Why Biden Must Win: It is not about Democracy, its about Fascism

9 Oct

[Prefatory Note: Responses to an Iranian journalist, Javad Heiran-Nia Interview Questions on U.S. Elections (8 Oct 2020).]

Why Biden Must Win: It is not about Democracy, its about Fascism

  1. What is the most important issue affecting the upcoming US presidential election? (Economy; Foreign Policy; Domestic Policy; etc.)

For the voters in America the most important issues at this time are the (mis)management of the health crisis by Trump and the impact on the recovery of the U.S. economy. At this point there is a surge of criticism directed at the present U.S. leadership with respect to the Coronavirus pandemic: more infections and deaths per capita than almost any country in the world, intentional disregard of guidance by health specialists, dishonest and irresponsible reassurances, and economic relief favoring the rich and influential while understating the economic distress caused others by the loss of jobs, food insecurities, and threats of eviction. There is little interest, at least up to this point, in foreign policy with the single exception of international economic relations and geopolitical tensions with China. Both candidates for the presidency seem to adopt anti-Chinese positions, but Biden seems less militaristic and provocative than Trump. Biden refrains from blaming China for the virus, and seems somewhat less likely to embrace a strategy in East Asia that will lead to a second cold war.

For the peoples of the Middle East and elsewhere, the foreign policy implications of the elections assume greater importance. As with China, Trump seems more inclined than Biden to push the anti-Iran coalition of Israel, UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia toward the brink of war, with the hope that the persistence of ‘maximum pressure’ will cause destabilization in Iran, and if possible, regime change. Biden would not likely change very much in terms of alignment, but might be expected to be more cautious in endorsing aggressive policies, and might even restore the agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program negotiated toward the end of the Obama presidency. At the same time, Biden might be more inclined than Trump to push an anti-Russian approach that could take the form of regional and global confrontations, as well as arms races in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe.  

One cost of such foreign policy initiatives is to weaken the attention given to challenges  that can only be solved by multilateral cooperation at a time when it is most needed, especially in relation to climate change, the control of nuclear weaponry, migration flows, and health issues. As noted above, Biden is much more likely to renew American support for ‘liberal internationalism’ than Trump, and can almost certainly be expected to do so unless geopolitically distracted.

There are other hot spots around the world that are capable of generating dangerous foreign policy crises, especially in relation to Korea or India/Pakistan.

2. Which candidate has the best chance of winning? (Trump or Biden)

As of now, it appears that Biden will win the election rather decisively, but in 2016 there existed a comparable clear outlook close to vote, reinforced by public opinion polls. It created a strong impression that Hillary Clinton would win easily over Donald Trump, a view almost universally shared by the media, and reportedly even by the Trump campaign. The American political mood is unstable, and could be influenced by developments in the coming weeks as the date of the election approaches that are supportive of Trump’s campaign for reelection as, for example, violent riots in American cities, a further surge in the financial markets, a crisis in the Middle East or the Korean Peninsula. .

Additionally, there are a series of factors that sow doubt about present expectations of a Biden victory that go beyond which candidate will gain the most votess: first of all, Biden could win the popular vote by a wide margin, and yet lose the election because of the way in which the peculiar American institution of the Electoral College determines the outcome of presidential elections by counting the results on a federal state by state basis rather than nationally. This happened in 2016, Hillary Clinton winning by wide margins in New York and California, but losing close votes in such battleground states as Pennsylvania, Florida, and Michigan. According to the Electoral College a candidate receives the same number of electoral votes assigned to a state if he wins by one vote or 10 million votes. The value of the vote in states where one party dominates, an individual vote becomes of diluted value, whereas if both parties are more or less of similar popularity, the value of an individual vote is inflated. The question posed is whether the Electoral College vote will again override the popular vote as it did in 2106.

Secondly, it is well known that Republican control of governments in the 50 states making up the U.S. has resulted in a variety of voter suppression schemes that make it harder to vote, and particularly affects African Americans and the very poor, making voting more difficult i cities and the rural South. Trump has also attacked mail-in voting as subject to mass fraud although the evidence in no way supports the accusation. Less votes are seen as helping Trump. Republicans are better organized and more disciplined than Democrats, although the Democrats have devoted great energy this year to getting out the vote.

Thirdly, Trump has intimated that he can only lose the election if it is has been ‘rigged’ by the Democrats. The reality seems to justify a different complaint that targets the Republicans. Much of the rigging that occurred in 2016 was attributable to Russia, and definitely worked in Trump’s favor, being intended to do so. Back then such partisan interference seemed welcomed by the Republican campaign, and likely would be again.  There are concerns that similar interferences might occur again this time around as Russia continues to prefer Trump to Biden, although there seems to be a greater effort in 2020 to insulate the election process from outside interferences, especially in relation to social media.

It is important to grasp a basic ideological feature of recent American elections of the presidency. Ever since the unified response to fascism during World War II the political parties have accepted a ‘bipartisan consensus’ that almost completely excludes certain crucial policy commitments from political controversy. The most important of these is overinvestment in the military, the predatory features of global capitalism, and so-called ‘special relationships’ with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and European alliance partners. This consensus held up throughout the Cold War, was sustained during the banner years of neoliberal globalization in the decade of the 1990s, and reinvigorated after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon after George W. Bush launched the war on terror, and Barack Obama continued it. 

Bernie Sanders challenged this consensus as it impacted upon policy discourse during his two campaigns to obtain the Democratic Party nomination, but his efforts were rejected by the party elite because he threatened the consensus, defied the ‘deep state,’ worried the Washington foreign policy establishment, and frightened the large private sector donors whose funding support depended on respecting the bipartisan consensus. In this sense, the Democrats successfully subordinated in their own party all radical elements that enjoyed movement support, especially among youth. The Republicans sidelined their moderate leadership, giving over control of the party to extremists that formed the base of Trump support. And so while the Democratic Party establishment neutralized the progressive Sanders’ challenge the Republican Party was radicalized from the right giving Trump control over all mechanism.

In part, it is this issue of party identity, and its relation to the governmental structures of power, that may be the most important effect of the November elections. If Biden wins, the bipartisan consensus is reaffirmed, while if Trump somehow prevails, the bipartisan will be further weakened, and even threatened by replacing the consensus with a right-wing policy agenda. If Biden loses, the consensus will be further discredited by its mistaken view that moving toward the political center is what wins election. What evidence exists by polls and other measurements of public opinion suggest that Sanders would have been a stronger candidate than Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020, but for reasons suggested above, adhering to the bipartisan consensus was more important or Democrats than winning elections. 

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Remembering Ramsey Clark

12 Apr

Remembering Ramsey Clark

Ramsey Clark was a great man, and it was my privilege to work with him closely on several occasions. His death is a time to mourn, but it is also a time to remember who he was and why his life mattered in profound ways to so many people. 

I first met Ramsey under somewhat unusual circumstances. It was not long after the ending of the infamous Chicago 8 trial of 1969 that prompted Ramsey’s withdrawal from government, and it was just prior to the Harrisburg Kissinger Kidnapping Trial of Philip Berrigan, Elizabeth McAlister, Eqbal Ahmed, and several other for a fanciful alleged plot to kidnap Henry Kissinger while he was Secretary of State, at attractive phantasy but never planned beyond the musings of anti-war imaginaries. There were concerns about the future wellbeing of these idealistic defendants. because Harrisburg was deemed a conservative site for such a trial and that attempted kidnapping might produce lengthy prison sentences. With these considerations in mind, these defendants believed that it would be inflammatory to have the defense team led by a theatrical celebrity lawyer like William Kunstler who was seen as likely taunting and probably antagonizing judge, jury, and community. It was feared by friends of the defendants that such tensions could lead to a harsher sentence, however outlandish the charges.

The three best known defendants were my close friends, and I was asked to go meet Ramsey in Washington and see if he might be willing to represent the Berrigan/McAlister defense, which was delicate, as Bill Kunstler was their longtime devoted lawyer, friend, and devoted comrade. Ramsey was still in his Washington office shortly after leaving the government as its Attorney General, accompanied by gossip that LBJ hoped that Ramsey would become the next Texan to become a U.S. President. I was somewhat nervous about such a mission and intimidated by the prospect of meeting on my own about an ultra-sensitive issue with this high profile former government official who had this recent change of heart with respect to the Vietnam War. 

My anxieties were misplaced. I arrived on time, and was immediately ushered into Ramsey’s office, directed to a comfortable seat while he finished a phone call. As soon as I sat down, Ramsey tossed me a box of triscuits that had been on his desk, and fortunately I caught it or else legal history might have turned out differently. But what was disclosed by this trope was Ramsey’s unpretentious, casual, folksy, humble, and unassuming manner, which was a bit disconcerting as it was combined with a laser sharp mind and a character that could stand his ground as firmly as the most prized Texas Longhorn steer. When Ramsey’s phone call ended we talked without formality, as if friendly cousins who had much in common and had not seen each other recently. Our conversation ended with Ramsey agreeing to visit Philip Berrigan in a Danbury, Connecticut jail where he was serving time for prior acts of civil disobedience. Ramsey went on to represent and befriend the famed Berrigan brothers, at first only Philip at Harrisburg, bonded with them and the others on the legal team, and staked his claim, never to be relinquished, as America’s once mainstream nationally prominent civil servant, who became in the years after his heralded departure from government a renegade to those who identified with the establishment and a legendary hero to those of us who thirsted for progressive change.

For me Ramsey was a great man because of two extraordinary qualities:

–he never allowed his formidable ambition and public reputation stand in the way of principled action,resigning with cause from the highest echelons of government, burning his bridges of return by identifying openly with the radical wing of the anti-Vietnam War Movement. It has long surprised me how rare such displays of conscience are in American public lifeI could think of only Daniel Ellsberg who came close, who although acting from a lower level of prominence, made his notorious break with the government by way of high drama featuring the release of a large dossier of classified official documents relating to Vietnam policy, known to us as the Pentagon Papers that he expected to land him in prison for a lengthy sentence. Ramsey never wavered, and as far as I can tell, never regretted this momentous change from looking down from the pinnacles of public authority to looking up from the trenches of struggle on behalf of thoae marginalized and vulnerable at home and abroad. Ramsey, in common again with Dan, never lost his faith that the American way, politically and constitutionally, was the best path for governance, but if and only if it lived up to the Jeffersonian vision of political democracy so early encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence, which critics insist was already relegated to museum viewings by the more property-minded conservative U.S. Constitution.  

–Ramsey second quality that so impressed me was his fearlessness in the face of danger. We went together with Philip Luce to Iran at the climax of the revolution in early 1979, and had some harrowing experiences that shook my composure while leaving him unphased. I recall with especial vividness, as if yesterday, being together for lunch in the Iranian religious city of Qom after having just had an intellectually stimulating meeting with a leading Islamic figure, Ayatollah Shariat Maderi, who we were told was the best theological mind in Iran. After enjoying a simple Persian lunch on the central square, we ventured outside for a walk, soon to be confronted by young Iranians of high school age who identified us as Americans. They shouted in English chilling slogans: “Death to the Shah, Death to Americans.” Before we realized what was happening, hundreds more were attracted by the spectacle, some carrying posters with the picture of Ayatollah Khomeini. Two youthful ardent mullahs took over the spontaneous gathering, leading the chanting that raised the mob temperature to a fever pitch, which I interpreted as the prelude to a lynching. Ramsey standing tall amid the bloodthirsty crowd was as calm as if cutting a birthday cake. 

As might be obvious as I survived to recall the incident, our guides from Tehran finally managed to convince the mullahs that we were not CIA operatives or off-duty American soldiers, but had come to Iran at this time at the personal invitation of Mehdi Bazargan so as to understand that a popular revolution was underway, which was  revolutionary determined to transform the country but hoped it could avoid a feared U.S. intervention of the kind that had displaced the democratically elected Mohamed Mossadeq in 1953. With the switch in crowd mood from hostile to hospitable, Ramsey was fully at ease, while it took me time to quell my anxieties of a few minutes earlier when I was sure that I was on the verge of experiencing a bloody ending of my life. As it happened, we had meetings back in Tehran, declining offers of dinner by our former tormentors, and left in peace with the blessings of those whose chants had called for our death a short while ago.

–Ramsey had a third quality, which for most of us would have been sufficient to make most of us feel fulfilled in life, but for him merely added luster to those virtuous qualities that I believe he would have most wanted to be remembered for—principle above all else and fearlessness. As I was earning bread and board as a salaried intellectual, Ramsey’s third special quality aalone aroused my envy, knowing that the first two were beyond my reach. Ramsey possessed a prodigious storehouse of quotations from Rousseau, Jefferson, Locke, Oliver Wendell Holmes, FDR, JFK, Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others that he inserted effortlessly into his many extemporaneous talks during our times together, conveying the impression that he had internalized the wisdom of the ages. In addition, he was able to recall and distinguish what we were told by the numerous political and religious figures whom we had met day after day, reciting sentences verbatim, without ever taking a single note. I felt my mental inferiority, struggling to take down as much as I could from this fascinating array of individuals who met with us during those ten historic days in Iran during which the Shah left his throne forever, allowing the revolutionary movement to celebrate its extraordinary victory. All the while our modest mission dealt with a daunting schedule from dawn until the moon was high in the sky, and Ramsey gladly missed sleep rather than cancel even one of our scheduled meetings.

During this exhausting trip, climaxing with a long meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris, just prior to his return to Iran after 17 years spent in exile, we all learned a great deal, grateful for this exposure to the live tissue of revolution. I am tempted to set down as part of this concluding conversation with this future leader of Iran in the form of recalling this mysterious personage who was to dominate the political stage in his country for the rest of his life, but I will refrain. I did try to recall and appraise in my political memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim that published weeks ago, which devotes a long chapter to this Iranian visit, with Ramsey figuring larger than life in many of its aspects.

Having praised Ramsey, I want to acknowledge some minor reservations that caused some friction during this Iran experience, and an earlier one in the less fraught, yet still tense, circumstances of the Tunisian struggle for democracy in the face of dictatorial rule. We had been invited to the country to speak at a human rights conference in the capital city of Tunis, convened by the leading opposition figures. The public event was cancelled by government edict, and we tried our best to perform in private venues according to the wishes of our brave, unintimidated hosts. Ramsey was as in Iran a tower of strength, an eloquent voice for freedom, democracy, decency who avowed his solidarity with those in opposition who, unlike the revolutionaries in Iran, resembled American liberals, invoking John F. Kennedy as their model of governance.

My reservations may be linked in various ways to Ramsey’s virtues. I was at times embarrassed by his ‘lectures’ to eminent Iranian religious and political leaders in which he basically urged them to follow the path of American constitutionalism. Although he was all for their revolutionary struggle, he felt its outcome could be best realized by following the American lead. Our hosts were invariably polite, partly sensing the importance of winning the valuable support of such a high profile visitor who opposed in Iran what Washington was hoping for, but I also noticed that they were bored and despite their best efforts, inattentive, staring out the window, playing with a pen or pencil but refraining from taking notes. I believed then and still do, that these Iranians didn’t appreciate being instructed even by Ramsey about what was best for the future of their country, a place with a long history and deep distinctive cultural characteristics. In my view, even Ramsey didn’t understand that we lacked credibility to Instruct Iranians about how to construct their post-Shah future.

I was also bothered by Ramsey’s tendency to dominate these meetings, and our contacts with the media. I felt that I had some things worth saying as did our third companion, Phil Luce, a notable anti-war activist with a religious vocation, combining social shyness with political brashness. We both felt somewhat frustrated by this unintentional marginalization. I overcame my own deference to Ramsey to raise our concern somewhat timidly. He responded that he understood, but claimed that he was helpless, that the persons we encountered and the media were primarily interested in him because of his background. This was a large part of the story, but not the whole of it. Ramsey could have made space for us, but the more I observed him, the more I realized that he flourished in the limelight, and sought it. Putting all this in perspective, on reflection it is more impressive that someone so ambitious in a context that was within his comfort zone, could toss ambition aside when it encroached upon his principles of justice and truth. I learned so much more from Ramsey about being-in-the-world that perhaps I should have suppressed these petty reservations. These criticisms are do not dilute my admiration for the man and his life, although maybe these qualities might have limited the depth of our friendship to some degree.

One final thought. When I first knew Ramsey he was a different person in the presence of Georgia, his life partner, who brought him joy and loving companionship, as well as lightened his manner. Without Georgia, Ramsey was a different person, austere and totally serious even when off camera. I never had the feeling that Ramsey on his own was capable of self-indulgence—reading trashy novels or watching entertaining movies, following sports, playing games, and being silly. Maybe he exposed his less puritanical sides to others who were more intimate. The bottom line is that Ramsey Clark, in my book, was an American hero who coveted virtue more than power or profits, and more than most lived his truths to the fullest. 

How Significant is the $400 Billion Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between China and Iran

8 Apr

[Prefatory Note: the post below consists of my responses to questions posed by the Iranian journalist Javad Heiran-Nia Questions on the China/Iran Agreement (4 April 2021). The agreement, officially known as Comprehensive Strategic Partnership  was signed formally just a few weeks before it was announced that so-called ‘indirect talks’ between Iran and the U.S. were taking place in Vienna dealing with conditions relevant to the U.S. willingness to rejoin the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, that had been negotiated in 2015 to address proliferation concerns of the UN P-5 + Germany and the sanctions concerns of Iran. The U.S. withdrew from the agreement in 2018 in fulfillment of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign pledge to do so because it was derided as a bad deal for the West. What accounts for such talks being ‘indirect’ is not covered in the interview, and seems like a hedge against directly failing to find enough common ground to commence overdue ‘direct’ talks.] 

  1. 25-year cooperation document between Iran and China was signed. What is the significance of this document for the two countries?

The agreement configured to be worth at least $400 billion, carefully negotiated, and significantly named Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, promises significant mutual benefit to both countries. For China it offers both a major extension of its Belt and Road Initiative, involving huge infrastructure and investment features, especially Chinese investment in Iranian energy infrastructure and an Iranian commitment to supply China with crude oil. It also extends China’s diplomatic presence to and economic engagement with an important country in the Middle East at an opportune time given the present global setting. The fact that the agreement covers a period of 25 years suggests that it represents long-term commitment by China to Iran and Iran to China, presupposing continuity of governing structures in both countries.

For Iran, it signals the United States that Beijing is not isolated, and possess policy alternatives that can encroach upon American strategic interests. It also sends the message that China will not submit to U.S. pressures with respect either to the restoration of JCPOA or curtail its regional diplomacy that runs counter to the positions of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.. The economic dimensions relating to infrastructure investment and trade also promise relief from the burdens imposed on Iran and its people by U.S. sanctions and threat diplomacy over a period of almost 40 years. The long duration projected for the arrangements also gives Iranian governing arrangements a vote of confidence as to stability and legitimacy. 

2. In terms of timing, what messages does the signing of this document have for the United States?

The timing seems important. Coming at the outset of the Biden presidency it sends a dual message: China is prepared to lend its support to countries that are placed under intense pressure by the United States and that China’s international policies will not be changed by the sort of bullying tactics that were exhibited by the American Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, at the recent bilateral meetings in Alaska. It also is an illustration of the difference between the U.S. emphasis on militarism by way of coercive diplomacy, arms sales, and overseas bases, and the very different Chinese stress on fashioning win/win economic relationships that result in mutual benefits without entailing intervention in internal affairs or abridgement of sovereign rights, although in this agreement it contains a provision on security cooperation including sharing intelligence and joint training exercises. At times, Chinese diplomacy may weaken national self-reliance and autonomous development of its partners, but its diplomacy seems to rest consistently on peaceful means and mutual benefits.

 3. The United States has expressed concern about the signing of this cooperation document. What worries America?

It seems inevitable considering the scale, scope, duration, timing, and even the name of the Iran-China agreement would cause concern in Washington.

The United States has two principal concerns: a weakening of its diplomatic leverage with Iran and a further display of Chinese competitive skills that expose the weakness of current U.S. hegemonic approaches to world order, and specifically in the Middle East. The fact that this cooperative mega-agreement is situated in the Middle East threatens to diminish U.S. regional influence in a crucial strategic setting where it has been unopposed since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. This observation is given added plausibility by the recent efforts of several important countries in the Middle East, including even Israel and Saudi Arabia, to enter into significant economic relationships with China. The recent good will visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, to the region also reinforced the impression of increasing China’s interests and activities in the region, which can only make Washington nervous about being displaced, or at least challenged. Mr. Wang set forth five principles delimiting satisfactory inter-governmental conduct, which he indicated that if accepted by the governments of the region, would encourage China to play a supportive role. These five principles, somewhat resembling the principles of peaceful coexistence drafted and endorsed by the UN General Assembly are rather benign, but convey aspirations for cooperative relations among states rather than conflictual or hegemonic international relations. [See Declaration of Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation Among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, GA Res 2625 (XXV), 24 Oct 1970] The five points set forth are mutual respect, upholding equity and justice, achieving non-proliferation, collective security, and accelerated development assistance. Only ‘achieving non-proliferation’ seems a bit peculiar considering that Israel already possesses nuclear weaponry [for elaboration see “Wang Yi Proposes a Five-point Initiative on Achieving Security and Stability in the Middle East,” PR China, March 26, 2021] In this spirit the Foreign Minister ventured to suggest China’s willingness to host a conference dealing with the security of sea lanes and oil facilities in the Middle East.

4- During Iran foreign minister Zarif’s visit to China, the Chinese Foreign Minister somehow tied the signing of this agreement to the settlement of Iran’s disputes with the countries of the region. But he has now traveled to Iran to sign the agreement. Has there been a change in China’s view since Biden came to power in the United States? In other words, has China been waiting for the policy of the new US administration?

That earlier Chinese reluctance to sign the agreement has not been mentioned very often in the Western assessment of the event, which had been tied to Iran’s successful overcoming of difficulties with Arab countries in the region. This somewhat unusual demand, and now the change of position on China’s part lends weight to the circumstantial evidence that formalizing the agreement at this time reflects a reaction to the wider political context. It particularly suggests that China is prepared to demonstrate its firmness and independence in relation to the United States. It is a warning to the Biden presidency that if the U.S. forcibly challenges China’s regional sphere of influence in the South China Seas, China has ways to retaliate. China may still be hoping for a de-escalation of tensions when the negative effects of starting a new cold war become better appreciated by the Biden leadership. This is speculative on my part as nothing formally articulated suggests that such a reconsideration is underway in Washington. The irresponsible allegations of ‘genocide’ allegedly being perpetrated by the Chinese government against the Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang area suggest a further worsening of relations, allegations certain to further inflame relations between these two major countries.

Nevertheless, Washington’s cautious signs of willingness to move toward the resumption of negotiations with regard to JCPOA may also be indicative of a new American interest in neutralizing China’s leverage and influence in Tehran. And beyond this, to keep open the possibility of limiting confrontations to peaceful forms of competition, regionally and globally.

The underlying agreement, officially known as Comprehensive Strategic Partnership  was signed formally just a few weeks before it was announced that so-called ‘indirect talks’ between Iran and the U.S. were starting in Vienna dealing with U.S. conditions and demands relevant to its willingness to rejoin the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, that had been negotiated in 2015 to address proliferation concerns of the UN P-5 + Germany and the sanctions concerns of Iran. The U.S. withdrew from the agreement in 2018 in fulfillment of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign pledge to do so because it was derided as a bad deal for the West. What accounts for such talks being ‘indirect’ is not covered in the interview, and seems like a hedge against directly failing to find enough common ground to commence overdue ‘direct’ talks

5-One of the important issues raised for this cooperation document is Iran’s land connection to Iraq and Syria. In this way, China can connect to the Mediterranean Sea through Iran, Iraq and Syria. Iran has a strong presence in the Syrian port of Tartus, and pro-Iranian forces also control the Bokmal border crossing in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province and the al-Qaim crossing in Iraq’s Anbar province. How feasible do you think this path is?

I am not in a good position to make any informed judgment beyond expressing the view that this kind of projection is consistent with other arrangements concluded within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, which has taken advantage of Chinese capital and skilled labor for similar development projects in Asia and Africa. All of these countries benefit when such plans go forward, and it would strengthen the temptation to preserve political independence in Iraq and Syria to encourage such arrangements, which could be part of a broader strategy of protecting national security of vulnerable countries by practicing equi-distance diplomacy, that is, maintaining workable relations with both the U.S. and China without alignment with either one, and thereby retaining freedom of maneuver.

The Chinese agreement with Iran, officially known as Comprehensive Strategic Partnership  was signed formally just a few weeks before it was announced that so-called ‘indirect talks’ between Iran and the U.S. were taking place in Vienna dealing with conditions relevant to the U.S. willingness to rejoin the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, that had been negotiated in 2015 to address proliferation concerns of the UN P-5 + Germany and the sanctions concerns of Iran. The U.S. withdrew from the agreement in 2018 in fulfillment of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign pledge to withdraw because the agreement was derided as a bad deal for the West. What accounts for such talks being ‘indirect’ is not covered in the interview, and seems like a hedge against failing to find enough common ground if the parties were to commence overdue ‘direct’ talks without adequate preparation. It is likely that these indirect talks are really to intend to explore whether negotiations had a reasonable prospect of success.

Do We Really Want a Second Cold War?

31 Mar

[Prefatory Note: The post below is a slightly modified version of Policy Paper #4 RESPONDING TO CHINESE VIOLATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS, published previously on the website of the Committee for a Sane China Policy. It reflects my view that the protection of human rights is being geopolitically manipulate to mobilize public support for an anti-Chinese foreign policy in the West that risks generating a dangerous geopolitical confrontation. Such a confrontation is costly, amounts to war-mongering, and diverts U.S. attention from self-scrutiny and global peacebuilding. Whether a second cold war is already underway is a matter of interpretation, but even those reluctant to reach such a depressing assessment would have to acknowledge that unless there are strong efforts made to support what I would call ‘inclusive global multipolarity,’ the drift toward such a dismal near-term future will become inevitable. The need to sound the alarm has reached a level of urgency.]    

Introduction: 

There is no doubt that Chinese government encroachments on the fundamental human rights of its population have become more pervasive and serious in several respects during the leadership of President Xi Jinping. This unfortunate development has been increasingly highlighted, often with inflammatory intent, by Western leaders and media outlets – apattern that is contributing to increasing tensions between China and the West, especially the United States. This emphasis on Chinese violations of human rights is reinforced by complaints that China acted irresponsibly and oppressively in its early responses to the COVID-19 challenge, is defying international law in the South China Sea, and has not participated in the world economy in a fair and proper manner, hence justifying such American responses as blocking exports of high-technology items to China, persuading European governments to avoid tying their internet network to Chinese 5G technology, placing burdens on Chinese investment in the United States, and above all in mounting a global propaganda offensive against China. 

President Biden in his speech to the Munich Security Conference on February 19, 2021 highlighted what he called ‘competition’ with China as well as with Russia, blaming each for bad behavior, while saying that the U.S. seeks to avoid a new cold war and looks forward to cooperation with China in areas of shared concern, most notably in relation to health and climate change.[1]  At the same time the, central thesis of the Munich speech was disturbing, a confusing call for solidarity among democratic countries, highlighting NATO’s mission in ‘prevailing’ over the challenges mounted by the rise of autocratic nationalism all over the world. For those able to recall the bellicose rhetoric of prior decades, this call is highly resonant with Cold War slogans about the ‘free world’ resisting the totalitarian Soviet bloc. It was also confusing by combining alliance solidarity with Biden’s call for the formation of a united front of democratic states, forgetting that many U.S. allies are far from achieving democratic credentials – consider the Philippines, India, Brazil, Hungary, and Saudi Arabia.  

There are also unacknowledged worries in the West about competitiveness arising not from Chinese improper behavior towards its own people, but from its growing technological creativity and regional military muscle. The so-called ‘Thucydides Trap’ has historically prompted nervous dominant states seek to turn back a challenge to their preeminence by initiating a war while still enjoying military superiority, which is feared will soon be overtaken.[2] The dangers of confrontation with China are especially great given the flashpoints in the South and East China Seas, and especially in relation to Taiwan. China seems intent on establishing its regional supremacy while the United States seeks to reassert its long-dominant regional role by displaying its formidable naval presence as a sign of readiness to meet political threats with shows of force, a recipe for dangerous forms of unintended escalation. There are additional concerns arising from the anticipated further military buildup in the Indo-Pacific regions, based on $27 billion additional budget requests over the next five years. In the background of intensifying militarization is the related public expression by high-ranking Pentagon officials that in view of China’s regional buildup of forces, the U.S. would be under great pressure to use nuclear weapons. A top admiral urged strategic planners to grasp this reality by understanding that the use of nuclear weapons in a forthcoming crisis would not be possible but probable, and should be prepared. Such a conclusion was reinforced by recent war game simulations showing that China would prevail at conventional levels of interaction. Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis has there been a situation in which ‘rational’ security analysts acknowledged a dependence on nuclear weapons to meet strategic goals, and not just as serving in a deterrent role.

It is against this background of mixed messages that U.S. policy toward human rights in China should be shaped, especially if the goal is to avoid war and establish an overall atmosphere that encourages cooperative engagements. This critical goal would best be served by reducing tensions that could give rise to hazardous and hostile confrontations, and even outright conflict. This paper seeks to thread the needle so as to separate genuine concerns about human rights from the overriding priority of not stumbling into a cold war – let alone a hot war – with China. In that spirit it sets forth a profile of China’s human rights record, including taking account of its considerable positive sides, and expresses a skeptical view as to whether overt hostile criticisms, policies, or actions are justified or effective, adopting the view that such a pushback is certain to be resented by Chinese leaders and dismissed as hostile propaganda. It is certain to be ineffective in changing China’s controversial domestic policies.  

Declaring this, however, does not dispose of the problem. As with the Cold War and regime-changing interventions, the denunciation of human rights violations by an adversary of the United States, usually in exaggerated form, has proven extremely useful in mobilizing Congressional, media, and citizen support for coercive diplomacy, taking a variety of forms, including military buildups, sanctions, interventions, threats, and covert destabilizing operations. When John Bolton, a relentless right-wing geopolitical hawk when it comes to opposing Muslim political aspirations in the Middle East and elsewhere, expressed fury over Donald Trump’s unwillingness to do anything substantial about the plight of the approximately 12 million Turkic speaking Muslim Uyghurs and Kazakhs living in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China, we should realize that his concern is not about human rights or the plight of the Uyghurs, but is about seizing the opportunity to use human rights concerns to bludgeon the Chinese and arouse anti-Chinese sentiments in the United States already inflamed by Trump’s frequent allusions to the ‘Wuhan virus’ or ‘China virus.’. 

Some Perspective on China’s Human Rights Record  

It is difficult to disentangle Western anti-Chinese propaganda from an objective appraisal of China’s record on human rights. This difficulty is compounded by certain Asian values and traditions that help explain government behavior, which when given a special Chinese twist, diverge in approach from Western liberal approaches that give priority to individual freedoms.   

There is no doubt that China’s policy toward Tibetan, Eastern Mongolian, and Uyghur minorities raise serious human rights issues that have been reliably reported by respected human rights organizations. The allegations include involuntary detention and abusive treatment in so-called ‘reeducation camps,’ forced sterilization, denials of freedoms of expression, religion, and cultural identity, family separation, and discrimination in paid work.[3]  

Yet the underlying issues are complex, and can be interpreted from contradictory perspectives. Concerns about human rights, especially when associated with discontented ethnic and religious minorities, are inevitably interrelated with questions about the interplay of territorial sovereignty and specifying the acceptable nature of national identity. This includes grappling with the indistinct relationship between duties to uphold the internationally protected human rights of minorities and responses to social movements based on claims of autonomy and separation. In such cases, human rights issues need to be balanced against measures undertaken to maintain the unity of the state. There are legal ambiguities and factual complexities about who has the authority to strike a balance between collective human rights and governmental responsibility to uphold the unity of the state. What constitutes a reasonable balance? Who decides? There are no firm answers. 

International law has long wrestled with this complexity. On the one side exists a strong affirmation of the right of self-determination that inheres in every ‘people’ and it set forth in Article 1 of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. On the other side is the common understanding in international law, as confirmed by an influential 1970 UN resolution, as prohibiting claims of self-determination that seek to fragment or threaten the unity of existing sovereign states. The language of the preamble to the UN resolution is clear and uncontested: “…any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and territorial integrity of a State or country or at its political independence is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the [UN] Charter.[4] This conceptual confusion is accentuated to the extent that international law confers the right of self-determination on a ‘people’ while endowing ‘states’ with ‘sovereignty,’ which often encompasses more than one people. Governments are legally empowered to exercise virtually unrestricted authority within recognized territorial boundaries to curb movements that exhibit separatist tendencies. 

Yet when national policy is being challenged by ethno-political movements seeking greater degrees of cultural and political autonomy, including language rights and questions bearing on the freedom of religion, issues of human rights and sovereign authority are inevitably intertwined. In these contexts, independence demands, nationalist claims, and secessionism tendencies are often disguised beneath assertions of human rights grievances, partly to arouse a sympathetic international response. Not only is a careful balancing of facts, law, and rights called for, but account must be taken of how and why some human claims are ignored while others are strongly confirmed. International alignments often explain these glaring differences of response. The human rights wrongdoing of geopolitical adversaries is exaggerated, while comparable wrongs of friends are overlooked or handled discreetly. Perhaps, this unequal response is to some extent understandable given the way the world is politically organized, but when, as here, there is present a dangerous tendency to use human rights issues to stoke the fires of geopolitical contestation, caution and prudence are called for. We observe a toxic correlation of recommended toughness in relating to China in the context of trade and the South China Sea disputeswith inflammatory complaints about Chinese violations of human rights. Such behavior threatens confrontation, serious crises, even war, and so has very different implications than justifiable efforts to counteract abusive exercises of state power by the recent military takeover of the government in Myanmar. 

Some of China’s policies toward the Uyghurs seem to be clearly in violation of international human rights standards. Such behavior is unacceptable, but even here the facts are not as clear in its character as China’s most fervent critics contend. China has long adopted controversial measures to curb population growth and was widely criticized for its one-family policies, but also widely praised for avoiding demographic pressures that might have intensifies expansionist policies, causing conflict. 

There is doubt that China also exhibits intolerance toward political dissent and opposition politics that would be viewed in many national settings as violating civil and political rights. More than elsewhere, China has established intrusive surveillance mechanisms to monitor the behavior of its citizenry that encroach upon the privacy of its citizens. But China is hardly the only country in the world where this is occurring. In general, the drift throughout the world is toward authoritarianism with respect to state/society relations, and however regrettable, this trend often discloses the political will of the nation as expressed through periodic elections, and although noted with concern by Washington, is not allowed to influence U.S. foreign policy, especially if authoritarianism prevails in an ally or friendly country. As a result, this focus on China’s authoritarian policies and practices seems less concerned with the rights of the Chinese people and better understood as a means of ramping up geopolitical pressures. 

Again, police brutality in response to public demonstrations in Hong Kong seem unacceptable from the perspective of a truly free society; note, however, that the Chinese government response is far less harsh than the far bloodier Egyptian response to peaceful demonstrations in recent years, and yet no media or State Department scrutiny has been forthcoming in that case. In contrast, the Hong Kong confrontational demonstrations are given intensive, one-sided, and totally sympathetic media coverage. 

Fairly considered, the human rights picture in China looks quite different if economic and social rights are taken into account. China, perhaps more rapidly and impressively than any country throughout all of history, has overcome the extreme poverty of as many as 300 million of its citizens, providing for health, education, housing, food security, and infrastructure development in ways that many affluent countries of the West fail to do, despite centuries of effort. China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative,’ the largest public works project ever undertaken – while controversial in some respects – has produced many beneficial outcomes in Asia and Africa that have enabled developing countries to better meet the needs of their peoples, and indirectly contribute to the realization of economic and social rights. 

China’s Human Rights Record and U.S. Foreign Policy

When attempting to devise an appropriate U.S. foreign policy response to China’s human rights record, there are several issues that need to be distinguished: 

·       What is the overall Chinese record on human rights if fairly appraised, given some uncertainties as to evidence and behavior reflective of cultural divergencies? 

·       Should U.S. foreign policy highlight Chinese violations of human rights? 

·       Would highlighting be effective in improving the protection of human rights in China? 

·       Would such highlighting increase the likelihood of heightened geopolitical tensions, reduced global cooperation, and greater conflict in the South China Seas?

Assessing the Record 

China’s record on human rights is definitely mixed. If judged by Western liberal standards it can be faulted for serious violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. If appraised by non-Western and Global South standards, its achievements with respect to economic and social rights stand out, and compares favorably with many Western countries. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains many provisions confirming economic and social rights, and is considered expressive of customary international law, despite being originally set forth as ‘declaratory’ and ‘non-binding.’ In the public discourse about China, even the most respected Western human rights NGOs accord China zero credit for this amazing record of poverty alleviation, and thus its overall reputation is denied a proper appraisal.  

The most serious internationally actionable allegations with respect to China involve the treatment of the Uyghur minority. As mentioned earlier, there is no doubt that allegations involving serious human rights violations by China in Xinjiang involving the Uyghurs seem based on extensive evidence. In the words of the Human Rights Watch World Report for 2020, China’s “‘Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Extremism’ has entailed mass arbitrary detention, surveillance, indoctrination, and destruction of the region’s cultural and religious heritage.”[5] But whether pressure from outside China will help or hurt the Uyghurs is problematic. It should be kept in mind that many some of these charges against China are difficult to evaluate, and rest on rationalizations relied on by many governments under the heading of anti-separatism and counter-terrorism. As such, they are subject to controversy and much of the evidence relied upon is clouded by partisan political interpretations relating to legally ambiguous issues such as the discretion of the territorial sovereign with respect to the treatment of minority nationalities that exhibit violent separatist tendencies.[6]  

The most serious charges of ‘genocide’ seem certainly exaggerated and unfounded by reference to international standards, which impose exacting standard of intentionality.[7] In this instance, to allege genocide, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did on the basis of discredited assessments by Andrew Zenz, seems outrageous considering verified population increases among Uyghurs in recent years.[8] Such extreme charges are politically motivated, highly provocative, legally unsupportable, and hence, diplomatically irresponsible. 

Would Highlighting be Effective in Improving China’s Human Rights Record? 

Overall, when dealing with major countries, including the United States, improving compliance with human rights comes about as a result of developments from within territorial borders. Criticism from outside, even from the UN or other international institutions, tends to be ignored or discounted as hostile propaganda. Such a pattern not only reflects the statist nature of world order, but is also a reaction to the cynical use of human rights discourse to justify hostile attitudes toward foreign adversaries or geopolitical rivals. Such patterns of behavior were very characteristic of the selective emphasis on human rights throughout the Cold War: a country with a left or Marxist outlook was condemned for human rights violations while countries that were aligned with the West were not criticized, much less sanctioned, no matter how serious their violations of fundamental human rights. 

Against this background it would be a mistake for the U.S. Government to emphasize allegations of Chinese human rights violations when seeking to work out relations with China that accord with the national, regional, and global priorities that should serve as the foundation of American foreign policy, including cooperation on climate change and monetary stabilization. It would seem that mainstream human rights NGOs in the West should be sensitive to similar cross-cutting considerations bearing on current policy priorities in international relations, although to a lesser extent than the U.S. government, as their undertaking is to report on human rights as objectively, reliably, and persuasively as possible. At the same time, civil society actors should be cautious about accepting insufficiently evidenced allegations of human rights violations that seem to intrude upon China’s territorial sovereignty, especially given the inflammatory character of the present diplomatic setting in which those advocating an aggressive approach toward China seek to play the human rights card.  

The most effective way to engage China on human rights would be to rely on discreet methods of communication through private and peace-oriented channels that do not seek to exert public pressures and are diplomatically linked to an underlying commitment to encourage global cooperation with respect to shared issues such as climate change and conflict resolution. A genuine concern with human rights in China must acknowledge that any improvement in the situationdepends on internal Chinese developments that cannot be exploited to generate hostile propaganda and are not funded or encouraged by covert destabilizing operations. 

Foreign Policy Imperatives in the Present Era 

Unlike the Cold War in which the focus was placed on the containment of Soviet military expansion, especially in Europe, and on contesting the ideological embrace of Marxist ideas of political economy within the Global South, the challenges posed by the rise of China are entirely different, and call for different types of response. For one thing, China poses no threat to core U.S. security interests, especially in this post-Trump period when the United States seeks to revive a Eurocentric alliance in the course of reviving its global leadership role. Unlike the Soviet Union, China has largely pursued its geopolitical ambitions by non-military, economic means, except in maritime areas close to its shores and in border disputes with neighboring countries. This difference in geopolitical profile strengthens the incentives to avoid tensions that could lead to risky military confrontations in the South and East China Seas; from this perspectiveavoiding excessive criticism of China’s violations of human rights would seem helpful from a war prevention perspective. There is no reason to laud China’s domestic political environment, but high-profile complaints about Xinjiang and Hong Kong will be met with counter-allegations about American shortcomings with respect to human rights and would likely intensify the confrontational atmosphere. 

Also different is the nature of the global agenda. Although it would have been a welcome contribution to world peace if the United States and the Soviet Union had more vigorously cooperated to produce a monitored and comprehensivenuclear disarmament treaty, the need for cooperation in responding to climate change is unprecedented. If the dangers posed by global warming are not addressed cooperatively it will produce a worldwide disaster, and China – as the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions – is an indispensable partner in managing a positive response.  

It is worth remembering that if overcoming the threats posed by Hitler’s Germany had not involved cooperation with the ideologically alien Soviet Union during World War II, which included suspension of most Western criticisms of the excesses of Stalinism, the outcome of war might not have resulted in victory for the Western democracies. The Soviet Union posed no economic threat to American global economic primacy. China does pose such a threat, and so could lead the United States to make irrational responses that would weaken the global role of the dollar as reserve currency and produce a downward spiral of trade and investment that would hurt all countries, and quite possibly inducing a new world depression of even greater gravity than the Great Depression of the 1930s. Here, as with climate change, the interests of the West favor a geopolitics of accommodation, compromise, and a search for win/win outcomes. In this regard, accentuating the human rights failures of China is imprudent, ineffective, and dangerous under present conditions. 

Copyright 2021 Richard Falk

ENDNOTES: 

1. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/02/19/remarks-by-president-biden-at-the-2021-virtual-munich-security-conference/

2. Graham Allison, “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” The Atlantic, Sept. 24, 20154, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/united-states-china-war-thucydides-trap/406756/

3. See, for example, Austin Ramzy, “China’s Oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang, Explained,” New York Times, Jan. 20, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/20/world/asia/china-genocide-uighurs-explained.html. 

4. Declaration of Principles concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among States, Commentary on Principle (e), UN General Assembly Res. 2625, Oct. 24, 1970, https://www.un.org/rule of law/files/3dda1f104.pdf

5. Human Rights Watch (HRW), Human Rights Watch World Report, 2020 (HRW, 2020), p. 1. 

6.. See, for example, James Millward, Violent Separatism in Xinjiang: A Critical Assessment (Washington, D.C.: East-West Center, 2014). 

7. On the high legal bar with respect to genocide, see: Judgment, Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro, ICJ Reports, 1996). 

8. On Pompeo’s claims, see Edward Wong and Chris Buckley, “U.S. Says China’s Repression of Uighurs Is ‘Genocide,’” New York Times, Jan. 19, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/19/us/politics/trump-china-xinjiang.html. For a well-reasoned and documented rebuttal of the data relied upon in making those allegations, see Gareth Porter and Michael Blumenthal, “U.S. State Department accusation of ‘genocide’ relied on data and baseless claims by far-right ideologues,” The Greyzone, Feb. 18, 2021, https://mronline.org/2021/03/01/u-s-state-department-accusation-of-china-genocide-relied-on-data-abuse-and-baseless-claims-by-far-right-ideologue/

Palestine Horizons: Winning the Long Game

21 Mar

Palestinian Balance Sheet: Normative Victories, Geopolitical Disappointments

Winning the Long Game

In recent weeks the Palestinian people have scored major victories that would havedire consequences for Israel if law and morality governed political destiny. Instead, these successes are offset by adverse geopolitical developments as a result of the Biden presidency embracing some of the worst features of Trump’s hyper-partisanship with respect to Israel/Palestine. Law and morality alter reputations, bear on the legitimacy of contested policies, while geopolitics bear more directly on behavior, the difference is best understood as separating symbolic and substantive politics.

Yet, legitimacy gains should not be dismissed just because nothing that matters on the ground seems to change, and sometimes vindictively changes for the worse. In the long game of social and political change, especially in the course of the last 75 years, the winner of the Legitimacy War waged for the high legal moral ground and competition for intensity of political commitment has much more often than not eventually controlled the outcome of a struggle for national self-determination and sovereign independence, overcoming geopolitical obstructions and military superiority along the way. The anti-colonial wars, it should not be forgotten, were won by the weaker side militarily, although quite often enduring an ordeal of desecration along the way. So far, Israeli leadership, although worried by its setbacks on the battlefields of the Legitimacy War have not departed from the American game plan of devising security through a combination of military capabilities and regional activity, allying against Iran, while subverting the unity and stability of potential hostile neighboring States. 

Relevant is the great unlearnable lesson of the last century that the U.S. dominated the military dimensions of the Vietnam War and yet managed to lose the war. Why unlearnable? Because if learned, the case for a permanent wartime military budget would disappear, and the stubborn mythic belief that ‘our military keeps us safe’ would lose much of its credibility.

With Biden as president, reviving alliance-based confrontational geopolitics, the prospect is for a dangerous and costly worsening of relations among major centers of global wealth and military power, avoiding the kind of reallocation of resources urgently requires to meet the challenges of the Anthropocene. We can bemoan the dysfunctionality of global militarism, but how can we gain the political traction to challenge it? This is the question we should be asking of our politicians without distracting them from addressing the urgencies of the domestic agenda bearing on health, economic recovery, and assaults upon voting rights. 

The Palestinian struggle continues, and offers the template of a colonial war carried on in a post-colonial era, in which a huge national oppressive regime backed by geopolitical support is required to enable Israel to swim against the strong liberation tides of history. Israel has proved to be a resourceful settler colonial state that has carried to completion the Zionist Project by stages, and with the vital help of geopolitical muscle, and has only recently begun to lose control of the normative discourse that earlier had been controlled by dramatizing the saga of persecuted Jews in Europe who deserved sanctuary accompanied by the denialist dismissal of Palestinian national claims to be secure in their own homeland. The Palestinians, having no significant relationship to the history of antisemitism were made to pay some of the humanitarian costs inflicted on Jews by the Holocaust while the liberal West looked on in stony silence. This one-sided discourse was reinforced by claiming the benefits of modernity, an insistence that the replacement of dirty backward Arab stagnancy in Palestine by a dynamic modern and flourishing Jewish hegemony, which later was also valued as a Western foothold in a region coveted for its energy reserves and more recently feared because of its anti-Western extremism and Islamic resurgence. The conflict over the land and the ideological identity of the emergent state, unfolding over a century, has had many phases, and has been affected, almost always adversely, by developments within the region and by geopolitical intervention from outside.

As with other anti-colonial struggles, the fate of the Palestinians will eventually turn on whether the struggles of the victimized people can outlast the combined power of the repressive state when, as here, it is linked to the regional and global strategic interests of geopolitical actors. Can the Palestinian people secure their basic rights through their own struggles wages against a combination of internal/external forces, relying on Palestinian resistance from within, global solidarity campaigns from without? This is the nature of the Palestinian Long Game, and at present its trajectory is hidden among the mystifications and contradictions of unfolding national, regional, and global history.

Palestinian Normative Victories

Five years ago no sensible person would have anticipated that Israel’s most respected human rights NGO, B’tselem, would issues a report declaring that Israel had established a unified apartheid state that governed from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, that is, encompassing not only Occupied Palestine but Israel itself. [This is Apartheid: A regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in Occupied Territory, 12 Jan 2021] With careful analysis the report showed that Israeli policies and practices with respect to immigration, land rights, residency, and mobility were administered in accordance within an overriding framework of Jewish supremacy, and by this logic, Palestinian (more accurately non-Jewish, including Druze and non-Arabic Christians) subjugation. Such a discriminatory and exploitative political arrangement is descriptive of apartheid, as initially established in South Africa and then generalized as an international crime in the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. This idea of apartheid criminality was carried forward in the Rome Statute that provides the framework within which the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague carries on its activities. Article 7 of the Rome Statute, a treaty of the parties, governing the ICC enumerates the various Crimes Against Humanity over which the ICC asserts its jurisdictional authority. Apartheid is classified as such a crime in Article 7(j), although without any accompanying definition, and no investigation by the ICC of apartheid allegations involving Israeli perpetrators has ever occurred. It is notable that regarding ‘apartheid’ as a crime against humanity would reduce the burden of proof as compared to allegations of ‘genocide.’

Only weeks after the B’Tselem Report came the much anticipated decision of the Pre-Trial Chamber of the ICC on February 6, 2021. By a 2-1 vote the Chamber’s decision affirmed the authority of Fatou Bensouda, the ICC Prosecutor, to proceed with an investigation of war crimes committed in the Occupied Palestinian territories since 2014, as geographically defined by its provisional 1967 borders. To reach this outcome the decision had to make two important pronouncements: first, that Palestine, although lacking many of the attributes of statehood as define by international law, did qualify as a State for purposes of this ICC proceeding, having been accepted as a Party to the Rome Statute in 2014 after being recognized by the General Assembly on November 29, 2012 as a ‘non-member Observer State.’; and secondly, that the jurisdiction of ICC to investigate crimes committed on the territory of Palestine was authoritatively identified as the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, that is, the territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 War. In a decision that sought to convey impressions of judicial self-restraint it was pointed out that these legal positions were limited to the facts and claims under consideration, and did not purport to prejudge the statehood or territorial claims of either Israel or Palestine in other contexts. The lengthy dissent rejected this reasoning, relying heavily on the continuing relevance of the agreements concluded in accord with Oslo diplomacy that allegedly altered the status of the occupation, and took precedence, concluding that the Prosecutor lacked the legal competence to proceed with the investigation. [As the present Prosecutor’s term expires in June 2021, and a new Prosecutor takes over, Karim Khan, the future of these legal proceeding is uncertain.] 

It should be observed that this Pre-Trial proceeding had attracted unusually widespread interest in the world both because of the identity of the parties and the intriguing character of the issues. Jurists have long been intrigued by defining statehood in relation to different legal settings and by settling jurisdictional disputes addressing issues arising in territories that lack permanently established international borders and clear lines of sovereign authority. An unprecedented number of amicus curiae briefs were submitted to the ICC, including by prominent figures on both sides of the controversy. [I submitted an amicus brief with the collaborative help of the Al Haq researcher, Pearce Clancy. ‘The Situation in Palestine,’ amicus curiae Submissions Pursuant to Rule 103, ICC-01/18, 16 March 2020] Israel was not a Party to the Rome Statute, and declined to participate in the proceedings directly, but its views were well articulated by several of the amicus briefs. [e.g. by Dennis Ross who led the Clinton Era peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine. ‘Observations on Issues Raised by Prosecution for a ruling on the Court’s territorial jurisdiction in Palestine,’ ICC-01/18, 16 March 2020].

This decision was promising from a Palestinian point of view as an exhaustive Preliminary Investigation conducted by the Prosecutor over the prior six years had already concluded that there was ample reason to believe that crimes had been committed by Israel and by Hamas in Palestine, specifically referencing three settings: (1) the massive IDF military operation of 2014 in Gaza, known as Protective Edge; (2) the disproportionate uses of force by the IDF in responding to the Right of Return protests during 2018; (3) settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The Prosecutor can now go forward has been legally established, including with the identification of individual perpetrators who could be charged and held accountable.

Whether this will happen now depends on the approach adopted by Mr. Khan when heassumes the role of Prosecutor in June, which remains a mystery despite speculation.

A further Palestinian victory is the defection of highly respected and well known liberal Zionists who have, so to speak, not seen the light, but speak openly about it, and command access to mainstream media. Peter Beinert is the most relevant example in an American context, but his announced disbelief in Israeli willingness to reach accommodation with the Palestinians on any reasonable basis is one more victory in the domain of symbolic politics. 

Geopolitical Disappointments

It was reasonable for Palestine and Palestinians to hope that a more moderate Biden presidency would reverse the most damaging moves taken by Trump that seemed to undermine still further Palestinian bargaining power as well as significantly encroached on Palestinian basic rights, and did so in a manner that rejected both the authority of the UN and international law. The Biden Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, sent signals on the most significant issues that seemed to affirm and ratify rather than reverse or modify the Trump diplomacy. Blinken affirmed, what Biden had implied, with respect to shifting the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and thus joining Trump in defying a UNGA Resolution in 2017 that declared such a move as ‘void’ and without legal effect. Blinken has also indicated support for Israel’s territorial incorporation of the Golan Heights, which again defied international law and the UN, which had stood by a firm principle, earlier endorsed with respect to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories after the 1967 War in iconic Security Resolution 242. This text confirmed that foreign territory could not be

acquired by force, and anticipated Israeli withdrawal to 1967 borders (as modified by negotiations about minor border adjustments agreed to between the parties).

And above all, Blinken endorsed the normalization agreements between Israel and four Islamic States (U.A.E., Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco) achieved by bullying tactics of Trump

and the pursuit of self-interest. These were mainly symbolic victories for Israel having to do with regional acceptance and legitimacy credentials as well as regional containment and pushback alignment contra Iran. In many respects they extend prior de facto developments with a minimal impact of Israeli/Palestine dynamics.

Assessing Gains and Losses

So far Israeli fury directed at the ICC outweighs Palestinian geopolitical disappointments, the latter being likely tempered by apparent lingering hopes for a marginally improved relationship between the PA the U.S. and EU countries. And there have been some proper adjustments, including the announced willingness to reopen of PLO information centers in the U.S. and resumed diplomatic contact by Washington with the Palestinian Authority, and some language suggesting a return to diplomacy between in contrast with the Trump effort to dictate the terms of an Israeli victory put forth as ‘the deal of the century.’ Yet Biden’s early efforts in less controversial policy spheres to undo as much of Trump international mischief as possible, from rejoining Paris Climate Change Agreement, the WHO and UN Human Rights Council to expressing the intention to stress global cooperation and a revived internationalism, contrast with leaving as is the worst elements of the Trumpist effort to shatter Palestinian hopes. Whether this can be explained by the strength of bipartisan U.S. support of the Israeli unconditional relationship or by regional strategic factors is a matter of conjecture. Perhaps, the most plausible explanation is Biden’s own pro-Israeli past combined with his proclaimed commitment to unify America, working with Republicans to the extent possible. His totemic slogan seems to be ‘together we can do anything,’ which so far has not

had much encouragement from the other side of the aisle.

What might make the Palestinians somewhat more hopeful is the degree to which these two developments were battleground sites for those defending Israel by all means possible. Even Jimmy Carter was demeaned as an ‘anti-Semite’ because his 2007 book merely suggested in its title that Israel needed to make peace with the Palestinians or risk becoming an apartheid state. Recall that John Kerry’s rather mundane observation that Israel had two years left within the Oslo framework to make peace with Israel to avoid an apartheid future for itself encountered such a hostile reaction that he was led to apologize for the remarks, more or less repudiating what seemed so plausible when articulated.

As recently as 2017 an academic study sponsored by the UN, which I wrote together with Virginia Tilley, confirming apartheid allegations was denounced in the Security Council as a defamatory text unfit to be associated with the UN. The critical statements were accompanied by veiled American threats to withhold funds from the UN unless our report was repudiated, and it was dutifully removed from the UN website by order of the Secretary General. Even most Zionist militants at this point prefer silence in global settings rather than mounting attacks on B’Tselem once most beloved by liberal Zionists as tangible proof that Israel was ‘the only democracy in the Middle East.’

The reaction by Israel to the ICC decision rises to apoplectic levels of intensity. The fuming response of Netanyahu was echoed across the whole spectrum of Israeli politicians. In Netanyahu’s outrageous calumny against the ICC: “When the ICC investigates Israel for fake war crimes, this is pure anti-Semitism.” He added, “We will fight this perversion of justice with all our might.” Intemperate as are these remarks, they do show that Israel cares deeply about legitimacy issues, and rightly so. International law and morality can be defied as Israel has done repeatedly over the years but it is deeply mistaken to suppose that the Israeli leadership does not care. It seems to me that Israeli leaders understand that South African racism collapsed largely because it lost the Legitimacy War. Maybe some Israeli leaders are beginning to grasp the writing on the wall. The ICC decision may turn out to be a turning point not unlike the Sharpeville Massacre of 1965. This may be so even, as is likely, not a single Israeli is ever brought to justice before the ICC.  

The Geopolitics of the Normalization Agreements

10 Mar

Listen Closely to the Israeli Discourse in an American Liberal Idiom: Geopolitical Dreams, Ethical Nightmares


Thomas Friedman is both an echo of the liberal establishment and a media force to be reckoned with when it comes to post-cold war, post-Trump America. Known for championing the excesses of modernity by conceiving of technology, markets, capital flows, permissive social norms, and science-based truth and rationality as alone capable of offering promises of a good life for everyone. Friedman’s tone has always been arrogant and condescending. He is never shy about offering the rich and powerful the benefit of his technocratic wisdom. When it comes to foreign policy especially in the Middle East, and most particularly where Israel is involved, Friedman seeks to mount a guru’s pedestal so as to position himself above the fray, yet he never departs from the party line that unconditionally affirms Israel while being blind to Palestinian grievances and hostile to Palestinian resistance and global solidarity initiatives. In other words, Friedman is to liberal Zionism, what Sheldon Adelson was to militant Zionism as epitomized by the Netanyahu leadership, but whose stance is endorsed by the spectrum of right-wing political parties in Israel that dominate the scene when it comes to victimizing the Palestinian people. 

Yet even judging by the low standards that Friedman has set for himself over the years, his most recent NY Times opinion piece was as grotesque as informed commentary on the Middle East can become, especially if read carefully, and with a critical eye. Published as an opinion piece on March 2nd with a title that is as foolishly flippant as the text that follows is pernicious: “Jumping Jehoshaphat: Have You Seen How Many Israelis Just Visited the U.A.E.” As if Israeli shopping trips to Dubai or Abu Dubai are political signposts indicating that the region has started to overlook the Palestinian struggle for basic rights, and get on with the more important work of servicing consumers and tourists. If a spike in U.A.E. shopping is one sign, the ICC decision of February 5th to proceed further with investigate well-evidenced allegations of Israeli criminality in Occupied Palestine points in quite a different direction. It seems revealing that this latter development does not warrant even a nod of recognition in Friedman’s warped imagination that heeds market signals far more than international law grievances, especially if put forth by adversaries of the U.S. or Israel.

It is tempting to deal comprehensively with the several perversions of policy encountered in the course of a journalistic piece of less than 1,000 words, but I will mention only those that seem most outrageous from the perspective of law, morality, and transparency. The piece can be read as above all a promotional boost for the normalization agreements reached in the last weeks of the Trump presidency, a triumph of Washington bullying governments. It not only gave Israel a big political victory but helped show the folks back home that Trump’s style of diplomacy succeeded where his more highminded predecessors had failed. Despite being a strident critic of Trump in conformity with his liberal persona, Friedman has this to say about the normalization agreements, which he further blesses by adopting the self-glorifying name of the Abraham Accords bestowed by supporters: “I believed from the start that the opening between Israel, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan—forged by Jared Kushner and Donald Trump could be game-changing.” Not a word about the arms deals and diplomatic payoffs made to twist the arms of the Arab governments, and not even a notation that this normalization ploy was the Trumpist culmination of carrying pro-Israeli partisanship to its extremes, which meant proceeding as if the Palestinians are to be seen nor heard as little as possible, and certainly never acknowledged.

Friedman goes on to say that it is too soon to know whether this good news will go further, recalling his disappointment that the once seemingly hopeful bonding of Israel with Lebanese Christians in the early 1980s turned out to be a ‘shotgun wedding and divorce.’ This meant that this promise an Arab-Israeli rapprochement was nothing more than a disillusioning house of cards that failed to produce lasting results of achieving peaceful relations with Arab countries without the inconvenience of doing something for the Palestinians. Again, it is the silences that are the most revealing aspect of Friedman’s lament. There is not a word in the column that the peak moment of bonding between Israelis and Lebanese Christians came during the Lebanon War of 1982, reaching its dramatic climax when Israel’s IDF collaborated with the Maronite militias in overseeing the civilian massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. To lament the breakdown of this ill-fated marriage of convenience, without noting one of the starkest mass atrocities of the past half century in the region, is a typical embodiment of Friedman’s hypocritical morality and opportunistic geopolitics. Friedman does not stop there. He adds a gratuitous insult directed at Hezbollah coupled with a passing slur directed at Iran because it supports Hezbollah, and thus has the temerity to challenge Israeli/Saudi/U.S. phantasies.

Bad as is this foray into the tragic realities of Lebanese politics, worse is to come. Friedman regards the real payoff of the Trump normalization process is situated in the future. He conjectures that a parallel agreement with Saudi Arabia would be the crown jewel of the process, opining that such “..normalization would be huge for both Israel-Arab and Jewish-Muslim relations.” At the same time, Friedman reluctantly recognizes that the murder of Kamal Khashoggi is seen by some as an awkward impediment to reach this proclaimed goal. Here is how Friedman frames the grisly event: “The CIA-reported decision to have Saudi democracy advocate Jamal Khashoggi, who a long-time U.S. resident, killed and dismembered was utterly demented—an incomprehensible response to a peaceful critic who no threat to the kingdom.”

The language, as always with Friedman is revealing in ways that should make this journalist of post-colonial imperialism squirm. Why the word ‘demented,’ meaning bizarre action without rational justification, when the act in question was a wonton criminal abuse of power, accentuated by the misuse of diplomatic facilities to carry out an act of aggravated state terror—the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Further that the killing Khashoggi was ‘incomprehensible’ because it served no state purpose since there was ‘no threat to the kingdom.’ Cynical and hypocritical to the core: Hezbollah is demeaned for no reason, while a much deserved condemnation of MBS is sidestepped by Friedman’s rather implausible claim of being mystified by what he portrays as the senseless murder of Khashoggi a harmless critic of Mohamed bin Salmon’s Saudi imperium. Having taken note of the bloody deed, Friedman makes his priorities unmistakable by giving a green light to the nefarious business of geopolitics. Friedman always ready to provide unsolicited advice, without pausing for a breath of fresh air, observe that while “[t]he Biden team is still sorting out how it will relate to MBS” it remains right “to insist that that America will continue to deal with Saudi Arabia in general as an ally.”

Without the slightest show of moral inhibition, Friedman cuts to the chase, affirming the triangular relations between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States as a constructive partnership in the region. He celebratory mood is expressed as follows: “If the Abraham Accords do thrive and broaden to include normalization between Israeli and Saudi Arabia, we are talking about one on the most significant realignments in modern Middle Eastern history, which for many decades was largely shaped by Great Power interventions and Arab-Israeli dynamics. Not anymore.” Again, this realignment is presupposed to be a constructive development without any indications of qualifications either by reference to the dangers of inclining the region even more toward a military confrontation with Iran or by acting as if the daily Palestinian ordeal was not worth addressing in the course of assessing such a diplomatic misadventure.

Friedman does go on to contend implausibly that in such an altered diplomatic environment, Israel might become more amenable to a two-state solution without even pausing to point out that even under pressure, Israel never wanted to co-exist with a viable Palestinian state, and now with the rightward drift of its internal politics and its guaranty of continued unconditional support in Washington, it no longer needs to pretend. The accelerating growth of Israeli settlements in defiance of the UN, the deferred pledges of substantial annexation of the West Bank, and the evident resolve by Israel to uphold its claim to govern Jerusalem as a unified whole, capital for Israel alone, makes any resurrection of two-state diplomacy an even crueler bad joke than Oslo told to the world while Palestinian aspirations are drenched in blood and the Palestinian people faced with an indefinite prospect of suffering under an apartheid Israeli regime.

The fact that the Biden presidency wasted no time resurrecting the two-state corpse is the clearest possible demonstration of the moral and political bankruptcy of U.S. policy with respect to the Palestinian struggle to achieve basic rights after many decades of denial. Unlike the Trump years, Friedman can exult in the reality that he is no longer out of step with those who preside over policymaking in the White House when it comes to the Middle East. And now post-Trump I am quite sure Friedman would not urge the Biden/Blinken to take back any of the unlawful gifts bestowed on Israel during the four Trump/Kushner years, including the Syrian Golan Height, the UN-defying move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, the ‘legalization’ of the settlements along with de facto annexation of significant territory in occupied Palestine.   

Corrupting Democracy One Dollar at a Time

7 Mar

Commodifying Democracy is a Costly Failure in America

Everyday I receive ten to twenty times more appeals for money to support this or that political campaign than I receive any kind of serious substantive statement of explanation or concern. And because this storm has become so deadening, the language of most appeals is nearly always hysterical, wildly exaggerating good or bad marginal developments designed to create a sense of urgency on the part of recipients. Not only can I not afford to respond to so many appeals, each insisting that the future of the republic is at stake, but the numbing effect is perhaps most disturbing, a kind of Gresham’s Law effect: bad ‘politics’ is driving out ‘good.’

Of course, these is an understandable issue at stake. The proto-fascist Republican, Trumpist side benefits from wealthy transactional donors who give vast sums with expectations of even vaster material gains, poses a challenge. This is not meant to deny that mainstream Democrats have their own cohort of special interest donors who are not shy about sharing their wish list, but somehow, the funding of Democratic agenda and its progressive candidates seems much more dependent on idealistic contributions from middle class citizens who want nothing other than more humane, competent, and equitable government.

In the background of this central message that ‘politics is money,’ which seems to overwhelm a more progressive views of citizenship as ‘politics is ideas,’ ‘citizenship is participation,’ ‘progressive goals dependent on movements from below.’ Of course, the media platforms are partly responsible as it has become so easy to solicit contributions from vast mailing lists, and it seems that to capture attention given the hordes of solicitors it seems a general belief that to be heard at all in such an atmosphere, it is necessary to shout alarmist slogans rather than to reason carefully or inform helpfully. There are many commonalities of approach in this barrage of appeals that account for a loss of credibility of the democratic process. Among the most annoying practices is the scripting of political formulae by coupling a few words of urgency with promises that whatever you donate will be matched by 300%, 400%, or even more. Also irritating is to receive several solicitations each day asking for money to support campaigns not only nationally and in my home state, but in distant states with candidates I know nothing about or in support of this or that law. True, there are rare occasions when such appeals make good political sense as was the case for the recent Senate races in Georgia, because without Democratic control of the Senate, Biden’s presidency would have been ruined on day one. But should I be expected to be intimately interested, much less monetarily involved in Congressional races in New Mexico or North Dakota between candidates I had never heard of before?

My point is that this kind of messaging is having a deadly, demobilizing effect on conventional politics. A fundamental impression is conveyed that the candidate who collects the most money will prevail, and that the substantive issues are nothing much more than partisan expressions of class interests. Maybe the two-party system is certainly to blame for the qualitative debasement of democracy, which across a broad spectrum of crucial concerns functions as if in its essence it is a one-party system. This seems most evident when it comes to approving the military budget, regulating Wall Street, supporting Israel, and more recently, exhibiting hostility toward China. Thus, policy convergence and competing for donations have become the stuff of democratic political life in 2021 for most of us, with much trumpeted(!) leadership faceoffs reduced to personality or popularity contests, while all this time proto-fascism wraps its tentacles ever tighter around the body politic.

Is there a solution? Perhaps, yet not without struggle. Many entrenched interests would have to be dislodged from their comfort zones. A beginning could be made by way of the federal financing of election campaigns along with imposing strict time limits on Internet appeals for funding candidates and promoting legislative reforms. In the present atmosphere there seems to be absent the kind of political will that would treat tweaking as breakthroughs. I believe if this pattern persists, it will produce the further commodification of democratic life and empty citizenship and civic responsibility of most of the meaning it clings to during the stresses exacted by the COVID challenges that had been superimposed on the demagogic presidency of Donald Trump during 2017-2021.

Can more robust democratic forms of political participation be imagined and established other than by way of donating money and often voting for ‘one-party’ candidates with two names? This atmosphere of monetary determinism is responsible for the macro-corruption of the citizenry, which in the end is even more deeply disabling than the numerous forms of micro-corruption associated with the (mis)shaping of policy by rewarding special interests who paid for ‘friendly’ treatment.  From one angle, I realize that I criticizing what persons genuinely dedicated to enhancing democracy believe is the best they can do, given the current climate of submission to the ethos of the Internet. Worst of all, they may be right! 

A German Court Punishes An International Crime Committed in Syria

26 Feb

[Prefatory Note: The post below is a much modified text of my responses to questions given to a Turkish journalist, Murat Sofuoglu, associated with TRT. The questions related to a German court decision that held a Syrian intelligence official guilty of aiding and abetting a crime against humanity. The case is significant because it asserts the legal authority of a national court to impose accountability when the territorial sovereign is itself the culprit and international tribunals lack the means to pursue those most responsible for the commission of the most serious international crimes. In this instance, Russia and China vetoed an attempt in the UN Security Council to authorize allegations against Syria.]

A German Court Punishes An International Crime Committed in Syria

  1. What is your legal assessment of the case against the Syrian intelligence member in Germany?

This is a notable case because it invokes international criminal law to punish a Syrian accused of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity in Syria while working as an intelligence officer for the Damascus government. The German court in the city of Koblenz found Eyad al-Ghraib guilty as charged, imposing a prison sentence of 4.5 years. His alleged crime was to continue detaining opponents of the Damascus government in 2011 after he had knowledge that once delivered them to the al-Khatib Prison (also known as Branch 201) they would face torture. The exercise of such legal authority by a national court in Germany, punishing a Syrian acting in Syria under governmental authority has been hailed a landmark decision in the struggle to extend accountability for international crimes beyond what can be done by way of international tribunals such as the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Such a decision is particularly welcomed in the Syrian context where there have long been extensive proof of widespread torture and other abusive behavior, millions of Syrians had fled abroad after being victimized, and international judicial redress was unavailable. For many human rights activists the German decision came as a kind of deliverance from a long dark night, and the use of Universal Jurisdiction was applauded as filling, at least symbolically, the accountability gap.

Less noticed so far, however, was a certain moral complexity in the case. The accused individual did not contest the use of torture in the prison or deny his knowledge of what was occurring, but claimed that he was acting on orders from his superior in the Syrian intelligence service and was threatened with death to himself and his family if he refused to deliver 30 detainees to the prison. Beyond this al-Ghraib failed to carry out order to shoot the demonstrators, and later defected, becoming himself so endangered in Syria that he became a refugee. Aside from the testimony of Syrian refugees, the most persuasive evidence against al-Ghraib apparently came from information he gave German immigration authorities at the time he applied for asylum in Germany. Did not the court act over-zealously under these circumstances? The lawyer for the defense has indicated an appeal, but apparently not to the verdict, but to the harshness of the sentence. The judge, Anna Kerber, was reported to have condemned the specific acts associated with the prosecution with a broader reliance on torture as itself part of ‘a system of torture. This sense of the wider and deeper setting of al-Ghraib’s actions led human rights experts and the Syrian refugee community to welcome the decision, but insist that the punishment was too lenient. There are difficult moral judgments to be made. This defendant was faced with a tragic dilemma, and he was a person who was not a policymaker but a cog in the wheel. When those that put these policies into operation are beyond reach does it make sense to punish those near the bottom of the bureaucratic hierarchy?’

There is a parallel case in the same court against another more senior Syrian intelligence official, Anwar Raslan, who is accused of committing a Crime Against Humanity consisting of supervising the torture of 4,000 Syrian detainees, leading to the death of 58 persons. The case is more serious and complex, and no decision is expected until October. Raslan more than al-Ghraib was in a responsible position carrying out official policies, and seeming less deserving of a certain degree of empathy. It is not known why Raslan left Syria or arranged entry to Germany.    

This far reaching legal authority, known as Universal Jurisdiction, means that anyone who enters a foreign country could be accused of committing an international crime in another country, provided sufficient evidence was presented to justify prosecution and conviction. It was also necessary to be able to bring the accused perpetrator physically before the court , requiring that he was either present in the prosecuting country or could be extradited from a third country. Al Ghraib defected from Syria in 2012. He initially entered Turkey and then Greece as a refugee, eventually entering Germany in 2018 as an asylum seeker. A year later he was recognized by other Syrian refugees who were victims of the 2011 torture experience in the Damascus prison, and the prosecution was launched.

Such an assertion of legal authority generally presupposes that a country’s legislation criminalizes certain specified forms of behavior such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The judicial exercise of Universal Jurisdiction rests on the international behavior being prosecuted having been incorporated as a crime in the national legal system of the country. This German decision deserves our attention because it is the first time that such a claim has been internationally prosecuted in relation to the widespread pattern of criminality attributed to the Syrian Government in responding to the popular uprising that began in 2011 in the context of the Arab Spring. Some 30 years earlier Spanish courts claimed a limited authority to prosecute individuals accuses of international crimes committed in Chile.

There was a prominent American case, Filitaria v. Pena-Irala, in 1980 which awarded large damages for acts of torture carried out in Chile against a non-American victim. Unlike this Al Gharib case, Filitaria, was a tort claim, not a criminal prosecution, but it posited the same kind of extra-territorial claim of authority to apply the law of one country to wrongful acts performed in a foreign country so as to uphold a grievance of the harmed individual even if a non-national. 

  • How could the case affect other potential prosecutions across the world against Syrian government officials?

The decision of this German court provides a legal precedent for similar prosecutions, provided evidence is available, the defendant can be brought before the court, and the nation legal system endorses the practice of Universal Jurisdiction. Democratic countries generally vest such legal authority in their national courts. It is easy to understand that the widespread application of such claims resting on Universal Jurisdiction, while a victory for criminal accountability, could seriously hamper travel, tourism, commercial relations, and even diplomatic relations, and hence is both controversial and subject to abuse. It was reported at various times that such public figures as Henry Kissinger and the former Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, were warned by their governments or lawyers not to travel to certain West European countries because they might be subject to arrest on the basis of accusations of war crimes, and subject to detention or extradition. A much publicized case in 1998-99 involved a Spanish request of extradition of the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, present in the UK for medical treatment. If extradited, Pinochet faced charged in Spain for his role in presiding over the torture of numerous political prisoners in Chile during his time as president of the country.

It is possible that in light of this German precedent that future legal arguments will be made that Universal Jurisdiction is globally applicable even without criminalization by law at the national level. If this happens, more cases could be launched as there exist many grievances against international crimes throughout the world. Of course, more is needed than an allegation. There must be a legally valid way of bringing the accused individual before the national court, and the prosecuting entity must possess sufficient evidence to produce a guilty verdict. Such legal events would give rise to frictions in the diplomatic relations between states, and could intensify tensions and conflict, but they also hold out hope that new limits on territorial impunity could be achieved, accountability for international crimes extended, and to some extent recourse to criminal forms of governance could be to some extent deterred.

  • Do you find the verdict as a historic decision in a legal sense?

The decision does provide a potential path to greater accountability for international criminal activity in situations where the government of the country where the actions took place is unwilling or unable to prosecute and no international tribunal or punitive remedy is available. It remains to be seen whether the follow up to the German decision creates a trend or is but an

Isolated instance. The lawyer of the loser in the Ghraib case has indicated that the decision will be appealed. Should the decision be reversed the outcome will be quickly forgotten. If not, then a lot depends on whether other law suits of a similar kind go forward, and are successful.

There is a second case being litigated in German courts, but apparently several months from reaching the decision stage. It involves allegations against Anwar Raslan, a more senior prison official in Syria, who is charged with Crimes Against Humanity, which included involvement in the murder of 58 prisoners and the torture of another 4,000. If the Raslan case reaches a similar conclusion to the Ghraib case it will definitely create an international stir, but it could be a backlash involving the repudiation of Universal Jurisdiction. It could with the help of extradition greatly strengthen procedures of accountability in relation to serious international crimes.

It should be remembered that it is somewhat unusual for the perpetrator, as was the story with Ghraib and Aslan, to have sought asylum in a country whose government had opposed the Syrian response to the post-2011 challenge to its leadership of the country. With more than four million Syrian refugees in Turkey it seems likely that if UJ is available cases would be forthcoming.

18 Feb

I post below images of the covers of my political memoir that was published this week, and is available from online booksellers in Kindle and paperback formats. I discovered that the interface between the person and the political can be as treacherous as visiting a combat zone, I welcome reactions and dialogue.

Nuclear Violence is Why We Are Living in the Anthropocene Age

15 Feb

[Prefatory Note: The short essay below is my contribution to the latest thematic Forum of the Great Transition Initiative. It responds to a beautifully crafted paper by the Founder of GTI under the auspices of the Tellus Institute, Paul Raskin. Paul’s initial paper and a series of fascinating responses can be found at  https://greattransition.org/gti-forum/interrogating-the-anthropocene. GTI has developed a powerful and sophisticated global network for dialogue about achieving a visionary future despite the dark clouds that now fill the sky.]

GTI FORUM 
Violence: Another Existential Crisis 

Contribution to GTI Forum Interrogating the Anthropocene: Truth and Fallacy

Richard Falk February 2021 

As I grasp the essence of the consensus emerging from this discussion of Paul Raskin’s eloquent essay, it is an acceptance of the Anthropocene as a dire warning that the human species is headed for disaster, if not extinction, if its ecological footprint is not greatly reduced in the relatively near future. The GTI perspective adds the indispensable insight that social evolution has many pathways to the future that can be instructively framed as a dramatic narrative enacted as a struggle between forces sustaining the destructive perishing patterns of the currently dominant modernist variants of civilization and those intent on achieving a variety of alternative civilizational constellations that incorporate what Paul calls for at the end of his conjectures: “expanded identity, solidarity, and citizenship.” It is fair to assume that these enlargements move civilizational vectors toward greater appreciations of species destiny along with possibilities of nurturing satisfaction with the experience of human community on a global scale. Such futures imply living with a new contentment based on underlying commonalities while at the same time valuing gender, societal, ethnic, and generational differences and overcoming past abuses.

I regard the GTI community as an ideational vanguard that is carrying forward the work of restorative vision with respect to the organically connected ecological and societal challenges. The hopeful ontological premise is the existence of reservoirs of species potential to turn the negative impacts of human geological agency, which mostly explains the designation of our time as the Anthropocene, into positive forms of social behavior that incorporate ecological and humanistic ethics in ways capable of actualizing variants of the GTI project.

There is also the baffling question of transcendence, which opens the portals of freedom and discovery by uniquely privileging and burdening the human species with freedom, and hence with responsibility to do the right thing. Individually and collectively, we can learn to see properly, and when we do, we have the freedom and responsibility to struggle for a better, and perhaps radically different, future. In this spirit, should the primary endeavor be to redesign capitalist dynamics to avoid destructive ecological effects and mitigate alienating and exploitative impacts on social relations, or should our ways of producing, consuming, and living be reframed to conform more closely to imaginaries of human flourishing? Due to the limited time to avoid irreversible or catastrophic damage, should GTI efforts prioritize “buying time” by settling for modest adjustments, assuming more fundamental change can emerge over longer periods? There exists a “Hegelian Trap” whereby an envisaged future gets confused with an attainable future. The teaching of the Anthropocene is that major ecological adjustments must be made soon—with the crucial sociological feedback being that the looming tragedy is not attributable to the human condition, but rather reflects a civilizational turn, sometimes associated with the turn from hunter-gathering civilizational ascendancy to agriculture and specialization, and reaching its climax by way of “modernity” as emanating from the Industrial Revolution.

Against this background, I find it useful to highlight the role of war, violence, and identity as carried to clarifying extremes by the United States. The US is the world’s leading source of arms sales, maintains black sites in foreign countries used to torture terrorist suspects, manages one of the largest per capita prison populations in the world, possesses the world’s only constitutionally grounded gun culture, and yet is less secure than ever before in its history. And to underscore this disturbing pattern, the most revered advocate of nonviolent struggle in the United States, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968.

My sense of the socioeconomic side of predatory capitalism and ecological denialism is this pervasive delusion that weaponry and violence bring “security” to individuals, neighbors, and countries. Even the alarm bells set off by the use of atomic bombs in 1945 did not overcome the deeply entrenched roots of militarism at all levels of social interaction from gun culture to nuclear arsenals. With the passage of time, the possession of nuclear weapons was normalized for the states that prevailed in World War II, and global policy focused on keeping the weaponry away from other states by establishing an anti-proliferation regime, a system of nuclear apartheid that reflects the latest phase of geopolitical primacy as the fallacious basis of stability in world affairs. There are two points interwoven here: the pervasiveness of violence in human experience and the degree to which a nuclear war could parallel eco-catastrophe, threatening the Gaia Equilibrium that led stratigraphers to pronounce our geological age as the Anthropocene.

When we consider the sorts of human futures that would transcend the maladies of the present historical circumstances, we cannot get very far without a radical turn against individual and collective forms of violence and warfare. It is relevant to take note of the degree to which violence in every shape and form infuses even entertainment in many civilizational spaces, including even most indigenous communities. China is far from nonviolent, yet its remarkable surge, overcoming the extreme poverty of at least 300,000,000 million Chinese, as well as its expansionist vision of the vast Belt and Road Initiative seems a better platform from which to hope for benign civilizational transcendence.

As earlier observed, there are also obstacles associated with the civilizational modalities that presently control the basic categories of time and space. There is a mismatch between the time horizons of ecological, economic, and security challenges and electoral cycles of accountability. Political, corporate, and financial leaders are viewed by their short-term performance records, and thus tend to under-react to medium- and longer-term threats. In relation to space, the vast differences in wealth and capabilities among states and regions produces inequalities perceived as unjust, and need to be defended and justified by ideologies that fragment of human identity and community. In terms of world order, the whole is less than the sum of its parts, and until that ratio can be inverted, Paul Raskin’s imperative of expanded identity, solidarity, and citizenship will fall mostly on deaf ears. We live in a world in which the part is valued more than the whole, and such a political order might have persisted in a pre-Anthropocene worldview, but is now in deep jeopardy.

GTI FORUM 
Violence: Another Existential Crisis 

Contribution to GTI Forum Interrogating the Anthropocene: Truth and Fallacy

 

As I grasp the essence of the consensus emerging from this discussion of Paul Raskin’s eloquent essay, it is an acceptance of the Anthropocene as a dire warning that the human species is headed for disaster, if not extinction, if its ecological footprint is not greatly reduced in the relatively near future. The GTI perspective adds the indispensable insight that social evolution has many pathways to the future that can be instructively framed as a dramatic narrative enacted as a struggle between forces sustaining the destructive perishing patterns of the currently dominant modernist variants of civilization and those intent on achieving a variety of alternative civilizational constellations that incorporate what Paul calls for at the end of his conjectures: “expanded identity, solidarity, and citizenship.” It is fair to assume that these enlargements move civilizational vectors toward greater appreciations of species destiny along with possibilities of nurturing satisfaction with the experience of human community on a global scale. Such futures imply living with a new contentment based on underlying commonalities while at the same time valuing gender, societal, ethnic, and generational differences and overcoming past abuses.

I regard the GTI community as an ideational vanguard that is carrying forward the work of restorative vision with respect to the organically connected ecological and societal challenges. The hopeful ontological premise is the existence of reservoirs of species potential to turn the negative impacts of human geological agency, which mostly explains the designation of our time as the Anthropocene, into positive forms of social behavior that incorporate ecological and humanistic ethics in ways capable of actualizing variants of the GTI project.

There is also the baffling question of transcendence, which opens the portals of freedom and discovery by uniquely privileging and burdening the human species with freedom, and hence with responsibility to do the right thing. Individually and collectively, we can learn to see properly, and when we do, we have the freedom and responsibility to struggle for a better, and perhaps radically different, future. In this spirit, should the primary endeavor be to redesign capitalist dynamics to avoid destructive ecological effects and mitigate alienating and exploitative impacts on social relations, or should our ways of producing, consuming, and living be reframed to conform more closely to imaginaries of human flourishing? Due to the limited time to avoid irreversible or catastrophic damage, should GTI efforts prioritize “buying time” by settling for modest adjustments, assuming more fundamental change can emerge over longer periods? There exists a “Hegelian Trap” whereby an envisaged future gets confused with an attainable future. The teaching of the Anthropocene is that major ecological adjustments must be made soon—with the crucial sociological feedback being that the looming tragedy is not attributable to the human condition, but rather reflects a civilizational turn, sometimes associated with the turn from hunter-gathering civilizational ascendancy to agriculture and specialization, and reaching its climax by way of “modernity” as emanating from the Industrial Revolution.

Against this background, I find it useful to highlight the role of war, violence, and identity as carried to clarifying extremes by the United States. The US is the world’s leading source of arms sales, maintains black sites in foreign countries used to torture terrorist suspects, manages one of the largest per capita prison populations in the world, possesses the world’s only constitutionally grounded gun culture, and yet is less secure than ever before in its history. And to underscore this disturbing pattern, the most revered advocate of nonviolent struggle in the United States, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968.

My sense of the socioeconomic side of predatory capitalism and ecological denialism is this pervasive delusion that weaponry and violence bring “security” to individuals, neighbors, and countries. Even the alarm bells set off by the use of atomic bombs in 1945 did not overcome the deeply entrenched roots of militarism at all levels of social interaction from gun culture to nuclear arsenals. With the passage of time, the possession of nuclear weapons was normalized for the states that prevailed in World War II, and global policy focused on keeping the weaponry away from other states by establishing an anti-proliferation regime, a system of nuclear apartheid that reflects the latest phase of geopolitical primacy as the fallacious basis of stability in world affairs. There are two points interwoven here: the pervasiveness of violence in human experience and the degree to which a nuclear war could parallel eco-catastrophe, threatening the Gaia Equilibrium that led stratigraphers to pronounce our geological age as the Anthropocene.

When we consider the sorts of human futures that would transcend the maladies of the present historical circumstances, we cannot get very far without a radical turn against individual and collective forms of violence and warfare. It is relevant to take note of the degree to which violence in every shape and form infuses even entertainment in many civilizational spaces, including even most indigenous communities. China is far from nonviolent, yet its remarkable surge, overcoming the extreme poverty of at least 300,000,000 million Chinese, as well as its expansionist vision of the vast Belt and Road Initiative seems a better platform from which to hope for benign civilizational transcendence.

As earlier observed, there are also obstacles associated with the civilizational modalities that presently control the basic categories of time and space. There is a mismatch between the time horizons of ecological, economic, and security challenges and electoral cycles of accountability. Political, corporate, and financial leaders are viewed by their short-term performance records, and thus tend to under-react to medium- and longer-term threats. In relation to space, the vast differences in wealth and capabilities among states and regions produces inequalities perceived as unjust, and need to be defended and justified by ideologies that fragment of human identity and community. In terms of world order, the whole is less than the sum of its parts, and until that ratio can be inverted, Paul Raskin’s imperative of expanded identity, solidarity, and citizenship will fall mostly on deaf ears. We live in a world in which the part is valued more than the whole, and such a political order might have persisted in a pre-Anthropocene worldview, but is now in deep jeopardy.

Remembering George Shultz

10 Feb

Remembering George Shultz After 53 Years

The academic year of 1968-69 was a consequential year for me. I had visited North Vietnam a few months earlier, coming away with a deeply altered view of that pivotal conflict that put a roadblock in the path of United States global ascendancy that has yet to be removed. This roadblock will not be taken away so easily, and certainly not by the timidity of the recent welcome leadership changes in the White House. As long as the U.S. throws its geopolitical weight around in conflicts distant from its homeland, its declining reputation will reach new depths. A beginning of restorative diplomacy for the country would be to stop overinvesting in global militarism and cease lecturing, and worse, sanctioning foreign governments on their departures from democratic practices or their failures to uphold human rights. I mention this only to underscore the disastrous consequences of failing to learn the lessons of defeat in the Vietnam War, and hence to reenacting this most dismal experience in other foreign settings.

The academic year I spent at Stanford started in September of 1968, and was memorable for three separate reasons. I spent an intellectually stimulating year at the Standard Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences as a Visiting Fellow during which I discovered the relevance of ecology and eventually wrote This Endangered Planet: Prospects and Proposals for Human Survival (Random House, 1972); I was allowed to witness the breathtaking birth of my wonderful son Dimitri who arrived on the planet after a long and difficult delivery process; and I became a temporary friend of George Shultz who was the only other devoted tennis player among the 50 fellows at the Center that year, several of whom became more durable friends.

George never seemed entirely comfortable with the cloistered, scholarly atmosphere at the Center, and as the months passed, it seemed more as though he was waiting for his call to serve in the Nixon Cabinet than working on some publishable manuscript. Indeed, the call to Washington came in the Spring of 1969, and George, a labor economist, was appointed to become the new Secretary of Labor. I had bonded briefly and temporarily with George partly due to this shared love for tennis, and perhaps more so because I was on faculty leave from Princeton for the year, which was his beloved alma mater where he had been a standout football player, a nostalgic start of his amazing career as academician, high government appointee, business leader, and at the end of his life, a public source of wonkish wisdom on a range of issues, including the advocacy of denuclearization in collaborative efforts with colleagues at the Hoover Institution, which became notorious in the 1980s as the home of the Reagan brain trust, and later sanctuary for former government stalwarts, a kind of West Coast Brookings Institution, which featured good weather and right-wing politics.

George came across to me as a principled conservative, currently an endangered species, who was decidedly mainstream in his Cold War thinking, comfortable interacting with a wide range of persons, never dogmatic, more gifted at listening than talking, and a person who believed above all in the pragmatics of trust and trustworthiness in his relationship, including with those who were on the other side of the aisle. During the Cold War, he was adept at making positive relationships with prominent Soviet leaders, putting aside own conventional anti-Communist worldview. If George had a distinctive approach it was to balance his ‘free world’ orthodoxy with an abiding commitment to work toward a more peaceful world without ruffling establishment feathers. From my perspective, ‘a mission impossible.’ 

After our tennis matches, we often had rambling conversations about current events always accompanied by a soothing gin and tonic. What I remember best, even now with an affectionate smile is that George would ask me more than once to explain my opposition to the Vietnam War, the intensity of which he found surprising. He confessed that part of his curiosity about my views was selfish–possibly helping him understand better why his children had become so anti-war. I explained that visiting North Vietnam helped me see the war from the perspective of the totally vulnerable Vietnamese people. I had the impression back then that my views neither angered, moved, nor convinced him. Perhaps, this quality of serenity was the secret of George’s extraordinary success in the disparate university, government, and corporate worlds. Or maybe they are not as disparate as I would like to believe!  Anyhow, to live productively until the age of 100 among clashing views and egos that inhabit the pinnacles of these domains of power, wealth, and influence undoubtedly called upon George’s uncommon qualities of composure amid stress.

After enduring the Trump style of malicious bombast, I recall nostalgically, George’s civility, which according to reports, nevertheless required backbone, resisting the Nixon’s tactics that prefigured Trump’s antic presidency. George impressively stood his ground firmly whenever political leaders asked him to cross his red lines of law and morality, so unlike the Republicans who inhabit Congress, and toe the Trump line no matter what. Perhaps, the most relevant compliment I can pay this man who lived such a fulfilled, successful, and long life is that he would have likely been appalled by Trump’s sense of ‘America’ long before the outrages of January 6th awakened some long slumbering Trumpists. My biggest reservation about George is an assumption that he would have found the ultra-conservative community of the Hoover Institution more to his liking that the adventure in ideas encountered in the generally liberally inclined Stanford Center where we met.