Tag Archives: United States

The Geopolitical Right of Exception at the United Nations

13 Apr

 

The notorious, yet influential, German jurist, Carl Schmitt famously insisted that ‘a right of exception’ was the core reality of national sovereignty. By this he meant that internal law could be put aside by ‘the sovereign,’ inhering as the crux of the relationship between state and society. In this regard international law has no overriding claim of authority with respect to sovereign states, at least from the perspective of statist jurisprudence. This discretion to ignore or violate law is distinct from submission to law as a realistic adaptation by weak states to political realities or compliance undertaken voluntarily for pragmatic reasons of convenience and mutual benefit.

 

When the UN was established, it was configured, to appeal both to realist minds who were eager to show that they had learned the lesson of Munich and to those architects of international cooperation that did not want the folly of the League of Nations, seen as a politically irrelevant sanctuary for utopians and dreamers to be repeated in this newly created organization. To achieve these ends the UN Charter vested only the UN Security Council with the power of decision (as distinct from recommendations), and limited its membership originally to nine states of which the five designated winners of World War II were given both permanent membership, and more importantly, a right of veto. In effect, the right of veto was a constitutional right of exception embedded in the UN Charter. It formulated the master procedural rule of the Charter as one that allowed permanent members of the Security Council to block any decision that was perceived to be sufficiently against their national interests or those of its friends. Just as Woodrow Wilson falsely misled the world with his pledge after World War I of ‘making the world safe for democracy’ the UN was more effectively manipulated into the actuality of ‘making the world safe for geopolitics.’

 

In effect, the UN was set up on the basis that it would never be strong enough to challenge these five major states, and that its effectiveness would rest on two possibilities: sustaining the voluntary cooperation that had worked successfully during World War II to thwart European fascism and Japanese imperialism or cooperating on issues of secondary concern in the peace and security area on which the permanent members could agree and persuade enough non-permanent term members to lend support. As was discovered several decades ago, these permanent members could only agree on what to do in the Security Council on the rarest of occasions, and that decisions relating to secondary issues, although often useful, left the really dangerous conflicts beyond the reach of the UN. The UN also committed itself to respect territorial sovereignty of its members, and by virtue of Article 2(7) of the Charter, placed all forms of civil strife beyond its writ unless the Security Council agreed that there were present substantial threats to international peace and security.

 

This constitutional right of exception to some extent contradicts the basic imperative of the Organization “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” that is set forth in the Preamble to the Charter. To the extent that major wars have been avoided during the lifetime of the UN it is not due to the efforts of the Organization. It is rather a consequence of deterrence, and geopolitical self-restraint and prudence, which were greatly encouraged by the awareness that any war fought with nuclear weapons would be a catastrophe regardless of which side prevailed. Major wars were prevented by a reliance on traditional notions of balance, containment, and countervailing power fine tuned for the realities of the nuclear age. These were realist instruments of statecraft associated with the European state system as adapted to the distinctive contemporary challenges. In the over 400 pages of his 2014 book, World Order, Henry Kissinger, the realist par excellence of this era, hardly mentions the UN, and accords it no significant role in shaping or even misshaping the ‘world order’ in the 21st century. The UN is simply seen as a diplomatic sideshow. He sees the present world order need to be primarily concerned with incorporating the non-Western major states, especially China, in an enlarged conception of a state system that is based on European ideas. For this process of incorporation to occur smoothly it will be essential that Westphalian logic of statism be newly perceived as reflecting the values and worldview of these diverse civilizations, and no longer be understood as an integral aspect of the Western world domination project.

 

Although the UN is a disappointment when it comes to ‘war prevention’ or the encouragement of a global rule of law, it has managed to achieve universality of membership. Unlike the League that failed to induce the United States to join and lost along the way several important members, the UN has neither expelled countries from its ranks nor have states withdrawn. The Organization has proved sufficiently useful as a site of diplomatic interaction and contestation that every government regardless of ideology or outlook finds it useful to participate in its activities. Even Israel that consistently complains loudly about the flawed and biased character of the UN, still tries with all its diplomatic ingenuity to influence its various activities in directions consistent with its foreign policy.

 

What has received too little attention so far is what I would call ‘the geopolitical right of exception’ that is quite distinct from the constitutional veto, but at least as pernicious from the perspective of enabling the UN to promote the human interest in its actions throughout the world. The geopolitical right of exception reflects the ability of one or more political actor in the world to promote or undermine policies that express its particular interest. In UN contexts the geopolitical right of exception allows a state to prevent the implementation of behavior that has been otherwise given formal approval. For instance, in the UN Human Rights Council there is no operative constitutional right of exception, and this allows certain steps to

be taken on the basis of majority approval. Yet when it comes to implementation or enforcement, acting behind the scenes, threatening funding cuts and actions for and against a high official, the political will of the Organization is effectively resisted and controlled. For instance, Israel despite ignoring strongly backed UN General Assembly resolutions dealing with such matters as refugees, Jerusalem, the separation wall, has been able to be defiant over the course of decades without experiencing any inter-governmental adverse consequences, and this is because it is protected by the United States exercise of its geopolitical right of exception on its behalf. The availability of such a geopolitical right is in direct proportion to the perceived hierarchy of hard and soft power in the world, which has meant that since World War II, the United States far more than any other political actor has enjoyed a geopolitical right of exception within the UN.

 

The existence of this geopolitical right of exception undermines the legitimacy and effectiveness of the UN. It is integral to regimes of double standards, and cuts directly against the grain of global justice that seeks to treat equals as equally as possible. It also implicitly endorses backroom strong arm tactics and procedural manipulation, as well as modifies and distorts the rights and duties of membership in the UN.

 

Overcoming the geopolitical right of exception would require its repudiation by the United States, in particular, through a recognition that its exercise is incompatible with the search for a peaceful, just, sustainable, and more participatory form of world order. Because it is often exercised invisibly, this geopolitical right is also a vehicle of influence relied upon by private sector corporate and financial interests that are contrary to the global public interest. At present, it seems hopelessly out of touch to expect any moves by the American and other powerful governments to forego the benefits of the geopolitical right of veto. Because its exercise is neither claimed nor acknowledged, there can be no accountability, thus operating in a manner that is contrary to the democratic spirit. The constitutional veto has the benefit of discourse and debate as various political actors try to offer convincing reasons for casting a veto to block a Security Council decision. For this very reason the geopolitical right of exception is often a more desirable option than the constitutional right if the policy or position being promoted is unpopular with public opinion and other governments. The U.S. Government struggles often behind the scenes at the UN to provide effective support for Israel in ways that get the job done without having to achieve such an unpopular result by a seemingly arbitrary reliance on its veto.

 

Unless a full-fledged world government were to be established, which seems slightly less likely than awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Vladamir Putin, there is no prospect of any renunciation of the geopolitical right of exception at the UN in the foreseeable future. The best that can be hoped for is a recognition of its existence and role, some sort of greater self-restraint exhibited in its exercise, and critical commentary by those who conceive of their political identity as that of ‘citizen pilgrims.’

Opposing Impunity for Geopolitical Criminality

5 Apr

 

 

Responding to intense pressure from the usual sources William Schabas, a prominent and respected expert on international criminal law, recently resigned as Chair of the UN expert commission of inquiry into war crimes allegations arising from the massive Israeli military operations in Gaza during July and August of 2014. These issues relating to international criminal accountability have also received recent prominence due to Palestine’s adherence to the Rome Treaty making it a party to the International Criminal Court, an initiative that generated an enraged punitive reaction on the part of Israel as well as an angry denunciation by Washington. On display in these instances is the struggle between extending the rule of law to international state crimes and the geopolitical resistance to such an effort whenever accountability to law is in tension with the pursuit of strategic interests.

Imposing international criminal responsibility upon political leaders and military commanders that occur in the aftermath of wars possesses a dual character from a geopolitical perspective: to vindicate major military undertakings of liberal democratic states and to ensure impunity for the leaders of these same states in the event that their behavior or that of their allies are alleged to be international crimes. These efforts at vindication are associated with strengthening the global rule of law and validating the established order, while impunity is invoked to insulate powerful individuals and their governments from criminal accountability. The resulting pattern in international life is one of double standards at the level of implementation and hypocritical rhetoric about the importance of a global rule of law based on its universal applicability.

 

Contemporary experience with these issues is grounded in the aftermath of World War II. In 1945 with great fanfare after World War II, especially at Nuremberg in the legal prosecution of surviving Nazi leaders, as well as at Toyko where a series of prominent Japanese personalities who had headed the imperial government and commanded its military forces were accused and convicted of international crimes. These sophisticated ‘show trials’ were generally endorsed in the West as a civilized alternative to the favored Soviet and British approaches, which would have been to arrange summary mass executions of all Germans deemed responsible for international crimes without making any effort to assess the gravity or accuracy of the charges directed at specific individuals. What was done at Nuremberg in 1945 was for prosecutors to prepare carefully evidence of alleged wrongdoing of each defendant under indictment as well as developing arguments about the legal relevance of the international crimes at stake while giving those accused an almost free hand to offer legal defenses and mitigating evidence as prepared by competent lawyers appointed to render them assistance.

 

In most respects, Nuremberg in particular continues to be viewed as a landmark success in the annals of the progressive development of international law. It is also significant that the outcomes of parallel Tokyo prosecutions of Japanese leaders are virtually unknown except in Japan where they are decried as ‘victors’ justice’ and throughout the world among a few specialists in international criminal law.

 

There are several reasons for the prominence of Nuremberg. First of all, the disclosures of the Holocaust at Nuremberg were so ghastly that some sort of punishment of those responsible seemed to be a moral imperative at the time.

Although the crime of genocide did not yet exist in law, the revelations of the Nuremberg proceedings documented as never before the systematic extermination of Jews and others in Europe. Beyond this, the war was widely believed to have been a just and necessary response to the menace of Naziism and Japanese imperialism, and their embrace of aggressive war. The Allied victory was viewed as decisive in overcoming the fascist challenge to liberal democracy, with the Nuremberg Judgment providing an authoritative rationale for waging a defensive war so costly in lives, devastation, and resources. Finally, the claim to be establishing a structure of legal accountability that took precedence over national law seemed integral to the postwar resolve to keep the peace in the future and deter aggression by reminding all leaders of the possibility of criminal accountability for initiating a war or abusing people under their control. The advent of nuclear weaponry reinforced the moral and political conviction that major wars must now be prevented by all available means, including this warning to leaders and military commanders that their actions could become the subject of criminal prosecution.

 

At the same time, this Nuremberg/Tokyo experiment was tainted from the outset. It was clearly victors’ justice that incorporated double standards. The evident crimes of the winners in the war were not even investigated, including the atomic bombings of two Japanese cities, which were viewed around the world as perhaps the worst single acts of wrongdoing throughout the course of the entire war, and only the Nazi death camps were in some way equivalent in relation to legality and morality. There were official statements made at Nuremberg that those who sat in judgment of the Germans would in the future be subject to similar procedures of accountability if they committed acts that seemed to be crimes under international law implying that the rule of law would replace victors’ justice. In effect, the claim made on behalf of moral credibility and political fairness was that this Nuremberg/Tokyo approach would assume the attributes of the rule of law by treating equals equally in future conflicts. Such expectations, if scrutinized, seemed to reflect the hopes of ‘liberal legalists’ in universal legal standards, but were never realistic goals given the structure and nature of world politics.

 

In effect, this Nuremberg promise could not be kept because geopolitical primacy continues to set the limits of legal accountability. Although there has existed an International Criminal Court since 2002, and ample grounds for believing that some major sovereign states have committed international crimes, there have zero prosecutions directed at dominant political actors, and not even investigations into possible criminality have been launched. Such a pattern results from a normative gap in world order that is not likely to be closed soon. It is a gap that is most visibly expressed by reference to the right of veto possessed as a matter of law by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. This right of veto amounts to an institutional grant of exemption from the legal obligation to comply with the UN Charter on matters of peace and security. For these five states and their friends and allies, compliance is discretionary, and non-compliance is in effect ‘a right.’ In this regard, the UN Charter is itself a product of what might be called ‘geopolitical realism,’ which takes precedence over the apolitical aspirations of ‘liberal legalists.’

 

And yet, the impulse to hold accountable those who commit crimes against the peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity remains strong among moderate democratic governments and in some sectors of global civil society. As a result there is some further development of the Nuremberg idea, although the fundamental tensions between hard power and establishing a credible rule of law with general applicability remains. During the 1990s the UN Security Council established ad hoc international tribunals to assess criminal responsibility associated with the breakup of former Yugoslavia and in relation to the genocidal massacres in Rwanda. In these North/South settings, there was more willingness to allow all sides to bring forth their arguments about the criminal behavior of their adversary since there were no allegations directed at geopolitical heavyweights. That is, the approach of liberal legalists became practical in these situations where no high profile geopolitical actor is being accused of an international crime.

 

The International Criminal Court was itself brought into being in 2002 by an unusual coalition of forces, joining governments with a great many NGOs drawn from around the world in a joint project. What came into being is an international institution with a mandate to investigate and prosecute, but lacking the participation and support of the dominant states, and operating within a framework that up to now has been deferential to the sensitivities of sovereign states in the West. Operating in such a limited way has led the ICC in its first decade to focus its attention almost entirely on African leaders, while looking the other way with respect to geopolitical actors. Liberals conceive of this as progress, doing what can be done, and beneficial to the extent that it apprehends some persons who have been responsible for atrocities and crimes against humanity. Critics of the ICC view it as another venue for the administration of ‘victors’ justice’ and an inscription of Western moral hegemony that entails a cynical expression of double standards. Both interpretations are plausible. The ICC is currently facing an identity test as to whether it will undertake investigations of alleged Israeli criminality made at the request of Palestine. Its institutional weight is being demonstrated by the degree to which the Israeli leadership reacts with fury, punitive policies, and intense anger directed at the Palestinian Authority for raising such a possibility. It should surprise few that Israel’s backlash against the ICC is supported by the United States.

 

For centuries there has been recognized the capacity of national courts to act as agents of law enforcement in relation to international wrongdoing. Such a judicial role was long exercised in Western countries in relation to international piracy, which was viewed as a crime against the whole world and hence could be prosecuted anywhere. Such an extension of international criminal law is based on ideas of ‘universal jurisdiction,’ strengthening the capacity of international society to address serious crimes of state. This kind of approach receive great attention in relation to allegations of torture made against the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, after he was detained by Britain in response to a 1998 request for extradition by Spain where a court stood ready to prosecute on the basis of indictments already made. After a series of legal proceedings in Britain the House of Lords acting as the country’s highest judicial body decided that Pinochet should be extradited, but only for torture charges relating to a period after torture became an international crime within Britain. In theory, national courts could become much more active in relation to universal jurisdiction if so empowered by parliamentary mandate, but again doing so without challenging geopolitical red lines. When Belgian courts threatened to proceed against Donald Rumsfeld because of his alleged authorization of torture in Iraq, political pressures were mounted by Washington, including even threats to move NATO. In the end, Belgium backed down by revising its national criminal code so as to make it much more difficult to prosecute international crimes that occurred outside of Belgium and for which Belgians were not victims or perpetrators.

 

Civil society has also acted to close the normative gap created by patterns of geopolitical impunity. In the midst of the Vietnam War, motivated by a sense of moral outrage and the paralysis of official institutions when it came to challenging American behavior, Bertrand Russell organized a symbolic legal proceeding that investigated charges of criminality in 1966 and 1967. Prominent intellectuals from around the world were invited to serve as a jury of conscience, heard evidence, issuing their opinion as to law and facts at the end. Inspired by this Russell Tribunal experience, the Permanent Peoples Tribunal was established a decade later by citizens, operating out of Rome, holding sessions on issues where there existed moral outrage, legal prohibitions, and institutional paralysis, symbolically challenging geopolitical impunity. In 2005 there was organized in Istanbul by a dedicated group of female activists an independent tribunal to investigate war crimes charges against British and American political and military leaders, as well as corporate actors associated with the Iraq War. The Iraq War Tribunal relied upon a jury of conscience chaired by Arundhati Roy to pronounce upon the evidence. Of course, such a tribunal can only challenge impunity symbolically by influencing public opinion, and possibly through encouraging boycotts and other moves that delegitimize the claimants of power and possibly alter the political climate. Nevertheless, it plays a role in the legitimacy war dimensions of international conflicts, providing an alternative narrative to the discourse

disseminated by geopolitical forces and giving encouragement to civil society activism by providing a convincing rationale for concluding that contested behavior violates fundamental norms of international law and morality.

 

In summary, it is still accurate to observe that geopolitical primacy inhibits the implementation of international criminal law from the perspective of a global rule of law regime that treats equals equally. At the same time, ever since Nuremberg there have been efforts to end the impunity of those guilty of international crimes in war/peace situations and national settings of oppressive rule. These efforts have taken several main forms: (1) the establishment by the UN of ad hoc tribunals with a specific mandate as with former Yugoslavia and Rwanda; (2) the establishment of a treaty based international institution, the International Criminal Court, with limited participation and disappointing results to date; (3) reliance on universal jurisdiction to activate national courts to act as agents on behalf of international society with respect to enforcing international criminal law; (4) the formation of civil society tribunals to assess criminal responsibility of

leaders in situations of moral outrage and global settings that render unavailable either inter-governmental or governmental procedures of accountability. (1)-(3) are projects of liberal legality, while (4) draws on more progressive jurisprudential energies outside the statist paradigm.

 

In the end, there is posed a choice. One possibility is go along with the one-eyed efforts of liberal legalists, most notably mainstream NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, silently acknowledging that the rule of law cannot be expected to function in relation to many serious international crimes due to the hierarchical and hegemonic structure of international society. The other possibility is to insist there can be no international justice so long as there exists a regime of ‘geopolitical impunity.’ In both instances, the contributions of civil society tribunals are needed, both for the sake of symbolic indictment and documentation of wrongdoing, and to acknowledge civil society as the moral and legal conscience of humanity. It must be admitted that only among liberal democracies are such self-critical initiatives of civil society tolerated, although such undertakings are derided and marginalized by mainstream media as the work of a ‘kangaroo court.’ Obama’s refusal to look back at the international crimes alleged against leading members of the Bush presidency is one awkward admission of the limits on legal accountability; such reasoning if generalized would invalidate any concern with all forms of past behavior, and hence any notion of accountability for all crimes. In such a dysutopia criminal law might exist, but by habit and expectation it would never be implemented, however severe the crime and dangerous the criminal. In the world we inhabit, without kangaroo courts international criminal law would continue with its limited writ, and there would no tribunals whatsoever to assess the criminality of the most powerful political actors on the world stage that menace many vulnerable peoples in the world.

 

 

 

 

The Mistakes of the Global Imperial State and the Mistakes of Others  

29 Mar

 

It was pointed out to me that the oddities of reconciliation without truth that I encountered in the Philippines with respect to the persisting prominence of the Marcos family despite the widespread discrediting of his period of ruler ship (1965-1986) is not as strange as I made it appear. After all, Jeb Bush has recently announced his intention to seek the presidency of the United States in 2016, and George W. Bush despite his deplorable presidency, is regarded as a political asset, and is actively campaigning and raising funds on behalf of his younger brother. In the Philippines, unlike the United States, there was a political rupture brought about by the People Power Movement that drove the Marcos clan from power and led directly to Corey Aquino becoming president, widow of Benigno Aquino Jr., the slain Marcos opponent. Even now this populist triumph is celebrated as a day of national pride for the country, and Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III sits in the Malacañang Palace as the elected leader of the country. Yet the political realities in the Philippines, as with America, are more notable for their continuities with their discredited past than by changes that repudiate and overcome it.

 

Barack Obama was acting in an admittedly different political setting in the United States when he put aside well grounded allegations of criminality directed at the leadership during the Bush presidency, prudently contending that the country should look forward not backward when it comes to criminal accountability of its former political leaders. Of course, this is the opposite of what was done with surviving German and Japanese leaders after World War II at the widely heralded Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, nor can such prudence ever become the norm in the United States in relation to the crimes of ordinary people, even the laudable whistleblowing crimes of the sort attributed to Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden. Such selective impunity seems to be the price that imperial democracies pay for avoiding civil strife at home, and preferable to the unity associated with authoritarian forms of governance.

 

For this reason alone, Obama’s morally regressive approach to accountability is politically understandable and prudent. America is polarized, and the most alienated and angry segment of the citizenry embraces the gun culture and likely remains ardently supportive of the sort of militarism and patriotic fervor that had been so strongly in evidence during the Bush presidency.

 

Thoughts along these lines led me a broader set of reflections. The mistakes that the Philippines makes, however horrifying from the perspectives of human rights, are at least largely confined to the territorial limits of the country and victimize its own citizenry. By way of comparison, the foreign policy mistakes that the United States mainly vicitimize others, although they often do at the same time impose heavy costs on the most marginal and vulnerable of Americans. As a society, many regret the impacts of the Vietnam War or the Iraq War on the serenity and self-esteem of American society, but as Americans we rarely, if ever, pause to lament the immense losses inflicted on societal experience of those living within such distant battlefields of geopolitical ambition. These victim societies are passive recipients of this destructive experience, rarely possessing the capability or even the political will to strike back. Such is the one-sidedness of imperial relationships.

 

An estimated 1.6 to 3.8 million Vietnamese died during the Vietnam War as compared to 58, 000 Americans, and similar casualty ratios are present in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, without even considering the disruption and devastation experienced. In Iraq since 2003 it is estimated that between 600,000 and 1 million Iraqis were killed, and over 2 million were internally displaced and another 500,000 Iraqis became refugees as a result of the war, while the United States lost in the vicinity of 4,500 combat personnel. Battlefield statistics should not blind us to the absoluteness of each death from the perspective of loved ones, but they do reveal a central dimension of the distribution of the relative human costs of war as between an intervening government and the target society. This calculus of combat death does begin to tell the story of the devastation of a foreign society, or the residual dangers that can materialize in death and maiming injuries long after the guns are silent from lethal unexploded ordinance that litters the countryside for generations, soil contamination by Agent Orange, and warheads containing depleted uranium, as well as a legacy of trauma and many daily reminders of war memories in the shape of devastated landscapes and destroyed landmarks of cultural heritage.

 

From almost any ethical standpoint it would seem that some conception of international responsibility should restrain the use of force in situations other than those authorized by international law. But that’s not the way the world works. The mistakes and wrongdoing that takes place in a distant foreign war is rarely acknowledged, and never punished or restitution offered. Perversely, it is only the territorial leaders that are held to account (e.g. Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Muammar Qaddafi). The United States Government, specifically the Pentagon, makes it a point to tell the world that it does not collect data on civilian casualties associated with its international military operations. In part, there is an attitude of denial, minimizing the ordeals inflicted on foreign countries, and in part there is the salve of an underlying official insistence that the U.S. makes every effort to avoid civilian casualties. In the context of drone warfare, Washington insists that there are very few civilian victims, as measured by the number of deaths, but never admits that a far larger number of civilians huddle in continuous acute fear that they may be targeted or unintentionally struck dead by an errant missile.

 

Given the statist and imperial structures of world order, it is not surprising that there is so little attention to such issues. The mistakes of an imperial global state have material reverberations far beyond their borders while the mistakes of normal state resound inwardly as in an echo chamber. The wrongs of those who act for the imperial global state are shielded from scrutiny by realistic notions of impunity, while the wrongs of those who act for a normal state are increasingly subject to international procedures of accountability. When this happened after World War II it was called ‘victors’ justice; when it happens now, especially with the one-eyed jurisprudence of ‘liberal legality’ it is explained by reference to prudence and realism, being practical, doing what it is possible, accepting limits, giving a fair trial to those who are accused, deterring some patterns of evil deeds.

 

This will not change unless either of two things come to pass: a global capability to interpret and implement international criminal law comes into being or the political consciousness of imperial global states is dramatically altered by the internalization of an ethos of responsibility toward foreign societies and their inhabitants. Any description of such advances in law and justice should make us aware of how utopian such expectations remain.

 

At present, there is only one global imperial state, the United States of America. Some suggest that China’s economic prowess creates a rival center of power and influence that should be acknowledged as a second global imperial state. This seems misleading. China may be more resilient, and is certainly less militarist in its conception of security and pursuit of its interests, but it is not global, nor does it fight wars distant from its homeland. Furthermore, Chinese language, currency, and culture do not enjoy the global reach of English, the U.S. dollar, and franchise capitalism. Undoubtedly, China is currently is arguably the most significant state in the world, but its reality is in keeping with core Westphalian ideas of territorial sovereignty, while the United States operates globally in all regions to solidify its status as the only global imperial state, indeed the first such state in the history of the world.

‘Lawfare’ and Liberation

23 Feb

Positive and Negative Forms of ‘Lawfare’

 

Issues of law and ‘lawfare’ are recurrent features of foreign policy debates in the United States. On the side, are efforts by peace activists and others to condition the behavior of all states, and especially the United States, by reference to authoritative limits on national discretion as encoded in the UN Charter, a binding treaty. In opposition to a law-oriented foreign policy for the United States are a variety of arguments that rely either directly or indirectly on a version of ‘American exceptionalism.’ Such arguments do not repudiate international law, but condition its applicability to American behavior and that of American allies, and insist on the implementation of international law in relation to the alleged unlawful conduct of adversaries (e.g. Russia involvement in eastern Ukraine)

 

On the other side of this discourse is the various forms of ‘lawfare’ as an instrumental use of law to achieve valued ends, positive or negative. In these roles international law can mobilize public opinion and government policy to support or oppose particular undertakings. In this limited sense it is appropriate to conceive of ‘lawfare’ as ‘soft power goepolitics’ or as a form of ‘asymmetric warfare’ waged by political actors deficient in hard power.

 

It was during the presidency of George W. Bush that the neocons decided that recourse to international law was a weapon of the weak that interfered with the grand strategy of the United States, especially in the Middle East. The terminology of lawfare was adopted by both advocates of reliance on international law as constraints on American (and Israeli) policy and by those who sought to denigrate invocations of international law as obstructive tactics that interfered with the protection of security in a post-9/11 world. In reaction to the Goldstone Report (2009) there was launched a notorious ‘Lawfare Project’ that viewed reliance on international law within the UN setting in a manner highly critical of Israel was a new form of ‘asymmetric warfare’ that needed to be countered to avoid the delegitimizing of Israel as a democratic sovereign state. This kind of interpretation dominated a conference at Columbia Law School, featuring the participation of the Dean, David Schizer, that denounced the Goldstone Report and human rights NGOs and was organized by a coalition of pro-Israeli organizations.

 

I regard lawfare as the use of the rules and procedures of law more neutrally, as instrumental uses of law to achieve or block policy outcomes. My focus is on international law, but the same dynamics apply to internal uses of law. The website, ‘LAWFARE,’ affiliated with the Washington think tank, The Brookings Institution, and bolstered by the active participation of some Harvard Law School conservative faculty, uses lawfare in this neutral, instrumental way, although its government oriented biases dominates its commentary.

 

There is a problematic side to international law that reflects its crafting and evolution over the centuries. International law definitely was developed to rationalize the interests and projects of the dominant political actors in the West. International law proved useful in giving a legal cover to colonial rule, unequal and imposed treaties, and to stabilize the expropriation of the natural resources of countries in the global South. At the same time, counter-hegemonic efforts were made to give international law quite different impacts, especially in Latin American settings. The effort was to put forward international law doctrines to strengthen the sovereign rights of weaker countries, especially in the context of economic relations.

 

Beyond the law on the books, there are the ambiguities created by state practice, especially with regard to peace and security, given the absence of any central governing authority or legislative institution on a global level to pronounce upon disputes about interpretation or to agree upon changes in governing rules. As a result, many ‘violations’ of international law serve as ‘precedents’ for the establishment of new norms; power generates law, and its interpretation, whether or not it serves the cause of justice. Further, with the veto in the UN Security Council giving the permanent members, and also indirectly their friends, a ‘legal’ right of exception with respect to compliance with international law. Such an interface between power and law offers an additional reason to be skeptical about any present claims of a global rule of law.

Against this background, I find it clarifying to distinguish between positive and negative uses of lawfare. I identify positive uses to be efforts to insist that international law be upheld to the extent that it serves values of peace, justice, and human dignity, and that its guidelines and conceptions of right, be generally treated as authoritative in diplomatic arenas concerned with the peaceful resolution of conflicts or initiatives designed to implement international criminal law, including making use of procedures to impose accountability on leaders of sovereign states. In these positive uses, there is an overall compatibility between lawfare and the pursuit of justice, although to express this conclusion inevitably reflects subjective perceptions and outlook. Other commentators on international law can and do have different views on such matters.

 

I identify negative uses of lawfare to be efforts to denigrate reliance on the procedures and norms of international law in seeking to pursue rights or hold individuals accountable for violations of international criminal law. The neocons were clear about their refusal to bind the pursuit of American foreign policy goals by shows of respect for international law. Their visions of American grand strategy regarded it as naïve and unhelpful to introduce international law dimensions into policy debates about the use of force. In this vein, thinking mainly about uses of force in defiance of the UN Charter and international law, several prominent neocons, including Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz, showed their contempt of international law as nothing more than ‘a weapon of the weak’ that should not be allowed to alter the behavior of the strong, and in effect, justify the disregard of such legal objections to hegemonic policies as mere tactics of the outgunned side in an asymmetric war.

 

By way of illustration, the exclusion of international law from the Oslo Framework for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict was clearly an effective instance of negative lawfare, denying for many years the Palestinians the benefit of claiming their rights by reference to international law. An example along the same lines were the punitive responses made by Israel and the United States to initiatives of the Palestinian Authority to seek statehood within the UN System and then on that basis to become a party to international treaties, including most controversially the Rome Treaty, which facilitates access to the International Criminal Court. The essence of this important example of negative lawfare centers on blocking, retaliating against, and denigrating attempts by political actors to make use of available procedures and legal norms to uphold their rights against those who rely on hard power to sustain oppressive structures. .

 

Lawfare can operate negatively or positively on any level of social interaction. When activists seek to encourage divestment of holding in companies doing business associated with seeking commercial gain from transactions or projects with unlawful Israeli settlements this is positive lawfare, with unlawfulness serving as an indicator of illegitimate behavior. When such initiatives are blocked by a legal technicality to frustrate efforts to encourage or demand divestment, invoking law becomes negative lawfare. This happened recently at the University of California at Davis. Interestingly, as in this divestment context, what is being called ‘law’ are organizational rules operative with a university setting, and not associated with legal rules generated by governmental institutions.

 

There is no way to simplify or generalize the role of law in human affairs. Its proper assessment depends on taking into account the structural circumstances (for instance, law as administered by Israel as the occupying power in the West Bank imposes unjust and coercive policies and practices) and on context (for instance, Palestinian reliance on their claims of right based on international law with respect to the right of return of Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements, status of Jerusalem, control of water). Legal discourse disputes these rights in a variety of ways. Palestinians invoke the authority of the UN General Assembly to vindicate their claims, while Israel claims the authority to put forward its own ideas about insisting that occupied Palestine is a territory of ‘disputed sovereignty’ and as such outside the domain of international humanitarian law.

 

As long as complex societies exist and actors have their own agendas and priorities, rules and procedures will be manipulated for the benefit of one or

another actor. This inheres in social process. What has happened recently calls for further reflection. Law has been used as an instrument to seek justice and law has been used as a means to gain and secure positions of strategic advantage. ‘Lawfare’ merely makes this tug of war between those that want to invoke international law and those that believes it unduly burdens statecraft

a more systematic reality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ISIS, Militarism, and the Violent Imagination

18 Sep

 

 

 

 

Before ISIS

 

The beheading of American and British journalists who were being held hostage by ISIS creates a truly horrifying spectacle, and quite understandably mobilizes the political will to destroy the political actor who so shocks and frightens the Western sensibility, which is far from being free from responsibility for such lurid incidents. Never in modern times has there been a clearer example of violence begetting violence.

 

And we need to ask ‘to what end?’ Political leaders in the West are remarkably silent and dishonest about what it is that they wish to achieve in this region beset since 2011 by a quite terrifying outbreak of political extremism, whether from above as in the cases of Syria, Egypt, and Israel or from below as with ISIS and al-Nusra.

 

It is difficult to recall that at the start of 2011, just three years ago, progressive voices around the world were inspired by the Arab upheavals, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, that burst upon the political scene unexpectedly. These extraordinary events appeared to repudiate the prevailing patterns of authoritarian, exploitative, and corrupt collaboration between oppressive domestic elites, neoliberal economic forces, and the regional imperial juggernaut that had kept this humanly disastrous reality stable for so long. Yet even during that time of optimism about the Arab future, a closer scrutiny of what was happening disclosed many reasons to be worried. It is helpful to look to this recent past to have some comprehension of the perplexing present.

 

A Revolutionary Spirit Without Revolutionary Action

 

The goals of these upheavals were far too ambitious to be realized by such limited challenges directed at the established order. These movements were essentially confined to getting rid of a hated ruler. Associating single individuals such as Mubarak, Ben Ali, or Assad with the grievances of an exploited and oppressed people overlooks the degree to which class interests and entrenched bureaucracies constituted structures. The popular forces bravely challenging the status quo lacked leadership, program, and even a clear agenda, and naively expected the remnants of the old regime to disappear or go along with the anguished call of mass discontent that sought bread, freedom, and dignity as the effect of removing the hated leader.

 

This innocence of exaggerated expectations made what had seemed a remarkable achievement of doing the impossible more vulnerable to reversal than was generally understood at the time when the immediate results seemed so stunning. What particularly impressed thoughtful commentators was being described as ‘a new subjectivity’ of the Arab masses. It had long been presumed that these Arab publics were reconciled to their fate, and would remain passive victims of their sorry fate. That they rose up with such force and resolve surprised the world, and themselves, by these courageous displays of self-empowerment and political creativity. It was also impressive that these upheavals, each distinct, shared a vision of an inclusive democracy that when established, would henceforth govern society with respect for all classes, religious and ethnic identities, genders, and political persuasions.

 

The reluctance to challenge the old order more fundamentally and punitively became coupled with a paradoxical and perverse situation of dependence on the old regime to manage in good faith the transition to the promised new dawn of constitutional democracy and freely elected political leaders. There seemed to be no understanding that these old elites in each country had interests that had been generally served by the previously established order, and would inevitably be threatened by the longings of the people, including expectations of moves toward greater social and economic equity threatening the prior acceptance of predatory arrangements with neoliberal globalization.

 

Preconditions for Transformative Political Ambitions

 

In this sense, there seemed little awareness in these movements of Lenin’s insistence that a successful transformative politics necessarily depends on substantially destroying the prior state structures; (“you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”), that is, by rebuilding the new transformed state from the ground up and getting rid of the old bureaucracy. This generalization is especially true if the old order was managed by indigenous leadership, and not imposed from without as in the colonial era. Also, as Hannah Arendt argued in her book on revolution, if the overthrow of the former regime does not have a radical social agenda, as was the case with American Revolution, only then does the possibility of a smooth and peaceful transition exists. [See Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (1969). Excluding the prospects for improved material conditions, including jobs for youth, was a political impossibility in the Arab world, where conditions of mass misery were what partially explained the role of oppressive structures and the assignment of security forces to prevent workers from organizing effectively.

 

Revealingly, in contrast to the activists in Tahrir Square, Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran encouraged a kind of Islamic Leninism, rejecting all pleas to reach compromises with the Shah’s regime in exchange for social peace and shared political power. From the perspective of late 2014 we take note of contrasting realities: Iran’s Islamic Republic is celebrating its 35th anniversary without a serious threat to its governance, while the so-called Egyptian Revolution barely lasted two years before the old regime in a more extreme form was fully restored under the bloody military leadership of General Sisi.

 

 

 

Underestimating Political Islam

 

There were additional factors at work in Egypt and the region. Perhaps, most significantly, those who sought to liberalize the governance structures without shaking their foundations greatly underestimated the electoral strength of political Islam, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the ideals of the Tahrir movement affirmed inclusionary democracy, the assumption of many who initially championed a new political order was that the MB would participate as a minority presence that would not displace the old urban ruling classes or threaten its privileges. When this turned out to be wrong it immediately shifted the political balance in such a way as to promote counter-revolution. As Europe discovered after 1848, nothing is worse for progressive politics than revolutionary ambitions to exceed revolutionary means.

 

This situation was further stressed by the rich and influential Gulf oil dynasties that felt deeply threatened by the Arab upheavals, and cared far more about their own stability than they did about promoting Sunni politics in the region. These governments were disturbed by the fall of Mubarak, and hoped for a political reversal in Egypt, welcoming the counter-revolution led by Sisi with an avalanche of funding, without blinking when this new military leadership proceeded to commit major atrocities against members of the MB and to criminalize the organization. It should not be ignored that this counter-revolutionary violence also served the strategic interests of Israel and the United States, restoring stability, marginalizing Muslim and democratizing forces, and avoiding the emergence of governments much more inclined to support Palestinian aspirations and to challenge neoliberal links with global capitalism. Into this mix that emerged in Egypt, must also be added the political ineptness of the MB, neither appreciating its popular support nor recognizing that MB political hegemony would never be accepted by either the remnants of the old regime nor by secular liberals who wanted Mubarak overthrown, but not the system. In this sense, it appears in retrospect that it was a great mistake of the MB to withdraw their earlier pledge after the Tahrir success story to refrain from seeking either to dominate the parliamentary elections or compete for the presidency.

 

Not Forgetting Iraq or Syria

 

If we consider other developments in the region there is another disturbing ‘truth’: the region at this stage seems better off being governed in an authoritarian manner than by either the sort of ‘democracy promotion’ that was the theme song of the George W Bush presidency (2000-2008) or through the political responses to the kind of popular uprisings that erupted in Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, elsewhere, but turned out to be unsustainable. The least bad outcomes as of now appear to be those countries where the old authoritarian regimes prevailed without much struggle (e.g. Morocco) and made a few gestures of reform averting both civil strife and a more brutal turn in authoritarian rule. The alternatives to authoritarian in the region now seem far worse: terrible civil warfare (as in Syria) or chaos without respite (as in Libya). Given the mess that unfolded in Iraq during a decade of American occupation, what Washington policymaker would not at this point secretly consider the second coming of Saddam Hussein in Iraq as a gift of the gods?

 

Syria, as well, sent the wrong signal throughout the region. First, there occurred a popular challenge to the Assad regime that occasioned a bloody counterinsurgency campaign. Then outside forces, Turkey, the United States, Gulf countries teamed up as ‘Friends of Syria Group’ to help the insurgency prevail, badly underestimating the military capabilities and political support of the Damascus government, which enabled it to withstand these efforts to repeat the Mubarak/Qaddafi experience of overthrow either from below (by a mass movement) or from without (by a NATO air campaign). In Syria instead of regime change there occurred an ongoing civil war that has taken upwards of 200,000 lives, caused millions to flea the country as refugees and millions more to become internally displace.

 

Three negative political effects also followed: neighboring countries were destabilized, the unresolved Syrian struggle gave rise to various forms of Islamic extremism within Syria and in the region, and the atrocities of Assad gave license to others in the region (such as Sisi) to commit crimes against humanity with the prospect of impunity.

 

What lessons can we learn? Above all, beware of what is wished for. In effect, above all else, the last several decades should teach the West that the days of staging successful colonial interventions at acceptable costs are long past, and that premising post-colonial interventionist diplomacy on a moral crusade of human rights, democracy, and counter-terrorism fools almost no one except some of the people in the metropole, and wins few real friends in the target societies other than cynical opportunists or desperate insurgents. If intervention is followed by military occupation many of those who were initially willing to accept any and all outside help to get rid of the hated leader quickly get disillusioned and turn on their earlier benefactor, a process dubbed ‘blowback.’ [For identification of the phenomenon and its naming see Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, 2004) If the intervention is not followed by an occupation the results are not much better. Piles of bodies and debris are left behind, but the new reality is likely to be, as in Libya, the kind of ungovernable chaos with armed militias substituting for the rule of law. Washington tends to call such situations ‘failed states’ as if it had nothing to do with the collapse of governance.

 

America’s and NATO’s Unlearned Lessons

 

America and NATO should have learned the limits of military superiority and the problematics of occupation from their failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Military superiority and shock and awe tactics can generally overwhelm a Third World government and quickly destroy its military capability, but that is only initial and easy phase of an effort to control the political future of a targeted country. Notoriously, Bush didn’t understand this in relation to Iraq when he infamously announced ‘mission accomplished’ to the world immediately after Iraqi military resistance crumbled and Saddam Hussein was driven from power.

Phase two of the Iraq undertaking involved occupation and state-building neoliberal style, and the emergence of formidable political resistance. The early glow of victory soon fades away, and a variety of troubles start to overwhelm the intervening side. A movement of national resistance takes shape, and adopts insurgent tactics against the foreign invader that takes away many of the benefits of military superiority that earlier achieved an easy battlefield victory. Resistance consists of various acts of violent disruption that gradually turn a hostile and foreign occupation into a long nightmare. The high tech weaponry of the occupier remains an effective killing machine, but it increasingly kills the wrong people, alienates far more, and seems helpless to establish minimal order much less to deliver on the promise of democracy, economic prosperity, and human rights for all. The prime objective of the occupier becomes one of crafting a graceful exit that disguises the abandonment of the original enterprise, and if that fails, leaving in a humiliating manner without being able to disguise the defeat. It should have been evident from the outset in Iraq that the effort to embed democracy is in tension with the strategic goal of integrating the country in accord with Western ideas of security and political economy. The idea of turning over security to an indigenous and partisan army trained to make safeguard the government put in place by a military intervention is truly a ‘mission impossible.’

 

Strategic Failure

 

What was the real outcome of both of these major military interventions that cost many lives, generated mass refugee and internally displaced populations, and expended trillions of dollars on these futile ventures? In Afghanistan the results were a mixture of chaos, destabilization of Pakistan, and the reemergence of the Taliban as a formidable political force. In Iraq, the ironic outcome after a decade of occupation was a strategic victory for Iran and its pro-Shi’ite foreign policy, along with sectarian strife and widespread chaos, culminating during this past year with the eruption of ISIS occupying a significant expanses of territory in Iraq, and Syria. ISIS had the audacity to proclaim itself the Islamic State and to found a new caliphate without regard to international borders.

 

In both societies these results are exactly the opposite of the goals set by the intervening side. What were the real motivations of the intervenors? There are, I believe, three overlapping answers given varying weights by commentators: for oil, for arms sales and the political economy of militarism, and to ensure the desired strategic hegemony of the American/Israeli partnership throughout the Middle East.

 

The failure results from a basic disconnect. Securing the neoliberal priority of assuring access to Middle Eastern oil at stable prices bolstered by a maximum Western private sector investment depends upon maintaining good relations with stable governments and receptive societies. Stable political structures, given the American commitment to Israel, together with capitalist predatory behavior, produces a hostile cleavage between state and society throughout the region, making political order fully dependent on effective authoritarian governance. Under these conditions it is evident that any claimed commitment to human rights and democracy is hypocritical, and at best peripheral. Such claims serve as misleading rationalizations for intervention in a post-colonial era where naked imperial justifications are no longer credible. It puts the West in the position of inevitably collaborating with national elites that suppress the most fundamental human right of their own peoples—that of the right of national self-determination, which is highlighted as common Article I of both the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

 

Remembering Vietnam

 

There is a further disconnect. Relying on military intervention to achieve the goals of foreign policy is not a new recipe for political failure, and such an approach should have been discarded long ago for realist reasons. A repudiation of interventionary diplomacy should have been the crucial lesson learned from the Vietnam War. Remember America won all the big battles, controlled every combat zone, and yet lost the war. A Vietnamese military commander’s response is worth pondering made to an American official who insisted that despite the political outcome of the war, the United States was never defeated militarily by Vietnam: “Yes, that is true, but it is irrelevant.”

 

Understanding why it is irrelevant is the great unlearned lesson in relation to the conflicts taking place the period since World War II. It should by now be clear even to the most dimwitted real politik analyst that every colonial war since World War II was won by the militarily inferior side. Perhaps, the most dramatic instance of people power triumphing over imperial power occurred in India’s defeat of the mighty British Empire without firing a shot. In Indochina and Algeria French colonialism finally gave way to national movements with far worse weaponry. National resilience in the end proves stronger than foreign military and police control.

 

The real untold story of this string of losses sustained by the West is the empowerment of people. This empowerment was eventually accorded moral and legal respect by a global diplomatic process that now seems a false gesture of imperial disempowerment. Acceptance of the moral claims of and legal right to self-determination was formally acknowledged, but the geopolitics of power and wealth went on as before, and continued at great costs to seek by force of arms what could not otherwise be justly acquired.

 

The recent Israeli military operation against the helpless people of Gaza is an extreme illustration of this dynamic. No people in the Middle East have endured as much cruelty and suffering during their long national movement for independence and sovereignty than have the Palestinians. And no state has been as determined as Israel to rely on its vastly superior military means to maintain control, expand, and ruthlessly suppress opposition. And yet after nearly 70 years of dispossession, occupation, militarist subjugation, and Western backing, the Palestinians are far from defeated. In the recent one-sided Protective Edge campaign over 2100 Palestinians were killed, 75% of whom were civilians, as compared to Israel reporting losses of 70 dead, of whom 66 were members of the IDF. It suggests that ‘state terrorism’ is far deadlier for the civilian population than is the violence of enemy resisters. But consider the political dynamics: the Israeli reasons for staging this horror show seemed to be mainly to convince the collaborationist leadership in Ramallah to stop cooperating with Israel and to weaken decisively the organization structure and political support of Hamas. As with the cases mentioned earlier, the military dominance produced great devastation combined with a political defeat: instead of weakening Hamas, the organization gained in popularity not only in Gaza, but even more so in the West Bank where new polls show that in any forthcoming election Hamas would easily win over the Palestinian Authority, which was unlikely before Israel launched its latest deadly attack to once more ‘mow the lawn’ in Gaza.

 

The next concern, following from what has been argued, is ‘why such a clear pattern of repeated failures should not lead to policy adjustments?’ There are two explanations: the political elites of the world are hard-wired to think within an anachronistic realist box in which military power is the controlling force of history. Such thinking is also part of the political culture of the United States where security is correlated with hard power, no matter the facts are. This defiance of reality is sadly reinforced by American political culture. When recent horrific crimes in movie theaters and schools where innocent persons are willfully slaughtered by a deranged heavily armed individual, the militarized mentality of the citizenry leads it not to demand the prohibition of assault weapons in private hands, but perversely to a surge in private arms sales.

 

The ISIS Challenge Revisited

 

This brings us back to ISIS, and what might be done that improves the situation rather than worsen it. Barack Obama has presided over shaping the regional response. He was confronted by a multifaceted dilemma. He had been elected president twice partly to end American engagement in overseas wars, especially in the Middle East, and here he was once more rallying the region and Europe for yet another war against an adversary that posed no discernable threat to the American people. To overcome this awkward fact, it was necessary to dramatize the barbarism of ISIS tactics, pointing to the

American victims of ISIS atrocities, and at the same time promise there would be no American casualties. Barbarous as were these atrocious acts, beheadings were unfortunately not new to the region, and were regularly used upon by the Saudi Arabian government in punishing convicted criminals. True, these incidents involved American and British nationals who were innocent of wrongdoing, but the emphasis was not so much placed on their innocence as on the horrifying technique used to carry out the executions.

 

Here is the core problem: America’s leadership in the region depends on actively protecting the authoritarian status quo, especially in the Gulf, and so doing nothing about ISIS was not an option. What Obama is proposing to do repeats the old formula of failure: air strikes; training, arming, and advising friendly forces (Iraqi Kurds, moderate Syrians, Iraqi military units), disrupting ISIS overseas recruiting and funding. Obama’s program is a pale version of post-Vietnam counter-insurgency doctrine where risks of American casualties must be minimized while air power, including drones, plus native ground forces with their own political agendas are relied upon to carry out the dirty work. Yet, as in earlier encounters, the likely result is to induce chaos and alienation arising from accidental targeting of innocent civilians arousing public resentment, and a no win/no lose standoff that causes great suffering to the society, including producing many refugees and internally displaced persons. It is illustrative of thinking within the old militarist box, and its prescriptions are almost certain to make any particular situation worse than if left alone.

 

Of course, there are far preferable options, but to adopt these requires looking below the surface. It would have to start with the admission that the American occupation of Iraq was the proximate cause of the emergence of ISIS, especially due to the purge of Bathist elements in the government and armed forces, and the encouragement of Shi’ite sectarianism. Abandoning sectarian maneuvers is one way to avoid some of the worst recent mistakes.

 

Another productive path presupposes an American diplomatic outlook oriented around wider ethical and world order concerns. Such an adjustment would require loosening the dependency ties to Israel, and follow a rational line of geo-strategic self-interest in the Middle East. Such a course of action, hardly ever mentioned because it seems too unrealistic, would involve taking three steps: bringing Iran into the effort to find a political solution for the Syrian civil war; proposing a nuclear free zone throughout the Middle East; exerting pressure on Israel to uphold Palestinian rights under international law. This is a distinctly political approach that contrasts with militarism that has produced destructive turbulence in the region in the period since the partial stabilities of the Cold War era collapsed along with the Berlin Wall in 1989.

 

Militarist geopolitics seems destined to lead to yet another Western catastrophe in the tormented Middle East. There is no political will visible anywhere on the horizons of world politics that might pose a humane challenge to such disaster-prone policymaking. And so the murderous cycle of violence repeats itself yet again, the alien militarism of this Western led coalition is confronting the indigenous violence of ISIS that the mistakes of earlier interventions by the West have helped to nurture. And so dispiriting repetition occurs instead of uplifting innovation, and the wheels of violence turn with accelerating velocity.

Five Palestine Futures

24 Jun

 

Background and Foreground      

 

 

For years, perhaps going back as far as the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991, influential international debate on the future of Palestine has almost exclusively considered variations on the theme of a two-state solution. The American Secretary of State, John Kerry, stampeded the Palestinian Authority and Israel into negotiations that ‘failed’ even before they started a year ago. At least Kerry was prudent enough to warn both sides that this was their do or die moment for resolving the conflict. It was presumed without dissent in high places anywhere that this two-state outcome was the one and only solution that could bring peace. Besides the parties themselves, the EU, the Arab League, the UN all wagered that a resolution of the conflict required the establishment of a Palestinian state. Even Benjamin Netanyahu became a reluctant subscriber to this mantra in his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, although always in a halfhearted spirit.

 

The reasoning that underlay this consensus went along these lines: a viable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict could not challenge the Israeli commitment and the essential Zionist Project to create a homeland for Jews worldwide; this meant that self-determination for the Palestinian people would have to be addressed separately, and the only way to do this was by way of a partition of historic Palestine. The British had come to this conclusion as early as 1936 in the Peel Commission Report (a British Royal Commission that concluded that the British mandate as applied to the whole of historic Palestine was unworkable because of the tensions between the two ethnic communities, and proposed that partition be imposed), which became the basis for the solution proposed in 1947 by the UN in General Assembly Resolution 181. It was reaffirmed in Security Council Resolution 242 unanimously adopted after the 1967 War that reduced the portion of Palestine assigned to the Palestinian from 45% to 22%, calling for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the territory occupied as a result and reaffirming the principle of international law that territory could not be validly acquired by force of arms.

 

Underneath the partition consensus there is an intriguing puzzle to solve: why has the consensus persisted despite the leadership of neither Israel nor Palestine seeming to have opted for partition except as a second best outcome. The Palestinians made their dislike of partition manifest from the outset of large scale Jewish immigration in the decades after the Balfour Declaration of 1917, believing that imposing a Jewish homeland, much less a Jewish state, was an unacceptable colonial encroachment. In the late 1980s the Palestinians, as represented by the Palestine Liberation Organization, adjusting to the realities of Israel’s presence, accepted the idea of partition in the historic decision in 1988 of the Palestine National Council. In its essence, the Palestinians endorsed the vision embedded in SC Res. 242, envisioning a Palestinian reality based on an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-war green line borders, an expectation that, of course, never materialized.

 

More subtly, the Zionist leadership was at best ambivalent about partition, appreciating it initially as a path leading to sovereignty, which exceeded ‘homeland’ as a political outcome, and represented more than they could have hoped for earlier in their movement, yet decisively less than the biblical vision of Israel as encompassing the whole of historic Israel. As the situation evolved since Israeli independence, Israel has continuously revised its sense of a favorable balance of forces making it seem realistic to seek a fuller realization of the Zionist dream. In recent years, the Israeli one-staters have started to gain the upper hand, based partly on what has been happening on the ground, partly by the rightward drift of the governing coalition, and partly from the absence of real incentives to compromise territorially due to the falling away of Palestinian armed resistance and the absence of meaningful pressure from Washington. There is a renewed reliance in Israel on the contention that the ‘Palestinians’ do not really have a distinct ethnicity, and hence are not a ‘people’ entitled to self-determination under international law. Palestinians are and should be viewed as ‘Arabs.’ As such, they have no need for another state as already 22 Arab states exist. In my experience, within Israel, almost no Israelis refer to Palestinians as other than as Arabs, except of course the Palestinians.

  

Of course, what a Palestinian state meant to the Palestinians was different than what it meant to the Israelis. Additionally, what it meant for the Palestinian Authority was also far apart from what the Palestinians overseas dispersed communities and the refugee camps believed to be the necessary components of peace. Almost necessarily, the focus on Palestine as a state rather than Palestine as the communal recipient of rights reduced the conflict to a territorial dispute supposedly susceptible to solution by a ‘land for peace’ formula. This approach marginalized other Palestinian grievances, above all, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, creating tensions between Palestinians living under occupation and Palestinians living in refugee camps and in exile. It also situated issues relating to Jerusalem in some indeterminate zone that was neither territorial nor distinct from territorial claims.

 

On the Israeli side, too, there were big variations. The dominant Israeli position in recent years has been one in which the dimensions of a Palestinian state must be subordinated to the imperatives of Israeli security as defined by the Israeli government. In effect, that would mean confiscating all of Occupied Palestine to the West of the separation wall and the settlement blocs as well as controlling the borders and maintaining for an indefinite period Israeli security forces in the Jordan Valley. In addition, Palestinians must renounce all their claims as part of a final status agreement, which would seem also to imply the end of any assertion of a right of return for 1948 and 1967 Palestinian refugees. More maximalist versions involve even larger annexationist features and treat the city of Jerusalem as exclusively belonging in perpetuity to Israel. On top of all these demands is the insistence by Netanyahu that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which both relegates the Palestinian minority in Israel to permanent subjugation and effectively renounces any Palestinian right of return.

 

The Israeli government having in recent years become virtually inseparable from the settler movement has long appreciated that the function of endorsing a Palestinian state was little more than a way of appeasing, and thereby neutralizing, world public opinion, given its insistence that a political solution was possible and necessary, and could only happen if the Palestinian got their state, satisfying at the very least, the territorial core of self-determination. Even now the Palestinian Authority continues to sing the same lyrics, although the melody is more solemn. The Palestinian governmental representatives in recent years have lost even the ability to say ‘no’ to international negotiations despite having nothing to gain from the recurrent charade of such American orchestrated gatherings and quite a bit to lose by way of expanding settlements, the altered makeup of Jerusalem, and a gradual shifting international mood in the direction of accepting Israeli maximalism as unassailable, if regrettable. Ironically, Israeli media influence and the supportive voice of the U.S. Government also blames the Palestinians for each round of failed peace talks, although for the first time, the Israel obstructionist role was so evident, Washington blamed both sides.

 

 

There is no light at the end of this particular tunnel. With what appears to be the death throes of a failed peace process is being acknowledged in the form of an eerie silence in high places. There is an absence of conjecture or advocacy as to how the conflict might end abetted by the recent focus on the turmoil in the region, especially the renewed chaos in Iraq and intensifying strife in Syria that has shifted public and media attention away from the Israel-Palestine agenda. This evasive silence has for the present replaced earlier false hopes invested in futile diplomatic negotiations. In retrospect, it is easy to conclude that political preconditions for conflict-resolving negotiations premised on a viable Palestinian sovereign state never truly existed on the Israeli side, assuredly after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. This is mainly because the expansionist vision of the right-wing settlers became more and more accepted as official state policy in Tel Aviv, and there was no longer pressures being mounted by Palestinian armed struggle. On the Palestinian governmental side, in contrast, there was an eagerness to end the occupation and attain the status and rituals associated with being a sovereign state. Confusion surrounded the practicalities of what such an arrangement would yield. It always seemed doubtful as to whether a deal like this could be sold to the Palestinian people if it left the several million Palestinians living in refugee camps and overseas out in the cold. This assessment is especially true since the death of Arafat in 2004, which has led to a virtual leadership vacuum on the Palestinian side.

 

The security logic of the Israeli right is that Israel will only be able to maintain its security over time if it continues to control all or most of the West Bank. This image of security reflects the view that real threat to Israel no longer comes from Palestinian armed resistance. It comes from the surrounding Arab world that is moving toward more advanced weaponry, and at some point is almost sure to again turn its guns and missiles in an Israeli direction. Additionally, pushing toward a similar understanding, is the view that the full realization of Zionism involves the incorporation of the West Bank, always referred to in internal Israeli discourse by their biblical names of Judea and Samaria.

 

Peace through bilateral negotiations presided over by the United States has long seemed moribund to many close observers, but after the recent collapse of the talks this top down diplomatic approach seems discredited even among governments and at the UN, at least for now. Yet it is impossible for most of the world to accept the finality of such a stalemate that favors Israel, in effect, ratifying land grabs and apartheid structures, while consigning the Palestinians to regimes of misery of for the indefinite future, which translates into the rigors of permanent denial of rights, oppression, refugee camps, and involuntary exile. This bleak assessment raises the question ‘What Now?’

 

           

Constructing a New Box

 

 

In situations of this sort, where differences seem irreconcilable, the common call is ‘to think outside the box.’ The old box was the consensus associated with the two-state mantra, which appeared to have a solidity that never truly existed. Now appearances are more reliable. At present there is not even a box to think within. Yet silence and despair is not an option while Palestine suffering and denial of rights endures. Future alternatives need to be imagined and appraised. Five seem worth pondering, and each has some plausibility.

(1)  Israeli One-State: Such an end game involves extending Israel’s border to incorporate most of the West Bank, keeping the settlements except, perhaps, relinquishing control over a few isolated outposts. This vision of Palestine’s future takes on heightened political relevance considering that Reuven Rivlin, the newly elected Israeli President, is an open advocate of a supposedly humane version of an Israeli one-state outcome, a position that directly contradicts Netanyahu’s endorsement of an eventual Palesinian state. This benevolent version, spelled out in some detail by an influential settler advocate, Dani Dayan, calls for a radical easing of Palestinian life in relation to day to day humiliations, ranging from the numerous checkpoints, restrictions on mobility, and anticipates and supports the dismantling of the separation wall. [See Dayan, “Peaceful Nonreconciliation Now,” NY Times, June 9, 2014]

 

Dayan proposes that the Israeli government take a series of steps to raise the Palestinian standard of living significantly. He admits that this type of ‘economic peace’ will never satisfy Palestinian political/legal grievances relating to territory, independence, and the right of return. Such a proposal is essentially offering the Palestinians a Faustian Bargain in which Palestinians give up their rights of resistance in waging a political struggle for self-determination in exchange for the tangible psychological and economic advantages of living better lives materially and enjoying some measure of dignity within an Israeli structure of governance. The obstacle here is that the authentic voices representing the Palestinian people seem united in refusing to renounce their political ambitions and their right of resistance. The acceptance of such an arrangement would be widely understood, including among the Palestinian people, as a political surrender to the de facto realities of Israeli settler colonialism carried to its maximalist endpoint. It is relevant to note that the Dayan proposal is coupled with the expectation that the Palestinians would renounce in principle and practice any right of violent resistance, while the Israeli state would be entitled to engage in violence whenever the perceived imperatives of security so demanded.

 

 

(2)  Binational One-State: The more idealistic version of the one-state solution presupposes a secular state that encompasses the whole of historic Palestine, establishes a unified government with democracy and human rights for all, and creates semi-autonomous regions where Jews and Palestinians can exercise self-administration and freely express their separate national and ethnic identities. In effect, the two dominant peoples in Palestine would agree to live together within a single sovereign state on the basis of equality and democracy, but with agreed provisions creating separate national communities preserving culture, tradition, ethnicity, and religious affiliation. There are several obstacles: given the realities on the ground and the attachment of an overwhelming majority of Israelis to the Zionist Project of a Jewish State with its unlimited right of return for Jews worldwide, the proposal seems utopian, lacking political traction. Furthermore, the disparities in wealth and education would likely lead to Israeli hierarchy, if not dominance and continued exploitation, in any process that purported to unify the country on a non-Zionist basis.

 

 

(3)  Israeli Withdrawal from Occupation: In this proposal, there would be no explicit shift in the structures of governance. In a manner similar to the 2005 Sharon Disengagement Plan for Gaza, this new initiative would apply to those portions of Palestine that Israel seeks to incorporate within its final international borders. This arrangement would leave the Palestinian Authority in charge of the remnant of the West Bank, as well as Gaza. It would maintain the actuality of the occupation regime, but without the presence of Israeli security forces and keep the separation wall, imposing rigid border controls and continue repression, effectively depriving Palestinians of the enjoyment of their most basic human rights. This approach                          rests on the assumption that Israeli military control is able to implement such a solution as well as to deal with external threats mounted from hostile forces in the region. The main obstacle is that Palestinians would have no incentive to accept such an outcome, it would be denounced in most international settings, including the United Nations, and it would have the likely political consequence of further isolating Israel in global settings.

 

(4)  Palestinian Self-Determination: There is some new thinking in the Palestinian camp, most articulately formulated by Ali Abunimah in his important book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine. The emphasis is on civil society activism and nonviolent Palestinian resistance as building global support for a solution that is responsive to the Palestinian right of self-determination. What form self-determination eventually assumes is a matter, above all, for Palestinians to decide for themselves. The realization of self-determination presupposes leadership that is accepted by authentic representatives of the whole of the Palestinian people, including those living as a minority within Israel, those living under occupation, and those in refugee camps and involuntary exile. The contours of the territorial division or unity that emerges would be the outcome of negotiations, but its embodiment would address the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people as defined by international law and international human rights and include a formal acknowledgement by Israel of past injustices done to the Palestinian people. The main obstacle here is one of hard power disparities and rigidities, as well as the continuing, although weakening, Jewish worldwide engagement with the Zionist Project. The way around such an obstacle is to gain worldwide support that mounts sufficient pressure on Israel, the United States, and Europe so as to induce a recalculation of interests by Israeli leaders and citizens based on a new realism associated with the increasing leverage of growing Palestinian soft power capabilities.

 

(5)  Peaceful Co-Existence: In recent years, Hamas, strangely seems to be the last holdout for a version of the two-state solution, although in its maximalist form. Israel would need to withdraw to the 1967 borders, end its blockade of Gaza, and give Palestine control over East Jerusalem. The main obstacle here is that Israel would have to abandon its expansionist goals and dismantle the settlements, although it could retain the Zionist Project in its more limited territorial applications to Israel as it existed in 1967. The secondary obstacle is that the Hamas Charter calls for the total removal of the entire Jewish presence from historic Palestine, making the proposal seem tactical and untrustworthy, and at most intended to serve as an interim arrangement, an uneasy truce and unsustainable peace. Hamas officials have indicated a willingness to commit to 50 years of coexistence, a period in which much could change, including even the primacy of the statist framing of political community. It is impossible to imagine Israel accepting such a blurry outcome that rolled back the factual realities of expansion that have been created by Israel over the course of several decades. Besides, whatever its content the very fact that Hamas was the source of such a proposal would alone be sufficient to produce an Israel rejection.

 

A Concluding Comment

 

It is obvious that none of these five approaches seems either attractive enough to challenge the status quo or politically persuasive enough to shift the balance of forces bearing on the conflict. Yet, there are signs indicating both that the Israelis are moving toward a unilaterally imposed option and the Palestinians are becoming more inclined to combine nonviolent resistance with support for militant global solidarity. On the one side, the Israeli settler movement is on the front line, and on the other, the Palestinian BDS campaign is gathering momentum as the leading expression of the Palestine National Movement. In both instances, at this time the relevant governmental entities have been marginalized as political actors in relation to the struggle. This is itself an extraordinary development, but where it will lead remains obscure. Two images of the near future seem most relevant. From an Israeli perspective: the consummation of the Zionist project by the incorporation of all or most of the West Bank, the further ethnic consolidation of control over the whole of Jerusalem, and the rejection of any humanitarian responsibility or political ambition with regard to the Gaza Strip. From a Palestinian perspective: the growth of the global solidarity movement to a point where an increasing number of governments impose sanctions on Israel, reinforced societal initiatives associated with the BDS campaign, giving rise to new thinking in Israel and the United States about how best to engage in damage control. If such a point is reached, the experience of transforming apartheid South Africa into a multi-racial constitutional democracy is almost certain to intrigue the political imagination.

Zombie Ideas and the Presbyterian Divestment Decision

21 Jun

 

 

At this moment it is right to celebrate unreservedly  the outcome of the vote in Presbyterian General Assembly decreeing the divestment of $21 million worth of shares in Motorola Solutions, Hewlett-Packard, and Caterpillar, companies long and notoriously associated with implementing Israel’s unlawful occupation policies in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza. This carries forward the momentum of the BDS Campaign and recent efforts emanating from the UN and the EU to induce governments, as well as corporations and financial institutions to become aware that it is increasingly viewed as problematic under international law to profit from dealings with Israel’s settlements and occupation security mechanisms.

 

It is much too soon to suggest a cascading effect from recent moves in this direction, but the mainstreaming of the divestment and boycott campaigns in a major achievement of the Palestinian Solidarity Movement that is displacing the moribund ‘peace process’ that in recent months dramatized the extent to which the Israeli Government is not interested in a favorable negotiated solution even as mediated by partisan U.S. mediation mechanisms and in relation to a weak Palestinian Authority that seems readier to offer concessions than to seek compromises that incorporate Palestinian rights under international law.

 

The Presbyterian decision, itself vetted by an elaborate debate and producing a text crafted to narrow the distance between supporters and opponents of divestment did not address issues of context such as Israel’s formal approval of settlement expansion, the Knesset election of a new Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin*, who favors the annexation of the entire West Bank and Jerusalem, and the collapsed negotiations between the parties prompted a year ago by the Kerry diplomatic onslaught. In this regard the Presbyterian decision includes language affirming Israel’s right to exist, encouraging inter-faith dialogue and visits to the Holy Land, distancing the divestment move from BDS, urging a ‘positive investment’ in activities that improves the lives of both Palestinians and Israelis, and endorsing the two-state solution should be understood mainly as expressions of intra-Presbyterian politics, and not be interpreted as serious substantive positions. Such an interpretation of what is significant and what is not about this outcome is reinforced by the reported feverish lobbying of pro-Israeli NGOs against the decision, including by the Anti-Defamation League and taking the form of an open letter to the Assembly signed by 1,700 rabbis from all 50 states that together constitute the United States. The most ardent backers of Israel may now pooh-pooh the decision, but this seems like sour grapes considering their all out effort made to avoid such a pro-divestment result, which is sure to have a variety of ripple effects.

 

  • Mr. Rivlin, a Likud Party member of the Knesset, is a follower of the rightest inspirational figure, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, an early Zionist leader who favored a Jewish state encompassing the whole of historic Palestine. At the same time Rivlin is a social and political liberal favoring equal rights for Jews and Palestinians, including giving Palestinians the vote and the chance to govern if they achieve electoral success. Netanyahu, also from Likud and a follower of Jabotinsky, has claimed since 2009 conditionally to support the establishment of some kind of Palestinian state, but acts as if this will never happen under his watch, and in the meantime is totally illiberal in his support for harsh rule in occupied Palestine.

 

 

Because it reflects false consciousness, it may not be too soon to challenge the Presbyterian text for its ‘endorsement’ of the two-state solution. It seems to me to illustrate what Paul Krugman in another context called ‘the Zombie doctrine,’ namely, the retention of an idea, thoroughly discredited by evidence and the realities of the situation, but somehow still affirmed because it serves useful political purposes. Here, it enables the church divestment move to be reconciled with signals that the Prsebyterian Church is not departing from the official consensus among Western governments and the Palestinian Authority as to how the conflict is to be finally resolved. What this overlooks is the utter disdain for such a solution that is evident in Israel’s recent behavior, as well as the situation created by a half million Israeli settlers and over 100 settlements.

 

Some suggest that the Palestinian Authority is equally responsible for the diplomatic breakdown because it acted like a state by signing on to some international conventions angering Israel and then establishing a technocratic interim government as part of a reconciliation agreement with Hamas that angered Israel even more. It seems clear enough that if Israel had been genuinely interested in a grand accommodation with the Palestinians it would welcome such moves as creating the political basis for a more sustainable peace. More significantly, these moves by the PA followed upon overtly provocative announcements by Israeli official sources about approving plans for major settlement expansions and were overtly linked to Israel’s failure to follow through with agreed arrangements for the release of Palestinian prisoners. Despite Kerry’s cajoling and pleading with the Israeli leadership to keep the diplomatic path open, Israel defied Washington. In this political atmosphere, to retain any credibility among the Palestinians, the PA also had to act as if there was nothing to be gained by keeping the negotiations on life support.

 

With all due respect to the Presbyterian drafters of the text, it is not helpful to Palestinians, Israelis, and even Americans to lengthen the half-life of the two-state solution. Zombie ideas block constructive thought and action. Israeli right-wing advocate of an Israeli one-state solution are coming out of the closet in a manner that expresses their new hopes for their preferred solution. Those who favor a just and sustainable peace should abandon the pretension that separate states are any longer feasible, if ever desirable. It has become important to derail two-state discourse, which is at best now diversionary. The only futures worth pondering under current conditions is whether there will emerge from the ruins of the present either a political community of the two peoples that becomes an Israeli governed apartheid state or somehow there arises a secular and democratic bi-national state with human rights for all ethnicities and religious identities each protected on the basis of equality. 

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