons by weaker states even when threatened with an overwhelming attack by stronger neighbors.

 

With climate change, the search for a solution involved broadening the diplomatic format to include all 193 member states, but with an end result that what was agreed upon was essentially an aggregation of national interests as well as voluntary, with what was agreed upon falling far below what the scientific consensus has determined to be necessary for the health and wellbeing of future generations.

 

In more flagrant disregard of the Charter itself, and signifying Western as well as P-5 hegemony, has been the reluctance of the Organization or its principal officer ever to challenge the United States and its friends when in the face of flagrant disregard of the UN Charter provisions limiting the use of force to instances of self-defense against a prior armed attack (e.g. Vietnam, after 1965, Iraq, after 2003).

 

What the world urgently needs at the UN is an unshackled guardian of the global public good who articulates human interests as these arose in international life, and had the institutional capabilities to take effective action. At present, we depend on a religious leader such as Pope Francis to fill this normative vacuum, and occasionally political figures such as Gandhi, Franklin Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King rise above their national identities to represent the human interest, but such figures lack any institutional capacity to carry their words into deeds. At present, we can only dream that such a figure would be selected as the next secretary general, but we should be aware that dreams often disclose deep aspirations and can offer necessary guidance, and thus should not be ignored.

 

The carnage around the world, as well as the massive migrations of desperate persons, underscores the growing need for a strong United Nations led by a person who above all is dedicated to the promotion of global and human interests, and has the will and mandate to disregard geopolitical pressures. Of course, this now a private pipedream that is politically irrelevant unless it becomes embodied in a global movement for peace, justice, ecological stewardship, and the survival of the species. We have experienced the integrative wonders of neoliberal globalization, with their attendant ravaging of human wellbeing and our natural surroundings. We have also seen the dawn of moral globalization in the rise of international human rights and the call for a global rule of law, but as yet there is not visible on the horizon an organized political undertaking capable of bringing into history these faint gropings toward humane governance of planetary proportions. We still sit around expecting the next SG to continue arranging the deck chairs on a sinking vessel. I feel we are entitled to hope that the ninth UN SG will have the awareness and courage to upset these settled expectations of business as usual.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2014: International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People

31 Dec

  

In a little noted initiative the General Assembly on November 26, 2013 voted to proclaim 2014 the International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. The UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People was requested to organize relevant activities in cooperation with governments, the UN system, intergovernmental organizations, and significantly, civil society. The vote was 110-7, with 56 abstentions, which is more or less reflective of the sentiments now present in international society.  Among the seven opponents of the initiative, in addition to Israel, were unsurprisingly its three staunchest supporters, each once a British colony: the United States, Canada, Australia, with the addition of such international heavyweight states as Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. Europe and assorted states around the world were among the 56 abstentions, with virtually the entire non-West solidly behind the idea of highlighting solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for peace with justice based on rights under international law.

 

Three initial observations: those governments that are willing to stand unabashedly with Israel in opposition to the tide of world public opinion are increasingly isolated, and these governments are under mounting public pressure from their own civil societies that seeks a balanced approach that is rights based rather than power dominated; the West, in general, is dominated by the abstaining governments that seek the lowest possible profile of being seen as neither for or against, and in those countries where civil society should now be capable of mobilizing more support for the Palestinian struggle; and the non-West that is, as has long been the case, rhetorically in solidarity with the Palestinian people, but have yet to match their words with deeds, and seem ready to be pushed.  

 

What is also revealing is the argumentation of UN Watch, and others, that denounce this latest UN initiative because it unfairly singles out Israel and ignores those countries that have worse human rights records.  Always forgotten here are two elements of the Israel/Palestine conflict that justify singling it out among others: Israel owes its existence, to a significant degree, to the organized international community, starting with the League of Nations, continuing throughout the British Mandate, and culminating with the Partition Plan of 1947, as set forth in GA Res. 181. The latter overrode the decolonizing principle of self-determination with a solution devised and imposed from without; such antecedents to the current Israel/Palestine situation also expose the colonialist foundations of the current struggle as well as call attention to the settler colonial elements that are associated with Israel’s continuous expansion of territorial, resource, and ethnocratic claims far beyond what the Western dominated international community had proposed, and then approved of,  after the end of World War II.

 

To be sure there were delicate and complex issues all along that make this problematic role of the international community somewhat more understandable. Up to 1945 there was a generalized acceptance of European colonial administration, although in the Middle East, colonial legitimacy was balanced for the first time against an obligation by the colonial powers to prepare a dependent people to stand eventually on its own, an ambivalent acknowledgement of the ethos of self-determination if not yet in the form of a legal norm. This affirmation of self-determination, as an alternative to colonial rule, was the special project of the American president, Woodrow Wilson, who insisted that such an approach was a moral imperative, especially in dealing with the regional aftermath of the Ottoman Empire that had long ruled over many diverse ethnicities.

 

Beyond this, the Jewish experience during the reign of fascist regimes throughout Europe, culminating in the Holocaust, created a strong empathetic urge in Europe to endorse the Zionist project for a Jewish Homeland in Palestine.  As is known, this empathy although genuine in many quarters,  also exhibited a deferred sense of guilt on the part of the Western liberal democracies that had done so little to challenge the genocidal policies of Hitler and the Nazis, refusing to act at all until their national interests were directly engaged by German aggression. European support was also forthcoming because the Zionist proposed solution for the Jewish Problem, which has long been present in Europe, could be enacted elsewhere, that is, at the expense of non-Europeans. This elsewhere was far from empty and was coveted by others for various reasons. Palestine was a land long lived in mainly by Arabs, but also by some Jews and Christians, and associated centrally with the sacred traditions of all three monotheistic religions. Normally in the modern world, the demographics of residence trump biblical or other claims based on claims of national tradition, ethnic identity, and ancient historical presence. Yet despite these factors, there were ethical reasons in the aftermath of such extreme victimization of the Jewish people to lend support to a reasonable version of the Zionist project as it had evolved in the years since the Balfour Declaration, even if from a variety of other perspectives it was deeply unfair to others and disruptive of peaceful relations, and throughout its implementation, produced an unfolding catastrophe for most non-Jewish Palestinians.

 

Taking account of this historical and moral complexity what seems evident is the failure of the UN to carry out its responsibility in a manner that was effective and responsive to the human circumstances prevailing in Palestine. The UN overall record is quite disappointing if considered from the perspective of accommodating these contradictory clusters of consideration in a manner that was reflective of international law and global justice. The military prowess of Zionist forces in Israel inflicted a major defeat on the Palestinian people and neighboring Arab governments, and in the process expanded the territorial dominion of Israel from the 55% decreed by the UN in its partition plan to 78% where the green line established an armistice arrangement in 1948. Such an outcome was gradually endorsed by a geopolitical consensus, exhibited through the admission of Israel to the UN without any solution to the underlying conflict, leaving the Palestinians out in the cold and allowing Israel to constitute itself within borders much larger than what the UN had a mere year earlier decreed as fair.

 

This situation was further aggravated by the 1967 War in which Israel occupied all of the remaining territory of historic Palestine, purporting even to annex East Jerusalem while greatly enlarging the area of municipal Jerusalem by incorporating land belonging to the West Bank. Since 1967 this Palestinian territorial remnant has been further decreased by the massive settlement phenomenon, including its network of settler only roads, carried out in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law, by the separation wall constructed and maintained in defiance of the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice, and by a variety of moves to change the demography of East Jerusalem. In other words, Israeli forces on the ground in what had been Palestine have undermined the vision set forth in the partition plan which was itself a controversial UN solution to the conflict that was rejected by Palestinians and by neighboring countries.

 

Despite much propaganda to the contrary, the Palestinian leadership has over most of the period of their struggle, shown an unusual readiness to abandon maximal goals, and put forward forthcoming proposals in recognition of the realities of a situation that had become unfavorable for the realization of their earlier hopes. Palestinian willingness, expressed formally since 1988, to accept Israel as a legitimate state within the green line borders of 1967 remains more than twenty-five years after its articulation an unacknowledged and unreciprocated major initiative for peace. That such a proposal has been ignored and continuously undermined by Israel with de facto Western acquiescence, and in the face of feeble UN rhetorical objections, displays the inability of the UN to fulfill its responsibilities to the people of Palestine.

 

As might be expected, Palestinians have long become disillusioned about the benefits of having UN authority and international law on their side. Over the years the backing of international authority has failed to bring about an improvement in the life circumstances and political position of the Palestinian people. The UN is helpless, and designed to be helpless, whenever a UN position is effectively resisted by a combination of military force and geopolitical alignment. Israel’s military capabilities and American geopolitical leverage have completely nullified the expressed will of the United Nations, but have not overcome the sense of frustration or excused the Organization from its failure to act responsibly toward the Palestinian people.

 

In light of this background, the wonder is that the UN has done so little to repair the damage, not that it has done so much, or more than it should in relation to Israel/Palestine. Arguably, yes, there are a variety of other situations in which the abuse of human rights has been worse than what is being attributed to Israel, but the rationale for focusing on Palestine is not only a question of the denial of rights, it is also an issue of fundamental justice, of the seemingly permanent subjugation of a people, partly due to arrangements that were devised and endorsed over a long period of time by the organized international community.  Yet, witnessing the dire current emergency plight of the people of Gaza, makes it perverse to contend that the human rights challenges facing this large and vulnerable Palestinian community is not among the worst human rights abuses in the entire world, and makes us wonder anew why the UN seems unwilling and unable to do more!

 

We can hope at the dawn of 2014 that the UN will be vigorous in giving the International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People a political meaning that goes beyond words of empathy and support. There is an opportunity to do more. The UN resolution calls for working with civil society. Recent moves in America to join boycotts of Israeli academic institutions and in Europe to hold corporations responsible under international law for dealing commercially with Israeli settlements are major successes of civil society activism, being led by the BDS Campaign that has the important legitimating virtue of Palestinian leadership and backing. The UN can help build a momentum in the global solidarity movement that encourages nonviolent militant forms of coercive action that alone will give ‘solidarity’ a good name.

 

Palestinians are starting to win the Legitimacy War that is being waged against unlawful Israeli policies and on behalf of the attainment of Palestinian rights. The turning point in world public opinion can probably be traced back to the way Israel waged the Lebanon War of 2006, especially the avowed reliance on disproportionate force directed at residential neighborhoods, especially in south Beirut, a tactic that became known as the Dahiya Doctrine. The tipping point in shifting the Israeli collective identity from that of victims and heroic underdogs to that lawless perpetrators of oppressive warfare against a totally vulnerable people came in Operation Cast Lead, the sustained assault with high technology weaponry on the people of Gaza for three weeks at the end of 2008. After these developments, the Palestinians were understood more widely to be a victimized people, engaged in a just struggle to gain their rights under international law, and needing and deserving an international movement of support to offset the Israeli hard power and geopolitical dominance.

 

Israeli leaders and think tanks try their hardest to discredit this Palestinian Legitimacy War by falsely claiming that it is directed against the legitimacy of Israel as a state rather than is the case, against the unlawful policies of the Israeli state. This is a crucial difference, and the distinction seems deliberately obscured by Israeli propaganda that inflated what Palestinians are seeking so as to make their activism appear hyperbolic, with unreasonable and unacceptable demands, which makes it easier to dismiss than by addressing critically the Palestinian grievances in their actual form. It is to be hoped that the International Year of Solidarity in its work clarifies this distinction between Israel as a state and Israeli policies. Within such a framework the UN will deserve credit for contributing to victories throughout the world that advance the agenda of the Legitimacy War being waged by and on behalf of the Palestinian people, and by so doing, move the debate somewhat closer to the realization of a just and sustainable peace for both peoples.

  

Invisible Horizons of a Just Palestine/Israel Future

4 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Congress Should Say to ‘No’ on Syria

6 Sep

[I am not sure this attempt at clarifying the present stage of the Syria debate adds much to my prior posts, yet I hope that it provides a kind of summary that is helpful in following the unfolding debate; all along I have felt that the Syrian impasse presented the UN and the world with a tragic predicament: trapped between doing something to stop the Assad regime from committing atrocities against its own people so as to retain power and the non-viabiility and illegality of military intervention, a predicament further complicated by the proxy war within the region along sectarian lines, by the strategic involvement of the U.S. and Russia on opposite sides, the maneuverings behind the scenes by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel, and the avowed Turkish support for regime-changing intervention; also, the overall regional turmoil, and past bad feeling in relation to the UN role in the overthrow of Qadaffi posed additional obstacles; efforts to shape the political outcome by military means, because of the proxy war dimensions (including an increasingly evident, although still surprising, tacit alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia) have so far only escalated the violence on the ground in Syria; Turkey, Russia, and the United States have all along  oscillated between principled and pragmatic responses favoring one side or the other, and exhibiting an ambivalent commitment to equi-distant diplomacy.]

There are three positions that have considerable support in Washington circles, although rarely acknowledged and not popular with the public, partly because of recent foreign policy failures, and partly too removed from perceptions of genuine security interests:

–undertake an attack to uphold ‘red line’ credibility of the president and the United States Government;

–undertake an attack too avoid an insurgent defeat, but on a scale that will not produce an insurgent victory; goal: keep the civil war going;

–undertake an attack to convince Iran that Obama is ready to use force if diplomatic coercion doesn’t work.

There are several other considerations that need to be taken into account:

–the Assad regime is guilty of numerous crimes against humanity aside from and prior to its probable (although far from assured) responsibility for the August 21st attack with chemical weapons on Ghouta; Syria lacks a legitimate government from the perspective of international criminal law; with respect to the violation of the Geneva Accord with respect to chemical weapons, the responsibility of Assad personally and the Syrian government generally has not been established beyond a reasonable doubt at this point;

–nevertheless, the Assad regime retains considerable support from various segments of the Syrian population, possesses substantial military capabilities, and is unlikely to collapse without a major ground invasion; the Assad government retains a measure of legitimacy from the perspective of the politics of self-determination;

–insurgent forces are divided, without coherent leadership, and are also responsible for committing atrocities, and contain political extremists in their ranks; a victory by the insurgency does not seem likely to lead to legitimate governing process from the perspective of law and morality;

–the negative American experiences of relying on war in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan should create a presumption against the authorization of force and reliance on military option in conflict situations; there is mounting evidence from past cases that the costs and risks associated with military options tend to be grossly understated during pre-war debates in the United States due partly to the political mobilization role played by mainstream media;

–the diplomatic alternative to force has been handicapped by its past abuse in the UN Security Council with respect to Libya authorization of ‘responsibility to protect’ undermining the trust of Russia, China, and others, and by the refusal to bring Iran into the political conversation as a key actor.

Against this background there are four important independent reasons for Congress to withhold authorization in this instance:

–a use of force that can neither be justified as self-defense, nor is authorized by the UN, is contrary to the UN Charter, which is an obligatory treaty, as well as being the most serious type of violation of international law in a post-Nuremburg world; the Nuremberg precedent with regard to crimes against peace (as the ‘crime of crimes’) should be respected, especially by the United States, which continues to serve for better and worse, as  the main normative architect of world order;

–the Kosovo precedent of ‘illegal, but legitimate’ is not applicable as a military attack is not likely to achieve either its political goals of ending the civil war and of causing the collapse of the Assad regime, nor its moral goals of stopping the slaughter and displacement of the Syrian people, and the devastation of their cities and country;

–even if the political and moral goals could be achieved, Congress, as well as the president, lacks the authority to authorized foreign policy uses of force that are incompatible with the UN Charter and international law;

–Congress should defer to domestic and world public opinion that clearly is opposed to a proposed military attack in the absence of an exceptional demonstration can be made as to the positive political and moral benefits of such an attack; for reasons mentioned, no such demonstration can be made in this instance; even the European Union has withheld support for a military attack on Syria at the

September meeting of the G-20 in St. Petersburg; only France among America’s traditional allies supported Obama’s insistence on reliance on a punitive military strike, supposedly for the sake of enforcing international law, bizarre reasoning because the rationale reduces to the following proposition: in view of the political realities, it is necessary to violate international law so as to be able to enforce it.

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