Tag Archives: Vietnam War

On (Not) Loving Henry Kissinger

21 May

On (Not) Loving Henry Kissinger

 

There is an irony that would be amusing if it was not depressing about news that Donald Trump has been courting the 92-year old foreign policy sorcerer Henry Kissinger. Of course, the irony is that earlier in the presidential campaign Hilary Clinton proudly claimed Kissinger as ‘a friend,’ and acknowledged that he “relied on his counsel” while she served as Obama’s Secretary of State between 2009-2013. It is indeed strange that the only point of public convergence between free-swinging Trump and war-mongering Clinton should be these ritual shows of deference to the most scandalous foreign policy figure of the past century.

 

Kissinger should not be underestimated as an international personality with a sorcerer’s dark gifts. After all, he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his perverse role in Vietnam diplomacy. Kissinger had supported the war from its inception and was known as a strong proponent of the despicable ‘Christmas bombing’ of North Vietnam. He had earlier joined with Nixon in secretly extending the Vietnam War to Cambodia, incidentally without Congressional knowledge, much less authorization. This led to the total destabilization and devastation of a country that had successfully maintained its neutrality for the prior decade. It also generated the genocidal takeover by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s resulting in the death of a third of the Cambodian population. It was notable that the Nobel had been jointly awarded to Luc Duc Tho, Kissinger’s counterpart in the negotiations, who exhibited his dignity by declining the prize, while Kissinger as shameless as ever, accepted and had an assistant deliver his acceptance speech because he was too busy to attend. Significantly, for the first time, two members of the Nobel Selection Committee resigned their position in disgust.

 

The more familiar, and more damning allegation against Kissinger, is his association with criminal violations of international law. These are convincingly set forth in Christopher Hitchens The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001). Hitchens informed readers that he “confined himself to the identifiable crimes that can and should be placed on a proper bill of indictment.” He omitted others. Hitchens lists six major crimes of Kissinger:

            “1. The deliberate mass killing of civilian population in Indochina.

  1. Deliberate collusion in mass murder, and later in assassination in         Bangla Desh.
  2. The personal suborning and planning of murder, of a senior constitutional officer in a democratic nation—Chile—with which the United States was not at war.
  3. Personal involvement in a plan to murder the head of state in the democratic nation of Cyprus.
  4. The incitement and enabling of genocide in East Timor.
  5. Personal involvement in a plan to kidnap and murder a journalist living in Washington, DC.”

Whether the evidence available would support a conviction in an international tribunal is far from certain, but Kissinger’s association and approval of these unlawful and inhumane policies, and many others, is clear beyond reasonable doubt.

 

In some respects as damaging as these allegations of complicity in war crimes is, it is not the only reason to question Kissinger’s credentials as guru par excellence. Kissinger shares with Hilary Clinton a record of bad judgments, supporting some foreign policy initiatives that would be disastrous if enacted

and others that failed while inflicting great suffering on a foreign civilian population. In his most recent book, World Order published in 2014, Kissinger makes a point of defending his support of George W. Bush’s foreign policy with specific reference to the war of aggression undertaken in 2003. In his words, “I supported the decision to undertake regime change in Iraq..I want to express here my continuing respect and personal affection for President George W. Bush, who guided America with courage, dignity, and conviction in an unsteady time. His objectives and dedication honored his country even when in some cases they proved unattainable within the American political cycle.” [pp. 324-325] One would have hoped that such an encomium to the internationally least successful U.S. president would be a red flag for those presidential candidates turning to Kissinger for guidance, but such is his lofty reputation, that no amount of crimes or errors of judgment can diminish his public stature.

 

Kissinger first attracted widespread public attention with a book that encouraged relying on nuclear weapons in a limited war scenario in Europe, insisting that the United States could prudently confront the Soviet Union without inviting an attack on its homeland. [Nucelar Weapons and Foreign Policy (1967). As already indirectly suggested, he supported the Vietnam War, the anti-Allende coup in Chile, Indonesian genocidal efforts to deny independence to East Timor, and many other dubious foreign policy undertakings that turned out badly, even from his own professed realist perspective.

 

It is true that Kissinger has a grasp of the history of diplomacy that impresses ordinary politicians such as Trump and Clinton. True, also, he rode the crest of the wave with respect to the diplomatic opening to China in 1972 and pursued with impressive energy the negotiation of ceasefire arrangements between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Syria after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. As well, TIME magazine had a cover featuring Kissinger dressed as superman, dubbing their hero as ‘super-K.’ There is, in this sense, no doubt that Kissinger has been a master as refurbishing his tarnished reputation over the course of decades.

 

Yet fairly considered, whether from a normative or strategic outlook, I would have hoped that Kissinger should be viewed as ‘discredited’ rather than as the most revered repository of foreign policy wisdom in this nation. Bernie Sanders struck the proper note when he said “I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend.” And when queried by Clinton as to who he would heed, Sanders responded, “I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger.” In contrast, the words of Hilary Clinton confirm her affinity for the man: “He checked in with me regularly, sharing astute observations about foreign leaders and sending me written reports on his travels.” In fairness she did qualify this show of deference with these words: “[t]hough we have often seen the world and some of our challenges quite differently, and advocated different responses now and in the past….” This was the only saving grace in her otherwise gushing review of Kissinger’s World Order (2014) published in the Washington Post.

 

Let me offer a final comment on this shared adulation of Kissinger as the éminence grise of American foreign policy by the two likely candidates for the presidency. It epitomizes and helps explain the banality of the political discourse that has dominated the primary phases of the presidential campaign. It is hardly surprising that during this time dark clouds of despair hang heavy in the skies above the American body politic. Before either presidential hopeful even walks into the Oval Office both Trump and Clinton are viewed unfavorably by over half of all Americans, and regarded with a mixture of dismay, fear, and shock by political leaders and their publics around the world. To show obeisance to Kissinger’s wisdom and wizardry is thus emblematic of the paucity of mainstream American political imagination, and should worry all who care about the future of the country and the world.

 

 

Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Daniel Berrigan

10 May

Remembering Daniel Berrigan

 

I was privileged to know Daniel Berrigan in the last stages of the Vietnam War, not well, but well enough to appreciate his quality of moral radiance and to admire the spiritual dedication that he exhibited in opposing the Vietnam War, and later nuclearism. I also knew Dan’s brother, Phil, who shared these remarkable qualities, although Phil exuded an earthy embrace of life while Dan seem to keep his distance from quotidian pursuits by living a meditative life as a poet and devoted member of the Jesuit order, as well as being inspirational anti-war activist. In contrast, Phil gave up the priesthood to marry Elizabeth McAlister, herself a former nun and a deeply committed lifelong partner with respect to social and political engagement. Together they established Jonah House (community nonviolence center) in Baltimore that continues to serve the poor and stand for peace and justice in our society and in the world. Despite leaving the Church in a formal sense, Phil never departed from his religious vocation and Christian commitment, to help the poor and struggle against abuses of state power. As I recall when I was in contact with them, because of their parental and community responsibilities, Phil and Liz took turns engaging in the kind of political actions likely to land them in prison, both exhibiting this extraordinary willingness to sacrifice their freedom to exhibit the seriousness and depth of their engagement in the struggle against injustice and evil.

 

Actually, I knew Liz socially before she and Phil were publically together, finding her an astonishingly lively, warmly challenging, and playfully serious personality; Eqbal Ahmed was our close common cherished friend responsible for our initial meetings, and Eqbal and Liz were both Harrisburg defendants being accused of dreaming up the kidnapping caper, which was a fanciful caper that was taken seriously only by our paranoid government security services that had planted an informer in Phil’s prison cell and then proceeded to act as if phantasy was plot. At the same time, it was not so fanciful if international law was taken as seriously as it deserves to be, and the dangers of allowing Henry Kissinger to remain at large were as understood as they ought to be.

 

It is perverse how our government continues to prosecute as criminals those who are its most loyal patriots (for instance, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning) and rewards with the highest offices of the land and the greatest honors those who degrade the nation by rampant militarism responsible for massive suffering in distant lands.

 

My contact with Dan, Phil, and Liz, as well as other Catholic anti-war activists, resulted from my participation in several criminal trials, acting on their behalf as an expert witness. Two trials stand out in my mind—the Harrisburg 7 trial in 1971 held in Harrisburg Pennsylvania of seven defendants, including Phil and Liz (Dan was noted in the government complaint as an unindicted co-conspirator); and the Plowshares 8 case in the early 1980s that resulted from an action damaging the nose cones of the Mark 12A missile and pouring blood on documents while trespassing on the General Electric Nuclear Re-entry Division, located at King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. My main contribution was to visit Ramsey Clark in his Washington office, shortly after he had resigned at Attorney General, and persuade him to represent the Harrisburg defendants, which he did in an effective and deeply committed manner that changed him forever.

 

I also testified in both trials. My line of testimony was along two major lines: first, that it was reasonable to believe that the conduct of the Vietnam War and the development of nuclear weapons were contrary to international law; and secondly, since the Nuremberg Judgment against surviving Nazi leaders after World War II it was reasonable for individuals to believe that they had a right, and possibly, a duty, to act nonviolently in an effort to oppose internationally unlawful behavior on the part of the government.

 

It was apparent to me that the motivation for the actions undertaken by the Berrigans derived from their profound devotion to pre-Constantine Christian ethics, and was coupled with an ambivalence toward institutionalized Christianity. At the same time I felt that both Dan and Phil, in their separate styles, welcomed the legal reinforcement that my testimony attempted to provide. It overcame the widely voiced liberal objection that such disruptive behavior as burning draft cards or damaging potential nuclear weapons was unacceptable in a democratic society as it claimed the right to take the law into one’s own hands, and thus warranted indictment, prosecution, and punishment, and at best, represented ‘civil disobedience’ in the Thoreau sense of exposing the immorality of the law on the books but at the same time backing the governmental responsibility to uphold the law as it existed.

 

Reliance on international law and what I called ‘the Nuremberg obligation’ offered an objective platform upon which to rest such symbolic challenges to lawlessness on the part of the state. In effect, the defense rested on the necessity of such exceptional acts of obstruction as part of a wider effort to halt this lawlessness in view of the failure of governmental institutions to uphold what they believed the law required with respect to war and peace. In this regard, what the Berrigans did was more radical than civil obedience, contending that the government and political leaders were engaged in criminal activities that needed to be stopped by all possible nonviolent means. In this fundamental sense, what the Berrigans di should not be confused with the challenge to the morality of law mounted by Thoreau. The Nuremberg tradition provides a normative foundation for engaged citizenship, and claims that the sovereign state is itself constrained by law, which if it disobeys in matters of war and peace should politically empower citizens to act as enforcers of this higher law.

 

In a manner similar to whistleblowing, these kinds of anti-war actions undertaken by citizens should be appreciated as a populist check on war making and criminality by the state. We the people should support such defiance with gratitude and celebrate its occurrence as signs of democratic vitality and vigilance. This post-modern supplement to republican constitutionalism, distinguished by its reliance on checks and balances, seems currently more necessary than ever given the failure of Congress to fulfill its constitutional responsibility to agree upon a declaration of war as a prerequisite to lawful war making and even more so, given the regulation of recourse to war that is part of contemporary international law and is the core undertaking of the UN Charter, an international treaty, that by virtue of Article VI of the US Constitution is ‘the supreme law of the land.’ In this respect, what Dan and Phil believed with their whole being was the sacred importance of repudiating aggressive war making and reliance on weapons of mass destruction, and holding the state and its representatives, including in relation to their own country, fully accountable if they fail to uphold and respect obligations under international law. This is their moral, political, and legal legacy that should be reminding all of us that passivity in a constitutional democracy should be condemned as a form of lethal complicity in the nuclear age. That such a message seems ‘radical’ is itself a sign of democratic entropy and fatigue. The degree to which the citizenry of this country has been pacified at the very moment when it desperately needs to be awake and vigilant should alarm us all.

 

In these respects, honoring our remembrance of Daniel Berrigan, including being attentive to his poetry that was an organic dimension of his moral and spiritual witnessing, is both a gift and a challenge. What I find most enduring about the lives of the Berrigan brothers is its call to all of us to act as engaged citizens if we want to save our planet from depravities of war, injustice, and avoidable ecological collapse.

 

By highlighting the significance of Dan’s personal resistance to abuses of state power, I would not want to leave the impression that this signified all that made him special. Even aside from such public contributions, it was apparent to all whom Dan touched in the course of his long life that he was an exceptional human being, transparent in moral and spiritual coherence, mindful in his attentiveness to the suffering and wellbeing of others, a powerful and unforgettably vivid and loving presence, a challenge to our daily complacency. In the end, I will keep remembering Dan and Phil as an inspiration and as a challenge, as well as appreciating Liz for all that she continues to achieve by way of spiritual community.

Why Foreign Military Intervention Usually Fails in the 21st Century

1 Nov

 

 

When Nehru was taking a train on his return to India after studying abroad when he read of the Japanese victory over Russia in the 1904-05 Russo Japanese War. At that moment he had an epiphany, realizing the hitherto unthinkable, that the British Empire was vulnerable to Indian nationalism. An earlier understanding of the colonial reality by native peoples generally subscribed to the postulates of hard power primacy making it futile or worse to challenge a colonial master, although throughout history there were always pockets of resistance. This soft power attribute of colonial hard power by way of intimidation and a façade of invincibility is what made colonialism efficient and profitable for so long at the great expense of colonized peoples.

 

A traditional colonial occupation assumes that the foreign domineering presence, while oppressive and exploitative, refrains from ethnic cleansing or genocide in relation to the indigenous population. When settler versions of colonialism emerged in relation to the Western Hemisphere and regions occupied by traditional peoples that were without either population density or some kind of industrial capability, the occupier managed to achieve enduring control typically relying on brutal means to establish its state-building claim via some form of dispossession that successfully superseded indigenous identities. Thus the indigenous identity is marginalized or extinguished, and the settler identity is legitimized as the ‘true’ identity.

 

There is still a mysterious connection between military inferiority and political victory. It seems to defy common sense and the pragmatic wisdom of political elites that believe in the historical agency of hard power long after the empirical record casts severe doubt on such ‘realist’ claims. Of course, and it should not be overlooked, if an occupied people mistakenly chooses to risk its future by militarily challenging the occupier on the battlefield it is likely to lose, and may suffer extreme losses. Military resistance is possible, but it needs to be calibrated to the interplay of unequal capabilities and take advantage of elements of conflict that favor the militarily weaker side.

 

As Tolstoy portrays in War and Peace the extraordinary Russian resilience displayed in defeating and expeling the superior military forces of Napoleon’s France, it was a matter of tactically retreating to the point that French supply lines were stretched beyond their capacities to maintain their alien and foreign presence, especially given the rigors of the Russian winter; Hitler’s war machine experienced a similar devastating defeat at the hands of the outgunned Soviet defensive forces who also understood the benefits of withdrawal. In effect, there are tactical, geographical, ideological, normative dimensions of conflict that when intelligently activated can neutralize the seemingly decisive advantages of the militarily superior side that has the best weaponry. The history of imperial decline also illustrates the eventual neutralization of the sharp realist edge that had been earlier achieved through battlefield dominance.

 

The architects of colonial expansion made ideological claims that were able to give their economic and political ambitions a kind of moral justification. It was Europe’s moral hubris to insist upon an imperial entitlement premised on the supposed civilizational and racial superiority of Western peoples. Such a rationale for conquest and occupation put forward an apparent normative claim to govern backward peoples, and additionally argued that more advanced industrial practice make more efficient use of resources than did the native population.

 

In the period since World War II, considering the weakening of the European colonial powers, a determined drive for nationalist self-empowerment spread to all of Asia and Africa. Each situation was different, and in some the colonial power left more or less willingly after a period of struggle, as in India, while in others long wars ensued as in Indochina and Algeria. The wave of anti-colonial successes politically transformed world order, creating dozens of new states that reshaped the political landscape of the United Nations. The anti-colonial movement enjoyed extraordinary success in achieving formal independence for colonized people, but it did not end the role of hierarchy in structuring international relations and the world economy. The geopolitical ascendancy of the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the capitalist world economy sustained on a material basis the exploitative and dominant relationship of the West to the non-West.

 

During the Cold War, geopolitical rivalry and American efforts at counter-revolution directed at left-oriented political developments, led to military interventions designed to impose limits on the exercise of the right of self-determination. The Soviet interventions in East Europe, such as Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 were emblematic of such a pattern within the state socialist bloc of countries. The United States relied on covert interventions whenever possible (as in Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954), and resorted to military interventions when necessary to uphold its strategic and ideological interests. The Vietnam War was the most important example of a full-fledged intervention designed to prevent the emergence of a left-leaning government that would strengthen Communist influence in South Asia.

 

The United States enjoyed complete military dominance in Vietnam throughout the decade long war, having mastery of air, sea, and land, yet proved vulnerable to certain defensive tactics of guerrilla warfare. The war was lost by the United States in the end because its political system lost patience with its inability to establish stability in support of a Vietnamese leadership that was anti-Communist and dependent on the West. Some militarists contend that the war was lost on TV in American living rooms (seeing the body bags of Americans killed in Vietnam swayed public opinion) or because the military presence that reached a half million relied on conscripted troops that gave rise to a student led anti-war movement. In other words, the war was lost politically, not militarily.

 

Such an understanding is partly true, but it overlooks the role of national resistance in Vietnam, and attributes the outcome to the faltering political will of the intervening side. The great advantage of those national forces seeking to expel foreign occupation, even if indirect as in Vietnam where the United States was nominally supporting one side in a civil war, is its familiarity with the terrain and its far greater stake in the outcome. Henry Kissinger made the apt observation that in a counterinsurgency war if the counterinsurgent side doesn’t win, it loses, while if the insurgent side doesn’t lose, it wins. Such a statement, not surprisingly considering its source, overlooks the role of people, especially the greater steadfastness of those fighting for the independence of their country as compared with those seeking to impose an alien or foreign solution on a conflict. The foreign intervener calculates whether it is worth the cost, and in a democratic society, the mixture of casualties and the absence of a timely victory, gradually undermines the popular enthusiasm that may have accompanied the earliest expressions of support. Patience among the citizenry runs out when the foreign war does not seem to be closely connected with the defense of the national homeland. This became especially clear in the United States during the latter stages of the Vietnam War when the American public began to perceive a ‘credibility gap’ between the government’s claim that it was winning the war and a more sober account of a stalemate without a victorious end in sight. For the Vietnamese, this was not a matter of whether to give up or not, but how to continue their struggle despite their material inferiority and the adversities associated with the devastation of their country. The Vietnamese leadership was prepared for every eventuality, including a 50-year retreat to mountainous regions, being convinced that at some point the foreigners would tire of the conflict and go home.

 

The United States as global hegemon is incapable of learning such lessons or accepting the ethos of self-determination that has such salience in the post-colonial world. Instead it tries over and over again to reinvent counterinsurgency warfare, hoping finally to discover the path leading to victory. The American strategic community believed the lessons of Vietnam were to build better support at home for the war effort, embark on war with sufficient force to achieve victory quickly, and abandon the drafting of its military personnel from among its youth. The warmakers also tried to design weaponry and tactics so as minimize casualties in these one-sided wars for the intervening side. At first, the adjustments seemed to work as the adversary was foolish enough to meet the foreign challenge on the battlefield as in the 1991 Iraq War or where the military intervention was itself seeking to remove Serbian foreign rule as in Kosovo in 1999. There was enthusiasm in the Washington think tanks for what were thought to be a new triumphal era of ‘zero casualty wars.’ Of course, there were zero (or very low) casualties, as in these two wars, but only for the foreign intervener; the society being attacked from the air endured heavy casualties, and much devastation, as well as the demoralizing experience of total helplessness.

 

In the post-9/11 atmosphere of ‘a global war on terrorism’ this same geopolitical logic applies. The violence is carried to wherever on the planet a threat is perceived, and the victims are not only those who are perceived, whether rightly or wrongly as posing the threat, but also to the innocent civilians that happen to be living in the same vicinity. There is no deference to the sovereignty of other countries or to civilian innocence, and a unilateral right of preemptive attack is claimed in a manner that would be refused to any adversary of the West. The weaponry is designed to minimize political friction at home, exemplified by the growing reliance on attack drones that can inflict strikes without ever risking casualties for the attacker. Such weaponry allows war to persist almost permanently, especially as it serves both bureaucratic and private sector interests, and produces an almost enveloping securitization of the political atmosphere, destroying democratic freedoms in the process.

 

As the outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq show, despite the enormous military and economic effort by the United States, the political outcome was disappointing, if not yet clearly a defeat. And the results are strategically worse from an American perspective than the original provocation and goals.Putting the point provocatively, many in the Washington policymaking world would be secretly glad if there occurred a second coming in Iraq of Saddam Hussein who alone could restore unity and order to the country. The American version of a civilizing mission was ‘democracy promotion,’ which proved just as unpalatable to the population being attacked and occupied as were the earlier moral claims of outright colonial administrations. Indirect adverse consequences from a U.S. perspective of these failed intervention included the intensification of Sunni/Shi’ia sectarian tensions throughout the region and the establishment of fertile breeding grounds for anti-Western political extremism.

 

The West also builds support for its militarist approaches to contemporary forms of conflict by demonizing its adversary, ignoring their grievances, whether legitimate or not. The politics of demonization that fits so neatly with ascribing terrorist behavior to the other also has the effect of rejecting diplomacy and compromise. Yet interestingly, there is a willingness to regard yesterday’s demon as today’s ally. This shuffling of ‘the enemy’ has been happening constantly in the setting of Iraq and Syria. The abrupt entry of IS on the scene is the most spectacular example of such a shuffling of alignments, having the effect of suspending the anti-Assad efforts of the United States and Europe.

 

There is more to these unlearned lessons than strategic failures, and being on the wrong side of history. These venture cause millions of ordinary people in distant countries to bear the terrifying brunt of modern weaponry that kills, wounds, displaces, and traumatizes. For the intervener the outcome is at worst a regrettable or even tragic mistake, but the society back home persists in its complacent affluence; but for the target societies, in contrast, the experience of such foreign military encroachment is experienced as swallowing a massive dose of criminality in a global setting in which the criminals scandalously enjoy total impunity.

 

Given the way elites think and militarism is structured into the bloodstream of major states, foreign military intervention is intrinsic to the war system. We must work now as hard to eliminate war as earlier centuries worked to eliminate slavery. Nothing less will suffice to rescue the planet from free fall to disaster.

 

In the end, we have reached a stage in the political development of life on the planet where civilizational and species survival itself depends on the urgency of building an effective movement against the war system that remains indispensable to sustain hierarchy and exploitation, wastes huge amounts of resources, and dangerously diverts problem-solving priorities from climate change and the elimination of nuclear weaponry. Unless such a radical transformation of the way life on the planet is undertaken in the decades ahead, two intertwined developments are likely to make the future inhospitable to human habitation even if the worst catastrophes can be avoided: globalization morphing into various forms of authoritarian and oppressive political leadership intertwined with extremist movements of resistance that have no vision beyond that of striking back at the oppressors. How to evade such a dark future is what should be everywhere preoccupying persons of good will.

 

 

 

           

Malala and Eartha Kitt: Words that Matter

22 Oct

Unknown-4Malala and Eartha Kitt: Words that Matter

There are two ways of responding to an invitation from an American  president. I recall that when Amory Lovins, the guru of market-oriented environmentalism, was asked about what was his main goal when invited to the White House to meet the president he responded self-assuredly: ‘To be invited back.” That is, be sure to say nothing that might so disturb the high and mighty to an extent that might jeopardize future invitations. A positive reading of such an approach would point out that Lovins was just being realistic. If he hoped to have any influence at all in the future he needed to confine his present advice to an areas situated well within the president’s comfort zone. A less charitable interpretation would assume that what mattered to Lovins was the thrill of access to such an august portal of power.

Never receiving such an invitation, I had a lesser experience, but experienced similar temptations, being invited by a kind of institutional miscalculation to be the banquet speaker at West Point at the end of an international week at this elite military academy in which the cadets and representatives from a couple of hundred colleges had been fed the government line by top officials at the Pentagon and State Department. The officer tasked with arranging the program decided that

it might be more interesting to have for once a speaker who had a more critical outlook on the U.S. role in the world. I was invited, and accepted with mixed feelings of being both co-opted and challenged. It turns out that the seductive part of the occasion was to find myself housed in a suite normally reserved for the president or Secretary of Defense; it was luxurious and so spacious that it took me some time to locate the bedroom, although I did almost immediately find the fridge stocked with beer and food. First things first. Anyway, after a momentary crisis of confidence, I decided that I should not give in to the lure of this splendid treatment. Despite some pangs of self-doubt, I went ahead and presented my prepared talk on “The Menace of American Militarism.”

The time was just after the end of the Vietnam War, and my remarks that evening were greeted with enthusiasm by the invited delegates from other colleges around the country who had endured a week of high level government propaganda, with mixed responses from the several hundred cadets who seemed divided in their reactions to what I had said, and with stony silence by the West Point faculty who evidently felt that I abused the occasion, and even at the social reception afterwards refused to talk with me or look in my direction. I suppose the justification in their view was that rudeness begets rudeness. Actually, I would have welcomed discussion of my essential contention that a permanent war footing since 1945 was hurting American society in ways difficult to overcome, creating a militarized political culture, but it was not to be. Sullen silence was their only response on that evening long ago.

The most dramatic moment at the talk occurred during the question period when a young female cadet stood up, and said some words to this effect,”[a]s I am persuaded by what you have said, would you advise me to resign my commission?” This was a challenge for which my text had no answers, nor was the audience ready for such drama. There was total silence in the vast hall. It is one thing to encourage a critical view of the role of the military in American and global society, it is another to encroach upon the life decisions of a young person whose future is being rather fundamentally called into question. Without knowing how best to respond, and I still don’t after all these years, I more or less threw the question back at her, saying “[o]n such matters, only you can decide how best to live your life.” I never discovered what happened to her, but do not feel ashamed of my response. And overall, I felt that my overall performance had kept the faith. To prove it, I was never invited back, and since that was the test I had set for myself when I accepted the invitation, I felt that the evening, awkward as it became, was not a personal failure. Whether I made some among the audience of young people think a bit differently about the country, and war/peace and security issues, I will never know.

It is against this background that I was struck a few days ago by the marvelous display of courage and composure by Malala Yousafzai who went to the White House, and media venues of great influence (The Daily Show, Diane Sawyer), to continue with her advocacy of the right of girls everywhere, but especially in her native Pakistan and Afghanistan, to receive an education, but also to link human security with the abandonment of war and violence. Malala was a kind of child marvel, apparently speaking in her neighborhood throughout the Swat Valley of such issues from the age of nine with astonishing fluency and intelligence. The fact that she was shot in the face by a Taliban extremist on her way home in a school bus a year ago gave her life and cause an immediate visibility around the world. When she rather miraculously recovered (the bullet grazing her brain) and resumed her campaign, there was an understandable admiration for a girl so young who was not only courageous, but had this burning passion for knowledge and education, but also was urging whoever would listen that war and violence could not lead humanity to a better future. Her advice: “Instead of sending guns, send pens, instead of sending tanks, send books.” “You are powerful when you have a pen because through a pen you can save lives and that’s the change we want to bring to our society.” It was a message that needed to be heard in Washington, and Malala was the ideal messenger! In fact, Washington was receptive to the education part of the message, but to the anti-war part, which it did its best to ignore.

When emerging from her meeting with the Obama family at the White House her statement was brilliantly crafted to catch the light of the occasion as well as to dispel its darkness:  “I thanked President Obama for U.S. work in supporting education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for Syrian refugees. I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in those acts, they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus on education it will make a big impact.” The White House also made a statement praising Malala for her commitment to education and courage, but pointedly overlooking that part of her comment devoted to drones. Such silence in view of such a challenge has an eerie quality.  Such a reaction from the president tried to make Malala stand for only a message about education, when in reality her real message was to connect education with peace and real security. Not since the great seer of Brazil, Paolo Friere, told of the emancipatory potential of teaching illiterate peasants how to read and write had someone so powerfully linked learning and empowerment (see Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed for a transformative account of his work in the Brazilian countryside).

Of course, so long as Malala’s exploits validated an anti-Islamic and pro-American slant, it is a no brainer to celebrate her achievements, even lamenting the oversight by the Nobel Prize selection committee, and generally commend a campaign that wants to see girls everywhere empowered by education. The harder part is being able to listen to a critical comment that touches on a life and death issue such as the terror wrought by drones in Pakistan. In my view, for Obama to ignore that part of Malala’s message is to dishonor her visit, and exploit it for his own public relations purposes! It is somewhat odd that Obama failed to listen to Malala whole message. After all, only recently did the United States Government announce that it is ceasing drone attacks on Pakistan due to the adverse reactions among Pakistanis. Obama seemed able to listen to Medea Benjamin a few months  ago when she disrupted his drone talk at the National Defense University. Obama might have used this occasion to acknowledge that he was listening and heeding the cries of anguish coming from distant communities facing the terrorizing threats of drone warfare, but then again, I should know better. Our warrior presidents always seem afraid of appearing weak if they show the slightest compassion for the victims of our militarism, while proudly standing tall while weeping over the bodies of those victimized by the enemy as in relation to the recent.

Malala’s experience reminded me of another White House event 45 years earlier. Eartha Kitt, a beloved African American singer who whispered her sensual lyrics into the microphone, earning her the alluring label of ‘sex kitten,’ was invited to the White House as one of fifty prominent women to discuss the rise of urban crime among American youth with the President Lyndon Johnson’s wife, Ladybird. It was January 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, which was casting a dark shadow over the LBJ’s presidency, so much so that he would shock the country a few months later by decreeing a bombing pause in the war and announcing his completely unexpected decision not to seek a second presidential term in office. When Eartha Kitt was given the opportunity to speak a few words she seized the moment, saying what any reasonably sensitive person well understood, that there were connections between sending young Americans off to risk death in a senseless war and the alarming drug/crime scene in the country’s cities. But for the mostly white and august women at this White House luncheon it was a shocker. The rest of the  guests, apparently without exception, were reported to react in “embarrassed silence” to what the NY Times condescendingly described as “an emotional tirade against the war.”  Worse yet, Ladybird Johnson was “stunned” and “in tears,” presumably realizing that her ‘do good’ luncheon had collapsed before the desert had even been served.  This smart Texas First Lady was personally bold and liberal, inviting popular cultural figures such as Eartha Kitt along with her more reliably loyal cohort to discuss a national issue. But what does Eartha Kitt do, but spoil the occasion by refusing to play along, and treat urban crime as some sort of domestic disorder that could be delinked from the Vietnam War. Such delinking was absurd, considering that it was the poor and minorities who were doing most of the fighting and dying in Vietnam.

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Eartha Kitt’s comments at the White House luncheon are worth recalling: “You send the best of the country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the streets. They take pot…and they will get high. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.” Perhaps, not the most eloquent statement, but it was authentic, replete with genuine feelings.  She was made to pay dearly for these words of truth telling. In a chilling aftermath, Eartha Kitt’s career came virtually to an end. Many contracts to appear at clubs were cancelled, few new opportunities for performances or recordings emerged, her career was severely damaged, if not destroyed. Nothing was forthcoming from the White House in her defense. To her credit, despite these cruel pressures and harsh backlash, Eartha Kitt never backed down, never apologized.

I connect Malala and Eartha Kitt in my mind because both seized the moment to speak truth to power, probably sensing that it meant they would never be invited back, and for Eartha Kitt it was worse than that. It seems almost certain that neither of these fearless women would have been invited in the first place if their intentions to speak out had been known in advance. America is a democracy so long as its dirty laundry is kept from public view, but when such obvious moral failures as the Vietnam War or drone attacks are exposed, the response from on high is one of shocked hurt, anger, or at best, silence and deflection. Revealingly, for Earth Kitt the response was vindictive, but for Malala it is likely to be one of moving on, ignoring the drone comment, and refocusing on the liberal part of her mission as a crusading advocate of education for women as a matter of right (while suppressing the more radical part that condemns warmaking and military intervention). Happily for the White House, the media played along, emphasizing how Malala giggled like a young and innocent adolescent when she met the queen in Buckingham Palace a few days later.

Responses to Questions on avoidance of an American Attack on the Assad Regime

14 Sep

Prefatory Note: The following questions were put to me by Patricia Lombroso of the Italian publication, Il Manifesto.

1] How much you think the opposition of the entire world for another war influenced US to put on hold the go ahead to intervention with military attack in Syria.

IT IS DIFFICULT TO MEASURE, AS SUCH AN INFLUENCE IS NEVER ADMITTED. AT THE SAME TIME, I THINK THERE IS NO DOUBT THAT THE ADVERSE OUTLOOK OF THE WORLD’S PUBLIC, ESPECIALLY IN EUROPE, WAS A CLEAR FACTOR IN HALTING THE DRIFT INTO WAR. EVEN MORE IMPORTANT WAS THE REFUSAL OF THE BRITISH PARLIAMENT TO BACK DAVID CAMERON, THE BRITISH PRIME MINISTER. ALSO SIGNIFICANT, WAS WAR WEARINESS IN THE UNITED STATES, WHICH OBAMA MENTIONS FREQUENTLY, WHICH IS A CODED WAY OF ACKNOWLEDGING THE FAILURES OF AMERICAN WAR POLICIES IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN.

2] How much is the ideology favoring “military intervention” on behalf of supposed “humanitarian wars,” still operative in US and the Western world as suggested by finding Hilary Clinton and John McCain on the pro-interventionist side of the Syrian debate.

I THINK THE MILITARIST WING OF BOTH POLITICAL PARTIES TENDS TO CONVERGE ON POLICY OPTIONS THAT ARE DEBATED IN PRE-WAR CONTEXTS WITHIN THE UNITED STATES. SUCH ADVOCACY IS INCREASINGLY OUT OF TOUCH WITH THE POLITICAL CLIMATE IN THE USA, WHICH IS NO LONGER SUPPORTIVE OF WARS THAT SEEM TO LACK A STRATEGIC MAJOR JUSTIFICATION. THERE IS ALSO A  GROWING AWARENESS THAT AMERICAN MILITARY INTERVENTION HAS NOT LED TO SUCCESSFUL POLITICAL OUTCOMES, AND HAVE ENTAILED SERIOUS ECONOMIC DIVERSIONS OF RESOURCES AND HUMAN CASUALTIES THAT ARE NOT JUSTIFIED. THE AMERICAN PUBLIC HAS BEGUN TO UNDERSTAND IS POSSIBLE TO WIN ON THE BATTLEFIELD AND YET LOSE THE WAR. THIS SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE MAJOR LESSON OF THE VIETNAM WAR, BUT IT HAS NOT BEEN LEARNED BY THE POLITICAL LEADERSHIP WHO DERISIVELY REFERRED TO SUCH LEARNING AS ‘THE VIETNAM SYNDROME,’ SOMETHING TO BE OVERCOME. IT WAS GEORGE H.W. BUSH’S FIRST CLAIM AFTER THE GULF WAR IN 1991 THAT “WE HAVE FINALLY KICKED THE VIETNAM SYNDROME.” PROBABLY THINK TANKS ARE ALREADY PRODUCING POLICY PAPERS ON HOW TO GET OVER ‘THE IRAQ SYNDROME”!

3] Is your opinion that the explosion of a war in the Middle East as too

risky in relation to its probable consequences that might have persuaded Obama

to be cautious in planning his moves against the Assad regime in Syria?

IT WAS PARTLY THE SENSE THAT ONCE SUCH AN ATTACK OCCURRED THERE COULD BE SERIOUS UNANTICIPATED CONSEQUENCES AND COSTS THAT UNDERMINED ITS INITIAL RATIONAL. ALSO, THE PROPOSED SCOPE OF THE CONTEMPLATED INVOLVEMENT MADE NEITHER STRATEGIC NOR HUMANITARIAN SENSE. SUCH A CONTEMPLATED ATTACK WAS NOT CAPABLE OF WINNING SUPPORT IN THE UN, IN CONGRESS, AND AMONG PUBLIC OPINION AT HOME AND ABROAD. EVEN IF THE ATTACK WAS SUCCESSFULLY CARRIED OUT IT WOULD NOT LIKELY ALTER EITHER ASSAD’S CONTROL OF THE SYRIAN GOVERNMENT OR THE COURSE OF THE CIVIL OR PROXY WAR AFFLICTING SYRIA. THE IMPULSE TO LAUNCH AN ATTACK BECAUSE  ASSAD HAD CROSSED OBAMA’S RED LINE ABOUT CHEMICAL WEAPONS SEEMED LIKE AN OVERLY PERSONAL, ARBITRARY, AND UNTENABLE JUSTIFICATION FOR MILITARY ACTION WITH ITS VARIOUS RISKS AND HUMAN COSTS, INCLUDING THE ALMOST CERTAIN DEATH OF INNOCENT PERSONS. THE FACT THAT OBAMA WAS RESCUED BY PUTIN AND OPPOSED BY A REACTIONARY CONGRESS ADDED AN IRONIC DIMENSION TO THE TWISTS AND TURNS OF U.S. POLICY ON SYRIA. THE SITUATION IS STILL UNFOLDING WITH NO CLEAR WAY TO PREDICT THE OUTCOME, ALTHOUGH THE RENEWED TURN TOWARD DIPLOMACY ENGENDERED A GLIMMER OF HOPE. FOR THE SAKE OF THE SYRIAN PEOPLE, AND THE STABILITY OF THE REGION, THE PRIME GOAL SHOULD BE A DOMESTIC POLITICAL PROCESS THAT PROJECTS A FUTURE FOR SYRIA THAT COMBINES UNITY WITH THE DEVOLUTION OF AUTHORITY IN EFFECTIVE FORMS THAT BRING HUMAN SECURITY TO THE VARIOUS ETHNIC AND RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES THAT CONSTITUTE 21ST CENTURY SYRIA.

AFTERTHOUGHT: THE U.S. AND RUSSIA HAVE NOW REACHED AN AGREEMENT THAT HAS BEEN ACCEPTED IN DAMASCUS TO THE EFFECT THAT SYRIA WILL AGREE TO ACKNOWLEDGE ITS STOCKPILES OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS, AND HAVE THEM DESTROYED BY MID-2014 UNDER INTERNATIONAL SUPERVISION AND VERIFIED BY UN INSPECTORS. THE PROVISIONAL OUTCOME, ASSUMING IT HOLDS UP, REPRESENTS A MASTER TRIUMPH OF RUSSIAN DIPLOMACY, A GEOPOLITICAL SETBACK FOR AMERICAN GLOBAL LEADERSHIP, AND AN AMBIGUOUS VICTORY FOR THREAT DIPLOMACY. THE OVERALL RESULTS IN RELATION TO HOLDING LEADERSHIP DEMOCRATICALLY ACCOUNTABLE BEFORE LAUNCHING NON-DEFENSIVE WARS AND DETERRING THE USE OF WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION REMAINS TO BE SEEN.

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Questioning Obamacare for Syria

5 Sep

When it comes to war, Obama is okay just this once, especially for Republicans

 

            There is something particularly distressing about the ongoing debate on authorizing an internationally illegal and immoral military attack on Syria: a show of political support on the right. Such a ‘coming together’ of some of the center and much of the right in the American Congress has been sadly absent during Obama presidency until now, whether the issue was health, taxes, social services, keeping the government running, and immigration. And this support emerges on the rare occasion when a majority of American citizens, not known for their cosmopolitan sentiments or affection for the UN Charter, oppose attacking Syria, as was the British Parliament, and as is public opinion throughout Europe. In such a setting, it is not only international law and the UN are being repudiated in a war/peace situation, but the whole fabric of democratic accountability to law and the judgment of the people.

 

            At least we can conclude that the reactionary tendency in American political life over the course of the last decade or so is consistent in its adherence to irresponsible means in the pursuit irresponsible ends. It appears that the real selling point for the looming attack on Syria is not for the sake of the Syrians, but to warn the leadership of Iran that it is next on the White House hit list unless it soon surrenders to Washington’s demands, echoing those more stridently made by Israel. Is this what global leadership of the United States has come to mean? To let adversaries be reminded that the global bully means business.

 

            And what about damaging the Obama legacy? There is a loss/loss feeling about the eventual attack, if indeed it should happen. If the attack on Syria is truly limited and does not produce many civilian casualties, his Republican champions, including such hawkish stalwarts as Senators McCain and Graham, will quickly change sides, arguing that doing such a slap on the wrist is worse than doing nothing. The broadening of the Congressional resolution suggests that the hawk support depends on launching a major attack that has much wider ambitions than what Obama seemed to favor in his call to Congress for authorization. Does he heed his earlier concept of the attack or go along with his more militarist supporters?

 

            If, as seems probable, there are casualties, retaliations, escalation, diplomatic fallout, persisting civil strife, cross border spillover effects, then Obama is almost sure to face a grassroots protest movement expressing national and global disaffection, and including some of those Democrats who go along because a ‘red line’ once drawn by an American president needs to get respect, even if the cost of doing so is irresponsible, irrational, imprudent, illegal, and immoral. Carrying out Obama’s preferred course of action would mean reverting to the once derided ‘Nixon madman’ approach to foreign policy, that is, inhibiting the Kremlin during the height of the Cold War by making their leaders believe that the American president was trigger-happy and crazy. Do whatever it takes to make sure else that America is feared around the world, endowing even its ill-advised threats with maximum potency. This iron fist style of ‘keeping of the peace’ is totally divorced from adherence to international law and support for the UN. It excessively values keeping ‘the military option’ on the table at all times in the hope of either annihilating its enemies or make them suffer the consequences of opposition to Washington ideas about how to run the world.

 

            If Congress responds with an authorization for force in Syria, and even in a form that exceeds what the president requested, it will no doubt recall the last major Congressional dark folly: the infamous Gulf of Tonkin resolution, giving LBJ a blank check to widen the Vietnam War in ways of his devising. His first step was to escalate the American engagement by attacking North Vietnam from air and sea in 1965. It is never pleasant to revive bad memories except possibly to avoid another foreign policy fiasco, as well as to deepen the impression that America as a imperial superpower has lost its capacity to learn from past mistakes.

 

            Dear friends, if the only way America can seem strong is to cast itself in the role of global bully, supplanting the earlier somewhat more understandable imperial cover of pax Americana, then the wise and virtuous will conclude, if they have not already, that America is actually weak. In this century true strength will not be measured by degrees of military dominance and battlefield victories, but by helping to solve the growing agenda of national, regional, and global problems endangering the future of humanity.

Such a constructive path can only be taken if the major states show respect for international law and the UN Charter as the foundational premises of a sustainable world order. Thinking otherwise, that the history will be interpreted from the militarist perspectives of those who base human and societal security on a global war machine places global civilizations, and even the human species, on a slippery slope of extinction, nothing less! At this time, we need to fear more a clash of rationalities than a clash of civilizations, although both should be transcended.

 

            Could it not be offered in response that such thoughts are a hysterical over-reaction to what will be at worst a flash flood soon to be forgotten? Along these lines, it is contended that any attack on Syria is likely to be over in several days (although the current language of the resolution offers a wide open window to war making by extending authorization to 90 days), the reaction by Syria and its friends, if any is forthcoming, will probably be muted, and life in America, the Middle East, and the world will return to what passes for ‘normalcy.’ Even if we assume that such a moderate unfolding is more or less accurate foretelling, yet even so, the effect would be deeply destructive. It will enable most of us to remain ignorant of an underlying frightening reality: our body politic suffers from this crippling disease of ‘martialitus’ for which there is no known cure, and at present not even a widely agreed upon diagnosis. Indeed, the disgraceful edifice of global surveillance may have as its primary task suppressing knowledge that our political leaders suffer from severe versions of this disease. Snowden, Manning, and Assange were likely seen to pose such a great danger because they were attempting to remove the geopolitical cataracts clouding our vision of such a distressing political reality. After such knowledge, there would be no forgiveness, only urgent responsibilities. Under these conditions cultivating the false consciousness of normalcy is itself an ominous sign of a collective refusal to acknowledge the disease, much less to begin treating it by such moves as a Congressional resolution requiring the president to obtain authorization for non-defensive force from the United Nations and under all circumstances act in accordance with the requirements of international law as objectively determined. It would be also important to insist that the government move toward fulfilling its obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 by tabling a proposal for phased and verified nuclear disarmament. It may also be appropriate to introduce a resolution in Congress that would make mandatory a declaration of war in all instances where international force was to be used by the United States other than in circumstances of genuinely imminent foreign attack.

 

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Polarization Doomed Egyptian Democracy (Revised)

5 Aug

Prefatory Note: I realize that some of the readers of this blog are unhappy with long blogs, and so I offer an apology for this one in advance. My attempt is to deal with a difficult set of issues afflicting the Middle East, especially the seemingly disastrous Egyptian experiment with democracy that has resulted in a bloody coup followed by violent repression of those elected to lead the country in free elections. The essay that follows discusses the degree to which anti-Muslim Brotherhood polarization in Egypt doomed the transition to democracy that was the hope and dream of the January 25th revolutionary moment in Tahrir Square that had sent shock waves of admiration around the world! This has been revised and corrected since its original posting to take account of comments from readers, and my own further reflections. These themes in a rapidly unfolding series of political dramas require an openness to acknowledging failures of assessment. 

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When Polarization Becomes Worse than Authoritarianism Defer Democracy

Doubting  Democracy

We are living at a time when tensions within societies seem far more disruptive and inhumane than the rivalries of sovereign states that have in the past fueled international wars. More provocatively, we may be living at a historical moment when democracy as the government of choice gives rise to horrifying spectacles of violence and abuse. These difficulties with the practice of democracy are indirectly, and with a heavy dose of irony, legitimizing moderate forms of authoritarian government. After years of assuming that ‘democracy’ was ‘the least bad form of government’ for every national setting, there are ample reasons to raise doubts. I make such an observation with the greatest reluctance.

There is no doubt that authoritarian forms of rule generally constrain the freedom of everyone, and especially the politically inclined. Beyond this, there is a kind of stagnant cultural atmosphere that usually accompanies autocracy, but not always. Consider Elizabethan England, with Shakespeare and his cohort of contemporary literary giants. There have been critical moments of crisis in the past when society’s most respected thinkers blamed democracy for the political failings. In ancient Greece, the cradle of Western democracy, Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides came to prefer non-democratic forms of government, more fearful of the politics of the mob than that led Athens into imprudent and costly foreign adventures.

Of course, there are times when the established order is fearful of democracy even in countries that pride themselves on their democratic character. Influential voices in the United States were raised during the latter stages of the Vietnam War in opposition to what were perceived by conservatives to be the excesses of democracy. Infamously, Samuel Huntington in an essay published by the influential Trilateral Commission compared the anti-war movement in the United States to the canine disorder known as ‘distemper,’ clearly expressing the view that the people should leave the matter of war and peace in the hands of the government, and not expect to change policy by demonstrating in the streets.

It was only twenty years ago that the collapse of the Soviet Union was hailed throughout the West as an ideological triumph of liberal democracy over autocratic socialism. Prospects for world peace during this interval in the 1990s were directly linked to the spread of democracy, while such other reformist projects as the strengthening of the UN or respecting international law were put aside. European and American universities were then much taken with the theory and practice of ‘democratic peace,’ documenting and exploring its central claim that democracies never go to war against one another. If such a thesis is sustained, it has significant policy implications. It would follow, then, that if more and more countries become ‘democratic’ the zone of peaceful international relations becomes enlarged. This encouraging byproduct of democracy for sovereign states was reinforced by the internal experience of the European Union, which while nurturing democracy established a culture of peace in what had for centuries been the world’s worst war zone.

This positive assessment of democratization at the national level is offset by the extent to which Western liberal democracies have recourse to war to promote regime change in illiberal societies. The motivations for such wars is not purely political, but needs to be linked to the imperatives of neoliberal globalization, and to the class interests of the 1%.

In the post-9/11 period the Bush presidency embraced ‘democracy promotion’ as a major component of a neoconservative foreign policy for the United States in the Middle East. Skepticism about the nature such an endorsement of democracy was widespread, especially in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Harsh criticism was directed U.S. Government self-appointed role as the agent of democratization in the region, especially considering the unacknowledged motivations: oil, regional hegemony, and Israeli security. By basing democracy promotion on military intervention, as in relation to Iraq, the American approach was completely discredited even without the admitted failure resulting from prolonged occupation of the country. The supposed antii-authoritarian interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have not implanted a robust democracy in any of these places, but rather corruption, chaos, massive displacement, and persisting violent conflict. Beyond this disillusioning experience, foreign leaders and world public opinion refused to accept Washington’s arrogant claim that it provided the world with the only acceptable political model of legitimate government.

Despite this pushback, there remains an almost universal acceptance of the desirability of some variation democracy as the only desirable form of national governance. Of course, there were profound disagreements when it comes to specific cases. There were some partial exceptions to the embrace of democracy. For instance, there was support in the Middle East for monarchies as sources of stability and unity, but even these monarchs purported to be ‘democratic’ in their sympathies unless directly challenged by their subjects/citizens.  Democracies maintained their positive reputation by protecting citizens from abuse by the state, by empowering the people to confer authority on the national government, generally through periodic elections, and by developing a governing process that was respectful of the rule of law and human rights.

Issues during the last decade in the Middle East have brought these issues to the fore: the Green Revolution against theocratic democracy in Iran, the secular de facto rejection of majoritarian democracy in Turkey, and the various transitional scenarios that have unfolded in the Arab countries, especially Egypt, after the anti-authoritarian uprisings of 2011. The torments of the region, especially connected with the Anglo-French colonialist aftermath of the Ottoman Empire, followed by an American hegemonic regime tempered by the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, and aggravated since the middle of the last century by the emergence of Israel, along with the ensuing conflict with the dispossessed Palestinian people, have made the struggle for what might be called ‘good governance’ a losing battle, at least until 2011. Against such a background it was only natural that the democratizing moment labeled ‘the Arab Spring’ generated such excitement throughout the region, and indeed in the world. Two years later, in light of developments in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere it is an occasion that calls for sympathetic, yet critical, reflection.

In the last several years, there has emerged in the region the explosive idea that the citizenry enjoys an ultimate right to hold governments accountable, and if even a democratic government misplays its hand too badly, then it can be removed from power even without awaiting of elections, and without relying on formal impeachment procedures. What makes this populist veto so controversial in recent experience is its tendency to enter a coalition with the most regressive elements of the governmental bureaucracy, especially the armed forces, police, and intelligence bureaucracies. Such coalitions are on their surface odd, bringing together the spontaneous rising of the often downtrodden multitude with the most coercive and privileged elements of state and private sector power.

The self-legitimizing claim heard in Tahrir Square 2013 was that only a military coup could save the revolution of 2011, but critics would draw a sharp distinction between the earlier populist uprising against a hated dictator and this latter movement orchestrated from above to dislodge from power a democratically elected leadership identified as Islamic, accused of being non-inclusive, and hence illegitimate.

 

The Arab Upheavals

The great movements of revolt in the Arab world in 2011 were justly celebrated as exhibiting an unexpected surge of brave anti-authoritarian populist politics that achieved relatively bloodless triumphs in Tunisia and Egypt, and shook the foundations of authoritarian rule throughout the region. Democracy seemed to be on the march in a region that had been written off by most Western experts as incapable of any form of governance that was not authoritarian, which was not displeasing to the West so long as oil flowed to the world market, Israel was secure, and radical tendencies kept in check. Arab political culture was interpreted through an Orientalizing lens that affirmed passivity of the citizenry and elite corruption backed up, if necessary, by a militarized state. In the background was the fear that if the people were able to give voice to their preferences, the end result might be the theocratic spread of Iranian style Islamism.

It is a sad commentary on the state of the world that only two years later a gloomy political atmosphere is creating severe doubts about the workability of democracy, and not only in the Arab world, but more widely. What has emerged is the realization that deep cleavages exist in the political culture that give rise to crises of legitimacy and governability that can be managed, if at all, only by the application of repressive force. These conflicts are destroying the prospects of effective and humane government in a series of countries throughout the world.

The dramatic and bloody atrocities in Egypt since the military takeover on July 3rd have brought these realities to the forefront of global political consciousness. But Egypt is not alone in experiencing toxic fallout from severe polarization that pits antagonistic religious, ethnic, and political forces against one another in ‘winner take all’ struggles. Daily sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’ia in Iraq make it evident that after an anguishing decade of occupation the American crusade to liberate the country from dictatorship has failed miserably. Instead of a fledging democracy America has left behind a legacy of chaos, the threat of civil war, and a growing belief that only a return to authoritarianism can bring stability to the country. Turkey, too, is enduring the destabilizing impact of polarization, which has persisted in the face of eleven years of extraordinary AKP success and energetic and extremely capable leadership periodically endorsed by the voting public: strengthening and civilianizing political institutions, weakening the military, improving the economy, and greatly enhancing the regional and international standing of the country. Polarization should not be treated as just a Middle Eastern phenomenon. The United States, too, is increasingly afflicted by a polarizing struggle between its two main political parties that has made democratic government that humanely serves the citizenry and the national public good a thing of the past. Of course, this disturbing de-democratizing trend in America owes much to the monetizing machinations of Wall Street and the spinning of 9/11 as a continuing security challenge that requires the government to view everyone, everywhere, including its own citizens, as potential terrorist suspects.

The nature of polarization is diverse and complex, reflecting context. It can be socially constructed around the split between religion and secularism as in Egypt or Turkey or in relation to divisions internal to a religion as in Iraq or as between classes, ethnicities, political parties, geographic regions. In the concreteness of history each case of polarization has its own defining set of circumstances, often highlighting minority fears of discrimination and marginalization, class warfare, ethnic and religious rivalry (e.g. Kurdish self-determination), and conflicting claims about natural resources. Also, as in the Middle East, polarization is not merely the play domestic forces struggling for ascendancy. Polarization is also being manipulated by powerful external political actors, to what precise extent and to what ends is unknowable. It is revealing that in the demonstrations in Cairo during the past month both pro- and anti-Morsi protesters have been chanting anti-American slogans, while the government invites a series of Western dignitaries with the aim of persuading the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood to accept the outcome of the coup.

Egypt and Turkey

The circumstances of polarization in Egypt and Turkey, although vastly different, share the experience of Islamic oriented political forces emerging from the shadow land of society after years of marginalization, and in Egypt’s case brutal suppression. In both countries the armed forces had long played an important role in keeping the state under the rigid control of secular elites that served Western strategic and neoliberal economic interests. Up to now, despite periodic trials and tribulations, Turkey seems to have solved the riddle of modernity much more persuasively than Egypt.

In both countries electoral politics mandated radical power shifts unacceptable to displaced secular elites. Opposition forces in the two countries after enjoying decades of power and influence suddenly saw themselves displaced by democratic means with no credible prospect of regaining political dominance by success in future elections, having ceded power and influence to those who had previously been subjugated and exploited. Those displaced were unwilling to accept their diminished role, including this lowered status in relation to societal forces whose values were scorned as anti-modern and threatening to preferred life styles that were identified with ‘freedom.’ They complained bitterly, organized feverishly, and mobilized energetically to cancel the verdict of the political majority by whatever means possible.

Recourse to extra-democratic means to regain power, wealth, and influence seemed to many in the opposition, although not all, the only viable political option, but it had to be done in such a way that it seemed to be a ‘democratic’ outcry of the citizenry against the state. Of course, the state has its own share of responsibility for the traumas of polarization. The elected leadership often over-reacts, becomes intoxicated with its own majoritarian mandate, acts toward the opposition on the basis of worst case scenarios, adopts paranoid styles of response to legitimate grievances and criticisms, and contributes its part to a downward spiral of distrust and animosity. The media, either to accentuate the drama of conflict or because is itself often aligned with the secular opposition, tends to heighten tensions, creating a fatalist atmosphere of ‘no return’ for which the only possible solution is ‘us’ or ‘them.’ Such a mentality of war is an anathema for genuine democracy in which losers at any given moment still have a large stake in the viability and success of the governing process. When that faith in the justice and legitimacy of the prevailing political system is shattered democracy cannot generate good governance.

The Politics of Polarization

The opposition waits for some mistake by the governing leadership to launch its campaign of escalating demands. Polarization intensifies. The opposition is unwilling to treat the verdict of free elections as the final word as to an entitlement to govern. At first, such unwillingness is exhibited by extreme alienation and embittered fears. Later on, as opportunities for obstruction arise, this unwillingness is translated into political action, and if it gathers enough momentum, the desired crises of legitimacy and governability bring the country to the brink of collapse. Much depends on material conditions. If the economy is doing reasonably well, calmer heads usually prevail, which may help explain why the impact of severe polarization has been so much greater in Egypt than Turkey. Morsi has succumbed to the challenge, while Erdogan has survived. Reverse the economic conditions, and the political outcomes would also likely have been reversed, although such a possibility is purely conjectural.

The Egyptian experience also reflects the extraordinary sequence of recent happenings. The Tahrir Square upheavals of January 25th came after 30 years of Mubarak rule. A political vacuum was created by the removal of Mubarak that was quickly filled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAP), but accompanied by the promise that a transition to democracy was the consensus goal binding all Egyptians, and once reached the generals would retire from the political scene. The popular sentiment then favored an inclusive democracy, which in 2011, was a coded way of saying that the Muslim Brotherhood should henceforth participate in the political process, finally being allowed to compete for a place in the governing process after decades of exclusion. There were from the beginning anxieties about this prospect among many in the anti-Mubarak ranks, and the Brotherhood seemed at first sensitive to secular and Coptic concerns even pledging that it had no intention of competing for the presidency of Egypt. All seemed well and good, with popular expectations wrongly assuming that the next president of Egypt would be a familiar secular figure, almost certainly drawn from the renegade membership of the fuloul, that is, a former beneficiary of the regime who joined the anti-Mubarak forces during the uprising. In the spring of 2011 the expectations were that Amr Moussa (former Secretary General of the Arab League and Mubarak Foreign Minister) would become Egypt’s first democratically elected president and that the Muslim Brotherhood would function as a strong, but minority, force in the Egyptian parliament. As the parliament would draft a new constitution for the country, this was likely to be the first show of strength between the secular and religious poles of Egyptian political opinion.

Several unforeseen developments made this initial set of expectations about Egypt’s political future unrealizable. Above all, the Muslim Brotherhood was far more successful in the parliamentary elections than had been anticipated. These results stoked the fears of the secularists and Copts, especially when account was taken of the previously unappreciated political strength of several Salafi parties that had not previously shown any interest in participating in the government. Religiously oriented political parties won more than 70% of the contested seats, creating control over the constitution-making process. This situation was further stressed when the Brotherhood withdrew its pledge not to seek control of the government by fielding its own candidate for the presidency. This whole transition process after January 2011 was presided over by administrative entities answerable to SCAP. Several popular candidates were disqualified, and a two-stage presidential election was organized in 2012 in which Mohamed Morsi narrowly defeated Ahmed Shafik in the runoff election between the two top candidates in the initial vote. Shafik, an air force commander and the last Mubarak prime minister, epitomizing the persisting influence of the fuloul. In a sense, the electoral choice given to the Egyptian people involved none of the Egyptian revolutionary forces that were most responsible for the overthrow of Mubarak or representing the ideals that seemed to inspire most of those who filled Tahrir Square in the revolutionary days of January 2011.  The Brotherhood supported the anti-Mubarak movement only belatedly when its victory was in sight, and seemed ideologically inclined to doubt the benefits of inclusive democratization, while Shafik, epitomizing the fuloul resurgent remnant of Mubarakism, never supported the upheaval, and did not even pretend to be a democrat, premising his appeal on promises to restore law and order, which would then supposedly allow Egypt to experience a rapid much needed economic recovery.

It was during the single year of Morsi’s presidency that the politics of extreme polarization took center stage. It is widely agreed that Morsi was neither experienced nor adept as a political leader in what was a very challenging situation even if polarization had not been present to aggravate the situation. The Egyptian people anxiously expected the new leadership to restore economic normalcy after the recent period of prolonged disorder and decline. He was a disappointment, even to many of those who had voted for him, in all of these regards. Many Egyptians who said that they had voted for Morsi expressed their disenchantment by alleging the ‘nothing had changed for the better since the Mubarak period,’ and so they joined the opposition.

It was also expected that Morsi would immediately signal a strong commitment to social justice and to addressing the plight of Egyptian unemployed youth and subsistence masses, but no such promise was forthcoming. In fairness, it seemed doubtful that anyone could have succeeded in fulfilling the role of president of Egypt in a manner that would have satisfied the majority of Egyptians.  The challenges were too obdurate, the citizenry too impatient, and the old Mubarak bureaucracy remained strategically in place and determined to oppose any change that might enhance the reputation of the Morsi leadership. Mubarak and some close advisors had been eliminated from the government, but the judiciary, the armed forces, and the Ministry of Interior were fuloul activist strongholds. In effect, the old secularized elites were still powerful, unaccountable, and capable of undermining the elected government that officially reflected the political will of the Egyptian majority. Morsi, a candidate with admittedly mediocre credentials, was elected to the presidency by an ominously narrow margin, and to make matters worse he inherited a mission impossible. Yet to unseat him by a coup was to upend Egypt’s fledgling democracy, with currently no hopeful tomorrow in view.

The Authoritarian Temptation

What was surprising, and disturbing, was the degree to which the protest movement so quickly and submissively linked the future of Egypt to the good faith and prudent judgment of the armed forces. All protest forces have received in exchange was the forcible removal of Morsi, the renewal of a suppressive approach to the Brotherhood, and some rather worthless reassurances about the short-term nature of military rule. General Adel-Fattah el-Sisi from the start made it clear that he was in charge, although designating an interim president, Adly Mansour, a Mubarak careerist, who had only days before the coup been made chief judge of the Supreme Constitutional Court by Morsi’s own appointment. Mansour has picked a new prime minister who selected a cabinet, supposedly consisting of technocrats, who will serve until a new government is elected. Already, several members of this civilian gloss on a military takeover of the governing process in Egypt have registered meek complaints about the excessive force being used against pro-Morsi demonstrations, itself a euphemism for crimes against humanity and police atrocities.

Better Mubarakism than Morsiism was the underlying sentiment relied upon to fan the flames of discontent throughout the country, climaxing with the petition campaign organized by Tamarod, a newly formed youth-led opposition, that played a major role in organizing the June 30th demonstrations of millions that were underpinned in the final days by a Sisi ultamatum from the armed forces that led to the detention and arrest of Morsi,. This was followed by the rise to political dominance of a menacing figure, General Adel-Fattah el-Sisi, who has led a military coup that talks of compromise and inclusive democracy while acting to criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood, and its leadership, using an onslaught of violence against those who peacefully refuse to fall into line. This military leadership is already responsible for the deliberate slaughter of Morsi loyalists in coldblooded tactics designed to terrorize the Muslim Brotherhood, and warn the Egyptian people that further opposition will not be tolerated.

I am certainly not suggesting that such a return to authoritarianism in this form is better for Egypt than the democracy established by Morsi, or favored by such secular liberals as Mohamed ElBaradei, who is now serving as Deputy Prime Minister. Unfortunately, this challenge directed at a freely elected democracy by a massive popular mobilization to be effective required an alliance with the coercive elements drawn from the deep state and private sector entrepreneurs. Such a dependency relationship involved a Faustian Bargain, getting rid of the hated Morsi presidency, but doing so with an eyes closed acceptance of state terror: large-scale shooting of unarmed pro-Morsi demonstrators, double standards dramatized by General Sisi’s call to the anti-Morsi forces to give him a populist mandate to crush the Brotherhood by coming into the streets aggressively and massively. Egypt is well along a path that leads to demonic autocratic rule that will likely be needed to keep the Brotherhood from preventing the reestablishment of order. General Sisi’s coup will be written off as a failure if there continues to be substantial street challenges and bloody incidents, which would surely interfere with restoring the kind of economic stability that Egypt desperately needs in coming months if it is to escape the dire destiny of being ‘a failed state.’ The legitimating test for the Sisi coup is ‘order’ not ‘democracy,’ and so the authoritarian ethos prevails, yet if this means a continuing series of atrocities, it will surely lead to yet another crisis of legitimacy for the country that is likely to provoke a further crisis of governability.

The controversial side of my argument is that Egypt currently lacks the political preconditions for the establishment of democracy, and in such circumstances, the premature attempt to democratize the political life of the country leads not only to disappointment, but to political regression. At this stage, Egypt will be fortunate if it can return to the relatively stable authoritarianism of the Mubarak dictatorship. Because of changed expectations, and the unlawful displacement of the Morsi leadership, it has now become respectable for the Tamarod, self-appointed guardians of the Tahrir Square revolution to support the ‘cleansing’ the Muslim Brotherhood. It is sad to take note of these noxious odors of fascism and genocide now contaminating the political atmosphere in Egypt.

The very different experience in Iraq, too, suggests that ill-advised moves to install democracy can unleash polarization in a destructive form. Despite his crimes, polarization had been kept in check during the authoritarian rule of Saddam Hussein, The attempted transition to democracy was deeply compromised by coinciding with the American occupation and proconsular rule. It produced sectarian polarization in such drastic forms that it will likely either lead to a new authoritarianism that is even more oppressive than what Saddam Hussein had imposed or resolved by a civil war in which the victor rules with an iron hand and the loser is relegated to the silent margins of Iraqi political life.

In the post-colonial world it is up to the people of each country to shape their own destiny (realizing the ethos of self-determination), and outsiders should rarely interfere however terrible the civil strife. Hopefully, the peoples of the Middle East will learn from these polarization experiences to be wary of entrusting the future of their country to the vagaries of majoritarian democracy, but also resistant to moves by politically displaced minorities to plot their return to power by a reliance on anti-democratic tactics, coalitions with the military, and the complicity of the deep state. There is no single template. Turkey, although threatened by polarization, has been able so far to contain its most dire threats to political democracy. Egypt has not been so lucky. For simplistic comparison, Turkey has had the benefits of a largely evolutionary process that allows for a democratic political culture to take hold gradually at societal and governmental levels. Egypt has, in contrast, experienced abrupt changes in a setting of widespread economic distress, and a radical form of polarization that denied all legitimacy to the antagonist, transforming the armed forces from foe to friend of the opposition because it was the enemy of their enemy. If this is the predictable outcome of moves to establish democracy, then authoritarian leadership may not be the worst of all possible worlds in every circumstance. It depends on context. In the Middle East this may require a comparison of the risks of democratization with the costs of authoritarianism, and this may depend on the degree and nature of polarization.

The presence of the oil reserves in the Gulf, as well as Iran, Iraq, and Libya, along with Israel’s interest in avoiding the emergence of strong unified democratic states in the region makes the Middle East particularly vulnerable to the perils of polarization. In other regions similar structures of antagonism exist, but generally with less disastrous results. The dynamics of economic globalization cannot be divorced from the ways in which nominally independent sovereign states are subjected to the manipulative storms of geopolitics.

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